Monday, July 31, 2017

Deliverance from Disquietude

This coming Sunday, as you will no doubt be reminded on several occasions, we will interrupt our usual liturgical progression through the season after Pentecost to celebrate the feast of the Transfiguration. It's one of only ten festivals that rank above a Sunday in importance, and of those ten three always fall on a Sunday anyway (Easter, Pentecost, and Trinity Sunday), one always falls on a Thursday (Ascension Day), and one is allowed to be transferred to a Sunday (All Saints'), so really there are only five liturgical observances that bump our weekly celebration of the resurrection (Christmas, Easter, Holy Name, Presentation, and Transfiguration). When August 6 falls on a Sunday, we skip whatever Sunday after Pentecost it would have been and celebrate the moment when Jesus climbed up the mountain with Peter, James, and John and was transfigured before them.

Since the event of the Transfiguration itself is important enough to supersede our weekly observance of the resurrection, it likely would behoove the preacher to preach on it. There's plenty of homeltical fodder there, and I'll get to it later in the week, but, before I do, I can't pass over the collect without digging into this beautiful prayer. I can already imagine attentive members of the congregation smiling or cocking their heads slightly to one side when they hear the presider say, "...mercifully grant that we, being delivered from the disquietude of this world, may by faith behold the King in his beauty..." During the week, I read and study the Rite Two version of the collect since it is what is included in the website. Occasionally, I will get to the 8am service and read or hear the Rite One collect and think, "I wish I'd paid more attention to that during the week." This time, though, one need not wait until the early service to encounter the majesty of prayer book language. Collects are often sources of elegant if outdated English, but this one ranks among the top of those poetic prayers.

May God deliver us from the disquietude of this world so that we may by faith behold our King in his true beauty. There are several layers of good, old-fashioned theology there that are worth exploring. First, what does the prayer mean by "disquietude of this world?" Why not just say "anxiety" or "uneasiness?" In the Christian worldview, there is something remarkably not the way it should be about this life, but we experience moments of transcendence when the kingdom of God pokes through and finds us in this life. The word "disquietude" implies that there is a distance between the present state of anxiety and the quietude that we seek. Something is amiss, and God can help us see it.

We are asking God to help us behold our King, who is Jesus Christ, in his beauty. Partly, that beauty is revealed in the Transfiguration--when his garments and skin become dazzling white and the divinity within shines through like the sun. The three disciples with him that day knew Jesus, but they had not beheld the fullness of his divinity until they retreated to the mountain top, where they were separated from the regular chaos and noise of life. The stepping aside opened up a new possibility to see who had been with them all along. Our prayer is that God would open up that same possibility to us, and it is built on a recognition that, like those disciples, we first need to be delivered from the disquietude that makes it impossible to behold it.

The collect, therefore, transports the Transfiguration out of its historical context and contemporizes it for us. We, too, come to see our Lord transfigured. We, too, want to behold him in all his beauty. We, too, must step aside from the chaos, anxiety, uneasiness of life in order to see it. God, strip us of our disquietude. Deliver us from our disquietude. Center us on your kingdom as it breaks through into our lives. Relieve the doubt and fear that cloud our sight. Enable us to see the truth before us.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

It Was Leah!

I'm not preaching this week, but, even if I was, I don't think I'd preach on Genesis 29 and the story of Jacob working fourteen years to marry his daughters Leah and Rachel. Still, there's a powerful understated nature to that story that I find compelling, and I hope the congregation is able to inhabit it even if there's no mention of it in the sermon.

You may remember that Jacob fled his home after deceiving his father and stealing the blessing that his father had reserved for his older brother Esau. His mother, who was behind the ruse, told him to feel to her kinsman Laban and live there with him for a while until Esau's anger died down. The lectionary skips over the first part of that story, but it picks up with Jacob working for Laban for seven years in exchange for his younger daughter Rachel. One might wonder why Jacob preferred to marry the younger daughter, especially given the NRSV's translation, which describes Leah's eyes as "beautiful." Other translations render that description as "weak." I'm not really sure what weak eyes look like, and I don't know why Jacob picked Rachel, but he did. She was "graceful and beautiful." So for seven years Jacob worked for his future father-in-law in order to earn Rachel's hand in marriage. Maybe it's worth noting what a reverse dowry that represents, but that's another conversation. My interest picks up when the old switcheroo takes place.

After seven years, Jacob enters into marriage with Laban's daughter. The text of Genesis 29 lets the reader know in advance what is happening--that Laban has swapped daughters and presented the older to marry Jacob--but Jacob's knowledge of the swap doesn't come until the next morning. After the wedding feast, Jacob "went in to her," which is to say that they had sexual intercourse and, in that act, became husband and wife. Then, in a beautifully constructed sentence as brief as the surprise itself, we read, "When morning came, it was Leah!" In those few words, we join Jacob in his shock. There was no need to explain again that he had married the wrong person. There is no need to narrate that moment. We can read those six words and see perfectly for ourselves the sun streaming into the room, the naked husband rolling over to gaze upon the bride for whom he had worked and waited for seven years, and the start with which he sat up and screamed: "It was Leah!"

I love understatement. I love how scripture says what needs to be said and leaves the rest to our own emotional engagement. I love how God's work unfolds in mysterious, partly-hidden ways until the light of morning shines upon it. I love how the author resists the temptation to say more than he or she needs to say. I love this story because the whole terrible cycle of love and labor and deceit and surprise and irreversibility are caught up in it. I love that Jacob does it all over again.

The Bible is a beautiful thing. Sometimes it is terrible. Sometimes it is repulsive. Sometimes it is captivating. Occasionally it is explicit. But it is always beautiful. This story reminds me that the whole story of scripture has been written for our learning--and not just intellectual learning but emotional and spiritual and experiential learning, too. These are not merely stories of characters from long ago. We can see ourselves in them because they are humans just like us. Their story really is our story, and it's a story worth reading and relishing again and again.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Six Kingdom Parables, Not Five

Yesterday, I wrote about the five parables about the kingdom that Jesus offers in Sunday's gospel lesson (Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52). At staff meeting yesterday, Seth reminded me that there are six. Jesus compares the kingdom with 1) a mustard seed, 2) yeast, 3) a hidden treasure, 4) a merchant searching for fine pearls, and 5) a net thrown into the sea. Then, he asks his disciples if they have understood all of this. When they say, "Yes," Jesus offers a sixth parable: "Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old."

This time he's talking about the kingdom indirectly. It's the scribes who are trained for the kingdom that get the comparison, but the point is the same. A scribe was someone who had studied the scriptures and traditions of their people. They were like religious lawyers--people who could interpret a circumstance using the rules of the religion. They had gone to school and had learned vast amounts. Like judges, their opinions were based on precedent. If a respected rabbi had written about a particular issue and it seemed to apply, they would have looked to it for guidance. But Jesus has a slightly different approach to scribes.

Scribes who have properly been trained for the kingdom of God, which Jesus describes in such strange ways, are like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and old. What does that mean? I think Jesus has in mind someone who makes use of the old silver and the new china, the bath towels he got at his wedding and the sheets she bought last week, the recipe she inherited from her great-grandmother and the idea he saw on Pintrest yesterday. That may not sound all that special. It's the kind of living most of us do all of the time, but think about how threatening that can be to a religious institution like the one to which Jesus is speaking--both in the first century and in the twenty-first.

