Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Question of Authority

Last night at the dinner table, one of our children asked me if he could have some more pasta. "No," I said, without hesitation but with a playful tone in my voice and look in my eye. Immediately, he turned to his mother and made the same request. It's a tactic all children know. If dad says no, ask mom. That strategy is usually more effective if mom and dad aren't sitting at the table together, listening to each other's responses.

We like to push the boundaries and see where the real authority lies. If the customer service representative on the phone cannot give us what we want, we appeal to her supervisor and, then, perhaps to a manager. Healthy systems communicate the same message at each level. If the boss is undermining the employee's ability to make decisions on the front line, then why have employees making decisions on the front line in the first place? If mom is going to reverse dad's decision, why would dad bother to give an answer up front? "Go ask your mother," is the response we give when we aren't confident in our unified approach.

The lame man by the Sheep Gate pool in John 5:1-18 runs into conflicting levels of authority. He's been ill for thirty-eight years, John tells us, more or less lying in the same spot. The pool is said to have magic healing properties. Whenever the water is stirred up, supposedly by an angel, whoever gets into the water first is healed of whatever condition she or he brings with him into the magic waters. The challenge, of course, is getting down into the water first, and, for a lame man, that seems an impossibility.

Jesus appears and offers the man the healing he cannot even muster the strength to ask for. "Do you wish to be made well?" Jesus asks him. Fixated on his limitations, he replies, "Sir, I have no one to put me into the water." Jesus then orders him to stand up, take up his mat, and walk, at which point the man's strength returns to his lower limbs. Obedient to the one who healed him, he rolls up his mat and carries it with him out of the portico.

Then, some keepers of the Law see the man in clear violation of the sabbath. "You are not allowed to carry your mat on the sabbath! What are you doing? Why are you breaking the Law?" The man's reply is simple: "The man who made me well said to me, 'Take up your mat and walk,' so I did." The focus of the interrogators shifts from the man carrying the mat to the other breaker of the sabbath, Jesus, whose healing of the man was, again, a violation of the fourth commandment. In the showdown that ensues, Jesus appeals to a greater wisdom--"My Father is still working, and I also am working"--acknowledging that, despite the tradition of divine sabbath rest, God never takes a vacation. But the philosophical appeal, although surely familiar to these legal scholars, was beyond what they would accept. "He's one of those radicals who thinks he can change everything," they said to themselves. "We have to get him. If he's not stopped, everything we hold dear will fall apart before our eyes."

Which authority is right? And how do we know?

There are lots of hints in this story, little layers of meaning that John uses to convey truth. He tells us that there were five porticoes, which remind us of the five books of Moses, the Torah. John points out that the man has been lying there for thirty-eight years. How does he know? Does the man have a sign that advertises how long he has been stuck in that place? Or is John trying to remind us of the forty years that Israel wandered in the wilderness, searching for salvation? Don't forget that to a Greek ear or eye, the word "made well" is the same word as "saved," so John isn't only talking about the man being healed but also about him being saved. And so we find ourselves confronting not only a miracle story enacted on the sabbath but also a question about the nature of salvation and where salvation is to be found.

How do we know which authority to follow? Consider the ways that you identify with the lame man. Have you ever felt lost? Ever felt helpless? Ever been stuck in a place that you could not work your way out of? Ever had a relationship that you couldn't fix? Ever encountered a malady that not even the most powerful prayer could heal? If you haven't, you will, or maybe you already have and are just lying to yourself.

The authority that Jesus represents is that of the universal law of grace. Our efforts will go a long way. We can take care of our bodies, our families, our businesses, and our finances. With hard work, we can build great monuments to our own achievement. But ultimately can we get ourselves where our hearts yearn to be? Can we bring ourselves into the stream of living water? Can we satisfy our unquenchable thirst or meet our always-present hunger? The lame man reminds us that we can't. We can't will ourselves down into that pool. Only God's help can get us there. That's not new to Jesus. That's always been the truth. The Law of Moses kept God's people in relationship with God, but eventually--whether it's imprisonment in Egypt, starvation in the wilderness, the Babylonian Exile, the destruction of the Second Temple, the persecutions of Greece or Rome, the horrors of the twentieth century, or the creeping secularism of recent days--we discover that we need something more that we can manufacture for ourselves. Only that authority--the one who helps us when we cannot help ourselves--gives us hope.

Lost Cause

Last Sunday, I asked the congregation to pretend they were reading the story of the healing of the man born blind in John 9 with all of the theological and scientific enlightenment that was available to a first-century Palestinian. What, then, would we think about a man born blind? As the Pharisees themselves declared toward the end of that reading, "You were born entirely in sins and yet you would lecture us?" They didn't care whether he sinned or whether his parents sinned, as the disciples had asked at the beginning of the encounter. All they needed to know was that this man was born blind, which was God's way of declaring he had and would spend his whole life in darkness. He was a lost cause.

This Sunday (maybe every Sunday), we again need to approach the text of John 11 from a first-century perspective. Lazarus has been in the tomb for four days. Already there will be a stench. Yet Jesus tells them to roll away the stone. Even before we hear it, we know how the story ends. We know that Lazarus emerges from the tomb revivified. And we know how the whole story of Jesus' earthly life comes to an end--with death, resurrection, and ascension. So it is hard for us to imagine the confusion, fear, and discomfort that the crowd felt when Jesus asked them to open his friend's tomb. "What sort of lunacy is this? Doesn't he know that his friend is dead? If he had been here, he could have saved him, but, now that he's dead, what does the rabbi plan to do? This is disrespectful. Imagine how Lazarus' sisters must feel. What is he doing to them?"

Some of the sense of lostness and hopelessness that we should have in our minds when we approach the tomb of Lazarus is conveyed to us in the story of the Valley of Dry Bones (Ezekiel 37). We can almost hear the bizarre, horror-story-esque rattling of each bone coming to its mates. We can almost feel the breath as it blows past us and into the flesh-covered skeletons standing lifelessly in the valley. Yet the prophet recalls how the Lord identified this not as an expected outcome but a complete surprise in a hopeless case: "Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, 'Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.'" How bad is their circumstance? How dead are they? The people of God are assembled not in the Jerusalem temple nor it a Babylonian courtyard. They are gathered together in graves and cemeteries. Yet, even there, God is not finished with them yet.

The Lord said to Ezekiel, "Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people." God's response to the hopelessness of the people is to bring them back even from their graves. This thigh-bone-connected-to-the-hip-bone episode is about a lost cause receiving new hope. That's the sense we're supposed to take with us to the Lazarus story.

John doesn't bother to give us an editorial explanation this week as he did last Sunday, but he could have just as easily put on the lips of one of the observers, "Never before in all the world has it been heard that someone who was dead for four days was brought back to life." This is a never-before moment. No one saw this coming--no one except Jesus. Will we let ourselves be surprised at the story's familiar outcome? Will we acknowledge how lost we are without the life that Jesus gives us? Will we see that Jesus is the one who comes to take us from a place of hopelessness to the place of God's fulfillment? We must pass through the grave and gate of death to get there, and there's only one hope that can take us across.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Strange Timing

Like many of John's narratives, the story of the raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-45) has several different layers. There isn't one sermon that is to be preached. One could preach on a prefigurement of resurrection or being bound and let go or Jesus weeping or Martha's confession or several other things. Today is Monday, and I'm still a little homiletically hung-over from yesterday, so I'm having a hard time figuring out which direction I'll take. For now, though, I can't help but notice a similar and strange theme in yesterday's lesson about the healing of a man born blind and this Sunday's lesson about Lazarus dying and rising again.

I spent a good bit of last week thinking and writing about the nature of God's will. Jesus claimed that the man was born blind so that the works of God might be revealed in him. That's a hard thing for us to hear--the kind of thing preachers are wise to engage very delicately in case someone should take something she or he said and run with it in a direction the preacher did not intend. There is a weird sort of timing behind that statement of Jesus. Did God cause the man to be born blind so that God's work might be revealed in him? Does that mean that God restricted this human being to decades of blindness simply so that Jesus could show his power? I don't think so. I don't think that's how God works. But I'm not willing to throw away Jesus' statement completely. Something's going on there, and it deserves our attention. The best I can make of it is that Jesus saw an opportunity for salvation in a man born blind and so, looking back, is able to say that his blindness is an opportunity for healing without necessarily saying that God caused a baby to be born blind exclusively for this purpose. I know that I'm not standing on solid footing. I'm not really happy with it either.

