Saturday, March 31, 2018

Holy Saturday: Nothing To Do But Wait

I don't like doing nothing. The thought of going on vacation and lounging around all day makes me want to stay at work. I may be extreme in my impatience, but I don't think I'm unusual. None of us likes empty waiting. As Seth said in his sermon this morning, when sitting in a doctor's waiting room, we'd rather look at old magazines, balance our checkbook, or clean our our e-mail inbox than sit and wait. In the emptiness, our mind goes to places we'd rather it not go.

Even now, the Flower Guild and Altar Guild are buzzing around the church, transforming it from the dim light of Holy Saturday into the glory of Easter. Like family and friends after the death of a loved one, they scurry to take care of the necessary (and unnecessary) arrangements. "Just give me a job to do," we say to anyone who appears to be in charge. We'd rather do anything than sit and wait.

But, today, there is nothing to do but wait. Easter preparations aside, on this day, the followers of Jesus have nothing to do but wait. I'm indebted to the dedicated members of the Flower and Altar Guilds both for their hard work and also for allowing us to begin this morning with the quiet service of watching and waiting and praying that falls on Holy Saturday. They didn't have to do that. They could have turned the lights all the way on and set about their work first thing this morning, but, they didn't. They stopped. They waited. They honored this day and our Lord's death by doing nothing but waiting for a few minutes.

The service in the prayer book for Holy Saturday is less than a page long. It consists only of collect, readings, anthem, the Lord's Prayer, and the Grace. That's it. Even the gospel lesson is something we heard only yesterday. It's the end of the Passion of our Lord--the part when Joseph and Nicodemus prepare Jesus' body for burial and lay it in the tomb. That event has already happened. That happened just before sunset on Friday. Even the gospel itself is silent on this day. There is nothing new to say. All we can do is sit and recall what we witnessed yesterday.

Today will be busy enough. I must acknowledge that. I need to put finishing touches on a sermon, practice my chanting, set up for the Vigil, and encourage all of the people who work hard to make our celebration of Easter happen. At home, we have baseball practice and last-minute shopping to do. I don't know much time will be left to sit around and wait. Part of me is glad for that. It's easier to keep busy than to sit by the tomb. But another part of me is sad to think that I might fill today with stuff so that I don't have to face the reality of this day. Waiting is hard, but it's valuable. It isn't empty after all. We are changed in and through our waiting because we do not wait alone.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Good Friday: The Power of Surrender

March 30, 2018 – Good Friday

© 2018 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

Everyone who passed by the Skull Place could see the sign that hung above Jesus’ head. And everyone who was literate in any language of that day—Aramaic, Latin, or Greek—could read it. This crucified criminal had been identified as “The King of the Jews.” Pilate put the sign there. The Jewish authorities asked him to change it, but Pilate refused. “What I have written, I have written,” he said. The Roman governor wanted every would-be rebel to see how the Empire treated so-called Jewish kings.

I wonder how many people who saw that sign laughed at its irony as they beheld a king-pretender stripped of his power and majesty, naked and crucified. I wonder how many of his countrymen covered their eyes in embarrassment at the sight of another Jewish rebel executed by their Roman oppressors. I wonder whether anyone who saw the sign that day understood it to be a statement of the truth. I wonder whether anyone standing there could possibly see that the crucified one was, indeed, the King of the Jews. I wonder whether we, when we look upon the cross of Christ, can see our king in his full glory.

The story of Jesus’ passion and death is a story of power, but I wonder whose power we will see within it. When the “company of soldiers” came with Judas to arrest Jesus in the garden, it was not a small detachment of armed men. The word that John uses to describe them is “cohort,” which was a group of 600 Roman soldiers. Imagine that: 600 armed men rushing into the garden to arrest Jesus and his dozen disciples. How threatening! How ridiculous! The members of the mob, John tells us, were carrying lanterns, torches, and weapons, all meant to strike fear into the hearts of any who saw them, yet Jesus did not run away. Instead, he stepped toward them, defying their intimidating power by confronting them. Without raising even a fist, Jesus said to them, “Whom are you looking for?” And, when they replied, “Jesus the Nazarene,” Jesus said to them, “I am.” His utterance was an echo of God’s self-disclosure, the great “I AM,” and, as soon as the words left his lips, the cohort stumbled backwards and fell down. Right from the start, John wants us to see where true power lies.

Then, in an act that threatened to derail Jesus’ display of godly power, Simon Peter picked up his sword and slashed at the head of the high priest’s servant, cutting off his right ear. It was an instinctive act, but Jesus intervened. “Put your sword away!” he commanded his irascible disciple. “Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?” In order to follow the path that God had placed him on and fulfill his divine mission, Jesus and his followers must not fight. God’s power must be revealed in another way.

The exposition of power continues in Jesus’ encounter with Pilate. “Are you the king of the Jews?” the governor asked him, perhaps taunting the helpless prisoner. But, instead of the kind of angry response that a captured rebel might give, Jesus said, “My kingdom doesn’t originate from this world. If it did, my guards would fight so that I wouldn’t have been arrested by the Jewish leaders. My kingdom isn’t from here.” Pilate was so confused that all he could say was “So…you are a king?” For the Roman official, the only kind of power he knew was the kind that he wielded, the kind that rebels like Barabbas fought for and were imprisoned for, the kind that the crowd wanted to see its leaders exert. But Jesus, on the other hand, saw power differently. His kingdom—his reign, his rule, his way—refused to seize power in the earthly sense. Instead, it sought to give that power away. “You would have no authority over me if it had not been given to you from above,” Jesus said to Pilate. It seems that all power comes from God, but the princes of this world choose to use that power to come against the way of God, while the passion and death of Jesus reveal to us that, even in response to their evil, the way of God continues to give it away.

By the time the soldiers came to break the legs of the prisoners, Jesus had already breathed his last, having given up his life rather than having had it taken from him. When Joseph of Arimathea came and took the body away, he held the lifeless corpse in his arms, yet even the dead weight possessed a silent power. The body of the martyr contained within it a power that did not belong to this world, a power that compelled Joseph to approach Pilate and that brought Nicodemus out of the shadows so that they could boldly and defiantly honor the Crucified One by preparing his body according to their burial custom. Normally, this would not have been allowed. Normally, Rome would have left the prisoner’s body on the cross until the vultures had consumed its flesh, denying it the dignity of a proper burial. But not Jesus. Even in death, Jesus gave Joseph and Nicodemus the power to confront the authorities who would have left him there.

What does Jesus give us in his death? We are here, in part, to see the origin of our forgiveness, to behold how our reconciliation to God is wrought in the death of God’s Son. But have we become so accustomed to the thought of Jesus’ salvific death that we have forgotten how costly it was? I do not mean costly in the physical, tortuous way that crucifixion surely was to the fully-human Jesus. I mean costly in the sense that, in order to grant us forgiveness, God must give up God’s power, yielding over to humanity the debt that we owe. To forgive someone always means giving that person back the power that you have over him or her. To say, “I forgive you,” means that you do not own me anything. It means that I no longer have the right to hold your wrong over you. It means that you no longer need to do or say or give anything to compensate me for your wrong. There is power in withholding forgiveness from another person, but that is a power that God never grasps. In Jesus, we see that God freely and continually relinquishes that power for our sake and, in so doing, reveals a different sort power, one that is not of this world, a power that comes only from surrender.

