Thursday, September 29, 2016

Thankless Job

I am a white man from Alabama, which means that slavery is a part of my past. I don’t know my particular family history—whether my ancestors were ever slaveholders—but I do know that I am part of a society that has the evil of slavery as its legacy. Our cities, our families, our churches were built by slaves. I know that. I accept that. I repent of that. So, when I read Sunday's gospel lesson (Luke 17:5-10), in which Jesus likens his disciples' work to slave labor, I want to be careful that the image he chose doesn't get mistranslated.

Jesus tells the apostles, "Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, 'Come here at once and take your place at the table?' Would you not rather say to him, 'Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink?'" It's tempting to hear the words of the one who came to set the captives free as a direct challenge to an evil institution. Remember that Jesus is the one who came not to be served but to serve. Jesus has a complete reorientation of society in mind. And the early church knew what it meant for masters and slaves to gather around the Communion table as equals. Because of that, it's tempting to think that the implied teaching of these questions is, "You might want to tell your slave to serve you first, but, verily I say unto thee, those who would be my disciples must welcome even a slave to the dinner table and serve him before eating his own meal." But that's not what Jesus meant.

I cringe a little bit whenever I confront the magnitude of the evil that slavery represents and my own participation in that evil. I cringe and cry and want to turn away. Because of that, I want Jesus to make a clear and definite break with that horrible practice so that I can know what I already know: that slavery was wrong--always and everywhere wrong. But Jesus doesn't give us that. Chalk it up to the mystery of the hypostatic union of fully human and fully divine natures, but Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word, did not fully see past an evil institution that was the accepted practice of his day. The image he uses to teach his disciples about faithfulness is built upon the foundation of slavery. It may not be the same institution that 18th- & 19th-century American slavery represented, but it's still slavery. If we are going to hear what Jesus intended to say to his disciples, we have to listen to him as one who is not attempting to overturn an evil but who uses that evil to make his point.

This passage isn't about slavery; it's about discipleship. Discipleship is a thankless job. It's a duty. It's a compulsion. It is, as Paul wrote, a life lived as a slave to righteousness. Jesus said, "Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, `We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!'" There are various racist sayings about exhausting and difficult work. Their root lies in the prejudiced belief that only slaves or their direct descendants or their modern-day counterparts would take on that kind of manual labor. Jesus wants his disciples to know that that kind of work--that hard, exhausting, never-ending work--belongs to us. We do it not to be thanked. We do it not by choice. We do it because it's who we are. It's a hard image to hear. It's a hard image to embrace. But we are slaves to Jesus. The freedom he promises doesn't come until the work is done.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Destruction That Wasn't

I'm experimenting with a new Eucharistic lectionary--the Two-Year Weekday Eucharistic Lectionary found in Lesser Feasts and Fasts (2006). Because of that, the lessons appointed for today are Job 3:1-3, 11-23; Psalm 88:1-8; and Luke 9:51-56.

In our Sunday-morning worship, we have been on a harrowing journey with Jesus. For the last fourteen weeks (ever since June 6, when we read Luke 9:51-62), he has been on his way to Jerusalem, and it has been a rocky road for the disciples. The urgency of his message and the kingdom that he brings has left no room for hesitation or equivocation. Any who would follow him were told to leave everything behind. For Jesus, the demands of God's kingdom are absolute.

It all started back in Luke 9, when Jesus "set his face to go to Jerusalem." That turn of phrase signifies something. It means that Jesus wasn't only headed toward the holy city. He was focused on it, fixated upon it, perhaps obsessed with it. All else fell away. The culmination of his life and ministry awaited. In all of the synoptic gospel accounts (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), this moment is a turning point for Jesus. Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ. Then Peter, James, and John accompany Jesus up the mount of Transfiguration. And, by the time they come down, Jesus is ready to begin his trek toward Jerusalem. In all three accounts, there is no turning back.

It is this singular focus that becomes the source of conflict in today's gospel lesson: "On their way [the disciples] entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem." Samaritans, of course, did not acknowledge Jerusalem and the temple on Mt. Zion as the religious center for God's people. Instead, they worshipped on Mt. Gerazim. That's a long-standing dispute that started during the Babylonian Exile and involved not only theological differences but also ethnic and historical divisions. Because of that dispute, the Samaritans had different expectations of how God's salvation would be manifest to his people than the Jews, which means that any concept of a messianic savior was foreign to them. So the issue of Jerusalem and the conflict that it brings isn't just about worship and history. It's also about Jesus and what he represents.

I don't know what's more surprising: that the disciples felt that they had the power to call down fire upon that Samaritan village or that Jesus rebuked them for suggesting it. Remember, this is the same Jesus who just a few chapters later would declare, "I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! (Luke 12:29). But the fire Jesus envisioned in Luke 12 isn't the same fire that the disciples had in mind in Luke 9. The disciples wanted God's fire of punishment to come down and consume any who refused to recognize Jesus as the Christ. But Jesus knew that the fire that he brought was a purifying fire that would set the world ablaze with the hope that only God's anointed could bring. One is damning, but the other is life-giving. The question for us is whether we can tell a difference.

Jesus and what he accomplished in Jerusalem is the focus of our life. In fact, it is the focus of all creation. It is our hope. It is our destiny. It is the fire that lights up our life. But not everyone can see it. Not everyone has seen it. Not everyone recognizes Jesus for who he is and the consummating hope that he represents. And, among those who claim to see it, not all of us agree on what sort of fire it is that Jesus brings. Jesus calls any who would follow him to have that same, exclusive, above-all-else focus on Jerusalem and what God accomplished there. But, unlike many of those who identify as his disciples, Jesus doesn't seem all that bothered by those who won't jump on board. He's got more important things to do than to stop and wag his finger or shake his head or call down fire and brimstone. His mission burns with a fire of a different sort.

What about us? What about our faith? May God grant us that same, Christ-like focus on the death and resurrection of Jesus so that we, too, might let go of all distractions--even those who refuse to welcome God's anointed. May the fire that Christ brings set our hearts ablaze so that the whole world might see and know the light that Jesus brings.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Some Sayings of Jesus

The section headings in the bible aren't original to the text, but they sure are helpful. When I'm trying to figure out how to separate passages for a bible study, I often use the headings to help me group them from week to week. As I skim over an entire gospel, searching for a particular theme or passage, the headings often point me to the right place. Occasionally, when I'm preaching a sermon, the heading will help focus my attention, reminding me what a passage is supposed to be about. But then there's the heading above this Sunday's gospel lesson (Luke 17:5-10): "Some Sayings of Jesus."

That's the editor's way of letting us know that the verses that follow are tenuously connected and have little to do with the surrounding narrative. It's as if Luke himself didn't really know what to do with these sayings. Jesus said them, and Luke felt the need to include them, but he didn't know where. And this preacher isn't sure what to do with them either.

Sunday's gospel actually omits my favorite of three disjointed sayings--the one about forgiving the same person seven times a day (vv. 1-4). I thought about expanding the text and preaching on that part, but, since they aren't really connected and I'd be essentially ignoring the assigned gospel text, that doesn't do justice to the rubric that allows for its expansion. Instead, I'm left with two strange, frustrating, isolated sayings that I'd rather not hear.

And maybe that's the point. Jesus' disciples ask him to increase their faith, and his response is to declare, "If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you." Spurred on by this rebuke, Jesus goes on to question their dedication. Using the image of a slave who, after a hard day's work, is still commanded to fix the master's dinner, Jesus says to his disciples, "So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done.'" Luke didn't have to include them. Unpopular, harsh words are always easier to leave out, but sometimes we need to hear them anyway.

