Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Dangerous Words

February 2 is 40 days after Christmas. I don't specifically remember counting them to be sure, but I trust that the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the temple, also known as the Purification of the Virgin, is celebrated exactly 40 days after Jesus' birth. You'd think this is one of those days that we need to remember on the specific day that it is appointed, but that's Thursday, and we don't have a service on Thursday, so, because the rubrics in the Prayer Book allow us to transfer that feast to an open day this week, we're observing it today--a few days early. We can pretend that Mary and Joseph made better time on their trip to Jerusalem than they expected.

The custom of coming to the temple to make an offering after the birth of a child was an ancient Israelite practice. Luke provides an interpretative introduction to this story: "When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, the parents of Jesus brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, 'Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord'), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, 'a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.'" Put more explicitly, women were thought to be ritually unclean after giving birth. Just as they were ritually unclean every month during their period, so, too, were they unclean after a child was born--and all the other messy stuff that goes along with it. If it was a male child, the mother was unclean for 40 days. If she gave birth to a daughter, however, it was 80 days. During that time, no one other than immediate family would have been allowed to visit and interact with her. First, she must come to the temple and offer this sacrifice.

If you take a closer, harder look at the text, you can probably tell that its origins are even deeper and darker in Israel's past. If "every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord," it is interesting that the sacrifice appointed for that birth is "a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons." (Actually, the requirement in Leviticus 12 is for a lamb to be offered, but, if the parents couldn't afford it, they could substitute the pigeons instead. Mary and Joseph, it seems, were poor.) But was that sacrifice always two small birds? One thing that distinguished Israel from its neighbors was the prohibition on child sacrifice. Many other communities practiced the ritual sacrifice of children in order to appease their gods. Might this offering of two young doves be a substitute for the offering of the firstborn that had at one time been suggested or perhaps even practiced among the Israelites before the Law was codified--before the people understood that killing a child is a barbarous act?

Given all of that sordid background--a patriarchal understanding of a woman's uncleanness and the repulsive practice of slaughtering one's child--does it surprise us that this liturgy is still a part of our tradition? I don't just mean the Christian tradition. I also mean the Anglican tradition. Take a look in the Prayer Book at page 439. That's where the service for the Thanksgiving for the Birth or Adoption of a Child is found. I've never been a part of it. It may be the least-often used service in the Prayer Book. But I've known women who used it. In England, where I spent a summer working in a traditionalist, Anglo-Catholic parish, women would ask the vicar to come to their house and lead the service for the "Churching of Women" as it is called in the English Prayer Book because they knew that their distant relatives and friends would not be allowed to visit them and see the baby until they had "gotten things right with the vicar." It still exists--this sense of a birth setting things wrong between a woman and God.

How dangerous, then, are the words that Simeon utters when he beholds this 40-day-old child? "My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel." In this birth, Simeon saw not a source of dis-ease between Mary and God. He saw that this birth had the power to set everything and everyone right with God. Notice the order of his prophecy: "A light to enlighten the Gentiles and the glory of your people Israel." In his prophetic sight, Simeon sees that Jesus will be the light of salvation to all nations--the fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham that he and his descendants would bring all nations to know the Lord. His sacrifice would be efficacious for all people and put an end to the need for continual appeasement--not because in him the wrath of God is satisfied but because in him the world discovers that a God of love does not demand the spilling of blood for that love to be real.

Likewise, Anna the prophet who lived in the temple night and day saw the child and joined Simeon's proclamation, telling all who would listen that this child would be the redemption of Jerusalem. How dangerous it must have felt for these two sages to identify in a child the unraveling of the brokenness between God and humanity. What a reversal of images!

God's love is dangerous. Jesus Christ threatens to undo millennia of tradition. For all of human history, we have believed that God demands our sacrifice. That's just how it works. People sin, and people appease God's wrath through the offerings of their money, cattle, prayers, incense, promises, and the like. That's the way it's always been. We're comfortable with that. Like Sonny in the Godfather who smashes the reporter's camera on the pavement and then tosses a few twenty-dollar bills on the ground to cover the cost of the damages, we smash up life and then try to cover the cost. But Jesus gets in the way of that. That's dangerous. That's threatening. That's the gospel. May we come to know the limitless power of God's saving love--a love that has the power to undo all of human history and replace our calculus of cause-and-effect with a new law of love.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Let Your Light

Each week, the minister presiding at the Eucharist pronounces an offertory sentence--usually a verse of scripture to invite the congregation to offer some of the riches of their life and labor to God and God's work in the world. Typically, I go back and forth between four of them. There's the one I hear most commonly in Episcopal churches: "Walk in love as Christ loved us..." Because it's so common, I only use it when the lectionary focus has been on Christ's sacrifice for us. My boss in Montgomery usually said, "Ascribe to the Lord the honor due his name..." and I use that fairly regularly. Every once in a while, when the sermon or lessons have been about giving to God our whole selves--not just in stewardship season--I use the longest one in the book: "Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth..." It took me a little while to commit that one to memory, and, when I say it, I still use some of the older language (e.g. "where thieves do not break through and steal"). But my favorite offertory sentence is the one that was used most often in the parish that sent me to seminary, and it isn't even among the suggested offerings of the 1979 Prayer Book.

"Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father which is in heaven." That's the second option provided in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, and it's part of the gospel lesson for Sunday (Matthew 5:13-20). At our early service, which uses Rite I, I'll use the gender-exclusive language, but, when I say those words at the later service, I adapt it to something closer to the NRSV language: "Let your light so shine before others..." I use it not only because it's a part of my past and because I like to be a little antiquated and contrary but because I believe it is the clearest and fullest expression of our response to God's free gift of grace. And that's something worth preaching on this Sunday.

Jesus says to the disciples, "You are the light of the world." That's the kind of affirmation reserved for helicopter parents. I grew up with parents who told me that I could do anything to which I put my mind, but they never told me that I was the light of the world. I may have been a gift to them, but they didn't let me believe that I was God's gift to the world. But Jesus doesn't hold back. He wants his disciples to know that they are, indeed, God's gift to the world. And that's where it all starts--when we hear that unreserved, unmitigated affirmation from God.

Jesus is God's pledge of unconditional love to the world. He came so that the world might be saved. He died for us while we were yet sinners. In him, God wraps his arms around us even before we can say, "I am no longer worthy to be called your son." It starts with love we do not earn. That is where it must start. For the gospel to have any power at all, it must begin with unconditional love. Otherwise, we're in a ship that is only kept afloat by our own efforts, and that ship will always sink.

Our lives as disciples of Jesus Christ are spent in response to God's unconditional love. Whether it's what we put in the offering plate or how we spend our Saturday mornings or whether we say our prayers at night or whether we help a little old lady across the street, all that we do is in response to that love. We are a light for the world. We did not give ourselves that light; God did. God says, "You are the light of the world," and our lives are spent sharing that light with others so that the giver of that light might receive the glory.

Let the light that God has given you so shine before others that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father which is in heaven. Think about that. Think about the calculus behind it. Think about where it starts and where it leads. Remember that you have been given a light and that your response to that gift is to let that light shine so that others might find the light God has given them, too. When you put your hands on the offering plate this week, don't start with what you will or will not put in. Start with the unconditional gift that God has given you, and, before the plate passes you by, think of how you might let that light shine so that others might know the love of God.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Standing on the Same Side as God

January 29, 2017 – The 4th Sunday after the Epiphany
© 2017 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

Do you ever feel like whatever line you choose at the grocery store is certain to be the slowest line? I don’t believe in luck, but I do believe that God has a way of teaching me patience by making sure that whoever is in front of me needs to get a price checked on some salad dressing or has a file-folder full of coupons or feels the need to argue with the cashier about whether the broccoli crowns are $1.39/lb. or $1.49/lb.. I am so bad at choosing the right line that I’ll make my decision and then, when I discover that the person in front of me wants to by a dozen gifts cards and make each one a separate purchase, I’ll switch to another line only to have that register freeze up so that I can watch the gift-card guy and the two people behind him finish their transaction while we’re still waiting for a manager. Sound familiar? It happens to everyone. In fact, I don’t know if I’ve ever met anyone who thinks that he or she is consistently good at picking the right line.

