Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Testing Jesus; Testing Us

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

In today's daily Eucharistic lectionary, we find ourselves in Mark 12, when the tension between Jesus and the religious authorities of his day is approaching its breaking point. They aren't just offended by what he says and does. They're actively looking for a way to get him in trouble with the Roman authorities. Mark lets us know in the editorial insertions to today's encounter that "they sent to him some Pharisees and Herodians to trap him in what he said." Even without these editor's notes, the way that they phrase their question was a dead giveaway: "Teacher, we know that you are sincere and show deference to no one..." Yeah, right. Preachers then and preachers now know that flattery like that usually leads to trouble.

Eventually, Jesus' testers got to their real question: "Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? Should we pay them, or not?" Perhaps you remember that this was a thorny issue on many sides. First, no one likes paying taxes--then or now--but, more than that, paying taxes to the Roman Empire meant supporting the very occupying army that was interfering with the God-appointed destiny of the Jewish people. One could not pay taxes to the Emperor without undermining God's Law, God's Word, and God's will. Throw on top of that the fact that the Jewish Law forbids graven images--any likeness of anyone or anything cast out of metal--and we see just how controversial these taxes were. To hold a Roman coin was to place a violation of Commandment #3 into the palm of your hand. So to say that this question came to Jesus as a ticking time bomb isn't really an understatement.

I bet you remember what Jesus said to them even before you read it in Mark 12: "Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God’s." In that clever response, Jesus uses the very coin--the very expression of ungodliness, the very source of contention--as the tool to teach them what to do. We're told that they were "utterly amazed at him," genuinely stunned at his response. It is a pretty profound teaching. Jesus strips away all of the controversy and just lays it out there in a common-sense, hard-to-dispute way. As such, he welcomes the multi-faceted, multi-valiant nature of human life. We're all sorts of things all the time, and sometimes those things are in conflict.

But part of me wants to ask Jesus what he would have said if he had been approached by some genuine, earnest disciples instead of the "hypocrites" that Mark tells us came to him. Notice how Mark shapes the encounter before Jesus opens his mouth: "But, knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, 'Bring me a denarius and let me see it.'" Partly, Mark wants to preserve for us an understanding that Jesus knew what he was getting into--that he recognized the trouble that was ahead of him. But I feel an instinct to take Mark's words at surface value. Jesus' words are in direct response to their hypocrisy. I don't mean to suggest that he did not mean them, but I wonder whether he would speak more freely, clearly about this dual-mindedness if he were not being pressed by some opponents.

What is Jesus' overall teaching on the intersection of our religious and political identities? Does he encourage us to encapsulate and separate each from the other? I don't think so. Over and over, Jesus leads his disciples to a deeper, fuller, more confrontational engagement of public life. In the last several Sundays, as we've heard from the Sermon on the Mount, we have been reminded that our religious identity places great demands on our common life. For example, we cannot divorce simple because divorce is legal--to do so denies the two-become-one-flesh-ment of marriage. So what, then? What does Jesus really mean when he tells us "give to the emperor the things that are the emperors and to God the things that are God's?"

Doesn't everything belong to God? Isn't God the one who sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous? Isn't God's vision for the world a reality when all peoples are drawn to God? Isn't peace and prosperity for all people God's business? Even the denarius, with its graven image, belongs to God. Paying taxes to Caesar, therefore, may be a requirement of the law, and Jesus may encourage his followers to be obedient to the civil authorities, but there is an element of subterfuge at work here. When Jesus says, "Give to Caesar...," he is toeing the line of legality but, at the same time, questioning the real authority of the one who falsely claims divine power.

We cannot live forever in two different, opposed worlds. We don't like it when our preacher gets political. We don't like it when we hear politics in the pulpit. We don't like it when we start praying for an end to gun violence in direct response to the police shootings. We don't like it when presidents or governors or attorneys general or legislators are called out for promoting policies that fly in the face of the gospel. Whether it's three-strikes-and-you're-out prison sentences or preemptive military action or open-carry laws or mass deportations of illegal immigrants or closing the border to refugees, the emperors of this land have a history of passing laws that are antithetical to the word and will and law of God. And what will we do about it? Send in our 1040 to the IRS, place our hand over our heart and say the Pledge of Allegiance, rise to sing the Star Spangled Banner with gusto? Yes, we will do all of those things, but we will not pretend that half of us belongs to our country while the other half belongs to God. A house divided against itself cannot stand. Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, but remember that it all belongs to God, even you--your voice, your money, your loyalty, your prayers, your heart, your time. If the whole of you is not active in God's work, you're betraying the one who calls you his child.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Looking for Sin?

Whenever I read the story of the Fall in Genesis 2 & 3, there's a line that catches my attention and changes the way I read the rest of the story: "Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made." On the one hand, that gives the story a bit of a fanciful feel. As far as I can tell, none of the other animals spoke to Adam or Eve, but a talking snake makes me feel like I'm in a cartoon. But, on the other hand, the editor's introduction of the serpent as the craftiest wild animal that God had made helps me read its interaction with Eve with heightened attention to his techniques.

With that peculiar introduction in mind, we read that the serpent said to the woman, "Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?" Oooh! Listen to that treachery. That serpent knew perfectly well what God had said to Adam and Eve, but it asks the question to expose a crack in the wall. Did God tell you not to eat from any tree in the garden? "No," Eve replied, "God said we could eat of any tree except the one in the middle of the garden, which, if we even touch it, will kill us." Notice how the serpent gets the woman to name the temptation. He doesn't even give voice to it. That would be too obvious--too easy to spot and dismiss. Instead, the serpent begins by helping the woman see the boundaries and begin to question them.

The crafty serpent continues, "You will not die! God knows that if you eat of it you will be like God, knowing good and evil." And the trap is set. The serpent bids the woman farewell and slithers off into the high grass to watch the woman walk right into it. On her own, unable to let the distinction fade away, unable to let go of the serpent's words and the thoughts it awoke in her, Eve goes to the tree and examines the fruit. "It looks good to eat. I see no reason not to eat it other than the rule God made. It's a silly rule anyway. God just wants to keep us in the dark. God wants to control us. God shouldn't have made that rule. God is selfish to do it. God just wants to keep all of the good things to himself. I won't listen to that. I won't stand for it. I will stand up for what's right--for the gift of eye-opening for everyone. We were made in God's image. It isn't fair for God to hide the fullness of God's image from us. Give me that fruit. Let's see what it tastes like."

Sin rarely comes looking for us, but it always seems close at hand when we start looking for it. The story of humanity's fall is a beautifully crafted account of human nature. The serpent's role is so familiar to all of us--not because it is a talking snake but because temptation is always so small, so slight, so subtle. Temptation preys upon the weakness inside of us. It convinces us that we are immune to its effects--that we are master of our nature, when, in fact, we are enslaved by it. As we enter the season of Lent and journey into the purifying, trying wilderness, may we hold fast to the one who perfects our nature. May Jesus Christ give us the strength to journey through this life so that we might come to our perfection in him.

Strength to Carry On

February 26, 2017 – The Last Sunday after the Epiphany
© 2017 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
Some of you have heard me tell the story of the first mission trip I took after I was ordained. Hurricane Katrina had devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast during the fall of my final year of seminary, and, as you’ll remember, a year later things had not gotten much better. Many people at St. John’s, Montgomery, wanted to do something, so I organized a group of about a dozen men and women who went with me to join the relief efforts of the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana by gutting houses. Many of the residents whose houses had been destroyed lacked the money to pay someone to come and strip their house down to the studs, which the City of New Orleans had required all homeowners to do. If a house wasn’t gutted, it was assumed abandoned, and the City took possession of the property. To help out, you didn’t need any skills—just a willingness to work hard and get dirty—so our group of inexperienced but eager laborers went down to the Crescent City to do some good.

