Monday, October 31, 2016

Jesus Loves Us out of a Tree

October 30, 2016 – The 24th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 26C
© 2016 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
When was the last time you climbed a tree? Not to put a deer stand in it. Not to cut some limbs out of it. Not to get a lost cat or a lost ball or a lost child down from it. When was the last time you climbed a tree just for the sake of climbing a tree?

In our front yard, there is a big magnolia tree, and our kids love to climb it. I think magnolia trees always make the best climbing trees. There are lots of sturdy limbs to climb up and plenty of large green leaves to hide behind. The tree in our yard doesn’t have many low branches, so the kids need a boost up to the first level, but, once they get started, they can go as high as they want. And, every year, they get brave enough to go a little bit higher.

Growing up, we had a magnolia tree in our back yard, too. Well, it wasn’t really in our back yard. It was just over the property line in our neighbor, Mrs. Beck’s, back yard. It was the perfect tree for climbing. You could climb it all the way to the very tip top and sit in the little spot where the five highest limbs spread out like a star. You could sit there and survey the whole neighborhood with the pride of a kid who had accomplished something. But Mrs. Beck was an older woman who had forgotten how much fun it was to climb a tree. If she heard us laughing and carrying on amidst her tree’s branches, she would come out of her house and yell at us to get down. We weren’t hurting her tree, and, as long as we were careful, we weren’t going to do ourselves any harm either, but Mrs. Beck didn’t care. She didn’t want any of that. It was as if she couldn’t stand for us kids to have fun.

When Zacchaeus heard that Jesus was passing through Jericho, I like to think that it was the child inside of him that made him think to climb a tree to get a better look. I have been to plenty of Mardi Gras parades where I was too short to see past the people in front of me, and I never considered climbing a tree. Who would do that? It’s so undignified. It’s so childish. But Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus, and there was something about Jesus that awakened a spark within him—a spark which had been dormant inside that little man for many years. That spark was a child who didn’t care what people thought, who wasn’t worried about ripping his pants or dirtying up his sleeves. It was the child inside of him who had nothing to lose—that was the child in Zacchaeus which led him up that tree.

When Zacchaeus heard that Jesus would be passing through his town, an uncontainable excitement began to well up inside of him. Jesus was the rabbi who was known for eating with tax collectors and sinners. He was the religious figure who spent time with those whom religion had rejected. He was one who cared about outcasts like Zacchaeus. For many years, Zacchaeus had been excluded from the temple and the synagogue. He was a chief tax collector, which means that he made his living by forcing his fellow Jews to pay taxes to the unholy Roman Empire. He worked for the occupying force, the ones who denied the people of God their God-promised freedom. And he was good at it. He had risen through the ranks and become a leader among the backstabbers and extortionists. He was rich, which means that he had become rich off the backs of his own people. No one would accept him. He wasn’t allowed to participate in the religious life of his people. In effect, he had no people. He had lost his place among the people of God. He had no access to the Almighty.

But Jesus preached a different message—one of forgiveness and acceptance and renewal. The thought that a prominent rabbi might offer him a kind word or even a handshake—a small but not insignificant sign that there was hope for sinners like Zacchaeus—was more than he could stand. The thought sent him into a gleeful tizzy. He had to see Jesus. This was his only hope. And so he climbed that sycamore tree not only so that he could see Jesus but also so that Jesus could see him.

“Zacchaeus,” Jesus called out, “hurry and come down from there, for I must stay at your house today.” It was more than the chief tax collector could have even dreamed. He had been singled out. Jesus had chosen him. When the people standing by saw what was happening, all of them—everyone—began to grumble. “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner!” they exclaimed with a mixture of disbelief and jealous rage. They knew who Zacchaeus was—chief tax collector, chief traitor, chief sinner—and that’s the man with whom Jesus chose to dine? But, when Jesus looked up in that tree, he saw something different—something that no one else could see. Jesus saw a child—a fragile, broken, hopeful child of God who had climbed a tree so that he could see Jesus and so that Jesus could see him. And, when Jesus saw that child-like hope perched up in that tree, Jesus called to that child and said, “Come down; I choose you.”

Inside each of us is a child who wants what Zacchaeus wants. We may not be shunned from our church the way that Zacchaeus was. And we may not make our living off the backs of our neighbors the way he did. Our sins may not be for public consumption the way his were. But we’re no different. Inside all of us is the same uncertainty. Beneath all the layers of pretending, we have the same anxieties that Zacchaeus had. Do we belong? Will we be accepted? Are we lovable? The child within us only wants to be loved. That child is willing to risk embarrassment and ridicule and shame if only someone will wrap his arms around it and welcome it and love it. We all want to be loved—honestly, deeply, just as we are. And Jesus Christ sees that child inside of us and calls to it and says, “Come down, for I must dwell in your heart today.”

If we let that child within us show itself to Jesus, if we let Jesus call to us and welcome us with open arms, an incredible transformation happens. Without hesitation, Zacchaeus gave away half of his possessions and promised to restore four-fold anything he had gotten dishonestly. This was a liberality of the soul—a largesse of spirit—that can only come forth when we are truly loved. Love like that has the power to set us free. It has the power to change us into people with nothing to lose, children of God who are confident that there is nothing that can hurt us, nothing that can defeat us, nothing that can take us away from God’s love. Inside of each of us, there is a child that is willing to risk everything to receive complete, total, and perfect love like that. Will that child come out and show itself to Jesus? Will it climb a tree and say, “Here I am! Pick me! Love me!”
Take off the mask. Stop pretending. Don’t worry what people will think. Jesus can already see the child inside of you. Jesus can see that you want to be loved. Let him love you. Let him call to you. Let him dwell with you. Let that love transform you. And let him say, “You are a child of God. You belong to me.”

Now and Later

It's Halloween. It's Reformation Day, too, but that isn't an official liturgical observance in the Episcopal Church. Next year, on the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther publishing his 95 Theses on the door of All Saints' Church in Wittenberg, I'll probably write on it anyway, but, today, I want to write about the Halloween candy that perfectly expresses the theology of sainthood that the Episcopal Church has never seemed to figure out: Now and Laters.

Image by Evan-Amos - Own work, Public Domain,

Who are saints? Saints are God's holy ones--those who, through faith in God, are made holy by God. They are anyone and everyone who shares in the promise of new and abundant life in Jesus Christ. That's you. That's me. That's all of us who follow Jesus as forgiven, redeemed, transformed children of God. And among us are those who, by the grace of God, live in this life with such a clear connection to and confidence in God's promise that their witness strengthens our faith in that same promise.

These saints of note aren't any different from us in their holiness. Just like us, their holiness (i.e. "sainthood") is a gift from God. In their case, however, the church has taken notice of their witness and has decided to hold it up as an example of the power of faith to bring God's kingdom forward into this world more fully. Is your grandmother a saint? Actually, yes, if she is a disciple of Jesus, she is a saint, too. Should we remember her in our liturgical calendar? Well, maybe, if her distinctive witness draws the whole church closer to God. But, whether these saints are known only to God or known also to their immediate families or congregations or, in rare cases, known throughout the world as the holy people of God, as followers of Jesus their lives must embody the "now and later" mindset of God's kingdom. In that regard, all of us are called to sainthood.

On All Saints' Day (November 1) or All Saints' Day Obsv. (November 6), we will hear Luke's version of the Beatitudes (Luke 6:20-13): "...Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled...Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry." Unlike Matthew, Luke adds these woes to his list of blessings. I think the same is implied in Matthew's version, but Luke draws that point out more clearly. Those who suffer in this life will be redeemed in the next, and those who enjoy plenty in this life will have naught in the next. Don't get too hung up on the temporal, physical, measurable nature of that proclamation. It's that, too, but start with the big picture. Ask yourself, "Do I believe that this is it, or do I believe that there is more ahead of us?" Those who have no faith that God's justice will come have no need to live for the future. Whether you suffer immensely or enjoy riches in this life, that's all there is. But those who have faith that God will bring all things to their completion--their perfect end--know that today's suffering or blessing is not the end. There's more.

Saints are those whose belief in God's future is real--real enough to know that that belief has implications in this life. Am I suffering now? Even if I am, I am still blessed because I believe that God will redeem me. Faith in God changes how we experience that suffering. It redeems it. Am I rich in this life? If so, I must share those riches with those who suffer because I know that I am a part of God's redemption. That's God's call for all of us. If we are followers of Jesus, we believe that our hope is not in this life, but, because we believe that God has a different future in store for us, we also believe that we are called to live and work as agents of that future while we are in the present. Our experience of the kingdom, therefore, is now and later.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

God Is Fed Up

Around our house, we run on a pretty tight weekday morning schedule. In order for our older two children to catch the bus, they need to leave the house at 7:00. If they are running late and don't have time to walk to catch the bus, we can drive them to catch the bus, but, even then, we have to leave by 7:10. If everything falls apart and they miss the bus completely, we have to leave by 7:20 or else we struggle get them both to school on time. Because of that, we wake up at 6:15 and try to make every second count.

