Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Fishing for People

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

Every once in a while, a crazy fish jumps out of the water and right into the boat, but, most of the time, the fisherman has to coax the fish onto a hook and then reel it in. That's how fishing works. Longtime anglers have their favorite spots--places where they know fish are likely to bite, but even they can have trouble. The etiquette of fishing dictates that, whenever you walk past someone sitting on the bank fishing, you're supposed to ask, "How are they biting?" instead of starting out with "Catch anything?" It's a polite way of asking someone if they've had any success without directly pointing out the person's failure. If they aren't biting at all, it's time to move along to another spot or perhaps pack up altogether. The fish don't come to you. You have to go to the fish. You have to find them. You have to convince them that they would be better off biting the tasty worm that you've thrown out for them to eat than swimming along on their own.

In Matthew 4, Jesus looks at Andrew and Simon and says, "Follow me, and I will make you fish for people." In Deuteronomy 30, Moses says, "Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away...No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe." In Romans 10, Paul writes, "For, 'Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.' But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard?...But I ask, have they not heard? Indeed they have; for 'Their voice has gone out to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world.'"

From the days of Moses, God's people have seen that God himself comes near to them, to speak to them and to give them clear direction for their lives. Jesus himself is God's Word coming near to us--to be with us, to be one of us. And, in that great coming-near of God, Paul writes, the whole world can see and know that God's will for them is salvation. Think about that: God isn't hiding from us, waiting for us to say the right words, do the right things, and hold the right beliefs before we can find him; for all time and in every generation, God is searching for us, reaching out to us, fishing for us. I suppose the question is whether we are biting.

Today we celebrate the feast of St. Andrew the Apostle. The one who, at least in John's account, brought his brother Simon to Jesus. He's the one to whom some Greeks spoke about wanting to see Jesus. Those who are members of the Brotherhood of St. Andrew commit to personal evangelism--helping friends and family know who Jesus is. But the feast of St. Andrew reminds us that evangelism isn't about bringing someone to Jesus but about helping them know that, in Christ, God is already searching for them. What good news that is!

God is the fisherman. God is the one who has come to us. God is the one who refuses to give up on God's people. God is the one who searches for the lost and celebrates when they are found. When Jesus commissions us to "fish for people," we do so as participants in God's great love for the world. Isn't it nice to know that you are loved like that--loved with a pursuing, searching, yearning love that has no limits? When we invite people to know God and to know Jesus, we are inviting them to know that they are loved in the same way. So become an evangelist. Share that good news. It's as easy as inviting someone to see that God is already looking for her/him because of God's never-ending love.

Repentance Makes a Comeback

You know that moment when you tell your parents that you are ready to pay for your own car insurance? That you've decided to pay for your own cell phone plan? That you have your own health insurance? That you don't need them anymore? It's nice to be 45, isn't it?

Of course we still need our parents. We crave their love. We want their advice (sometimes). We are relieved to know that if this job doesn't work out they're probably still willing to let us move back in. Still, even if it's only a fantasy and even if it's only for a few months, it's nice to be independent. It's nice to have other options. It's nice to be in control--whatever that is.

Consider Sunday's gospel lesson (Matthew 3:1-12). When John the Baptist saw the religious elites coming out to see his riverside revival, he cried out to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham." In other words, God doesn't need you. You might be the keepers of the tradition, the scholars of God's word, the ones chosen to propagate his name and word throughout the world, but God doesn't need you. If God wanted to, God could raise up your replacements even from these stones--these lifeless, hard, cold stones.

Your presumptions are getting in the way. Until you know that you aren't needed, you can't see the opportunity that is in front of you. God doesn't need you, but God wants you.

Repentance is a curious thing. We hear that word and imagine it coming on the lips of an angry preacher. It's so outdated, so old-school. Unlike straight-legged jeans and horn-rimmed glasses, there's nothing refreshingly hipster about it. But it's time for repentance to make a comeback. It's time for repentance to be the new cool. Because repentance isn't about feeling sorry for yourself. It's about turning around, making a change, going back to the beginning, getting in touch with our roots.

The need for repentance isn't a simple diagnosis of all the things you've done wrong in your life. Sin isn't a list of misdeeds. The human condition is the wrong-way path that we are on. Repentance is the turning around that we need to get on the right path. As long as we have convinced ourselves that we are good and right, then we're on the wrong path. Until we see that we aren't the authority on all that is good and right, then we can't know how much God loves us.

God isn't asking us to be sorry before he'll love us. While we were still locked in our backward, sinful ways, God sent his Son to save us. That's how much God wants us. That's how much God is willing to give up to get us to turn around. The cross of Christ is God's way of reaching out to show us that the path of our own creation--of our own success, of our own independence--is a ticket to nowhere. And the empty tomb is God's demonstration that his path leads to life. We can't get to peace and wholeness and joy on our own. Repentance is our way of saying to God, "I can't do this by myself." There's something refreshing about that.

Lots of things are making a comeback--ridiculous things that weren't that great the first time around and aren't really any better this time. (Skinny ties, anyone? Who thinks Spandex belongs at a dinner party?) But repentance is the ultimate retro. It says that things were better off back when we didn't wander off God's path. It's a return to our true roots as the children God made us to be. It's an admission that we haven't made things better for ourselves and that God's plan is better than our own. Isn't that a movement we can get behind?

Monday, November 28, 2016

The Path to the Lord is Repentance

There are lots of things that get a rise out of clergy at this time of year. First, many of us approach Advent the same way we approach Lent--as a season of preparation, waiting, and forestalling celebration until the goal is reached. Just as we would never say "Hallelujah!" or "Happy Easter!" in the middle of Holy Week, so, too, it is argued, we should never say "Merry Christmas!" until we get to the Feast of the Nativity on the night of December 24. I like waiting, but I like watching fastidious clergy throw hissy-fits over early celebrations of the season even more. Then, there's the esoteric debate about using blue or purple to celebrate the season. I prefer purple, but I prefer watching clergy get all bent out of shape about it even more. But there's one Advent debate that I didn't even know was a debate until I saw it unfold over the weekend, and this is one I'm not willing to watch from the sideline.

Advent is a penitential season. It may not have the same penitential emphasis as Lent. We may not bury the "Alleluias" like we do on Mardi Gras. We may not fast or give something up. But Advent is, without a doubt, a season of penitence. Anyone who says otherwise hasn't been paying attention to the readings, the prayers, the hymns, and the other liturgical elements that accompany this season.

My friend Scott Gunn, Episcopal priest, Forward Movement Czar, and Lent Madness Co-Director, posted on Facebook: "Thought about blogging the start of Advent, but I've said most of what I want to say about this penitential season of yearning and our need of Christ's light in previous years." That sounded innocent enough. But Scott's ministry and personality and deft use of social media have him widely connected throughout the church, and some in the church did not like the suggestion that Advent is a penitential season. A firestorm erupted. Some expressed surprise. Others asked what made Advent a season of penitence. Some rejected the notion that this pre-Christmas extravaganza should be at all somber. One commentator thoroughly lambasted the idea, arguing that only a woman could know what it means to prepare to give birth and, by implication, that only men would come up with the idea that Advent should be penitential. Then, traditionalists (men and women) let their thoughts be known, addressing pointedly the accusation that a penitential Advent has no sound basis in scripture or tradition.

Of course Advent is penitential! Have you heard what John the Baptist says? "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." There are four Sundays in Advent. In all three years of the liturgical cycle, Week One is about the second coming of Jesus and the end of the world. Week Four is about Mary and Joseph and their preparations for the birth of the baby Jesus. Weeks Two and Three are about John the Baptist. In one of those weeks, he calls on us to repent. In the other, he calls on us to recognize the sort of savior whom Jesus is, was, and will be. The collects for the first three Sundays all mention repentance, sin, or shedding the way of darkness. The collect for the fourth Sunday may not mention sin or repentance, but it mentions preparing ourselves to receive the savior--an act of preparation that I would argue is rooted in penitence. Over and over, the readings are about sin and repentance and God's anointed one coming to sort everything out. Each week, in the Eucharistic Prayer, we acknowledge to God that he "sent [his] beloved son to redeem us from sin and death" so that "we may without shame or fear rejoice to behold his appearing." Take a look at the proper prefaces for Lent. Neither of them is as explicitly about sin and repentance as Advent. Need I go on?

