Wednesday, June 27, 2018

No Substitute For Love

June 27, 2018 - Sts. Peter and Paul (transferred)

There are many synonyms for love, but there is no substitute. Affection. Romance. Devotion. Fondness. Enchantment. Fidelity. Infatuation. Ardor. Love.

After Jesus had been raised from the dead, after he had been crucified, after he had been deserted by his disciples and denied by Peter, Jesus met his disciples by the side of the sea. Early one morning, he showed himself to them and beckoned them to sit and eat breakfast with him. Then, as breakfast was ending, he took Peter aside and asked him, "Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?" And Peter replied, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you." And Jesus said to him, "Feed my lambs."

But that's not really what they said.

Jesus said to Peter, "Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?" and Peter replied, "Yes, Lord, you know that I am fond of you...have deep affection for you like a friend." In the Greek New Testament, the word Jesus used was agape, but, in his reply, Peter used the word phileo. The former is the selfless, unconditional, never-failing love that God has for the world, but all Peter could muster was the love of a companion or friend. The love of a friend is a wonderful thing. One might even love his friends enough to lay down his life for them. But the love of friend and the love that God has for us is different. Jesus invited Peter to consider whether his love for his master was divine love, but Peter couldn't reciprocate or at least didn't think that he could.

And Jesus called him out on it.

Three times Jesus asked Peter about his love for him. The first time he asked, "Do you love me?" The second time he asked, "Do you love me?" But the third time he asked, "Simon, son of John, are you fond of me?" Jesus took Peter's word and gave it back to him. The biblical text struggles to convey the tone in this exchange, but to me it sounds like Jesus is asking incredulously, "Do you [really only] love me [like a friend]?" When Jesus used the word phileo to ask Peter about his love, it makes me wonder whether Jesus could see in Peter something Peter could not see within himself. It makes me wonder whether Peter was hurt not because Jesus asked about his love three times but because, on the third time, he switched from agape to phileo, bringing Peter to the edge of his own limitations.

What does it feel like to look the one whom you denied in the eye and hear him ask you, "Do you love me?" How piercing that stare must be! How wounding those words must feel! But Jesus does not speak to Peter to break him down or fill him with guilt but to free him from it. "Do you really think that the best you have for me is kindly affection? When I named you 'the rock on which my church will be built' and declared that 'not even the powers of hell would prevail against it,' do you think that the love of friend is what I saw in you?"

Feed my sheep. Tend my sheep. Feed my lambs. Do you love me? Feed my sheep. The work of tending the flock is fueled by our love for Jesus. And we cannot be the church of Christ if we do not love him as we have been loved--with the selfless, sacrificial, unconditional love that God has for us in Jesus. Jesus beckons us to come and feast with him. He pulls us aside and asks gently, "Do you love me? Do you know that you love me? Do you trust that you are capable of loving me?" Sometimes, when we have denied the love that God has for us, it is hard for us to imagine that Jesus could look at us and see within us the possibility of a love we have forgotten. But he does. He always does.

Hear Jesus asking you, "Do you love me?" And, in those words, hear him reassuring you that the answer is yes. Even when you cannot see it. Especially when you cannot see it. Jesus looks at you and sees the possibility of agape love. Why? Because that is the love that he has for you. And, once we have been loved like that, once we know that we are loved like that, we discover the freedom we need to love him and the world in the same way.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Two Very Different Characters

This coming Sunday, we will read Mark 5:21-43, which is the quintessential Marcan "sandwich" of two different encounters melded into one. At first, a leader of the synagogue named Jairus comes to Jesus and begs him to heal his very sick daughter. On the way to Jairus' house, a woman with a menstrual hemorrhage touches Jesus' cloak and is immeidately healed of her disease. After confronting the woman, confirming her healing, and sending her away in peace, Jesus continues to Jairus' house, where he acts to bring the now-dead daughter back to life.

Two stories sandwiched together. You can't really tell the story of Jairus' daughter without interrupting it in order to tell of the nameless woman. And you can't really read the story of the woman without grounding it in the middle of the encounter with Jairus and his daughter. There are other symbolic links like the girl being twelve years old and the woman having had her hemorrhage for twelve years. Mark doesn't want us to separate these two stories, and, this morning, I find myself pondering another reason.

Despite being united in Mark's telling of the gospel, these two objects of Jesus' healing could not be more different. Jairus is a leader of the synagogue. He's the Senior Warden. He's the biggest pledge in the congregation. He's the man to whom everyone turns when there's any concern about the direction the synagogue is headed. His daughter is born into privilege. She enjoys the status of an elite family. The other woman is shunned. She may have been a person of power and status at one point, but all of that is gone. She has spent all of her money trying to find a cure for her bleeding. That bleeding would make her both ritually impure and culturally uncouth. Here in the twenty-first century, men still squirm uncomfortably when the subject of periods or tampons comes up. Imagine, then, what it was like for a first-century woman whose entire life was defined by her never-ending period. She wasn't allowed to come near anyone else. She had to sleep in a tent in the backyard. Everyone knew. She was a lowly as a leper or a tax collector, but her ostracization was the result of a perversion of her womanhood.

And Mark, blessed Mark, has the Spirit-inspired bravery to link these two women together inseparably.

How will we hear their stories this Sunday? How does the ritually impure woman's access to the same healing change the way Jairus and his family perceive Jesus? Or the woman? How is the woman's status as outcast changed not only by the healing she receives but by her story's inclusion alongside that of Jairus' daughter? How will our relationship with Jesus change if he stops and visits an outcast before coming to our house? How will that change our relationship with the outcast?

These are the questions with which I am wrestling this week. It's my last time to preach at St. John's. I ask God to make me faithful to the biblical text, to the call to preach the gospel, and to the congregation that I have served for six and a half years.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Confidence in God

This may sound painfully obvious, but lately I've noticed how often the Bible tries to teach us the perils of putting our confidence in anything or anyone except God.

This week, for Vacation Bible School, we're studying Daniel, and, in last night's adult class, we read the story of the fiery furnace and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego's refusal to bow down to the statue that King Nebuchadnezzar had erected. After reminding them that they would be executed, the king asked what he thought was a rhetorical question: "And who is the god who will deliver you out of my hands?" But the faithful Jewish men replied, "If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up." The point of Daniel seems to be to remind the readers--likely Jews under Roman or, perhaps, Greek occupation--that trusting in Israel's God is their only hope.