Why is it, then, that my third-grader and first-grader, who have been doing this for at least three years now, cannot figure out that going upstairs and playing instead of brushing their teeth makes us furious? Why haven't they learned that, if they don't want their parents to be enraged, they should stay on task? Why do they think that simply apologizing when they've screwed it up will get them out of trouble?

The prophet Isaiah asks those sorts of questions in Sunday's Track One lesson (Isaiah 1:10-18). "What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats.When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; ringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me." This lengthy passage about the futility of temple sacrifice is God's way of saying, "I'm fed up with your empty apologies. Why don't you try to get it right in the first place?"

What does God have in mind? That comes near the end of the passage. "Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow." In other words, do right in the first place. Don't rely on the mechanics of our religion--the cult of confession and forgiveness--to save you. Remember what this is all about in the first place: righteousness.

I wonder what God would say about the dominant religious voice in America today? Does contemporary Christianity care more about the mechanics of religion--church attendance, budgets, controversy, and property--or the needs of the poor? Do we spend more time figuring out how to pay bills or how to break the cycle of poverty. Are we pleading for a candidate who will make sure that our voice is heard or one who will make sure that the voices of the oppressed, the orphan, and the widow are heard?

As Isaiah reminds us, this is not an exclusively Christian phenomenon or a modern one. Caring more about ourselves and our way of worshipping than God's mission of peace, justice, and wholeness for all has always plagued us. When will we listen? Maybe a better question is when will today's religious leaders take up the prophet's voice? When will preachers like me not only talk or blog about justice and righteousness but change our focus accordingly? How much of my time is spent maintaining a religion--sermons, budgets, bible studies, staff meetings, stewardship drives, capital campaigns--and how much is spent doing justice--demonstrating, calling representatives, holding rallies, meeting with the poor, tackling racism, combatting violence? I'm not preaching on Isaiah this week, but I'll be listening carefully this Sunday and praying that the prophet's words grab hold of my heart and the hearts of others.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Conflicting Labels

When I think of the story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10), I think of the children's song: "Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he." It isn't nice to identify someone by his stature, but that's typically what makes Luke's story compelling. Zacchaeus was too short to see Jesus, so he climbed a tree to get a better view. That image sticks with us. But there are other labels in this story that are arguably more powerful.

Before we get to any mention of stature, Luke introduces Zacchaeus to us with two labels that spell trouble for the wee man: "he was a chief tax collector and was rich." Tax collectors were traitorous Jews who worked for the evil Roman Empire, collecting (often extorting) revenue from their countrymen. They worked on commission, and anything extra they collected was how they made a living. A "chief tax collector" is bad enough, but to call him rich means that he was good at his job or, in other words, that he was particularly insistent and cruel in his methods. Modern-day debt collectors could learn a lesson from Zacchaeus.

By the end of the gospel lesson, however, Jesus gives Zacchaeus another label that directly contradicts the previous identifications. Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham." If there was any title that a rich chief tax collector did not deserve, it was "son of Abraham." Sure, genetically speaking, Zacchaeus was a descendant of Abraham. All Jews were/are. But his behavior and occupation and the cultural identity that they gave him would have denied him such an affiliation. His treachery would have prohibited his participation in the religious life of his people. In a very real way, his Jewishness was suspended. He lost his place in the community of Abraham's children. But Jesus sees something else: "he, too, is a son of Abraham."

The theological question I puzzle over is when that identity shone through. Right before Jesus pronounces this restored label, Zacchaeus promised to give half of his possessions to the poor and restore anyone he has defrauded four-fold. Jesus' statement seems to be in response to that. Was Zacchaeus' charity and effort at reconciliation required for the "son of Abraham" label to be reapplied to this lost child? Or did it happen earlier? Did Jesus coming to dine with him and the opportunity for hospitality that that visit presented effect the change in Zacchaeus' heart? In other words, were the charitable words a response to Jesus' visit and evidence of a salvation that had already occurred? Perhaps. Or did it happen even earlier? When Zacchaeus could not see Jesus, did he climb the tree because he knew that the opportunity for salvation was drawing near? Was Jesus' offer to dine with him the Lord's way of highlighting a conversion that had already begun?

It's easy for me to get lost in the process. I enjoy dissecting things. I like knowing how things work. But I'm not sure that's helpful here. I feel drawn back to the beginning and the end--to the rich chief tax collector who emerges as a son of Abraham. What happens in the middle happens. Charity and reconciliation and invitation and hospitality and investigation and humility--they are all part of the process, but it isn't necessarily linear. And, while all of the components are important (perhaps essential), to force an "A follows B follows C" model overshadows the real conversion. Jesus came to seek out and save the lost. He even says so. If you're preaching on this passage, don't get lost in the weeds. Remember that Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector who was rich, met Jesus, and Jesus gave him back his identity as a beloved son of Abraham. There are too many people in the pews who need to hear that for us to focus on anything else.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Someone's Brother

"Where did this man get all this?" the people asked. "Isn't he Mary's son? Aren't his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? Don't we know his sisters, too?" Isn't it interesting that the gospel writers bother to tell us what sort of reception Jesus had in his hometown? Matthew points out for us that Jesus did not do many deeds of power in that place because of the people's unbelief. Mark even implies a causal relationship, writing that Jesus "could do no mighty work there" because the people who knew him as a child and who knew his family could not accept that in him God was doing something special. Why would they bother to tell us that? Isn't that the sort of detail an evangelist would normally leave out? Doesn't the "authorized biographer" usually skip the critical parts and only give us the flattering bits? What is it supposed to teach us, therefore, that those who knew Jesus as the hometown kid had a hard time believing that he was more than that?

One of the important themes of the gospel is that we belong to God. In Christ, we are made God's beloved children. The overwhelming adoption that we receive overshadows any other familial relationships we have. Whoever follows Jesus must hate father and mother and sister and brother. Why? Not because family relationships are ungodly but because our relationship to God and to each other in Christ is so important that it must become primary. Even the most fundamental relationships we have grown up to depend on are subordinated to the relationships we gain as children of God. It's not only a question of relationship. It's also a question of identity.

I did not grow up as someone else's younger brother. I don't know what it's like to have my teacher say on the first day of school, "Oh, you're Paul's brother!" I did not follow in the footsteps of a sibling. But, in the small town where I grew up, I was Doug and Emily's son. Whenever I got into trouble, the adult who caught me always said, "Aren't you Doug and Emily's son?" Whenever I was recognized for an achievement, I was told, "I know your parents, and I know that they are proud." Because of that, I've always felt more comfortable in my hometown as kid-all-grown-up rather than as a preacher. Sure, people in Fairhope know that I've gone to seminary and have been ordained, but it doesn't feel like that's who I am in that context. If it's hard for me to merge those two identities and confidently claim my role as priest in a town where I was just a boy, imagine what that was like for Jesus or, for that matter, Jesus' brothers.

Because the feast was transferred from Sunday, today we remember St. James of Jerusalem. Even to this day, we remember him as "the brother of the Lord." But is that all he was? It seems that over time James became more than the brother of Jesus of Nazareth. He became his disciple--a brother of faith in Jesus the Christ. I don't know how it happened, but, by the time the church faced its first major controversy, James was in a position of ecclesiastical authority. At the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, after receiving testimony from Paul and Barnabas about their missionary work to the Gentiles and hearing from Peter about his vision and the subsequent gift of the Holy Spirit to Cornelius and the other Gentiles, James pronounced the decision that Gentiles would be accepted into the faith without needing to be circumcised as long as they abstained from sexual immorality, things polluted by idols, and food that was strangled or had blood in it. You know--the basics.

How did James get that authority? How did he leave behind his identity as the younger brother who always got in the way of Jesus and his friends and become a leader in the church. It's cannot only be because he grew up in the same home as Jesus. He doesn't speak to the assembly as the Lord's brother. He is simply James, and James speaks to the men gathered together, calling them "brothers." His identity has changed. Although his identity is still built upon Jesus, it isn't one that depends on a biological relationship but on a spiritual one. Even James has transcended his earthly identity in favor of a heavenly one. Might we do the same?