This Sunday, we will read Matthew 3:1-12. In the opening lines of the Gospel, we hear the clear connection between repentance and preparation for the coming of Christ: "In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.' This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, 'The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight."'" Matthew identifies John the Baptist as the one whom God sent to prepare the way of the Lord by making his paths straight. And what does John say? Repent.

Do you want to see Jesus? Repent. Do you want to celebrate the Feast of the Incarnation? Repent. Do you want to prepare your heart for the coming of the Son of Man? Repent. Do you want to be a part of what God is doing in the world? Repent. As I prepare to preach this Sunday, I'll be doing some repenting of my own, and I'll be spending time thinking about what repentance really is. How is this good news? How is this appropriate for Advent? How is this necessary if we are to see the coming of Christ? What I won't be doing, however, is greeting the people coming out of church with a hardy "Merry Christmas" while wearing a blue stole. That's just ridiculous.

Waiting for a Wonderful Surprise

November 27, 2016 – The 1st Sunday of Advent, Year A
© 2016 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
When I opened my eyes on the morning of November 3, I knew three things: 1) despite my worries, the world had not come to an end; 2) I had an early-morning flight to catch and needed to get moving; and 3) I had to search for a new slogan to get me through the winter because overnight “maybe next year” had become “this year.” Like many Cubs fans who watched the end of Game 7, I had to check my newsfeed to make sure I hadn’t been dreaming. “Did it really happen?” I wondered as a big grin spread across my face. Yes it had. And, despite many predictions, the second coming of Jesus Christ had not occurred during the rain delay between the ninth and tenth innings as Cleveland and Chicago dueled to see which franchise would end its championship drought.

When you get your hopes up for something year after year after year, it’s hard to believe that it will ever come true. For one hundred eight years, Cubs fans had dreamt about next year. In a very real way, I had been waiting for this victory even longer than I had been alive. When it finally came, it took me and many other fans several days to soak it all in. It just so happened that I had a meeting scheduled in Chicago for the day after the World Series—one scheduled long before anyone knew that the Cubs would make it to the Series let alone eke out a win in Game 7. My flight got there early enough for me to scoot down to Wrigley Field. There were hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people dressed in Cubbie blue, just wandering around the stadium with smiles on their faces, taking selfies and scribbling their names with colored chalk on the bricks of the outfield wall. We didn’t know what else to do. Even though the Cubs had been in first place all season, one hundred eight years of waiting had made this feel unexpected and unreal. Sometimes when you wait that long, you begin to wonder whether it’s even possible.

As we begin the season of Advent—a season of waiting and watching for the coming of Christ—Jesus himself tells us that, no matter how long we have to wait, we are to believe that he is coming. This morning, however, the challenge for us is sorting through this gospel lesson carefully enough to see that those words come not as a message of fear but as a promise of hope. And, in order to hear that, we have to listen to this gospel passage not as twenty-first century Christians, who are used to getting whatever we want whenever we want it, but as first-century disciples, who were willing to risk their lives to follow Jesus and who banked everything on the belief that Jesus would come back at any moment to save them.

Jesus said, “For as in the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.” Everyone knew the story of the Flood—how Noah had built a tremendous ark while all his neighbors laughed. The people of the earth kept doing what they had always been doing—“eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage”—because there was no sign of rain. In fact, at that point in the bible, it had never rained, but Noah built the ark anyway. And, then, when no one other than Noah and his family saw it coming, the Lord opened up the skies and made it rain until the whole earth was flooded and all the wickedness was washed away. That sounds scary—the thought of flood waters catching everyone by surprise—but remember that, if you’re one of the people who have a seat on the boat, it’s not that scary after all.

For those who know God’s good news of love and hope and promise that is told in the person of Jesus Christ, the end may come as a surprise, but it isn’t supposed to be scary. Surprises might take our breath away, but they aren’t always frightening. I don’t really like the thought of a surprise birthday party, but I don’t live in fear of one. Sure, when the lights switch on and all your friends and family yell out, “Surprise!” it will probably catch you off guard, but those people are there to celebrate with you, to laugh with you, and to show their love for you. There’s a reason that people don’t wear ski masks to a surprise party: they want to surprise you, but they want that surprise to be one of warmth and love.

So it is with the coming of the Son of Man. We may not see it coming, but that doesn’t mean that it never will, and it definitely doesn’t mean that we should fear it. Sometimes it feels like the deck is stacked against us. Sometimes it seems like God will never come and fix all that is broken in the world. But that doesn’t mean that God has forgotten us. The hope that Jesus gave to the first Christians—to those who faced persecution and death because of their faith—was an invitation to believe that, even though things may feel like they are going completely wrong, God will come and make everything right. And our hope is the same as theirs. We don’t know when that will happen. We can’t know when that will happen. But we must know—we must believe—that, in God’s perfect time and God’s perfect plan, he will come and save us from all that threatens us. One day, peace will reign. One day, love will win. That’s what it means to wait and watch for the coming of the Son of Man.

Anyone who uses the coming of Christ as a scare tactic hasn’t met the same loving Jesus that I know. Those who tell stories about the end of the world as a way to scare people into believing in Jesus are preaching the wrong gospel—one of fear and not hope. And those of us who buy what they are selling—who confuse the uncertainty of time for an uncertainty of content—have forgotten what Jesus really says. We may not know when it will happen, but we do know that, when Jesus comes again, he is coming to take us to himself so that where he is we may be also.

Do not be afraid; Jesus is coming. Do not lose hope; Jesus is coming. Even when it seems like nothing can save us—that nothing can right this wayward ship—we know that Jesus is coming. When he tells us to “keep watch” and “be ready,” Jesus isn’t asking us to abandon this life or to prepare a “bug out bag” because we think that a zombie apocalypse is headed our way. As he says, “Two will be working in the field; one will be taken, and one will be left. Two will be grinding meal; one will be taken, and one will be left.” In other words, God shows up right in the middle of our ordinary lives. God will rescue us even when we least expect it. And that is something to look forward to.
This season of Advent, join me in keeping watch for the coming of Christ. Prepare your hearts and minds for the coming of the Son of Man. That doesn’t mean living each day in fear that you’ll be caught off-guard; it means living your life as if all the people who love you the best will suddenly jump out from around the corner and give you a big hug. It means knowing, that at any moment, Jesus himself will come and save you. If the thought of what lies ahead gives you fear, rest easy. Don’t confuse the not knowing when for a not knowing what. We know what lies ahead of us. We know that God has good things in store for us. May we wait and watch as if our salvation is coming at any minute.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Thankful Beyond the Feast

November 23, 2016 – Thanksgiving Eve, Year C
© 2016 Evan D. Garner
Do you remember Hook, the 1991 movie starring Robin Williams as Peter Panning, a middle-aged, high-power executive who had forgotten that he was the original Peter Pan, the mischievous boy who flew around, fought pirates, and never grew up? It’s a clever take on the familiar children’s tale. In the movie, Captain Hook, who is played by Dustin Hoffman, is looking for some sport with his old nemesis, so he kidnaps Peter’s kids and takes them off to Neverland. Eventually, Tinkerbell, played by Julia Roberts, comes and drags Peter back to his old stomping ground to once again do battle with the pirate and rescue those children. The only problem is that Peter had forgotten everything.

He couldn’t fly. He couldn’t fight. He was useless. As it is with most of us, reality had crept in and pushed out the playfulness of childhood. In the thirty-plus years that he had lived in the real world, Peter had gotten married and had kids of his own. He had landed a stressful job, which consumed his life. His fanciful past had been fueled by imagination, but the realism of everyday life had choked that memory from him. Now, back in Neverland, Peter was unrecognizable. The Lost Boys, who hadn’t seen him in decades, looked at the overweight, gray-haired, stuffed shirt standing before them and dismissed him out of hand. They mocked him and the thought that this quivering mass of aging flesh was in any way connected with the great Peter Pan.

But then, sitting around a banquet table, everything changed. With ravenous eyes, the Lost Boys sat down and passed one oversized covered dish down the table after another. After a brief word of grace, they lift the lids to reveal steaming dishes filled with…nothing. But the boys don’t seem to mind. They reach across the table to grab handfuls of thin air and dunk their bowls into vats of nothing. One eats what is clearly supposed to be corn on the cob even though his hands are empty. Peter, of course, is flummoxed by the whole episode. The Lost Boys call it “Neverfood,” but, in his eyes, it’s only an exercise in imagination. “Even Ghandi ate more than this,” he mutters under his breath. And then a skirmish erupts.

