Thursday, August 31, 2017

Why Was Peter Upset?

In Sunday's gospel lesson (Matthew 16:21-28), we read the second half of the scene in which Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah. Last Sunday, we heard about the confession, and this Sunday we get to hear about the consequences of it. For the first time, Jesus predicts his passion, death, and resurrection. Peter objects, and Jesus says, "Get behind me, Satan," before going on to teach the disciples that all must give up their lives in order to be his disciples. Happy day for them and us, huh?

This is the second week in a row and the fourth in five weeks in which Peter takes a prominent role. We had the "Let us build three booths, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah," line on August 6. We had Peter walking on the water but sinking because of lack of faith on August 13. Last week was the confession, and this week was the objection. It's probably not a bad idea to stop and ask, "What's the deal with Peter?" With the exception of last week's divine-led confession, which I'd argue should be paired with this week's lesson anyway, he's been a bit of a blockhead each time. Bold but obtuse. This week, I'd like to ask why.

Why was Peter so upset when Jesus told him and the other disciples that he would be killed in Jerusalem? Is it because Peter didn't want his master to die? Or is it because Peter was making a theological claim that, as far as he understood it, the Messiah could not go to Jerusalem and be betrayed by the religious authorities and killed at the hands of his own people? In other words, was Peter unwilling to accept that his master, his teacher, his friend would be taken away from him, or was Peter confused over how his messianic identification could result in a passion prediction? I'm not sure which one is right. Maybe it's both.

You know those terrible moments when a loved one, who has been terribly ill for a long time, is held onto by her family, which just cannot find the will to let her go? "I can't let you die, Mamma!" her son exclaims. "We'll never let her go!" the husband says to her doctors. "I don't care what her living will says. She's a fighter. She's not going to give up." There's an instinct in all of us to hold onto the ones we love. We don't want to say goodbye to them. No matter how rationally beneficial and healing their deaths may be, we just can't let them go. Is that what Peter is feeling here? Is his reaction the same kind of reaction we might have the first time we heard the news that our parent or spouse has a terminal disease: "No! That will never happen to you!"

Theologically speaking, the Messiah isn't supposed to die either. There are lines in the Bible about David's house and kingdom and throne being established forever (e.g. 2 Samuel 7:16). In Deuteronomy 21:33, we read that whoever hangs on a tree is cursed, implying that one who is crucified isn't redeemed by God but forsaken by him. Plus there's the expectation that the Messiah will be one to establish God's kingdom on earth by overthrowing the earthly powers (in this case, the Roman occupation of Palestine), and, generally speaking,  the best way to do that isn't by dying at the hands of the people you're trying to overthrow. Maybe Peter's objection was as much theological and political as personal. Maybe he meant, "This must never happen to you, Lord! Didn't you just confirm that you are the Messiah? What am I missing here?"

Either way, whether it's personal or theological, Peter must prepare himself for what will happen. Otherwise, he is standing on the side of Satan. Maybe the last line in the lesson can provide an interpretive key: "Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom." Are these cryptic words a mistake on Jesus' part? Did he anticipate the coming of his kingdom sooner than it actually happened? Although I'm not one to need every word in scripture to be historically true, I suspect that there may be a different truth within these words. I wonder whether he's speaking not only of the Son of Man's coming but also the eye-opening reality that the kingdom that's coming will be manifest not when he comes back but when he hangs on the cross. Peter and the disciples need to see that the Messiah who is bringing God's kingdom is bringing it through his passion, death, and resurrection and not through an earthly victory over earthly powers. This is the defeat of sin and death, which makes the defeat of the Roman Empire a moot point.

Peter said, "Lord, this must never happen to you!" and Jesus replied, "Get behind me, Satan!" Until Peter sees that this must happen to Jesus, he won't see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom. Give it time, however, and he will.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Lucky or Blessed?

This post is also in this week's The View, the parish newsletter for St. John's in Decatur, Alabama. To learn more about St. John's, you may click here for this and other recent newsletters.

I have not decided which I find more offensive----when people speak of their success as the product of luck or the result of God's blessing. I suppose it depends on whether I understand them to be ignoring the ways in which the deck is stacked in their favor or placing a special claim on God's favor. Is the so-called "lucky" person really the beneficiary of statistically improbable good fortune? Is the self-proclaimed "blessed" individual really one upon whom God has showered his love more completely? Then again, maybe those labels are merely the product of our instinct to point to something beyond ourselves and our control as the source of all good gifts. In other words, for a truly grateful person, maybe those are just two different ways of trying to say the same thing.

I was raised by two college graduates. My father's income enabled my mother to stay at home and care for my brothers and me. I was sent to a fancy summer camp and taken to chamber music concerts. My parents provided golf lessons and piano lessons and paid for overnight field trips and extracurricular activities and encouraged me to finish my homework and study for tests. I got a summer job when I was in high school not because my family needed the money but because it would look good on a college application. We went on vacation to the beach, to the mountains, and even once to Disney World.

I grew up as the product of other, harder to measure privileges, too. Throughout my life, whenever I have been pulled over by a police officer, I have never wondered whether it was because of my race. I have never felt excluded or shunned because of my religion. I have never questioned whether I would be taken seriously because of my gender. I have never worried whether my parents would still accept me because of the person I loved.

Now, I have my own wonderful, healthy, loving family. I have a rewarding job that provides us with enough income for my wife to stay at home and care for our children. I have more college degrees than I need, and I know that opportunities for further study are open for me if I choose to pursue them. I live in a great house, and we own two cars, each of which has leather seats. The golf lessons never paid off in terms of my handicap, but I am the beneficiary of the social and professional opportunities that my exposure to the game has provided. We have not taken our children to Disney World yet, but I trust that trip is in our family's future.

Where did all of those successes come from? As a student, as a husband, as a father, and as a parish priest, I have worked hard for most of my life, but did I earn the life that I have? Was it given to me? Am I lucky? Am I blessed? How many of those blessings can I take credit for? How many of them are the result of the privileges that I have been given by my parents, by my upbringing, and by the socio-economic and genetic lotteries for which my life represents a jackpot?

In 1 Chronicles 29, David stood before the people and proclaimed, "Yours, O Lord, are the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty; for all that is in the heavens and on the earth is yours; yours is the kingdom, O Lord, and you are exalted as head above all." It is hard for me to imagine any earthly king (or parish priest, for that matter) standing before his people at the moment of their greatest prosperity and taking none of the credit for it. "Who am I?" David went on to ask, "and who are my people, that we should be able to make any offering to you? For all things come of you, and of your own have we given you" (1 Chronicles 29:11, 14). Sometimes we say those words in worship when we present the offerings of our lives and labors to the lord, but do we know why we say them? Do we know what they mean?

At the end of his life, as he prepared to pass the throne on to his son Solomon, David reflected not on what he and his people had achieved but on what God had given them. Surely they had all worked hard together to make Israel the great nation that it had become, but David took that opportunity in his farewell address not to thank his supporters or to remind the people of their victories but to point them back to the one who makes all things possible. After all, as the Bible tells us, David was a man after God's own heart.

Are we blessed? Yes. Everything we have is a gift from God. Every success, every relationship, every moment that matters to us, they all belong to God. But those blessings come to us not because God loves us any more than anyone else but simply because God loves us just as much as God loves all of creation. Are we lucky? Maybe some of us have beaten the odds a few times. Perhaps one or two of us has really stumbled onto great success through no fault of our own. But, to the extent that we have received more than our fair share of success, most of us have gotten that because we were given a leg up by our birth. That should not be a source of shame or guilt. Instead, conscious that everything we have is an underserved blessing, we can ask God to help us devote those privileges to what God is doing in the world by lifting up the downtrodden and setting the captives free.

Something happens within us when we discover that all of life is a gift. It makes us grateful. It makes us generous. It helps us see that the struggles of others are our struggles, too, and it helps us remember that the blessings of others are our blessings as well. Say thank you to God----not only with your lips but with your life----not because God needs or even wants the thank you but because your participation in the transformation that God is enacting in the world begins by counting your blessings and expressing humble gratitude for them.

Bishops And Their Blessings

I don't know why, but bishops seem to like to pronounce their own version of a blessing at the end of the service. Instead of something simple like, "The blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be upon you and remain with you forever," or even an updated form of the traditional blessing like, "The peace of God, which passes all understanding...," they like to make up their own. Usually it's as much exhortative as something that conveys a blessing. Often it pulls from something vaguely scriptural like, "...tend the sick, visit those in prison, lift up the downtrodden, etc.."

When he came for parish visitations, Henry Parsley used to say the blessing offered in the burial rite: "The God of peace, who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus Christ, the great shepherd of the sheep..." Kee Sloan, his successor, has spoken about his own form of the blessing, having borrowed from another bishop (probably from Mississippi) but wanting to add his own a line about "sing a new song." Occasionally someone in our parish will ask me why I only say the form of the blessing in the prayer book, and I usually say something like, "Because I'm not a bishop..." and then finish under my breath with "...who thinks he can come up with something better than what's written in the prayer book."

