Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Light That Shines in the Darkness

December 31, 2017 – The First Sunday after Christmas Day
© 2017 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
Last Sunday was a long but glorious day. Because I knew that it would be 3am or later before I went to bed, I slept in a little bit—until 5:00am—before starting my usual Sunday-morning routine. After a good and satisfying observance of the Fourth Sunday of Advent, I went home, ate a light lunch, and, as I often do, took a nap. When I woke up, I took my second shower of the day, put on a different clergy shirt and a different suit, and headed out the door for the evening services. As I got dressed for the second time, I wondered whether I should have worn my “Sunday best” that morning or saved it for the evening services.

Although more common in the African-American Christian community, the concept of “Sunday best” is something we understand as well. It primarily refers to that set of clothes that we save for going to church on Sundays, but it also means the hair style, the hat, the special meal, and the attitude that we associate with Sunday church. In a quaint but theologically significant way, we save our best for God, and we bring our best to worship. But what happens when our best isn’t all that great?

It was pretty dark when the 5:00pm service started, and it was completely dark when the 11:00pm service began. I got here early enough to see the gorgeous and elegant flowers placed behind the altar, hung on the pews, set around the incarnation window, and placed above the door in the back of the nave, but, by the most of the congregation arrived, the light coming through the windows had faded, and the flowers, though beautiful, were harder to discern. Before the later service, we dimmed the lights a little bit, and, by the time the prelude of anthems and carols started, the full effect of the flowers was lost. By Monday morning at the 10:00am service, the light had returned, meaning that the blossoms were on full display, but by then some of the peonies had and wilted and some of the roses had dropped their petals.

We lit the candles in the aisle at the 5:00pm service, and most of the candles had dwindled to little more than nubs by the time the service ended. We relit them for the 11:00pm service, but I don’t think that all of them had enough wax to survive the whole time. If you were here for that service, you also may have noticed that one of the globes on the pew stands had fallen and shattered in between the services. If you came to the Christmas Day service, you couldn’t miss it. Of course, despite the missing globe, God was faithfully worshipped even though one of the candles stood without its glass protection.

Because it was designed for families, the first service was an exercise in controlled chaos. Kids were squirming and chirping. Mothers were shushing and scowling. The children’s pageant was beautifully energetic with nervous angels and wandering sheep. Although I’m sure the congregation got the point, I don’t know whether anyone actually heard the Christmas story. The later service had a remarkably different feel. Instead of rambunctious children, we had a few over-enthusiastic and slightly over-served partygoers who had made church their last stop for the evening. I get more hugs from parishioners on Christmas Eve than at any other time, and I don’t think that’s because the Christmas spirit has warmed their hearts. The 10:00am service on Christmas Day was as cold and sober as any I have ever attended, but there were only seven of us, including the clergyman, the LEM, and the representative of the Altar Guild. Yes, we were there to worship the newborn king and each of us had made an effort to be there, but I admit that I was wearing glasses instead of contacts and cotton khakis instead of wool trousers, having used all the “Sunday best” I had back on Sunday.

Throughout it all—noisy children, tipsy grownups, dim lights, wilted flowers, faithful few—the light of Christ shone through the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. There is something about Christmas and the fact that we set aside time to celebrate our savior’s birth that enables us to see the light that has come into the world no matter how dim it is or how distracted we are. At other times, however, that light feels harder to see. As the year comes to a close and news outlets remind us of the biggest stories of the previous twelve months, it feels like there is a lot more darkness closing in on us than light shining through it. As we take stock of our own lives, despite the abundant blessings we have been given, it is easy to let the absences and struggles and shortfalls tell our story. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We don’t have to wait until Christmas to see the light that God has brought into the world.

That light is always within us. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” All of creation was breathed into life by God as God spoke the Word that called it into being. That Word—that light and life—is contained within every created thing. The darkness that draws in around us cannot overcome that light, but it sure can make it hard for us to see it. Yet, if we listen to the voice of the prophets, we will hear them calling us back to that light that shines within us all.

One of those prophets is John the Baptist: “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him…The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” We spent half of Advent listening to the message of John the Baptist, hearing him call us to repentance and point us toward the Lamb of God. And, now that we have seen this thing that has taken place in Bethlehem, we understand what John’s preaching was all about. In his invitation to repentance, John beckoned us to look within ourselves and see what it means to turn away from the darkness and embrace the light of life. He understood that the messiah was coming, that in him the light of God would become clear, and that the only way that we would see that light is by shunning the ways of darkness.

When the Word became flesh, the glory of God shone not in the invisible realm of heaven but here on earth where we could see it in the baby boy who grew up to be Jesus. That light, which resides within us all, was uncovered in the Incarnate One. In him, all the darkness of sin was stripped away. In him, we saw again the light of creation restored to its full brightness. But not everyone was able to see that glory shining within our humanity. For some, the darkness was not something to leave behind but something to embrace. They did not heed the prophet’s warning and, thus, could not see the light that had come into the world or the light that was buried within them. But those who heard the prophets’ message of repentance, who prepared themselves to receive the light, and who believed in his name were given power to become children of God—those through whom the light of life shines brightly, scattering the darkness.