But this Sunday we hear something similar--at least in terms of timing. When Jesus' disciples let him know that his friend Lazarus is sick, Jesus replies, "This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it." There it is again! Jesus appropriating an event or condition to the divine plan. How does he do that? Other than a crass, self-centered, would-be healer, who would proclaim that someone's sickness is ordained so that God's glory might be manifest in that person's healing? "I hear you have cancer. Well, let's give thanks for that! This is a chance for God's glory to be worked in you!" Who says that sort of thing? Apparently, Jesus does.

What's the lesson here? When the authors of the lectionary put these two stories in successive Sundays, what where they--or the Holy Spirit--trying to teach us? I don't know mow important it is, but it gives me a chance to see Jesus as one who helps us put all things together and in order. No, it's not as simple as "you got sick so that God could heal you," but there is a connection between all of us, all of our suffering, all of our challenges, and what God is doing in the world. All things are being fulfilled in Jesus. All things are coming together. All things are finding their perfection. In Jesus, whether healed or not, whether lived or not, whether prosperous or not, whether happy or not, the outcome is in God's hands. In both stories, Jesus invites his disciples--those closest to him, those watching his every move--to see how he is able to turn a situation of hopelessness into one of promise. Does that mean every sickness gets healed? Of course not. Does it mean that those who are denied a miracle cure are not part of God's plan? Absolutely not. But does it mean that Jesus, a person of perfect faith, is able to see and know and believe and trust that each person and each situation has a place in God's work of salvation? Yes, without a doubt. And that's what he invites us to see--last week, this week, and always.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Jesus, Grace, and the Battle for Truth

March 26, 2017 – The 4th Sunday in Lent
© 2017 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon is available here.
Yesterday, as I drove into Moulton on my way to Camp McDowell, I noticed a sign that not only welcomed me to that fair city but also proclaimed Moulton as the birthplace of Jesse Owens. Although I knew that he was from around here, I hadn’t realized that Moulton was the place that he called home. Perhaps, that is in part because Moulton isn’t actually the place he called home. Owens was from Oakville, Alabama, a tiny unincorporated community in southeast Lawrence County halfway between nowhere and nowhere else. You can’t get to Oakville unless you try, so I suppose that it’s ok for Moulton to add Jesse Owens’ name to its sign since hardly anyone would ever see if it was restricted to its Oakville counterpart, though I wonder whether anyone in Moulton bothered to ask the residents of Oakville before they made that proclamation.

When I saw the sign, I started thinking about Jesse Owens and what he represents to the world. Of course, history remembers him best for his performance in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, at which he won four gold medals, ascending to the top of the medal podium that Adolf Hitler had built for his own Aryan athletes. Initially, Owens was criticized for taking part in the 1936 games because it seemed to lend credence to the Nazi attempt to show the world that everything was just fine under Hitler’s regime, but the result spoke for itself. Two truths collided in those Olympic Games—one a belief that only a racially pure society could rule the world and the other a belief that the best athlete in the world might even be a so-called “colored man” from rural Alabama—and Owens won the gold…four times. You couldn’t make it up any better than that.

Two different truths collide in today’s long gospel lesson, and the implication for us is just as profound. The miracle itself—a man who was born blind receiving his sight—gets hardly any mention. We read only a rather earthy depiction of some spittle and some mud and the waters of the pool of Siloam. John is far more interested in the interrogation that ensues. It turns out that Jesus had healed the man on the sabbath, which was a clear violation of the fourth commandment. The sabbath had been set aside by God himself as a day on which no work was to be performed. By keeping the sabbath as a holy day of rest, God’s people honor their creator, who likewise rested on the seventh day. Although exceptions are always made when someone’s life is in danger, healing a man born blind is without a doubt a violation of the rules. That’s the kind of thing that can wait until Sunday. That’s the kind of thing that real Jew, a truly faithful child of God, would always put off until the sabbath was over. But Jesus didn’t wait.

It was quite a conundrum. “Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind,” the man remarked near the end of the episode. “If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” But, if he were from God, as the formerly blind man was suggesting, he surely would not have done this work on the sabbath. That seems just as clear as the now-sighted man’s vision. So which is it? Which framework wins out? Which truth is operative—the belief that a truly godly man would keep the sabbath day holy or the belief that only a godly man could heal someone who had been born blind? It can’t be both.

Well, as they say, the proof is in the pudding, which is to say that the proof of the pudding is in the eating. We know how the story ends. We know that Jesus did what no one else had ever done. We know what John is trying to tell us—who is really on God’s side. But I wonder whether we actually believe what we know. Although we may side with Jesus and call ourselves his disciples, I wonder whether we really accept the implication of this story. I wonder whether we’re willing to see and believe in the truth that Jesus gives us.

I’d like to ask you to do something for a moment that may not come easily. I’d like you to set aside everything you know about God and Jesus and sin and blindness and try to think your way through this story as a first-century Palestinian might have thought through it. I want you to go back to the beginning of this passage and hear it with all of the theological and scientific enlightenment that the ancient world had to offer: “As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.’” Nowadays, we know that some babies are just born blind. There’s no moral judgment behind that. It just happens. But what did they know back then? What did a man born blind represent to Jesus’ contemporaries?

Again, at the end of the exchange between the man born blind and the Pharisees, we see what our twenty-first-century eyes cannot perceive. With no small amount of irony, the man who had spent his whole life in darkness began to lecture the religious experts about sin. “We know that God does not listen to sinners,” he said, “but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will.” The Pharisees rejected not the man’s argument but the one making it: “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” To them, a man born blind was truly a lost cause. They didn’t need to know who sinned, this man or his parents. What was certain to them was that this man’s life was defined by sin and the darkness that came with it.

Keep in mind what the world thought about a man born blind, and ask yourself what it means that salvation would come to him. What does it say about how God works that healing and true sightedness—the kind of sightedness that in the bible represents salvation—come not to the Pharisees but to a beggar who had been blind since his birth? What did the blind man do to deserve his sight? He did not ask Jesus to heal him. He did not profess his faith in Jesus before the mud-paste was spread on his eyes. In fact, even after he had been healed, he didn’t know anything about Jesus except his name. He was just a blind, good-for-nothing beggar. The Pharisees, on the other hand, were the religious leaders that everyone looked up to. They were the ones who not only kept the law but went beyond what was required of them, dedicating their whole lives to God. “Surely we are not blind, are we?” they asked Jesus, genuinely confused about the nature of salvation itself. “If you were blind, you would not have sin,” Jesus replied. “But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”

This miracle story isn’t about a man who was born blind receiving his sight. And it isn’t even about a controversial rabbi performing a miracle on the sabbath. This is about two diametrically opposed schools of thought hurtling towards each other, and it’s about us deciding which one will govern our lives. On the one hand, there’s the belief that salvation comes to those who deserve it, that God loves those who love him, and that God saves those who have proven themselves worthy of that salvation. And then there’s the belief that God’s salvation is revealed first and foremost to those who haven’t earned it; that God loves us regardless of whether we love him back and regardless of whether we love our neighbors as ourselves; and that the light salvation comes to those who don’t deserve it one bit. It can’t be both. We have to choose. We have to choose which truth will govern our lives. Will we believe in the salvation that Jesus represents, or will we choose the option that makes sense to us—the way that says that people get what they deserve?

The hardest thing about following Jesus is giving up our need to be rewarded for our hard work. The hardest thing about being a Christian is abandoning our hope to be recognized for what we have done. For our whole lives, we have been told that hard work pays off, that trying our best is what counts, and Jesus comes to show us that that just isn’t true. Salvation comes not to those who know that they are holy but to sinners who know that they need God’s help. That’s the true power of unconditional love, but has that love taken hold in our lives?

Jesus doesn’t see a blind sinner, begging on the side of the road. He sees a vessel for God’s grace. What do we see? In the man with the cardboard sign, sitting by the entrance to the grocery store, what do we see? In the mother with five children, using food stamps and a disability check to pay for her groceries, what do we see? In the guy who staggers toward the checkout, clutching a six-pack of malt liquor under his arm, what do we see? In the man or woman who passes them by, offering nothing but a condemnatory thought, when we look at that person in the mirror, what do we see? Do we see a lost cause or a vessel for God’s grace? I know what Jesus sees. Will we see it, too?

Thursday, March 23, 2017

John's Lenten Series of Main Characters

This Sunday we hear the story of the man born blind in John 9. Last week, it was the story of the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. The week before that it was Nicodemus in John 3. Next Sunday it will be Lazarus and his sisters in John 11. Do you see a pattern here? Each of these is a fairly lengthy gospel text. Each of them features a prominent character or characters in John's account. And each of them is a story about seeing and recognizing the messiah.
Jesus said to Nicodemus, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above...No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man."
The woman at the well said to Jesus, “I know that Messiah is coming...When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” And Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you."
After he had healed him, Jesus said to the man born blind, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.”
Jesus said to Martha, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
Maybe this is a post for next week, when I'm looking for a sermon on John 11, but I don't think it's too early to recognize what the lectionary authors are doing to us. With the exceptions of the first Sunday in Lent, when we always read the story of Jesus' temptation, and the last Sunday in Lent, when we always read the story of Jesus' passion, we spend each week asking, "Who is Jesus really?" Of course, one could say the same about the first and last weeks in Lent, too, as we discover Jesus' identity during his encounter with Satan or see his true kingship as he is crowned with thorns. All of that suggests that if we leave Lent 2017 without grappling with Jesus' true messianic identity we will have missed the point.