"We have always done it that way." How powerful are those words? How important are they for the way a congregation does its work? How central are they to a denomination's leadership? How deeply woven are they into the fabric of a religion? Why do we do it like that? Because we always have. Why does it have to be that way? Because we've never done it any differently. Why can't we change things? Because if it isn't broken, don't try to fix it. Well, it is broken. All six of Jesus' parables suggest that our instinctive approach to the kingdom of God isn't adequate. We need to break the mold, shatter the glass ceiling, burst through barriers, and tear down walls. An expert on God's kingdom maintains old and new, tradition and innovation, familiar and unfamiliar.

If we are going to see the kingdom of God, we must ask God to give us eyes to see and ears to hear and a heart and mind and soul to perceive that which no one on earth can find without help. This is the kingdom of God. It is built on the traditions of our ancestors, and it is formed by the stories of tomorrow. If you think you understand it, you don't. If you think it can be encapsulated in a parable from the past, it can't. It's always bigger, always different, always changing. This Sunday, don't miss the interpretive lens of the sixth parable in the passage. It reminds us that the other five aren't static. All of them imply innovation. Even 2000 years later, if we aren't approaching the kingdom expecting to see something new, we'll miss the whole thing.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Nonsense Parables

Sometimes parables make plain sense, and sometimes parables only make sense because we've spent 2000 years convincing ourselves that we know what we're talking about. On Sunday, Jesus will offer five different images for the kingdom of God (Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52), and, after he's finished, he will ask, "Have you understood all of this?" And the disciples (or maybe the crowd, it's hard to tell) will reply, "Yes." But I'm not so sure.

When you describe heaven to a five-year-old, how do you describe it? Often, I use paradisiacal images, emphasizing the grandeur, the beauty, the peace, the joy, the perfection, the completeness. It's a banquet where all the good food never runs out. It's an experience in which every minute of every day is spent doing the thing that makes you truly happy. It's a place where everyone loves each other completely. But does that sound anything like Jesus' image?

People who supposedly die and have a vision of heaven never come back and tell us that heaven was like a mustard seed or a measure of yeast. It may be a treasure, but it's not hidden in a field. Surely in heaven all the fish are keepers and nothing needs to be thrown back. Yet that's how Jesus tells us to imagine the kingdom.

We understand that the kingdom starts small and then grows bigger than we could imagine--like a mustard seed or a measure of yeast. But mustard plants weren't really that desirable, and yeast often represents everything God doesn't want to happen. Is Jesus mixing his metaphors here? A treasure gets closer to our expectations, but why is it hidden in a field? Why does someone find it and somewhat surreptitiously sell all of his property in order to buy the field so that he can have the treasure for himself? Or that pearl of great value that causes the merchant, whose job it is to be a dealer of pearls, to give up his trade so that he can hoard his precious possession? Do we like hearing that the kingdom of heaven causes us to give up all that we have--even our identity--so that we might possess it? How is the kingdom like a net full of all kinds of fish--some that can be eaten and some that must be thrown back? Like the parable of the weeds of the field, must we really wait until the end of the age before God sorts everything out?

I love parable season. It's fun to read and study and preach and listen to sermons based on parables. But I don't love them because they're straightforward. I love them because I'm still wrestling with them. When Jesus asks, "Do you understand all of this?" We should say, "Not hardly, but we're working on it." This is the kind of work that takes more than a lifetime.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Being Wheat Amidst Weeds

July 23, 2017 – The 7th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 11A
© 2017 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon is available here.
When you look around and take stock of your life, what do you see? Are there more blessings than you can count? Are the challenges beginning to stack up? Does the road ahead seem clear and bright? Are you confident in the future that awaits you? Or are things a little less rosy? Do the uncertainties of tomorrow cause you more anxiety than hope? Are the people in your life on stable footing? Are you surrounded by people who share your perspective, who share your goals and outlook on life? Or does it seem like the many of the people in your life are undermining everything you’re working toward? Are you besieged by people who seem to want to work against you at every turn? Or, to use Jesus’ image, how does the field of your life look? Is it full of wheat? Full of weeds? Almost certainly it’s a mix of the two, but what sort of mix? Are the weeds merely an afterthought, or are they beginning to choke out everything else?

I never played a round of golf at the Decatur Country Club, so I can’t say what it felt like to walk the grounds, but I do know how beautiful the eastern edge of the course looked to the people who drove by on their way in or out of town. I loved looking out of my window at golfers walking down a picturesque fairway or standing on a green overlooking the water. Now that the club has closed, I am shocked to drive by and see chest-high weeds growing in the middle of the fairway, the carefully bordered greens and tee boxes disappearing into the wild grass around them, and even the drainage ditches overrun with crabgrass. In a matter of weeks, that carefully manicured place has given way to the weeds that were always hiding in plain sight. That’s the thing about mowing the grass: if you mow it every day, no one notices the weeds as they drive by at thirty-five miles an hour, but, as soon as you stop working to put on a good front, the weeds pop up as visible as a stalk of corn in the middle of a cotton field. If you put your guard down and allowed yourself to take a good, careful, close look at what is growing up in your life, what sort of weeds would you find?

I don’t know anyone who is living a life that doesn’t have at least its fair share of weeds. We all deal with loss. There are struggles and frustrations. Bad news always seems to outpace the good news. If the doctor hasn’t given us a difficult diagnosis, then it’s someone we love who is facing that challenge. Our son can’t keep a job long enough to get out of debt. Our daughter’s children are more than she can manage. On the surface, our marriage seems ok, but what’s the conversation like when no one else is listening? Age catches up with all of us, but some of us have to deal with the ravages of decline more quickly and powerfully than we expected. All of us have to deal with weeds.

What do those weeds mean? Where did they come from? Are they our own doing, or did they just happen? Do they mean that we haven’t tried hard enough, that we didn’t work hard enough when we had the chance, that we didn’t make the right choices when the moment came? What about the person who did everything right but still has to face unbelievable challenges? Is God spreading weeds in her life to teach her a lesson? To punish her for some secret sin? To test her faith and see if she’s strong enough? Or maybe it means that God has forgotten you altogether or perhaps that God isn’t even real. Do those thoughts ever come to your mind? Does it ever feel like the weeds are growing up faster than you can keep up with them? Does it ever feel like the weeds might win?

Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared with a man who sowed good seed in his field, but, while everyone was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away.” By the time the weeds were recognized as such, they had grown up along with the wheat, and, when the field hands saw it, they came to their master and offered to help. “Do you want us to go and gather the weeds?” they asked. But the master gave them a strange response: “No, for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers to [separate them].” And, when Jesus said those words, the people who heard him looked at one another and said, “That sounds like the kind of farming advice you’d get from a carpenter’s son.”