Rufio, the leader of the Lost Boys in Pan’s absence, picks a fight with the “old man.” They begin to trade insults. At first, Peter’s are rough around the edges—the kind of out-of-place name-calling that a grandparent might use. But, as the exchange heats up, Peter throws out some impressive slurs that score points with the other kids. Rufio is caught off guard, and then Peter finishes him off. In a moment of gloating, Peter realistically dips a spoon into an empty bowl in front of him and looks at Rufio and says, “Why don’t you go suck on a dead dog’s nose?” and flings the vacant spoon at his rival. And, out of nowhere, a big pile of pink and blue frosting flies across the table and lands right on Rufio’s face. And then, all of the sudden, Peter can see the feast in front of him. His imagination begins to take hold. That which could not be seen comes to light. And the rest of the movie is about Peter reclaiming the identity which he had lost—one that was always there but that had been hidden beneath the surface.

Tomorrow, when we sit down at our respective Thanksgiving tables, I doubt that there will be any imaginary dishes. We won’t pass empty bowls and plates around the table, scooping out piles of make-believe potatoes and heaps of pretend dressing. Instead, the feast will be right in front of us—easy to behold, easy to smell, easy to taste. But that’s also the problem with our Thanksgiving feast. As our gospel lesson reminds us, our tendency is to focus on the food that fills the belly instead of the food that fills the soul. The feast that we celebrate is supposed to push us beyond the spread in front of us and point us to an appreciation for even greater blessings, but the fuller our bellies get the harder it is for us to see and recognize the real blessing that that food is supposed to convey.

In today’s gospel lesson, the crowd goes searching for Jesus. Earlier in John 6, he had miraculously fed the 5,000 with five loaves and two fish, but, then, when they started to come and make him their king, he snuck away. At nightfall, he sent his disciples across the Sea of Galilee in a boat, choosing to walk out across the water to them. When the sun rose and the crowd realized that Jesus and his disciples had gone across the water, they, too, got in boats to track him down. When they found him, Jesus said, “You’re only following me because I filled up your stomachs. Don’t search for the food that perishes. Instead, look for the food that endures for eternal life.” That is Jesus’ command: look for it; search for it; yearn not merely for enough food to last for today but for the nourishment that lasts forever. But how is the crowd supposed to see beyond the miracle of the loaves and fishes? And what will it take for us to recognize what Jesus is really offering?
Tomorrow, when you sit down at your table, stop long enough to think about where that bounty came from. And I don’t just mean the people who cooked it. Who tilled the soil? Who planted the carrots and the wheat and the corn? Who fed the turkey? Who harvested it all? Who worked to find and extract and refine and deliver the oil so that the farm equipment could do all that work and the trucks and trains could deliver it all? Who drove the truck that brought that produce to the processing plant? Who sorted it and cleaned it and packaged it? Who drove it to your supermarket? Who put on the shelf? Who checked you out? And what about all the secondary people who contributed by developing the supply chain and running the marketing campaign and cleaning the floors and processing the payroll and on and on? Can you see beyond the meal in front of you and recognize all the work that went in to make it happen?

Well, Jesus is asking us to see even beyond that. Where did the seeds come from? How did they know how to grow? Who made the water and the sunlight and the minerals that nourished those plants? Who gave you the abilities to get a job and do the work you did to earn the money to pay for those things? Who made it possible for you to sit at a table under a roof surrounded by sturdy, insulating walls complete with family and friends and the freedom of knowing that no one will come and break down your door and haul you off for questioning because you don’t have the right papers, because you don’t speak the right language, or because don’t worship the right god? Where do those blessings come from? Aren’t we called to give thanks for more than a meal that’s too big for us to finish? Hasn’t God blessed us far beyond anything we place on the table in front of us?
God has given us all things—each day, each minute, each breath, each heartbeat. All of it is gift. God is the one whose love and blessing sustains us throughout this life and even into the next. Jesus is God’s pledge and promise that that love never ceases—that not even the end of this life separates us from the one who made us. That is what Thanksgiving means. That’s what the turkey and dressing and potatoes and Brussels sprouts and pecan pie are really about. They are just a sign—a symbol of a bounty far greater than any earthly feast. Our ancestors made it through a harsh winter. Our spiritual ancestors made it through a wilderness journey. We, too, will make it through whatever struggle lies ahead—not because of our own accomplishments but always because of God’s love. That love cannot be defeated. That love is why we give thanks.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Hope or Fear?

Sometimes I think the doom-and-gloom branches of Christianity have ruined Advent for the rest of us. This is supposed to be a season of hopeful expectation, but, anytime a preacher starts talking about the coming of the Son of Man, the congregation seems to tense up. "Uh oh, he's at it again!" they might mumble to themselves. Somehow one of the central hopes of our faith has become something we fear, and I think it's time for the followers of Jesus to reclaim the end as something we all look forward to.

This Sunday, we will hear Jesus speak of the coming of the Son of Man at a day and hour that no one knows (Mathew 24:36-44). This week's gospel lesson contains images of Noah and the Flood and how everyone except for Noah's family were caught off guard when the flood waters swept them away. Jesus uses the example of field hands working alongside each other when one disappears and the example of two women grinding meal together when one of them vanishes. To me and my apocalyptically conditioned ears, that sounds like bad news. This sounds like a warning. But I think Jesus means it as encouragement.

What did the coming of the Son of Man mean to his earliest followers? Jesus' death and resurrection were the inauguration of God's kingdom, but Rome--not God--was still in charge. Disciples were killed. Christians were expelled from synagogues. The church went underground. And the followers of Jesus waited and watched for signs that the fulfillment of the kingdom were coming. "Is this it?" they asked themselves when one emperor succeeded another. When Rome burned, I bet they imagined that God's final judgment had finally arrived. The believed that Jesus' return would come at any minute, and, for them, that was a source of pure hope. If those first generations of Christians believed that 2,000 years would come and go without the return of the Son of Man, I wonder whether they could have stuck with it. They were fuelled by the hope of Christ's return.

And what is our response? We portray our attitude toward the fulfillment of God's kingdom with a mixture of terrifying and hopeless proclamations. Billboards proclaim, "Look busy; Jesus is coming." Movies and television shows and works of fiction depict the lives of those "left behind" or the zombie apocalypse that gives most of us irrational nightmares. Where is the hope? Where is the belief that at any moment God might finally make everything right? Where is the "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away" sentiment that Jesus offers in the verse immediately before this week's gospel lesson?

So what is our attitude supposed to be? One of watchfulness. We watch and wait not in irrational fear or paranoia but in hopeful expectancy. We believe and know that God is making all things right and one day will complete that work. We watch for it as if it is happening. We wait for it as if it will come at any minute. We let that hope pervade our daily life--not supplant it with baseless apocalyptic expectations. People of faith are supposed to view the end of the world as the long-awaited answer that we have been hoping for for all of human history. Will that be our hope this Advent?

Monday, November 21, 2016

Ready or Not?

Since it's happened countless times, I suppose that it should not surprise me any more, but, yesterday, when I heard the gospel lesson about the crucifixion of Jesus, I was again surprised to hear something that, despite having read and reread the gospel lesson a dozen or more times during the week, I had not noticed before. As my colleague read from Luke's account, it struck me how many times Jesus is asked to save himself and, of course, how deliberately Jesus chooses not to. Where was that simple observation all week long?

Because it's a short week and because I don't want to miss out on family time, I've already been thinking about this coming Sunday's gospel lesson for several days. I worry, however, that I'll get to Sunday morning and, as I'm reading the gospel, notice something I should have seen or heard in my sermon preparation. Today, therefore, as I put electronic pen to electronic paper for the first time, I'm trying to come at it from a different angle. What else might these words be saying to me and to our congregation?

In the midst of these scary words about the coming of the Son of Man, there are some vivid images of everyday life. Jesus uses the story of Noah to get his point across: even days before the floods came, the naïve people of the earth were carrying on with business as usual. I wonder if it's distracting for us that Jesus points out that they were "eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage." That sounds like a party, and, as I recall, one of the reasons the flood came was the wickedness of the whole earth. It's easy, therefore, for me to let that sentiment of finger-wagging change how I hear the rest. But I don't think Jesus is being critical of the behavior of those who are unprepared. Instead, he's just critical of their unpreparedness.

