Tuesday, May 30, 2017

A Symbol of Unity

This post is also featured in today's The View, the parish newsletter from St. John's in Decatur, Alabama. To read the rest of the newsletter and learn more about our parish, click here.
Confirmation has been called “a rite in search of a reason.” We believe that membership in the church—the Body of Christ—is by virtue of baptism. Whether ten days old or a hundred years old, one is ingrafted into the life and love of the fellowship of Jesus as one is baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection. Whether Baptist or Methodist or Catholic or Moravian, you are accepted as a member of the universal church whenever you receive the one Baptism that all Christians share. In the Episcopal Church, full access to that shared life, which includes repeated nourishment through Holy Communion and ongoing spiritual growth through the work of the Holy Spirit, is initiated at Baptism—not at Confirmation. In short, one does not need to be confirmed in order to be a full member of the church, participate fully in its life, and receive fully the spiritual benefits that it offers. So why bother with Confirmation?

I felt a sharp sense of this ritual’s purposelessness back in 2000, when I was confirmed as an Episcopalian. Nine years earlier, when I was in sixth grade, I had already been confirmed as a member of the United Methodist Church. Though in a different denomination, I had already gone through a series of special classes that were led by our senior minister, who had told me that Confirmation was my chance to “confirm” the promises that my parents had made when I was baptized. When I was an infant, they had promised to bring me up in the Christian faith, and Confirmation was my chance to claim that faith for my own. Almost a decade later, I was hearing that same rationale all over again, and I asked why I had to make the same commitment a second time. Although the answer that I received was probably more thoughtful than I remember, the response I can recall is simply that the Methodist version did not count and that, in order to be an Episcopalian, I had to be confirmed by a bishop.

More than another decade later, years after I had been ordained and even after I had presented several classes of confirmands to the bishop, I discovered a better reason for Confirmation. During a forum before the service began, our bishop explained why bishops and, by extension, why Confirmation matter. When the bishop lays hands on a person’s head and prays that the work begun in Baptism might be continued in that person through a daily increase in the Holy Spirit, the bishop is doing more than giving that person an opportunity to claim the Christian faith for herself. One does not need a bishop to do that. Anyone can stand up at any time and profess the faith that we all share. But, when the bishop comes and confirms someone, the bishop is offering each candidate as well as the whole congregation the possibility of seeing that person as a distinct yet fully integrated member of the universal church. Because of the way our church is structured as an institution entrusted by Jesus Christ directly to his disciples and passed on from them in succession through the apostles, a bishop symbolizes for us our participation in the catholic church. Confirmation at the hands of a bishop, therefore, is our opportunity to take our place as an active part not only in our individual congregation but in the whole universal church that stretches throughout the ages and across the globe.

The opportunity to see our discipleship as something that transcends our particular location and context comes not only when we ourselves are confirmed but also when we gather with our bishop in worship together. This Sunday, June 4, at the 10:30 a.m. service, Bishop Sloan will be here for his biannual visitation, which gives our whole parish an opportunity to celebrate our place in the wider church. We enjoy having the bishop here, and we always offer our very best when he visits us—our best worship, our best music, our best hospitality. But the bishop’s visit is also the moment when we are at our best as members of the Body of Christ because, when he is here, we cannot help but see our connection with something much bigger than ourselves. In fact, in church-speak, the bishop is known as the “ordinary” of the diocese, which implies that ordinarily he is the preacher and presider at our worship. Nowadays, we only have that opportunity once every two years, but still our understanding of who we are week in and week out is based on what we do when we come together with our bishop.

This Sunday is our chance to celebrate not only a handful of confirmations and baptisms but also who we are as part of Christ’s Body. Whether you are being confirmed or know someone who is being confirmed or whether you plan to sit on the back pew while the excitement unfolds in the front of the church, come and be a part of something bigger than our parish. Come and remember your place in the universal church. See our bishop and remember our link with all Christians around the world. Take your place in that life that begins in Christ and is continued in each one of us. Reaffirm your commitment to following Jesus not only as an individual who is loved, redeemed, and saved by him but also as a member of his Body that collectively is loved, redeemed, and saved by him.

A Hard Goodbye

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

I have never seen a long-tenured clergyperson leave a congregation well. I've seen plenty of them screw it up, but I've never seen someone do it right, which is to say I've never seen a retiring minister strike the right balance between loving a congregation from a distance and giving the next pastor enough space. The reason I've never seen it happen is because the ones who get it right aren't around for me to see them. They're gone. They've left. For the most part, I don't blame the ones who screw it up because it's only natural. When you've loved a community through thick and thin, in birth and death and everything in between, it's hard to walk away and pretend that they don't matter any more. Of course those relationships still matter. They will always matter. It is impossible, I think, to love someone as much as any caring pastor loves her or his community and then let go of that love as quickly and completely as a runner passes a baton to a teammate, but that's what it means to retire from parish ministry.

As we read in Acts 20:17-27, Paul made his way back to Jerusalem through the mission-field that he had tilled for so long, knowing that this was the end. Although he wasn't sure exactly what fate awaited him in the holy city, he had discerned through the Holy Spirit that arrest and imprisonment were in his near future. As he passed through each familiar community, he had one more chance to say farewell and to offer a few parting words of encouragement and exhortation to those whom he had introduced to the way of Jesus.

As he approached the city of Ephesus, where not long before he had witnessed a riot break out because of a dispute between the pagans and the Christians, he called the elders of the city together and asked them to come and meet him. He recalled for them how he had lived among them, working side-by-side with the Ephesians, preaching the message of "repentance toward God and faith toward [the] Lord Jesus" both publicly and house-to-house. He explained to them that his future was that of a captive--a captive of God's Spirit and a captive of whatever chains that Spirit led him to. He encouraged them not to worry as he understood this was the fulfillment of his life's work and purpose--that he did not value his physical life but only the opportunity to use that life to testify to the good news of Jesus. Perhaps as a word of comfort, he told them that he was sure he would never see any of them again.

And then he said something rather strange--or at least strange to my ear: "Therefore I declare to you this day that I am not responsible for the blood of any of you, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God." What's he saying there? Is he publicly washing his hands of any responsibility for what happens to them? My jaded ear hears a bit of over-statement in that, as if Paul is trying to assuage his own sense of guilt for not having done enough. It feels disingenuous, like a parent whose child burns his hand on a low-lying pot and then says, "Well, I told you not to touch it." But I suspect that's not what Paul meant. I suspect that's a sign that my own shortcomings are shaping the way I read his words. I think it's more likely that Paul was in the process of severing those ties for the sake of those to whom he had ministered and that the language of letting go is so unfamiliar to me that I instinctively read strings attached where they aren't really attached.

Not long ago, someone recounted for me a conversation that she had with an aging parent. As life has wound its way to the present, this father and daughter have come to radically different positions and opinions on almost every front--politically, economically, socially, and religiously. The father called his daughter somewhat out of the blue and wanted to talk about church. I don't know the scope of the whole conversation, but the part that was conveyed to me involved the father questioning the validity of the daughter's church and asserting contrarily that his church believed in a literal hell of burning fire where unrepentant sinners go for all eternity. I think that the daughter, who was recalling the conversation for me, wanted to talk about her own understanding of hell and our church's teachings on the subject, but my mind went in another direction. "Do you think he wants to be sure that he's done his duty to tell his daughter about the Christian faith so that, when he dies, he isn't responsible if she goes to that literal hell for all eternity?" I asked her. Maybe it's just me, but, rather than engage in an honest theological conversation, it felt like this father wanted to wash his hands of any guilt for whatever happens to his daughter in the next life.

When it comes to letting go, there's a difference between covering one's own behind and caring enough for another person to be clear about goodbye. Even the word "goodbye" is a contraction of "God be with ye," which suggests that it is a time for letting go and trusting that God will take care of a person or community in ways for which we can no longer take responsibility. Paul is this sort of pastor and church-planter. The rest of Acts 20 confirms this as Paul takes his leave of the Ephesian elders only after they have knelt down together in prayer, hugged and kissed each other, and wept tears of mutual loss. Paul isn't washing his hands of the guilt of any Ephesian blood that is spilled. He is transferring responsibility for the care of this community away from himself and onto the Ephesian leaders. "I have done my part," he declares to them, "and that is all that I can do. The rest is up to you."

You don't have to be a clergyperson to struggle with letting go. Parents do it. Spouses do it. Children do it. Bosses do it. Teachers do it. We act as if helicopter-parenting is a new phenomenon, when, in fact, people have been overinvolved in each others' lives forever. It is hard to say to someone you genuinely love, "You're on your own with this one; I've done all that I can do for you." It's hard to step back when we know that we have more advice to offer, more encouragement to share, and more correction to provide. But at some point love requires letting go. Love, by definition, must honor its object more than its source. Severing ties of responsibility is not an act of cruelty or coldness. It is a gesture of love that exceeds compassion. We honor love by saying to another person, "I cannot be responsible for your struggles anymore; I have done my part, and I can do no more."