By taking our nature upon himself, God has adopted us as his sons and daughters. In the birth of God’s son, God made it possible for the light that was given to us in creation to be restored to its full, original, untarnished glory. But to see that light we must go through the darkness. We must look beyond it and see the light buried beneath it. We must turn from that darkness and embrace the light of life, the light that has the power to banish that darkness. That light is within us all, but we must search for it. As followers of Jesus, we must be a people of the light, a people who refuse to let the darkness define us. May we carry that light with us beyond this season of Christmas. May we search for its bright shining even when the darkness seems heaviest. May we bring the light of Christ with us into the world so that others, too, may see the light that shines within us all.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Uncontainable Joy

I have four children. The oldest is ten, and the youngest is two. I vaguely remember how excited I was when my first child was born, when she rolled over, when she crawled, when she babbled, when she took that first step, when she went to preschool, and when she lost her first tooth. I don't remember sharing any of those moments on Facebook, but I do remember being filled to the brim and overflowing with love and gratitude and excitement that my child was going through all of those things.

Of course, my two-year-old has had none of that. Sure, there are moments of celebration, but, when you're the fourth one to take that first step, you'd probably be thankful if both parents even noticed. Because it's been ten years since my first child went through all of that, I tend to roll my eyes when I see others posting exuberant videos on social media of their children's first everythings, but I understand where that joy comes from. I have known that joy. I still remember that joy. Secretly, I still harbor that joy at each of my children's moments even if I don't broadcast them to the world.

On Sunday, when we hear the words of Isaiah the poet-prophet, we hear words of rejoicing that cannot be contained:
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
In the Episcopal Church, we read the same lessons every year on the First Sunday after Christmas Day, which means this song of Isaiah is always sung during Christmas. Although the prophet had no idea about Jesus, about the Incarnation, about the birth of a savior-messiah in Bethlehem, or about the redemptive sacrifice that the Son of God would endure on the cross, these words of uncontainable joy are appropriate for us to sing at Christmas.

When God sent God's Son to be born of a virgin and to take our human nature upon himself, all of creation exulted in God because God has clothed us in the garments of salvation. Although experienced in a different age and through a different medium, the prophet knows what it means for the whole earth to celebrate God's deliverance: "For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
to spring up before all the nations." The prophet can say without hesitation or equivocation that God's distressed-but-now-rescued people will be "a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord." These are the words of a prophet who cannot contain his celebration. Are they our words?

Christmas has come once more. Presents have been opened. Churches have been decorated and undecorated. School is still on holiday, and parents are becoming exasperated with the round-the-clock attention that their children require. But are we sill singing with the joy of the Incarnation? Are we still in touch with the salvation that God has brought to the earth in the birth of God's Son?

Let these words ring out in our churches and in our hearts this Sunday. Let them be our own uncontainable joy. Jesus is born! Salvation has come! May we shine with that light to the ends of the earth!

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Incarnation Hangover

Our church's offices are closed again today, as they are every year, as we all recover from the Christmas sprint. This year, this break seems particularly important as we had the fullness of a Sunday morning plus Christmas Eve and then another service on Christmas Day all in a row. I'm discovering for the first time in eleven years that a Christmas Eve on a Sunday isn't as hard as I expected it to be. It's kind of nice to have all of that push at once instead of splitting up the week. But now it's time to prepare for a sermon for this coming Sunday, and I find that I have a bit of an incarnation hangover for which the hair of the dog might be the only cure.

This year, we all had to work hard to keep Advent as Advent and transform the church and our hearts into Christmas in between the morning services and the evening celebrations. Because of that--because of that intentional delay--it was easy to over-indulge on Christmas when it got here. The "Merry Christmas"es that were exchanged at church Sunday evening felt particularly celebratory, and the joy of that night seemed as splendid as ever. Because I'd been denying myself (and my poor family) the Feast of the Nativity for so long, we all dove in head first. I've woken up today, the second day of Christmas, to sort everything out. Is it really Tuesday? Who's having surgery today? Who needs a hospital visit? And am I really preaching on John 1 this Sunday? Another incarnation sermon?

As I read John 1 this morning and wonder what in the world a sermon might look like this week, I am drawn to the transition between verses 13 and 14: "And the Word became flesh and lived among us..." Up until that point, the Word was described with words like light and life. The light was coming into the world and John the Baptizer was sent to proclaim the coming of that light and the world did not know him, but still the Word was light and life--not flesh. Then, all of the sudden, in verse 14, the Word becomes flesh and yet still we see the glory--the light--within it. I love how John gives us two glances at the incarnation--the light that was coming into the world and the flesh that the Word became.

I'm not ready yet, and that's ok because I have a few more days to think and pray and study a super-familiar text. Unfortunately, it's a short week, and I'm still a little stunned from the last few days. I'm going to sip on this gospel text slowly and trust that in time things will begin to come into focus.

Monday, December 25, 2017

In God's Eyes, We All Count

December 24, 2017 – Christmas I
© 2017 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here.
On a hot summer day in 1790, U. S. Marshalls began knocking on doors throughout the country. George Washington had been President for a little over a year. The Constitution had been in effect for only a little bit longer, and Article I, Section 2, of that governing document declared that it was time to count the people—though not all of the people, mind you. “Indians not taxed” were to be excluded, and slaves only counted as three fifths of a person, but the young government needed to know how to apportion representatives and taxes, so a census was to be taken.

