Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Saints Show Us God

Today, our office staff is dressing up in the costumes of some of my favorite saints: the characters from Mr. Roger's Neighborhood. Like many children of the 1980s, I grew up adoring Mr. Rogers. He helped kids (and parents) believe that all people, each with a unique contribution to the human race, were good and, although he did not use religious language, made in the image of God. Mr. Rogers and the other characters on the show told us that our ideas, our hopes, and our imaginations had value, and our struggles, our fears, and our pains were significant. They did not distort reality by pretending hardships did not exist, but they shifted our understanding of reality so that we could see the good in it and learn to believe that in time all things would work together for good. That's what it means to be a saint.

This year, as we celebrate All Saints' Day (Nov. 1), we hear the story of Jesus calling Lazarus back from the dead (John 11:32-44). At first, I wondered whether this gospel lesson might be more appropriate for All Souls Day (Nov. 2), when we commemorate the lives of all the faithful departed. Of course, in Protestant (including Anglican) theology, there isn't really a difference between the two. All people made holy in Jesus Christ are the "holy ones" or the "saints," and some of them have stories worth telling to the whole church (e.g. the Virgin Mary or Martin Luther King, Jr.) and some of them have stories worth telling in our own family or community (e.g. Granny or Cousin Elmer). In the biblical account, Lazarus' story isn't one of working miracles or bringing the gospel to far-away lands. He isn't persecuted for his faith, nor does he bear witness before the rulers of this world. But he is one in whom the world sees the power of God, and that is exactly what makes him a saint.

"Lazarus, come out!" Jesus exclaims before the opened tomb, and "the dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth." Of the mummy-like figure, Jesus says to those looking on, "Unbind him and let him go." And that's the last we hear of Lazarus. He was Jesus' friend, the one for whom Jesus wept, which is enough, I suppose, to make one pretty famous in Christian circles. Legend has it that Lazarus went on to become a bishop in Cyprus. Supposedly, haunted by the sight of the unredeemed souls in hell (think "place of the dead" not "place of torment"), Lazarus never smiled again during his whole life except once, when he saw someone stealing a pot and proclaimed with a wry smile, "The clay steals the clay." (Thanks, Wikipedia.) We don't know what happened to Lazarus. We don't know whether he ever did anything remarkable in his whole life except being raised from death by Jesus. But that is exactly what makes him a saint--one in whose life the power of God is clearly manifest--and that's why he's the perfect person to remember on All Saints' Day.

In the Episcopal Church, the closest we get to commemorating Lazarus is the lesser feast of Mary and Martha of Bethany (LFF 2018). When it's time to tell his story, there isn't much to tell--at least not a lot that Lazarus did. Instead, we tell the story of what was done to Lazarus, what happened to him and in him. He was brought back from the dead. The power of God to defeat the oldest human enemy--death itself--is brought to earth in Jesus and becomes clear in Lazarus. He is a vessel for God's power. He is a mirror that reflects to the world the resurrection power of God. For the rest of his life, people must have come to Lazarus and asked him about it. They must have wondered what it felt like to be dead and then to come back to life. I don't know whether Lazarus had much to say about that, but his identity as the receptacle for Jesus' greatest miracle helps us see in him God's will for our own lives. That makes Lazarus a saint.

We, too, are saints. You are a saint, and I am a saint. All of us in whom God's power is manifest are the holy ones of God. We are made holy not because of something we've done--not because of our contribution to humanity--but because of what God has done in us. Like Lazarus, it doesn't matter whether we've done anything exciting. What matters is that God has done and is doing something exciting in us. We, too, have been given the power to defeat death. May we, like Lazarus, show the world that power during our lifetime.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Hope In Deepest Grief

I've always struggled with John 11:32-44. When Jesus arrives in Bethany too late--after Lazarus had died--Mary comes to him, kneels at his feet, and exclaims, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." It's an echo of what her sister had already exclaimed a few verses earlier. That one, repeated sentence encapsulates the challenge of believing in an all-powerful God. If God had been here...if God had intervened...if God had chosen, it didn't have to be this way. Plane crash. Cancer. Starvation. Tsunami. War. "God, if you had been here, this would not have happened," we say in our prayers as our faith in God's love collides with our belief in God's power. Because we believe in God, we believe that it didn't have to be this way.

I know in my mind that John didn't recall the story this way in order to challenge my very western understanding of God's omnipotence. The point, of course, is indeed that it doesn't have to be this way. By the end of the story, Jesus calls his friend out of the tomb. As he shows us who Jesus, the Son of God, really is, John uses the back-from-the-dead miracle to reveal that in Jesus God's power is unlimited. Healing a sick man is one thing--"Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died"--but bringing one back from the dead is another thing entirely. As John recalls for us, Jesus was "glad that [he] was not there [in time] so that you may believe." Another miraculous healing wouldn't prove the point that Jesus could bring life to the dead. We needed a really, actually dead body to get that truth across.

Still, there's an instrumentalism to this miracle that leaves me uncomfortable. That discomfort comes to me most profoundly when a family chooses John 11 as the gospel lesson for their loved one's burial. That lesson (John 11:21-27) backs up a little bit in order to omit the actual miracle of the resuscitation of Lazarus, but we hear Martha say, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died, yet even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of God." As I climb into the pulpit to preach, I find myself wondering, "If Jesus had been at the bedside instead of me, instead of doctors, instead of nurses, would we be here today?" Even though the reading stops short of the miracle, Martha's words beg for it, calling it out of our collective memory. As I preach about our hope in the promised resurrection on the last day, I wonder to myself, "Do we really have to wait? Couldn't Jesus give this loved one back to her family even four days after her death?"

Typically, I respond to this unhelpful wondering by appealing to Jesus' grief. As I think about this passage and as I preach on it at funerals, I focus on the magnitude of Jesus' loss. He, too, knew what it meant to lose a friend. Even if he could have saved Lazarus if he had gotten there earlier, even if he did know what would happen when he called him out, still Jesus knew the fullness of that loss. We, too, know that loss even though we, too, will one day be reunited with our loved one. There is comfort in knowing that the Son of God also experienced that suffering. We are not alone in that loss. God is with us in our grief.

This time, as I read John 11, something different sticks out to me. When Jesus asks them to roll away the stone and Martha responds, "Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days," I find myself wondering why Martha would have reacted that way. What did the woman who proclaimed, "Even know I know that God will give you whatever you ask of God," think Jesus was doing? I wonder whether she saw it as a yet another expression of grief. Jesus couldn't get there in time. He wanted to see the body of his friend. Even though he had been dead for four days and the stench would be unbearable, Jesus needed to have a moment with his friend. I've been with people whose grief has manifested itself like that--not necessarily let's get shovels and dig up the casket but just as unreconciled and incomplete. People know that their loved one will walk through the door any minute. People swear that they hear their dead child's voice calling from the other side of the house. Martha tries to comfort Jesus, who would do the unthinkable in order to see his beloved friend again, but Jesus shows us the only way to find comfort.

No, we don't get our loved ones back in this life. No, Jesus isn't the physician attending our loved one. No, he won't come to our funeral and order that the casket be opened in order to call the dead back to life. But he weeps with us in the front row. And he, like us, knows that we cannot find comfort until we join those who have gone before us in the presence of our Creator. And that gives us hope--real hope, lasting hope.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Honoring Those On The Margins

October 28, 2018 – The 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 25B

© 2018 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here.

Sometimes change comes slowly, taking years to unfold, but other times everything changes in an instant. The love of your life walks through the door, and your heart melts the first time you see her. You hold your new baby in your arms for the first time, and you know right away that there is nothing you wouldn't do for him. A terrorist walks into a synagogue and unleashes the power of evil and hatred unto an unsuspecting congregation. The surgeon walks out and relieves you of all your fear, telling you that everything is going to be ok. The Bible is God’s story of salvation, unfolding over thousands of years yet revealed in moments of miraculous power.

