Tuesday, October 31, 2017

A Relationship Founded on Love

October 29, 2017 – The 21st Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 25A
© 2017 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
Do you remember the WWJD bracelets that were popular in the late ‘90s and early 2000s? What would Jesus do? Did your mom or dad ever give you one of those as a reminder to behave yourself when they weren’t around? Did you ever give one to your child? They were a silent but not so subtle way of saying, “What would our Lord and Savior, the sinless incarnate Son of God, do if he were in this situation?” In other words, it was a way of strapping a good, hefty dose of guilt right on your wrist to remind you over and over that you aren’t perfect. Happy birthday, son. We love you.

Actually, the funny thing is that the kind of moms and dads who like to use religious guilt to motivate their children’s behavior would probably rather not have their children act like Jesus, who, although sinless, was quite the trouble-maker. When it came to observing the sabbath and keeping it holy, Jesus enjoyed breaking the rules in order to prove a bigger point. When it came to hanging out with good, upstanding people, Jesus never liked that crowd and always preferred the company of real sinners. When it came to following the examples of others, Jesus would rather be remembered as a firebrand who thumbed his nose at the elders than as a dutiful student who respected them. If parents are willing to give their children a guilt complex in order to keep them in line, they’d be better off giving them a WWPD bracelet, so that those kids can ask, “What would the Pharisees do?”

In today’s gospel lesson, those law-abiding, rule-following Pharisees asked Jesus to pick which commandment in the law is the greatest. Matthew tells us that they were trying to test him, which is his way of letting us know that they weren’t interested in what he had to say except that it might get him in trouble. Since Jesus had earned a reputation as a rabbi who didn’t always follow the Law of Moses, this was their chance to expose his lawlessness and faithlessness. If they could get him to say something like, “Thou shalt have no other gods but me,” they could seize on it as an implicit acknowledgment that he didn’t think sabbath observance or prohibitions on adultery were important. Surely this loosey-goosey liberal would give them something they could use against him.

They expected Jesus to confirm their assumptions that he didn’t care about being faithful to the law, but, instead, he gave them a reinterpretation that left them stunned. The greatest commandment? You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all you soul and with all your mind. And the second is just like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. The Pharisees tested Jesus to see if he would leave anything out, and, in reply, Jesus gave them a test of his own. His two-fold summary revealed that being faithful to the law isn’t about picking one or two or ten or even all 613 commandments but living a life that is utterly and totally devoted to God and neighbor. All those commandments about the sabbath and idols and honoring father and mother and keeping kosher and fasting on holy days and caring for the widow and orphan? They were given by God to help God’s people know what their lives would look like if they truly loved God and their neighbor, but those 613 mitzvot were never supposed to be a substitute for a real relationship.

If you asked a couple who had been married for sixty years what a healthy marriage looks like, what sort of answer would you get? Stories of good times and bad times and a love that persisted through them all. Celebrations and anniversaries and birthdays and holidays and spending them with someone you love. Births and baptisms and illnesses and deaths and travelling through all of the joys and pains of life with the never-failing support of your spouse. I’m sure that they could write a list of 613 rules for how to be a good husband or wife—like don’t buy your wife a toaster oven for your anniversary and always remember to pick up your dirty socks—but the love that exists between two people who have been married for six decades is far greater than the successful adherence to a list of dos and don’ts. There’s nothing wrong with a set of guidelines as long as we don’t confuse the rules for the relationship that they’re supposed to point us toward.

We belong to God. We are God’s children. God has chosen us. God has called us by name and made us his own. What does it mean for us to belong to God? It means loving God with everything we’ve got. And it also means loving other people as if they were ourselves. That’s how we live when we honor the relationship that God has made with us. But how can we do that? How can a species that is programmed for self-interest learn to love and care for others as passionately as we love and care for ourselves?

The strange, hard truth is that a right relationship with God doesn’t happen when we are mindful of all the rules on our checklist but only when we give God all the love we have. Going to church, saying your prayers, and placing money in the offering plate don’t mean you have a real relationship with God any more than cleaning the dishes, buying some flowers, and saying “I love you” makes you a good spouse. What matters is where your heart is. If your heart belongs to your spouse, you’ll do all of those things and more. If your heart belongs to God, you’ll give him more than an hour and a half of your time and $20 from your wallet each week.

Love the Lord your God with all of your heart and all of your soul and all of your mind, and love you neighbor as yourself. You belong completely to God, so give to God your whole self. When you make a pledge this year, don’t ask yourself how much you’re supposed to give. Ask yourself what it takes for you to belong completely to God. Give to God all that you have—your whole heart and soul and mind. What portion, what percentage, of your income do you have to set apart for God’s work in the world before you know what it means to say to God, “Here I am. I give you my whole self, my entire life. Use me?”

Monday, October 30, 2017

All Saints'...Sunday?

If you want to go to church to celebrate Christmas, you either need to show up on December 24 or 25. If you want to be in church for the Epiphany, you have to get there on January 6. If you want to celebrate the Feast of the Ascension, then you've got to make the trek to church on the Thursday that falls 40 days after Easter Day. None of those principal feasts can be moved away from their fixed dates in the calendar. But All Saints' Day? We're quite happy to move it from November 1 to whatever Sunday follows it. Who cares if the Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost falls off the calendar and vanishes into a liturgical netherworld?

I'm fascinated by this arrangement in the calendar. What is it about All Saints' that either makes it more important or less important than the other feasts that it is the only one (other than a patronal feast in ordinary time with permission of the bishop) that can be moved from a weekday to a Sunday? Or maybe there's something intrinsic about the feast of All Saints that makes it particularly appropriate for Sunday observance.

With a calendar full of sanctoral observances, it is easy to imagine that All Saints' Day gives us a chance to fold all of them together and save the trouble of going to church for all the major and minor observances. But I don't think that's the real origin of this feast. Likewise, it would be easy to conjecture that All Saints' Day provides an opportunity to remember all the saints who are known and unknown, suggesting that there's a commonality to sainthood that, unlike with St. Peter or St. Clare, the ordinary faithful have access to on this feast. I think that's beginning to get to the heart of the issue, but it's still not a great reason for giving up a Sunday. I think the best reason for observing All Saints' on a Sunday is expressed in one of the concluding collects suggested for the Prayers of the People on BCP p. 395:
Almighty God, by your Holy Spirit you have made us one with your saints in heaven and on earth: Grant that in our earthly pilgrimage we may always be supported by this fellowship of love and prayer, and know ourselves to be surrounded by their witness to your power and mercy. We ask this for the sake of Jesus Christ, in whom all our intercessions are acceptable through the Spirit, and who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.
In one way or another, God has fashioned a connection between the saints in heaven and the saints on earth, and All Saints' is a day to celebrate it. To use archaic, perhaps unfortunate labels, the Church Triumphant and the Church Militant are united in purpose, and All Saints' Day bridges the gap in at least two ways. For starters, as a clergyperson closer to the Protestant end of our tradition, I find the reminder that all disciples of Jesus are made holy or "saints" by God is more fully enhanced by the call to remember all the saints and not just the famous ones. I am a saint because, by the Holy Spirit's work, I belong to Jesus, whose death and resurrection have made me holy. All Saints' Day celebrates that.

The second reason is that, in ways I do not understand, we are supported in our earthly pilgrimage by all those who have gone before. Their witness, their love, their example, their story of God using them for the building up of God's kingdom are both psychologically and, in inexplicable, supernatural ways, physically/actually effective in strengthening our faith. Other than an occasional "For the love of Pete!" or "Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!" I do not appeal to the saints for their support. Although I'm quite happy to imagine that their souls are with God in heaven, I also trust that the soul is unconscious without the body, to which it will be reunited at the last day. So calling on Mary or Peter may make me feel better in the same way that I might summon the memory of my late grandfather to give me strength in a tough moment, but it's not a magical way to find a lost object or sell a house. (Sorry, Joseph and Anthony.)

I'll say more about the lessons for All Saints' later this week, but it's worth noting that it's never a bad time to remember the beatitudes. We are blessed not because of our earthly victory but because of our earthly struggle. The veneration of all the saints captures this reality in a way that reminds the saints on earth to remain patient in their suffering. We are united, therefore, in purpose and vocation. The celebration of the poor, meek, and mournful on All Saints' helps us embrace a life of poverty, meekness, and sadness as a part of our discipleship--our own sainthood. If we're going to make that connection explicit, we need to do so on a day when all the ordinary people are in church--not a Wednesday but a Sunday.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Undoing The Biblical Riddle

What role does the Bible play in your everyday life? Do you spend time each morning and evening reading the lessons appointed for the Daily Office? Do you read a daily devotional? Do you participate in an ongoing Bible study or an intensive class like EfM or Disciple? Are you a preacher who spends time each day looking ahead at Sunday's readings? Are you the sort of person who starts at the beginning and reads the bible from front to back, starting over again each time you make it through Revelation?