Some of us were brought up here in Alabama or were born with ties to the state. The rest of us moved here and had to make a choice: Alabama or Auburn? If you moved here in the 1970s and picked Alabama when they were on a roll, you might have been disappointed when Auburn won six of eight to close out the 1980s. Likewise, if you arrived in the early 2000s and jumped on Auburn’s bandwagon when they won six in a row, you might have regretted missing out on Alabama’s recent success. When it comes to grocery stores or college football, however, it doesn’t really matter all that much if you make a bad choice. But, when it comes to deciding which team you’ll be on when Jesus comes back, you might want to choose carefully. I don’t know about you, but, when everything comes to an end, I want to be on the right side—on God’s side.

Over and over again in the gospel, Jesus shows us whose side God is on. When he welcomes outcasts, breaks bread with sinners, touches the unclean, comforts the mentally disturbed, shows respect for women, and celebrates with the poor, Jesus is showing us whose side God is on. In Matthew 5, when Jesus offers the Sermon on the Mount, again, he is telling us what side of history God is on. “Blessed are the poor in spirit…Blessed are those who mourn…Blessed are the meek…Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…” This is Jesus’ way of telling us where to look for God and the fulfillment of God’s work. And he’s asking us to search for him in the last places the world would ever think to look.

A long time ago, hundreds of years before Jesus was born, the prophet Isaiah foretold this kind of blessedness. In Isaiah 61, the prophet wrote,

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion—to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit (Isaiah 61:1-3a).

Poor, meek, mournful, oppressed, and persecuted—those are the people to whom God speaks good news. The prophet proclaimed those words to a nation in distress—a people who had been defeated and imprisoned in exile, a people who were desperate for the hope of redemption. Jesus came and once again declared that hope to those in distress, but, this time, instead of speaking those words to a nation, he spoke them to the ones whom a nation had forgotten—to the ones on whom the world had turned its back. Has there ever been a more important moment for us to hear these words of Jesus?

Who are the blessed ones? “Oh, you’re so blessed,” we might say to the parents of successful children or the owner of a successful business or the pastor of a successful church. But they aren’t the ones to whom Jesus is speaking. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” he says. In other words, blessed are those whose esteem is run down, whose heart and soul have been trampled on by life. “Blessed are those who mourn,” he says, offering blessedness not to those with large families but to those who weep at the graves of their loved ones. “Blessed are the meek,” he declares, not honoring success but honoring those whom success has left behind. In what way could these people ever possibly be blessed? In what strange universe would anyone say to a grieving widow or an impoverished beggar, “You are the blessed ones?”

In what universe? In God’s universe. In God’s kingdom. In Christ we see most fully that God is on the side of the disadvantaged. The rich and proud do not need God’s vindication. The successful are never the ones who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Those who have been denied even the comforts of a modest life are the ones who eagerly wait for the day of the Lord—for God and the justice and righteousness that he brings. And where do we see them? In the Beatitudes, we discover that true blessedness is found in the kingdom of God. Leonhard Goppelt, a German theologian from the middle of the twentieth century, wrote, “As a single ray of light passing through a prism is broken into the colourful spectrum of the rainbow, so too what the kingdom brings finds colourful development in the promises of the Beatitudes.”[1] Do you want to know what side God is on? Listen to what Jesus says, and discover where true blessedness is to be found.

But what are we supposed to do about that? I don’t want to be on the wrong side when Jesus comes back, but what am I willing to do to make sure that I’m not? Should I sell all that I have and become poor? Maybe, but what about the other identities of blessedness. Is God asking me to become mournful? Should I look for opportunities to be persecuted? Perhaps all of us could stand to be a bit more merciful or pure in heart, but I don’t think that’s the point. The Beatitudes aren’t prescriptive; they’re descriptive. Jesus isn’t telling us to seek out opportunities to be miserable, but he is commanding us to look at the world through a new lens. By identifying true blessedness, he is telling us to search for God in new places—not among the successes of this world but among those who face the world’s deepest challenges.

Maybe it’s time for us to stop looking at the world the way the world sees it and pray that God would give us eyes to see the world the way that God sees it. Jesus does not say that the poor and meek and mournful will be blessed. He declares them blessed here and now. Yes, the fulfillment of that promise is still ahead of us, and the world cannot see it now, but, with God’s help, we can see that blessedness. We can see it because Jesus has shown it to us. But are we willing to see what he sees? Will we let the story of the poor and the oppressed and the marginalized teach us about God? Will we recognize the blessedness that God has given them, or will we be blind to God’s preference for the disadvantaged? Jesus tells us whose side God is on. Will we be on that side, too?

[1] In Theology of the New Testament (trans. Of Theologie des Neuen Testaments 1975, Vol. 1, p. 68), Grand Rapids, 1981; qtd in W. D. Davies and D. C. Allison The Gospel according to Saint Matthew, Vol. 1, p. 446.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Stumbling Block and Foolishness

In 1 Corinthians 1, Paul writes about the foolishness of the cross in a way that continues to challenge me. I have been a Christian for my whole life. I have written and preached about the cross more than any other subject, and still I am perplexed. Paul reminds us that the proclamation that Jesus Christ died on the cross is "foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God." I know those words. I believe those words. But I still don't really understand them. And I don't know whether Paul did either.

Last night at the dinner table, my seven-year-old son asked, "Who invented peanut butter?" His mother and I agreed that we thought it was George Washington Carver but we weren't sure, and then our almost-five-year-old son said, "Maybe it was God." A few seconds later, the older boy asked, "Who invented jelly?" and, before we could think of any sort of answer, his brother said, "Maybe it was God." I remember those days--when it was fun to explore the awesome, limitless, creative power of God in my mind and in playful conversation. Can God make a rock so heavy that God cannot lift it? If God knows everything, what is God's favorite color? I may have given up those childish questions, but the same pursuit is alive in me in other ways. If God is all-powerful and all-knowing, then why did he create us with the capacity for such evil? Why doesn't he intervene and make everything right? Why does he allow terrible things to happen? If we're talking about God, is there a difference between allowing them to happen and causing them to happen?

Why the cross? It didn't have to be this way. Sure, I can trace the theology of sacrificial atonement through the Bible and see why it happened. I am familiar with the different atonement theories. I recognize humanity's capacity and predilection for evil, and I see that the cross is the only possible outcome when God takes on human nature in the incarnation. But it still didn't have to be this way. God is God. If God can invent peanut butter and make rocks too heavy for God to lift, then surely God could have made the world another way. But God didn't.

The power of God is found in the death of God's Son. That is how God and God's power work. God did not send a superhero into the world to do battle with evil and win. God's Son is not faster than a speeding bullet. God's Son is the crucified one. He does not have a kryptonite, but he dies anyway. And that isn't a sign that Lex Luther has won. It is a sign of God's victory. And it doesn't make sense.

Paul writes that the cross is a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. What does that mean? It means that Israel did not await a crucified messiah. Of course they didn't. Why would they? Sure, I understand how the "servant songs" of Isaiah have been reinterpreted to identify Jesus, but no one waited for a savior to be executed on a tree. That's not possible. (But it is.) And Gentiles reject the crucified savior for the same reason--that he was crucified--but with a different perspective. How can Greeks, who seek wisdom, philosophy, and understanding, make sense of something nonsensical? You just can't wrap your mind around it. It is foolishness. (But it's not.)

God offers salvation to the world in the cross of Jesus, and the world says, "Salvation by way of a cross? What sort of salvation is that? How is that supposed to work? No, thank you. We'll take our chances on our own." But, when you are the one being saved, it makes perfect sense. We need a God who is immune from our chaos, but we need a savior who knows our troubles. That's Jesus. That's the cross. I don't understand it, and I don't think I ever will. But it isn't something to be understood. It's ability to save me not only exceeds my capacity for understanding, but it is efficacious precisely because I cannot understand it. For that, I give thanks.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Converted To or From?

One weekday morning, as I walked through the nave of St. John's, Montgomery, a man I did not recognize waved to me and motioned me over to him. "Hello," I said. "How can I help you?" With a hushed voice, he responded by pointing up at the ceiling and saying, "What are those?" I smiled. The ceiling at St. John's is a brilliant blue painted with beautiful gold images. "It's beautiful, isn't it?" I said. I started to launch into a brief history about the ceiling and how the oil lamps in the church had blackened the surface so thoroughly that no one really recognized what was up there until a great effort was undertaken to restore it, but the man interrupted me. "No," he said, "What are those--those symbols?"

