Wednesday, August 31, 2016

How Much More?

A common rhetorical device used by Jesus in his parables is to ask "How much more?" If you, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly father give good things to those who ask him? If a man was willing to sell all that he had to buy a field in which a treasure was buried, how much more should you be willing to give to inherit the kingdom of God? It's a fairly easy approach to grasp. Jesus outlines a circumstance we can all agree to, and then he stretches that understanding to include, by comparison, a larger teaching about God and God's kingdom.

But this Sunday the "how much more" doesn't come as good news.

As we've made our way through Luke, we've heard Jesus repeatedly speak of the uncompromising urgency of the kingdom. Whoever puts his hand to the plow is not fit for the kingdom (Luke 9). Carry no purse or bag or change of clothes or shoes (Luke 10). What does it mean to love you neighbor? Act like the good Samaritan (Luke 10). Martha, Martha, you are distracted by many things; only one thing is needful (Luke 10). When you pray, say, "...Your kingdom come" (Luke 11). You fool! This night your life is required of you (Luke 12). Blessed is the slave whom the master finds keeping watch when he comes at an unexpected hour (Luke 12). I have not come to bring peace but a sword (Luke 12). Should not this daughter of Abraham be set free from this bondage even on the sabbath day? (Luke 13). When you give a banquet, invite those who have no way of repaying you (Luke 14).

There've been other bits we've skipped over that reiterate this point even more strongly. Go back and read Luke 9-14 and notice how unrelenting Jesus' call to the kingdom is. By the time we get to this Sunday's gospel lesson (Luke 14:25-33), it seems like Jesus is about ready to explode: "Whoever does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple." In effect, Jesus says, "I've been trying to make this point for some time now, but you all haven't been paying attention. Maybe this time you'll get it."

The parables that follow are a "how much more" approach to discipleship. "For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it?...Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand?" What's the implicit response? How much more, then, should you consider the cost of following me before you jump on this bandwagon?

But then Jesus turns away from the abstract, parabolic, at times hyperbolic approach and lays it right out plain and simple: "So, therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions." It's the "so therefore" that really gets me. "What have I been saying to you all this time? It all means that you have to give up all of your possessions if you want to follow me--family, money, career, home, friends, religion, status, everything!

Tomorrow's post is going to be about possessions--what is Jesus really calling us to give up. Partly it's money, but that's only part of it. It means everything, possessions in the general sense. We must completely divest ourselves of ownership--even of our own lives. Like I said, that's for tomorrow, but for now I'm letting the "how much more" of counting the cost of discipleship settle in. I've got to understand that before I can do the math.

Baking Our Best

In some churches, clergy and altar guild members stand in the sacristy after the service, encouraging each other as they struggle to consume the mountain of consecrated wafers that were left over after Communion. In our church, however, a line of children quickly forms at the sacristy door in case there may be some extra Communion bread for them to eat. Someone from our bread guild bakes fresh loaves each week, and for many the soft, subtly sweet morsel received at the altar rail is the highlight of their Sunday worship. On the rare occasion that the bread runs out before the last few parishioners receive, we turn to wafers, and, when I place the round, cross-marked disc into a child’s hands, he is likely to look at me and then his parent with a face that says, “What’s that? I’m not eating that. You might as well have handed me a Brussels sprout.”

Most churches use wafers—mass produced, perfectly circular, Styrofoam-esque pieces of baked flour and water that hardly resemble bread. Actually, I like the wafers for their simplicity and consistency, and, while I agree that the bread is far tastier, I like the bread more because of the symbol that it represents. Both become the Body of Christ—the real presence of the incarnate Son of God—of which we partake by an inexplicable mystery. Between the two, there is no difference in the “Jesus-ness” that is conveyed, but, when the bread is baked by members of our congregation, I am drawn into the communal Body of Christ that the congregation itself represents in a way that I find harder to see when the origins of the Communion bread are largely unfamiliar to us.

There has been a liturgical renewal of sorts as more and more congregations use loaves instead of wafers. Of course, before there were wafers, all Christian communities used loaves that were indistinguishable from the loaves that they bought at the market or baked for their families. In the ancient church, before the clergyperson presided at the Eucharist, he would collect both bread and wine from members of the congregation and use them at the Lord’s Table. In a very clear and real way, the offering of the people was the substance of the communal meal that they shared in the name of the Lord. Of course, some loaves were better than others. Some were overbaked and crumbly. Some were underbaked and chewy. Some were moldy. That happens sometimes. And, as is so often the case in the history of organized religion, church officials stepped in and, in an attempt to make everything better, messed everything up. To ensure that the Communion bread was as perfect as the Christ it represented, religious professionals (i.e. monks) took on the responsibility of baking uniform portions of unleavened bread, simultaneously eliminating the imperfections of congregation-provided bread and the joy that those people got from bringing their best, if flawed, offering to God.

Until then, the principle “sacrifice” of the Eucharistic celebration was one made by the congregation as they, through their offerings, participated in the sacrifice that Christ had made upon the cross. Just as Jesus gave up his life for the sake of the world, so, too, did his followers give up their lives in his service, and their bread was a token of that. Although by that time martyrdom had become a rarity, Christians were drawn personally into Christ’s death by bringing something of themselves—something they had made or worked to buy—and offering it to God in the Communion service. Once their bread was no longer needed, their symbolic sacrifice had been effectively replaced. Without the bread of the people, the sacrificial focus shifted from that of the congregation to that which the priest performed on their behalf, and the connection between the congregation and the Body of Christ was stretched—perhaps even severed—as the people of God largely forgot what it meant to give themselves to God each time the sacrament was celebrated.

I have only had the opportunity to bake Communion bread once. An odd turn of events combined with a scheduling snafu meant that an important service might be without the fresh baked bread that our congregation has come to love and expect. I didn’t ask anyone else to do it because I wanted the chance to try it myself. Although I had never done it before, I had been taught by the bread guild, and I tried my hardest to replicate their work. The end result was the decent attempt of a first-time baker who tried his very best to bake bread that would honor those who usually provide it for our church and also honor God, who is always willing to receive our faithful offerings. The bread that day may not have been spectacular, but it was my offering—something I could bring to God and share with our congregation—and the act of baking and presenting that bread brought me into the Body of Christ in a way that I had never experienced before.

What sacrifice do you bring to the Lord’s Table? If you are not a part of the bread guild, do you help set the Table and clean up after the service? If you are not a part of the altar guild, do you help welcome people into our fellowship? If you are not an usher, do you sing God’s praise with all of your heart? If you are not in the choir, do you proclaim the Word of God from the lectern? If you are not a lector, do you serve with the clergy at the Table? If you are not an acolyte or a lay Eucharistic minister, do you spend time telling our children about Jesus? If you are not a volunteer in Children’s Chapel, do you arrange flowers for the altar? If you are not a member of the flower guild, do you help fold the bulletins or set up for lemonade after the service or play the organ or preach the sermon or vacuum the floor? What sacrifice do you bring to the Table? What part of yourself do you offer to God each week when we gather in Jesus’ name?

Holy Communion is not something you that show up once a week to receive. It is something that you participate in by offering to God the very best that you have. What sacrifice will you make? What will you bring to the Lord’s Table? The Body of Christ is not complete without you.

This post originally appeared in the St. John's newsletter. To read the rest of that newsletter and learn more about St. John's, click here.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

An Odd Theology of Relationship

Does God bless the obedient and curse the faithless? The short answer is no, but centuries of suffering have made that an important statement of faith for those who otherwise might feel that God had abandoned them completely.

On Sunday morning, the Track 2 OT lesson is Deuteronomy 30:15-20. Maybe it's just my aversion to this legalistic formula, but I feel like we read from Moses' speech to the Israelites before entering the Promised Land over and over. In the twenty-first century, whether because we're committed grace-alone Christians or simply because we're scientifically and philosophically enlightened individuals, can't we all agree that God doesn't bring curses down upon those who fail to keep his covenant? Can't we get past this superstitious "If I'm suffering, it must be because I deserve it" mentality that has kept people locked in fear and shame for millennia? God doesn't work that way. Please, stop thinking that God works that way! God is not out to get you.