My relationship with God, my faith in God's abundance, my sense of calling, my role as pastor and preacher and parent and spouse are all helped when I spend some time each day reading the Bible. I use the Daily Office plus the Sunday lectionary as well as whatever lessons are appointed for whatever weekday I am preaching to guide my daily encounter with scripture. I teach Bible studies on Mondays and Tuesdays as well as Sunday school classes and occasional Wednesday night programs, and for each one I spend some time reading the Bible. But I don't find myself turning to the pages of scripture for advice on daily challenges or professional decisions or parenting needs.

Instead of thinking of the Bible as an encyclopedia for godly living to which I might turn when I need direction, I think of it as a resource that shapes my life each day. I suppose I could turn to Ephesians 5 when worried about a marital or parental challenge or to one of Paul's letters when troubled by conflict in the congregation, but I'd rather trust that the time I've spent every day reading whatever is appointed will prepare me for whatever situation comes up.

On Sunday, the Pharisees and Jesus engage in a sort of scriptural duel that I find strange (Matt. 22:34-46). A lawyer asks Jesus to quote the greatest commandment, and Jesus gives him two answers: love God and love your neighbor. Then, Jesus gives them a riddle of his own: if the Christ is David's son, how can David call him Lord? Matthew tells us, "No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions," but in a way that feels like a non sequitur. I want to interrupt Matthew and ask, "You're telling me that after all the conflict between Jesus and the religious elites over authority and identity they hear Jesus ask that question and decide to stop pestering him? Is that really the pinnacle of biblical unanswerability? That's the riddle that has them stumped? What about God commanding his people to commit genocide? What about the prophet Isaiah being told to preach so that the people won't listen? What about God flooding the whole earth and killing everyone? Aren't there better riddles that a silly question about a psalm in which the psalmist refers to the anointed one as lord?"

And maybe that's the point. Maybe the decision not to ask Jesus any more questions was reached not because Jesus had truly stumped them but because his question had revealed the fruitlessness of the Pharisees' pursuit. The Bible isn't something to be solved. It isn't a question to be answered. It isn't a riddle to be unraveled. It is a record of God's relationship with creation to which we submit our lives. Maybe Jesus' silly question about David and Lord shows us how we misuse scripture. We pretend that it will answer life's questions. We want it to guide our next move. Actually, it will do those things. It will give us direction but only if we immerse ourselves in it, submit ourselves to its authority, ask the Holy Spirit to use scripture to shape our life, and trust that God will lead us into truth.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Hometown Hero

St. James of Jerusalem (tr.) - October 24, 2017
As the oldest of three children, I never knew what it was like to have a teacher say, "Oh, you must be John's younger brother." I do remember hearing that happen to classmates and thinking it must be nice to have an identity that precedes you when you walk into a room. I also remember being surprised to hear a friend mumble under his breath, "I hate it when people call me Kristin's little brother." Since I never had to deal with it, it seems quaint and nice, but I can imagine that it must be exasperating always not only to be compared with an older sibling but to be defined by that relationship.
And then there's James of Jerusalem, whose feast we celebrate today. James the Brother of our Lord. James the Less. James the Just. James the Son of Alphaeus. Are all of those the same person? It depends on whom you ask and how important the perpetual virginity of Mary is in your theology of the Incarnation. There are several different ways to describe James, most of which either identify him as not being James the brother of John, one of the sons of Zebedee, or as being the brother of Jesus. What's it like to grow up as Jesus' little brother? Every teacher, every friend of your parents, every synagogue function, every wedding, every funeral, every first date, every social interaction of every kind must be filled with "How's your brother?" or "What's Jesus up to these days?" or "You're not at all like your older brother, are you?"
I don't blame James for resisting the call to follow Jesus for as long as he did. Of course, we don't know a lot about James and how he found a place in the Way, but, as the tradition interprets it, Paul lets us know in 1 Corinthians that James was one of the last to whom the resurrected Jesus revealed himself: "[Jesus] was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me." I don't know exactly what that is supposed to imply, but I take it to mean that Jesus' brother was one of the last apostles to accept the truth of Jesus' identity as the Son of God. It doesn't say that exactly, but human nature confirms it.
What's so special about my brother? Only that he's the incarnate Son of God. Oh, that? You should have seen how he acted when no one else was around. What was it like growing up in the same family as Jesus? What do you think it was like? Who do you think got in trouble every time something went wrong?
It's hard to be in awe of someone we grew up with. It's hard to revere as holy someone we know as friend or sibling or neighbor. "Where did this rabbi get all this wisdom and these deeds of power? Isn't this the carpenter's son? Isn't his mother called Mary? Aren't his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas people we know?" Jesus' response is telling: "Prophets are not without honor except in their own country and in their own house."
I don't know about you, but I grew up with Jesus. I've known him all my life. He was as much a part of my household as my two younger brothers. There's comfort in that familiarity, but I didn't discover the truth of who Jesus is until I moved away, found a new community, and met Jesus as an outsider. What about you? Is there a moment in your life when you discovered Jesus? Maybe you didn't grow up with him like I did and met him for the first time later in life. Or maybe you grew up taking Jesus for granted and didn't learn the depth of his identity until much later. Or maybe you, like me, are still looking for a truth that reflects not only the Jesus whom you have always known but also the Jesus who comes and surprises you as much as he surprised Paul or James or any of the apostles. May our knowledge of Jesus flow from a lifetime relationship with him, yet may each encounter be as fresh as love at first sight.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Which Law Is The Greatest?

Yesterday, we heard Jesus silence the Pharisees with his clever and revealing response to their question about taxes. When he said to them, "Give to the emperor the things that are the emperors and to God the things that are God's," they were amazed, which is to say awestruck or dumbfounded. They had nothing to say. Our lectionary skips over the Sadducees' attempt to test Jesus by asking him a complicated hypothetical question about the resurrection and Jesus' successful retort. This week, the Pharisees again will pick up the cause and try to humiliate Jesus (Matt 22:34-46). Remember, Matthew 21 and 22 recall Jesus' triumphal and controversial entry into Jerusalem and the upheaval it caused. All of the religious authorities have been trying to show the crowds that Jesus is merely a pretended. Their questions about authority and their legalistic traps have been attempts to get him to misstep.

In Sunday's gospel lesson, the Pharisees will ask Jesus which commandment is the greatest, and his reply is particularly familiar to those of us who regularly worship in a Rite I service. It's love God with everything you've got and love your neighbor as yourself. I take that answer for granted. I've been taught this two-fold summary of the Law since I was a kid. Today, however, I wonder what the audience would have expected him to say. I wonder why they were so amazed at what has become for us such a familiar distillation of the Mosaic Law.

It's Monday morning, and I haven't checked any commentaries yet, but I recall someone writing that this two-part summary wasn't something Jesus invented. It's insightful for sure, but ever since the Deuteronomistic Historian compiled his work after the Babylonian Exile, Jewish scholars have taught us to look at the Law from a 50,000-foot elevation. This was the trend in Jewish scholarship that focused less on the minutia and more on the spirit behind the laws. This leads to the two-tablet summary of the Ten Commandments: #s 1-4 have to do with God and #s 5-10 have to do with each other. Often in stained-glass windows, you can see Moses holding tablets that group them like this. (Occasionally, #4 on observing the sabbath gets lumped in with 5-10. Also, some artists prefer to divide them up evenly instead of theologically.)

So where's the debate? What sort of trap were the Pharisees setting for Jesus? What is the trick behind this lawyer's question? If we assume that most rabbis would have been familiar with this two-part summary of the law, what sort of answer did they think Jesus would give?

Partly, I wonder whether they were expecting him to take this opportunity to declare that some of the laws weren't important. He had already confronted the religious authorities about the importance of fasting in Matthew 11. He had demonstrated his willingness to come into contact with lepers and other unclean individuals (e.g. Matt. 8). He had repeatedly violated society's understanding of sabbath requirements (e.g. Matt 12). Maybe his opponents expected him to say, "Well, since you asked, we can surely disregard this part and that part." But, of course, he didn't say that.

Maybe Matthew is making the point that Jesus was obedient to the law in ways that the Pharisees never considered. Maybe the point isn't really the trap that they supposedly set for him but the opportunity to demonstrate his spiritually significant approach to the law. Or maybe the Pharisees did expect Jesus to struggle to find an answer. Maybe the two-fold summary wasn't as popular as I think it was. Maybe they were waiting for him to say, "You shall have no other gods but me," so that they could reply, "What about all the rest, you law-breaking trouble-maker!" But that doesn't seem right to me.

