Thursday, August 30, 2018

Don't Forget Corban

In Sunday's gospel lesson (Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23), we leave out a few verses here and there. On the one hand, that's not bad. The lectionary authors have done a good job of holding onto the principle behind the entire passage but cutting it down to manageable size, but there's one example that gets left out that I think helps us not only understand what's going on in the passage but also hear the passage in a way that is relevant to our context, and that's the example of corban.

If you read all of Mark 7, you see that in verses nine through thirteen Jesus offers a counterargument to the Pharisees' accusation. They have asked Jesus (perhaps accused) about his willingness to let his disciples, his religious students, ignore the traditions of their people. As I wrote on Monday, washing hands and cups and pots and saying the appropriate blessing is not merely a matter of fastidious hygiene or religious zealotry but a basic way of saying thank you to God. God is the one who gave Israel bread in the wilderness. God is the source of all blessings. Taking a moment to engage an inherited ritual act as a way of centering oneself and one's meal on one's relationship with God makes sense. Jesus was letting his disciples skip it, and the Pharisees wanted to know why, but, in Jesus' counterargument, we discover what was really going on.

"You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!" Jesus said to them. Right away, before he offers any teaching on the subject, we see that Jesus is going to hit back. The Pharisees' question either touched a nerve or came with a self-righteous accusation, and Jesus wasn't willing to leave it alone. Turning to the ultimate tradition of his people, the Law of Moses, Jesus quotes the commandments and the law: "Honor your father and mother" and "Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die." Everyone can agree on that, but then Jesus exposes a contradiction in the part of his opponents: "But you say, 'If a man tells his father or his mother, "Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban"' (that is, given to God)—then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down." As if this finished the argument with them, Jesus said, "And many such things you do."

Apparently, as best we can tell, individuals were excused from the obligation of caring for a parent if they had already promised that money to God. Maybe that's like saying to a dying mother, "I'd like to come and visit you and take care of you for a few days while Dad gets a break, but my pledge to my church is so high that I can't afford our family's vacation to Disney World and a trip to see you." Part of the problem with this verse is that we don't really know what "corban" is. This word is a hapax legomenon, a word that only occurs once in the Bible, and this is the only real context we have for interpreting it. In a circular way, therefore, we assume that "corban" means a gift promised to God because that's the way it's used here. But we get the point: allowing human religious traditions to stand in the way of divine precepts is not what God asks of us.

That little bit about corban helps me remember that this isn't just a dispute over whether washing hands and pots is necessary. As I wrote on Monday, it's easy, as a Protestant, "faith-alone" Christian to dismiss the Pharisees' question as a law-loving, ritual-prioritizing inquiry from the old covenant, but that over simplifies things. Jesus may have, as Mark adds in an editorial comment, "declared all foods clean," but the point Jesus wants to make is to call into question our priorities. When are we holding to human tradition at the expense of God's word? The answer is all the time, and the danger of it shows up pretty clearly in between the verses appointed for Sunday's gospel lesson.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Solomon's Forgotten Song

A few years ago, I taught a Bible study on Song of Solomon. Our group met weekly, moving from one book of the Bible or a specific biblical theme to another, and, after building some trust with the group, I decided to study the Song. In the Bible, the love of husband and wife is a common image for God's love for the world. So, too, is the love of parent and child. But rarely is God's love for us likened to the passion between two lovers. We read the entire Song, starting with the images in the text and then digging beneath the surface in search of its sexual connotations and then digging further to make the connection between those sexual images and God's love for us. At times, it felt like a competition among us to see who could make everyone else blush. I think everyone enjoyed it.

On Sunday, those congregations that use Track 1 of the RCL will read Song of Solomon 2:8-13. Those who use Track 2 won't have that opportunity, nor will they ever have that opportunity. These 6 verses are the ONLY verses from Song of Solomon that we read during the three-year lectionary cycle, and they only appear twice: this week in Proper 17B and as a secondary choice in Proper 9A. In both cases, they are only read in Track 1. In the Episcopal Church, one of the marriage readings is from Song of Solomon, but Sunday congregations only get the slightest passing encounter with it. Why?

A member of our parish staff, who grew up in the Baptist church, said, "As an adolescent, I was told not to read it." He recalled being told that it was a book in the Bible that was off-limits to children and youth. Given its clear passages about sex before marriage and giving into one's passions and hiding from family and neighbors during outdoor romps, it may have been off-limits for adults, too. It is erotic. Its images may not be explicit, but what they represent surely is. Hands being thrust into cracks, channels blossoming with orchids and pomegranates, one's beloved pasturing his flock among the lilies...let the reader understand! The problem, of course, isn't with the biblical text but with us. We aren't comfortable talking about the beauty of sexual intimacy and the created sexual identity of the human person, so we sure aren't comfortable talking about God in that way.

The passage we have for Sunday is pretty tame. (Maybe that's why we only read this one.) In it, the narrative voice hears the voice of her beloved, and her heart stirs. She sees him standing behind the garden wall, peeking in through the lattice. He speaks to her, beckoning her to come out with him. As the flowers blossom and figs produce fruit, it is spring and summer all at once, and his arrival and their time together represents the end of winter's darkness and the time for singing and celebration. Does God ever come to us like that? Do we allow ourselves to be beckoned away by our beloved?

We belong to God. God loves us without limit. Sometimes that feels like belonging in a kindergarten class or at a family table. Sometimes that feels like being loved by a parent or a friend. But sometimes our belonging to God is better described as the kind of belonging that nothing else can break through--the kind of togetherness that is shown by two young lovers who can't even hear their parents calling out to them. Sometimes God's love for us is as possessive as a captivated lover who thinks of nothing else all day long. That's how God loves us...if we are willing to remember it.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Participating in God's Righteous Anger

In Sunday's epistle lesson from James 1, we get a piece of advice that could easily get missed on a busy Sunday: "let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God's righteousness." That's a powerful observation. Our anger does not produce God's righteousness, so we can afford to be slow to anger. It's an attitude of faith.

Anger is fashionable. We are collectively outraged in important ways at important times. We are angry when another mass shooting takes place. We are furious when a parent inadvertently leaves a sleeping child in a hot car. We are outraged when a dog-fighting ring is exposed. Anger is not a sin. God gets angry--or at least God's people understand that God gets angry as a way of expressing the good and right disconnect between the One who is all-holy, all-loving, all-caring and the events and people that fill us with rage. How we get angry and how we express that anger, however, makes the difference between participating in God's righteousness and attempting to manufacture our own.

A few weeks ago, I was in the airport and wanted to walk up a long escalator instead of riding along as if on a carnival ride. In most countries, people who ride stand on the right and people who walk pass by on the left. Perhaps you've noticed that we don't adhere to that standard in this country. Anyway, I motioned as if to pass, and a very nice couple ahead of me said, "Oh, would you like to pass? Here, we'll move over!" I thanked them in the sweetest, gentlest, most appreciative way and proceeded up the escalator. Another person graciously moved aside, and, again, I offered sincere thanks. Then, I came to another man whose bag was in the way. I paused for a minute without saying anything. He looked over his shoulder, saw me, and turned back to face the front. "Excuse me, sir," I said quietly. "May I please get past?" He turned around and said, "You'll get to the top in a minute. You can wait." I was furious. I asked again, more emphatically, if I could pass, and, again, he refused. So I used my foot to slide his bag out of my way, walked past him, and then turned around and said, "You know, I just wanted a few inches to get past you. You didn't have to be a jerk about it!"