Although he takes a long longer to say it than Paul, Jesus invites us into this love of letting go in John 17. Jesus' prayer to his heavenly Father for the sake of his disciples is a long form of "goodbye" or "God be with you." Now it is my time for my earthly ministry to be complete, Jesus prayed. "I am not longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you." The Incarnate-One does not dwell on earth in bodily form forever. He leaves them. He leaves us. Instead, he sends the Spirit to comfort us and lead us into all truth, but the Spirit cannot do its work as long as the Son is in the world. One must say goodbye so that the work of the other can begin. In God's infinite and mysterious wisdom, God loves the world by sending his Son into the world but not by leaving his Son in the world forever. The resurrected Jesus could still be walking the earth. He could still be appearing to his followers, convincing more and more to put their faith in him. But that's not how it works. That's not true love. Real love is about letting go and trusting that the other will be ok. That is how we are loved by God. Is it how we are loving each other?

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Ascension: Christianity's Answer to Science

I'm sure you remember that scene from Star Wars Episode IV, when Obi Wan, while fighting Darth Vader, turns to see young Luke Skywalker and chooses to disincorporate. He isn't dead, of course. Vader steps on the cloak, which is lying on the floor where Obi Wan once stood. Now Obi Wan is one with the Force, and his ability to assist Skywalker is enhanced. I remember a friend of my stressing the word "disincorporation" to describe what had happened. He didn't die. He didn't disappear. He became acorporal.

Today is Ascension Day, and it's worth noting that, although today is the day when we remember how Jesus disappeared from the earth in order that his death and resurrection might become efficacious for all of humanity (see below), he didn't disincorporate. His incarnate body ascended into the clouds and up into heaven (wherever that is), where he sits at the right hand of the Father, forever interceding for the sake of God's people.

I feel like there are three approaches to Ascension Day and, more generally, the doctrine of the Ascension: 1) ignore it completely, which is what most of us do, 2) celebrate it without bothering to ask what it means and why it is important, or 3) to embrace the Ascension fully and, at the same time, admit that it's one of the most puzzling things about our faith. It won't surprise you to know that this blog post is about the third option.

If Jesus really did ascend into heaven, where did he go? Did he just keep going up, up, up until he left earth's atmosphere? If so, how did he breathe? If not, to where did he disappear? Did he become pure spirit and leave behind his incarnate body? If so, was the Incarnation just a passing phase? Why didn't Jesus just ride off into the sunset? Other than a cool story that has inspired strange artwork, what difference does the Ascension make in the Christian faith? What difference does it make in my life?

I have the luxury of spending 364 days each year not worried about the Ascension, but over the past decade or so, that compilation of thought from one day out of each year, has helped me get a better sense of why the Ascension. I don't understand it--it's a mystery, which is to say unable to be understood--but the Ascension is becoming a more substantial part of my faith, and I think my faith is better because of it.

For starters, we believe in the physical resurrection. Psychologists will tell you that you aren't you without your brain. Theologians and preachers, if they're worth their degree, will tell you the same thing. We are not spirits in a mortal shell. We are human beings--mind, body, and spirit. You can't be a human being without your mind, and you can't have a mind without your brain. Everlasting life doesn't make sense without a physical resurrection. More simply, the promise that Jesus makes to us that he will come again and take us to himself, to the mansion prepared for us, is an empty lie if that experience isn't conscious at some level, and you can't have consciousness without a body. So, when Jesus ascends into heaven as the bodily resurrected person that became incarnate, he shows us that our hope is bigger than a mindless spiritual existence. And, to me, that's important.

How it all works is a bit of a problem. Don't forget that one day this universe will end. Scientists aren't sure how or when, but they're sure that either all energy (and matter and life) will eventually die out, and there will be nothing, or all energy (and matter and life) will recoalesce in a reversal of the Big Bang known as the Big Crunch. Either way, we don't exist in this universe--at least not in any real, bodily way. So, when Jesus ascends into heaven, he shows us that his body has to go somewhere where it can persist beyond the limits of this universe. He is bodily in the presence of God, but he cannot be present, therefore, in this physical universe. I trust that he is present bodily in another plane of existence that coincides with this universe but that only intersects it in moments of divine interaction (again in ways I don't understand). But my answer to the physics of the universe's eventual death is to say that I still hold onto a belief in the physical, everlasting resurrection, and the Ascension shows me how that might be possible.

Lastly (for this post), don't forget the pre-modern importance of the Ascension, which is still relevant today. Without the Ascension, we don't have access to the universal, timeless efficaciousness of the resurrection Jesus. He is incarnate, but he is powerful beyond those within his physical grasp. He is present with me in Decatur, Alabama, in real ways. Likewise, he is present with those in Sydney, Australia, in the same real ways. Without splitting Jesus in ridiculous, non-sensical ways, that's not possible without the Ascension. Also, our very real, physical needs are held before God by the one who is human just like us yet who is also divine, Jesus Christ our Great High Priest. He has entered into the real presence of God and taken us with him. If he is not incarnate and if he is not ascended, we're still stuck in the pretend world of atonement drama. Instead, as we read in Luke 24, our worship of him is fulfilled after he has ascended: "While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God..

Paul wrote that without the empty tomb Christians are of all people the most to be pitied. Given the science of the twenty-first century, I'd add the Ascension to that statement. If we lose our grasp on our belief in the Ascension of Jesus, we give up on a Christianity that makes sense in the contemporary world as well as the ancient world. No, I don't understand it. How can anyone? It doesn't make sense, but it is beautiful. Today, stop and consider the Ascension of our Lord. How is it making a difference in your life and faith? Don't give up on it. I think it is as important to our hope as Easter--not dissecting it but believing it. Our hope is larger that the future of this planet and this universe. Our access to God is bigger than one place, one time. And all of that is true because of what we remember today.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

New Missionary Frontiers

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

At Ridley Hall, where I trained for ministry, there is a plaque on the side of the chapel with the names of the missionaries who had graduated from there and who, during their ministry, had died while on an overseas mission. All things considered, it is a pretty long list. I can't quite remember how many names are on the list, but I do remember well being startled at the number of men (they were all men) who were ordained in the Church of England and who essentially gave their careers and lives for the sake of spreading the gospel overseas. I also remembering being startled at how long it had been since someone's name had been added to the list. There was quite a clump of people from the nineteenth century, but no Ridlean had been commemorated for dying while on an overseas mission in a long, long time.

The Chapel at Ridley Hall in Cambridge, UK

One day, when I remarked to a member of the faculty how impressive I thought the list was, he nodded in agreement and said, "Back then, when people went out as missionaries, they didn't expect to come back." Those words stuck with me. Back then, people went to a foreign land expecting to die among the people to whom they shared the good news of Jesus. I was hoping to be ordained to serve in a church in the mission-field of Montgomery, Alabama, and, unless I got hit by a bus, I knew I wasn't going to die there. What a difference in perspective! Why is that? Why has it been over a hundred years (I think) since a name was added to that plaque at Ridley? Why don't missionaries expect to live so fully in community with their targets that they assume they will die among them? Is it because international travel is so much easier with airplanes? Is it because vaccines mean someone can live in the jungles of Africa without succumbing to malaria or some other death-inducing malady? Is it because clergypersons just aren't as committed to the gospel as we used to be? Or maybe it's because there aren't as many places for missionaries to go and live and die for the sake of the gospel. Or are there?

In Matthew 28:16-20, Jesus said to his disciples, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you." Back then, when Jesus bid farewell to his disciples, this was a radical instruction. All nations? This was the moment (in Matthew's telling of the gospel) when the focus of Jesus' ministry spread from an exclusively Jewish movement to an international, interracial, interreligious operation. The disciples were commissioned by Jesus to share the way of their master with all peoples and to bring them into his fellowship by baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Off and on, that strategy worked for almost two thousand years. As new lands were reached by the disciples and their successors, the gospel spread. As western civilization discovered new places, the gospel went with them--Marco Polo, Columbus, Magellan, Pizarro, Drake. In the nineteenth century, as American "conquered" the frontier, missionaries like the bishop we remember today, Jackson Kemper, took the gospel with them across this continent. (There's a legacy of tragedy associated with these efforts, as many "barbarians" were "civilized," which is to say that their people and culture were obliterated by westerns, but that's another sermon.)

Where does that leave us now? I'm sure that somewhere there is a village in the Amazon or a hamlet in the Congo where no Christian missionary has ever been. I'm sure there's someone out there that has never had the opportunity to learn about the good news of Jesus Christ. But following Jesus commandment--the Great Commission--doesn't depend on geography anymore. The commission is the same--go and make disciple of all nations--but one doesn't need to travel to a place with an unpronounceable name to bring the gospel to an unchurched people. In fact, I think that if our understanding of the Great Commission and the evangelism that goes with it is restricted to those in foreign lands who have never head the gospel, we're missing an opportunity to respond to Jesus by living and dying for the sake of the good news.

"Evangelism is hard for us," a colleague remarked at a meeting yesterday. She's right, of course, in the sense that we find the thought of being a missionary in our own community intimidating. But what is evangelism? It's sharing the good news of God with another person. It's telling a friend how God has answered your prayers. It's inviting someone new in town to come and volunteer with you at a soup kitchen. It's telling a neighbor about a ministry in your church that helps you know what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. It's reminding someone that the story of Jesus' death and resurrection gives us hope even in our darkest moments. I don't have to go very far before I am sure to meet someone who wants to hear that kind of good news.

