Thursday, May 31, 2018

Unfamiliar Text?

A few years ago, I made a list of all the propers on which I had never preached. Having served as a curate and as a rector, I had had the opportunity to preach on most of the Sundays of the three-year lectionary cycle, including the so-called important days like Christmas and Easter as well as the sometimes-considered derisory occasions like Trinity Sunday and the First Sunday after Christmas Day. Some of the days on the list surprised me, like a Sunday in the middle of Lent that for more than a decade I had dodged. Others made sense, like the latest possible Sunday after Epiphany, which only comes up when Easter is extremely late.

One of those Sundays that made sense is this Sunday, when we will hear the lessons for Proper 4 in Year B. Because Easter was pretty early this year, there is a relatively long season after Pentecost, which always ends with Advent. That means we get to observe one of the early propers that don't show up when Easter is later and we don't need as many Sundays after Pentecost to make it to Advent. Although I'm pretty sure Proper 4B has come up since I've been ordained, I haven't had the chance to preach on it, and, as I've said, that wasn't too surprising.

But, in another way, I was surprised. The gospel lesson in Mark 2:23-3:6 is so deeply familiar to me. How can it be that I've never preached on the plucking of the heads of grain or the healing of a man with a withered hand, both of which occur on the sabbath? At first, I wondered whether the parallel accounts in Matthew 12 or Luke 6 come up in the lectionary in other years in propers on which I may have preached, but they don't. This Sunday, Proper 4B, is the only time we hear this passage. At first, I was thinking of preaching on the treasure in clay jars that Paul describes in 2 Corinthians 4, but, when Jack Alvey called me yesterday to talk about this gospel lesson and let me know that he, too, had never preached on it before, I was drawn back to it in a clearer way. I'm not sure I can let these two short stories go by without preaching on them. Who knows? It may be another 12 years before I have the chance to preach on it again.

For me, the challenge will be to preach on the depth of this passage without getting lost in the surface-matter. Clearly, it is about sabbath. That Jesus' miraculous healing of the man's withered hand is portrayed as an afterthought when compared with the Pharisee's reaction lets us know that this has less to do with a miracle and more to do with challenging the status quo. But the danger in preaching on Jesus' flaunting of sabbath rules is two-fold. First, it opens the door for an all-too-easy answer that this passage isn't seeking. If the preacher's sermon leaves the congregation thinking, "Of course we don't have to follow sabbath observances. Jesus said so!" the preacher will have missed the point. Second, and closely related, it becomes easy for the preacher and congregation to think that Jesus' breaking of the sabbath rules was a foregone conclusion. We all know who the good guy in the story is. It's Jesus. And we all know who the bad guys in the story are. They're the Pharisees. But is it that simple?

Actually, even a casual reading of the secondary literature suggests that foregoing sabbath observance wasn't as easy as we would make it. Jesus wasn't chiming in with some pearl of wisdom that everyone would agree with--like "love your neighbor as yourself" or "on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." This is a theological bomb that Jesus drops in the middle of this synagogue. Even the disciples must have wondered whether Jesus really meant what he said.

This week in staff meeting, we tried to find the controversial teaching that a 21st-century Jesus might offer in a similar circumstance. Twenty years ago, it may have been same-sex marriage. Eighty years ago, it might have been interracial marriage. What would it be today? We couldn't think of it, but, as fun as that is to consider, a third mistake the preacher might make would be to make the sermon about that controversial thing. This passage is about sabbath, but, then again, it's not. I firmly believe that the Holy Spirit did not lead the gospel writers to include these encounters simply to teach us that it's ok to heal and do good on the sabbath. There's a deeper underlying principle at work here, and that's the preacher's challenge. What does this lesson teach us about the Son of Man who is lord even of the sabbath? Why did Mark record it for us? How does it lead us to a deeper understanding of God's will for us and the world? That is the preacher's work this week, and it seems like one I'm called to tackle. Then again, it's only Thursday...

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Can You See It?

May 30, 2018 - The Eve of the Visitation of the BVM

Some say that seeing is believing, but the story of salvation recorded for us in scripture suggests that believing is seeing. When you look around, what do you see? If you're a teacher at Banks-Caddell Elementary School, where most students receive a free or reduced lunch and many go home to parents who do not speak or read English, what do you see? If you're one of our volunteers at the CCC who helps provide a free meal to those who need it and you see the same faces in the line week after week, what do you see? If you're a tutor at the NCC who tries to show inmates how to develop the kind of job skills that will get them off the street and break the cycle of poverty, drug use, and incarceration only to see their mug shots in the newspaper a few weeks later, what do you see? When God walks past those classrooms, stands in that line, or sits with that inmate, what does God see?

Hannah was barren. The beloved wife of Elkanah, she was unable to give her husband any children. Her rival wife Peninnah had given birth to several children, but, no matter how hard they tried, Hannah and her husband could not get pregnant. The rival teased her to no end, but Elkanah looked favorably on his beloved, giving her a double-portion. Hannah agonized over this, so she went to the temple and prayed. She begged the Lord to give her a son, promising that she would dedicate the child to God. When Eli the priest saw her praying, he thought she was a drunk woman because her lips were moving but no sound was coming out. When she admitted the depths of her "vexation and anxiety," Eli accepted her prayer and asked the Lord to fulfill it. From that moment on, Hannah "was sad no longer." She went home with her husband, trusting that God would provide for her. In time, she gave birth to a son and, when he had been weened, she brought him to the temple and gave him to Eli so that the boy could grow up in the Lord's service.

Mary was a virgin. Betrothed to Joseph, still not quite old enough to marry, the virgin was visited by the angel Gabriel. She had lived a quiet, faithful life, serving the Lord in her own way, but God had something else in mind. The angel proclaimed that she would give birth to a son and name him Jesus, that he would grow up to be the Son of the Most High and reign over God's people on David's throne. The impossibility of that announcement was two-fold. One the one hand, she was a virgin. She was engaged but faithful. The time for her to have children had not yet come. And just as inconceivable was the promised future of her son. How could anyone reign over God's people as long as Rome was in power? King Herod's rule was a mockery of David's throne, a puppet-monarch on a paper throne. When the angel explained that the Holy Spirit would come upon her and conceive in her the child, Mary believed it was possible. "Let it be with me according to you word," she said. And her great yes, spoken in faith, set in motion the salvation God would bring into the world.

Both women were able to see what the world could not see. In the midst of struggle and weakness, they beheld God's great power, unfolding all around them. What no one else could see, they saw through the eyes of faith.

Listen to the songs that those women sing:
The bows of the mighty are broken,
but the feeble gird on strength.
Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.
The barren has borne seven,
but she who has many children is forlorn.
The Lord kills and brings to life;
he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
The Lord makes poor and makes rich;
he brings low, he also exalts.
He raises up the poor from the dust;
he lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes
and inherit a seat of honor.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.
This isn't Pollyanna. This isn't blind optimism. This is confidence in the Lord, the one who for all time lifts up the downtrodden and pulls down the haughty. What does it mean to behold the poverty, the weakness, the addiction, the homelessness, the struggle of this life and see a pregnant situation, yearning to give birth to God's salvation? As long as we travel to those places of struggle and offer moments of assistance to those in need and pray repeatedly that God would help in intractable moments, we will not see what Mary and Hannah see. If we are to see what God sees, we cannot travel, help, and pray. We must inhabit those moments, those lives, those struggles. If we believe what Hannah and Mary believe, we would not write checks, serve meals, and teach classes. If we see what they see, we would run to those people and places and proclaim God's transformation breaking through. We would embrace them as our own hope. We would recognize them as the place to go and search for salvation.

Jesus said, "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe." Indeed, blessed are those whose belief opens their eyes to see what God sees. God grant us the faith and confidence of Mary and Hannah until we see the world through God's own eyes.

Hidden Treasure

In 2 Corinthians, Paul faces a familiar challenge: how do I convince struggling Christians that the ways of the world--wealth, security, pleasure--are worth nothing when compared with the way of God when the way of God often leads to struggle, rejection, and death? Good question. Twenty-first century preachers have a hard enough time convincing families to give up a relaxing morning at home after a weekend of travel soccer. Maybe torture and death are more alluring than a wafer and sip of cheap port wine, but that's another post. In Sunday's reading from 2 Corinthians, we see part of Paul's argument, but we miss an important line.

Paul speaks of the treasure that he and other Christians have been given as a treasure hidden in a clay jar. The glory of God himself has shone in their hearts. "The knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" is what they have been given. It is a treasure of incomparable value. But where is it? How can it be seen? This treasure, Paul tells them, speaking of the body, is contained in clay jars. You can't look at Paul on the surface and see it. You have to look deep within. Paul and his companions "are afflicted in every way." Their life is pure struggle. But, in the midst of that struggle, one can see a hope that shines beneath the surface: "We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed."