Two will be in the field; one will be taken, and one will be left. Two will be grinding meal; one will be taken, and one will be left. Except for the unexpected departure, that's a dramatic way of saying nothing dramatic at all. People are just going about their ordinary business. Farmers are working the land. Women are grinding the meal. Laborers are going to work. Lawyers are meeting with clients. Doctors are visiting patients. Preachers are writing sermons. People are doing what they always do. Is Jesus telling us to do something else? Is he asking us to sell all our possessions and move to a compound on the outskirts of town where we know the rapture will take place any minute? No. Not at all. In fact, it's anything but that.

Both are working; one is taken, and one is left. What's the difference? What's the point? Some are ready and some are not, but being ready doesn't mean adopting an urgent apocalyptic mentality. Yes, we are called to be ready, but the point is that no one--absolutely no one--knows when the end will come. It comes in the middle of our ordinary life. It is our ordinary life, therefore, that must be bent and shaped to reflect that reality. We don't jettison our day-to-day operations. Like the owner of the house who knows not when the thief will come, we don't mark our calendars for the one day when we expect to be robbed. We let the reality of the unknown shape the reality of what we know.

This is not "Doomsday Prepper." This is about always being ready in other, quieter ways. We should continue to eat and drink and marry and be given in marriage. We should continue to work. But all that we do and all that we have must reflect our belief that the Son of Man will return at any minute. May this Advent be about that balance between our ordinary lives and our belief in the coming of the extraordinary.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Bad Shepherd, Good Shepherd

As someone who pastors a congregation, I get nervous whenever the prophets speak of shepherds who have led God's flock astray. Over and over, the bible warns those who would be teachers or priests to be careful. Jesus says something about hanging a millstone around the neck of those who cause his little ones to stumble and throwing them into the sea. As an ESTJ, I'm wired to be staunchly orthodox, but I'm sure I've unwittingly uttered a heresy from the pulpit. I cringe when I consider how often I've misquoted scripture, offered the wrong citation, or mixed up my biblical names. Those, however, are not the mistakes that worry me. More than anything, I worry that, as a sinful, self-interested, egotistical human being, I have confused God's path for my path and have blindly, unintentionally led our congregation away from the gospel.

On Sunday, Jeremiah will prophesy what will happen to those ungodly shepherds: "Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord...It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord." No, I'm not an overtly wicked shepherd. I rarely feel the gospel's pull and consciously turn by back on it, marching confidently in the other direction. I'm not proudly leading God's people off a proverbial cliff, but it's easy to leave the sharpness of God's prophetic word on the sideline and climb into the pulpit with a feel-good message instead. It's easy to look at the poverty, violence, and hatred of the world during the week but close my eyes to them as I preach Sunday's sermon. Why? Because people get weary when their shepherd is always talking about wolves. But, then again, bad shepherds rarely lead their sheep into a pack of wolves. Much more often, the shepherd stops paying attention to where the flock is headed and then, when it's too late to do anything about it, he looks up to see that they are being devoured.

What does the rest of Sunday's Old Testament lesson say? After dispatching the wicked shepherd, the Lord declares, "Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord." And what is the mark of those good shepherds--that "righteous Branch" that God will give his people? That one "shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land." God's sheepfold is marked by justice and righteousness. When God is in charge, when God reigns on the earth, all of God's people dwell in security and safety.

So what are shepherds like me supposed to do? First, we acknowledge that we are not the Good Shepherd. We are sinful human beings, subject to fear and pride and ego. We must admit that we like it when people come out of church and say, "I really enjoyed that sermon," and are nervous when people come out and say, "That was really difficult for me to hear." We must remember that there is only one shepherd worth following and that we are not he. Then, we must pray that God would lift the veil of insecurity from our eyes and give us the boldness of his messenger. We are not pointing people to ourselves. We are pointing them to God. They may never thank us for that work, but, again, we cannot be in it for ourselves. Lastly, we must allow the Good Shepherd to lead us along with his people back into the sheepfold of justice and righteousness. That is where we belong, too, and we still have a ways to go to get there. May our work as shepherds be always and only for the sake of the one who shepherds us, Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Maggie the Treasure Hunter

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

If heaven isn't now, I think we've missed it.

I've been a priest for a decade. I've been an Episcopalian for two. I've been a Christian for all thirty-six years of my life. And I feel like I am only now learning to appreciate the fact that heaven isn't a destination at the end of our life but a reality that is here among us right now. Where have I been?

In Matthew 13:44-52, Jesus gets on a bit of a preacher's roll and spouts off one analogy for the kingdom after another. "The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field...It's like a merchant in search of fine pearls...It's like a net thrown into the sea... Do you see what I mean? Can you see it? Can you see the kingdom?" Matthew doesn't give us any editorial comments like, "Working up a good, holy sweat, Jesus said..." but he does string these parables together in quick succession in a way that makes it feel like we're spinning around, looking at the kingdom from one angle after another. None of these is a full depiction of God's reign or our experience of it, but together they leave us with an impression of what it means for God to be in charge.

And the impression that they leave me is now--the now-ness of the kingdom. "The kingdom heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field," Jesus says. And what do you do with a buried treasure? You find it and dig it up! Every child of God knows that. We've been imagining ourselves on treasure hunts since we were old enough to explore in the back yard. Jesus' hearers knew that, too. If the kingdom is like a treasure hidden in a field, that means our job is to go and find it. That's how the parable continues. A man, upon stumbling upon that treasure of incomparable value, sells all that he has and buys the field so that the treasure might be his. He didn't go home and spend the rest of his life telling his kids and grandkids about the treasure that could have belonged to him. No, of course not! The man went and got it. Immediately. Buried treasures aren't supposed to be admired from afar. They're hidden so that we might find them.

The same principle is at work in the parable of the merchant in search of fine pearls. When he finds the pearl he's been looking for for his entire life, he sells all that he has and buys it. Not tomorrow. Not after discussing it with his wife. Not after assembling a cadre of investment bankers who might fund this project. No, he seizes the opportunity as soon as he find it, sells everything that he owns, and buys that one pearl. Is this ludicrous? Maybe, but it doesn't matter. This man's life was focused on searching for fine pearls. That is what gave his life direction and meaning. Why wouldn't he cash in his life insurance policy, liquidate his 401(k), and scrape together every penny from his savings in order to get the one thing he's dreamed of for his whole life? When an opportunity like that presents itself, you don't let it pass you by. You take it. Immediately. Now.

Sure, the kingdom is not finished yet. As the parable of the net reminds us, one day God will come and make everything right. The edible, kosher fish will be separated from the sea creatures without fin and scale, which is to say that those who belong to God will be treasured by God himself, and those who do not (whoever they are) will be cast back into the water. But just because the kingdom isn't complete yet doesn't mean that it's not here. We're still swimming in the water. Until the end, we're going to be surrounded by those seem to get in the way of God's kingdom, but don't let that fool you. We may have a destination of completeness and perfection in mind, but that doesn't mean the kingdom isn't here and now.

Today is the feast of Margaret, Queen of Scotland. Margaret was an English princess who married Malcolm, the Scottish king. When she came to the north, she brought with her a zeal for reform. She insisted that the Christianity of the Celts be conformed to the Roman practices. One might argue that her reform of the liturgy and clergy was another example of English colonialism, but it is hard to criticize her reforms of hospitals, schools, and orphanages. As a queen, she felt that God had called her to transform the lives of her people from barbaric brutality to peaceful prosperity. She endeavored (ultimately unsuccessfully) to end the fighting among the Scottish clans. Although never fully realized, she dreamt of a nation united in prayer and worship. Despite being an Englishwoman (English and woman), Margaret did succeed in making her country a place that looked more and more like the kingdom of God, and we celebrate her as a saint because she refused to simply throw up her hands and say, "Someday God will sort this out." She knew that kingdom work was her work--that the kingdom of God is something to be seized here and now.

What about us? There are children in this town who go to bed hungry at night. There are men and women in our community who do not get the physical or mental health care that they need. In our city, a child's opportunity for success--in school and in life--is more heavily influenced by what neighborhood they are born in than what the genetic potential they possess. We have not figured out how black and white and brown people can live together with any greater sense of community than a détente. What will our response be?