You are a son of God. You are a daughter of God. You are a brother or sister of Christ. Together, we are God's family. It does not matter what household you grew up in. It does not matter whether you were born a Jew or a Gentile, black or white, rich or poor, an American or a foreigner, Republican or Democrat. In Christ, you have a new identity--one that matters more than any other identity you have. You are a part of God's family. If you haven't found an identity beyond that of someone's child, someone's sibling, someone's parent, someone's spouse, consider leaving home behind. Christ has given you a new identity. He calls you to a new home. May we live together as members of the family of God.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Luke and Tax Collectors

I feel like I've heard a lot about tax collectors lately. This Sunday we will read about Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector and wee little man who climbed a tree to see Jesus in Luke 19:1-10. Yesterday, we heard the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector and their revealing prayers in Luke 18:9-14. But it's more than that. Jesus has been eating with tax collectors, inviting the ire of the religious elites. He called Matthew, a tax collector, to be one of his disciples. And the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin and the two lost sons were told to those who grumbled because, again, Jesus kept company with tax collectors and other sinners. Perhaps it's time to stop and put the pieces together to see what sort of picture Luke paints of Jesus' interactions with some of the most hated people of his day.

Mark gives us a glimpse into this behavior with the calling of Levi and the dinner in his house (Mark 2), but that's pretty much all of the attention that tax collectors get in his gospel account. Matthew mentions tax collectors more often, but the picture remains incomplete. Sometimes Jesus is eating with them, but other times he is critical of them (e.g. "...let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector" in Matt. 18:17). John doesn't really mention them at all. Luke, however, takes the time to build his gospel around them. Over and over, they are featured. This repetition feels exhaustive. As I prepare for another sermon, I find myself wondering what more could possibly be said about how Jesus welcomes tax collectors, and the religious authorities don't like that.

Zacchaeus, however, is an opportunity to round out Jesus' ministry to tax collectors with a transformative encounter. Some people cite John 3:16 or the parable prodigal son as the gospel in miniature, but I think this story does a better job. In this story, we have sin, conviction, investigation, invitation, response, reconciliation, and salvation. In other cases, we have seen Jesus welcome tax collectors, defend tax collectors, invite tax collectors to follow him, and even proclaim the justification of a penitent tax collector, but the full conversion story has remained implicit. This one feels different. In a very clear way, this feels like the pinnacle of Luke's gospel for tax collectors, and I don't think it's an accident that Zacchaeus is identified as a "chief" tax collector.

As I prepare for this week's sermon, I am drawn to two different aspects of Zacchaeus' story--his initiative and his response. One of the reasons we teach this story to children is the childlike way that this short man climbed a tree to get a better look at Jesus. What does it tell us that Zacchaeus sought out Jesus? What does it represent that he was willing to climb a tree? The other part I find interesting is the chief tax collector's response to Jesus' visit: "Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much." I haven't cracked open a commentary yet, but that feels like an over-the-top, fully committed, all-in way of embracing Jesus' message. What is our response to Jesus' visit? Will we give up that which stands in the way of our full participation in God's kingdom?

Yesterday, with the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector, I reminded the congregation that anyone who denies God's love and mercy to another cannot experience the fullness of that love. This week, I'm building on that message by asking them to consider what our response to that undeserved love must be. If Part One was "everyone gets it," then Part Two is "what will you do with it?" Stay tuned.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Pharisee, Tax Collector, and You

October 23, 2016 – The 23th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 25C
Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22; 2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18; Luke 18:9-14
© 2016 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
How far away from us is God’s kingdom? Is it a question of distance best approximated in lightyears, miles, yards, or feet? Or is it an issue of time to be measured in millennia, centuries, decades, or years? Is the kingdom close enough for us to see it? Is it as far away as a dream? Is it right here among us yet always beyond our grasp? Jesus came to bring God’s kingdom here on earth, but some days it feels like that kingdom is slipping further and further away. What is it that keeps us from fully living into God’s kingdom? What stands in the way of God’s dream—the dream Jesus came to make a reality? Well, in the words of Walt Kelly’s comic strip Pogo, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Kelly’s phrase is a perfect summary of the human condition, and it comes from a parody of Captain Oliver Hazard Perry’s braggadocious report to General William Henry Harrison after his decisive naval victory at the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812. Perry wrote, “We have met the enemy, and they are ours,” implying a lopsided defeat of the British. Of course, sometimes our greatest accomplishment becomes our heaviest liability. Perry was decorated as a war hero, but that recognition seems to have gone to his head. After that, his cockiness got him into trouble, and, within a year, he was court-marshalled for slapping another officer in a skirmish. So quarrelsome was Perry that he was challenged to a pistol duel on two separate occasions. Finally, unwilling to step down from a fight, he insisted on brining formal charges against an old rival—another decorated war hero—and the Secretary of the Navy and President James Madison wanted to keep the controversy under wraps, so they sent Perry on a diplomatic mission to South America, where he contracted yellow fever and died.[1] We have met the enemy, and, more often than not, he is us.

Today’s gospel lesson is an invitation to recognize that the only distance between us and the kingdom of God is us. “Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” To whom do you think he’s speaking? Not us, right? Surely he’s not talking about us. Well, maybe half of that is directed at us. Sure, from time to time, we might be guilty of trusting in ourselves that we are righteous, but we would never hold others in contempt, right? At least not like that Pharisee. We’re better than that. We might grumble about the IRS, but we don’t look down at tax collectors the way that self-righteous prig did. If anything, we’re more like the tax collector. After all, Episcopalians love to brag about how they aren’t Baptists and how their minister will offer them a hardy “Hello!” in the liquor store. In fact, we’re so proud of our willingness to accept sinners of all stripes that the only people we hold in contempt are self-righteous Pharisees who think they’re better than everyone else. At least we’re not like them.

Let me tell you a story. In a small town, a woman whom everyone loved died. She had been the sixth-grade teacher in the town’s only school for as long as anyone could remember. Everyone who had grown up in that place had experienced the firm but loving guidance that she had offered hundreds of children over the years. When news of her death spread throughout the town, everyone was moved and made plans to go and pay his or her respects. Even the crazy town drunk, whom everyone held with a mixture of pity and disgust, wanted to go to the funeral. On the afternoon of the service, he walked up to the front of the funeral home but stopped short of the door. He wasn’t sure whether he could do it. Other than to stick his hand out and beg for change, he had avoided interactions with people for decades, but this teacher had meant the world to him. Back then, he was an awkward boy with a difficult home-life, and she was the last person he could remember who had taken the time to really care about him. Ever since the sixth grade, his life had spiraled steadily downward toward the lonely, hard existence he now inhabited. He knew what he had to do. So he steeled himself and walked in.

As soon as he stumbled into the parlor, one of the funeral directors placed a firm hand on his shoulder and grabbed him at the elbow with his other hand and said, “Why don’t you come this way with me? I think you’ll be more comfortable in another room,” leading him back toward the door he had just come through. Quietly and without looking the funeral director in the eye, the man whispered, “I’m sorry, sir. I know I’m not much to look at, but I loved that teacher, and she loved me, and all I want to do is say goodbye.” As the ragged, smelly, homeless man was taken from the room, two women standing in the line of visitors exchanged a knowing glance. One leaned in and whispered to the other in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear, “Thank goodness that is taken care of. I can’t believe he would do that—walk in here as if he belonged in line with the rest of us.” Her companion nodded in agreement. “It’s a shame, really. I suppose that could happen to anyone, but I thank God that it’s not me.”

Standing over in the corner watching the two women carry on was a man in a dark, well-tailored suit. Without saying a word, he shook his head and thought to himself, “What self-righteous hypocrites! They think that they’re so much better than everyone else. I thank God that I’m not a presumptuous Pharisee like them.”

You see, in Jesus’ parable, there are really three people involved: the tax collector, the Pharisee, and the person who hears the story. And that’s us. How do we feel when we hear this parable about a humble sinner and a self-righteous Pharisee? Isn’t our instinct to distance ourselves from the arrogance of the religious zealot and stare admirably at the penitent sinner? But Jesus didn’t tell this parable to a bunch of people who sympathized with the tax collector. He told it to some people who trusted in their own righteousness and regarded others with contempt. Isn’t he talking to us after all? Aren’t we guilty as charged?

Whether we stare with contempt at the tax collector or look at the Pharisee with condemnation, we are guilty of the same offense—trusting in our own righteousness and doubting the righteousness of others. The truth of the gospel is that none of us is righteous on his own. Jesus came and lived and died and rose again so that the whole world could be right with God. For all of us, therefore, being right with God is a gift that we are given and not something that we have earned. God gives us that gift not because of how holy we are or how humble we are but simply because God loves us, and he loves all of us exactly the same whether we are humble or hypocritical, sinful or saintly.