But I think that message gets clearer when we add to the reading the two verses immediately before this passage begins: "And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake..." (2 Cor. 4:3-6). Those who are perishing--not being saved--cannot see the treasure of the gospel because it is hidden. And why can they not see it? Why is it hidden? Because the god of this world--greed, lust, gluttony, self-centered pursuit--has blinded their minds. If we want to see that treasure hidden in clay jars, hidden beneath the suffering that Christians are enduring, we must get beyond the devil's shiny fishing lure of this life and find the real value within.

That is the way of Jesus. The treasure in heaven we are promised is not material wealth. The hope we are given is not riches beyond measure. We will not be swimming in rooms filled with gold coins the way that Scrooge McDuck does, defying both physics and economics in a single dive. Following Jesus will not make you safe, secure, rich, and happy in this life. Following Jesus will kill you. And death with Jesus will lead to life in God. And that is a true and lasting treasure.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Prayer: The People's Work

May 29, 3018 - The First Book of Common Prayer

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

I say a lot of blessings. At our family's dinner table, I usually start the blessing. When I'm by myself, I habitually pray before eating. When I am out for a meal with a parishioner and the food arrives, I like to keep talking and see how long I can keep the other person waiting, wondering whether it's ok to pick up a fork and eat before the preacher stops blabbing and offers a word of thanks. When I am at a dinner party or civic gathering or charity golf tournament, I am often asked to say the blessing. I don't mind doing it, of course. After thirty-eight years of practice, I'm pretty good at it. I will admit that it helps to know I will be saying the blessing before I have a second cocktail. But one thing that makes me uncomfortable is when I am asked to say the blessing in someone else's house at someone else's dinner table. It makes me feel like I'm endorsing a terrible theology that a clergyperson's prayers are better, more direct, or more appropriate than anyone else's. They're not.

Yes, I've heard some bad prayers, and I know you have, too. Because of my occupation, I suppose that I'm less likely to stumble over a prayer in public than some other people, and, because I am an Episcopal priest, I am less likely to stand up in a public forum and ask that "our dear, sweet, Lord Jesus would show all the people in this room who do not know you that you are the only way to heaven." I'm not always a safe bet, though. The last time I was asked to offer the invocation at the Chamber of Commerce's Healthcare Breakfast, I asked that God would open the eyes and hearts and minds of the leaders in the room to see that healthcare is a basic human right and not a privilege of the rich. (I haven't been asked back.) But, except for a certain level of comfort speaking and praying in public, there's no reason to ask a clergyperson to pray. Your prayers are just as good as mine.

Prayer is the people's work. It has always been the people's work. For two millennia, faithful Christians have said their prayers without needing an ordained person to guide them. For much longer than that, faithful Jews have marked each day with their own private prayers and have celebrated the coming of Shabbat not in the synagogue but at the family dinner table. More than just a blessing said over a meal, these prayers are the backbone of a religion--a lived relationship with the divine. There is no need for an initiator, an interpreter, a mediator, or a surrogate. Prayer in its daily and weekly forms is everyone's business.

So why bother with clergy? I'm glad you asked. In Acts 2:38-42, we read that, after an impassioned plea by Peter, 3,000 people were baptized and added to the fellowship of the early Christians. And how did they live out this identity as followers of Jesus: "They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers." The CEV clears that up even more: "They spent their time learning from the apostles, and they were like family to each other. They also broke bread and prayed together." The apostles had a teaching role, but the fellowship, the bread-breaking, and the prayers were the work of the whole community. In other words, they didn't gather together for apostle-led services of prayer and bread blessing, breaking, and distributing. They did that at each other's tables, in each other's homes.

The inclusion of the people at the center of our religious life is one of the principles of Anglican prayer and worship. On the Day of Pentecost, June 9, 1549, the first Book of Common Prayer came into use. It was largely the work of Thomas Cranmer, who had brought together the Latin texts from the Sarum use, Greek liturgical texts, Reformation-inspired vernacular liturgies, and the English Litany and Psalter. When we think of the prayer book and Cranmer's influence on it, we often think first of its beauty. There is a reason other denominations and non-denominational churches imitate our prayer book. It is an immense contribution to the English language and to prayer. But its first gift, its primary contribution to religion, is its vision for "common prayer." Although plenty of Episcopal clergy would say otherwise, one does not need a shelf full of liturgical resources and a college degree to interpret them in order to lead worship. It's all right there. Cranmer not only put the prayers of the people into the language of the people but also put them on the lips of the people. Over the centuries, worship and prayer had become the work of the clergy, and the implication of their spiritually elite status naturally followed that practice. Cranmer reversed that, but we are in danger of losing sight of his work.

As we commemorate the first Book of Common Prayer, we must remember that prayer--even public prayer--is the people's work. Everything you need to know about how our church worships is found right there in that little red book in the pew rack in front of you. Yes, there are countless other liturgical resources and guides that clergy love to turn to in order to spice things up. Yes, conversations about prayer book revision make it more and more likely that a true common volume of common prayer will disappear. (Look at the Church of England's Common Worship, for example.) No matter what form our prayer book takes, we must remember that the prayers of our church belong to all of us. Otherwise, we're just paying a man or woman in fancy clothes to stand up in front of us and say the prayers on our behalf. And what kind of relationship with God does that give us?

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

East Meets West

On Trinity Sunday, the lectionary authors look for biblical references to Father, Son, and Spirit, knowing ahead of time that there is no real, clear evidence for the doctrine of the Trinity in scripture. There are appeals to all three in baptism or in the closing of Paul's letters. There are hints of all three in the creation story or in some of the theophanies from Jesus' ministry. But no where in the Bible does it say that God exists in three persons. Sometimes the passages they pick are obviously connected to the Trinity, but others, like Sunday's gospel lesson (John 3:1-17), take a little more teasing out.

Because I am reading it with an eye for Trinitarian doctrine, I hear in the nighttime encounter between Nicodemus and Jesus a tension between eastern and western thought. At each turn, Jesus invites Nicodemus to see something he can't see but not because of lack of trying. It's as if Jesus and Nicodemus are staring at one of the 3D Art posters, but Nicodemus can't adjust his sight to apprehend what is clear to Jesus.

Nicodemus wants to make a linear connection between Jesus' miracles and his identity: "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God." Jesus doesn't disagree but responds by inviting Nicodemus to perceive those signs on a different plane of significance: "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." Nicodemus, however, doesn't get it: "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?" But Jesus won't let him off the hook: "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit...The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit." It's enough to drive Nicodemus (and us) crazy: "How can these things be?"

The problem with the doctrine of the Trinity is that westerners like us want to explain everything. As Seth Olson suggested earlier this week, go read the Athanasian Creed: "And the Catholic Faith is this, that we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity. Neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance." It's dizzying in its attempt to dissect a mystery. Athanasius was an eastern thinker, but he didn't write the creed that bears his name. He was a staunch defender of Trinitarian orthodoxy, and a later, Latin author attached his name to the creedal statement to give it, well, credence.

Toward the end of the encounter, Jesus makes it clear that they are thinking on two different planes: "Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man." Only those who have been in the presence of God can testify to God's nature. Jesus is just telling it like it is--heavenly things--but the earthly manifestation of those things (i.e. Jesus' signs and teachings) can't be grasped purely in earthly terms. To see God and God's kingdom, one must be born again of water and spirit--born into the new heavenly life. If one cannot understand earthly things, how is it possible for one to understand heavenly things?

Thankfully, however, Jesus offers a synthesis: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him." Even if one cannot comprehend it, one can believe that this is God's great gift of love. When quoting John 3:16, people often forget the "for" that starts the sentence. Mostly a throwaway word in Greek, the conjunction "for" links that sentence with what came before. Jesus' invitation to Nicodemus to ascend to the heavenly places and understand the mystery of God is given a purpose in that verse. Why be born again? Why learn these heavenly things? Why bother pursuing that which is difficult to comprehend? Because God loves the world enough to send his Son so that all who believe in him would have everlasting life. This isn't purely a mental exercise. It's a quest for life. And behind that quest is God's gift of love. If there's anything worth hearing on Sunday, it's that.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

A Way Of Life

May 22, 2018 - Tuesday in Proper 2

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

Sometimes, when I want to give my child one of those life-lessons that I hope she or he will hold onto forever, I pull that child aside and speak to her or him privately. That isn't because my words are some secret teaching--a Garner-family tradition--that no one else may hear. It is because I want her full attention and because I want to speak directly to her in a parent-to-child way that will leave an impression on her. Similarly, I wonder whether Jesus, when he pulls his disciples aside to give them a private teaching, is trying to tell them something that no one else will understand or simply something he wants them to hear in a deeper way.