What do we see when we look upon the cross of Christ? The sign above the Crucified One proclaims that he is the “King of the Jews.” But do we see him as our king—not when he is robed in splendor but when he hangs there, naked, humiliated, robbed of his dignity, short of breath, and dying? If Jesus is our king, then the one hanging on the cross is the one who reigns over us, and his ways must be our ways. His power must be our power. The power of God comes not in strength or wealth or might but in weakness and brokenness and vulnerability. God’s power is revealed in the one who gives it up for our sake. And, if we would be his disciples, we cannot then pick that power up and take it for ourselves. Instead, we must take up our own cross. We, too, must give up all power for his sake. To do that, we must forgive as we have been forgiven and love as we have been loved. May the power of God reign in our hearts until we are as empty as the one who was crucified for our sake. Only then will we be filled with the power that comes from God.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Maundy Thursday: Order Matters

One of the privileges of being a clergyperson is accompanying others on their spiritual journey and sharing the enthusiasm of the insights they gain. This Lent, our Wednesday-night series has been a home-group study of The Last Week, by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. Although I had recognized it before, the fact that Judas was given Communion before he went out to betray Jesus, which is discussed in the book, was new to some of the lifelong Christians in our home group. Our shared enthusiasm for that fact has been a recurring topic in our conversation as we have explored the nature of God's redemption. And it has allowed me to consider the limitlessness of God's forgiveness in a new way.

Today is Maundy Thursday. In Morning Prayer, we read from Mark 14:12-25, which describes Jesus and his disciples gathering in the upper room for the Passover meal. One of the first things Mark recalls is Jesus' announcement of his betrayal and the disturbance that it causes among the disciples. Then, as soon as Jesus has finished telling them that one of them--one with whom he is dipping the bread in the bowl--will betray him, he takes the bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to them in what becomes the institution of the Eucharist. After that, likely after all of them have gone to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray, in a moment not described by Mark, Judas slips out to meet the mob that comes to arrest Jesus.

This evening, when we gather for Eucharist, we will read from John 13. Although John omits the institution of the Eucharist, he replaces it with the institution of the washing of the feet. Still, and this is important, the essential order is the same. The disciples gather with their master for the evening meal. While at dinner, John tells us that the devil had already provoked Jesus. Then, Jesus gets up from the table and washes the feet of all twelve disciples. Notice the causal connection in John's telling of the sequence: "Jesus and his disciples were sharing the evening meal. The devil had already provoked Judas, Simon Iscariot’s son, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew the Father had given everything into his hands and that he had come from God and was returning to God. So he got up from the table and took off his robes. Picking up a linen towel, he tied it around his waist..." Only after that does Jesus dip the bread into the bowl and hand it to Judas, sending him out into the darkness. As with Mark, the announcement (to the reader) of the betrayal is first. The Jesus-given act that unifies the disciples is given second and includes all twelve disciples, even Judas. Later on, the betrayer leaves the company.

In John's account, it almost feels like the betrayal provokes Jesus' washing of the feet, which, in turn, provokes the departure of Jesus, which provokes Jesus' issuing of the love commandment. Those causal relationships aren't as clear in Mark, but the order is. And the order matters. Knowing the one who will betray him, Jesus offers his body and blood in pre-crucifixion form to Judas. In John, Jesus stoops down and washes Judas' feet. What is it like to gently and lovingly and humbly wash the feet of the man who is about to betray you? What is it like to give one's self so fully to another as to say, "This is my blood," and to say it to the one who will cause that blood to be spilled?

It felt controversial to me when Crossan and Borg suggested that Judas, too, would have been forgiven had he not hanged himself but had returned to Jesus and the other eleven disciples after the resurrection. Given the clear language that the biblical authors use to condemn him--"It would have been better if he had not been born!"--it is hard to imagine that he could be readmitted to the fellowship. It felt controversial at first, but, as our series continued, by the end of our time together, I thought, "Of course, that's what Jesus would have done!" Maundy Thursday, as Jesus gives himself to all twelve disciples, knowing that all twelve of them will falter, Jesus reminds us that we, too, are forgivable and, perhaps, already forgiven.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Wednesday in HW: Godfather Moment

On Palm Sunday, we heard Mark's version of the passion narrative, but, for the rest of Holy Week (except the Easter Vigil), we hear from John. In many ways, John's version of the Last Supper is dramatically different from that of the other gospel accounts. There is no institution of the Eucharist. Instead, as we will commemorate on Maundy Thursday, Jesus washes his disciples' feet. Also, instead of an abbreviated Upper Room encounter, John gives us a very, very lengthy farewell address by Jesus to his disciples. Finally, and particularly relevant to today's gospel lesson (John 13:21-23), the confrontation of Jesus' betrayer is recalled as a moment when Jesus was in complete control.

In Mark's gospel account, Jesus announces that he will be betrayed, but no hint is given in the Last Supper scene as to who it will be. In Luke, Jesus says even less about his betrayer, and no one seems to know who it is. Matthew portrays a similar revelation by Jesus, but, when Judas asks, "It's not me, is it, Rabbi?" Jesus replies, "You have said so." In all three synoptic accounts, we read about Judas' treachery before the disciples get to the Last Supper, and, in all three, Jesus announces his upcoming betrayal without revealing who the traitor is. But John does something very different.

In John, Jesus is always in complete control. Before the foot washing begins, John tells us that "the devil had already provoked Jesus" (13:2), but, as soon as those words are written, John reminds us that "Jesus knew the father had given everything into his hands" (13:3). Later on in chapter 13, when Jesus announces he will be betrayed, he identifies to the Beloved Disciple that "It's the one to whom I will give this piece of bread once I have dipped it into the bowl." Then, when Jesus dips and hands the bread to Judas, "Satan entered into him." Surely John doesn't want us to think that Jesus is the one who commanded Satan to enter into Judas, but we're still left with a Jesus who is in complete control of his own betrayal. The drama and symbolism feels like it could be a scene from  The Godfather.

But that's not where today's reading stops. In this Holy Week encounter, the next sentence, which begins a new section of this Last Supper scene, is linked to the betrayal: "When Judas was gone, Jesus said, 'Now the Human One has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.'" The glorification of Jesus comes through his death, and his death comes because of his betrayal. In a way that defies simple causality, Judas' actions lead to Jesus' glorification. God takes the evil that Judas brings and uses it for good.

It is easy to condemn Judas. Jesus himself, in most of the gospel accounts, remind us that it would have been better had he not been born at all. But our instinct to write off Judas as the evil character with whom we have no connection denies us an opportunity to see how God take the evil we bring and uses it for good.

I don't like the sermon that invites the congregation to think of their sins as the nails that fastened Jesus' body to the cross. That overpersonalizes it. And it focuses too much on the contribution and punishment and not enough on the result. As we read in John 13, Judas' treachery becomes Jesus' glory. Our failure--betrayal, denial, desertion--is transformed into God's glory. God takes what is weak and broken and uses it as a channel for his transformational power.