In an instant, all my good will, all my care, all my politeness evaporated. Everyone with whom I had enjoyed a pleasant exchange up the escalator saw that just beneath the surface I was as volatile as any other angry traveler. The really sad and disappointing thing was that I held onto that anger for hours until slowly it burned away into a general feeling of resentment. And why? Sure, he was a jerk. Sure, there was no external explanation for why he had refused my polite request to pass. I was right, but my anger didn't make it so. All my anger did was confuse the "right" of the situation with the self-importance, self-involvement, self-seeking that lives within me and that showed itself in that moment. There are dozens of ways that I could have handled that differently--ways that would not have denied the wrong, ways that would have insisted on the right, ways that would have invited the man to consider his refusal instead of giving him a story to tell about another angry traveler.

Anger is not wrong, but how we get angry and how we express our anger often is. Asking and answering his own question, my boss used to say, "Never spank your children when you're angry...but when else would you want to spank them? Exactly." James reminds us how to keep it in perspective. Be slow to anger. Most simply, that means letting time pass, letting the moment go, before offering an angry response. But I don't think it always has a temporal dimension. One doesn't need to wait a few days after a violent attack to be justifiably angry at the situation, but "slow anger" can also mean calculated, careful, deliberate anger--anger at the legislative process, anger at the culture we inhabit, anger at our collective refusal to do anything besides get angry.

Our anger does not produce God's righteousness. God is righteous. Our anger must be a desire to participate in that righteousness. God gets angry. Jesus gets angry. We get angry, too, but is our anger a product of our faithfulness or an attempt to manufacture our own sense of justice?

Monday, August 27, 2018

Ritual Purity

It's not easy to go out to eat with little children. Not only are they squirmy, noisy, and impatient, but they're often picky eaters. Finding a restaurant that serves food that is attractive to everyone in your party can be a real deterrent. The same is true for sharing a meal with friends who don't have children as young and picky as your own. By the time you load up hot dogs, fruit slices, and Cheerios into your cooler so that your two-year-old will have something to eat, it almost feels silly to go to someone else's house.

I don't know this from personal experience, but I observe that it is difficult to live as a vegetarian and, of course, even more difficult to live as a vegan. As I've written before, a clergy mentor of mine who is a vegetarian struggled to find a pastoral connection with his parish in part because they wanted to have him over for meat-and-potatoes style meals but were afraid to invite him over for a meatless meal. They didn't know how to do it well enough for the vicar, and so a rift developed. It's hard to have a gluten-free diet. It can be hard to abstain from alcohol, especially when booze is as much a part of your social culture as it is in Episcopal circles.

Making accommodation isn't easy. It requires effort on all sides. And, when that accommodation is for religious purposes, changing a recipe or abstaining from a dish becomes an expression of faith. We honor God and our relationship with God by holding onto the tradition of our faith even when--especially when--it's inconvenient.

So, in Sunday's gospel lesson from Mark 7, why does Jesus seem to throw aside the traditions of his faith as if they were wrong in the first place? The Pharisees and some of the scribes come to Jesus, a recognized religious leader, a rabbi with a growing following, and ask him why he allows his disciples to eat without ritually cleansing their hands. The cleansing process doesn't take too long. It requires some deliberate washing and praying. One can accomplish it in a minute or two. They may have had a critical tone or a scoffing attitude, but their question would have been a natural one. Just as I would ask a colleague why he or she celebrated Eucharist but omitted the Lord's Prayer, they are asking a rabbi why he has dispensed with a nearly universal practice in their faith. And Jesus isn't happy about it.

His reply? "Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, 'This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.' You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition." In other words, Jesus has decided that one of the central practices of his people's faith is a human invention and not a divine mandate. Does he have the authority to do this? Of course he does. But why make it such a big deal?

Maybe the best way to make sense of Jesus' statement is to accept the assumptions that usually undergird the interpretation of this passage: the Pharisees were hypocrites who only maintained religious practice for show. Maybe that's true. Maybe the Pharisees weren't approaching Jesus in genuine concern but in order to discredit him. But I'm not so sure. As you can tell, I want to start from a place of tradition as genuine religion--of practice leading to faith--because that's foundational to my experience of religion. I want to know whether Jesus has a problem with tradition itself--with symbolic practice engendering actual relationship because, if he does, I may need to consider a career change.

The key, I think, comes is weighing carefully Jesus' logic: "Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile." That makes sense. Eating without washing my hands doesn't automatically make me a bad person, but can't it also mean I've missed an opportunity to express my gratitude to God for giving me a holy meal? The mistake is letting the practice replace the relationship. I can't have a meaningful relationship with God by showing up to church on Sunday. But showing up to church on Sunday can be an important part of honoring and engendering a meaningful relationship with God. And sometimes preachers like Jesus have to take an extreme position to cut through the centuries of inherited tradition.

I might be preaching this Sunday, and, as a month-old new rector, this could be my chance to throw all of our traditions out the window just to prove a point. But why would I want to update my OTM profile (online clergy career database) this early in my tenure?

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Flesh and Blood, Body and Spirit, Faith and Action

August 26, 2018 – The 14th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 16B

© 2018 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here, and video of the whole service is available on St. Paul's YouTube feed.

Pieces of pie with meringue reaching up almost half a foot from the plate. Slices of cake beside abundant piles of whipped cream. Bright green and red and orange squares of Jell-O glistening under the florescent lights. Stacks of cookies on saucers just waiting to be devoured. Those are the things I remember about the line at Morrison’s Cafeteria. When I was a young child, going to Morrison’s after church was a real treat in part because it was the only place I knew that let you pick your dessert after you’d seen it. Sure, I had to pick a meat and some vegetables, too, but the only decision I really cared about was selecting a dessert. After making my choice, I was always discouraged to sit down at the table with my parents and unload my cafeteria tray, arranging each plate in its proper place, and be reminded that I was not permitted to eat that dessert until I had finished everything else. Having put so much emotional energy into the decision over which dessert I would choose, it felt like a crime to have to focus on fried chicken and green beans while the gigantic piece of coconut cake that I had chosen, a piece which was already reserved for me, sat temptingly close on the table.

It’s hard to find a Morrison’s or a Piccadilly anymore. The cafeteria approach to American dining, which satisfied our first national temptation of limitless choice, has given way to places like Ryan’s and Golden Corral, which cater to that second great temptation of limitless calories. But the cafeteria model is alive and well in other cultural institutions, and nowhere has it found as comfortable a home as in American Christianity. Is there a better image for contemporary religion in this country? We aren’t just Christians, we’re Episcopalians or Methodists or Baptists. And, more specific than that, we aren’t just Episcopalians but high-church or low-church or broad-church. We’re liberal or progressive or moderate or traditional or conservative. We take the stuff we like, and leave behind the stuff we don’t, and, if the new priest won’t let us, we just leave him behind and find a new church. How else could deeply committed Evangelical Christians and deeply committed liberal Christians represent opposite sides of the political spectrum? We follow our own brand of Jesus and, without realizing it, worship an idol of our own creation.

Jesus had something else in mind, and it’s hard to read John 6 and not get the feeling that we’ve wondered pretty far off track. For the last several Sundays, we’ve read gospel lessons about the “Bread of Life.” Each week, Jesus’ teaching has intensified as we’ve gone from loaves and fish to bread from heaven to flesh and blood. And, now, in the gospel account, we’ve reached a breaking point. After hearing him preach in the synagogue that eating his flesh and drinking his blood would give them eternal life, some of Jesus’ committed followers came to him with grave concerns and said, “Rabbi, this is a difficult teaching. Who can accept it?” They wanted him to cut them some slack. They needed him to give them some wiggle room, to explain to them in private that he was using hyperbole and that they didn’t actually have to practice cannibalism in order to get to heaven, but Jesus didn’t give them what they were looking for.