In today's gospel lesson from Mark 9, Jesus is passing through Galilee, his home, with his disciples, but Mark tells us that Jesus did not want anyone to know it "because he was teaching his disciples" about his upcoming suffering, death, and resurrection. The way Mark introduces the encounter makes it feel like Jesus is teaching them something that he is trying to hide from everyone else. Mark loves secrets and repeatedly portrays Jesus ordering individuals not to tell anyone about him or the miraculous cure he had given them. But the nature of this teaching--this "The Son of Man is to be betrayed, killed, and, after three days, rise again" lesson--is so central to his identity that I wonder whether he might have a different pedagogical approach in mind.

Mark tells us that Jesus explained this to his disciples, but his disciples did not understand him. This was the second time Jesus predicted his passion and death. The first time came in Mark 8, after Peter acknowledged that Jesus was the Christ. That time, however, when Jesus predicted his death, Peter intervened, objecting and rebuking Jesus. We remember what happened to Peter--"Get behind me, Satan!"--and it doesn't surprise us that none of the disciples speaks up this time. But their lack of understanding is more than a failure to comprehend the fullness of what Jesus had told them. As the second half of this gospel lesson shows us, the disciples were on the wrong track in a bigger, deeper way.

When Jesus and his disciples got to Capernaum, Jesus asked them what they had been arguing about on the way. They never admitted the truth. They had been arguing about which one of them was the greatest. But Jesus, knowing in his heart (or perhaps his ears) what they had been discussing, sat the disciples down for another private teaching: "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." This is one of those "come-to-Jesus" meetings, when the master needs the disciples to be absolutely clear what he means. Jesus is trying to impart to them the kind of wisdom they are not able to find on their own, and that requires a full, intimate, face-to-face exchange. 

When Jesus teaches us to become servant of all, he isn't giving us advice on how to have a good life. He's not telling us that this is a good way, a helpful discipline, to get closer to God. This is what it means to belong to him. In the same way that I tell my children, "This is what it means to be a part of our family; this is how we act," Jesus is telling his disciples and all who would follow him that our identity is to become servant of all. That's what the passion predictions are about. And I think, in part, that's why they come in secret--because Jesus wants us to know that this teaching is meant specifically for us, for you, for me. 

What do Christians do? We love God and love our neighbor. We go to church. We say our prayers. We participate in the transformation of the world through the unconditional love of God in Jesus Christ. We do all of those things. Those are the habits of a Christian. But what does it mean to be a Christian? Who are followers of Jesus? We are those who suffer as Jesus suffered, who die as Jesus died, and who are raised as Jesus has been raised. We are those who become last, least, servants of all. Jesus wants his disciples' full attention. And he wants ours, too. Does he have it?

Vision of God

What does God look like? It's a question as old as humanity. One of the distinguishing characteristics of our tradition--our Jewish heritage--is the rejection of any and all images of the divine. The leaders of Israel knew that the human desire to make real, tangible, and physical that which is holy, mysterious, and totally other meant that any picture, image, or statue of God would become an idol that was worshipped in the place of God. So they rejected the practice on a matter of principle. God doesn't even have an effible name much less a caricature.

That principle leads to some other important theological conclusions, including the belief that no one is allowed to see God and live. Anyone who saw God, whatever God looks like, might attempt to reproduce in mind or physical form that which she or he saw. To see God was a death sentence. Even Moses, who was said to talk with God "face to face" wasn't actually allowed to see the face of God--only God's hindparts. In Sunday's lesson from the Hebrew Bible, Isaiah 6:1-8, we hear the prophet's words of woe at having been given a glimpse of the Almighty: "Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!" It's interesting that the prophet, whose words would define him, choose "unclean lips" as the way of describing his unworthiness, and it makes sense, then, that having had his lips purified, the one who had seen a vision of the Lord would be the one empowered to speak the Lord's word.

The prophet was given a vision--a strange, mysterious vision of the Lord. God was seated on a throne, high in the heavens, but the hem of God's robe--the hem!--filled the whole of the temple. Above God were angels, who flew about and called to one another, singing, "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts!" So powerful was their cry that the building was shaken to its foundation, and the entire temple was filled with the haze of smoke. It sounds like a pretty cool dream.

Who are we to approach the Lord? Who are we that the Lord would approach us? There is powerful mystery in these words. The prophet, terrified that he has seen what no human ought, is called into ministry and mission from this mysterious encounter. Isaiah encounters that which he cannot know, that which he knows that he is neither allowed nor capable of apprehending, and he begs for mercy. God, of course, has revealed God's self in this way to fill Isaiah's mind and heart and words with awe of the divine, an awe that will fill his prophecy. The instructions he gives to his people, therefore, are in adoration of the unknowable God. How much of our preaching comes from a similar encounter?

I don't know many Christians who actually worship--i.e. fall down in subjection to--an idol, statue, or image. But we've lost our sense of how powerful the desire to make specific that which cannot be narrowed down. Idol worship isn't only about false gods. It's about losing one's awe for God. This Sunday, Trinity Sunday, we have an opportunity to be in awe of God. Nothing is easy this week. The collect is wordy, the proper preface is wordy, St. Patrick's Breastplate is wordy. Don't go cheap and easy. God is bigger, richer, holier than any analogy you might use. Dear Preacher, let us stand in God's indescribable presence and give us space to be in awe. Then, we, a people of unclean lips, might be filled with wonder and hear again our call to worship, follow, and serve the Almighty.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Prayer Is Essential

Every year, I get to the Monday after Pentecost, the first day after Easter, and think, "I've missed green." The Daily Office this week, except for the lesser feasts that fall on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, is back to ordinary time, which I've missed. But, by the time Sunday gets here, when we celebrate the feast of the Holy Trinity, we will be back to white again. Still, it's good to be ordinary again, back to the repetitious prayers that draw us ever closer to God.

In fact, as we approach Trinity Sunday, prayer seems to be of particular importance. In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes, "When we cry, 'Abba! Father!' it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ." Notice carefully the logic that Paul uses. Although we might be the ones crying "Abba! Father!" it is actually the Spirit that is testifying within us, and the Spirit testifies that we are children of God and, thus, heirs with Christ. That we can call God our Father is a statement of our sonship (anyone have a better word for this?), yet we do not have the authority to make that claim on our own--only God himself can make it in us through the Spirit. Our identity as children of God and, as Paul goes on to explain, our identity as those united to Christ, is itself a statement made in and a reality experienced in Spirit-led, Spirit-articulated prayer.

This Sunday, we seek to praise God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We do not seek to understand God. No one can understand God. God is infinite--without bound or limit. No one can circumscribe God with one's mind. No one can contain God in mental apprehension. But we can approach God in prayer. We can allow God to move and speak in and through us. Through prayer, we can be drawn by God into the divine life and participate in the Holy Trinity and, thus, be forever changed. That might feel like it's a bit much to accomplish in church on Sunday morning, but it's what we do every week. God meets us and, by the Spirit which prays in us, draws us into God's self so that our union with Christ may become a union with God.

This is one of those weeks when we can pray it better than the preacher can say it. Let the beauty of our worship and the power of our prayer transport us not only into God's presence but into God's self. Yes, it's Memorial Day. Yes, it's the first weekend of summer. Yes, the congregation is likely to be smaller than usual. But don't skimp. This is a day when we need the fullness of what we do as the people of God. We need the depth of our worship and prayer to draw us in so that Trinity Sunday is more than a day on the liturgical calendar. If we are to worship the trinity of persons in unity of substance, a concept which escapes our understand, we need God to help us, and prayer is how we set ourselves apart to receive that help.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

God Love For All People

May 20, 2018 – The Day of Pentecost: Whitsunday, Year B

© 2018 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

I don’t often walk into a situation where I feel uncomfortable or unwelcome. Boardrooms, classrooms, barber shops, dress shops, dinner parties, debutante balls—I may not enjoy a particular meeting or social function, but I hardly ever walk through a door wondering whether I will be accepted, whether I will have a place at the table. Mostly, that’s the privilege of being a white, middle-class, well-educated man. Being a clergyperson is its own special privilege, one that grants me access to hospital rooms and bedrooms and other private places where few guests would be welcome. Most of you, too, enjoy the privilege of unfettered access to most of life’s circumstances. When was the last time you wondered whether you were being followed in a store not because the staff expected you to spend a lot of money but because they took one look at you and suspected that you might slip something into your purse or pocket?