This Sunday, we will hear the story of Jesus and the disciples crossing the sea during a storm (Mark 4:35-41), and, as I've written about this week, the point of the episode seems to be to show the disciples (and the readers) that they are not in peril as long as they are with Jesus, who wields the same power as God himself.

In our congregation, which is using Track 1, we will hear the lesson that is the first option from 1 Samuel 17, which is the story of David and Goliath. Before we get to Sunday, I hope you'll take a minute to read all of 1 Samuel 17 because it includes some details that the lectionary reading skips over. In particular, I hope you'll notice what 17:24 shows us: "All the men of Israel, when they saw [Goliath], fled from him and were much afraid." And I hope you'll read David's response to his countrymen's fear in verse 26: "What shall be done for the man who kills this Philistine and takes away the reproach from Israel? For who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should defy the armies of the living God?" Notice that, for David, this encounter is not only with a giant warrior but a direct confrontation with Israel's fear. The soldiers are cowering on one side of the valley, but David has faith--not in himself but in the living God.

When he goes out to battle carrying only a sling and five smooth stones, he goes under the protection of Yahweh. Given that background, David's taunt of Goliath makes more sense to us: "You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This very day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord does not save by sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s and he will give you into our hand." The very nature of this battle, therefore, is the battle between God and God's enemies--a battle that the army of Israel, hiding in fear, had forgotten.

That's what this Sunday is all about. And, as I hinted at in the opening of this post, that's what the story of salvation told in the pages of scripture is all about. It's about knowing that God is the one who saves us. It's about putting our confidence in him. If we believe in him, we will not be afraid. That's Jesus' message to the disciples: "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?" And that's God's message to us: "Do not be afraid. Have faith Know that I am with you."

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The Fear of Faith

On Sunday, we will read the familiar gospel story of Jesus and the disciples crossing the sea when a storm arises (Mark 4:35-41). At staff meeting yesterday, Seth pointed out that the Greek words for the disciples' reaction to Jesus' stilling of the storm (καὶ ἐφοβήθησαν φόβον μέγαν), which the NRSV translates as "were filled with great awe," literally means "were afraid with a great fear." In fact, in the preceding verse, when Jesus questions the disciples, the sentence translated for us as "Why are you afraid?" does not use the same word for "fear" but uses "δειλοί," which certainly connotes fear but has its root in a different word that means "dread." Does it matter? The difference actually makes a difference.

The word "δειλοί" is an adjective that Strong's Concordance defines as "cowardly, fearful." Strong's defines the other word "φόβον" as "panic flight, fear, the causing of fear, terror." Those don't sound that different until you dig a little deeper. Strong's also defines the latter as "reverence, respect." At first, I thought that was because of a difference in the origins of the words, but it turns out that "deos," the root for "deiloi" can also mean "reverence," but that particular connotation is apparently never used in the New Testament. Strong's notes that "deilós is always used negatively in the NT and stands in contrast to the positive fear which can be expressed by phóbos." In other words, although both words mean fear, "phóbos" is used in the NT to mean "reverence" while "deilós" is always used to mean "terror."

So, back to the boat, the disciples wake up Jesus and ask him, "Do you not care that we are perishing?" After Jesus stills the storm, he says to the disciples, "Why are you cowardly fearful?" And the disciples' reaction is to be filled with amazement and holy fear. Actually, the NRSV does a pretty good job of conveying that by using "awe" to describe the disciples' reaction. But, before we gather as a congregation to hear this lesson and the sermon that likely accompanies it, it's worth remembering the difference in the kinds of fear conveyed in this story.

Nowadays, we don't use the word "fear" to describe our reaction to God's presence very often, but I think it's still familiar enough to us for us to understand it. God isn't always cuddly. Yes, God is depicted in scripture as an intimate lover. Yes, God is described as one who speaks with Moses face to face. But most often prophets and kings are overwhelmed when they come close to the Almighty. "Woe is me!" Isaiah declares, "for I am a man of unclean lips amidst a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts." This is the natural response of a created being in the presence of the Uncreated One. The disciples holy fear is a sign that they are starting to understand who it is that they are accompanying on this journey.

Jesus is the one whom even the wind and the sea obey. In other words, Jesus is divine. Only God can control the wind and the waves. Jesus questions why they are cowardly, and the disciples, upon realizing what is happening, are filled with holy terror. Initially, their cowardice was a position of faithlessness. They did not believe that Jesus could save them from a storm. When they woke him up, they didn't say, "Save us!" but "Don't you care that we are perishing?" During that boat ride, they get a glimpse of the awesome power that is with them in the boat, and their response is fear. That's the fear of faith--the fear of acknowledging that they are in the presence of God.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Practicing Intimacy with God

June 19, 2018 - Tuesday in Proper 6

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

In Matthew 6, Jesus says, “Beware of practicing your piety before others so that you may be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” But, for goodness’ sake, keep practicing; just do it in secret.

These days, we do not talk a lot about piety. Even as a priest, I do not talk a lot about piety. Partly, that is because of our Protestant heritage, and partly it is because piety is a way of life as old-fashioned as the word itself. What is piety? Piety is the practice or the devotion of our faith. It is the stuff we do that both reflects our faith, our relationship with God, and that nourishes it. It is, in effect, the “date-night” we spend with our Beloved.

Occasionally, someone will come to me and acknowledge that he or she is struggling in his or her marriage. “We just don't have that spark anymore,” someone will admit to me, “and I don't feel much like reigniting it.” Actually, by the time most people come to see me about marital struggles, it is well past that point. The spark is long gone and has been replaced by the destructive flame of resentment. Looking back, it is usually difficult to see where the problem started because the cause is usually an amalgamation of little things: a busy season at work, children who demand our time and energy, volunteer opportunities that take all of our free time, unexpected expenses or a decrease in income that leaves us in financial pinch. And that leads to other little things: staying later at work, skipping the family dinner, having an extra drink at night, zoning out in front of the television, crawling into bed completely exhausted, and waking up to do it all over again. It may be hard to see where the problem started, but it is almost always easy to tell how things got so bad: no time together, no romance, no conversation, no mutuality. We may not see it as newlyweds, but time shows us that it always difficult to live with another human being—a demanding, self-centered, egotistical human being—unless love flourishes between them, and, in order for love to flourish, one must practice it.