Although we are called by God to feed and clothe and house and educate those in need and seek reconciliation with everyone in our community, that's only scratching the surface. The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field. The reign of God--the beautiful, peaceful, equitable, holy way of God--is within our sight. We know what it looks like, and, if we're honest with ourselves, we know where it lies. Will we sell everything that we have to unearth it? Margaret insisted on making systemic changes. She didn't just give food and clothing to those who needed it. She built schools and orphanages. She changed the way her country dealt with them. She found a way to include in society those who had been left out. Will we insist on the same? Will we recognize the incomparable value of the immediate kingdom? Will we seize that which God has placed before us?

Loveable Losers and a Crown of Thorns

Although the Chicago Cubs are widely thought to be in a good position to remain a World-Series-contender for several years, some of the pieces of this year's success are being dismantled. Star-closer Aroldis Chapman is on his way to a new team (probably the Yankees). Lead-off slugger Dexter Fowler again declined his qualifying offer, which means he'll test the free-agent market again. Last year, he did the same thing and surprised the Cubs by coming back to Chicago for less money, but this year that feels unlikely. Plenty of questions about the remaining players linger. What will happen to the starting rotation? Who will the new closer be--Strop or someone else? Will Jason Heyward ever start hitting again? But, despite all those concerns, I must admit I don't really care. It's not because I have some irrational confidence that the Cubs will do it again. It's that I'm still basking in my post-championship glee and almost don't mind if my "Lovable Losers" don't win another World Series for the next 108 years. Soon, that glow will fade, and I'll wonder whether next year is our year, but, for now, my whole understanding of what it means to be a fan of a perpetual underdog has shifted.

I think Christ the King Sunday embodies that feeling. On Good Friday, we encounter the horror of the crucifixion, and, on that day, the focus is on Christ's passion and sacrifice and the forgiveness of our sins. This Sunday, however, we encounter the crucifixion as the central, universal, irreproducible expression of Christ's kingship and God's majesty. This is what God's kingship looks like: a crucified messiah, a tortured savior, a dying servant. This is no accident. This is not merely humanity rejecting God's gift of love and hope. This is God's perfect expression of the way God is and the way his reign was and is and always will be. Christ the King is the crucified one. This Sunday, we embrace God's idea of majesty.

By any earthly measurement, this is all wrong. Jesus is a loser of unparalleled proportions. His ministry comes to a screeching halt as the one who was supposed to usher in God's reign is defeated by the Roman imperial occupying force. The cross is a giant "maybe next year" at the end of Jesus' life. But, of course, it isn't. There is Easter. There is resurrection. There is God's great defeat over sin and death. The danger for us, however, is that we will see the resurrection only as God's reversal of a moment of defeat and not confirmation of that earthly "defeat" that is the heart of who God is as the one who identifies with our suffering.

It's hard to embrace a loser. It's hard for us to see the crown of thorns on Jesus' head and not insist that it be airbrushed out so that a golden crown befitting the King of Kings can be Photoshopped in its place. But Jesus' death on the cross was not an accident of history. It is the fullest revelation of who God is and what God's reign is like. This is our king. Easter doesn't make it true. It confirms it.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Who Likes the Thief?

I have some confessions to make. First, I don't like Romantic poetry. Of Percy Shelley and his companions, I think my old roommate John de la Parra said it best: "I fall upon the thorns of life! I gag!" Second, I don't like movies with unequivocally happy endings. I am more entertained by confusion, conflicting emotions, and bitter goodbyes. Third, I don't like morality tales that telegraph their message long before their conclusions. When I tell bedtime stories to my children, I prefer the unedited version of Grimm. Finally, I don't like Luke's version of the crucifixion. That penitent thief with his on-the-cross conversion is more than I can bear. But in the lectionary I only have to endure it once every three years, so I suppose I'd better make the best of it.

This Sunday is the final Sunday before Advent, now known as Christ the King Sunday. Every year on this Sunday, we get a different synoptic account of the Crucifixion. Before tackling Luke's account, it's worth noting how this version differs from the rest.

Matthew and Mark both tell us that those who were crucified with Jesus joined in the mocking: "And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left...Those who were crucified with him also taunted him (Mark 15:27, 32; see also Matthew 27:38, 44). With his singular focus on Jesus, John barely mentions the other criminals: "There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them" (19:18). Luke, however, seizes upon the opportunity to use these otherwise voiceless characters to further his message.

Luke tells us that one of the criminals join in the taunting, saying, "Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!" But, in a shocking move, the other criminal steps in to defend Jesus: "Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong." It's shocking not because a criminal is taking Jesus' side. Surely Luke has made the point that the outcasts have found a hero in Jesus. It's shocking because Luke portrays Jesus as someone who needs (or at least benefits from) someone else's defense. In the other crucifixion accounts, the majesty of Jesus shines through the crucifixion. Especially in John's version of the arrest, trial, conversation with Pilate, and crucifixion scene itself, the reader has no doubt that Jesus is in charge. But Luke gives the evangelistic control to a minor character--a criminal who was under the same sentence of execution as Jesus.

That's something I can get into. The rest of the lesson--the criminal's request for Jesus' remembrance and Jesus' promise that the criminal will be with him that day in paradise--I can do without. But this piece of remarkable testimony grabs my attention. Evangelism on the cross--not merely through the cross--and it's by someone other than Jesus.

Sometimes it's best to let Jesus speak for himself, but other times it's ok for us to say something on his behalf. He doesn't need us to, of course, but the world does. Not everyone sees the tragedy of the cross and discovers the majesty of the king. Sometimes people need those of us who see it to share it. This week, I'm not preaching on Sunday, but I am still an evangelist. I'm going to try to keep my focus on the thief whom I might normally dismiss. His testimony is important, and so is mine, and so is yours. How might we let the world see what is really going on in the gospel? How might we invite others to discover God's saving work in the story of Jesus?

Faith, Doubt, Fear, Hope

November 13, 2016 – The 26th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 28C
© 2016 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon as written below and as preached at 8:00am is available here. As sometimes happens, I wasn't satisfied with the sermon I wrote or preached at 8:00am, so I preached a somewhat different sermon at 10:30am. If you'd like to listen to that one, click here.

This morning, I’d like to start the sermon with a little congregational participation. I will say a word, and then I want you to say the opposite. Sound easy enough? Let’s give it a try.

Up. Down.
Left. Right.
Hot. Cold.
Black. White.

Good job so far. Those were the easy ones. Let’s keep going,

Protestant. Catholic.
Liberal. Conservative.
Rich. Poor.
Faith. ???

What is the opposite of faith? Is it doubt? I don’t think so. I believe that doubt is a healthy part of faith. Doubt keeps faith honest. Without the questions and the hesitations of doubt, faith becomes meaningless. It becomes blind, thoughtless agreement—believing in something without really meaning it. Anything worth believing in comes with a healthy dose of doubt. I think the opposite of faith is fear. And I think Jesus wants us to have the kind of faith that can handle moments of doubt but that puts all fear to rest.

“Do you see this temple?” Jesus asked. “All these beautiful stones and precious ornaments—the time is coming when not one of them will be left upon another. Everything will be thrown down.” Isn’t Jesus just the sort of conversationalist one would want at his Thanksgiving table? The temple was the symbol that held God’s people together. To predict its destruction was to predict the destruction of their homeland. They were already under Roman occupation. How much worse could it get?

“When will this be?” they asked him. “Tell us what sign we should look for as a warning that this is about to take place.” I don’t blame them for asking. Wouldn’t you want to know how long you had until the Statue of Liberty or the Capitol Building—each a symbol of our national identity—was destroyed? But Jesus didn’t really give them an answer. “Many will come and say, ‘I am he!’ and ‘The time has come!’ but don’t believe them…because things will get even worse.”

Jesus said, “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified. This must happen first, but the end will not follow immediately. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes and famines and plagues. And there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. But, still, that’s not all.

“Before any of this occurs, you will be arrested. You will be persecuted. You will be imprisoned…You will be betrayed even by your own parents and brothers, your relatives and your friends. Some of you will even be executed. All of you will be hated because of my name. But don’t worry. Not a hair on your head will perish.”

Up until that last part, this sounded like some sort of deranged pep talk. It seemed like Jesus was telling them not to worry because, even though the whole world was going to come crashing down on top of them, he had plan for their escape. But, when Jesus told them that some of them would be executed yet not a hair on their head will perish, we knew that the jig was up. That’s the kind of otherworldly rabbi-speak that lets us know that Jesus wasn’t talking about being saved from the catastrophes of this world but being saved through them. “By your endurance,” he told them, “you will gain your souls.”