Some of us, however, know what it means to feel moments of unacceptance and exclusion. We know what it means to enter a classroom with a learning disability and to expect that we will not fit in even before we get started. We know how it feels to wonder whether our lifelong friend isn’t returning our phone call because she has heard that our house is in foreclosure. We know what it means to suspect that our child didn’t make the all-star team because we didn’t grow up in this town. We know how it feels to come to church and sense that people are keeping their distance because of the messy divorce that we are in the middle of. We all experience moments of distance and dis-ease. Some of them are profound, and some are passing. But what would it be like if that were the defining characteristic of your life? What would it feel like to wake up every day knowing that you don’t belong, that you are unwelcome in your own life?

That’s the story of Pentecost—a moment when God invites a group of people who don’t fully belong to confront the very thing that keeps them apart. On the “fiftieth day” after Passover, Jewish people from all over had gathered in Jerusalem for Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, which commemorated both the annual wheat harvest and the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai. It was a time of international celebration, when everyone who was able to make the pilgrimage would travel to the holy city for the festivities. There were Jews there from all over the known world, “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs.” They were all there to embrace the one thing that they had in common: a Jewish ancestry which they claimed either by birth or by adoption. And doing so required that they put aside the national, cultural, and linguistic differences that normally separated them so that they could stand before God as a united people.

But God had something else in mind. Suddenly, there came from heaven a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the house where the disciples had gathered together. Divided tongues as of fire appeared and rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as God’s Spirit gave them ability. So confusing and chaotic was the sound that a crowd of residents and visitors ran together to see what was happening. In the jumbled cacophony, individuals began to discern words spoken in their own native tongues, and they were amazed. “How is it that these Galileans are speaking to us in languages that don’t belong here in Jerusalem, languages that come from far away, languages that we left behind when we made the pilgrimage to the holy city? How is it, in a moment when God’s people are supposed to be brought together through the denial of their differences, that God shows up and reaches out to each one of us in our own distinct way?”

These spiritual immigrants had made the journey to the land of promise in order to participate in God’s great and ancient plan of salvation. That they needed to make a journey at all underscores their belief that only when they left behind the things that separated them could they find their place in God’s family. For millennia, God’s great and powerful movement in the world had been to unite God’s people into one nation with one language so that together they could worship the one God. But, at Pentecost, God began the great reversal of that saving work. Through the Holy Spirit, God gave his people the power to speak and hear the good news of salvation in every language known to humanity. But this was much more than a linguistic conversion. This was a reversal of how God’s salvation would be propagated throughout the world. No longer would people need to leave their differences behind in order to be brought together as the people of God. Now, God would unite them in their differences, refusing to allow distinctions of language, ethnicity, culture, or class stand in the way.

But that kind of reversal is threatening. To the powers that be, to the people who controlled access to God and God’s salvation, to the people of privilege who didn’t need to leave anything behind in order to belong, that great reversal was deeply threatening. “All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’” I have never met someone who surprised me by speaking fluently in multiple languages and thought to myself, “This person must be drunk,” but I’ve encountered plenty of people with ideas so crazy that it was easier for me to assume their inebriation than their genius. Of course some of the people sneered. Who would dare to contaminate this celebration of national unity by reveling in cultural difference? Who would dare to think that in the sacred streets of the City of David the good news of God’s salvation should be preached in the profane tongues of infidels? Who would? God would.

“Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem,” Peter said, addressing the religious powers of his day, “these men are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. Instead, this is the fulfillment of what God promised through the prophet Joel.” The prophet had envisioned a day when God’s word would be revealed to everyone—old and young, male and female, slave and free. All of them would see visions and dream dreams. Even the sun and the moon would declare the power of God’s intervention in ways that no prophet need explain. In his speech, Peter showed the crowd that at Pentecost God wasn’t doing something new but was doing something ancient in a new way. The salvation of God’s people was a work as old as time, but the fulfillment, the completion, of that work required a new and expectation-shattering approach. No longer would God’s story of salvation be limited to the Hebrew prophets and those who understood them, but everyone who called on the name of the Lord in whatever language he or she spoke would be saved. And Peter wanted God’s people to see that the day when that great vision of salvation began to unfold was today.

In the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, we see the story of God’s saving love and the power of that love to reconcile us to God and to one another. But, in the sending of God’s Spirit, we see the good news of that love being spoken into the minds and hearts and lives of all people no matter who they are or where they come from or what language they speak. At Pentecost, we see God declare that no barrier, no hurdle, no difference can separate someone from God’s saving love. You don’t have to come from where we come from and look the way we look and talk the way we talk in order to be a child of God just like us. God’s Spirit has the power to unite all of us—not despite our differences but right in the heart of them.

But that’s threatening. It’s threatening to people like you and me, who have the privilege of belonging, to hear that other people who aren’t like us have the same access and are granted an equal share in God’s love. Sometimes it’s the crossing of racial or cultural barriers that we find threatening. Other times it’s the blurring of traditional gender or socio-economic roles at which we bristle. More often, however, our discomfort at those differences becomes manifest in judgments of deservedness as we pronounce that a certain group of people is not entitled to the same access that we enjoy because of something that they have done, some rule they have not followed, or some disappointing habit that “those people” never seem to shake. But, whether it’s with our words or with our actions, whenever we say to another person that he or she does not belong until that person starts acting or speaking or living like us, we are denying the work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit’s work is to bring God’s unconditional love to all people whoever and wherever they are and, thus, to unite all of us as one great and diverse people of God.

That great vision of salvation began to unfold at Pentecost, but, when we look around, we can plainly see that it isn’t finished yet. As disciples of Jesus, we are living in the age of Pentecost, the time of the Spirit-empowered fulfillment of God’s great promise to bring the light of salvation to all nations. Now it is our turn to participate in the fulfillment of that promise. Today, we remember that you don’t have to be like us to belong with us. Pray that the Spirit of God will fill us not to take away our differences but to take away our unwillingness to believe that God’s love is bigger than those differences. Pray that God’s Spirit will break down the walls in our hearts, in our lives, and in our world until the unconditional love of God is truly free from every bond and chain and shackle of distinction that we would place upon it. Then we will rejoice and say that the day of the Lord has truly come.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Universal Signs

Earlier this week, Elizabeth and I were out of town for a couple of days because my parents agreed to keep our children and give us the chance to spend some time together. (Thanks, Mom and Dad!) On Monday morning, around nine o'clock, Elizabeth's phone rang. My mother was calling because she heard what sounded like a weather siren blaring outside of our house. "Should I be worried?" my mother asked. "Well," Elizabeth replied, "does the weather outside look concerning?" When my mother replied that it was a beautiful day, Elizabeth said, "Then it's probably just the monthly test."

There are some signs that we use that are designed to get everyone's attention: a tornado siren, the weather alert on our televisions, radios, and smart phones, the siren on a fire truck, the blue lights on a police car. Even if you do not know exactly what they mean, they grab your attention and demand your response. Try standing unreactively beside an ambulance when the siren goes off.

There are similar signs in the Bible, too: the plagues in Egypt, the cloud of the Lord's presence, the trumpets at Jericho, the chariot of fire, the appearance of the son of man. Sometimes the Lord speaks directly to God's people through a prophet or other messenger, but other times God declares himself in signs that no one is able to miss. These are moments when human beings do not need a mediator or a common language or tradition in order to understand the Creator. When the sky becomes dark and the moon turns blood red and the earth shakes and the mountains smoke, everyone knows to pay attention whether she has read the Bible or not.

Sunday's Pentecost story in Acts is one of those moments when God's speech and God's unmistakable acts are united in a display that no one is able to miss. The Holy Spirit descends upon the earth and upon the disciples with the rush of a mighty wind and blazing tongues of fire. The mouths and minds of the disciples are opened, and they begin to declare the good news of God in Jesus in the languages of "Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene." Anyone and everyone who was there could tell that something big was going on.

Peter, freshly anointed by the Holy Spirit, rises and explains what has happened, quoting the prophet Joel and, thus, linking Pentecost with God's unmediated display: "In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh...And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord's great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved."

Pentecost is the inauguration of the "Last Days" in the sense that from now on what God is doing in the world is meant for everyone. The fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham and, through him, to all the nations of the earth is coming to fruition. At Pentecost, the "Jesus Movement" has become the "Spirit Movement" that brings all peoples into the fold of God. This movement, this work of god, isn't different that what has gone on before just as the external operation of the persons of the Trinity isn't different or distinguishable. It is the same movement, but its reach and focus have grown. The prophets who have spoken to God's people are becoming universal voices and signs--the kind of earth-completing evidence that darkening sun and smoky mist speak to all people.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Groaning Spirit

How do you pray? Do you talk at God whenever the moment feels right? When someone tells me that she talks with God casually throughout the day, I imagine those prayers being uttered in moments of minor need like stuck in traffic or running late or looking for a parking spot. Maybe you sit in the same place every morning and read some prescribed prayers: the Lord's Prayer, the Collect of the Day, the Collects for Peace and Grace, the General Thanksgiving. Or perhaps you set aside time each day to pray to God and naming before God the things for which you are grateful and the concerns of your heart. Maybe you keep a prayer journal of names and circumstances that you care about, reviewing them and saying them aloud every morning. But what happens when we want more? What do we do when we want to bring before God those needs of which we are not conscious? What about those deepest needs of the world and even of ourselves that we don't have words to express but are desperate to name before God? How do we pray when we don't have the words to do it?