Even though most of these readings are from John, that seems a particularly appropriate theme for Year A, when we're usually dwelling in Matthew's gospel account. Of all the gospel editors, Matthew seems most interested in Jesus' identity as the Jewish Messiah. And what do we see? What are these particular lessons showing us?

Jesus speaks to a leader of the Jewish tradition (Nicodemus), and that leader cannot quite grasp his identity, though he comes around fully by the end of the gospel account. Jesus speaks to a Samaritan woman who, by virtue of her religious-ethnic heritage, would not have known what it meant to look for a messiah, yet she seems to get it fully. Jesus appears to a man born blind and heals him, and, although the man initially is not sure who Jesus really is, the antagonism presented by the religious authorities helps clarify in the man's mind that Jesus, indeed, is the expected one. Finally, at the tomb of his friend, Jesus speaks to Martha and appropriates last-day resurrection hope to himself, and Martha accepts this, proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah. What does this tell us?

God reveals himself to those we wouldn't expect to see him. A position of power makes it harder for someone to see the truth. Letting go of one's theological presumptions is an important part of beholding Jesus as savior. Guess what! Those of us who faithfully make our way through Lent by coming to church each week are more likely Nicodemus than the Samaritan woman. If we're going to be Marthas, we need to recognize our inherited blindness. Believe it or not, we're only halfway through this season. There's still time to ask God to strip us down and open our eyes so that we might receive the one who has come into the world to save us.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

We Were There

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

As a kid, I loved looking through my parents' wedding photos. They were kept in a sort of commemorative book that was left on a shelf in the hall. Every now and then, I would pull the book out and stare at the men with their moustaches and women with their long, flowing, rosy pink gowns. My parents looked funny--so young and skinny. My grandparents, too, looked younger than I had ever imagined them. I would look at those pictures and imagine what the wedding was like--a sort of fairy tale preserved in pictures.

The other day, on a drive back from Birmingham, my kids started asking Elizabeth about our wedding. We were highly disappointed with our wedding photographer, so I don't think my kids have ever seen any images from that day. But somehow the concept of our wedding came up, and they all started asking questions about who was there and what were they wearing and what was the food like and were there any funny moments. I wasn't in the car, but, when they got home and Elizabeth told me about the conversation, it made me want to participate, recollecting my own experience of that day. My children had much the same experience that I had had, exploring a fascinating moment from the past as if it were a myth to be encountered rather than a day to be remembered.

It's funny how such clear and definite moments from our past, which we remember vividly, become less than real to those who did not experience them firsthand. The Great Depression, Pearl Harbor, Kennedy's Assassination, the Challenger Explosion, September 11. If we only read about them in history books, we run the risk of losing touch with the real experience--what it felt like to be there, to see it, to know the emotion of those moments. We need to hear from someone who can give context to the event. We want to hear their words about what that day was like. Without their personal stories, we cannot remember the past in the sense of re-membering or re-embodying it. We can only learn about it the way a student learns a history lesson, studying facts to be regurgitated on a test.

That was Moses' concern in Deuteronomy 4. "We have this incredible law," he told God's people. "When the people in the land where we are going see us and our law and how we live with it at the center of our lives, they will say to themselves, 'What a wonderful people! See how they live so close to their god! No one has a god as close to them as the people of Israel!'" But Moses knew that memories fade. He knew that, within a generation or two, the people who had been there when God had come down to Mt. Sinai and appeared to Moses and spoke to God's people in fire and cloud, would die. And then who would remember why those laws were given in the first place? Who would recall that the law and the proximity that it gave to God's people were unique? Who would be there to teach the people that the law was not merely a set of rules to be followed but an opportunity to live in covenant relationship with the creator of all things?

"Be careful," Moses said, "not to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor let them slip from your mind all the days of your life. Make them known to your children and your children's children." You were there, Moses reminded God's people. Do not forget what it was like to see the fire and hear the voice that spoke to you out of the flame. You cannot see the Lord. He will not come and tap you on the shoulder and remind you why all of these things are important. You must remember. You must relive that day. You must tell it to your children and grandchildren so that our people can remember--can relive--what it means to belong to God and never forget that we are God's people.

Somehow, as the sound of racing footsteps up and down the hall testifies, when I tell my children to brush their teeth, by the time they've walked upstairs, they've forgotten all about it. When they hear my footsteps coming up the steps, they remember and scurry into the bathroom, where they pretend to have been brushing their teeth all along. Mt. Sinai was a long, long time ago. And God's footsteps are a lot harder to hear than those of an angry father. How will we remember?

Immerse yourself in the stories of God's people. Read the words of scripture--words written not only to recall the events but also the emotion, the terror, and the awe of it all. Share the stories with each other. Seek out those who know them well, and learn from them. Participate in the active remembrances by going to a Seder meal, celebrating Sukkoth, or keeping the sabbath. Jesus said, "Not one stroke of one letter of the law will pass away from the law until all things are accomplished" (Matthew 5:17-19). In Jesus, we may have found the fulfillment of our relationship with God, but we cannot afford to forget God's dealings with God's people. We must tell the stories until we find ourselves there in the wilderness, preparing to enter the Promised Land. We must teach them to our children and our children's children so that we will never forget what it means to belong to God.

But So That

Yesterday, I pseudo-engaged, pseudo-trolled my friend Steve Pankey by commenting on his blog post on Facebook. He had written about the importance of avoiding bad theology by not declaring that God had intentionally caused the man in Sunday's gospel lesson (John 9:1-41) to be born blind so that a miraculous healing could be worked in him. Although I agree with that wholeheartedly, I take exception not with Steve's post but with a more general tendency to avoid hard theology by reinterpreting what the bible says by effectively ignoring what the bible says. That wasn't Steve's point, and I encourage you to read his thoughtful and important post. Although it wasn't his intention, he gave me the chance to spout off about my issue. I love back-and-forth theology, but Facebook comments are rarely the place for a full conversation, and I did not really give Steve's post its due. He was gracious in his response, and I appreciate it.

He also has forced me to grapple with those dangerous, theologically provocative, culturally insensitive words that Jesus says at the beginning of Sunday's long, long, long gospel lesson:
As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Jesus answered, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him."
Here's how I read those words. Jesus and the disciples come upon a man who had been blind from birth. (How did they know he was blind from birth? I have no idea, but that's part of John's story, so we're just supposed to accept it.) The disciples asked, "Who sinned, this man or his parents?" (What a crass thing to say! Please, Jesus, put them in their place. Don't let them get away with it.) Jesus replies, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned." (That's what I'm talking about! Be bold! Make a stand for good theology.) Jesus continues, "This man was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him." (Dammit, Jesus! That's not what I meant. That's even worse than what the disciples said. At least if it's a consequence of sin someone must have deserved it. Now you're claiming that God would deny sight to someone just so God could make a big show of his healing. That's cheap. That's terrible. No, thank you, Jesus. You can keep that theology for yourself. We've learned a lot about God since you were around. Maybe you need to go back to rabbi school.)

So what does it mean? What does it mean for Jesus to claim that a man was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him? The Greek text relies on two conjunctions stuck together to hinge the "born blind" part with the "works of God" part: "ἀλλ' ἵνα," which means literally "but so that." How to we cross that bridge and relate the two seemingly unrelatable statements?

In a way that almost obliterates that bridge, Steve points to this week's Working Preacher commentary, in which Osvaldo Vena, a New Testament professor at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, shifts the punctuation to change the emphasis and, in some sense, the meaning: "Neither this man nor his parents sinned. But in order that God’s works might be revealed in him it is necessary for us to work the works of the one who sent me..." Remember that in the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament there were no punctuation marks. Later readers and translators have added them, parsing out what clause and what phrase go where. We've inherited what they thought, and new translators usually rely heavily on what their predecessors have done. But that doesn't mean the tradition is correct.

What do I think? I think that translation makes me feel a lot better. And I think that it's doable with the Greek. But I think there's a reason that translators have rendered it the old way for a long, long time. And, more to the point, I think there is a better reason for us to stick with the old text that allows us to tackle more deeply the problem of divine causality.