Because of that, Judas may be the most interesting character in the New Testament. If I were the director of this film, he would be the character I wanted to explore most fully. If we can get past the post-Easter spin that the New Testament authors provide, we discover a man who, like us, falters and whose faltering, because of God's grace, becomes wrapped up and overcome by God's glory.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Tuesday in HW: Foolishness of Preaching

March 27, 2018 - Tuesday in Holy Week

© 2018 Evan D. Garner

My colleague Seth was supposed to preach today, but he came down with a stomach bug, so, since I'm preaching in his place, I'm going to steal his principal sermon insight and hope he feels better soon.

Paul writes, "In God's wisdom, God determined that the world wouldn't come to know him through its wisdom. Instead, God was pleased to save those who believe through the foolishness of preaching. Jews ask for signs, and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified..." (1 Cor. 1:21-23).

This year during Holy Week, we're using the Common English Bible in all of our worship. We made that swap primarily because the NRSV, which we normally use, brings some challenge with it. During Holy Week, our gospel texts are primarily from John, and John often uses the term "the Jews" to mean "the Jewish leaders who were opposed to Jesus." There's some latent and intentional anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism in the gospel text, which I do not believe was original to Jesus and his ministry. When we accurately translate John's term as "the Jews," we misrepresent the gospel. Several newer versions have attempted to render that term as "the Jewish authorities" or some other clearer designation, which, admittedly, departs from the literal Greek text but helps us encounter the conflict Jesus experienced as it was--not as a conflict between Jesus and all Jewish people but between Jesus and a few who were opposed to his movement. Among those translations is the CEB, which also offers a highly readable and mostly familiar (if sometimes casual) rendering of the text. And, on days like today, we get to hear the other benefits of a new translation.

What is the "foolishness of preaching?" In the NRSV, that would be "the foolishness of our proclamation." Actually, the CEB is closer to the Greek text, which doesn't include the possessive pronoun "our." What is the "insipidity of preaching," the "folly of proclamation?" Well, it's all we've got.

We preach Christ crucified. We don't work miracles. We don't do magic tricks. We don't offer new philosophies. We don't present feats of strength. We preach the cross. We preach the Anointed One dying on the cross. We preach God sending the savior of the world, God's only Son, to confront the powers of this world and die a shameful death at their hands not as a failure of God's plan but as the means by which the whole world is saved. That is pure folly! And it's the only hope we've got.

Paul was writing this letter to the Christian church in Corinth, one of the intellectual and cultural centers of the Greco-Roman world. Living there were some of the smartest people on the planet. They spent their time contemplating the origins of life and the relationship between the human and the divine. In the western world, they were among those who got as close to "the gods" as anyone else, yet they might as well have been an infinite distance away. Why? Because no earthly wisdom, no human intellectual pursuit, could imagine that the cross, an instrument of brutal and shameful execution reserved only for the worst criminals, would be the means to salvation.

By their very nature, a search for wisdom and a search for feats of wonder miss the mark because the way of God is the way of foolishness and weakness. For all of human history, God has revealed God's truth through the lowly and the outcast. Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Miriam, Hannah, Samuel, Ruth. Some were wealthy. Some were strong. But God's salvation wasn't revealed in their earthly status or accomplishments but in how God used their emptiness, their weakness, their lacking to enact God's plan of salvation.

If we want to find our place in God's salvation history, we cannot search for intellectual insights or attempt to conjure up the mighty hand of God. We must turn to the cross. We must empty ourselves. We must become weak fools--the laughing stock of this world--in order to find our place with Jesus. So far this week, we have followed Jesus into Jerusalem and proclaimed him as David's heir. We have shouted cries of "Hosanna!" calling on him to save us. But will we follow him when the path he is on leads not to the throne but to the cross? Will we search for the truth of our salvation by accepting for ourselves the "shame and loss" that the cross represents? Jesus may have been the one who died on the cross, but the path of our salvation leads straight through it. To be with Jesus, we must venture beyond the shadow of the cross. We must accept it for ourselves.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Monday in HW: Gentle Justice

March 26, 2018 - Monday in Holy Week

© 2018 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

But here is my servant, the one I uphold;
    my chosen, who brings me delight.
I’ve put my spirit upon him;
    he will bring justice to the nations.
He won’t cry out or shout aloud
    or make his voice heard in public.
He won’t break a bruised reed;
    he won’t extinguish a faint wick,
    but he will surely bring justice.
He won’t be extinguished or broken
    until he has established justice in the land.
The coastlands await his teaching. Isaiah 42:1-4 (CEB)

I am a yeller. Elizabeth is a yeller. When things aren't going well at our house, the neighbors, if they happen to be in their back yards or walking down the street, can probably hear us. With four children ten-years-old and under, there's a lot of yelling in our house. In the short term, an elevated voice might help get the order we're after, but it does no good in the long term. Like a closed system, when we add the energy of parental yelling, that energy has no where to go except in our children's behavior. Even though order is our goal, the more disturbance we bring the more disturbance we get. So powerful is that effect that, if I walk into a house filled with yelling and try to calm everyone down, reminding them that yelling won't help, within five minutes I am guaranteed to be yelling, too. It is contagious.

Who is God's chosen one? Who is God's servant? The one who comes to bring God's justice to the nations but who brings it so gently that he raises not his voice in the streets. He doesn't cry aloud as so many prophets have done. He seeks no public audience for a harangue. So gentle is he that he wouldn't even break a bruised reed or extinguish a faint wick. That is the one comes to establish God's justice.

Some churches use oil-filled candles. We use ones made of wax. Occasionally the acolyte lights the candle but the melting wax pools around the wick, choking its flame down to a bare flicker. The congregation may think that the candle is out, but, without stopping the service to trim the candle and expose more wick, the flame will never grow. Even the slightest burst of wind from the air conditioner could put it out, but it still flickers and smolders for God to see.

The prophet Isaiah envisioned a humble servant who would bring God's justice to the earth. That servant would be "a light to the nations" so that blind eyes would be opened and prisoners would be set free and those trapped in dark dungeons would come out into the light of life. The hope for justice and freedom and was familiar, but the means that God would use was new. How could anyone win victory over God's warring enemies with gentleness? How will prisoners be led out of captivity by one who won't even raise his voice? How can freedom be guaranteed by one who is so careful not to extinguish a smoldering wick? Because gentle justice is contagious, too.

The prophet could not have seen the Christological answer he foretold, but, when we look at the ministry of Jesus, we see one whose gentleness has the power to transform the world. The justice that he brings is slow-developing. Frustrating to many of his followers, his victory is won in gradual transformation. Those who wield power in his name do not really know him. Those who attempt to champion his cause with raised voices and clenched fists betray him. Only those who embrace the Crucified One and who celebrate the path of martyrdom that he establishes by lavishing upon him the treasure of our lives can claim to be his followers.