“Does this offend you?” Jesus asked in response. “Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?” Jesus often used exaggerated statements and analogies in parables in order to make his point, but this time he was serious. “Does this offend you?” he asked. Literally, “Does this scandalize you? Does it cause you to stumble?” I prefer it when sweet, reassuring Jesus takes me by the hand and says, “Are you having a tough time with something I said? Here, let me explain it in a way that makes you feel better.” But that’s not the Jesus who shows up in John 6. (In fact, that’s not the Jesus who ever shows up except in our imagination.) Instead, this Jesus goes for the rhetorical nuclear option: “What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?” In other words, what if God pulled back the curtain and placed his arm around my shoulder and said, ‘This is my Son; listen to him?’ Would you take me at my word then, or would you still want to grumble about what I have to say?”

Last week in our staff meeting, Fr. Chuck reminded us that the phrase “flesh and blood” in a Semitic context meant more than muscle tissue and red and white blood cells, platelets, and plasma. To a Jewish ear, “flesh and blood” meant “the whole person” or what we Greek-thinkers might call “body and soul” or “body and spirit.” So Jesus wasn’t only asking his followers to consume literally his body and blood but to take into themselves everything that he offered them, physically and spiritually. He wanted them to follow him not only in theory but also in practice. He was trying to tell them that true life in this world and in the next comes to those who follow Jesus with body and mind and spirit. You can’t pick which teachings you like, the ones that suit your preconceived notion of who God is and what God wants for your life. If you want true and abundant life, life that never ceases, you must accept the realities of Jesus’ instructions in this world so that you can experience them in the world to come.

Given what Jesus had already said and done in the first five chapters of John’s gospel account, this shouldn’t surprise us. By this point, he had already chased the money changers out of the temple, challenging the religious apparatus of his day. He had told Nicodemus, a leader among the Jewish people, that he must leave behind everything he knew and loved in order to be born again. He had ministered to the Samaritan woman at the well and offered her and her people the good news of salvation. He had healed the invalid by the pool on the Sabbath and had equated his own work with that of his Father in heaven. In other words, he had demonstrated over and over that God’s saving work must be as much manifest in this life, in this world, in this way of being, as it will be in the next, when God’s reign comes in its totality. And those who pretend that they can honor the reign of God in their hearts and minds and prayers without honoring it in their work and life and relationships have fooled themselves right out of the kingdom. That is a difficult teaching, indeed. Who can accept it?

“Because of this,” John tells us, “many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” Losing followers in droves, Jesus apparently cared more about the content of discipleship than the quantity of disciples who followed him. Can we say the same about ourselves and our church? There is admirable integrity to leaving. If a church or a charity or another organization upholds a philosophy that we cannot accept, it is an honorable thing to leave instead of pretending that those fundamental differences don’t matter. When Jesus asked his closest disciples whether they, too, wished to go away, Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” Could we say the same thing to Jesus? Do we recognize in his teachings a cafeteria of philosophical options from which we take the ones we want while ignoring the ones we find less palatable? Or are we taking him and his way completely into our hearts and minds and souls and bodies?

Turn the other cheek. Love your enemies. Forgive without limit. Sell everything that you have and give it to the poor. Take only the shirt on your back and the staff in your hand. Become like little children. Hate your father and mother and even your own life. Take up your cross and follow me. Whoever loses her life for my sake will find it for eternal life. The words that Jesus says to us are spirit and life, but will we hear them? Can we hear them? If we hear them only with the ears of our flesh, we cannot receive them. If we pretend that they are only a guide for our spirits, we can have no share with him. But isn’t that why we’re here? Aren’t we here because we want to be a part of something that matters—something more than a preacher talking about Jesus and a congregation pretending to follow him? We’re here because we want to bring the whole life and ministry of Jesus into ourselves—body and soul, heart and life, belief and action—and join in the work of following him. May that be who we are as a community of faith and as individual disciples of Jesus.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Reimagining the Armor of God

I remember driving down the highway in Honduras and stopping at a routine police checkpoint where a man holding a machine gun eyed our van. We were on a church trip and had no reason to fear, yet the sight of a weapon appropriate for a military-style assault awakened some panic within me. Maybe that was its intent.

The NFL has changed its rules yet again to try to minimize head injuries. It has made it illegal for any player, including the one with the ball, to lead contact with an opposing player by using any part of the helmet except the face mask. It used to be that you couldn't "spear" a player with the crown of your helmet or use your helmet to hit a defenseless player. Given that rugby players typically wear either no helmet at all or a soft-shell layer of padding, it makes me wonder whether the helmet itself is the problem. Perhaps football players would self-select what kind of hits they dish out if they went back to the leather caps they wore until 1950.

I remember listening to an NPR interview of a retired police chief who described what he had learned during a violent protest in his town. Being interviewed after the violence in Ferguson, MO, he recalled how in another city, when he anticipated violence from the crowd, he ordered that his officers were to wear full riot gear and be supported by mounted police, and the crowd became violent. In his opinion, the crowd responded to the military-style gear with increased violence. Learning from the mistake, the next time there was a potentially violent protest, he ordered that his police would wear usual uniforms and leave the horses at home, and nothing terrible happened. People, he said, react to what they see and feel around them.

In Ephesians 6, when the author urges his readers to "put on the whole armor of God," he invites them to get prepared for battle--a spiritual battle with the forces of evil. They are to equip themselves with the "belt of truth...breastplate of righteousness...shield of faith...the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit." This is hardly the single tunic, no bag, and no money with which Jesus sent his disciples out into the world. Sure, they were to be "wise as serpents," but they were also to be as "harmless as doves." It's hard to be harmless when you're wearing full military armor. That's like arguing that open-carry laws are about keeping people safe. That's true in theory, but that theory depends on the threat of deadly force.

How can we reclaim the image of the armor of God? Maybe we can't. Maybe in this weaponized, NRA-influenced, gun-obsessed culture in which we live we just have to put it aside and say that the author didn't know what he was talking about. But that's not usually my approach to scripture. I want to take this image and turn it, to use Janet Martin Soskice's phrase, until it is robbed of its violent foundation, and I look to two parts of Sunday's reading to attempt that.

First, I look to the author's emphasis on spiritual warfare as distinct from physical warfare: "For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places." In Christian theology, the "rulers" or "powers" always represent not only the people opposed to God's salvific work in the world but the spiritual evil that they represent. You don't need a sword or a gun or a helmet to do battle with them. Instead you need truth, righteousness, the gospel of peace, faith, salvation, and word of God. Those are the real focus of the author's armor image. We put on truth as fully, clearly, and tangibly as if it were a belt around our waist.

Second, I look to the end of the reading, when the author, presumably Paul, asks his readers to pray for him "that when [he] speak[s], a message may be given to [him] to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which [he is] an ambassador in chains." In chains! Willingly accepting his imprisonment and the death that awaits him in Rome. He is not asking for physical rescue but spiritual sustenance to do the work of proclaiming the gospel. This is power in weakness. This is not physical armament but the yielding of self-defense and the embrace of spiritual defense. Whether we can hear it or not, the author did not intend physical violence to be the path of discipleship, and it is the preacher's job to reverse that trend.

I'm not planning to preach on Ephesians 6, but, if I were, I would be looking for a way to engage the surprise contained in these verses. On the surface they are about preparing for battle, but, at their core, they cannot be about physical protection--only spiritual. Maybe that sounds like going out into battle completely naked. Maybe it's the film Hacksaw Ridge. Whatever it is, it's risky--just like the gospel.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Hoping To Be Least

Bartholomew may have won the prize for being least among the disciples. This Friday, we celebrate his life and witness, but what that really means is that we celebrate his name because his name is all that we have. He is mentioned among the twelve disciples in the Synoptic tradition, but John, who never really names all twelve disciples, gives the story of Nathaniel's calling, and the tradition, perhaps because it's looking for something to say about Bart, pretends that they are the same person. That's how not-well-known Bart is.