In 1835, the General Convention of Episcopal Church did something a little cheeky. They decided to legislate that all members of the Episcopal Church would also be members of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, which is still the operating entity for the Episcopal Church. If you work as a church-wide employee and get a paycheck from the denomination, it comes from the DFMS. When I travel to a church-wide meeting and get reimbursed for my expenses, the check comes from the DFMS. You and I are all members of a missionary society. In 1835, that was a reflection of the church's desire to carry the gospel to all people as the Episcopal Church spread to places like Wisconsin, New Mexico, and Iowa. Nowadays, we are missionaries in places like Montgomery and Decatur and Trussville. That is our frontier. We have an opportunity to embrace a call to missionary work not as something that is commemorated on a plaque or expressed as a week-long trip to developing countries but as a lifetime spent sharing good news with those who need to hear it--with our neighbors, friends, and family.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Put the Candle Out?

Easter lasts for fifty days. It begins with the Day of Resurrection and lasts through (and including) Pentecost. That means two more Sundays of Easter. In several ways, whether the preacher mentions it or not, the congregation is clued in on this fact as we continue to begin the liturgy with "Alleluia. Christ is risen" and (except when there is a baptism on Pentecost) sing the Gloria. In our parish, we will continue to use an Easter-themed fraction anthem (the singing of "God's Paschal lamb is sacrificed for us...") and keep the same Communion hymns as a sign of continuity. But there's one liturgical detail that, depending on your parish, may show a sign of discontinuity with the rest of the Easter season.

In some parishes, the Paschal Candle is extinguished at the Ascension Day liturgy as a symbol of Christ's physical, bodily presence leaving earth and ascending into heaven. Other parishes leave it burning. The rubrics in the Book of Common Prayer suggest that "it is customary that the Paschal Candle burn at all services from Easter Day through the Day of Pentecost" (p. 287), but, as this seemingly authoritative response on a Roman Catholic website states, in the Catholic tradition the Candle is extinguished after the reading of the Gospel at mass on Ascension Day since "it symbolizes the presence of the glorified risen Christ" (though it is left unlit in the church through Pentecost). I have heard of parishes doing both. Ours keeps it burning, and, although I don't have strong feelings about which way is right, I do appreciate how extinguishing the candle helps the congregation sense that something different is happening between Ascension Day and Pentecost.

This Thursday will be the fortieth day of Easter. As a parish, we will celebration Ascension Day with a Eucharist that ends with the release of some biodegradable balloons with words of hope attached to them. Then, when we gather in church this Sunday, something will be different. Like the first Thanksgiving after the matriarch of a family dies, at this Sunday's Eucharistic feast, someone will be missing. Well, Jesus will be with us in the same way that he was with us every Sunday for the last two thousand years, but, liturgically speaking, this is the Sunday in between the departure of Jesus and the arrival of the Holy Spirit. It's an odd time theologically speaking, and it's appropriate for things to feel a little weird.

There are other ways to capture that "where did he go?" feeling. The proper preface doesn't do a very good job. It focuses on the doctrine of the ascension--how Jesus went to prepare a place for us (BCP p. 379). The gospel lesson get us closer as it conveys Jesus' words of promise that he will come again to them and prayer that the Father would care for them in his absence (John 17:1-11). Maybe the cover of our bulletin could have an image of Jesus' feet barely sticking out from the bottom of some clouds like so many paintings of the ascension represent.
We could extinguish the Paschal Candle, but I think we'll keep it burning. I'm not preaching, but I suspect the sermon will convey at least a sense of this stuck in between. It might be a theologically odd time, but this liminal place is where I spend most of my life. It's what the name of this blog attempts to convey. Yes, we have the Holy Spirit. Yes, we live in the post-Pentecost era. But, like the disciples in Acts 1, we often find ourselves looking up into heaven, wondering when he's going to come back. Still, there's work to do. As the men in white robes (could they be coats?) say to the disciples, we can't get stuck in that place of waiting. We must keep going. But we need to name that instinctive cloud-gazing as part of the human response. There's a lot of complex emotion in this Sunday. I hope in one way or another that our worship gives our congregation the chance to experience some of it.

Love Creates Love

May 21, 2017 – The 6th Sunday of Easter
© 2017 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
The hardest part about unconditional love is the unconditional part. As an absolute, unconditional love crumbles into dust as soon as we put any limits or restrictions on it. You can’t love someone unconditionally as long as he loves you back. You can’t pledge someone your unconditional love if there’s ever a chance that she’ll do something to make you change your mind. You can’t tell your children that you love them unconditionally and then show them with your actions that your love is something that disappears as soon as they screw up. Well, you can tell them that you love them unconditionally, but they’ll know better.

I believe that God loves us and the whole world unconditionally. I believe that there is nothing that we can do to make God love us any more and that there’s nothing we can do to make God love us any less. God doesn’t love us because of the prayers we say, because the good deeds we do, or because of the faith we hold in our heart. God loves us because that’s who God is. And Jesus Christ, the one whom humanity crucified yet whom God raised from the dead for our sakes, is the ultimate expression of that unconditional love. Even when we actively refuse God’s love and do our very best to thwart it, God still loves us exactly the same.

Because I believe in God’s unconditional love, I have had a hard time this week with the opening line of today’s gospel lesson: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Even a single “if” has the power to eviscerate unconditional love. As a fragile, anxious, ego-centered human being, I crave unconditional love, yet I spend most of my time inventing ifs that threaten to undo it. If I were a better husband, my wife would be happier. If I were a better father, my children would be more likely to reach their full potential. If I were a better priest, think of how great this church could be! If I were a better friend… If I were a better boss… If I were a better son… When I hear Jesus say, “If…,” I go into a panic. Not him, too! What if this truly unlosable love somehow depends on me and my faithfulness? I’ve spent the whole week reading and rereading these words, continually reminding myself to pay attention to what Jesus actually says and not what my fears have invented. Jesus doesn’t say, “If you keep my commandments, I will love you.” He says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”

If you love me, you will keep my commandments. For what it’s worth, I think we should take Jesus at his word. Not only does the conditional part of that statement have nothing to do with whether Jesus will love us, it also doesn’t have anything to do with whether we do the kinds of things that would make Jesus smile. The keeping of the commandments is the conclusion. It’s the part that is always true as long as the condition is met. And, in this case, the condition is as simple as love. If we love Jesus, we will keep his commandments. And that sounds to me like we’d be better off spending less time worrying about whether we’re doing what Jesus wants us to do and more time focused on whether we’re loving him the way he invites us to. If we love Jesus, we will keep his commandments.

But can it really be as simple as that? What about the parent whose last words to her teenage daughter when she drops her off at college are, “If you really love me, you’ll behave yourself?” Is that really a no-strings-attached kind of offer? Does that mother really mean that if her daughter loves her then she’ll stay out of trouble? Well, I think it depends on whether that mom is inviting her daughter into the kind of mutual, self-giving love that Jesus has for the world or merely using love as a poor disguise for her parental expectations for “lady-like” conduct. With Jesus, however, the offer is genuine. He knows that if we love him—and the word here for “love” is “ἀγαπᾶτέ”—we will have given ourselves over to the kind of transformative, selfless love that has the power to change us and the world.

Maybe it’s worth stopping for a moment to review just what those commandments are anyway. What are those commandments that Jesus has given to his disciples—the commandments the completion of which seems automatic for anyone who truly loves Jesus? In John’s gospel, there is really only one commandment that Jesus gives to his disciples, though in chapters 13, 14, and 15, he gives it to them several different times in a few different ways. We hear of this commandment when he is sharing his final meal with his closest friends. After he washes their feet, he says to them, “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you…I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” That’s it. Even the commandment itself is an invitation to love. (Yes, it’s worth noting that Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born again, but that seems like the kind of new, Spirit-led life that he envisions when he tells his disciples to love each other just as he has loved them.)

If we love Jesus, we will love others just as Jesus himself has loved us. And why? Because that kind of love automatically begets more of itself. It’s as automatic as the if-then statements that tell our computers and smartphones how to operate. Jesus has loved us, and he has invited us to share in that love. And we cannot participate in that love without reflecting it back to everyone else in our lives. You can’t encounter unconditional, no-strings-attached, self-giving love without feeling the pull to enter into that love, and, once you’ve shared that love with the one who first gave it to you, it changes you. Love without limits is the single most powerful force in the universe. Once it grabs a hold of your heart and mind and soul, it sets you free to love other people recklessly, vulnerably, without conditions, and without limits. If you learn to love Jesus, you will learn to love others with that same love. It always happens.