The only thing that gets in the way of our participation in that gift of righteousness is us—our ego, our pride, our self-centeredness. When you know that God has chosen you as his beloved son or daughter—when you know that Jesus’ blood was shed for believers like you—it’s easy to stand off in the corner and look at sinners and hypocrites with disdain. “Thank God I’m not like them,” we pray. But every inch, every foot, every yard that we put in between ourselves and those other people who need God’s love just as much as we do is a mile we put between ourselves and God’s kingdom. We cannot know God’s forgiving, redeeming, saving love if we deny that love to anyone else. That means our prayer must be the opposite of that of the Pharisee. We must pray, “I thank you God that I am just like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, tax collectors, hypocrites, and self-righteous prigs.” If we can’t see that we need God’s mercy just as much as they do, then we’re the one who is lost. Who is it that you have the hardest time believing that God loves as much as he loves you? Whoever it is, until you can stand before God and identify completely with that person, you cannot know the fullness of God’s love.
May God himself give us the grace to see our own need for his righteousness as fully as we see that need in others.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Necessarily Inclusive Behaviors

And so it comes full circle. I started this week's sermon prep on Luke 18:9-14 thinking about the Pharisee's misplaced righteousness and how it should be cast alongside the righteousness of the tax collector rather than summarily rejected by the hearer of the parable. This allows for genuine comparison. Without taking time to consider the difference we may miss the real point of this parable: the need for the presumed righteous to accept the surprising righteousness of the presumed sinner. I had some back and forth with Steve Pankey on that, and he helped me refine the way I'd express that.

Now, though, I want to go back to the concept of "mutually exclusive behaviors" that Steve wrote about on Tuesday, and I want to turn it on its head--though not in a way that Steve is likely to disagree with. In fact, I want to take his point one step further. Steve wrote that righteousness and holding others in contempt are incompatible: "One cannot treat others with contempt and be righteous.  It is impossible." I agree with that, and I want to expand his citation to the beginning of verse nine and say that trusting in oneself that one is righteous and regarding others with contempt are necessarily inclusive behaviors. That is, if you trust in yourself that you are righteous, you will always hold others in contempt. And that's a problem.

The bookends of this parable are designed by Luke to make sure the reader does not miss that point. As the parable is introduced, Luke tells us who the audience is--some people who were confident in their own right-standing before God and who looked at others with disdain. Then, at the end of the parable, Jesus offers an explanation of the story he has told: "all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted." This is a description of diametrically opposed movements. Self-inflation leads to degradation, and self-degradation leads to inflation. That's how God works. Throughout all of history, God's salvation has been to lift up the downtrodden and set the captive free and bring the dead to life. And, throughout all of history, we have seen that those who rest confidently, arrogantly, presumptuously on God's favor, regard others with contempt in a way that ends up bringing them right back down to earth.

God's salvation raises us up. But, if we think highly of ourselves, we naturally think less of others. And God's salvation isn't given to the high and mighty. It's showered upon the lowly. In God's eyes, there is no difference between the Pharisee and the tax collector. Both are sinners in need of redemption. Both need God's love and mercy. But only one recognizes that fact. If the Pharisee in us cannot identify completely with the tax collector in our midst, we cannot know God's saving work. Does God still love us? Yes. Will God still save us? Yes. But can we know that saving love? As long as we have distanced ourselves from the limitless love of God, looking down on those who do not deserve it, the answer is no.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Knowing What We Worship

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

Did you ever consider doing something else with your life? Becoming a teacher instead of a doctor. Going to law school instead of pharmacy school. Enlisting in the military instead of going to college. Becoming a missionary instead of a mathematician? Today we celebrate the life and witness to the gospel of Henry Martyn, an Anglican missionary to India and Persia who used the gifts that God gave him to bring the gospel to those who had never heard it before.

Martyn was an undergraduate at St. John's College in Cambridge, where I did part of my seminary training. In that place, there is a culture that rewards excellence and brushes aside mediocrity, so, when Henry Martyn earned the distinction of "Senior Wrangler," it was something to note. The Senior Wrangler is the top student in mathematics at the University of Cambridge--the very best in an elite class of wranglers who have shown their ability to wrestle and master difficult problems in mathematics. The list of individuals who won that title includes some of the greatest minds in maths and physics in history. And what did Henry Martyn do with this honor? He became a missionary.

At a time when the British Empire was spreading across the globe, Martyn heard the famous clergyman Charles Simeon speak of the importance and good done by missionaries in India. That was enough to change his life. After reading about the work of other missionaries, Martyn decided to pursue that calling, and he was ordained a deacon and then priest, serving as curate at Holy Trinity, Cambridge, under Simeon's direction. Soon, Martyn signed up with the Church Missionary Society and set sail for India as a chaplain to the British East India Company. While there, he not only preached but also applied his mathematical genius to the study of linguistics, and his greatest contribution to the work of the church was to translate the New Testament into Urdu, Persian, and Judeao-Persic as well as translating the Psalms into Persian and the Prayer Book into Urdu. He became ill and set sail for England, where he hoped to regain his strength and recruit additional missionaries, but he never made it. He died along the way at the age of 31. (Thanks, Wikipedia.)

I wonder what Henry Martyn could have accomplished if he had stayed in Cambridge as a mathematician. I wonder how many people would have died not hearing the good news of Jesus Christ if he had not pursued his calling as a missionary.

"Jesus said to the [Samaritan] woman at the well, 'You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.'" We usually think of this encounter as a controversial meeting between Jesus and a Samaritan woman of questionable morals. Remember, although it's not in today's reading, this woman had had five husbands and was then living with a man who was not her husband (see the rest of John 4). But on Henry Martyn's day, we narrow our focus to something else--something just as important as Jesus' willingness to ask this sinful Samaritan to give him a drink. Instead, we are invited to consider the gap in knowledge that existed between the Jews and Samaritans and how Jesus Christ bridged that gap and brought all people back to the Father.

The differences and animosity between Jews and Samaritans are well rehearsed. For now, just remember that the Samaritans did not recognize most of the books of the Hebrew bible. They had the Torah--the first five books--but the prophets and other teachings were not part of their tradition. That means, among other things, that they were not expecting a messiah. Think about it: the parts of the Old Testament that predict the coming of an anointed one to rescue God's people are from books like Isaiah and Ezekiel and the other prophetic books that Samaritans were unfamiliar with. How, then, did this woman even know to look for Jesus much less how to make sense of what he and his ministry represented? How did she know? She met the real thing.

Henry Martyn gave his life--his gifted, talented, brilliant life--to the work of bringing the real Word of God to people who had never had a chance to encounter it before. He didn't just tell them about Jesus. He gave them Jesus. He gave them the Incarnate Word of John 1. He gave them the baby born in Bethlehem of Luke 2. He gave them the agony of the cross and the victory of Easter. He gave them the story of the church's growth and Paul's struggle to communicate the good news with the Gentiles.

What about us? Are we giving Jesus to a world that needs him? We may not have the gifts of mathematics or linguistics, but what are our gifts? How are we bringing Jesus to the world so that everyone can worship what they know? I live in a culture that says "try harder" and "do good" and "earn what you can" and "protect your own." But Jesus says "surrender" and "confess" and "give everything away" and "be vulnerable." Why does Jesus say that? Because that's who God is. We know who God is through the words and witness and life and death and resurrection of Jesus. The gospel shows us that God is with those who empty themselves--who die to this world. The world needs to hear that as much now as ever. Those words and concepts are as foreign to our neighbors as the English New Testament was to the Urdu-speakers of India. Will we bring Jesus and the gospel of grace back to those who need him?

Learning from a Pharisee

As I get ready for a sermon, there is nothing I enjoy more than a little back-and-forth with my friend and colleague Dr. Steve Pankey, who wrote yesterday in response to a piece I wrote on Monday. Like him, I had missed that dialogue of late, and I began my week with an appeal to the Greek in the hopes that I could lure him into that conversation. I was thrilled that he took the bait--a shiny, sparkly appeal to justification through works that neither he nor I accepts. In fact, as you can see in our posts, both of us are eager to reject such a path to right-standing with God out of hand.

But I think Steve missed the point I was trying to make--mainly because I didn't make it very well. Like him, I don't believe that the Pharisee is righteous because of his works. Jack Alvey said it better than I did in his comment on my post: "I like 'alongside' because justification is all about the action of God's mercy and doesn't even need our repentance." Likewise, I think that the "mutually exclusive" point that Steve makes is spot on. One cannot be righteous and hold one's neighbor in contempt. That's what Luke has been trying to tell us for these many week's that we've been slogging our way through Year C of the lectionary. As I noted at the end of my post, perhaps an exclusive righteousness isn't righteousness at all. I think Steve and I agree on that.

Still, Bill Brosend's point (yes, I fixed the name in my previous post, but the Christian Century picked it up with the wrong version--sorry Dr. Brosend) is worth considering--not because we should hold up a works-based path to righteousness but because, unless we take the Pharisee's prayer as genuine, we can't really learn from him. The benefit, therefore, of reading the para + accusative as "alongside" and not "rather than" isn't because we're supposed to imagine how both Pharisee and tax collector are equally justified but because a rejection of the Pharisee's righteousness out of hand as never-was and never-could-be denies us the "aha!" moment of the parable--that one who everybody knew was already righteous might have been mistaken after all.