At the time, I had the overwhelming confidence and the underwhelming sense of humor that most newly ordained people possess. If it weren’t for the earnest desire of the volunteers to help those in need, I don’t think I could have convinced them to go with me anywhere. At the end of our second day of work—hot, dirty, dusty, moldy work—it was time to board up the window openings before we left the job site. The six-foot step ladder was being used by someone else, so, in a hurry to be finished, I carried the little two-step stepstool around to the side of the house where a piece of plywood needed to be nailed across an opening. I asked two of the women on our trip to help me hold the board in place while I stretched on my tippy-toes and reached as high as I could to drive in the nails. Nervous, one of them asked, “Do you think we need the other ladder?” to which I replied, “Nah, I think I’ve got it.” And, with the second swing of the hammer, I slammed it with all its force right into my thumb. I don’t remember what expletive I yelled out, but I do remember that, when I did, the two women gave each other a nervous look, and then all three of us broke out laughing. Later that night, as we iced our sore muscles and drank ice-cold beer, they came up to me, and one of them said, “You know, we weren’t really sure about you. You seem so uptight all the time, but I have a feeling that everything is going to work out just fine.”

Sometimes we get a glimpse into someone we know and discover something we hadn’t quite figured out about that person. Those moments of transparency might surprise us, but they don’t always seem out of place. In fact, more often than not, those windows reveal something that we always knew but still hadn’t quite managed to piece together. Sometimes those revelations come on mountain tops and leave us with a newfound respect for a person, and other times they come in deep valleys and leave us with a sinking feeling that we are in for rocky times ahead. Either way, those epiphanies don’t last forever, and, before long, it’s time for us to figure out how to move on—for better or worse.

On this Last Sunday after the Epiphany—the last Sunday before we begin our Lenten journey toward Jerusalem and the events of Holy Week—we climb up on the mountain top to see Jesus’ glory revealed as his face and clothes shine as bright as the sun. But we didn’t get here by accident. As the first line of this gospel lesson reveals, the Transfiguration took place six days after Peter had acknowledged Jesus to be “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Most of the time, the gospel writers don’t bother to string events together with a specific chronology, so, when they do, it’s worth taking notice. How are Peter’s acknowledgment and Jesus’ transfiguration related? And why does Jesus reveal himself now?

For the first fifteen chapters of Matthew’s gospel account, we watched Jesus heal the sick, raise the dead, and challenge the religious authorities of his day. Each step of the way, he showed us a little bit more of who he really was. And, over the past few weeks in the Sunday lectionary, we’ve heard him shock us with his countercultural teachings from the Sermon on the Mount like “blessed are the poor in spirit” and “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemies.” The religious leaders refused to accept such radical teaching at face value and demanded that Jesus show them a sign as proof of his identity, but Jesus wouldn’t do it. Then, in chapter 16, Peter, led by the Holy Spirit, saw what no one else had ever seen—that Jesus really was God’s anointed one, God’s true Son. And what did Jesus say in response? “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah. The Spirit has revealed this to you. Well done. Now, don’t tell anyone because, when we get to Jerusalem, I’m going to be arrested, tortured, and killed.”

And all of the disciples said, “Say what?” Actually, that’s not what they said. Matthew tells us that Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “This will never happen to you, Lord,” to which Jesus replied, “Get behind me, Satan!” But you get the idea. The disciples knew that they had been following someone special. They had been captivated by Jesus’ controversial words. They had marveled at his eye-popping miracles. They had come to see that he was like no one they had ever met before, and, now that they had figured out just how special Jesus was—that he was the one on whom their people had been waiting for centuries—Jesus gave them the bad news that this wasn’t going to end up the way they thought. And, for a moment or two, I bet that some of the disciples had their doubts. “I’m not so sure I want to follow a savior who is going to get all of us killed,” they must have thought to themselves. “Maybe this isn’t such a good idea. This isn’t what we signed up for.” And, just when the doubts and the worries were becoming too much for them, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John and led them up a high mountain where his true identity shone through in brilliant white light.

Sometimes God shows up when we need him most. Sometimes, when our doubts are about to get the best of us, God breaks through in dramatic fashion and shows us what we knew all along. How often have you heard someone say that God “hit me over the head with a 2x4?” Those are our mountain top experiences—moments when God gets our attention by revealing himself to us. It’s God’s way of saying, “Don’t give up! I have something special in mind for you.” But the problem is that God doesn’t show up to encourage us because things are about to get easy. “Take up your cross and follow me,” Jesus says, but I don’t want to do that. That sounds dangerous. That sounds difficult. Can’t we just stay here on the mountain top and bask in the glory of God for a while? Can’t we just build some huts and camp out here in this safe place where everything makes sense?

But we already know the answer to that, don’t we? It doesn’t work like that. God doesn’t show himself to us simply to make a show of himself. He shows up so that we will have the strength to carry on. God has something in store for us—something big, something exciting, something dangerous. It’s called God’s kingdom, and God is calling us to be a part of it, but the world isn’t going to give up without a fight.

Whether we realize it or not, we come to church each week to have a mountain top encounter with Jesus. Every Sunday, he meets us here in the body and blood of Holy Communion in order to show us who he really is. As his followers, we see that he is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, the one who shows the world what God wants the world to be. And, as the one who was crucified and raised from the dead, he reveals that in God’s kingdom the weak are made strong, the poor are made rich, and the dead are brought to life. But the world isn’t going to make room for the weak and the poor and those whom it considers as good as dead unless we make room for them. This is our work. This is our calling. And it is difficult, dangerous, and at times deadly work. But we are followers of Jesus. And he has shared his victory with us. And we are here to partake in that victory so that we might be equipped as instruments of God’s vision for the world. We cannot stay here. We cannot rest in this place. The world needs us to bring the good news of the gospel to it. But we can return each week and meet the one who gives us the strength to confront those who stand in the way of God’s kingdom, to risk all that we have for the sake of the gospel, and to take up our cross and follow him.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Identify, Evaluate, Instruct

In Matthew's telling of the Transfiguration, God speaks from the cloud and says, "This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!" When Peter, James, and John hear the voice, they cower in fear, trembling on the ground. I supposed I'd do the same if God's voice thundered at me. But I wonder if we might shake the fear off and take another look at what God says.

God's statement comes in three parts. First, he identifies Jesus: "This is my Son, the Beloved." That's a powerful identification. When God claims you as his own Son, when he calls you the Beloved, you're set apart in a pretty significant way. When God labels him "the Beloved" that means that God himself loves him--that his identity is as the Beloved one (note the capital "B"). And that's where the significance of this moment begins to break through--when God claims Jesus as his Son, the Beloved.

The second part of God's statement is an evaluation: "with him I am well pleased." I have four children, and, regardless of what they do, I love them. They will always be my beloved children. But I won't always be well pleased with them. That's something else. That's a statement of evaluation that Jesus and his earthly ministry are what God would want them to be. It's a big "thumbs-up" from God to Jesus, and the implications of that thumbs-up come in the third part.