More often, someone will come to me and acknowledge that he or she is struggling in his or her faith. “I just don't feel close to God anymore,” someone will admit to me, “and I don't know how to get that spark back.” Again, it is hard to see where the growing distance started because it is usually an amalgamation of the same sorts of things—things that occupy our time and our resources in ways that draw us further and further from our relationship with God. “Oh sure, I still believe in God…sort of,” we say to ourselves, “but it's as if God isn't real to me anymore.” Maybe we have even forgotten how real God was to us in the past, leaving us doubting whether that relationship was ever real in the first place. When I ask someone who is struggling what his or her prayer life looks like, I get a range of responses like, “Oh, I sort of chit-chat with God throughout my day,” or “It's pretty good…but I suppose it could be better,” but no one ever says to me, “My prayer life is vibrant: I pray for an hour every morning and an hour every night and make lots of time every day to spend with God.” God is faithful. God is present. God is with us. But it is awfully hard to remember that in our minds and in our hearts and in our souls when we are sending God a text message to tell him that we will be in touch soon instead of holding hands, staring into each other’s eyes, and letting a passion grow between us.

That is piety. Piety is how we become intimate with God. It is the way we live out our faith in order that our faith might be strengthened. Typically, you cannot hold hands with a stranger and suddenly fall madly in love with him or her. In other words, piety is not where a relationship with God begins, but it can be where a relationship with God either grows and flourishes or dwindles and dies. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus names three classic ways that people of faith can practice their piety: giving alms, saying prayers, and fasting. But notice what Jesus tells us: “Beware of practicing your piety in front of others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” We do these things—we practice our intimacy with God—not because other people will be impressed nor because the preacher tells us we should but because the reward it provides is a deeper relationship with the One who created us and loves us.

When you say your prayers, when you come to church, when you put money in the offering plate, when you observe the religious feasts and fasts of the church year, are you doing those because they are what others expect of you, or are you doing them because you want to lose yourself in the love of God?

Sometimes, when a relationship falls off the tracks, it is hard to know how to get it going again. Sometimes it is painfully awkward—that first kiss, that first date, that first romantic encounter. And sometimes it feels that way with God. We do not really know how to pray anymore: "Dear God, I haven't done this in a while, and I don't really know what to say…" Does it help to remember that God is the one who always loves us, who never leaves us, whose tender care never wanes? It may feel strange at first, but do not be afraid to practice. Go into your room and shut the door where no one but God can see you. Start with a simple prayer, perhaps the one that Jesus taught us. Try giving something precious away to someone who needs it, and do not tell a soul about it. Give up a meal and instead spend that hour in your office or your breakfast room reading from the Book of Psalms. Practice your piety for God's sake and for your sake. Let the intimacy between you and the Almighty return, and let that flame be fueled each day for the rest of your life.

Monday, June 18, 2018

God Is With Us

In this coming Sunday's gospel lesson (Mark 4:35-41), there are two statements that to me feel out of place. First, when Jesus and the disciples were going across the sea and a great windstorm arose, threatening to swamp the boat, the disciples went to the stern, found Jesus asleep, and said, "Do you not care that we are perishing?" Then, after Jesus calmed the sea, he said to the disciples, "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?" Both of these statements seem to have been emotionally connected from the circumstances into which they were uttered, and I think that exactly how it works when we pray to God in a crisis.

Do you not care that we are perishing? Think about those words for a minute. They are the kind of words one might say to a crazy driver allowing a car to drift into oncoming traffic without seeming to care for the consequences. It's what you say to the string quartet still playing on the deck of the Titanic. It's what you say to someone who is going down in flames and taking everyone else with them. But is that what we say to Jesus? Does it make sense to say those words to God?

We say them all the time. Don't you care that we are perishing? Aren't you able to get me out of this? Doesn't it matter to you that my life is falling apart? We say those words to God in the same way that the disciples say them to Jesus--genuinely confused and panicked that the one we thought would keep us out of trouble is watching (or sleeping) while we careen toward the edge of our life's steepest cliff. When we say those words to God, a part of us--maybe most of us--doesn't really know the answer. The disciples really did not know whether Jesus cared that they were all about to die. But, of course, he did care, and so does God.

Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith? Think about those words for a moment. They are the kind of words that the madman driver says to us after he snaps the car back into the right lane just as the tractor-trailer blows past, not really convincing us that he was always going to do it. Or they are the words that help us realize that, although reasonable, our response was an overreaction, that our faith had been tested and found lacking. Or they are the consoling words of a parent or shepherd or savior that are designed to help us see that we never really had any reason to fear all along. And that sounds like the words God says to us over and over and over.

I don't think "what ifs" are particularly helpful in life except to make one thankful for how everything worked out, but this story invites our hypothetical imagination. What if the boat had capsized? What if half of the disciples drowned? What if Jesus and all of his disciples were killed in the storm and never heard from again? What if? Most likely, Mark's point is to show us that Jesus has power over the wind and the waves--the kind of power that only God has. Or maybe Mark wants us to see the folly of seeing Jesus casting out demons, healing the sick, confronting the religious authorities, and battling the forces of evil only to worry that we might die in a boat on the sea. Or maybe Mark wants us to know that when our own boat feels like it is going under and we cry out to God, "Don't you care that I am perishing?" God's reply is always, "Have you still no faith?"

Even if the boat goes down and we go down with it, we are not alone. If God is with me--and I believe that God is--then whatever peril comes, even if it leads to my death, it is not something I suffer because God has forgotten me or because God does not care about me. Does God care? Yes, absolutely. Because of that, we are never alone, and our trouble is never a lostness or abandonment. It's silly to think that God would not care that we are struggle. Of course God cares. And, if we listen, we can hear his gentle response: have you still no faith? That's an invitation to those of us in the midst of a storm.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

What Does God's Kingdom Look Like?

June 17, 2018 – The 4th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 6B

© 2018 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

If you were asked to draw a picture of the kingdom of God, what would it look like? The kingdom of God, the reign of God, the rule of God—what would you draw? What colors, what shapes, what images would you use? Or, if you are better with words than pictures, how would you describe God’s reign on the earth? What poem would you write? What story would you tell? When you dream about a world in which God’s will and God’s purposes are in control, what does that world look like?