This man was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him. On the one hand, I find that statement repugnant, but why? Why is it offensive? Why are we uncomfortable with that sort of depiction of God? Because, in the back of our minds, we believe that it's up to God whether a person is born with a disability. But that's not how God works. God isn't upstairs in some great baby factory doling out intelligence, good looks, athleticism, congenital defects, and handicaps to those he wants to have them. Yes, God is the source of all things. Yes, I'm comfortable saying that God causes all things. But divine causality is not like human causality. We link cause and effect with purpose and, when appropriate, malice aforethought. But that's not how God works.

Yes, in some sense, God caused this man to be born, and, yes, in some even more vague sense, God caused this man to be born blind, but that isn't because God has a simplistic sense of the value in it--a value that is revealed when Jesus heals him. The problem isn't with the translation. The problem isn't with the theology of linking the "born blind" with the "works of God." The problem is with our limited theology of purpose--that we look for and often demand a clear and linear cause and effect relationship when that's not what God has in mind. Jesus says, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him." Jesus is repudiating a theology of divine punishment for sin. But that doesn't mean the only substitute is one and only one reason: so God's works might be revealed. Sure, that's part of it. Aren't we comfortable saying thing? The problem is when we limit God's purposes to a single strand.

I got married because I wanted to have children. But that's not the only reason. To a lesser extent, I got married because of the tax break. To a greater extent, I got married because the love I had for Elizabeth found its fulfillment in the institution of marriage. Christians see marriage as an image of God's limitless, unconditional love for the church as shown in Jesus. Does that mean all married persons must be Christians? Clearly not. There are often multiple reasons that things happen. When it comes to God, the lens of causality only works looking backward.

This man was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him. Don't lose sight of the context. Jesus isn't saying this in the abstract. He's repudiating the disciples' suggestion that sin might be the cause. On another day, in another situation, he might give a different reason. Jesus doesn't say, "The only reason this man was born blind is so that God's works might be revealed in him." Instead, he points us to hope--hope for God's glory even in a tragic circumstance. He doesn't declare that the tragedy is justified fully in the healing work. He simply points to the miracle as a sign of redemption. There's too much bad theology out there for us to ignore the opportunity to tackle the tough issues. If we're sweeping hard theology under a rug, we do the world a disservice.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017


This post is also an article in this week's The View, the parish newsletter for St. John's Episcopal Church in Decatur, Alabama. To read more from the newsletter and learn about St. John's, click here.
A few weeks ago, I let my passion get the better of me, and I made a mistake that I wish I could take back. I had driven up to Bowling Green, Kentucky, to support my friend and colleague Steve Pankey and the people of Christ Episcopal Church, where he has recently begun his ministry as their rector. I had been looking forward to the trip ever since I saw that they had scheduled the service for the Celebration of a New Ministry on a Tuesday night, when a clergyperson with regular Wednesday-evening commitments like me could go. Not surprisingly, my efforts were rewarded.
Church music in a university town is almost always resplendent, and the choir did not disappoint. Another colleague and friend of mine delivered a compelling sermon that effectively combined humor and exhortation, leaving me with a renewed sense of vocation and possibility. The bishop, although remarkably formal in his liturgical style, conveyed a genuine love for Steve and the people of Christ Episcopal Church that reassured everyone in the room that God would use this partnership—bishop, priest, and people—for the building up of God’s kingdom. Everything worked well. The people were warm and inviting. The worship was beautiful and inspiring. And, then, it happened.
As expected, the bishop explained during the announcements that the offering would go to Steve’s discretionary fund to help him meet the needs of the poor in that community. Eagerly, I reached into my pocket and pulled out my wallet. Not one to carry much cash, I had made a special stop on the way to ensure that I would have something to put in the plate. I always look forward to making my offering, and I wanted to show my support for Steve and his ministry in a particular way. When the ushers brought the plates forward, however, they looked at the choir and visiting clergy, who were seated in the first few pews, and then skipped right over us.
“Excuse me,” I whispered to the usher nearest to me too softly to be heard over the offertory anthem. “Ahem!” I said more loudly as I mock-cleared my throat, again to no effect. Finally, in a full, sharp voice, I barked, “Sir! Come back! Don’t skip over us!” at which point the red-faced usher returned and passed the plate down our pew. Immediately, I realized with embarrassment what a spectacle I had become. A visitor who had been welcomed with true hospitality, I had let my desire to give and my frustration both at having been passed over and the theological and cultural crisis that that exclusion represented bring me to a disproportionately disruptive response. I sought the usher out after the service to apologize, but I never found him.
On the drive home, I had plenty of time to relive that moment and ask myself why I had reacted so strongly and negatively. My nature prefers decorum over disruption, and the recklessness with which I hollered after the usher had been an out-of-character and almost out-of-body experience. Initially, I identified the root as a perceived sense of wrong at having been excluded from the people’s offering. As a clergyperson who usually receives the alms basins at the altar rather than passes them down the pew, I have fallen into the shortsighted habit of paying my pledge electronically rather than adding my own offering to the plate before placing it on the altar. This was my chance to do what everyone else gets to do every Sunday, and it had been denied me. Soon, however, I realized that there was more to it than that.
Most people do not like asking others for money. We have convinced ourselves that it is rude, burdensome, and uncharitable, when, in fact, it is the opposite. When the usher passes the plate down your pew, she is giving you the opportunity to be a real, actual, tangible part of the community of the faithful. The plate is an invitation to give something that matters to you back to God. As such, it is an invitation to freedom—freedom from the false belief that you need every penny in your pocket in order to survive, freedom from the idolatry of your bank account, freedom from the delusion that you are the only thing keeping yourself and your family alive. Even if you pay your pledge through an online bill pay as I do, touching the plate is an opportunity for you to engage the practice of making your offering by recalling the check that will be written and mailed to the church on your behalf. The realization is even stronger, of course, if you place an extra dollar or two in the plate, but to wave off the usher and miss the chance to touch it entirely removes you from that moment in our worship—a moment that is absolutely and unequivocally focused on presenting the offerings of our lives and labors to the Lord.
That is why a deeply held anger and resentment bubbled up from within me in that moment—not only because I was left holding my money but because an usher who would skip over the choir and clergy is a symptom of a much more serious problem, and that problem starts with the clergy. Actually, I don't know why the usher skipped over us, but I do know what I thought when he did. Of course the usher passed over us! Collectively, we the clergy are worse than anyone else at discussing stewardship. Many assume that the clergy, who already work for the church, have no need of offering anything else back to God, and we are guilty of allowing that falsehood to persist. Why? Because we do not enjoy asking people for money either. It touches on that awkward balance between inviting people to give and inviting people to pay one’s own salary, but that discomfort reveals an unbiblical understanding of stewardship. When we invite people to contribute, we are not asking them to fund a budget or a salary. We are inviting people to grow in faith, and we have no reason to be shy about that.
Just as Moses warned God’s people in Deuteronomy 8, we have spent generations living in cedar-paneled houses and reaping the harvest of our bountiful land, and we have forgotten the life-giving nature of offering the first fruits of our harvest back to God. We are scared of stewardship, and our money-obsessed culture is desperate to rediscover it. I wish that I would have held my tongue that night or, perhaps, that I had slipped quietly to the back of the church where I could give my gift to the usher, but I do not regret the passion that it reawakened within me. I believe in the power of stewardship. I believe that giving away more of our resources is the most important thing we can do to deepen our faith and grow closer to God. I believe that the church is not faithful when it fails to encourage people to give. And I believe that each of us has an opportunity to share the good news of God’s limitless bounty by inviting others to take stewardship seriously.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Long Story #2

If you thought yesterday's gospel lesson (John 4:5:42) was long, buckle up for this week. Coming in at 858 words, John 9:1-41 is 11.3% longer than last week (word count of 858 vs. 771). Plus, we all know that the Passion Narrative is coming up in a few weeks on Palm Sunday, which is followed pretty closely by John's version on Good Friday. All told, we're reading a number of lengthy narratives this Lent. If the preacher has to read the gospel lesson, too, it may help to think of this as a marathon instead of a sprint. Sometimes, after hearing my own voice through a long gospel passage, I get bored halfway through a sermon, and that's not good for anyone.

This week's story about Jesus' healing of the man born blind is the kind of passage that cannot really be broken up. Was he born blind because he sinned or because his parents sinned? Neither, Jesus tells us. The miraculous healing happens, and the Pharisees are upset because it happened on the sabbath. Only a true prophet could perform a sign like this one, but a true prophet would not heal on the sabbath. Which is he? The man and his parents seem convinced, but the religious leaders are not. A debate arises about the nature of sin, and the formerly blind former beggar starts upstaging the authorities, so they quickly chase him away. Jesus finds him and reveals himself to him, and then there's one final jab at the Pharisees about being blind to their own sin.