These are things we don't want to hear. Usually, I don't shy away from passages like this. I enjoy a good kick in the pants, and I think it's part of my calling to give a good, mostly gentle kick in the pants to the congregation. But yesterday I preached a hard sermon on a hard text to a congregation that didn't seem to be in the mood to hear it. I'm preaching again this Sunday, and I'm looking for a gentle, comforting, hopeful text, but this is Year C and Luke and Jesus' journey to Jerusalem. The truth is that there isn't much easy about this season of the lectionary, and there isn't much easy about discipleship, either. Maybe I'll warm up to another rear-kicking by Sunday--one for me and one for the congregation and both from Jesus.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

God's Vision, Jesus' Vision, Our Vision

September 25, 2016 – The 19th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 21C
© 2016 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
Once you’re dead, it’s too late. It’s too late to chase your dreams. It’s too late to take that trip to Hawaii. It’s too late to buy the sports car that you’ve had your eye on. It’s too late to make up with all of the people whom you’ve hurt. It’s too late to tell the members of your family that you love them. And, once you’re dead, it’s too late to look for God’s kingdom.

“Besides,” Abraham told the rich man, “between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is Jesus’ own version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Through the eyes of a dead man, he invites us to see the consequences of a life wasted in the pursuit of one’s own interests—a life lived outside of God’s kingdom. But, in Jesus’ version of the story, the ending isn’t as happy.

In our tradition, we don’t preach a lot of “turn or burn” sermons—messages that warn congregations that if they don’t change their behavior the yawning gates of hell will swallow them up. That’s because we believe that God’s grace and forgiveness and mercy are far greater than even the most evil intentions of our hearts. In short, we believe that God’s love is bigger than any decision we make or any sin we commit. We cannot outrun God’s love. I believe that. With all of my heart, I believe it. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t need to stop and consider whether we really believe what we claim to believe.

What does it mean to be a Christian? What does it mean to believe in Jesus? For starters, don’t confuse Jesus’ description of God’s kingdom with a prescription for entering it. Nowhere in this story does it say that the rich man should have given Lazarus some of his wealth. Abraham never tells the man that he would have gone to paradise had he been more generous. Instead, he merely states a fact: “During your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.” That’s Jesus’ description of how God’s kingdom works. Just as Mary proclaimed in the song that she sang when she learned that she would bring God’s Son into the world, God’s kingdom is the place where the hungry are fed and the rich go away empty. Now that he’s dead, the rich man can see it, but now it’s too late. “If only I had realized it while I was still alive,” he laments. “If only I had known.”

That’s when the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus back to his family to warn them. “Please, Father Abraham,” he said, “I beg you to send Lazarus to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they also will not come to this place of torment.” But Abraham replied, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” And that’s the real point of this story. This isn’t a parable about being nice to poor people so that we can go to heaven. It’s about recognizing that, if we want to spend eternity with God, the one whom God raised from the dead—Jesus the Christ—is the one whom we’d better listen to.

What does it mean to believe in the one who was raised from the dead? You might have acknowledged in your mind that the tomb is empty. You might have asked God to forgive you of your sins and send Jesus into your heart. You might have been baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection and been nourished by his Body and Blood. But have you given your whole heart and mind and soul to the belief that, in raising Jesus from the dead, God declared that Jesus is the one who reveals who God is and how God’s kingdom works? Do you believe that what Jesus said about God’s vision for the world is, indeed, God’s vision for the world? If so, you won’t find yourself on the wrong side of that great chasm, looking across at the poor and the oppressed who have found comfort.

Believing in Jesus isn’t a magic ticket to paradise. It’s a commitment to living the life that Jesus sets out for us here and now—on earth as it is in heaven. The problem with the rich man isn’t that he was selfish or sinful. All of us are just as selfish and sinful as he was. The problem is that he didn’t see—or wouldn’t see—God’s plan for the world. He didn’t understand that the fine linen and sumptuous feasts that he enjoyed while Lazarus sat outside his gate and begged for crumbs were not just an expression of inequality but actually antithetical to God’s will for the world. He failed to see that God’s dream is for everyone to have enough, for the hungry to be fed, for the broken to be made whole, for the disenfranchised to have a voice, for those who are imprisoned by unbreakable cycles of poverty to be set free. Like all of us, the rich man lived right on the edge of God’s kingdom. It was knocking literally on his gate. But the wealth that the man kept to himself had become a giant wall—a great chasm—that separated him from God’s kingdom.

Income inequality is a sin that is ripping this nation apart. A society in which people are separated into haves and have-nots is one that is defined by tension and division. The violence that plagues our streets is fueled by that inequality. The drug crisis that sits on our doorstep is perpetuated by that imbalance. A vicious cycle of hopelessness has broken the hearts and minds and wills of the poor, and what will we do about it? Surely we can see that that is not God’s vision for the world. Surely we can tell that Jesus had something else in mind. Are we so callous and self-centered as to think that God’s plan is reserved not for this life but only for the next—that God’s kingdom is about “someday” and not about this day?

Jesus and the kingdom that he brings are knocking on our door. Will we answer him? Will we follow him? We don’t have to sell everything that we have in order to get into God’s kingdom, but being a part of that kingdom means giving everything that we have away. It means recognizing that God’s plan for the world cannot wait any longer. Believing in Jesus means believing that his vision for the world is God’s vision for the world, and that means that it had better become our vision for the world as well. Jesus isn’t asking us to follow him into heaven. He’s asking us to follow him into God’s kingdom right here, right now. If we can’t see that God’s will for this world is peace now and justice now and equality now, then there’s nothing that will ever convince us—not even if God were to raise someone from the dead.

By the time we’re dead, it will be too late to look for God’s kingdom. The kingdom isn’t waiting for us. It’s right here, right now. Look for it. Look for Jesus—not in heaven but here on earth. Where is he to be found? In the place where God’s vision for the world is coming true. Follow Jesus into that vision. Don’t wait any longer. The kingdom is at hand.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Pastor vs. Prophet

During the long season after Pentecost, the New Testament lesson, which typically follows an independent progression through the Christian canonical letters, is not chosen to coordinate with the other lessons. Every once in a while, a connection can be seen--perhaps forced by the preacher. This week, though, it is as if the authors of the lectionary had a tremendous collision in mind from the very beginning. In Luke 16, we have Jesus depicting the rich man's torment in Hades while the once-poor Lazarus snuggles into Abraham's bosom, but, in 1 Timothy 6, we have Paul taking a far more moderated approach: "As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty..." To this preacher, it sounds like the difference between a pastor and a prophet.

Jesus tells us to sell everything that we have. Jesus tells us that we cannot worship God and wealth. Jesus tells us that it is easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich person to enter heaven. Paul, on the other hand, warns those who are rich in this age not to be haughty, not to put their hope in earthly riches, to be rich not only in wealth but also in good works, and to share some of what they have. After spending these summer weeks in Luke, hearing Jesus decry the half-hearted commitment of one person after another, Paul seems to be taking it easy--perhaps even undermining what Jesus would have said. Paul sounds a lot more like a preacher who is worried that his words could upset his flock and the money they have promised to give him.

I've long held that Jesus would have made a lousy rector, and this is one of the major reasons why. Jesus the prophet chose a prophet's life. He had no where to lay his head. He slipped out of trouble more than once. Whenever he visited a synagogue, at least someone was disappointed, if not outraged, in what he said or what he did. His independence gave him the ability to tear into the establishment with full force. Paul, however, needed that establishment to fund his mission and support the church in Jerusalem. Jesus could say things that made people angry and then walk on to the next town, but Paul had built deep, personal relationships with these churches, and he consider himself their long-term pastor. Was Jesus callous and insensitive? Was Paul cowardly and self-serving? No and no. But it reminds me that context is everything.