But maybe there's a strange sort of hope in thinking that. I never would have seen it on my own, but our Sunday school class is studying Lamentations, and our conversation this week opened up a new way for me to understand this theology of divine legalism. If you read Lamentations, you can't help but notice that the poet is firmly convinced that the punishment that Jerusalem has received is directly because of their failure to keep God's covenant. We might eschew that sort of theology, but we shouldn't begrudge an ancient prophet upon whom unspeakable suffering has been heaped a moment to feel as if God is dishing out more than he can handle. In fact, as the conversation elucidated, we can imagine a moment of such intense loss and grief that the only way to make sense of God's continued participation in the life of the sufferer is through punishment. If there is still any relationship with God, it must be that of the divine curse enacted for violation of the covenant relationship.

Consider that for a minute. Could you ever find yourself in such dire circumstances as to face a fork in the road of your faith: either God is absent or God is punishing you? Maybe not, but I understand why some might feel that way. If the walls have crumbled around us, where will we find God? Will we abandon the covenant relationship between God and his people, or will we define God as active in the punishment we're experiencing?

Although not known to the author of Lamentations or the author of Deuteronomy, the cross of Christ redefines our experience of suffering. In the death of Jesus, we discover a third option. God isn't absent, nor is he punishing us for faithlessness, but he is present with us in our suffering. As the book of Job answers the poetry of Lamentations, sometimes the wicked prosper and the righteous this life. Sometimes God's justice is denied until death.

I'm not ready to preach Deuteronomy 30. I still find its call to a legalistic definition of faith discouraging. But I have the luxury of saying that. I have been spared the suffering of this life. I hope that even in disaster I would see God's love as transcending my circumstances, but I see, now, that for some hope is found in a God who would punish his people. Like a child who disobeys just to get the attention of his parent, sometimes it gives people hope to know that God is there--even if he is punishing them. That's easier to believe than the gospel, which proclaims God's unconditional love in all circumstances. And that's why preaching the gospel is so hard and so important.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Count Before You Commit

During my senior year of college, I explored the possibility of becoming a priest. I met weekly with a priest and mentor, and we shared a one-on-one bible study of Romans as a way of determining whether I had what it takes to be a successful clergyman. Being an old-school Anglican, my mentor figured that if I could explain what St. Paul was saying to the twenty-first-century church, I would figure the rest out on the job. Once we finished the first twelve chapters of Romans, we turned to the diocesan policy and accompanying application form, and, in one hour-long session, we checked off all of the topics we were supposed to discuss. "Do the nominee's spouse and children accept this call?" Not applicable. "Does the nominee understand that he/she is not likely to return to the same parish?" He looked at me for a half of a second and wrote down, "Yes." "Does the nominee understand the financial limitations of ordained life?" He paused for a moment. "Do you have a job?" he asked. "No," I replied. "Well, it won't be any worse than that." And, just like that, I was ready to meet with the bishop.

I spent a year after college working at my local church and as a paralegal at a law firm in town. During that first summer, I remember seeing the law school clerks come in and get wined and dined as the firm tried to woo new associates. While they played golf in the afternoons, I sat in a cubical and stuck Bates labels on documents. Fifteen months later, I began seminary at the same time that a close friend began law school. We progressed in parallel tracks, and, after three years of graduate study, the reality of our separate financial circumstances was made abundantly clear. He was hired by the same firm where I had worked as a paralegal with a starting salary above $80,000 plus a signing bonus. I began ministry at the diocesan minimum of $40,000, and the closest thing I got to a signing bonus was a reimbursement for the Ryder truck I rented to load our thrift-store-bought furniture for the move back to Alabama.

I'm not resentful. I love my job, and, now that I'm ten years into ordained life, I am paid more than a minister of the gospel has any right to expect. But, over the years, I have seen a considerable number of seminary graduates have a hard time finding a job in a place where their families want to live. They grouse about moving to rural Alabama, and lament the quality of education their children will receive. They struggle to find a job that pays enough for their family to maintain even a modest lifestyle. They bounce from church to church, never spending enough time in one place to build up considerable equity in a house. In many cases, clergy are trapped in relative poverty, and they seem surprised and disappointed at the reality they face. Even though my mentor sped through the discussion items, he made sure I understood what I was signing up for.

Maybe Luke 14:25-33  should be a required bible study for all prospective seminarians. In what is presumed to be hyperbolic language, Jesus said, "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple." We're familiar with this "cost of discipleship" mentality that Jesus espouses. Its radical, family-abandoning, life-hating approach shocks us into accepting the reality of a life dedicated to following Jesus. We make sense of it by ameliorating it and convincing ourselves that, as long as we prioritize kingdom above all else, we're going to be fine.

The two parabolic analogies that follow are equally insightful and nonthreatening. "Don't you count the cost of building a tower before you build it? Otherwise everyone will laugh at you. Doesn't a king figure out whether he will win the battle before he wages war? Otherwise he will ask for terms of peace." Everything seems to be ok. Count the cost before you sign up. Being a disciple will be challenging. Yes, Jesus, we're ready. And then he gets to the last line of the passage, and all of our calculating falls apart.

Jesus said, "So, therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions." (Cue sound of needle scratching across record.) Say what? You weren't kidding? All of my possessions? The "therefore" is damning. We've made our way through the exaggerated, point-proving language of hating family and life and counting the cost to get to the real application of the text, and Jesus' conclusion is "none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions?" How many of us saw that coming? He's not messing around, is he?

The challenge for the preacher this week is to take Jesus seriously and figure out a way to help the congregation do the same. Clearly, for two thousand years, the church has found a way to ignore this bit of Jesus' teaching. We haven't insisted on communal life for all believers since the days when the Acts of the Apostles was taking place. So what does Jesus mean? I don't think he was exaggerating. I believe that Jesus really expected all who follow him to give up everything. Was he wrong? Or are we? You certainly don't have to be ordained in order to follow Jesus, but you are asked to give up as much--just in a different way. Similarly, you don't have to be poor in order to be a Christian, but Jesus might ask you to give it all up. Could you? Would you? How would you know?

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Social Obligation

Perhaps it's a shame I'm not preaching this week since I have so much to say about the gospel lesson. (Don't ask the congregation what they think about that.) Here's a bonus post about the anti-gospel according to Big Bang Theory and Luke 14:1, 7-14.

I don't watch much BBT anymore, but there was a 6-month stretch where it seemed like it was on in our house every night. (Perhaps that was when my wife was pregnant with our fourth child, and I was smart enough not to change the channel.) Although it's a minor point that only surfaces occasionally, there's a running theme through the series about giving gifts and the social obligation that the practice imposes upon the recipient of a gift. As Sheldon says in the clip above, "The foundation of gift giving is reciprocity. You haven't given me a gift; you've given me an obligation." One of the reasons the show is so successful it that little jabs like that strike home.

Doesn't it feel like we have to repay a gift with a gift? Although not necessarily expected by the giver, don't we manufacture within ourselves a sense of obligation to return the favor? If you have me over to your house for dinner, don't I feel like I need to have you over to mine? Isn't that all wrong? Doesn't the joy of a party or a gift or a favor diminish with inverse proportionality to the increasing expectation of remuneration? But no matter how gracious the giver is--no matter how clearly the gift is given with no strings attached--we feel the need to reciprocate.

Jesus says to the host of the dinner party, "Since no one can completely sever the ties of social obligation, quit inviting people who have the capacity to pay you back. If you want to model the kingdom, only invite people who could never even begin to repay your kindness."

Isn't that the heart of the gospel? The kingdom of God is like a banquet to which the dregs of society are invited--those who have no hope of repaying the host. The invitation is offered with no strings attached. The people are urged simply to come and celebrate. The end. Isn't that what the gospel is all about?

This Sunday, consider the rather unparabolic "parable" of the dinner host as a teaching not for earthly gatherings but as an image of the heavenly one. As if to make this point clear, the next words out of Jesus mouth are a genuine parable about a wedding banquet attended only by society's outcasts. Although there are present-day implications for this exchange, Jesus' words have more to do with God's kingdom than they do with Thanksgiving dinner. Yes, change the way you entertain guests so that everyone can be invited, but don't lose sight of the no-strings-attached teaching about the kingdom of God.