In the Rite One Eucharist, the presider may choose between two forms, but she or he is not permitted to offer anything else or to offer nothing for that matter. It's either "The peace of God..." or "The blessing of Almighty God..." In the Rite Two Eucharist, the presider "may bless the people," which means that she or he may pronounce whatever form of the blessing she or he chooses or may choose not to say one at all. This has become the pattern at the School of Theology's Chapel of the Apostles in Sewanee, TN, where it is understood that the principle blessing is received when one receives Holy Communion and that no additional (subordinate and diluting) blessing is needed. Honestly, I can't imagine finishing the Sunday-morning Eucharist in the parish without pronouncing a blessing. Even with careful instruction beforehand, the people would be confused.

Still, despite my aversion to episcopally crafted blessings, when I read Sunday's epistle lesson from Romans 12, I can't help but imagine a bishop standing up in a congregation and saying these words as the concluding blessing:
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. 
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all...[N]ever avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God..."[I]f your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink...Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
And the blessing of God Almighty... 
The problem is figuring out where to stop. Paul gets on an exhortative roll that continues through Romans 13, Romans 14, and the first half of Romans 15 before he even stops to offer some background explanation for writing so boldly. This long and largely uninterrupted section of instruction is unusual in that there isn't much theological justification for it. It's just Paul telling the Roman Christians how to be Christians.

Perhaps that means this is the kind of lesson that, if read carefully and powerfully, does not need much explication by a preacher. Maybe the congregation can "get it" without being told anything else. And maybe that's why these episcopal blessings are so popular. Like the apostle Paul, it's the bishop's chance to tell the congregation how to be Christians. We'd do well to listen to these words like that.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

I Have Heard Their Cry

God found Moses. Although I know that, I forget about it. I tend to underappreciate that element of the story of the deliverance of God's people from slavery in Egypt. In Sunday's reading from Exodus, God found Moses. By making himself manifest in a burning bush that was not consumed by the flames, by speaking out, by identifying himself, by issuing a commission, and by equipping his servant, God reached out to Moses and drafted him into his plan of salvation. That has powerful implications for how we understand who God is and how God works.

God said to Moses, "I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey." God heard the cries of his people, and God responded. God didn't throw up his hands and say, "What do you want me to do about this?" God didn't sit back and let political developments take their place until eventually the Israelites were freed. As we retell the story of the salvation of God's people, it begins when God hears the cries of his people and responds.

Similarly, God reached out to Moses in order for this plan to be accomplished. God did not send the plagues unto Egypt without first sending a spokesman to confront Pharaoh on God's behalf. God did not simply reach down and swallow up the Egyptians. God did not bring the Israelites release as an isolated incident. Instead, God used Moses, a child of Pharaoh's house, a man with political connections, to make that salvation a reality. God did not need the help, but God uses human beings to accomplish what God has planned.

There is an interesting tension in those two principles. God reaches out, yet God uses us to do his work. God hears our cries, yet God's response involves human beings and human institutions. In the retelling of the story, we identify God as the principle actor, yet we recall those actions in partnership with us. What does that say for us and our troubles and our prayers and God's response?

I met with someone yesterday whose entire life is stuck. She is effectively homeless, jobless, and carless. She told me that she called her father and asked him for help, but his response was, "You've got to dig yourself out of this mess." She looked at me and said, "But I don't know how to dig myself out of the mess I'm in." I told her that, although I am willing to make a significant investment of time and money to help her get into an apartment or buy a vehicle, she also has to take the next step and find a job that provides a steady source of income. "But where am I going to find a job?" she asked. And I said, "I don't know." When she told me she felt like giving up, I reminded her not to let the magnitude of the challenge in front of her prevent her from taking the next step. Where do you start? What can you do today? God is with you as you take that first step, but he's not going to take it for you.

I am overcome with grief and worry at the thought of the millions of people who are in danger because of Hurricane Harvey. I sense that more homes have been lost than we can yet comprehend. I worry that, when the waters recede, the death count will rise. I am troubled by the stories of struggle that won't make it into a statistic or a headline--the people who will never be whole again in this life. What do we say to those people today? What do we offer them in a moment when the destruction spreads farther than anyone can see and the rains keep falling?

I think we start by reminding them and ourselves that God hears the cries of his people. We must cry out to God and let him hear our prayers of concern, loss, fear, and struggle. We must ask God to give us strength and hope and courage. We must ask God to help us know that our prayers are heard, that we are not alone, that God can and will take care of us even if we lose everything. If we can believe that God hears the cries of his people, we always have hope.

But we must also pray that God would break open our hearts toward the needs of others. God sees our suffering, but God does not act in isolation. God will not sweep the water away all at once. God will not rebuild the houses and schools and businesses on his own. God will not bring clean water and hot food to those who need it. But God will do all of those things and more if we say to God, "Here I am; send me." God has a plan of salvation for those in need, and that plan involves us. But who are we to go and bring that salvation to those in need? God said to Moses, "I will be with you."

As people of faith and people of love, we must see and know that the suffering of others is our own suffering. We are not whole until all people are whole. Is God working to bring about that wholeness? Absolutely. What does it look like? The outpouring of love and prayer and sympathy and money that is being sent to the victims of this tragedy. When we offer ourselves and our resources to help those in need, who shall we say has sent us? "I AM has sent me to you...the LORD, the God of [our] ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you." God has heard the cries of his people, and God has commissioned us to respond on God's behalf. May our prayers and our gifts and our work be always for the glory of God and the welfare of God's people.

Monday, August 28, 2017

You're the Messiah; Now What?

Yesterday, I preached a sermon on Peter's confession of Jesus as the Messiah in which I challenged all of us to acknowledge the implications of our own confession. If we say that Jesus is the Messiah, then we are saying that the kingdom has come. If we follow Jesus as the Christ, then we are saying that his ways are God's ways and that we aren't going to accept a world in which those ways aren't in control. There was an urgency to that message. Even tomorrow isn't soon enough for God's kingdom. That's what it means to say with Peter that Jesus is the Messiah and not just another prophet. But, when I climbed out of the pulpit and prepared to recite the words of the Nicene Creed, I felt this strange desire to interrupt the service and climb back into the pulpit to keep going.

I didn't, thankfully, but I did leave the service thinking, "So what?" Confessing Jesus as the Messiah and proclaiming the arrival of God's kingdom and insisting that God's reign be established on earth are all nice in principle, but how are they executed in practice? I didn't finish the sermon. I didn't get to the "what are we all going to do about it?" part. Funny enough, I think that comes this Sunday.

I'm not scheduled to preach, but the gospel lesson is the continuation of Matthew 16: "Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised." Now that Peter and the disciples have acknowledged who Jesus really is, Jesus can tell them what his ministry will really look like--not a triumphant political or military or religious victory over the Roman or Jewish authorities but a submission to torture and execution and, through death, the defeat of death. Of course, that's not what Peter has in mind. "God forbid it, Lord!" he says, to which Jesus replies famously, "Get behind me, Satan." In other words, the "what we're going to do about it" isn't what we think it is, and it isn't necessarily something we're looking forward to.

After proclaiming that Jesus, as Messiah, is the one to bring God's kingdom, how do we participate in the coming of that kingdom? Jesus said, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it." We become vehicles through which the reality of that kingdom is fully present on earth when we give up our claim to power, prestige, wealth, influence, social connection, community respect and empty ourselves completely for Christ's sake. The only way that God's ways--the poor become rich, the weak become strong, the dead are raised to new life--become the world's ways is if we live into those godly ways fully right now. If we believe that God's reign is established in the one who dies on the cross, we, too, must die in order to participate in that kingdom. But what does that look like?

It means proclaiming God's alliance with the poor, weak, oppressed, and destitute to those who stand on the side of human riches, human strength, and human authority. It means risking career, family, home, life, and limb to side with those whom Jesus came to save. It means demonstrating for the cause of justice even if it causes us our life. It means preaching for the sake of the gospel even if it costs us our job. That's what we do. That's what it means to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah. If he's the one who brings God's kingdom, then he's the one we follow...all the way to Calvary.

If that's hard to accept, that's ok. The disciples didn't like it either. In fact, they didn't really get it until after Jesus had been raised from the dead. If you aren't willing to take up your cross and follow Jesus, spend a little time at the foot of Jesus' cross, and then wait beside the tomb. Let him show you what it means to win a victory for God and trust that as the darkness of the crucifixion becomes the light of resurrection so, too, will you find your own strength to follow him--not from within but from the one who calls you.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Even Tomorrow Isn't Soon Enough

August 27, 2017 – The 12th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 16A
© 2017 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks. Well, who do we say that Jesus is? For two thousand years, we’ve known Peter’s answer to Jesus’ question. But how we answer it today—to ourselves and to the world—becomes the difference between proclaiming a message of real, transformative hope and peddling a salve that does little more than make us feel better.