What will I preach this Sunday? Will I let Jesus' insistence that the kingdom of God be a reality in which everyone has enough leave everyone squirming in his pew? Or will I let Paul's gentler instruction lead the day because we are beginning a capital campaign, and our parish needs the establishment to support the effort? Actually, those aren't as mutually exclusive as they seem, and the extremes with which I've depicted the messages of Jesus and Paul deny their real intent. Jesus wasn't interested in shaming the rich. He wanted transformation in their lives and preached it the best that he could. Paul wanted the same thing--not merely the financial support of his patrons but that they, too, would be transformed into faithful disciples of Jesus. He, likewise, preached that the best that he could. Hopefully the congregation can tell that this is a struggle for the preacher and that it's supposed to be a struggle for all of us. That's the only way we'll be transformed together.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Polluted Applicant Pool

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

If you want to become a priest or a deacon, you have to go through a long process. In our diocese, it starts with a conversation with your rector that lasts for at least six months. Typically, I tell interested people that we will need to speak together for a year before moving ahead with any of the other steps. Eventually, I'll pull in a small committee of parishioners who can join me in discerning whether the individual is called by God to serve the church as an ordained person. If they all agree, then we approach the vestry and then the bishop. Once we meet with the bishop, the process has less to do with the individual and more to do with the church. Does the church also discern that this person is called by God to ordained ministry? There are committee interviews, retreats, internships, medical and psychological evaluations, background checks, peer evaluations, and a whole lot of scrutiny. If the person is approved for seminary training, there are another three years of academic, spiritual, and social evaluation before ordination. And through it all--four or five or six years of discernment---any big misstep like a DUI or a divorce or a red flag on a background check is likely to delay if not derail the whole process.

The process for becoming a disciple is the exact opposite. "As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, 'Follow me.' And he got up and followed him" (Matthew:9:9-13). And, because of that, we all have hope.

None of Jesus' disciples came from the religious elites or the well educated. They were fishermen and menders of nets. They were ordinary, working-class people. But Matthew was exceptional. As a tax collector, he wasn't a rough-cut, blue-collar guy who didn't fit in at the synagogue's Annual Bazaar. He was a traitor. He was a criminal. He was a greedy extortionist who made his living by supporting the unholy Roman occupiers by forcing his countrymen to pay taxes to those who oppressed them. Every coin he collected had the emperor's image engraved on it, which meant his entire life was a violation of the third commandment. We don't really know anything about what sort of tax collector Matthew was, and we don't need to know. He was a tax collector, and that says it all. Like a pedophile or a drug dealer, we don't need to know how he conducted his nefarious business. He was, by definition, beyond hope. He had sold his soul to the devil, and the devil wasn't going to give it back.

And Jesus, as he was walking along, saw Matthew sitting at the tax booth and said, “Follow me.” Jesus didn’t run into him at the grocery store. He didn’t encounter him walking along the street or sitting at a café or heading into synagogue. Jesus saw him sitting in the seat of his sin, and still he said, “Follow me.” This wasn’t an accident. This is the one whom Jesus wanted because this is the one who needed Jesus. “I did not come to call the righteous but sinners,” he explained to those who questioned his choice. Jesus knew that becoming a disciple isn’t a reward for holiness. It is hope for the sinful. It is healing for the broken. It is transformation for the one who has no other path to redemption. It is our calling. It is our future.

Jesus said, “Follow me.” And Matthew got up and followed him. You don’t have to be a saint in order to follow Jesus. In fact, saints need not apply. Those who are well don’t need a physician. Those who are righteous don’t need redeeming. But those of us who need forgiveness, those of us who need God’s help, we are the ones whom Jesus is calling. He is speaking to us. He is speaking to you. “Come, follow me,” he beckons. Will you respond to his invitation? Will you get up and leave your sin behind and follow the one who can lead you back to God?

The Good Life

On Monday, I wrote about the danger of the parable of Lazarus and the rich man in Sunday's gospel lesson (Luke 16:19-31). It's easy to hear this compelling story and think that Jesus is calling us to treat the poor with dignity and redistribute our wealth so that everyone has what she or he needs in this life. All of that is true, of course. Jesus is calling us to do those things. But he isn't telling us that the path to heaven is as simple as giving our riches away. The parable's conclusion reveals that belief in the one who has risen from the dead is the necessary antecedent. Jesus' resurrection is confirmation that his description of kingdom life is a true depiction of God's kingdom and that the only way we will get there is by following him.

In my sermon preparation, I don't want to lose sight of that important premise--that this gospel lesson is about following Jesus into the kingdom--but I do want to dwell a little more seriously in the implications of that kingdom life for rich people like me and like every single person who calls St. John's home. (Yes, we're all rich, and I'm willing to bet that every single one of the few dozen people who read this post are rich, too. Even the "poorest" person among us is still rich by Jesus' standards and by the world's standards, so let's all start by agreeing that Jesus isn't telling us this parable because we're a bunch of Lazaruses. Fair enough?) In short, I think this parable reminds us that, while we won't get to heaven simply by giving all of our riches away, we also can't get there unless we do.

Focus on the rich man's exchange with Abraham. "Have mercy on me!" he cries out. "Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in agony in these flames!" Even from the place of torment, the rich man still sees Lazarus as an instrument for his own comfort. Abraham responds, "Sorry, pal, but it's too late. You had good things in your lifetime, and Lazarus had evil things, and now the roles have been reversed." That's classic Lucan role-reversal messianic theology. Then Abraham makes an eschatological assertion: "Plus, a great chasm has been fixed between us, and no one can cross it." There is something decidedly final about death, and our opportunity to participate in God's kingdom comes not in the next life but in this one. Then, the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers to warn them to change their lives before they, too, wind up in hell, but Abraham responds, "If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead." In other words, Jesus' ministry is a continuation of the Torah, and those who cannot see that following Jesus is God's vision for his people wouldn't even be convinced by the resurrection.

So what does that mean for us? It means we'd better take the resurrection of Jesus for what it is: proof that Jesus' description of the kingdom is God's vision for our lives and for the world. It means that rich people like me don't get to heaven because we haven't understood what following Jesus into the kingdom really means. It means that every sumptuous meal I enjoy and every fine linen garment I put on while hungry, naked, homeless people struggle to survive is a sign of my exclusion from the kingdom. That's not because rich people don't belong in God's kingdom. It's because those who belong in God's kingdom can't stand the thought of being rich while other people suffer.

Let the scales fall from our eyes. Do we believe in Jesus? Do we believe that he was raised from the dead? Do we believe that he has ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father? If we really believed all of that--if we believed that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus makes any difference at all--then we wouldn't live in a world where the rich are getting richer while the poor barely survive. We wouldn't vote for a candidate who promises to champion the middle class. We would support only those who work tirelessly for the poorest among us. If we believed in the power of Jesus--if the hope of the resurrection had taken hold in our hearts--we wouldn't wait until this life is over to notice whether this life resembles the kingdom Jesus ushered in.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

A Good Story

This post also appears as the cover article in The View, the parish newsletter for St. John's in Decatur, Alabama. To read the rest of the newsletter and learn more about St. John's, please click here.

Right now in the Daily Office, the Old Testament lesson is from the Book of Esther. Although we read more or less a chapter each day, I feel a great temptation to read ahead and finish the story before the lectionary gets to the end. The story of Esther is a compelling tale of jealousy, irony, and justice. Each chapter ends with a major plot point hanging in the balance, and, like a child to whom a parent reads at bedtime, the reader wants to peek ahead and see what will come next. It does not matter that I have read the book before and know what is coming. I still cannot wait to see what will happen on the next page.

I suppose that my impatience should not surprise me. In the Jewish tradition, the entire Book of Esther is read aloud each year on the day of Purim, a spring festival that commemorates the deliverance of the Jewish people from the plot of wicked Haman. As recounted in the story, Haman sought to have all the children of Abraham exterminated, but God intervened through Esther, a Jewish woman who had become a wife and queen of the hapless King Ahasuerus and whose bravery and cunning became the instruments of God’s salvation. Like any good story, it is worth reading again and again even though the outcome is already well known.

As the people of God, we have been telling the same story over and over for more generations than we can count. Abraham rescued Lot and his family from certain destruction. Joseph enabled his brothers to survive a famine in Egypt. Moses led God’s people from slavery into freedom. Joshua led God’s people from the wilderness into a new homeland. David reminded his people to trust in God’s victory. Daniel remained faithful until God delivered his people from exile. Judah Maccabee galvanized a rebellion that purged God’s land from Seleucid oppression. Whenever it seems that the light God has given to his people will be extinguished, God intervenes and enables the story of salvation to be told yet again.

