Thursday, July 28, 2016

Parable about Kingdom Life (not Death)

I am not preaching this week, but I'm still tempted to write a sermon based on the Parable of the Rich Fool that starts with the line, "If you died tonight, do you know where you would wake up?" It's a joke, of course. It's funny because I've never heard that question in a sermon in an Episcopal church. I've heard it more than enough times in other settings, and I think it would be humorous to try it out with our congregation. It's the classic "get-your-life-in-order-in-case-you-die" appeal that well-intentioned though misguided preachers in the evangelical tradition use to scare people into accepting Jesus. This parable is about a rich landowner who tears down his barns to build bigger ones, enabling a leisurely retirement, but who is then caught up short by death itself. God comes to him and declares, "You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you." And, as the fiery preacher shakes his fist at the congregation, he exclaims, "What about you? Will you die tonight? Will you perish with all your wealth, or will you be accepted into the arms of your savior?"

The reason I'm drawn to that fanciful if frightful approach is because that isn't at all what the parable is about. This isn't a story about getting your life in order because death could come at any minute. It's about living each moment as fully as possible because we all know that someday death will come. Death isn't the surprise here. The surprise is that a wealthy, successful landowner, whose success must have resulted from his shrewdness as a financial planner, never bothered to consider that death would come. Instead, he approached life as if it was his to master: "I will say to my soul, `Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.'" When Jesus told this story, the crowd didn't gasp when they heard God say, "Tonight your life is required of you." They were shocked when they heard the fool say, "Relax, eat, drink, be merry."

Perhaps the fault isn't only with the misguided preacher. Modern hearers of this parable might miss the point because we've largely forgotten that death is inevitable. As a good estate planner will remind us, people like to begin sentences with, "When I win the lottery...," and "If I die..." No one escapes death; it's only a question of when. That reality--that inevitability--isn't threatening; it's merely life-shaping. When we accept the reality that death exists, we don't live each day in fear of it. We don't put our head on our pillow worried that we might not wake up in the morning or, worse, that we might wake up surrounded by fire and horned devils with pitchforks. Instead, we live each day as if it mattered. As people of God, that means we live each day for God's kingdom.

In the face of a bountiful harvest, there is nothing wrong with tearing down smaller barns to build bigger ones. It's what a prudent farmer would do. But the mistake is thinking that we will ever reach a point where we can stop working for the kingdom. Except because of bizarre farming subsides that pay people not to plant their fields, no farmer would ever skip a planting season simply because the silos were full. There could be a flood. There could be a fire. Jesus isn't critical of the man's wealth. He's attacking the attitude that wealth has given the man total control. Control is just an illusion--even for the wealthiest among us--perhaps especially for the wealthiest among us.

God has work for us to do. Whether we are young or old, busy or retired, rich or poor, God is asking us to live each day as a precious gift--a gift not only for ourselves but to be shared with others. The work of the kingdom never stops. We are invited to be rich toward God. That means living each day as if it were our last--not in a hedonistic farewell tour but as an expression of gratitude and devotion. All we have is gift, and what a great gift it is. Death assures us that none of it belongs to us. Life is just something we get to use for a while. How we use it--for ourselves or for the kingdom--is what makes the difference.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Wm. R. Huntington: A Deputy's Deputy

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

There may have been occasional disputes between the disciples, but Jesus never had to deal with schism. Some could argue, of course, that his entire ministry was itself schismatic, but I suspect that the gospel accounts, written long after Jesus lived and died and rose again, portray the distinctions between Judaism and Christianity in clear and certain terms when, in fact, they were largely indistinguishable during his earthly ministry. Jesus never dealt with heretics. He never had a group split off and start their own branch of the Jesus Movement because they didn't like the current pastor. No group that we know of began a rival movement because they didn't like the new prayer book. Naturally, that didn't happen while he was alive. Like kids in a classroom with a substitute teacher or children at home with a babysitter, we waited until his feet disappeared in the clouds before we started fighting with each other.

Jesus didn't have to deal with schism, but his prayer in John 17 shows that he knew how religious disputes could tear a community of believers apart: "I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one." But this prayer for unity isn't just an appeal against schism. It's also a reminder that what Jesus came to do--to reveal God and God's love to us--is impossible to see and know unless we are one: "The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me."

I think we too often miss the importance of this revelatory technique. I know I miss it because I get bored with the lengthy prayer Jesus offers in this part of John and begin to flip the pages in my bible without taking them seriously enough. But think about it: Jesus' unity with the Father is what enables him to communicate God's love to the world, and the disciples' unity with Jesus is what enables them to receive that communication, and our unity with the disciples is what enables us to be in unity with Jesus, which is what enables us to receive that same communication of love. It's all about unity. If we are not one, we cannot know Jesus, and, if we cannot know Jesus, we cannot know God and God's love. It starts with the unity of the Father and the Son, and it unfolds through the unity of the faithful. And anything--absolutely anything--that stands in the way of unity diminishes, if not threatens, the our ability to know God and God's love. Does that change the way we think about what it means to be a Christian? Does that change the way we approach our own congregation, our own denomination, our own branch of the Jesus Movement?

Although our current Presiding Bishop is fond of reminding us that Jesus didn't come to start a church but to start a movement, if there's anyone in the history of the Episcopal Church who understood that and lived it and put it into practice, it was William Reed Huntington. Never a bishop, Huntington was a deputy in the House of Deputies for thirteen different General Conventions, stretching from 1871 and 1907. Because of his love for and leadership of the church, he was known affectionately as "the first presbyter of the Church," an honorific if unofficial title modeled after the "protopresbyter" or "archpriest" of the Orthodox tradition. He led the move to revise the prayer book, guiding the revision and contributing liberally to the work that produced the 1892 BCP. His commitment to the unity of the church gave hope and confidence to the Episcopal Church as a new iteration of schism, which became the Reformed Episcopal Church, began to split off in 1873. His greatest and most enduring contribution to the church, however, came in a four-part statement that we still use to summarize the unity of the church.

In his book, The Church Idea, Huntington proposed a distillation of the Christian faith that became the four statements known as the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral. His proposal was adopted by the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church and later, with slight modification, by the Lambeth Conference of 1888. It states that there are four basic things that hold us together: 1) the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the word of God; 2) the Apostles' Creed and Nicene Creed are the statements of our faith; 3) the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper with Jesus' words and elements are the foundation of our worship and sacramental life; 4) the historic episcopate, adapted in each local context, is an expression of our unity. Often people ask me what is it that Episcopalians or Anglicans believe, and, despite all the variation in our tradition--from Anglo-Catholic to Evangelical, from New York City to Legos, Nigeria, from 1662 to 2016--we are held together by the bible, creeds, sacraments, and apostolic ministry.

For a long time, that was enough. It helped us navigate--though not without difficulty--the tension between Catholic and Protestant in our church, revisions to prayer books, acceptance of polygamy in some African churches, and the ordination of women. It reminded us that each part of the church might talk about God in different ways, might worship God in different ways, might structure ourselves in different ways, but we were and are all held together at our core. We've lost sight of that, I think, because we've forgotten the value of unity.