Since we don't know anything about him, we don't know what role he played in the disciples' debate over who was the greatest (see Luke 22:24-30), but I like to think that he hung back, standing off to the side, letting Peter and James and John and Thomas argue about which one of them was the most important disciple. Even Matthew the tax collector had an argument to make since, as a tax collector, he was the most notorious sinner and, thus, the best example of Jesus' redemption among them. Bartholomew, well, we don't know his story. And maybe that's because he took Jesus' words so seriously.

When he heard them arguing among themselves, Jesus said, "The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves...I am among you as one who serves." The word that is commonly translated for us as "Gentiles" is a Greek word that means "nations" or, more simply, "others." Perhaps said another way, then, Jesus tells them, "Other leaders prefer to be masters, but you must be servants because I am one who serves." Doesn't that make sense? If we are following the one who came to serve others, mustn't we be servants, too?

One summer when I was at camp, the boys in our age group lined up for Sunday-night dinner. When the bell rang, we raced toward the kitchen, knowing that everyone would get the same thing but still wanting to get it first. Right before the food was served, one of the counselors told all of us to turn around, and he then led the whole group, starting with the last boy in line, all the way around to the front to be served first. "The last will be first," he said to the disappointment of those near the front. The following week, we had learned our lesson (or so we thought). When the bell rang, we all raced to get into the back of the line. Clamoring for position near the back, the line stretched further and further away from the kitchen. When it was time for the food to be served, however, the boy in the front of the line ate first. "What happened to 'the last will be first?'" we asked the counselor. And he simply replied, "What do you think that really means?"

Jesus finishes this teaching by predicting that the disciples, who have stood by him in his trials, will be given a kingdom just as the Father has conferred upon him a kingdom. It's tempting to think that those who spend a little time serving others and accepting the role of least among us will one day be rewarded richly for it, that we will become kings if we adopt a servant mentality for a time. That may be true, but the kingdom God is conferring upon us, the kingdom God is conferring upon God's Son, is not one of power, might, and wealth. It's one of humility, simplicity, and gentleness. True power, true kingship, is meekness and servanthood. Jesus wasn't on earth pretending to be humble for thirty-three years so that he could impress his Father and receive heavenly power. He came among us as God the impoverished, God the powerless, God the vulnerable in order to reveal true power and transform the world not simply by switching the roles of the rich and poor, the strong and weak, but to make this world the place where servanthood is celebrated not as a means to another end but as a goal in itself. That's who Jesus was, and that's who Jesus invites us to be. Will we follow him?

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

The Ascension Changes Everything

Ascension Day, forty days into the Easter season, was a long time ago, but this Sunday, in John 6:56-69, Jesus reminds us that his ascension into heaven changes everything. After laying out the difficult teaching that his flesh is true food and that those who eat his flesh will live forever, some of Jesus' disciples begin to desert him. They asked about it, hoping Jesus would explain the metaphor or acknowledge the hyperbole, but Jesus, in effect, doubled down yet again, saying, "Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?"

In yesterday's post, I wrote that these words were an intensification of his teaching. Instead of backing down, he went further. The crowd of disciples wanted him to cut them some slack, but Jesus intensified the problematic teaching. "You think that's hard?" he asked. "What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending [into heaven]?" The implied answer is, "Then I guess we'd have to take the Son of Man at his word." It is that moment when you're joking with your boss and take it a little too far and your boss clears her throat and asks, "Do you remember which office I work in?"

But today I want to focus on hope. I want to get to that place where Peter and the twelve end up. Instead of running away, they come to Jesus and say, "Where else will we go? You're the one who has the words that lead to eternal life. Your teaching may be difficult, but truth is truth." And to get there I think we need to go back to Jesus' prediction of his ascension and hear it with a different tone. Instead of hearing it as a throat-clearing reality-check, I think we need to hear it as a reassuring promise of "wait and see."

As I wrote yesterday, the ascension into heaven is the ultimate confirmation of the divine approval given to the prophet. Although not based in scripture, the extra-canonical tradition has Moses ascending into heaven. Elijah ascends into heaven. Enoch (whoever that is) ascends into heaven. And Jesus, of course, ascends into heaven. His ascension follows his bodily resurrection, which changes the nature of his ascension from that of "welcome home" to that of divine glorification. Still, the point is the same. When the Son of Man ascends into heaven and his disciples see it, it means that everything he has declared must be true. So, when Jesus says, "Does this offend you? What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?"he is saying, "Would it help if you witnessed God's ultimate vindication of my teaching? What would you do then?"

The struggle for us isn't making sense of Jesus' strange and challenging "eat me" message. It's following Jesus and accepting him at his word. Because of Jesus' resurrection and ascension, it doesn't matter what part of Jesus' teaching we don't like or would rather leave aside. As the disciples saw Jesus ascending into heaven, they witnessed on our behalf God saying yet again. "This is my Son; listen to him!" Does that make the teaching any easier? No. But it does make the teaching right, which is what it has been all the time. We may not understand it, but we have to follow it, and follow it we do every time we stick out our hands (or our tongue) and receive the body of Christ, the flesh given for the life of the world, in Holy Communion. That we still do that every week is a reminder that we follow the one whom God has vindicated--not because we like his teaching or because we understand it but because he is God's anointed one whose words lead to eternal life.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Triple Dog Dare

In our house, we are divided. Half of us adores A Christmas Story, and the other half despises it. It becomes a real source of contention not only at Christmas time, when one can watch 24 hours of that sacred movie, but also throughout the year when someone (usually me) brings up a cultural reference or makes an analogy using the film. It is a cinematic tour de force of such richness, such splendor, that one would struggle to name a top five favorite moments much less a single favorite. Among my many treasured scenes is the part when Schwartz dares Flick to stick his tongue to a metal flagpole on a frigid day. Schwartz "double dares" his counterpart, who hesitates, before offering the "double dog dare." As the narrator reminds us, Schwartz "created a slight breech of etiquette" when he skiped over the "triple dare" and jumped right to the "triple dog dare" but the stage was thus set for the showdown that ended when the fire department was called to help remove Flick's tongue from the pole.

In Sunday's gospel lesson, Jesus looks at his disciples and triple dog dares them to take him at his word. For the last several weeks, he's been elevating the rhetoric each Sunday, raising the theological and gastronomic stakes, and, finally, this week, as we end the bread of life discourse (finally!), he pulls out all the stops.

In John 6:56-69, Jesus finishes his challenging sayings to the crowd and then steps aside with his disciples for some reflection. Remember how we got here. Week 1: Jesus multiples the loaves and fish. Week 2: The crowd follows Jesus, and he tells them to seek the true bread from heaven that gives eternal life, which he identifies as himself. Week 3: Jesus doubles down on the image and tells the grumbling authorities that whoever eats his flesh will live forever. Week 4: Jesus seemingly strips away the metaphor and declares that his flesh and blood are true food and true drink. And now it's week 5. Jesus gets a quiet moment with his disciples, when he has a chance to say, "Hey guys, I'm just kidding. But did you see how upset they got?" but he doesn't. Instead, he pulls out the triple dog dare.

John writes, "When many of his disciples heard it, they said, 'This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?' But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, 'Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?'" To be honest, given how literal this flesh-eating had become, I am partly relieved that Jesus didn't take out a knife and start slicing off pieces of himself. But Jesus' response is, perhaps, no less controversial. Those of us who know how Jesus' ministry ends--with the resurrection--may not find it as unsettling as the disciples, but Jesus' "what if" is provocative. By inviting them to consider the possibility that they might seem him ascending into heaven as the glorified Son of Man, Jesus invited them to take literally the comparisons that had been made between Jesus and Moses, between Jesus and Elijah, and between Jesus and God's anointed one, whose divinely appointed job was to usher in the end times. It is, in effect, the ultimate trump card. If Jesus were to ascend back to heaven, then nothing he claimed would be unreasonable. Everything he said would have to be taken seriously. You can't back out of a triple dog dare, and you can't disagree with one who comes from heaven.