The trompette-en-chamade and painted ceiling at St. John's, Montgomery
Photo credit: Evan D. Garner
When I realized that his question was about the content of the images and not the history of the ceiling, I backtracked. "Oh," I exclaimed, "as you can see, there are two images on the ceiling. One is a Star of David and the other is a cross-centered sunburst." He looked at me suspiciously. "What do they mean?" he asked. "Well," I replied, "the Star of David is a symbol from the Jewish faith, and you can see the "IHS" inscribed on a shield in the middle, and that represents the first three letters of 'Jesus' when it is written in Greek. And the sunburst...well, I don't really know what it means. I suppose it has to do with Jesus being the light of the world, but mainly I think it's just pretty." The man was not satisfied in the least. "Why," he asked in an even quieter tone, "do you have that Jewish sign on the ceiling here in a Christian church?" pointing emphatically and with an accusatory punctuation. "Isn't this a Christian church, or are y'all Jewish?" Realizing that I wasn't going to get very far, I simply said, "Well, Jesus was Jewish, so I think it makes sense. Have a nice day." And I smiled and walked off.
How did we get where we are? How did we get from a Jewish Jesus to a Gentile Church? How did a movement that began as a radical, anti-establishment Jewish sect that rejected the worship of Second-Temple Judaism and emphasized moral and ethical purity to be achieved apart from the apparatus of their religion become a thoroughly Greco-Roman, philosophy-minded faith that is built upon the stories and beliefs of the Hebrew Bible but has almost completely abandoned the tenets of most central teaching of Judaism as found in the Torah? We don't keep kosher. We don't ritually circumcise our children. We don't observe the Passover or celebrate the Day of Atonement. We don't observe the Sabbath. We go to church on Sundays. We eat little stale crackers and drink small sips of exceedingly cheap port wine. We speak of God in three persons, flirting dangerously with polytheism. What happened?
The answer is Paul. Well, the answer is Paul and Jesus and the Holy Spirit, who all worked together to bring us where we are. Today, we remember Paul's conversion from a "Hebrew of the Hebrews" and arch-persecutor of the church to the one who brought the gospel of Jesus to the Gentiles. As a twenty-first century Christian, who lives so long after Paul, it is easy for me to understand where we ended up. And, as I continue to study Judaism, I find it easier to understand where we came from. But I think I completely undervalue the transition--the conversion--from one to the other, and, as my conversation about the ceiling at St. John's reveals, I suspect that others do, too.
Perhaps this is a controversial statement, but I believe that Paul was Jewish for his whole life. I don't think that should be surprising or controversial, but the antinomian rhetoric associated with Paul suggests that many would disagree. But how could he not be Jewish? It's clear in Acts that Paul continued to go to synagogue and the temple and observe central elements of the Jewish faith that he would have also argued that Gentiles did not have to observe (see, for example, Acts 21:26). It seems, therefore, that he was not converted away from Judaism but was converted to the way of Jesus. Paul was, without a doubt, a Christian. And it's clear to us that Paul understood how through Christ God's saving work had expanded beyond Judaism and the Law to embrace Gentiles without their needing to convert to Judaism. But the Jewish identity in which Paul was confronted by Jesus on the Damascene road was not ripped from him. It was added to.
When Paul recalls his conversion to King Agrippa in Acts 26, he describes how Jesus accused him of "kicking against the goads" and causing himself pain. God had been trying to guide him with the goad, but, like a senseless beast, Paul was kicking back against his master, causing himself harm. In this moment of revelation, Jesus made himself and God's will for Paul known:
I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But get up and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and testify to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you. I will rescue you from your people and from the Gentiles-- to whom I am sending you to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.
We cannot forget where this all starts. We cannot confuse Paul's liberating message of grace with a repudiation of the story of Abraham. To follow Jesus is not to reject Judaism. It is, instead, to reject the notion that works are what define our relationship with God. Whether Jew or Gentile, we are saved by faith. We cannot divorce faith in Jesus from faith like that of the patriarchs. It is the same faith. It is the same trust. It is the same confidence that God and God alone will save us.

The power of the gospel is the power of Paul's conversion. It is the full revelation that our efforts cannot make us right with God. That was as true in Abraham's day as it was in Moses' day as it was in Jesus' day as it is in our day. This is the truth of God: God's love alone has the power to save us. We are called to put our faith in that love. As Christians, we, like Paul, see that love and saving power revealed fully in Jesus. But, as Christians, we, like Paul, also see that love and saving power revealed in the stories of God's people from Abraham through today. Through faith in Jesus, we are converted to God's ancient and universal work of salvation. We cannot forget where that message of salvation began.

God's Challenge in Micah

Initially, in preparation for Sunday's sermon, I have been focused on the Beatitudes of Matthew 5. But recently I've seen several colleagues write about Micah's distillation of what the Lord requires, and I'm starting to wonder whether I should join the Micah bandwagon and preach on doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God. It is a beautiful reminder of what it means to be in a faithful relationship with the Almighty. Micah's poetic rendering seems particularly well-suited for a faded poster on the wall of a youth room. Steve Pankey shared the twenty-first century equivalent in a great pie-chart meme he created in one of his posts this week. Like many tidy summations, Micah 6:8 is catchy, powerful, and easily repeated. The only problem is that reading the Cliff's Notes without reading the book is a surefire way of making a C- on a book report.

We must remember why Micah offered these words. Start by reading the rest of Sunday's lesson. It's confusing. At first, it seems that the prophet is speaking on behalf of God, and then it seems like God himself is speaking directly, and finally it seems like the prophet has started speaking again but this time is replying to God on behalf of God's people. The reply is where the catchy little summary comes, but it might be worth noting what that reply is in response to.

Step back a little further and read the rest of Micah 6. Hear God say to God's people,

"Can I forget the treasures of wickedness in the house of the wicked,
    and the scant measure that is accursed?
Can I tolerate wicked scales
    and a bag of dishonest weights?
Your wealthy are full of violence;
    your inhabitants speak lies,
    with tongues of deceit in their mouths.
Therefore I have begun to strike you down,
    making you desolate because of your sins.
You shall eat, but not be satisfied,
    and there shall be a gnawing hunger within you;
you shall put away, but not save,
    and what you save, I will hand over to the sword" (Micah 6:10-14).

And it goes on and on and on. God is not happy. That shouldn't surprise us since it's a prophet who is writing this. Prophets never show up to tell us that God is pleased with us--always the contrary. Why is God angry? Why is God promising to punish God's people? And why is this summary of what it means to be faithful to God inserted here?

Because God's people have forgotten God. In a Jude-Law-plays-the-Young-Pope kind of moment, Micah is saying in a booming, thunderous voice, "You have forgotten God!" Your trade is dishonest. Your forgiveness is nonexistent. Your charity is lacking. Your worship is meaningless. Your self-righteousness is overflowing. God has saved you, and how do you respond?

God declares, "O my people, what I have done to you...? For I brought you up from the land of Egypt..." God has set his people free. God has rescued them from slavery and oppression. And what is God's people's response? All it takes, Micah reminds us, is to do justice and love mercy and walk humbly, but you can't even get that right!

The heading for this section in the NRSV on biblegateway.com is "God's Challenge to Israel." Yes, a challenge is an invitation--in this case a strong invitation to change or, at least, an invitation to recognize our tendency to get it wrong no matter how much we might want to get it right. This summary is damning to us. If all it takes to have a right relationship with God is those three little things, then why can't we get it right? Because we're human. Because we're imperfect. Because our best intentions are marred by our inadequacy, which is to say by our sin.

This quaint little summary exposes our weakness. It reveals our need for help. The good news of Jesus reminds us that God does step in to help us even when we are faithless. Don't read this three-fold summary and think, "Great! I can do that!" because that's not what Micah had in mind. And don't preach, "All we have to do is what Micah tells us to," unless you're also going to say, "But we can't, which is why we need Jesus." Micah 6:8 is a beautiful summary, but it summarizes our need for divine intervention. May these words point us back to God as we seek God's help in Jesus.