We are still one, I think, deep down. But we've lost touch with how important our oneness is. We've become distracted by our differences. We took our oneness amidst diversity for granted for so long that we've forgotten that our oneness comes first. When the world sees the church, it doesn't see one; it sees broken, fractured, scattered disputes. It sees pigheadedness. It sees mutual anathemas and unequivocal condemnations. But until we are one--until we reclaim our oneness as primary and model that oneness for the world--the world cannot know the love of God because the love of God is not manifest by brokenness. It may enter that brokenness and transform it, but the brokenness itself cannot show it until it has been healed. We are one in Christ Jesus. For the sake of the world, we must recover our unity.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Greedy or Rich Toward God?

In Luke 12:13-21, when someone in the crowd asks Jesus to "tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me," Jesus responds, in part, by saying, "Take care! Be on guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions." That phrase "all kinds of greed" caught my eye this morning. There's more than one kind of greed?

The man's request has to do with money--the division of an estate--but Jesus seems to be pointing to a deeper problem. He might be greedy after money, but the fact that he's asking Jesus to help him solve a sibling dispute suggests that he is also greedy in other ways. For some reason, he's not willing to address his problem directly. His appeal to Jesus as a religious authority suggests that he sees his own personal need for compensation and fairness as a religious or moral issue. Jesus, however, doesn't think so. Should the estate be divided? Jesus ignores that question completely. Instead, he directs the man's focus back on the priorities of God's kingdom.

The parable that follows teaches us to store up treasures not for ourselves but to be "rich toward God." What does it mean to be rich toward God? That use of economic language is dangerous and damning. It's as if Jesus is using the confusion of images--monetary and religious--to point out the incompatibility of those spheres. As the surprise delivered in the parable stresses, we are rich toward God by living in the today of God's kingdom--not seeking our own comfort or security or leisure in isolation.

We are greedy for security. Most of the time that shows up as a desire for money, but it runs deeper than that. We are greedy for control. We are greedy for recognition. We are greedy for protection. We are greedy for our own provision without regard for others. A man whose relationship with his brother is being torn apart by an estate is a sign of deep brokenness. That Jesus was asked to intervene is a sad pronouncement on this man's perspective. Has he really lost sight of what matters? Has he become so blinded by greed--not only for money but for an arbitrary sense of equity that that money might convey--that he cannot be reconciled to his brother? Greed blinds us. It isn't easy to be rich toward God because that means accepting poverty toward ourselves. But isn't it worth it?

Monday, July 25, 2016

Broken Triangles

For the second time in three weeks, Jesus is asked to enter a sibling conflict. First it was Martha, saying to Jesus, "Tell my sister Mary to help me!" in Luke 10. Now, in Luke 12, it's a man from the crowd saying, "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me." Maybe Luke was a middle child who watched his older and younger brothers bicker over who loved their mother more. Or maybe he was a clinical psychologist who understood family dynamics. Or maybe he was a casual student of human nature who noticed how the oldest rivalry in human history brought Cain and Abel back to life throughout the centuries. Whatever the reason, Luke understood how siblings work, and he uses that relationship to show us about putting the kingdom first.

We don't know who the stranger in the crowd is except by his request: "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me." It's dangerous to develop a case-study on one sentence, but such is the work of the preacher. Was his request legally sound? Was this other brother holding on to too much of the family estate? Was there a piece of land that the older brother refused to sell so that the proceeds could be split? Or was this an appeal to a higher moral plane? In Jewish law, the oldest male sibling received a double-portion of the inheritance. That's just the way it was. Was this man a younger brother who wanted Jesus to undo centuries of tradition and convince his older brother to divide the estate evenly? Had he heard of Jesus' conflict with the Pharisees and scribes and his appeal to an egalitarian society, hoping to use Jesus' teachings to leverage a larger inheritance from his brother?

We don't know. The Greek word that the man uses in his request that the inheritance be split or divided is "μερίσασθαι," a form of "μερίζω," which doesn't imply anything about evenly or justly. It's just a request that it be divided and distributed. More importantly, however, I'll suggest that the preacher should focus less on the circumstance behind the request and more on the nature of Jesus' response, which is to say that the preacher should avoid the question of the inheritance altogether.

Luke isn't presenting a treatise on inheritance law. He's not proffering a new teaching on the godly distribution of estates. This isn't about money except that money has become the currency for the conflict between the siblings, which is, itself, an indication of misplaced priorities. In other word, the nature of the request itself is the problem: "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me." And what is Jesus' response? "Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?" In other words, "That's not my business. You figure it out."

Perhaps it's because we've seen it for the second time in three weeks, but there is something about this triangulation that sticks out to me. Why is the brother asking Jesus to fix the problem? Has he approached his brother directly? Surely there are other official ways for estate disputes to be settled. Although a religious teacher, Jesus was not an arbitrator of this nature. This isn't a legal request. It's an instinctive, emotional, I-want-you-on-my-side request. In the same way that Martha's attempt to get Jesus to tell her sister to help her around the house, the request itself demonstrates that the petitioner's heart is in the wrong place. So Jesus steps back and says, "Man, you've got it all wrong. Why are you letting this hook you so badly?"

Later this week, I'll write about the explanatory parable that follows, but for now I want to stick with the sibling issue. How often do preachers sit in a room with siblings, planning the funeral of their parent while the unspoken conflict and rivalry between them rages below the surface? It happens...all...the...time. No one really cares whether the gospel reading at the funeral is from John 11 or John 14, but suddenly that matters more than anything. Of course, it's not really about the money, but it becomes about money and the house and the stuff  because that's the only way we can measure that a dead woman loved me more than you. We're really just fighting over mama's love and acceptance, but how much sense does it make to fight over resources that have no limit? One's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions. We aren't just ruining those relationships when we make love a quantifiable and comparable thing. When we try to quantify love, we're also ruining life itself.

May God's continual mercy continue to cleanse us and defend us from such misplaced pursuits. Life and love are far too beautiful to fight over.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Pray Until the Kingdom Comes

July 24, 2016 – The 10th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 12C
© 2016 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
I am a man of routine, and part of my weekly routine is to wake up on Sunday morning, review the sermon that I have written and the Sunday school lesson that I have prepared, and organize the readings and the Prayers of the People so that they can be printed out and placed in this binder. Occasionally, if I’ll be coming back into town late on Saturday night or know I’ll be staying up to watch the end of an Alabama football game (only 41 days until kickoff, but who’s counting?), I’ll get them ready earlier in the week to save myself seven or eight extra minutes of sleep. But I have a running joke with myself because I know that if I print them out ahead of time a grandbaby will be born or someone will head to the hospital over the weekend, meaning that I have to print them out all over again.