Jesus and his disciples were on their way to Jerusalem, and, as they passed through Jericho, a large crowd joined them. As they were leaving the city, a blind man named Bartimaeus, who was sitting on the side of the road, began to cry out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” At this point, there was only one destination left for Jesus and those who travelled with him. Jerusalem and the confrontation with the religious and political leaders that awaited him there were the only things left on Jesus’ earthly agenda. The time for miraculous healings was over. Jesus didn’t need to prove himself to anyone anymore. Yet Bartimaeus kept crying out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” It was if he was the only one on the road that day who did not know where Jesus was headed. Many in the crowd ordered him to be silent, to stop getting in the way, to stop distracting Jesus from his mission, but he cried out all the more insistently and defiantly: “Son of David, have mercy on me!” And then Jesus stopped and stood still.

In an instant, everything changed. “Call him here,” Jesus said to those who were with him. And, with those words, the crowd was transformed. Those who had been trying to silence the blind beggar now exclaimed enthusiastically, “Take heart; get up; he is calling you.” Jesus asked Bartimaeus what he could do for him, and Bartimaeus asked that he might regain his sight. Jesus granted the man’s request, but Bartimaeus wasn’t the only one who regained his sight that day. The crowd, which had once thought of blind Bartimaeus as an impediment, a distraction from Jesus’ mission and ministry, now saw that the beggar, the nuisance, was a disciple just like them. And all it took was the attention Jesus showed him.

This is an exciting time in the life of this church. Everything seems to be going well. Programs for children, youth, and adults are growing. Our music and worship are beautiful. New ministries are springing up, and old ministries are receiving renewed attention. Enthusiasm is contagious. We have much for which to be thankful. We are riding a crest of momentum as the mission of this church is being fulfilled. But will we become so focused on our own progress that we walk right past the one for whom Jesus stops and stands still? When we see who it is that Jesus cares for, everything changes. In a moment of compassion, he shows us that the fulfillment our mission does not lead us past those in need but is embodied by them. I want to be a part of a church that uses its resources to honor those who have been pushed to the side of the road, to the margins of life, because that is where we will find Jesus. What about you? Is that the kind of church you want to give your life to as well?

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Intercessory Prayer

I believe in the power of prayer. When the noise of the world is set aside for a moment or two and someone lifts me and my need into God's presence in prayer, it has an immediate impact on me. When I sit silently in the company of God, deepening my sense of my belonging to God, it changes the way I move through the rest of the day. When a friend on the other side of the globe thinks of me and prays for me, even though I do not know it, I believe that something happens. It might not be measurable. It might not register on any scientific device or show up in any double-blind study, but I give my heart and life over to the proposition that prayer makes a difference.

Yet, as a person of prayer, as an individual whose life and career revolve around prayer and who pursues daily a deeper relationship with the risen Jesus, I underestimate the power of Christ's intercession on my behalf. I come to Jesus and ask for aid, forgiveness, miracle on a regular basis, but I have yet to truly internalize the belief that the Son of God intercedes on my behalf--on our behalf--without end. Sunday's reading from Hebrews 7 reminds me that I'm missing something.

Reflecting a priestly perspective that is born out of Second Temple Judaism, the author writes, "Consequently [Jesus] is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them." The author is making a comparison between Jesus and the high priests of the temple. The former, blameless and pure, approaches God on his own merit, while the latter must offer sacrifices on his own behalf before entering God's presence. The former lasts forever, while the latter must be reinstituted on a regular basis and only enters God's sanctuary once a year. That kind of intercession isn't the same thing as, "How might I pray for you today?" It's more direct, more immediate, more encompassing. It is constant, intimate, and complete. It is the "pray without ceasing" that Paul invites us to pursue made perfect and complete in Christ.

I believe in the power of prayer, but I quickly confess that I don't know exactly how it works. I had a conversation earlier this week with someone who wanted to run by me his theory on how prayer is effective. He described how much more effective a prayer to help find lost keys is than a prayer for world peace, and he acknowledged that it is easier to affect one person than all the people on earth. Not wanting to take that image too far but wanting to give it a little space to run in my own mind, I responded by admitting that my own prayers seem to have a bigger effect on me than on other people.

When I pray to find my keys and I find them, a few things take place. First, the act of praying may allow some space, some release of anxiety, that helps me become more effective in my quest to find my keys. That's a psychological effect, which I accept. Second, the act of praying may actually invite God to intervene in my mental processes, guide my search, and help me discover what had been hidden. I think I can buy that, too. Third, some might claim that the act of praying supernaturally relocated my keys to a new place where I might find them or, in another way, some might believe that the physical object was spiritually hidden until a prayer brought it back fully into this physical reality. I don't accept either of those. Finally, the act of praying may help me identify what was always going to happen--what would happen whether I offered a prayer or even acknowledged the power of prayer--as an act of God. You might find your keys without prayer, and I might find my keys with prayer, and, even if neither experience was cosmically different, my prayer places a religious context upon it that has a meaningful impact on me. My prayers were answered. I give credit to God. I am grateful. My relationship with God is strengthened.

To think of Christ interceding on our behalf not to grant us the particular things that we need nor to change God's mind about what would otherwise happen to us but to escort us into God's presence and make our identity, our needs, our lives completely and totally inhabiting God has power. It may not help me find my keys, but it lets me know that my key-lostness is already brought into God's presence as powerfully as if I begin my search with the Great Litany. Jesus is always interceding on my behalf. My life is in God's presence. There is power in that--not only psychological power when I remember it but power beyond my remembering and knowing.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Job's Repentance

In Sunday's RCL Track 1 OT lesson, we will hear the end of Job. The righteous man has had everything stripped of him. His wife has told him to "curse God and die." So-called friends have urged him to repent for whatever wrong he has committed. Through it all, Job has remained faithful, which is to say that he has remained in relationship with God despite all his suffering, but, as his frustration grew to an understandably unbearable level, he finally has demanded an audience with the Almighty. The wise Elihu has rebuked Job's "friends" for giving him bad advice, and he has rebuked Job for his insistence that he get a hearing from God. And God himself has appeared to Job out of the whirlwind to question him and expose the fruitlessness of his pursuit: "Where were you when the foundations of the world were set?"

This week, it all comes together in what might feel like a surprising and ultimately unsatisfying way: Job repents, and God restores his fortunes. Both actions--repentance and restoration--and the suggested link between the two have the potential to leave us less faithful, less confident, less trusting in God than when we started the whole book...if we miss the point.

When I hear the word "repentance," my culturally preconditioned understandings interpret that to mean "saying sorry." In the beginning of his story, Job is introduced to us as a righteous man. Not only did he say his own prayers, but he offered prayers and sacrifices for his children just in case they did something bad. We might want to pick that apart, questioning the integrity of such cultic practice, but that's not the point. The author wants us to know that Job was a good person--as good as any person on earth. When calamity befalls him, Job's "friends" show up and tell him to repent. "You must have done something wrong," they say, "otherwise this never would have happened to you." They urge him to confess an unknown fault to God so that God will forgive him. Job, however, knows that he has done no wrong, and so he refuses to confess.

Now that we get to the end of the story, it is tempting and short-sighted to think that maybe the "friends" had it right the whole time. Maybe someone who experiences an unexplained tragedy should repent of some unknown sin so that God will stop punishing him or her. But that's the OPPOSITE of what the Book of Job is trying to teach us. Job isn't written to show us that bad things only happen to bad people. Job testifies that bad things sometimes inexplicably happen to good people. That's not the repentance that Job is performing here at the end of the story.

This repentance is the true turning-around, returning-of-the-heart, changing-direction that the word repentance means. Job isn't turning around from some unperceived unrighteousness. He is turning around from the proposition that he would find an answer, a justification, if given an audience with God. Job has claimed that he will plead his case before God and force God to answer him, but that's not how God works. That's not how tragedy works. Through it all, Job must learn--we must learn--that terrible things sometimes happen to wonderful people who don't deserve it in the least, and we must learn to accept that there is no answer for that--from God, from philosophy, from ethics, from statistics, from anything. If we place our hope, our future, our faith in finding that answer, we will come up empty. It is from that fruitless pursuit--the thought that reconciliation will only come when God discloses the answer--that Job repents. And that means that we, too, must repent from the self-satisfying yet false belief that we can understand how God works and that only by understanding will we have faith.