A few days ago, I sat down with a family to talk about heaven. A couple of people in their family had died recently, and the children (as well as their parents) had some questions about dying and going to heaven. They had questions like, “Is dying scary?” and “Will we recognize each other when we get to heaven?” Of course, I don’t have the answers to questions like those, but they are what make my job a real treasure because they give me the chance to explore the possibilities with people I love in the context of a faith that binds us together. We sat in my office and talked for a while about what heaven might be like. Most of the time, the Bible describes heaven in terms that push the boundaries of human imagination: streets paved with gold, walls built with gemstones, gates made of pearl. That gives us permission to allow our imaginations to run free and to dream about heaven as a place too wonderful for even our most audacious hopes.

For each of us sitting in my office, that meant something different. Now that summer has made it to Alabama, I described heaven as a beautiful home in the mountains where the temperature never gets above 80 degrees. One of the kids described it as a place where she can play on the iPad as much as she wants. When it comes to questions like who will be there and will we recognize each other and how old we will be and will there be any reason to eat, we agreed that we don’t know the answers but we do know that heaven is a place where everything is exactly the way it should be. No one is missing. Nothing is out of place. There is no fear or sadness or pain. The people we love who had gotten to the point that every day was a struggle are no longer battling what life brings but celebrating what God has given them. That’s what the kingdom of God means. We can call it “heaven” or “paradise,” but it isn’t a magical place to which we are transported when we die. The hope that God has given us is a new and everlasting life in a transformed world where everything is the way that God intends it to be. So, when you think about that world, when you allow your imagination to run wild in that place where God has brought everything to its perfection, how would you describe the world of God’s dreams?

Here’s how Jesus described it: “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.” That’s Jesus vision of the reign of God: a sower scattering seed on the ground and waking up to see that it has sprouted without ever understanding how it happened. That’s not exactly a bold or powerful vision of God’s control. Or how about this? Jesus said, “[The kingdom of God] is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs…so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” That’s a little bit better, I suppose, since the tiny seed eventually becomes large enough to shelter the birds, but, when we try to imagine the kingdom of God coming to earth and God’s will for all things being complete, a seedling or a garden shrub isn’t usually what we have in mind. And I don’t think it’s what Jesus’ contemporaries had in mind either.

These parables of the kingdom are from Mark 4. By this point in the gospel account, Jesus has already cast out demons, healed huge crowds, confronted the religious authorities about their hypocrisy, asserted his authoritative interpretation of God’s law, and preached the kind of sermons that bring the multitudes out to hear him. In last week’s gospel lesson, we heard Jesus declare that his Holy-Spirit-fueled ministry was a direct confrontation with the forces of evil. And now that the crowd is convinced that Jesus has the power and the authority to usher in the day of God’s reign, Jesus describes for them what that kingdom will look like, and he likens it to a tiny little seedling that barely breaks the surface of the dirt with its fragile green leaves. And all of God’s people said…what?

You don’t have to live in the fast-paced world of the twenty-first century to become impatient with the gradual, steady, deliberate in-breaking of God’s kingdom. The people of God have been throwing up their hands and saying, “How long?” for a lot longer than you or I have been alive. Even our oldest spiritual ancestors, whose prayerful poetry became the Book of Psalms, knew the agony of seeing God’s salvation on the horizon and waiting for more than a lifetime for its arrival. It is always near. It is always right there in front of us. It is as familiar and common as a new plant sprouting forth on a late spring day, yet its fruition always comes in God’s perfect time, not ours. Even in the person of Jesus, the Son of God who came to earth to save God’s people by defeating sin and death once and for all, the kingdom of God shines upon us in gentle, tender ways. Sure, he could have called forth a myriad of angels to come and defeat anyone and everyone who stood in the way of God’s dream for the earth and set all things right once and for all, but he didn’t. And why not? Because our hope is not found in a moment of victory or a flash of power but in the constant, never-ending, never-failing renewal that is unfolding in our lives and in the world around us.

We want the fullness of that kingdom here and now. We want the knight in shining armor. We want the superhero who will save the day. That’s what we want, but we need something else. We need a savior to journey with us when times get tough. We need a God who will never forget us even if we tend to forget God. We need a kingdom that exists not someday and somewhere but right here and right now, all around us all the time. We may not think of the seed as an image of power, but is there anything more beautifully persistent and transformative than a tiny, lifeless seed breaking forth from its earthen tomb? That is the nature of God’s power, and that is the source of our real hope.

When you dream of a world in which God’s reign is completely manifest, don’t forget to look for signs that it has already broken through here and now. In small, simple, and sometimes quiet ways, God’s dream is becoming a reality all around us. If the only hope we had was that great and glorious day when all things finally will be made perfect, where would we be? If God’s power and purposes were not already real in this world, God’s people would have given up a hundred generations ago. The kingdom of God is here. That dream of yours is already becoming a reality. We don’t have to wait. It’s as close as a ripening tomato. It’s as familiar as a stalk of corn. One day the harvest will be ripe, but, until then, God’s kingdom still grows.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Not An Earthly Kingdom

I think it's a mistake to over-think parables. Yes, in addition to the surface message, they often contain nuances that cannot be fully understood without some knowledge of the original context and culture, but Jesus did not intend his parables to be confusing messages that must be picked apart like an episode of Westworld. They are simple speak for simple people. I really enjoyed Steve Pankey's post on this topic yesterday, and I hope you'll read it by clicking here. If Jesus saw the volumes that have been written about his parables, he might be flattered, but he'd also probably be perplexed. "It's not supposed to be hard," I can hear him saying in disbelief.

Sunday's gospel lesson (Mark 4:26-34) contains two little parables about the kingdom of God that are easy to over-interpret. First is the parable of the sower who scatters seed on the ground and, despite not understanding how, observes the seed sprouting and growing until it is time for the harvest. Second is the parable of the mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds yet grows into a shrub big enough to give birds shade in its branches. What did Jesus have in mind? What portrait of God's reign was Jesus seeking to display?

Don't overthink it. Both parables are about growth that defies understanding and expectation. Both are about something small becoming large. But both are familiar. His hearers may not have known that the mustard seed was the smallest of all seeds, but they would have understood that sometimes tiny seeds become big plants. They might not have ever thought about the process by which a seed sprouts and becomes a plant, but that's the point. Even if you never planted a bean in a cup in kindergarten, you are aware of these things called seeds and you are aware that those seeds become plants.