John likes these lengthy stories. Unlike the synoptic accounts, he doesn't give snippets of narrative that follow each other and that combine to portray a single theological point. Instead, he digs in for the long haul. And so do we. And lessons like this one have so many layers that it is difficult for the preacher to pick just one. Yet, for the sake of all involved, I hope that the preacher will.

Sunday's sermon is still a long ways away, but there's one little line that has captured my imagination this morning, and I have a feeling that my sermon will be built on it. Deep in the conversation between the now-healed man and the Pharisees about Jesus' true identity, the man claims, "We know that God does not listen to sinners." Those words echo in my mind the way a careless claim uttered in an emotional argument reverberates between two people, revealing true feelings that otherwise would not have come to light. It's the kind of statement that stops an entire conversation. Of course, in the context of John 9, it doesn't stop the conversation. It's conventional wisdom. We all know that God does not listen to sinners! And everyone nods. But I want to stop the whole production and say, "Wait, what? God doesn't listen to sinners? Well, then, to whom does God listen?"

There are several different ways to preach John 9, but the theme that speaks most clearly to me is that of identity. Was the man born blind because he was a sinner or because his parents sinned? What does it mean to be a sinner? Could God possibly reveal himself to sinners like that? Like us? As the Pharisees make clear, this man was born in sin, yet he dares to lecture them about God. Unthinkable! But is it? At the end, Jesus claims that the Pharisees' sin remains not because they are blind but because they claim to be able to see.

In Jesus, God has heard the needs of his sinful people. They are the ones to whom God is manifest in the Son--not the religious authorities. The man born blind is an image for all of us. We are sinners even from our mothers' wombs. But God hears us. God listens to us. God saves us. There is hope for blind sinners like us--not because we can get there on our own but because God meets us where we are. That's the gospel.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Rejecting a Theology of Prosperity

I won't even call the perversion of Christianity proffered by those preachers and authors who claim that God wants true believers to be rich, happy, and blessed a "prosperity gospel" because "gospel" means good news, and there's nothing good about their message. In Sunday's reading from Romans 5, we encounter Paul's repudiation of this false teaching so clearly and resoundingly that one wonders whether Joel Osteen and Creflo Dollar had first-century counterparts who were just as slick and popular. More importantly, Paul's words not only refute the bogus belief of prosperity for the faithful; they also show that such claims are antithetical to a gospel of grace, founded upon justification by faith.

"Since we are justified by faith..." Paul writes. For the last few Sundays, we've been jumping around in Romans, so don't lose sight of what comes right before this introductory clause. In Romans 4, Paul writes about Abraham and how he was justified not by works but by faith. As we heard last week, "For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness" (4:2-3). For the rest of the chapter, Paul expounds upon this point, showing how circumcisions is a sign of justification and not a prerequisite for it. At the end of the chapter, Paul returns to Abraham as the paragon of justification by faith whose example leads us into the same, writing,
No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his faith was 'counted to him as righteousness.' But the words 'it was counted to him' were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification. (4:20-25, ESV)
This is the thesis of Paul's letter and his entire theology of salvation. For him and for us, it is the core of the gospel. That's why he continues in Sunday's reading with, "Since we are justified by faith..." He wants us to see that the benefits of justification by faith are numerous, and, chief among them, is a hope that transcends earthly prosperity, success, and peace.

"Since we are justified by faith," Paul writes, "we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ." Without justification by faith, which is to say under justification by law or works, we have no peace--no persistent, unfailing, unwavering status of right-ness with God. Why not? Because, as Paul stresses in the previous chapter, "Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due," which sounds promising enough until we remember that, "if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God." Works are find and good if you're trying to measure up to your boss, but they won't work with God. God's demand is a perfection we cannot provide. The failing, futile effort would be never-failing. Instead, because of justification by faith, we have a peace with God that otherwise could not be found.

How is this related to a theology of prosperity? Because, as Paul writes in Sunday's epistle lesson, "We also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us." We don't tout our wealth as a sign of God's blessing. We celebrate our poverty instead. We do not point to our power as a sign of God's work. We remember that our suffering is where God's glory is manifest. Our hope, our character, our endurance--they do not come from luxury cars, fine houses, country club memberships, vacation properties, corner offices, and investment portfolios. They come from hunger, beatings, imprisonment, poverty, and destitution. Unless we recognize that God's blessings come not to the powerful but to the meek, we cannot know a theology of grace. Unless we reject the false teaching that the faithful will be rewarded in earthly terms, we cannot know justification by faith. And we are lost--perhaps even beyond saving.

As Paul writes, Christ died for the ungodly. He died for us while we were still weak. He did not wait for us to be good or faithful before saving us. He came to us when we needed him most. Jesus does not come to us when we are in good standing. He comes to us when we are lost. If we believe that God's blessing comes in the form of prosperity for the faithful, we lose sight of everything Jesus came and accomplished. God's dream is not to reward our faithfulness with earthly success. God dreams of remaining with us in our poverty and saving us while we are there. That is where God is to be found. We cannot allow antichrists to make their claims without openly rejecting them. We cannot be silent while the gospel of grace is perverted by those wolves in sheep's clothing who lead the flock away from true salvation into a wilderness of empty promises and lies. Those who claim riches for the faithful are substituting works-righteousness for justification by faith because they implicitly teach that those who are poor must not be saved. Their faith must not be strong enough. Their gifts must not be generous enough. Their religion must not be pure enough. And to that the gospel says, "No!" We must preach the gospel of justification by faith and celebrate salvation for the poor and struggling. On that solid rock our hope is built. All other ground is sinking sand.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Nicodemus and the Samaritan Woman

Last Sunday, Warren Swenson, a middler seminarian from Sewanee who is spending two semesters in our parish, used a phrase that not only helped me see something new in the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus (John 3:1-17) but that has also given me new insights into this week's encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:5-42). When describing Jesus' conversation with the leader of the Jews, Warren noted for us that Jesus was trying to reassure his eager inquirer instead of confound him. In short, after Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born from above and Nicodemus responds with confusion, Jesus tells him about the wind as a way of understanding what it means to be born of the Spirit. The description of the wind, Warren argued, was to help Nicodemus understand that being born again isn't as simple or straightforward as climbing back into one's mother's womb and being rebirthed a second time. It's more subtle, intangible than that.

There was something about the way that Warren said it that has helped me draw a connection between that conversation with Nicodemus and this Sunday's conversation with the Samaritan woman. After some ice-breaking back and forth about water and the well and Jews not asking Samaritans for a drink, Jesus offers a rich theological statement: "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water." Boom. Living water. There it is. Jesus has just introduced another complex soteriological (i.e. having to do with salvation) concept as if he expected his audience to understand. "If you want to see the kingdom of heaven," he said to Nicodemus,  "you must be born from above." Likewise, "If you knew who it was who is speaking to you," Jesus tells the woman of Samaria, "you would have asked for living water."

But what is living water? It's as illusive as being born from above. How is she supposed to know what that means? How are we supposed to know? Well, like last week, Jesus fills that out for us.

The woman responds to Jesus' statement about living water by asking where he's going to get that living water. He has no bucket. The well is deep. Is he claiming to be greater than Jacob, who gave his people this well? But Jesus isn't talking about that kind of water, so he explains, "Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life." But what sort of explanation is that? He's still speaking in metaphors. Is he talking about life? Is he talking about water? What does he mean? Understandably, the woman is still confused: "Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water." She wants water--water to quench her thirst. But Jesus isn't talking about that kind of water or that kind of thirst.

With Nicodemus, we have the benefit of the rest of John's gospel account to see how the seeds of this initial conversation bear fruit in John 7, when he stands up for Jesus by asking that he get a fair hearing, and in John 19, when he goes with Joseph of Arimathea to prepare Jesus' body for burial. With the woman, however, it all has to be finished by the end of chapter 4, so Jesus speeds things along. "Go, call your husband!" he tells her, but, of course, she has no husband. She's had five husbands and is currently living with a man with whom she is not married. Jesus' prophetic insights--both into her marital history and into the unresolved guilt she is carrying because of it--open up the door for clarification. The woman goes from recognition of a prophet to discussion of the right place for worship, and Jesus takes the opportunity to identify himself as the one upon whom right worship will be centered--the Messiah who is to come. "I am he," Jesus tells her, and the rest of the story fills out around that revealed truth.