Monday, January 23, 2017

For Real?

The Beatitudes don't make sense. In Matthew 5:1-12, Jesus says, "Blessed are the poor...Blessed are those who mourn...Blessed are the meek..." And, on behalf of the disciples, I want to raise my hand and say, "Um, Jesus? I don't think that's right." Sure, after centuries of reading these words of Jesus, we've convinced ourselves that they make sense. We've allowed the familiarity of these nonsensical statements to become a substitute for comprehension. But if we look at the words and consider what Jesus is really saying, I don't think there's any way around them but to admit that they don't make sense.

When we encounter something that we can't wrap our minds around, there are a few ways to proceed. The easiest thing to do is just ignore it completely. If we pretend that it didn't happen or does not exist, then we can move on with our lives without having to engage that which we do not understand. I suppose I could ignore the gospel text and preach on 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 or Micah 6:1-8, but a quick look at those lessons suggest that they aren't any easier to grasp. In fact, Paul's "message of the cross [that] is foolishness to those who are perishing" is pretty much the same thing Jesus is talking about in the first place (more on that later this week). Also, I'm not a big fan of ducking an exegetical fight, so ignoring the Beatitudes isn't going to work.

Another option is to convince ourselves that what Jesus was saying isn't what he really meant--that this was a hyperbolic illustration or a parable of some sort. In other words, we can decide to interpret these words as true in a larger sense without forcing any resemblance on reality. That way we can rest easy knowing that the poor and meek and hungry aren't actually blessed in their poverty, weakness, or hunger, but, in a more general way, God pities those who are in a place of struggle and that pity is itself a blessing. Not convinced? Neither am I.

A third possibility is to project the truth of these sayings into the future--that someday the poor will be blessed, the mournful will be blessed, the hungry will be blessed. This seems particularly possible in Matthew's version of the Beatitudes as each one, except the first, concludes with some version of "...for they will be comforted." Maybe the content of that blessing, therefore, is not to be received until Jesus comes back, until all things are completed, until the world ends, until these pour souls are dead and resting comfortably in the bosom of God. As a realist, I find this possibility very attractive. I do believe that someday all of those who are struggling in this life will have their struggles put to rest. I believe that the poor, the hungry, the meek, and the mournful will find their reward in the next life. But I don't think that's good enough for Jesus, and I don't think that it's good enough for God.

I think we're supposed to take Jesus at his word and let the incomprehensibility of his statements be the thing that teaches us. I'll spend the rest of the week trying to grapple with some sense of an answer--or perhaps a better way to put that is to say that I'll be looking for an effective way to communicate that irreconcilable struggle to a congregation from the pulpit--to the question, "How is that blessedness a reality here and now despite all indications to the contrary?" How can anyone say to a mournful widow, "You are blessed?" How can anyone say to the hungry, "Take heart: you are blessed?" In fact, I'm pretty sure James had something to say about this in James 2:16. But I believe that there is real, genuine, true blessedness in those states. As a wealthy, powerful, joyful, insulated-from-hardship, privileged man, that's a dangerous thing for me to say. But I didn't say it first. Jesus did. And my prayer is that God will help me see that impossible blessedness as a lens through which I get a glimpse at God's nature.

The Good News of Repentance

January 22, 2017 – The 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany
© 2017 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon is available here.
What does repentance look like? Maybe it’s because I’ve seen Rob Bell’s Nooma video “Bullhorn” several times, but, when I picture repentance, it looks like a middle-aged, well-dressed man with a large stack of flyers and a bullhorn, standing on a busy street corner, yelling at everyone who goes by that if they don’t repent they’ll go straight to hell. What about you? When you hear the word “repent” and you try to picture it, what image comes to your mind? Is it an angry, sweat-drenched preacher on public-access television? Maybe it’s a billboard on the side of the interstate with a message that’s designed to scare you into giving your life to Christ. Whatever it is that comes to your mind, the images of repentance that are most common in our culture are those desperate, emotional pleas that try to scare people into finding Jesus, and I don’t think they’re working.

Does anyone actually hear those attempts to scare the hell out of him and decide, “You know what: maybe I’ll give Jesus a chance?” Fear might get our attention, but fear on its own cannot lead to faith. There must be something more. If sweat-soaked preachers like me want to introduce people to Jesus, we need to give up on evangelical terrorism and look to the words of Jesus himself as an invitation to a hope worth believing in.

Today’s gospel lesson is all about repentance, but it’s not the sort of repentance we’re accustomed to. For starters, the call to repentance doesn’t come from the lips of an angry prophet but from Jesus himself: “When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee…and made his home in Capernaum by the sea…[and] from that time [he] began to proclaim, ‘Repent for the kingdom has come near.’” Does that sound familiar? The words are the same ones that John the Baptist used in his preaching, but, when John said them, he also called the religious people of his day a “brood of vipers!” John always had that edge to him, but I don’t usually think of Jesus in that way. In fact, I don’t think of Jesus as proclaiming that message of repentance at all. Instead, he’s usually the one eating with tax collectors and sinners—not telling them they need to repent. Jesus is the gentle one, the understanding one, the compassionate one—not the one who shakes a finger of judgement in their face. Why is Jesus picking up John’s message and telling the people that they need to repent? Because repentance is good news.

“The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” Jesus’ ministry was defined by brining light and hope to dark places, and that is the real message of repentance. The word in the New Testament that is translated for us as “repentance” is a word that literally means “turn your mind around.” In the context of religion, it means turning around from a life that has been spent running away from God and embracing the life that God is giving you. As Jesus understood it, it meant turning away from a path that leads to darkness and hopelessness and death and turning toward the light and hope and eternal life that God wills for all of God’s children to have.

That means that repentance isn’t just a rejection of the former things; it’s also an invitation to new possibilities. And I think that the preachers who talk about repentance more than anything else often forget that turning around involves two directions—where you’re coming from and where you’re going now. The good news of repentance is a message of new possibility for your life. That message has been hijacked by those whose religion is built upon fear, and I think that it’s time for us to take it back. I live in a world that is desperate to know that things don’t always have to be this way. I meet people who want things to get better—people who don’t need to be reminded that the path we’re on is fraught with challenge and division and who want to believe that there is real hope out there for them. That hope isn’t coming from false prophets who peddle fear and fear alone—those who scare us but don’t have any real hope to offer. It comes from Jesus, who invites us into a life filled with light and hope and promise.

What does repentance look like when it comes from the mouth of Jesus?

As he was walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

That is a story of repentance. It’s a story of Jesus coming alongside some people and inviting them into a new life of possibility and hope. Within this moment of turning around, there is a clear component of leaving the old life behind. Simon and Andrew must leave their nets and give up their life of fishing for fish in order to follow Jesus and fish for people. Likewise, we read that James and John leave their father and their boat in order to go with Jesus. But the hope that stands before them is what propels them out of their boats and into new life. Jesus doesn’t give them a diatribe about how their lives are stuck in a dead-end job and how they’ll wake up one day and realize that they’ve wasted their whole lives doing meaningless work. He simply says, “Follow me.” Behind those words was a promise of new life, and that invitation was all that they needed.

Jesus is calling God’s people to follow him out of fear and darkness and into new light and new possibility. Jesus is inviting us to be a part of God’s plan to bring God’s kingdom fully here on earth. And we know what that kingdom looks like. It means hope to those who sit in darkness. It means life to those who dwell in the shadow of death. To follow Jesus means to repent—to leave behind a way of living that says that things will always be this way, that fear will always win. And it means embracing our part in bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives, and breaking the yoke of oppression. It means saying to the world that the kingdom of God has come near, and that God’s kingdom brings healing to all people.

Will we say yes to Jesus? Will we say yes to the good news of repentance? Will we show the world that things don’t have to be this way any longer—that it’s time for things to change? Will we leave fear behind and embrace the hope that only God can give us—a hope that God has given us in Jesus Christ?

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Succession Plan

Businesses often develop succession plans--how leadership will pass from one individual or group to the next without disrupting the company. Churches, it seems, don't do as good job of this. Sure, individual clergy or congregations might have transition in their mind, but, in my limited experience, ministers and lay leaders get uncomfortable when one or the other starts asking questions like, "Should we begin thinking about our next pastor?" Even the most careful planning cannot guarantee neat and tidy clergy transitions, but, when clergy and congregations keep in mind the importance and inevitability of changes in leadership, the church is in a better position to focus on the unchanging gospel instead of the drama of the revolving door that can be the clergyperson's office.