Lastly, God gives those who hear him some instruction: "listen to him!" Maybe that goes without saying--that we're supposed to listen to Jesus, God's Son, with whom God is well pleased--but I think there's a connection between the three. I think we're supposed to reach the "listen to him" and think "of course that's what we're supposed to do...but are we?" If Jesus is God's Son, the Beloved, and if God is well pleased with Jesus, aren't we supposed to listen to him? Aren't we supposed to take him seriously?

If I send my oldest child upstairs to tell one of her brothers or sister to do something, the extent to which that sibling will listen to the oldest depends in part upon the extent to which they understand her to be the voice behind the messenger. If they are clear that she is asking them to do what I am asking them to do, then they know that there will be consequences if they ignore her. What about Jesus?

Although we've leapt from the Sermon on the Mount to the mount of Transfiguration, the words Jesus has taught us--blessed are poor in spirit, turn the other cheek, love your enemies--are the content to which God is saying, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him!" We need to take Jesus seriously because Jesus is showing us what God's vision for the world is. When heaven and earth meet, we get brilliant light shining through the face and skin of Jesus. But, after we walk down the mountain, will we forget who it is that is talking to us and who it is that he represents?

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

St. Who?

St. Matthias (tr.) - February 22, 2017
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

What does faithfulness look like? What does it mean to be faithful?
As soon as Jesus had been taken up into heaven on Ascension Day, Peter stood up among the believers and said, "We've got to do something." Jesus had chosen twelve disciples--twelve to represent, in part, the twelve tribes of Israel--and you know what happened to You-Know-Who. Judas, Peter reminds, us was overcome with evil and, falling headlong, burst open and all his guts fell out. And now it's time to find someone to take his place. But why bother? I know that twelve is a nice round number, but maybe the other disciples should have learned a lesson the first time Number 12 screwed it up. Maybe this setback is something they should leave in the past. Clearly they still have a good thing going. Why tempt fate and press for a twelfth man? Or maybe Peter and the other believers just knew that setbacks like this one--that even betrayals as terrible and heartbreaking as Judas' betrayal--aren't enough to derail God's plan. Did they need a twelfth? Maybe they did, but maybe they needed to say to the world that we're not willing to let failure have the last word.
What does faithfulness look like? What does it mean to be faithful?
The community of believers identified two worthy candidates--two men who had accompanied them all throughout Jesus' earthly ministry from the his baptism in the River Jordan up through his Ascension. One was named Joseph Barsabbas, who was also called Justus, and the other was Matthias. As far as the rest of the gospel was concerned, they were two no-names who had been with Jesus and his disciples from the very beginning. Faithfully, they had accompanied them over hill and dale, in the face of persecution, running from angry mobs, sleeping on the ground. For those three or so years, these two men had been there but none of the gospel writers had bothered to mention them up to this point. And still they stayed. Through it all. Even though twelve other guys got all the attention. They trusted that their faithfulness, if not seen by earthly eyes, would be noticed by their Father in heaven.
What does faithfulness look like? What does it mean to be faithful?
After two names had been proposed, they cast lots to see which one was the right one. They didn't debate it. They didn't vote. They didn't ask them any questions or make them give speeches. They put their names in a hat, reached in, and drew one out. And it was Matthias. Can you imagine leaving a decision as important as that one to chance? Should we take this new job? Should we buy this new house? Where should I go to college? Which rector should we hire? I know: let's draw straws to see what God wants us to do. Is it an expression of faithfulness to leave something that important up to chance? Maybe the community had so much confidence in the Holy Spirit's guidance that they weren't worried about which one was chosen. To cast lots isn't just a way to let God reach down from heaven and make the decision for them. It means trusting that no matter what decision was made God will lead it to good.
What does faithfulness look like? What does it mean to be faithful?
Do you know what happens to Matthias after the moment when he is chosen to take Judas' place? Neither do I. Neither does anyone. Do you know how many times Matthias' name is mentioned in the Bible? Three. All three are in this story. There's no more story about Matthias. After all that, the formerly unknown Matthias takes the place of the traitor, and then we don't hear anything else from him. Tradition has it (and by "tradition has it" I mean "people like to tell stories") that Matthias preached the gospel to the Ethiopians. Another tradition has it that he was stoned in Jerusalem. Others say he made it to the region of present-day Georgia (the country not the state). But the bottom line is that we don't know. We do not know what happened to the man whom the Holy Spirit led to be chosen to reconstitute the twelve. I wonder what sort of statement that is about his faithfulness--to accompany Jesus and the other disciples for years while getting no credit and then finally be chosen to take your place at the top and, again, get no credit for it.
What does faithfulness look like? What does it mean to be faithful?
I'll tell you. It means following Jesus through thick and thin, never asking for recognition. It means taking the worst setback imaginable and trusting that God will somehow get you through it. It means believing that your decisions aren't as important as God's love for you--that no matter what you choose, God still chooses good for you and for this world. It means laboring for a lifetime for the sake of the gospel and not worrying whether anyone will notice. That's faithfulness. Who was Matthias? He is each of us. He is all of us. He is the innumerable saints who follow Jesus wherever Jesus leads, trusting that God will use them in ways that transcend their understanding or imagination.

Monday, February 20, 2017

You Want A Sign?

This year at diocesan convention, the bishop recalled his desire for God to give him a sign that his inclination to be ordained was, indeed, God's will. Spoiler alert: the sign didn't come until much, much later. This Sunday is the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, which is to say the final Sunday before Lent, and the gospel lesson (Matthew 17:1-9) is the Transfiguration of Jesus Christ--the moment when his clothes and face began to shine with the light of his divinity and when Moses and Elijah appeared with him, confirming his identity as fulfillment of Law and Prophets. For Peter, James, and John, who accompanied him on that mountain top, and for us, who read about it in the gospel, that's a pretty remarkable sign. It's evidence of Jesus' identity that's hard to miss.

It's also hard to miss that this gospel lesson opens with a reference to something that precedes it--something that we need to know about before we can understand what is happening in this passage. Matthew introduces chapter 17 with "Six days later." Doesn't that beg us to turn back a page and see what it was that happened or was said six days earlier? Unlike novelists, gospel writers aren't usually concerned about locating the events of their accounts in a clear timeline. Sometimes weeks or months go by, and we can't even tell. So, when Matthew bothers to let us know that exactly six days have passed, we'd be well served to flip back and see what it was that happened first.

And when I did--by searching biblegateway.com for "Matt 16"--here is what I found. I already remembered that at the bottom of the page--toward the end of Matthew 16--Peter confesses Jesus as the Christ. In all of the synoptic gospel accounts, Peter's confession precedes the Transfiguration. They just go together. Always. But what I wasn't prepared for was what is at the top of the page--at the beginning of Matthew 16: "The Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test Jesus they asked him to show them a sign from heaven." You may remember how that little back-and-forth ends--with Jesus saying, "An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah."

I don't really know what the sign of Jonah is, and the Internet doesn't know either. Is it the three days he was in the belly of the fish as an image of the three days when Jesus would be dead before rising again? Is it the overall sign of repentance that Jonah brought to the least-likely-to-repent people of Nineveh? Is it the fact that God pursued Jonah, who ran away from God's call, until he got him thrown overboard into a stormy sea? Is it the shade-giving bush, which God causes to grow up and then destroy with a worm? I don't know. But that's not the point. The point is that they want Jesus to give them a sign--some proof upon which they can evaluate for themselves whether he is who he claims to be--and Jesus won't give it to them.