We are a part of God’s great story of deliverance. At the Easter Vigil, after the fire has been kindled and the Paschal candle has been lit, the presider says to the congregation, “Let us hear the record of God’s saving deeds in history, how he saved his people in ages past; and let us pray that our God will bring each of us to the fullness of redemption.” As the various chapters from the story of salvation are read, we are asked to consider how our collective story, the outcome of which is already known, will continue to unfold in our lives. We know that the death and resurrection of Jesus is God’s guarantee that nothing can interfere with his plan to save us from all that threatens us—even death itself—but, still, we tell that same story again and again because it is a story we need to hear.

As a people of faith, we pray repeatedly for deliverance, and we hope that God’s salvation will be made manifest in our lives. In times of trouble, we look for signs that God’s promise is real. Sometimes they are easy to see—a near-miss on the interstate, a clear PET scan, an improbable reconciliation—but other times God’s saving work is hidden from us—rising floodwaters, a crushing betrayal, a devastating knock at the door. In those moments, we need to tell and retell the story of salvation more than ever because, even though the outcome of God’s story is certain, the path that we will take to get there is not. We need remembrances of hope and trust and faith to sustain us when those are the very things that we cannot grasp. Even the Book of Esther, which leaves no doubt that God’s is acting to save his people, never mentions God by name. Instead, the reader is invited to search for God’s hand behind it all—both in the narrative of Esther and in the lives of those who read it.

What chapter in the story of salvation resonates with you? Is it Noah and the flood? Is it Isaac and Abraham? Is it the parting of the Red Sea or the Valley of Dry Bones? Is it another story for scripture, or is it a story from your own life? Remember that, when it comes to salvation, your story is not your own. Salvation history is a history for the whole world—even all of creation. Remember also, however, that your own life’s narrative is a thread that is being woven into God’s tapestry of salvation and that the fabric’s image is still taking shape ahead of us. We may not be able to see the whole picture take place, but we know what it will look like when everything is finished. We know how this story ends, but we tell it anyway.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Simple Message, Difficult Grace

Several of my friends bemoaned yesterday's difficult gospel passage (Luke 16:1-13) in which Jesus told the parable of the dishonest manager. I didn't have to preach, so I had the luxury of listening to a good sermon instead of trying to craft one. As I look at the gospel lesson for this coming Sunday (Luke 16:19-31), however, I think it may be even more difficult but for the opposite reason. The parable of the dishonest manager uses a difficult package (dishonesty) to convey a simple message (prioritization of the kingdom), but the parable of Lazarus and the rich man uses a package that is so simple and straightforward (be nice to poor people) that it's very difficult to find the gospel message of grace hidden in this Lucan morality tale.

What is the point of this parable? As Father Abraham explained to the rich man, "Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony." It's tempting to stop there. That's the part of the story that hooks us. How many poor people have we passed by? How many beggars have we turned down? Borrowing from Amos, don't we "lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on [our] couches" while the homeless in our communities sleep in shelters, on park benches, under overpasses, and in the woods behind the grocery store? Don't we hear Jesus' parable and think, "I don't want to end up in hell like the rich man. I'd better start being nice to poor people."

But that isn't the gospel. That isn't grace. That's a fruitless, hopeless, faithless pursuit that leads straight to that same place of torment where the rich man yearns for even a finger-dip of cool water.

PLEASE, dear preacher, don't confuse "be nice to poor people" with "believe in the one who has risen from the dead." It's so deliciously tempting to climb into the pulpit and remind your congregation that Jesus loved poor people, so we should too. And that's true: we should. But that's not what this gospel lesson is about. That's confusing the description for the prescription. Don't forget the foundation of the gospel. Our hope does not lie in our actions. Our hope lies in Jesus and his victory over sin and death. The parable of Lazarus and the rich man isn't designed to call us to acts of charity. It's to remind us that life in God's kingdom is qualitatively different from the life we experience here on earth and that those who follow Jesus live in a different reality.

Let the closing lines of the parable speak for themselves: "...If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead." Don't shy away from this half of the parable because some have used it to espouse an anti-Semitic message. Absolutely, we should reject such a mischaracterization of the Christian story, and that isn't the point of the parable either. The point is that those who believe in the one who has been raised from the dead are those who understand that the good life is not found on earth but in the life that waits for us. Those who believe in Jesus understand that participating in God's kingdom means forsaking all of our earthly possessions in pursuit of God's vision for this world. Those who have their hope in the resurrection know that Lazarus' poverty gives him unfettered access to God's table while the rich man's riches are a hurdle he cannot climb on his own. This is where the parable finds its real identity as a message of grace. Our hope is in the one who has risen from the dead--not in our riches nor in giving those riches away.

Look for the hard message of grace buried within this parable of works. Actually, it isn't that hard to find, but you have to let go of an easy, pre-packaged sermon to get there. But it's worth it. Don't forget: works can't get us to heaven any faster than riches can.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Governed by Rules or Principles?

Since we're a Track 2 parish that reads an Old Testament lesson that is linked thematically with the Gospel lesson, I find it easy to preach on that theme without appealing explicitly to the OT text. This week, however, Amos sticks out. Maybe it's because I'm teaching a Sunday-morning class on Lamentations and its shocking, heart-breaking portrayal of what happens when God's prophets are ignored, but I can't let Amos 8:4-7 go by without spending some time letting the prophet speak directly to me.

Amos was an advocate for the poor. He called out the wealthy and powerful for their predatory practices: "Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land..." But it's his take on the religious observances of those poor-tramplers that gets my attention. Revealing their true motives, he writes that they say, "When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale?" He goes on to clarify that they aren't just interested in getting back to business once the festivals are over. They're eager because their trading is an opportunity for defrauding those who cannot defend themselves: "We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat." This is the kind of damning criticism that belongs in a Cohen brothers' movie--a picture of humanity so dark it's hard to comprehend.

Basically, Amos paints a picture of religious observance that has lost all ties to the religion it supposedly represents. Here are traders who rightly suspend their practices during the sabbath and during the new moon festivals but who jump at the chance to begin them again so that they can cheat their fellow Israelites. Why bother? Why insist on the dignity of keeping religious rules if they're only forestalling your unholy behavior?

The rules governing sabbath observance have to do, of course, with creation. All of the effort it takes to prepare for a day with absolutely no work is a way of instilling into a person their identity as created by God, who rested on the seventh day. But it's more than that. It's also a way of preserving the integrity of every human being. Even the slaves were not to work on the sabbath. Those who had the luxury of fine living were forced to recognize that those who worked for them also got a day of rest--their household help was suspended on the sabbath. This was a unifying, equalizing practice. Those who would observe it but immediately return to the practice of cheating the poor aren't just missing the point; they're essentially rejecting the purpose behind it in the first place.

The Chick-fil-A practice of being closed on Sunday only honors God if its employees are paid enough to take a day off--a living wage that enables a day of rest. Clergy who encourage congregations to come to church on Sunday can only honor God if they also practice weekly worship apart from the Sunday-morning performance for which they are paid. Those of us who make a pledge to a church are only honoring God if we allow the poor to infiltrate our hearts, and the congregations that accept that money are only honoring God if they understand that money is not for themselves but for the needs of the world. Anyone who claims to follow Christ is only honoring God if that discipleship has as much to do with the life of Christ--a life spent among tax collectors and sinners--as it does with maintaining the habits of a religion.

The rules of life and the rules of our religion are helpful only insofar as they point us back to the principles that really matter. What are the principles for which Jesus died? Are those the principles that undergird our lives, or are we missing the mark. WWAS? What would Amos say?

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Ends and Means

The term "home economics" is redundant. Who knew? The word "economics" comes from the Greek word "οἰκονομία," which is literally the combination of the words "οἶκος" (home) and "νόμος" (law). Effectively, it means "household management" or "stewardship." Economics, therefore, are about the home. It's about managing what you have on hand. When politicians talk about "the economy," what they're really talking about is stewardship. How are we managing what we have at our disposal? This concept of stewardship runs through Sunday's parable of the dishonest manager, and the teaching Jesus offers through it depends upon our ability to see that thread.