That may seem like a good idea to us but only because we don’t know what we’re talking about. There was no reason to let the weeds grow with the wheat. Experts in first-century Palestinian farming (yes, they do exist) tell us that the roots don’t really entangle like that, and the weeds would have been poisonous if it any of them had been ground up with the flour. It’s so much easier to get rid of the weeds as soon as you see them. The farmhands know how to make this situation better. All you have to do is pull up the weeds. Why won’t the master let them? If he has the power to fix it, why won’t the master take care of the problem before it gets any worse? Why? Because this isn’t the kind of field that we’re used to seeing out our window when we drive through Lawrence County or on our way down I-565. The field that Jesus has in mind is the kingdom of God, and the only way that we’ll see it is if God gives us eyes to see and ears to hear and a heart and mind and spirit to understand what he’s talking about.

It is hard to believe in a loving God who has the power to make everything better and yet allows terrible things to happen to the people that God supposedly loves. It is hard to believe that a God who sits by while one tragedy befalls another will ever step in and make things right. It is hard to hope in God’s promise of salvation when the only thing we can see around us is weeds. But that’s how the kingdom of God works. That’s how God’s reign—his rule, his will, his plan—unfolds. It isn’t all at once. It takes a lifetime; it takes generations to see how God is working his purposes out. We spend our whole lives living amidst blessings and challenges, opportunities and setbacks. The person of faith is one who sees and trusts and believes that even when the weeds are growing up all around us God is still there.

Faith is learning that we cannot fix things on our own. Faith is trusting that in time God will fulfill his promises and bring us into the fullness of his kingdom. We cannot make that kingdom happen all at once. Instead, like the wheat in God’s field, our job is to keep growing, keep watching, keep waiting, and keep trusting that in time all things will be made right. We must ask God to give us the gift of faith in order to see the kingdom growing up as the wheat amidst the weeds. We must ask God to give us the gift of hope in order to believe that there is always light on the other side of darkness. The journey of Christ from the darkness of the cross through death and into the light of Easter must become our journey as well. The weeds will not win. In God’s kingdom, they never win. Ask God to help you see what no eyes can see: that promised field of the righteous shining like the sun in the kingdom of God when at last God makes all things new.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Pesky Weeds

In the parable of the wheat and the weeds (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43), I love how the slaves who work in the field come to their master after noticing that weeds have sprung up and say, "Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?" There's a layer of quiet accusation in those words--like the way a parent might say to a child, "You did put your name on your homework before you turned it in, right?" When the field suddenly erupts with weeds, the people who are going to have to work to pull those weeds or separate them from the wheat at the harvest can't help but ask a question to which they already know the answer, "You did use the good seed, right?"

Growing up, "rolling someone's house" by putting toilet paper in their trees felt like a harmless way to prank someone. No crime is victimless, of course, and I am not advocating it. But those pranksters who wanted to cause greater damage would throw eggs or roll the trees with cassette tape instead of toilet paper. Although I never knew of anyone who did it, we also knew that salting someone's yard in order to kill their grass was a particularly terrible thing to do. After reading the parable of the wheat and weeds, I wonder why people don't buy sacks full of crabgrass seed and scatter it all through someone's lawn. Of course, I don't need anyone to do that. My stand of crabgrass propagates itself throughout the summer. But I know a few fastidious lawn keepers whose spouses and neighbors might ask after seeing crabgrass pop up everywhere, "You did use the right weed-and-feed, right?"

In the parable of the wheat and the weeds, the weeds come not from bad seed or poor farming techniques but from an enemy. To his slaves, the master replies, "An enemy has done this." That's silly. No one does that. At staff meeting, Seth Olson pointed out laughingly what it must have been like for the enemy to walk past the field every day with a smile on his face, waiting for the weeds to grow up. It's a comical context for this story, and maybe that's the point. When we call out to God in our moment of struggle and say, "Why did you do this to me? Why is this so hard?" God's reply is, "An enemy has done this."

Sometimes we get stuck focusing on the challenge in front of us, and sometimes we need to be reminded that we pray to the one who saves us not the one who has plagued us. The psalm appointed in morning prayer yesterday was Psalm 38. When I read it, it came as such a challenge. For 20 verses, the psalmist rehearses for God all the things that aren't going right--wounds that stink and fester, enemies that are waiting to take his life, iniquity that he can't seem to shake. Then, almost out of no where, in verse 21 the prayer shifts and takes on a new focus: "Do not forsake me, O Lord...make haste to help me, O Lord, my salvation." The long confession ends with a prayer for help. As I read those words, it felt like the psalmist suddenly snapped out of his fog of trouble and saw that help was only as far away as a prayer.

Life is full of weeds. If this week's sermon prep has reminded me of anything it's that. And where do those weeds come from? Sometimes we create them with our own spiritual negligence. Often, however, they just spring up as if sown by the devil himself. There are struggles and hardships growing in the soil of our lives. God, why is that so? Because it just is. But our focus should be on God's solution. One day, all will be well. One day, we will be left to shine in the sun. One day, all the weeds will be gone. But until then we have to live with them and pray that God would give us strength to see the hope that waits at harvest time.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

What To Do With Weeds

Every week in staff meeting, we read the gospel lesson for the upcoming Sunday and discuss it. It is impossible for me to convey in a blog post or a sermon how important it is for me to have spent time in conversation with my colleagues about what God is saying to God's people through the words of holy scripture before preaching a sermon. Not only do I learn from their insights, but I also have the chance to rehearse mine aloud and then receive their reactions to them. Sometimes, when I think I have something clever or helpful to offer, I discover in their responses that I've vastly overestimated my cleverness, and the sermon preparation begins to take a new direction. Yesterday, we read and discussed the parable of the wheat and the weeds and its interpretation (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43), and, again, I learned something important.

After we read Jesus' vivid image of the farmer and his servants and the enemy who scattered weeds amidst the wheat and the promise of the separation and consumption of the weeds at the harvest, I asked our staff what images within the passage caught their attention or imagination. After everyone had taken time to share, I found it interesting and surprising that no one mentioned the furnace. Don't we care about the burning of the weeds? Aren't we worried about the weeping and gnashing of teeth? Doesn't Jesus' message of judgment leave us feeling uneasy? Their answer? Nope.

Although I expected at least one person to mention the furnace, I wasn't really worried about it either. As a preacher in a Bible-Belt context, I anticipated that the readers and hearers of this passage would fixate on the threat of judgment and miss the hope that Jesus is conveying with those words. Given the staff's lack of interest in the furnace, I suspect I'm over-thinking this aspect, but part of this lesson's teaching for me is a reminder that the fire of judgment is good news for those who have been growing up in a field full of weeds.

In twenty-first-century America, where we have learned the importance of tolerance and have witnessed the damage that propagators of hateful religion can have on those inside and outside the church, many mainline clergy and lay people are reluctant to talk about hell fire. In those circles of polite post-Christian society, to suggest that someone might spend eternity in a place of unimaginable torment is almost unspeakable. (Just ask Bernie Sanders or Russell Vought.) I think we cringe at the thought that we might represent a faith that believes that those who reject its tenets will go to hell. But that's not what Jesus has in mind when he speaks about the fiery furnace--at least not in this passage.