This week, as I consider what God is saying to God's people, I find myself wanting to go beyond the trap that the Pharisees set and ask why Jesus' attitude toward the law remains central to our relationship with God. Why do we summarize the law this way every Sunday in our Rite I worship? Why do we need to be reminded that the life God invites us to embrace is one of loving God and loving our neighbor? How is that the place where abundant life is to be found?

Inseparable Wealth: Everything Is God's

October 22, 2017 – The 20th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 24A
© 2017 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus finds himself in a bit of a verbal trap. For the last three Sundays, he has been telling parables about disobedient sons, wicked tenants, and ungrateful wedding guests, and the religious authorities are tired of it. They’re tired of Jesus telling stories that make them look like self-righteous fools, so they approach him with a question of their own: “Tell us, Rabbi—sincere, faithful, impartial rabbi that you are—is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” In front of almost any audience, that would be a tricky question. Remember that the Jewish people lived under the occupation of the Roman Empire and that they would have struggled each day to find the right balance between worshiping their own God and respecting the authority of the emperor who called himself a god. But Matthew lets us know that this particular situation was even more treacherous than usual.

The Pharisees had gone out of their way to bring some Herodians with them. We know who the Pharisees were—strictly observant Jews who were known and revered for their fastidious faithfulness. The Herodians are a little trickier to pin down. As far as we can tell, they were a group of Jesus’ contemporaries who supported Herod the Great and his successors, which means that they were a political party loyal to Herod’s children and dedicated to the preservation of their power. The Roman Empire had chosen Herod and his descendants to administer the Palestinian territory, to keep peace in the region, and, above all else, to collect taxes and send the revenues back to Rome’s coffers. In other words, the super-religious Pharisees, who resented Roman rule in Judea, brought some Roman sympathizers with them and then, in front of the whole group, asked Jesus, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?”

It was a little like being at the Thanksgiving table and having your mother remark, “Son, I think your wife’s cornbread dressing might be even better than mine. What do you think? Is hers better?” Or maybe it was like being a candidate in an Alabama parish’s search for a new rector and having one of a dozen people ask whether you cheer for Auburn or Alabama. As soon as the question was asked, everyone fell silent and leaned forward to hear what sort of answer would be given. For Jesus, there was no right answer. If he had said, “Yes, of course we have to pay our taxes,” the Pharisees would label him as a mealy-mouthed rabbi who cared more about staying out of trouble than standing up for God’s people. If he had said, “I recognize no authority but that of my father in heaven,” the Herodians would brand him a traitor and have him arrested for sedition. But Jesus wasn’t willing to accept the trap that they had laid for him.

“Show me the coin used to pay the tax,” Jesus said to them. When they brought it to him, he asked, “Whose head is this and whose title?” That was easy enough, they thought to themselves. “The emperor’s,” they replied. And Jesus said, “Then give to the emperor the things that are the emperors and to God the things that are God’s.” If that sounds like a clever response, it is, but, if you think that it’s clever because Jesus is giving us a helpful, careful way of divvying up what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God, you’ve missed the point. Matthew tells us that the people “were amazed,” when they heard Jesus’ response. They weren’t amazed because of how wise the answer was. They were amazed because they didn’t know what to say. The word that is translated for us as “amazed” also means “awestruck” or “dumbfounded.”

Clearly the coin belonged to the emperor. It was his face on it—his graven image that made the coin itself a violation of the second commandment. The coin and the tax that it represented were claimed by Caesar. But just because the emperor claims something doesn’t mean that it doesn’t also belong to God. As soon as the words came out of Jesus mouth, the people knew. That’s why they were amazed. They recognized that Jesus had presented to them the same sort of verbal trap that they had laid out for him. It didn’t matter whose image and title were on the coin. It didn’t matter whose law required that the tax be paid. Even if the emperor wanted the coin for himself and even if the people were willing to give it to him, it still belonged to God.

Everything belongs to God. They knew it, and we know it, too. It doesn’t matter whether we mail it off to Uncle Sam or keep it in our bank account. It doesn’t matter whether we put it in the offering plate or use it to buy lottery tickets, booze, and women. The question for us isn’t to whom it belongs. It all belongs to God. The question is how we will decide use it.

People don’t like it when preachers and lay leaders talk about money, and this is the time of the year when they seem to talk about it a lot. I think the reason that we don’t like it is because people in my position typically ask the same sort of guilt-laden, grace-denied question that the Pharisees and Herodians asked of Jesus. In some form or another, it sounds like, “How much of your money are you supposed to give to God?” But that’s a trap that can’t really be answered. The question implies that we can separate what belongs to us and to the government and to our creditors from what belongs to God. I don’t want to ask that kind of question because I don’t believe that there is any room for “should” or “ought” or “supposed to” in the gospel. Instead, I want to invite you to ask yourself what God is calling you to do with God’s money.

When we remember that it all belongs to God and we stop thinking about stewardship as a tax on the blessings we have been given, we discover what it means to dedicate joyfully our resources to the transformation that God is carrying out in our lives, in this parish, in our community, and around the world. You aren’t being judged on whether you give more to the emperor than you give to God. You are being invited to use God’s money to make God’s kingdom come—in your heart, in this church, and in the world. You don’t get to choose to whom the money belongs. It already belongs to God. But you do get to choose how you will use it, and that choice belongs exclusively to you.

My family and I have found that by giving away more and more of our income we have learned what it means to dedicate our whole lives to God. This year, we gave the first 13% of our income as a pledge to this church in addition to our gifts to the diocese, to other charities, and to the capital campaign. That kind of giving has taught us what it means to trust that God will take care of us. We don’t worry about money or my job or our retirement or even about putting four kids through college. Instead, we’ve found a financial discipline that enables faith to take those worries away. We hear God asking us to dedicate our whole selves to the work of making God’s kingdom a reality here on earth, and our giving is how we begin to make our whole selves available to answer that call. And this year, like every year, we want to grow even more in that part of ourselves that we give back to God.

God isn’t asking you to give a particular amount, and neither am I. Instead, God is asking for your whole life to belong to him, and it’s my job as your priest to invite you to see that. God wants you to experience the transformation that God’s kingdom brings, and your gifts are part of what makes that transformation happen. The money, the time, and the energy at your disposal already belong to God. How much of them you will give is up to you. What portion of God’s blessings is God inviting you to devote to that kingdom’s work? What percentage of your life is God calling you to give back to him? This week, spend some time praying about the coming of God’s kingdom and your part in it. Don’t ask God how much you should give. Instead, ask God to show you how much you can give. Ask him to show you what it means to belong completely to God. Next Sunday during church, we will pass out pledge cards and decide together how much of ourselves we will devote to what God is doing at St. John’s. My hope and prayer is that all of us will know what means to belong completely to God and the freedom and faith that flow from that truth.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Ignatius of Antioch, Lion-Ground Wheat

Feast of Ignatius of Antioch - October 17, 2017
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

So committed was Ignatius of Antioch to the Way of Jesus that, as he travelled to Rome under soldiers' guard, he wrote a letter to the Christians in Rome urging them not to interfere with his upcoming martyrdom by wild beasts. Even if he was to be ripped apart by lions, he saw his own execution as an opportunity to demonstrate to other Christians an example of the fulfillment of their proclamation that to follow Christ is to suffer for Christ's sake.

Sometimes we exaggerate when we tell the stories of saints, but this part seems to be real. While travelling to Rome from Syria, Ignatius wrote letters to various Christian communities across the Empire, of which we have seven. In addition to embracing his own death, Ignatius wrote about the importance of the historical Jesus, rejecting the pre-Docetist claims that Jesus was divine only and not truly human. He implore the early Christians to remain united to one another in Eucharistic fellowship, which he described as "the medicine of immortality." Stressing the need for unity, he even coined the phrase "catholic church." It was this understanding of salvation through unity with Christ and with Christ's Body--both in its Eucharistic presence and its incarnation as the church--that gave Ignatius confidence as he approached his death in Rome. For him, salvation meant facing even a grisly death without fear because of the confidence imputed to those who truly belonged to Christ as members of his body. This kind of devotion led to non-historical traditions like Ignatius being one of the children whom Jesus welcomed even though the disciples would have forbidden it. Can't you imagine how someone so transformed by the Body of Christ might have actually been embraced by it as a little child?

What does it mean to have faith like that? What does it mean for salvation to be not only a ticket to heaven but a confidence in the face of great persecution? On the Feast of St. Ignatius of Antioch, we pray, "Almighty God, we praise your Name for your bishop and martyr Ignatius of Antioch, who offered himself as grain to be ground by the teeth of wild beasts that he might present to you the pure bread of sacrifice. Accept, we pray, the willing tribute of our lives and give us a share in the pure and spotless offering of your Son Jesus Christ." Ignatius must have been certifiably crazy to anticipate his martyrdom in the jaws of lions with joy. Countless Christians, who likewise were brutally killed for their faith, must have been absolutely insane to endure such suffering for the sake of Christ. Even today, followers of Jesus who are murdered in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Indonesia must be crazy to think that following Jesus means embracing a death like his. But they do it. And Christians always have. And why? Because the saving work of Jesus Christ has given them the incomprehensible conviction that to die in faith is to live for Christ.