Most relationships in this world are built upon the logic of quid pro quo. If you do this for me, I will give you that in return. But that’s not how unconditional love works. Unconditional love says I have something to give you no matter what you will give me in return. Think about that. Think about how powerful that is. Think of all the ills in this world that are ripe for the precise transformation that only unconditional love can give. That is the work that Jesus has given us to do. But we’ll never get any of it done if we place our emphasis on the wrong side of the equation. If we spend all our energy trying to do the thing that Jesus has commanded us to do, we’ll always come up short. That’s because unconditional love can’t start with an agenda. It always starts as a response to love. Our job is simply to love Jesus. We must love him as much as he has loved us. We must let his love awaken in us a reciprocal love that spills out in ways that change the world. Unconditional love is the only thing that has the power to make that possible, and that is exactly what we have been given by God in Jesus Christ. May his love shape us into the love-filled, love-sharing people whom God has made us to be.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Problem with Idols

If you were going to create a piece of art to represent God, how would you make it? Would you use humble materials like mud and berries on a piece of scrap plywood? Would you incorporate the finest resources like gold and platinum and diamonds? Would your art be a painting? A sculpture? Something entirely different? For millennia, human beings have felt the urge to express their understanding of the divine through different media. Art, song, drama, literature, and architecture are all ways that people have attempted to encapsulate God. Some of these succeed in disclosing an aspect of God's transcendence and become well-known representations. Others don't work so well and disappear from memory.

There is a two-fold problem with creating any representation of God: 1) it can never do God justice and 2) we always forget that. God is always more beautiful, always more grand, always more powerful, always more other than anything we can create. That shouldn't surprise us, of course, not only because we are not God but, more importantly, because God is not created. God is the uncreated one, the source of all being. With the surreal exception of MC Escher's "Drawing Hands," the creation cannot create the creator. God cannot be comprehended much less encapsulated in a work of human hands. Any attempt to represent the creator is doomed to fail. But that's only half of the problem.

The other half is that human beings so quickly become enamored with something they can see that they forget that it isn't actually the thing that they can't see. The Israelites have known for thousands of years that, as soon as someone creates any sort of image, statue, or other physical representation of anything human beings are doomed to worship it--to ascribe to the image properties of the transcendent. This is the golden calf in the wilderness. This is the idol worship that the prophets condemned. This is the abomination that the pagan rulers set up in the Jerusalem temple.

Why do we do it? It's complicated and subtle. The root desire for idolatry is not to create something we can worship in the place of God but to get closer to the God we worship. God cannot be seen. God cannot be imagined. But wouldn't it be easier to pray if we could picture some bearded old guy in the clouds who is listening to our prayers? In our moment of deepest fear, wouldn't it be comforting to have something to hold onto to make God's ethereal presence with us something we can see and touch? In that time when we are so consumed by awe and wonder at the magnitude of God and God's creation, wouldn't it be a good idea for the worshipful artist to pour out her heart and soul into a creation that responds to God's greatness with her absolute best? All of that sounds good and right, but, of course, it's the first step to creating an inadequate substitute for the irrepresentable God.

In our reading from Acts 17 on Sunday, Paul confronts the Athenians' tendency to worship idols first by appealing to the philosophical absurdity that such worship represents and them offering them a glimpse at the real, true God as shown in Jesus Christ. He flatters them by mock-praising their religiosity: "I found among them an altar with the inscription, 'To an unknown god.'" And then he eviscerates their empty practices: "The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things." Finally, in the last few words of the reading, Paul appeals to the resurrection as confirmation that the only true God, who will one day judge all things, has given that authority--that God-only identity--to the one whom he has raised: "[God] has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead."

For all of human history, we have wanted to see our creator. In Jesus, we do see that creator. For all of human history, we have wanted a real and clear encounter with the one who will make all things right. In Jesus, we encounter that judge. Paul's logic, presented in this moment to the Athenians, rests on his conclusion that the resurrection shows God's unique affirmation that the only one who has truly escaped death must be the one to judge the living and the dead. Jesus, therefore, shows us god. As Jesus proclaimed to the Samaritan woman, we worship what we know. There is no reason to create an image for it. God has given himself to us--not as an image but as God himself, the Incarnate Son.

Maybe I'm making this up, but it seems to me that the people who have the deepest practice of maintaining a relationship with God through Jesus Christ are the ones who least need something tangible to see or hold on to. For those whose connection with God is made real in Jesus, the need to attempt to make it real in other ways fades away. What about us? What about the church? What idols have we created as an attempt to get closer to God? In what ways have they become a substitute for God? How might a deeper discovery of Jesus--God given to us--remind the church that we worship what we know, what we have seen, what has been shown to us once and for all?

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

No Small Controversy

Wednesday in Easter 5 - May 17, 2017
Acts 15:1–6; John 15:1–8
Is Jesus really God?
Can Christians who sin after baptism be forgiven?
Is the God of the Old Testament the same as the God of the New Testament?
Do Christians believe that the Old Testament is the Word of God?
These are some of the questions and controversies that the church encountered in its early history. What about more recently?
Should the church accept same-sex marriage?
May homosexuals serve as bishops or as other clergy?
Should women be allowed to serve as bishops and priests?
Does the "new" prayer book and its theology of baptismal regeneration abandon our Anglican theology and identity?
These are some of the controversies that we have encountered in the last few decades. Of course, there are more controversies still ahead of us.
Will we revise the prayer book yet again?
Will we allow unbaptized individuals to receive Communion?
Will we permit lay people to preside at the Eucharist?
Will we reunite with the Methodists? The Presbyterians?
Will there even be a church in another century? How must the church adapt to ensure its survival?
Right now, some of these feel substantial and even threatening. Others seem small and even petty. At one time or another, each of them has (or will) cause considerable consternation for some within the church. And there are always a few in the church for whom a particular controversy is "no big deal."
In today's reading from Acts 15, we encounter what perhaps has been the single biggest and most determinative controversy that the church has ever encountered. (And it has nothing to do with sex!) "Certain individuals...were teaching the brothers, 'Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.'" Paul and Barnabas, on the other hand, "had no small dissention and debate with them," and, if you remember anything of what Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians or his letter to the Romans or the Colossians or Titus, then you know that Paul thought this was a pretty big deal and that he made preaching against it part of his mission for the rest of his life.
But why circumcision? Nowadays, when doctors require parents to sign a release form before a non-necessary medical procedure is carried out on their newborn sons, we've largely lost sight of what circumcision represented. It was the sign of the covenant between God and God's people, the children of Abraham. Ever since God made that covenant with Abraham, all males in the Israelite tradition have been circumcised. Even those foreigners who come to live with them were to be circumcised. To this day, although I'm not sure this rule is universally enforced, you're not allowed to eat the Passover meal with Jews unless you've been circumcised. In Jewish conversions, males are either circumcised or, if they were circumcised in a non-ritual way at birth, another small cut is made and blood is drawn as a ritual sign of the conversion by circumcision. It is, therefore, essentially Jewish. In all the generations in which the Temple Mount has been unavailable for centralized ritual worship, circumcision and the other observances that go with it (honoring Shabbat, keeping kosher, observing the festivals) have taken the place of the sacrificial cultus.
Jesus, of course, was circumcised. All of his disciples were circumcised. In the beginning, Jesus' ministry was a thoroughly Jewish ministry. He may have rejected the centralized religious practices of his day, but the core Jewish beliefs and practices, symbolized in part by circumcision, were very much a part of his life and ministry. What it meant to be a follower of Jesus was to be Jewish--a very particular, peculiar brand of Judaism but Judaism without a doubt. And then things started to change.
Early on in the post-Pentecost era, as we read about in the Acts of the Apostles beginning with the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8, the Jesus Movement became a religion for non-Israelites. Within a generation, the primary makeup of the Christian community had become Gentile. The appeal of this radical offshoot of Judaism had waned in the Jewish community, and Gentiles, whose in-grafting into the family of Abraham was enabled by Jesus, had picked up the cause. But how would they be included in the religion of Jesus the Jew? Would a Gentile convert need to become thoroughly Jewish before walking the Way of Christianity?
Even if we've lost our sensitivity to the controversy itself, we know how everything worked out. Paul and Barnabas and those who were convinced that the Way of Jesus was a way of liberation from the restrictions of the Old Covenant persuaded the leaders in the Jerusalem Council to remove any expectation that converts would be circumcised. Although the church still has its Jewish roots, it's hard to imagine Christianity as a denomination of Judaism. Although it's logically conceivable, it's culturally baffling to think of converting to Judaism before being baptized into the Christian faith. A doctrine of unconditional love isn't unique to the Christian faith, but the distinctiveness of the gospel of grace has developed to the point where any sort of hurdle for admission like circumcision seems contrary to the principles of the faith. Or does it?
If Paul and Barnabas looked around today's church, what would they see? What new barriers to entry have we created? The remarkable thing about the Jerusalem Council is that experience won the day. Peter stood up and explained how uncircumcised, unbaptized Gentiles had shown evidence of the Holy Spirit's work. Paul and Barnabas explained how their work in the frontier had proven to them that God is working through Gentiles to spread the gospel of Jesus to the ends of the earth. James then stood up and quoted the prophet Simeon, who had identified Jesus as the "light to enlighten the Gentiles." And before long it was settled, and the decision was made because of what the leaders of the church could see: that God would not and could not be stopped by ethnic, cultural, religious, or ritualistic barriers.
What about us? For the most part, I think we've moved past the expectation that men will come to church in a nice suit and that women will cover their heads during worship. (Thanks be to God!) But what are the new ritual hurdles for admission? I readily and enthusiastically admit I fully subscribe to the practice of Baptism before Communion, but, to the extent that Baptism has become a ritual act instead of a conversion moment, can we say that it has become the new circumcision? Surely we see that God is doing something new and different and holy when it comes to lifelong expressions of monogamous sexual fidelity. Even a church polity geek like me can recognize that there is fruit in sharing full communion with a non-episcopal tradition like Methodists or Presbyterians. How do we know where the Spirit is leading us? We begin be acknowledging that that which could never have been anticipated--the inclusion of uncircumcised Gentiles in the family and faith of Abraham--was brought about by the church's willingness to trust what the Spirit was showing them, tested in prayer, tried in theological debate, and grounded in scripture. Is that our posture still today, or should we go back to the Jerusalem Council and start all over with the campaign to circumcise all believers?