In Sunday's gospel lesson (Matthew 4:12-23), we read about the end of a critical transition in leadership that enabled Jesus to take center stage while John the Baptist stepped out of the limelight. It helps to go back and read all of Matthew 3 & 4 to see how this transition happened. Remember that Matthew 2 featured the wise men, the Holy Family's flight to Egypt, and their return to settle in Nazareth. Then, in chapter 3, Matthew picks up the synoptic tradition and begins the mature account of Jesus' ministry with John the Baptist. Quoting Isaiah, he writes, "The voice of one crying in the wilderness: prepare the way of the Lord." Just like Mark and Luke, this version stresses John's role as Jesus' forerunner. Although it seems that John was a historically significant Jewish prophet in his own right, the gospel tradition has always linked his ministry with that of Jesus, and Luke goes so far as to identify them as cousins. Perhaps there was a time when John was perceived as a rival of Jesus, but the gospel accounts go out of their way to show us a smooth transition.

John's preparatory message leads to Jesus' baptism in Mathew 3:13-17. The Spirit descending and the voice declaring become the legitimization of Jesus' priority. John sees it and recognizes it and begins to step out of the way. (Although different in many ways, John's account makes this even clearer as he encourages two of his own disciples to follow Jesus instead of himself.) When we turn the page and get to Matthew 4, Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where he is tempted by the devil and confirms his identity as God's anointed one--able to do battle with evil itself. And then we get to Sunday's lesson, which begins, "When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee."

This is where Jesus' ministry starts--where John's left off. Matthew didn't need to include this detail. Jesus could have simply started doing his miraculous works and teaching is captivating sermons. But Matthew wants us to see that Jesus picks up right where John stepped aside. When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he left the region of Judea and returned home to Galilee, where he gained the attention of the people. Notice later in the passage that, "from that time, Jesus began to proclaim, 'Repent, for the kingdom has come near.'" John himself had declared, "Repent, for the kingdom is at hand," in Matthew 3:2, and it is no accident that Jesus not only picks up where John left off but actually picks up his very message. John's prophecy becomes Jesus' prophecy, and the work of God continues.

Last year, as a bit of a stunt, I announced to our Vestry, "I am leaving St. John's..." As everyone in the room gasped at the thought of having to manage a parish in transition, I completed my statement, "...someday." I don't have specific plans to leave my parish yet, but I trust that someday God will call me to serve elsewhere. I explained that I wanted all of us to remember that transitions happen. Together, we acknowledged that we need to use the resources God has given us at this time to do the particular work we are able to do and trust that the next chapter will bring its own resources and ministry. We still don't have a real succession plan in place, but we're shaping our shared ministry around the reality that, when a transition comes, the work continues. It's the same work. It may take a different shape or have a different tone, but it's the same work that God has given us to do. With God's help, the content of that work--the message of repentance and new life in Christ--will remain our focus no matter what sort of transitions happen in the people proclaiming that good news.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Celebrating a Confession

Today is the feast of the Confession of Peter--the day when we remember that moment, captured in all three synoptic gospel accounts, when Jesus asked his disciples, "Who do you say that I am?" and Peter replied, "You are the messiah, the Son of the living God." Without reading an entire gospel account in one sitting, it is hard to stress how remarkable this moment was. Up to this point, Jesus had been properly identified by the demons he had cast out, but no one else had recognized his full identity. No one had put the pieces all together. And, after this moment, which serves as a turning point for the gospel story, things happen with stunning speed. Although there are still plenty of chapters left in all of the gospel accounts, after this confession, Jesus' ministry is Jerusalem-bound.

But today I don't want to focus on the role that Peter's confession has in the arc of the gospel. Instead, I want to celebrate the act itself as distinct from the actor. You've heard the tragic, uncharitable-masking-as-loving saying, "Hate the sin, not the sinner?" Well, today, I want to focus on what it means to "celebrate the confession, not the confessor."

In our liturgical calendar, we remember lots of saints. These are the holy people of God who have been made holy by the saving, redeeming, transforming work of Jesus Christ. (We can debate a theology of sainthood later.) When we celebrate the feast of a saint, we typically remember her or his life, witness, and death all wrapped into one celebration. Many saints are commemorated on the anniversary of their death, but that remembrance usually expands beyond merely the moment of their martyrdom and touches on the witness of their entire life. Occasionally, however, we remember a particular event above and beyond the life of an individual. For example, in the Episcopal Church, we commemorate the consecration of Samuel Seabury, our first bishop. In that way, the church is specifically saying that it is not the life of Seabury that reminds us of God's saving work in Jesus Christ. Instead, it is the act of his consecration and, through it, our larger participation in the universal Church that we remember. Although Peter himself is a Saint that is remembered on the feast of Peter and Paul, today we step away from the person and celebrate the moment. And I think there are theological reasons to retain that focus.

After Peter's clear confession of Jesus' identity, Jesus responds, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven." Notice the content of that declaration. Peter is blessed--the mark of sainthood--but he is blessed because God the Father has revealed this truth to him. The action comes from the outside. The implication is that Peter could have spent all his energy focused on discerning this truth, but, without the inspiration of God himself, he could not have gotten to the realization. Sure, Peter is the vessel for this epiphany. His faithfulness--his openness to the working of the Spirit--plays a role in this, but, just as Jesus celebrates Peter as the vehicle for God's action, so, too, must we celebrate what God is doing in the lives of his saints and not what the saints are doing on their own. This is, after all, what it means to be a saint of God in the first place.

We are all saints. All of us who are reborn into the new, redeemed, transformed life that God has given us through his Son Jesus Christ and through the fellowship of the Holy Ghost are the holy ones of God. And what does that mean? Does it mean that each of us does incredible, miraculous things? Does it mean that we have supernatural, God-sent insights? Does it mean that all of us are willing and able to withstand torture or death for the sake of the gospel? Not necessarily. What it does mean, however, is that we, like Peter, are vessels for God's work. God has used, is using, and will continue to use us to bring his truth to the world. Like Peter, we have a confession to make--not merely a confession of our sin but also a confession of our confidence in God's forgiveness. We cannot make that confession on our own. God himself has revealed it to us. May we proclaim it boldly as his saints.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Invitation to Intimacy

St. Antony, Abbot in Egypt
© 2016 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

In Mark 10:17-21, Jesus offers a profound and challenging invitation to a would-be disciple. A man runs up to Jesus, kneels before him, and asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus replies with a summary of the Law: “You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; honor your father and mother.’” Quickly in his mind, the man runs through Jesus’ checklist, crossing off each one of the obligations as having been fulfilled, and says, “Teacher, I have kept all of these since my youth.” But there was more to it than that. Something had brought this faithful man to Jesus in the first place. He knew that something was missing, and Jesus shows him that it was something big, something demanding, something terrible.

With love for the man in his heart, Jesus looks at him and says, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” Even before we get to those words, we know what comes next. Perhaps that is because we are familiar with the story, or perhaps it is because we recognize our own limitations and project them onto the man. Mark tells us that he “was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” Isn’t that our response, too? When confronted with the enormous cost of discipleship, whether financial or otherwise, aren’t we grieved? When we encounter any of the stories in which Jesus tells us to sell everything that we have and give it away or hate our mother and father and brother and sister or take up our cross or even give up our own life for the sake of the gospel, don’t we wish he would move on to something else? Isn’t the cost of discipleship always more than we are prepared to give?

Today, however, I hear a new voice within this familiar story. Today is the feast of St. Antony, who served as an abbot in Egypt in the fourth century, and I cannot help but notice that the gospel lesson appointed for his feast stops short of the man’s sorrowful reaction to Jesus’ demand that he sell all that he has and give it away to the poor. We know what comes next. We know that the man will not be able to fulfill what is being asked of him. But, today, we never get there. We stop with verse 21—with Jesus’ invitation to the man to take that next and essential step—and, because of that, I hear in this exchange new opportunity for me and my own faith.

