Thursday, September 28, 2017

Paul's Plea for Unity

One of the things I learned in seminary was to hear the words of the "Philippian Hymn" as a breathtaking example of early Christology. What that means is that Sunday's epistle lesson (Philippians 2:1-13) is a statement about who Jesus is that is profound because of its complexity, its provenance, and its claim. Theologians suspect that Paul was using a hymn or creedal statement that was familiar to the early church. If so, that means that somewhere as early as 60 AD, followers of Jesus were already identifying him as the one at whose name "every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth." Forgive me if that doesn't sound remarkable, but remember that Jesus never spoke of himself in those exalted terms. Only one name is due that kind of worship (literally to fall down), and that is the name of the Lord. This hymn, therefore, is an example of how early Christians thought of Jesus as the one who had been given God's own sacred name. It took the church 300 years to decide for sure that Jesus was fully divine. To think that he was accorded this kind of clear exaltation within thirty years of his death is phenomenal. But this Sunday that doesn't feel very important.

As I reread Sunday's epistle lesson something in me allowed the hymn itself to fall into the background, and my focus was drawn to the introduction Paul provides to the hymn. I suspect that other preachers, like me, may have missed it the first time around, and I suspect that congregations may miss it as well.
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus...
That's how Paul sets up the Philippians Hymn. Paul isn't merely conveying a familiar theological statement about who Jesus really is. He's using the commonly held understanding of Jesus' identity to remind the Philippians community to remain unified at all costs. "If there is any encouragement in Christ," Paul writes, " of the same mind and have the same love." How is that possible? How can a diverse Christian community like the church in Philippi possibly have one mind? It's possible because of humility, and Paul is telling his readers, "If Christ can do it, you can do it, too."

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus. Let the one who humbled himself by taking the form of a lowly slave--a form that was not natural to him--become the means by which you follow his example. Those who are baptized into Christ are baptized into that humility. Those who die with Christ know that true exaltation comes not by grasping for power in this life but by emptying oneself and claiming the exaltation that God promises us. Just as the one who endured the shame of the cross was exalted in the resurrection, so, too, are those who endure the humility of this moment raised to new life in Christ.

In other words, individuals don't matter as much as the group. Identity is based not on the parts but on the whole. Christ became human so that we can become divine, but the path that leads to our glorification takes us through emptiness and loss.

Last night, after the Cubs clenched the Central Division, I was flipping through the channels and found one of a dozen "talk shows" that is designed to achieve ratings by embarrassing President Trump. I watched it for a minute or two, but I couldn't stand it for long. It doesn't matter whether my politics are left-leaning or right-leaning. I find animosity and dispute for the sake of inspiring anger and resentment thoroughly unchristian. I remember thinking that talk show hosts who denigrated President Obama were trying to make money by fuelling hatred. The same is true of the anti-Trump sentiment that pervades popular culture. Sunday's epistle lesson is important for us.

I work and worship in a congregation full of Democrats and Republicans. Paul urges us to be of one mind because Jesus himself wants us to be of one mind. We must be one. That unity is not possible without the help of Christ himself. We can disagree about who should be our president and who should be our senator and whether we should repeal the Affordable Care Act or pass tax reform. We can disagree about those things and still have the mind of Christ. But we cannot be of one mind if we are not willing to humble ourselves, give up what matters to us, and commit ourselves to one another at all costs. We can love each other the same way that God loves us even if we disagree about politics.

Unity starts with humility. Humility means giving up one's self. That's only possible if we ask God to help us be emptied for the sake of Christ. Let go of the need to be right. Put away the kind of disagreements that denigrate the other side. Trust that there are more important things than your way, your party, your vote. The political party that put Christ to death wasn't right, but God didn't care. God's triumph is bigger than politics, but we can only see that if we seek the mind of the one who died before he was raised again.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

New Problem, Same Response, Familiar Solution

If you could have witnessed any event in the Bible, which one would you have wanted to see? Sometimes clergy or youth ministers ask that question during the ice breaker known as Four Corners. In the get-to-know-you game, a series of questions is asked, and participants are asked to choose one of four options and move to the corner of the room represented by their choice. At the beginning of the exercise, the questions are frivolous, providing easy and non-threatening answers like one's favorite season or dream vacation spot. Then, as the game progresses, the questions become more substantial and, eventually, allow for some discussion. For example, if you could have witnessed any event in the Bible, which one would you have wanted to see: the creation, the giving of the law on Mt. Sinai, the feeding of the 5,000, or the raising of Lazarus? Once you make up your mind, take five minutes and talk with the other people in your corner about your decision.

It's easy for me to think that by being there and seeing firsthand something like the empty tomb I would erase all the doubts I have ever had about whether Jesus really was raised from the dead. I don't dwell in those doubts. I believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus, but I still have a desire for unassailable certainty--if not for myself then for others. I want to be able to tell people, "I was there! I saw it with my own eyes! Like Mary and Peter and the Beloved Disciple, I saw the empty tomb." It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that seeing is believing, but seeing is never believing. Believing in something is always more substantial than just seeing it, and this Sunday's OT Lesson (Exodus 17:1-7) wants us to remember that.

Last Sunday, we read from Exodus 16, and heard the grumbling of the people of Israel against the Lord and against Moses for leading them out into the wilderness to kill them of hunger: "If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger." It feels particularly disrespectful and faithless to have been set free from slavery and delivered from the Egyptians by the Lord's almighty hand only to wish it were all undone. Nevertheless, instead of punishing them for their faithlessness, God gave them meat in the evening and bread in the morning. Quails covered the ground in the evening, and in the morning the people gathered up the manna, and everyone had enough to eat. Problem solved...until the next chapter.

This time, instead of griping about food, the people are complaining about water: "Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?" Different problem but the same response. It did not matter that their stomachs were full of God-sent bread and meat. This time the people were thirsty and could not see any source of water, so they return to their faithless grumbling: "We wish we were back in Egypt." Were they suffering from short-term memory loss? No, faithlessness is a symptom of the human condition.

It's hard to believe that God will take care of us. Instead of providing a new opportunity for faith, each new crisis seems more like an opportunity for panic. Some people, however, seem to cultivate an attitude of faithfulness that transcends today's crisis. Isn't that God's invitation to us? How does it happen? Daily gratitude. Daily trust. Daily prayer.

If this sounds like a stewardship message, it is. Think of all the ways that God has provided for you throughout your lifetime. How can you translate those memories into a foundation of confidence that God will provide for you today and tomorrow and the next day...even when you don't know where your next meal will come from, even when you can't see any sources of water, even when the waves come crashing down upon you? Become a steward of God's blessings. Manage them, use them, devote them, dedicate them in ways that cultivate your faith. How do you do that? Count your blessings. Decide to trust God by living on less. Make a plan for sharing some of what you have with others. Let the act of letting go today teach you to count on tomorrow's blessings. You don't have to fill out a pledge card at your church in order to do that, but you can't do it haphazardly. If you aren't intentional, you can't make the connection between today's blessings and the promise of more blessings tomorrow. The practice--seeing, counting, planning, sharing--is what leads to deeper faith. It's what helps us stop our grumbling over today's crisis and remember the blessings we received yesterday.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Angel Escort

This sermon is for the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, which we have transferred from September 29 to today. To read the lessons for this feast, click here. To listen to the sermon, click here.

If Jesus is the way back to heaven, how are you going to get there?

When I was in the fourth or fifth grade, I played the role of Jacob in a community theater production of the play Jacob's Ladder. As far as I remember, it had nothing to do with the Old Testament lesson appointed for today. Instead, the ladder upon which my character found himself represented the divide between my father and my mother, who were going through a divorce. I don't really remember a lot about the play, but I do remember one scene in which the script called for my father to carry me up a short ladder into the loft where I slept. I had fallen asleep on the couch while my parents were arguing, and, as things began to get heated, I was to be carried off stage into my bed.

Unfortunately, I have always been a big kid, and, by that, I don't mean childish. I mean husky. (Is there any more demeaning word for a kid than "husky?") The people who built our set placed the loft at the top of an eight-foot wooden ladder, and, during rehearsals, the man who played my father took one look at me and one look at the ladder and said to the director, "He's going to have to climb up there himself." I did, of course, pretending to be halfway asleep. He carried me to the ladder, pointed me up to bed, and I climbed up there by myself.