The only thing more instinctively frustrating to me than Job's undeserved tragedy is the act of restoring all his fortunes at the end of the story. Nothing makes me angrier than thinking that someone who has lost everything--even his own children--would be happy to have a new start with more land, more possessions, and more children. Again, I'm missing the point. God is not rewarding Job. God is not making amends for allowing Satan to take everything away from him in a Trading Places kind of wager. The author is inviting us to have hope even in tragedy. At the end, Job's brothers and sisters and distant friends come back and comfort him--not ignoring his loss but comforting him in it. Something happens when Job lets go of his demand for an answer on his own terms, and that something is tomorrow. The loss is not gone, but the future still unfolds. There are blessings to be found. The author does not pretend that they undo the loss even if they exceed what was lost. It only invites us to see that Job's identity is not forever imprisoned in his loss. We may not have our fortunes restored when we stop pursuing an answer and learn to live in the present moment with God, but the invitation is to trust that unexplained, undeserved tragedy is not the end of our story or our relationship with God.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Jericho to Jerusalem

I've never been to Palestine, to the "Holy Land," but I've heard so many preachers talk about how wonderful their trips were that it almost feels like I don't need to see it for myself--almost. Even though I haven't been, there are some basic pieces of biblical geography that I have picked up from reading commentaries, searching the Internet, and (sigh) listening to preachers tell how much they now realize about the stories of the Bible that they hadn't known before. They are things like the distance from Nazareth to Bethlehem and the locations of Galilee and Samaria and Judea. Another geographical detail that comes to mind this week as we hear the story of Bartimaeus, Son of Timaeus, in Mark 10:46-52 is the road that stretches between Jericho and Jerusalem.

For all of Mark 10, we've been getting closer to Jerusalem. After the Transfiguration in Mark 9, Jesus began his journey toward the holy city with the disciples. We start chapter 10 with Jesus entering the region of Judea from the north. There were teachings on divorce and wealth. There were encounters with children. Jesus predicted his death for the third and final time, and, in yesterday's gospel lesson, Jesus responded to James and John's request for seats of honor by telling all of the disciples to become servants. Now, as we finish Mark 10, we have made it as far as Jericho, and, as Jesus and his disciples leave town to continue the final stretch toward Jerusalem, we meet Bartimaeus.

Geography matters for Mark. There is only one destination left for Jesus. This is his final journey, his last preaching tour. He's getting close. Jericho was only 18 miles away from Jerusalem, and, as the story is narrated to us, there's no stopping along the way. Mark 11 opens with Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem, which means that Bartimaeus is the last episode before the final week of Jesus' life, which we commemorate in Holy Week, unfolds.

The road from Jericho to Jerusalem was only 18 miles long, but it goes up, up, up. The Internet suggests that the elevation change is from -825 feet to +2500 feet, which is quite a climb (see the American Bible Society). I haven't seen it, but I know that an 18-mile hike with an elevation change like that is a difficult road to walk. It's a burden for all involved. It's the kind of journey that one cannot rush, but it's not a casual walk either. It's the sort of expedition that one only takes on purpose. One doesn't wake up on a Friday morning and say, "I'm in the mood to walk from Jericho to Jerusalem today. Anyone want to go with me?" And that changes the way we hear Mark's account of those who went with Jesus.

In the opening verse of Sunday's lesson, we read that "Jesus and his disciples came to Jericho." In the next sentence, by the time they left, "a large crowd" went with them. Something urgent happened during Jesus' time in the city. Perhaps the residents of Jericho, familiar, of course, with the spiritual significance of the journey to the holy city, recognized in Jesus a fulfillment of their hopes and dreams. Maybe Jesus predicted for them what would happen to him in Jerusalem, and the crowd wanted to see the showdown. If so, Bartimaeus' own story shifts our understanding toward intention. When the blind man is healed, Jesus tells him to "Go; your faith has made you well," but Bartimaeus joins the crowd and follows Jesus on the way. He had seen enough with his heart to identify Jesus as "Son of David," and he wasn't going to miss the opportunity to follow him to the City of David even if it was an 18-mile walk uphill.

There's more to the relationship between Jericho and Jerusalem. The same website from the American Bible Society reminds us that David and his followers ran the other way when they escaped Jerusalem during Absalom's rebellion. Similarly, the King Zedekiah of Judah had also used the road to run away when the Babylonians were attacking the holy city. More interesting to me is the fact that "the Tenth Roman Legion used this Jericho-Jerusalem road on their way to besiege Jerusalem" around the time that Mark's account was written--in 69 AD. With this last historical data point, there's a contemporary juxtaposition of images of power as Jesus makes the trip to establish God's reign while the Romans traveled the same road in order to try to stifle it.

What will we see this Sunday as we leave Jericho with Jesus, the crowd, and Bartimaeus and start the final stretch of the journey to Jerusalem? We've been on this road for weeks and weeks, dealing with conflict, teachings, and challenging expressions of God's reign. This is our last chance to figure out who we are and with whom we are travelling before the drama of Holy Week begins. This is our opportunity to have our own eyes opened so that we might see what Jesus and the reign of God really look like before the ultimate conflict between the powers of heaven and the powers of this world unfolds with betrayal, arrest, interrogation, torture, and death. Palm Sunday is a long, long way ahead of us, but, in biblical terms, it's just a verse away, a single page-turn, a morning's break.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Reservation For Whom?

October 21, 2018 – The 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 24B

© 2018 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard at St. Paul's Soundcloud page, and video of the sermon and the rest of the service can be seen on our YouTube channel.

What do you think the seats on Jesus’ right and left hand look like? James and John asked Jesus to allow them to sit on either side of him when he comes into his glory. What sort of seats do you imagine those to be? Are they palatial thrones? Benches appropriate for judges? Seats of honor at an enormous banquet table? Jesus told James and John that the places at his right and left are not for them—that they already have been prepared for someone else. I wonder who that might be. If they aren’t for James and John, who does get to sit on either side of Jesus? Is it Peter? Another disciple? Maybe Jesus’ mother? Another saint who has earned that place? If the Brothers Zebedee were willing to accept the cup and baptism that Jesus himself would endure, what other qualifying exam must someone pass before earning one of those seats? Or maybe it’s a popularity contest. Maybe God will allow all of us to cast our vote for our favorite saint and put Francis or Patrick or Julian in those seats. Or maybe there’s a nice, orderly rotation so that, as eternity stretches on forever, each of us gets an infinite number of turns in the place of honor.

More important than our wondering what those seats might be like are James and John’s expectations. What sort of honor did they think they were after? “Teacher,” they said to Jesus, having stepped far enough away from the other disciples so that they couldn’t be overheard, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask you.” Jesus didn’t have any children of his own, but he had been in ministry long enough to know how to respond to that question. “What is it that you want me to do for you,” he replied, not taking the bait. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory,” they said to him. And Jesus replied, “You do not know what you are asking.”

“You do not know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. It must have been particularly galling for Jesus to hear two of his disciples ask that question. They were on their way to Jerusalem. Just a few verses earlier, as they walked the road together, Jesus had told them that he was going to the holy city in order that he might be condemned by the religious leaders of his people, who would hand him over to be mocked, tortured, and executed by the Roman authorities. Jesus was walking the road that led to his suffering and death, and all James and John could think about is whether they would get the places of honor when their master came into his glory? What glory?

And before you single out these two disciples for particular criticism, notice how the other ten reacted when they heard what the brothers had asked Jesus: they were indignant, resentful, enraged. And why? Was it because their colleagues had been so obtuse and so self-centered as to ask Jesus for the places of honor? Or was it because they were jealous that James and John had thought to ask Jesus first? Either way, their anger suggests that they were no more enlightened than their bold counterparts. None of the twelve really understood what Jesus had been saying to them.

The problem that the disciples had wasn’t that they were bad listeners. Jesus predicted his death three different times just to be sure that they heard him. The problem was that they didn’t understand what his death represented. James and John heard Jesus predict his death and then immediately asked if they could sit beside him in glory. Their mistake was thinking that Jesus’ death was only instrumental—that his struggle, rejection, and death were just a moment of hardship on a path that led to a victory that would bring them glory. They thought it was the unpleasant intermediate step that must be endured in the pursuit of the greater good—the tedious homework before the final exam, the hours of practice before the celebrated performance, the two-a-days in the summer heat that pay off when the season starts. Even though death awaited their master, they were already looking ahead to the victory lap: “Grant us to sit one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking.”

“Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant,” Jesus said to the twelve, “and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” Not pretend to be servant. Not play the part of the slave. Not tie a towel around your waist once a year and enact a ritual expression of servanthood that is incongruous with the rest of your life. If you want to be great, if you want to inherit glory, if you want to participate in the victory of God’s Son, you must become last of all, least of all, slave of all. What does that mean? What does that look like? “The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” As followers of Jesus, we do not accept the path of suffering and servanthood because we think it will lead to glory. We accept that path because it is true glory.

What do the places of honor look like when Jesus comes into his glory? Who is situated at his right and his left? Is it not the bandits who are crucified on either side of him? Is his glory not revealed on the cross? Is his crown not made of thorns? Aren’t the criminals the ones who have been appointed as markers of God’s unconditional love? The religious elites don’t need anyone to remind them that they are loved. The wealthy and the powerful don’t need a savior to turn the world upside down in order that they might be seen as the recipients of God’s blessings. It is the bandits, the rejects, the unlovable among us whose appointed place in God’s reign is finally revealed when Jesus comes into his glory.

The cross, as the true glory of Jesus, shows us the fullness of God’s unconditional love. God does not love us because we love God back. God’s love is the first love, the first cause that breathes life into the entire universe. God loves because God is love. Love like that, which accepts no qualification, embodies the lowest possible position so that it might look up to everyone. Even the least among us, the lowest of the low, is held in honor and looked upon by God with love. Is that how we see the world around us? Are we looking in the right place when we imagine who might be seated at Jesus’ right and left? If we are to share in God’s glory, we must share in God’s love, which means that we must love the world the same way that God has loved it—not looking down to those who want our love or looking beside us to those who can love us back but looking up at everyone and beholding the whole world in limitless love. If we are going to live in the radiant light of Christ’s glory, we must pursue that place where, as the servant of everyone, we, too, look up to all people in love.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Luke's Legacy

Luke may be the most gifted gospel writer. Sure, people love John and for good reason, but John's gospel account is in a category by itself. There's far less of an attempt by John to recapitulate the same gospel tradition that Mark, Matthew, and Luke all share. Luke, on the other hand, takes what is familiar in Mark and Matthew and still gives us breakthrough passages that can't be found anywhere else: the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, the Rich Man and Lazarus, the rivalry between Mary and Martha, Zachaeus, Emmaus, Bethlehem and the Birth Narrative! Like Matthew and Mark, Luke is a synoptic account, but it's so, so different. There's an artistic flair and a social sympathy that Luke has that comes through in his text.

On Luke's feast day, we read the encounter of Jesus' teaching at the synagogue in his hometown, Luke 4:14-21. In the place where he was brought up, Luke tells us, Jesus stood up to read and was handed the scroll of Isaiah and read, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor." Then Jesus sat down, but the eyes of everyone in the synagogue were upon him. Luke tells us that Jesus began to proclaim, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

We know that passage. It's familiar to us. It's familiar enough to have been included in the other synoptic accounts (Matthew 13:53-58; Mark 6:1-6). But Luke is the only one who tells us what Jesus taught. Matthew and Mark recall for us that Jesus taught in the synagogue and that the people were astounded at his teaching because he was Mary and Joseph's son, just a carpenter's boy. Neither mentions Isaiah or the scroll or the message. Neither recalls the fulfillment of God's promise to Israel being completed in the words, life, or ministry of Jesus. But Luke does. Luke wants us to see it. He gives specific content to Jesus' teaching, and he fills out for us a Jesus whose teaching is the upside-down reversal of power in this world.

On St. Luke's day, we could have read the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son. We could have heard some of the birth or infancy narrative. But we start here. It's as if the lectionary authors want us to know this particularity of Luke's account. What does that tell us about how the Holy Spirit used Luke to proclaim the good news?

I wonder about us and how the Holy Spirit uses each of us to proclaim the good news. You may not write or preach or teach, so what you proclaim may not be as easy to quote as a blogger or a preacher, but you tell a story of good news. You are a participant in the saving, death-to-life, dark-to-light, despair-to-hope work that God is doing in the world. How is God using you to proclaim that good news in your own particular way? On your feast day, when the community of faith celebrates your life and witness to God's love in Jesus Christ, what passage will we remember? The fundamental story of good news is the same for all of us, but each of us is used by God to tell it in a peculiar way. What's yours? Is yours a story of lost and found? Of rags to riches? Of confusion to clarity? How have you seen what God is doing in your own life, and how does your life tell the story of God's work?

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Slow Reading

The problem with Job is that it's sooooo long. Of course, the same thing can be said about Lonesome Dove or a five-day cricket match, both of which are absolutely worth the investment. The Book of Job is a patient, deliberate, poetic exploration of one of life's biggest unanswered questions: why do bad things happen to good people? In short, the answer it gives is three-fold: 1) we don't know, 2) we can't know, and 3) faith means remaining in relationship with God despite not knowing. But we shouldn't take my word for it. We should read the text.

This Sunday is the third week in a row when the RCL Track 1 lesson is from Job. First, we heard part of the story of Job's calamity: the righteous man who lost his children, property, and health because God allowed Satan to attack him to test his faith. Then, we heard Job's bitter response: the demand for an audience with God who eluded him on every side. This week, we hear God's rejection of Job's request: the reminder that God is God and that we are not. Next week, as we finish a four-week lectionary dip into Job, we will hear Job repent of his demand to hold God accountable, acceptance that he cannot know God's ways, and God's restoration of Job's fortune in what must be the most unsatisfying conclusion to a story ever.

This is one of those lectionary escapades that seems doomed to fail from the start. None of these lessons is the whole story. None of them gives us the entire progression that would allow a preacher to lead the congregation into the unanswerable question of why. The first week left us with the sense that God is capricious, and the preacher would need the rest of the story to make sense of it. The following week was the unanswered and seemingly unanswerable cry of a desperate man. That's often true to our experience, but it's hard to preach on that without at least anticipating God's response. This week is God's rejection of Job's questioning, which might allow for a sermon if we build on the last three week, but who's been in church every Sunday this month? It's football season.

This series from Job isn't useless, of course, and a preacher could absolutely tackle it. It's important for a congregation to be reminded that we don't have answers and if our hope depends on getting them we will always come up short. From that, Job will repent--change direction--next week. There's a contemplative acceptance in this process--a welcoming of everything that God will bring our way today, trusting that in God it will be good, remaining with God in the present, in today. Not too long ago, I offered a Bible study on Job, and we read long, long, long passages from the book, but we still didn't get to the whole thing. Otherwise, we would have spent three weeks in a row reading the same poetic part of the story. Sunday's lectionary cuts it up as best it can, but Job is a book to place on your nightstand or take to the beach and pour yourself into. It's hard to read it without interruption, but it's impossible to read it and appreciate it without some sense of continuity. As we listen to it on Sunday, I hope we'll listen with our ears open for the other parts of the story. You can get a sense of Saving Private Ryan by watching the last scene, when Ryan is standing in the cemetery in France, mourning the sacrifice of the colleagues who saved his life, but that's not enough. So, too, with Job.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Be Careful What You Ask For

I have always found it easy to criticize James and John for their raw, unfiltered request for prominence, which we read about in Sunday's gospel lesson (Mark 10:35-45). They were on the road with Jesus and the other disciples. Jesus had just predicted his death and resurrection for the third time, and, as soon as the words got out of the rabbi's mouth, "James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward and said to him, 'Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.'" It's the combination of Jesus having just predicted his death, the disciples ignorance of their master's repeated instruction to receive the kingdom like a child, and the sneaky way that they introduce their request that make me especially dismissive of their brash grasp for power: "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory." But I suspect this passage isn't given to us merely to teach me not to be like James or John. There's more to learn here than that.

After Jesus engaged the brothers about their willingness to walk the path that Jesus would lead them on, we read about the other disciples' reaction: "When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John." Their reaction is understandable. Like a child stepping away from his siblings to secretly ask a parent for the last cupcake, the action of James and John was galling. It felt like they were trying to secure for themselves the most important, prominent seats in Jesus' glorious reign. But Jesus' reaction to the disciples' anger isn't to chastise the brothers Zebedee in front of their ten companions, thus siding with the complainers, but to use this as a teaching opportunity for them. The text shows us that Jesus called the ten to himself and said to them, "You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you..."