When he was eighteen years old, Antony and his younger sister were orphaned, and they found themselves unexpectedly responsible for caring for their family’s large estate. Six months later, when he heard the story of the rich man and Jesus in Mark’s gospel account, Antony immediately gave all of their land to the villagers and sold most of his possessions, giving the proceeds to the poor. Still, for Antony, this was not enough. After further meditation, he decided to sell absolutely everything he owned, place his sister in a house for poor, unmarried women, and become an anchorite or solitary ascetic. He spent the next twenty years living alone in a cave, praying and meditating on God’s word, before emerging to found a primitive sort of monastery that was little more than a collection of individual cells for other solitary ascetics.[1]

Antony’s life was completely and totally dedicated to God. He was free from the burdens and distractions of money and relationships. He gave up not only his possessions but also his ties to family and virtually all interactions with the rest of the world. As far as was humanly possible, he sought to remove anything that might stand in the way of his relationship with God. He had heard Jesus call him to seek unencumbered intimacy with the Lord, and, rather than dwell on why that could not happen, he answered Jesus’ call and gave up all that he had in order to pursue that most important of relationships.

I do not know about you, but I am not prepared to sell all that I have and take a vow of poverty. I am not willing to leave my wife and children behind in order to pursue an unencumbered relationship with God. Partly that is because I have not heard Jesus call me to do those things, but, even if I had, I doubt my ability to answer that call. I am too deeply attached to the comforts that my wealth provides. I am too fond of the comfort that my family gives. But, today, as I hear Jesus inviting me to sell everything I have and follow him, I stop short of my inabilities and, instead, ask God to give me the strength and courage and resolve to do whatever it is that God is asking of me. Instead of saying, “No, that’s too hard,” I pray that God will help me eliminate everything that gets in the way of the pure, dedicated relationship with God that God is calling me to pursue. I know my flesh is weak, but I pray that God will make my spirit willing. As Jesus said to the disciples when they asked their master about this difficult teaching, “With mere mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible” (Mark 10:27).
Perhaps God is calling you to sell all of your possessions and give the money to the poor. Perhaps God is calling you to give up your life as you know it and dedicate yourself to God’s service in a new and radical way. Perhaps it’s something dramatic and huge, or maybe it’s something small and quiet, but I can guarantee that, whatever it is, God’s call will come as a challenge. Do not fall into the trap of dismissing God’s invitation because it seems too difficult. Yes, following Jesus is hard. Yes, being a disciple is costly. Indeed, it will cost you everything that you have. But don’t allow yourself to become paralyzed by the magnitude of that sacrifice. Instead, pray that God will give you the strength to say yes—one day at a time, one step at a time, one sacrifice at a time.

[1] Lesser Feasts and Fasts. Church Publishing: 2006, 130.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Smugness Revisited

Last week, when I read the gospel lesson for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany (John 1:29-42), I chuckled to myself. I had preached the week before on Jesus' baptism in the River Jordan (Matthew 3:13-17), but that next Sunday's passage was basically the same story told in John's gospel account. It wasn't my week to preach, so I chuckled halfway sympathetically and halfway triumphantly at my colleague who now had to craft a sermon on something the congregation had already heard just a week earlier. Well, now he's laughing because we're back in Matthew for another round of the same thing all over again.

On the Third Sunday after the Epiphany, we will read Matthew 4:12-23, which, among other things, details Jesus' calling of Andrew and Simon as well as James and John. That, of course, was the second half of yesterday's gospel lesson. And this repeated repetition has me wondering: is there a reason why the lectionary authors are moving this slowly?

The overlaps are astounding:
  • Week One: Jesus' Baptism
  • Week Two: Jesus' Baptism Revisited + Calling of Andrew and Simon
  • Week Three: Calling of Andrew and Simon
It's as if we really, really need to hear about the beginning of Jesus' ministry. Forgive me if I'm ready to move past the first chapter. And, if I'm in a rush and the lectionary authors are forcing me to slow down, then I had better pay attention.

No, next week isn't another recap. It's the Beatitudes. So what is this week all about? Why are we being asked to linger here?

Did you notice the other connection with John the Baptist in this gospel lesson? After Jesus heard that John was arrested, he went back to Galilee and established a home in Capernaum. Matthew offers a bit about prophetic fulfillment--"Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali..."--but it's the bit after that that catches my eye today. "From that time, Jesus began to proclaim, 'Repent, for the kingdom has come near.'" Wait a minute! That's John the Baptist's line. Is Jesus picking up where John left off?

It seems that he has. And this is an opportunity for me to rethink the shape of Jesus' ministry. In Year C, Jesus spent all his time with outcasts and sinners. But implicit in all of those encounters was a call to repentance. Jesus meets these people for transformation. In Year A, we see Matthew draw that out more clearly. Really, we still haven't gotten anywhere. We're still stuck in the beginning of Jesus' ministry, but hearing him shape his ministry as a successor to John--one who calls the world to repent--is an invitation to see the good news of Jesus Christ as an opportunity to turn around and start over. This is rebirth. This is repentance.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Why Not Stay Put?

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

In the days and weeks following Epiphany, we go back to the beginning and hear about how Jesus got his start in public ministry. On Sunday, it began with the baptism, and, in today's gospel lesson in the Two-Year Eucharistic Lectionary (Mark 1:29-39), we read about some of Jesus' early healings. The only miracle before this passage was the healing of a man with an unclean spirit, which, to the horror of the religious authorities, Jesus performed on the sabbath. As soon as they left the synagogue, Jesus and his disciples came to Simon's house, where Jesus performed his second miracle by raising Simon's mother-in-law from illness so that she could serve the guests in her house. Today, however, I want to focus on what happened next.

That evening, at sunset, when the sabbath was over, a great crowd gathered at the door of Simon's house in search of Jesus. "The whole city," Mark tells us, came with their sick and demon-possessed, looking for healing and exorcism. Jesus cured many who were sick with various diseases, and he cast out many demons, not permitting them to speak because they recognized who he really was.

Jesus, it seems, was a family practice doctor with some psychiatric training as well. Imagine being able to go to one physician for all of your needs. Can you imagine having an internist, dermatologist, gastroenterologist, orthopedist, obstetrician, gynecologist, urologist, ophthalmologist, otolaryngologist, psychologist, and psychiatrist all rolled into one? It today's medical culture, we bounce from one to another to another, getting each little part of us examined and treated. Perhaps in rural areas, there are still generalists who do a little bit of everything, but, even in the remotest parts of our country, individuals are sent driving to see a specialist when something serious crops up. Not with Jesus. Mark tells us that Jesus "cured many who were sick with various diseases" as well as "cast out many demons."

Naturally, the practice of medicine was quite different in first-century Palestine. There were no otolaryngologists to speak of, but there were a variety of healers. Some were better than others, and some were known for particular things. If you had bad eyesight, you might go to this miracle worker. If you had bad gout, you might go to another. Jesus, however, wasn't practicing a pseudo-scientific art that he had learned as an apprentice. Jesus was and is the Great Physician. He heals us as only God can heal us--by making us whole.

Still, a part of me is surprised that Jesus didn't just stay put. With gifts like his--the ability to address any physical or mental or spiritual malady--why wouldn't you set up shop in one place and let the crowd come to you? This is just the beginning of his ministry, and already the entire city of Capernaum had heard about his talents. They flocked to his door. If you build it, they will come. Let the people come to him. Why pack up and move an operation like that from one town to another, where, again and again, he would need to establish himself as a master of the healing arts?

Early the next morning, when the disciples found Jesus alone and in a quiet place, they asked him why he had snuck off. "Everyone is searching for you," they said to him. "Your work is not finished. There are more sick people who need healing. Things are going so well. You can't stop now." But Jesus looked at them and said, "Pack it up. We're moving on. Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do." And Jesus went from one place to another throughout the region of Galilee, preaching in the synagogues and casting out demons.

Why not stay put? Because Jesus did not come only to heal the sick whom he met. He came to heal all sickness. Why not set up shop and let the people come to him? Because God's work in Jesus is to meet us where we are--not to wait for us to come and find him. Jesus could have stayed in one place and healed everyone who came to him each day, every day, for his whole life. As word spread of this amazing healer, people would have come from all over to find him. His work would never have been finished. There would always be more people in line hoping for his miraculous touch. But, likewise, that work would never have been complete.