Must Keep or Will Keep?

This Sunday, we will hear Jesus say to his disciples, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments." At least that's what we'll hear if we're reading the NRSV. If your church uses the NIV, you'll hear Jesus say something close but, as I would argue, substantially different: "If you love me, keep my commandments." To look at a side-by-side comparison of John 14:15-21 in the NRSV and NIV, click here.

The Greek word in question is "τηρήσετε," which is the second-person plural future active indicative form of the verb "τηρέω," which means "to watch over" or "to guard." The NRSV (and most English translations) render that word as "you (pl.) will keep" or, as we say down south, "y'all will keep." The NIV (and a few other translations like the KJV) change the verb from the future tense and indicative mood ("will keep") to the present tense and imperative mood ("keep"). One is a description, and the other is a command. That seems like a substantial difference to me.

I must confess, however, that I don't know Greek very well. With some help, I can translate the Greek text into English, but I my ability to convey nuance is severely lacking. I do understand, however, that there is no such thing as a future imperative. You can't tell someone to do something in the future tense. Think about it: how do you tell someone to buy a loaf of bread without telling him or her to buy it now? How do you temporally restrict that request to the future? How? Well, I suppose you use the indicative instead: "When you get to the store, you will buy a loaf of bread." That's not imperative. It's future indicative, and one might well ask what the difference is.

Well, to my ear, there's a huge difference. Although it might only be in the way I hear it, the indicative seems like a description of the beloved life, and the imperative seems like a prescription for it. The "if" looms large here. Note that Jesus doesn't say, "If you keep my commandments, I will love you." The condition depends on the love not the action. But when that is translated in the imperative, it sounds like an offer of love with strings attached: "If you love me, [you'd better] keep my commandments." Maybe I'm making more of this than I should, but I know how easy it is for me to invent conditions on God's love that don't actually exist. I crave that unconditional, "I will love you no matter what," and that's easier for me to hear when the Greek text is left the way it is--indicative instead of imperative.

As I work toward Sunday's sermon, I'm working from the outside in. The first and last sentences in this gospel lesson are the conditional statements of the beloved life. The end essentially repeats the beginning: those who love me will keep my commandments. But our liturgical focus is on the middle part--Jesus' promise of sending the Advocate to his disciples. I want to hear those comforting words. I want my sermon to be a proclamation of hope in the midst of challenge. But I have to get past the "if-then" bookends that bracket that message. Hearing the "you will keep my commandments" as a description of a love-inspired relationship with Jesus helps me get there.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Not the World's Peace

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

It can be a hermeneutical stretch to let two passages of scripture from different books of the bible, written by different authors to different communities in different times about different things, talk to each other, but every once in a while the same Holy Spirit that inspired both of them opens up for us a dialogue that leads us into a deeper appreciation of each. Today, when I read the lessons appointed for Tuesday in the fourth week of Easter (Acts 14:19–28 and John 14:27–31a), I hear a conversation that gives me encouragement and hope and challenge.

Jesus says to his disciples, "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives." Five different times in John's gospel account Jesus offers his peace to the disciples. Most familiar to us are the words he speaks to them when he meets them behind locked doors on the day of the resurrection and then again a week later when Thomas was with the other disciples: "Peace be with you," he says to them. Funny enough, today's reading from John 14 is the first time Jesus offers peace to his closest followers, and, when he introduces this concept to them--the peace that he has for them--even from the very beginning he offers an important caveat: "I do not give to you as the world gives." The Contemporary English Version renders this verse as "I give you peace, the kind of peace that only I can give. It isn’t like the peace that this world can give. So don’t be worried or afraid." Jesus' words of comfort are built on this offer of peace that only he can give--not the peace the world can offer.

In an ancient tradition of the church, we make our way through the Acts of the Apostles as we make our way through the Easter season. In today's reading, we read about an episode in which Paul was persecuted for preaching the way of Jesus. His opponents from nearby communities came to Lystra and stirred up a lynch mob to attack Paul. They dragged him out of the city and, in the ancient custom of their people, hurled stones at him because they understood him to be guilty of blasphemy. They injured him so badly that they thought he was dead, and they left his body there. When other disciples came to retrieve his lifeless body, Paul stood up and carried on, heading to the next town where he would share the good news of Jesus.

When Paul had finished his work in Derbe, he turned around and went back, first to Lystra, where he had been stoned, and then on to Iconium and Antioch, where the instigators of the lynch mob were from. At each point along the treacherous way, he stopped to encourage the disciples, "strengthening their souls," by telling them, "It is through many persecutions that we must enter the kingdom of God." And I wonder how those words sounded to the other disciples, who, like Paul, faced arrest or torture or even death for following Jesus. And I wonder how those words sounded to Paul's opponents, when they heard him declare that the way that leads to the kingdom of God must go through the very persecutions to which they were subjecting him. And I wonder what the disciples who were with Jesus when he offered his peace to them thought about what Paul had to say, and I wonder what Paul thought when he heard Jesus say to the first disciples, "My peace I give to you, but I do not give to you as the world gives."

The peace that Jesus offers to those who follow him--to you and to me--isn't the sort of peace that the world gives. It is not a relief from trouble. It is not the removal of pain. It is not the absence of conflict. In this life, that sort of peace is fleeting. It lasts only until the next challenge comes our way. Instead, the peace that Jesus offers us is the well-being and right-situatedness of knowing that our Lord and Savior is with us in our suffering and that, by accepting the suffering appointed for us, we walk with him into the kingdom of God. As followers of Jesus, we claim that peace for ourselves, and we are comforted not knowing that the path ahead of us is devoid of challenge but knowing and trusting that the hardships in front of us--the burdens we bear for the sake of Jesus--are how we find our place in God's kingdom.

Like Paul, we are called not to run away from that suffering but to turn toward it, to endure it, and to embrace it for the sake of the gospel. "It is through many persecutions that we must enter the kingdom of God," he tells us. If we are truly following Jesus, we will encounter persecution. Jesus, who healed lepers and let the ritually unclean people touch him, has something to say about access to health care for society's outcasts. Jesus, who ate with tax collectors and sinners, has something to say about accepting drug dealers and prostitutes into our midst. Jesus, whose family fled to Egypt when Herod was searching for him and who offered salvation to a Samaritan woman and her village, has something to say about providing shelter to the refugee and making a place for foreigners in our community. And Jesus cannot be the only one to say those things.

We must stand up and say those things with him. Even though they will not be popular, we must proclaim that truth to the powers of this world. We may lose the love and affection of friends and family. We may lose people in the pews and dollars in the offering plate. I doubt they will throw literal stones at us, but we may be run out of town for stirring up trouble and for speaking political, social, and economic blasphemy. But the way that leads to the kingdom of God leads through conflict and strife and persecution. The way that leads to true peace--true rightness with God and with all of God's people--takes us to those places of hardship. But we do not go alone. Jesus himself goes with us. And it is his peace that we have every step of the way.

Monday, May 15, 2017

All Our Eggs in Jesus' Basket

Before I arrived at St. John's, where I now serve, several people warned me about our organist. Among many overused images for clergy life, the one that has been used so frequently as to completely drain it of any novelty is the organist-terrorist descriptor. (Want to know the difference? You can negotiate with a terrorist.) Several people used the same particular words to describe our organist: "He enjoys playing the part of the curmudgeon." Those seemed like insightful words, and they've proved their value. Foster is a true delight to work with--in large part because he enjoys pretending to be upset about just about everything. But there's always a little twinkle of joy and fun and playfulness in his eye. People love Foster. I love Foster.

Unlike anyone else, however, there's another side of Foster that I get to see and appreciate. Our organist cares more about the health and vitality of our church than he does about himself. He does not play hymns or anthems or preludes simply because they are fitting (though they almost always are) or because they are impressive (though they almost always are). He plays them to glorify God and to draw the congregation more deeply into worship. He wants people to sing. He wants people to hear themselves sing. He wants them to smile and hum their way to the parking lot. When I insist on singing some unsingable hymn that they taught us to love in seminary, he says in half-mock derision, "That's the stupidest idea you've had yet." When I want to change the way we've been doing things for thirty years, he says, "You can do that. You're the rector. But that's the stupidest idea you've had yet." If I put my foot down and insist that it be a particular way, he's willing to go along with it--even all seven verses of St. Patrick's Breastplate on Trinity Sunday. But he wants our parish to grow closer to God and closer to each other.