Aren't those who are quick to criticize James and John just as guilty of misunderstanding the way Jesus' reign works? This is where the cupcake-sibling analogy falls apart. Jesus' reign isn't a limited resource, a prize at the end of the journey. Sitting at Jesus' right and left is not a reward reserved for the best disciples. It is a concept that doesn't fit Jesus' reign. If Jesus, the Son of God, will journey to suffering and death, those who follow him do not journey toward a victory seat. They join him in accepting the cup of suffering and baptism into death. If someone wants to sit and Jesus' left and right in God's kingdom, let them want it. Jesus says, "Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all."

So what does Jesus mean when he says, "To sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared?" Perhaps this is a foreshadowing of his crucifixion, when, as Mark recalls, "with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left." The word translated for us as "sit" is the Greek word "καθίσαι," which does mean sit but also, in the figurative sense, means to appoint or to fix one's abode or to settle. That means Jesus could have been saying to James and John, "To be situated at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared." In one sense, this is an appropriate continuation of his question to the brothers: "Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?"

I like that reading, but it's probably not correct. Usually the simpler understanding is the right one, and it's a lot easier to read "sit" as "sit." Regardless, I'm drawn into this text in a fuller way by letting go of my quick criticism of James and John and the resentment and ego that instinctive reaction represents. Why should I care who sits/dwells/is fixed at Jesus' right or left? My place is behind him, following, serving. That's Jesus' invitation.

Monday, October 15, 2018

First and Last

Over the last several weeks, our gospel lessons from Mark have included many references to children. On Sep. 23 (Proper 20), after learning that the disciples had been arguing over which one of them was the greatest, he put a child in their midst and told them that welcoming a child means welcoming him and the one who sent him. The following week, Sep. 30 (Proper 21), still holding a child in his arms, he said, "If you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones, it would be better if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea." Two Sundays ago, Oct. 7 (Proper 22), after offering a harsh teaching on divorce, Jesus rebukes his disciples for not allowing children to come to him, reminding them that one must receive God's kingdom like a child or else not enter it at all. Yesterday, Oct. 14 (Proper 23), when the disciples were perplexed and astounded at Jesus' teaching on wealth, he affectionately called them children to add a tender, loving tone to his challenging words.

There's more. On Sep. 9 (Proper 18), Jesus said to the Gentile woman, "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs," but the woman, undeterred, accepted the framework she had been presented and adopted a posture of deep humility in order to get what she needed. Then, on Sep. 16 (Proper 19), after Peter identified Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus told his followers to deny themselves and take up their cross in order to follow him. This coming Sunday, Oct. 21 (Proper 24), seemingly having learned nothing over the past several chapters of Mark, James and John will approach Jesus and ask if they can sit at his right and left in his kingdom. Again, Jesus teaches them the upside-down nature of God's reign: "whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."

I don't recall noticing before how persistent Mark is in showing us that following Jesus means becoming like a child, like a servant, like one who is last among us. I recognize that theme throughout the four-fold gospel, but I don't think the repetition in the lectionary has ever stuck out to me like this. What does that mean?

It means that, in one way or another, we've had two months to hear Jesus inviting us to become like him by becoming servant of all. It means we've had plenty of chances to see that entering the reign of God requires child-like wonder and humility. It means we're getting closer and closer to Jerusalem and won't have many more chances to learn how to follow Jesus before he is taken from us. It means that some counter-cultural, counter-instinctive lessons are harder to learn than others. It means that God is gracious and recognizes that we need to be taught some things again and again and again.

I'm not preaching this week, but I'm in awe of how clear the call to become a servant has resonated in our lessons for the last seven weeks. I'm asking God to open my heart to receive that invitation as fully as it has been presented to me.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

What Must I Do?

October 14, 2018 – The 21st Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 23B

© 2018 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service is available on St. Paul's YouTube page

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” the rich man asked when he came to Jesus and knelt down at his feet. There was something about Jesus—the way he spoke about God and God’s reign, the life of faithfulness that he exhibited—that let the man know that Jesus was someone who could give him the answer he was looking for. Jesus was on his way out of town, and the man wanted to catch him before he was gone, so he ran up and knelt before him and asked, “What must I do?” But, when Jesus looked at the man, he could tell that the man already knew what the answer was.

“You know the commandments,” Jesus said to him: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.” This was the sort of list that any rabbi might give. These were the big commandments, the foundational teachings of how God’s people were to live a faithful life. If you will do all of those things, if you will live in peace and charity with other people, you will know what it means to inherit the full and unending life that God bestows upon God’s people. But this man wasn’t asking because he needed a primer in Judaism. He wanted to go further in faithfulness. That’s why he had approached Jesus, the radical rabbi who preached about the immediacy, the nearness, of God’s reign. “Teacher,” the man went on, “I have kept all of these commandments—I have guarded and observed all of them—since I was a child.” The man was desperate for more. God had blessed him. God had made him rich. His faithfulness had led to prosperity, and we wanted to use his wealth to make God’s kingdom come. He just needed to know how.

“Jesus looked at him and loved him,” Mark tells us. That’s crucial. It is essential that we look upon the man with the same loving gaze with which Jesus beheld him. This was agape love, divine love, unconditional love. Jesus looked at him and loved him right where he was, in the midst of his quest for deep faith, and Jesus said to him, “You lack one thing. There’s just one thing that is keeping you out of God’s kingdom, holding you at arm’s length from God’s reign, and it’s your money. Sell all of your possessions and give the money to the poor so that you will have treasure in heaven. Then, come and follow me.” The man was “shocked” and filled with grief, Mark tells us, because he had many possessions. He thought his wealth would help God’s kingdom come, but Jesus told him that he had to give it away completely.

Throughout the millennia, God has revealed God’s self as the God of the poor, the God of the powerless, the God of the vulnerable. Our God—the God of Abraham and Sarah, of Rahab and Ruth, of Mary and Joseph and the carpenter’s son Jesus—is revealed not in the wealth of kings or in the power of armies but in the faith of the poor and the gentleness of the meek. In every generation, human beings reject that understanding of who God is and replace God with an idol of their own creation—something shiny, something strong, something impressive. It is easier to believe that God rewards the prosperous and blesses the powerful and prefers those who can make a good life for themselves. It takes deep faith to believe that God prefers the disenfranchised, the destitute, and the despised, but they are the ones to whom and through whom God’s reign has been revealed. We are the ones who pursue a relationship with God by following Jesus, the Crucified One, which means that we proclaim that enduring truth about God, but how will we make that truth known? How will we show a world that is obsessed with power and prosperity who God really is? Jesus gives us the answer: “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then, come follow me.”

I spent the first two years of seminary at Ridley Hall in Cambridge, England. When that second year drew to a close, it was time for me to make plans to come back and finish my studies at an American seminary. At the time, Elizabeth and I were engaged to be married, and, as sad as I was to be leaving my friends and colleagues in England, the thought of sharing that last year with my beloved filled me with joy. It also filled me with great fear. How were we going to make it financially? We would be living in northern Virginia, where the cost of living is outrageous. Although Elizabeth would (hopefully) be working as a nurse, I would still be a full-time student, racking up more student loans. In the years ahead of us, how long would it take a newly-ordained preacher and a nurse to get far enough out from underneath that debt to buy a house and start a family? I began to fill out the financial aid application for the coming year, and, when I saw the numbers, things only got worse.

I felt awkward calling the priest at my sending parish to ask him whether our church would be able to provide any financial support in the coming year. I explained that I was filling out the financial aid form and needed to put something in the blank for “parish support.” He was confused. I told him that I was applying for need-based aid and that I needed to provide all of my financial information—projected income, parish and diocesan support, family assets, student debt—and he interrupted me: “What debt? I thought you went to college on a full scholarship.” he said. I told him that I had but explained that seminary in England, where he had encouraged me to go, was very expensive. “Didn’t your parents help you out?” he asked, remembering an earlier conversation that we had had. “Yes,” I told him, “they helped me with part of it, but I had to pay for the rest with student loans.” “How much?” he asked.