But how does that work? How could Jesus tell his followers that terrible things would happen to them yet encourage them not to worry? How were they ever going to make it through arrest and persecution and betrayal and execution without even a hair on their head being lost? How are we supposed to face wars and insurrections and famines and plagues without losing hope? How do we say to someone whose life is falling apart, “Don’t give up; everything will be ok?” Honestly, I don’t know. I don’t know how that works. I just know that it does.

What is it that we are really afraid of anyway? Is it death? Is it financial ruin? Is it political turmoil? Is it isolation from our family and friends? Is it a massive, public failure? Whatever it is, I’ll suggest to you that the part that really bothers us isn’t what might happen but when and how. We all know that there will be another financial crisis even bigger than the last one. And there will be political divisions even more rancorous than this one. There will be wars more devastating than any we’ve ever seen. There will be famines and plagues like nothing we can imagine. We will experience hurricanes and earthquakes more devastating than any in history. All of that will happen—maybe not in our lifetime, maybe not in our children’s lifetime. But, if you wait around long enough, it’s going to happen. It’s the when and the how that keep us up at night.

Just like the people who were speaking to Jesus, we want him to tell us when. We want to be able to prepare ourselves. We want a head start. We at least want to be able to brace ourselves. Even when everything is falling apart, we want some modicum of control. But doubt means living with those unanswered questions, and faith means letting go of that need for control.

When will it happen? I have no idea. Somedays I think it’s right around the corner, and other times I think that it won’t come for ten thousand generations. How will we survive? What will happen to our families? What will happen to the church? I don’t know. Can we prepare for it? Probably not. And that’s the point at which faith and fear collide. We don’t know when it will happen, and we can’t know how we’ll make it. We have to live with those unanswerable questions for the rest of our lives. The question Jesus is asking us is will we let that uncertainty define us, or will we believe that, no matter what happens and no matter when it comes, God will be with us?
Faith means believing that God is with us no matter what happens. It doesn’t mean believing that tragedy will not come. Being a Christian doesn’t get you out of trouble. If anything, following Jesus means more trouble, more hardship, more heartache. But those of us who follow Jesus know that we are not alone on this journey. We may not know exactly when or how we will get where we are going, but we believe and trust that we will. We believe because in Christ we have seen God transform death into life. In the cross and empty tomb, we see that God is with the forsaken one—that in God no one is ever lost. Even if everything we have and everything we are is taken from us, we cannot be taken away from the love of God. That hope shatters all fear. Doubts may linger, and that’s ok. But will we believe that no matter what happens God will always be with us? Will we trust that in him we have no reason to fear?

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

I Have A Job To Do

Eight years ago, I woke up early on a Wednesday morning to the news that America had elected Barack Obama as its next president, and I shed some silent tears of joy. I was not particularly enthused that a Democrat had been elected. Although I had voted for Obama, I had always considered myself a Republican, but the 2008 election felt as if it were about more than political party. As the parent of a one-year-old daughter who lay asleep in the next room, I cried because I knew that my child would never know a country in which a black president was inconceivable. Only a decade or so earlier, that idea was beyond my comprehension. Even on that morning, with the headlines securely printed, it felt surreal. When she woke up, I held her in my arms and cried again. Something was different. Something was new.

Today, when I woke up, I was surprised to find that my daughter was already awake. The sun was not up yet, but she had gotten out of bed to use the bathroom. I whispered good morning to her and encouraged her to go back to bed, but I slipped away as quickly as I could. I did not want her to ask me the question that I knew she would ask. I did not want to have to tell her that Donald Trump had defeated Hillary Clinton. I had not yet had a chance to think of what I would say to her. Like most of America, I was still stunned at the result. I had anticipated Hillary's victory as another opportunity to hold both my now nine-year-old daughter and her sixteen-month-old sister in my lap and tell them that there is no reason for them to think that a woman could not be president of this great nation. But I couldn't say that--at least not at first.

I don't know what your reaction to this election result has been. I have spent a good bit of this morning in quiet prayer, sorting through my own reactions. I have seen your posts on Facebook--some championing this unexpected victory and others confessing profound defeat. I have read articles that try to explain how this happened and some that predict what the next four years will be like. I have listened to some of Donald Trump's victory speech, and I have heard part of Hillary Clinton's concession address. I have spoken or texted with my wife, some colleagues, and a few friends. And, through it all, the best that I can tell is that I have a job to do.

I have a responsibility to my daughters to remind them that there is still no reason to believe that a woman could not become our president. This is not the first time that a woman has faced a profound setback, and it will not be the last. There may have been some misogyny behind this particular result, but this is in no way a victory for sexism. Although I must admit that, as a white male, my privilege makes it easy for me to disregard the nature of this particular defeat, I also choose to believe that anything is possible. Irrational and privileged though it may be, I need that hope. As a father of two daughters, I must look beyond today and hold on to hope for tomorrow.

It is my job as a parent to tell my children that this is still a great nation and that our democratic process is a wonderful privilege and blessing. It is my job to model that belief to them by giving President-Elect Trump my respect and, as Hillary Clinton said today, my open mind. I cannot let disappointment become despair. I cannot let despair become rejection. I must show my children how to participate in a civil society that is more than triumphant winners and dejected losers. Despite my own feelings , I must embrace that which unites us and insist on maintaining hope for the future.

I also have a job to do as a clergyman. I have a calling--a holy vocation--to preach the Gospel. The good news of Jesus Christ is a message of hope that transcends every possible moment of despair. Even when it feels like the candidate who was elected is unlikely to strive for a world that looks ever more like God's kingdom, the Gospel of hope is still operative in the world. It is freedom for the oppressed. It is riches for the poor. It is food for the hungry. It is life for those who dwell in the shadow of death. This Sunday, in Luke 21, we will hear Jesus warn his followers about wars and insurrections and famines and plagues and persecution, and we will also hear him tell them not to lose hope. Their hope is our hope. We believe that God is at work in the world around us and among us and through us. We may not know how that will work out--notice what Jesus says about preparing your own defense for the moment of trial--but we trust and believe and hope and expect that it will.

Now more than ever, our nation needs the Gospel of hope. We need to remember that there is more at stake than an election. We need to know that there is a hope greater than any political party. Our ultimate confidence cannot be in a presidential candidate, nor can any candidate lead us to true despair. As followers of Jesus, we must have hope. It is a necessary product of faith. Yes, that faith will be tested. Yes, our ability to rely on hope will be difficult. But hope is what the God-man gives us. Hope is what the resurrection secures for us. Hope is what we have. Hope is who we are.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Like Father, Like Son

Propers for the Nation
Isaiah 26:1-8; Romans 13:1-10; Matthew 5:43-48*
*The Gospel lesson is taken from the propers for Independence Day

The other day my father sent me a selfie with the caption, “I will return this tie next trip.” I looked at the picture and saw that he was wearing my tie—a tie that, judging by how long it had been since I had worn it, must have been in his closet for around a decade. In reply, I let him know that if he ever looked in my closet he would see several ties, shirts, sweaters, and jackets that belong to him. My only hope is that it has been so long that he has forgotten which things are actually his. Like most boys, I have been raiding his closet since I was old enough to tie a tie. From a very early age, I remember wanting to dress like him and wanting to be like him.

I do not know when I learned it, but as a child I knew that my father had a peculiar way of hanging up his trousers. He tossed them up in the air and then caught them by the other end in order to align them perfectly and naturally for hanging. I practiced that little trick until I had it down pat. One day, when we were both getting dressed in the same room, I made sure he noticed when I tossed my trousers up in the air and caught them. Unfortunately, my method was different from his, and, instead of seeing a similarity between us, my attempt only underscored in his mind how he was still the only person he knew who threw his pants up in the air before hanging them on the hanger the way he did. He mentioned it, and I hung my head in disappointment and walked out of the room. I just wanted to be like him.

Nowadays, I notice my elder son wanting to be like his father. He wears a bowtie to church. He wants to know what color trousers I have picked out for Sunday morning so that he can wear trousers of the same color. He knows that I often wear black shoes, and he wants a pair of black shoes of his own. It is flattering, of course. It is endearing. It is special to see a child want to be like his parent. As the inevitability of adolescence approaches, I know that one day he will outgrow that imitative instinct, but, in the meantime, I find myself wondering how long it will last. How long can we keep up this close connection between father and son? When is it that we forget how good it feels to pretend to be like our parent?