Lately, however, any trace of humor in that has disappeared as I find myself over and over again needing to add one more tragedy, one more terrorist attack, one more police shooting to the list. Somehow, between the time I leave the office on Thursday evening and the time we gather in church on Sunday, violence and hatred and evil have their way. A month ago, when it felt like I had needed to change the prayers for three weeks in a row, I thought about writing a newsletter article that highlighted that macabre reality. Now, the regularity of this practice has surpassed the absurd and become genuinely insane. I actually have to stop and concentrate to be sure that there really have been this many tragedies and that I’m not just dreaming or making this up. Last week, in between the services, I learned of the three police officers who were shot and killed in Baton Rouge, so I scribbled in the margin a prayer for them to be read at the 10:30 service. But, when Chuck Puckett climbed to the lectern to read the prayers and saw mention of “Baton Rouge,” he initially believed it to be a mistaken addition leftover from the previous week, but, when he read that we were also praying for those affected by the attack in Nice, France, he realized that there must have been yet another shooting in Baton Rouge—yet another shooting. When will it end? What should we do?

We should pray. At least, that’s what people like me—people who are supposed to have a godly answer but actually have no earthly idea—will say. People ask me, “What can I do? What can we do?” But I have those same questions myself. All of us are searching for something—a direction, a response, a gesture of clarity instead of confusion, of confidence instead of fear. And so we pray. Pray for Paris. Pray for Dallas. Pray for Nice. Pray for Baton Rouge. Pray for Munich. People have changed their temporary Facebook profile picture so many times in recent weeks that they can’t even remember what they’re praying for. And still they tell us to pray. It seems so cheap—like an escape. The call to prayer feels like a desperate retreat into that last shaky stronghold of a religious bubble within which we hope and pray that the danger will not reach us but from which our confidence is crumbling.

But prayer isn’t cheap. And it isn’t an escape. We might mutter wishful words that ask God to separate us from all that threatens us, but that’s not prayer. Prayer isn’t a way out of this broken world. Real prayer—the kind of prayer that Jesus teaches us—is a nosedive straight into the middle of it. And that’s far more difficult and far more dangerous and far more powerful. As Michael Curry said after the attack in Nice, “It is important for us, as followers of Jesus, to remember that prayer is not an escape from the world but a way of deeper engagement with it by drawing closer to God and closer to each other.” In other words, we pray not to remove ourselves from the tragedy but to immerse ourselves in it and, in so doing, to become vessels through which God’s reign might be further established as a transformative agent that will change the world and heal its brokenness. That is to say that we pray until we make a difference. But how do we pray like that?

“Lord, teach us to pray,” one of Jesus’ disciples said to him, after watching him pray off by himself for a while. “You’re the expert. We want to pray like you. Teach us how to pray.” I doubt that the disciple knew what he was asking, and I certainly don’t think that he knew the kind of answer he would get: “When you pray, say, ‘Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us from the time of trial.’” The end. It’s shockingly short and simple—just five little petitions, each linked to the others. There’s no place within them for individualistic concerns. There’s no room for variation or flourish. There’s no request for escape. Just God, the kingdom, and us.

Even from the opening word, Luke lets us know that he means business, omitting the possessive pronoun “our” by which Matthew’s version of this prayer begins. There’s no mention of heaven either. Not a syllable is wasted. Instead, the prayer moves immediately to the first petition: “hallowed be your name.” May God’s holy name be revered, respected, and honored throughout the world. And how will that happen? That brings us straight to the second petition—the line upon which the whole prayer hinges: “Your kingdom come.” It’s that simple. No need to elaborate about God’s will being done on earth as in heaven. May God’s kingdom come. May God’s will, God’s reign, God’s authority, be fully manifest right here on earth. We’re not asking God to take us to heaven. We’re asking him to be in control here on earth. Those three little words comprise the absolute core of the Christian hope. In them, we ask God to make this world completely and totally the world that God created it to be.

But how will that happen? The rest of the prayer is made up of three petitions, each of which is an image of God’s kingdom that unfolds as we pray it. “Give us this day our daily bread.” No more, no less. Just enough. In God’s kingdom, the children of God have enough for today and need not worry about tomorrow. The immediacy of the kingdom doesn’t allow us to dwell on what lies ahead. “Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive those indebted to us.” Another characteristic of God’s kingdom is perfect, interlocking forgiveness. Jesus makes it clear that God’s forgiveness of us is inseparable from our forgiveness of each other. We cannot be forgiven except as we forgive, and we cannot forgive unless we, too, are forgiven. Thus, in God’s kingdom, forgiveness builds upon itself without end. If we withhold forgiveness, even from those who hurt us most deeply, we cannot know what it means to be forgiven, and how could we ever hope to forgive unless we knew the limitlessness of God’s forgiving love? Finally, “do not bring us to the time of trial.” May our faith not be tested beyond our limits. May we not lose heart. May our confidence in God’s kingdom persist even when chaos ensues. Even when the walls around us begin to crumble, may the certainty of God’s kingdom keep us steadfast in our faith.

This is our prayer. It’s about God, God’s kingdom, and us, and it’s about now. We pray these words not asking God to give us what we want—our hopes and dreams. We pray them so that God might use us to make our lives and the world we live in God’s hope and God’s dream. We pray this prayer until God’s kingdom comes through us. And it is no accident that we pray this prayer at the Eucharist, where it has always belonged. Like us, the earliest Christians said this prayer when they gathered around the table and shared the bread and wine as a testament to the coming of God’s kingdom. They knew that Jesus’ death and resurrection had changed everything. They had seen God’s will—God’s reign—disclosed in the cross and empty tomb. They were so sure that God’s kingdom had come that they were willing to give everything they had—even their lives—in the service of that kingdom. But the threat of persecution, torture, and death was a constant reminder that God’s kingdom might have come in the person of Jesus, but the world still needed God’s reign to be complete.

Just like God’s kingdom, God’s table is the place where everyone is welcome, where everyone gets what he or she needs, where forgiveness reigns, and where the certainty of God’s kingdom is unequivocally manifest. But that kingdom cannot be confined to the space within the altar rail. We live in a world that needs God’s kingdom. And, in the face of repeated tragedy, we need God’s kingdom to break into this world more fully. And so we pray. The prayer that Jesus taught us isn’t a collection of words to be spoken out of habit. It’s a window through which God’s power flows into this world. And we say it so that God might open that window in us.

Hear again the words that Jesus taught us. Pray again, “Your kingdom come.” Allow the brokenness of this world to fill your heart. Then come to this table and experience the fullness of God’s kingdom and be dissatisfied that the world isn’t the way it should be. Let that disconnect disturb you. And then pray that God will use you—your hands, your feet, your heart, and your voice—to make his kingdom come. Every time you say this prayer for the rest of your life, may it be an invitation to God that he would use you to make his dream for this world come true.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Vacation Week

Although I will be reading and writing and preparing for a sermon, I'm supposed to be on vacation with my family this week, so I will not be blogging. Check back on July 25 for new posts. Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

It's Not About Mary

If you are preaching this week, please resist the temptation to urge your congregation to be more like Mary. If you plan to show up at church this week and intend to pay attention to the gospel lesson, please don't walk away thinking, "I'm a Martha, but Jesus is calling me to be a Mary." When we hear the story of Jesus sojourning in the home of his friends, it is tempting to conclude that sitting at Jesus' feet is where we all belong. But please, in the name of proper exegesis, southern hospitality, and type-A personalities everywhere, don't stop there. This isn't a story about Mary. It's a story about distraction.