So what did Jesus mean? Simply that the kingdom of God starts small and grows big? That it pops up in ways that defy our understanding? Maybe. But we can dig a little deeper than that without overthinking things. This morning, I read an article about Vice President Pence's speech to the Southern Baptist Convention. The article suggests that members of the convention are experiencing a culture shift away from a narrow conservative political identity to a broader, more moderate identity. Pence's remarks, which were not surprisingly political, were not universally well received. That's not my point, but the article included a quotation from the newly elected president's speech to the convention about the relationship between politics and faith:
We believe that Jesus is the lord of the whole earth. He is the king of kings and he is the lord of lords. We believe that he, not any version of Caesar, is the Messiah. He is the Christ, the son of the living God, that salvation is found in him, not in the Republican platform or the Democratic platform, and that salvation did not come riding in on the wings of Air Force One. It came cradled in a manger
That was in my mind this morning as I read these parables about the reign of God, and I began to wonder how different Jesus' description of God's reign was from his contemporaries' experience of Caesar's reign. God's reign isn't announced at all. It pops up overnight in ways that no one really saw coming. When even the emperor's designated governor comes to town, there is a military parade. God's kingdom is best known as a mustard seed, but the Empire manifests itself in gold and silver, in marble and granite, in chariots and soldiers. The power of God doesn't surprise the sower, but it sneaks in at night when no one is looking. When Rome shows up, everyone knows it. What a remarkable difference!

I wonder what Jesus had in mind when he described the kingdom of God as some seeds scattered on the ground. I wonder whether his hearers were taken aback not at the theological complexity of the message but at its simplicity--a simplicity in message that mirrors the simplicity of the kingdom itself. If you want to see the reign of God, don't look at the big fancy church or in the words of the powerful preacher but in the homeless shelter or the generous neighbor or the committed volunteer. If you want to see the reign of God, you might have an easier time finding it in a children's book than in a preacher's sermon. Don't judge your preacher too harshly if she or he makes Sunday's sermon a simple little story. Instead, let that judgment be reserved for the preacher who says too much.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Gift and Challenge of Track 1

A year ago, our parish switched from Track 2 to Track 1. In both tracks, the Gospel and Epistle lessons are the same, but Track 2 provides an Old Testament lesson that pairs thematically with the Gospel lesson, but Track 1 moves semi-continuously through books of the Old Testament. When the Episcopal Church switched to the Revised Common Lectionary several years ago, Track 2 was closer to the BCP lectionary to which we were accustomed, so we started there, but, after a few three-year cycles of that, we decided to give the other a try. And, on Sundays like this one, we get to see the benefit and struggle that Track 1 provides.

This week, we will hear the story of the anointing of David as King of Israel in 1 Samuel 16. BUT, before we get there, we will hear two little verses from the end of 1 Samuel 15 that provide continuity with the Samuel story that we have been reading: "Samuel went to Ramah; and Saul went up to his house in Gibeah of Saul. Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death, but Samuel grieved over Saul. And the Lord was sorry that he had made Saul king over Israel." Last Sunday, we heard the people of God demand a king. Samuel didn't like it, and neither did God, but God was happy to give them what they asked for. Samuel let them know exactly what they were getting--a king who would take their property and income for himself and his courtiers--but they wanted a king anyway. So God gave them Saul. All of that happened in 1 Samuel 8 and 11.

This week, we pick up near the end of Saul's reign. Of course, a lot has happened in the meantime, but, to keep the story moving, we pick up at the point when things have gotten bad. We hear that "the Lord was sorry that he had made Saul king over Israel," but we don't hear why. I wish we had time to go back and read all of 1 Samuel 15 and hear how God had ordered Saul to wipe the Amelikites off the face of the earth and how Saul had decided to spare their king and save the best of their flocks and herds as the spoils of war. There's a fascinating theological reflection to be made on God's demand for total destruction and Saul's decision to hold some back and God's subsequent rejection of Saul, but we only get the slightest hint of it.

Still, that hint is enough to change the way we hear the encounter between Samuel and Jesse's family. Usually, we hear the story of David's anointing isolated from the story of Saul's rejection, but, of course, they are inextricably linked. Even if the preacher doesn't stop to mention it, the congregation gets to hear that the Lord rejected Saul and then sends Samuel to pick a new king. That tidbit adds weight and depth to the dramatic selection process, during which Samuel thinks he has found the right king only to hear God tell him not to judge by outward appearance. That famous line, "the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart," sounds different when we've already heard that God was sorry he had chosen Saul as king. It makes us scratch our heads and wonder how much God has to do with it and how much human beings look back and make the connections between human events and divine causation.

Regardless, this Sunday, we face a blessing and a challenge. We get the benefit of continuity and, thus, hear the story of David's anointing in a larger context. But we also have to leave behind the full story of that rejection. The preacher probably doesn't have time to explain why Saul had been rejected and why that makes a difference when it comes to the selection of David. But there's enough there for the congregation to wonder about it, and maybe there's enough there to encourage one or two to open their Bibles and read the story for themselves.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Recognizing God At Work

Mark loves to sandwich two stories together to make a single point, and Sunday's gospel lesson (Mark 3:20-35) has some elements of that. In the beginning of the passage, Jesus' family hears that Jesus and his disciples have been so busy attending to the needs of the crowd that they haven't even had time to eat, and they went out to retrain him because people were saying that he had gone out of his mind. At the end of the passage, the family shows up to come and get him, presumably to take him away to a quiet place so that he can calm down and recover, but, when someone informs Jesus about it, Jesus responds, "Who are my mother and my brothers?...Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother."

On its own, that's the kind of passage on which I'd want to preach. Jesus' earthly family cannot believe that anyone--even their own, special son--could work that hard, do that much, perform that many miracles. But Jesus, rather than rebuking them harshly, uses the opportunity to teach the crowd that submitting fully to God's work and God's will is how we find our true identity. Those who follow Jesus as "crazy Christians" can call themselves Jesus' mother, sister, and brother.

But then we get to the stuff in the middle, and I find myself glad I'm not preaching this Sunday.