When it comes to getting to heaven, we know that Jesus is the link between us and the Father. We know that Jesus is the path, the way, the ladder that connects us back to the place where we need to go. He comes and bridges the divide between our fallen human nature and the divine nature that has the power to restore us to our unfallen state. But how do we get there? How do we make it from here to where we are supposed to be? Jesus is the way, but what carries us across the divide?

Angels. I don't give a lot of thought to angels. They make for good stories, like the one we read in Revelation today. I've heard a few people tell me of moments when angels intervened in their lives, and I do not doubt them. I do believe that there are moments when angels show up and help God's people in dramatic, even life-saving ways. But I have never had a moment like that. Unless you've seen one, angels seem pretty hard to get one's mind around. What are they, really? They aren't human beings, but they aren't God either. Their name "angel" literally means "messenger," but their place in our piety seems more substantial than that. People put statues of them throughout their houses. Sewanee people like to pretend that they have a special guardian angel who follows them around except when they are back at Sewanee, when their angel can take a break. It's stories like that that make me want to turn the page on angels altogether. But I wonder whether I am dismissing too quickly something that I cannot see and do not understand.

Jesus sees Nathaniel coming toward him and remarks, "Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!" Nathaniel is surprised at how this stranger can judge him simply by seeing him, so he asks Jesus how he managed to gain this insight into his character. Jesus remarks that he saw Nathaniel sitting under a fig tree even before his friend Philip called him. If that snap judgment was amazing, even more so is Nathaniel's immediate identification of Jesus as "the Son of God...the King of Israel." Now, both are seeing things that ordinary human beings couldn't see. And, to cap it all off, Jesus invites Nathaniel to remain with him long enough to see "heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man." In other words, if Nathaniel will pursue a life spent following Jesus, he will discover within him the link--the path--between heaven and earth and will, like Jacob, see the angels ascending and descending along that spiritual superhighway.

Although I think we overstate the cuteness and availability of angels, I think we underestimate their importance in getting us back to God. In a conversation I had with Warren Swenson, our seminarian from Sewanee, we discussed the role of angels in our faith. He's also preaching on the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels and, like me, wanted to make a case for the importance of angels without falling victim to the overly sentimental way in which they are portrayed in our pseudo-Christian culture. In that conversation, I mused that Jesus shows us that the way back to the Father is through himself, but perhaps we've become so accustomed to our own ability to get where we need to go that we've forgotten what it means to depend on God's help to finish the journey. In other words, we've become overly dependent on our own ability to transport ourselves from here to there that, once we've discovered that Jesus is the way back to the Father, we've forgotten that we always need God's help to get there.

Angels show up in ways we can perceive only when we need them most--those critical moments of need in our lives--but, in fact, maybe we should imagine they are with us all the time, escorting us further and further up the ladder that leads back to God. Faith is the means by which we commit ourselves to the path of restoration that is Jesus. We are saved by grace through faith. Faith in Jesus as the one who brings us to the Father is our part in the equation of salvation, but grace is God's part. Jesus is the way. Faith is our recognition of the way--our plugging the destination into a GPS of sorts. But grace is the means by which we get there--a means that isn't up to us but is up to God.

Might that way be angels? Maybe. Maybe not. The Bible doesn't describe the journey to heaven quite like that. But the Bible does make it clear that we can't get to heaven on our own--that we can't choose our way back to God and then get there without God's constant intervention. Early theologians like Origen and Evagrius described angels as the not-so-fallen creatures who intervene on our behalf, pulling us upward in ways that help us overcome the downward pull of demons. I don't know if I believe that. But I do believe that I cannot get to heaven on my own--even if I want to, even if I choose it, even if I believe it. Perhaps angels are a beautiful way of saying that we need God's help in ways we cannot even perceive. Maybe angels are important because they remind us that, even if we know and believe that Jesus is the way to the Father, we need God's help getting there. Those of us who follow Jesus long enough will see that he is the ladder that stretches from earth to heaven, and, if we look with the eyes of faith and not pride, we will see that there are angels carrying us along the way.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Two Sons and the Flag

One might be tempted to use the Epistle lesson appointed for this Sunday (Philippians 2:1-13) to comment on the recent controversy over the decision of several professional athletes not to stand during the national anthem. After all, the text tells us that "at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth." There are many football players who are taking a knee in protest, but I think the better passage from which to base a comment is this Sunday's gospel lesson and the parable of the two sons in Matthew 21:23-32. Both are asked by their father to go to the vineyard and work. One refuses but later changes his mind and goes. The other agrees but never bothers with it. Which one did the work of his father? Even those who question Jesus' authority know the answer: the first. In today's circumstance, however, the answer isn't so clear. Which group does the will of the Founding Fathers? Which group represents the real patriots?

First, let me describe what sort of flag-etiquette-observant American I am. I like to display the American flag at our house, but I don't do so on days when I won't be home before the sun sets because I don't have appropriate lighting and want to be sure that the flag is taken in before it gets dark. If I drive by a business and see that their flags are improperly displayed, I will pull over and walk in just to let them know that, unless the center flag pole is noticeably higher than the others, the country's flag should go on the left as you observe them so that the flag of the United States can fly in the position of prominence (on the flag's own right). If the television is tuned to a sporting event and the national anthem is played, I stop what I am doing and stand up and sing right along with the television as if I were there in person. Those are some of the ways I like to show my love for my country. I have never served in the military, and I never made it past Bear Scout, but I take my flag and the anthem that celebrates it pretty seriously.

I write all of that so you will know that I am deeply committed to honoring our country and its flag before I tell you that I do not have a problem with professional athletes who decide to kneel, sit, raise a clenched fist, or otherwise protest during the singing of the national anthem. Why? Because I choose to think that the same love of country and the flag that represents it is motivating the actions of those who protest and the actions of those who stand, remove their hats, place their hands over their hearts, and sing boisterously while tears forms in their eyes.

Those who signed the Declaration of Independence may not have understood what equality really means, but they believed in the kind of freedom from tyranny that those who are protesting the treatment of black Americans yearn to see. Those who ratified the First Amendment may not have ever imagined a day when burning the American flag would be a symbol of freedom, but the freedom that they enshrined in that text, which cannot be taken away by the state or its representatives, means that those who lead an unpopular demonstration are guaranteed that right. If the NFL or team owners want to force players to stand during the anthem, they can take that up in their next round of collective bargaining. When an individual works for a company, she or he gives up the right to free speech. I'm not a huge professional football fan, but I don't want to see amateur-level competition on Sunday afternoons, and the decision of team owners and coaches to join with players in their demonstrations in response to President Trump's recent comments about the protest suggests that they don't want that either.

One group says that they love their country and refuses to stand for the national anthem. One group says that they love their country and proudly stands for the national anthem. Which one is right? Which one loves their country more? It's complicated. Are those who exercise their right not to stand more committed to freedom than those who refuse to accept their protest? What about people who are critical of people who think that everyone should stand for the anthem? That's a Constitutionally protected right, too. Are those who label the anti-protesters as anti-American actually missing the point more profoundly than those who are critical of the protest itself? What would Jesus say?

There are two sons. One agrees to go and help his father but never gets around to it. The other refuses but ends up going to help out. The former sounds dutiful but fails to follow through. The latter appears faithless but proves himself in his actions. Who is who in this situation? In case you've forgotten--and at this point that's understandable--this protest started because a few high-profile athletes were distraught that unarmed black men were being shot by police. In the Land of the Free, black people are not treated the same as white people. As the months went by and Colin Kaepernick remained unsigned by any NFL team, it became clear that this protest and the reaction to it has its roots in a deeper racial divide. When the President of the United States decided to express his opinion that protesting athletes should be fired and claimed that this wasn't about race, he further proved that that's exactly what this is about.