The first thing I noticed about the lessons this week is that, in the Track 2 lectionary, the story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42) is paired with the hospitality of Abraham (Genesis 18:1-10a). If the point of the gospel lesson is to emphasize contemplation above action, why would we read about Abraham hurrying about to prepare a meal for his three guests? Read that story and feel again the urgency behind Abraham's actions. Abraham "ran from the tent entrance to meet them," "hastened into the tent," and said to Sarah, "make ready quickly three measures of choice flour." The activity under the oaks of Mamre mirrored that of Martha in Bethany. She busied about the house preparing the meal, setting the table, and making ready to entertain the Lord. Even though Mary is praised by Jesus "for choosing the better part," Martha's mistake--and presumably what separates her from Abraham--is not her activity but her distraction.

Luke the editor of the story tells us that "Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to [Jesus] and said..." Notice the sequential if not consequential relationship between those two states of being--distracted and appeal. Her triangulated request to Jesus for her sister's help is the product of her distraction--literally her "being pulled about by the urgently present table service." That sounds ridiculous, but it was supposed to sound pretty ridiculous to the Greek reader. Anyone who has ever been surprised by unexpected guests understands the chaos that ensues, but, until that knock at the door comes, that we would be undone by it seems pretty laughable. Her misdirected request for her sister's assistance is issued from a state of distraction, and it is the distraction that Jesus seizes upon.

As Steve Pankey wrote on Monday, the word Jesus uses to describe Martha's state of being is a hapax legomenon, a word that only occurs once in scripture. As he concludes, this points to an "unprecedented level of distraction." The Greek word thorubazo means bothered in the disturbed, disquieted sense, which suggests to me something internal rather than external. At first, Luke uses the traditional word perispao to describe Martha as distracted by the needs of the moment, but Jesus changes that word to suggest a deeper problem. Sure, Martha was busy taking care of her guest, but the real issue was that there was something inside her that was out of sync with the situation itself. Whether making preparations for a meal or sitting at Jesus' feet, the opportunity was the same--to welcome Jesus inside. Unencumbered Mary had space for that. Despite being busy, Martha could have made space for that, too, but her disquieting obsession made that impossible.

From this place of distraction, Martha first invokes a comparison with her sister. The comparison isn't the issue either; it's a symptom. Martha is unbalanced. She is out of sorts. Her efforts have lost their true telos. Jesus responds with a mirrored comparison--Mary has chosen the better part. I prefer the antiquated RSV's "portion" here because it helps me see that this isn't about role playing; it's about gift. Mary chose the good portion not in her refusal to help her sister but in her complete and total acceptance of the gift that Jesus represents. Being busy isn't the sin that keeps Martha from receiving it. It's her misdirected busyness--the kind of busyness that asks "why isn't she helping me" instead of acknowledging "this is my portion, too."

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Politics from the Pulpit

When I finished seminary, I began my career as a deacon and priest working for a man who had a gift for teaching a young, high-strung clergyman without making him feel patronized. When he heard or saw something that concerned him, he waited for an opportunity to tell me a story about his own struggles, providing an example from which I might take advice. Sometimes he had to tell me the same story six or seven times before I took it to heart. That I finished five years under his mentorship without ever detecting his pedagogical method is a credit both to his skill and to my arrogance.

I do not remember what I did or said to invite this particular story, but, early in my time there, Robert told me about a challenge he encountered over the Prayers of the People when he was the rector of a parish in South Carolina. During the first Gulf War, a parishioner approached him about adding Saddam Hussein’s name to the prayer list, citing Jesus’ commandment that we pray for our enemies. Robert knew that would be risky, but he could not find a good reason to ignore the parishioner’s request, so he added to the prayers a line about God turning the heart of Saddam Hussein. “People got up and walked out,” he recalled for me, not ever telling me directly that I should be careful about what I said in church but hoping that I would get the point. Eventually, that lesson—combined with a strong instinct for self-preservation—molded me into a minister who generally prefers to avoid political subject-matter in church.

Lately, however, I have preached some uncomfortably pointed sermons—uncomfortable for some in the congregation and uncomfortable for me as well. Although I may be wrestling with a subconscious desire to shake things up, I try to avoid controversy in the pulpit, but, for three weeks in a row, Luke has given us a gospel lesson that urges us to evaluate the collision of what we believe and how we live our lives. How can anyone read the Parable of the Good Samaritan without hearing Jesus ask whether we are serving God “not only with our lips but in our lives?” Remember that Luke is the gospel writer who gives us not only the Good Samaritan but also the Magnificat, the song in which Mary sings of the Lord’s reordering of society by scattering the proud and exalting the humble, by filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty (1:46-55). Remember also that Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, unlike that of Matthew, is augmented to include four woes: “Woe to you who are rich…who are well fed now…who laugh now…when everyone speaks well of you…” (6:24-26). Is it any surprise, then, that as we journey through Year C of the lectionary, which focuses primarily on the third gospel account, that the sermons have become a little more practical—even political?

At the same time, we have witnessed and tried to process one tragedy after another—Orlando, Baton Rouge, Minneapolis, and Dallas, all of which came on the heels of shootings in San Bernardino, Roseburg, Chattanooga, and Charleston, and those only begin to scratch the surface. This Sunday, a woman came out of church and shook my hand and said simply, “This is one of those weeks when we need to be in church.” I thanked her for her sentiment and told her that I felt the same way. This is a difficult time. Many of us turn to our church for comfort and direction and hope. Above all, church should be a safe place to share our sadness, acknowledge our vulnerability, and search for hope. Regardless of our political persuasion, church should be a place where we can have a constructive, charitable conversation about the issues we face, but that does not mean that churches and pastors and congregations should pretend that the voice of the gospel should remain silent on political issues.

Churches that wish to maintain their 501(c)(3) status and the preachers who presume to speak for those churches are rightly prohibited from “directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office” (see IRS regulations). There is no place for that in church, and personally I find religious leaders who flirt with that boundary distasteful. Endorsements like those not only risk a church’s tax-exempt status, but, more importantly, they undermine a congregation’s ability to welcome anyone and everyone in the name of Jesus.

But politics—the process of ordering a society—are not only fair game; they are the very heart of the gospel. What do you think we mean when we pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven?” As Christians, our hope lies in the reign of God. As followers of Jesus, we live into that kingdom, and we look for and work towards the day when God’s kingdom will be established unmistakably here on earth. If you think churches should stay out of politics, how would you describe Jesus’ relationship with the political leaders of his day?

You will never hear me endorse a political candidate in church, but I hope that you will hear me call for an end to gun violence. You will never hear me take sides in a political contest in a sermon, but I hope that you will hear me say that Jesus demands that we love everyone. You will never hear me use my position to support a particular political party, but I hope you will hear me ask whether, as baptized members of the Body of Christ, you are willing to seek and serve Christ in all persons, love your neighbor as yourself, strive for justice and peace, and respect the dignity of every human being.
I hope you have figured out by now that I do not like to stir the pot for controversy’s sake, but I pray that my voice will be used by God for the building up of his kingdom here on earth. We do not have to agree on political issues to worship together, break bread together, and love each other. Our politics do not need to align in order for us to follow the same Lord. Together, open to the teaching of the Holy Spirit, we can be used by God to do amazing things. In this difficult time, may we stand together in the name of Jesus Christ.