Although it goes without saying, we should remember that St. Paul didn't write Luke's gospel account. This passage isn't about justification by faith. That's not Luke's agenda. Luke's Jesus wants his hearers to see that the kingdom of God is open to sinners and rejects like the tax collector and that those who grumble against their inclusion find themselves on the outside looking in. With his "mutually exclusive" approach, Steve makes that point, too. But the real power of that realization comes not when we dismiss the Pharisee as an arrogant, self-righteous prig but when we take his prayer seriously and ask ourselves how his path to righteousness ended up leading him astray.

That's the "casting alongside" of the parable. Allow yourself to read the Pharisee's prayer not with a tone of superiority but as a genuinely thankful prayer to God: "God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector." I know that it's hard. We read the words and think, "What a jerk!" But try to suspend judgment on content of the prayer until we get to the end of the parable. In the Pharisee's mind, whether through the chance of birth or some mistakes in his upbringing, he could have ended up as a rogue, thief, or tax collector. I could have, too, and I'm genuinely thankful that I'm not. But there's a difference in being thankful for one's life and holding others in disdain. The content of the prayer is misguided for sure, but, for all this Pharisee knew about righteousness, he was genuinely grateful to God for the faith that he had achieved. In his mind, his righteousness was something to give thanks for. And I don't think Jesus is being critical of his faithfulness. Jesus has painted us a picture of a hypothetically super-righteous person to make a more subtle point: what good is righteousness if you can't see the breadth of God's redeeming work? We might ask, "Is that righteousness at all?" but we get to that point not by rejecting the Pharisee's path to right-standing with God but by questioning where it leads.

Of course, as I wrote on Monday, something is missing. His righteousness is incomplete. If he cannot see the potential righteousness of the tax collector, he is selling God's mercy short. And, as Luke has made abundantly clear, that excludes one from the kingdom. In my original post, I should have made that point--that, by writing that the tax collector left justified "alongside" the Pharisee, Luke isn't embracing the Pharisee's righteousness but holding it up as a helpful-for-us comparison. In the minds of Jesus' hearers, the Pharisee's justification was never in doubt. He did everything he was supposed to do and more--except one thing: love your neighbor. But, if we reject the Pharisee's justification on the basis of works or self-righteousness, we miss the real power of this parable. Don't use this parable to preach Paul's justification by faith alone. Preach what Jesus was preaching: the magnitude of God's mercy must be accepted by all who participate in God's kingdom. I think Steve and I agree on that.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Where Does Healing Come From?

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
All of us are going to die. It's only a question of when and how. But that doesn't stop us from living or praying.

When I hold the hand of a young man who is fighting cancer, I pray for healing. When I lay my hand on the shoulder of a woman who has begun to show signs of dementia, I pray for healing. When I kneel at the bedside of someone who is about to take her last breath, I pray for healing. What does healing look like? Where does healing come from?

For some, it comes from a pill or a shot or a surgery. For many, it comes when the body mends itself, fighting off an infection. For a few, it comes through an unexplainable miracle. For all of us, however, it comes through death.

Today is the feast of St. Luke the Evangelist. We often think of him as a physician, but the only evidence of that we have is from Paul's letter to the Colossians, where he is identified as Paul's "dear friend Luke, the doctor." The Greek word Paul uses is iatros, which means "physician" or "healer," but, of course, what that meant back in the first century is quite different from what it means today. Whether Luke was a professional healer or a spiritual healer or just a guy who had brought healing to Paul and his companions is up for debate. Although Luke's gospel account and its sequel the Acts of the Apostles contain many stories of healing, they aren't any more significant than the healings recorded in the other gospel accounts. But there is a deep sense of healing that Luke emphasizes that is particular to his theology of salvation.

The gospel reading appointed for today (Luke 4:14-21) is an example. Luke tells us that Jesus came to his hometown synagogue and, when he stood up to read, he took the scroll of Isaiah and found the place where it was written, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor." Then, after sitting down, he revealed to the congregation that "this scripture [had] been fulfilled in [their] hearing."

Luke is the only one who tells us of this encounter. He is the only one who encapsulates Jesus' ministry in this way. For him, the healing that Jesus brought was good news for the poor, release for the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and the year of the Lord's favor. Those who were left out, who were excluded by the religious authorities, who were thought to be beyond God's mercy, found their home in Jesus the Christ. Try telling me that isn't a healing that matters!

Whether you're sick in body, mind, or spirit, God offers true healing. Whether you're weighed down by guilt or shame or regret, God will lift your burden. If you're bound by chains of debt or addiction or heartache, God will set you free. That healing, that freedom, is given to us in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. In him, we see our true healing. Yes, it breaks through into this life. Yes, the kingdom of God is the manifestation of God's saving work in this world right now--even today. And we also know that in Christ our true healing is granted fully in the life that awaits us.

So come to the Lord and seek true healing. Pray that doctors and nurses and physical therapists will be God's agents for restoration. But don't stop there. Look for God's healing among the poor and the oppressed, the blind and the lame, the prisoner and the enslaved. Look for God's healing that transcends this life.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Rather Than or Alongside?

On Sunday, we will hear of the parabolic encounter of the tax collector and the Pharisee (Luke 18:9-14). When they leave to go home, does the tax collector depart justified rather than the Pharisee, as most (perhaps all) major English translations put it, or does is he justified alongside his self-righteous colleague? And does that have the power to upend everything we thought we knew about this familiar parable?

Last week, I went to Sewanee for an opportunity to interview some potential contextual education partners--students who might spend two semesters in our parish as part of their formation. One of the "treats" for mentors like me is the opportunity to sit in on a class, and I attended one of Bill Brosend's "Parables and Preaching" seminars. One of the topics in that session was this particular parable, and Dr. Brosend suggested to us that the Greek construction typically rendered as "rather than" is "παρ' ἐκεῖνον," which is "para" + a noun in the accusative case. In Greek, Brosend argued, para + the accusative can mean "rather than" but far more often means "alongside." To make this point, he turned to the concept of "parable" as "para" + "bole" or literally "to throw alongside." I raised my hand and tried to make the point that this "casting alongside" in parables is to make a comparison--a distinction--but he turned my statement back on itself and noted that such a comparison can (often is) to draw similarities and not always differences. I was stumped.

What happens when we hear Jesus say, "I tell you, this man went down to his home justified alongside the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted?" From the pulpit, I avoid mentioning the Greek text at all costs, and I am not about to tell the congregation that para + the accusative usually means "alongside." But I do think it's worth considering what a Pharisee represented in Jesus' day. Even though I'm not willing to discard "rather than" altogether, I do think that, if we try to consider righteousness from a first-century Palestinian Jewish perspective, the "alongside" begins to make more sense.

Pharisees were righteous. Everyone knew that. As the man said of himself, "I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income." What's wrong with that? Nothing. As far as we can tell, this man did everything that was expected of him and more. He embraced his faith fully. His life was genuinely shaped by what he believed. When it came to status before God--the question of righteousness--this man had done everything he was supposed to do. But, of course, something was missing.

Although we are predisposed to think of Pharisees as the bad guys, even Jesus' first-century hearers would have known that Jesus was setting him up for a fall: "I thank God that I am not like...this tax collector." The Pharisee wasn't wrong in how he lived his life, but his besetting sin was his inability to behold the potential righteousness of a notorious sinner. That is, the Pharisee shortchanged God's forgiveness and mercy. The sinful corollary of a super-holy life is a falsely elevated doctrine of humanity. If we fall into the trap of thinking we're "all that," it's only natural to forget that God's love has no limits. After all, why would a notorious sinner have just as much a claim on God's kingdom as we Pharisees?

Hold these two images of righteousness alongside each other. One is a Pharisee who did everything he was supposed to do in order to gain right-standing in God's eyes. The other is a tax collector, whose life was a complete repudiation of everything God would ask him to do. Could both be justified? If we believe that it is possible for the tax collector to be made right with God, we must believe that such righteousness comes not from his own works but from God's mercy. That's unmistakable. But what does that mean for the Pharisee? Perhaps he, too, has right-standing before God, but, as the parable indicates, he's standing off by himself. His is a lonely place. He is the older brother from the parable of the two lost sons. He might be righteous, but a righteousness that doesn't depend on God's mercy--a righteousness that sells God's forgiveness short--is a lonely, short-sided, sad existence. Perhaps that's not righteousness at all.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Faith is Wrestling

It took me a moment or two to detect a connection between the Track 2 OT lesson (Genesis 32:22-31) and the Gospel lesson (Luke 18:1-8). The former is Jacob's wrestling with an angel (or is it God?) at the ford of the Jabbok, and the latter is the parable of the persistent widow. One is larger than life, and the other is a simple story, but both center on faithfulness.