If the proof of the pudding is in the eating (and not in the looking), we need more than a show of patriotism. We need people who are willing to take risks for the sake of those whose freedoms are not guaranteed. Men and women risked their lives to fight for freedom from the British crown. Men and women risked their lives to fight for a unified country that would be free of slavery. Men and women risked their lives to demonstrate and fight against segregation and legalized oppression. Men and women risked their lives to fight for freedom and human decency in places near and far away. Now, it's time for men and women to take risks in order to be sure that all men and women and children are given the freedoms that patriots have died to protect. You can't do that if you're standing for the national anthem and turning a blind eye to the way black people are treated in this country. You can't do that if you're kneeling in protest and look at everyone who stands and judge them as someone who is opposed to real freedom. It's risky to talk with people of a different race and background about what it means to be an American, but, until we take that risk, we're all just pretending. It doesn't matter how faithful, open-minded, and patriotic we tell people we are. What matters is what we're willing to do about it.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Until Everyone Has Enough

September 24, 2017 – The 16th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 20A
© 2017 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
I want to warn you that, if you are a Republican, you probably won’t like this sermon. And, if you’re a Democrat, you probably won’t like it either. In fact, if you’re an American or, for that matter, a human being of any nationality or political affiliation, you probably won’t like what I have to say. That’s because the story that Jesus tells us this morning is infuriating, and it isn’t the preacher’s job to soften the blow. If my words don’t challenge you at least as much as Jesus’ do, then I am not being faithful to the gospel.

Let’s be clear from the start: Jesus was trying to ruffle some feathers. You don’t tell a parable about some laborers working all day in the scorching heat who get paid the same amount as those who only worked an hour and not make people mad. The truth is that grace and unconditional love are maddening. Sure, they’re fine and dandy as long as you’re the one who only worked an hour, but, when you’ve given your whole life to being faithful and have always tried to be a good person and some Johnny-come-lately who always thought of himself and who never once did what God wanted him to do shows up at the last minute and gets the exact same heavenly reward that you do, it’s enough to drive you crazy. And Jesus told this parable to make sure that all of us are perfectly clear that that’s precisely how grace works.

There’s no better way to make us understand the totality of the gospel than to hit us where it counts—in our wallets. There’s something about using a parable that quantifies our labor and our reward in terms of hours worked and dollars paid that makes it clear just how enraging the gospel really is. Human instinct produces no stronger reaction than the one that arises when a person gets shortchanged. When we don’t get credit for our work, when we don’t receive proper recognition, when we don’t get paid what we think we deserve, and when someone else gets what should belong to us, it fills us with the kind of self-righteous indignation that leads to mob violence. As the grumbling laborers in the parable declared, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” You have made them equal to us. Equal, indeed.

Equality is a lovely thing as long as it doesn’t cost me anything, but, in the kingdoms of this world, it always does. Universal access to health care means higher premiums or higher taxes for those who are healthy and wealthy. A living wage means higher prices and lower incomes for the rest of us. Freedom for everyone means sacrifice for the few who protect it on our behalf. As long as we approach the kingdom of heaven in the same way that we approach the politics of this life, Jesus’ call for equality and the grace that it represents will always make us angry. If Jesus’ parable is supposed to be an image of how the world should be, then it is going to cost us something.

But this parable isn’t about the kingdoms of the world. “Jesus said, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.” This is a picture of what heaven is like. This is what it looks like in God’s kingdom. In the kingdoms of this world, a person’s value may be expressed in how hard or long that person works, in how good that person is, or in how much that person is paid, but in the kingdom of heaven an individual’s value is not based on a limited resource like hours or effort or dollars. The economics of God’s kingdom are built upon the principle that all value comes from the love of God and that God’s love has no limit.

In Jesus’ parable, every laborer, from the last to the first, was paid the same amount—a denarius. But how much was a denarius worth? Preachers like me love to take that biblical measurement and convert it into present-day currency and tell congregations that a denarius is about $100. If you hired a laborer to work around your house and paid him around $10 an hour, after a full day’s work, you’d owe him about $100. That’s a day’s wage. That’s what a denarius is worth. But that’s not really what a denarius is. A denarius was a coin—a single, silver coin. When you worked for a day, you were given that coin in exchange for your labor, and that coin was enough to feed your family and pay your bills and keep you going long enough for you to wake up and do it all over again the next day. A denarius, therefore, was enough.

There’s a similar concept in today’s Old Testament lesson, which I took the liberty of lengthening by three verses. Did you hear in those verses what Moses commanded the people of Israel when they went out to pick up the manna that God had sent them? “Gather as much of it as each of you needs, an omer to a person according to the number of persons, all providing for those in their own tents.” And all of Israel did so. Some gathered more, and some gathered less, but, as long as they measured what they gathered by an omer, “those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage.” There was exactly the right amount. I don’t know how much an omer is, but I do know that it is enough. And that’s how God’s kingdom works.

What happens when God gives everyone enough? What happens when the measure of a person’s worth is based not on something that might run out but on something that can never be exhausted? Imagine for a minute that God’s kingdom is like a never-ending all-you-can-eat buffet. Does it matter if the person next to you has more chicken wings or crab legs on his plate than you do? Or maybe the kingdom of heaven is like chili dogs. I don’t know about you, but I’m of the opinion that two chili dogs is enough for any human being. Should I be upset if I go to a fancy dinner party and my host gives me two chili dogs and you four? I might feel slighted, but that’s only true until I finish that second chili dog and realize that I’ve already had enough. God help me if I ask for another one.

God’s love is endless. God’s love has no limits. God’s love and the blessings it bestows can never run out. And in God’s kingdom everyone always gets enough. Not just the good people. Not just the faithful people. Not just the hard-working people. Everyone. No matter how much you think you deserve it, no matter how much you think someone else doesn’t, God gives everyone enough, and there is always enough to go around. If we approach God’s kingdom the same way that we approach the kingdoms of this world and assume that the measure of our value is based on a limited resource, we cannot help but reject the principle of equality. If there was only so much of God’s love to go around, of course I would resent it if you took some of the love that was supposed to go to me. No one can afford being left out of God’s kingdom. But how silly is it for us to compete for God’s love? There is always enough of God’s love to go around. But, if God’s love is truly limitless, then those of us live in that love are not only given the freedom of knowing that everyone has enough but also the freedom to make God’s economy a reality on earth just as it is in heaven.

This might be a parable about heaven, but it has profound earthly implications, too. If your true value comes not from the life you live but from God’s gracious gift, then you are free to leave behind an economy of competition and accept that it doesn’t matter how much or little you or anyone else has because, when it comes to the only thing that matters—God’s love—everyone always has enough. Once we believe that, it becomes possible for us to give up the wealth and status and privilege that we possess in order that the kingdoms of this world might be transformed into mirrors of God’s kingdom, so that all the laborers in the vineyard really do get paid the same amount—enough.

Yes, equality in this life is costly. Yes, equal pay and equal access mean that most of the people who call this congregation home have to give something up. But what do we believe? Is our life measured by the abundance of our possessions or by the magnitude of God’s love for us? And, if we believe that our true value comes from God’s limitless and indiscriminate love, we must ask ourselves whether that truth is reflected in our lives or whether we are propping up a kingdom that rejects it.
No one said that grace would be easy. In fact, Jesus let us know right from the start that it’s going to be really hard. But the transformation that God’s grace promises—in our lives and in the world—is worth more than we can possibly imagine.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Make CPG More Like God's Kingdom

Preachers like me are thankful that the parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16) only comes up once every three years in the lectionary. Otherwise we might be forced to acknowledge that, despite working for Jesus, our system for compensation and retirement not only fails to reflect Jesus' vision of the kingdom of God but actually stands in opposition to it.

I'm not talking about all preachers. There are plenty of clergy who struggle to make ends meet. A recent survey of clergy spouses suggests that over two-thirds of clergy families worry about having enough money for retirement. But that's not me. I did not answer a call to ordained ministry because I thought it would pay well. In fact, compared with my peers, I expected to be relatively poor, but things have turned out much better than I anticipated. How did that work out? Well, as an Episcopal priest, I participate in a system that pays men better than women, that rewards clergy for serving in wealthy congregations while punishing those who serve in poor communities, and that enshrines the economic disparities on display during active ministry in a pension system that focuses primarily on income replacement. In other words, once we retire, the clergy who were rich stay rich, while the clergy who were poor stay poor.

Because I am male, because I am white, because I am straight and married and have children, because I was sent to seminary from a congregation that could afford to supplement my educational costs at an elite institution, because I was raised in a family that had financial and social access to opportunities that made me attractive during the college admissions process, because I was hired by a wealthy church and am thus attractive to other wealthy churches, I am on a career path that rewards me richly. Yes, I have worked hard. Yes, I have gifts and talents for parish ministry. Yes, I take care of myself physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Yes, I am good at what I do. But I am also the product of great privilege, and, as a follower of Jesus, it is up to me to figure out how to use that privilege for the sake of God's kingdom.