A census is a curious thing. As a child, I remember being fascinated with the thought that every person within our nation’s borders would be counted, and I remember being surprised at how offended my father was that the government would ask him a bunch of personal questions. Over the decades, the census has adapted to clarify what it really wants to know. At first, the only name they bothered to record was the head of each household. Other free persons didn’t get their names written down until 1850, and the names of slaves weren’t recorded until after slavery had been abolished. In the first census, they didn’t bother to segregate anyone by age except to distinguish between white men and white boys, but, by the second census, they had six different age categories for both white males and white females, but they lumped everyone else into an indiscriminate category of race, gender, and age.[1] As Carrol D. Wright, the Commissioner of Labor in 1900, wrote, the decennial census was “embodied in the Constitution for political reasons wholly, and with no thought of providing for any systematic collection of statistical data beyond the political necessities of the Government.”[2] In other words, the government only counts what the government thinks is important enough to count.

As individuals, we, too, only count what is important. Do you know how many paperclips are in the container on your desk? Or how many nails are left in your toolbox? I have no idea how many cans of chick peas or black beans there are on our pantry shelf, but I can tell you that there are two cans of boiled peanuts in there because I don’t snack on chick peas. I don’t know how many juice boxes are in the outside refrigerator, but I do know that there is plenty of beer in that same fridge. As young children, we learn to count everything, and as we grow up we learn to stop counting the things that don’t matter to us. That’s why it hurts so much when someone discovers that he or she doesn’t count. The only child in the class who doesn’t get an invitation to the birthday party. The spouse who eats alone because her husband is completely consumed by work. The senior citizen who has no one to be with on Christmas morning. The staff member whose idea is completely ignored. The parishioner whose hospitalization gets overlooked by the clergy. The student whose gender identity means that there is no school bathroom to use and no box to check on the government’s next census. We only count what matters to us and for those reasons that are important to us, and, when we don’t bother to count someone or something, we are declaring effectively that they aren’t worth it.

I wonder whether Joseph felt with particular anger the burden of having to take his pregnant fiancée from Nazareth to Bethlehem simply because some government official said he had to. For the better part of a week, through hostile territory and hazardous conditions, Joseph and Mary traversed the 80 miles, while the carpenter contemplated the futility of the trip. Sure, his ancestral home was the city of David, but why did it matter to the Roman occupiers of Palestine where he and his nine-month-pregnant bride-to-be stood to be counted? Was he really supposed to put forth all of that effort just so the government could more accurately and effectively tax the people whom they ruled? There was no representation in the Senate offered to the Jewish residents of this distant province. The Empire only cared about one thing. To them, this poor couple was nothing more than a miniscule part of a much bigger revenue stream.

When Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem, they discovered again what it meant to count to no one. Instead of being welcomed by some distant relatives, they went to the village inn and found that there was no place there for an unwed pregnant woman and her fiancĂ©. Despite what is depicted in most nativity plays, including our own, the gospel never mentions a kind innkeeper, and it seems just as likely that Mary and Joseph snuck into a stable when no one was looking because they could find shelter nowhere else. When it was time, instead of being heralded by family and close friends, this ignoble birth went all but unnoticed by anyone except the nervous but joyful parents and the livestock bedding down beside them…

That is, until God Almighty broke the silence of that night and filled the skies above the nearby pastures with the heavenly light—not shining above the palace in Jerusalem, not revealed to the rulers in Rome, not declared through a government edict or announced in any official proclamation, but beaming brilliantly in a field full of sheep and shepherds. To them, the angel of the Lord announced the baby’s birth, declaring, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” And, in that moment, when God announced to those lowly shepherds what God had done through those lowly parents in that lowly stable, God revealed that salvation comes not to those who are important by the world’s standards but to those forgotten ones whom God counts as God’s own children.

The powers of this world think of the poor and weak and insignificant as nothing more than a means to an end, but God sees them as God’s beloved children. We are enamored by a prince born to a royal family and swaddled in the plushest garments, but God arrests all of creation in a baby born to an impoverished family and wrapped in tattered rags. We would celebrate on the grandest stage with those who would bring us honor, but God celebrates in an open field with poor, dirty shepherds who have less than nothing to bring to the manger. In the birth of God’s son, Jesus Christ, God shows the world how God sees us. In the incarnation, by taking our human nature upon God’s self, God declares that we belong to him, that in God’s eyes we all have value, that to God every one of us counts.

On this holy night, we celebrate the adoption of the human race by Almighty God. Through the birth of Jesus Christ, God sees each one of us as God’s beloved son or beloved daughter. Like a parent wrapped up in a child’s every move, every step, every milestone, God is enraptured by us. No matter who you are or where you are or where you have toddled off to, God loves you as God’s own child. When God looks down upon you, God doesn’t see one among billions. God sees one whom God loves as God’s own. This Christmas, look first at the mirror through God’s eyes and see yourself as God sees you—as God’s beloved child. And then look out at the world through those same eyes and see what God sees: that absolutely everyone is a vessel into which God has poured God’s love. If we will love each other the way God loves us—as God’s own children—then peace will reign and love will win and the birth of Jesus Christ will unite us all.


[2] Wright, Carrol D. and William C. Hunt, History and Growth of the United States Census (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1900), 13.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Obedience of Faith

In Sunday's short epistle lesson from Romans 16, Paul uses an interesting phrase that seems to fold together his entire letter. What does Paul mean by "obedience of faith?" How does this relate to his theology of justification? How is this different from obedience to the law? From slavery to sin?