The scribes come down from Jerusalem and say that Jesus is performing these miracles by the power of Beelzebul. The scribes were the keepers of the religious law. They were the interpreters of how God's law, God's rules, applied to various circumstances. This was, it seems, a semi-official pronouncement. People had been wondering--either aloud or at least in their hearts--where Jesus, who was not an officially sanctioned religious figure (whatever that meant in 1st century Palestine), was getting this power. He's either of God or against God, but he's clearly got some power. The scribes were the ones who would have made that sort of determination, and they come down on the side of Satan--that Jesus was of Satan and not of God.

Jesus responds to them in parables. Satan cannot cast out Satan. A house divided against itself will not stand. If you want to plunder a house, first you must bind the strong man. Jesus applies a rational response. It makes no sense that the work he does is by Satan. He, who was casting out demons, cannot be on the side of demons. Not only are the scribes incorrect in their spiritual assessment of where Jesus' power comes from, but they are also failing to make any sense.

Jesus offers a profound, rational pronouncement: Anyone who blasphemes the Holy Spirit will be guilty of an unforgivable sin. We seem to get sucked into that sentence. "Unforgivable sin" has a certain scary ring to it. But Jesus is just trying to make sense of the mess unfolding all around him. If you need the Holy Spirit to receive forgiveness and you deny the Holy Spirit's work, how can you ever have forgiveness? If God is at work in your life to show you God's presence yet you deny that God is at work, how can you ever recognize God?

When you sandwich the two pieces together, it softens the concept of the unforgivable sin yet heightens the requirement that we submit to God's will. Even Jesus' own family comes dangerously close to rejecting the work of the Holy Spirit. Clearly, Jesus is channeling an other-worldly power. He's working so feverishly that he isn't even stopping to eat. His family comes to get him because they've heard that he is out of his mind. But he's not out of his mind. He's full of the Holy Spirit. And those who are likewise willing to submit fully to God's work get to claim a share in that family. Those who find it easier to label the Spirit's work as madness find themselves not only out of the family but guilty of an unpardonable sin.

How do we recognize God at work? God shows us God's own presence. Is it always gentle, comforting, and easy? Not hardly. It's rarely serene and sweet. Think of all the ways God is at work around us. Think of all the people who have gifts of the Holy Spirit. Those of us who prefer buttoned-up religion may have a hard time recognizing God at work in strange ways, but that's how God works. If we want to be part of God's family, we must ask God to help us let go of our preconceived notions of how God works and accept that sometimes even those who think they know God the best may have it wrong.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

I Need Help

I need help. Lots of help. All the time. Every day. And I bet you do, too.

I'm a high-functioning (i.e. over-functioning) detail-oriented (i.e. control-freak) person who prefers to get on with it (i.e. impatient) and not stop to ask for help (i.e. defiantly independent). And all of that means I need God in my life in powerful, hit-me-over-the-head, bring-me-to-my-knees ways every single day. What about you?

The collect for this Sunday is the prayer I need: "O God, from whom all good proceeds: Grant that by your inspiration we may think those things that are right, and by your merciful guiding may do them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen." There are three elements of this prayer that grab my attention this morning: one obvious, one familiar, and one knee-buckling.

First, the obvious: "O God, from whom all good proceeds." For some reason, the etymological link between "God" and "good" has been on my mind a lot lately. A few days ago, I haphazardly wished someone a "good day" and thought, "Yes, that's my job--to wish someone a good, which is to say a godly, day." God is good. God has revealed God's self to humanity as good. Even apart from revealed religion, philosophers of religion can identify the source of humanity's definition of God (or god) as good. Sometimes that good is above our perception, but, even when it challenges our understanding of what is good for us, we trust--we believe, we declare--that what God does is good and that what is good is of God.

Second, the familiar: "grant your merciful guiding [we] may do [those things that are right]." It isn't uncommon to ask God to help us do the right thing. When facing a difficult decision, when struggling with temptation, when writing or delivering a sermon, when taking a test for which we have not fully prepared, we ask God to help us do or say the right thing. Implicit in our humanity is an experience of failure. Paul says it well: "For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do the what I want, but I do the very thing I hate" (Rom. 7:15). We need help when it comes to doing the right thing. After a long day, in a season of stress, under a pall of grief, encompassed by physical pain, it is too easy to do the very thing we do not want to do--offer a curt word to one we love, pour that extra drink, cross that forbidden boundary. In those moments we need God's help, and we often ask for that help in our prayers.

Finally, the knee-buckling: "Grant that by your inspiration we may think those things that are right." The hardest truth of all is that, before we can even ask for God's help in doing the right thing, we need God's help to see what the right thing is. Or, to put it another way, I can't even know what is right and good until God shows it to me. I am blinded by my own sin. That I need help in the first place--that I am a stubborn, prideful, conceited person--isn't clear until God reveals it to me. That's the powerful first step in a twelve-step program: "We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol--that our lives had become unmanageable." Step one is not a given. It is itself a revelation. And, as Christians, we recognize that God himself, through the gift of the Holy Spirit, has revealed to us our powerlessness over our addiction to our own distorted sense of self-worth. The truth that this collect conveys, therefore, is that God is good, that God has the power to help us, and that God has the power to help us see that we need help doing what is good.

I don't pray this prayer every morning, but I could. In other ways--in other words--I look for ways to submit myself to God and to ask for God's help. That help starts when I recognize that I can't even tell up from down. Like a swimmer bounced around by a powerful wave, I cannot even tell which way is up. But God can because God always is good. And a life spent pursuing God's presence each day helps me see that truth and the good thing that comes next.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Loving And Letting Go


Taking that first step. Going to the first day of school. Spending the night at a friend's house. Getting behind the wheel of a car. Going out on a date. Heading off to college. Falling in love. Walking down the aisle. Starting a new job. Having a child.

The cycle of life is full of moments of love and letting go that repeat themselves over and over. We love our child with every ounce of life and love that we possess. And then we say goodbye and say it again and again. Sometimes in little ways, and sometimes in ways that are huge and terrifying. And through it all, the love never stops, even when we have pulled away completely.

Being excluded from a friend group. Forgetting your homework. Taking a final exam. Writing a college essay. Undergoing surgery. Struggling with addiction. Losing a job. Losing a parent. Losing a child.

Life is full of challenges that we cannot fix on someone else's behalf. We can try, but trying is usually a mistake. Instead, we can journey with someone, loving them deeply and fervently but, at the same time, letting them go, letting them hurt, letting them heal. The instinct is to rush in a protect the one we love, solve her problems, dump our wisdom and our effort and our love onto the situation. That makes us feel better. We convince ourselves that love makes it our duty to save the one we love. But that only hurts things. Sometimes love means letting go when letting go is hardest.