Since we don't have to preach on this text very often, we may get away with telling our congregations that Jesus' parable isn't really about earthly economics but only uses the image of money to convey a deeper spiritual truth--that those who come to faith late in life are given just as much of a heavenly reward as those who have been faithful since they were born. I agree with that. We may also use this parable to remind our congregations that, in God's kingdom, people are not rewarded for their efforts but are the beneficiaries of grace no matter how hard (or not) they worked. Again, I agree with that. But, even if this parable isn't a mandate for socialism, don't we expect the spiritual principles it espouses to be manifest in the mechanics of the church? Or do we believe that grace and universal access and unequivocal reward have nothing to do with this life and the money we use to live it?

I serve on the House of Deputies Committee on the State of the Church, and one area we have been asked to explore is the extent to which the Church Pension Fund is meeting the needs of the current church. In case you don't know, we have an exceptional pension fund. It is well managed. It is responsive to the needs of clergy and clergy families. It uses its resources to support them in many ways beyond retirement. No one argues that the returns achieved by the fund are anything less than stellar, and no one thinks they are failing in their fiduciary responsibilities. But the Church Pension Fund operates under the same principle that governs most pension plans--income replacement. In economic terms, that makes sense. People who get paid more during their ministry will need/want more in retirement. If you are ordained late in life and only work five or six years before retirement, you wouldn't expect to get the same monthly benefit that someone who has worked forty years in ordained ministry. That person who only worked a handful of years probably has retirement benefits from a previous occupation. It would be irresponsible to take money away from those who have worked their whole careers for the church and give it to those who left a lucrative career as a lawyer in order to answer a call to full-time ministry. But isn't that what Jesus portrays in this parable?

Sure, the laborers in the parable who have been idle all day aren't leaving their first job to come and work in the garden. But the end result is that everyone has enough. Is that true of our pension fund? Is that true of our clergy compensation? There are clergy in my diocese who struggle to pay their bills. There are clergy who will work their entire careers for the church and never receive the same level of pension benefit that I will receive because they didn't come from a wealthy church, because they had to step away from full-time ministry to raise their children, because they didn't get past the phone interview because the search committee at the elite church didn't think they would "fit in" culturally with the congregation. Shouldn't our pension system reflect the kingdom of God more fully?

Yes, it's true that the pension calculation isn't purely based on income. In the formula, there's a base amount, and, for the purposes of calculating the benefits, there is a minimum compensation for all clergy who work more than a certain number of hours no matter how much they actually get paid. The Church Pension Fund has recently changed the way the highest average compensation is calculated, freeing up the consecutive years requirement, which may help those who worked in a highly compensated position for a few years here or there during a career. These are all good things, but they are not enough.

What about lay employees? The canons mandate that lay employees who work more than 1000 hours a year be given a 5% base contribution plus matching contributions of up to another 4% into a 403(b). Relative to other businesses, that's a great benefit. But the clergy pension plan is a mandated defined benefit plan that costs parishes 18% of clergy compensation. Almost all lay employees participate in a defined contribution plan, and, by the time of retirement, the disparity is enormous. Plus, how many parishes can afford 18% on top of clergy compensation? I don't have data to show it, but I suspect that parishes without full-time clergy presence often get stuck in a cycle of struggling finances. It would cost a tremendous amount to level the playing field and provide equal pension benefits for lay and ordained people, but isn't that level playing field what the kingdom of God looks like?

This summer, I had a casual conversation with some clergy friends about possible changes to the way pensions are calculated. I asked about lowering the income multiplier and raising the base amount or putting a cap on highly compensated clergy, and the response was ferocious. "That's my pension! I worked hard for it!" one colleague replied. He's right, of course. And so were the laborers who worked all day. They worked in the scorching heat, and the owner of the vineyard made them equal to those who only worked one hour. This kingdom of God thing? It isn't going to be easy.

In a very unofficial, not-connected-with-the-Committee-on-the-State-of-the-Church way, I propose that we change the way pensions are calculated. I suggest that the General Convention pass a resolution that instructs the Church Pension Fund to change the way it thinks about pensions from an income-replacement model to a model that more closely resembles the parable of the laborers in the vineyard and, thus, the kingdom of God. I believe that the Pension Fund, with oversight from the presiding officers, can work out the details, but I think lay and clergy benefits should be the same and that there should be a hard cap on pension benefits and that the income multiplier should be reduced considerably. This would result in higher pensions for lay employees and for lower-compensated clergy, and the money for it would come not from increased parish contributions but from the pensions of those clergy who are highly compensated, trusting that higher-compensated clergy can use that higher compensation to save for their own retirement in a 403(b). If a defined benefit plan is maintained (and that's a big "if"), I think the mandated contribution for parishes should be significantly reduced from 18% and that parishes who want to make up for it by continuing to over compensate higher-compensated clergy can shift those funds into employer-contributions to a 403(b). I suspect this will need to happen gradually, but I don't think we should "grandfather" in everyone who is already ordained and working for the church. There will have to be stair-stepped reductions and increases, but to suggest that only future laborers in the vineyard will come under this new scheme is disingenuous.

Want to see the most unpopular person at General Convention? He'll be the guy who proposes this. I cannot imagine that such a change would ever pass. Remember that half of the deputies and all of the bishops at General Convention are usually the ones who have worked in the church for a long while, who get paid more than the average clergyperson, and who have a lot at stake. But in Jesus' parable, the laborers didn't get a vote. I suppose it could be worse. We could be debating universal compensation like they have in the Church of England. Maybe then we'd really look like the kingdom of God.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Surprise Call, Surprising Follow

Tonight is the eve of the feast of St. Matthew, the apostle and evangelist who composed the gospel account that bears his name. We are also in the middle of lectionary Year A, which, for the most part, follows Matthew. That means that we've spent the last nine months hearing him tell the good news of Jesus with a perspective that reflects both his own experience and that of the Christian community of which he was a part. And, if we've been listening carefully, we've noticed that Matthew's version repeatedly conveys a tension between who is in and who is out that pervades the whole account.

Matthew is the only one who tells us the story of the Gentile wise men from the east who saw the infant king's star and followed it to Bethlehem. Matthew is the only one who describes the kingdom of heaven as a field sown with good seed and later by an enemy with weeds and who tells us that both must grow up together until the day of judgment, when the weeds will be separated out and thrown into the fire. Matthew's Jesus is the only one who tells the parable of the net with all kinds of fish--some clean and some unclean--that have to be separated before they can be eaten. Matthew is the only one who shares the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, this Sunday's gospel lesson, in which even those who came at the last hour get paid as much as those who worked all day. Matthew is the one who, when he recalls the story of the Gentile woman who begged Jesus to heal her daughter, described her as a "dog" without using the semi-affectionate diminutive form of the word, a softer sounding "puppy," which the other accounts use. Matthew's account is the only one in which Jesus orders his disciples to go nowhere among the Gentiles or Samaritans but only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. In other words, in ways that aren't so clear in the other gospel accounts, Matthew shows his reader that there's always an underlying question about what sort of person gets salvation and what sort of person gets left out.

I wonder whether his own calling in Matthew 9 has something to do with that. "As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him." As a tax collector, Matthew was working for the enemy of God. He was responsible for getting money from his fellow Jews and giving it to the Roman Empire, and his own salary came from commission, which means he was motivated to squeeze every penny from them. It's not an accident that in the gospel accounts the label "tax collector" is associated with "sinner" as if they were interchangeable. That's the life Matthew lived--rejected by his people, rejected by his faith, rejected by his God. And then Jesus comes along and says, "Hey, tax collector! Follow me!"

We see in the verses that follow that Jesus was keeping company with other tax collectors and sinners and that this choice got under the skin of the religious elites. "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?" they asked his disciples. Jesus replied directly to them, saying, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick." That's the teaching that the Pharisees need to hear. They need to learn what it means for God, who desires mercy not sacrifice, to draw sinners not righteous people into him. But how does the truth of God's choice of sinners like Matthew the tax collector shape him and those like him? We see explicitly what that choice does to the religious insiders. But what does it do to those who are called?

I wonder which was harder to believe: that Jesus would eat with sinners like that or that Jesus would eat with sinners like me or you or anyone else whom Jesus calls. Who had the harder time grasping the reality of that call: the Pharisees or Matthew? Which is easer: to mock Jesus for hanging out with sinners or to get up when he calls and trust that even you have a place at the table? The gospel accounts spend a lot of time describing the elites' reaction to Jesus' company, but we never get the first-hand account of what it felt like to be called from a place of sin and rejection into a place of forgiveness and reconciliation...unless we count Matthew.