Watching but Blind

What an ominous start to Sunday's gospel lesson (Luke 14:1, 7-14): "On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely." The "they" seems to be "the lawyers and the Pharisees" of Luke 14:3. That they were watching him closely changes the dynamic of this dinner party. Like a man who tells his daughter's date, "I'll be going to the same move, and I'll be watching you closely," this is Luke's way of telling us that every act and word of Jesus was under scrutiny. In the lectionary, we skip over the healing of the man with dropsy--the second sabbath healing in a row--but that attitude of close watching is still behind these two table teachings of Jesus.

They were watching him closely, and he responded by pointing out the failures that they themselves could not see. "When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable." The implicit accusation is that they were so worried about Jesus' abrogation of the sabbath restrictions that they failed to see how their seating preferences conflicted with the principles of the kingdom. Before the supper was over, Jesus said to his Pharisee host, "When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid." The Pharisees and lawyers who were at the dinner were the sort of company who would be expected to return the favor, and Jesus was shifting his host's focus away from earthly issues to heavenly ones. It's as if Jesus were saying to them, "Your obsession with earthly transgressions has distracted you from what's really important."

What about today's church? Surely those of us who take our seats in rector's offices, vestry meetings, diocesan conventions, meetings of Executive Council, and General Convention are more like the lawyers and Pharisees of Jesus' day than the poor, crippled, lame, and blind guests he urges us to invite to our table. Where is our focus? We're pretty good at talking about inclusion and radical hospitality, but is that our focus? How much of our time do we spend talking about, planning for, and legislating the preservation of the institutional church, and how much of it do we spend making sure our churches are full of society's outcasts? Do we care more about buildings and burses or buskers and broken hearts? Do we care more about who is allowed to be married in the church or who needs the saving love of Jesus Christ? We've spent a great deal of time and effort and money legislating our way toward a more inclusive church, and I've been a part of that. This gospel lesson reminds me that there's a danger in confusing earthly and heavenly concerns. Like the Pharisees and lawyers, we think that having the right rules here on earth is what gest us closer to heaven, when, in fact, it's suspending the rules that makes our fellowship look more like kingdom fellowship.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Serving Others Isn't Easy

A few weeks ago, fitness guru Ogie Shaw came to our Rotary Club to talk about his plan for ending the obesity epidemic in our nation. Perhaps you've seen his TED talk. He said several interesting things, but my favorite thing that he said is this: the biggest mistake fitness instructors have made in the last few decades is to convince you that exercise is supposed to be fun. It's not. If you're having fun exercising, then you're not doing it right.

Our Monday-morning bible study is reading Kee Sloan's book Jabbok, and there's a part in the book in which a wise old man shares his perspective on the Christian faith with a senior class of seminarians. Jake, a retired black tent preacher, has been challenged by a curmudgeonly seminary professor to teach his students what really matters in ministry. In response, he delivers a sermon about the centrality of God's love, in which he sums up his wisdom with a long list of proverbs, including one that I particularly enjoyed: "If you ain't joyful being a Christian, you ain't doing it right."

The gospel lesson appointed for the feast of St. Bartholomew (Luke 22:24-30) is a familiar passage in which Jesus confronts the disciples about who is the greatest. We know the story. They were arguing among themselves about which one of them was the greatest, and Jesus responds by telling them that "the greatest must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves." I think we've become so familiar with Jesus' servant-leadership model that we've forgotten what it's really about. I think a second look at this passage--and at the nature of Christian discipleship--teaches us that, if being a Christ-like servant isn't hard, dirty, exhausting work, then we're not doing it right.

The phrase in the gospel lesson that stuck out to me this morning is Jesus' response to his own rhetorical question. He says to the disciples, "For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves." Who is greater? We all know where this is headed. We know what the "right" answer will be before Jesus even finishes asking the question. Jesus is a servant, and we're supposed to be servants, too. Because of that, I have a tendency to jump over the intervening statement, but I think it's worth pausing long enough to embrace the counter-cultural reality that Jesus' servant ministry represents. Who is the greatest? It's the one at the table. It's the one who sits and enjoys a fine meal with his friends. It's the one who places the order, waits for the meal to be delivered, asks for more wine, enjoys the food, and then pays the bill before leaving to go on to whatever evening activities await him. The servant has to stay behind and clean up the mess. Who is greater? There really isn't any doubt. There's not supposed to be.

But Jesus doesn't sit in that place. He is among us as one who serves. Unfortunately, the exalted status with which we hold Jesus makes it hard to remember the basic, simple, nitty-gritty nature of servant ministry. When following Jesus, it's a lot more fun to pursue the resurrected, triumphant king than the table servant. We cloak ourselves in mock-humility because we know what the ultimate outcome will be--a seat at the banquet table. But using servant ministry as a way to follow the victorious Jesus into God's kingdom is a lot like clamoring for the seats at his right hand and at his left.

I don't really know what you're supposed to call a step-cousin, but I didn't like mine very much. After my father's mother died, my grandfather remarried. His wife became my grandmother, and eventually her daughter-in-law gave birth to a boy a year or two younger than me. We didn't spend much time together, but, when we did, we were competing for our grandmother's affection. We raced to see who would open the door for her. We bumped each other out of the way to see who would help her with her chair. We fought for the opportunity to set the table and take out the garbage. Neither of us really wanted to be helpful, but we did it to win her esteem.

These days, service work is the cool thing to do. Servant leadership is a popular philosophy taught in management courses and leadership seminars. If you want to get into a prestigious college, you need to have some service work on your resume, and, if you want to be revered as a top executive, you'd better figure out how to show your shareholders that you have a servant's heart. But Jesus didn't come to transform servanthood, somehow making it chic and glamorous. He didn't give his life for the world so that executives could climb the corporate ladder until they ascended to a corner-office throne room. In the incarnation, he gave up his position and status as Son of God to become a slave to the whole world, and he did it to show us who God really is--the one who gives all he has for the sake of the other. God's nature is to care for the needs of the world. Paradoxically speaking, God's nature is to be servant of all.

Following in the footsteps of Jesus isn't simply a journey towards paradise. It's a path that leads to the recovery of our true nature. There is a banquet table prepared for us in heaven, but our servanthood is more than a means to an end. Jesus shows us that our true place is not at the table but as the servant of others. We are baptized into his death and sacrifice not so that we can be transported instantaneously into heaven but so that we might die to the world--yield all we have in the service of others just as Jesus did. This is where we belong.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Hiding Money

This post originally appeared in the parish newsletter for St. John's in Decatur, Alabama. To read the rest of the newsletter and learn about St. John's, click here.

Whether I intend it or not, my attitude toward money is teaching my children something about God. Perhaps I should consider what lessons I want it to teach them.

Like most of you, I grew up in a middle-class family that didn’t talk about money. If I ever asked how much my father made, the response was, “That’s private, and it’s rude to talk about it.” Of course, that didn’t stop me from getting into playground arguments over whose parents made more money. Likewise, if I ever asked how much our house cost, my parents would say, “That’s none of your business, and it’s rude to talk about it.” I could tell that we lived in a nice house, but, for some unknown reason, quantifying that niceness was a social taboo. Most of my parent’s finances were hidden from my brothers and me, but occasionally they would share with us that the monthly utility bill was “a whopping $300” and that we all needed to do a better job of turning off the lights. I recall a stretch when my father was in between jobs, forcing us to cut back, but, except for a general admonition about the importance of frugality in lean times, the burden of that curtailment was kept from the children.

There was one financial practice, however, that wasn’t hidden from us. Once a month in church, my father would take out his checkbook, write a check for our family’s monthly pledge, and then fold it and hand it to one of us to put in the alms basin. How exhilarating it was to be invited into this act of private devotion! I remember feeling a sense of pride and a protective instinct that was awakened within me because I had been trusted with this piece of confidential financial information. Uncharacteristically, my father didn’t forbid us from taking a peek at the amount, which, to a boy with no appreciation for finances beyond a $3 weekly allowance, seemed staggering. Enthralled by its relative magnitude, I pinched the piece of paper tightly between my fingers lest anyone else should see what was written on it.