In effect, Jesus said, "Take it or leave it. You either accept everything I've told you as gospel truth or give up on the lot. You don't get to pick and choose." John tells us that many of Jesus' disciples left him because of his difficult teaching. In earthly terms, Jesus had pushed it too far. He had used the metaphor of his flesh being the bread of life one time too many. But Jesus went to the disciples and asked whether they, too, would leave, but Peter replied, "To whom else would we go? You have the words of eternal life." And they stuck their collective tongue out and allowed it to get frozen right on the flag pole.

These are challenging words, but they are also comforting words. Later this week (I think), I'll look at this passage as Jesus' great words of relief: "You don't actually have to eat my flesh." But that's for another day. Still, the triple dog dare is in effect. If you think eating Jesus' flesh is difficult, try believing everything he teaches. This isn't the most difficult by far.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018


I grew up in the Deep South, in a town where everyone was presumed to be Christian and the only distinctions of faith were on a subjective scale of nominality. There were plenty of small non-denominational congregations, and, although they may have taken Jesus seriously, their members weren't taken seriously by the rest of us. The Baptists were the dominant presence in the community, and we recognized differences between "big-church" Baptists and those who took their faith seriously enough to go to the smaller congregations where fiery preachers were more easily tolerated. Methodists were pretty common, and they were glad to not be Baptists, but the differences between Methodists and "big-church" Baptists were primarily manifest in their recycling bins. (Methodists were willing to recycle beer and wine bottles at the curb.) Presbyterians were present but not numerous, and, unless they had broken away from the mainline denomination and joined the Evangelical PCA, they were thought of as nearly as nominal as the Episcopalians, who were dangerously close to Catholics. Most of us recognized that Catholics were Christians, although some would question openly whether they would really go to heaven when they died. Plenty of us wrongly assumed that their version of Christianity involved a strange mix of taking orders from the Pope, praying to idol statues, and confusing the roles of Jesus and his mother in the economy of salvation. It seems pretty silly looking back, but those stigmas have a lingering effect.

I've always been afraid of Mary. More accurately, I've been afraid of Mariology or Marian devotion. "We don't do that," seemed like a pretty sufficient response for a Protestant of any stripe. Those suspicious aren't a new development. They've been part of the Protestant heritage since the Reformation, when Puritan influences removed to varying degrees anything that seemed tainted with the vague and unpleasant odor of popery. In the Anglican tradition, the Puritans didn't win out, but they certainly helped strip (or at least force underground) any Marian piety in the Church of England and, by extension, its successors. For example, note that, of the Thirty-Nine Articles, at least three have something to do with denying a prominent role of Mary in Anglican theology (IX, XV, XXII). So it's not only in my upbringing, it's also part of our church's history. But, today, as we celebrate the Feast of St. Mary the Virgin (not the Assumption of Mary, which is a Roman holiday and doctrine not celebrated in the Episcopal Church's calendar), I wonder (again) whether Mary might be the best model of Christian sainthood that we have and that as Anglicans we've missed it because of our fear of "popery."

This morning, I was reading Hannah's song in the Daily Office. It forms the basis for Mary's song in Luke 1, and it reminded me how foundational the availability for the Holy Spirit's work is to both of those women's witness to God. In the scriptural account, both Mary and Hannah are seen by God, acknowledged by God, and blessed by God. To Eli the priest, Hannah says, "Let your servant find favor in your sight." Similarly, the Angel Gabriel says to Mary, "You have found favor with God." We aren't told what that means, and that leads to a lot of Marian doctrine and devotion that seem unnecessary (perhaps unreasonable), but the primary witness of both women is to what God does in and through them, not what they do on their own.

Isn't that sainthood? Doesn't being a saint--a "holy one of God"--mean being one through whom God acts? God makes us holy. Mary's response to God's invitation, "Here I am, the servant of the Lord," is the response of all through whom God acts. Few (i.e. none) have a witness as profound as that of the Mother of God, but the basis for God's action coming into the world through human beings is the same. Mary, then, is a paragon not of self-generated holiness (that's Jesus' role) but of God-generated holiness, and a holiness that spills over into the world. May her witness shine bright in the eyes of our faith so that, like her, we, too, may say to God, "Behold, the servant of the Lord."

Monday, August 13, 2018

So Much For Metaphor

Yesterday. I had the luxury of preaching on the part of Jesus' bread of life discourse in which he wants the crowd and the authorities to understand that he is the bread of life that has come down from heaven. They seem to have misunderstood his message. Jesus mentions bread that endures for eternal life, and the crowd wants to find the bread. Jesus says to them, "I am the bread of life," meaning not the kind of bread you could buy in the market or make at home or even gather up in the wilderness when God sends it down from heaven to sustain God's people but Jesus himself. Jesus is the bread of life.

It makes a good image or analogy. Jesus is the bread of life. He is the basic physical sustenance for God's people. The spiritual nourishment that he provides is as foundational as bread is in their diet. God provided manna in the wilderness, and God is providing the bread of life in Jesus. One is actually eaten by God's people, and the other is internalized in other ways. It's a nifty analogy, and last Sunday was a chance to refocus from real bread to spiritual bread.

And then there's this week's gospel lesson.

Jesus tells the crowd and the authorities, "...the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh." Again, maybe it's a metaphor that links the upcoming crucifixion with the spiritual sustenance that God is giving the world through God's Son. But then Jesus doubles down and leaves me confused and slightly sickened.

The religious authorities, still unable to perceive metaphor, ask, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" And, just when we're expecting Jesus to say, "It's a metaphor, you twits!" instead, he declares, "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink."

My flesh is true food? My blood is true drink? In contemporary parlance, the word "literally" has become itself an analogical intensifier. "That is literally the worst thing I could ever imagine," someone would say sympathetically to a friend not actually (literally) meaning that it was the worst thing imaginable. But that practice wasn't familiar to Jesus and his contemporaries. When he said, "really food" and "really drink," he meant it. Really?

Sometimes it's fun for the preacher to say, "According to this week's readings, everything you heard last week is wrong." That wouldn't be a bad place to start. I'll spend this week trying to figure out when to hear Jesus speaking in metaphor and when he's speaking literally literally. I'll have some time to explore how his flesh is true food, and how "true food" might be different from "food indeed." And, hopefully, by Sunday, I'll be ready to hear what, in the gospel reading for the following Sunday, the disciples will call "a difficult teaching." Because then I'll have another week to preach on it.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Salvation Is A Gift Not A Treasure Hunt

August 12, 2018 – The 12th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 14B

© 2018 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

Have you ever heard a preacher tell a story or use an analogy that was so entertaining, so compelling, so inspiring that you forgot what the rest of the sermon was about? As a preacher, I can tell when I have spent too much time on the window dressing and not enough time on the content of a sermon because the comments I get from people on their way out of church have more to do with the anecdote than the gospel. The comments themselves aren’t deflating, but the realization that I missed the opportunity to invite a congregation to hear what God is saying instead of what their preacher has to say is.

I suppose, however, that faithful preaching requires both a faithful preacher and a faithful congregation. And I suppose that, in theory, the misplaced focus on an image or analogy could be the listeners’ fault and not the preacher’s. I say that not because I want to defend myself or my preaching but because, in today’s gospel lesson, Jesus used a catchy image that seems to have distracted his audience, and I’m far more likely to criticize our collective listening than Jesus’ preaching.

“I am the bread of life,” he said to them. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” We hear those words as if spoken in a gentle, reassuring tone—the words of a savior beckoning God’s people to come to him and be sustained forever. But, when we read them in the larger context of John 6, we discover that Jesus wasn’t trying to encourage the crowd but to refocus their attention on his real message. In what would have been our gospel lesson if we had not celebrated the Feast of the Transfiguration last Sunday, Jesus said to the multitude, “You’re only looking for me because you ate your fill of the loaves and the fish that I multiplied for you. Quit searching for the food that perishes, and start pursuing the food that endures to eternal life—the true bread of heaven.” He was talking about himself, of course, but, when they heard him speak of the “true bread from heaven” that “gives life to the world,” all they wanted to know was where they could find that magic bread.