There is a tension in our lives between who is in and who is out. We feel it. Even those of us who have lived so-called "good" lives, who go to church, who pay our taxes, who kiss our mothers, and who say our prayers, even we wonder whether Jesus could really be calling us. "Who me?" we ask, when he points his finger at us. "Me? Why me?" we ask. Over and over, Matthew brings us to that tension. Who belongs--the dog who eats the scraps that fall from the master's table? What fish get thrown away? What weeds get gathered and burned? What Gentile star-gazers, who know less about Israel's God than they know about Pisces and Leo, are invited to see the king? Today, we celebrate not only Matthew, the tax collector who was invited to join Jesus and who became an evangelist, but also the tension that comes from wondering whether we, too, might belong to God. Throughout his account, Matthew invites us to ask those sorts of questions--who belongs? do I belong?--because he felt that tension himself. He discovered what it means for a sinner to be welcome at God's table, and he invites us to do the same.

Enough is Enough

It is hard to read the parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16) without having our sense of fairness challenged. It is not fair that some only worked one hour and got the same wage as those who worked all day long. This week, it seems that the preacher's question is to ask what this unfairness and our reaction to it tell us about the kingdom of God and our participation in it. The parable is crafted to evoke an indignant response within us. How is Jesus using that anger at a perceived injustice to teach us about the way God works in our lives and in the world?

Forgive the brief review, but, during the season after Pentecost, the Revised Common Lectionary offers two different "tracks" for the Old Testament reading. Historically, Track 2 is more familiar to us. It is the one that pairs a thematically relevant first reading with whatever the Gospel lesson is. This week, the Track 2 OT lesson is Jonah 3:10-4:11, which touches on Jonah's indignant response to God's forgiveness of the people of Nineveh. These were wicked, ungodly enemies of Israel who repented at the last minute and were spared from God's wrath. Understandably, that made Jonah, the Israelite prophet, angry. In the RCL, the Track 1 reading is the newer option, which, in an effort to avoid supersessionist (i.e. the New Testament fulfills and thus replaces the Old Testament) implications, makes its way through large works of the Old Testament (e.g. Genesis, Exodus, Isaiah, and Ezekiel) with no regard for the Gospel lesson. Sometimes, like this week, however, there's a connection between the Track 1 OT lesson and the Gospel that is too good to pass up.

In Exodus 16:2-15, the people of Israel begin to complain against the Lord and Moses for leading them away from Egypt, where they "ate [their] fill of bread," into the wilderness "to kill this whole assembly with hunger." Throughout the passage, as the NRSV gives it to us, the people complain and complain and complain. They complain against Moses and Aaron. Moses tells them that God has heard their complaining. He tells them to stop complaining at him and Aaron and acknowledge that they are really complaining against the Lord. This theme repeats itself throughout the reading. But there's a problem with a translation that uses the word "complain" to describe what the people did in the wilderness but uses the word "grumble" to describe what the laborers in the vineyard did in Jesus' parable. Other translations, like the ESV and NIV use grumble to describe the Israelites' dissatisfaction, while some like the CEV use complain to describe both the Israelites' and laborers' frustration. The point is that the congregation needs to hear the connection between the faithless grumbling of the wish-we-were-back-in-Egypt Israelites and the faithless grumbling of the I-want-what-he-got laborers in the vineyard.

Both stories are about faith, economics, and God's provision, and I'll suggest that the link becomes even clearer if we extend the OT lesson by three verses:
Moses said to them, "It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat. This is what the Lord has commanded: 'Gather as much of it as each of you needs, an omer to a person according to the number of persons, all providing for those in their own tents.'" The Israelites did so, some gathering more, some less. But when they measured it with an omer, those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage; they gathered as much as each of them needed. (Exodus 16:15b-18)
Although the lectionary-appointed lesson includes the reference to God testing the Israelites to see if they will listen and only gather up as much as they need, the reading stops short of showing us what that means. You could extend the reading even further and include the worms that crawl in whatever amount was left over, but I think these three verses are enough to get the point across. Some gathered more. Some gathered less. But as long as they measured it with an omer--a day's measurement--everyone had just enough. Not too much. Not too little. Just enough. Isn't that the message of God's provision?

The parable of the laborers in the vineyard awakens in us a sense of unfairness because we believe that those who work more should get more. In an economy of limited resources, that is true. When we base the allocation of goods on a system of scarcity, people expect to get a wage in proportion to their efforts. But that's not how the divine economy works. There is no scarcity in God's kingdom. That's true of love and forgiveness, but it's also true of food and money and healthcare. In God's kingdom, everyone has enough. Each laborer received a day's wage, a denarius. That was enough to feed a family, pay the bills, and, thus, live an abundant life. In the parable, just like in the wilderness story, everyone gets enough. The point of both stories is that, when God reigns, everyone gets enough. That works because it is based not on an economy or theology of scarcity but one of abundance. There's always enough to go around.

Are we living in a world that mirrors God's kingdom? Certainly not. Could we? If so, we must start by believing that there is enough for everyone, that the richness of one's life does not depend on the amount of one's possessions. (Sound familiar?) Once we understand that enough is enough--that true freedom and wealth and abundance means that there is enough for everyone--only then can we begin to receive our denarius or our omer of manna without grumbling. When everyone has enough, it doesn't matter whether you have more than I do. But until we all understand what enough is, we'll never see it.

Monday, September 18, 2017

First and Last

When I read the Gospel lesson for this coming Sunday (Matthew 20:1-16), I felt both the excitement of having a rich parable to unpack and the terror of having a rich parable to unpack. Jesus' glimpses of the kingdom are rarely things that make churchgoers like me and our congregation feel better about ourselves and our relationship with God. Instead, they are usually messages of welcome and inclusion for the kind of people who aren't in church, which means that those of us who think we have a reserved place may need to step out of the way. Sunday's parable is no exception.

To a white, middle-class American, I don't think there are any more threatening words than "you have made them equal to us." This is the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. The owner hires different laborers at 6am, 9am, noon, 3pm, and 5pm. When it is time to pay them, he starts with those who only worked an hour and paid them a full day's wage. Expecting to receive more, the ones who worked all day were angry to discover that they, too, only received a full day's wage. They grumble to their master, saying, "These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat." Our work is unequal. Our effort is unequal. Our deservedness is unequal Yet the pay, the compensation, the reward is equal. That's not good enough, the laborers think.

Jesus tells this parable to illustrate an important concept in the Gospel: "The last will be first, and the first will be last." That's Jesus' way of saying that in God's kingdom, when the reign of God is fully established, when the ways of God become a reality on earth, those who are at the end of the earthly receiving line will find themselves at the head of God's receiving line. Like it or not, that's how it is in God's kingdom. When God is in charge, those who have nothing are those who receive, and those who have are those who get nothing. When God is in control, people are not rewarded in proportion to their effort. When describing the reign of God, preachers like me use phrases like "the poor shall become rich" and "the weak shall become strong," but saying those words doesn't really show what the kingdom will look and feel like. Nothing gets that across as completely as this parable. Nothing helps God's people see what the reversal of God's kingdom means like lining them up and paying them all the same amount no matter how long they worked.

At the end of Matthew 19, Jesus says to the rich young man that he must give up all of his possessions in order to receive eternal life. The man walks away grieving "for he had great possessions." When the disciples ask about this, Jesus tells them that it is easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich person to enter the kingdom. Confused, the disciples asked whether it was possible for anyone to enter the kingdom, and Jesus replied, "With God all things are possible." Peter, perhaps in an attempt of self-justification, asks whether the disciples, who have left everything to follow Jesus, will receive a reward in heaven. Jesus confirms this by introducing this important kingdom concept: "And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for my sake will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first,"

This concept of first becoming last and last becoming first is not just a catch-phrase for Jesus' ministry. These were real concepts in his day. People understood what it meant to be among the first or among the last. In today's financial terms, we might use labels like "the one percent" or "welfare recipients." In today's cultural terms, we might use labels like "society's leaders" and "society's dregs." In other words, this reversal of first and last is not merely about letting others go ahead of us. It's about status and access and privilege and resources. If you want to get into the kingdom, you need to do more than let other people go in front of you. You have to yield everything that comes with being at or near the front of the earthly line. Sunday's parable, therefore, is a reality check. If your concept of yielding looks more like a check in the offering plate or a self-righteous prayer for the needy than it does a socialist system of universal wages, you may still be riding on the camel that's trying to fit through the needle's eye. The kingdom of God is good news for the poor and difficult news for the rich. It stings. It hurts. It takes away that which is precious to us: our deserts. Actually, that's good news for all of us, but most of us have to become poor to see it.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Quarreling Over Faith

It's Holy Cross Day, and it might be better for me to write about that celebration, but I can't leave the epistle lesson for Sunday (Romans 14:1-12) untouched this week. This week, I've written about forgiveness and have even called into question the legitimacy of the death-celebration associated with the Red Sea tradition, but I haven't written about Paul's words to the Roman church, and, when I read them this morning, they seemed especially interesting to me.