As a clergyperson, I don’t sit with my kids in church. Even if I did, we pay our pledge electronically, so there wouldn’t be anything to show them. How, therefore, might Elizabeth and I teach them the value of giving money away? How will we show them what it means to be rich toward God? Elizabeth could hand each of them a dollar bill to put in the plate, but would that instill within them the spirit of trusting deeply in God’s provision? We aren’t great at remembering to give them an allowance, so asking them to give a tenth of it away isn’t going to work either. We often encourage them to share, to be generous, and to use their time to help others, but emphasizing the “time and talent” approach to stewardship almost always obscures the exclusively treasure-focused moment of bringing our offerings to God when the ushers pass the plate down the pew. What can we do to teach our children what it means to give a significant portion of what God has given us back to God through a sacrificial, proportional, first-fruits offering?

If we want our children to know what Jesus meant when he said, “Don’t worry about your life, what you’ll eat or what you’ll drink, or about your body, what you’ll wear” (Matt. 6:25 CEB), we need to start talking about money. Unfortunately, our silence is teaching them the wrong lesson. I like clipping coupons and prefer to keep our thermostat at a modest setting. We rarely eat out, and I enjoy shopping at thrift stores. And I admit that I am likely to wave a midsummer utility bill in the air as I walk around the house, turning off lamps and calling for even less air conditioning. But I don’t do those things because I am worried that we will not have enough. I do them because that’s how I value money as a gift that’s been entrusted to me. That’s how I express my stewardship of God’s blessings. And the practice of financial stewardship—sacrificial, proportional, first-fruits giving—has given me an attitude of abundance instead of scarcity, of faithfulness instead of fear.

That’s the attitude I want my children to know, which is why Elizabeth and I need to talk with them about our money—specifically how much we are given and how much of it we give away. I want them to know that by global standards we are rich—in the top 0.06% of the world’s population[1]—and I want them to know that we don’t take those blessings for granted. I want them to see that we give 13% of our income back to God and that we do it joyfully because that practice helps us learn to depend even more fully on God. This fall, when it’s time to fill out a pledge card, I hope everyone in my family will be involved so that we might all grow together in our appreciation of God’s blessings and our confidence in his provision.

What about you? What does your attitude toward money say about your relationship with God? How do your spending and saving proclaim your faith that God will always provide? How does the transaction history in your bank account reflect your belief that God is the source of all your blessings? You might be a coupon-clipper, or you might be a spendthrift, but, either way, you can still use your money to build your faith. Whether we like it or not, our attitude toward money says something about our faith in God. Maybe we should all be more intentional about what beliefs it communicates.

[1] To calculate your place in the Global Rich List, check out

Good Advice or God's Advice?

Luke seems to mislead us in his description of the dinner exchange we will read in this Sunday's gospel lesson (Luke 14:1, 7-14). He tells us, "When [Jesus] noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable," but the words that follow aren't really parabolic. There just good advice. "When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host..." Can you imagine how embarrassing it would be for the host to say to you, "I'm sorry, but you'll need to move down the table; I've reserved this seat for so-and-so?"

I must confess that this dinner-table advice sticks with me. Whenever I go to someone's house for dinner, I look for the seat of least prominence. Partly, that's because I want to be able to slip out early without anyone noticing, but it's also because of Jesus' advice. I don't really expect anyone to tell me to move to a place of lower status, but I certainly don't want people thinking to themselves, "Oh, look where the preacher is sitting. Who does he think he is?" In fact, this strategy often produces the result Jesus anticipates: a host saying, "No, no, don't sit in the corner; sit over here!" Good advice, Jesus. Thanks.

The only problem is that I've missed the point. And the second half of the gospel lesson makes that clear.

Jesus said, "When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous." Now that's just silly, Jesus. Who would ever do that?

I'm still not convinced that this is a parable, but, when you hold these two pieces of dinner-time instruction together, you get a counter-intuitive, parable-like teaching. In truth, it's pretty silly to give up completely dinner parties with friends and family so that you can invite the poor, crippled, lame, and blind. At one level, I think Jesus means this literally. I do think he means that we're supposed to make room at our table for those whom society has left behind. But I also think this second part of the teaching is supposed to drive home the point that Jesus isn't just offering good advice but a teaching about the kingdom.

I choose the lowest seat because it feels good to be humble, and it's nice to be rewarded for my humility. (If you can't tell that's a self-righteous trap, trust me: it is.) But that's not why Jesus urges me to take the lower seat. The earthly benefit is only the introduction. There's a kingdom benefit that Jesus points us to. Take the lowest seat because that's where we find the kingdom--not when the host says, "Move up higher," but when God sees that we've made room for others at the table. Unless we actively participate in the reordering of society--from top to bottom, from rich to poor--we aren't taking part in the kingdom.

Jesus is using the familiar setting of a dinner party to get this point across. Everyone knows not to take the seat of prominence unless it's clear the host wants you there. You don't need Jesus to tell you that. But what Jesus does show us is that our place is on the fringe so that the fringe of society can find a seat at the table. We take the lowest seat as an act of our faith. We abandon any claim we have to power and position because we know that our earthly status doesn't matter the table in God's kingdom. In fact, we recognize that our claim to earthly power actually stands in the way of the fulfillment of God's kingdom. And so we take the lowest seat. And we throw a dinner party for poor strangers. That's God's advice for life in the kingdom.

Monday, August 22, 2016

We Are Set Free

August 21, 2016 – The 14th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 16C
© 2016 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
When is a fever just a fever, and when is it something more? Back in seminary, we had prayer teams that were available during the weekly college Eucharist. Pairs of students and faculty would stand together in the corners of the chapel, ready to offer prayers of healing for anyone who came forward. We were trained on how to do things like keep our eyes open in case the person we were praying for began to fall or pass out. We practiced praying together as a team so that one person could open the prayer and the other person pick up seamlessly where the first one left off. We were told where to place our hands and how firmly or gently to touch the person who had asked for prayer. But the one thing we were never taught was when to say, “You know, prayer is a powerful thing, but I think you might need to see a doctor or a therapist.”

Sometimes a fever is just a fever. Prayer, I’m sure, helps, but for strep throat or a sinus infection, antibiotics are probably the way to go. The bible is full of miraculous healings, but a modern patient would rightly be skeptical of a doctor who reached for the Good Book instead of a prescription pad. For some, the stories of Jesus’ exorcisms are more offensive than they are amazing because they label what was probably epilepsy or a similar disorder as a demonic possession. Granted, the end result was the same—healing and wholeness—but surely it would be a mistake to describe someone with a seizure disorder as being possessed by the devil.

What about the woman in today’s gospel lesson? Luke tells us that this bent-over woman had suffered from a crippling spirit for eighteen years. Later on in the story, Jesus himself describes this “daughter of Abraham” as having been bound by Satan for those eighteen long years. What was really wrong with her? Was it a spiritual possession, or was it a spinal deformity like scoliosis or Scheuermann’s Kyphosis? Maybe it was an autoimmune disease or the result of ankylosing spondylitis. In general, it is offensive to say that someone with a medical diagnosis needs a spiritual solution because it assumes that their faith is broken when, in fact, something is wrong with their body. Sometimes a fever is just a fever, but, then again, sometimes it’s not. Sometimes a spiritual malady manifests itself in physical ways. And, in this case, regardless of what a twenty-first-century physician would say about this woman’s condition, this gospel lesson isn’t about a physical infirmity. It’s about a spiritual assault that has so consumed this woman that her entire life has been bent down toward the ground.  

There are two keys in this story that let us know what is really going on. For starters, the way Luke describes the woman’s healing shows us the true nature of her ailment: “When [Jesus] laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.” She didn’t fall on her knees and thank Jesus the way that many of his patients did. She didn’t run home to show her husband or children or neighbors what God had done for her. Instead, she immediately stood up straight and began praising God right there on the spot. For what it’s worth, the verb that’s translated “began praising” God is in the imperfect tense, which means that she started something that she didn’t finish—a praising God that could not stop. This crippling spirit—and we’ll get to the source of that spirit in a minute—was the one thing that was keeping this woman from doing the thing that God had created her to do: to praise her maker with all her heart.

The other key to understanding the nature of the woman’s ailment is what comes next: “But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.’” Can you see that man? Can you hear his voice? Can you hear the fear behind those words? Can you hear how he is grasping desperately for the power that is slipping through his fingers—clutching for control of the congregation before Jesus completely takes it away? Notice that he doesn’t direct his criticism at the one who has healed the woman. Instead, he appeals directly to the crowd, but it isn’t working. They don’t need a religious leader to tell them what God wants. They’ve seen God’s will unfold before them in a miraculous way. And no appeal to a religious law book will persuade them to reject what they had seen.