Foster wants worship to be the best it can be. He wants the whole church to be the best that it can be. And he knows that my success as the rector of this parish is an important party of the health of the overall parish. He wants me to succeed so that the parish will succeed. More to the point, he wants me to avoid failure because he knows that my failure will hurt the parish he loves. Because of that, I trust him. I know that when he doesn't like something just because he doesn't like it he'll complain and grouse the whole way through. But, if he doesn't like something because he thinks it will hurt the church, he'll pull me aside and say it to me plainly. He doesn't want me to step on the wrong landmine not because he cares about me (though he does) but because he cases about our church. His work as organist is tied to my work as rector, and my work as rector is tied to our shared ministry in the parish. If any of that falls apart, we're all in trouble.

In Sunday's gospel lesson (John 14:15-21), Jesus gave his disciples an image that uses similar logic: "...because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you." Throughout John, we see that Jesus likes this "I in you and you in me and I in the father and you in the father" kind of language. It makes my head spin. I have a hard time keeping up with who is in whom. This time, however, it seems to come together in the light of the resurrection. Essentially, Jesus tells his followers that they will see him raised from the dead, and, when they see him, they will know that Jesus is completely in the Father and that they are completely in him and he is completely in them. And that's good news for all of us.

Jesus is going away. He's saying goodbye to his disciples. As he said yesterday in the gospel lesson from the first half of John 14, Jesus is going to a place where they cannot follow, but he is going in order to prepare a place for them and will come again and take them to himself. He's saying goodbye, and he's asking them to trust that, even though they will be parted, that will not be the end of their relationship. Despite his upcoming departure. Jesus is asking them to double-down on their relationship with him. "If you have seen me, you have seen the Father," he says to Philip. "How will you know the way? I am the way," he says to Thomas. "I am the way and the truth and the life." "Believe in God," he tells us. "Believe also in me."

Jesus is asking us to put all of our eggs into his basket. He is asking us to trust him so completely that we allow our future to be tied up completely in his future. He is asking us to let his way be our way. To this point, his disciples have made a considerable commitment. They have declared with their obedience to this radical rabbi that Jesus' way is God's way. And, when he is raised from the dead, we will see that his way is indeed God's way. And if Jesus is in the Father and we are in him and he is in us, then everything will be a-OK.

Being obedient to Jesus as Lord means putting all of our eggs in his basket. Our whole understanding of who God is and what God wants for our lives and for the world is bound up in the story of Jesus. If we love Jesus so completely as to put all our eggs in Jesus' basket, then whatever happens to him will happen to us. God has raised Jesus from the dead. In the resurrection, God has shown us that Jesus' way is God's way. If we put all our trust in him, we cannot go wrong. His victory is our victory. His resurrection is our resurrection. His way is God's way, so our way is God's way. Easter is about seeing that. Easter is about knowing that. We have one hope, and, when that hope is God's own hope, that one hope is enough.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Transformational Giving

Yesterday, in a moment of frustration, I tweeted, "Stewardship: inviting people to give is the same as inviting them to love Jesus. If clergy can't do that, they need to quit." Some people, including clergy, don't like talking about or hearing about financial stewardship. They don't like asking people to give, and they don't like being asked to give. I respect that. I would much rather write a larger check to my children's school than have my children sell doughnuts, coupon cards, or anything else no one really needs. But, when it comes to asking people to give a part of their income to God's work in the world, I can't do it enough, and it has nothing to do with raising money to fund the ministries of the church, including the salary that provides for our family. I love asking people to give because giving money is one way--and perhaps the most real, tangible, consequential way--to invite them to offer their lives to the transforming work that God is doing in the world through God's Son, Jesus Christ.

Elizabeth, our children, and I give a considerable portion (13%) of our income to what God is doing in the world through a pledge to our church because the act of giving has transformed us and continues to transform us into grateful, faithful disciples of Jesus who are dedicated to the gospel's work "not only with our lips but with our lives." I won't use this post to offer my testimony of how proportional, sacrificial, first-fruits giving changed my heart from one filled with anxiety about whether my family and I would have enough to one filled with confidence in God's provision for my family, but I will say that the act of devoting that first portion of what God has given us back to what God is doing in the world has changed us. It has deepened our faith. It has made us available to God and God's work in new ways. It has enabled us to say "yes" to God and God's call more readily and significantly. It has opened our eyes to recognize the blessings in our lives and all around us. That kind of giving has had that kind of effect, and there's no other way I know to get it.

I believe that God is using the gospel of Jesus Christ to shape this world into the love-filled, love-driven, love-reflecting world that God made it to be. I want to be a part of love's work. I want to share that good news of Jesus with others. Our family's stewardship is a response to and participation in that transformational work. That's why our family gives, and that's why I take great delight in asking other people to give, too. It isn't about the money--at least not the amount that is given or the amount that is raised. It's about the gesture--the sacrificial, proportional, first-fruits yielding of ourselves to God that brings transformation. When I invite people to give, I'm not asking them for money. I'm asking them to take a step of faith toward trusting God and, by doing so, to invite transformation in their lives.

When I invite people to make a pledge to God's work in the world, it doesn't matter whether they give to our church, to the United Way, to Greater Birmingham Ministries, to the Committee on Church Cooperation, or to any other group that is doing God's work. I think the transformative power of that gift is most effective when it is given to a ministry in which the person takes part. I think individuals and families should ask, "Where do I see God's work being done? Where am I a part of God's work in the world?" Those are the places where we give so that we can even more fully participate in the transformative work. For most of us, the primary place that we participate in the work of the gospel is our church. For a clergy family, it is overwhelmingly our church. (We also give to other gospel-focused charities, but the first-fruits gift goes to the church.) For members of the vestry, it is almost certainly our church. For a loosely affiliated pew-sitter who comes to church twice a year, it might be the homeless shelter where they volunteer twice a week...but I don't know a lot of people who are that committed to the work of the gospel who don't also manifest that commitment through regular participation in the life of the church. The point is that this isn't a tax to be paid to an organization you don't see or know. It's an opportunity to join other people in work that makes a difference in our lives and in the world.

I don't normally write a lot about stewardship on this blog. Usually, my focus is the lessons for the upcoming Sunday or whatever lessons are the basis for a midweek sermon. On Tuesdays, there is often a parish newsletter article that I share here, and it sometimes has to do with stewardship, but I rarely break in for a message on honoring the giver of all gifts by caring for what we have been giving. This week, however, I am at a stewardship conference, and I've got giving on the brain. This conference has had some really good components. It has focused not only on annual giving but also on fundraising (e.g. capital campaigns), planned giving (e.g. estate gifts), and the unique work of identifying, fostering, securing, and nurturing major gifts. Much of it has been good, but some of it has been really disheartening.

This work has been sponsored by the College for Bishops (the teaching ministry of the House of Bishops) and the Episcopal Church Foundation (a lay-led, independent organization that promotes healthy work among clergy, lay leaders, and congregations). The premise has been exceptional. We've been asked to focus not on the "What?" or the "How" of stewardship but on the "Why?" That's everything I believe about stewardship (see above) and a correction of everything I think has gone wrong with stewardship in the wider church. The teaching on major gifts and fundraising has been positive because it has been infused with that why-first mentality. But the work we've done on annual giving has been mixed at best. Some of the mechanics--like year-round stewardship and developing a theme and the importance of thank-yous--has been good, but, when it all came together last night in the presentation of an annual giving dinner that we took part in as if we were members of a congregation, giving as a grace-filled, transformative practice didn't come through.

I could offer lots of criticisms for the dinner itself, but that's not my focus. My focus was on the invitation I received at the dinner. After a genuine, heart-felt story of transformational participation in the life of the church, I was asked to help our parish meet its goal of $250,000. To meet that goal, I was asked to increase my pledge by 3%. That's a lovely fundraising request, but it isn't an invitation to transformational giving. I was asked to give a little bit more--not to give God my whole heart. I was told that God's work in the world being done by our parish would be accomplished when a certain amount was raised--not invited to join a parish in the earth-changing work of loving the world until our savior returns. I couldn't keep quiet. When asked if we had any questions, I raised my hand and told the room that I had missed the invitation to transformational giving. I let them know that the work of the gospel had been absent. I reminded them of what they had told the group early on--that the "Why?" had to be the lead instead of the "What?".

Sometimes things don't go perfectly, and that's ok. Given the amount of money and time that are being given so that these participants can take part, I would expect it to go better than that, but it doesn't have to be perfect. The first response I got to my criticism was 100% right. She accepted it, thanked me for it, and invited me and others in the room to work together to revise the presentation we had heard. That's wonderful. But then the president of ECF, Donald Romanik, stood up and said that a parish dinner like this one was not the place to talk about transformational giving."What if there are newcomers in the room?" he said. "How will they even understand what transformation means? We might as well tell them about the tithe! They'll never even come back because they'll think that all we talk about is money." Those words came from the leader of the organization that is dedicated to empowering Episcopal faith communities through strategic planning, positive clergy-lay partnerships, and good fund-raising, and they show a total lack of understanding of why the church is even in the money business to begin with.