This post originally appeared in The View, the parish newsletter for St. John's Episcopal Church in Decatur, AL. To read the rest of the newsletter and learn about our parish, click here.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Stand Up for Jesus

You know what they say about organists and terrorists: you can't negotiate with an organist. Well, our organist might put up a big fight about singing St. Patrick's Breastplate on Trinity Sunday and definitely groans when I insist on singing all 14 stanzas of "For all the saints," but we are partners in our work. A lifelong resident of Decatur and a longtime member of St. John's, he gives me great insights not only into our worship but also into the lives and relationships of the people in the pews. We spend time talking with each other three or four times every week. He is one of my biggest supporters, and I strive to be one of his.

Every month or two, we sit down for an hour or more to select hymns and service music for the coming weeks. We've been doing this together for four and half years, and we've fallen into some predictable patterns. One of those is looking for hymns that will rouse the congregation in the doldrums of summer, especially when our church choir is on break during July. We recognize that some of these hymns will have nothing to do with any of the lessons, but they are fun to sing, and the congregation loves them. One of these is "Stand up, stand up for Jesus," and we've decided to sing it this Sunday as our final hymn.

Yes, I know it has some militaristic imagery that has the potential to distract from our commitment to the peaceable kingdom. Yes, I know that it has some antiquated gender references to "men" serving the Lord. Yes, I know it emphasizes the separation of the faithful from the rest of the world in conquering, battlefield language. But it's a hymn about being faithful to Jesus, and our congregation loves it.

More importantly, this Sunday's gospel lesson (Luke 10:38-42) provides the perfect foil for the hymn. This gospel reading is the story of Jesus' visit to the house of Mary and Martha. The latter busies herself with the duties of hosting an honored guest, while the former sits and Jesus' feet, listening to whatever he says. Martha, upset that she has been left alone to do all the work, begs Jesus to tell her sister to help out, and Jesus replies with those famous, cutting words: "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her."

When we picked this hymn for this Sunday, I said to our organist, "Are you sure? The gospel lesson is about sitting at Jesus' feet. Do we really want to 'Stand up, stand up for Jesus?'" And he looked at me with a long, silent smile, and I realized, "Yes, of course we do." This is the perfect week to hold those things in tension because discipleship isn't just about sitting at the master's feet, nor is it exclusively about getting up and doing something in Jesus' name. Contemplative and evangelical are always in balance.

I'm not preaching this week, and I'm looking forward to hearing how my more contemplative colleague tackles this Sunday's gospel lesson. Maybe he'll ask us to sit in silence for 10 minutes. Regardless, by the end of worship, it will be time to stand up and move out into the world, but we will do so remembering that we must always return to Jesus' feet.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Loving Indisciriminately

July 10, 2016 – The 8th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 10C
© 2016 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” I’m always relieved when someone in the bible asks the same question I ask. It’s the question. It’s our question. It’s the deepest longing of our souls and the persistent nagging of our lives expressed in eightsimple words: what must I do to inherit eternal life? It means we want to know that ultimately everything will be ok. That’s why we’re here, right? Because we want to be right with God in the everlasting sense. And, if this isn’t the place to learn that, know that, and experience that, why would we bother coming here on Sunday morning?

Now, part of me wishes that the lawyer who approached Jesus had asked, “What must I believe to inherit eternal life?” because that sounds a lot safer—like something I can accomplish from the armchair in my den or the cushy pew in my church. But, as we’ve seen over the last few Sundays, Luke isn’t interested in separating belief from action, and, as today’s gospel lesson makes clear, what we believe about God affects what we do in God’s name. A meaningful faith demands that we live the life that God has given us in a particular way. And that means that the answer to the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” isn’t going to be easy. It’s not going to be an exercise in philosophical abstraction. It’s going to be hard work. Are we ready for that?

I think that my favorite part about Luke’s version of this encounter, which also occurs in Matthew and Mark, is that in his version Jesus doesn’t give the answers; he asks more questions. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” the lawyer asks. “What is written in the law?” Jesus asks in reply. And the answer was clear: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind and love your neighbor as yourself.” That sounds simple enough. As Moses himself said in Deuteronomy 30, “This word is very near to you.” In other words, it shouldn’t be that hard to figure out. It makes sense: love God and love your neighbor, and you’ll be ok. We usually think of Jesus as the one who came up with this clever distillation of the law, but in Luke it is the lawyer who makes the elegant pronouncement. And, Jesus tips his cap to the lawyer, saying, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

But part of me wonders whether Jesus was smiling when he said that. I’d bet that Jesus knew that, even though the answer to that question was simple, getting it done wasn’t nearly that easy. So I wonder whether Jesus winked at his disciples before he said anything to the lawyer because he knew that a follow-up question would come next. “And who is my neighbor?” the lawyer asked, wanting to justify himself. That means he wanted to be sure, wanted to know without a doubt that he had done everything that he was expected to do. If inheriting eternal life really was that simple, wouldn’t you want a crystal clear definition of exactly what was expected of you so that you could be sure? Like us, the lawyer wanted to know that he would go to heaven, and he wanted to be sure, so he asked his clarifying question. But, when he asked it, he exposed the trap that he had already set for himself.

Again, Jesus didn’t want to give the man the answer. He wanted him to figure it out on his own. So he told him a story—a story about a man who was beset by robbers and left for dead. Wounded so badly that he might die at any minute, the man lay forsaken on the side of the road. First, a priest and then a Levite passed him by. Both of them were religious figures, and both of them would have known that to come in contact with a dead body was a violation of the law. But both also would have known that saving a life was the most important duty of all. It trumped even the rules about touching a corpse. The lawyer would have known this as well, so, at this point in the story, he would have seen that Jesus was setting him up. But what he didn’t know—what he couldn’t have known—was how the story would end. A Samaritan—a dirty, ungodly, descendent of traitors, half-breed Samaritan—found the half-dead man, treated his wounds, took him to a nearby inn, spent the night looking out for him, paid the innkeeper enough for two-weeks of additional care, and offered to come back and repay anything more that was spent. “Now which one of these, do you think, was a neighbor to the man?” Jesus asked, smiling. Unable even to say the name of that hated tribe, the lawyer replied, “The one who showed him mercy.”[1] And, then, for the second time, Jesus said, “Then go and do it.”

No one saw it coming, but, by the time Jesus finished his story, no one could deny the answer. It was that clear. It was that simple. Now, if you’re like me, your instinct is to accuse the lawyer of looking for the easy way out. “Just give me the bare minimum I need to do to get to heaven,” we assume he was asking Jesus. And we hear Jesus’ reply as a way of shaming the man into realizing that getting to heaven isn’t about doing what is required. But that misses the whole point of this gospel lesson. In fact, that kind of “you-always-need-to-do-more” reading of this passage is more troubling than the man’s half-hearted approach to the faith would have been in the first place. The real power of this encounter comes when we recognize that the man’s intentions were good—just as good and genuine and earnest as our own. When he asked, “What must I do?” and “Who is my neighbor?” he believed that the path to heaven lay in the answers to those questions. But Jesus’ story shows us that asking the questions as if they can be answered is itself the fatal mistake.