But, before the crowd could respond, Jesus interrupted and took it a step further. You see, the word that the leader of the synagogue had used to reiterate the importance of keeping the sabbath was a word that means “binding.” That’s hardly a coincidence. “It is binding that work should only be done on six days,” the leader said to them. “Come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” But Jesus took those words and used them against him. “Binding? You hypocrites want to talk about binding? Doesn’t each one of you untie your ox or your donkey on the sabbath and lead it to water? Isn’t it binding, therefore, that this daughter of Abraham, whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?”

With that retort, Jesus revealed the real source of the woman’s oppression. It wasn’t a demonic spirit that had plagued her but the inflexible legalism of the religious authorities. They had become so focused on defining who was and wasn’t good enough to receive God’s blessing that they had used the rules of their religion to keep her tied up and weighed down and bent over, when, in fact, those same rules had been designed by God to set his people free. Refraining from work on the sabbath was originally a gift that would enable God’s people to praise the one who had created them, but, over the centuries, the authorities had used that law to reinforce their standing until not even a crippled woman was able to find the healing that would set her free. The difficult truth about human nature is that it’s easier to tell a bent-over woman who shuffles from place to place why she can’t have God’s healing than it is to see behind the rules and give her what she really needs.

What’s it like to hear the world tell you over and over that you’re not good enough? What does it do to your emotional state to hear people say more times than you can count that you don’t belong? What happens when God’s representatives declare that you aren’t good enough to receive God’s love? Do you think that might crush your spirit? Do you think that would wound your soul? Do you think that might weigh down your heart and mind and spirit until your whole countenance is bent down toward the ground? Then, when people see you, they can tell that something’s wrong. Even without knowing anything about you, they begin to treat you as if you don’t matter, as if you have less worth, as if you are untouchable. And why? Because the people who have the authority and power and control reinforce their authority when, in the name of God, they withhold their esteem from those who don’t measure up. But that isn’t God’s work. It’s Satan’s work. It is the oppressive work of the Evil One to say to someone, “You aren’t good enough for God’s love.”

Jesus came to undo all of that. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a woman who was trudging along, bent over toward the ground. And he called her over, bringing her right into the middle of the assembly, into the place of power. And he used the power and privilege that he had been given as a man, as a rabbi, and as the Son of God to give this woman what had been taken away from her—her dignity. He laid his hands on her and declared, “You are set free!” And immediately she stood up right in the spot where she didn’t belong and began praising God. Who would get in the way of that? Who would dare stand in between this woman and her rightful place at center stage, where she stood in the spotlight to praise God? Who would say that she is wrong?

For too long, voices of power have used the name of God to say to those on the fringe of society, “You’re not good enough to be here. You’re not good enough to receive God’s blessing. Move along.” We may not appeal to sabbath regulations, but we make up our own religious rules of discrimination. We tell people that they don’t belong because of their gender, their ancestry, their accent, their disability, or their sexuality. We pronounce judgment against people because their marriage fell apart, because their business folded, or because their house is in foreclosure. We turn our backs on people who have a criminal record or who suffer from addiction. We do it because it’s easier to believe that we’re good enough for God’s love when we convince ourselves that they aren’t. We do it because the voice of doubt—the devil’s voice—whispers to us, telling us that we aren’t good enough either. And, if we can find a way to convince ourselves that at least we’re better than the anonymous reprobate that shuffles past, then maybe there’s hope for us.
But Jesus has something else in mind. In the incarnation of Christ, God gives up all of his power, all of his control, and all of his holiness to become a human being so that he can declare once and for all that we are all good enough to receive his love. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God takes all of us by the hand and brings us out of the shadows and into the spotlight where we hear him say, “You are set free!” There is no one whom God does not love. There is no one upon whom God does not shower his blessings. So stand up straight, and make room for those whom Satan has kept down for too long. Jesus has set them free. He has set all of us free. And for that we stand up and give thanks and praise to God.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Untying Greek Knots

I have made it a practice never to appeal explicitly to the Greek text during a sermon. Before I was ordained, I remember rolling my eyes at the preachers who seemed to care more about impressing the congregation with their intellectual prowess than preaching a good sermon. That and the use of the word "pericope" were enough to make me walk out in the middle of the service. I'm preaching this week and, like every week, although I won't talk about the Greek words behind Sunday's gospel lesson (Luke 13:10-17), I will use them to help me understand the passage a little better, and this gospel lesson has me all tied in knots...and then untied again.

The translation that the NRSV uses gives us a surface appreciation of the role of binding a loosing in this text. "Woman, you are set free from your ailment," Jesus proclaims as he heals the bent-over woman. Later on, when refuting the synagogue leader's objection to Jesus' Sabbath healing, he says, "Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger...And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?" In those few verses, we see multiple references to being bound and set free. But a look at the Greek text shows that these images run much, much deeper through this passage.

For starters, the word that is translated "set free" is "ἀπολέλυσαι" which is the 2nd-person singular perfect indicative passive form of the verb "ἀπολύω" which means "I set free" and itself is a construction of the verb "λύω" which means "I loose" or "I untie" and is also the first verb I ever learned in Greek. At its core, what Jesus does to the woman is untie her, loose her, unbind her from this affliction. (Since it's the passive voice, it is perhaps better to say that what Jesus does is pronounce her untied or loosed, but you get the point.)

But there's more. When the leader of the synagogue objects, he says, "There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day." But within his objection is hidden another attempt at binding. The word translated as "ought" is the Greek word "δεῖ," which is the 3rd-person singular present indicative active form of the verb "δέω" which means "I bind." That's how something obligatory is rendered in Greek--as being binding. The synagogue leader, therefore, makes the case against himself by saying, "There are six days upon which it is binding for work to be done." That's an awkward translation, and we're all grateful for the NRSV making it simpler and more straightforward, but the preacher shouldn't miss the fact that the same binding that has happened to the woman in her ailment is the binding that the synagogue leader would impose upon the congregation. They are all bound--tied up--by the prioritization of legalistic demands.

This shows up a third time when Jesus says, "And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?" Using the same word "δεῖ," Jesus is essentially saying, "Isn't it binding that this woman whom Satan bound be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day? It's a head-spinner, yes, but it's also the heart of the Christian faith.

That's the question being presented by this passage: what's binding? Is it sabbath observances? Is it the command to help someone in need? Is it tradition? Is it the rejection of tradition? What is binding for us? Which bonds--which knots--will keep us tied up? To what are we chained? What is restricting us? And how has Jesus come to set us free?

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Daughter of Abraham

I've never been to a church where women had to cover their heads out of modesty--a strong and peculiar interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11:5ff. Some of the churches where I have worked and worshipped had that practice in their history, and I've seen photos from the 1940s of women in the choir with bobby-pinned lacey circular doilies on the tops of their heads. I've never been to a worship service in which men and women were expected to sit on different sides of the congregation, separated by a modesty screen, but I've heard of Conservative Jewish synagogues where that practice continues. I've never been a part of a church that refused to let women speak in the congregation because, of course, St. Paul prohibits such unruly behavior, but I have been--and still am--a part of a church that spent many decades excluding women from positions of leadership because of their gender. On Sunday we will hear a story (Luke 13:10-17) in which Jesus brings a woman from the outskirts of society and places her in the middle of the congregation so that she can rightly praise God, and I think it would be a mistake to miss this gender-barrier-shattering spirit behind his gesture.

One could read this gospel lesson and miss the necessity of the gender confrontation because Jesus never says, "Come on, guys: she has as much a place among us as any of the men does." But Luke records this as a story of clear and direct confrontation over the issue of gender--not exclusively but clearly. Notice how the miracle encounter unfolds. Where is the woman at the start of the story? "Just then there appeared a woman..." She came into Jesus' field of vision. Perhaps she wandered into the back of the room. Maybe Jesus saw her as she was passing by on the road outside the synagogue. But one thing is certain: she was not in the middle of the congregation. She wasn't inside the group. She was where any woman would be in a first-century synagogue: sitting in the back, off to the side, behind the men.