This annual journey through Holy Week is a journey toward justice. As God's people, we are shaped by this pilgrimage, and, through it, we and the world are molded by God into vessels for God's justice. One cannot journey through this week and think that the transformation we experience comes to us by force. So gentle and careful is it that we might finish this year's journey and not even notice a change. But submitting to the path of gentle justice has its effect on us. Gentleness is contagious. Justice is, too.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Palm Sunday: Love Overcomes Fear

March 25, 2018 – The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday

© 2018 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

How quickly we turn against the one we love! On Palm Sunday, in the span of an hour and a half, we go all the way from Jesus’ triumphal entry to the foot of the cross. We begin with “Hosanna in the highest!” and end with “Crucify him!” How quickly things change! What is it about human nature that gives us the capacity to change our allegiance so completely and so quickly?

We aren’t the only ones whose loyalties crumble. Judas, of course, plotted ahead of time to betray his master, and his treachery tends to mask the collective failure of the other disciples. All of them, in one way or another, desert their teacher. At the Last Supper, Jesus warned Peter, “Before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.” Peter vehemently rejected that accusation, saying, “Even if I must die alongside you, I won’t deny you.” He meant that. He really believed that, no matter what happened, he would remain faithful to Jesus. In Mark’s retelling of the story, there are two cock crows, perhaps so that we can join Peter in hearing the warning tone after the first denial and then feel the full weight of his guilt after he denies Jesus twice more. And Peter wasn’t the exception. After Jesus was arrested, all of his followers ran away. None of the twelve stood up for Jesus. None of them defended him publicly or attempted to rescue him. The crowds, which days before had heralded Jesus’ arrival in the holy city by proclaiming him as David’s heir, now mocked him as he hung upon the cross. Why is that? What makes that appalling transformation possible?

Each of us, when threatened, possesses a powerful instinct to protect ourselves. When mom walks in and sees the broken vase, we immediately point to our sibling and say, “He did it!” When the boss asks us why the report hasn’t been turned in yet, we tell her that we thought our coworker said that it wasn’t due for another week. When a friend tells us that she’s really angry at one of our mutual acquaintances, we find it easier to distance ourselves from that third person by sharing in the criticism than confronting the person we are with and telling her that we think she’s off-base. But it doesn’t have to be that way. If only we knew that we weren’t really threatened, if only we knew that we have nothing to lose, then we would possess the freedom to stand up for the truth.

When you look upon the cross of Christ, what do you see? Is it an innocent man suffering the wrath of an angry God or the sacrifice of a loving God who willingly gave up his Son to show the world a love that has no limit? I suppose that either of those perspectives has the power to get you to heaven, but only one of them gives me the confidence that I have nothing to fear—a confidence that frees me up to stand with Jesus and not worry what it might cost me.

When the disciples saw that their master had been arrested, tortured, and crucified, they thought that Jesus had failed. Understandably, they worried that the same thing would happen to them, so they ran away and hid. What they couldn’t yet see was that Jesus’ suffering and death was a gift of God’s limitless, unconditional love—that Jesus’ sacrifice meant that nothing—not their failure nor their fear—could undermine God’s loving purposes for their lives. God’s redeeming love for them was guaranteed whether they fell asleep during prayer, ran away and hid, denied their master, or even betrayed Jesus to the authorities. It took them a while to see that, but, once they did, they knew that they had nothing to lose. Once they saw the sacrifice of Jesus as the ultimate life-giving act of God’s unconditional love, they knew that they could stand up for Jesus without worrying what might happen to them.

What about you? Can you see within the cross of Christ the fullness of God’s unconditional love, or are you here to behold a death sufficient enough to appease God’s wrath once and for all? Either way, you get to go to heaven. But only those who have received unconditional love find the freedom to risk everything in order to stand up for the truth. Only those who know that they are loved not only despite their failures but right along with them can set the fear of failure aside for good. Only when we are immersed in that love can we live as boldly for God’s kingdom in this life as we hope for it in the next.

Thursday, March 22, 2018


This post was also in Tuesday's newsletter for St. John's, Decatur. To read the rest of the newsletter, click here.

If Jesus processed into our city this Sunday morning, what path would he take? Where would he begin his march? Where would it end? Who would walk with him? Who would stand along the sidewalks and cheer him on? Who would gaze uncomfortably at his procession?

For two years, I have walked alongside my son’s Cub Scout float in the Decatur Christmas Parade. As with most parades in our city, the route begins at one end of the downtown economic district on Second Avenue before turning to make its way past the shops on Bank Street. That central path gives people in our community the chance to spread out along the parade route and see the action. The mile-long, gentle climb gives those on the floats plenty of time to wave to their family and friends and other excited onlookers. But I do not think it is where Jesus would stage his demonstration.

This Sunday, as we begin our worship together, we will hear the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. It is easy to read the text of Mark 11:1-11 and hear the crowd shouting, “Hosanna in the highest heaven!” and think that Jesus’ procession was a joyful parade that accompanied the Passover celebration. While there was joy among his followers and many of those who gathered to see him enter the holy city, the spirit behind his triumphal entry was closer to the Selma to Montgomery March than a local holiday parade.

Jesus brought his movement to Jerusalem to confront the religious and political powers that stood in the way of God’s people’s liberation. Although Jesus spent time during his ministry among the elites of his day, his primary interactions were with the peasant class. His disciples were mostly tradesmen. His healings were offered mostly to social outcasts. When it came to the social systems of first-century Palestine, Jesus was more of an irritant than a participant. He dared to pronounce forgiveness of sins without appealing to the established religious hierarchy. He repeatedly questioned the traditions of his people, including rules that governed Sabbath observance and ritual purity, which were being used by those in authority to deny access to healing and community life to those who needed them. His defiant entry into the capital city was not an endorsement of the established Passover festivities but a rejection of them.

This Lent, our Wednesday-night series has focused on The Last Week, a book by John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg that explores in depth the conflict between Jesus’ movement and the established power structures that he encountered during Holy Week. The authors claim that Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was a direct challenge to the political-religious alliance between the Roman imperial authorities and the Jewish leaders who supported their rule. While Pilate rode into the city in a military parade to remind those who had gathered for the Passover that Rome was in control, Jesus came into town on a donkey as a non-violent lampoon of the Empire’s power. When the crowd of peasants and zealots shouted “Hosanna!” as Jesus rode past on his way to the Temple Mount, they were literally crying out, “Savior, save us!” Their words show that they were endorsing Jesus as the one who could deliver the Jewish people from Roman oppression, and the imperial authorities and their religious allies who looked on became nervous because of the crowd. Ultimately, the clash between Jesus’ non-violent demonstration and the authorities who wielded earthly power resulted in the rebellious rabbi’s execution on the cross.

A few weeks ago, as we read from The Last Week, someone in our home group invited us to imagine where Jesus’ procession into Decatur might begin. Where would he go as he gathered those supporters whom the religious and political powers of our day have ignored? Where would he take them as he challenged the systems that kept society’s outcasts locked in the chains of poverty? As we will hear this Sunday, Jesus began his procession in Bethany, which is about a mile and a half away from Jerusalem. That is only a little less than the distance between the tent village behind Bender’s Gym, where many of our community’s homeless people live, and our church. If Jesus were to begin his procession there, he would only need to walk three miles to get to the Morgan County Courthouse. I wonder who would cheer him on. I wonder who would look on nervously.