In Genesis 32, Jacob is in the process of appeasing his estranged brother Esau, whose large company is quickly approaching. Right in the middle of this sibling conflict, the story breaks for an overnight wrestling match between Jacob and the man/angel/God that meets him at the Jabbok. All night long, Jacob wrestles with God, and, as day approaches, this manifestation of God asks to be let go, but Jacob refuses, demanding the spirit's name. This thing that Jacob struggles against does not prevail against him, so it blesses him, changing his name from Jacob to Israel--one who struggles with God. The journey of Jacob has taken him away from his home after cheating his brother, off to his kinsfolk where he marries Leah and Rachel, away from his father-in-law whom he has bested with the Lord's help, back into Esau's presence. His whole life has been a struggle, and we see in this encounter that it has been a struggle with God. Yet God is faithful, and Jacob is faithful. And from this encounter Israel is born.

The parable of the widow invites us to struggle with God in a different sort of way--not all at once in a dramatic encounter but over time through prayer. Jesus presents a portrait of God and prayer that tells us that God will grant us the justice we seek, but the parable reminds us that sometimes we need to ask and ask and ask until we receive it. As I wrote yesterday, this parable isn't designed to teach us to annoy God into granting our request. Instead, Jesus is reminding us to be persistent--to be faithful. We are not to lose heart. Even when God's justice is delayed, we are to continue to seek it. We are to remember to look to God as the one who can give us our relief. When that relief is delayed, when it seems so far off as if it may never come, we are not to give up, and that is the greatest struggle of all.

Is God even there? Does he even hear us? Will he ever answer our prayers? To remain in relationship with God even when God's justice is delayed is itself a struggle. We could just give up. We could walk away. But God begs us to remain with him. God is the one who is known to us in the struggle. God is the one who reveals himself as we wrestle with him. We may not encounter an angel on a riverbank, but our struggle can be as real and as self-determining.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Simplicity of Prayer

The lessons for this sermon are taken from the two-year Eucharistic lectionary from Lesser Feasts and Fasts 2006 and can be read here: Galatians 2:1-2, 7-14 & Luke 11:1-4. Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

Have you ever been star-struck? It won't surprise you to know that I don't often bump into A-list celebrities here in Decatur, Alabama (or those on the B- or C-lists either). Back when I worked on the ground crew for the Cubs, I felt some butterflies in my stomach the first time Sammy Sosa said hello. I once ran into Karen Corr, the world-champion billiards player, in an airport bookshop. I wanted to ask for her autograph but didn't have anything for her to sign, so I gave up and watched her walk away. And Vince Vaughn was walking into the American Girls store in Chicago as Elizabeth and I were walking out, but I pretended not to notice because I know my wife has a bit of a celebrity crush on him. I guess I've never really been star-struck, but I haven't had much of an opportunity.

Back in my hometown, there was a spiritual celebrity of sorts whom everyone that knew him held in high esteem. Francis Wilson was a retired Methodist minister, and he was widely regarded as the foremost authority on prayer. As a child, I remember my mother telling me that, if Francis Wilson was still alive when she died, she wanted him to do the funeral. That left a powerful impression on me. My first encounter with my mother's mortality was focused on the prayerfulness of one she admired deeply. When I was a young teen, our youth director remarked at how nervous she was when Francis Wilson asked whether they could spend some time in prayer together. She recalled how intimidating it was to be in the company of one whose prayer life oozed holiness. She confessed how terrified she was when Dr. Wilson asked her to pray. But, she assured us, it really wasn't anything to be scared of. Prayer is, after all, just a conversation with God. That was something that Francis Wilson knew and taught, and, if you could get past the intimidation factor, you might see how easy prayer can be.

In Luke 11, we read that John the Baptist had become a bit of a prayer celebrity. The disciples when to Jesus and said, "Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples." I'm sure Jesus wasn't offended by that in the same way I would be if someone came up to me and said, "Would you preach good sermons to us the way your predecessor did?" Still, it's funny to me to think about someone asking Jesus to follow someone else's pattern--to be compared in any sort of way with another prophet. I don't think Jesus' terse answer was delivered out of any sort of frustration, but the response he gave was intentionally different from the sort of elaborate, impassioned, carefully crafted prayer the disciples were expecting: "He said to them, 'When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial."

That's it. The end. There's not much to it, really. Five brief petitions: 1) May God's name be hallowed--respected as holy; 2) May God's kingdom come; 3) May God give us what we need for today; 4) May God forgive our sins just as we have forgiven others; and 5) May God keep us from being tested beyond our limits. Even a quick summary ends up being longer than the prayer itself.

When I read Jesus' prayer, I begin to wonder whether this is an antidote for being star-struck in God's presence. Is this a sort of 30-second elevator speech that a petitioner would make if she or he ever found himself in the presence of the Almighty? Is this supposed to be a well-rehearsed pitch so that, when we find ourselves in that elevator moment, we won't screw it up?

Prayer is just a conversation with God, but we need to remember that it is God to whom we are speaking. Yes, God is father; God is friend; God is lover, even. But, in all of those things, God is also God. I wonder what would happen if we stopped to consider that every time we approach God in prayer we are entering the presence of God himself. I wonder whether we might allow ourselves to become a little star-struck. I wonder whether, in that moment, we need something simple to say--something that conveys the fullness of our request but doesn't get lost in unnecessary details.

Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Luke's version is even shorter than the one we know, and maybe that's an invitation to keep our prayers even shorter and simpler than we expect. How might the simplicity of the Lord's Prayer reshape all of our prayer and remind us that, in even the most intimate conversations with God, our prayers are directed to the Holy One? Might these well-rehearsed words breathe new life into us and our relationship with God?

Faith Is Patience

The parable of the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8) isn't difficult unless we make it more complicated than it needs to be. Jesus sets it up as a parody of real life: "In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people." What sort of judge is that? Surely a judge should be one or the other, if not both. Jesus is trying to make it clear to us from the start that this isn't supposed to be a depiction of reality. Even the judge, when making his decision, says to himself, "Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone..." This break with reality frees the audience from any need to make allegorical connections with the judge or the widow, but that doesn't stop us from trying.

Don't compare God with the judge. They aren't the same. They aren't even close to the same. Sure, both are in the position of granting requests, but no one is supposed to think about the faithless judge as an image of God. In fact, the point of this parable rests in the opposite conclusion: God is nothing like the judge.

And don't think of yourself as the widow. You're not. Your prayers are not supposed to annoy God into giving you what you want. Sure, we are being invited to be persistent in our prayer, but we aren't supposed to read this parable and conclude that God is "bothered" into giving us what we ask because we've worn him out.

This parable is to teach us to be persistent, patient, and faithful. Luke tells us in an editorial insertion why Jesus used this parable: "Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart." Perhaps we should take him at his word. This isn't Jesus' attempt to teach his disciples how to pray. Nor is it Jesus' attempt to explain how prayer works. This is Jesus way of teaching the disciples (and us) how to pray and not lose heart.

If the unjust judge will grant relief to the irritating widow, how much more will God, who is faithful, "grant justice to his chosen ones who cry out to him day and night?" And there's the difficult and edifying teaching of this parable. This isn't a call to pray over and over and over. It's a reminder to be faithful even when God's justice is delayed.

We pray and pray and pray, and often God doesn't answer us. That's how life works. What will our response be? Will we give up on God? Will we give up on prayer? We won't wear God down by repeating our prayers, but our faith is held intact when we continue to bring our supplications to God, expecting that God is the one who can give us justice. If we believe in God--if we believe that God is the one who can give us what we need--we cannot stop asking. We don't believe that the answer will come simply because we ask, but we do believe that faith is found in those who bring their petitions to God. Being faithful means being patient. It means not giving up. It means remembering that God is the source of all our blessings--immediate and delayed.

Why Bother?

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

I do not get many long weekends away with my family, so, when I do, I like to make them count. This past weekend, we took advantage of the school holiday and spent a few days in the mountains. Several days before we left, I began my search: which Episcopal Church in the area should we attend? I rarely have the opportunity to go to church with my family, so, when I do, I drag them all along with me. After checking a few websites and Facebook pages and making a phone call to a trusted source, I decided that we would visit the Church of the Messiah in Murphy, North Carolina. When Saturday night came, I mapped the route, told the family what time we would need to leave, set my alarm, and went to sleep, looking forward to spending a Sunday in the pew with my wife and children. I had no idea what lay ahead of me.