I grew up on the Gulf Coast, and, whenever forecasters predicted that a hurricane was coming, the run on milk and bread left the store shelves empty, and friends and neighbors would tell each other which store still had some. Living in northern Alabama, whenever the meteorologist mentioned the possibility of even a dusting of snow, we experienced the same phenomenon. Given that milk and bread are some of the first things that spoil, that doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it seems that the survival instinct runs strong in every generation. Jesus mentioned that he could give the people a bread that endures for eternal life, and, after that, the only thing that they cared about was finding that bread. “Sir, give us this bread always,” they said. And Jesus replied, “I am the bread of life, you twits!” (The word “twits” isn’t in the Greek manuscript, of course, but I like to imagine him using a tone that made his intentions clear.) “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” I wonder what tone Jesus uses when he speaks those words to us. I wonder whether we, in our pursuit of Jesus, have become so focused on finding the right bread, the magic path that leads to heaven, that we have forgotten what it means to take Jesus at his word.

Today’s gospel lesson is all about misunderstandings. Notice that the crowd wasn’t the only group that was confused. The religious authorities, whom John unhelpfully nicknames “the Jews,” started complaining when they heard what Jesus had to say. Jesus said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven,” and they immediately began to grumble among themselves about Jesus’ origins. Unlike the crowd, who got distracted by his words about bread, they couldn’t wrap their minds around where Jesus had said that he was from. “How can he say that he has come down from heaven?” they said to each other. “This is Jesus, Joseph’s son, Mary’s son. We know his parents. We know where he grew up. How can anyone listen to this nonsense?” The crowd couldn’t get past the offer of bread, and the authorities’ couldn’t get over the claim of a heavenly origin, but both, in effect, had the same problem. They all wanted to make sense of Jesus’ words on their own terms instead of accepting the truth that he was trying to give them. Isn’t that our problem, too?

Jesus comes to give us salvation, and immediately we want to know what we have to do and where we have to go to find it. But the truth that Jesus gives us is that the work of salvation isn’t ours to do. That work belongs to God. It isn’t up to us to find the right bread that leads to eternal life or to figure out how the Incarnate One could come from heaven yet be born to Mary and Joseph. It isn’t up to us to find the right path to salvation or wrap our minds around the mysteries of God’s love. It is up to us simply to receive what God has given us and to believe that God’s gift is enough. God makes salvation happen; our job is to see it and believe it.

Jesus tried to tell us that in this gospel lesson. To the crowd, he said, “Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away.” To the authorities, he said, “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me.” Don’t let those sound like off-putting, discriminating words. They are a reassurance. It is God who sent God’s Son into the world, and it is God who draws us to God’s Son. That is among the most threatening and liberating truths of the gospel. We do not choose God; God chooses us. And, until we know that in our hearts and minds, we cannot know the peace that comes from belonging not on our terms—not because of who we are or what we have done—but because of who God is and how much God loves us.

“I am the bread of life,” Jesus says to us. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” It isn’t bread that we are after; it’s love. Showing up on Sunday morning and eating the Communion bread and listening to the sermon and saying our prayers won’t get us to heaven because, in God, we’re already there. It’s God loving us enough to meet us in Jesus and draw us into God’s self and care for us for all eternity that saves us. And God has already done that for each one of us. That’s what Jesus wants us to hear. Will we take him at his word? Will we believe it? Will we trust it? Will we stop running in search of the thing that is right in front of us? When we take that piece of bread in our hand, will we look at it and know that we have been loved by God beyond measure, trusting in our hearts that there is nothing that can take us away from that everlasting love?

Thursday, August 9, 2018

A Theology Of Being Good

Much of what the apostle Paul writes to the churches with which he has a relationship deals with community problems that they are experiencing. Yes, sometimes he focuses on wrong beliefs, but often he is dealing with wrong actions. There's a connection, of course. How can the Corinthians be members of Christ's body yet unite themselves to temple prostitutes? How can the Galatians be set free by Christ yet require Gentile converts to become slaves to the law? Over and over, Paul tells his readers how to behave, not just what to believe, but it's his approach to the relationship between right action and right belief that gives me hope for the twenty-first-century church.

In Sunday's reading from Ephesians (yes, I know most scholars don't think of Ephesians as having been written by Paul, but that doesn't bother me, and I'm going to call the author "Paul" anyway), Paul offers an exhortation that has become the most popular offertory sentence in the Episcopal Church: "live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God." We leave out the "fragrant" part and usually say "walk in love," but it's the same thing. Before we pass out alms basins and give the congregation the opportunity to devote themselves and something of value to God's work in the world, we urge them to walk/live in love in the same way that Christ himself loved us, which is to say that he yielded his life as a sacrifice to God. Of course, we have more in mind than the folded-up twenty-dollar bill that you drop into the plate when we say those words. We mean to walk in love with your whole life. But how different would that moment feel on Sunday morning if the presider said, "Love one another in the same way that Jesus loved you when he died on the cross for your sake?"

There's something powerful about making the connection between how we have been loved by God in Jesus Christ and how we are called to love one another. The opportunity for real transformation exists when, instead of saying, "Be good because you're supposed to," or "Be good because God is watching you," we say, "Be good because you are good because that's what God has made you through his limitless love in Jesus Christ." The transformation doesn't come from us. It comes from God. Whenever Paul urges his readers to live a godly life, he makes that clear. God has done the work of making you good, now remember that and live like it.

Look again at the Sunday's reading from Ephesians and notice how Paul's string exhortations is grounded in the transformation God has already enacted in those who read Paul's letter: "Putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another." - Why should we speak the truth? Not because it's the right thing to do but because we have been made members of one another in Christ. That "members of one another" governs his words about thieves not stealing and no evil talk coming out of their mouths. Paul urges them to forgive one another as God in Christ has forgiven you. Perhaps summing it all up, he tells them to imitate God as God's beloved children, walking in love.

I spend too much time telling my kids to behave and not enough time telling them that they are loved. I spend too much time thinking that I should do better and not enough time remembering that I have been made good by God. Those two things go together, but one cannot expect change in behavior without a change in identity. How might each of us know so deeply that we have been loved by God into a new life that we live that new life as children who naturally imitate God just as a child naturally imitates a parent?

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Two Breads

What's your favorite kind of bread? For most applications, I prefer rye bread. Turkey, ham, tuna, grilled cheese sandwiches all go nicely on rye bread. I also enjoy a piece of rye toast. Sometimes, though, I need the empty calories of white bread to go with a tomato sandwich or a BLT. And homemade sourdough is a real treat on occasion. And sometimes a hearty wheat really hits the spot. What about you? Do you like some breads more than others?

Yesterday in staff meeting, Fr. Chuck Walling noted that there are two breads being discussed in Sunday's gospel lesson from John 6. I appreciated the reminder, especially since we skipped last Sunday's reading about working not for the food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life. In this week's reading, Jesus expands upon that concept, explaining to the religious authorities, who have taken issue with Jesus' self-identification as "the bread that has come down from heaven," that their ancestors ate manna in the wilderness and died but those who eat of the bread of life (i.e. Jesus) will live forever. Chuck's distinction was helpful for me because it allowed me to shift my focus away from comparing bread and begin to focus on sustenance more generally.

It's easy to read Jesus' words in John 6 and feel like we're comparing breads. The Israelites ate manna in the wilderness and died, but Jesus' bread of life will let them live forever. The crowd wanted more of the loaves that Jesus multiplied, but Jesus urged them to pursue the food that endures for eternity. Of course one wants the bread that Jesus offers. It never goes moldy or stale. It never runs out. But Jesus isn't comparing different breads. Jesus isn't offering us a magic loaf.