Most modern English translations (ESV, NRSV, NIV, CEV, CEB) of Luke 16:1-13 use the words "manager" and "management" to describe what is going on. If you go back to the KJV, however, you see that the issue is one of stewardship: "And [the rich man] called [the steward], and said unto him, 'How is it that I hear this of thee? give an account of thy stewardship; for thou mayest be no longer steward.'" I think that we implicitly understand that managing something is being a steward of it, but, once that is made explicit, this confusing parable begins to take shape.

Facing his termination, the steward/manager calls in his master's debtors and gives them a deep under-the-table discount on their bills, hoping that they would return the favor and receive him into their homes. Notice, of course, that the Greek word for home is "οἶκος," so the thread continues. There's irony here. The man was a poor manager of his master's house so that he could be accepted into the houses of others.

The part of the parable that surprised the hearers came next. The master found the dishonest steward and praised him for his shrewdness--his prudence or practical wisdom. Like so many parables (e.g. the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, the Wedding banquet), the surprise draws the audience into the teaching. No master would praise his steward for lining his own pockets. So what's Jesus' point? What's the real teaching of this passage?

Jesus says to his disciples, "And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes." As Seth Olson pointed out earlier this week, these "eternal homes" are not "οἶκος." They are "αἰωνίους σκηνή" or "everlasting booths." The NRSV does us a great disservice by translating it as if it were the same sort of dwelling that the steward is hoping to enter. It's not. these tents or booths or tabernacles are the dwellings that Peter hoped to build for Moses, Elijah, and Jesus on the Transfiguration mount. It is the true dwelling place for God that the author of Hebrews uses to contrast the earthly tabernacle of the Temple and the heavenly tabernacle that Christ makes accessible to us. We may not want to camp out in a tent for all eternity, but, when it comes to imagining a heavenly dwelling, that's what we are invited to see.

So what does all of this mean? The house-manager failed in his house-management of his master's house. So he cut a dishonest deal to get himself a new house. Jesus urges his disciples to act likewise, but he tells them to use that same dishonest wealth to make friends not with the hopes of attaining an earthly house but a heavenly dwelling. This is a stewardship of earthly resources with a heavenly goal--a different end. In certain circumstances, we say that the ends justify the means, and, in this case, the goal of the kingdom is the only thing that matters.

The gospel lesson concludes with Jesus' most famous exhortation about money: "You cannot serve God and wealth." The dishonest steward used his master's resources to achieve an earthly goal. And, given his master's commendation, it would seem that he was successful. Jesus tells us to use those same resources to achieve a heavenly goal. If we're going to be successful, we have to be just as shrewd--just as practically wise. Stewardship is about serving a master. It's about planning for a future home. Will it be one on earth or one in heaven? The wealth is described as "dishonest" or, literally, "unrighteous." Will the "unrighteous Mammon" becomes a means for the kingdom, or will the "unrighteous Mammon" become the end in itself? It's one or the other. Which will it be?

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Shepherd or Good Shepherd?

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

We all know that Jesus is the Good Shepherd--that he is the one who laid down his life for the sheep. I wonder, though, whether our confidence in Jesus as the ultimate good shepherd has obscured the fact that he calls all of us to be the same for our own flock.

Today is the feast of Cyprian, and the liturgical red that we use lets the cat out of the bag. He was the Bishop of Carthage and also a martyr. As a bishop, he is remembered as a shepherd of his people, and, as a martyr, he is commemorated for having given up his life for his flock. But Cyprian's story isn't as simple as that. He wasn't always admired in that way.

Carthage is the historic capital of Tunisia, that little country sandwiched between Libya and Algeria on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. I don't know how well you did in geography, but take a look at the map of northern Africa and notice how close Tunisia is to Italy. In the early third century, when Cyprian was alive, Carthage was the most important Roman city in Africa. It was the focus Christianity in Africa, which was firmly established there by the second century. Cyprian was born a pagan but converted to the faith at the age of 35. A skilled lawyer, he brought that intellectual gift to the faith and advanced quickly, becoming the most important African Christian writer until Jerome and Augustine. He was elected bishop at a young age because of his popularity among the people, but the older clergy in that area were not happy with his election and worked to undermine his authority. (Thanks, Wikipedia.)

Northern Africa enjoyed relative immunity from the persecutions of the second century. Although geographically close to Rome, the political and economic climate in that province allowed for Christians to worship without fear. That changed, however, under the Decian persecution of 250. The Romans intensified their pursuit of illicit sects, and Christians throughout the Empire, including those in and around Carthage, were forced to make sacrifices in the pagan temples. Under threat of execution, some gave in, many others ran away. Among those who fled was Cyprian, who was accused of cowardice but who refuted those accusations by appealing to his role as bishop and shepherd. He argued that the faithful needed someone to guide them during this time of trial--a logical, perhaps faithful, but not altogether convincing point. (Thanks, New Advent.)

After the Decian persecution, the church reassembled itself, and it faced a new controversy: what to do with those who had given into the demands of the Empire and made sacrifices to the pagan gods. Should these "libelli" or "loose ones" be readmitted to the faith without much fuss, or should they, as Cyprian argued, be forced to undergo extensive public penance to demonstrate their commitment to the faith? The controversy continued. Cyprian's opponents seized the opportunity to further undermine his authority. A rival bishop was elected and there was considerable confusion as one pope succeeded another, but, ultimately, the authority of the Church in Rome prevailed, and the libelli were forced to repent, and Cyprian's authority was confirmed...sort of.

Church politics aside, it's hard to follow a leader in whom one has no confidence. Cyprian's ministry was never free of conflict. His departure during the Decian persecution was seen as a betrayal that he couldn't quite shake...until his death. In 256 a new persecution erupted, this time under the Emperor Valerian. He ordered that all Christian deacons, priests, and bishops should be executed without hesitation. Among the many who were arrested and killed were two popes. This time Cyprian did not run. When arrested, he admitted that he was a Christian. When asked for the names of the priests under his supervision, he refused to identify them. When asked whether he would reconsider and abandon the Christian faith, he replied, "A good will which knows God cannot be altered." Under arrest, he wrote a letter to the faithful, exhorting the godly benefits of giving one's life for the sake of Christ, a sentence he received when he was beheaded in Carthage in 258.

What's the difference between a shepherd and a good shepherd? Jesus says, "The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away." "The good shepherd," he says, "lays down his life for the sheep." What sort of shepherd are you--a hired hand or a good shepherd?

Some might think that the title "good shepherd" belongs only to Jesus. Perhaps, with capital letters, that is a unique designation. But Peter wrote, "Do not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock. And when the chief shepherd appears, you will win the crown of glory that never fades away." (1 Peter 5:1-4, 10-11). Surely the one who heard Jesus say, "Tend my lambs" and "Feed my sheep," understood what it meant to be a good shepherd to God's people, but he uses the term "chief shepherd" instead of "good shepherd" to describe Jesus, and I think partly that's because Peter understood that all of those who lead other disciples of Jesus have a calling to serve them as good shepherds.

You may not be a bishop. You may not be a priest. You may not be a senior warden or a Sunday school teacher or a youth advisor. But you are called to be a good shepherd--to stand up and not run away. Does that mean martyrdom? I think it does--perhaps not a physical martyrdom but a spiritual one. What does it mean to sacrifice your life for the sake of Christ--to lay yourself down in the service of others? Might you stand up to injustice even though it costs you some friends? Might you advocate for the poor even though such social reforms are unpopular? Might you stand up for racial justice even though the majority culture will label you as a traitor? In what way is God calling you to sacrifice your own success to pursue God's success? In what way are you supposed to take up your own cross and walk the road that leads to Calvary? In the end, Cyprian got it right: being a shepherd means giving everything up for the sake of others. Likewise, Jesus beckons us to stand and not run away.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Exegetical Uh-Oh

I like homiletical challenges. I enjoy preaching on Trinity Sunday and when Jesus tells us that anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery. I like tackling the tough doctrines and demands of the gospel. But Sunday's gospel lesson, the parable of the dishonest manager? That takes difficult to another order of magnitude.