“Who do people say that I am?” Jesus asked his disciples. By this point in his ministry, the crowds had seen and heard a lot from Jesus. Following in the footsteps of John the Baptist, he had proclaimed a message of repentance. He had preached challenging messages about loving one’s enemy and turning the other cheek and had encouraged his followers to practice their piety in secret and live a simple but holy life. He had healed the sick, cleansed the leprous, and raised the dead. He had announced God’s impending judgment on the wicked and faithless and predicted struggle and hardship for his followers. As we heard last week, his teachings on ritual purity and sabbath observance had run him afoul of the religious authorities, who didn’t like how popular this rugged, charismatic rabbi was becoming. They demanded that he give them a sign of authority by which he was making all of these radical claims, but Jesus wasn’t interested in proving himself to them.

It shouldn’t surprise us, therefore, that the people had lots of different ideas for who Jesus might be. Some said that he was another John the Baptist, and in some ways that was right. Jesus did begin his ministry by taking up as his own the Baptizer’s call to repentance and the proclamation of the coming of God’s kingdom. Others said that he was another Elijah, which tells us what sort of hope that they had in mind for Jesus. Elijah was a great prophet and miracle worker who had fed the hungry and brought back a lifeless boy from the dead. But he had also fought against God’s enemies, killing the wicked prophets and priests who had gone after false gods. I can see some resemblances there. Others claimed that Jesus was another Jeremiah, which is an interesting thought. Mark and Luke also tell this story of Peter’s confession, but they never mention Jeremiah as a possible mold for Jesus and his ministry. Jeremiah was the “weeping prophet,” the one who decried the wickedness of the world and predicted God’s coming judgment. That sounds a little like Jesus, who said that unrepentant cities like Chorazin and Bethsaida and Capernaum faced a future worse than Sodom. And still other people didn’t have a good answer. They could tell that Jesus was like one of the great prophets of old, but they didn’t want to pin him down and give him a label, which is to say that they couldn’t make up their minds.

Then, Jesus cut through all of the speculation and stripped away the comfort that comes from being asked what other people think and said, “But who do you say that I am?” The “you” in that question is emphatic. Linguistically, it’s an unnecessary addition that feels a little like a finger-point: “Who do you say that I am?” Actually, the word is plural—it’s “y’all”—which means that Jesus looked at his disciples and said, “But who do y’all say that I am?” And Peter, never one to hold his tongue, said, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah! For flesh and blood have not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” Not a prophet. Not a teacher. Not a healer. Not another signpost pointing us toward God’s kingdom. But the one whom God has sent into the world to bring that kingdom to its fulfillment.

When Jesus asks us, “Who do y’all say that I am?” are we bold enough to say, “You are the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the living God?” When the world looks at us and asks, “Who is Jesus?” are we bold enough to say, “He is the one whom God has anointed to bring the fullness of God’s reign here on earth,” or do we give the kind of answer that the world has come to expect from people who claim to be Christians?

There are too many people in the world who talk about Jesus as if he were just another John the Baptist. They tell the world to repent because the kingdom of God is coming but don’t have much else to say. Repentance is part of Jesus’ message, but there is more to it than that. There are too many people in the world who talk about Jesus as if he were just another Elijah. They celebrate his mighty acts of deliverance for God’s chosen ones and hold him up as the champion who will defeat the enemies of God. And he is a miracle worker, and he is the champion of God’s people, but the salvation he brings doesn’t belong exclusively to the people who look like us and think like us and worship like us. The salvation he brings is manifest to those who know what it means to say that God loves all people without exception.

There are too many people in the world who speak of Jesus as if he were another Jeremiah. They make Jesus the one who cries out in judgment against the wickedness of this world and who brings destruction to so-called “evil” people and places like the gay community in San Francisco or New York during the 1980s and the “ungodly ones” who lived in the Indian Ocean basin when it was hit by the tsunami and the sinners who loved to revel on Bourbon Street who died at the hands of Hurricane Katrina. Jesus does talk about judgment and the coming of God’s kingdom, but to align terrible tragedies like those with the one who came to bring light and life to the world might be a comfort to the ones who hold such repugnant views, but it is in no way the good news of Jesus Christ. Is it any wonder that so many people in the world cannot tell who it is that Christians are really following? Is it any surprise that so many don’t know who Jesus really is?

The world needs hope. The world needs a bedrock of unassailable hope that not even the gates of hell can prevail against. The world needs the good news of God’s transformational love in Jesus Christ, and the world isn’t going to get it until we are clear about who Jesus really is. We must proclaim that that he is more than a prophet, more than a teacher, more than healer. We must declare that he is God’s Messiah, the Son of God, the one who brings God’s reign to the earth. Then and only then does our confession become a foundation upon which true hope and love can be built. Jesus didn’t come and live and die and be raised again to be another signpost that points the world toward the truth of God’s reign. He came to bring that reign—that kingdom—to the earth. He came so that God’s will might be done on earth just as it is in heaven. If we tell ourselves and the world that Jesus is another prophet who came to show us what the world could be like, then we will have missed the point completely. Jesus is the one who makes that “could be” a reality, and, when those who follow him confess him to be the Christ, they become the rock on which that kingdom comes—not someday but now.

The future is too far away and the hope that we have is too precious for us to wait any longer. Tomorrow isn’t soon enough for God’s kingdom to come. Our confession that Jesus Christ is the Messiah means that God’s kingdom has already come. Today is the day for healing and forgiveness. Today is the day for freedom and release. Today is the day for return and renewal. Today is the day when the poor are made rich, when the weak are made strong, when the dead receive new life. God’s kingdom is coming today. Jesus isn’t pointing us to it; he’s bringing it to us right now. “Who do you say that I am?” he asks us. Is he another prophet telling us to wait a little bit longer for justice and peace? Or is he the one who brings that justice and peace to us today? Who do you say that I am? Who do we say that Jesus is?

If we join with Peter and say that Jesus is the Messiah, then we have decided that we aren’t waiting for anyone else. If we say that he is the Christ, then we are declaring that his ways are God’s ways and that we won’t live any longer in a world where those ways do not reign. It’s a risky thing to look at the one who champions the cause of the poor, who welcomes the stranger, who lifts up the downtrodden, and who always makes room for the dregs of society and say that this is God’s Messiah, this is the one who is bringing God’s kingdom to earth, this is the one whom we will follow as our Lord. But that’s exactly who Jesus is. Is he the Messiah whom we are willing to follow?

Thursday, August 24, 2017

A Balanced Self-View

In Romans 12, the apostle Paul urges the Christian community in Rome "not to think of yoursel[ves] more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned." On Sunday, when we hear those words in the epistle lesson, I'll be wondering whether most people need to be reminded not to think too highly of themselves or to remember that they, too, are beloved children of God. In my experience, the imbalance of egos in a congregation swings both ways. I almost wish Paul had written, "Do not think of yourselves more highly or lowly than you ought to think..." Either way, however, it's really the same problem.

C. S. Lewis tackles the issue of pride and false modesty in The Screwtape Letters. In Letter 14, Screwtape writes to Wormwood out of concern for the "patient," who is showing dangerous displays of humility. (Remember, Screwtape Letters is written from the Devil's perspective.) The senior demon's advice is two-fold: either remind the patient of his humility or help him believe that he is supposed to think of himself as worthless. Everyone has experienced the former. No one can declare, "Look how humble I am!" without simultaneously unraveling the truth of the declaration.

The latter is trickier. I suspect that we've all experienced it, but I think that recognizing it is harder. This is the false humility that we use to convince ourselves that we aren't allowed to feel good about an accomplishment, that we can't accept a compliment, that we shouldn't think our ourselves as good. When someone says, "The flowers on the altar were beautiful today," or "That was a wonderful sermon," the misplaced humility within us suggests we're supposed to say, "Oh, it was nothing," or "I just show up and hope the Holy Spirit uses me to say something." That's malarkey! If we're not bringing our very best to our God-given task, we're selling God short. And, if we think that by pretending that we didn't have something to do with it we're being more faithful, we've fallen into the devil's trap. Usually, the right thing to do is say, "Thank you. I worked hard on it, and I appreciate your compliment."

Isn't this how congregations work? There are some people who are quite happy to take all the credit, but the ones who do the vast majority of the work would rather say, "Oh, it was nothing." But, when we feel like we must divorce ourselves from the fruit of our labor, we actually deny God the credit for making us the gifted, devoted, faithful people we are just as we do when we take more credit than we should. As Paul writes, "[Don't] think of yourself[ves] more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned." God is the one assigning the faith and the gifts that come with it. If we have convinced ourselves that we can't receive any accolades, we have decided that anything we accomplish is our own doing and not the work of God. Isn't it a beautiful thing that God would give that member of the choir such a beautiful voice? Isn't it a remarkable display of God's glory that the faithful usher has had the ability and desire to serve on the door for sixteen years in a row without ever missing a Sunday?