Paul writes, "Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions." Think about that for a minute. Paul is telling the Roman Christians to invite and include individuals whose faith is not as developed as that of the core members of the Christian community. That makes sense. Isn't that what the church does--invite seekers into their fellowship so that they can grow in faith? But the second half of what Paul writes reminds me that sometimes the church invites people into her fellowship in order to quarrel with them and let them know that they aren't Christian enough. That was a problem in the first century, and, last time I checked, it's still a problem in the twenty-first.

What was going on in Rome? In this passage, Paul seems to identify two issues that were dividing the strong in faith from their weaker counterparts. The first issue is food: "Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables." In the Roman Empire, meat was often sacrificed to idols before being sold in marketplaces. In order to maintain their religious identity, faithful Jews traditionally abstained from all meat unless its provenance could be verified. Many Gentile converts to the Christian faith, however, did not understand why they would need to give up meat simply because it had been sacrificed to an idol. What does it matter that a statue of wood or precious metal happened to be in the same room as the animal that was slaughtered? What does it matter that a prayer or incantation to a false deity was uttered as the meat was butchered? Many followers of Jesus knew that such idolatry was empty practice. Meat is meat, or so they thought. Others, however, weren't so sure.

I've never been a smoker, but I've heard that some people who were once smokers enjoyed being around other smokers because exposure to the second-hand smoke made it easier to resist their own urge to light up. Other former smokers, however, found the presence of smokers too tempting. It was similar with pagan-offered meat. For some former pagans, the consumption of meat was too closely tied to a former religious life, and the reintroduction of meat to their diet might mean a relapse into pagan ways. These were the weaker believers. Paul wants to be sure that the people who don't care about meat don't invite those who do into their fellowship only to serve them meat and berate them for being weak and faithless when they refuse to eat it. Sound familiar?

The second issue Paul raises is one of festal observances: "Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds." In other words, if you think it's right to observe Jewish festivals, go for it. If not, that's fine, too. You can be a follower of Jesus and go to services on Yom Kippur, and you can be a follower of Jesus without ever noticing when Easter is.

How many people or congregations or denominations define faithfulness according to their own strict custom? If you're a real Christian, you won't drink. If you're a real Christian, you won't miss church on Sundays or Wednesdays. If you're a real Christian, you won't sing secular Christmas music or write "x-mas" instead of "Christmas." If you're a real Christian, you won't say "alleluia!" during Lent. If you're a real Christian, you won't permit your children to be rebellious or your wife to speak out in public. If you're a real Christian, you won't have lunch appointments with other women unless your wife is present. You know what? It's possible to follow Jesus and never drink a sip of alcohol, and it's possible to follow Jesus and have a glass of wine every night. It's possible to follow Jesus and have a strict, literal interpretation of scripture, and it's also possible to follow Jesus and believe that almost every word in the Bible is metaphor. It's possible to be a faithful Christian and faithful reader of the Bible and believe that same-sex marriage is forbidden, and it's possible to be a faithful Christian and a faithful reader of the Bible and believe that same-sex marriage is God's will.

When it comes to navigating difficult social and religious issues, keep these words in mind: "Let all be fully convinced in their own minds." As Steve Pankey likes to remind us, adiaphora is one of his favorite words. It means something that is outside the moral law. It means that it's not important enough to split over. It means that you can have your opinion and I can have my opinion and we can both be faithful.

People in our church are as bad at this as anyone. We think it's our job to sucker-punch someone with "weaker" faith because he or she reads the Bible with a narrow mind and classical, evangelical interpretation. We make fun of Baptists, but their churches are growing while ours decline. It's ok that we don't have the same approach on many things, but we'd do well to stop quarreling and start sharing the good news of Jesus with a broken world. I believe that there is no church better positioned to bring the gospel to the contemporary, skeptical, over-secularized world than the Episcopal Church. We are the flexible, faithful, sacramental community of believers who, if we'd just remember to talk more about Jesus and less about ourselves, could evangelize the twenty-first century. Romans 14. Let's keep reading these words until we stop worrying about how much better we are than other "weaker" Christians and start inviting the whole world into the Christian community.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Taking Forgiveness For Granted

God's love is automatic. God does not weigh our lives in the balance and then decide whether we are worthy of God's love. God just loves us. It's not only what God does; it's also who God is. Sometimes, however, we become so accustomed to God's never-failing love that we begin to take it for granted, and, as we see in Sunday's gospel lesson from Matthew 18, the consequences are dire.

"How often should I forgive?" Peter asks Jesus. "As many as seven times?" Jesus replies, "Not seven but seventy-seven." As I wrote about on Monday, that's like Peter asking, "Must I really forgive completely?" and Jesus replying, "Not completely, but perfectly perfectly completely." God's love is infinite--truly limitless--and so is God's forgiveness. We may not be able to fathom the unfathomable magnitude of God and God's love, but we can be so overcome by it that it changes us from unforgiving to magnanimous. How does that work? Jesus explains it in his gruesome parable.

A slave owes his master 10,000 talents. (That's as ridiculous as saying that my four-year-old owes me a million dollars. A talent is a measure of a precious metal like gold or silver. Internet resources argue over whether a talent is 50kg or 30kg, but, whether gold or silver, whether 100 pounds or 50 pounds, 10,000 talents is a stupid-big amount of money. Jesus isn't trying to give a math lesson; he's trying to make a point.) The slave is confronted by his master, begs for patience, and receives forgiveness of the debt. (Again, that's ridiculous, but so is God's love.) As soon as the slave left his master's forgiving presence, he happened upon another slave, who owed him 100 denarii. That's the same amount of money that a laborer would receive for 100 days worth of work. In today's money, that might be $8,000 or so--not an insignificant amount but nothing that compares with 10,000 talents. When the first slave confronts the second about the debt, the latter falls on his knees and begs for patience, but the first slave will not hear of it. He threw him into jail, demanding full repayment. Naturally, when the master hears of it, he is furious, and he withdraws his offer of forgiving the debt and has the unforgiving slave tortured until he pays the whole 10,000 talents. (Again, that's an impossibility.)

For all of our sins, for all of our unfaithfulness, for all of our selfishness, for all of our abuse of the blessings that we have been given, God grants us unlimited forgiveness. We are pardoned. We are set free from the debt that our failure to use the life that we have been given to our Creator's glory has incurred. God's unlimited love means unlimited forgiveness. But how does that forgiveness change our lives? Do we offer that same limitless love to others? When we happen upon one who has wronged us or who owes us, do we share the forgiveness that we have received with that person, or do we take it for granted?

I think it's dangerous to take the parable as a full representation of how God works. I don't think God withdraws the offer to forgive us when we sinfully deny forgiveness to others. I don't think God will send us to the place of torture until we have paid the debt that our sin has incurred. And I don't think that there are tattle-tellers who report to God that we haven't been as faithful as we should. Instead, I think we are supposed to understand this parable as a portrayal of the magnitude of God's forgiveness and the incongruity of our typically unforgiving nature. It makes no sense that one who has been forgiven as fully as we have been forgiven would deny that forgiveness to someone else. But we do it all the time. Why? I think Jesus is trying to teach us that our unforgiving nature is a consequence of our failure to appreciate the magnitude of the forgiveness that we have been given.