The problem with Jesus’ story is that it sets us on a slippery slope of love that has no end. No one was as hated as the Samaritans. In Hebrew the word for neighbor means fellow, companion, friend, countryman. The last people on earth who would qualify were the Samaritans. If a merciful Samaritan proves to be my neighbor, who isn’t deserving of my love? A thief who steals from me to feed his family? The woman whose unscrupulous heart destroyed my marriage? The man whose addiction-fueled drunk-driving took away the most precious thing I ever had? The one who in a perverted religious quest kills innocent lives? Are they my neighbor? Who isn’t my neighbor? Where will it stop?

It doesn’t stop. And that’s the point of the gospel. If God chooses to love everyone, we don’t get to choose whom we will love. We inherit eternal life because of God’s indiscriminate love. In Jesus Christ, God shows us that he loves all of us—no matter who we are or what we have done or what we believe. God loves us all, and he loves all of us exactly the same—Samaritan or Jew, Christian or Muslim, black or white, male or female, Protestant or Catholic, gay or straight, faithful or atheist, church lady or axe murderer, police officer or sniper. And, if God loves all of us, we must love one another—everyone—because, if we don’t, we deny the power of God’s indiscriminate love for us. If we love less than that—if we decide that there is someone on this planet, even one person, who doesn’t deserve our love—then we have placed limits not only on our love but also on God’s love, and, if God’s love has any limits, we are all damned.
Do you want to inherit eternal life? Do you want to spend eternity with God in heaven? The only way that’s going to happen is love—God’s unlimited, unconditional, indiscriminate love. If you want to go to heaven, you must believe in the power of that love, and, if you believe in the power of that love, then there can be no limits on your love either. Jesus teaches us that no one in this world is unlovable. You must love indiscriminately because you are indiscriminately loved.

[1] Gratitude to Steve Pankey for making this point in his blog post “Do Thou Likewise,” 7 July 2016 at Draughting Theology:

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Who Is Testing Whom?

The Parable of the Good Samaritan only appears in Luke's gospel account, but all three synoptic accounts portray the interaction between Jesus and the lawyer/scribe/Pharisee (depending on your version) that precedes the parable. The funny thing, though, is that they don't quite tell the story the same way.

In Matthew 22 and Mark 12, a religious authority comes up to test Jesus and asks him, "Which commandment is the greatest?" In those two accounts, Jesus replies with some form of "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind" and "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." In both cases, the lawyer-figure is the one to ask, and Jesus is the one to answer. Also, in both accounts, the (eventual) result is an impressed audience. Both record that "from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions." In Luke's version, however, Jesus isn't the one who gives the answer. He ends up being the one to ask the questions.

In Luke 10, a lawyer approaches Jesus to test him. He asks, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" But Jesus, playing the role of the experienced rabbi, puts the question back to the man, asking, "What is written in the law? What do you read there?" which is a gentle way of saying, "What do you think the right answer is?" Instead of Jesus offering the concise summary of the law that we still quote in the Rite One Eucharistic service, it is the lawyer who gives the insightful response. He's the one who says that one must love the Lord and love one's neighbor." Well done, lawyer! Jesus affirms this, indicating that he accepts the man's summary, saying, "You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live."

We all know what happens next. The lawyer takes it one step further, seeking to justify himself. He asks the rabbi for a definition of neighbor, but, again, Jesus puts the question to the man. After telling the story of the Good Samaritan, he asks the lawyer, "Which one of them was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?" And the lawyer gives the only possible answer, "The one who showed him mercy." (I love Steve Pankey's post today about the man's inability to even utter the word "Samaritan," which you can read here.) And Jesus again agrees, saying, "Go and do likewise."

Did you see the pattern? With gratitude to Klyne Snodgrass, who demonstrates this parallel in his marvelous work Stories with Intent, the cycle in this parable looks like this:

Lawyer's Question #1: What must I do?
Jesus' Question #1': What does the law say?
Lawyer's Answer #1': Love the Lord and love my neighbor.
Jesus' Answer #1: Then do it.

Lawyer's Question #2: Who is my neighbor?
Jesus' Question #2': What does the story suggest?
Lawyer's Answer #2': The one who showed mercy.
Jesus' Answer #2: Then do it.

It's a beautifully constructed passage, and the remarkable part about it is that the lawyer doesn't end up testing Jesus; Jesus, in the classical rabbinical fashion, tests the lawyer and, in so doing, tests us as well. As I wrote about on Tuesday, the lawyer's question is universal. We all ask that question: what must I do? Jesus turns it back on him, and I'll suggest that the preacher do the same for her/his congregation. The people in our pews want to know, "What must we do to inherit eternal life?" And, through the preacher, Jesus is saying to us, "What do you think?" The power in this story--at least as Luke tells it--is the moment of realization on the part of the lawyer. What will our moment of realization be this Sunday? Fellow preachers, resist the temptation to give the answer. Let Jesus ask the question, and trust the congregation to be hit smack across the face with the truth.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

When and Where is the Kingdom?

With a tip of the cap and a wry smile to the SCLM for acknowledging in a press release yesterday what happened to the lectionary options at the 2015 General Convention, I'm using the daily Eucharistic lectionary from Lesser Feasts and Fasts for the texts in today's midweek healing Eucharist at St. John's. The gospel lesson appointed is Matthew 10:1-7, which recalls the calling and sending of the twelve disciples. The list of the names of the disciples usually gets our attention. Can you name all twelve? But it's the message he gave them that I want to focus on today.

Almost as soon as he called them, Jesus sent the twelve out, saying, "Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans,  but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, 'The kingdom of heaven has come near.'" At least that's the way that the NRSV conveys it. The ESV portrays the kingdom with a different linguistic construction: "The kingdom of heaven is at hand." But which one is it? Has the kingdom come near, or is the kingdom at hand?

The problem is that Greek has verb tenses that English struggles to convey. In English, we care primarily about when the action happened--past, present, or future. But in Greek the concern for time is only half of the issue (and arguably the less important part). Greek verbs also convey a sense of the kind of action that the verb represents. Is it punctiliar--happening in a confined moment of time? Is it continuous--happening in an ongoing way? Or is it completed yet effective--accomplished but still bearing results? That means that three different tenses of verbs can all reflect action in the past but with different implications for the present (e.g. aorist, imperfect, and perfect). Confused yet? Let's turn to the issue of the kingdom and see if it comes together.

In the case of Matthew 10:7, the Greek word in question is Ἤγγικεν, which is the active indicative third-person singular perfect form of the verb ἐγγίζω, which means "to make near." We get active indicative third-person singular ("He runs" or "She jumps") but the perfect tense throws us for a loop. The perfect tense is a verb with action that happened in the past but an effect or benefit or result that continues into the present. It's hard to convey both of those things at once, and the NRSV vs. ESV portrayals show that beautifully. The NRSV's "has come near" emphasizes more completely that the action occurred in the past (i.e., it's already happened) and the ESV's "is at hand" focuses on the present result (i.e., it's present right now). We really need both. To get the Greek sense of what Jesus is telling the disciples to proclaim about the kingdom, we would need to say, "The kingdom of heaven has come near and is at hand!" But admittedly that's a little cumbersome.