And how does the action get started? "When he saw her, Jesus called her over..." Jesus was teaching in the synagogue. He was up front. He was in the center of the room, where the power of the system was focused and located. Jesus didn't step outside the center in order to heal the woman. He called her over. He put her in the middle. He brought her into the place where everyone in the congregation--particularly the men--could focus on her and watch what Jesus would give to her.

And what is the woman's response to the healing? "Immediately, she stood up straight and began praising God." She's doing what God made each of us to do--to glorify him and his name. But she hasn't been able to do this in her proper place. Her gaze has been cast down at the ground. She was unable to raise up her body and face and focus to heaven. Literally, she had been bent over by a spirit of oppression--one that kept her out of her rightful place. Now that that has been restored--both in the physical healing of the woman and also in the restoration of justice in the synagogue's system of power--she is able to accomplish what she was made to be.

Sure, on the surface, this is a story about a Sabbath controversy. But can anyone read this encounter carefully and fail to see that the Sabbath has very little to do with it? As soon as the woman begins praising God, the leader of the synagogue objects. But he focuses his attention not on Jesus, the culprit of the Sabbath healing he is complaining about, but on the congregation--the crowd who is upsetting the proper order of things. Jesus responds by singling both parties out: the hypocrites who have denied this woman the true healing she needed and the woman herself, calling her "a daughter of Abraham." That's a curious title--one that takes the familiar phrase "son of Abraham" and with one word transforms it from an expression of patriarchy into one of anti-patriarch. In one moment of address, all of the inherited identity that the "sons of Abraham" would esteem for themselves has been stripped of those who clutched it and redistributed to those who have been denied it.

Don't miss the chance to celebrate the "neither male nor female" quality of this synagogue encounter. After Jesus did it and Paul wrote it, the church forgot about it. We ignored and stifled the empowerment of all God's people regardless of gender for centuries. That's the kingdom of God that unfolds in Luke 13. Don't miss the opportunity to proclaim it.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Expecting Failure

This post is also an article in this week's newsletter for St. John's, Decatur. To read the rest of the newsletter and see what's happening at St. John's, click here.

I noticed a while back that no one asks me whether our thirteen-month-old is sleeping through the night. During the first six months of her life, however, that seemed to be everyone’s favorite question. Perhaps it was because of my bleary-eyed vision or sleep-deprived prejudice, but I could have sworn that every single person who asked me that question had a mischievous smile on his or her face. It was as if they took pleasure in asking a question to which they knew the unspoken reply would be, “What do the bags under my eyes tell you?” while the answer they heard me give was a half-hearted “She’s sleeping like an angel!”

Now that she’s over a year old and is finally sleeping through the night (most of the time), people have stopped giving me the chance to tell them the good news, and I wonder why. Is it because there’s no fun in asking the question when the expected reply gives no sign of sleepless torture? Do people get no pleasure when the answer is a genuine, “Yes, and I thank God every night for it!” Or have people stopped asking because they are worried that the answer will still be a “no” and that a parent who hasn’t slept well in over a year might not be able to hold back their verbal or physical tirade? Either way, it is a lesson for me in the fruitlessness of expectations.

Occasionally I’ll write or say something in an exaggerated or hyperbolic way to make a point. This time, as extreme as it may seem, I mean every word: expectations are always wrong. And I don’t just mean the expectations that are foisted upon new parents or that those parents place upon themselves. I mean all expectations. All of them. They’re all bad. None of them is life-giving. They always rob us of hope and grace and love.

As Seth has said on numerous occasions, “Expectations are just disappointments waiting to happen.” I couldn’t say it any better. Isn’t that true in your own life? Aren’t you dragging behind you an ever-growing chain of unmet expectations, which you and those who make demands on you have been forging link by link? Birthday cupcakes that you didn’t have time to bake yourself. Twenty pounds that you’ve been trying to lose for five years. The promotion that you knew would be yours until it wasn’t. The earnings report that showed another year of decline. The sermon that could have been better. The pastoral visit that should have happened sooner.

Goals are good, and we need them to grow. I want to be a better preacher. I want to be more patient. I want to love others more fully. But expectations are the shadow side of goals. If only I were a better preacher… If only I were a more patient father… If only I were less selfish… If what? The church would grow? My family would be happier? The world would be a better place? No, not at all. That’s an illusion we project for ourselves. Life shows us that expectations don’t lead to progress. In truth, they lead to anxiety, frustration, and despair.

Most religions I know have an element of expectation imbedded within them. In fact, most expressions of Christianity are built on expectations, too. If you live a good life, you’ll be rewarded in the next. If you say your prayers, God will hear you. If you go to church, good things will happen to you. The problem, of course, is that God doesn’t work like that. And thanks be to God that God doesn’t. Who could ever satisfy the expectations that God would place upon us? The gospel of grace is the chain-cutter that sets us free from the burden of expectations. In Jesus Christ, God declares to us, “I love you unconditionally—with no expectations whatsoever.”

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul wrote, “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.” Paul’s list of accomplishments is a CV that any religious leader would envy, yet he counted it all not only as meaningless but actually as “loss.” In Greek, the word for “loss” is “ζημία,” and it also means “damage.” Now that he knew the freeing power of the gospel of Christ, Paul saw this lifelong pattern of expectation and fulfillment as damaging to his faith. Like the rest of us, Paul knew the crushing weight of expectations. He knew that expectations are what keep us from being the free, joyful, empowered children that God has created us to be.

It’s hard dragging every failure along with you wherever you go. They weigh us down until we cannot stand up anymore. Love is the antidote—real love, the kind with no strings attached. Remember that you are loved like that—that God’s love has set you free. Try going through a whole day without accepting any expectations or placing them upon someone else. Try love instead. Try admitting to yourself that you are just as fully loved no matter what happens. And try telling other people around you—your children, your spouse, your friends, and your coworkers—that you will love them just the same even when they come up short. When someone hands you another link for your chain, give it back. Tell that person you already have enough weight to carry. And experience again the liberating power of the gospel of Jesus. In every way that matters, you have been set free.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Not Just a Sabbath Healing

For three whole years, I look forward to this Sunday--Proper 16C. This week's gospel lesson, Luke 13:10-17, contains my favorite miracle story in the bible. I love the healing of the bent-over woman. If I allow myself to engage the story fully, I cannot read it without a tear coming to my eye. Of all of Jesus' healing encounters, this one hits me the hardest because it's much more than a Sabbath healing. It's a story of a woman whose religious community had held her down and whom Jesus set free. Her literal, physical straightening up is the manifestation of her dignity restored in Christ. There's something about the denial of someone's basic humanity that fills me with anger, and this story--the giving back of a woman's full humanity--is a reason for me to celebrate.

Look at the language Luke associates with the woman's affliction. She had "a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years." This caused her to live each day "bent over," and she "was quite unable to stand up straight." After healing her, Jesus calls her "a  daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years," and he describes her healing as "be[ing] set free from this bondage."

And notice how Luke depicts the tension in the story. Jesus' primary opponent is the leader of the synagogue, who is "indignant because Jesus had cured on the Sabbath." He spoke not to Jesus, who was the visiting rabbi in his synagogue, but to the congregation: "There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured." When Jesus responds, it isn't only to the leader but also to the other local religious authorities whom he represents: "You hypocrites!"

Finally, don't miss the way Luke articulates the woman's healing. When Jesus laid hands on her, "immediately she stood up straight and began praising God." And, as previously noted, Jesus labels this healing a form of being set free from Satan's bondage.

This isn't just a Sabbath story, but it is a Sabbath story. The woman is bent over by an oppressive spirit, and Jesus sets her free so that she can resume her proper God-designed place in society as one who praises God. And what is the spirit that bends her over and keeps her down? What is the spirit from which Jesus sets her free? Is it not the oppression of the synagogue leader and those he represents? How foolish it is for him to claim that the woman could come back on any of the other six days for healing! She's been suffering from this oppressive ailment for eighteen years. Waiting even another day would itself be a tightening of the chains that have bound her this long. No, this isn't a story that merely tosses aside Sabbath observance, but it is one that attacks those who use the rules of religion to keep people in their place.

This is a story about healing from religious oppression. It's a story about setting people free from the harm that religion has done. It's about reconciliation for the divorced. It's about the inclusion of the bankrupt. It's about the admission of the addict and the embrace of the mentally ill. It's about saying that nobody's perfect and that sinners are welcome. It's about Jesus coming to prioritize healing and wholeness and welcome over religiosity and regulations and restrictions. Isn't that the gospel we want to preach?