But he does give it to Peter, James, and John. Peter's confession happens first, and that's important. But, once someone in his covey of disciples recognizes in faith who Jesus really is, God confirms that identification through the Transfiguration. The order matters. They don't do the fireworks show until after the Friday-night baseball game or else all the parents and children would leave after the fifth inning. (Plus, it's not usually dark enough when a game starts.) Jesus' light show comes after Peter sees who he really is. The sign isn't the thing upon which we hang our faith. It's the confirmation of the faith we've already been given.

This week, as we approach the mountain top that then propels us downward toward the forty days of Lent and the cross that awaits at the end of the journey, I am reminded to look back just long enough to remember how we got here. Peter sees Jesus. Jesus shows himself to them. And the Pharisees and Sadducees want a sign but don't get it. What about us? Are we looking for a sign? What sort of sign are we looking for? What sort of sign do we expect to receive?

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Combatting Evil

Amidst the familiar, over-the-top statements we read in Sunday's gospel lesson (Matthew 5:38-38) like "turn the other cheek" and "love your enemies" is a little line that Jesus says that could be a throwaway but I think deserves a little more attention: "Do not resist an evildoer." In the context of this passage, it serves as a summary explanation for the rest of the counter-intuitive instructions, but, on its surface, that seems to be a particularly ridiculous statement. Do not resist an evildoer? Then what are you supposed to do?

In this case, the Greek word rendered as "evildoer" is "πονηρῷ" which is the noun form of a word more often used in the New Testament as an adjective. The noun means "evil," but it implies an evil thing or person and not necessarily evil itself. (One might wonder whether they were different after all.) The King James Version tells us "resist not evil," and versions like the CEV and CEB take the evil out and tell us not to "get even with a person who has done something to you" or to "oppose those who want to hurt you" respectively. In those cases, I lament the loss of "evil" from the text altogether. On the whole, it seems that "evildoer" is a good translation, but it's worth remembering that, in this case, that evildoer is specifically targeting you. I don't think Jesus is asking us to lie down in front of evil itself. We are to stand up against those who stand against the people of God. But we are not to resist evil for our own sake.

Passages like the Sermon on the Mount were particularly important to those first Christians who risked their lives for the sake of the gospel. Getting slapped or robbed or tortured or killed was part of what it meant to be a disciple. Nowadays, those of us who live in the west risk so little culturally to follow Jesus. Imagine, though, what it is like to be a Christian in Iraq or Pakistan or Egypt or Somalia. What is it like to be a powerless minority that is constantly persecuted for its faith? How do you remain encouraged when you have no ability to appeal to a higher earthly power for justice?

"Do not resist an evildoer," Jesus says. Notice that he identifies the one who would strike you on the cheek or take your cloak or make you walk a mile as an evildoer. Isn't there comfort in knowing that the one who opposes us is also one who opposes God? Haven't God's people understood that the forces that seek to destroy them also seek to destroy God--a futile effort that will always, always lead to God's vindication of God's people? Also, in a system in which there is no appeal for earthly justice, Jesus defines faithfulness as enduring the persecution for Jesus' sake. For those persecuted Christians, there is no hope for vindication in this life, but there is a clear and definite promise of vindication in the next. God is on their side. Those who can do nothing are told to turn the other cheek as a means of embracing God's promise of redemption in the future.

"Do not resist an evildoer," Jesus tells us. That does not mean to give up. Turning the other cheek and walking the extra mile are not acts of resignation. They are acts of defiance. Through them, we defy those who think that they can defeat by persecuting us. By following Jesus' example, we claim a promise that is to be fulfilled in the next life. By letting God be our resistance, we proclaim our faith in God's power to give us what we cannot achieve on our own: vindication for God's people.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Belonging to Perfection

My wife and I have been parents for nine years. Each day brings something new, and we're still learning. We're learning what it means to parent a preteen who is beginning to feel the emotional swings that accompany a changing body. We're learning how to balance the demands of school, church, sports, music, and friends. We're also still learning how to make time for one another through all of that. And we're also learning what it means to raise preacher's kids (PKs).

Everyone knows that PKs have a bad reputation. And sometimes its well deserved. Some PKs are total little $%#&s. But so are other kids. Not all kids, of course, but there are plenty of crappy children who belong to doctors and nurses and teachers. Some of the misbehaving tendencies of PKs is because they're PKs, and some of it is pure projection by everyone else. The scrutiny of belonging to a preacher's family, in which kids are expected by their parents to be perfect and expected by everyone else to be terrible, can send even a well-wired child into disarray. But sometimes kids are just kids. Five-year-olds have a hard time sitting still, and PKs typically go to church EVERY week, which gives the congregation a greater sample size of squirmy PKs than other kids. As parents of PKs, we're still learning how to relax more than our instincts would allow, how to expose our children a modest dose of pressure from others, and how to shield them from some of the unfair criticism. It's a tough line to walk, but it's nothing compared to the perfection that is demanded of everyone who belongs to God.

Take a moment to read all of Leviticus 19, sections of which we will read as the first lesson on Sunday. It's a strange collection of commandments and prohibitions. Some of them make great sense to us (e.g. "You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him"). Others are a little weird (e.g. "Do not profane your daughter by making her a prostitute"). Although there's debate over which ones should still be kept, there is no debate over the logic behind them. Over and over, we are reminded, "I am the Lord your God." We are to be holy because our God is holy.

Set aside the impossibility of that for a moment and just sit with the implication of that. The Lord is our God. By that, we mean that we belong to God (not the other way around). The Lord has called us, named us, designated us as God's own. That has implications for us and for our life. Because we are the Lord's, we don't participate in idol worship or child sacrifice. Because we are the Lord's, we take care of the needy, remember the orphan and widow, and provide for the common good. Because we are the Lord's, we model our family life on the love God has for us .We do those things because we already belong to God (not the other way around).

The gospel lesson for Sunday (Matthew 5:38-48) is the end of Jesus' own version of the "Holiness Code." He concludes by saying, "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." This is his recapitulation of Leviticus 19. He's telling us that the bar is set to perfection. We are to be holy because God is holy, and we are to be holy just as God is holy. Our holiness is a reflection of his holiness. God's ways must be our ways. If we fully embrace our identity as belonging to God, if he is our heavenly father, then we will be holy and perfect just as God is holy and perfect. How? Through the one who makes us holy, the one who makes us God's children, the one who is our perfection, Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Snakes: To Handle or Not?

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

I often overlook the end of Mark's gospel account. In some sense, I was taught to. Manuscript studies have indicated with overwhelming confidence that the best, oldest, and most authentic manuscripts of Mark only go through Mark 16:8: "And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid." Because of its linguistically and theologically abrupt ending, however, textual scholars disagree whether that's the original ending or whether the original final bits were torn off and lost at some point, but almost everyone agrees that what we currently have in Mark 16:9-20 isn't original.

But that doesn't make it real. It's doesn't mean it's not God's word. Inconsistent human origins do not prevent us from reading, making, learning, and inwardly digesting what God is speaking to us through this text. And today we are asked to consider it again.