Paul writes, "For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." We often read those words at a funeral, when we bring our own grief to God and ask for comfort that dries our tears and warms our hearts. Paul wrote them as one who knew first-hand what it meant for followers of Jesus to be executed for their faith. He knew what it meant to use the power of death to attempt to rip someone off the Way of Jesus and cast them into the despair of hell. But once he discovered the power of God's love in Jesus Christ, he recognized that nothing--not death, not life, not spiritual powers, not physical powers, not past or present or future could ever come between God's love and God's people.

Are we called to suffer like that? I don't know. It feels inadequate to compare our suffering with that of the martyrs. Our suffering may not be of the same order of magnitude, but our faith is exactly the same as theirs. Whether we are to be ground like grains of wheat in the teeth of lions or beheaded by masked Islamist terrorists or die peacefully surrounded by our family, we approach death with the same insane confidence that Ignatius possessed. Whether our house burns to the ground or our child dies in an automobile accident or our charmed life preserves us from any measurable suffering beyond a hangnail or a splinter, we still know that there is nothing that can take God's love away from us.

There is power in Jesus suffering and death, and the power it brings us is not limited to what we will discover on the other side of life. It is a power that fills us even now. When we declare that, through Christ, God has triumphed over death itself, we are not merely stating that there is life beyond the grave. We mean that the confidence that promises to carry us into God's arms dwells within us now. No matter what lies ahead of us, God is with us. No matter who is against us, God is for us. We cannot see that unless we have the faith that allows us to embrace even a terrible death. Or, put another way, only the faith we have enables us to embrace whatever suffering and death lies ahead of us. May we know the saving power of God as a power that brings us hope not only beyond this life but right in the midst of it.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Where Does Value Come From?

This Sunday's gospel lesson comes at the perfect time for clergy who are looking for an excuse to talk about stewardship. It's Jesus' famous exchange with the Pharisees about paying taxes (Matthew 22:15-22), in which Jesus ultimately says, "Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's." There are, of course, two problems with that: 1) successful stewardship campaigns are not built in a day and 2) good sermons are not based on a conclusion that comes before the text is studied. If you're surprised to discover that this week's gospel makes for a good stewardship sermon, you'd probably be better off preaching on one of the other lessons. We must sit with this gospel lesson long enough to see what comes from it. Jesus did not have a parish's annual giving appeal in mind when he spoke these words. They may help inform such an appeal, but it will take more than a week's pondering to get there.

Dig deeply into the context of this gospel lesson. Start by reviewing Matthew 21 and 22. Notice that this exchange happens after Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem, after the cleansing of the temple, and after three parables about the kingdom of God. This passage isn't about taxes or tithes. It's about authority. Matthew's editorial comments help us get to the heart of the matter: "The Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said." Jesus isn't talking about money, and the Pharisees aren't interested in what he has to say. This is a trap. There is no right answer. If Jesus says that faithful people shouldn't pay taxes, the Pharisees will label him as an anti-Roman seditionist and hand him over to the secular authorities for punishment. If Jesus says that everyone must pay taxes, the Pharisees will label him as an anti-Jewish sell-out and use a smear campaign to undermine his popularity with the crowds who are looking for someone to galvanize their anti-Roman sentiments. If we attempt to mine Matthew 22:15-22 for a teaching on the tithe, we're likely to come up empty handed. It just isn't here. To get to that point, we've got to go deeper--beyond the context of this passage while remaining faithful to it.

What is the real issue here? It's all about authority. Whose authority will we respect? The religious elites? The traditions of our people? The government? The Bible? The Constitution? The Pharisees approach this encounter with the assumption that we cannot be faithful both to sacred and secular. In their minds, we must choose. Will we be loyal to God or to the government? But Jesus rejects the premise behind their question. He's not interested in answering their question as they have asked it. He wants them to go deeper. Instead of allowing them to force him to answer an unanswerable question, he forces them to confront the unanswerable premise behind their question: "Whose head is this, and whose title?...Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s." In other words, you decide.

What gives a coin its value? What makes a $20 bill worth $20? Is it the face printed on it? Is it the government behind it? Is it the collective agreement of our society? Is it the fact that you can buy 4 value meals at Wendy's with it? According to the Federal Reserve, it costs around 11 cents to make a $20 bill. Does that mean it's actually worth only 11 cents? A penny costs 1.5 cents to make. Why isn't it worth more than a penny? What happens if the confidence in the government whose name and imprint are backing the bill disintegrates? What is a $20 bill worth then? Perhaps real value comes from somewhere else.

Where does the true value of anything come from? That's the question Jesus forces us to ask ourselves. The Pharisees want him to choose between God and Rome. The choice itself implies that Rome's authority, identity, or value come from somewhere other than God. No, the unholy, ungodly Roman Empire and the semi-divine Emperor whose likeness is on the coin are not aligned with God's kingdom. In fact, it's pretty clear that they are directly opposed to it. But the persistence of the Roman occupation and administration of Palestine does not negate God's authority. Our faith requires us to see God at work beyond the institutions that seem opposed to God's reign. We "render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's," but we always remember that everything--even the forbidden coin with the graven image of the enemy of God's people on it--comes from God.

What does that mean for stewardship? Well, it means a lot. But it's not as simple as a first look at the lesson provides. I'm preaching on stewardship this Sunday, but I'm not using this gospel lesson to remind people that they need to give to their church before they pay their taxes to Caesar. That misses the point. I hope the sermon will embrace an even bigger understanding of where all good gifts come from and our faithful response to that generosity. But, as I've written here, that's going to take some work.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

To Whom Is Jesus Speaking?

On Sunday, we encounter the challenging parable of the wedding banquet. In Matthew 22:1-14, Jesus describes the kingdom like a king who gave a wedding feast for his son. When the time for the banquet came, he sent out his slaves to bring in the invited guests, but they declined. So he sent them out a second time, informing the guests that all was ready and urging them to come in, but they all made excuses, even beating or killing some of the king's servants. So, as we've come to expect in Jesus' parables, the king takes the invitation away from the original guests, burning their city, and urges his slaves to bring in anyone and everyone they can find: "The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet."

For three parables in a row, Jesus has been speaking to those who questioned and challenged his authority. "By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?" the religious leaders ask him after he's come into Jerusalem and cleansed the temple of the money changers. Jesus had directly challenged the principal religious institution of his people, and its representatives wanted to know how he presumed to justify these actions. In response to their inquiry, Jesus tells the parable of the two sons--one who says he'll do the father's will but doesn't and one who refuses to help his father but does. He wants these challengers to see that they are judged by their actions and not their words. Then, without interruption, he tells the parable of the wicked tenants, who had been leased a vineyard but refused to give the owner his share of the produce. The owner then destroyed the wicked tenants, who had killed his own son, and gave the vineyard to new tenants. At this point, Matthew lets us know that the religious authorities perceived that Jesus was speaking about them, and they were angry about it, but they didn't want to disappoint the crowd, so they didn't do anything.

Then Jesus gets to this third parable about the wedding banquet. Again, he seems to be speaking to the authorities. He's letting them know that his ministry as God's son involves stripping ownership of God and God's kingdom from those who had always presumed to have it and bestowing it upon new, faithful servants of God. We see that in all three parables. The presumed insiders find themselves on the outside, and those whom they would have excluded have taken their place.

But then there's a twist. With this third parable, Jesus introduces extends the understanding of presumed inclusion becoming one's exclusion to those who had only recently received the benefits of the kingdom. One of the guests who had been brought in when the king sent his servants to welcome anyone and everyone they could find had come into the banquet without a wedding robe. When the king saw him, he was ordered to be bound and thrown out into the outer darkness. In other words, Jesus warned those who had found their fortunes reversed not to presume their place was secure. What important words for God's people to hear!

God welcomes sinners to his table--both those whom society excludes and those in society who exclude others. God allowed misfits to come into his kingdom--both those who live notorious lives of sin and those who judge sinners for living notorious lives. If you're in the banquet because you've always belonged there, scoot over and make room for those who have never been included. If you're in the banquet for the very first time, don't be surprised that those who have presumed to keep you out are also there. Participation in the kingdom of God means full acceptance of God's grace. You must wear a wedding robe. Even though invited in at the last minute, you must be ready for the fullness of the kingdom. You can't accept grace when it's convenient to you. It's all or nothing.

Followers of Jesus have had 2000 years to hear him speak words of radical welcome on our behalf. We must always remember that his welcome extends always to those we would presume to exclude. Otherwise, we're the ones being thrown into the outer darkness.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Will The Real Misogynist Please Stand Up?