Lewis calls this state of true humility "self-forgetfulness." When we are really in touch with what God has given us and what God is doing through us, we can receive those compliments as testaments to God's glory, not ours. That's what it means to think of ourselves with "sober judgment." God has knit together the Christian community by raising up prophets and ministers and preachers and evangelists and teachers and healers and givers and leaders. When we think of what it takes to hold the Christian community together, let's remember that God has given us the right people with the right gifts. It's not up to us to be something we're not. God has made us who we are. The work we do and the fruit of our work is a testament to what God has given us. From the preacher to the sexton, from the usher to the choir leader, from the Sunday school teacher to the treasurer, none of us is doing this on our own. God enables our work. God gets the glory through us. Don't make the mistake of thinking about your ministry as more or less important than it is. It's important because it's God's work. Thinking of it any other way is vanity.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Stop Short!

Last week, a parishioner came into my office to talk about preaching. One or two Sundays a month, he's been leading Morning Prayer at a local assisted living facility, and he wanted to discuss the challenges of preaching a "go out and take the good news of Jesus to the world" sermon to a bunch of wheelchair-bound residents in their 80s and 90s. I admitted that I didn't have the answer and encouraged him to trust his instincts. But, in that conversation, he asked me to shed some light on this Sunday's gospel lesson (Matthew 16:13-20). When I asked him what the lesson was about, he told me it was Peter's confession that Jesus is the Messiah.

Immediately, I launched into a preacherly lecture on Peter's confession and how, despite acknowledging Jesus as God's anointed one, Peter and the disciples still didn't understand what that really meant. I mentioned the first passion prediction, Peter's incredulous reaction, and Jesus' stern "get behind me, Satan" rebuke. He let me go on for a while and then gently interrupted me and said, "That's not part of this lesson. This gospel lesson stops short of the passion prediction."

I gave him a puzzled look. "Wait...what?" I asked. "You mean the lectionary gives us Peter's confession but leaves out the passion prediction and the 'get behind me, Satan,' part?" He nodded and told me that that part came next week. Willing but not wanting to believe him, I got up and pulled up the lectionary readings on my computer and just sat there staring at the screen. "You're right...of course," I said with a crestfallen countenance. "Hmmm..." I wondered out loud. "That's not going to be easy. I'm going to have to rethink that."

When I hear Peter's confession of Jesus as the Messiah, I immediately think, "What sort of Messiah did he have in mind?" In this moment, which is split for us across two Sundays, we witness a beautiful folding-together of theological traditions. Up to this point, Jesus has shown us who he really is through his miracles. They tell us that he is God's Son. Then, Peter puts it all together and identifies him as the Messiah. Finally, Jesus builds upon that prediction and expands it, showing that his messianic identity will lead him to the cross. But we don't go that far. This week, we stop short. Like proofing some dough but never baking it or giving a great halftime speech but never playing the second half, this gospel lesson shows us the first half of the messianic revelation without disclosing the second half. Unless you want to step on the toes of next week's preacher, that makes this Sunday's sermon a little more difficult.

If we can't focus on Jesus' own messianic understanding, what will we say? I'm drawn to the difference between what the people say and what the disciples say. What is it about Jesus that leads people to think he's another John the Baptist or Elijah or Jeremiah? What does that mean? Why is it wrong? Why is Peter's identification true in ways that the other guesses are not? I'm also interested in the rock on which the church is built, the rock that not even the gates of Hades will prevail against. What does that mean in this time and place? How is the church--the ekklesia--the unfailing hope for the world? Maybe there's something to be said about the messianic secret, but that seems to lead into next Sunday's lesson, and I'm not sure I could touch on it without getting into a passion prediction. There's Romans 12 and the balance between exercising one's God-given gifts and maintaining the humility of knowing that you're just another piece of the puzzle. There's Exodus 1 (Track 1) and the story of Moses put into a basket. Surely in the 21st century there's still something to say about ethnic cleansing and jealousy over difference becoming fuel for a genocide.

With the eclipse on Monday, this feels like a short week, so I ask for your prayers and I offer you mine. Whether preparing to preach or preparing to listen, may God open our ears and hearts and minds and mouths to receive and proclaim the gospel.

Precious in God's Sight

This post first appeared in this week's newsletter for St. John's Episcopal Church in Decatur, Alabama. To read the rest of the newsletter and learn about St. John's, click here.

Yesterday, I joined with multitudes across the country as we observed a spectacular event that reminds us both how special and how insignificant we are. For two and a half minutes, as the moon slipped completely across the face of the sun, the sky darkened, and the heart of the sun was blocked out. Only the shimmering feathery strands of the corona were visible. In its eerie light, we danced and laughed and jumped around as the completely predictable yet totally incomprehensible strangeness of the event grabbed ahold of us. In that fleeting moment, there was no time for existential contemplation—it is an experience to be lived not pondered—but, over the last few weeks and then again during the drive home last night, I had a chance to stop and ask what this solar eclipse says about us, about our place in creation, and about our relationship with our creator.

You may have read, as I did, that total solar eclipses will not last forever. Because the moon drifts another inch and half away from the Earth every year, in around 600 million years, the moon will have moved far enough away from the Earth’s surface that it will no longer fully block out the sun’s light. Those “future earthlings,” an NPR article pointed out, will not be able to see the radiance of the corona because the moon’s shadow will not be large enough to cover the rest of the sun’s rays. It turns out that only because our moon is around 400 times smaller and 400 times closer than the sun do we experience solar eclipses as we do. Not even Jupiter, with its sixty-nine moons, has one that is exactly the right proportion. What a gift that we have been given!

That means that we had better take advantage of this while we can. The next total eclipse in North America occurs in seven years, and we should start making plans for it now. We do not want to miss what in 600 million years will have disappeared from our planet forever. But who are we kidding? Who or what will even be here then? Human beings have only been on the planet for 200,000 years, and civilization as we know it has only existed for 6,000 years. Way back 600 million years ago, there was not even complex multicellular life on the planet. The atmosphere did not have enough oxygen in it to produce an ozone layer, which provides necessary protection for land-dwelling life. Where will we be in another 600 million years? No one knows for sure, but, if there is any intelligent life left on this planet, I feel certain that it will not be standing around lamenting the loss of this magnificent sight.

We are a self-absorbed species. We cannot help it. It is written into our DNA, and we have, in turn, written it into our religion. The creation account in Genesis portrays human beings as the crown of creation, the species to which the rest of creation is entrusted and the only one that is made in God’s image. In Psalm 8, the poet marvels at the splendor of creation, writing, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them?” Yet, as the psalmist continues, he remarks in comparison that God has made us only “a little lower than God, and crowned [us] with glory and honor.” When Galileo dared to remove the Earth from the center of creation, the institutional church imprisoned him for a heresy not forgiven for 350 years. When Charles Darwin questioned the origins of our species and the biblical reckoning of geological time, many church leaders labelled him as thoroughly anti-religious, a stigma that persists in many Christian communities to this day. Over the last five hundred years, we may have learned a lot about how small we are in the grand scheme of things, but how has that changed the way we think of our relationship with God?

What if there is intelligent life on other planets? Does God’s plan of salvation include them? Can humanity truly be the center of creation if the universe existed for billions of years before our infinitesimally small mark was made on the history of all time and space? If the universe carries on for billions of years after the last human being has died off, does that change our understanding of what the end of time means? If there are trillions of galaxies in the universe and each one contains billions of stars, how many other planets are there out there where the size and distance of an orbiting moon allow the same sort of eclipse that we watched yesterday? Is there anyone else out there watching it happen?

Nevertheless, on this tiny speck of rock in this tiny solar system in this tiny corner of the galaxy in this incomprehensibly huge universe, insignificant creatures like us are given momentary glimpses into the beauty that is our creator, and we see in them a reminder that, no matter how small we are, God knows us and loves us and calls each of us by name. How amazing that the one who created all things has numbered all of the hairs on our heads! How awesome that the one who spoke all planets and stars and galaxies into being watches over every sparrow, every squirrel, and every person as carefully and lovingly a parent watches over her newborn child! As we learn more and more about the enormity and complexity of the universe as well as how miniscule and fleeting we are in comparison, our understanding of our place in God’s heart grows bigger. We are all precious in God’s sight even if that sight stretches to places and beings beyond our imagination. We may not be as important as we thought we were, but we are still just as important to God.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Binding and Loosing

One of the privileges (responsibilities?) given to Peter and his successors is to bind and loose. In Matthew 16:13-20, which we will read this Sunday, Peter identifies Jesus as "the Messiah, the Son of the living God," and in response Jesus identifies Peter as the rock on which he will build his church. Part of what comes with being the rock, it seems, are the keys to heaven and the power to resist the attacks of hell. Jesus describes that authority by saying, "whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." But what does that even mean?