Today, we remember the lives and witness of Cyril and Methodius, brothers who invented the precursor to the Cyrillic alphabet, bridging the gap between the Slavs of eastern Europe and the Latin and Greek speaking church of the West. During their lives, they were not universally popular. A lot of that had to do with church politics--the Pope disagreeing with local princes and kings (where have we heard that before?)--but a lot of it had to do with human nature. The Slavs were thought of as uncivilized. They spoke a language and used an alphabet that wasn't like anything the Greeks or Romans knew. When Cyril and Methodius worked to translate the language of the worship of the Church into the language of the uncouth Slavs, people were unhappy. One ruler insisted that such barbaric speech be limited only to the sermons and not to the rest of the rite. Another felt that the whole service should be conducted in a language understood by the people. (Where have we heard that before?) Historically, when a culture was Christianized, that culture was forced to conform to the language and traditions of the Church, but this time the Church was being asked to conform to the language of the heathen. Cyril and Methodius did their part to make it possible for a continent and a church divided by language to share common worship, but it wasn't (and still isn't) universally accepted as the "right" way to do things.

In the gospel lesson appointed for today (Mark 16:15-20), I encounter another reason I shy away from the longer ending of Mark: snakes. Well, not just snakes, but also speaking in tongues and drinking poison. The laying on of hands and healing I can get behind, but it's hard for me to take the bit about snake-handling seriously. Sand Mountain isn't that far away from here, and, as much as we joke about churches where people handle snakes as a sign of their faith, it's real. It happens. For some, it is the sign of true faith. And there it is, plain as day, authentically Markan or not, in the Bible for us to read and wonder, "Did he really mean that?"

I don't want to handle snakes or drink poison, and I do not recognize that as the test of my faith or even a manifestation of faith that I am called to demonstrate. I trust, however, that others feel so called, and, even though I'd strongly disagree, if they want to look down on me and my non-snake-handling faith, that's ok, too. I'm fairly confident that all of us will go to heaven whether there's a different section for them and us or not.

Regardless of them and their practice and attitude, what it's not right for me to do is to dismiss their faith out of hand because it is manifest in a way I find primitive. Whether or not Mark said it, the same Spirit that breathes life into me certainly has the power to protect them from venomous serpents. Even the most reserved among us would not deny the Spirit that ability. I may be sure that the Spirit isn't giving me that ability, and I may even question whether the handling of snakes is really empowered by the Spirit or is mere psychological absurdity, but I cannot deny God the power to protect his servants from things like snakes and poison. And, if I'm so put off by the strangeness and primitive nature of that practice that I refuse to acknowledge the awesome power of God, I've missed the point.

We're not all the same, but the same Spirit unites us. We don't have to worship the same way, but we still believe in the same God. Jesus died to reconcile all peoples to God--Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female, Slav and Greek, Appalachian snake-handler and uptight Anglican. All of us. If I won't allow the power of Christ's death to be translated into the language and culture and experience of others, I'm the one who doesn't understand it.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Serious Discipleship

You know that Jesus is getting serious when he tells his followers to turn the other cheek. It's one thing to tell them to refrain from anger, avoid lust, and take marriage seriously. But, in this Sunday's gospel lesson (Matthew 5:38-48), he tells them to give up the right to strike back at those who strike them first. Is there any more difficult teaching in the gospel?

He's still in his "You have heard that it was said...But I say to you..." pattern of questioning the way that his contemporaries understood the scriptures. Everyone knew, "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." That is basic reciprocal justice. If you kill my horse, I get to take one of yours. If you get unjustifiably angry and knock out one of my teeth, I get to pull one of your teeth in response. It's how things stay balanced. I like my teeth, and you like yours, and that's what keeps me from knocking your teeth out and, if I do, it's what makes you feel better when you get to pull out one of mine. No, you can't put it back in your mouth, but you get to smile at me from across the street because you know that both of us bear the mark of my stupidity. But does that really work?

Nowadays, we're familiar with the quotation attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, "An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind." Although there is no evidence that he ever said or wrote it, it remains an effective repudiation of reciprocal justice. What good does it really do for me to pull your tooth because you've knocked mine out? It might make me feel better in the moment. Perhaps every time I see you with your gap-toothed grin I'll get another taste of that satisfaction. But what sort of satisfaction is that really? Am I really better off because you're worse off? Does the balance of justice really tip back and forth like that? Is the world a better place because we're both down an eye or a tooth? The Gandhi-esque wisdom exposes that, but it still comes up a little short. If I'm not supposed to pluck out your eye, what am I supposed to do?

Jesus goes a remarkable step further. Not only does he reject the notion of an eye for an eye, but he asks his followers to embrace their injury and expose themselves to further harm. To turn the other cheek is not only to forego the right of vengeance but also to make oneself vulnerable to further suffering. Not only does he tell us to yield to the one who sues us for our coat but to go a step further and live him/her our cloak as well. If forced to go one mile, we are told to go the second voluntarily. Why? For our sake and for the world's sake.

Jesus says, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you...For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?" This isn't about a reciprocal or even a restorative justice. This is about tipping the balance in favor of the other no matter who the other is or what the other has done to us. Why? Because that's how God works, and, if God works that way, we must work that way, too, or else we cannot know God.

It doesn't make sense to love one's enemies. It doesn't make sense to turn the other cheek. But Jesus shows us that God's love doesn't make sense either. God sends the rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. His blessings and love fall upon sinner and saint alike. God does not demand justice. He foregoes vengeance. He accepts us despite our betrayal of his love. Want to make sense of that? The only way is to practice it. We practice it not to receive it but to understand it. God loves us whether we love our enemies or not. But, if we want to know God's love, we must do as Jesus has done--turn the other cheek in the name of senseless love.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Right With God, Right With Each Other

February 12, 2017 – The 6th Sunday after the Epiphany
© 2017 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

There is a joke among clergy that anytime Jesus says something about divorce we should probably preach on one of the other lessons. Jesus never has anything nice to say about divorce or people who are divorced or people who marry someone who is divorced. As a single man and pastor of a loose affiliation of followers who came and went as they pleased, he had that luxury. He wasn’t worried about whether the offering plate would come back a little lighter than usual if he upset the really generous givers by calling them adulterers. Nowadays, clergy know better. We have sat and cried with too many people whose marriages ended long before the divorce papers were signed. Many of our parishioners are divorced. Sometimes ex-spouses still sit in the same pew, each one refusing to budge to make the other one and his or her new spouse comfortable. Many clergy are divorced, too, so how are we supposed to preach with any authority on the subject? For the most part, anything Jesus has to say about it is a landmine we’re better off avoiding.

But you know what? The teaching on divorce in today’s gospel lesson isn’t even close to the hardest thing Jesus has to say. “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” I can’t even make it to church in the morning without calling an inattentive driver something worse than “you fool.” What about you? When was the last time you got angry with a brother or sister? When was the last time you spouted off about some “idiot” on Facebook? When was the last time you sent a text message or an e-mail to a couple of friends about that one person whom none of you can stand?

And let’s not get started on lust! Even sweet Jimmy Carter squirms in his seat a little bit when he hears Jesus say that “everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” If we took Jesus’ instructions seriously—“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away…if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away”—there’s be a lot more one-armed, one-eyed, one-legged people hobbling around.

And what about oaths? I know the courthouse will let you affirm instead of swear when you take the stand, but I don’t think that fully addresses what Jesus had in mind when he told us to “let [our] word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’” How would our legal system survive if we didn’t have affidavits or notarized signatures? How would homeowners and businesses know which contractors to hire if they weren’t bonded? Does marriage itself become meaningless if we eliminate the solemn vows associated with the rite? I guess it all boils down to whether we can really afford to trust one another, and most people I know—including me—are no dang good.