Why do people come to church? Why do people even show up at a stewardship dinner? It's not for the spaghetti and cheap wine. It's because they want to be transformed by the love of God in Jesus Christ. They want transformation, and transformation is what we have to offer. If a church keeps that "Why?" in focus, everyone who walks through the door--whether it's their first time in the building or their 10,000th time--will receive an invitation to the transforming work of the gospel with renewed energy and commitment. Apple doesn't ask you to know how to use an iPhone before you buy one. The invite you to trust that buying one will change your life. And people do it because Apple is really good at sharing their "Why?" with the world--that they are dedicated to making life beautiful and simple. The church doesn't expect people to know how proportional, sacrificial, first-fruits giving will impact their lives, but we invite people to trust us, and, if we've shown them that the only thing we care about--the only thing that motivates our every word and action--is the transforming love of God in Jesus Christ, then they will trust us and they will give and they will see and they will share that good news with others.

If we can't share that message at a spaghetti supper, we're in big trouble. If the leaders of our church--the College for Bishops and ECF--don't understand that stewardship is about deepening individuals' and parishes' and dioceses' relationships with God, we're in even bigger trouble than I thought. I'm in this work because I believe it has the power to change lives--not because I believe it's a good way to raise money for good and godly work. This can't be about the dollars we raise. This can't be about the programs we fund. Money and programs are an expression of faith, and they only grow when faith grows, and stewardship is about growing faith.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Covered Their Ears

If Stephen was going to be stoned to death today, it would not be by Jewish authorities (see Acts 7:55-60). It would be by the Christians who would rather cover their ears than encounter the transformative message of unconditional love. Two thousand years later, he would be killed for the same reasons, but the ones throwing the stones would be us--the institutional church who have gone deaf to the confrontational, earth-shattering, foundation-shifting message of the gospel.

We'd kill Jesus all over again, too, but that's not Sunday's lesson. This Sunday, we hear of the first martyr, whose powerful, convicting testimony to the religious leaders of his day got him killed. If you go back and read the story of Acts 7, with only a few little changes, you could restate Stephen's criticism of his executioners as a criticism of contemporary institutional Christianity:
You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the [gospel] as delivered by [God's son] and did not keep it. (Acts 7:51-53)

Who killed William Tyndale? Who killed Thomas Cranmer? Who killed Thomas More? Who killed Margaret Pole? Who killed Franz Jägerstätter? Who killed Oscar Romero? Who killed Martin Luther King, Jr.? It may not have been you or me who lit the fire or tied the noose or pulled the trigger, but each of them was killed because they opposed institutions and individuals that were ostensibly Christian. We may argue rightly that the people and institutions who killed those Christian martyrs were not genuinely Christian. (Who would argue that the Third Reich was a Christian institution?) But each of them was Christian at least in name, and the same danger--though hopefully without consequences as violent or tragic as these--can creep into our own version of religion without us realizing it.
Grace is hard to hear. For those of us with any power or privilege, grace is deconstructing. It always says that our accomplishments, achievements, and accolades are inhibitions for the work of the gospel. As Paul wrote, "I count all of that as loss." It means nothing. The gospel has undone all of it. That's bad news for those of us for whom religion has become a ladder for our advancement. Whether it's clergy like me who get paid very well to do this work or corporate executives who have used church and the relationships it offers for advancement or anyone for whom their allegiance to Christ has become a merit badge of social acceptability, those of us who profit off the back of Jesus are only steps away from stoning Stephen. When tomorrow's prophet points out our hypocrisy, we place him in the crosshairs.
Without repentance, we let our own stones fly. Those stones are the labels we give to those who threaten our positions--radicals, socialists, hippies, false prophets, wolves in sheep's clothing, liberals, and revisionists. We must repent. We must accept the ways in which we have become deaf to the deconstructing work of the gospel in our own lives. We must hear the prophet's call and, as we've heard in the last few weeks' readings from Acts, repent and start again. If we are not willing to hear that criticism, then we cover our ears and rush against the gospel in rage. Without self-examination and repentance, we are the ones who stone Stephen.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Seeing Jesus to Be Jesus

This post is also published in today's newsletter for St. John's, Decatur. To read the rest of the newsletter and learn about what God is doing in our parish, click here.

Last week, I heard a piece on NPR about the need for diversity in the case studies that are used at Harvard Business School. For a business student, the case study method is the heart of a graduate program. It allows students to see and learn from some of the most demanding situations in business history. By presenting a real-life circumstance in great detail, the case study provides students with a chance to dissect business decisions before they find themselves operating in the real world—not unlike a medical student’s work on a cadaver. As a leader in business education, Harvard sets the standard for many other institutions, and I remember using some of its case studies when I was an MBA student at Troy University.

Because business schools all over the world rely on Harvard’s case studies, the choices that that institution makes shape the education of many students, and it has recently come under fire for its disproportionate reliance on white-owned and white-led businesses. Although the rough mechanics of business are the same regardless of the color of the leadership, race plays a factor when it comes to funding, hiring practices, and other management techniques. Plus, more substantially, when all the case studies focus on white business leaders, black entrepreneurs have no role models that look like them and that have experienced the unique challenges of being an African-American business owner. As Latoya Marc put it in the interview, “It’s hard to be what you can’t see.[1]

Consider all of the people whose example we have pursued, whose model we have emulated. Parents, teachers, and coaches. Doctors, dentists, and veterinarians. Clergy, neighbors, and civic leaders. Who did you want to be when you were a child? What role model propelled you into your career? Whose esteem did you crave when you were starting out? Did your pediatrician help you dream of being a physician? Did Sally Ride help you believe that you, too, could reach the stars?

As followers of Jesus, we are called to walk in his footsteps, to take up our own cross, and to accept a life spent pursuing God’s kingdom. He is our example. He is our pattern. We cannot be Jesus, of course, but we do believe that in Baptism we die with him as we are raised to the new life that he has given us. We believe that the Holy Spirit gives us the power to become agents of God’s work in the world. And we believe that we are integral to that work of bringing all things to their completion.

As the collected disciples of Jesus, we are the Body of Christ—an image that shows itself in many facets. There is, of course, the body of Jesus that died on the cross, that was raised to new life, and that presented itself to Thomas and the other disciples as a clear and concrete sign of Christ’s victory over death. There is also the bread-become-body that we celebrate and share in the Lord’s Supper as we proclaim Christ’s real presence among us and partake in the mystical union that his body grants us with him and with each other. Then, as the “one, true, catholic, and apostolic Church,” we become the Body of Christ—the union of members, the Spirit-animated being that lives and breathes as Christ on earth still to this day. The eastern church does a better job of seeing itself as the same body that was crucified, raised, and given to God’s people, but, whether we understand it or not, we use the language of the body to describe ourselves and our connection with other Christians. It is who we are. It is who we are called to become.

But how hard it is to be what we cannot see! Over the years, more than a few people have said to me in one way or another that they want to be more Christ-like. They want to be more patient. They want to be more peaceful. They want to have the kind of relationship with God that gives purpose and meaning to life. Usually, my invitation to that longing is to encourage that person to pursue Jesus. Come to church more often and sit in the front row. Set aside fifteen minutes to be with Jesus in silence every day. Read the stories of his life and ministry as a daily discipline. Say your prayers, and, if you cannot find the words to say on your own, put aside the distractions of the world and sit quietly or use the words of Psalms or the prayer book as your own. The point is that we are shaped by our encounters with Jesus. If we have none, why would we expect our lives to become more like his?
Although not actually found among her writings, sixteenth-century poet and mystic Teresa of Ávila is said to have written, “Christ has no body now but yours, no hands, no feet on earth but yours.” Whoever actually composed those lines, the point rings true. We are the Body of Christ here in this world, and what sort of body we will become depends both on the Holy Spirit’s power and on our availability to respond to its gifts. It is hard to be what we cannot see. If we cannot see Christ, how will we become Christ to the world? If we do not make ourselves available to God in worship, in prayer, in study, and in action, how will he use us to complete his saving work? If you have not encountered Jesus in a while, come and see. Meet him amidst the rest of his body. Share in his membership. Allow a daily encounter with Christ to shape you into the part of his body that God is calling you to be.

[1] “Harvard Business School Moves to Study More Diverse Cases” NPR, 2 May 2017, http://www.npr.org/2017/05/02/526514154/harvard-business-school-moves-to-study-more-diverse-cases.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Preaching the Resurrection

A older clergy colleague once offered me some unsolicited advice for preaching a sermon: "Ask yourself why Christ had to die to make your sermon possible. If you don't know the answer, it's not a sermon worth preaching." He made a good point. I might not have phrased it quite like that, but--and I'm choosing to be charitable in this interpretation of his motive--I think he's right to remind me to preach the gospel of Jesus and not just some spiritually enlightening message. One can get advice for living from "Dear Abby." People come to church to hear the transformative story of Jesus Christ.

This week, as the church finds herself approaching the Fifth Sunday in Easter, I find myself wondering a different sort of question: "Why did Jesus have to be raised from the dead in order to make this sermon possible?" It's still Easter. We've got several more weeks left of this season. And this is the part of the fifty days when the lectionary goes back in time to moments before Jesus' death and resurrection. It's easy, then, to get lost in the specificity of the text and forget that we're still celebrating the miracle of the resurrection. How does the discovery of the empty tomb shape the texts that we are reading? When Jesus says to Thomas, "I am the way, the truth, and the life," how is that an Easter proclamation?