Two weeks ago, Hugh Heffner died. Some took the opportunity to praise him for his commitment to free speech, while others, like Ross Douthat in his op-ed piece in the New York Times, preferred to strip away the red, white, and blue bunting and remind us that, beneath the self-applied patriotic plaudits, Heffner's empire was, in fact, built on the objectification and exploitation of women. Becoming rich while spending all day in one's pajamas may require some artistic and entrepreneurial genius, but, smoking jacket not withstanding, Heffner was little more than a flag-carrying smut peddler.

A week later, Cam Newton expressed comedic surprise when a woman sports reporter asked him a technically sophisticated question during a press conference: "It's funny to hear a female talk about routes like...it's funny." Immediately, Newton was lambasted by the media, who rightly seized on Newton's insensitive remarks to point out gender bias in sports. Although the ongoing National Anthem controversy has helped the Carolina quarterback avoid further scrutiny, Newton's responses to the media pushback have been less than encouraging. At first, he claimed that he was only being sarcastic and trying to compliment Ms. Rodrigue for being such an intelligent reporter...an intelligent female reporter. Apparently, Mr. Newton can't tell that complimenting a woman for doing a "man's job" with surprising proficiency is, in fact, an insult.

Last Sunday, when preaching on the parable of the wicked tenants, I described a number of signs that we, like the tenants, collectively fail to bear fruit for the kingdom and, instead, prefer to keep it for ourselves. Within that list, I mentioned the persistence of sexism: "Instead of living in a world in which the dignity of every human being is equally respected, our children look up to celebrities who treat women as second-class citizens and praise them for their sexuality instead of their full humanity." I had Cam Newton in mind, but I chose the pluralized word "celebrities" on purpose because I know that Cam isn't the only public figure to reveal his disrespect of women. It's a part of the broken world in which we live. It's a part of my life, and I repent of the ways in which I perpetuate the second-class treatment of women as a member of the still-male-dominated clergy community.

This Sunday, we will hear some important words from Paul as he concludes his letter to the Philippians: "I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life." Back when I was in seminary, I was asked to write an essay in response to the question, "Was Paul a misogynist?" For many, Pauline words about wives submitting to their husbands and keeping their heads covered and their mouths shut while in church earn him an indelible label as a woman-hater. Indeed, these words have been used for many centuries to perpetuate discrimination and violence against women both inside and outside the church. I can sort through a range of responses to them--Paul was addressing a specific problem or Paul's culture was so different from our own that we don't really understand what he meant--but I recognize that they aren't completely convincing. It's clear to us that Paul was, indeed, biased against women. But then we read words like these about his co-workers and partners in the work of the gospel and we wonder, "How can Paul the misogynist have described these women like that?"

Paul may have accepted and, in a few instances, perpetuated a culture in which women were thought of as second-class citizens, but he did not deny them their full and equal value in the eyes of God. Paul was the one who looked at the power of Jesus Christ and wrote, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28). He may have promoted traditional, patriarchal family roles, but for him ministry was a genderless occupation. These women he mentions were experiencing some sort of conflict. Did Paul appoint a man to straighten them out? No. He urged them to take care of it on their own: "I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord." Did Paul describe them as staffers who worked under him? No. He identified them as "co-workers" who "struggled beside me in the work of the gospel." Beside is an important word. The Greek is "συναθλέω," which means "to compete together with others" as on a team. Another important word is found in the instruction that Paul gives his reader: "help these women." The word translated as "help" is "συλλαμβάνω," which, in this dative-of-a-person construction literally means "to take hold together with one in order to assist." (See Strong.) Paul wants his reader to treat these women in the same way that he has treated them: as full, equal, unified partners.

Those in the twenty-first century who are surprised that a woman can do a "man's job" just as well as her male counterparts could learn a thing or two from Paul. Yes, Paul could learn a thing or two from us as well, but it seems clear to me that misogyny--the strong bias against women--persists not in Paul's understanding of the Christian community but among those who fail to understand how God works in creation and through Jesus. God created us equals and co-workers. Sin has broken that equality, and the perpetuation of inequality is a symptom of sin. Jesus came to reunify us to God and to erase those artificial distinctions. Whether through their jokes or sarcastic compliments or spending habits or hiring practices, those who continue to support a system that praises women not for their humanity but for the ways in which they satisfy or humor men are working against the kingdom of God. And those within the church who have access or control access to the pulpit need to recognize that.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Leader Failure

One year to the day after I began a career as an ordained minister, my boss went on sabbatical. In the three months that followed, I learned a lot about how systems work. My boss had been ordained for twenty-four years. I had been ordained for exactly one. My boss had been the rector of that parish for twelve years. I had been the curate for twelve months. We worked together to set up clear procedures during his absence. I would run staff meeting and vestry meetings and other administrative pieces, and another employee would approve the financial expenditures. But no one decided ahead of time what to do when people started to revolt.

Looking back, it wasn't terrible. It just felt terrible. We had a relatively new children's director who had brought fresh, exciting ideas to the parish. Some of those changes were threatening to some of the parents and other stakeholders, and, about a week after my boss left, my phone started ringing. People wanted to tell me just how terrible things were, how our children's program was falling apart, and how people would start leaving the church if I didn't do something. "What do you think I can do about that?" I asked, unsuccessful in my attempts to quiet things down. Eventually, the rector had to come back from sabbatical and meet with concerned people, including me and the children's director. Perhaps if I had been there longer and had more authority in the system and had more experience in parish dynamics, I could have done a better job of diffusing that anxiety, but, as it was, there was only one person who could convince the parish that everything was going to be ok, and that was my boss.

When Moses went up the mountain to receive the Law from the Lord in Exodus 32, he was gone for a long time. During his absence, Aaron learned a lot about the system he inhabited. "When the people saw that Moses delayed...the people gathered around Aaron and said to him, "Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him." I don't know what's less surprising: that the people gave up on God and Moses so quickly or that Aaron agreed to their plan without hesitation. In the verses that follow, we read how Aaron told them to take off their gold rings so that he could melt and cast them into the image of a calf. "These are your gods, O Israel!" the people proclaimed in front of the idol, and Aaron built an altar and established a festival to worship it.

Systems need leaders. They always have them. Usually, they're clear--a rector, a boss, a parent--but sometimes they are chosen by the system in informal ways--a playground captain, a classroom example-setter, a star athlete. When the appointed leader of a system is unavailable, the system shifts until it finds someone else to take over. That change is an anxious, challenging time. Some systems are able to handle such change more easily than others. Some leaders have helped diffuse their authority throughout the system so that not everything falls apart when those leaders are absent for a while. Others, as we know too well, haven't figured out how to help people know that they will be ok even when the leader is absent.

Who is to blame in Exodus 32? As the story is told to us, the people almost immediately demand new leadership--a new Moses and new gods. They cannot handle the uncertainty of Moses' prolonged absence. They are anxious and unwilling to inhabit their anxiety. They're accustomed to complaining to Moses when they are unhappy and Moses fixing all of their problems. They don't know how to solve this problem on their own, so they choose another leader and other gods to take Moses and the Lord's place.

Aaron does no better. He agrees to the people's request immediately. He is fully invested in this new leadership role. Instead of being differentiated from the anxiety and demands of the system, he falls victim to them. As we see later in Exodus 32 when Moses returns, Aaron is quick to throw the blame on the people: "You know the people, that they are set on evil. For they said to me, 'Make us gods who shall go before us…' They gave [their gold] to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf." That's hardly what happened, but it shows us Aaron's flaw.

We could also blame Moses, who has been quick to accept the anxiety of the people onto himself. When they were hungry, he ran to God and got it fixed. When they were thirsty, he ran to God and got it fixed. The system had learned to expect that Moses and only Moses could solve their problems. No one knew how to take care of himself or herself anymore. That contributed to their impatience and anxiety in Moses' prolonged absence.

We can't blame the Lord, but his response to Moses is telling: "The Lord said to Moses, 'Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them.'" Your people. Not my people. God isn't accepting responsibility for this problem. He's willing to call them "my people" when he hears their cry from Egypt, but, as soon as they start to worship the image of a golden calf, they belong to Moses. Again, I don't think we can blame God for this, but the way the story is told to us matters. We're left with a feeling that even God himself isn't functioning in the system as freely as God might.

What does this mean for us? Change is hard. Systems will work fiercely to maintain their equilibrium even if it's an unhealthy one. Parishes that have a long history of underfunctioning clergy will not easily accept a go-getter for a rector. Families that have accepted substance abuse for decades will struggle to accept sobriety. Communities that are comfortable with decision-making power being concentrated in the hands of a few will have a hard time learning how to share that authority throughout the community. A new rector, a new prayer book, a new marriage canon, a new altar guild chair, a new building, a new bishop, a new president--change is always difficult.