But it all starts with a confusing statement. Sometimes churchpeople make the truth of the gospel hard to grasp. We use words like "grace" and "repentance" and "redemption" and "salvation" and "born again," and we don't always ground those in a way that makes sense. Even "love" doesn't mean to our culture (an emotion of affection) what it means in the Christian framework (an other-directed selflessness). Jesus, however, hangs with these people. He meets them where they are, drops a theological bomb in their laps, but doesn't then walk away. He stays. He explains. He uses images to help them get a glimpse of what he's saying. Sometimes he knows he has to leave things unfinished, but other times the opportunity presents itself to make the case clearly.

What about us? When we preach the gospel, do we assume too much of our congregations? Are we basing our message on concepts that are foreign to today's worshippers? Should we break things down a little more thoroughly? What can we do to recognize how hard it can be to hear the message of salvation? How can we, like Jesus, say it more plainly?

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Quality Not Quantity

Tuesday in the Second Week of Lent

I don't often preach on a psalm. Although it is a reading from scripture, the psalms we read in worship are intended to be a response to one of the other readings--a hymn or poem or prayer to be sung or spoken the way we might sing the sequence hymn after the second lesson or sing the Te Deum after the first lesson during Morning Prayer. Honestly, I usually more or less skip over them, reading them once but, unlike the other lessons, never really giving them the exegetical attention that a preacher usually gives to the lessons upon which he might base a sermon. Today, however, the imagery of Psalm 50 really grabbed me, and I could not pass up the chance to dwell within it for a while.

In verse 7, the voice of God breaks through and levies an accusation against God's people: "Hear, O my people, and I will speak" God commands. "O Israel, I will bear witness against you; for I am God your God." This is the kind of official courtroom language we might associate with a trial. Indeed, God is putting God's people on trial. God himself is taking the witness stand. God has announced himself, has declared his intention, and is prepared to state the crime for which the accused has been brought before this divine court.

But, before we get to the actual offense for which Israel has been brought into the dock, God starts by declaring that of which he is not accusing God's people: "I do not accuse you because of your sacrifices; your offerings are always before me." Look at those words. Your offerings are always before me. Always. Day after day. Day and night. Hour after hour after hour. God's people are continually offering sacrifices to God. The blood and the smoke of those offerings flows and billows from the temple. But something is missing. God isn't interested in the material sacrifice. Something else is wrong.

"I will take no bull-calf from your stalls, nor he-goats out of your pens," the Lord declares, "for all the beasts of the forest are mine, the herds in their thousands upon the hills...If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the whole world is mine and all that is in it. o you think I eat the flesh of bulls, or rink the blood of goats?" In case you missed it, God doesn't need our sacrifices to keep God's self fed. God is not hungry. God is not interested in the item being offered. God is interested in the intention behind the act of offering. As God continues, "Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving and make good your vows to the Most High. all upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall honor me." In other words, "Can' we just get back to the simplicity of faith?" God seems to be asking.

In short, it does not matter to God how often you go to church, how often you say your prayers, or how often you give alms if those actions are not expressions of a faith that seeks God. As is so often the case, human beings fall into the trap of substituting the sign for the thing to which the sign points. If I tell my wife, "I love you," every day, does that make a difference if my heart belongs somewhere else? If I never miss my son's baseball game but spend the whole time on my cell phone, have I really attended to that father-son relationship? If I go to church every week and smile confidently as I take my appointed place on my appointed pew but I am only there to be seen and not to search for God, should I bother showing up at all?

It doesn't start with a bad intention, but, over time, the habit becomes a substitute for the thing to which the habit originally pointed. That's why a "date night" can be so life-giving to a marriage. That's why a weekend fishing trip can mean so much to a child. That's why a good old-fashioned tent revival can breathe new life into a congregation. If we break our routine and open ourselves up to the meaning behind the mechanism, we invite that substance to return to the surface. The next time we say, "I love you," we convey it with real meaning. Our cell phone seems to stay in our pocket for most of the son's game. We feel again God's presence in our weekly worship service. For now.

This wilderness journey forces us to confront the reality of our relationship with God. For forty days, Jesus was without the institutional religion of his day. He missed out on gatherings in the synagogue. He was removed from the operations of the temple. We, too, go without. The usual celebratory acclimation when the Eucharistic bread is broken is missing its familiar "Alleluia!" There is no Gloria sung at the beginning of worship. We forego some of the things that we take for granted to remind us what is really there--to remind us why we really do it at all.

God is not interested in the number of times you go to church if you do not go in order to find God. God does not need your prayers, your presence, or your offerings. God is quite complete on God's own. But God does want your heart--all of it. So render to God the offering of a thankful heart. Cry out to the Lord in your moment of distress--not because you're supposed to but because you need God. Remember that God is the one who cares for you, who loves you, who comes to you. Don't let religion get in the way of that.

Monday, March 13, 2017

The Rest of the Story

When I was in eighth grade, my neighbor and best friend's father drove the two of us to school in his green 1976 Chevrolet pickup truck. I learned a lot of life lessons in that truck. For starters, in order to teach us humility, he honked and waved at the girls who were walking to school, while we sank down as low as we could in our seats. For an economics lesson, he would point to the national chain auto parts store that had moved in down the street from the local family business and talk about how important it is to "buy local." For our character education, he tuned in to Paul Harvey.

Every morning, as we approached the school, Paul Harvey would give us the news and tell us a heartwarming story. If you remember that radio segment, you will recall that he would begin the story, interrupt it with a commercial read, and then pick back up with "the rest of the story." We loved that show. I loved it so much that, during the next year when it was my father's turn to drive me to high school, I insisted that we listen to Paul Harvey on the way. Like so many listeners, I always wanted to hear "the rest of the story"--the surprise ending that pulled all the pieces together and revealed what it was that made the story worth listening to in the first place. Without "the rest of the story," Paul Harvey would have been just another voice on the radio.

In this Sunday's collect, we will articulate the first part of the story of salvation, and, although the collect hints at "the rest of the story," I think the preacher has some work to do to bring that essential conclusion home to the listener.

Don't miss what we will pray on Sunday: "Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves..." We are powerless. That is the starting point for salvation. Whether Step 1 in the 12-Steps of AA, whether the prayer of desperation uttered by Moses as God's people thirsted in the wilderness in Exodus 17, or whether the confession of the husbandless Samaritan woman at the well in John 4, it all starts when we admit that we are powerless. Think about how revolutionary that is in the twenty-first century of complete and total empowerment. For a century, the do-gooders across the globe have been working to empower people, and the gospel begins with a statement of universal powerlessness. You won't hear that in the self-help aisle. You can't buy that in an organic kale and millet smoothie. You won't get that in the everyone-gets-a-trophy t-ball league. You won't read about that in Joel Osteen's latest book. No one is talking about universal and total powerlessness except evangelical preachers who love talking about how miserably sinful we all are. And that's why it's important for us to preach "the rest of the story."

I hear that message of "we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves," but I hear it most often from fire-and-brimstone preachers who seem hell-bent on scaring the hell out of their congregations--literally! The only problem is that many of those preachers seem to stop before the get to the second half of the story of salvation, which is that God's love for powerless sinners is universal, unconditional, limitless, and guaranteed in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. "You are powerless over sin," the story begins, "but God can and will and already has saved you," the story must conclude. It cannot stop short. It cannot end with, "What are you going to do about it?" Because, if hope is only found when we admit that we are powerless, we cannot then undo that proclamation of powerlessness by placing the burden of action on ourselves. Are you powerless? Yes. What can you do about it? Nothing. That's the definition of powerlessness. Instead, ask what God is going to do about it. Or, better yet, ask what God has already done about it.

We must take our powerlessness to the same absolute limit to which we push God's unconditional love. The only way the gospel of grace makes sense is if we are totally helpless and God's love is completely limitless. We can do nothing, and God cannot not do everything. We are powerless, and God is always and unreservedly efficacious. We do not complete it. We do not choose it. We do not think or pray or believe (as an action on our part) our way into it. God does it all. Even faith itself is a gift. Salvation begins when we surrender, and it is not completed when we pick back up the burden of our own efforts.

Hear the good news of the gospel: you are absolutely, completely, totally powerless when it comes to saving yourself. And that's good news because, although you can't do anything about it, God can and will and has. Don't forget "the rest of the story," which is God's part in the story. Embrace true powerlessness by giving up the idol of faith. It's not even your decision to make. It is already finished.

Why I Believe in Jesus

March 12, 2017 – The 2nd Sunday in Lent
© 2017 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

I believe in lots of things. I believe that there is intelligent life on other planets. Given the vast expanse of the universe, I feel certain that at some point in time on some distant planet in some faraway solar system there has been or will be intelligent life out there. But what do I do about it? How does that change my life? Not one bit. Because the universe is so tremendously huge, the statistical probability that evidence of that life will ever reach the earth while we are still around to see it is astronomically small. So I believe it, but it doesn’t matter to me.