Sunday's reading is from the end of Romans. The phrase "obedience of faith" is from 16:26--the penultimate verse in the entire letter. But this isn't the first time Paul has used it. Back in the first chapter, Paul opens his letter with these same words as he defines his calling and ministry: "Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ...through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name." In other words, if you asked Paul what his job was, he might very well say, "My job is to share the gospel of Jesus Christ to bring about the obedience of faith among the Gentiles."

In my preaching, I don't talk a lot about obedience. It's a turn-off word. Like a light switch, it turns off my attention because it quenches all my hope. Obedience? I know that I'm supposed to be a better priest, a better husband, a better father, a better disciple of Jesus. Obedience is the reality that I'm supposed to maintain but can't. Anytime someone talks about obedience, I think about an overbearing parent or a strict teacher or a guilt-dispensing preacher. But this is Paul. This is Romans. This is justification by faith. This is grace over law. This is hope for the hopeless. Where is the hope in this obedience?

Obedience of faith is a different sort of obedience. As the rest of Romans makes clear, this is an obedience that parallels the obedience to which Israel was invited through the Law, but faith opens up a new means for fulfillment. First comes justification. Jesus is the faithful one, and faith in his victory over sin and death imputes to the faithful the justification (made-right-ness) that means we belong to God. When we have faith like Abraham and faith like Jesus, we are given right-standing before God. Then the fruit of that righteousness is manifest in the lives of the faithful. We remain obedient through faithfulness. It is faith that enables obedience. We become slaves to righteousness. We are shaped, remade, rebranded by the right-standing that we have been given so that our lives reflect that obedience. I like to think that Paul's readers in Rome saw that complex phrase in his opening lines and spent the rest of Romans learning what it means. By the end, they were able to say with joy, "The gospel has given us obedience of faith."

So what does that mean for us? It means when I recognize that I could be a better priest, better father, better husband, and better disciple of Jesus, the answer isn't to try harder but believe more fully. I must believe that God has the power to make me perfect in his sight and that that power comes not from within me but from Jesus' victory over my faults--my sin. Believing in that--staying grounded in that faith--is what evokes obedience. I am obedient when I am faithful. My job is to believe in God's transformational grace and let that faith shape my every moment, my every decision, my every word, my every thought.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Surprise Message

On Sunday morning, we will read from 2 Samuel 7 and will hear King David ask the prophet Nathan whether it is time to build a house for the Lord: "See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent." Nathan understood what David is hinting at, and he confirmed for the king that his plan was a good one: "Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you." But, that night, the Lord appeared to Nathan and told him to reverse course: "Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in?"

It made perfect sense that David would build a temple for Yahweh. God had given David and the people of Israel security and prosperity. The place of worship, the place where Yahweh dwelt, however, was still in a tent. I don't know about you, but I like living in a tent for one night. I've never been on one of those fancy safaris, on which "tent" means "palace with canvas walls," so I might change my mind and stay for three nights in one of those, but I like living in a house with real, solid walls. And, if King David is going to live in a palace with cedar paneling, it makes sense that God would live in a similar abode.

But God isn't ready to move into a house yet. Instead, God uses this gesture by the king to double down on his investment in David: "I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth...Moreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever." This promise of a "house" doesn't mean a palace in which the king will live but a house--a dynasty--that will persist forever. God tells Nathan to tell David that his lineage will rule on the throne forever.

Of course, it doesn't. Solomon screws up, marries lots of foreign woman, and, in his old age, begins to worship foreign gods. As a result, God rips the kingdom from him and gives ten twelfths of it (all but the tribes of Benjamin and Judah) to another king. The monarchy is divided. Eventually, both kingdoms will fall. The throne of David is defeated. There is no heir to serve as king.

But God isn't in the business of breaking promises. Part of what the angel Gabriel announces to Mary in Luke 1 is the restoration of David's line through her son, Jesus: "He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end." It may have been dormant for a while, but the promise made to David is resurrected in the birth of Joseph's son, Jesus.

There's an Easter story here. Death always precedes resurrection. God's promises are always sure. As God's never-failing faithfulness overcomes the failure of David's heirs, we remember that with God nothing is lost. With God, there is always hope.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Good News in Unlikely Places