Today, as we commemorate the life and Christian witness of Boniface, Archbishop of Mainz, missionary to Germany, and martyr, we hear two New Testament stories of loving and letting go. First, Jesus. This is his final farewell--at least until he is reunited with his followers in God's kingdom. He reminds the eleven and their companions how his life and death and resurrection were the fulfillment of God's plan for him and for the world. Then he leads them out of the city, taking them as far as Bethany, and, while he was lifting up his hands to bless them, he was taken out of their sight. 

But why did he go? Why did Jesus need to go? Imagine how fruitful his ministry could have been if he had hung around, performing transformational feats of power, reversing the course of human history, overthrowing the oppressors, bringing the full status of love and acceptance to the ends of the earth. But, of course, that could not be. That work was Jesus', but it wasn't his to do. It belonged to his disciples. The transformation of the world cannot succeed if it takes place in and through only one person. As long as Jesus was here, the disciples would only be followers and not the apostles who are sent out to carry the gospel to the ends of the earth. In John 16:7, Jesus tells his disciples that they should rejoice because he is going to be taken from them. Only then, he explains, can the Holy Spirit come. In a very real sense, the sending of the Holy Spirit is an expression of a love that requires a letting go.

Then, Paul. He calls together the elders of Ephesus because he knows that he will soon be taken from them. "You yourselves know how I lived among you...serving the Lord with all humility and with tears." Paul reflects on his life and ministry and counts them of zero value except that he, with God's help, might be faithful the Lord in completing the work that God had given him to do. Having given up almost completely the noble identity of a Roman citizen, Paul prefers chains worn for Christ's sake and for the sake of those he serves than the freedom he could find on his own. His love for the Ephesians is real and clear, but now it is time for him to step back: "And now I know that none of you, among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom, will ever see my face again. Therefore I declare to you this day that I am not responsible for the blood of any of you, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God." It seems almost harsh that someone who loves them that fully would step back so dramatically. "I am not responsible for the blood of any of you," he says. You're on your own. And you have to be. Even though I am willing to die for you, I cannot hold your hand anymore.

God's great love for us is one big and beautiful letting go. As any parent on the first day of school or spouse waiting outside the surgery suite or child sitting in the first pew at a parent's funeral can attest, letting go does not mean an end to love. The love is as strong, as present, as complete as it has ever been, but it is a love that values and honors the other so fully as to let that one go. It is trust. It is faith. God shows us this love every day, and God invites us to participate in it. How might we be loved so fully by God that we find the freedom to love others in the same way--to love them and let them go?

Monday, June 4, 2018

Identity Politics

In the Track 1 Old Testament reading for this Sunday (1 Samuel 8:4-20; 11:14-15), the people of Israel demand a king. Samuel is grieved by this. As we heard yesterday, the Lord has been with him, not letting any of his words fall to the ground. As a prophet and religious figure, he had, more or less, been holding the tribes of Israel together in a loose confederation of questionable effectiveness. He had appointed his sons to succeed him, but, like Eli's sons before him, they had proven unworthy. The people wanted a unified, central ruler. They were tired of existing as a scattering of clans. It's hard to convince leaders from Ephraim and Judah to raise an army to repel an invader in the territory that belongs to Dan. The people wanted a king. Toward the end of the lesson, we see that they wanted a king because they wanted to "be like other nations" in having a king to rule them and go out before them in battle.

Samuel knows better, but we see that his motives are mixed. The Lord says to him, "Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them." Those seem like words of consolation, words God has given Samuel to comfort his bruised ego. "It's not you; it's me," God seems to say. In God's classic way, God tells Samuel to inform the people what they're getting into and then let them make their own decision, accepting whatever consequences come with it. So Samuel puts it all on the line:
These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots...and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest...He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work...And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.
In other words, no matter whom you appoint, that king is going to start acting like a king, and he's going to want you to pay taxes so that he can live like a king. And, when you're angry about it, God isn't going to listen to you. You will have made your bed, and it will be your time to lie in it. But the people don't care. They want a king.

Tomorrow is primary election day in Alabama. My phone rings several times every evening with pollsters who don't really want my opinion but instead ask questions like, "Did you know that Candidate X was fired from his law firm in 1992 because of financial irregularities?" and "Now that you know that, does that make you less likely or more likely to vote for him?" Like everyone else, Alabamians want leaders who look and sound and act like they think that they themselves do. The truth is that people are no good. And another truth, of which Samuel reminds us, is that power brings out the no-good in people. Just look at Alabama's track record for Governor.

Politically speaking, Israel needed a centralized government with a central leader. Read the book of Judges and see that the struggle without a king is real. The problem wasn't Israel's decision to have a king. The problem was thinking that a king would solve all of their problems. In the religious framework of 1 Samuel, we see that a king cannot be a substitute for God. The people still need to honor the One who truly holds them together. Perhaps there's a lesson here for us as we approach primary election day. Instead of electing people to solve all of our problems, maybe we should remember what it means to belong together as one people and remember that it's our job to participate in that community. There is no "right person" to put into office because all people are no good. Sure, some are less no-good than others, but all people are people. Because of that, it takes more than one or two or twenty to hold us together. Yes, go to the polls and vote for the best people for each office, but don't stop there. The work isn't done. It's our work even after the election is over.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

When Religion and Love Collide

June 3, 2018 – The 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 4B

© 2018 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

During the summer after my first year of seminary, I stayed in Cambridge to do a unit of CPE, clinical pastoral education, which involved ten weeks of full-time hospital chaplaincy work along with structured reflective practice that was supposed to teach me how to be a better pastor. As some of you on whom I have called in the hospital might attest, my supervisor was far more interested in having a free extra chaplain to work in his hospital than leading me through the reflective practice that was supposed to improve my bedside manner. He didn’t really have time to teach me and, instead, preferred for me to learn by serving as if I were a full member of his staff.

As a member of that staff, part of my job was to take a turn leading Sunday-morning worship in the hospital chapel. Every Sunday morning, there was some form of Protestant worship that included Communion. Two of the other chaplains were Anglicans, but Derek, my supervisor, was some brand of non-conformist—Baptist or Presbyterian, I think. When it was my turn to lead the service, he presumed I would do it by myself, but, when I said to him, “I can’t do the Communion part,” he responded by asking, “Why not?” “Because…I can’t…I’m not allowed…I’m not ordained…yet.” He looked at me and smiled, “What difference does that make? All you have to do is say the words. You think a bishop putting hands on your head gives you some sort of magic power that I don’t have?”