Speaking to his disciples, Jesus tells a parable about a man whose boss found out that he had been neglecting his duties as manager. "Give me an account of your management," the owner said, sending the steward into a panic. "What will I do?" he asked. Unable to do physical work and too proud to beg, the man began to cut deals with his master's debtors, slashing their debts and currying favor with them. He was hoping that, when he was fired, he could call in those favors and live off of the payback.

All of that is clear to us. The neglectful manager becomes a dishonest manager. He's lazy and prideful and deceitful. And that's when things get strange. Just when we're sure that there's nothing good about this man, the owner finds out and says, "Well done, you shrewd son of a gun." The hearers of the parable are certain that the owner will punish the dishonest servant for his wickedness, but, instead, the master praises him. Say what?

There's no way to make this easy to understand. This is a really tough parable. And anyone who claims that they can explain it in a way that makes perfect sense is either lying to you or is lying to themselves about what the parable means.

Here are the four principles I want to keep in mind this week as I'm pondering this tough passage:

1. Jesus isn't teaching his disciples how to be good stewards of earthly resources. He's teaching them (and us) how to be good stewards of the kingdom. To put it simply, this is a parable. It's designed to teach us about something other than the narrative itself. This isn't about being a manager or being an owner. It's about being a disciple.

2. Don't confuse the owner's commendation for shrewdness with a commendation for dishonesty. In parables, sometimes the vehicle for conveying a message isn't the same as the message. In this already confusing passage, don't make things worse by mistaking the principle being celebrated with the attention-grabbing package it's wrapped in.

3. The comparison matters. After the parable is finished, Jesus gives us some insight into its meaning by comparing the "children of light" with the "children of this age." The former seem to lag behind their counterparts in shrewdness. The parable itself, therefore, is not an independent teaching on kingdom behavior. It's comparative. "Be more like the children of this age," Jesus is telling them. But don't forget #2 above. He's not urging them to be dishonest. He's calling on them to be more shrewd.

4. Locate this parable in the long, ongoing Lucan theme of the kingdom's priority. The strangeness of this story is partially mitigated when we remember that Luke has used several shocking teachings to demonstrate that the kingdom must come first (e.g. "anyone who puts hand to the plow" and the good Samaritan and "I came to bring fire"). Ever since the Transfiguration in Luke 9, after which Jesus "set his face to go to Jerusalem," we've seen that nothing can get in the way of the kingdom.

In the end, this parable is another teaching about the urgency of the kingdom. Just as the manager is faced with the sudden reality of his unemployment and responds with unabashed shrewdness, so too must the disciples recognize the sudden reality of the kingdom's advent and respond with kingdom shrewdness. Later this week, I'll write about the "dishonest wealth" that Jesus seems to see as a means by which those kingdom priorities can be accomplished, but, for now, I'm trying to remember that this parable may surprise us but its teaching shouldn't.

Unbreakable Love for the Lost

September 11, 2016 – The 17th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 19C
© 2016 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

When I was a little kid, my mother took my brother and me to visit our grandparents in Fayette. I don’t know how old I was, but it was back when there were still Gulf stations in Alabama, so I know that it was a while ago. I also know that I was old enough to go to the bathroom by myself but not old enough that my mother would let me use the men’s room—you know, in case I needed her help—so, when we pulled up behind the Gulf station in a tiny west Alabama town along the way, that’s where my mother told me to go—in the women’s bathroom. I objected but to no avail. So I walked into the restroom and locked the big metal door behind me. I finished my business and then washed and dried my hands, but, when I unlocked the door and pulled on the handle, it did not budge. I pulled harder: nothing. I locked the door and unlocked it again just to be sure, and I pulled and pulled with all of my might. Nothing. I banged on the door with both fists and yelled as loud as I could. I shook the door with all my strength. Nothing. I placed my ear against the door to see if I could hear my mother on the other side, but I heard…nothing.

Looking back, even I am surprised at how quickly my mind went to a dark, desperate place. Not even old enough to use the men’s room, I looked at the sink and wondered how long I could live on water alone. “Could I eat those paper towels?” I asked myself. “Is that enough to live on?” As I pondered my mortality and the possibility that the paper towel dispenser hanging on the white tile wall might forestall it, it occurred to me that the gas station attendant on the other side of that wall might be able to help. So I pounded on the wall and screamed as loud as I could. I waited but, again, nothing. Minutes that felt like hours went by. Finally, resigned to whatever fate lay ahead, it occurred to me that some other woman would likely come to the Gulf station to use the bathroom, and I began to wonder what sort of family I might have to go and live with. Would they like me? Would they be nice to me? Or would they treat me the way that all the wicked stepmothers treated the children in the fairytales I had heard?

It did not matter that my mother loved me. It did not matter that she would never leave me. It did not matter that there is nothing in this world that could pull me away from her love. In my mind, I was lost and there was no hope. When she finally shoved opened the door, I collapsed onto the floor in a puddle of tears. She picked me up and held me. In between sobs, I screamed at her, “Where have you been? Why did you wait so long?” She tried to assure me that she never would have left me there by myself, but her words did not matter. In my moment of panic, nothing else mattered. When I was locked in that bathroom, the only thing that I could believe was that I was lost forever.

Should it surprise us, then, that people have a hard time believing that God loves them and will never leave them no matter how lost their lives may be?

I want you to know that I do not believe that God changes his mind. I know what it says in the reading from Exodus. I know that right there it says it as plain as day: “the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.” But I want you to know that I don’t believe it. That might seem pretty risky—the preacher disagreeing with what the bible clearly says—but the bible also says in Malachi that the Lord does not change, so I’ll take my chances with the bishop and the heresy police. Now, I think that there are plenty of times when it seems like God changes his mind, but I am convinced that God doesn’t really work that way.

When Moses came down the mountain and found that the people of God—the people whom God himself had miraculously rescued from slavery in Egypt—had made a golden calf and were worshipping it, calling it the god who had saved them, I bet it seemed certain that God was going to wipe all of them out and start over with Moses. Why wouldn’t he? This was the definition of faithlessness. God’s people had completely given up on him. Why wouldn’t God unleash his fiery wrath and consume them so that he might start again with a new people? Because, as Moses reminded God (or, perhaps, reminded us) in his prayer, God is the one who had made a promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, saying, “I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.” And, no matter how faithless we are, God is always faithful. Just when we are sure that God is going to abandon those who have turned their backs on him, God surprises us in a way that doesn’t make sense—a surprise so great that it could only be described as God changing his mind. And why? Because that’s who God is: the one whose promise of love and mercy are certain.

That’s what Jesus shows us. He didn’t just spend time with the wayward and lost. He welcomed them. He ate with them. These “tax collectors and sinners” were people whose entire lives were defined by their sin—not just the “sinners” that preachers like me like to remind you that all of us are but the kind of sinners for whom their sin had become an unshakable label. Just as we might call someone a “prostitute” or a “drug dealer” or a “pedophile” in a way that assumes that person could never be separated from his or her misdeeds, these “tax collectors and sinners” were those who had no place in the religious life of God’s people. They were the ones on whom everyone knew God had already given up. When it came to God, they had no hope. But Jesus showed them something different. He didn’t just speak to them or nod politely as they passed each other on the street. He sat down at table with them. He shared a meal with them. He enjoyed the same intimate exchanges with them over dinner that we enjoy with our closest friends and family. These were his people, his disciples, his friends. And the religious leaders were scandalized by it.

“Look at him!” they said to each other. “He claims to be a prophet, but no prophet of God would welcome sinners like that.” It is easy for those of us with access to religion and the power it brings to know what God wants and thinks and approves. Those of us who have a place in church—who are allowed to enter the courts of the righteous—can’t help but know the kind of people whom God is proud of, the ones whom God truly loves, the people at whose table God is likely to be found. And it’s even easier for those who don’t have that access—whose lives are defined by their sin—to assume the same thing: that God is not with them, that God has forsaken them, that God has abandoned them. And why wouldn’t he? Why wouldn’t the God of holiness turn his back on the wicked? Because Jesus shows us that’s not who God is.