Tuesday in the Third Week of Advent - December 19, 2017
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
I don't believe in luck, but I do believe that some people are luckier than others. By that, I mean that I don't believe that random events are meaninglessly random, but I do believe that some people, through no fault of their own, are the recipients of a disproportionate number of otherwise inexplicable favorable events. And I also believe that some people are the disproportionate recipients of the "bad breaks" in life. Sure, some people "make their own luck," which is to say that people who go through life unprepared or inattentive or pessimistic are more likely to stumble their way from day to day, but I also know too many people who have endured too much hardship to think that it's as simple as cause and effect.
When it comes to people who just can't catch a break, poor people must be at the top of the list. It's hard to win the game of life when you start out with half a deck. Although there are exceptional cases when individuals break through the vicious cycle of poverty, most people who are born poor will stay poor. In this country and in most countries, the quality of education that a poor child receives is directly related to the income of her parents, and it's hard for a really smart kid to make good on those smarts when she is trapped in the worst-funded school in the county. One of my children has not been to the doctor for a sick visit in two years. That's not luck. That's access to good nutrition, good hygiene, good preventative medicine, and a stay-at-home parent, which are all things that a child in a single-parent, barely-making-it household probably doesn't have. Access to affordable health care is essential, but so is providing enough nutritious food for a growing human body to function properly.
People come into my office all the time looking for financial assistance. I presume that 99% of them are stuck in their poverty because of the choices that they have made. But they aren't choosing between turkey and ham, between Advil and Tylenol, between hiring a babysitter or taking a day off of work when their kid is sick. They choose to be homeless because they are living with an abusive partner and have no where else to go. They choose drugs or alcohol because they don't have the mental health support to cope with a hungry baby who won't stop crying. They choose soup kitchens and disability checks and handouts because they don't have enough money to buy a car to look for and get to the job they need to turn their life around. They choose chaos because they don't know peace. They have never known peace.
And what does God say to them? In the eyes of God, you are blessed, you are loved, you are not forgotten.
Who is Jesus? Is he the one that we've been waiting for? Is he the savior who has come to redeem the world? "Go tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them." Jesus is the one who has come to earth to restore the sight of the blind. Jesus has come to help the lame walk and to cleanse the lepers. Jesus has brought hearing to those who are dead. And Jesus is even the one who has come to bring the dead back to life. But Luke the Evangelist knows as well as a sixth-grade essayist that you always save the strongest argument for last. And, if you really want to know whether Jesus is the Son of God who has come to bring salvation to the whole world, then you need to know that he is the one who has come to bring good news even to the poor.
If ever there was someone who needed life-changing, trajectory-altering, history-reversing good news it is the poor. For all of human history, poverty has been a plague we cannot solve. Those with resources can, for the most part, dig themselves out of whatever hole they have fallen in. But not a poor person. Not a poor family. Not a poor community. Not a poor nation. Not poverty itself. Jesus the Christ brings a reversal as dramatic and thorough as a dead man springing back to life. And it is good news for the poor.
But how is this good news? Jesus' good news for the world is the realignment of our assessment of value. Jesus who came and died and rose again, who told the rich young man to sell all that he has and give it to the poor, who proclaimed that it is easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven, reveals that God is not on the side of the rich and powerful. Jesus proclaims that God is not on the side of the middle-class and upwardly mobile. God's victory is manifest in the lives of the hopeless.
Every human institution that stands in the way of the redemption of the poor is damned. That's payday lenders. That's crooked landlords. That's property-tax-funded education. That's taxes on groceries. That's American health care. That's you. That's me. That's the tax bill that's before Congress and every representative and senator who votes for it and every one of us who votes for those who support it. How will we know whether Jesus is the one on whom the world has been waiting? What do you see and hear? The more I sit with Jesus and read the Bible the more convinced I am that if I want to know what it means to call Jesus my savior I need to know what it means for transformation to come to the poor.

Monday, December 18, 2017

It's Not Christmas...Yet

Last night, my religiosity got the better of me. Having seen one too many colleagues advertise on Facebook that next Sunday they will have Christmas Eve services in both the morning and the evening, I made a cranky comment about Christmas Eve not starting until after the Fourth Sunday of Advent has finished. I wish I could tell you that it was because I wanted to honor the commitment of our Altar Guild and Flower Guild who will have to spring into action as soon as the 10:30am service is over and transform our church from the austere purple of Advent into the resplendent white of Christmas. I wish I could tell you that I was thinking of the organist and the choir, who will play and sing their usual, full Sunday-morning routine before coming back to do it all over again in the evening. In fact, the only thing I had in mind was that rules are rules, and the rules in our church say that you can't dispense with a Sunday morning's observance simply because it doesn't suit your congregation's calendar. (Just think how ridiculous your Advent wreath would have looked this year if it only had three candles in it!)

Actually, there's a better reason than my fastidious grumpiness to hold off on celebrating Christmas until it's Christmas time, but we have to travel back in time nine months to see it. This Sunday, when we observe the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we will rewind the calendar to March and hear the story of the Angel Gabriel appearing to Mary and announcing to her that she would bear a son. Every year during Advent, we spend one week hearing about Jesus and the end of the world and two weeks hearing about John the Baptist and the message of repentance. Only in the fourth week do we hear anything about the nativity. And what we hear this year is actually the heart of the Christmas story. In fact, if you pay careful attention to that story, you'll discover that Jesus' birth in Bethlehem is as much an accident of what is proclaimed to Mary by the angel and again by Mary to her cousin Elizabeth in the Magnificat as it is its own moment in salvation history.

Of course, God is with us, active in our lives, all the time. But the moment when God reached down from heaven and intervened in the course of human history didn't happen in Bethlehem but nine months earlier, back in Nazareth. That's where the Christmas story is set in motion. That's where our annual celebration at the manger gets its meaning. We would never know to make the journey to the stable behind the inn where there is no room unless Mary found room in her womb for God. And our journey to Christmas loses its focus if we don't stop to hear the story of the Annunciation first.

The angel doesn't show up simply to give Mary a baby. Mary doesn't need one of those. She's not even married yet. This miracle birth is about something much bigger than a bundle of joy. It's about God reaching down and changing things from the way they have been to the way God dreams they might be. It's a reset switch. It's a reboot for human history. It's God showing up to a young woman, barely old enough to have a baby, and using that ordinary person in an ordinary circumstance with no particular claim to power to reverse the course of history.