In the parable of the wheat and the weeds, the servants of the farmer ask whether they should try to pull up the weeds when they are first noticed, but the farmer says no. He's worried that uprooting the weeds will also uproot the wheat. Instead, they are left to grow together until the harvest, when they will be collected, separated, and dispensed with accordingly. When Jesus gives his disciples the interpretation, he expounds upon that last point, saying, "The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father." Is that bad news? Only if you're a weed. For the wheat, the promise is that they will shine like the sun in God's kingdom.

We live with weeds. They grow up in ourselves, in our lives, and all around us. What are we to do about it? In short, Jesus tells us to deal with it--to deal with it however we can until God finally makes all things right. Eventually, those who oppress God's children, those who disenfranchise God's children, those who take from them, abuse them, and kill them, will all be dealt with by God and God's justice. To those who were being tortured and killed for the faith, the hope for justice was found in the fires of hell, where the tormentors would be cast. In a moment of agony that seems to have no end, it can be helpful to imagine a future in which all those troubles are as completely eliminated as grass that is thrown into a fire. In other words, the focus of this parable isn't to threaten those who get in the way of God's children's fruitfulness but to encourage God's children that one day all will truly be right.

I'm encouraged that our staff wasn't too worried about the furnace. Maybe talking about it with them and writing this blog post will enable me to move on to the heart of Jesus' message in this parable: hope for the faithful. The furnace is just a piece of that hope. It may not be the way you or I would express that hope today, but the hope is still real. One day, God will make all things right. And that hope makes it possible to live with the weeds until then.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Replacing Faith with Love

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

This Saturday is the feast of Mary Magdalene, but at St. John's we are celebrating a little early because we do not have a service on Saturday and because this is a feast that we don't want to miss. There's something about the faith and witness of Mary Magdalene that, unlike that of almost every other hero of our faith, invites us to give a part of ourselves to Jesus that we rarely think to give.

Her story is obscured by conflicting accounts in the gospel--perhaps obscured because the writers did not quite know how to express her relationship with Jesus in words. Luke describes her as one from whom seven demons had gone out. Mark echoes this part of the story but only in the longer ending--the part that we're almost certain was added on long after Mark's original account was finished. Some blend different stories together and think of her as the repentant prostitute who anointed Jesus' feet and wiped them with her hair, but there's no evidence of that in the gospel except that the gospel makes it clear that she had deep devotion for her Lord. The only portrayal of Mary Magdalene that is consistent across the gospel accounts is that of a woman who stood by the cross and watched Jesus take his last breath and of the first witness to the empty tomb. No wonder the story got a little mixed up. No words, no story of demon-possession and exorcism, no tale of a prostitute's cleansing tears, could overstate a love like that.

I don't think it's an accident that the kind of devotion that held Mary Magdalene by the cross is the same devotion that enabled her to be the first one to see that Jesus had risen. On Easter Day, our focus is on the risen Lord, and the Magdalene's role in the story takes a back seat. On this occasion, however, we have the opportunity to see how a love like hers opened up the path to redemption that all of us enjoy.

See again the story of Easter through her gaze of love and devotion (John 20:1, 11-18). "Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed." According to John, she was the only one who came. And why did she go? What did she expect to see? Not that he had been raised, for the angels and even Jesus himself caught her completely off guard. No, she made her pilgrimage to the tomb because she could not let him go. Even though he had been taken from her, she refused to give up her love for him. She wanted to be near him. She would rather bathe in the agony of her loss than try to move on. To that devotion, in response to that love, God made the miracle of Easter manifest to her.

I wonder whether anyone else could have seen it first. Had anyone else been strolling through that cemetery in those predawn hours, I wonder whether they could have seen what Mary saw. Somehow, I suspect that her unfailing, unbreakable love for Jesus unlocked the truth of the empty tomb in a way that could not have been true for anyone else. Only pure love could make a love like that come into the light of day.

How do you love Jesus? Do you love him when you come to church once or twice a week? Do you love him when you say your prayers each day? Do you love him enough to go on a mission trip or deliver flowers to shut-ins or write a big check to the church? Or do you love him in that way that holds you to the cross and brings you weeping to the tomb? Do you love him with such unshakable devotion that he has to speak to you and say, "Do not hold on to me because I have not yet ascended to my Father?"

If we want to see the risen Lord, if we want to discover the miracle of Easter, we must love Jesus as Mary Magdalene loved him--with that strange love that surpasses even the love we have for friend or parent or child or spouse. We must be recklessly devoted to our Lord. We must set aside axioms of intellectual assent, doctrines of the church, and quotations from the Bible, and simply and purely love the one who is our true first love. Only love like that can bring perfect love into the light of day. May we love Jesus as he has loved us.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Grow Together or Not?

My favorite thing about preaching on parables is that different commentators use completely opposite interpretations to reach the same conclusion. I haven't read any of the secondary literature on the Parable of the Wheat and Weeds (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43) yet, but I recall there being significant disagreement as to whether the wheat and the weeds would normally be allowed to grow together.

The parable presents a good farmer who sowed good feed in his field. While he slept, an enemy came and sowed weeds amidst the wheat. When they both grew up, the farmer told his laborers to let them grow together and then sort it out at the harvest. I presume that this is good advice for disciples, but is it good advice for farmers?

Some theologians (notably not farmers or biologists) argue that a particular species of weed, in the first few weeks of growing, is almost indistinguishable from a wheat plant, meaning that Jesus' kingdom advice is also good agricultural advice. But I'm not so sure. Note that the reason that the farmer gives isn't because the wheat and weeds are indistinguishable but because their roots are entangled. Also, note that the laborers can tell that weeds have been sown amidst the wheat--that they seem evident at this point. If Jesus' argument hinges on this being good agricultural advice, he's not making that clear.

I take the opposite approach. I think that anyone who has grown anything--from the largest commercial farmer to the smallest backyard plot--knows that it's not a good idea to let weeds grow up amidst your crop. In the past, I've preached on the herb garden I started in our backyard in Montgomery. As the herbs began to take root, some grass and other weeds began to invade the territory. Recalling this passage, I decided to let them grow up together and see what happens. Within two weeks, I had abandoned the entire operation. The herbs were almost unidentifiable. At that moment, I knew that Jesus' parables aren't intended as good advice for farmers but strange advice for disciples.

In almost every parable, there's a strange detail that catches our attention. It's the "wait a minute; that's not right" moment that is designed to teach us something. There's something strange about the kingdom of God, and the parables are designed to help us see what we otherwise would not notice with our earth-trained sight. In yesterday's Parable of the Sower, it was the indiscriminate sowing that didn't make sense. This week, it's the farmer who allows the weeds and wheat to grow up together. That doesn't make sense, but that's how the kingdom works.

This week, I'm working toward a sermon about living in the kingdom of God amidst all the weeds that seem to stand in the way. In fact, they don't stand in the way at all. They are a part of what it means to grow up under God's reign. God doesn't sort it all out on the front end. We have to wait for it. Jesus words are an encouragement and a challenge, and I suspect that there's a message in them that I need to hear this week.