“Who among you,” Jesus asked, “having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine behind to go and search for the one that is lost? Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp and sweep the house until she finds it?” Some scholars find it fascinating—even shocking—that Jesus would liken God to a woman, but what’s more controversial: that God would be depicted as a woman or that God would be described as being down on God’s hands and knees, searching with a lamp, scouring the house for one lost sinner?[1] The scandal of Jesus Christ is that he shows the religious world that God is not to be found in the company of the righteous but in the fellowship of sinners. Jesus reveals that God’s heart belongs not to the pure and the holy but to the sinful and the wicked. God’s love does not pursue those who are good. “Those who are well have no need of a physician.” God’s love searches out those who are so completely lost that they don’t even know how to hope.

I hope you’re here this morning because you’re looking for Jesus—because you believe that Jesus Christ can bring you back into the presence of God. And I hope you expect to find him here. I do. I believe that Jesus is here, and I believe with all my heart that he is the one who can help us find our home in God. But I hope you’re not expecting to find him here because this is a church full of saints. We might be saints, but God is here because we’re sinners. We are his lost, wayward children—all of us—and God is here to find each and every one of us. No matter how lost you are, no matter how hopeless your cause may be, no matter how unlikely it may seem that God would be down on God’s hands and knees searching for you, believe it. God won’t change his mind. He has promised to love you forever and always.

[1] Thanks to Steve Pankey for the image of God being down on God’s hands and knees, searching for the one lost sinner.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

The Liberating Trap of Total Depravity

Early this week, when I read the lessons for this Sunday, I almost stopped with the collect. Before I had even made it to the first lesson, I was hooked. As is often the case, this week's collect is a tiny, largely unnoticed injection of good old-time theology into our worship. Will anyone hear it? Will the clergyperson even notice what she or he has said? I hope so.

"O God, because without you we are not able to please you..." BOOM! Stop right there. Don't go any further. Let the magnitude of those hopeful-because-they're-damning words sink in. We are not able to please God without God's help. Forget a fundamentalist preacher waiving his bible at the congregation, shouting out the dangers of sin and the certainty of hellfire. This is far more effective. This is subtle. This so simple it's complex. This is the human condition and God's grace all wrapped into one brief introductory clause.

We are not able to please God without God's help. So where does religion even start? Meaningful, hopeful religion is not nor can ever be humanity's attempt to bridge the gap between itself and the divine. That effort is doomed to fail. Always. See the tower of Babel. See the golden calf. See Jesus' cleansing of the temple. Real religion--Christian or otherwise--must be premised upon a gift from God. It must be God's initiative. It can only come at God's invitation. God speaks and gifts us with the possibility of pleasing God and, thus, finding the true meaning and direction for our life. This is the foundation upon which right religion must be built--God enabling humanity to please God. If that isn't good news, I don't know what is.

Why is that good news? Because once we realize that the possibility of pleasing God is only enabled through God's help we discover that we aren't in this by ourselves--that it isn't up to us to get it right. Thanks be to God! I don't know about you, but I'm tired of going on first dates...and I haven't been on one in fifteen years! I want and need someone who loves me even though I'm certain to screw it all up time and time again despite my best (and sometimes not my best) efforts. If it's up to me to make anyone--especially God--happy with me, I'm sunk before I even start. But thanks be to God that God knows that, accepts that, and enables that inability and insufficiency to be transcended by his grace.

Unless we accept this as our starting point--that a positive relationship with God is only possible through God's help--we're stuck in the trap of trying harder with no way out. That is our trap--our efforts can't get us out--but starting in that spot is what makes it possible to know that we are loved beyond our efforts. That's grace. That's the gospel.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

For Vocation in Daily Work

For Vocation in Daily Work
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

I remember the first time that I told my boss that he wasn't paying me enough. I had had my annual review, and everything seemed to be positive. I felt like I was growing in my contribution to the organization, but, when he told me what my raise would be, it did not seem to match what he had told me about my performance. Yes, I was grateful for a raise, but, according to the pattern that had been established in our workplace, the modest increase I was to receive suggested to me that I either hadn't done as good of a job as I had been led to believe or the company wasn't expressing the value of my contribution through my salary. So I said to him, "Thanks. I appreciate the raise, but I hope you'll tell me that it is what it is because you can't afford to pay me any more and not because you think that's what I'm worth."

Although money is important, it isn't everything. More important to me than the amount I was being paid was the message that salary was communicating to me. Was I valued? Was I important? Did the organization depend on me? Did it appreciate my talents and my hard work? In management, salary is known as a "hygiene factor." Accordingly, what one gets paid isn't what motivates that person. Motivating factors include challenging and meaningful work, recognition for a job well done, involvement in key decisions, and feeling important to the organization as a whole. Those are the things that inspire a person to do good, hard, substantial work. Salary, on the other hand, is called a "hygiene factor" because, along with work conditions, job security, and other benefits, if the salary doesn't reflect what a person things he or she is worth, dissatisfaction creeps in. The right motivating factors can inspire workers to do a good, satisfying job, but inadequate hygiene factors can cause true dissatisfaction. That's true about human nature, but I wonder what it says about the kingdom of God.

"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth," Jesus said in Matthew 6:19-24, "but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven." That's easy for him to say. He didn't have any children to send to college. But, of course, Jesus isn't giving investment advice; he's giving kingdom advice. He's inviting us to see what it means to value our lives and our work in heavenly terms. What does it mean for us to consider the value of our labor not in terms of what we get paid but in terms of the value of our contribution to the kingdom of God? Whether we are preachers or evangelists or apostles, teachers or doctors or lawyers, farmers or plumbers or truck drivers, what is the value of our work in terms that are bigger even than this life? What is the gospel value of our labor?

"It is God's gift," the author of Ecclesiastes writes, "that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil." God's gift to us is that we should derive deep and abiding pleasure from our work. I think it's worth noting that this is the same author who writes, "Vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?" (Ecclesiastes 1:1-2). This poet has no illusion that the value of our labor can be quantified in a worker's paycheck or a builder's building or a farmer's harvest. All of that, he writes, is vanity. The true measure of good work is the godly satisfaction we get from laboring toward something that we cannot see--something that we cannot measure--our participation in the life we all share.

What will motivate you in your work for God's kingdom? And by that I don't mean "church work" like teaching Sunday school or serving as an usher or arranging altar flowers. I mean your labor, your calling, your vocation. How is God calling you to devote your labor to the good of his kingdom? God's kingdom needs factory workers as much as it needs preachers. It needs pipe fitters as much as it needs choir members. Devoting your own work to God's kingdom begins by measuring the value of that work in heavenly terms. "No one can serve two masters...You cannot serve God and wealth." Perhaps God is calling you to take a vow of poverty, but, more likely, God is calling you to stop measuring the value of your labor in terms of a paycheck and start thinking of how your work is deeply satisfying as a citizen of the kingdom of God. If the only measure of your life's work is wealth, that will fade away as quickly as your corpse will rot in the ground. That is vanity. There's real value in laboring for the kingdom--a treasure that lasts.

If the Label Fits...

One of the benefits of writing a sermon for a weekday service is that it forces me to wait until later in the day to write a typical post about the lessons for this coming Sunday. Because of that, I have the benefit of reading what other people have written, and that gives me the chance to build upon their work or engage it in a dialogue or argument even though that wasn't the intent of the author. Today, I want to engage with what Steve Pankey wrote today about sinners. It's a great, short post, and I hope you'll read it first.

In that post, Steve distinguishes between what we often think of as "sinners"--all people who have fallen short of the glory of God and, thus, need God's forgiveness--and what Luke has in mind in Sunday's gospel lesson (Luke 15:1-10)--a particularly notorious class of people who were defined by their sin. To make that point, he quotes Greg Carey: "Congregations may stumble over the term sinner, especially if they are well educated in Christian doctrine. 'Aren’t we all sinners?' some may protest. Not in Luke’s world. In Luke’s world, some people so habitually transgress the ways of God that they are sinners in need of repentance. Others do not."