In some congregations, the Magnificat was read/proclaimed yesterday. We've reserved it for this week since it seems to be Mary's response to what God has done for her and for the world in the Annunciation/impregnation that occurs in Sunday's gospel lesson. These are her words about what God has already done by choosing her to be the vessel through which God's salvation enters the world: "[God] has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty." This is what Christmas is supposed to be about--not presents (that belongs in Epiphany) but the reordering of power. Those who have always had it are stripped of it, and those who never imagined that they would be on the side of power find that God has aligned himself with them. Can we afford to make it to Bethlehem without first hearing this proclamation? What would Christmas be without the Annunciation?

Make a Highway for Our God

December 17, 2017 – The Third Sunday of Advent, Year B
© 2017 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
God has been in the news a lot lately. Yes, Christmas is coming. Yes, the pope has endorsed a new translation of the Lord’s Prayer. But I’m talking about the special election of a U.S. Senator that we all just endured. That unpleasantness kept our state and the role that religion plays in our version of politics on the televisions and radios and social media feeds of people across the nation. People in our part of the world talk about religion almost as much as we talk about football, but, when I hear other Christians talk about the religion we supposedly share, it makes me wonder whether we actually worship the same God at all.

We read the same Bible. We worship the same Lord. We say the same creeds. We pray the same prayers. But we can’t talk about who God is and what God wants and what it means to be faithful to God in a way that shows the world that we have a God worth believing in. Instead, when we talk about our faith, we use such diametrically opposed soundbites that we cannot blame the world for thinking that we care more about following our own ways than God’s ways. Of course, the problem isn’t God. The problem is us. The problem is that we take who God is and what God wants and bury those principles beneath that great human invention that is the real problem: religion. And that problem is as old as the human race.

It may sound strange for a preacher like me to start a sermon by decrying the fundamental flaws of religion, but that is the heart of the movement that Jesus came to start. And, today, on the Third Sunday of Advent, we see in the showdown between John the Baptist and his interrogators how the conflict between religion and faith becomes the backdrop for Jesus’ arrival and public ministry.

“Who are you?” they asked. But first, who were they? They were the priests and Levites who were sent by the Jewish authorities to ascertain what was behind the ministry of John the Baptizer. Think about that for a minute. The authorities in Jerusalem, who represented a mixture of religious and political powerbrokers from the capital city, sent priests and Levites, who were the official representatives of the religion of the day—out into the wilderness, down to the Jordan River, to find out what was going on. They had witnessed droves of people leave the city and the surrounding villages and the temple and synagogues where their religion was enshrined to go and hear the prophet and be baptized by him in the river. It seemed that a religious revival was taking place, but no one had bothered to invite the religious authorities. And those authorities wanted to know why.

“Who are you?” they asked. Given the exchange that follows, maybe a better way of translating their question would be, “Who do you think that you are?” John the gospel-writer doesn’t tell us exactly what was meant by their question, but the answer that John the Baptist gave them says it all: “I am not the messiah.” In other words, the preaching that John was doing and the baptism that he was offering represented such a substantial break from the run-of-the-mill religion to which everyone was accustomed that they expected that the person who would do those things would have messianic authority. They didn’t think that John would actually be the messiah, but they didn’t think that he would deny it either.

When he did, they tried a different option. “Are you Elijah?” they asked .And John said, “No, I’m not.” And they said, “If you’re not the messiah or Elijah, you must be the prophet we have been waiting for—the prophet-like-Moses who is promised to come.” But again John denied it, saying, “No, that’s not me either.” At this point, all of their suppositions had been rejected. John did not fit into any of their expectations. “Who are you, then?” they asked. “Give us an answer for the people who sent us.” And John replied, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”

That might not sound confusing to those of us who are accustomed to hearing Isaiah 40 being applied to John the Baptist and his ministry, but, to those who heard him quote the prophet, these were perplexing words. To describe himself and his work, John had picked an ancient prophecy that told of the mountains and hills being flattened, the rough places being made into a plain, and the difficult, rugged terrain being turned into a highway that would connect God’s people with their God. But, when those priests and Levites looked around at the rag-tag group that was gathered around John, they wondered how and where this could possibly happen. What proof could John give to back up this bold prediction? “If you’re not the messiah or Elijah or the prophet, what are you doing baptizing all of these people?” they asked. And John shook his head and thought, “No wonder these all of people have come out into the countryside to hear what I have to say. The people are desperate to find the path that leads back to God, and the religious authorities from the city have no idea that it is staring them in the face.”

In the minds of the religious authorities, there were only two ways back to God: the slow, familiar, undramatic progression that religion represented or a new, speedier path that could only be brought by a God-sent figure like the messiah or Elijah or the prophet. Since John the Baptist promised the people a highway to their God and the salvation that God would give them, they figured that he would be a messianic pretender or at least lay claim to some special prophetic identity. But John claimed neither of those things. Instead, he offered them a third option that they hadn’t considered. John believed that the eight-lane expressway to God and God’s salvation didn’t need to wait for the messiah to show up before it could be opened. John understood that the job of the faithful was to see and establish that superhighway not as a response to the messiah’s arrival but in anticipation of it. John’s preaching and baptism were about preparing the way for the anointed one to come into the hearts and lives of God’s people. The religious authorities may have known that it was a distant possibility, but they had all but forgotten what it meant to watch and wait with urgency for the coming of God’s salvation.