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:43-48 NRSV). So that you may be children of your father in heaven. When I read this passage from Matthew 5, most of it is familiar to me. The command to love our enemies is the kind of outlandish thing that sticks with us. We know that it will be hard work. We know Jesus is expressing the Christian ideal—the human ideal. But the phrase with which Jesus links that behavior to our relationship with God seems to leak conveniently out of my memory. I would rather forget that part. I would rather not think about what my attitude toward my opponents says about my relationship with God. But that is where the power of the gospel is to be found—not in the articulation of a faraway ideal but in the invitation to be that which we admire. We are called to become children of God, and, if we want to become children of God, we must be like our Father in heaven. We must love all people—good, bad, friend, enemy, righteous, unrighteous—just as God loves them.
As I wrote last week in our parish newsletter, this election cycle has resulted in the dehumanization of our opponents. We are no longer debating policies. We are questioning and denying the integrity, motive, and character of the candidates and the people who support them. Every day, my Facebook news feed is full of articles on why no Christian could ever vote for Hillary Clinton and why no Christian could ever vote for Donald Trump. Unfortunately, these are not desperate pleas for a third-party candidate. They are unequivocal, non-negotiable statements from Republicans and Democrats who are convinced that the other side represents not merely a contrary position but a genuinely evil and anti-Christian, anti-American, anti-reasonable platform. And, as long as we allow our disagreements and differences to inhibit our ability to see the humanity of our opponents, we allow Satan—the ultimate divider—to win.
Love your enemies, Jesus said. Love them. Why? Because God loves them, and, if we belong to God, we must love the way that God loves. That is where it all starts. God makes the sun rise on the evil and the good. God sends rain upon the righteous and the unrighteous. In other words, God's blessing, God's provision, God's love are unconditional. There are no ifs to God's love. God does not love you if you love him back. God does not bless you if you believe what he tells you to believe. God does not provide for you if you go to church, if you make a pledge, if you vote for a Republican, or if you vote for a Democrat. God loves everyone because that is who God is. God is love. That is the foundation of the gospel. That is the source of our hope. If that begins to unravel, everything is lost, and, as soon as we begin to put caveats on that love, it all falls apart.

If we want to belong to God, we must love the way that he loves. If we want to be children of God, we must love everyone—even our enemies. If God loves everyone yet we attempt to deny that love to anyone, we cannot know God's unconditional love. Once we place a condition upon that love—once we try to hold it and keep it for ourselves and for those we think deserve it—it slips right through our fingers. If we believe that there is anyone on earth who is outside of God's love, then we deny not only the humanity of that person, but, more importantly, we deny the One who loves without limit. Yet, in one way or another, we all seem to be participating in a political process that does just that—that denies our faith in Jesus by denying the universality of God's love.

I do not know whether you have gone to the polls yet. If you have not, I hope that you will. The stakes are considerable, and I believe that disciples of Jesus are called to help make the reign of God manifest on earth through our political process. But, when you go to the polls and when you watch the results come in, I urge you to do so not as a Republican or a Democrat but as one who belongs to God. Do not buy into the false narrative that there is only one way for a faithful person to vote. Look for the good within your opponents. Love them just as God has loved them. We are called to be children of God. Jesus urges us to imitate our heavenly Father—to be perfect and complete in our love just as God is. We cannot be children of God if we refuse to love our enemies. That is what is really at stake in this election. Today is not only about a nation choosing its next president. It is a moment for the people of this country to choose to love one another without limits. Will that love win? Will the reign of God be manifest in our nation? If so, it starts with us.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Which End Is Near?

The bad news is that all signs point to complete and total meltdown on Tuesday after the election results come in. The good news is that the gospel lesson for Sunday has us getting ready for that.

This coming Sunday, we will read Luke 21:5-19, in which we hear Jesus warn his hearers, "Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven." Could it be that this mini-apocalypse is coming at just the right time to help us keep everything in perspective?

Listen to all the things that Jesus tells us will come: destruction of the temple, false prophets, wars, insurrections, national strife, natural disasters, famines, plagues, foreboding signs, arrests, persecutions, trials, betrayals, and executions. That, he tells us, is what lies ahead for those who follow him. And what is Jesus' advice? "But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls." Hang in there, he tells us. Stand firm. Look beyond the chaos and destruction. See past the persecution and strife. Remain faithful, and by your endurance you will receive your heavenly reward.

I begin  my sermon prep on Monday morning, when I read the lessons, pray about them, and begin to listen for what the Holy Spirit might be saying to us through these texts. I have a strong sense, however, that all of these lessons, including the gospel, will feel different on Wednesday morning. And I suspect that they will feel different again on Thursday and Friday. Right now, it's hard for me to see past the election. With no more baseball on television to hold my focus, it's difficult for me to avoid election coverage. But we must see past Tuesday. We must look beyond Wednesday. There are bigger things in play here. I hope that by the end of this week I am able to hear God's encouraging words that promise hope beyond this particular moment of national chaos. Surely God's promises are bigger than that. For now, though, I'm reading and praying and hoping and waiting to see what comes up--not with the election but beyond.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Victory and Forgiveness

Cubs fans are celebrating. Cleveland's fans are saying, "Next year." Boston's Fans are saying, "So what?" But the Cubs' World Series victory and the end of the 108-year drought and the breaking of the Curse of the Billy Goat has me wondering something theological: is a victory incomplete if it does not engender forgiveness?

I'm actually in Chicago right now for a church meeting, and the fact that I will be in a conference room when the parade makes its way from Wrigley Field to Grant Park is killing me. That aside, one of the questions in the local news is what will happen to Steve Bartman now that the Cubs have won. In case you forgot, Steve Bartman is the Cubs fan whose impulsive reach for a foul ball in the 8th inning of the National League Championship Series led to a Marlins victory and eventually to a Marlins win in Game 7 and another year in which the Cubs were left out of the World Series. On ESPN's Mike&Mike, Trey Wingo argues that Bartman should be in the victory parade--that he should "come back to the fold." I think he's right, and I think the championship is incomplete until he is welcomed back.

In the 1986 World Series, Bill Buckner let a ground ball go through his legs, leading to a Red Sox defeat. Like Bartman, he became defined by his mistake. Although he was welcomed back to the team as a free agent in 1990, his real pardon was not issued until after the Sox won the World Series in 2007--not in 2004. Even in 2004, when the Curse of the Bambino was defeated, Buckner was still thought of as the one who kept it going back in 1986. Finally, after the second championship in 2007, Buckner was embraced by the organization and, in turn, he embraced them back. As Wikipedia recalls, Buckner said when he threw out the first pitch at the home opener in the 2008 season, "I really had to forgive, not the fans of Boston, per se, but I would have to say in my heart I had to forgive the media for what they put me and my family through." Yeah, these things have a way of sticking with you.

In life, we cannot know freedom until we have let go of the bonds of resentment. If I am unwilling to forgive you, I carry that burden with me. If Chicago cannot forgive Steve Bartman and let go of the disappointment of 2003, then the curse of a 108-year drought still hangs over this franchise. The truth is that any one of a million fans, who have dreamt their whole lives of catching a foul ball, would have reached out their hand and tried to catch it. Some are more disciplined than that, but I recognize that I am not. No matter how much I love the Cubs, I could have been Steve Bartman. And you could, too. Can we not, therefore, find a way to forgive him?

Jesus Christ has won an incredible victory for us. For all of human history and for all of our lives, we have been shut out. The wages of sin is death. We were living with a big 0-for. And then Jesus came and set us free from sin and death and disappointment and fear and uncertainty. He restored us to God. That is a victory that we experience here and now. But we cannot know that forgiveness, that love, that victory, if we deny it to anyone else. "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us," we pray. Do we realize what we are saying? If we withhold mercy from anyone--even the person who has hurt us the most--we cannot know the fullness of God's mercy.

Love with limits is not unconditional love. Freedom with bonds is not free. God's love is showered upon us without reservation. That is our victory. If we will know it, we must share it unreservedly, too.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

The Golden Rule

I learned the Golden Rule at an early age. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." This meant I had to be nice to other kids on the playground. It meant I had to share my toys with my brother. It meant I had to refrain from calling names or pushing. It even meant that I had to be reasonable to the Auburn fans in my class, and that was tough during the 1980s when they seemed to win every Iron Bowl and never let me hear the end of it. But, as far as I knew, the Golden Rule didn't have anything to do with criminals, terrorists, child molesters, or anyone else my eight-year-old mentality could not comprehend. Doing unto others was about being a nice person to the boys and girls and men and women who lived in my small town, went to my school, worshipped with me in church, walked down our small-town sidewalk, and were brought up in households where their parents taught them the Golden Rule.