This Sunday, we will gather at Common Ground, our community garden, at 10:15 a.m. to begin our Palm Sunday procession into the church. We will walk from that garden, which seeks to make the bounty and beauty of creation available to all people, around the Episcopal Center, where low-income patients receive medical and dental care at the Free Clinic and where at-risk parents and children receive support from PACT. We, too, will shout “Hosanna in the highest,” as we celebrate Jesus’ arrival into the holy city. But, when we do, will we have Jesus’ offer of salvation to the poor in mind? Will we bring society’s outcasts with us as we enter the church? Will we join Jesus in confronting the powers that hold them in poverty?

On Palm Sunday, we begin our journey into Holy Week, when God’s promise of salvation confronts the powers of this world. May we journey with Jesus and celebrate God’s gift of redeeming love to all people.

Monday, March 19, 2018

A Colt?

Do you ever add the last little touch to an event and look back and think that extra something really brought everything together? Maybe you are finished with your Christmas shopping but, at the last minute, see one more little gift that you pick up for your special someone, and that little thing turns out to be the most beloved gift. Maybe you have built yourself a most splendid ice cream Sunday and then see that one topping you missed when you went through the line, and you know that it could not possibly be complete without it. I get that feeling when Jesus heads into Jerusalem on what we call Palm Sunday.

In Mark 11, the gospel writer tells us, "When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples and said to them, 'Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find there tied a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it.'" I love the colt. I am drawn to its symbolism. The colt becomes an important reflection of Zechariah's prophecy: "See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey." But, as Mark describes it, feels almost like an after-thought. "Hey, guys!" Jesus says. "You know what would make this trip really special? What we need is a colt! Anyone have a colt--a young donkey? No? Well, head up into that village and you'll find one. Bring it back, and we can really make a entrance no one will ever forget!"

It's more than a haphazard fulfillment of prophecy, of course. A colt represents the opposite of a horse. Generals ride into town on horseback. Peasants ride on donkeys. No one ever charged into battle on a donkey. Don Quixote rode a horse, but Rocinate was an old work horse that, like its rider, was ill-equipped for fighting. Jesus (or the gospel writers who recall this story) makes a point by choosing to ride into town on a colt.

Holy Week will be the scene of Jesus' most dramatic challenge to the religious and political powers of his day. He rides into town ready to do battle with them, but his battle will not be a physical one. He will confront them with holy resistance. He will battle their theology and their wit. He will challenge their morality and conviction. But neither he nor his followers will lift up a sword against their enemies (the notable exception being the individual who cut off the servant's ear in the garden and whose gesture goes no further). Jesus wanted to be sure that the crowds who saw him ride into the holy city knew what kind of revolt this would be. So he sent his disciples ahead of him to find a colt.

What unfolds from Palm Sunday to Easter Day is not an accident. The conflict Jesus brings to Jerusalem was bound to end in death, but Jesus is clear from the beginning that he would not be the one promoting violence. If we're paying attention, the colt lets us know what we should expect and how we should interpret what follows. It may have been a last-minute addition, but it is a powerful one.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

See Jesus Or Follow Him?

March 18, 2018 – Lent 5B

© 2018 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

Do you want to see Jesus or to follow him?

That’s the question John is asking us as we read this gospel lesson this morning: do we wish to see Jesus or follow him? For the third week in a row, our story takes place during the Passover festival. The people of Israel have come into Jerusalem to celebrate the feast that defines their identity. This is the time each year when they celebrate the liberation of their ancestors from slavery in Egypt. Inevitably, a religious and nationalistic fervor spills out into the streets.

But this week’s lesson, unlike the two before it, takes place during the last Passover of Jesus’ earthly life. Jesus’ movement is nearing its climax, and he has brought it with him into the capital city for a showdown with the religious and political authorities of his day. This story takes place immediately after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, which we will celebrate more fully next Sunday. The people who saw him ride into town could not have missed the messianic implications of his demonstration. A man on a colt, riding into Jerusalem, while people shouted “Hosanna to the Son of David!” was a pretty unmistakable sign. The parade of people who followed this controversial rabbi into the city were prepared to watch him confront the powers-that-be who stood in the way of God’s people’s freedom.

Among those who had been caught up in the frenzy were some Greeks—some Gentiles who really didn’t belong in this setting. We don’t know why, but, for some reason, they wanted to learn more about the movement that Jesus was leading. Maybe they had their own axe to grind with Pilate and the Roman authorities. Maybe they were impressed by Jesus’ emphasis on non-violence and were captivated by a leader who would enter the city not on military horseback but on a peasant’s donkey. Maybe they were spell-bound by the story of Israel’s liberation from slavery and suspected that Jesus might be the present-day embodiment of God’s deliverance. Whatever the reason, these Greeks approached Philip, probably because he had a Greek name and came from a predominantly Gentile part of Palestine, and asked him if they could see Jesus. But Philip wasn’t sure whether these Gentiles would be given an audience by his rabbi, whose ministry so far had included only Jews and Samaritans. So Philip found Andrew, and together they mustered up enough nerve to go and tell Jesus about them.

To their relief, Jesus said, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” With those words, Jesus let them know that their suspicions had been correct. This Passover festival indeed would be the moment when Jesus would reveal his full glory. Finally, his apocalyptic reign over both the nation of Israel and the other nations of the world would be enacted. Philip and Andrew must have looked at each other with real excitement…until Jesus explained how that reign would take shape.

“Unless a grain a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” That wasn’t the parable they were expecting to hear. That didn’t sound like a victory over the enemies of God. It sounded like Jesus was predicting his own death—as if he were saying that the only way his movement would reach its full potential was if he died. That didn’t sound like good news. And Jesus wasn’t finished. “Those who love their life lose it,” he continued, “and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Was Jesus saying that they had to die, too? Or was this some sort of metaphor—another parable? Was Jesus really teaching them that the only way they could share in his glory was by giving up their life? But, before they could ask him for clarification, Jesus made it painfully obvious: “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.” In other words, if you are going to be my disciple, you must follow me wherever I go—even unto death.

I don’t think it’s an accident that we never hear from those Greeks again. And it’s no surprise that, by the end of Good Friday, all of the disciples have run away, too. It’s fun to see Jesus. It’s exciting to stand on the side of the road and watch him come into the holy city and cheer him on. It’s energizing and life-giving to linger in his presence. But seeing Jesus and following him are two very different things. Seeing him is easy, but following him means death. Seeing him means victory for a day, but following him means a lifetime of loss. And, today, that choice is ours: will we stand off to the side, gratified even for a chance to see Jesus, or will we follow him on a path that leads even to death—both his and ours?

For some, that means a physical death. Followers of Jesus in places like North Korea, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and Yemen are arrested, beaten, imprisoned, and executed just like Jesus. Christians in those places hear Jesus’ invitation to lose their lives for his sake and the sake of the gospel, and they embrace it with startling totality. But what about the rest of us? Are Christians in the Christianized world excused from martyrdom because we happened to have been born in a culture where following Jesus is widely accepted? Or are we still called to die with him?

Each of us must choose what kind of glory we will seek: ours or God’s, the world’s or the kingdom’s? Jesus said, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Are there any more threatening words in the gospel? We try to explain them away by appealing to a Semiticism or metaphorical hyperbole. We want enough exegetical wiggle room to allow us to conclude that Jesus didn’t really mean what he said. But is there anything metaphorical about the suffering and death of Jesus? Is there anything hyperbolic about the persecution and execution of Jesus’ early followers or those who are martyred still today?