I believe that one day all human life on this planet will cease to exist, and I believe that human beings will be the cause of that. I don’t know whether it will be climate change or antibiotic-resistant diseases or chemical or nuclear warfare or something else I haven’t imagined yet, but I feel sure that, one of these days, the last person on this planet will die and, when she takes her last breath, she’ll know that human beings are the reason. And what do I do about it? How does that affect my daily life? Hardly at all. I may care about my carbon footprint and preach about the importance of non-violence in all circumstances, but I don’t expect that I will live to see the end, and I don’t think my children or children’s children or even their great-great-great-grandchildren will live to see it either, so I don’t lose even a second of sleep over it. I just brush it aside with the luxury of naïveté.

I believe that I would be a happier, healthier person if I ate less and exercised more. I don’t need a doctor or a nutritionist to tell me that. I believe it. I know it. I would have more energy, sleep better, and be a better role model for my children. But will I do anything about it? Will I let that belief change my life? Apparently not, since I’m still pretty much the same size and shape that I have been for years. I believe it, but it doesn’t seem to matter to me all that much.

I also believe in Jesus, but what does that mean? Do I believe in the virgin birth? Do I believe that he walked on water and stilled the storm? Do I believe that he healed the sick and cast out demons and raised the dead? Do I believe that he died on the cross? Do I believe that he was raised on the third day? And, if I do believe those things, do I believe them deeply enough to let them make a difference in my life? Or am I merely going through the motions, reciting the creed, and saying the Lord’s Prayer without allowing any of them to penetrate my heart and mind and soul in any meaningful way?

I think it’s time for us to change the vocabulary that we use in church. I don’t mean that it’s time to get rid of the Rite One language that we use in the early service or use gender-neutral names for God in the later service. I mean that it’s time for us to find a way to talk about believing in Jesus as more than just agreeing with what the bible and the creeds and the church teach about him. We need a way to talk about belief that points us not to a list of doctrines to which we are willing to give our intellectual assent but to a life like the one that Abraham lived—a life that shows us what it really means to believe in God.

I don’t know how well you remember the Book of Genesis, but it might be worth recalling how we get to today’s Old Testament lesson in Genesis 12. Genesis 1-3 are the stories about creation and Adam and Eve getting kicked out of the Garden. Genesis 4 is the story of Cain and Abel. Genesis 5 recalls the genealogy from Adam to Noah. And then, in Genesis 6, God decides that it’s time to flood the earth. Noah and the ark take up Genesis 6, 7, 8, and 9. Genesis 10 is another genealogy that explains how the descendants of Noah spread across the world. Genesis 11 is the story of the Tower of Babel.

And then we get to Genesis 12, which is to say that the story of Abraham comes out of nowhere. God doesn’t introduce himself to Abram. God doesn’t have a record of interacting with him and his ancestors. God simply shows up one day and says to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great so that you will be a blessing.” And what did Abram do? He went. He believed God. He took God at his word, and, when God said, “Go,” Abram went. He left everything he knew behind—his land, his father, his kinfolk—and he set out for a new country because he believed that his future with God was better than anything he might leave behind. Would that all of God’s people had faith like Abraham! But where does faith like that come from?

Thousands of years later, a leader among God’s people came by night to a controversial rabbi and said, “We know that you are a teacher who has come from God because no one could do the signs that you do if God were not with him.” Nicodemus came to Jesus looking for something to believe in, but Jesus knew that the sort of faith that Nicodemus sought could not be found that easily, so he told him, “You must be born from above…You must be born again—not from flesh and blood but from water and Spirit.” Confused, Nicodemus said, “But how can this be?” And Jesus said to him, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” All you have to do is believe, Jesus said, but be careful because belief like that will change your life. Belief like that requires being born again.

How did the most famous verse in the bible become a bumper sticker and a slogan for a t-shirt? God so loved the world that he gave his only son so that all who believe in him may not perish but may have eternal life? Sure. That’s right. And all you have to do is believe it, but what the bumper sticker doesn’t tell you is that believing means more than just saying, “Ok, I’ll go along with that.” Believing means having faith like Abraham. It means leaving everything behind and setting out for a new life because you trust with all your heart that God’s plan for you is better than what you will leave behind. Belief like that means being born again.

What would happen if we all had faith like Abraham? What would happen if we took God at his word and lived as if the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus were real? What would happen to our families if we truly believed that death were not the end? What would happen to our church if we all decided to sell all that we have and give it to the poor? What would happen to this community if all of us were willing to lay down our life and take up our cross because we believed Jesus really was worth following? What would happen to this nation and the world if we believed that the poor in spirit really are the blessed ones, that the meek really will inherit the earth, that the right thing to do is to turn the other cheek? Can you imagine what the world would be like if we all believed that God sent his son to die not for righteous people but for the ungodly? Can you imagine what would happen if we didn’t just say those things but we meant them, too?

I believe in Jesus. I believe that, in the person of Jesus, God came down and lived as one of us. I believe that he died on the cross and on the third day was raised from the dead. And I believe that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is evidence that God’s love has no limits—that we are loved by God exactly the same regardless of what we have thought or said or done. And what difference does that make in my life? What have I done about that? Every day I pray that God will give me the wisdom and the courage I need to make that belief a transformative reality in my life. Each day, I ask for God’s help in committing my whole life to that gospel because I believe that unconditional love has the power to make a difference in my life, in my community, and throughout the world. That limitless love is the source of my true hope. I pursue it with my whole heart. And I invite you to do the same. Believe in the power of limitless love. Believe in Jesus. And believe in him with your whole heart and mind and soul. Believe in him until you are born again.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

God's Merciful Glory

This Sunday's readings are full of theological weight, but, by the time we get to the second half of Sunday morning's collect, we will have already made a profound and peculiar statement about God's nature that begs our attention: "O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy..."

The "acknowledgment" is the part of the collect that identifies what it is about the one to whom we address our prayer that makes this prayer worth saying. This week, we address our collect to "God" because, as we state, God is the one "whose glory it is always to have mercy." Not God's nature. Not God's property, which we say in the Prayer of Humble Access. But God's glory. God's glory is to always have mercy. What a curious way of describing both the glory and the mercy!

Think about God's glory. The glory of the Lord is that which appeared in the cloud that went before Israel as they left Egypt and dwelt on Mount Sinai (Exodus 16 & 24). God's glory is that which Moses asked to see, but he was only allowed to gaze at God's backside (Exodus 33). The prophet Isaiah tells us that the Lord gives his glory to no other (42:8). The glory of God shines through in the Transfiguration. It is what is distinct about God. It is the fullness of God shining into this world. Words don't describe it fully. We cannot do it justice. And that glory, we pray, is always to have mercy.

What does that even mean? I've always liked the phrase in the Prayer of Humble Access that states God's "property is always to have mercy" because it stops short of saying that God's "nature" is to be merciful. That distinction in language seems careful to me. We cannot express the fullness of God's nature in any words, but we can identify a property of God as to have mercy. But this collect seems to burst through that linguistic caution and go even beyond God's nature. God's glory is so completely other--so foreign, so different--that we ask Moses to veil his face lest the afterglow scare us. How can we be so bold as to state that God's glory is always to have mercy?

Part of what makes God unique--part of what defines God as God--is his always mercy. God is the Always Merciful One (intentional though unnecessary capital letters). This week in a bible study on Hebrews, we read about the "Majesty on high" and discussed the concept of a periphrasis--a word that, in Greek, means "talking around." It's a sort of euphemism but in a proper noun, fully substitutable way. This week's collect hints at a periphrasis by describing God's glory as always to have mercy. Using the term glory elevates this claim to a fundamental description of who God is. Like "God is love," this is a way of saying God is always-mercy (as if that were a noun).

So, this Sunday, as we read about the call to Abram and how Paul identifies that as an example of justification by faith and hear Jesus say to Nicodemus that God loves the world enough to send his son so that those who believe might be saved, it's worth remembering that all of that is possible because of God's always-mercy. That is God's glory. That is what makes God God.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

It's Not Too Late

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

Repent. I'm a preacher, and still the word makes me want to roll my eyes. That's not because I don't believe in the power of repentance. I do. I cling to it with every ounce of inadequate, failing strength that I have. But, as a child of the American south and the evangelical church, I have had more preachers than I can count point their condemnatory finger at me and tell me that if I don't repent I will go straight to hell. After a while, it gets tiresome. It becomes counterproductive. Instead of encouraging me to honestly assess my need for a savior, the "Turn or burn!" message makes me tune it out. There's a part of me that begins to believe the fallacy that I'd rather burn in hell than spend eternity with a bunch of preachers in heaven who have the smug satisfaction of knowing that they aren't there.