But Jesus didn't give us the Golden Rule as a way of living in peace and harmony with one another. He told us to "do unto others..." because that's how God works, so that must be how we work.

The other day I heard someone say, "If everyone followed the Golden Rule, the world would be a better place." I don't disagree at all. It would. But, unlike my parents' invitation, Jesus urges us to follow the Golden Rule in order to participate in the transformation of this world that God has in mind. Notice that in Luke 6:20-31 Jesus isn't telling us how to live in harmony with one another. He's telling us that God is going to turn everything upside-down, which, as Michael Curry likes to point out, is actually right-side-up. Love your enemy. Pray for those who hate you. Turn the other cheek. This isn't better living through niceness. This is radical, counter-cultural, Jesus-is-coming stuff.

Don't miss the chance to shock us with these shocking though familiar words. It's the perfect chance to preach a children's sermon to the whole congregation. Call the kids down front. But speak to everyone. The Golden Rule isn't easy. It's powerful. May God give us the strength to live it for the kingdom's sake.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Believe and Live

I'm not a big fan of the Commemoration of All Faithful Departed. Also called "All Souls' Day," it's a religious observance rooted in the belief that we pray for those who have died so that they may find rest and peace in the afterlife. I don't buy it. I don't think that's how God works. I think God's love for us is independent of what we say or think or do. That's what "unconditional love"q1 means.  But I do believe that our love for those who have died lives on, and I don't see any reason not to pray for them the way we pray for loved ones who are still alive. My prayers for you may not cure your disease, but they are a reminder that the love God has given us for each other is stronger than any illness. We don't pray for the dead so that their souls might leave purgatory and migrate to heaven. We pray for them because we miss them, because we love them still.

The curious thing about the Commemoration of All Faithful Departed is that it allows us to think and pray and encounter what we believe about death in the context of worship but at a time when we are not gathered for a funeral. The preface for the Eucharist is the same one we hear at funerals. The lessons we read are some of the same ones we hear at funerals. There is something powerful about remembering Christ's death and resurrection at a time when we consider our own mortality. But today, unlike at the funeral of one we love, we likely do not bring with us to the altar that immediate and overwhelming grief that limits our ability to hear and receive what God is always saying to us about life after death. It means we have a chance to come together and linger with one another near that threshold between this life and the next and look around and notice what we see.

The gospel lesson for today (John 5:24-27) is a curious and powerful way of expressing what we believe about life after death. Jesus said, "Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life." We are familiar with the concept of salvation through faith. We believe, and thus we are saved. But I wonder how often we pay attention to what Jesus tells us to believe. And I wonder how often we notice what sort of difference that makes.

"Anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me..." John's gospel account reflects a clearly structured theology that Jesus, God's Son, has been sent by God the Father to show and tell the world the truth of God. What Jesus says is what God says. If we recognize that Jesus' words are trustworthy and true, we must also recognize that what he says to us is what God says to us. As silly as it sounds, sometimes I think we lose sight of the fact that Jesus reveals to us who God is and what God wants and how God works. They aren't split. Jesus' compassion for the outcast, rescue of the lost, unreserved declaration of forgiveness are not in any way isolated from God's work. Believing in Jesus isn't just believing that his way of loving your enemy and welcoming the stranger is a good pattern for our lives. Believing in Jesus means believing that that is God's pattern for our lives--not just a good idea for us to bring to an otherwise crooked world but a description of the true reality of this world. That's how God works. We hear Jesus' words and, through him, believe God--we take God at his word, which is Jesus' word.

"Anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life." Notice when eternal life starts--not when we die but when we believe. In other words, it starts now. Jesus could have used the future tense to describe the effect of eternal life--"Anyone who hears my words and believes him who sent me will have eternal life"--but he didn't. He says it's now. Once we believe God--that Jesus is what God is communicating with the world--we have already passed over from death to life. Doesn't that change the way we live in this life? Doesn't that change the way we approach our death?

This life is not merely a preparation for the life that awaits us. And death is not our ticket out of this world. As we pray in the proper preface for today, we believe that life is changed, not ended. The life that we live as those who belong to and with God begins here and now. We do not journey through this life working toward a destination that awaits us. We live this life already in the fold of God. We have already been set free from that which plagues us. We have already been released from judgment and fear. If we believe that the words that Jesus says--words of life and love and hope and freedom--really are who God is, then that belief takes hold of us today. It changes us now.

As I consider these words of Jesus, this is what I hear him saying to me today: "Stop living your life as if your death is what brings you closer to God. If you really believe that what Jesus said and did is who God is, then you're already there. Don't wait any longer to live as one who has passed from death to life." We are already free. We are already saved. We are already alive eternally. The time for living that eternal life is now. It's not waiting for us on the other side of death. It's here.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

One Week to Go

This post also appears as the lead article in The View, the parish newsletter from St. John's Episcopal Church in Decatur, Alabama. To read the rest of the newsletter and learn about what God is doing with the people of our parish, click here.

One week from now, the polls will be open. Next Tuesday, the people of this nation will come together to cast their votes for president as well as many other offices and issues. At last, all of the arguing and cajoling and pandering and bickering that we have endured will come to a head. Later that night, barring an unforeseen delay, the results will come in, and we will know who our next president will be. And then what?

Every election contains a mixture of clashing ideologies and shared objectives. Every candidate loves our country and wants to work for its success, but what that work involves and what that success looks like differs among them. Elections are about sorting through those differences, so the scrutiny naturally falls upon what divides the candidates and their parties rather than what unites them, but beneath those considerable differences lies a common commitment to work for the good of this nation and its people. Even in this highly contentious election cycle, if we were to strip away all of the acrimony, we would discover two individuals who are proud to be Americans and who are willing to execute the Office of the President faithfully by doing their best to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.

In this particular election, however, we have allowed the issues that divide us to set the people of this nation on a fatalistic collision course that prevents us from seeing the good in one another. The discord that fills our ears and minds and hearts has made it nearly impossible to acknowledge that there is anything decent about the other side. Where will that leave us after November 8? What will happen to our nation after the election? What will happen to our church? What will happen to each one of us?

I know that our divisions will persist, but I wonder whether they will continue to define us. Some of you are Republicans, and some of you are Democrats. I see your posts on social media about the evil that the other candidate represents. I read your comments about how this election will decide the fate of our nation for good or for ill. I hear what you say about the other party when you do not think that I am listening. And I hear what you say directly to me about how no rational person could vote for that candidate or how no faithful Christian could vote for the other. But do you realize that we come together each week to worship the same God and follow the same Lord as the one, united, knit-together, mystical Body of Christ?

When you come to receive Communion, I see diehard conservative kneeling next to diehard liberal. You have not said it to each other, but, behind a very thin veil, you have objectified your brother or sister in Christ, turning him or her into the political disagreement that separates you. You have asked in your heart how anyone who believes in God and calls him or herself a Christian could think that particular thing, say that particular thing, and vote that particular way, yet you literally rub elbows and shoulders at God’s table with the very person with whom you cannot imagine sharing a faith. I am guilty of the same offense. We are all guilty of letting the forces which seek to divide us keep us from seeing the deeper truth—that we are all one in Christ Jesus.

How can this be? How can we come together every Sunday to pray and worship and commune with God yet not understand what it means to be the people of God in a way that transcends our differences? Isn’t our experience of unity stronger than our experience of dissention? Isn’t our shared faith and hope in God and God’s ultimate plan for the world bigger than the political divisions of the day? Just because the voices of disagreement and destruction are louder and more prevalent than the voice that calls us to unite does not mean that the voice of unity is not stronger. As people of faith, we believe and know that unity will always win.

The prayer for All Saints’ Day seems particularly important this year. It articulates our vision for unity in the Body of Christ. It reminds us that God’s work is to hold us together so that, together, we may obtain the joyful, abundant, blessed life that God has in store for us. I do not know about you, but lately I have had a hard time seeing that joyful, common life. Although the election is only a week away, I recognize that the bitterness that has infected our hearts will not disappear overnight. Still, I look for that day when we are all truly one, and I look for it in those small moments of fellowship when we gather together as the diverse, at times discordant Body of Christ.

May God enable us to see how the bond that knits us together is stronger than the forces which seek to pull us apart.

Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord: Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.