Are we doing any better? The job of the faithful is to be the voice that cries in the wilderness of life, “Make straight the way of the Lord.” Is that what you hear your church doing? Is that what you hear yourself doing? When someone asks you what your church or your faith stands for, what do you tell them? Some churches stand for morality. Other churches stand for tradition. Some make an idol of inclusion. All of us to one degree or another have swapped unadulterated faith in God for something that is mediated by man-made religion. If the institution in which we worship has decided that a slow, familiar, undramatic progression toward God is good enough until Jesus comes back, then we are guilty of a grave sin. If we are more interested in connecting people with ourselves than connecting them with the awesome, uncontainable power of God, then we aren’t preparing the way for the coming of Christ. We’re blocking it.

God is in the transformation business. God is about the work of bringing good news to the oppressed and binding up the brokenhearted and proclaiming liberty to the captives and offering release to the prisoners. If we’re waiting for Jesus to show up before we make that our business, we have missed the point entirely. We don’t have to wait for Jesus to come back before we repent of all the things that stand in the way of God’s dream for the world. We don’t have to wait for Jesus to come back before we acknowledge that we’ve spent far too much time and effort and money and words convincing the world that we are God’s favorites, that our branch of religion in the one God likes best. Now is the time to get out the business of religion for religion’s sake and embrace the coming of our savior by laying down a highway between God’s salvation and the world that desperately needs it.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Self-Identification #2

Yesterday, I wrote about John the Baptist's response to those who wanted to know what he had to say for himself. When asked to justify his peculiar, wilderness ministry, John replied, quoting Isaiah 40, "I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, 'Make straight the way of the Lord.'" In other words, the Baptizer (and those who retold his story) understood his relationship with Jesus to be about preparing for the coming of the Lord and the great leveling of all things that comes with him.

It's hard to read the first lesson for Sunday from Isaiah 64 and not be reminded of another moment in the gospel when Jesus describes his own ministry. It might not be fair to borrow from Luke on a Sunday when we are reading from John, but, when Jesus picks up a scroll in the synagogue and reads these words from the prophet, he announces that they have been fulfilled in the congregation's hearing. These words proclaiming that anointed-one being is being sent to bring the good news of release and healing to God's people are the words that Jesus uses to define his ministry, which means they go hand in hand with those that John the Baptist uses for himself.

Perhaps it's fair for us to make the comparison since Isaiah used both the leveling of the rough places from chapter 40 and the lifting up of the downtrodden from chapter 64 to describe the day of the Lord. John the Baptist is laying down an eight-lane expressway through the wilderness so that Jesus the anointed-one can come speedily and bring release, recovery, and comfort to God's people. The question for us is whether that leveling means the arrival of good news or bad news.

The Lord is coming. The Lord is bringing relief to those who have suffered. The Lord will bind up those who are brokenhearted. The Lord will set free those who are imprisoned. But the leveling of the rough places means the elimination of the obstacles to that reorientation. It means the impediments (literally the "foot-obstacles") along the road are removed. Advent is about preparing for the coming of the Lord by discerning ways in which we wait for the good news and the ways in which we stand in its way.

Hear the words of Isaiah as they come into focus this season. We are not only preparing for a birth in Bethlehem but for the transformation of the world that Jesus' birth represents--a transformation that continues to take place and that reaches its fulfillment at the coming of the Lord. Are we ready for the kind of world that Isaiah envisioned? Are our expectations for the anointed-one based on God's hope for the world? Or are we pretending that God's dreams will conform to our own?

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Lucia the Bringer of Light

December 13, 2017 - St. Lucia
Song of Solomon 6:1-9; John 1:9-13

In the liturgical calendar debacle that is the Episcopal Church, today is officially a "nothing" day. It is Wednesday in the Second Week of Advent. Like every day in the year, it has its own readings for Morning and Evening Prayer. And, like the other days in Advent, it has its own Eucharistic lessons, too. The official liturgical calendars from the Book of Common Prayer and Lesser Feasts and Fasts, 2009 have no entry for December 13, but the unofficial calendar, Great Cloud of Witnesses, which has been approved for optional use (whatever that means), like its now-defunct predecessor Holy Women, Holy Men, reserves this day for St. Lucy or Lucia, who is often called "the bringer of light." Typically, at St. John's, we don't bother with GCoW, but I've always liked Lucy, and I wanted to remember her witness to us.

Lucy was a Christian girl from Italy who lived in in third century. Like many Christians in that time, she had to practice her faith in secret for fear that she would be tortured or killed by the Roman authorities. Also, like many of her peers who were convinced that the horrific Diocletian Persecution surely meant that the Lord's return was imminent, she wanted to remain a virgin so that she could devote not only her life but her chastity to her Lord. Unfortunately, her parents weren't interested in having a virgin for a child, and they planned for her to marry a pagan. But Lucy, empowered by the Holy Spirit, succeeded in convincing her parents to let her escape the arranged marriage and give the dowry to the poor instead. Her husband-to-be, however, was not pleased at the arrangement, and, when he learned that her Christian faith had gotten in the way of his conquest, he turned her over to the Romans. They demanded that she recant and offer a sacrifice to a pagan god, but she refused, so they ordered her to be imprisoned in a brothel where her consecrated virginity would be defiled. Yet, as legend has it, when the guards came to carry her away, she was so firmly fixed to the spot that even with a team of oxen they could not move her. So they piled up firewood and set her ablaze on the spot. And, as the legend goes, despite the flames, her body would not catch on fire, so they beheaded her with the sword on the spot. She may not have survived this life long enough to meet the Lord at his coming, but her faith enabled her to meet him in the next life.