I stopped, not knowing how to respond. The silence went on long enough for him to repeat the question: “How much?” I could tell what he had in mind by the tone of his voice. “Did he really mean it?” I asked myself. I told him the number, and he told me that he would call me in a week. Sure enough, a week later, he called to let me know that he had found some members of the parish who had decided to pay the whole amount. “Where should I send the check?” he asked.

In that moment, we instantly became tithers. You’d better believe that when it was time to fill out a pledge card later that fall we didn’t think twice: the first ten percent of our income went right on the card. And, with that overwhelmingly generous gesture, our priest actually gave us two important gifts. First, he gave us the gift of beginning our marriage without financial fear. We didn’t have to wonder how long it would take us to afford having family, to show our parents that we would make it, and for me to prove to Elizabeth that being a preacher’s wife wouldn’t be a life-long financial struggle. But the second gift was far more important and more enduring: by making us intentional stewards of our resources, he set us free from an attitude of scarcity and gave us confidence in God’s abundance. We learned in an instant a lesson that has been repeated every year when we fill out our giving card. Our possessions are not the source of our power, of our security, or of our blessedness. Our strength comes from God. God’s limitless love governs our lives, and stewardship enables us to give ourselves over to God’s work in the world with no strings attached.

Stewardship isn’t about raising money for our church. It isn’t even about funding the ministries that carry out God’s work in the world. Stewardship is about making God’s reign—God’s power, God’s blessing, God’s love—flourish in our lives by freeing ourselves from the tyranny of money, from the idol of scarcity that it creates. Jesus said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” At these words, the disciples were astonished and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” And Jesus said to them, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” When we set aside the first ten percent of our income and give it back to God, we reject the belief that we are responsible for our own salvation. When we become good stewards, we sever the crippling bonds that wealth has on our hearts and minds and souls. We reject the false theology of blessedness through riches and faithfulness through prosperity and teach ourselves that God’s reign comes through those who are not imprisoned by money.

This year, when it is time for you to make a commitment to God’s work in the world, don’t write down what you can afford or decide to give a little bit more than you gave last year. Yes, every penny you give will support the transformational work that God is doing in this place. But this is an opportunity to set yourself free from the fruitless belief that what you own is the measure of your true value, that what you have is what matters. What must you do to inherit eternal life? Like the rich man, you must find the path that enables God to reign in your life completely. You cannot be a vessel for God’s power if wealth still has power over you. So sell what you have, and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, and following Jesus will lead you to it.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Rich Man: Word Study

My friend and colleague, Seth Olson, had a great post on Monday of ten different ways a preacher might tackle Mark 10:17-31, and I hope you'll take a minute to read it. His post and a careful reading and discussion of Sunday's gospel lesson during our parish's staff meeting have drawn me to a more deliberate study of the words in this passage. Here are some of the things that caught my eye.

Inherit. According to the NRSV, the man asks Jesus, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" and the word "inherit" grabbed my attention. Since money will prove to be the thing that gets in the way of this man's participation in God's reign, I found the use of the word "inherit" to be provocative. The Greek verb "κληρονομέω" means to obtain or acquire through inheritance, so it's exactly what it sounds like it means. The interlinear Bible I use reckons it as "I should be tenanting" or "I should be enjoying the allotment of." There's clear language of entitlement and ownership buried in the man's question, which Mark may use to foreshadow the problem that arises later.

Kept. According to the NRSV, after Jesus lists the commandments, the man responds, "I have kept all these since my youth." I wondered what "kept" really means. The Greek word is "φυλάσσω," which, in addition to "keep," means "guard" or "protect" or "observe." Yes, the connotation is the same, but I wonder whether there is something to be said for one who guards the commandments--not fulfills but observes, watches, holds attention to. Does that shift our sometimes presumed understanding of the man as boastful? Maybe his response is merely to say, "I've been shaping my life around these commandments my whole life as fully as my heart and mind will allow." That's faithfulness, isn't it? But, still, something was missing.

Loved. As I wrote about on Monday, Jesus' response to the man is to "love" him, and the word for love in this case is a form of "ἀγαπάω," which is the verb for "agape" or divine love. We cannot miss that Jesus had more than fondness or affection for this man. Jesus looked at him the way God looks at us and loves us, despite our failures, yet always inviting us into transformation. That leaves open the possibility for transformation despite our reluctance to answer God's call completely.

Sell, Own, Money, Possessions, Wealth, Rich, and Treasure. Jesus invites the man, "sell what you own and give the money to the poor," so that he might have "treasure in heaven." Then, after the man goes away grieved "because he had many possessions," Jesus announces to the disciples (and anyone else who will listen), "How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!" Notice, of course, all of the language of economics. Although one word (NRSV = "money") is actually a Greek preposition ("this"), there is still a strong concentration of the language of money and transaction in this passage. Of particular note is the word for "treasure," which in the Greek is "θησαυρός," which implies a place to store one's future possessions. Where are we storing our future--on earth on in heaven? One cannot miss the focus on money in this passage.

Left. When Peter responds to Jesus, he uses a form of the Greek word "ἀφίημι" to describe what he and the other disciples have done in order to follow Jesus. The English "left" is a good translation, but the implication isn't just a physical or geographic journey but a letting go of, a forsaking of, or a releasing of something. They have let go of their claim on earthly possessions in order to have their sight fixed on Jesus and the coming reign of God, and they, Jesus tells us, will be rewarded.

Persecutions. In the oddest sort of way, Jesus predicts for Peter and the other followers an earthly reward. Those who have left everything for Jesus's sake will "receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields..." but then there's a qualifier: "...fields with persecutions." What does that mean? Literally, the Greek word "διωγμός," which is always translated by the NRSV as "persecution" means "chasing down" as in "hunted." So these riches that the disciples will receive in this life, in this age, will come with a sense of being hunted down, perhaps, as Jesus goes on to say, until "eternal life" is given in the next age.

It's a lot. It's rich. There's much to hear. As Seth wrote, there is an "embarrassment of riches" in this passage, and it makes me want to preach two sermons on it. Hopefully, this kind of careful reading will shape what I write into one sermon because no one wants to hear two.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Governing Principles

When I was a child, a popular offering of prepackaged chicken in the grocery store was the whole fryer. The butchers behind the counter would take a chicken, cut it up into wings, breasts, thighs, and legs and place it in the foam tray and wrap it in plastic wrap. My mother liked the whole fryer because it provided both the right amount of food and the right diversity of offerings for our family. My parents each got a breast, and my brothers and I split up the thighs and legs. Nowadays, my family of six needs a whole fryer with an extra leg or two, but it's harder to find a chicken already cut up. One can easily find split breasts in one package, wings in another, and leg quarters or separated legs and thighs in separate packages, but the eight-piece-in-one isn't as popular as it was. And that's ok with me because I love cutting up my own chicken.

There's something satisfying about placing the edge of a chef's knife right on the joint of leg and thigh and feeling the pieces separate as if an orthopedic surgeon had done the work. More times than not, however, I miss the mark slightly, and I end up hitting bone or cutting into the cartilage. I don't cut up chickens very often, which is probably why I enjoy it so much. When I first met Elizabeth, my father-in-law owned a grocery store. He was a member of the third generation to own the store, and among the many duties he shared with his brother and cousins was to work behind the meat counter. When it's his turn to cut up chicken, he doesn't miss.

The word of God doesn't miss either, as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us in Sunday's epistle lesson: "The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow." It's a scary image--God's word piercing, cutting, dividing, separating. I don't know what it means to have a soul separated from spirit, but I can imagine what it is like to separate joints from marrow. To not only divide at the joint but to reach into the marrow one must have a sharp edge--perhaps a band saw. But that's the image the author uses as he invites us to imagine what God's word does. Unfortunately, as it is presented to us in Sunday's reading, we are left with an out-of-context quotation, a verse of scripture that sounds like it belongs on a billboard or in a preacher's wide-ranging sermon about judgment. But that's not what this author has in mind. To see the context, we need to go all the way back and read Hebrews 3 and the first half of Hebrews 4.