If you are going to follow Jesus, you, too, must die with him and, in so doing, die a death as costly as that of any martyr. You must die to yourself and to your own will so that you might be born again in obedience to God. You must die to wealth and power in order that you might be born again free from their tyranny and bondage. You must die to your family and friends and all the support structures of this life so that you might be born again completely dependent on God’s grace. Following Jesus is costlier than we can imagine. It will cost us everything. But dying is the only way that we can be born again into everlasting life.

We don’t know what happened to those Greeks who wished to see Jesus. Maybe they stuck around, or maybe they slipped away when no one was looking. What we do know is that following Jesus isn’t easy. Yet millions and millions of disciples have been willing to risk everything they have—even their own lives—in order to do so. And why? “For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.” The path that leads to our true joy, to our greatest meaning, and to our most abundant life is found only when we walk behind Jesus. What are we here to do? Are we here to see Jesus or to follow him?

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Pivotal Theophany

I skimmed through all of John this morning to confirm (I think) that Sunday's gospel lesson (John 12:20-33) is the only time that the Father "speaks" during John's gospel account. When Jesus said, "Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name." a voice from heaven responded, "I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again." In the synoptic accounts (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), we hear the father's voice at Jesus' baptism and again at the transfiguration. Those events aren't directly recorded in John, and, despite a reference to John the Baptist seeing the Spirit descending upon Jesus, there is no reference to the Father's voice. This is it. This is the only time the Father speaks in John.

If you consider John's entire narrative, that makes sense. For John, Jesus is the theophany. What Jesus says is what the Father says. Several times, he makes that point when speaking to his opponents: "I and the Father are one" and "My teaching is not mine but his who sent me." For John, Jesus himself is the testament of God to the world. His miracles are not recalled as "miracles" but as "signs" that point back to God. The synoptic accounts, however, give us those defining moments of baptism and transfiguration when the Father breaks through the silence and discloses Jesus' true identity. John's single verbal theophany, therefore, is worth noting not only because of its singularity but also because it is so different from the theophanies of the synoptic tradition.

The only time the Father speaks in John, he says, "I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again." This is a turning point for John's account. Jesus has made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The crowds are gathering. People are excited. They are also confused. At this point, the stage seems set for Jesus to take over the throne of his ancestor David. He has brought his movement to the holy city during the Passover festival. Everyone is thinking about freedom. This is the perfect time for Jesus to overthrow the Roman oppression. Will his movement reach its climax? Yes, it will. But it won't be the culmination that the people are looking for. Instead, he will be betrayed, arrested, tried, convicted, and executed. And the crowd will be left to wonder, "What happened?" And God the Father is offering the answer: "I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again."

As a Christian, the hardest thing for me to internalize is the counter-cultural, counter-instinctive nature of God's glory. God's glory is not revealed in splendor or power but in humility and weakness. That's not just an accident of history. That's not just political spin by the followers of Jesus after his movement stumbled (failed?) during this Passover showdown. It is the very nature of God's glory. And God the Father speaks to be sure that we hear it.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

A Life to Love or Hate

On Monday, I admitted in this blog that I find Sunday's gospel lesson (John 12:20-33) a little disjointed. There are the Greeks who wish to see Jesus. There's Jesus' parabolic semi-response about a grain of wheat falling into the ground. There's Jesus' instruction that serving him means following him. There's the statement about glory and the thunderous answer from heaven. And there's the prediction about Jesus' raised-from-the-earth-on-a-cross death. But the part that really sticks out--the part that almost begs for a sermon by itself--is what Jesus says about this life:

Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

This came up in staff meeting as one of my colleagues admitted that this was a troubling verse--not because of its "hate your life" implications but because of its head-spinning nature. His comments surprised me. What's the "it" that one loses or gains? If you hate your life, are you stuck with it? What's better: to love your life for a little while before losing it or to hate your life and be stuck with it forever. I've never struggled with the meaning of this sentence--just its execution--but those questions left me wondering whether people really know what Jesus meant.

What did Jesus mean? What does it really mean to hate one's life? I think the emphasis has to fall on "in this world" before the sentence can make sense. This isn't just about hating life itself. Life is good. Life is a gift. But it is about living so fully in the next life that we forsake this life. Hate is a funny word. In the Greek (miseo), it can imply "detest," but it can also mean "love less" as in the choice one makes. The decision of where we will place our priority is what really matters. Do we choose this life or the next?

Do you want to be rich in this life or the next? Do you want to be happy in this life or the next? Do you want to experience peace and comfort in this world or in the next? You can't have both. That's the challenge. That's the real falsehood we have to overcome. We are accustomed to having our cake and eating it and a second slice of it, too. But, for Jesus, it must be this world or the next. And those of us who think we can have both have decided "this world" without realizing it.

At this point in John's gospel, Jesus' movement is reaching its climax. He has paraded into Jerusalem as a direct challenge to Roman authority. The conflict he has with the religious authorities of his day has reached the breaking point. The great cosmic collision between the powerless and the powerful is unfolding. And, in that moment, Jesus asks innocently yet decisively: where do you want your status to be--in this life or the next? 

This is the great conflict of Jesus' day, and it is the great conflict of ours as well. As we make our way closer to Jerusalem, we face that choice. Will we live for God and God's kingdom or the kingdom of our own making? You can't have both. This is the time to choose.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Finding Home in God

How do you know when you're home? Not just in your house, but how do you know when you're really home? Some say it's the one place where they have to let you in. Some say it's the place where they take you just as you are. For me, it's the place where I know I truly belong.

In John 5:1-18, Jesus stumbled upon a man who is lost in a spiritual and physical wilderness. He had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. He had been lying on a mat on the ground by the pool waiting for healing, but that healing, although tantalizingly close, was forever beyond his grasp. The waters, it seems, had healing properties. Tradition held that when the water was stirred up--perhaps by the arrival of an angel--whoever was first in the pool was healed of whatever disease or disability she or he had. The man literally could see the healing he desperately desired, but he could not get to it. For all it mattered to him, he might as well be out in the desert places. So distant was that hope that it had become invisible. When Jesus asked him if he wanted to be healed, all he do was reiterate the problem: "Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me."

There's a tension between wilderness and home with which this text is impregnated. A Jewish reader of this story would have noticed a connection between the thirty-eight years that the man had been an invalid and the thirty-eight years that Israel wandered in the wilderness from Egypt to the Promised Land. With that insight, the five porticoes remind the reader of the five books of Moses, the Pentateuch. The conflict between the religious authorities and the man and Jesus over the Sabbath healing, therefore, becomes not only a controversy of the day but a commentary on the relationship between God's people and the Law. It is Jesus' acknowledgment that God's people belong at home with God and that the forces of evil that pervert that relationship by leaving God's people stranded in the desert must be rebuked.