Jesus is the Great Physician. He is our healer. But the healing that he gives us is not merely a cure to an earthly ailment. Yes, sometimes Jesus does give us a miraculous healing from cancer or some other disease. Today's gospel lesson of healing is not merely a means to an end. Jesus confronts physical illness as well as the spiritual disease of sin. Jesus addresses our very mortality. Jesus attacks evil itself. In Jesus, God comes down to earth to bring true and lasting healing to creation. He makes all things whole. And he does that by seeking out the broken, the lost, and the marginalized. He accomplishes his work by searching for the sick, the friendless, and the needy. He brings healing by confronting the institutions of sin like greed, centralization of power, and preference for the privileged that have imprisoned God's people for all of human history. He does not wait for us in our sickness to find him. He comes and finds us. He brings us healing.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Looking Through the Lens of Baptism

Forgive the repetition, but the gospel lesson for this Sunday (John 1:29-42) is a lot like last Sunday's gospel lesson (Matthew 3:13-17). All three synoptic gospel accounts portray the inauguration of Jesus' public ministry with his baptism by John in the Jordan River. As I mentioned in the pulpit, even John's gospel account, which doesn't follow the others very closely, begins, in a way, with the baptism. This week, we read not the narrative of the event itself but John the gospel-writer's interpretation of the event through the words of John the baptizer.

When John saw Jesus approaching, he declared, "Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" That's quite an identification--one that surely shocked his hearers. The next day, when John makes the same bold statement, two of his disciples understand that as an invitation to break their allegiance with the baptizer and follow Jesus. Who can blame them? Why would someone follow the forerunner when the real thing is at hand? Except perhaps at a tapas bar, why would someone go to a fancy restaurant and order a meal but never get past the first course?

The remarkable thing about this passage and John's identification of Jesus as "the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world" is that it is grounded in that baptism. To justify this connection, John testified, "I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God."

That verb "testify" is telling. In the Greek, that word is "ἐμαρτύρησεν," which is a form of "μαρτυρέω," which means "bear witness" and from which we get the word "martyr." This is John's witness. This is his proclamation. He saw the Spirit descend. God's voice told him that the one to receive the Spirit in this manner is the one who will baptize with that same Spirit. John made the connection and proclaimed boldly, "this is the Son of God."

What do we see in baptism? Last week, I wrote a lot about recognizing God's work of righteousness in the person of Jesus because of that baptismal moment when the voice declared, "This is my Son, the Beloved." This week, I feel drawn to that baptismal lens again, but this time John the Evangelist through John the Baptist helps us go a step further. Instead of standing at the water's edge and hearing God declare that this Jesus is going to carry out God's work, we hear John declare that this Jesus is going to carry out God's work of taking away the sins of the world. That's quite a stretch, but it starts, again, in Jesus' baptism.

How might a preacher engage the theology of the remission of sins through the waters of baptism in a sermon on John 1:29-42? How might we recognize through Jesus' baptism, through John's interpretation of that baptism, and through our own baptism that Jesus is the one who washes us clean? That sounds like a heavy, rich, difficult, powerful sermon in the making. This week, it's not mine to make, but I look forward to what the Spirit says to us on Sunday.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Five-Part Faith

In my former parish, the youth group leads a Feast of Lights service of light on the Sunday evening closest to the Epiphany. Celebrated in many parishes, this service marks how the light of Christ entered the world and spread to Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, the magi, John the Baptist, the twelve disciples, and so on. What makes the service particularly interesting to me is the transition from the biblical text to the Church's story as the light of the gospel spreads to the saints and martyrs of Asia, Africa, Europe, and North America. Candles are lit for Robert Hunt, the chaplain who came over with the first successful English colony at Jamestown, and David Pendleton Oakerhater, the Cheyenne artist who was ordained a deacon and served as a missionary in Oklahoma. Eventually, the congregation's candles are lit, and we process out into the street to proclaim our commitment to the gospel's continuing propagation.

In a way, the spirit of that service is captured in the collect for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany. It is not only the prayer we will pray this week. It is also an image of the faith we proclaim. Like most collects, it has five parts, and each of them is a reflection of how the gospel transforms us and the world.

"Almighty God..." - The address identifies the one to whom we make our prayer, and, in this case, it is simply God the Almighty. Notice that we aren't praying to the "Father," even though the next phrase will acknowledge explicitly the Son. God is the source of light--not only God the Father but the triune God.

"...whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world..." - The acknowledgment is my favorite part of a collect as it provides the theological warrant for the prayer. This is the thing that we believe about God (or us or the world) that becomes the foundation for our request. This is a statement of why we are directing this prayer to God in the first place, and, in this case, we are praying to God because God's Son is the light of the world. We believe that in the Incarnation God brings God's light to creation most fully. Jesus is how we see God's light. He is the basis for our relationship with God.

"...Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ's glory..." The pleading is the actual request itself. This is what we are asking of God, and, in this case, we are asking that God's people (that's us), having had God's light shine on us through Word and Sacraments (more on that in a minute), may shine that light ourselves. I think it's interesting that we don't identify the recipients of this request as "we" but as "God's people." Of course that's us, but it's more than us. It's bigger than our parish, our tradition, our denomination. It's all of God's people. And this prayer assumes that those people have been illumined by the Word and Sacraments that we share and celebrate. This is study, reading, preaching, and proclamation. This is Baptism and the Lord's Supper. This prayer identifies the usual means by which God's people receive the light of the Incarnation through Word and Sacraments--the most basic two-fold piety of the Christian life. And the focus of our request is that we ourselves might therefore shine with the same brilliance as Christ himself. May God enable God's people, when fed by the Word and Sacraments, to reflect that light.

"...that he may be known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth..." My second favorite part of a collect is the aspiration--the "what are we asking this for?" part of the prayer. This is the "so that" part, which isn't found in all collects but, when it is, helps ground our prayer on an even larger foundation that the need we express. We're asking God to enable us to shine with the radiance of Christ's glory, but for what reason? So that that light might shine through us to the rest of the world until Christ is "known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth." This is evangelism. This is the sharing of the light of Christ. And, in this collect, it comes not from those who go to seminary and work as preachers. Nor does it come from those who dedicate their lives to serve as missionaries in far away places. That light is spread by the people of God who are immersed in God's Word and nourished by the Sacraments. This is the aspiration of the Christian life: to share the light of Christ with others.

"...through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever." The pleading wraps it up, but it is always worth remembering that we are not asking this prayer on our own but are pleading with God through God himself. God enables our prayers. We ask this through Christ. Our prayer is made to God through the channel/door/vehicle/relationship that we have in Christ. The image of the subject pleading before the powerful king is apt but only to a point. Because of Christ, our prayers are never brushed aside. They never fall on deaf ears. Through our baptism, we have been united with God through Christ, and our prayers are made to one who knows us and loves us as God's own.

This week, the lessons feel like a reflection of yesterday's lessons. We're back to another Servant Song in Isaiah. Jesus and John the Baptist are still talking about the baptism in the River Jordan. But this collect helps me remember that the light, which came to the world in the Incarnation, has come to us, and we are called to share it with the world. It does not shine only in the Incarnate One. We see it not only as Jesus emerges from the waters of baptism. It has come to us, and we must let our light shine so that others may see and know Christ as Lord.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

God's Work of Making All Things Right

January 8, 2017 – The 1st Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of our Lord
© 2017 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
This week, as I read today’s gospel lesson, I encountered a peculiar phrase that didn’t quite make sense to me. Jesus came to the River Jordan to be baptized by John, but John objected, saying, “I need to be baptized by you—not the other way around.” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” What does that mean—fulfill all righteousness? The funny thing is that I know what each of the words mean—“righteousness” means “the condition of being right in God’s eyes” and “fulfill” means “complete” or “finish”—but, when you put the words together in this particular context, I lose track of what they mean. Fulfill all righteousness. In what way does Jesus’ baptism fulfill all righteousness?