On a normal Sunday, I wake up at 4:30am and leave the house at 6:00am—before anyone else is awake. This Sunday, our prescribed departure time was 10:00am. With four extra hours to spare, I anticipated a leisurely morning, but that dream evaporated as quickly as the morning fog. One child refused to eat a bowl of cereal—any cereal. “He does this every Sunday,” Elizabeth said, trying to calm my rising frustration. Another child refused to wear what that same child had picked out the night before. “Are you kidding me?” I asked incredulously. “You chose it. Why won’t you wear it?” About that time, screams arose in another room as a struggle over a toy turned violent. I split them up and returned to the child who was pouting over what to wear. “You’re still not dressed?” I asked. “We’re leaving in ten minutes. You’d better be in the car when it’s time to leave.” As I finished tying my bowtie, I wondered to myself, “How in the world does Elizabeth do this by herself every single Sunday?”

The fifteen-minute ride into town was more of the same: that same child fussing about being cold because that child’s outfit wasn’t warm enough, the other two yapping at each other about who started it, and Elizabeth and me yelling at the back seat about how this had better stop by the time we get to church. When we pulled into the parking lot, the only person in the car with the slightest sense of joy at coming to church while on vacation was me, and even that was fading fast. As we walked up to the church, however, things softened slightly. Three different greeters welcomed us and told us how happy they were to see some young children in church. “Oh yeah?” I asked under my breath. “We’ll see if you still feel that way in half an hour.”

Our family of six stretched across a pew near the back of the nave. A thoughtful woman brought over a colorful bag of books, crayons, and stuffed animals with which our children could play. “I hope these will help,” she said as she handed us the bag, admitting that they didn’t use them very often. Even before the service started, an argument erupted between our children over who should get the red stuffed tomato and who would be stuck with the green stuffed cucumber. Throughout the service, it seemed that our children picked the quietest moments—the lessons, the prayers, the sermon—to make the biggest ruckus. Overdue for a nap, Emily became restless, so, when the sermon started, I stood up to rock her back and forth behind the last pew. When she started crying, I stepped outside. When it sounded as if the sermon had finished, I walked back in and met Elizabeth, who was dragging our two boys outside. I didn’t know what had happened, but I could figure it out well enough on my own. At the Peace, I sent Frances to go and bring them all back in, and we struggled in place through the rest of the service, employing a variety of techniques—stern looks, pointed fingers, harsh whispers, and sharp pinches—to keep the kids in line as much as possible.

The disruptive effect of our behavior was intensified by the small size of the nave. If you count the seats for the choir, the beautiful, white clapboard church was big enough for eighty people. On this Sunday, there were seventy in worship, and, with the exception of the three youth who served as acolytes and the one woman in the choir who looked to be about our age, our family were by far the six youngest people in the congregation. But that did not stop the people of the Church of the Messiah from making us feel welcome. Seven different people went out of their way to tell us how well-behaved our children were—one even stopping us in the grocery store after church was over. All seven of them were liars, but their words were warmly received by two exasperated parents. When I stood up to take Emily to the back of the church, one of the septuagenarians in the pew behind me put her hand on my shoulder and said, “Don’t worry about it. We love children. She’s not bothering anyone. I’ve been playing peek-a-boo with her.” Unbelievable as it may seem. I am fairly sure that she meant every word. By the time we got to the final blessing, Elizabeth and I were exhausted. And the people around us were, too. But all of us were glad to be there.

Going to church with young children isn’t easy. With four kids and only one parent to marshal them, it is downright impossible. And it can be as hard on the rest of the congregation as it is on the parents who are trying their best to keep the paper-crinkling and restless fidgeting under wraps. Why do we do it? Why do we bother subjecting ourselves and those in neighboring pews to ninety minutes of torture? Why do people who said goodbye to small children decades ago go out of their way to make a disruptive family feel welcome? Why would anyone want the six of us to come back? Because, when all of us are together, we experience the presence of Jesus Christ in ways that we cannot when we are apart.

Jesus said, “When two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in the midst of them.” Those words were not merely a way of validating a small assembly of Christians. They were an invitation to all of us, reminding us that, if we want to meet Jesus, we must come together. Can a family experience the presence of God by sitting on the front porch of a mountain house overlooking a dramatic vista? Sure they can, but they can’t share it with others, and God’s presence cannot fully be experienced unless it is shared. Could an eighty-year-old widower find more peace sitting on a park bench than behind our family in church? Absolutely, but solitary peace is not God’s peace. We come together as God’s family not because it is easy but because the challenge of worshipping together as a diverse congregation is how we experience the completeness of God’s kingdom. That’s why we bother. And that’s why we go out of our way to make every individual feel at home—because we are not at home without them all. That is a lesson that the people of the Church of the Messiah have learned to their core. What about us?

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Avoidance, Deliverance, or Endurance?

If you're reading this blog and haven't yet discovered The Babylon Bee, I'll be shocked. It's a satire news site that publishes ridiculous but insightful and, thus, hilarious takes on mainstream Christianity. Yesterday, I saw an article about Tim Tebow charging the mound after getting hit by a pitch not in anger but to offer the pitcher unconditional forgiveness for hitting him. Like I said, it's hilarious. If I wasn't careful, I could lose an hour or two of my day on that site, but it's worth a few minutes of your time.

A week or so ago, I laughed out loud when a clergy colleague posted a Babylon Bee article about Joel Osteen being horrified to learn about the crucifixion. In case you didn't know, Joel Osteen has made a fabulous living for himself by preaching a message of prosperity through faith. Most Christian pastors (me included) are simultaneously enamored by the magnetism with which he draws enormous crowds and sickened by his apparent fundamental lack of understanding of the Christian message. That's why the article is funny. God didn't send his Son to die and rise again so that you could be wealthy. That's preposterous. In fact, it's explicitly NOT the thing Jesus calls us to do. Jesus suffered to give hope to the suffering--not to make them rich.

I wonder what sort of letter St. Paul would write to Christian pastors today as they try to encourage their congregations to ignore the wolves in sheep's clothing who preach a false gospel of prosperity through prayer. I wonder what Paul would say about Joel Osteen's cross-less, guilt-less, repentance-less version of the faith that Paul suffered and died in order to proclaim.

On Sunday, we'll read 2 Timothy 2:8-15, and we'll hear Paul encouraging his friend and brother in Christ to stay true to the faith: "Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David-- that is my gospel, for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained. Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, so that they may also obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory." Paul was willing to suffer imprisonment, torture, and death for the sake of the gospel. Convinced that the power of the gospel could most clearly be proclaimed through his chains, Paul accepted them--not because they were pleasant but because they were for Christ.

Even apart of the Joel Osteens of the world, how much of the Christian faith has become a theology of escapism? How many preachers and teachers and pastors look to Christ merely as the one who removes our pain and suffering and not as the one who dwells with us in it? We believe that Christ will deliver us from sin and suffering and death. We believe that our future in him is bright and hopeful and beautiful. But God does not lead us there by helping us avoid the hardships of life. We participate in his kingdom by enduring them. Let St. Paul be a source of real, Christian encouragement: we suffer because Christ suffered; we endure because he endured; we hope because he has given us hope.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Healing? What Healing?

Some biblical scholars like to argue that Luke was written primarily for a Gentile audience. For sure, those experts know a lot more about the bible than I do. Luke's gospel account is not only the most Gentile-sympathetic but was also explicitly dedicated to "Theophilus," a Greek name meaning "Lover of God." If it is a Gentile book for Gentile readers, perhaps it should surprise us that Luke knows and shares more about the Hebrew scriptures than any other gospel writer. His intimate knowledge of Israel's story is reflected in the songs of Zechariah, Mary, Simeon. He demonstrates how the prophecies of Isaiah are fulfilled in Jesus' life and ministry more clearly than any other gospel writer. And, in Sunday's gospel lesson (Luke 17:11-19), Luke again conveys an appreciation for the stories of Hebrew scripture that is unrivaled.

In the area between Samaria and Galilee, ten lepers approach Jesus. Notice that Luke tells us how they kept their distance. They called out to Jesus, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!" That's a cry that could have come from across the road. Imagine the ten waving their arms to get his attention and begging from afar for his healing mercy. Jesus' reply made no attempt to bridge that distance: "Go show yourselves to the priests." He didn't approach them. He didn't ask their names. He didn't look into their eyes. He didn't touch them. He didn't wave his hand over the leprous spots and pray a special incantation. He just said go.

Luke wants us to discount the healing itself. There's no drama here. The act of the lepers being made clean is almost inconsequential in Luke's telling of the story: "And as they went, they were made clean." That's it. Why so little attention on the healing act? Because Jesus making the lepers clean isn't the focus of the story. Imagine how misguided a sermon on this passage would be if the thesis of the preacher's address was "Jesus has the power to heal lepers--even from a distance." We all know that's not the point of the story. The point Luke is making is that Jesus, as God's Son, is the source of salvation--the one to whom the truly faithful should return. And that sounds a whole lot like the story of Naaman the leprous Aramean general from Sunday's Track 2 lesson (2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c).