Often it's thought of simply as the authority to forgive sins. I suspect that has something to do with other passages in which Jesus gives his disciples/apostles the authority to forgive sins (e.g. John 20:22-23). In fact, this may be what Jesus had in mind, but, at least in recent generations, Peter's successors seem more interested in the forgiving and not the retaining, in the loosing and not in the binding. We don't talk a lot about binding. Whatever Peter and his successors bind on earth will be bound in heaven. What does that mean in the twenty-first century?

Of course, maybe I have no business discussing this. I'm not a successor of Peter. I am a presbyter ordained not at the hands of the Bishop of Rome but by another successor of the apostles. And, as a presbyter, any authority I have is loaned to me by those successor bishops in the sense that I have been called to share in their ministry of pronouncing the forgiveness of sins. In my ordination, I was reminded that, as a priest, I am "to preach, to declare God’s forgiveness to penitent sinners, to pronounce God’s blessing, to share in the administration of Holy Baptism and in the celebration of the mysteries of Christ’s Body and Blood, and to perform the other ministrations entrusted to [me]." No where in my ordination rite (or the sermon, as I recall) did it mention anything about binding, but binding seems to be an important consideration for these times.

I'm trying to move past Charlottesville, but I just can't seem to, and I think that's a good thing. Truth be told, I'm still struggling to move beyond Charleston and Trayvon Martin and the Pulse nightclub, but I think that struggle is a good thing. I may want to move on, but I feel God calling me and the church to dwell in that place of tragedy and heartache and injustice until God's kingdom comes. I want to move past them because I know that there are other important things for preachers to say and write. Seth preached a sermon about the need for unity in this time of struggle, but people left church yesterday wanting even more. I want more. But I also know that if we spend another Sunday and another one after that and still another after that preaching about racism and bigotry and the powers of hell we will have done a lot of talking and probably not a lot of doing. And the world needs doing.

That's why binding and loosing seem so important right now. There are people in positions of authority who have the power to bind up symbols of racism, legacies of oppression, and the people who stand for them and cast them into the fires of hell. That means purging our churches and our public spaces from symbols of slavery like the Confederate battle flag, statues of Confederate generals, and memorials to individuals who are celebrated not for a life spent promoting the kind of goodness and freedom we articulate in the Baptismal Covenant but for fighting against them. The people who have that power are rectors and bishops and governors and presidents. In so doing, they will not be casting Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis into the fires of hell--only the act of celebrating the oppression that they have come to represent.

As with any polarizing moment in our history, there have been multiple strong and impassioned responses to Charlottesville. Almost everyone has condemned unequivocally the hatred and bigotry espoused by the neo-Nazis, the KKK, and the alt-right, who in moral terms stand indistinguishably with them. But then we all remembered that this protest was ostensibly about the proposed removal of a Confederate monument in Charlottesville, and, not long after Heather Heyer's body had grown cold, people moved past mourning her tragic death and began to discuss and debate the removal of other Confederate monuments. I have seen posts about how President Lincoln said that he would have been quite happy to allow slavery to persist as long as the tax revenues from the south were still flowing into Washington's coffers. I have seen posts about the black troops in Confederate units volunteering to serve in order to preserve a way of life that they loved. I have seen posts and comments on posts that compare Robert E. Lee to Adolf Hitler, and I have seen other people mention that Lee never owned slaves.

Although I am a student of history and a pursuer of the truth, I don't really care what of that is correct and what is historical fiction. I don't need to know what was going through the minds of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis to know that the slavery for which the Confederacy stood is wrong. I know the difference between a statue that commemorates the public service of slave-owner like George Washington and one that commemorates the fight for slavery by a non-slave-owner like Robert E. Lee. The significance of neither of those generals can be fully articulated by labels or statues, but the significance of those statues can be fully understood by observing the people who are marching with tiki torches, making Nazi salutes, and shouting words of hatred all in the name of preserving them.

It doesn't matter whether an alt-right demonstration is being planned for your community. If you live in a town or worship in a church in which memorials to hatred that have not effectively been turned into testaments of equality are still standing, it's time for people with authority to bind them up. For an example of such a "turned" symbol, consider the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which was named for a Confederate general who served as a U. S. Senator and as a Grand Dragon of the KKK. It no longer stands for hatred. Pettus has been robbed of his legacy. The blood of the martyrs and the remembrance of the faithful has purged that metal span of its oppressive identity. We can march across it as we would walk across the grave of its namesake--as victors over the evil for which he stood. But statues of Confederate "heroes" in public squares? Images of the Confederacy in stained-glass windows? Plaques praising those who fought to preserve a slave-driven economy? What we bind on earth is bound in heaven. What we loose on earth is loosed in heaven. Those are strong words. That's a strong authority. What we as leaders say and do has an effect on the extent to which something is seen as belonging in heaven. Are we really willing to say that symbols of slavery belong in the kingdom of God? If not, it's time to bind them up and cast them into the fiery furnace.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Grandma's Racism Isn't Ok

I'm not scheduled to preach on Sunday. If I were, I think I might open my sermon by saying something like, "That blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jesus sure does know how to put a filthy Canaanite woman in her place." Sunday's gospel lesson is from Matthew 15 and includes the encounter between Jesus and the Gentile woman who begs him to heal her demon-possessed daughter. After first ignoring her and then resolutely refusing to help, Jesus says to the persistent mother, "It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs." Of course, the woman takes Jesus' words and uses them to demonstrate that faith belongs not only to the children of Israel but potentially to all peoples, but let's not celebrate her faith without also questioning Jesus' motives.

I've heard plenty of people use a number of explanations to excuse Jesus' harsh words. Maybe he was having a bad day. Maybe he didn't mean it the way we hear it. Maybe he knew what sort of response the woman would have, so he treated her harshly just to provoke that reaction from her and, through it, make a point to his disciples. Maybe, like a parent who, when asked by his children why he gave one child a bigger piece of cake, responds, "Because I love your sister more than you," Jesus actually meant the exact opposite of what he said. If it makes the preacher and the congregation feel better, we can hide behind any one of those excuses, but, if so, we will not have done the gospel lesson justice nor will we have been faithful to our call to participate in the transformational, unconditional love that God has for the world in Jesus Christ.

We use excuses like that to let our racist grandmother off the hook. She grew up in another era when no one understood what equality was. She only uses that term because she doesn't know the proper, politically correct way to speak about persons of color. She says things like that because no one ever taught her anything else. It's not like she goes to rallies or actively discriminates against anyone; she's just an old, southern lady who is stuck in her ways, and there's not much we can do about that. We say those things to ourselves and to other people because we don't like the alternative. We don't like thinking of our dear, sweet grandmother, who always doted on us and showered us with affection, as a prejudiced, bigoted, racist like the kind we see making Nazi salutes and wearing white hoods and shouting hate-filled things in Charlottesville. But what's the difference between David Duke and Grandma and Jesus?

For starters, let's admit that there is actually a difference. There's a difference between an individual who espouses racist views and a person who passively participates in a racist system. Jesus isn't lining up at the alt-right demonstration, and neither is your grandmother. The transformation that God is enacting in the world isn't facilitated by labeling everyone who has ever failed to call out a friend for telling a racist joke as the same kind of racist as the neo-Nazi skinhead who advocates the murder of minorities. But we undermine that transformation when we fail to identify and excoriate the systemic racism that leads Grandma to think about her African-American neighbors as a threat to her safety and security and that leads Jesus to call this Canaanite woman a dog.

I preached about this gospel lesson at a midweek service last week, before Charlottesville had made the headlines. In that sermon, which you can read here, I discussed the anachronistic label that Matthew uses for the Gentile woman who sought Jesus' help. In short, there were no Canaanites back then. Using that term was a way to remind the readers of those people who, long ago, had literally stood in the way of God's people entering the Promised Land. By bringing us back to that chapter in Israel's history, Matthew is inviting us to see this woman as someone whom Jesus wasn't supposed to help. Her faith, therefore, comes as a surprise to everyone--even Jesus. Her statement about gathering up the crumbs under the table and Jesus' change of heart represent the kind of reversal that God is enacting in the world through God's Son. There can be no bigger reversal of fortunes than this "Canaanite" woman receiving salvation at the hands of the "Son of David." In the end, therefore, there must be transformation. The outcome of this gospel lesson--in the story itself and also in our lives--must be the radical equalization of universal and undifferentiated access to God and God's love. But we can't get there unless we embrace the fullness of the racism that otherwise would stand in its way.