He had a good point. If he was going to come up to the hospital on Sunday morning just to say the Communion part and he hadn’t been ordained by a bishop in apostolic succession, what difference would it make to the congregation if I said those words? Even the Anglicans in the congregation wouldn’t be able theologically to distinguish between a Baptist minister and an Anglican seminarian reading the words of institution and asking God to bless the bread and the grape juice. Would they? He had a good point, but I had a good point, too. If I did it, my bishop might kill me or at least throw me out of the ordination process. Rules are rules, and some are meant to be broken, but some of them aren’t. Or are they?

Today’s gospel lesson is all about religious rules that seem made to be broken. In the first encounter, when Jesus and his disciples were walking through a field on the sabbath, the hungry disciples plucked heads of grain and ate them. Or, if it’s hard to imagine plucking and eating stalks of winter wheat, imagine walking down an alley on a hot summer afternoon and seeing a blackberry bush at the base of a neighbor’s fence. When it came to plucking and eating, the disciples were in the clear. Deuteronomy 23 says that, as long as they didn’t use a sickle, they could take some of their neighbor’s grain if they were hungry, but the one thing that they couldn’t do was to take it on the sabbath: “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and made it holy.” Every seventh day, therefore, all Jewish people, including Jesus and his disciples, were to refrain from any and all work, including plucking heads of grain. The Pharisees who saw them do it had a good point. God’s law forbade it, yet their rabbi was allowing his disciples openly to violate that law.

In the first episode, Jesus was interrogated about something he had allowed his disciples to do, but, in the second, his own actions took center stage. In a synagogue was a man with a withered hand. Since it was the sabbath, the religious authorities watched to see whether Jesus would break the rules and heal the man. If his life had been in danger, the law was clear: Jesus would have been duty-bound to save the man. But, in this case, the man had a shriveled-up hand, and it gave Jesus the perfect opportunity to push the boundaries. Taking the offensive, Jesus asked the witnesses whether, in their opinion, it was “lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” Their silence spoke volumes—not only about their hardness of heart but about the confusing issue that Jesus had raised. Was it lawful? Could a healing on the sabbath be permitted? Actually, the letter of the law suggests that it wasn’t—not if the man’s life wasn’t in jeopardy. This miracle could have waited until sunset, when the sabbath was over. But Jesus wasn’t interested in waiting, nor was he interested in letting conventional wisdom rule the day. “Stretch out your hand,” Jesus said to the man. By stretching it out, the hand was restored, and immediately the religious leaders went out and conspired with their political counterparts to find a way to destroy Jesus.

What is this gospel lesson really about? The fact that the miraculous healing is portrayed almost as an afterthought suggests that, in Mark’s mind, it was more about Jesus breaking the sabbath than working a miracle. But why does that matter to us? I haven’t seriously considered keeping the sabbath since I was ten years old and trying to convince my father that it was against God’s law for me to cut the grass on a Saturday. (That didn’t work, by the way.) As Christians, we’ve long-since given up on trying to keep the sabbath. Most of us don’t even realize that the sabbath isn’t Sunday, the first day of the week, the day we set aside to commemorate our Lord’s resurrection, but Saturday, a day we reserve for ball practice, tailgating, and yard work. And why don’t we care about the fourth commandment? Partly, it’s because we’re willing to take Jesus at his word. Two thousand years later, even if we never went to Sunday school, we know who the good guy in the story is, and we know who they bad guys are. If Jesus said, “the sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the sabbath,” that’s good enough for us. But what we may not realize is that it wasn’t good enough for the people who heard him say it.

This was hugely controversial. I’ve spent all week trying to come up with a good analogy in twenty-first-century religious observance, and I still can’t think of one. For a faithful Jew in Jesus’ day, sabbath observance was fundamental. It was one of the most important ways for a Jewish person to be faithful to God. When the unholy Roman Empire tried to force Jews to become secular members of the political state, sabbath observance, along with circumcision and dietary restrictions, was one of the tried and true ways of remaining distinct. A few generations earlier, when the Seleucid emperor Antiochus IV began persecuting the Jews, the rabbis taught that, on the sabbath, it was better to be slaughtered alongside one’s family than to fight back. By the time Jesus was born, the rules had relaxed a little bit, but, when he tossed aside the sabbath requirements as if they didn’t even matter as much as his disciples’ growling stomachs, he was, in effect, spitting on the graves of those martyrs. Imagine if Jesus showed up and started teaching that a fundamental religious principle that our grandparents had been willing to die for no longer mattered. How well do you think that would go down? For twenty-first-century Christians, I think this passage has to do with a lot more than keeping the seventh day of the week holy.

This is a hard story for us to wrap our minds and hearts around because of how huge it really is. Jesus teaches us that even the rules we hold most dear must be sacrificed if they stand in the way of an individual’s wholeness with God. Think about that. On the surface, it doesn’t sound too hard…as long as we are the ones who get to decide when and where and how those rules get broken. But what if it’s some radical prophet or crazy preacher or dodgy liberal who tells us what principle, what law, what tradition must be put behind the latest social concern? I think the reason that I have had so much difficulty finding a contemporary analogue is that I cannot even imagine being asked to let go of something as important as sabbath observance was in Jesus’ day.

But, as threatening as that teaching was, it reflects a transcendent truth that all of us can wholeheartedly embrace. No rule, no rubric, no law, no custom, even if it seems to come from God, can be allowed to restrict access to God’s love. Because God is love, that makes sense. At its best, sabbath observance is about reminding God’s people that they belong to their loving Creator who remains active in their lives. Yet, like any religious law, when human beings take control, they twist it into an obstacle to the very thing that it was designed to convey. What other God-given principles have we perverted in the name of religion? Whatever it is, if it is standing in the way of healing and wholeness, if it narrows someone’s access to God’s love, no matter how much we revere it, it must be swept away. God’s love and salvation cannot be governed by human precepts; human precepts must always be subject to God’s love. If we can’t find a rule or regulation that should be discarded, maybe it’s because we’ve got it all figured out. Then again, maybe not.