Some people sit in silence for thirty minutes each day, bringing themselves consciously into God's presence and listening for the Spirit's quiet voice. In the practice of silent prayer, there is communion with God. The heart and spirit of the person praying are able to communicate with God, expressing in silence deep longing and receiving in return the Spirit's gentle, silent whisper. But, for some, silence does not work. In her book Praying in Color, Sybil MacBeth invites those of us who are distracted by silence to use holy doodling to hold specific needs or people before God in prayer. Still, what if you don't even know for whom to pray but want to do more than sit still? Some pray in tongues, uttering phrases and noises unintelligible to anyone but God. Those who do so believe that the Holy Spirit speaks through them, using their prayers as a channel through which God acts in their lives and in the world in ways beyond their conscious understanding. Those who pray in tongues sense a completeness in their prayers that "normal," understandable prayers can't quite provide. But praying in tongues isn't for everyone. Not everyone has received that gift. And some find it beyond strange, questioning its legitimacy.

There's another possibility--a mixture of these types of prayer that Paul might have in mind in Sunday's reading from Romans 8: "Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God." On the surface, this seems different from the Spirit-led speech that the disciples offer in Acts 2, when they speak in the tongues (meaning languages) of people from all over the world. This is the Spirit "groaning" in ways that those who are praying cannot know. Paul acknowledges that prayer is an important practice that sometimes exceeds our capabilities. "In our weakness," the Spirit helps us by sighing or groaning in intercession in ways "too deep for words." And these groans are known by God (interestingly not heard) because, as Paul reminds us, the Spirit intercedes for holy ones (saints) of God.

What does this mean for us in the 21st century? Are there some among us through whom the Spirit sighs or groans in wordless intercession? Sarah Coakley emphasis such wordless, contemplative prayer as the only means by which individuals are able to communicate with God as they are thus incorporated into the divine life of the Holy Trinity. She's not the first to emphasize this, of course, and Christian ascetics have been engaging in this contemplative practice and prayer since at least the second century. Coakley also allows that contemplative, silent prayer's charismatic sibling, praying in tongues, while less fully developed in the Christian tradition, is an expression of the same thing. But it's important to note that neither Paul nor Sarah Coakley think that mere silence or the practice of centering prayer is sufficient. This is the Spirit doing distinctive work in and through the pray-er.

For us, we see that Paul and the early church to which he was writing understood that Spirit-led, Spirit-spoken prayer was central to our identity as Christians. The act of interceding in ways of which we are unable to be conscious is part of our Spirit-enabled practice. How do you pray? Even that question does not get to the whole issue. How are you a vessel for prayer? How does the Spirit pray in you and through you? How are you becoming a vehicle through which God acts in the world by pursuing Spirit-spoken prayer?

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Tongues or Tongues?

At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came down and gave power to the disciples to speak in the languages of all the people who were gathered together in Jerusalem: "Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs." Everyone marveled--the disciples, the crowd, and those who read the story. "How is it possible," the people asked, "that these Galileans know how to speak in all of these languages?" Clearly, God was at work. The Holy Spirit enabled the good news of Jesus Christ to be proclaimed across the known world. The rest of the Acts of the Apostles is a testament of the Holy Spirit's work in taking that good news out from Jerusalem to everyone and everywhere else.

Nowadays, some Christians celebrate the Spirit-given gift of tongues, but, in almost all cases, this means the glossolalia or indecipherable tongues that individuals utter when praying to God. Rarely do people speak of the Holy Spirit giving them the supernatural ability to speak Urdu or Mandarin. In part, it feels disappointing that the tongues that the Spirit inspires are primarily for personal prayer and not proclamation, but I want to celebrate this contemporary manifestation of the gift of tongues for another reason.

I am sure that there are some isolated languages in remote places into which the Bible has yet to be translated, and the Spirit-inspired work of bringing the good news to those places is commendable. Most of us, however, will never have a need to speak in those languages, but all of us who follow Jesus need to be filled with the Spirit's power so that the good news of God can reach the ends of the earth. This time, the barrier isn't a spoken language but a cultural one.

Actually, I don't want to celebrate the angel-speak that some Christians perform, and I certainly don't want to suggest that those who do not have that gift are not truly baptized by the Holy Spirit as some charismatic branches of Christianity proclaim. But I do want to proclaim that the Holy Spirit's power is as important in the twenty-first century as it was in the first. And I want to look for perplexing, startling, awe-inspiring manifestations of the Spirit that are just as clear and other-worldly as the Galileans speaking in all of those languages.

What does that look like? I don't know. But I think that our discomfort with the Spirit's power is standing in the way of the gospel's work. Look at the reaction of the crowd: "Others sneered and said, 'They are filled with new wine.'" What would it mean for present-day Christians to be so filled with the Spirit's power that some might even consider drunkenness as a possible explanation? There is nothing polite, cautious, or seemly about the Spirit's work in Acts 2. Maybe the strangeness of tongues is an invitation to pursue not simply angel-speak but the Spirit's power.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Privileged Omission

This Sunday is Pentecost, and I usually find it hard to preach on something other than the lesson from Acts 2. In Year B, we have the option of hearing from Ezekiel about the Valley of Dry Bones. I love that passage, but, because I've been reading a lot of Sarah Coakley's work lately, I'm drawn especially to the reading from Romans 8 and the Spirit that groans deeply within us. I suspect that, by the time I get to Sunday, my sermon will incorporate that aspect of the Spirit's voice. Even Psalm 104 is interesting with the Leviathan, which God has "made for the sport of it." The hymns, too, for Pentecost are picturesque. There are several good choices from which to pull when writing a sermon, but the gospel lesson (John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15) isn't one of them.

Like last week, this gospel lesson comes from Jesus final discourse with his disciples. It's from his leave-taking the first time around, and I can hear John saying to the lectionary authors, "Couldn't you find something from Luke or Acts to read?" Sure, it's a fine lesson in and of itself, but it isn't a Pentecost story. It's a Holy Week story. We'd be better of going back and reading the first part of the Easter 2 gospel and hearing again how Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit onto his disciples. Although I'll spend this week listening for the Spirit, I don't think I'll be preaching on this passage that spans John 15-16, so I'd like to mention it now.

Whenever I see a broken-up lesson, I immediately want to know what is skipped. Why did the lectionary authors decide to leave out the opening three and an half verses of John 16? Are they stuck in the pre-crucifixion, pre-Easter time frame and so won't work here? Do they pull from some other story that we haven't heard lately? Are they thematically disconnected from everything else we are reading this week? Well, I went to read them and couldn't make any of those explanations fit. And I think their omission is a testament to privilege.

First, here are the verses the lectionary skips this week: "I have said these things to you to keep you from stumbling. They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God. And they will do this because they have not known the Father or me. But I have said these things to you so that when their hour comes you may remember that I told you about them."

Yes, it's challenging. Yes, it's threatening. Yes, it's rather uncelebratory. It's about persecution and how people will think that they are honoring and worshipping God by killing Jesus' followers. And those of us who can afford to skip over these verses, thus sanitizing our experience of the Spirit-led work of Jesus' disciples, are those who have never felt persecuted by other self-proclaimed followers of God. I could be misunderstanding the lectionary authors' decision to skip these verses on Pentecost, but it sounds like the kind of decision a bunch of old, rich, straight, white, cisgendered men would make.

Ask an African-American Christian about the role of Christianity in the persecution of her people. Ask an indigenous person about the Christians who came to this country and "conquered" it in the name of Jesus. Ask a homosexual man or woman what it feels like to grow up in fear that a Christian in the American South would discover his or her secret. Ask a transgendered individual about his or her place in contemporary Christianity.

Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God. Is that not the history of privileged Christianity? Is that not the story of our church?

There are those among us even today who need to hear Jesus tell them that even when the church persecutes them in his name he is with them. They need to hear it so that they can remember that Jesus told them it would happen. It is into THIS context that Jesus promises the Advocate, the Comforter. There are some who would rather Pentecost be a nice, neat, regulated expression of God's lily-white work in our lives. But that's not what Jesus wants. It's not what Jesus says. Maybe we should listen to the whole story and let the Holy Spirit speak to us through it.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

My Savior's Final Words Were...

A few days ago, I was in the car and heard part of a podcast about a man who was going to lose his hearing. I can't remember all of the details, and I don't even know what podcast it was, but I was captivated by a concept that it put forward: if you knew that the world was about to go silent, what would you want the last thing you would ever hear to be?