Listen With Your Whole Life

July 16, 2017 – The 6th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 10A
© 2017 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon is available here.
I suspect that parables are as much fun for the congregation as they are for the preacher. Jesus’ short little stories or analogies give us a glimpse into who God is and who we are and how God is inviting us into his kingdom. They are powerful in their simplicity, yet, two thousand years later, they still captivate us with their subtlety. And, as long as he doesn’t butcher the beauty of Jesus’ words by attempting to dissect them, the preacher has the privilege of inviting a congregation to listen afresh to what Jesus has to say.

Today’s gospel lesson is the first of three in a row in which Jesus will speak to us in parables about God’s kingdom. In fact, this passage is, in effect, a parable about parables, and Jesus offers it to us as an interpretive key for what follows. Typically, when we encounter a parable, it helps to ask ourselves what detail stands out as particularly ridiculous since the part that would have made Jesus’ audience scratch their heads or laugh in disbelief is usually the part that he intends to teach us something. Remember, Jesus wasn’t offering good advice for farmers but strange advice for disciples. This time, though, I’m not sure that the part that was shocking to his audience is still shocking to us today, and I think there’s more for us in the twenty-first century to learn from what those in the first century would have taken for granted.

To a first-century Palestinian, the weirdness of this parable was contained in the foolishness of the sower. Just as no sensible farmer would waste precious seed by scattering it on the path or on rocky ground or amidst thorns, no one in Jesus’ day expected God to offer the seeds of the kingdom to anyone but the most deserving. In the minds of the ancient faithful, God would have reserved the fullness of his reign for the religious elites—the scribes and the Pharisees—but Jesus came to share the kingdom with tax collectors and sinners—to those who would receive it gratefully and whole-heartedly. But I think we’ve come to expect that. Shocking though it may be that God loves the sinner as much as the saint, I don’t think that’s the surprising detail that we need to focus on today. Instead, I think the harder truth for us is that we cannot hear the good news of the kingdom if we are only listening with our ears and our minds. If we are to hear what Jesus will tell us about God’s reign, we must also listen with the way we live our lives.

To someone in Jesus’ original audience that would have been obvious. Naturally, they would have thought, no one can receive the wisdom of God if he or she does not live a life worthy of it. In that culture, it was universally accepted that what we know about God is as much influenced by how we act and even what we eat as by what we read and hear and study. Holy thoughts come to holy people—not just intelligent ones. That just made sense. But remember that that’s not the point that Jesus is making. In this parable, the sower scatters the truth of the kingdom to everyone regardless of their receptivity. And that turns everything on its head. In Jesus’ reckoning, God isn’t withholding the kingdom from those who don’t deserve it. God is pouring it out liberally and trusting that those who are able to receive it will and that those who aren’t will watch it pass by. As present-day hearers of this parable, therefore, the challenge for us is holding onto the universality of the sower’s scattering without forgetting that how we receive it makes all the difference.

Perhaps we should focus on the thing that Jesus tells us to do in this passage: “Listen!” But what does it mean to listen like that? Actually, a better translation of that word would be, “Behold!” Jesus is asking us to do more than hear the words that come from his mouth. He’s inviting us to see the thing that he is showing us, to perceive the reality that he is communicating, and that’s not as easy as hearing the words.

Jesus said, “Hear then the parable of the sower.” When anyone hears the word of the kingdom but doesn’t understand it, the evil one comes and snatches it away, and, just like the seed scattered on the path, it never takes root. But lack of understanding is only the first stumbling block we face. Some initially receive the word with joy, but, like seed scattered on rocky ground, they lack the patience and endurance that are needed to let the news of the kingdom take deep root, and, when trouble comes and the fulfillment of the kingdom is delayed, they lose heart and fall away. Others hear the news of the kingdom and want to receive it deeply, but their ties to the wealth and concerns of this world, like thorns, choke out the kingdom. I don’t know about you, but I suspect that listening with your ears is a lot easier than listening with your whole lives—with your hearts and souls and minds and strengths and wallets and families and careers and hopes and dreams.

Over the next two Sundays, Jesus is going to speak to us about the kingdom of God in ways we will not understand unless we offer him lives that are receptive not only to his words but also to his ways. He will speak of wheat and weeds growing together in a field, of a mustard seed and a measure of yeast, of a merchant in search of fine pearls and a treasure hidden in a field, and of a net that drags in all kinds of fish. And none of that will make its way into our hearts unless we listen with more than our ears. That’s because the kingdom of God doesn’t make sense to those who aren’t already living inside of it.

Just as we cannot truly hear each other with our faces buried in our smart phones or our eyes glued to the television, we cannot hear what Jesus will tell us about the reign of God if we are not living lives that reflect the kingdom he proclaims. The fullness of God’s reign does not make itself manifest all at once. It takes time—always more time than we want to give. The peace and justice and restoration that we seek are promised, but they do not come when we want them. And those who will not wait, those who interpret hardship and struggle as signs that God has forgotten them, never have the depth of character needed to see the fruit of God’s kingdom. Instead, the kingdom comes to those who endure the sufferings of this world with patience and perseverance and faith. But how good are we at that? A full belly is as close as a walk to the pantry. A new winter coat is only a click away. The opportunity to air our every grievance to a sympathetic audience is as near as our next Facebook post. How will we endure waiting for the coming of God’s kingdom when we live in a culture that is accustomed to waiting no more than two days before our next purchase is brought right to our front door?

We don’t like hearing it, but, if Jesus makes anything clear, it’s that people who enjoy the riches of this earthly life cannot enjoy the riches of heaven, too. If we are going to receive the fullness of God’s kingdom, we must pull up the thorns of avarice that choke out the kingdom’s growth before it has a chance to bear fruit. We must sell what we have and give it all away. We must let go of mother and father and sister and brother and son and daughter and live only for the kingdom. We must stop worrying about what we will eat and drink and wear and concern ourselves only with what God is doing in our lives. And you know what? I can’t do that. I can’t afford to sell it all. I can’t let go of the life I enjoy. I can’t let go of the family I love. And I’m willing to bet that you can’t do it either. So what does that mean for us?

It means we need help. It means we need more than a good teacher, more than spiritual guide, more than a wise counselor, more than an earnest preacher. We need a savior. We need Jesus. We need someone who takes us will all of our deficiencies and reshapes into a receptacle worthy of God’s kingdom. We can’t think our way into heaven. We can’t comprehend our way into the fullness of God’s reign. We need the patience and the perseverance and the selflessness that lead to the kind of thirty-fold, sixty-fold, and even hundred-fold supernatural bounty that only God can bring about. We can’t get those things on our own, and the good news of the kingdom is that we don’t have to. 

God is scattering his kingdom upon us and all around us more fully than we can even imagine, and we need a savior to open up our minds and our hearts and our lives to receive it. Ask God to show you the kingdom. Ask God to open up not only your ears but also your heart and your soul so that you can behold the kingdom all around you. Ask God to take the meager offering of your life and make you worthy of something truly spectacular. That’s what it takes to behold the kingdom of God, and that’s the transformation that Jesus makes possible. The wisdom of the kingdom is ordinary sinners like you and me finding ourselves included in God’s great and glorious reign, and, because God himself makes that possible, we get to see it take place with God’s help.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Inaccessible Truth

Do you remember the book and movie The Polar Express? Like many "Christmas" stories, it centers on Santa Claus and whether growing-up children will continue to believe in him. The story uses a bell from Santa's sleigh as a device that shows whether someone still believes. To those who do believe, the bell rings with a beautiful sound. To those who do not believe, the bell is silent--presumed broken. If you do not believe in Santa Claus, there is nothing you can do to hear the bell. It just won't ring for you. Simple as that.