Think about that for a moment. Yes, we're all sinners, but Luke isn't trying to make that point. (I'd argue that he isn't trying to refute that point, either; it's just not on his radar.) Luke wants us to see that there are two kinds of people in Jesus' world: saints and sinners--holy ones and unholy ones. Sure, a lot of people fell somewhere in between, but on either end of the societal spectrum were individuals whom everybody recognized. The Pharisees and scribes were those who were defined by their holiness, and the sinners and tax collectors were those who were defined by their wickedness. This encounter involves not the vast majority of people somewhere in between über-holiness and über-sinfulness but the people on the margins.

Jesus is eating with tax collectors and sinners, and the Pharisees and scribes were grumbling about it. This isn't a group of goodie-goodies grousing about the rabbi's sermon on welcoming the outcast. It's more extreme than that. This is the board of deacons shocked and appalled that the minister is having a rowdy dinner at the local strip club. As Steve rightly points out, the "sinners" that Jesus is dining with have no place in the religious life of Israel. They were so bad that, according to the religious expectations of the day, there wasn't any reason for them to try. In modern, Christianized terms, they were so sinful that they could not come to church. They were not welcome. Their very presence would disrupt the entire worship service. Yet Jesus ate with them. What does that tell us about God? What does it tell us about the sinners? And what does it tell us about the holy ones who would have excluded the sinners in the first place?

The image of the banquet table is a central expression of the hopes of God's people. Who gets to come to that table? Jesus shows us that notorious sinners get to eat at that table. But what about the Pharisees? What about the individuals who are defined by their holiness? They don't want to eat at the same table as the sinners. They'd rather not take part in that version of God's kingdom. So are they left out? What value does their supposed holiness have? Do they still have access to God? Apparently not.

I get Luke's point and Steve's point: this passage is about Jesus sharing a meal with religion's rejects. And that is challenging for those who appeal to religion for an understanding of what it means to have a right relationship with God. But I'd suggest that this passage isn't only about radical welcome. Nor is it simply about a rejection of the apparatus for righteousness embraced by the Pharisees and scribes. It's also about those of us in the middle--the vast majority of sinful saints or saintly sinners, depending on your willingness to embrace a doctrine of human depravity. Regardless, it's clear that Jesus sets a table for the wicked. Religion of all stripes sets a table for the holy. Where will we find a seat? We may not be drug dealers and prostitutes, but the table for religion's righteous isn't where we want to be. There is no hope for us at that table. But, if we want a seat at Jesus' table, we must understand our own sinfulness--a label that we all wear.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Missing Parable?

Chapter 15 of Luke is a chapter of lost and found. The whole chapter consists of three parables: the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, and the parable of the two lost sons, which is more often called the parable of the prodigal son. Unfortunately for preachers, the last of the three was read back on Lent 4C, when it provided a refreshing moment of lightness halfway through the penitential season. Now we're tackling the other two, but I'm beginning to wonder whether that's even possible. Can one hear the parables of the lost sheep and lost coin and make sense of Jesus' message without the extravagant parable of the forgiving father and his two lost boys?

I don't know about you, but I've never had to go look for a lost sheep. I've misplaced a child or two, and I know what it means to drop everything and search for a kid who has run off, but I don't know what it means to look for a lost sheep. I've also learned over the years to be skeptical of Jesus' farming advice. Letting the weeds and the wheat grow together is a terrible idea, and, despite Jesus' warning, building bigger barns to contain one's abundant harvest isn't a bad plan. What about searching for a sheep? Does the shepherd really leave the ninety-nine alone in the wilderness to go looking for the one? Yes, there is an honor code associated with being a shepherd and giving one's all to the job, but I don't think it's smart for a shepherd to leave 99% of his assets unattended while searching for that stray 1%.

Likewise, I've lost coins, and I've even misplaced a hundred-dollar bill, and I've searched and searched for the money I've lost, but I've never called my neighbors together to rejoice with me when I found it. The other day, I misplaced my watch and spent a week wondering where it was. When I finally found it in the side zipper pocket of my golf bag, I took it inside and showed my wife, and we both laughed while I did a celebratory dance, but I didn't dance because the watch was of any real value. It's a Timex I got for $20 on I certainly didn't call my relatives and friends to celebrate my buffoonery with me, but the disproportionate joy I experienced over the watch's recovery is starting to get closer to the heart of the matter.

I think the original hearers of these parables would have scratched their heads and asked themselves, "What sort of shepherd or crazy lady is he talking about?" Unfortunately, modern readers have been distanced from Jesus' context by so many centuries that the counterintuitive nature of these teachings is largely lost. I'm not sure about this, but I suspect that shepherds didn't really leave 99 sheep in the dangerous desert to go searching for the one lost sheep. And I'm pretty sure that a woman who lost one silver coin didn't throw a party with her neighbors to celebrate its discovery. The point is that God does that even though we wouldn't normally think to. And that's a truth that is more easily seen in the third parable in the series--the story of the extravagant father who lavishes his love and forgiveness upon his disrespectful and wasteful son.

Without the prodigal son, the craziness of these parables gets missed. We say to ourselves, "Of course a shepherd would go looking for the lost sheep." Why? Because Jesus said so. But I think Jesus is making a different point. God's search for us is irrational. The calculus behind God's love isn't realistic. That's part of what makes God God. No, I'm not suggesting that we read the rest of Luke 15 to make the point. It's too long. But I think the power of these parables lies in their strangeness, and the preacher has the opportunity to showcase God's remarkable love by letting the parables be just that--strange testaments to God's ridiculous love.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

He Didn't Say Money

On Sunday, we'll hear Jesus say, "So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions." If you don't squirm in your seat when you hear it, you're likely either a member of a religious community who has already taken a vow of poverty or you've fallen asleep.

But, before you freak out (there will be time for that later), stop and consider this: Jesus never said anything about money.

The opening line of the gospel lesson (Luke 14:25-33) is equally disconcerting: "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." But somehow it's easier for me to assume Jesus was speaking hyperbolically when he says that I'm supposed to hate my family than it is to brush aside his call to give up all of my possessions? Why is that? Is it because I assume Jesus would never ask us to forsake our family but I somehow suspect he'd ask us to become poor? Why would he mean one and not the other?

I'm finding a strange sort of comfort in taking Jesus literally, but, to do that, I need to remember not to put words into his mouth. The word translated "possessions" is a strange sort of word. It's a participle form of the verb that means "to make a beginning" or "to come forth" or "to be at hand." It's the last of those that has the link to possessions. In some sense, however, Jesus is saying, "None of you can be my disciple if you do not give up all of your being-at-handness." Think about that. It's not just about possessions--it's about access.

It's not fair to say that Jesus is asking us to give up the "creature comforts" of life because it's more than merely yielding our Yeti tumblers and Roomba vaccuums, but there is a sense of yielding of the availability of what we have that is behind this. Yes, we are told to forsake the things we own, but it's also more than that. It means that we are supposed to give up a life in which we can reach into our knapsack and pull out whatever it is that we need for the journey. It's an abandonment of resources more generally. This isn't simply about poverty. It's about a posture.

Following Jesus doesn't always mean being poor, but it does always mean giving up anything and everything that distracts us from the kingdom. The ease of life that we take for granted--the support network of family, the job that doesn't fire us when we're sick, the church that lets us show up when it's convenient for us--those things must go away or at least our reliance on them must.

Sometimes we need to spend a weekend in the wilderness with nothing other than the clothes on our back. Will we make it? Can we survive? What will it teach us? You can't follow Jesus if you're checking your e-mail on your smartphone during your child's soccer game. You can't be a disciple of Jesus if you're trust is in the nest egg you've built up. Yes, in truth that means we need to take a vow of poverty. No, I haven't figured that one out yet. But I'm listening. And I'm listening more to Jesus telling me to strip everything down and turn only to him. Money is a part of that, but it's not the whole thing. It's even more challenging than that. Jesus is asking me to give up a life of ownership. I no longer even get to own my own life.