Our job as congregational leaders and family leaders and community leaders is to help other people in our system accept their own anxiety and deal directly with their own conflict. Change is difficult, but change is inevitable. How we prepare for that change makes a big difference. Are we constantly putting out fires, holding everyone together in a conflicted system by sheer determination? What happens when we cannot do that anymore? Are we so authoritarian that every decision needs to come through us? What happens when we move on? Not even Moses lasts forever. By the end of Deuteronomy, he's figured out how to transition away from leadership. What about us? Are we stuck in the wilderness, or are we headed for the Promised Land?

Monday, October 9, 2017

Open Invitation With High Demand

It's hard to make it through Matthew 21 and 22 with the same commitment to grace that one had back when Jesus rode first into Jerusalem at the beginning of chapter 21. In our lectionary, this will be the third week in a row with a difficult kingdom parable. First, there was the story of the two sons, one who refused to help his father but later went and the other who promised to help his father but never showed up. Yesterday, we had the parable of the wicked tenants who were leased a vineyard but refused to give the owner his proper share of the produce. This week, we have a wedding feast in which the invited guests are replaced by whomever can be found, yet one improperly attired guest is immediately thrown out "into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." Jesus' summary response? "Many are called, but few are chosen."

I hope it will not surprise you that I am still committed to grace and unconditional love at its absolute extreme. I want to find the love that the father has for both sons. I want to celebrate the gift of the son even to the wicked tenants. I want to focus on the invitation of all people to the wedding banquet. But these three parables, all told shortly before the climax of Jesus' ministry, clearly suggest that, despite God's gracious invitation, there are some people who are ejected from the kingdom because they did not respond to that invitation appropriately. In my experience of the human condition, that seems to place way too much emphasis on us.

I work hard to avoid the supersessionist implications of these parables--that the Gentiles are given the kingdom that the Jews have forsaken. That's bad theology. God has made a promise to his people, and God does not fail to keep his promises. We could, instead, focus on the rejection of the religious elites and the inclusion of the societal outcasts--a distinction of power rather than ethnicity. That makes me a little more comfortable and will certainly work for most of our congregations of powerful, well-connected people who need to be reminded what it means to accept fully the invitation to participate in the kingdom's banquet. But I'm still left with that theologically uncomfortable position that our participation in the kingdom depends on our intention, our reception, our works. I don't believe that. So how do I make it through this parable?

Look again at Sunday's parable. The king provides a banquet and sends his slaves to bring the invited guests in, but they refuse. That's ridiculous: no one would refuse the king's invitation. Then the king sends the servants back a second time to urge them to come because the feast is ready. Again, that's ridiculous. The king would never have to do that, nor would he be willing to. When the servants arrive, the invited guests give a range of ordinary excuses--too busy, business deal, harvest to collect--and others turn violent. Again, this is ridiculous. This is the kind of invitation around which one's life revolves. One makes time for the king's wedding banquet. Then the king sends the army to kill all of those who mistreated his servants and to burn their city. That seems somewhat extreme, but at least now the king is behaving in a way that resembles our expected reaction.

After all of that ridiculousness, the king goes completely off the reservation and brings in everyone who will respond--the good and bad who would answer the invitation. This becomes the criteria by which worthiness is judged. Will you accept the invitation and come? Those who were initially invited were unworthy because they allowed the occupations of life to take priority over the king's banquet. The good and bad who come into the banquet hall are worthy because they respond...except for one. One of the guests was not properly attired. This is the final twist of the story. This is the last unexpected detail. The guest who was worthy because he responded is unworthy because he is not fully participating. Even after responding to the invitation, he is not committed to the banquet, so he is cast out. Even the unexpected guests are expected to participate.

What is the message to us? All of us are invited into the banquet. Those who are privileged enough to receive the initial invitation and a follow-up request, and those for whom the king has recently made space. That's remarkable. Everyone is invited in. For some, life gets in the way, and they are left out. For another, half-hearted participation singles him out, and he is rejected. I suppose we'd better say a committed yes to the kingdom when it comes to us, but what happens when we're not ready?

This parable doesn't deal with that, so it leaves me still wanting. What happens when we're not ready? What happens if we fail to see what is really taking place? What happens if we say yes but change our mind? Over and over, Jesus says we must be fully committed to him--leaving behind families, even hating one's own life--if we are going to follow him into his kingdom. What about those of us who haven't understood the invitation? Is there hope for us? I believe that there is, but I'll admit that this parable and the two before it haven't made a lot of space for it. I'm still looking, though.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Only This Gift Can Break The Cycle

October 8, 2017 – The 18th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 22A
© 2017 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
Has anyone ever lent you something for so long that you forgot it wasn’t yours? What happens when the lender calls and asks for it back? Perhaps you’re so surprised that you try to mask your panic and confusion with a little white lie: “Sure, I know where that is. I can’t believe how long it’s been. I should have given that back to you ages ago.” But, in your mind, you’re racing from one corner of the house to another, wondering where in the world it could be. What happens a week later when you still can’t find it? You could come clean, confess that you haven’t seen it in months, and offer to buy your friend a new one…or you could tell another, not-so-white lie. You could tell her that you’re almost certain that you gave it back months ago—that you drove by when she wasn’t home, left it on her front porch, and may have even send her a text. “Did you get my text?” you ask in a most believable tone.

If you take advice from today’s parable, however, it seems that there’s a third option. Instead of offering to replace it or pretending you already have, you could simply threaten the person who lent it to you. You could push her down on the ground and stand over her and say, “You’ll be sorry if you ever ask about that again.” That sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? It’s the kind of thing you see in a nightmare or a mobster movie. When the owner of the vineyard sends his slaves to collect his share of the produce, the tenants in the vineyard beat and kill those servants, attempting to send a message that they’re not going to give the vineyard back. They plan to keep it for themselves. What sort of crazy logic is that? What kind of insane person would do such a thing?

We would. Over and over again. We do it all the time. We may not treat our friends or neighbors like that because of what they might say about us on Facebook, but that’s exactly how we treat the one who has given us everything we have. We horde the things that God has given us, pretend that they were ours to begin with, and keep the fruits of our labors for ourselves. All of our skills, abilities, resources, and opportunities belong to God, yet we begin almost every encounter by asking what’s in it for us. All of the love, affection, loyalty, and trust that we enjoy come from God, yet we would rather hold on to them than give them away. Our greatest gift, the freedom to choose whom we will honor with our lives, is handed to us by God, and we choose to turn inward and seek self-satisfaction instead of devoting ourselves to our creator.

How do we know that this is the case? Just look at the signs all around us. There is more than enough food in the world to feed every hungry person, yet there are children right here in Decatur, Alabama, who go to bed hungry every night. There is more than enough wealth in the world to go around for everyone to have a decent life, but that wealth remains concentrated in the hands of those who use the resources and opportunities with which God has blessed them for themselves instead of others. Instead of living in a world in which the dignity of every human being is equally respected, our children look up to celebrities who treat women as second-class citizens and praise them for their sexuality instead of their full humanity. When a murderous madman guns down fifty-eight people and injures almost five hundred more before taking his own life, we collectively feign outrage but then quickly demonstrate that we care more about politics than putting an end to such violence. We have everything we need to make the world the way that God dreams that it could be—the wealth, the opportunity, and the freedom—but we’ve been borrowing all of those things for so long that we’ve forgotten that they don’t belong to us.

That’s what happens when the owner plants a vineyard, puts a fence around it, digs a winepress, builds a watchtower, and then goes away to a distant country for a long, long, long time. We’re the ones who did all of the work. We’re the ones who have borne the scorching heat all this time. The fruit of the garden is the result of our own efforts, not his. Why should we have to give up what we have worked for? Who cares if prophets and preachers have come to remind us that we owe something to the one who planted the vineyard? He’s been gone so long that in our minds we can no longer distinguish between what belongs to him and what belongs to us. It might sound like insanity to think that when the owner sends his son to come and collect what is due that we can kill him and keep it for ourselves, but that’s exactly what we do because we’ve convinced ourselves that it isn’t really his anymore.

But you know what’s even crazier than that? That, after we repeatedly reject the word of the prophets and claim the vineyard for ourselves, God would send his son to us anyway. Doesn’t God know better than that? Doesn’t our track record speak for itself? Doesn’t God know exactly what we will do to his son when he sends him to us? Of course he does. And, even if it doesn’t make sense to us, that’s exactly why he sent him in the first place—because only the gift of God’s own son can break through our self-centered cycle of greed, violence, and misuse.