But there’s a reason Jesus says all of these things. There’s a reason he takes the presumptions of religious and civil society and turns them on their head, calling into question everything that everyone had assumed for generations. Notice how Jesus repeatedly says to the people, “You have heard that it was said…” And each time he then twists their assumptions into a new direction by saying, “But I say to you…” The problems that Jesus raises are not with the Old Testament texts themselves but with the way that people had been hearing them. Everybody thought that they already knew what Moses meant. They had been hiding behind common wisdom, and they had let “you know what they say” become a substitute for what God was trying to say to God’s people. But, if we take a moment and sift through these statements and look for the real hyperbole among a field of outlandish claims, we will discover what Jesus had in mind.

Of all the over-the-top things that Jesus says about anger and lust and divorce and oaths, the most ridiculous is what he says about brining your offering to the altar: “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” Now that might not sound crazy because we’re used to bringing our checkbook with us when we drive six blocks to come to church, but I want you to imagine the look on my face if you walked into St. John’s and handed me a lamb or a pigeon or a calf and said, “Would you hold onto this for me? I just remembered that I said an unkind word to my brother-in-law in Sarasota, Florida, and I need to drive down there and say, ‘I’m sorry.’ This will only take a couple of days.” Because, back in Jesus’ time, leaving your gift at the altar meant leaving some livestock at the temple in Jerusalem while you walked back to Galilee to make amends with the one you had hurt. There ain’t no priest in first-century Palestine or twenty-first-century Decatur who’s willing to do that. And, as usual, the thing that Jesus says that makes us laugh and scratch our heads at the same time is the part that we really need to pay attention to.

This whole passage is about remembering that we cannot be right with God if we are not right with one another first. No one leaves his offering at the altar and turns around and walks all the way home just to say, “I’m sorry,” but that’s what Jesus is telling us to do. We are fooling ourselves if we think that we can come here and kneel down and say our prayers and receive God’s forgiveness if we are not serious about seeking forgiveness from one another. We are living a lie if we think that we can approach this altar and receive the body and blood of Christ and participate in the sacrifice of God’s Son as the redeemed and reconciled children of God if we are not willing to address the brokenness that exists among us and between us.

“At least I’m not a murderer,” we say to ourselves, “or a racist or a psychopath,” but we let our hatred and our anger control us just the same. Ours is a culture defined by anger, and this most recent election has made that abundantly clear. We no longer know how to have a civilized disagreement. We skip the debates and move straight to insults. There is a brokenness among us that can only be healed if we recognize that victory for our side isn’t as important as communion with the other. Lust is a problem not simply because sex outside of marriage mistakes union for pleasure but because people are not a means to an end, and, as long as we view another human being as a potential conquest, then we cannot know what it means to value the humanity of that person. In other words, lust presents the same problem as anger. Divorce, too, at least as a means to cut your losses and pretend that you can start all over, is the exact same problem because you can’t start over. And divorced people know that. Unless you deny the reality of that other person, once you’re united to someone, you can never fully be separated from him or her. Oaths, too, are a denial of our humanity because, when we rely on an oath and not on the person swearing it, we have lost sight of who it is that is giving us his or her word.
The truth is that we need help, and this gospel lesson reminds us that there is no escaping that fact. And thank God for Jesus Christ who is that help. We, in our self-absorbed fantasy of anger and lust and mistrust, allow our ego to displace the humanity of those around us, and that’s exactly why God takes that humanity onto himself in the incarnation. In Jesus Christ, God becomes that which we cannot become on our own—a complete, perfectly vulnerable, perfectly relatable human being. He is one with the “Great I Am,” yet in him there is no ego. And, by uniting us with himself, he makes it possible for us to become that which we cannot become on our own: truly selfless. Because of our egotistical weakness, we cannot accept diminution of ourselves for the sake of others until we find our true value in the one who makes us whole. As he takes our humanity onto himself, we lose ourselves in him. Together as the people of God, we are united with Christ, and, thus, we find it possible in him to care less about ourselves than about the life we share with others. As followers of Jesus, we know that there is no difference between being right with God and being right with one another. They are synonymous. And in Christ we find the promise of perfect union with both.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Impossible Possibility

Sunday's gospel lesson (Matthew 5:21-37) is packed full of over-the-top statements that demand the preacher's attention. Unfortunately, that means the other lessons are likely to be ignored from the pulpit, and I think that this week's collect and Old Testament lesson present a classical Grace vs. Law tension worth exploring in the current culture of "my success is my own doing" that the gospel demands that we reject.

Near the beginning of the service, we will pray, "O God, the strength of all who put their trust in you: Mercifully accept our prayers; and because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you, give us the help of your grace, that in keeping your commandments we may please you both in will and deed..." It's a complicated prayer that's easy to misunderstand. The good news is that we have a few more days to study it before we say it in front of our congregations. The key to understanding the collect and not praying it with an intention other than the one expressed in its text is to separate the petition from the aspiration.

The petition is the thing we're asking for, and it comes in two parts: "mercifully accept our prayers" and "give us the help of your grace." Read the collect again and focus on the things we're actually asking God to give us. We're asking him to hear our prayers and give us help. Isn't that the focus of all our prayers? Tucked in there along with those two pleadings is a bonus statement of need that isn't actually what we're asking for: "because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you." It's more of an acknowledgment buried within the petition. It's the reason why we're asking for the thing we're asking, but it stands in direction tension (perhaps even opposition) with the aspiration of the collect, and that's where things get confusing.

The aspiration is the reason we're asking for the thing we're asking for. It's the vision of the way things could be if God grants us our prayer. In this collect, the aspiration is a statement of our fulfillment of the Law: "that in keeping your commandments we may please you both in will and deed." The vision behind this prayer is a world in which God's people are faithful. "What a world that would be!" the author of the collect seems to suggest. But don't forget that this isn't the petition. It's the aspiration. We're not even asking God to help us keep the commandments. Perhaps that would be too forward, too bold. Instead, we're asking God to give us the help of his grace because we cannot do anything good without God's help. Then, once the grace has been given, it becomes possible for us to keep the commandments. Only and always in that order!!!

And then we get to the lesson from Deuteronomy. In it, Moses presents to the people of Israel a choice. I don't blame Moses, but the choice he gives them--at least on the appearance of it--is an impossible temptation to be perfect: "If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous...But if your heart turns away and you do not hear...I declare to you today that you shall perish." That's like telling a six-year-old that if he can behave for the next twelve years you'll love him. What trickery! But, of course, there's more to it than that.

God's people need God's help. And God always, always gives it. Deuteronomy 30 cannot be read in isolation. It must be read along with the story of the Exodus, the shepherding of God's people through the wilderness, the establishment of the kingdom of Israel, the dissolution of that kingdom through exile, and the reestablishment of the presence of God's people in Palestine. Our prayer--"mercifully accept our prayers...and give us the help of your grace"--is the prayer of God's people throughout the centuries. Jesus taught us how to pray that prayer with renewed focus--that God's love transcends our misdeeds and that, through the gift of God's grace and only through that gift, we can be the children God has called us to be. In short, we cannot choose good on our own. But,with God's help, we can choose the good God has set before us.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The Falsehood of the Matthean Exception

If I get to Wednesday without writing on Sunday's lessons, I know it has been and will continue to be a tough week. And, when I look at Matthew 5:21-37 and read Jesus equate anger with murder and lust with adultery and, likewise, divorce with adultery, I realize I'm going to need more time than I have to fully digest this lesson. Today, however, the gospel reading in the Daily Office (Mark 10:1-16) is another version of Jesus' teaching on divorce, so, even though I don't think that will be my focus in Sunday's sermon, I can't help but start there.