Jesus may be sinless, but he is bound by his humanity, and that includes the shortsightedness of systemic, cultural racism. (My friend Steve Pankey wrote beautifully about that on Monday, and his post has been an important part of my prayers and work this week.) To a faithful first-century Jew, this Gentile woman--especially when labeled as a "Canaanite"--is nothing more than a dog. That's just the way it was. And that was as true for Jesus as it was for anyone else. Of course, that isn't the way God's reign looks when it is fully manifest. In God's eyes and in God's kingdom, the Canaanite woman is as beloved as any of God's children. We can see that now in ways that Jesus couldn't see and, perhaps, that our grandmothers couldn't see either. Even in the first century, however, Jesus represented the possibility that God's love could extend beyond traditional cultural, religious, and racial boundaries. It is in Jesus, therefore, that this barrier is shattered in this encounter with the Gentile woman. It is through Jesus that the world begins to see a little more clearly that racism of any kind--personal, cultural, inherited, systemic--stands in the way of God's reign.

If we pretend that racism only affects those who travel to Charlottesville to "unite the right," we will be guilty of perpetuating the same racist theology of privilege that led white preachers to issue their "Call for Unity," urging civil rights demonstrators to abandon their "unwise and untimely" provocation that had upset Birmingham in the spring of 1963. If we deny the racism that affects the culture and systems that we inhabit, we are guilty of the same racism that led southern states to secede from the Union in order to preserve their slavery-supported economy and lifestyle. If we refuse to confront the racism upon which our lives--our education, our wealth, our access--have been built, then we are guilty of the same exclusionary approach to God's blessings that led Jesus to turn that Canaanite woman away.

In each of those moments, God's kingdom is breaking through, but it is breaking through not in the stories of those who have power and authority and control but in the lives and witness of those who are oppressed, enslaved, and excluded. If we are going to see that kingdom and participate in the transformation that it has brought to this world, we must not remain silent any longer. We must not let passive participation in the unjust structures of society go unchallenged. We must forsake the racism that has shaped our ancestors, our institutions, and ourselves, and follow the one who unites all peoples through his death and resurrection.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Calling Out Sin or Facilitating Forgiveness?

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

If you search the internet for "drunk preacher Easter sermon," you can find an incredibly profane, curse-filled, five-minute audio clip of a made-up Easter Day sermon in which the supposed preacher calls out a dozen congregants for a wide range of sins. From the pulpit, he names a man and woman who have been having an affair. He calls out a Sunday school teacher for neglecting his duties and fires him on the spot. He berates another man for putting a quarter in the offering plate. It's funny because it didn't really happen. It's funny because preachers may think things like that, but we'd never actually say them.

Then again, if you look at the other video clips that YouTube suggests when you're listening to that make-believe sermon, it's not so funny anymore. There are actual preachers in actual churches who find ways to weave specific people and their specific sins into their sermons. It makes me nauseated to imagine being in a congregation while something like that takes place. How can any clergyperson charged with care of a congregation ever berate people in public like that? It's spiritual abuse. That makes the old saying about the pulpit being six feet above contradiction pretty scary. Is there ever a good time for a pastor to call out a congregant for his or her sin?

I'm not good at that. Sure, I have no problem telling people that they are sinners in need of repentance. I have a pretty low anthropology. I believe that human nature is fundamentally sinful. I believe in original sin. When it comes to having a meaningful relationship with our loving God, I believe that the first and most important gesture we can make is one of repentance. But looking someone in the eye and saying, "You've got to stop drinking," or "You need to apologize to your sister," or "You have to end that relationship," or "You must stop posting things like that on Facebook," is incredibly difficult. Who am I to judge? Well, actually, who am I not to? And who are you not to?

In Matthew 18:15-20, Jesus says, "If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when you are alone...If you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you...If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church, and, if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector." I must admit I find those words to be a bit of a turn-off. They sounds so mechanical, so hierarchical. Perhaps it's worth noting that there was no ἐκκλησίᾳ in Jesus' day--at least not in the institutional setting. The word translated for us as "church" means "an assembly of the called-out ones," and there were assemblies of faithful ones back then but not in the Christian context. This seems to be Matthew's retrojection of instructions for good church order back onto the words of Jesus. Still, whether Jesus said them or Matthew and his community wrote them, they are a set of instructions give to us? How do we make sense of them?

These verses are chosen for today in a daily Eucharistic lectionary. The implication, I think, is that we would have assembled yesterday to hear the passage that comes right before this and that we would come back again tomorrow to hear what comes after it. Yesterday was the feast of St. Mary the Virgin, so we didn't get to hear the beginning of Matthew 18, and tomorrow is Thursday, when we don't have a service, so we won't get to hear the end. So maybe it's worth taking just a moment and recalling the rest of Matthew 18.

Jesus says, "Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones...What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountain and go in search of the one that went astray?" Later, after Peter asks Jesus how many times he should be willing to forgive his brother, "as many as seven times?" Jesus responds, "Not seven times but seventy-seven times." In other words, these instructions are not about calling out sin but about facilitating forgiveness. I don't like pointing out other people's sins, but I do relish the opportunity to invite people into a reconciled life.

There's been a lot of news lately about calling out sinners. Will the President call the alt-right movement, the KKK, and neo-Nazis the un-American, hate-filled, violence-inspired groups that they are? Is it right to use the same labels for the counter-protesters who claimed to be standing up to hate? Is James Alex Fields a terrorist whose radical ideology led him to drive a car into a crowd of demonstrators? Is Heather Heyer a martyr who was killed because she stood up for her faith? Should we share snapshots of "Unite the Right" demonstrators on Facebook so that they might be shamed by their friends and families and, perhaps, fired from their jobs? If we discover that our own child has fallen into this web of racism and hatred, should we disown him? Is it right to expunge our cityscapes from all statuesque representations of the Confederacy and the slavery it stood for? Should they be left as a symbol of heritage? As a testament to our shameful past? Are those who say that they should remain guilty of sin? Can we have a civil conversation about a legacy of our inhumane history?

It's easy to affix labels like "sinner" and "racist" and "bigot" from a distance. It's easy to preach against the sins that manifest themselves in the headlines and the sinners who stand on what the majority feels is the wrong side of a demonstration. But what happens when that person sits in one of the pews in your church? What happens when that person has a place at your Thanksgiving table? What happens when that person has a bedroom in your house? We don't shy away from calling a sin a sin, but we do so not to make ourselves feel better by declaring our superiority. We approach the sinner as a brother or sister who has lost his or her way. We invite that person to return to our fellowship. We reach out to that person in the name of the church and the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for even a lost sheep like him or her. We yearn for reconciliation. We want to be a path to forgiveness. We are willing to demonstrate the limitless forgiveness of God by forgiving our brother or sister seventy-seven times, which is to say as many times as it takes. As we discuss the sins of our ancestors and decry the sins of our contemporaries, may we never shy away from the totality of that sin, and may we never miss the opportunity to preach forgiveness and reconciliation for all.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Weak Made Strong

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

I'm not as strong as I used to be, and I bet you're not either. I suppose my physical strength peaked when I played high school football. I haven't lifted weights since then, but, more than that, age slowly takes its toll on everyone. Sure, it's impressive when 83-year-old Jack Palance does a one-armed push-up on stage at the 1992 Academy Awards to demonstrate to the producers in the audience that older actors might be worth the risk, but no one who lives until she's 83 is as physically strong as she was when she was 23. It just doesn't work like that. Just ask Usain Bolt.

Eventually, human beings give out. Our strength wanes. Our speed retards. Our looks fade. Our memories blur. Our accomplishments, no matter how impressive, whether built of steel or language or insight, will erode. One day, even Robert Frost's divergent roads will slip out of human memory. It is a principle of the universe in which we live that all things--all matter and energy--are moving on a steady decline. But God has something different to say about that.

In the Incarnation, God declares a new law--one that does not replace the laws of thermodynamics but that transcends them on a different plane of existence. In God, the Virgin Mary declares, the powerful are brought down from their thrones while the lowly are raised up; the hungry are filled with good things while the rich are sent away empty; the lowliness of the humble is regarded as blessed because of what God is doing. That doesn't make sense, of course. In our experience, the weak don't become strong. The humble aren't exalted. The rich and proud may eventually return to the dust just like the rest of us, but our future isn't one of increase but decline. Except that in God our weakness becomes strength, our humility becomes blessedness, because of what God has done for us.

"In the fullness of time," Paul writes, "God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children." In order for us to escape the limitations of our human nature and the ravages of decline that come with it, God had to become a human being. In order to reverse the inevitability of our weakness, God had to become weak. God had to unite himself to us so that we might be united to him. That which is broken and flawed inside of us is changed when it is united with that which is perfect and complete in God. Because God became man, we become like God.

That's why Mary sings her song of transformation not as if it will happen one day but as it takes place within her womb: he has lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things; he has helped his servant Israel in remembrance of his mercy. And just as that transformation of humanity took place inside of her, so, too, is that same transformation taking place within us. It has taken place. It is taking place.

As the redeemed people of God, we have to look upon the world the way that God sees it--the way that Mary saw it. We must see how the lowly have become blessed, how the poor have been made rich, how the weak have been made strong. We cannot see that truth unless we look with the eyes of faith. Although we still inhabit this life, we also exist simultaneously in a different realm. Every day, we must die with Christ to this world so that we can be raised with him in the next--not when we die but now. The union of divine and human is not a moment locked in the past nor promised in the future. It is true now. See how God's nature has already been put upon you, and let that transformation, which began so long ago, be continued in you today.