The man in the story had experienced some kind of illness or injury that had already begun to limit his hearing, and his doctors had explained to him that at some point it would fizzle out completely. He was a big fan of music, and there were hundreds of groups and albums that he relished, so he made a playlist. His doctors had told him what symptoms would indicate that his hearing was about to go, and he kept the playlist handy so that he could be sure that the songs running around in his head for the rest of his life would be good ones. When the time came and he knew that the end was near, he put his plan into action.

Part of the man's story was about the woman who would later become his wife. On the day when he woke up and realized that it was going to happen, that he would soon lose his hearing, he made sure to listen to the playlist that he had chosen, and then he did something that he hadn't planned. He sat down at a table with his girlfriend, and he asked her to laugh. Even though they were not married yet, he realized that, if the world was about to go silent, he didn't want to spend the rest of his life unable to remember the sound of his beloved's laugh. He wanted to be able to close his eyes and recall perfectly what it sounded like to hear the love of his life in pure joy.

What would your playlist be? What would you want to hear? If you could pick anything to hear before the world went quiet, what would you choose?

Today, we celebrate the ascension of Jesus into heaven, and, as we do, we encounter the second of Jesus' great farewells. The first came at the Last Supper, the night before he died. At table with his disciples, he looked at them and said, "'I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.' Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, 'Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes'" (Luke 22:15-17). There was, of course, a spirit of sadness at that meal. If you read Luke's description of Jesus' last hours with his disciples, they are filled with warnings and correctives, disappointments and disputes. Although Jesus knew that the cross would not be the end, its shadow looms large over his final words with his friends. And, during the days that followed, the disciples were filled with fear, confusion, and heartbreak. But that's not the case with the ascension.

In Luke 24, as he met his disciples in Jerusalem, Jesus said, "Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high." After that, he led his disciples out of the city, as far as Bethany, where he stopped to lift up his hands and bless them. As he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was taken up into heaven. But my favorite part of the story is what happens next: "And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God." What did Jesus say to them that, despite his departure, enabled them to to celebrate with great joy?

Part of it is the resurrection. Part of it is the darkness-become-light that the disciples had experienced before, when they saw that the risen Lord had triumphed over the grave. But, in our experience, even joyful goodbyes with those we love usually carry at least a tinge of sadness. When we send our first child off on his first day of school, when we say goodbye to our daughter at the end of her wedding day, when we leave our children at home for a few days of vacation, there is a part of us that is sad to say goodbye. But not the disciples--at least not as the story is told. Something Jesus said to them--as he opened the scriptures to them yet again or as he blessed them or as he called down from the sky as he began to disappear into the clouds like a balloon on its way to heaven--helped them put aside all sadness and celebrate, despite his departure, with unreserved joy. What was it?

What would you want your savior to whisper in your ear before he left? What would you want Jesus to declare to you before he said goodbye? That's tonight's Theology on Tap question for us to discuss at The Brick later on: "What would you want Jesus' last words to you to be? What words could he speak would fill you with a joy that left no room for sadness?"

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

50 = 40 + 10

Easter lasts for fifty days. On the fiftieth day of Easter we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, a word that literally means "fifty." But Pentecost is still a day of Easter. After Pentecost, we will switch to the green of ordinary time, but the day when the Holy Spirit comes upon the apostles is still a celebration of Easter. And that, in part, makes this coming Sunday so strange.

On the fortieth day of Easter, Jesus ascended into heaven. That's tomorrow. But, in that strange way of waiting for something that has already come, a way of waiting that the church is really good at, we spend the next nine days, including Sunday, stuck in between the ascension of Jesus and the descent of the Holy Ghost. In the prayer book, the official name for this Sunday is "The Seventh Sunday of Easter: The Sunday after Ascension Day," which itself holds us in that two-fold tension of celebrating the resurrection and ascension without experiencing the consummation of the promised Spirit. It's a strange time that we mark by going back in liturgical time to Jesus' prayer for his disciples at the Last Supper (John 17:6-19), a recapturing of that first farewell, which gets important retroactively into the second.

Our collect for this Sunday puts into words the emotion of this moment: "Do not leave us comfortless, but send us your Holy Spirit." Jesus has been exalted, but do not forget us. Send us the Comforter, the Advocate, the Holy Ghost. We are still celebrating the Lord's resurrection. I suppose we're celebrating the ascension, too. It is, after all, the exaltation of Jesus to his heavenly throne. But we are also left wanting more, looking for the one who is to come to us the following Sunday. And that gives our celebration just the slightest tinge of sadness, of longing.

Jesus' prayer for his disciples is a reminder that our job as followers of Jesus is to be here even though Jesus is gone ahead of us: "And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you...I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one." But we are not alone. We may pretend liturgically to be in that place where we are waiting, but that reenactment quickly gives way to our present truth. The Holy Spirit is with us, and, as Jesus said, we should rejoice because, if he did not depart, we could not receive the Spirit. Our waiting this Sunday, therefore, is as purposeful and hopeful as our waiting during the Paschal Triduum, when we wait for the darkness of Good Friday to pass into the light of Easter. We are waiting for something as important to us, which is God with us. Just as a Lenten observance enhances our celebration of Easter, taking seriously this time of waiting helps us celebrate the gift of the Spirit. 

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

In The World But Not Of It

I think most people's favorite color is blue. I think most people prefer Coke over Pepsi. (Sorry, Matt Dukes.) I think most people like John's gospel account the best. And I also think that most of them have never had to write a sermon on Jesus' so-called "high priestly prayer" in John 17. Is there anything more circular and tedious? Give me narrative. Give me action. I'll even take a parable. But "I give them what you give me because you gave me what I give them so that they might have me and in me have you and through you have us together" is enough to drive this preacher up the wall.

I'm not preaching this week, and, for that, I'm thankful. But, if I were preaching this week, I'd preach on the election of Matthias as Judas' replacement. But, if I lost a bet and had to preach on John 17:6-19, I would focus on the concept of being in the world but not from it because that's a Christian identity that seems largely lost on 21st-century Alabamians, especially this Episcopalian.

Praying for his disciples, Jesus says to the Father, "...the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one." His disciples do not belong to the world, yet Jesus does not ask the Father to take them out of the world. That presents at least two challenges for contemporary Christians.

Are we not of the world? What does that mean? Flipping through the channels last night, I saw the first few minutes of Kinsey, the biopic about Alfred Kinsey, the sex researcher. It was a scene in which his father, played by John Lithgow, is lecturing (preaching?) about the evils of modern inventions. Electricity has led to dirty moving pictures. Telephones have made it possible for young ladies to hear the voices of their suitors right on their pillows. And zippers have given men and boys unfettered access to moral depravity. I don't know the context of the lecture in the film, but it's clear from the scene that this conservative Christian believes that followers of Jesus should refuse to modernize for the sake of their faith. I don't think that's what Jesus had in mind.

We are not commanded to become unworldly. We are, by virtue of our identity as followers of Jesus, already unworldly. We needn't look for opportunities to turn our back on innovation. But we need to remember that we do not belong here. We are, as the name of this blog implies, a long way from our true home. But I have a hard time knowing what that means, and I surely hope (and firmly believe) that it doesn't mean we should live as the Amish or Mennonites do. Is there a healthier, more balanced way for us to embrace our other-worldly identity than to give up on motorcars, electricity, telephones, and zippers? How might I preach that other-worldly identity without sounding like Kinsey's father?

The other danger, which remains manifest in Christian culture, is the escapist approach to salvation. For many, belonging to Jesus is primarily expressed in a hope for a ticket off this planet and into heaven. But that's not Jesus' hope. He doesn't ask his Father to take us out of this world but to protect us in it. We don't belong to the world, but we belong here among it until God completes its transformation, which has begun in the exaltation of God's Son, Jesus Christ. We are to stay in the world where we don't really belong and participate in that transformation as those who have been set apart--sanctified--in God's truth. How might I preach about staying in the world without being of the world?

Given my antipathy toward this Sunday's gospel lesson, I suspect that God is calling me to spend more time reading, studying, and, when Sunday comes, listening to it and to the sermon that will be preached.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Deciding By Lots

Would you like to lobster or steak? Would you like to spend a weekend in Hawaii or Bermuda? Would you like a hug from your son or your daughter? Would you like something good or something good?