Jesus says that anyone who divorces his wife or marries a divorced woman commits adultery. We don't like that, but it's what he says. And, if you use the Episcopal Church's policy that permits remarriage after divorce as the basis for your assessment, it would be hard to conclude that we care about what he says. But there's always more to it than that.

In Mark's gospel account, Jesus gives this teaching during a confrontation with the Pharisees. They approach him and ask, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?" That they even asked him about it suggests that the religious teaching on divorce was either unclear or in flux. They were trying to trap him, Mark tells us, so we can conclude either that Jesus was thought to have offered some challenging or questionable teaching on the subject and they wanted to get him on the record for teaching something controversial OR that the Pharisees themselves understood there to be a dispute among the religious and political leaders of the day and that pinning Jesus down one way or another would get him into trouble. Jesus responds as he often responds--by asking them what they think is right. They quote the Law of Moses, which allows a certificate of divorce to be written, and Jesus responds by upping the ante: "Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you...Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery."

Full stop. That's it. Nothing else. No wiggle room. No loopholes. No nothing.

Matthew's version is different. In his account, Jesus offers his teaching on divorce during the ethical portion of his Sermon on the Mount. He's on a roll and continues to offer observations on the traditions of the faith and his reinterpretation of those traditions: "You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times...But I say to you..." Jesus introduces the concept of adultery in classical terms, quoting the Decalogue, but then he equates lusting after a woman in one's heart with committing the act. (The film Eyes Wide Shut is, among other things, an exploration of this concept worth seeing if you can handle the strong sexual imagery throughout the film.) I'm sure that everyone, including Jimmy Carter, winced a little bit when they heard this teaching on lust, but Jesus wasn't finished. He moved on to divorce, giving it similar treatment: "But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery."

Did you see it? Did you hear it? That's the "Matthean Exception"--the little phrase upon which traditionalist Christians have been basing their discipline on the remarriage of unfaithful divorcees for centuries. Except on the ground of unchastity. In other words, despite what Mark might recall, remarriage after divorce is NOT adulterous as long as adulterous behavior had preceded the divorce. But did Jesus say it? Did he mean it? Did he say it when Matthew was listening but not when Mark was paying attention? Where does this difference come from, and what does it mean to us?

I believe that the people who heard Jesus' teaching on divorce were just as uncomfortable with its implications as twenty-first-century Christians who see advertisements on television for cheap legal representation during a divorce. We might think that the world is a more immoral place than it was in Jesus' day, but I think the moral spectrum has simply shifted in some areas. We're just as sinful, just as judgmental, and just as hypocritical as we've ever been. So I think that when the followers of Jesus heard his teaching on divorce they reinterpreted it--in their minds, in their recollections, in their sermons, in their letters, and in their to-become-biblical texts--until we got the exception. I don't believe Jesus meant for there to be an exception, but I also think that worrying about one misses the point.

On Sunday, I plan to use our aversion to Jesus' teaching on divorce to reveal a deeper problem--that we care more about what he says about divorce than what he says about lust, anger, insults, swearing, and sin more generally. Whether focusing on Matthew or Mark, divorce is just a tiny slice of his ethical teaching. Jesus calls us to recognize the totality of our sin. Like John the Baptizer, he calls us to repent. He begs us to return to the Lord and live a life worthy of the daughters and sons of God that he declares us to be. Divorce? Yes, that's a problem. But so is everything else. This sermon and our reaction to it highlight that fact. Don't get lost in the Matthean exception or Mark's exclusion of it. Go deeper and see the sin that infects our lives and let the blood of Jesus wash it from you.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Power of Prayer

This post was also in today's newsletter for St. John's Episcopal Church in Decatur, AL. To read the rest of the newsletter, click here.

A few weeks ago during a midweek service, I offered an intercession for “those who have no one to pray for them.” Someone in the congregation found that prayer particularly moving, and her response has stayed with me ever since. I do not always say that prayer, but, whenever it comes to my heart and mind, I feel a need to say it. Fifteen years ago, when I worked at a church in Birmingham, a wise and gentle man prayed those words every week at our staff meeting, and, as I heard them over and over, they began to shape my own prayers—not only my intercession for those who have no one to pray for them but, more generally, how I pray and how I understand prayer to work.

If I ask God to bless those who have no one else to pray for them, does that mean that everyone in the world is covered by that prayer and that only one of us needs to say it? Similarly, if I walk into a restaurant with a buffet and see another family saying a blessing, do I need to bother saying my own, or will their prayer cover my food as well? Is that true only if it is an all-you-can-eat buffet and the family intends to go back for seconds, and, if not, should they say a blessing after each course? More generally, does God wait for us to say our prayers before showering us with his blessings, and, if not, why do I need to ask for them at all? If you are praying for our sick friend, do my prayers for that same friend become superfluous, or is God more likely to respond when several of us ask for the same thing? Is it fair to say that my role as clergyperson is to pray for everyone and everything so that all of you can get on with the more important, more pressing parts of life?

Although it has taken me years to appreciate it, one of the gifts that my wise, gentle friend gave me though his persistent prayer for the otherwise-forgotten is to detach the joy of praying from the outcome of those prayers. What does it mean to pray for those who have no one to pray for them except to bring to mind and hold before God those whom neither I nor anyone else remembers? And is that act of remembering not an opportunity to give identity and value and love to those whom the world has abandoned? By definition, I will never know who those people are and what God might be doing for them, but, by letting them and their anonymous condition into my heart, I am asking God to shape me into one who refuses to forget the forgotten. God is not waiting on me or my prayers in order that they might be touched by his blessing, but a part of my soul is waiting for the opportunity to remember them and connect with them, and prayer gives it to me.

More and more, I say my prayers not because I need or desire a particular outcome but because it gives me great joy to enter God’s presence and bring others along with me. Often they are people I know and love—family, close friends, colleagues, parishioners. Almost as often they are people whose names I know but whom I have never met—friends on our parish prayer list, political and religious leaders, individuals or communities that have been featured in the news because of a tragedy. Occasionally, they are people I do not know at all—the homeless, the hungry, the forgotten. Why do I bother praying for any of them? Because prayer opens up an opportunity for action.

I wrote an e-mail to a colleague a week or so ago and told him that I was praying for him. He is facing some challenges in his work, and I wanted him to know that I love him and am thinking about him. As I wrote that e-mail, however, another thought about prayer came to me: if I believe that prayer opens up an opportunity for action, might I offer my friend more than words of comfort? I wrote to him that I did not know how I might help but that my prayers for him came with an earnest desire that I might be of service to him. Although I recognize that often prayers are enough, sometimes the door for action that they open is a door within us.

I pray for my friends and family because I love them and because I want to be a part of God’s saving work and love in their lives. I pray for our political leaders because I want what is best for our country and also because those prayers help direct my attention and energy toward the further establishment of God’s kingdom here on earth. I pray for the poor and the forgotten because I know that God has not forgotten them and because my prayers help me have the courage to speak and act on their behalf.