Thursday, August 11, 2016

The Kingdom Forecast

Everyone I know fancies him or herself as a bit of a weatherperson. Each morning in our house, there is talk of what the weather will do that day. If the wind picks up and the sky begins to darken, I'll remind everyone in the office to be sure that their car windows are up. We look ahead at the 10-day forecast and begin to wonder whether the parish picnic might be rained out, debating amongst ourselves (and our various apps) whether we should make alternate arrangements. In one way or another, all of us make and change our plans based on what the weather might do. So why, Jesus asks in Luke 12, aren't we willing to make and change our life's plans based on what God's kingdom is doing?

Whoever reads the gospel lesson in church on Sunday has a considerable opportunity to shade the meaning of the lesson with the tone in her or his voice. Will we hear an exasperated Jesus say tersely, "You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?" Or will he be forlorn? Or will he be genuinely inquisitive? I'm not sure which one it is, but I am sure that Jesus is asking us to pay at least as much attention to the coming of God's kingdom as he is to the next cold front moving through.

Think of all that had happened in Jesus' ministry. Think of John the Baptist's proclamations, the miraculous healings, the remarkable exorcisms, the controversial teachings, the perplexing stories, the questionable associations, the growing crowds, and the conflict with authorities. Go read Luke 1-12 and imagine all the things that Jesus had said and done that were not written down. Could you really encounter all of that and then say to yourself, "So what?"

But that's exactly what Jesus was getting from the people, and, to a great extent, that's exactly what he's getting from us. "So what?" we ask. "It's been 2000 years. Jesus isn't coming back tomorrow. That isn't in my 10-day forecast. I'll say my prayers and go to church and carry on with life as usual." And Jesus looks at us and says, "If you know how to plan your life around the weather forecast, why won't you plan your life around the signs of the kingdom?"

The kingdom of God is like moving to Alabama. You have to choose. You may not want to choose, but no one cares. If you don't choose, they will choose for you and tell you whether you're an Auburn fan or an Alabama fan. I'm not joking. It's that serious. You may try to eschew the labeling that they want you to undergo, but you cannot escape. Life in Alabama revolves around football. Weddings, church events, family trips, school assignments, preaching schedules--they all revolve around football. There is no middle way. You cannot escape it.

That's the kingdom that Jesus knows. He knows that there's no avoiding it. It's all encompassing. It affects everyone and everything. It demands our full participation or our full rejection. And it's here. All the signs he's brought show us that it's here. But we're just going on with our plans as if it doesn't really matter. The wind is blowing and the sky is darkening and the thunder is rumbling, but we're leaving our windows down because we don't care. No wonder Jesus is upset.

The Kingdom Forecast

Everyone I know fancies him or herself as a bit of a weatherperson. Each morning in our house, there is talk of what the weather will do that day. If the wind picks up and the sky begins to darken, I'll remind everyone in the office to be sure that their car windows are up. We look ahead at the 10-day forecast and begin to wonder whether the parish picnic might be rained out, debating amongst ourselves (and our various apps) whether we should make alternate arrangements. In one way or another, all of us make and change our plans based on what the weather might do. So why, Jesus asks in Luke 12, aren't we willing to make and change our life's plans based on what God's kingdom is doing?

Whoever reads the gospel lesson in church on Sunday has a considerable opportunity to shade the meaning of the lesson with the tone in her or his voice. Will we hear an exasperated Jesus say tersely, "You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?" Or will he be forlorn? Or will he be genuinely inquisitive? I'm not sure which one it is, but I am sure that Jesus is asking us to pay at least as much attention to the coming of God's kingdom as he is to the next cold front moving through.

Think of all that had happened in Jesus' ministry. Think of John the Baptist's proclamations, the miraculous healings, the remarkable exorcisms, the controversial teachings, the perplexing stories, the questionable associations, the growing crowds, and the conflict with authorities. Go read Luke 1-12 and imagine all the things that Jesus had said and done that were not written down. Could you really encounter all of that and then say to yourself, "So what?"

But that's exactly what Jesus was getting from the people, and, to a great extent, that's exactly what he's getting from us. "So what?" we ask. "It's been 2000 years. Jesus isn't coming back tomorrow. That isn't in my 10-day forecast. I'll say my prayers and go to church and carry on with life as usual." And Jesus looks at us and says, "If you know how to plan your life around the weather forecast, why won't you plan your life around the signs of the kingdom?"

The kingdom of God is like moving to Alabama. You have to choose. You may not want to choose, but no one cares. If you don't choose, they will choose for you and tell you whether you're an Auburn fan or an Alabama fan. I'm not joking. It's that serious. You may try to eschew the labeling that they want you to undergo, but you cannot escape. Life in Alabama revolves around football. Weddings, church events, family trips, school assignments, preaching schedules--they all revolve around football. There is no middle way. You cannot escape it.

That's the kingdom that Jesus knows. He knows that there's no avoiding it. It's all encompassing. It affects everyone and everything. It demands our full participation or our full rejection. And it's here. All the signs he's brought show us that it's here. But we're just going on with our plans as if it doesn't really matter. The wind is blowing and the sky is darkening and the thunder is rumbling, but we're leaving our windows down because we don't care. No wonder Jesus is upset.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

A Cheerful Sacrifice

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

What does it mean to know so deeply that you are loved and cared for by God that you would willingly and eagerly sacrifice everything in God's service?

Today we remember St. Laurence, one of seven deacons who were martyred along with Pope Sixtus II during the persecution under Emperor Valerian in 258. As the story goes, the eight Christians were hiding in the catacombs when they were discovered by the Roman authorities. The first seven were martyred together, but Laurence was left for additional questioning. He was responsible for distributing the resources of the church to the poor, the widows, and the elderly, and the Romans, who had been seizing all property and treasure owned by the church, wanted to know where the stash was hidden. Reportedly, Laurence assembled a group of those the church had been helping and said, "Here is the treasure of the church." So angry was his interrogator, that Laurence was brutally executed, roasted alive on a gridiron. Legend has it that, after burning for a while, Laurence cried out to his executioners, "I'm well done on this side. Turn me over!" (see Wikipedia). Because of that, he's the patron saint of cooks and chefs.

I'm not looking for the opportunity to be roasted alive for the sake of the gospel, but I do search for that peace and confidence of faith that would enable me to cheerfully give myself completely, totally, and unreservedly to God. For me, the draw is less to the sacrifice and more to the cheerful spirit with which that sacrifice would be offered because, as best I can tell, that spirit of joy is the product of a rich and deep faith that all of us are called to pursue.

As St. Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 9, God loves a cheerful giver. But why? Sure, I prefer it when my children do their chores, and I like it even more when they do them without complaining. Although it's nice to have some support in the house, we mainly ask them to help because that teaches them lessons of responsibility, mutual dependence, and a healthy sense of accomplishment in one's work. Because of that, I care far less whether my four-year-old son's sheets are tucked in all the way around his bed and far more whether he understands that making up one's bed is what we do to contribute to our shared life. God doesn't need our gifts. God doesn't need our money. God doesn't need our sacrifice. But God invites them because they are linked to our relationship with him both as the product of a lively faith and as the method through which our faith grows. God loves a cheerful giver not because he's tired of all the whining and complaining but because the cheerful giver knows what it means to have the confidence of faith in God's provision and what it means to pursue that faith even more deeply.

This section of 2 Corinthians is Paul's appeal to the Corinthian church for their continued financial support of the poor Christians in Jerusalem. They had pledged their support, but Paul had heard that they were wavering. He wanted to encourage them and remind them why it is they are being asked to give in the first place--not only to "supply God's people with what they need" (v. 12) but also to "bring honor and praise to God" by showing that they "believed the message about Christ" (v. 13). Paul knew that the act of giving reflects faith and engenders faith. He wrote, "The one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully," and "God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work." It works both ways.