This is one of those passages of scripture when the metaphor loses its connection with reality and then becomes an isolated focus. Yes, there is Eucharistic imagery here, and, yes, in next Sunday's lesson, Jesus will tell us to eat his flesh, which makes the overlap with Communion even more clear. But this isn't only about Eucharistic bread. This is about sustenance. This is about being fed in spiritual ways. Jesus is comparing two very different concepts of bread. As Chuck put it yesterday, one is physical bread, actual food, but the other isn't really bread at all but spiritual sustenance.

Think of the other ways we talk about bread. "Give us this day our daily bread." Does that mean only literal bread? Or does that mean sufficient food of any type? Or does it mean whatever physical necessities we will receive for the day, including shelter? Or does it begin to hint at a concept of faithfulness--trusting God's provision more generally?

Jesus' assessment of the crowd is one we need to hear again: "Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves." The actual bread is just a means to a bigger end. Eating the bread won't give you eternal life. Even eating Communion bread won't give you eternal life. It's belief. "Whoever believes has eternal life," Jesus says. To eat this bread is to believe in him and the one who sent him. It means depending, trusting on God to provide even our most basic necessity. Maybe it's time to get away from the image of bread--not completely but just enough to see that we're not talking about magic crackers. Bread was the natural image through which Jesus could convey a message of daily sustenance that never runs out. Maybe bread is still the best thing we have to do that, but maybe there are other ways to invite people into confidence in God's never-failing provision. Hot dogs, anyone?

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Deepest Grief

I find Sunday’s reading from 2 Samuel to be one of the most moving passages of scripture. It is the story of Absalom’s death and his father David’s grief. I usually complain about how the lectionary butchers a long passage, giving us the basic narrative but leaving out the real essence of the entire passage, but this time they do a pretty good job. Still, I urge you to read the whole of 2 Samuel 18. If you read the whole thing, you get a better sense of the grief and agony that David experiences when he hears of his son’s death.

First, a little background from 2 Samuel 13-17. Absalom was David’s son. He had a sister whose name was Tamar, with whom his half-brother Amnon fell in love. Amnon was obsessed with Tamar, but, of course, he could not have her because such a thing was an abomination. So Amnon concocted a scheme by which he pretended to be ill, asked his father David to send Tamar to nurse him back to health, and, when they were alone, he seized her and raped her. Then, disgusted with her and with himself for his misdeed, Amnon sent Tamar away in shame.

Tamar’s brother Absalom was furious. For two years, he plotted his revenge. One night at a sheep-shearing festival, Absalom killed Amnon and then fled away. For two more years, he lived in exile until he got word that David, although angry, would not harm him. He returned to Jerusalem where, for two more years, he lived but was not allowed to see his father, the king. After two more years, David called Absalom into his presence, and it seemed as if they were reconciled. Over the following four years, Absalom would sit at the gate and serve as a surrogate judge for the people, helping them solve their problems and endearing himself to them.

During that time, it became clear to Absalom and David that the people’s heart belonged to Absalom. The son plotted against the father, and, under the guise of offering a sacrifice in Hebron, Absalom went out and sent messengers through the people, telling them to proclaim “Absalom is king” when the trumpets blew. The conspiracy grew until it became clear that David and his loyal followers were vastly outnumbered. They fled Jerusalem, and Absalom took over the throne.

Skip ahead to Sunday’s reading. The king sent his troops out into battle, urging them not to harm Absalom. By chance, while riding through the deadly forest, Absalom got stuck in a tree with his feet dangling down toward the ground. News of his predicament reached the general, who asked why Absalom was not killed, and the soldier replied, “Even if I felt the weight of a thousand pieces of silver in my hand, I would not have hurt the king’s son because he ordered us not to harm him.” The general, knowing the necessity of the conspirator’s death, ordered his troops to surround him and kill him. News of his death was sent to David by two different messengers, only one of whom we read about in Sunday’s lesson. The first was Ahimaaz, son of Zadok, who gave news of the victory but withheld news of Absalom’s death. As we read that part of 2 Samuel 18, the suspense grows. We know the awful tidings that are on their way, and we know that David will be devastated, but we must wait along with the king.

Then, when the news comes, David is despondent. “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would that I had died instead of you!” And he went up to his room over the gate and wept.

The bitterness of his tears. The magnitude of his loss. His wish to have taken his son’s place. The confusing and conflicting feelings of anger, resentment, and betrayal along with relief, security, and victory. We hear that collision in David’s words. They are the hollow, longing, empty words of a parent who has lost a child. Even if we have not experienced a loss like that, even if we cannot imagine a grief that deep, David’s words help us see it, even if from a distance. Eric Whitacre composed a choral piece around David’s words, which makes me weep every time I hear it. And that’s what I’m supposed to do. We are supposed to weep with David because a victory like this one comes with an incredible cost, and the people of God are supposed to bear it.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Origins Matter

We're back in John 6 this Sunday. Again. As a recap, here is how the lectionary breaks up the Bread of Life discourse: 1) Feeding the 5,000, 2) Jesus' exchange with seekers regarding true bread, 3) Jesus' exchange with Jewish authorities over his identity, 4) Jesus' exchange with Jewish authorities over his edible flesh, 5) Jesus' exchange with his disciples over this difficult teaching. That means that this Sunday is the first of two in a row in which Jesus addresses the complaints--the grumblings--of the religious leaders of his day. In this overlapping, repetitive discourse, it's easy to blur the lines between one Sunday's sermon and the next, so, before I paint myself into a corner that requires a sermon on the Old Testament lesson next week, I want to focus narrowly on this Sunday's reading.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the authorities seem to be complaining about the wrong thing. John tells us that "[they] began to complain about him because he said, 'I am the bread that came down from heaven.'" John identifies that as the issue that made them upset, but their actual complaint seems to have missed the point: "Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven?'" In other words, instead of taking issue with Jesus' claim to be the food that leads to everlasting life ("I am the bread"), they take issue with his origins ("that came down from heaven"). Shouldn't they care more about Jesus' claim to offer everlasting life than what family he came from?

Of course, in the mind of a first-century Jewish authority, in ways I don't appreciate fully, Jesus' origin and his claims are inseparable. "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" John records Nathaniel saying to Philip when he heard that he had found the messiah. "My kingdom is not of this world," Jesus says to Pilate in John's version of the passion. Where Jesus is really from really matters, especially to the one who locates the origin of the Word "in the beginning with God." Origin matters. There's a difference between sparkling wine and champagne. I probably can't taste it, but there's a difference, and my grocery store receipt testifies to it. Before they even tackle the substance of Jesus' claims, the authorities are prepared to dismiss it because of his pedigree.

"Don't we know his parents?" they ask those gathered around. "His father is Joseph. You remember that. He grew up not far from here. You played with him when you were children. Don't listen to him. What does he know about everlasting life? He's just a local boy that got the 'big head.'" In one sense, they're right. Jesus had grown up around there, and there were people who knew him as a boy. It did not make sense that he could be one whom God had sent from heaven. If they were going to believe what Jesus was saying about himself, they would have to get beyond his Galilean upbringing.

We have to get past it, too. Maybe not in the same "my-sister-went-on-a-date-with-him" kind of way, but we have to deal with the inherent disconnect between Jesus' historical biography and his identity in the Christian faith. There are a few ways to do that. We can ignore the historical account, pretend that Jesus wasn't at some point a grumpy six-year-old, and ignore the fact that no adolescent with that intellect and those powers was easy to deal with. Or we can try completely to separate the historical Jesus from the Jesus of faith and engage one in our minds and the other in our hearts, leaving either us or Jesus or both with schizophrenia. Or we can let the historical identity overshadow the Christian claims about Jesus and dismiss the christological understanding as myth. Or we can join the crowd in wrestling with that difficult truth. How can it be that the man standing there that day, who had grown up in their midst, could be the bread of life, the one sent by God to sustain the world?