Monday, August 14, 2017

God's Vision: Unity

When I was a kid, our family went to see Saving Private Ryan after church on Easter Day. I am not sure that I'd call it a resurrection story, but it wasn't a bad way to spend the afternoon. There's a scene near the end of the film where the title character is standing in a military cemetery, asking the graves of those who died trying to save his life whether he'd earned their sacrifice. Whenever I see that scene, the floodgates open, and I start crying like a baby. In fact, it doesn't even matter whether I've seen the whole film. If I flip through the channels and happen across that cemetery scene, I can't help but weep.

On Sunday morning in our Track 1 parish, we'll hear the tiniest sliver of the Joseph story (Genesis 45:1-15), but it's still enough to make my eyes well up with tears. Earlier this year, our men's Bible study read the Joseph story. Unlike the lectionary, which skips from yesterday's reading of Joseph being sold into slavery to the moment when he reveals himself to his brothers, we read every chapter and, even though we knew the outcome, wondered whether Joseph would survive, when he would show himself to his siblings, and whether he would ever be reunited with his father. Over and over in our study, I reminded the class that there must be reunification. The patriarchal story, which concludes with Jacob, must end with unity. We can't have one of the tribes estranged until after this part of Israel's history is finished. Still, we spent months enduring the ups and downs of the narrative until, at last, we could celebrate with Joseph and his brothers.

Typically, I would be drawn to Joseph's line about God being responsible for everything that happened: "So it was not you who sent me here, but God." That's a powerful statement of looking-back theology from which contemporary theologians and contemporary Christians shy away. Would we really say that God made that happen just because it ended well? There's so, so much to say about that. Combine it with the NT lesson from Romans 11 about God's promises being irrevocable, and you've got a great mind-spinning sermon about how God works throughout human history. That's what I'd typically focus on. That's where I'd usually be drawn. But not this year.

Today, I find it impossible to read the story of Joseph and his brothers and hear the words of Psalm 133 and not think of Charlottesville, Virginia. When my eyes fill with tears at the thought of Joseph's reunion with the same brothers who sold him into slavery, I cannot see anything but the police barricades that attempted to separate white-supremacists from counter-protesters. When I hear the song about how good and pleasant it is when the brethren dwell together in unity, I cannot hear anything but the loud, clear, dull thud of the car allegedly driven by James Alex Fields plowing into human beings, killing Heather Heyer, who was there to stand up to hatred. This Sunday, a week after the violence, when I hear God's plan for unity among estranged brothers, I will ask myself when that vision for unity will be a reality in this world.

God's plan for this world is unity. We read that not only in this Sunday's lessons but throughout scripture. God's dream, seen by God's prophets, is of a time when all nations will know God and stream together under his protection. Abraham is promised to become a light for all nations. Through Jesus' outstretched arms on the hard wood of the cross, God is reconciling the whole world to himself. So good and godly is that unity that it can be compared with oil running down Aaron's beard--a sign of anointing and abundance. Anything and anyone who seeks to divide the peoples of the earth is, therefore, working against God, and anyone who refuses to say so is complicit in their sin.

When we describe white male murderous car drivers who plow into crowds as "lone wolfs" and not "domestic terrorists," we are standing on the side of Satan. When we fail to make the explicit connection between the alt-right movement and the ethnic cleansing that their forebears enacted upon God's people, we are standing on the side of Satan. When we say that "both sides" of demonstrators in Charlottesville need to refrain from violence and hatred without also distinguishing between those who wear white hoods and use Nazi salutes and those who advocate for dignity and respect for all people, we are standing on the side of Satan. Hatred and violence and bigotry are always wrong. They are never excusable. When we pretend that they are not at the root of what happened in Charlottesville, we are standing on the side of Satan.

God is working to bring all peoples together. Under God's reign, there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free. In Christ, we are all one. The work of God, therefore, is carried out by those who stand up against hatred and who name bigotry and bigots for what they really are. The alt-right may be a political movement, but it is not only about politics. It is about hatred. It is about violence. It is about everything that stands in the way of God's reign being established here on earth. It is anti-Christ, and followers of Jesus must be willing to say so or else Satan wins.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

If Saved By Grace, Why Faith?

August 13, 2017 – The 10th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 14A
© 2017 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon is available here.
How long has it been since a preacher asked you where you would wake up if you died tonight? For me, it’s been a while—not long enough, but a good while. What if you don’t know the answer to that question? What if you’re not sure? Does that mean that you’re definitely going to hell? How sure do you have to be in order to get into heaven? How much faith does it take? And do you have to believe everything with that much confidence or just the really big things? For example, if you’re 100% committed to the resurrection but only 85% committed to the virgin birth, can you still squeak by? And what about the even less important things like whether there really were 5,000 men plus woman and children who were fed by Jesus with five loaves and two fish that day? And who gets to decide which things are the important ones and which ones are not so important? And is there any way for us to know before it’s too late?

I think it’s funny—as in actually chuckle-worthy—that preachers who are obsessed about heaven and hell seem to talk a lot about faith but not so much about grace. In fact, there aren’t a lot of preachers anywhere who talk a lot about grace. Grace is tricky—a lot trickier than faith. Faith is easier to understand because it feels like faith is something that comes from within us—something that we’re responsible for, something we choose. That makes faith something that preachers can weaponized as they climb up into their pulpits, saying, “If you don’t have enough of it, then you’re in trouble.” Grace, on the other hand, doesn’t lend itself to fiery sermons because grace, by definition, is something that we don’t make happen. It’s a complete gift—unearned, undeserved. Maybe it shouldn’t surprise us, therefore, that fire and brimstone preachers don’t talk a lot about grace. After all, how do you convince people to come down for an altar call if you start by telling them that God already loves them just the way they are?

Even in our tradition, where we talk a lot about unconditional love, grace can be hard thing to wrap our minds around. Jack Charlton was a saintly man who knew as well as anyone what it meant to love his neighbor, but he still had a hard time with grace. Before he died, he used to tell me that he didn’t understand it. And sometimes I’d tell him that I don’t understand it either, that I know it’s a good thing, and that I’m sure we need it, but that wasn’t the answer he was looking for. The truth is that it’s a lot easier to believe in a God who gives people what they deserve—that people who reject God and his ways go to hell and people who choose God and his ways go to heaven. But that’s not grace. That’s just a nicer way of saying that you’d better be sure where you’d wake up if you died tonight. Believing in grace, on the other hand, means believing that none of it depends on us—which might be why it’s so hard to understand. But this week, as I read this gospel lesson, I encountered not an explanation of grace but an experience of it, and it made me wish that I had thought of it back when I still had the chance to talk about it with Jack.

It was before dark when the disciples got into their boat and set sail for the other side of the sea. By the time Jesus walked out toward them upon the water, they had been struggling against the wind for hours. Matthew tells us that they were still a long way from shore and seemed to be making no headway. The sky was starting to lighten when Jesus caught up with them, and the sight of him, rather than reassuring the disciples, terrified them. “It is a ghost!” they said to one another because to them a ghost seemed more likely than the truth. After Jesus identified himself and told them not to worry, Peter took the opportunity to test this apparition to see if it really was his master. “If it is you,” he said, “command me to come out to you on the water.” Jesus said, “Come,” and Peter put his legs over the side and slipped down onto the surface of the water, and, instead of sinking beneath it, it held his weight.

Soon, however, Peter had stepped beyond the lee of the vessel, and he felt the full force of the wind. “Maybe this isn’t such a good idea,” he thought to himself. Like weights upon his ankles, his doubts mounted, dragging him down below the waves. “Lord, save me!” he cried out. And immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught Peter and said, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” literally, “You little-faithed-one, why did you waiver?” Then, he led Peter back to the boat, and, as soon as they had climbed aboard, the wind ceased. And the disciples, recognizing the one who stood before them and the power that he had, fell down and worshipped him.

Perhaps the most important thing for us to note in this story is that          Peter tests Jesus not the other way around. Peter didn’t have the faith that he needed in order to get to Jesus. He had enough to get himself started, but, when the force of the wind hit him in the face, he wasn’t so sure anymore. And what was Jesus’ reaction? He reached out his hand and caught him. Jesus didn’t have to do that, of course. Jesus could have yelled back at Peter, “What happened to your faith? You got yourself into this mess. Why don’t you believe your way out of it?” But that’s not what Jesus said because that’s not who Jesus is, and it’s not who God is, and that’s not how salvation works.