Sunday's gospel lesson (John 14:1-14) is permeated with two different levels of tension. First, we see confusion on the part of Thomas and Philip, who hear Jesus' words about preparing a place for them in God's mansion and want a clearer explanation. "We do not know where you are going?" Thomas asks. "How will we know the way?" After Jesus points to himself as the way, Philip takes the confusion a step further, saying, "Show us the Father and we will be satisfied." In both cases, these disciples reveal their lack of understanding.

The second layer of tension comes in Jesus' responses to the confused disciples. Thomas acknowledges that he cannot know the way if he does not even know the destination, and Jesus responds, "I am the way and the truth and the life." And everyone in the congregation who hears that gospel lesson nods in response to Jesus' words as if we know what that means. When Philip says, "Just show us the Father, and we will be satisfied," the congregation slaps their collective forehead and thinks along with Jesus, "You doofus! Don't you know any better? Have you been with Jesus this long and still you cannot see that he is showing you the Father because he and the Father are one?" And, when no one is looking, we shoot glances around the room to see whether anyone else is showing signs of the same sort of confusion that Philip and Thomas displayed.

We cannot know Jesus until we know Easter. We cannot see the Father until Christ has been raised. We cannot see that he is the way and the truth and the life until he comes to us as the resurrected one. We like to think that we could put all the pieces together beforehand. "If we had spent that much time with Jesus, we would have known what he was talking about," we tell ourselves, somewhat forgetting that an hour a week in church amounts to a lot less than the time the disciples spent with Jesus. We have the benefit of Easter. We have the benefit of the resurrection. That's how all of this makes sense. Jesus words to the disciples--"And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also"--are utter nonsense if you do not understand the resurrection.

When we read John 14, most preachers and many in our congregation will think of a funeral. Of all the funerals I have done, the first half of Sunday's gospel lesson is by far the most popular. We don't have to preach a funeral sermon this Sunday, but we do have the opportunity to preach the sermon we can't preach at a funeral: our hope becomes hopeless without the resurrection of Jesus. When we hear these words at the funeral of a loved one, when we pick them out for our own funeral, let us remember that Jesus' words to Thomas, Philip, and the other disciples cannot be understood except in the light of Easter. We must encounter the risen Lord before we can know that he goes through the gate of death in order to prepare a place for us eternal in the heavens. In short, don't forget to preach Easter.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Unconditional Love and Nothing Else

May 7, 2017 – The 4th Sunday of Easter
© 2017 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
Both of our sons are playing baseball, and I had the chance to sit through most of Sam’s t-ball game the other day. I’ve been spending more of my time on the field with Edison since I’ve been drafted as his team’s first-base coach. I’ve always wanted to be one of my kids’ coaches, so I’m making more out of this invitation than I should and taking it way more seriously than any assistant assistant coach has any right to. Our boys often have games scheduled for the same time, so I haven’t seen many of Sam’s games up close, and the first thing I noticed about this t-ball game was how intense the parents were. Every single time the ball is put into play, everyone is yelling. Whoever’s child is hitting the ball is yelling at their child to run. Whoever’s child is already on base is yelling at their child to run faster. Whoever’s children are playing defense are yelling at their children to get the ball and throw it to the circle in order to stop the play. It was amazing. Not that you don’t already know this, but these are four- and five-year-old kids whose parents are screaming as if Game 7 of the World Series were on the line.

What I noticed, however, was how much louder t-ball parents are than the parents in the older leagues. I’ve been on the field for every one of Edison’s games, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard the parents yell like that. At the beginning of the season, our coach sternly told all of the parents that their job wasn’t to coach from the stands but merely to offer words of encouragement. At the time, I was only a parent, and I told myself to take those words to heart, knowing full well that it would never happen. But somehow it seems to have worked in everyone else…or so I thought. I asked Elizabeth if she had noticed this phenomenon, and she just smiled at me. “Oh, they’re yelling just as much as the parents at the t-ball field,” she explained. “You just can’t hear them.” “Are you sure?” I asked her. When she nodded, I said, “Well, maybe that’s because I’m not in the stands. Maybe I just can’t hear them on the field.” And she replied, “No, you can’t hear them because you’re yelling louder than anyone else.”

Like all parents, I have become my father. Of all the voices that were yelling out from the stands, I could always hear what my father had to say: “good eye,” “hang in there,” “way to make contact,” “wait for your pitch,” “keep your eye on the ball.” They are comments made with the best intentions—loving words of encouragement offered to remind a child what he or she was supposed to be doing. But right there is the problem. It’s what the child is “supposed” to be doing, so, instead of providing real encouragement to the kid who is struggling in the batter’s box, they only serve to increase the pressure of an already pressure-filled situation. That voice, which cuts through all the others and makes its way right into the player’s year—his father’s voice, my voice—is the one that child hears when he strikes out. That makes me wonder what I’d rather my son hear from me when he’s standing in the batter’s box.

Jesus said, “The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out…the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus seems to think that the only voices we hear and follow are the voices of true shepherds—that we instinctively run from those with voices we do not recognize. And, while it’s true that there is only one voice worth following, I have a lot harder time in the moment of decision figuring out which voice I’m supposed to listen to. Parents, teachers, preachers, and friends. Experts, authors, pundits, and pollsters. Journalists, newscasters, posters, and bloggers. Physicians, scientists, trendsetters, and traditionalists. How are we supposed to know which voice to follow? In a world in which all of the wolves have been wearing sheep’s clothing so long that they have forgotten that they are wolves, how do we know which voices will lead us into abundant pastures and which ones will lead us into the barren wilderness?

One of the most beautiful and hopeful passages in all of scripture is that of the Good Shepherd. Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own, and my own know me.” For thousands of years, the people of God had thought of themselves as God’s flock of sheep, and they had waited for the day when God himself would shepherd them “through the valley of the shadow of death” into the “green pastures” where he would pour his blessings upon them until their cup “runneth over.” That is the message that Jesus has brought to God’s people but not in this passage. That’s the rest of John 10. In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus speaks not words of comfort to his disciples but words of challenge to his opponents. The real shepherds whom God sends to care for his sheep will always come through the gate. Those who try to come in another way—by climbing over the fence or sneaking around to the back—are those who seek to steal and kill the sheep. The difference, as Jesus explains in this part of the story, is the way they reach the sheep. Are they coming through the gate, which is Jesus himself, or are they breaking in another way?

The passage right before this one is a passage we read in church not long ago. It’s the story of Jesus healing the man born blind. You might recall that some controversy arose over that miraculous healing. Jesus had performed that miracle on the sabbath, and, in their minds, the religious leaders of his day faced a difficult decision. Does that make Jesus a godless lawbreaker because he sinned by doing work on the sabbath, or does it make him a God-sent prophet because he could heal a man born blind? Today’s words about the sheep gate are part of Jesus’ answer to their question. Real shepherds, he tells us, are those who come to the flock through the gate—through him, the one who leads them into the life that God has promised them—and not those who sneak in the back way to lead them away from God’s promises and into a wilderness beset by empty legalism, fruitless striving, hypocritical judgments, and false hopes.

It is a lot easier to get the attention of the sheep when you scare them, and there are plenty of would-be shepherds out there who use fear in the name of religion to attract a following. It is a lot easier to get an impassioned response from people when you preach hatred, and there are too many religious and political leaders who use the power of hate to stir up unequivocal allegiance from their followers. It is a lot easier to get people to keep coming back by telling them that they aren’t good enough without you and your program, and most churches and preachers use the damning power of guilt to fill the pews and the offering plates. But where does that lead God’s people other than the futile, fruitless place where the peace of God is always beyond our grasp—the wilderness where the Promised Land is forever beyond that next horizon?

The riskiest thing that shepherds can do is also the most liberating thing that they can do for their flock: give them Jesus. Get out of the way, and let the people hear the unadulterated, unequivocal, unconditional love that Jesus speaks to them. The message that Jesus brings to the world is the gospel of God’s no-strings-attached, I-love-you-just-the-way-you-are approval. You can’t make people feel guilty when you tell them that God loves them no matter what. You can’t make people afraid when you tell them that God’s love will always win. There is no room for hate when you tell people that God loves everyone exactly the same no matter who they are or what they do or what they say or what they believe or how they vote or who they marry. You can’t build a business by giving everything away. You can’t build a customer base by telling people that they’re already fine just the way they are. But that’s exactly how you build a church.

Amidst all the voices that fill the airways, this is the only one that leads to abundant life, and the world is desperate to hear it. I am desperate to hear it. I want to know love that has no limits. I want to know the freedom of God’s unconditional favor. I want to know Jesus. If the voices that are cutting through the noise aren’t coming through him, if they don’t start and end with the good news of grace, it’s time to tune them out. And as parents, teachers, coaches, preachers, and friends, if the words we say to others are built on anything less than the unconditional love that Jesus represents, it’s time for us to stop speaking.