After making an argument in last Sunday's lesson that spanned Hebrews 1 & 2 that the Son of God is greater even than the angels and, therefore, must be obeyed, the author extends that point in Hebrews 3 to show that the Son of God is greater even than Moses, the giver of the Law, because, God speaks directly through the Son while God's word is mediated when delivered (through angels, as the tradition goes) to Moses. Using the struggle of Israel in the wilderness as a point of comparison, the author encourages his readers to cling faithfully to the witness and word of God's Son so that, unlike God's people who wandered through the desert on their way from Egypt to Canaan, we might enter directly into God's rest--his way of describing the "Promised Land." At the end of chapter 3, he writes, "For who were those who heard and yet rebelled? Was it not all those who left Egypt led by Moses? And with whom was he provoked for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient? So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief."

The author's wish is for the reader to enter straightaway into God's rest. Chapter 4 opens with a rejoinder to hold fast to God's word: "Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it. For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened. For we who have believed enter that rest..." The same good and godly opportunity is being presented to God's people. God has promised to bring God's people into God's rest, but, whether that happens now or after an extended period of struggle and distraction, depends on our obedience to God's word. Right before our lesson for Sunday picks up, we see that connection most clearly: "Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one may fall through such disobedience as theirs. Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow..." In the ESV, verse 11 and verse 12 are set in the same paragraph as if to imply an even stronger connection between the hope of entering God's rest and the call to obedience to God's word.

That's a long way of saying that Sunday's reading from Hebrews isn't just about the sharp word of God piercing our hearts, exposing our thoughts and intentions. It's about respecting, revering, and obeying the word of God so that we might inherit the promise of rest that God has given us. If you don't respect a sharp knife, it will cut you. The word of God, delivered to Moses and spoken directly to us through God's Son, must govern our lives. It is good news. It offers promise and hope and guidance, but it is more than that, as verse 12 reminds us. It is sharp and discerning and quickening (think Highlander). The sharp power of God's word isn't designed merely to wound us, cut us, or pierce us. It's spoken to us in order that we might enter God's rest. It has the power to cut away fat and leave only what is desired. When we hear this reading on Sunday, I hope we hear the hope that they were designed to convey--not a sappy hope but the sometimes challenging hope of truth.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Difficult Teaching, Week 2

Last week, like many preachers, I struggled to make sense of Mark 10:2-16 and Jesus' difficult teaching on divorce. On Monday, I noted with some surprise that all of us--parishioners and preachers--seem to take Jesus' words that liken divorce and remarriage to adultery more seriously than Jesus' teachings on selling all of our possessions, hating the members of our family, and losing our lives for the sake of the gospel. Well, this week I get what I asked from in Mark 10:17-31, which Jesus says, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." Gulp.

A man runs up to Jesus and inquires about the necessary steps to inheriting (interesting word) eternal life. Jesus rehearses for him a short summary of the commandments: no murder, no adultery, no theft, no false witness, no fraud, parental respect. "Teacher," the man replies, "I have kept all these since my youth." And, in the next moment, the whole lesson pivots. Mark tells us that Jesus looks at him and loves him and then says, "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me."

In what spirit do you encounter the young man today? Is he earnest, faithful, eagerly seeking the reign of God? Is he braggadocious, prideful, desperately seeking to prove to himself or others that he deserves to inherit God's kingdom? Because he is described as rich and, in Luke's version of the story, as a ruler, it is easy for us to associate negative connotations with the man. "Who could ever claim to have kept all of the commandments?" our Pauline Protestant Christian mindset interjects. But Jesus looked at the man and loved him. Even before we get to Jesus' response, we see love. It's agape love--unconditional, divine love. Jesus isn't impressed (there's a satisfaction for your Pauline disposition), but he is filled with love for the man. He wants to help him. He wants to give him what he seeks. His response won't be an exercise in shame or guilt. Jesus won't use the man to prove a larger point. Jesus wants the man to find eternal life, and that's why the answer he gives is so difficult.

Looking at the man and loving him, Jesus says, "You lack one thing: sell all your possessions, give the money to the poor, and come follow me." We choose to hear those words as particular and not universal. Jesus isn't telling all of us that everyone needs to sell his or her possessions and give it all way. Some people, like monks and nuns, hear that call and respond to it by taking a vow of poverty, but most of us hear it and think, "I'm glad he wasn't talking to me." There's something about money that leads us to take teachings like this one metaphorically or hyperbolically instead of literally. But the words that follow are directed at a general audience: "How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!" And I think he says those words with the same love in his heart. He's not trying to make us feel guilty for being rich. He's trying to help us get into God's reign, and he knows that it's nearly impossible if we're holding onto our wealth.

It's annual giving season in many churches, which gives the preacher the opportunity to use this text to talk about stewardship. Stewardship is the spiritual practice that teaches us how to enter the kingdom by letting go of our claim on our wealth. It is our response to passages like this one, in which we encounter the challenge of becoming poor. For 95% of the people who go to churches like ours, the thing that most threatens to keep them out of heaven won't be murder, adultery, theft, false witness, fraud, or disrespect for parents. It will be an indissoluble attachment to wealth. I wish preachers and parishioners paid as much attention to this part of Mark 10 as we pay to the part about divorce. We must hear Jesus' words with love in our hearts and a desire to enter the fullness of God's reign in our lives and in the world.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Misunderstanding Jesus on Divorce

Do you remember when 1950s Doc Brown responded to 1980s Marty McFly's use of the word "heavy" to mean "serious" by saying, "There's that word again: heavy. Why are things so heavy in the future? Is there a problem with the earth's gravitational pull?" It reminds us that language changes.

Language changes. How we use language changes. But the language of the biblical text does not change...much. Yes, there are occasional manuscript discoveries that shift the interpretation or translation of the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek biblical text. And translation committees are constantly updating how a word is rendered from one language to another. But Jesus can't go back and change what he said. He can't tap biblical scholars or translation committee members on the shoulder and say, "I didn't mean that." Yesterday, at a ministerial association lunch, someone from the Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC) tradition, which celebrates its fiftieth anniversary this week, remarked that they were the only ones at the table who could call up their founder and ask, "What did you mean by that?" How true.

On Sunday morning in Mark 10:2-16, we will hear Jesus say unequivocally, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery." We can't ask him what he meant by that. We can't ask whether an eighteen-year-old who got pregnant and was pressured by her parents into marrying a man she did not love should be forced in the name of God to forego any future chance at a loving marital union. We can't ask whether he might modify that language--if not in content at least in tone--if he knew that he was speaking to people whose first spouses were violent and abusive.

Even Matthew, who takes this saying of Jesus and adds the exception for adultery, wants to shift the meaning of the text for the sake of the reader. Some may argue that Matthew had a better memory or report or Holy-Spirit-connection than Mark did, but it seems more likely that the later gospel scribe recognized the scandal that Jesus had caused even in the first century and wanted to give his rabbi a little more wiggle room than he had originally provided for himself.

What would Jesus say about divorce in the 21st century? What would Jesus say about marriage? I suppose that's the question for anyone and everyone who reads the biblical text. Although that job belongs most visibly to preachers, we are all interpreters of scripture--every single one of us who reads or hears it. Instead of asking Jesus what he meant to say--a fruitless and, perhaps, heretical pursuit--I suggest that we ask what the Holy Spirit intends us to hear and understand, and that pursuit feels holy and sacred.

What are we in the 21st century supposed to hear Jesus saying about divorce and marriage when his words are locked two thousand years in the past? As I wrote on Monday in a post that rightly received several strong emotional responses, I think Jesus would stand by his words about the permanence of the spiritual union between those who marry--not because he would say that divorce is wrong in all cases but because it would undermine marriage as a gift of God in the fabric of creation to pretend that any marriage, no matter how unholy or tragic, did not matter. As is so often the case, he was pushing the envelope.