Do we have faith like Lucy? Do we celebrate the light that has come into the world? Does our faith in Jesus become a light that draws others to the true light?

John tells us that in the incarnation "the true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world." But, as we know not only from John's prologue but also from our own lives, not everyone knew him. All through John's gospel account, the question of faith persists. Who sees Jesus for who he really is? Is he recognized as the Son of God, the light that has come into the world? Do people see his "signs" as more than works of power? Do they see that those signs point us to something bigger? Right here in the beginning of his account, John lets us know that those who believe in his name are given power to become children of God. Those who see that light and believe in it are transformed. Is that us?

The feast of the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ comes on December 25--just twelve days from now. When the date was set, a few centuries after Jesus' birth, no one remembered exactly what time of year Jesus was born. The Annunciation had long been fixed in March since the spring seemed like a good time to celebrate the promise of new life. Nine months later is December, which made for a happy coincidence. Plus, the pagan celebration of the winter solstice was a well-observed habit that the newly Christian Roman emperors wanted to transition from a godless festival into a celebration worthy of the Christian faith. More than that, however, by fixing Christmas near the winter solstice, we are able to see the coming of Christ as the coming of light. The days will soon be getting longer. The darkest part of winter is almost over. You may not be able to see it all at once, but, if you look carefully enough, you may notice the coming of light right around the coming of Christmas.

Lucy is one who saw the light of Christ that came into the world and invited others to see it through her life. She believed in the power of that light to shine in the dark places of life so fully that she was willing to give up her life for it. She believed that the light of Christ meant more to her future than the comforts of a pagan life. Traditionally, Christians in northern Scandinavian countries celebrate this night by dressing a young girl up in a white dress and placing a ring of candles in her hair and inviting her to process into a banquet hall. It's a sign that the light of the world is about to be here. But seeing that light isn't always easy. And it doesn't always come naturally. Will we see it?

The light of Christ has come into the world. Those who believe in his name are given the power to become children of God. Do we see that the best hope for the world and for our lives is found in the light that shines on the darkest corners of the globe and in the darkest corners of our hearts, or would we rather claim the fleeting light of our own accomplishments? Which light is illuminating our lives--the light of Christ or the light of prosperity, the light of power, the light of greed? In whom will we put our faith? In whom will we believe? Beholding the light of Christ means recognizing what God is up to all around us even now. Believing in the one who brings that light means trusting that God's future is the only true hope that we have. That means allowing the lights we are more comfortable with--those of our own creation--to dim and even be extinguished. Sometimes the light of Christ shines dimly on our path--so dimly that one can hardly see it. It can be a scary thing to put down our own light and navigate only by the light of Christ. But there is only one light that will see us through to the end.

Important Background Study

As I prepare to preach this Sunday, I am drawn not only to this week's readings but also to the passage that John the Baptist uses to define his own ministry. In the gospel lesson, when the representatives of the religious authorities ask John who he is and what he has to say for himself, John turns to Isaiah 40: "I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, 'Make straight the way of the Lord.'" It will be the second week in a row in which we will hear those words from Isaiah. Last week, Mark used them to inaugurate the ministry of Jesus through the proclamation of John the Baptizer. This week, John the gospel-writer also uses them but, unlike Mark, he places them on the lips of the Baptist. And all of that leads me to think that, if I want to understand John the Baptist and his relationship with Jesus and their collective role in the season of Advent, I had better spend some time studying Isaiah 40.

In this seminal passage of scripture, God interrupts the course of Israel's history to instruct the prophet to bring words of comfort to God's people: "Comfort, comfort my people! says your God." In this moment, God's words are words of compassion: "Speak compassionately to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her compulsory service has ended, that her penalty has been paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins!" Jerusalem, the capital city of the southern kingdom, was the epicenter of the Babylonian destruction, and the torment that her people had experienced was now over. On behalf of God, the prophet announces that the Lord is near and that the time to prepare the highway through the desolate places so that God and all of God's people can return to the city of Zion is upon us: "Clear the Lord’s way in the desert! Make a level highway in the wilderness for our God! Every valley will be raised up, and every mountain and hill will be flattened. Uneven ground will become level, and rough terrain a valley plain. The Lord’s glory will appear, and all humanity will see it together; the Lord’s mouth has commanded it."

How does John the Baptist define his ministry? What does John the Evangelist think of this moment when Jesus appears on the scene? How does Mark envision the ministry of Jesus? This is their framework. This is their reference. This is their understanding of what God is doing in Jesus and what John the Baptist is doing to prepare the spiritual landscape for it.

In many ways, the birth of Jesus fits into the gospel as preparation for this moment. Luke's telling of the Annunciation and the journey to Bethlehem and Matthew's story of the wise men coming to bear gifts are all ways of saying that God is showing up in Jesus to bring God and God's people back together. In effect, therefore, we should skip ahead and celebrate what happened in the manger as a prelude to this Sunday's story of the "real" arrival. Of course, that's a terrible idea, and I don't endorse it, but it is worth noting that this Sunday isn't about getting ready for a birth but getting ready for what that birth will enable about 30 years later. That two very different gospel writers--Mark and John--both use Isaiah 40 to inaugurate Jesus' ministry through John the Baptist suggests that the first Christians identified this prophecy as central to the work of Jesus. This is what it's all about.

Don't climb into the pulpit or slide into the pew without taking some time to live in Isaiah 40, allowing the Holy Spirit to fill you with its words of hope.