But why does this matter? Why do we care? Other than to indulge his linguistic fetish, why would a preacher subject a congregation to this grammar lesson? Because when and where the kingdom is matters. Notice that Jesus did not tell his disciples to proclaim that the kingdom of heaven would be coming soon. Nor did he tell them to say that it came and went. Nor did he tell them to say that the kingdom had already come and gone. Jesus told the disciples to proclaim the good news that the kingdom of heaven has drawn near and is at hand. And, as Christians, that means that we aren't living in the past or the future but right here, right now, in the present.

As disciples of Jesus, we often speak of waiting for Jesus and the coming of God's kingdom, and, in a sense, that is correct. We are still looking for the coming of Christ. But I want to suggest to you that we aren't waiting for the kingdom of heaven in the same way that we are waiting for a future event--like the Cubs winning the World Series or Alabama winning its seventeenth national championship. Instead, I believe that we are waiting for the coming of the kingdom in the same way we wait for something that has already happened but is still being experienced today--like waiting for the Constitutionally enshrined truth that "all men are created equal" or the egalitarian proclamation from Galatians that in Christ "there is neither Jew or Greek...slave or free...male and female." Those things have already happened. Even the words themselves portray the fact that, on both fronts, our equality is a given. They are true even if we can't see them as fully as we might. And so we look and wait and watch, but, as we do so, we live more and more as though we know them to have already been accomplished--not as if they are yet to be achieved.

You are a disciple of Jesus. You have been given good news. The kingdom of heaven has drawn near. The kingdom of heaven is at hand. Don't undermine the power of the gospel by pretending that it isn't here yet. And don't shatter the good news of Jesus by believing that it has come and gone. It has come, and it is here. That should radically change the way you live. Live each day as if God is in charge. Insist that everything you do--with your time, with your voice, with you money, with your life--portrays that reality. We cannot accept anything that eclipses the fullness of God's kingdom. In imperceptible yet enormous ways, language shapes our identity. We have fallen asleep because our language cannot convey the urgent now of the kingdom. We must awaken and keep watch because the kingdom has come and is now.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016


As we make our way through Luke in Year C of the lectionary, we are destined to encounter some of our favorite stories. Luke is the only gospel to include the Parable of the Prodigal Son (back in Lent 4), the raising of the widow's son at Nain (five weeks ago in Proper 5), the miraculous healing of the bent-over woman (coming up in six weeks in Proper 16), the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (on September 25 in Proper 21), and the healing of the ten lepers (on October 9 in Proper 23). This Sunday, we encounter the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).

Unique to Luke and beloved by Sunday school teachers around the world, the Parable of the Good Samaritan is deeply familiar to us. We know it well. Not only do we know what happens--three people come upon a man in distress and only one of them stops to help him--but we also know the implication of this story--that a true neighbor is the one to show mercy despite ethnic differences. Our over-familiarity with the text presents a challenge to the preacher and the congregation. If we all know what this story is supposed to teach us, how will we learn anything from it? Sure, we all need to hear it again, but will we bother to listen?

There is one familiar phrase in this familiar passage that I'd like to tackle. It's the verse upon which our impression of the whole encounter turns: "But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, 'And who is my neighbor?'" Verse 29 changes everything; in our minds, that's where everything goes wrong. Could there be a more basic, instinctive sin than self-justification? That little phrase about the lawyer's intentions completely transforms our reading of the whole story--especially the parable that follows. Once the reader realizes that this man was wanting to justify himself, we discover that the man's initial question about inheriting eternal life was mistaken from the start and that his desire was sinfully misguided all along. The parable, therefore, becomes a technique Jesus uses to humble the man, expose the futility of his self-justifying endeavor, and chastise us to avoid doing the same.

But is that what this story is really about? What does it mean that the man wanted to justify himself? I've read the Greek, and it's right there as plain as day: " δὲ θέλων δικαιῶσαι ἑαυτὸν." It means literally, "But he, wishing to justify himself." There's really no other way to understand it. But what is justification? If I set aside my Protestant presumptions about justification, I begin to wonder what's so wrong with the lawyer's question? What makes his desires wrongly founded? I can accept that, in light of the gospel, his approach to salvation is misguided without casting this story as a critique on humanity's attempt at self-justification.

Instead of viewing this lawyer as a self-interested, self-justifying egotist, try thinking of him as a man of faith who wants to know what all of us want to know: what does it take to be made right? Isn't that the universal question? In religious terms, justification is merely a being made right in the eyes of one's creator and judge. Don't we all want that identity when we stand before God? How else should the man have worded his question? Yes, Luke tells us that the lawyer "stood up to test Jesus," but don't we do the same every time we visit a church and hear a sermon? In our minds, we ask of the preacher, "Is this something worth believing? Is this really what God is saying to God's people?" Again, that's a man looking for a rabbi worth listening to. And the only real judgment for any disciple is summed up in his two-part question: "What must I do to inherit eternal life?...So who is my neighbor?"

I'm not saying that the man was perfect. I'm not suggesting that there wasn't a critical spirit behind his inquiry. And I'm certainly not implying that the man's question about self-justification is free from any trace of ego or self-accomplishing instinct. Sure it is. What I'm wondering is how we are any different? I'm wondering how this passage might get new life if we stop holding the lawyer in disdain and start accepting that this parable isn't a negative teaching aimed at one man but a positive teaching directed at all of us. Just like the lawyer, we want to inherit eternal life, and we want to be sure that we're on the right track. If we start there, it's a lot harder to brush aside this story as something we already know. Instead, it becomes a teaching we crave. This is the key. You want to inherit eternal life? Want to know what it takes to be faithful? Listen carefully! Jesus has a story to tell us.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Surely Not!

I have long held onto the hermeneutical principle that sarcasm isn't a good lens for understanding the bible. Like an e-mail or a text or a Facebook post, it's too easy to misunderstand. I assume that the biblical authors who shaped a text over centuries molded it until it said what it really said. Sure, there's irony--lots of irony--in the bible, and the authors were well aware of that. But sarcasm? In general, I don't think we're supposed to read a passage in the bible and conclude that it means exactly what it doesn't say.

But this week, as I encounter the RCL Track 2 pairing of Deuteronomy 30 with Luke 10, I begin to wonder whether it's fair to add a shade of a sarcastic tone to the voices of Moses and Jesus as they tell their audiences that keeping the law isn't really that hard.

In his last speech to the people of Israel, Moses exhorts them to enter their new life in the Promised Land as a faithful, obedient people of God: "The Lord your God will make you abundantly prosperous in all your undertakings...when you obey the Lord your God by observing his commandments and decrees...because you turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul." It's clear. It's uncomplicated. It's simple...right? Moses continues, "Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you!" What could be so difficult about loving God with all your heart and soul? That won't be a problem for God's people, right?