What does it mean to come out of the wilderness and find one's self at home? What does it mean to leave behind one's wanderings in a spiritual desert and find a true sense of belonging in God? Until Jesus came, the Law was God's greatest gift to God's people. It was the gift of a relationship, of a belonging. It defined the people of Israel as a nation that belongs to God. It was a celebration of that belonging. Yet, for some, that belonging was only an illusion. Those who were marked as deficient physically, spiritually, morally, or economically were ostracized and left out in the wilderness. Jesus did not come to reverse or replace the sense of belonging between God and God's people. Jesus came to restore that sense of belonging.

Today, are the followers of Jesus more interested in drawing a circle around those whom they think belong to God, differentiating between those who are in and those who are out, or restoring the truth that God's desire is for all people to belong to God? How have we, Jesus' disciples, lost sight of Jesus' mission and replaced it with our own idolatrous agenda? This Lent, as we approach the holy city, where Jesus "stretched out his arms of love on the hard wood of the cross so that everyone might come within the reach of [his] saving embrace," will we repent of the separations that we have enforced between us and them? We have been given the privilege of knowing and trusting that we belong to God. That truth has been granted in our birth and reinforced by our position in life. We have a home in God. But that home doesn't belong to us. It isn't ours to protect. It is the place where even strangers belong. It's time for us to leave the front door and the back door unlocked.

Monday, March 12, 2018

The Glorification of Jesus

I have several colleagues who bemoan the loss of Palm Sunday's exclusive focus on Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem. I'm getting a head start and addressing that issue a week early because I believe that this Sunday's gospel lesson (John 12:20-33) gives the preacher a lectionary-anachronistic way to focus on what is represented by Jesus' entry into the holy city at the Passover festival. No, I don't think that will be satisfying to those who think we should save the story of the passion until Good Friday, but there's another reason to focus on Jesus' entry into Jerusalem this week, and it has to do with making sense of John 12.

This week, as I first read through the lessons, I find the gospel lesson uninviting. It's a strange combination of some Greeks who want to see Jesus, a parable-like self-reference to Jesus' own death, and the voice from heaven confirming Jesus' glorification. It feels disjointed. There's no clear narrative. It doesn't seem to have a lot of preaching material. But then I looked at the rest of John 12 and saw why the theme of glorification is so important to this text.

At the beginning of John 12, Mary anoints Jesus with the pound of costly nard, a lavish gesture befitting a king. A few verses later, Jesus enters Jerusalem to shouts of "Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the king of Israel!" In classic Johannine fashion, the disciples are said to "not understand these things at first, but, when Jesus was glorified, they remembered..." It is that tension that swirls around Jesus' glorification that pervades this Sunday's reading. Is he to be hailed as an earthly king? Or will his kingship be crowned in another way?

The unnamed Greeks come to Philip and ask to see Jesus. They had come to Jerusalem for the festivities and, perhaps, had witnessed Jesus' counter-demonstration. They were interested in learning more about Jesus and the political counter-imperial movement that he represented. But Jesus' response shows us that, although he stands in direct opposition to the rulers of his day, he is not interested in taking their place by assuming earthly power: "Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone..."

Lest anyone think that his death is a sign of failure, Jesus engages in a rhetorical display that confirms his cross-ready mentality: "And what shall I say? 'Father, save me from this hour?' But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name." At that moment, the Father's voice proclaims, "I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again." Some thought it thundered. Others thought an angel had spoken. John and the readers understand that God himself is confirming the nature of glory that befits God's son.

On Palm Sunday, we go from the "Hosanna!" of the Liturgy of the Palms to the "Crucify him!" of the Passion Narrative by the end of the service. This week, we feel that same juxtaposition, but we have to expand our context a little bit to get there. Even if you're not ready to give up on celebrating the triumphal entry next week, take a moment to ground John 12 in its larger context. This passage about glory is too rich to pass up.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Endurance is Underrated

I have four children who are ten-years-old or younger. It goes without saying, therefore, that there is a lot of complaining in our house. When we ask a child to empty the dishwasher or set the table or fold laundry. When one child takes a toy away from another or refuses to share with a sibling. When we have asparagus or spinach or mushrooms with supper. Lots of whining. I hope and pray that they will all grow out of it, but, at this point, I'll settle for an hour of contentment.

Maybe it's because I can't get a kid to start and finish a chore without complaining, but, to me, endurance seems vastly underrated.

Today, in the life of the church, we celebrate the witness of Perpetua and her companions, who were martyred in the third century for refusing to participate in sacrifices to the emperor's divinity. Legend has it that Perpetua's father begged her to recant, but she refused, saying simply, "I am a Christian." According to Lesser Feasts & Fasts, they were thrown into the arena to be killed by an assortment of wild animals, including a bear, a boar, and a "savage cow" (whatever that is). When the animals did not finish the job, a soldier went to strike Perpetua in the neck with a sword, but he missed, and Perpetua herself had to guide the sword to its proper place. Some say that the evil represented by the executioner would not have been able to kill her had she not submitted to death voluntarily. Throughout it all, Perpetua and her companions encouraged one another to face death nobly and not to give into the temptation to renounce their faith.

The gospel lesson for today is Matthew 24:9-14, in which Jesus warns his disciples that they will be "tortured" and "put to death" and "hated by all nations because of [his] name."  That may have been true of the original disciples and other early Christians like Perpetua and her companions. But what about us? None of us will be subjected to a "savage cow." None of us is likely to be executed because of our faith. What do Jesus' words mean to this generation?

In the face of those challenges, Jesus encouraged his disciples, saying, "But the one who endures to the end will be saved." I take that not as a warning but a word of hope. Yes, sufferings will come, but, if you endure, you will be saved. There is light on the other side of darkness. On the other side of suffering is God's salvation. Maybe that was Jesus' most important word to those early Christians, and maybe it's the most important thing we can hear him say.

We may not face the sword, but we do face hardships, and I find myself drawn toward those who bear the challenges of life with hope and a spirit of perseverance and not constant complaining. There are those among us who whine at every disappointment. I don't like being around them much. But those who have endured incredible difficulty physically, emotionally, financially, and relationally and who bear those burdens with grace and light are those I want to be with in life's journey. They help me see what it means to have hope in the face of adversity. They are the ones who have received Jesus' encouragement. They are the ones who remind us how to have faith. They are the Perpetuas all around us, whose witness encourage us through life's challenges.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Really Strange Theology

Passages like the Old Testament reading for this coming Sunday (Numbers 21:4-9) are the reason that many Christians wrongly believe that the God of the Hebrew scriptures is different from the God of the New Testament. They are also some of my favorites. There are so many layers of questions to ask. What does it say about God that he would send poisonous serpents to bite and kill the Israelites who grumbled yet again in the wilderness about their mediocre food rations? What does it say about God that he would command that a bronze serpent be made and placed on a pole so that, in an act of near idol worship, those who were bit by the snakes might be saved? What does it say about the people of Israel that a story like this, which takes place after the prohibition against idols was issued in Exodus as part of the ten commandments and which gets revised into its current form long, long after that prohibition had become primary in Israel's theology, gets preserved in scripture?

I love the Bible. I love its complexity. I love that it doesn't make sense. I love that, centuries later, when Jesus is speaking to a learned leader in the Jewish community in John 3, he cites this bizarre story from numbers as an interpretive lens for his own death. That suggests to me that rabbinical scholars in Jesus' day were still wrestling with this strange story. What does it mean? How do we make sense of it? What is it supposed to teach us?