Maybe the most important spiritual principle we can practice is seeing all of our options as good ones. Of course, some decisions don't feel that way, and that's the point. Do you want leftovers or to go out for a nice dinner? Well, I rarely wake up in the morning with my sight set on finishing the day with reheated casserole, but the choice is still mine to make, and, even if I choose to stay home and save some money, it's a good choice. Sure, we're not always choosing between pleasant options. Being asked to pick between an aggressive regimen of chemotherapy and letting the cancer take its course is a decision that no one wants to make. And sometimes there isn't a choice to be made, and that's its own situation for a faithful response which deserves its own post. I'm not inviting you to think of every situation and every option as something you would want. Instead, I want you to consider how every choice, every decision--even if between two undesirable options--is itself a good thing because, no matter what choice you make, you can't choose your way out of God's love.

In Sunday's reading from Acts 1, we hear Peter informing the crowd that one person must be chosen to fill Judas' place and reconstitute the Twelve. On behalf of the discipleship, he identifies two: Joseph, called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. Both of them had been with Jesus and the other disciples for the whole of Jesus' ministry. Both were qualified. Both would have made a good replacement for Judas. So Peter said a prayer, asking God to reveal which one God had chosen, and they cast lots, and the lot fell on Matthias.

And he was never heard from again.

No, really, he wasn't. And neither was Joseph Barsabbas. And that's the point. The purpose of this passage isn't to demonstrate that the right person was chosen. If so, there would be fabulous tales told of Matthias' boldness and Joseph's failure. For generations, people would recall how the lot clearly fell on the right person because the proof was plain to see. But no one does. No one bothers to revisit the decision. Every one knows--everyone trusts--that the choice was a good one, and they're ready to move on to the next opportunity for God's work to be carried out.

The real point of this passage is that the twelve were reconstituted to bring about a symbolic, spiritual wholeness that overcame any threat of brokenness that Judas may have represented. And the other point of this passage is that Peter and the disciples trusted that God had given them a good choice, which is to say that they believed that, no matter how the decision was made, it would work out as part of God's plan. Think of it this way: Jesus himself had chosen Judas as one of his disciples, and we all know how that worked out. Despite his treachery and the resulting execution of their master, God raised God's Son from the dead, vanquishing sin and death forever. How much worse could they do?

God didn't reach down and choose the lot for Matthias. And Peter didn't ask him to. Peter prayed, "Lord, you know everyone's heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place." Show us. Not, choose the right one. But show us which one you have chosen. The choice was made regardless of how the election happened. The choice was God's. Even if the lot had fallen to Joseph, God still made a choice. Even if Matthias had turned out to be another Judas, God would have shown them his choice in and through them. This isn't God's supernatural tinkering with the laws of nature. This is God tinkering with our hearts and minds until we see that God will always love us, to save us, to call us God's own possession. What else do we need?

Should we cast lots? Should we pick a vestry by pulling names out of a hat? Should we elect our bishops by drawing straws? Should we vote for our president and representatives by throwing dice? Well, it depends...on us. Can we see and know that, no matter what happens, things will work out? In the story from Acts, both of the men had been with the disciples from the beginning, which is to say that they knew that both were qualified. How they would work out beyond that was clear only to God. Actually, there's nothing wrong with voting the old-fashioned way. That's just another way of casting lots. We don't know the future, but we do know that God will be with us in it. Our job isn't to change the way we make decisions but to learn to trust that, whatever option we choose, God will work in and through it for God's purposes. When we vote, we participate in a choice the outcome of which we cannot see. Our calling is to trust that things will be good no matter what--especially when things don't go the way we want them to.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

To Love As We Are Loved

May 6, 2018 – Easter 6B

© 2018 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

Jesus taught us to call God our Father. “Every time you pray,” he said, “pray like this: ‘Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.’” But it is more than a term of address. Jesus showed us that God cares for us the way a parent cares for his or her children. “Who among you,’ Jesus asked, “when your child asks for a fish, would give him a snake instead? Just as you, evil people, know how to give your children good gifts, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things—even the Holy Spirit—to those who ask him?” Jesus showed us that God loves us tenderly the way a mother hen cares for her baby chicks, gathering them under the shelter of her wings. And all of that is true, of course: God does love us the way that a parent loves her or his precious child. But today’s gospel lesson reminds us that the love that God has for us is much more than that.

God loves us and invites us to call him Father (or Mother), but God doesn’t love us because God is our heavenly parent. He loves us because that’s who God is, and it is the love that God has for us that makes us God’s children—not the other way around. The love God has for us is agápē—divine love, unconditional love. And, as much as you might love your children and as much as your parents might love you, the love between parent and child isn’t agápē; it’s storgē. Storgē is the love of family, the love of parent, the love of child. Agápē is something different. Although it’s possible that the love you have for your children is unconditional, I’d be surprised if you really loved them without any regard for who they are as your own children.

Unconditional love is…unconditional. It isn’t predicated on who someone is. It doesn’t presuppose a relationship. Usually, we think of unconditional love as a love that does not depend on what you do or whether you love me back. For example, even when your impudent teenager slams her bedroom door and screams out, “I hate you,” you still love her. She’s your daughter. You’re her parent. That’s nice. That’s sweet. But it isn’t agápē. Agápē isn’t the love you have for your unlovable child. It’s the unconditional love you have for a complete stranger—even when she slams the door in your face and screams, “I hate you.” That’s something else entirely.

All the way through today’s gospel lesson (and the epistle lesson, too, for that matter), the word that is translated for us as “love” is agápē. But there are some verbal tricks throughout this passage that Jesus uses in order to get us to ask ourselves whether we really know what agápē means or whether we have been taking it for granted all this time.

Jesus says, “Just as the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love.” That seems straightforward enough. In the same way that God the Father has loved God the Son, so, too, has the Son loved us—with that perfect, reciprocal, unending, unsurpassable love that exists between the persons of the Holy Trinity. And, now that Jesus has loved us like that, what does he tell us to do? Abide in my love. Dwell in it. Remain in it. Endure in it. But how do we do that? How do we stay fixed in Jesus’ perfect love for us? “If you obey my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” So, let’s make sure we have this straight: Jesus has loved us with the same love that God the Father has for him, and he wants us to remain in that love by obeying his commandments just as he has obeyed the Father’s commandments. Got that so far?

And what are Jesus’ commandments? Actually, there’s just one of them: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” If it suddenly feels like the room is spinning, if you feel as though you are a cat that has been chasing its tail for the last three minutes, don’t worry. That’s perfectly normal. This is rather circular, isn’t it? But wait! Don’t give up yet. Finally, Jesus gives us a real-world context for this kind of love: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” But that isn’t the particular clarity we were looking for.

There are two traps hidden in these words: one is just below the surface, and the other takes a bit more digging to find. First, let’s examine the one that’s nearly impossible to miss. Jesus holds up for us the kind of love that he has in mind, the love that he is asking us to have for each other, and it’s going to cost us our lives? “Lay down one’s life for one’s friends?” You can’t be serious, Jesus. Agápē sounded like a beautiful thing before we knew that it was going to kill us.

Maybe the surrendering of one’s life for the sake of another is what Jesus has in mind. Maybe what it means to love each other the way that the Father has loved the Son and the Son has loved us is to sacrifice our lives for the sake of one another. But, two weeks ago, we heard remarkably similar words in the epistle lesson from 1 John 3, and they shed a different sort of light on what John thought that Jesus meant:

We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. (1 John 3:16-18)

Jesus laid down his life for us, and we ought to do the same. But what does that mean? It means devoting the resources we have without hesitation to help a brother or sister in need because, having laid down our lives for their sake, we no longer distinguish between their needs and our own. That’s how God loves us. That’s how Jesus loves us.  That’s how we are supposed to love one another—by letting go of ourselves—our desires, our possessions, our lives—and giving them up for the sake of another. And if that doesn’t sound too tough—if the giving up of your food, your coat, your car, your house for the sake of those in need doesn’t seem too difficult—then wait until you get to the second trap hidden within Jesus’ words.

But to hear it, you have to think like a Greek-speaking Christian. When Jesus says, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” he throws us for a loop because the words he uses just don’t add up. Jesus says, “No one has greater agápē than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s philos.” Friends have their own sort of love, which is philia. But that isn’t the word Jesus uses to describe the love that his friends have for one another. The love that binds them together isn’t based on a common interest, a bond of affection, or shared values. It isn’t the product of a relationship. They, too, are united in agápē. Even though, by definition, it doesn’t fit the nature of the relationship between us, we are called to love one another and lay down our lives for the sake of each other not because of who they are to us but because of who we are in God. That means that the food, the coat, the car, the house, the life—they are all to be given up not to the people we like or the ones with whom we share something in common but in agápē to those we know nothing about.

Do you remember the old hypothetical conundrum about being on a plane that is about to crash and only having one parachute? As the dilemma goes, you are supposed to decide whether you would keep the parachute for yourself or give it to your spouse. Or your child. Or your best friend. Or whoever else it is on the plane for whom you care deeply. But that isn’t the kind of love that Jesus has in mind when he tells us to love one another because that isn’t the kind of love that God has for us. God doesn’t love us because we belong to God as God’s children. God loves us because that’s who God is: God is love. It is God’s love for us while we were yet strangers to God that makes us God’s children. And it is that agápē that fills us and transforms us into the children of God who love the world right back in just the same way.