Sometimes prayer opens up a window for God to reach down and change the course of human affairs, but more often that window is opened up in our hearts so that we might, in turn, open that door and walk through it as the hands and feet and voice of God in this world. There is power in prayer, and, as we pray, that power becomes manifest in us.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Dance Party Nightlight

Every once in a while, we turn on the Bluetooth sound bar by our television and link it to one of our cell phones and have a crazy dance party all through the house. The four children and I (and occasionally their mother, too) dance and sing and jump and run and laugh our way through some crazy music. Some of my favorite tunes are by They Might Be Giants, the alternative rock band that was formed in the 1980s and is best known for songs like "Istanbul" and "Particle Man." A few mornings ago (yes, this sometimes happens in the morning), we were jamming out to TMBG's "Birdhouse in Your Soul," and I suddenly realized what they were singing about: a nightlight.

The refrain says, "Blue canary in the outlet by the light switch / Who watches over you / Make a little birdhouse in your soul." That "blue canary" that is described elsewhere in the song as "a little glowing friend" is a child's nightlight. In one of the verses, the nightlight comically compares itself to a lighthouse, singing, "There's a picture opposite me / Of my primitive ancestry / Which stood on rocky shores and kept the beaches shipwreck free / Though I respect that a lot / I'd be fired if that were my job / After killing Jason off and countless screaming Argonauts." I love how the little nightlight, whose bulb is designed to offer a dim glow, understands that its purpose is similar to that of the super-bright light house that keeps ships from hitting the rocks. Plus, the line about the "countless screaming Argonauts" is just hilarious.

In Sunday's gospel lesson (Matthew 5:13-20), Jesus proclaims to his hearers, "You are the light of the world." That's a nice compliment, but Jesus isn't finished: "No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven." He's not just building them up. He's giving them work to do. They are a light, and it would be contrary to their identity and purpose to hide that light from others. That's his message to us. In him, God has made us the light of the world. We cannot switch that light off. We might try to hide it, but that would deny the light that has been given to us.

The optional end of Sunday's reading from Isaiah 58 is worth hearing. In verses 9b through 12, the prophet states, "If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday." That is what it means for our light to shine. What is that yoke we are to remove? We are to remove the oppressive burdens placed on those in our community. If a single-parent has to work two jobs to feed her family, that's too much. If an individual has to go to the emergency department to get primary care treatment, that's unjust. The prophet tells us to "offer food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted" without mentioning their race or immigration status or political affiliation. Do we want our light to rise in this gloomy darkness? Then we must stop pointing the finger of judgment and offer the hand of assistance.

Jesus tells us to let our light shine. That isn't an abstract instruction. He's not telling us to be nice. He's pointing us to the prophet's words. He's telling us to let the good news of transformative hope spread from us to our community--not by inviting the unchurched to know Jesus but by clothing and feeding and sheltering and welcoming and loving those who are without. If you doubt that, go read the rest of Matthew 5. Or maybe you've already forgotten the Beatitudes from last Sunday.

I doubt that TMBG had Matthew 5 in mind, but it's worth noting that at the end of the refrain they sing, "Make a little birdhouse in your soul." They encourage children to take the light with them. In the echo of the closing refrain, they sing, "And while you're at it / Keep the nightlight on inside the / Birdhouse in your soul." In other words, don't forget to let your light shine.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Anxiety Baggage

I carry around more anxiety than I used to. As a child, I had the luxury of not worrying about whether dinner would be ready when I got home from playing around in the neighborhood. As a teenager, I experienced the pains of lovesickness and brokenheartedness, but I never even considered the possibility that I wasn't loved or appreciated by my family and friends. As a college student, I pursued a stressful course of study that left me wondering whether my grades would be good, but I never entertained the thought that I would be unemployed after graduation. Back then, worries were specific and defined. Somehow as an adult, my worries have morphed into less concrete but more powerful anxieties that I carry around wherever I go.

I could make a long list of the things I worry about, beginning with my four children and moving quickly to our parish. There are people and problems and uncertainties and budgets and limitations. Some of my worries are global or national--terrorist threats or elections or economic indicators. Some of them are local or personal--broken marriages or failing schools or damaged friendships. None of them is particularly egregious. There are days when a pressing matter like a dying parishioner or a difficult meeting or a tight deadline increase my level of anxiety, but there isn't one thing or even a particular list of things that occupy my mind. It's more of a suitcase of anxiety--a general sense of concern and worry and doubt that I lug around with me wherever I go. Some days that bag is heavier than others, but I'm always pulling it behind me no matter what day it is.

In Matthew 6:25-33, Jesus says, "Do not be anxious about your life. Do not worry about what you will eat or drink or what you will wear. Can you add even a singly hour to your life by worrying? So why bother being anxious?" Why, indeed? Jesus invites us to see what has become harder and harder for us to see--that, as children of a loving God, we have nothing to worry about.

On the surface, this might sound like unhelpful advice. Jesus says, "Look at the birds. They neither sow nor reap, and your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren't you more valuable than sparrows? Look at the lilies of the field. They neither toil nor spin, yet has anyone ever been as beautifully arrayed as they? Yet they are here today and tomorrow gathered up and burned in the fire. Aren't you more valuable than that?" Jesus tells us to trust that God will provide for us, but when was the last time God sent you a new winter coat in an Amazon box? When was the last time God went to the grocery store for you? When was the last time God paid your power bill, filled up your gas tank, or paid your mortgage payment? When was the last time God promised to pay your children's college tuition or fund your 401(k)? When was the last time God fixed the relationship with the son who isn't speaking to you or cure the addiction that is plaguing your daughter's life? Don't those things require our effort? Isn't it our job to take care of all of that?

It is. And, if we don't, all of those things will fall apart. But the problem is that we allow our responsibility to become anxiety when we allow material concerns to obscure our sight of spiritual realities.

A few days ago, I tried to explain to one of my children what would happen if an interaction with her teacher did not go well. "What happens if she gets mad at me?" she asked. I replied, "Don't worry about it. Everything will be ok. Just be honest and try your best." Then she said, "What if she sends me to the principal's office?" And I said, "But she won't." And then she said, "What if I get suspended from school?" And I realized I had two different issues going on at once. On the one hand, these concerns were truly irrational, but that didn't matter. Aren't our fears usually irrational? No amount of explaining would help, so I took the other approach. "If your teacher gets mad, and the principal gets mad, and you get suspended, don't worry about it because, no matter what, your mother and I will have your back. We will always love you. Just try your best, be respectful, and know that we will take care of you even if you get suspended." It's easier for me to say that to my daughter than it is for me to believe it about myself. Why is that?

As I have gotten older, my concerns have not been any more real or any more consequential, but my ability to trust that, no matter what, things will be ok has waned. I don't have an earthly mother or father looking over my shoulder and saying, "Don't worry: no matter what we have your back." But Jesus is asking me to see and know that my heavenly father is saying that to me. He's saying that to all of us. No matter what, God has our back. There are no limits to God's love. Nothing can break the bond that exists between us and God. Now, the things that test the limits of that bond are pretty serious. Addiction, depression, poverty, illness, and death are all pretty serious. The hope God gives us doesn't come from ignoring that fact. But it comes from knowing that on the other side of death God is waiting to welcome us into his loving arms. The road between here and there is often filled with deep hardship and considerable loss, but God is bigger than that, and the road always, always, leads to God. Do not worry, Jesus says, because no matter how hard you fall, God will catch you--maybe not in this life but certainly in the next.