By freely giving us his son, God gives us the chance to see just how wildly open God’s gracious hands are to us. We know, of course, that the death of God’s son is not the end of the story. We know that, after we killed him on the cross, God raised his son from the dead on the third day. In the light of the resurrection, we are invited to look upon the illogical gift of God’s son and see how irrational we ourselves have become. The gift of the son lifts the veil from our eyes and shows us that everything is gift. When we recognize that everything we have is given to us by God and not the product of our own anxious toil, we discover the freedom to devote ourselves not to our next pay check, not to our 401(k), not to our political party, not to our own security, but to the one who gives us all of those things in the first place. In the sacrifice of the son, therefore, we discover what it means to trust that God will always provide for us.

Will we come to our senses? Will we look upon the cross of Christ and see that the same God who is willing to give us his own son is also willing to give us our daily bread? Will we look upon his sacrifice and see that everything we have is pure gift? Will that free us up to care less about ourselves and more about God? Will we finally know the peace that comes from bearing fruit for God’s kingdom? Our best hope—our only hope—is not found in ourselves but in the one who gives us all good things. Look upon God’s son, God’s gift to the world, and see that you have nothing to fear. God will always provide. Knowing that, choose to bear fruit for the kingdom because you can see that you don’t have to keep it for yourself.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Recapturing God's Holiness

On Sunday, those of us who use Track 1 from the RCL will hear some very familiar words: "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me..." The first reading is the Ten Commandments from Exodus 20. I may not have them written on my heart as clearly as they have been engraved in tablets of stone monuments, but I know them pretty well. It's funny to me, then, when I encounter the NRSV language of Commandment #3, which makes perfect sense but is missing some of what I expect from the KJV in my memory.

When I think of #3, I usually think of, "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain," but we will hear, "You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God." That's right, of course. That's what it means to take the Lord's name in vain--to misuse it--but this is one of those biblical specificities that has lost its significance and that most modern retranslation don't fix.

What does it mean to take God's name in vain? Or, more importantly, what is it that God is asking God's people to do or not do? Why is this important? Why is this one of the big ten?

Back when I was newly ordained, I wanted to show a video clip in a Sunday school class I was teaching, but the clip had some profanity in it. I went to my boss and told him about it. I explained that I could bleep out some of the words but wanted to be sure that a missed "shit" or "damn" wouldn't get me (or him) in trouble. "I'll be sure to cut out all the F-words and GDs," I reassured him. "That's a shame," he said, "because goddammit has always been one of my favorites." I laughed nervously.

Does Commandment #3 prohibit us from saying GD? When my child says "Oh my gosh!" instead of "Oh my God!" is she doing the right thing, or does it even make a difference? Is "God" the issue here? Or is it "Yahweh," the supposed "name of the Lord" that we should be worried about. Is there a difference between saying, "Yahweh damn it!" and "Goddammit!?"

In the Orthodox Jewish tradition, saying or writing the name of the Lord is forbidden. That's why the Bible has LORD instead of Lord. When we see the all-caps, we know that's a moment when the actual name of God would have been meant. In the biblical manuscripts, they didn't write out the name for fear of breaking the commandment, so they sometimes used the four-letter abbreviation YHWH. For some, that's still too close for comfort, so other designations like "Adonai" and "Jehovah" and "Elohim" were used. We do similar things in English, of course, using "Lord" and "God" and "Almighty" and "Holy One" to all mean God...whatever God's name is. Now that the English tradition of capitalizing the first letter of God to mean specifically Israel's god is widespread, many Orthodox Jews won't even write that word out and instead us G-d to avoid violating #3. Is that what G-d really wants us to do?

The real point is that God is holy. God is not like us. God is unfathomably other. In the ancient near east, there was power in a name. To give or say a name is, in effect, to own something. To call explicitly upon the name of the Lord is to wield the power and holiness that the Lord possesses. One cannot use that power carelessly.

In some ways, we still have echoes of this in our own culture. Parents give their children names. No one else gets to do that. As an adult, a child might choose his or her own name, but the formative years of one's life are spent being known as whatever your owning parents have chosen to call you. We don't call people of respect by their first name. Our elders are "Mr. Washington" or "Mrs. Atkinson." The President of the United States is "Mr. President" or "President Trump" and not "Donald." (Over the last decade, that politeness has eroded in the media as "Obama" became a sufficient way for journalists and pundits to refer to the President, a tradition that continues with "Trump.") How many people do you think call the Queen of England "Elizabeth" and not "Your Majesty?" For a long time, senior African-Americans were denied the courtesy of being called by their last names as white children were taught to call them "Miss Tammy" or "Mr. Bill," which was a not-a-subtle reinforcement of the class structure.

Maybe it's time for us to recapture the elegance of a name. Maybe I should ask people to call me "Mr. Garner" and not "Evan." Maybe I should drop the casual way I refer to parishioners by their first names and only call them "Mr. Dunn" or "Mrs. Charlton." I wouldn't want to do that to instill a formality between us. I enjoy the intimacy that comes from exchanging first names. But maybe that would remind us something important about who God is. It's important to remember that the Holy One who Inhabits Eternity isn't just "Fred" or "Jenny." God is God. God is holy. God does not lend his name for casual use. God commands our respect and worship and adoration at all times. We may not need to abbreviate every time we use G-d's name, but, by restricting its use to those occasions that befit the fullness of God's holiness, we learn to think of God as holy.

Consider, then, the CEB's version of Commandment #3: "Do not use the Lord your God’s name as if it were of no significance." The remarkable thing about God is that God allows God's people to use God's name. It is given to us. God speaks it. We receive it. We communicate it. But we cannot do it casually. There is power in it. It is significant. Let's recapture not the legalistic observance of "thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain" but the spirit of respect that Commandment #3 inspires. God is holy. We are not. But, with care and reverence, we are invited to call upon the name of the one who saves us--God himself.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Write Off Our Losses in Christ

One night, during a live performance by David Sedaris, Elizabeth elbowed me in the ribs. Sedaris had been describing the experience of having a colonoscopy and had mentioned that the doctor had asked whether he wanted to stay awake to watch. Without hesitating, I leaned over and said to Elizabeth, "I'd want to watch." As soon as the words came out of my mouth, Sedaris remarked that the only kind of people who would want to watch their own colonoscopy are the same people who enjoy doing their own taxes. That's when she elbowed me. Because, in fact, I like doing my taxes.

Clergy taxes are a little complicated, so it helps that I got a leg-up from a CPA whom I paid to do them for a few years. But every year, I seemed to find a few things that he had missed, and, after a while, I wondered why I was paying him to do it. Now, it's a game between me and the IRS to see if I can find all of the little legal bits and pieces that will save me money. I mention that little tax game because Sunday's epistle lesson from Philippians 3 involves a theological claim that makes more sense when you think of it as a write-off.

In the opening line, Paul boasts of his accomplishments: "If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless." But then he writes, "Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ." Those of us who grew up in churches that used the Lutheran, Protestant grace-over-law lens as the primary way of interpreting the gospel are familiar with this passage. Paul wants us to know that his earthly accomplishments--his works--amount to nothing compared with "the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus [his] Lord." But this isn't simply a philosophical claim. Paul is using financial language to make his point.

What is the loss he is talking about? The Greek word is "ζημίαν." It means "damage" or "loss" or "detriment." It indicates the sort of thing that tanks a business venture. It's what the adjuster says when your twelve-year-old car is T-boned by a careless driver. It's the "bad deal" of an unsuccessful business venture produces nothing but a negative. Given that Paul uses the opposite financial term for gain ("κέρδη") in the beginning of the sentence, we see that he has money on his mind. What was on the books as a profit has actually become a loss. This isn't the sort of loss that is recovered. It's a stain on the accounting sheet. Paul has invested lots of time and effort into his identity as a faithful Pharisee, and now he recognizes that all of that effort produced nothing. It was money spent with nothing gained. The only thing he can do is write it off.

This morning, I stumbled upon the CEB translation of this passage, which incorporates that accounting language: "These things were my assets, but I wrote them off as a loss for the sake of Christ." That's what it means to have banked on one's own efforts only to discover that they are worthless. That's the reversal that Christ represents to Paul. That's the reversal Christ represents to us.

When it comes to your relationship with God, what are you storing up for yourself? In my own preaching and writing, I've come to a place where living out the gospel is particularly important. In a culture defined by conflict and tragedy and poverty and racial strife, I hear Jesus calling me to do something about it. But why am I doing it? Why am I inviting others to do it? Why does any of us do good works in the name of Jesus? If we're trying to build an account for ourselves with God, we'd better take another look at the balance sheet. All of our efforts are total loss when brought into the light of knowing Jesus. We don't do them because we want God to approve of us. God loves us because that's who God is not because of who we are or what we do. We do these things because we know that we are loved irrespective of them.