Naaman and his company of horses and chariots and military might come to Elisha's house, halting (what a great word!) at his door. Rather than come out and see the mighty general himself, Elisha sends word by a messenger, "Tell Naaman to go dip himself in the Jordan River seven times." That's it. Naaman travelled all the way from Aram in a military parade to find healing from the prophet of a to-him foreign god, and the prophet wouldn't even lift a finger to help. Naaman grumbled, saying, "I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy." But the true healing that Elisha and the Lord were offering wasn't simply the removal of a leprous spot. The focus of Naaman's story is his conversion. And Elisha knew that, in order for Naaman to make the connection between Israel's God and true healing, any magical trace to be stripped from the healing miracle. And it worked. Naaman returned to the prophet's house, proclaiming, "Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel."

What do a Samaritan leper and Naaman the Aramean general have in common? Upon discovering their healing, they return and praise God, identifying correctly the source of their salvation. The rest of 2 Kings 5 makes the connection even clearer. Naaman asked for two mule-loads of earth from Israel to be brought back with him to Aram so that he could worship (i.e. fall down and prostrate himself) the one true God even when back in his homeland. Luke draws us into that same tension. The one out of ten who returns and prostrates himself at Jesus feet shows us that Luke wants us to see Jesus as the source of real healing--true salvation. The Greek word for "be made well" or "be healed" is the same as for "be saved." When Jesus says to the leper, "Your faith has made you well," he's also saying, "Your faith has saved you." In other words, "All ten might have been cleansed (different word) from their leprosy, but your faith has become your salvation."

Still think Luke was written for a Gentile audience? That might be true, but Luke's message becomes clearer the more Jewish we think.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

How Are You Grateful?

This post also appeared in today's newsletter from St. John's, Decatur. To read the rest of the newsletter and learn more of what God is doing in and through the people of our parish, click here.

If watching baseball games made one a better ballplayer and reading cookbooks made one a better cook, success in life might come easier, but it would not be as satisfying or as sweet. Practice, by definition, is tedious, but the joy of having worked at something over and over until one has mastered it is one of life's greatest rewards. A demanding recital piece, a delicate recipe, a convincing sales pitch, a smooth golf swing----all of the things in life that are worth doing well require practice. If mediocrity and inconsistency are all that we desire, we can afford to sit and watch, but, if we want to excel at something, we must get up and do it.

I want to be better at being grateful. I can handle shooting 90 on the golf course. I can afford to let a soufflé fall. I can gain a small sense of satisfaction by hammering out a few broken chords on the piano when no one other than my family is listening. But I cannot stand the thought of failing at gratitude. Of all the people I know----family, friends, acquaintances, parishioners, public figures----those whom I enjoy the most are the ones who excel at being grateful, and the ones whose company I loathe are those who fail at it miserably. Is anyone more fun to be with than someone who demonstrates appreciation for every gift that life gives? Is there anyone less pleasant than someone who takes all of life for granted? Can you think of anyone as peaceful and content as someone who practices gratitude to the fullest? Can you think of anyone more tiresome and off-putting than a person who carries a spirit of entitlement into every situation and relationship? For my sake and for the sake of the people I love, I want to be good at gratitude, but that kind of success requires practice.

Last Sunday we took up our semi-annual collection for the United Thank Offering. I reminded the congregation that the money inside those little blue boxes is not as important as the daily practice of putting something into them. Although the offering itself will help alleviate poverty around the world, the deeper spiritual benefit is gained when we place that box on our nightstand, empty out the change in our pockets each evening, and place that handful of coins into the box while saying a small prayer of thanksgiving for all the blessings God has given us. The mission of the United Thank Offering is to engender a spirit of gratitude through the daily habit of giving thanks to God. Experience teaches us that a life steeped in gratitude grows from a daily practice of thanksgiving. Thinking about it might help a little, but doing it----practicing gratitude----is what shapes our hearts and minds and wills. The habitual act of thanksgiving leads to a spirit of gratitude, and a spirit of gratitude leads to a life of generosity, and a life of generosity is one that reflects our faith in God who provides all of our blessings.

Ask yourself how you are grateful. Instead of beginning with the things for which you are grateful, start with the practice itself. Begin with the action. As children, we traced the outline of our hand to make a Thanksgiving turkey. Our thumb became the head and beak of the bird, and the fingers became the feathers. On each feather we were asked to write something for which we were thankful, and the act of doing it----of cutting and pasting and coloring and writing----was itself an expression of gratitude. How long has it been since you made a gratitude turkey like that? Do you keep a journal of all the things for which you are thankful, writing down a list of blessings each day? Do you kneel beside your bed each night and thank God for the things that God has given you? Do you say a blessing before each meal? Do you sit in grateful silence for ten minutes each morning? Do you place an offering in the alms basin each Sunday? Do you hand write a thank you note every day?

Are you grateful in theory or in practice? We know that we are blessed, but do we see those blessings? We believe that God pours his riches upon us each day, but do we trust that they will never cease? Of the most precious things in life is gratitude, and gratitude requires effort on our part. Choose to be thankful as a matter of habit and watch how gratitude takes over your life.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Leprosy: A Social Disease

Even if your congregation doesn't read the Track 2 lesson from 2 Kings 5 in Sunday worship, it's worth reading it before considering the healing of the ten lepers in Luke 17. We all know that leprosy was a cause for exclusion. Among the stories that I learned as a child, the vivid description that my Sunday school teacher used to explain how lepers would walk down the other side of the street all by themselves crying out, "Unclean! Unclean!" remains particularly haunting. But the intersection of the stories of Naaman the Aramean general and the one Samaritan leper who returned to give thanks gives me a new way of thinking about the exclusionary nature of leprosy and the true healing that Jesus offers.

Naaman was a powerful man--a general of unparalleled accomplishments. Even though he was from a foreign kingdom, the Israelite historian recalls for us that his master, the King of Aram, gave Naaman a tremendous amount of wealth to take with him in order to buy his healing. Those details are omitted in the lectionary reading but are worth noting (see 2 Kings 5). That his master cared so much for Naaman's wellbeing gives the reader a clear sense that the only thing keeping Naaman from being a true hero was his leprosy. "If only I didn't have this terrible disease..." we can imagine Naaman thinking to himself. It was the burden that no impressive military or political conquest could shake.

The healing itself (particularly Naaman's stubbornness) is entertaining, but the deep and true conversion at the end of the story seems to be the real point. "Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel," the foreign general declares. That's the perfect Israelite statement of faith. Again, the lectionary omits it, but the convicted, converted general's request is that he could take "two mule-loads of earth" with him so that, when he is back in Aram, he can stay connected with the one true God and worship only him. He begs forgiveness from the prophet for going into the temple of his master's god Rimmon, admitting that, although he will be compelled to go through the motions of worship in that place, his heart belongs only to the God of Israel. Pretty amazing, huh?

Other than the leprosy connection, what does that have to do with the healing of the ten lepers in Luke 17? Everything. While walking between Galilee and Samaria, Jesus was approached by ten lepers. He orders all of them to go and show themselves to the priests so that they could be verified as cured and clean and reenter society. As they walked, they were healed, and one of the ten turned around and came to Jesus, threw himself down at his feet, and thanked him. Jesus remarked, "Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?" And then Jesus said to him, "Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well." I'll write about the connection between "made you well" and "saved you" later, but, for now, note that some sort of secondary healing was offered to the Samaritan.

We don't know what happened to the other nine, but we can assume that they were verified as clean and were allowed to resume normal life as a part of their community. But, other than to note their thanklessness, Luke isn't focused on them. He wants us to see that a Samaritan (of all people) comes back to Jesus and identifies the true source of his healing. And Jesus offers him true and lasting inclusion. The leper isn't just healed from his disease; he's brought into the fold of God's people through Jesus Christ.

For me, that changes the nature of the healing itself. There are three levels of exclusion and healing that are offered in this text. First, all ten lepers were excluded from society because of their illness, and all ten presumably were readmitted because of their healing. The Samaritan was doubly excluded because of his ancestry, and the welcome Jesus offered him grants him an admission that he otherwise could not have received--leper or not. But the third sense of inclusion is the most powerful. The Samaritan leper, because he has received both forms of acceptance, is able to discover a third and is converted to the way of Jesus. Returning to Jesus, falling down at his feet, and thanking him means the Samaritan leper has identified Jesus as the one who is the true source of his healing and wholeness. He rises from that spot triply healed: from leprosy, from the Samaritan exclusion, and from not knowing what God is doing in the world through the Incarnate Word.

This is a conversion moment, and Naaman helps us see it. The mission of Jesus isn't simply to heal the lepers but to bring the true outcast into God's fold. If one of the non-Samaritan lepers had returned, that would have been nice, but it wouldn't have been the fullest expression of Jesus' work. It is too small a thing for God to reach out to those who already know him. This story is about really radical inclusion. Thankfulness, yes, but gratitude for unparalleled welcome.