The answer isn't for us to try harder to be forgiving. That doesn't work. Human effort, though impressive, is ultimately doomed to fail. The answer isn't for us to resolve to be more forgiving. The answer is for us to reconnect with the limitless nature of God's forgiveness. Say your prayers. Go to confession. Read the Bible. Read Dostoevsky. Go to church and say the confession and savor every word. Make reading the parable of the Prodigal Son part of your daily routine. Whatever it takes, remember that you are loved and forgiven without limit. Encounter what God has given you in a way that transforms your life. If you're finding it hard to forgive others, quit trying so hard. Let God's forgiveness of you (and them) become the pattern for your life.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Unlimited Love Means Unlimited Forgiveness

Yesterday, I preached about forgiveness. Given their context in Matthew 18, I felt that Jesus' words to the "church" about confronting sinners and asking them to repent was a passage about enabling forgiveness. Part of that is based on the parable of the lost sheep, which comes right before those instructions. Another part is based on what comes after it, which is this Sunday's Gospel lesson, Matthew 18:21-35. Peter asks Jesus how many times he is supposed to forgive a member of the church who has sinned against him--as many as seven times? And Jesus replies, "Not seven but seventy-seven."

Seven is a number of completeness, so, when Peter asks whether he should forgive seven times, what he's really asking is, "Must I forgive until forgiveness is complete?" And Jesus says, "Not until you think forgiveness is complete, but until perfect forgiveness has reached its perfect perfection." It's hyperbolic, for sure, but the point is clear. You can never stop forgiving. Never.

Because we are using Track 1, the Old Testament lesson about the crossing of the Red Sea (Exodus 14:19-31) is not supposed to be paired with the Gospel lesson thematically, but I can't help but notice a sentence in the passage that catches me up short: "The Egyptians said, 'Let us flee from the Israelites, for the LORD is fighting for them against Egypt.'" In that moment, the Egyptian soldiers and chariot drivers seem to recognize that Yahweh, Israel's God, is actively fighting against them. They decide to flee, but they never get the chance. God tells Moses to stretch his hand out over the sea, and the water returns to its normal depth, and the "entire army of the Pharaoh" is drowned. We're told that "not one of them remained." And I find myself wondering, when is it time to let the Egyptians live? When is it time to forgive them?

Maybe it's because today is September 11. Maybe it's because anti-Islamic sentiments are still largely a socially acceptable form of racism. Maybe it's because I know that following Jesus' commandment to pray for our enemies and offer a prayer for an Islamic terrorist is threatening enough to make my job as a parish priest difficult. But I find the impulse to celebrate the terrible deaths of our enemies, which is recorded in many places in scripture, contrary to the message of unlimited forgiveness enshrined in the story of Jesus.

The alternate Track 1 Old Testament lesson, the singing and dancing of God's people that "horse and rider [the LORD] has thrown into the sea," is even worse. It's a blood-thirsty battle song about God's triumph over the enemies of God's people. It's one thing to celebrate God's victory. It's another thing to relish in their deaths. If God is the God of love, how do we make sense of this? Maybe it's true that the Egyptians never would have stopped their pursuit until God wiped them out. Or maybe there's a way to recapture this central victory of the Jewish faith without celebrating the deaths of so many human beings. That's the challenge for the person of faith on a day like 9-11. We support those who fight and die to keep us safe and free, but we cannot glory in the deaths of our enemies. We must find a way to do the impossible. We must find a way to forgive and love those who wish us harm. Otherwise, as Sunday's gospel lesson teaches us, we have no forgiveness for ourselves.

Enabling Forgiveness

September 10, 2017 – The 14th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 18A
© 2017 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
Half of the preacher’s job is to invite a congregation to see that the kingdom of God that is breaking in all around us. The other half is to invite them to get up from their pews and do something about it. Sometimes I leave the pulpit thinking that I’ve done a pretty good job of the first half but realize that I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of the second. For example, two weeks ago, I preached a sermon about how those of us who, like Simon Peter, identify Jesus as the Messiah must also confess that we are no longer willing to live in a world where the way of Jesus does not reign. And, after I finished, about half way through the Nicene Creed, it occurred to me that I needed to climb back into the pulpit and preach another sermon on what we’re going to do about it. And I almost did.

We know that Jesus came to make this world the place where God’s ways reign. There’s a reason that he taught us to say, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” every time we pray. God’s dream for the world is what we see in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It’s something small and humble growing into something complete and all-encompassing. It’s welcome for the outcast. It’s fellowship with the stranger. It’s wholeness for the broken. It’s freedom for the prisoner and a new start for the oppressed. It’s the weak and defeated and dead coming back to life and having that life abundantly. It’s all of those things and more. But what does it take for those things to happen? What does it take for that kingdom to come, for God’s will to be done here on earth just as it is done in heaven? What do we have to do in order to stop watching and waiting for it and become a part of making it happen?

In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus tells the church how to make God’s kingdom a reality, and, at first glance, it seems to be all about confronting sinners. “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If that doesn’t work, take one or two others along with you. If that doesn’t work, tell it to the whole church, and, if the sinner still won’t repent, write him off as a Gentile or tax collector.” In other words, “You’d be better off without him.” It would be easy to interpret this anachronistic instruction to the church as Jesus’ warning that we’d better do whatever we can to get rid of sinners by either making them repent or chasing them away. And many churches have taken that approach to the kingdom of God. They think that the best thing they can do to make God’s reign come is to launch an all-out assault on sin and the sinners who commit it. But it turns out that that’s not what Jesus has in mind.

The people who designed the lectionary did us a real disservice by cutting this passage about going after sinners out of its original context. Do you know what the rest of Matthew 18 is about? Right before today’s lesson, Jesus says to his disciples, “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 mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And, if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray.” And right after today’s passage, presumably in response to it, Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive—as many as seven times?” And Jesus replies, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” And, on top of that, don’t forget that Matthew himself was a tax collector. So, when he tells us that Jesus wants the church to treat an unrepentant sinner like a Gentile or a tax collector, there must be at least a little bit of irony there—perhaps even a subtle invitation to consider that no one, not even a tax collector, is really lost forever. Pretty quickly, therefore, we realize that this isn’t a passage about confronting sinners; it’s about enabling forgiveness.

In fact, many of the most reliable manuscripts of Matthew’s gospel account leave out the words “against you” in the first line of Jesus’ instructions. Listen to what a difference that makes: “Jesus said, ‘If another member of the church sins, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone…” Jesus isn’t interested in helping the good Christians win their disputes over the bad ones. This isn’t even about reconciling the differences between two members of the church. Instead, Jesus wants us to do whatever it takes and to go to whatever lengths are necessary in order to recover someone who has been separated from the body of the faithful by sin.

And that is both the good news of how the kingdom comes and the challenging news of what it takes to make it happen. Jesus isn’t telling us how to keep the kingdom free of sinners. He’s telling us that it’s our job to go and seek out the lost and bring them back into the fold. That’s what it takes for God’s reign to be established on the earth. God’s kingdom will only be a full reality when all of creation is reconciled together and to its Creator. And that doesn’t happen when we sit back and wait on Jesus to come and sort everything out on our behalf. It happens when we hear Jesus’ words and get up out of our pews to go and find the ones who aren’t here because of guilt and shame and embarrassment and share with them the gospel of unlimited forgiveness.

It’s a lot easier to close our church’s doors on the people whom we have labelled as sinners than it is to knock on their doors and invite them back in. Likewise, it’s a lot easier to assume the church’s doors are closed to you when you’ve wandered off and become a lost sheep than it is to feel like you belong back amidst the flock of the faithful. It’s hard coming back to church after a messy divorce. It’s hard finding your way back after ninety days in rehab. It’s hard getting in your car and driving into the parking lot and walking through that door when the imperfections of your life are a part of the public record. But, until all people know that they have a place in God’s church, we can’t live into the fullness of God’s kingdom.

The truth of the gospel is that God pursues sinners like you and me until he finds us and brings us back home. But that doesn’t happen by magic. It happens when you and I realize that the work of forgiveness and reconciliation belongs to us. If a member of the church sins, reach out to that person when you are alone. Tell him or her that repentance means turning around and coming back. Assure him or her that he or she is already loved beyond measure and that we have a place for him or her right here in the company of forgiven sinners like you and me. And, if that doesn’t work, ask the rest of the church to help you. This is too important for us to get it wrong.