If you feel a tension with this Sunday's gospel lesson, I'm glad to hear it. I do, too. In Jesus' parable, the vineyard is taken away from the wicked tenants and given to those who will bear fruit for the kingdom. That's the way Jesus describes it. Paul must not have known this parable, or, perhaps, he just didn't like it very much. The classic answer is that our efforts must not be an attempt to earn God's love but a response to it. That feels right, but I'm still having trouble reconciling that with the parable Jesus uses. I'm going to wrestle with it for a few more days and see if something comes out.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Nothing Can Stop True Love

Wednesday in Proper 21
I don't remember the details, but I remember being fascinated when I read about a conductor who decided to defy a longstanding tradition and lead his orchestra in the performance of a piece of music by Wagner while touring in Israel. Wagner, of course, was one of Adolf Hitler's favorite musicians. Like many nineteenth-century Germans, Wagner held widespread anti-Semitic views, and that racially exclusive ideology is manifest in some of his works. Primarily because of his adoration by the Third Reich and not because of the content of his music, Wagner's music was unofficially banned from public performance in Israel. In an interview after the controversial performance, the conductor said that he decided to perform Wagner after hearing an Israeli's cell phone play Wagner as its ring tone. He wanted to push the boundaries and seized on the opportunity. He wanted to question why a musician's talent and gift to the world should be excluded because of its less-than-stellar reputation.
Sometimes individuals and movements become so closely linked with particular symbols or cultural icons that we forget how to think of them separately. In Luke 9, Jesus is on his way from Galilee to Jerusalem. He has fed the 5,000. He has been identified by Peter as the Messiah. He has predicted his death and resurrection. He has gone up the mountain and been transfigured before Peter, James, and John. He has descended back into the world and has set his face to Jerusalem and the fate that awaits him there. But you can't get from Galilee to Judea without passing through Samaria, and Samaria meant trouble.
Or did it? You've heard about the hatred that existed between Samaritans and Jews. The Samaritans were the descendants of the Jews, who had stayed behind after the exile, and whose parents had intermarried with their Babylonian oppressors. The Samaritans didn't have the tradition of the Exile and the biblical, prophetic tradition that came with it. They didn't take part in the centralized worship that happened on the temple mount in Jerusalem. They had their own traditions and customs, and they represented everything that Jewish people hated. They were not merely unfaithful but anti-faithful. Their very existence was a reminder that the world wasn't the way it was supposed to be--the way that Israel's God had declared it should be. But with Jesus times had begun to change.
As Zechariah prophesied, in the last days, when God's Messiah comes, "Men from nations of every language shall take hold of a Jew, grasping his garment and saying, 'Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.'" And where will they go? To Jerusalem. "Many peoples and strong nations shall come to seek the Lord of hosts in Jerusalem." In other words, peoples from all traditions and tribes will see that the Lord is to be found in Jerusalem, and they will come to meet him there. That's what God's people believe. And now that the disciples are certain that their master is, indeed, the Messiah, they know that this is the time when all people--even the Samaritans--will come with them to Jerusalem to celebrate the fulfillment of all of God's promises. That's why they go into the Samaritan town and seek a place to rest on the journey. Normally, a Jewish person wouldn't dream of stopping in that hostile territory, but this isn't just their dream but God's dream, and they know that, since Jesus is the one on whom the whole world has been waiting, they will be warmly received there.
But they aren't. "Because Jesus' face was set toward Jerusalem," Luke tells us, "they would not let him stay." Some habits are hard to break. When the Samaritans hear that Jesus and his disciples are headed to Jerusalem, they know that he's just another Samaritan-hating, Samaritan-denouncing, Samaritan-oppressing Jew who thinks that Jerusalem is the center of God's universe. They want nothing to do with Jerusalem and a prophet who declares that all peoples must go there to meet God. They have already met God, thank you very much, and they don't need a Jerusalem-loving Jew to help them see him.
What is the disciples' response? "Jesus, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?" Surely, if you are the fulfillment of God's promises, then anyone who won't come with us, anyone who won't accept us, is standing in the way of God's kingdom. Do you want us to ask your Father to destroy them? But Jesus rebukes them. And then he heads on his way.
Do you ever feel so excited about something that you can't imagine how anyone else wouldn't share your excitement? Do you ever feel so certain about something that you cannot help but dismiss any naysayers as clearly being on the wrong side? Have you ever hoped for something so fervently that someone or something that stands in the way feels less like an impediment and more like an enemy? That's the thing about love. It does not insist on its own way. It reaches out and trusts that those who reject it will not defeat it. As Wesley the farm boy from The Princess Bride declared, "Death cannot stop true love. It can only delay it for a while." Why? Because true love does not demand anything it return. It is not deterred by the actions or inactions of others. It just loves. It invites. It hopes. And it loves. That is the way of Jesus. Even if the world rejects it, it is still the way of Jesus. It is still the way of love.

Monday, October 2, 2017

We Have The Answers

Yesterday in church, we heard Jesus tell the parable of the two sons, one told his father "no" but went to work anyway and one who told his father "yes" but failed to go. Jesus asked his hearers, "Which one of the two did the will of his father?" And the crowd quickly identified the first son. Our preacher, Warren Swenson, reminded us that the real answer is more complicated than that, but he also pointed out that the crowd didn't really have a choice. At least on the surface, the answer was obvious. This Sunday, Jesus tells a similar parable with a similar result.

In Matthew 21:33-46, Jesus tells the parable of the vineyard. A landowner built a vineyard, invested in its infrastructure, leased it out to tenants, and went away to a distant country. When it was harvest time, he sent his slaves to go and collect his share of the produce, but the tenants beat the slaves, even killing one. So the landowner sent another delegation of slaves, whom the tenants treated in like manner. Finally, the landowner sent his son, the heir, whom the tenants also killed, convincing themselves foolishly that by doing so they could keep the vineyard for themselves. Jesus asks his hearers, "When the owner comes, what will he do?" And they all know the answer. Jesus puts it on their lips. He doesn't need to say a word because they already know how the story ends: "He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time."

There's more to it than that, of course. Hopefully, by the time we get to Sunday, I'll be ready to dive with the congregation into the nuances of the story, but, at first glance, the point seems to be that the hearers already know the answer to the question. They know that the wicked tenants will get their due. They know that even foolish landowners who send their own son to confront wicked tenants don't put up with that sort of disobedience forever. The story can only have one ending. Even Jesus' opponents--even those who question his authority--know what the outcome will be.

This morning, the first thing I awoke to was the news that a man had opened fire on a crowd of people at a music festival on the Las Vegas Strip, killing at least fifty. That number--fifty--is the tipping point at which this mass shooting becomes the most deadly in modern history as it surpasses the forty-nine who were killed at the Pulse night club in Orlando two summers ago. Fifty. Two scores and ten. Take a minute and think about fifty people. Can you name fifty close friends? It's the number of people on a small flight from a rural airport to the big hub. It's two overcrowded elementary school classrooms worth of students. It's the number of people who worship at our early service on a full Sunday. Fifty people. Fifty men and women. Fifty human lives. Fifty family members. Fifty life stories. Fifty dreams. They are all gone. And the number is expected to rise.

We are in the middle of a horrific parable. First, a school shooting. Then, a terrorist attack at a business. Then, a slaying in a church. Then, a mass murder at a night club. Finally, a slaughter at a concert. You can fill in the gaps with dozens more mass shootings. The story is the same. It is repeated over and over. And what is our response? Political gridlock. Unfunded mental health care. No gun reform. Partisan bickering. Maybe, if we do nothing, peace will just find us. Maybe, if we give everyone a gun, no one will be willing to open fire. Maybe, if we use labels like "religious fanatic" or "mental illness" or "lone wolf" or "radicalized racist," we can pretend that these sorts of things don't happen close to us, that good, God-fearing people like us can insulate ourselves from such violence. What happens next? What will the outcome be? How will this end? We know the answer.

There is evil in this world, and that evil is at work in the hearts and minds and actions of all people. Every one of us is a part of a human system that isn't the way it was created to be. Sin affects all of us. We can't fix it on our own. Ultimately, our only hope lies in God, who is the one who can take all of our struggle, all of our failure, all of our pain, all of our darkness and finally make us and all of creation the way it was created to be. That's the story of Jesus. That's the story that gives us hope. But we cannot sit idle until that day comes. We cannot pretend that the coming of God's kingdom has nothing to do with us. We cannot refuse to take action, refuse to act, refuse to bear fruit and think that there will not be a price to pay.

What will happen when the owner of the vineyard comes? He will destroy those wicked tenants and lease the vineyard out to someone else. We are the tenants We are responsible for keeping it and tending it and helping it bear fruit. The owner is here. He has come to us. Now is the time for us to bear fruit for God's sake. We cannot keep silent and hope that we can get away with it any longer. We must end access to assault-style firearms and ammunition by ordinary citizens. We must drastically increase our funding for mental health care. We must demand that our representatives and senators and president do whatever it takes to end this violence. Ultimately, evil can only be overthrown by God, but, when God comes, will he find that we have borne fruit for the peaceable kingdom or for the violence that stands in opposition to it?