The Pharisees didn't ask him this question because they needed an answer. They were testing him. This was a controversy even in Jesus' day, and, perhaps in a way that surprised them but should not surprise us, he pressed them to an extreme in order to identify and criticize a faithless practice among the presumed faithful. "Because of your hardness of heart he wrote that commandment," Jesus says of Moses, who so often had to bend the rules to accommodate the grumbling people of God. By pressing them to consider their practice of divorce and remarriage as adulterous, Jesus is calling into question the system that allows haphazard divorce. These words are intended to press his audience to faithfulness not guilt, to respect not shame. Anyone who thinks she or he can get a judge to sign a document and then pretend that a marriage didn't really mean anything isn't paying attention to their own spiritual, emotional, and mental health. It isn't the divorce that Jesus is critical of; it's the revolving-door practice of divorce and remarriage that stems from our hardness of heart.

I remember the first time I agreed with someone who believed that the right thing for her to do was get divorced. She was in a loveless marriage that included emotional infidelity, if not a physical affair, and the relationship had long ago stopped imaging God's love for the world. The marriage was over. In that sense, the signing of papers and the judge's signature were only a reflection of the truth that had become clear long ago. Was it good that they had spent time trying to save their relationship? Absolutely. Jesus is very clear that throwing marriage away like tissues is wrong. Should the woman I was with take time to reflect on why her marriage failed, how she contributed to its failure? Absolutely, especially before considering an opportunity to marry again. If she ever meets someone whom she wants to marry, should she be allowed in God's eyes to marry again? As long as she addresses the reality of her previous marriage and understands that that chapter in her life will always be a part of her, I think so, even though Jesus says what he says. It would be adulterous to pretend that previous marriages don't matter. It would dishonor God, not necessarily the previous spouse, to act as if that union never happened. But it isn't contrary to God's will for someone whose marriage was unholy to end it, and I don't think it's ungodly for a thoughtful, faithful individual to get married again.

I don't know the extent to which "the two become one flesh" still operates when one spouse is violent toward the other. Paul asks us to love our spouse as we love our own bodies, suggesting that such violence is itself a denial of the one-fleshment in marriage. The union may have dissolved, but the connection to the past relationship still exists, and to deny it is to deny the sanctity of marriage itself.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Suffering: No Satisfactory Answer

A few years ago, I led a Bible study through the Book of Job. Even though I knew the story, a part of me still waited for things to turn out right. By right, I don’t mean the so-called happy ending to the book, when Job gets a new life, new children, and new wealth. I mean God showing up and explaining to Job that the unimaginable suffering that he endured was the result of a wager—a Trading Places sort of bet between God and Satan. We finished the book and, of course, never got that answer.

This Sunday, we read some of the opening words of Job, and we encounter the setup to Job’s catastrophe: “The Lord said to Satan, ‘Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil.” It does not make sense to think of God as one who brags, but that sounds a little like bragging. It sounds like God is itching for a fight, for a gamble with the devil. Satan hears the implicit challenge in God’s words and pushes back: “Skin for skin! All that people have they will give to save their lives. But stretch out your hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.” And God gives Satan permission to bring the suffering to his own body.

This is actually the second time God let Satan have his way with Job. In the first exchange in Chapter 1, Satan was allowed to take Job’s children and his property. This time, the attack comes to his person. And the point of it all is expressed in the last verses of Sunday’s reading: “Then his wife said to him, ‘Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.’ But he said to her, ‘You speak as any foolish [person] would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?’ In all this Job did not sin with his lips.” Job’s wife says what any reasonable, rational person would say. This is too much. You were always a good person, and what has it gotten you? Give up…on God, on life. But Job says no.

Job isn’t only presented to us as a paragon of faith. He is also presented to us as a paragon of suffering. His righteousness was unsurpassed, and his suffering is unparalleled. Sometimes bad things happen to good people, and the wager between God and Satan is supposed to be as infuriating to us as inexplicable tragedy. It is empty. It is meaningless. It didn’t happen that way, but it might as well have. We don’t get answers, and any attempt to provide an answer—God has abandoned you or God is making a bet with Satan or you must have done something to deserve this—comes up short. You can’t finish Job and be satisfied, and you can’t go through life’s inexplicable sufferings and look for a satisfactory answer.

This may be the most difficult lesson in life and, accordingly, the most difficult lesson of faith. God is all-powerful and all-good, but we are still subject to terrible and undeserved tragedies. We want to make sense of that. We need to explain it, but those explanations don’t come. They can’t be found. Some understandably take Job’s wife’s advice: curse God and die. I don’t fault them for it, but I doubt the result is any more satisfactory, though perhaps easier to live with. Instead, we are asked to look for God even in the midst of our pain. We are asked to believe that God is with us through our suffering—not that God causes our suffering to test us but that God is lovingly present in the middle of it. When we are at our worst moment, God is still with us even if we cannot see God, even if God does not give us the answers that we seek. That is true faith. Job’s relationship with God is pushed to the breaking point, but his emblematic faithfulness is embodied in his refusal to give up on God even when God seems to have disappeared.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Inseparable Union

I've only preached on Jesus' prohibition on divorce in Mark 10:2-16 once or twice, and I've always been surprised at the strong negative reaction I get. Jesus says it pretty clearly: "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery." He says this to the disciples after offering a public teaching on the matter, which underscores his commitment to it. He hadn't been trying to push the crowd with a hyperbolic statement. Jesus, it seems, really believed that divorce and remarriage was adultery.

Maybe I should say that I'm not surprised that individuals react strongly to a sermon on the sinfulness of divorce and remarriage. Instead, I'm surprised that they react strongly to that sermon but not as strongly to a sermon on selling all that you have and giving it to the poor or hating mother and father or losing one's life for the sake of the gospel. For some reason, we hear Jesus' teaching on divorce and take it seriously and literally but find a way to wiggle out of many of his other difficult teachings. Why is that?

Partly, it's because the church took this teaching seriously for most of its existence. Famously, the Roman Catholic takes a fairly hard line on divorce, requiring that a marriage be annulled before remarriage is allowed and excluding from Communion those who have skipped the official process. But they aren't the only hardliners. In the Episcopal Church, we did not allow remarriage of divorced persons until the middle of the twentieth century, and the Church of England, despite becoming a distinct church after Henry VIII was not permitted to remarry, continues to have strict policies. I've heard stories of individuals from other denominations who, upon getting divorced, were brought before an official church tribunal and then excommunicated from the congregation. Maybe a better question is to ask why the church seems to care so much about marriage and not as much about voluntary poverty or pursuing martyrdom.

I'm sure the church's motives need scrutiny, but for this post I'm interested in looking at the theology of marriage and how Jesus uses that as the foundation of his teaching on the subject. The Pharisees, who were strict observers of the religious laws, ask Jesus about divorce. It seems likely that they, too, were split on the issue. "Moses says that a man can write a certificate of divorce," they say, "but what do you think?" Mark tells us that they wanted to test him--to find out his true feelings on an issue of moral importance. Jesus wants nothing to do with such matters of convenience. Pointing to creation, he replies, "But from the beginning of creation, 'God made them male and female...' So they are no longer two but one flesh." In Jesus' interpretation, when two people get married, they are united to each other, and that union is fundamentally inseparable. That's why he calls divorce and remarriage adultery.

With the bishop's permission, I am allowed to officiate at the marriage of divorced persons. But, before the bishop will give permission (and before I would do the marriage anyway), I must talk with the individuals about their previous marriages and why they failed. We have a difficult--for them and for me--conversation about the earlier union, how both persons contributed to its failure, and why this new proposed marriage will succeed. Perhaps there's an integrity to bringing the reality of the previous marriage into the new union instead of annulling or expunging it as if it had never happened. Maybe adultery is a good word to describe what it means to be separated from a spouse and marry another--not because adulterers should stand condemned in the eyes of the church but because we should remember that marital unions can't really ever be dissolved. Sure, they stop functioning. Yes, remaining together can often cause more harm than good, can actually undermining the holiness of marriage itself. Divorce is often the right option. But what God has joined together no one can really put asunder.

Even though there is a break, the identity of an individual as married cannot be undone. The two become one flesh. Finding a theology of divorce may be an important development for the church as it seeks to honor the sanctity of marriage and the sanctity of remarriage. I'm not preaching on Sunday, and maybe it's a good thing, but I'll be wrestling with this text and will continue to wrestle with it every time I sit with a person or a couple who is experiencing brokenness in a marriage or is seeking to marry again. I have to. Otherwise marriage means nothing.