And so I'm still in my pursuit. I want to know even more that "God is able to provide [me] with every blessing in abundance" so that I might be freed to participate even more fully in God's work. I want to give more and more until I can see that a complete and total yielding is how, as Jesus put it in John 12, the grain of my life will die and then bear much fruit. I want to be like Laurence--not roasting on an open fire, but cheerfully surrendering my whole life to God. Why? Because I want to know in every stress, in every setback, in every challenge, in every obstacle, that God is already taking care of me--that his love means I am secure. I want to know that and depend on that even more, and so I keep on giving.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Looking Forward to Judgment

Like many people, we make the Olympics a nightly feature in our house. Most of the events are decided immediately. Swimmers' times show up as soon as the race is over, and basketball games end clearly and decisively. But a few sports are decided by the opinions of judges, and, although even a casual watcher can tell when a gymnast falls off the beam and when a diver makes a big splash, there are moments of real drama as we wait to see whether an individual's score will be high enough to take first place. A few nights ago, when the world waited to see whether American gymnast and reigning all-around champion Gabby Douglas would score high enough on the beam to overtake fellow American gymnast Aly Raisman and earn the final spot in the 2016 all-around competition, the delay was agonizing--even for a fan sitting at home. I can only imagine how it feels to wait and wait and wait when it's your score or your competitor's score that the judges are mulling over.

Judgment delayed is judgment denied. That's not what Dr. King actually said, of course, but, when I read this Sunday's gospel lesson (Luke 12:49-56), that's what comes to mind. Jesus tells us that he has come to bring fire to the earth, "and how I wish it were already kindled!" Most of us don't think of sweet, loving, blue-eyed Jesus as being excited about bringing judgment to the earth. Likewise, most of us don't wish that God's judgment would come quickly. That's because most of us have the luxury of enjoying the life we life now and, after weighing it in the balance, are quite happy to put off God's wheat-and-chaff division until another day. But those of us who are happy with the life we have aren't the ones that Jesus came to save. He came to bring new life to those who need it, and, if we're not looking forward to judgment, then we're not looking forward to the coming of God's kingdom. And we all know what happens to those who fail to keep watch.

Jesus is ready for the fullness and completeness of God's kingdom to reign here on earth. He knows that it will be decisive because it does not allow for middle ground. In the kingdom, there is no gray--only black or white, only justice, only righteousness. God's judgment is the ultimate quickening agent. It draws out of all creation the ultimate expression of in or out. It's what turns fathers against sons and sons against fathers, mothers against daughters and daughters against mothers, mothers-in-law against daughters-in-law and daughters-in-law against mothers-in-law. When God's judgment comes, there are no courts of review. There are no appeals to a replay. The waiting for clarity is over.

Preachers like me are afraid of Luke 12:49-56 because we are afraid of preaching the power and hopefulness of God's judgment. We are afraid of saying that the world would and will be better when God's judgment comes and the rich become poor, the proud are brought low, and the strong are driven to their knees. We are afraid because the life that we and the members of our congregations live aren't the kinds of lives that are desperate for God's judgment--at least not on the surface. But I suspect that most of us carry a brokenness inside that needs healing. Even if we are among the world's richest 1%, there is a poverty of spirit that nags at us. God's judgment is a good thing--a very good thing indeed. It is ultimate hope through ultimate disruption. Remember what it means to wait on judgment. Remember what it means to hope for God's justice. Preach that hope and give us something to cling to.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Sunday Sermon: Costliness of Faith

August 7, 2016 – The 12th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 14C
© 2016 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon is available here.
A ticket to heaven won’t cost you anything but faith. The only challenge is that faith will cost you everything.

Sometimes language fails us, and, when it comes to talking about faith, the English language comes up short. That’s because we use the word “faith” to mean two different things that are closely related but actually distinct in important ways. On the one hand, faith means believing in something, putting your trust in something, relying or depending on something. But it also works as a substitute for “religion” or the doctrinal content of a particular religion like the Christian faith or the Jewish faith. But putting your whole life into the hands of someone is a very different thing than reciting a creed or claiming a particular religion. And the worst part of it all is that most of us have forgotten that being a follower of Jesus has a lot less to do with showing up in church, saying the right words, and wearing a cross around our neck and a lot more to do with giving all our hopes and dreams and expectations for this life and the next to God and God’s plan for us and for the world. So, like I said, getting to heaven won’t cost you anything but faith, but faith will cost you everything.

So, when you think about whether you are a Christian—when you ask yourself, “Do I really believe?”—don’t think about the Nicene Creed or the Thirty-Nine Articles or the Virgin Birth or the Walking on the Water or the Stilling of the Storm or the Raising of Lazarus or the Empty Tomb. Don’t ask yourself what you believe. Ask yourself in whom you believe. In whom have you put your faith, your trust, your hope? Is it God, or is it something else? And, if you’re still not sure, think about Abraham.

In the whole bible—Old and New Testaments—no one showed greater faith than Abraham. Out of nowhere, the Lord appeared to him and said, “Abram, pack up your things. Leave your home and your kinsfolk and set out for a new land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and, through you and your descendants, the whole world will be blessed.” So Abram went. He set out for a place he had never seen and a life he could not know and a future he could not imagine, and he did it simply because the Lord told him to. Later, when the Lord appeared to him again and promised to give him descendants as numerous as the stars in heaven, the seventy-five-year-old man whose wife was barren took the Lord at his word. It did not matter to him that having a child was physically impossible. If God promised it, Abram believed it. And, when the Lord appeared to Abraham a third time and asked him to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac—a command that would seem to undo the promise that God had already made—Abraham trusted God and did what he asked because he believed that God was in control of his life. At the last second, the Lord stopped Abraham before the knife harmed his son and declared, “Now I know that you have faith because you didn’t even withhold your son.” Abraham didn’t just accept that God was God, he risked everything he had because he believed that God was the only one who could give him a life worth living.

What does it take to be a Christian? All you have to do is have faith—faith like Abraham—that the one who sent his son Jesus is the only one who will bring you from death into a life worth living. But who could ever have faith like that? Well, no one actually—at least not by him or herself. The ability to put one’s complete trust in God isn’t a product of our own doing or a choice we make on our own. Faith itself is a gift that comes from God—a gift we receive and then nurture until, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we are ready to give our whole hearts and minds and lives to God.

Hear what Jesus said to his disciples in today’s gospel lesson: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Stop right there for a second. It is God’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom. He’s not holding it back from us, waiting to see whether we’ve earned it. The kingdom doesn’t work like that because God doesn’t work like that. God starts by giving us everything we could ever hope for—his kingdom, his mercy, his love. Everything else is us trying to figure it out—trying to make that gift something we can believe in with every fiber of our being. And the rest of this gospel lesson, which has a tendency to overshadow that first important proclamation, is about taking steps to grow our faith until we believe that, indeed, God has already given us his kingdom.

Jesus says that it is God’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom, but how do we know that when we can’t see it? How can we believe in that? How can we put our trust in a promise that doesn’t come due in this life? Practice. We practice the kingdom life until we discover that the kingdom has already been given to us. That’s why Jesus tells us to sell all of our possessions and give it all away—not because we have to be poor to enter the kingdom but because, until we learn to trust in God’s provision, we can’t know what it means to be a recipient of God’s good gifts. That’s why Jesus tells us to be dressed for action and have our lamps lit—not because we should worry that the master will come and find us unprepared but because, until we learn to keep watch for the coming of Christ, we can’t know what it means to believe that our greatest hope lies in God’s future for us. That’s why we say our prayers and go to church and recite the Creed and read the Bible and turn the other cheek and love our enemies and do the hard work of discipleship. We do all of these things—we shape our life until it conforms to the principles of God’s kingdom—not because we need to earn that kingdom but because we cannot put our faith into a kingdom that is not real to us. And the only way that kingdom can be real is if we practice it.

Stop going through the motions of a religion and, instead, invest your heart in something that matters. Get off the hamster wheel of doing all of the things a “good Christian” is supposed to do because you think that they will get you into heaven. They won’t. You’re already there. It is God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. All you have to do is believe it. And, if you want that to be real to you—if you want to know what it means to believe with every ounce of your heart and soul and mind that God’s love will never leave you—step out on faith. Practice the kingdom. Set out for a new territory like Abraham did. Risk everything you’ve got. Put all of your eggs in one basket—God’s basket. Sell all of your possessions and give it all away to the poor. Learn what it means to depend on God alone. And discover the most important truth of all: God loves you and will always provide for you and there’s no other future as bright as the one that God has in store for you. Practice the kingdom until you believe that it’s already yours.