To say that Sunday's gospel lesson (Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30) is difficult is an understatement. All of us--preacher and congregation--will be challenged by Jesus' intimidating words. My friend, Steve Pankey, wrote about this challenge yesterday, which is why I'm still thinking about it today. He points out that Jesus' "comfortable words" about the yoke being easy and the burden being light sound almost ironic given the threatening words that surround them. I like how Steve handles that, and it's worth a read. I'm tacking that issue in a different way with this post. Instead of focusing on the words of reassurance and the need for God's help to ease our burden, I want to look for hope in the preceding verses about hearing Jesus' message like a child.

Our twenty-first-century sensibilities don't like it, but Jesus doesn't preach universalism. He preaches salvation for some and damnation for others. There's room for "expanding" that approach and making a universalist case from the gospel, but, for the most part, Jesus is pretty plain when he says that there are sheep and goats, wheat and weeds, those welcome at the banquet and those cast out into the outer darkness. There's good news within that, however. The basis for discrimination isn't whether you're a good person or a bad person but whether you believe that Jesus represents God's will for God's people. That means that those of us who identify Jesus as the one God sent to save the world are saved. It's grace. It's faith. But the bad news that we encounter in this gospel lesson is that, like the bell from The Polar Express, those of us who identify as wise and intelligent will never be able to make that connection. Only children--those who think like infants--will get it.

Jesus says, "I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will." This pattern of obfuscation, which Jesus borrows from Isaiah 6, runs throughout the gospel. In this section, Jesus is using these words both as a judgment on the hot-or-cold reception that his words and deeds have already received as well as a judgment on the future of his ministry. In the verses that the lectionary omits, Jesus pronounces judgment upon Chorazin and Bethsaida and Capernaum for not receiving the miracles he had done there. In the next chapter, Jesus is accused of letting his disciples break the sabbath by plucking grain, of breaking the sabbath himself by healing a man with a withered hand, and of being possessed by a demon. Then, in chapter 13, he will use the parable of the sower to describe how the word of God, which he has brought, falls in all different kinds of terrain, only bearing fruit in some, as the second half of bookended commentary on his opponents' willingness to receiving him as God-sent. And what is the subject of the difference? "Do you hear me as one who is wise and intelligent, or do you hear me as an infant?"

I have four children. None of them is an infant any longer, but the youngest is not quite two years old, so life with an infant is still pretty familiar. Infants don't care about details. They like the wrapping paper as much as the present. They don't ask where their food came from. If they like it, they eat it. If they don't, they won't. They don't worry about whether their diaper bag is from Prada or Target. They don't care whether you are black or white, liberal or conservative, or rich or poor. They don't care whether you have a criminal record. They don't care whether your jokes are funny, whether your stories are good, or whether you have a pretty voice. Most of the time, all infants care about is whether they are being held by someone who cares for them, whether they will be fed when they are hungry, and whether they will be changed when their diaper needs changing. Is that how we are receiving the good news of Jesus Christ?

The beauty of Jesus' message is that it's simple. It's all about love--radical, life-changing, earth-shattering love. In order to receive that message, we must let go of our worries about mortgage payments, power bills, and car notes. We must forget about what we eat and wear. We must not worry about the things that divide us. Like an infant, we must be willing to trade in our 401(k) for our next meal. We must be willing to open our door to anyone who brings us a shiny piece of cellophane. We must be willing to set aside all of our plans for tomorrow and all of our memories of the past to seize the moment that surrounds us. That's a terrible way to live in this world, but it's the only way we can live in the next.

If we find Jesus' words threatening, counter-productive, or hyperbolic, it's because we are trying to make sense of them as wise and intelligent people. And we'll never understand him as long as we approach the gospel like reasonable, rational people. We must become like infants--utterly foolish, utterly rash, utterly distractible infants. That's good news...unless you're one of the ones who can't hear it.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Not Big on Pork or Demons

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

According to the two-year daily Eucharistic lectionary provided in Lesser Feasts & Fasts, 2006, the gospel lesson appointed for today is Matthew 8:28-34, the passage in which Jesus heals the Gadarene demoniacs. This story takes place near the end of a long line of miracle stories in which Matthew makes a case for Jesus' identity as the Son of God. First, he cleansed a leper by touching him (Matt. 8:1-4). Then, he healed the Roman centurion's servant at a distance (8:5-13). Then, Matthew tells us that, while he was staying at his disciple Peter's house, he healed many who were sick or possessed by demons (8:18-22). After a brief word of instruction about the need to leave everything behind to follow him ("let the dead bury their own dead"), he stilled the storm while riding in a boat with the disciples (8:23-27). Immediately following today's passage, this healing cycle culminates in the healing of a paralytic, whose sins Jesus pronounces as forgiven (9:1-8). And then there's today's story--a strange little tale about two demoniacs being freed from their possession. What place in the case for Jesus as the Son of God does this passage have?

I wonder whether the first readers of Matthew's gospel account identified the same irony I see in the demoniac's clear identification of Jesus as the Son of God. This is the case that Matthew is making with his retelling of the story, and, before he's even finished, the unholy, ungodly demons reveal the divine truth: "What have you to do with us, Son of God?" Because these words come from demons, they are able to say what no one else has been able to proclaim--Jesus' true identity. They see what others cannot see. Perhaps the tradition of the pre-existent Son of God being present when Satan and his forces were cast out of heaven impregnates this text, but I suspect it's less direct than that. More than anything, it's a way for Matthew to show how Jesus' real identity is accessible by those who inhabit a spiritual plane, but I also think that the gospel writer is conveying a subtle criticism here, too. He's reminding us that those of us who do not inhabit that spiritual plane might miss what is standing right in front of them.

There are some other clues in this passage that suggest that Matthew might have the spiritually uninformed in his sights. The land of the Gadarenes was Gentile territory, and, even if you aren't up on your first-century Palestinian geography, you can tell that from the presence of a large herd of swine in the story. Pork, of course, isn't kosher. The children of Israel were forbidden from eating it. More than that, however, they were not allowed to touch pigs, raise pigs, or allow pigs to live in their towns. Pigs, as you might know, are omnivores, and, as such, they have a tendency to dig into shallow graves and munch on poorly buried corpses--a fact both disgusting and doubly unclean. So pigs were absolutely forbidden in the presence of God's people. These Gadarenes, however, were Gentiles, so keeping swine was no big deal. Once cast out of the people, the demons, represented as equally ungodly, find their home in the equally ungodly herd of swine. Naturally, the swineherds, by virtue of keeping the pigs and touching them and living with them, were thought of among the most unclean in their society. They become the counter-evangelists, who run to the town and share the disturbing news of the exorcism, and the townspeople, despite being freed from the burden of two uncontainable demoniacs, meet Jesus and ask him to leave.