We can't solve all of the questions that this passage presents. A preacher who attempts to tidy this up into a neat little homelitcal passage will do his or her congregation a great disservice. It's messy, and it's supposed to be. What does the preacher do with Numbers 21 except, perhaps, ignore it? Maybe there's a sermon about gazing upon the magnitude of one's sin--whether staring at the serpent on the pole or beholding the crucified Son of Man--as the key to understanding salvation. Or perhaps one might preach about the clarity of hindsight--that it sometimes feels like God sends poisonous serpents to punish us when we deserve it, but, in fact, he's the one who makes even an illogical path for our salvation. I don't know. I'm not preaching this week, and I'm starting out grateful for that.

In the end, stories like Numbers 21 are a problem and an opportunity. Stories about God punishing his people are hard to digest. But they are also a chance for us to remind the world that our sacred stories are written as self-contained packages to be consumed like a sitcom or an episode of West Wing. Even after centuries of study, we might not understand exactly what happened or why it occurred. And still they are given to us as objects for wrestling and scrutiny and, eventually, our formation. That's a different way of dealing with a narrative than the ways to which we have grown accustomed. We live in a culture of "fake news" and political spin. There aren't many voices out there that invite people to struggle with a story until its deep meaning becomes clear while also acknowledging that it may never be fully clear. That sounds like the kind of story I want to encounter. That's the kind of community in which I want to take part. I bet many in the unchurched community would, too.

Worship Is About More Than Sunday Morning

March 4, 2018 – Lent 3B

© 2018 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here.

Five hundred years ago, when Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, he didn’t do it because he thought that church was a bad idea. He did it to question the way in which the church was operating. Sixty-two years ago, when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, she wasn’t taking a stand against public transportation but against Jim Crow and the law that required her to give up her seat to a white passenger simply because she was black. Two thousand years ago, when Jesus chased the livestock out of the temple, poured out the coins of the money changers, and turned over their tables, Jesus wasn’t “cleansing the temple” because he thought that Jewish worship was fundamentally flawed. He was trying to cleanse the hearts of those who had forgotten what worship is all about.

This passage from John is fraught with interpretive danger. On the one hand, this dramatic encounter can easily be mistaken for an anti-Judaic or perhaps even an anti-Semitic rant by the Son of God, who, of course, was himself Jewish. Yes, Jesus’ actions were challenging. Yes, they were a prophetic rejection of the status quo. But to use this passage to conclude that Jesus was opposed to Judaism is like saying that Susan B. Anthony was un-American because she dared to think that women should have the right to vote. And that leads us to the other interpretive danger. If we lock this passage into an ancient condemnation of Second Temple Judaism, we miss its prophetic implications for the Christian church today. In other words, if we think that Jesus was only speaking to the Jews of the first century, how will we ever hear what he is saying to us now?

Frequently in John’s gospel account, the setting of a story is important, and it is no accident that John begins this story by telling us that it was the season for Passover. At Passover, all able-bodied Jewish people would make their way to the holy city for the annual remembrance of the people’s liberation from slavery in Egypt. This was a time for the nation to recall how their ancestors had been slaves, how God had heard their cry, and how God had set them free from the hands of their oppressors. That was the defining moment in Israel’s history. Everything that happened in the temple was supposed to be a reflection of that—of the relationship between God and God’s people as the ones whom God had rescued. When Jesus walked into the outer courts of the temple, he found exactly what everyone would have expected him to find: the pigeons, sheep, and cattle that they needed for the appointed sacrifices and the half-shekel coins for which they needed to exchange their imperial money with its graven image in order to make their offering. But Jesus was looking for something else, and the sight of business-as-usual filled him with a prophet’s rage.

The temple in Jerusalem was the place where God was said to dwell. Although God could be found anywhere, the temple was the place where God lived and lingered. It was the place where God’s people met their God and where God stooped down to meet them. It was the place where God’s heavenly throne was given an earthly foundation. The temple gave God’s people the opportunity to encounter the Holy One. It was the portal through which God’s reign was manifest on the earth. It was the doorway through which God’s will was realized in their lives. It was the place where they could live as if God’s kingdom were already here on earth because, indeed, within those sacred courts, God’s kingdom was already here on earth. And, when Jesus walked into his Father’s house and saw that everything on the inside was the same as it had always been just like everything on the outside, which was the same as it had always been, he announced that it was time for a change.

If the best that God’s people could do in response to God’s abiding presence was pretend that a system of animals and coins would make everything alright even though Rome ruled the land with an iron fist and bought peace by making deals with Israel’s religious and political leaders, who took the Empire’s money but left the poor to fend for themselves, Jesus had something to say about it. The problem wasn’t the animals or the coins. The problem was thinking that God could be kept in gigantic stone box—that what happened inside the temple could be kept separate from what happened outside. This was the place where God’s people were supposed to live as if God himself were their king—as if he were the Lord of their lives. God was the one who had set God’s people free, but the leaders of this generation were content to remain in bondage because it was politically and economically expedient. Thus, the worship that took place in Jesus’ day wasn’t a reflection of their true identity. It was a hollow exercise that barely resembled anything that truly would honor God.

What does it matter if God is given the pigeons, sheep, and cattle that the law requires if no one among God’s people will stand up for justice outside the temple walls? Who cares if the coins put into the temple treasury are in the correct denomination if there are men and women and children among God’s people who don’t even have enough money to buy bread? Listen to what Jesus says to them: “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” The issue isn’t the nature of worship itself but the act of treating the sacred place where God dwells as casually and inconsequentially as if it were a grocery store. I wonder what Jesus would say about our church.

This is the place where we encounter God. Our worship is supposed to reflect our belief that we are God’s people and that God is our God—the one who creates us, rescues us, and calls us into new and abundant life. That’s why we offer our songs of praise and prayers of thanksgiving. That’s why we place our very best into the flower vases and into the alms basins and onto the altar. That’s why we insist on being at peace with one another before approaching the altar. This is where the kingdom of God comes into focus. What we do in this space is supposed to image God’s reign in the world. We do all of these things because this is the place where we live completely and totally as if God were in charge of our lives. But what difference does it make if everything we do within these walls is perfect yet perfectly meaningless for the lives we live out in the world?

In our worship, we don’t have any pigeons, sheep, or cattle, and for that I am deeply thankful. But we do have a lot of coins and bills and checks. Today, Jesus asks us whether we are using them to make God’s reign a reality only within these walls or out in the world as well. We have fancy silver cups and plates and bowls, and we fill them with wine and water and bread. When we offer those things to God, are we simply going through the motions, or are those things a way for us to make God’s will the rule of our life and the way of the world? If Jesus walked through that door, would he recognize our worship as the means by which God’s kingdom is taking hold in the world around us, or would he make a whip of cords and chase us all out?

God is here in this place. We have come into God’s presence, but for what? So that we might sit and bask in his glory long enough to get our Jesus fix and then leave it all behind for six days and twenty-three hours? Or are we here so that we might be changed into people who care as much about God’s reign in the world around us as we do about turning to page 355 in the Book of Common Prayer? You are here, and so is God, but will this encounter still mean anything when you wake up tomorrow morning?