God loved us enough to give up his Son for us while we were still strangers to God. Will that love fill us up to the point of overflowing, or will we merely share it with those we want to love? Will that love transform us into people who love others simply for love’s sake, or will God’s unconditional love dissolve in our hands as soon as we place conditions of affection or relationship upon it? Will the unconditional love that Jesus has for us set us free to lay down our lives for the sake of a stranger, or will we live for ourselves until we meet someone whom we think deserves it? Jesus says, “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” And what is his commandment? That we love one another as he loves us. You are not a friend of Jesus if you do not love as he has loved you. That isn’t a challenge or a test. It’s a fact.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Shared Eucharist, Shared Calling

The Mission of the Church II - May 2, 2018

© 2018 Evan D. Garner

Who taught you about following Jesus? Not the Sunday school teacher or preacher who told you about him. Not the parent or grandparent who made you go to church. Not the wife or husband who still makes you go to church. But the people who taught you what it means to follow Jesus, the ones who showed you how to be his disciple. Who were those people in your life?

You are here today because someone invited you to become a disciple of Jesus. You didn't come to Rhodes-Ferry Park in Decatur, Alabama, on a Wednesday evening to break bread with other Episcopalians from this part of creation because you had to. You might not be here strictly because you want to, but, somehow or another, you are here because you are a disciple of Jesus. And that means that, somewhere back in your past, someone showed you how to follow Jesus as a disciple. And I bet you can think of who it was. Maybe it was one person, or maybe it was a dozen, but I bet you can remember their names and see their faces. I've been to church many times and heard many sermons and gone to many Sunday school classes. I've seen lots of preachers on the television and heard even more of them on the radio. I can't remember much of what they said. But I can tell you about Pat and Wayne and Ann and Emily and Doug and John and Clive and Robert. I still remember those people who did more than tell me about Jesus, and I can tell you how they held my hand and led me gently but firmly into a relationship with Jesus Christ.

Who are those people in your life? And who are the people in this world who could say that about you?

In Matthew 28, Jesus says to the eleven disciples, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you." He doesn't say to them, "Go therefore and tell all nations about me." He doesn't tell them to preach sermons or teach Bible studies. He doesn't tell them to put his name on billboards or to quote him on t-shirts or to brag about him on bumper stickers. He tells them to go and make disciples, baptizing them and teaching them to obey everything that he has commanded them. And that's hard, hard work. But that's the work of a disciple. That's the calling of someone who follows Jesus. That's the your mission and my mission and the mission of the whole church.

Making disciples isn't easy. It takes time and effort and, above all, relationship. You can't invite people to follow Jesus as Lord without knowing at least a little bit about who they are and where they've been and what their hearts desire and what they will leave behind when they become Jesus' disciple. You can't baptize someone without knowing him, without looking him in the eye, without touching him. You can't encourage someone to become obedient to everything that Jesus has commanded without walking beside her and joining in her struggles. 

Here in the Tennessee Valley, we live in a culture that loves to talk about Jesus, but I don't see or hear nearly as many people who are committed to making disciples of Jesus, and I include myself in that. How much of what we do as Christians, how much of what we do as churches, is about making disciples? But that is what Jesus tells us to do: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations." But how are we to do that? By "baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that [Jesus] has commanded [us]." We are called to invite people into the converted, transformed, redeemed life that is symbolized and enabled by the waters of baptism. We are called to teach them to become obedient to the disciplined life of a follower of Jesus. That doesn't mean to make them feel guilty when they mess up. Nor does it mean to lay heavy, Pharisaical burdens upon their backs. It means to show them what it means to be set free from sin and guilt and shame in order that they might choose to become joyful, obedient slaves to the cross of Christ. This is more than proclamation. This is more than hospitality. This is the transformation of the world into the reign of God, and it starts with us, and it grows one person, one life, one disciple, at a time.

Be encouraged. Yes, the calling is difficult. Yes, the challenge is great. Yes, many of us have our doubts. But Jesus isn't worried about that, and neither should we. Look around and see that the kingdom of God has already taken hold in this community, in your heart. The risen Lord is here with us. We are not alone. We stand on the shoulders of those who taught us how to follow Jesus as Lord. Now, it is our turn to invite the world into the transformed life of discipleship by holding their hands and walking beside them and inviting them to be forever changed by the love of God in Jesus Christ. 

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

We Are Already There

Sts. Philip and James - May 1, 2018
© 2018 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

I don't keep statistics, but I'd guess that, of the five options for a gospel lesson at funerals, we read John 14:1-6 about as often as all of the other lessons combined. In that passage, gathered at the Last Supper, Jesus tells his disciples not to worry. "Do not let your hearts be troubled," he says to them. "Believe in God, believe also in me." Although he plans to leave them, he assures his nervous followers that he is leaving so that he can prepare a place for them in the Father's house, and he promises that he will come back in order to take them there. "You know the way to the place where I am going," he tells them.

But Thomas is confused. Perhaps the other disciples are confused as well, but Thomas is the one who speaks up first: "Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?" And that's where today's gospel lesson (John 14:6-14) picks up. Jesus looks at Thomas and says to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." Frustratingly, that's where the funeral reading stops--with this beautiful, elevated, bold statement of Jesus' identity as the only way that anyone can get to the Father. Although that is where the funeral lesson ends, it isn't the end of the story.

Because of its popularity at funerals, I feel like I preach on John 14:1-6 pretty often, and I always feel like this last verse--"I am the way, and the truth, and the life..."--needs more attention than I can give it. Partly, I feel that way because a funeral is rarely the time for a detailed exegesis of a passage and the surrounding text. But I also feel that way because the conversation does not end in verse six. Jesus isn't finished. That isn't the last word. There's more for us to hear and see and know, and, today, as we celebrate the gospel-transformed and Spirit-filled life and witness of Saint Philip and Saint James, we get a glimpse at the rest of the story.

Jesus does not stop by proclaiming himself as the way, the truth, and the life, nor does he finish his thought by restricting access to the Father to himself alone. Instead, he continues, saying to Thomas, "If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him." Actually, a better translation of those pluperfect verbs would be, "If you had known me, you would have known my Father also." If you're looking for the bold claim, there it is. Jesus invites Thomas and the other disciples to believe that, having seen and known Jesus, the Son of God, they already have seen and known the Father. When Jesus says to the disciples, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one gets to the Father except through me," he isn't attempting to limit access to the Father. Jesus isn't interested in telling other would-be aspirants who are following other would-be gurus that they are on the wrong track. He merely wants his friends to know that they are already on the right one, and, more than that, that their hearts and minds have already made it home. In other words, Jesus says to them, "If I am the way to the Father you are following me, then you do not need to look anywhere else. You already have found what you seek."

But Doubting Philip isn't so sure. (I think Thomas would appreciate it if we shared that moniker with some of his other less-trusting comrades.) "Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied," he says to his master. Philip has a good point: if Jesus is promising to take them to the Father, to help them reach that place of spiritual perfection, but needs to depart from them rather abruptly, if he could just give them a full glimpse of the Father and let them see the finish line before he leaves, then the disciples could probably figure the rest out on their own. Poor Philip. "How can you say that?" Jesus says to his confused disciple. "Have you been with me all this time and still you do not know what I am all about?"

Isn't that what Jesus says to us? Aren't we among those who have followed Jesus for years, listening to his words, witnessing his miracles, and pondering his teachings, yet still wanting to know when we will make it to our spiritual destination? Don't we wish that he would just give us a glimpse of where we are headed so that we could know that the end is in sight? In times of struggle, wouldn't it be nice if we could at least see the Father and know that we are on the right path? Isn't that what following Jesus is all about: making steady, reliable progress toward God and God's kingdom?

Have you been with me all this time and you still do not know me? Our journey to the kingdom of God is not about taking gradual steps in the right direction but gradually realizing that what we seek is already here among us. Are we following Jesus because he is a good teacher with a good track record for getting his followers closer and closer to God? Or are we following him because we see in him who God is and how God's plan for the universe is unfolding? We have seen Jesus. We know Jesus. Will we believe that knowing him is the way that we know God?

God's reign is all around us. Things that are old are being made new. Things that were cast down are being raised up. Things that were dead are being brought back to life. That is how God works. That is who Jesus is. I have been following Jesus for nearly thirty-eight years, and still I am learning to trust that God is not hiding up in heaven but right in front of me. What about you? Can you hear Jesus' gentle, reassuring words: "Have I been with you all this time, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father." How will we get there? We already know the way.