The demons can tell who Jesus is, but the swineherds and the townspeople cannot. The demons submit themselves to Jesus' authority, but the Gadarenes ask him to go away. Just as we criticize the disciples for failing to grasp the entirety of Jesus' message, just as we condemn the religious authorities for turning against Jesus, it is easy for us to be critical of the Gentiles who were not enlightened enough to recognize who it was that stood in front of them, but how sure are we that we are standing on the right side of that spiritual divide? How confident are we in our ability to recognize Jesus for who he really is?

Anyone who loves mother or father or sister or brother or son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Sell all that you have and give it to the poor and then follow me. Anyone who wants to save his life will lose it and anyone who loses his life for my sake will find it. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Blessed are the meek, the hungry, the poor, and the powerless. That's Jesus. But do we recognize him?

We live in twenty-first-century Bible-belt America. Christianity has never been easier, but following Jesus is just as hard as it has ever been. Do we have the spiritual eyes we need to recognize him and his words and his work, or have we become so accustomed to a sanitized, depoliticized, popularized religion that we've lost that spiritual sightedness? Like a herd of swine feeding on a hillside, our comfortable life stands in the way of what Jesus is doing in the world around us and would do within us if we would only recognize it. Where is he to be found? Amidst the outcasts, the sinners, the refugees, the illegal immigrants, the homeless, the illiterates, the alcoholics, the addicts, and the gamblers. Where are those of us who claim to follow him to be found? Comfortable offices and comfortable churches with comfortable pews. It's easy to see Jesus when you in habit a faith that is removed from the ministry of Jesus, but it's impossible to recognize him as the Son of God.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Freedom for Whom?

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

On their way out of church, people will sometimes say to me, "Did you notice how the hymns we sang and the lessons and the sermon all tied together?" I usually smile and say, "Isn't it funny how that worked out? Sometimes I guess things just fall in place together." Like watching sausage being made, if they had sat in on the not-so-godly "conversation" that Foster, our organist, and I had over which hymns we should sing, they might not ever come back to church. Together, he and I work hard to make sure that our music dovetails with the readings in ways that reinforce God's word to the congregation each week yet still give them the chance to sing hymns they love. We trust that even those who do not notice will appreciate our efforts in subconscious ways.

In the same way, it shouldn't surprise us that the collect for each week usually ties in with the readings and the broader spirit of the day. I don't have anything to do with that, but the people who have shaped the lectionary throughout the centuries have made sure that in ways subtle and not-so-subtle all of our prayers and thoughts in worship are "collected" together in one, clear, over-arching prayer for the occasion. That's particularly clear on days like Christmas Day and Easter Day and Thanksgiving Day, when the text of the collect and the day's liturgical celebration are already on everyone's mind. On other days, like the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, the connections are harder to see but can usually be teased out without much effort. I rarely preach on the collect. It is a part of my formation as I prepare for a sermon, but, like the hymns, I hardly ever focus on it, but today, Independence Day, the collect seems to beg for a sermon.

Every year, as we approach the Fourth of July, Byron Rushing, who currently serves as the Vice-President of the House of Deputies of the Episcopal Church, sends an e-mail to the listserve for members of the General Convention, reminding us that the collect for Independence Day misses the mark in a profound way: "Lord God Almighty, in whose Name the founders of this country won liberty for themselves and for us..." He asks us to look around at the members of our congregation and ask whether that is a true statement for our community and then ask to what extent that is a true statement for the Episcopal Church and for all who celebrate this patriotic holiday. Who are the we that pray this collect? Is it only the European descendants whose liberty was secured when the founders of this country won independence from Great Britain? What about those whose freedom was not guaranteed until after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation and after the Civil War was fought over the question of whether southern states had the right supersede the federal government's authority to declare that human beings could not be owned as property?

And what about those who are in different forms of slavery to this day? What about the disproportionate number of African-American men who serve long prison sentences for non-violent offences? What about the children who grow up without those fathers and the wives who struggle to make ends meet in their absence? What about the multitude of people that are trapped by mental illness and who, because they are stigmatized by society, continue to be denied reasonable health care? What about those teenagers who are lured away from their homes and families and sold into sexual slavery? What about the parents who fled violence and have come to this country in search of freedom only to discover that fear over their immigration status requires them to work below the minimum wage and without any benefits because they have no one to whom they can report their bosses' employment violations?

Who is really free? For whom was that liberty fought? In the 241 years since the Declaration of Independence was signed, who has been given the gift of freedom, and who still waits to be set free?

Jesus said, "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous." Until that vision is a reality, true and universal liberty will still be a dream. Liberty cannot exist when they are held by some and denied to others. It requires complete vulnerability. It requires those with power to risk their status by yielding to the welfare of the other. Jesus' vision is of a reign where all recognize universal access to the good life--shared access, shared possession, shared future. That's radical stuff. It's a vision of a world that we are not ready for. It's a vision of a world that can only exist when God reigns.

Real freedom is something that only God can give. God alone can be wholly vulnerable yet completely powerful. Only God can accept the threat of universal submission to the welfare of the other without any diminution. This is the kind of divine work that the contemporary theologian Kathryn Tanner envisions when she simultaneously emphasizes God as the giver of all good gifts and the non-competitive nature of the relationship between the Trinity and humanity (see K. Tanner's Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity). We must remember, therefore, that our nation, despite being a beacon of liberty in this world, is not the author of liberty. We are its distributors. To the extent to which we recognize that God, not us, is the source of all blessings and share those blessings without limitation, we are true to our godly heritage. To the extent to which we confuse the origin of those blessings and maintain a tight grip on what we have been given, we deny what it means to live in the land of the free. Until we are all free, none of us is free. Until all of us live a life of liberty, that liberty is only a story. On this anniversary of freedom's declaration, may we search for true liberty in the one who gives it until we share in it equally with all people.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Schizophrenic Collect

This coming Sunday, we will pray a collect that reflects Jesus' summary of the law: "O God, you have taught us to keep all your commandments by loving you and our neighbor: Grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to you with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection..." I like the rhythmic balance of those words. As one who appreciates symmetry and order, I find that mirrored two-fold structure very satisfying. Unfortunately, something is missing...or at least easy to overlook.

This Sunday's reading from Romans (7:15-25a) takes all of that law-abiding optimism and throws it right in the toilet of the human condition: "I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate...I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do." Summary of the law meet the power of sin. Paul stresses that he knows what he is supposed to do, which he defines as the law. That's his way of saying, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, strength, soul, and mind and love your neighbor as yourself." He knows what he is supposed to do, and he earnestly wants to do it. This reality has written for him a new law: "So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand." Despite delighting in the law of the Lord in his "inmost self," which is to say his heart and mind and soul and strength, he sees on the outside his members, which is to say his hands and his feet and his tongue and his eyes, competing as if at war with that inner desire. His heart wants to do good, but his body is a slave to evil.

It almost feels like Paul's exposition on sin and the human condition have been chosen as a perfect pair for this collect in a way that makes the attentive worshipper feel pulled by two opposing minds. Jesus tells us what we are supposed to do, and Paul tells us that we can't do it even if we try. Welcome to life.