Grace is being caught by Jesus even when our faith fails us. Our faith isn’t what saves us. If our salvation depended upon our faith, we’d be as sunk as Peter was as soon as the first doubt crept in. We are saved by God’s grace. God does all the work. God is the one who reaches out and catches us even when we’ve forgotten that he can. So what does faith have to do with it? Faith is the recognition that God alone is the one who saves us. As the apostle Paul wrote, “By grace you have been saved through faith” (Ephesians 2:8). Faith is the vehicle or lens through which we see that God is the one who saves us. It is the blindfold coming off, the look over our shoulder to see that it’s God who has been with us all along. Faith is the confidence we have that God is the one who has saved us and who will always save us. But even when that faith falls apart—even when we forget who it is that has promised never to leave us or forsake us—God’s salvation is still assured.

God doesn’t love you because you believe in him. God loves you because that’s who God is. God doesn’t save you because you’re 100% sure that what the preacher says is true. God saves you because that’s who God is. Grace is what our religion is built upon—not a life well lived or a conviction thoroughly held. God doesn’t care whether you believe in him or not. He loves you just the same either way. But doesn’t knowing that and seeing that and believing that make life so much fuller and richer? Isn’t it a blessing to go through life knowing that you are not alone—that there’s nothing you can do to cut yourself off from God’s love? You don’t have to be sure of that in order to be saved by God, but being sure of that—having faith like that—gives us the comfort and confidence that come only when we recognize that we belong to God.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Worn Down

Yesterday, Steve Pankey wrote about the time of day when Sunday's gospel lesson (Matthew 14:22-33) about the walking on the water takes place. In a way for which I am often grateful to Steve, he identified something that I hadn't really noticed. Not only did he help bring the story to life by filling out more completely its setting but also helped me perceive another aspect of this story related to time--how long it takes.

When the passage begins, Jesus orders his disciples to get into the boat and begin making their way across the sea, while he stayed behind and dismissed the crowds. Keep in mind that they had just been fed with the five loaves and two fish, which Jesus miraculously multiplied in order to satisfy 5,000 men plus women and children. Maybe you remember how that miracle begins. The disciples are worried that evening was approaching and that the crowd needs to be dismissed or else they will not have a chance to buy food for themselves in nearby villages. I don't know what time shops closed in first-century small-town Palestine, but it seems likely that they closed pretty early.

That helps us fill out the chronology a little more fully. It was early evening when the people were fed, after which Jesus immediately sent the disciples across the sea in a boat. I think they left before dark--maybe after sunset but before twilight. At that point, Jesus sent the crowds on their way and went up on the mountain to pray. It seems that he prayed all through the night because, as Steve reminds us, it was the fourth watch of the night--sometime between 3am and 6am--when Jesus went out to meet the disciples on the water.

That's a long time after they started sailing. A quick Google search suggests that a normal crossing of the Sea of Galilee might take a few hours. The disciples had been in the boat from evening until morning--seven or eight hours or perhaps longer. Not only that, the fourth watch is the last watch of the night. Although I like Steve's suggestion that we recover that detail and help the congregation see how the darkness was starting to lighten, the NRSV translation of "early in the morning" helps us know that the time when Jesus met them was the time when night was passing into day. In other words, they had been struggling all night long. That's hard work.

It's into that context--the struggle all night long context--that Jesus meets them. It's after an exhausting, struggle with the wind and waves that Peter asks to come out and see Jesus. Don't forget that Jesus made them get into the boat. Jesus "ἠνάγκασεν" or "compelled" or "constrained" them to get into the boat. He was a carpenter's son. His fishermen disciples may have looked up at the sky and thought, "This isn't a great time to get into the boat and try to sail across the sea. Can't he see that a storm is coming?" But Jesus didn't give them a choice. He didn't "invite" them to go ahead without him. He made them do it.

Sometimes we've been battered by our own wind and waves so long that we're ready to give up. Sometimes it feels like God has led us right into that place of struggle. What are we like in those moments? What sort of response to we have when salvation appears? Do we have the same incredulous reaction that the disciples did? Are we likely to step out onto the water and then change our mind when another gust of wind blows?

So much of this story gets lost in its brevity. There are hours worth of struggle in this passage that are easy to miss. I'm grateful that Steve helped me see them because that kind of hard, long struggle seems pretty familiar to me and those around me. Maybe this appearance of Jesus walking on the water will feel a little less fantastic and a little more real when we remember how the disciples struggled through the night.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Humility Unites Us All

One summer in college, I went to visit a friend and her family in the middle of Illinois. I went in order to rekindle that friendship, but I also went to see a part of the country I know almost nothing about. I remember driving out into the middle of a field, turning off the truck's lights, and seeing more stars than I had ever seen before. I remember eating buckwheat pancakes--something the father made every single morning whether anyone else ate them or not. And I also remember learning about Scandinavian culture, visiting a museum of Swedish immigrant history, and hearing one Scandinavian joke I'll never forget.

Two young Swedish farmers ran into each other at the feed store. One of them said to the other, "I heard a good joke the other day. Let me tell it to you. Two Norwegians were walking down the road and talking with each other..." At that point, the other farmer interrupted and said, "You can't tell that joke. That's politically incorrect." "What do you mean?" the other farmer said. And his friend replied, "You can't tell a joke about Norwegians. That's impolite. You can tell the joke, but don't make it about Norwegians or else someone will be offended. Instead, make it about a nationality that doesn't exist anymore--like Hittites or Amorites. They died off long ago. You can tell a joke about them and no one will be upset." After a lengthy pause, the first farmer said, "Ok. Two Hittites, Ole and Sven, we walking down the road and talking with each other..."

I didn't get it. The farmer of Swedish ancestry who hosted me had to explain to me that Ole and Sven were distinctly Norwegian names. Even thought the farmer had called the two men Hittites, by naming them "Ole" and "Sven," he hadn't really changed the joke at all. I think about that joke whenever I read Matthew 15:21-28 and the story of the Canaanite woman who begged Jesus to heal her daughter.

There were no Canaanites in Jesus' day--at least no one thought of them that way. Canaanites were an ancient people who had inhabited the Promised Land when Moses and the people of Israel moved in. We hear about them in Numbers 13, when Moses sent spies to survey the land of Canaan to see whether it was a good place to settle and whether God's army could defeat the tribes who already lived there. So, when Matthew uses the label "Canaanites," he's sending us a signal about the sort of person who approached Jesus. He could have called her a "Gentile woman," but, by labeling her as a Canaanite, Matthew is bringing back to mind an ancient ethic, religious, national separation that was defined by armed conflict, bitter rivalry, and pure hatred.

This is the person that came to Jesus and asked him to heal her daughter. Jesus had entered the region of Tyre and Sidon, a Gentile area north of Galilee, Jesus' hometown. Just then, a Canaanite woman came to Jesus and said, "Have mercy on me, Son of David." Isn't it interesting that this foreigner is able to identify Jesus as the descendant of Israel's greatest king? She gets the words right, but words aren't enough. Jesus ignored her. The disciples tried to chase her away unsuccessfully. They asked Jesus to take care of the matter quickly, but he refused, saying, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel"--another anachronistic reference to a kingdom that had disappeared centuries earlier. Undeterred, the woman flung herself at Jesus' feet, imploring him to help, but Jesus said to her, "It is not fair to the children's food and throw it to the dogs." Those words are shocking to us. They aren't the words of the tenderhearted Good Shepherd. They sound like a curt statement from a diehard bigot. But the truth of this passage is that they aren't the really shocking part.

Matthew calls the woman a Canaanite in order to show us that she shouldn't have been helped. She was, by definition, the enemy. She represented those who stood in the way of God's conquest. She was reckoned as one who must be eliminated before God's promise can be fulfilled. Jesus wasn't supposed to help her. As strange as it sounds to us, Jesus wasn't supposed to heal her daughter. But the woman showed Jesus and us something no one expected--not even Jesus himself. After being rejected by Jesus a third time, she said to him, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." And what was Jesus' reply? "Woman, great is your faith."

There is something about humility that transcends even the most bitter separations. As St. Thomas tells us, the word "humility" comes from the Latin humus, which means "dirt." It is that which is beneath all of us. It is that from which all of us are made. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. All we go down to the dust, from which we were made. The act of total emptying, total humility, is the most basic expression of this Canaanite woman's humanity. It thus unites her with all children regardless of her ancient ancestry. As one who lowers herself even to gather up the crumbs under the table, she becomes something more fundamental than a nationality. In humility, she becomes God's creation. She becomes God's child.

What labels do we use to define ourselves? Mother, father, brother, sister, doctor, lawyer, teacher, student, college-graduate, high-school-dropout, Swedish, Norwegian, Scots-Irish, English, Caucasian, African-American, Arab, Jew, trust-fund-baby, welfare-recipient, Republican, Democrat, American, Episcopalian, Christian? What are the labels we place upon ourselves? What are the labels that others place upon us? Rarely are we defined by our humility. Rarely are we defined as God sees us. God looks upon all of us as his creation, as his children. Anything else we hold onto is pure hubris. All we are is dirt. All we are is the dust from which we are made. May our response to God be 100% humility so that we might truly know the indiscriminate nature of God's love.