As followers of Jesus, we must be so filled with the power of God’s forgiving love that we refuse to keep it to ourselves. We must recognize that the power of God’s love and the kingdom that it brings cannot be complete until we have shared that love with everyone who hasn’t found it yet. Who isn’t here? Who is missing from the body of Christ? Who is staying away because they presume that the church’s doors are shut to them? Who doesn’t know that God loves them just as they are and is waiting to welcome them back with open arms? Those arms belong to us. We must be those open arms.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Read the Surrounding Text

On Sunday morning, the congregation will hear two lessons that need some additional context. Both the Epistle and Gospel lessons are set in their own larger contexts that need some filling out before they make sense, but the preacher is likely (perhaps hopefully) only preaching on one of them (if not the Old Testament lesson). As the preacher this week, I'm tempted to lengthen either or both lessons, but instead I'll try to let the surrounding texts inform my sermon in a way that makes that lengthening unnecessary.

Start with the reading from Romans 13. Paul writes, "Owe no one anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law." That makes pretty good sense. He goes on to outline the commandments that deal with how we treat one another, showing that the one who loves her neighbor has fulfilled all of those expectations. But what else does Paul write in Romans 13?

At the beginning of the chapter, Paul writes, "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God." This is the passage of scripture that Christians point to when describing why followers of Jesus should obey the laws of unholy civil leaders. But Paul is also making a statement here about obligations. As he explains in verses 6 & 7, "For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due."

As soon as Paul finishes urging the Christians in Rome to pay their taxes as a sign of their submission to the divinely appointed civil authorities, he writes, "Owe no one anything, except to love one another." In other words, pay your taxes, so you don't owe anything to anyone except love. There is an accounting image beneath this text. We pay our taxes and submit to the civil authorities so that we are not in their debt. The only debt we are to have with anyone is love. We owe each other love. Paul isn't only telling the Christians in Rome to love each other. He is inviting them to consider their relationship with each other as one indebted by love. The fulfillment of the law is love. Love makes everything complete. We might have financial or civil obligations to the government, but our real obligation to one another is love.

Similarly, the gospel lesson in Matthew 18 is a passage about the mechanics of forgiveness that, when taken out of context, has the potential to distort the real purpose of the passage. In the slice that we will read on Sunday, Jesus anachronistically tells the church how to confront a sinner. First, you go and tell that person in private. If that doesn't work, get a few others to go with you. If that doesn't work, make it public in the whole church, and, if you still haven't regained the sinner, write him or her off as you would a Gentile or a tax collector. (Remember, this is Matthew the tax collector writing this.) But what do the surrounding verses tell us?

Immediately before giving these instructions, Jesus tells the parable of the lost sheep. The lost sheep!?! God searches out the one lost sheep and rejoices in heaven when it is found. The purpose of the elaborate process outlined by Jesus in the following verses isn't to excommunicate the sinner. It's to show to what great lengths one must go for forgiveness. After these verses, Peter asks Jesus, "How many times must I forgive a member of the church--seven times?" And Jesus responds, "Seventy times seven times" or "seventy-seven times," depending on how you read the Greek. Again, these words about taking members of the church with you to confront the sinner are not about rooting out sin but sowing forgiveness. The preacher who cuts these verses from their surrounding context risks preaching a sermon about repentance instead of forgiveness. They're similar in a few key ways, but the differences are unmistakable.

It's Thursday in a holiday-shortened week, and I'm still trying to figure out whether I want to preach about loving each other or forgiving each other. Either way, the message is positive, and the surrounding texts help point that out.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Sharing Jesus With Others

We can't keep Jesus to ourselves. As much as we love him, as much as we need him, we can't horde Jesus. He belongs always to those who need him most, and, if we don't share him with others, we never had him in the first place.

In the two-year daily Eucharistic lectionary, the gospel lesson appointed for today is Luke 4:38-44. That passage begins with Jesus and his disciples going to Simon Peter's house, where he cured Simon's mother-in-law. She had been suffering from a high fever, and they led Jesus to her. He stood over her and, in a way that suggests a connection between spiritual ailment and physical illness that we are reluctant to see, rebukes the fever, and it left her right away. She was so perfectly, completely restored to health that she was able to get up and immediately serve her guests. Perhaps Luke's description of her healing reveals some patriarchal expectations on the part of the gospel writer and the culture in which they all lived, but he's not trying to tell us that Jesus healed her so that he could get a nice cup of tea and a blueberry scone. Luke wants us to see that her healing was so full that Simon's mother-in-law immediately felt good enough to get out of bed and host a dinner party in the way that most of us wouldn't. The kind of healing a typical healer provides takes days of therapy and recovery. Jesus, on the other hand, had the power to restore her to health right away.

That was the kind of healer that he was, and everybody knew about it. They brought the sick and the demon-possessed to Simon's door, where he stood and healed them as quickly as they could bring them to him. He restored the sick to health. He cast out the demons, who, upon recognizing Jesus, tried to proclaim him as the Son of God and as the Messiah, but Jesus wouldn't have it. He wasn't ready for that full truth to come out, so he made the demons remain silent. Jesus worked through the end of the day and into the night, providing restoration and healing and wholeness to whoever came to him.

At daybreak, he was exhausted, and he snuck away to a deserted place. Even the Son of God needed time to rest and recover. But the crowds weren't through with him. At daybreak, they started looking for him, and soon they found him. They wanted to be sure that he wasn't planning on scooting out of town. Like the Hotel California, you might try to check out but you can never leave. They had more sick people for him to touch, more demons to cast out, more brokenness for him to heal. Even if the residents of that town couldn't recognize who it was that was in their midst, they knew what his continued presence among them meant. This was the one who could be their own healer, the one who could stay with them and ensure that no one ever got sick. The full and complete healing that was represented by Simon's mother-in-law's immediate ability to care for her guests was something that everyone could long as Jesus stayed with them. They wanted to prevent him from leaving, but Jesus said to them, "I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose." And he left them.

It's hard to let go of Jesus. We still have sickness for him to cure. We still have weakness for him to empower. We still have brokenness for him to restore. And he tell us he has to move on to other towns, to other place, to other people, to other needs. We don't want him to go. We want him to stay in our community. We want him to live here for ever. We want access to the immediate healing he can provide. Sure, it's nice to know that the savior has visited us and promised us everlasting life, but we're not ready to give up on the victory of this moment. We want the power of that immediate access. We want Jesus to be on our side. But he wasn't sent to earth for that. He was sent to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to other cities, to other places, to other people, to other circumstances. We have to let him go.

As a resident of a neighborhood with nice houses and good schools, I can confidently say that Jesus has already come to my town. Why? Because I have health insurance for myself and for my family. If my daughter came down with strep throat or an ear infection, I know exactly what I would do. I would call her pediatrician's office, take her in that afternoon, swing by the pharmacy to pick up whatever prescription she needs, and then bring her back home, where she and her mother would stay until she's better. My wife doesn't have a job that she might lose while she stays home. We don't lose any income we would otherwise need to pay the bills. And I know that the portion of whatever bill the doctor's office and pharmacy will send us that I am responsible for is something I can pay...because I have insurance. I have access to healing.

Jesus has already come to my town. I may not be able to recover from a high fever quickly enough to spring up out of bed and entertain guests in my home, but I have immediate access to health care. There are others in my community, however, who haven't been given access to this kind of healing. They work a string of part-time jobs with no benefits in order to support their families. They can't afford insurance on the exchange, or, if they have it, they can't afford the high deductibles. When their daughters gets sick with strep throat or an ear infection, they say prayers that God would give them healing because they can't afford to miss another day of work, because they don't want to go to the emergency room, because they already have an outstanding balance with the hospital. These are the poor who still haven't been made rich. These are the weak who still haven't been made strong. These are the people in our own cities and towns and villages who have not received the good news of the kingdom of God.

Jesus is trying to get to them. Jesus was sent to earth in order to bring that good news to them, but we're standing in the way. We're preventing him from reaching those who need him most. Sure, we've told them about Jesus. We've shared the good news of our own salvation with them. They know who Jesus is. They know what power he has. But we have refused to share that power with them because we'd rather keep it for ourselves. We don't want universal access to health care because then it would cost us too much. We don't want a single-payer system because we like keeping the best for ourselves. We don't want to have to wait in line when it's our turn for a hip replacement. But the problem with trying to keep that power for ourselves is that the healing that Jesus came to earth to bring disappears as soon as we try to own it. Jesus must always be given away.

Jesus has the power to give healing to those who need it. Jesus came so that those who have no access to the riches of this world, riches like health insurance, could get the healing they need. Those of us who already have it are standing in the way, and, instead of celebrating the power that Jesus has given us, we are chasing him right out of our lives. We know where Jesus is. We know whose side he is on. Don't we want to stand with Jesus?