Although reluctant, Jonah was the sort of repentance-focused preacher that turns me off. He walked through the streets of a city where he did not belong, amidst a people with whom he did not identify, and cried out, "Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!" which was his way of saying, "If you don't repent, God's going to get you." He didn't bother to develop any relationships with the people there. He didn't get to know them. He didn't bother to hear their stories. He didn't show them love or patience. He just yelled at them. "Repent or else!"

Even Jesus--loving, sweet Jesus--picks up that message and tells the crowds that they are on a one-way path to condemnation. He calls them evil. He speaks of judgment. He compares them with others, pointing out how they are found lacking while other, even more notorious sinners are going to be saved because they repented. Sound familiar?

And now it's my turn: repent, y'all. For all the reasons that Jesus and Jonah and every angry, sweaty, vein-popping preacher has ever had for repentance. Repentance is how we find salvation. It's how the forgiveness that Jesus offers us becomes real. It's how we turn around from a path that leads away from God's will in order to come back to his gracious plan for our lives. It's how we find our true selves. It's how we find God.

But I want to take just a moment to point out something that that may be obvious to you but somehow seems hidden when fire-and-brimstone preachers get all wound up about repentance. Repentance itself is evidence of a God for whom it is never too late.

Do you remember the whole story of Jonah? God told Jonah to go up to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the need for repentance. But what did Jonah do? He ran away. He didn't want to do it. And why not? If you read ahead in chapter 4, you see that Jonah, after God forgave the Ninevites, complained to the Lord, saying, "That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster." Jonah didn't want the people of Nineveh to hear the message of repentance. They were the enemies of God's people--the evil, terrorizing, sworn enemies of Israel. Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire, that terrible northern neighbor that had attacked the villages, towns, and cities of God's people. Jonah didn't want them to repent. He wanted them to burn in hell. (They didn't really believe in hell back then, but he wanted the equivalent, which was that God would wipe them off the face of the earth.)

Repentance is a reminder not only of our sin but also of God's willingness to forgive. Perhaps ironically, that truth is found on the lips of the Assyrian king: "Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish." God has the power to give life and take it away. God has the power to build up and to destroy. God has the power to save and to condemn. If God wanted to, God would be just in wiping us off the face of the earth. Surely we are as wicked as the people whom God destroyed in the great flood. But God has promised not to do that ever again, which is to say that God's very nature is to withhold judgment. Why bother repenting if God had already made up God's mind? Why bother returning to the Lord if the Lord will reject us forever?

We believe in repentance because we believe in second chances...and third chances and fourth chances and so on. Repentance itself is a testimony to God's forgiveness. We repent because we believe that God forgives. If we didn't believe that, why would we bother? Repentance is not our attempt to please a wrathful God. It is our attempt to internalize the magnitude of God's forgiveness. Repent, y'all. Repent not simply because you are a sinner in need of forgiveness. Repent because God is a God of mercy and love.

How Good News Becomes Bad News

Earlier this week, our family went to the end-of-the-season celebration for Upward Basketball here in Decatur, Alabama. None of my children had ever played organized basketball before, and it was a great season. Normally, because we're so busy in the fall and spring, we skip winter sports to give our kids a break, but I urged Elizabeth to sign our kids up for basketball because I wanted them at least to know how to play. I never played in a basketball league, and, when I got to college intramurals, I was lost. On the whole, we loved the Upward experience. The rules are a little funky, but the refs used excellent judgment in how to teach the kids the fundamentals of the game without blowing a whistle every fifteen seconds because of travelling, a double-dribble, a reach-in foul, or any of the other dozen reasons a normal basketball game would be stopped. The coaches were fabulous and supportive without exception. Sure, the halftime devotions were tedious at times, but so are my sermons. We only practiced once a week, and games were only on Saturdays, which gave it a relatively relaxed feel. There was a great spirit of sportspersonship (is that a word?) amidst players and parents. I thoroughly enjoyed every part of it, but, after this week's celebration, I'm not sure I'll ever let my kids play Upward again.

In Decatur, the Upward league is hosted by First Baptist Church. Elizabeth had described this as an "awards banquet," but I think she made up the "banquet" part because I never saw any food. Then again, we left early (at 7:15pm), so I might have missed it. The highlight of the night was the entertainer. Matt Fore is a "comedy magician" from Johnson City, Tennessee, and he put on an incredible show. Not only were the magic tricks compelling, but he also made it funny for children and adults. Halfway through the night, I thought to myself, "This guy might work for one of our church functions. He's really good. I'm really enjoying this." Towards the end, he began to weave in some devotions. I prefer magic for its entertainment rather than evangelistic value, but I get it. This is Upward. This is First Baptist. Still, I was enjoying myself. But, right at the end, Mr. Fore shifted into a direct, unabashed religious appeal, and I became nervous.

He started to speak to the children and adults in the room with heightened focus: "Whether you're five or fifty or ninety, I have something to tell you." That's the kind of preacher's line that sets preachers like me on edge. When it comes to God, I have some important theological principles about which I am uncompromising (e.g. truly unconditional love, salvation by grace alone, the universality of sin). In that moment, everything and everyone else in the room dropped into the background, and I zeroed in on Mr. Fore, waiting to see what he would say next. And then he said the most amazing, beautiful, hopeful thing I have ever heard an evangelist like him say: "I want all of you to know that God is not mad at you. No matter what you have said or thought or done, God is not mad at you for any of it. God put all of his 'mad' on the cross in the person of Jesus Christ so that he would never be mad at you." A small tear formed in my eye. I had misjudged Mr. Fore. I had allowed my prejudice about the circumstances to limit my ability to anticipate the grace of his message. I asked God to forgive me. And I believe that he did. But that wasn't the end of the evening.

Mr. Fore wasn't finished. Had he stopped there, I think I would have gone up to him to shake his hand and thank him for his wonderful grace-filled words. But he didn't stop there. Instead, he asked all of us to close our eyes and, if we had never given our lives to Jesus before, to say this prayer with him: "Dear God, thank you for Jesus. I confess to you that I am a sinner. I ask for your forgiveness. I want to follow Jesus. I give my whole life to him. In Jesus' name. Amen." Then, Mr. Fore said his goodbye and gave the microphone to someone else, who then asked the coaches to pass out note cards to all the players. The kids were asked to put their names on the front of the cards and then check on the back of the card which box was right for them. They were choices like: "I am not sure I am a Christian," and "I gave my life to Jesus tonight." All of the cards were to be collected, and a few would be drawn out of a bucket for door prizes.

I was furious. I looked at Elizabeth and whispered, "We will NOT turn in any bleeping cards. Let's go--right now!" Only I didn't say "bleeping." I've had a couple of days to think about that night, and I've decided that the part that makes me the angriest is that, in the span five minutes, these proclaimers of the gospel, whose mission and ministry I share, went from the limitless love of God (grace) to the strings-attached it's-up-to-you anti-gospel (law) that undermines everything I stand for. And, to top it off, they were perverting the gospel TO MY CHILDREN! And they were offering prizes to those who participated in that perversion, and my children are not mature enough to see the problem with selling the truth of the gospel for a cheap door prize. 

I believe in Jesus. I believe in giving one's life to him. I believe in confessing my sins, saying that I am sorry to God, and asking Jesus to enter my heart. But I do not believe in holding up the mere utterance of those words as the recipe for being a Christian. That makes salvation a work for us to do instead of a work for God to do, and that's contrary to the gospel of grace. I believe that we should say to our children and to adults and to the whole world that God loves each and every one of you no matter what. Whether you say the right words or do the right thing or give your life to him or believe in Jesus or not, God loves you just the same. That's grace. That's the gospel. Believing that--trusting that the gospel is true and that God's love can save us from condemnation, death, and hell--is what it means to be a follower of Jesus, and we can't simply up and decide to believe it. And saying a "magic" prayer isn't going to make it happen either.

In John 3, Nicodemus comes to Jesus searching for answers, searching for the truth. And Jesus tells him that, if he wants to see the kingdom of God, he must be born again. Nicodemus asks incredulously whether he is supposed to climb back into his mother's womb and be born a second time, and Jesus does a face-palm and says, "No, silly man, you can't rebirth yourself. You must be born by water and Spirit." Babies don't bring themselves into this world, and Christians don't create their own rebirth. It happens to them. God makes it happen. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that all who believe in him should not perish but have eternal life. As the next verse reminds us, that is God's act of salvation not condemnation. The whole world is saved through Jesus. Thanks be to God that God's love is bigger than the choices we make, the prayers we say, or the cards we fill out. May God fill the world with the truth of the gospel, and may it begin within the church.