As I mentioned above, the biblical text is heavy with irony. By the time Deuteronomy 30 was written in the form that we have received, the people of Israel had entered Palestine, forgotten how to be faithful, appointed wicked kings, made unholy alliances, perverted their religious practices, followed false gods, and experienced exile. It's written as if it's about to unfold, but the people who shaped this text already knew the answer to Moses' implied question: "Will that be too hard for you?" Yes. Yes it will.

When the lawyer (poor lawyers!) approaches Jesus to ask him what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus and the lawyer and everyone standing around are all familiar with Deuteronomy 30. When the lawyer rehearses for Jesus the well-worn answer of loving God and loving neighbor, everyone knew to ask, "Well, how easy is that?" I'll write more about justification and the man's motives later in the week. For now, though, suffice it to say that the parable of the Good Samaritan wasn't only told to shame this lawyer into confronting his own misplaced self-confidence but also to show all of us that it's never easy to love God and our neighbor as God intends for us to do.

I still don't think that Moses was speaking sarcastically, but I'm willing to let a sarcastic reading of the text inform Jesus' conversation with the lawyer and with us. That isn't to suggest that the New Testament corrects or replaces the Old. But I do think that the editing internal to the Old Testament includes that sense of self-correction. Even without the New Testament, one cannot read Deuteronomy 30 with an awareness of the foibles that the successive centuries brought and not appreciate the dialogical tension between "how hard" and "it's impossible" that is buried in that text. And that's why preaching on this parable is so much fun.

Success is a Gift

July 3, 2016 – The 7th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 9C
© 2016 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
How do you prepare for a journey? For example, let’s say that you are planning a trip to Austin, Texas, for a wedding. Where would you start? Well, first you have to figure out how you’re going to get there. So you spend a few weeks searching the same travel sites to compare roundtrip fares from Huntsville and Birmingham and Nashville and Atlanta, wondering when the price is going to fall. And, during that time, you keep opening up Google Maps to confirm that, yes, it is a twelve and a half hour drive. And you try to convince yourself that, no, that isn’t really as far as it seems. But that doesn’t work. So eventually you buy your ticket, and then it’s confirmed: you really are going to Austin.

So then what? You’ve got to find a place to stay. Will you stay in a hotel? Will you look for a house on Airbnb? You won’t have a car. How far do you want to walk to the wedding…in Austin…in July? So you survey the options and find the best bet and make your reservation. Done! And now that the basics are taken care of—travel and accommodations—you can turn to the fun stuff: food. I was worried that I was the only person who thought like this, but I was relieved and delighted to find that Kristin Blackerby, one of my traveling companions, and I like to plan a trip the exact same way—with our appetites. Where do the locals eat? What are the specialties in Austin that we can’t get anywhere else? Everything else can (and should) revolve around food. What we’ll see and do will depend on which restaurants we want to be near when it’s time to eat. Does that sound familiar to any of you?

That’s how I like to travel. I’m a planner, and I want to return home knowing that I took full advantage of every opportunity that the place I’ve gone has to offer. I want to think through everything ahead of time. My worst nightmare is going to a great city like Austin and then coming home and having someone ask me, “Did you eat at this great restaurant?” or “Did you see that great place?” and realizing that I’d never even heard of it. But that’s not the way Jesus plans a journey. In fact, he hardly plans at all, which I find not only confusing but actually anxiety producing.

Go, he says, and, before you go, you should know that I am sending you out like sheep in the midst of wolves. Don’t bother packing a bag or a change of clothes, and don’t bother taking any money with you. Just go. And don’t worry about where you’re going to stay. Knock on the first door you come to, and, if they will let you stay with them, great. If not, try the next house. Eventually, you’ll figure it out. And don’t worry about food. Eat whatever they give you. If the food is terrible, you’ll get over it. Don’t move from house to house. Just stay put and eat the food they provide. Do your work in that town, and then move on to the next and do it all over again. And, whether they receive you or not, your words to them should be the same: know that the kingdom of God has come near to you.

That sounds terrible. Eat whatever they put in front of you? Don’t take a change of clothes? Don’t even take any money? What kind of nonsense is this, Jesus? What if it doesn’t work? What if we can’t find a place to stay? What if we need money to stay in an inn? What if we need money to buy food? This is, without a doubt, the worst idea you’ve ever had. How will this make us successful missionaries? I’m going to be so worried about the lack of planning that I won’t be able to focus on the healing work that you’ve given us to do.

But you know what? It worked. Despite the lack of planning, the seventy returned to Jesus, saying, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us.” Jesus had given them the power to prevail over evil. Despite their meager travel protocol, they had triumphed in their work. And why did it work? Because Jesus wasn’t sending them out as sheep in the midst of wolves in order to set them up for failure. He was teaching them that what they do isn’t nearly as important as who they are. And that’s a lesson he’s trying to teach us today.

Notice that, when they returned and began to celebrate what they had accomplished, Jesus even took that wind right out of their sails. Yeah, yeah, he said, big deal. “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. See, I have given you [this] authority…Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” In other words, this wasn’t about how many people that they healed or how many demons they cast out. This was a chance for them to discover that they had already been given everything they needed: they were chosen by Jesus; they were chosen by God. And so are we. And it’s a simple as that.

In the twenty-first century, we are crushed under the weight of our need for success. It starts on the ball field, where parents, who want the very best for their children, buy into the illusion that their four-year-old’s performance somehow indicates whether that child will grow up to be something special. It continues in school, where the parents’ obsession with grades and test scores becomes the child’s obsession, too. It spreads into relationships, and we worry whether we have enough friends and whether we have the right friends. Will we get into a good college? Will we get a good job? Will we succeed in our career? Are we successful parents? And by that I mean will we pass along to them all of our anxiety-producing, pharmaceutically-controlled obsession with success?

The same is true for churches. Are we growing? Do we have enough young families? What’s the average Sunday attendance? Are the sermons good enough? Is the children’s program thriving? Do we have an energetic youth minister? Is the organist halfway decent? Are people coming, or are they leaving? I haven’t seen the Johnsons in a while. Did I hear that they are going to the Methodist church? Is stewardship growing? Will the capital campaign be successful? Will we build the biggest, prettiest, most impressive edifice as a great and lasting testament to anyone who drives by that we are a success?

All of that? That’s us saying to Jesus, “Look, Jesus, look what we did! Aren’t we special? Aren’t you proud of us? And Jesus says to us, None of that matters. Do not rejoice in those things. Rejoice, instead, that your names are written in heaven. What you do isn’t as important as who you are. And, until you figure that out, I’m going to keep sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves—unprepared and vulnerable. Sooner or later, you’ll learn that what matters isn’t measured in budgets or attendance or square footage. It isn’t measured in salaries or mortgage payments or grade point averages or scholarship offers or little league batting averages. Success isn’t earned; it’s given. Like all good things, success is a gift that we are given by our heavenly Father who loves us and cares for us and calls us his own. There isn’t a harder or more important lesson for us to learn.
You are God’s beloved child. That’s the only thing that matters. You and your name belong with him in heaven. That’s all we’ve got. Other than that, we are emptyhanded. But that doesn’t matter because we already have the most important thing of all—his love. You didn’t do anything to receive it, and you can’t do anything to lose it, so why would you worry about it?