Jesus was from Nazareth. Jesus was from heaven. Jesus was a carpenter's son. Jesus was the Son of God. How can this be? That's not an easy question, but it's easier than trying to figure out how we're going to eat the flesh of Jesus. That's next week's problem.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Listen To Whom?

As I mentioned earlier this week, our congregation, having received the bishop's permission and for "urgent and sufficient reason," will celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration as an opportunity for public baptism this Sunday. We will have several candidates at three different services, and we will hear Luke 9:28-36, the gospel story when Jesus climbed up the mountain with Peter, James, and John and was transfigured before them. His face and clothes became dazzling white, and Moses and Elijah appeared with him. We know the story. It comes up in the lectionary fairly often even when churches aren't bending the rules.

Of particular interest to me this week is the accompanying reading from 2 Peter, in which Peter offers what sounds like a final word of encouragement before his death: "I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to refresh your memory, since I know that my death will come soon, as indeed our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me." What does he want his readers to know? That he and his fellow apostles were not pursuing made up stories or fancy philosophy but following the one they knew to be the Son of God. And how did they know? Peter recalls for us the moment when he was up on the mountain with Jesus: "...we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, 'This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.' We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain."

I think the way Peter remembers that--or at least the way the tradition recalls Peter remembering that; for me there's no difference--is fascinating. Peter doesn't write, "For he received honor and glory when we saw Moses and Elijah standing with him." The focus isn't on the shining face or clothes, although to point us to his "glory" may imply a visual brightness. For Peter, the focus is on the voice that speaks from the cloud. It is the voice of God itself that Peter holds on to after all these years, and Peter's focus has reshifted my focus back to what the voice says.

Luke tells us that the voice declared, "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!" Chuck Walling, who is my colleague at St. Paul's and who has been preaching a lot longer than I have been alive, commented this week that to him it sounds like God is saying, "Listen to him...not these other guys!" My emphasis would not have fallen there on its own, but I've enjoyed wrestling with it this week. Chuck asks whether this was an anti-Jewish gloss that Luke put on the text, and that element may be contained in the text, but I hear God telling us that Jesus is the one who speaks authentically for Moses and Elijah. Listen to Jesus, and you will be listening to the law and the prophets.

Of course, there is some supersessionist theology in the story. Moses and Elijah appear and then disappear, and only Jesus is left. And the voice tells them to listen to the one who remains. But, especially given Peter's remembrance of the event, I think this is God's authentication of Jesus and his ministry. Who is allowed to speak for Moses and Elijah? Who is given the authority to teach and expound upon and reinterpret the established traditions of God's people? Faithful Jews would be expected to listen to the law and the prophets, Moses and Elijah, and now God is saying that faithful people are expected to listen to Jesus, who speaks on their behalf. I can get behind that. I can hear that authority being given.

It makes me wonder who gets to speak for Jesus nowadays. I am highly suspicious of any preacher, prophet, or leader who claims to speak for Jesus or with any unquestionable authority, and that includes the Bishop of Rome. We need prophets and interpreters of scripture who speak boldly and with authority, but too many church leaders interact with the church as if their word was God's word. Listen to whom? Jesus, as the Incarnate Word of God, speaks with God's own authority, but I don't think he denied the authority of the law and the prophets. The transfiguration is a visual and verbal reminder that he speaks for them and not in place of them. We need church leaders who speak not in place of the gospel but for the gospel, who speak not instead of Jesus but through whom Jesus himself speaks. God's declaration on the mountain top that day is still operative: "Listen to him!" It's Jesus to whom we should be listening. Do we hear Jesus speaking in the words of our pastor, our preacher, our bishop? 

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Taking A Stand For Justice

August 1, 2018 - Joseph of Arimathaea

It is easy to think about doing the right thing, but it's a lot harder to speak up about it. Saying something is hard, but taking action in the face of criticism requires another order of bravery. We rarely remember people who thought good things in dark times, but we memorialize those whose words and actions represented a stand for justice in the face of criticism and violence. In the Christian tradition, we believe that all people who have been transformed by God's grace in Jesus Christ are "saints" or "holy ones," which is to say that we believe that it is God who makes us holy. The brave things that saints do are not what make them saints but characteristics of their sainthood, which is itself a gift of God. All saints are filled with the Holy Spirit and empowered by God to take such a stand for righteousness, but we identify particular saints, like Joseph of Arimathaea, whose life and witness remind us that, with God's help, we, too, have been equipped to take such a stand.

Luke recalls for us that Joseph was "a member of the council [but] had not agreed to their plan and action." That council, of course, was the council that had condemned Jesus, and Luke wants us to know that Joseph had not agreed with their decision. In and of itself, that is noble, but not casting a vote against Jesus is not the same thing as speaking out against the plan to crucify him. Whether on the playground or in the courthouse or on the campaign trail, when the crowd turns against someone, it is a lot harder to advocate against the popular opinion than it is to keep silent about it. And that's why Joseph's later actions are so remarkable.

We primarily remember Joseph of Arimathaea because he was the one who took Jesus' lifeless body, wrapped it in a linen cloth, and laid it in his own tomb for burial. That was a tender moment, a gesture of love and compassion. We are touched by the care with which Joseph tended to Jesus' corpse, and we admire one who would give up his own tomb for the sake of another. But there is more to this act of kindness. It was not only a thoughtful gesture but a bold stand.

In the Jewish tradition, a dead body was something that was ritually unclean, and anyone who came into contact with it was, likewise, rendered unclean. The act of preparing a body for burial was usually reserved for the immediate family of the departed. But no one from Jesus' family showed up to help out. His disciples ran away because they feared that they might be next. Joseph was not worried about that custom. He knew that someone needed to care for Jesus' body, and he offered himself--a rich and powerful man who would take on that humble duty as if he were Jesus' brother.

Also, bodies were usually left to hang on the cross until their flesh had been completely scavenged by vultures and other animals and birds of prey. To deny a person a proper burial was thought of as a way to shame them further, punishing them and their loved-ones as the spirit of the condemned would never find its rest. The Roman Empire left those who were condemned for treason and insurrection on the cross for weeks as a reminder to the other Jewish would-be rebels that the power of Rome would crush them. But Joseph had influence. He did not want the body of Jesus to be left on the cross, and he was willing to speak to Pilate and ask the Roman governor to make an exception. It is hard to imagine anyone having influence over the Roman authority, but Joseph said and did what was necessary to convince him to allow Jesus a dignified burial. It was the sort of request that only someone who was willing to be identified publicly with the executed criminal and his movement would make. That Joseph offered his own tomb only seems natural after risking so much to care for the rabbi whom he loved.

Joseph may not have said anything when the council condemned Jesus, or maybe he did; we don't know. But we do know that, after Jesus' death, Joseph risked everything--ritual impurity, cultural shame, political position, criminal prosecution, possible execution--to care for Jesus. Joseph believed that Jesus deserved to be treated with dignity. Joseph recognized in the condemned and executed prisoner the kind of humanity that Jesus himself had seen in the outcasts of his day. Joseph was not willing to ignore that humanity and dignity, and, even though it might cost him dearly, he took a stand for it. That is a testament to the love of God living within and through Joseph of Arimathaea.

You, too, have that same love living inside of you. We have been made holy by God. We are God's saints. Our value as individuals comes not from those in society who judge our words or actions but from the one who creates us and loves us and redeems us. Remember the story of Jospeh of Arimathaea. He risked everything because, in Jesus, he recognized that no one can stand in the way of God's love. You, too, have the power to take a stand for justice and risk everything for the sake of human dignity. It is a power that God has given you as one of God's saints.