How does this get resolved? There's a powerful statement in the collect that is easy to ignore. It isn't as balanced or clever as the rest of the prayer, but it is actually the subject of the whole prayer: "Grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit." That is the missing but essential piece. God has taught us what we are supposed to do (the law), and we earnestly desire to do it (faith), but we cannot do it by ourselves (sin), and we need God's help to make it happen (grace). This collect isn't a prayer for obedience; it's a prayer for grace.

Do you remember the parts of the collect? The part that really matters is the petition--the thing that we are actually asking for. In this case, the real petition in this collect is "Grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit." The prayer is essentially complete with only that part. That's what we're asking for. The aspiration lets us see why we are asking for that grace: "that we may be devoted to you with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection." But our prayerful focus is not on the completion but on the necessary equipment. We can't love God or our neighbor without God's help, and that's why we pray for the "grace of the Holy Spirit."

There is freedom in these words. There is freedom in this prayer. But we only find that freedom when we focus on the grace. Even if you're not focusing on the collect this week, don't lose sight of God's grace. We can't be the Christians that God is calling us to be without God's help. We can't make the kingdom come on our own. We can't be the Jesus Movement on our own. We can't even love God or one another on our own. We need God's help. And, as Paul writes, "Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!" We have hope, and that hope is Christ.

Keeping Faith in Darkest Moments

July 2, 2017 – The 4th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 8A
© 2017 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
This morning, in our reading from Genesis, we encounter one of the most difficult passages in all of scripture, but I suspect that, like a frog slowly boiling in a pot, this story is so familiar to us that we find ourselves neck-deep in theological hot water without recognizing it. “Abraham!” God said, and Abraham replied, “Here I am.” And God said to Abraham, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” No matter how many times we hear the story, no matter how familiar we are with this passage, the thing that God asks Abraham to do is utterly incomprehensible: “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and sacrifice him as a burnt offering to me because I told you to.” That’s God we’re talking about—not some foreign deity but our God, the God we worship, the God we love.

Can you believe that? Can you believe that God would ask Abraham to kill his own son? Suspend for a moment your knowledge of how the story ends. Is it possible for you to believe that God would ever ask someone to murder his own child? Maybe you take a less literal approach to the Bible and think to yourself that God wouldn’t have done that. Instead, perhaps it’s just the way that God’s people have retold the story in order to convey the magnitude of Abraham’s faithfulness. But what does that tell us about their understanding of who God is and how God works that they would invent a story that hinges upon Abraham’s willingness to believe that God would ask him to sacrifice his own son? We might prefer to hide behind the outcome of the story or cover up its ugly truth by blaming the people who wrote it down, but the bottom line is that, no matter how you slice it, the story of Abraham and Isaac is a disturbing tale that threatens everything we believe about God and what it means to be faithful to him.

It may surprise you, therefore, when I ask you if you could do the same. If God spoke to you the way that he spoke to Abraham, could you find it within yourself to say yes? Could you take your own child and bind him in ropes and lay him on an altar and pick up a knife with the intention of killing him just because God told you to? Could you have faith in God like that? Could you believe in God that completely? I admit that that’s an absurd question. To even consider it is repugnant. I am certain that there is not one person in this congregation who would even give it a second thought. But I am also certain that what God asks of us is just as difficult as that. Having faith like Abraham doesn’t mean a willingness to sacrifice our own child. It means believing in God and trusting in God even when it seems like God himself has abandoned us.

Remember how we got to this point. Abraham was seventy-five years old when God spoke to him and told him to leave his country and his kinfolk and set out for the land that God would show him. Abraham and his wife Sarah had no children, but God promised to make of him a great nation, and, despite the odds, Abraham believed God, and God credited it to him as righteousness. Later on, when Abraham was eighty-five and still childless, he and Sarah began to wonder whether they needed to take matters into their own hands. Sarah suggested that Abraham seek a child through her handmaid Hagar, and, sure enough, she gave birth to Ishmael. Fifteen years later, when Abraham was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and renewed his promise that Sarah would have a son. But Abraham said, “God, why not look with favor upon Ishmael instead? Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred or a woman who is ninety-nine?” But God wasn’t through with them yet. Sarah conceived and bore Isaac and then, still filled with jealousy at her handmaid and her son, insisted that Abraham send them away. Once they had been sent out into the desert, only Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac, the son of the covenant, were left in the picture. The promise had been fulfilled. Everything was complete. But God wasn’t finished yet.

The gruesome drama of a near child sacrifice obscures the deeper story of faith reflected in this passage. Abraham and Sarah had waited their entire lives for a child. The Lord himself had promised that he would give them the child for which they had prayed, but, even then, they had to wait twenty-five more years before those prayers were answered. And then God showed up and said that he wanted Abraham to sacrifice the child? That would effectively undo the promise that God had made and fulfilled. Abraham and Sarah were over a hundred years old. They couldn’t afford to start all over. But, in ways that defy our understanding, Abraham took God at his word and did the thing that God had asked him to do because Abraham knew that, even though he didn’t understand it, and even if he couldn’t see how, God would always keep his promise.

God has promised that he will always love us. God has promised that he will never forsake us. God has promised that he will protect us from our enemies, heal us from our infirmities, and provide us with all our necessities. So why does it so often feel like God has forgotten the ones he has promised to love? Where is God when our struggles pile up? Where is God when one tragedy follows another? Where is God when everything we hold dear is taken away from us? Where is God in the degenerative disease? In the eviction notice? In the traffic accident? Where is God? Even though we cannot see him, he is with us in our toughest moments. Even though it feels like he has abandoned us, he is by our side. What it means to be a child of God is to have faith in our heavenly Father. And having faith like Abraham means believing that our greatest hope and our best future still belong to God even when our prayers go unanswered, even when we feel no hope, and even when that future is crumbling before our eyes.

What does God ask us to do? God asks us to believe in him. God asks us to trust him just as Abraham trusted him. Believing in God does not mean blindly obeying a psychotic command. It means knowing that, even when we cannot see how, God is the one who will save us. It is him to whom all of our hopes belong. But having faith like Abraham is not easy. It is a lot easier to be a pretty nice person (most of the time) and go to church (some of the time) and say your prayers (when you think about it). But doing those things will not save you because you are not the author of your own salvation. Salvation belongs to God, and there is nothing you can do to make God decide to save you. God’s salvation is a gift. It is a promise. All you can do is believe that the one who makes that promise is faithful.

God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son not so that the people who did what he told them to do could go to heaven but so that those who believe in him, who believe that he is the way and the truth and the life, could know God’s everlasting love. We are people of the resurrection. In the miracle of the empty tomb, we see that God has overcome the power of death and has turned darkness into light. God is our strength. God is the rock of our salvation. Sometimes the future appears dark, but in Christ we know that the future we cannot see is still certain. Our calling is to cling to that hope because our hope belongs to God. Our prayer, even when it feels like God is not listening, is to ask God to give us the gift of faith like Abraham—a faith that believes that God is always with us and that knows that God will never forsake us. Wherever life leads us, through that faith, we are saved by the grace of God.