If you read my blog at all this week, you know that I found an answer to that question in an unlikely place. I hardly ever use The Message version of the Bible. Unlike most translations, including the NRSV, which we use in church on Sunday mornings, The Message is a paraphrase, which means that it often leaves behind the actual words and phrases of the biblical text, substituting idioms that, in the opinion of the author, are easier to understand in contemporary English. Because of that, the text that it gives us is highly readable but inevitably reflects the interpretive biases of the author to a greater extent than a word-for-word or thought-for-thought translation. But I was desperate to make sense of this phrase, and none of the standard translations gave me any help. But The Message broke it open in a way that felt like a light being switched on in a dark room.

In The Message, Matthew 3:15 reads, “But Jesus insisted. ‘Do it. God’s work, putting things right all these centuries, is coming together right now in this baptism.’ So John did it.” Instead of “it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness,” it reads, “God’s work, putting things right all these centuries, is coming together right now in this baptism.” If that isn’t clear and right, I don’t know what is.

For thousands of years, God had been in the business of making things right. He called Abraham and promised to make of him a great nation, through which the light of salvation would spread to all peoples. Through Moses, God set his people free from captivity in Egypt, gave them the Law, and brought them to the Promised Land. Over and over, God sent the prophets to remind God’s people to be faithful and to call them to repent when they weren’t and to bring them hope when they were surrounded by darkness. And, finally, God sent his Son into the world to bring all of that making-things-right together, and right there, on the banks of the Jordan River, in this moment of Jesus’ baptism, God was at long last making that righteousness a reality. It makes me wish that I had been there to see it and hear it. Then again, perhaps in a way I was, and so were you.

When Jesus came up from the water, he looked up into the sky and saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. Then, a voice from heaven proclaimed, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” And so began the public life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth—son of Joseph the carpenter, rabbi, prophet, healer, rebel. Of course, there were other rabbis and prophets and healers and rebels back then. But this baptism showed the world that Jesus was different. As God’s beloved Son, Jesus didn’t just do godly work; he did God’s work. Welcoming outcasts, eating with sinners, touching lepers, proclaiming forgiveness of sins—this was all the fulfillment of God’s plan. But there’s more to it than that. Betrayed by one of his own disciples, arrested by the religious authorities, tried and convicted, tortured and executed—this was the means by which God’s work of making all things right would be accomplished. In that way, Jesus not only showed us the way the world is supposed to be. He made it the way that it’s supposed to be. By living and dying and rising again, Jesus established God’s all-things-right-ness, God’s righteousness. And it all got its start right here in the waters of baptism.

In all three synoptic gospel accounts—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—Jesus’ ministry is inaugurated by baptism in the River Jordan. Even John’s account, which doesn’t follow the others very closely, goes out of its way to mention Jesus’ baptism in the first chapter, right as his ministry is getting started. This moment, when Jesus comes out of the water and the Spirit comes down and the voice declares, “This is my Son, the Beloved,” this is the moment when God says to the world, “In my Son Jesus, I am finally making all things right. He is the one to show you the way that the world is supposed to be. He is the one to make it happen.” And, when we come up out of the waters of our own baptism, we, too, hear God say to us, “You are my beloved son. You are my beloved daughter. You are now a part of my making all things right.”

Baptism is how each of us gets our own new start. It’s how God begins his ministry within each of us. Through Baptism, we are united with Jesus in his death and raised with him to new life. By uniting us with his Son, God makes all things right within us. The dog-eat-dog, to-each-his-own, I’ll-get-mine-you-get-yours mentality that is so strong within us and within the world washes away, and we discover instead our place in God’s economy of the-first-shall-be-last, the-weak-are-made-strong, the-poor-become-rich, the-dead-are-raised-to-new-life. Our biology is too strong for us to discover that other-worldly truth on our own. We need God’s help. We need him to enable us to start over on his terms. We need Jesus to make us new. We need Baptism.

But Baptism isn’t only about us. It’s about us and something bigger. It’s about accepting the call to take our place as a part of God’s work of making all things right. God’s righteousness may have been fulfilled in Jesus, but, when we look around, we see that that righteousness still needs to grow and spread because the world isn’t the way it is supposed to be. The world does not know the fullness of God’s making-all-thing-right love in Jesus Christ. And I’m not talking about taking the gospel to the deepest, darkest jungles on the planet. I mean establishing God’s justice right here in our own community where it still has not taken hold fully.

Jesus broke bread with sinners. Jesus brought good news to the poor. Jesus proclaimed release to the captives and freedom for the oppressed. When we look to Jesus, we see God’s vision for the way things are supposed to be. It is too small a thing for that justice to be reserved for those who have the inside track on religion. In Jesus’ baptism, God’s righteousness wasn’t being fulfilled for a select few. It was being fulfilled for all people. And, when you were baptized, you were made a part of that fulfillment. Because of Jesus, God has established his righteousness within you. It started with your Baptism, but it continues today. As a baptized child of God, God is calling you to work for his kingdom until that righteousness is made a reality across the globe, starting right here in our own hometown. Will you accept that call? Will you say yes to God’s righteousness?

There is no more appropriate day to be baptized than today. We don’t often do “altar calls” in the Episcopal Church, but today we’re going to do a “font call.” If you have never been baptized before and you feel God calling you to be a part of his centuries-old work of making all things right, which God brought to its fulfillment in Jesus Christ, now is the perfect moment for you to be baptized into this faith. Would anyone like to be baptized today? Nothing would give this congregation more joy than to stop right now and celebrate that new beginning with you.

Most of us have already been baptized, but that does not mean that we do not have a call to answer. In just a moment, all of us will have the opportunity to answer again God’s call to be a part of his work of righteousness by renewing the promises made at our baptism. Listen to the questions that are asked of you. Hear how they ask whether you are willing to be a part of what God is doing in the world through his son Jesus Christ. And if you are willing—if your answer is yes—then say it with your whole heart: “I will with God’s help.”

Thursday, January 5, 2017

What Sort of Servant?

In the collect for the First Sunday after the Epiphany, we pray to our "Father in heaven, who at the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan proclaimed him your beloved Son and anointed him with the Holy Spirit." As I wrote about on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week, that proclamation--that identification of Jesus as God's beloved Son--is the key to understanding Jesus' baptism. Why was Jesus baptized? To show us that in him God was bringing his centuries-old work of righteousness to its fulfillment. If we listen for it, we can hear more echoes of that identification in the other readings for this Sunday.

Isaiah 42:1-9 sticks out to us because we typically think of it as a Lenten reading. Appointed both for Epiphany 1A and for Monday in Holy Week, these words tell us of God's servant "in whom [God's] soul delights." This is the servant who "will bring forth justice to the nations" but will do so without using his voice to cry out in the streets as a typical prophet would. So gentle is this bringer of justice that he would not even quench a flickering, dimly burning candle. Remember that "justice" and "righteousness" are synonymous.

For thousands of years, God's people have asked who the servant depicted in these servant poems is. Is it Cyrus, the Persian leader who set God's people free from the Babylonian exile? Is it Cyrus' prophetic successor, who picked up the mantle when Cyrus' leadership disappointed God's people? Is it Israel? Is it Jesus? For me, when I hear the words of Deutero-Isaiah, I sense a historical particularity of which I am unaware--likely Cyrus and his successors--but I also sense a generic foreshadowing that resonates with the story of Jesus. In other words, these servant poems are not specifically about Jesus, but they point to a type of righteousness-fulfilling servant that Jesus enshrines.

Read the words of Isaiah 42 and think of Jesus' ministry. Jesus set God's people free. He brought light to the nations. He opened the eyes of the blind--literally and metaphorically. He brought the captives out of the prison of darkness. He brought the glory of the Lord to the earth. In all these ways, he established God's righteousness through his ministry, death, and resurrection. And it all starts with his baptism.

In all the synoptic accounts, baptism by John in the River Jordan is the first public act of Jesus' ministry. This is how everything gets started. And it starts this way because it is at the river that we hear God declare Jesus as his beloved Son, his beloved servant. This identification is more than a mantle of authority. It is a reflection of centuries of prophecy. Jesus is the righteousness-establishing servant whom God has sent to the world. As he emerges from the waters of baptism, we hear and see that identity, enabling us to recognize it throughout his ministry in his words, his miracles, and in the peculiar company that he keeps. The question in my mind isn't whether we can see who this Jesus is. God's voice makes that pretty clear. My question is whether we can see that the work of Jesus and, thus, that of his followers is to establish that justice.