Tuesday, December 25, 2018

The Miracle of Surprise

December 24, 2018 – Christmas I

© 2018 Evan D. Garner

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

A man in his fifties sits behind his desk at work. He is a physician in a large research facility who spends more time in his office than he does with patients. It is an ordinary day, which is to say that he is busy. Two other colleagues are meeting with him in his office to review cases and determine which patients will be accepted and which ones will need to find another place for treatment. For the most part, they are not difficult decisions, but they are significant, supremely consequential for the individuals and families that they represent, so they give it their full attention and focus. In the middle of their tedious work, there is a sharp knock at the door. “Come in!” the man whose office it is calls out, but the door does not open. After a pause, he repeats his invitation a little more loudly, but, still, the door remains shut. There is another knock, even harder than the first, which serves to elevate exponentially the tension and frustration in the small space. “Come in!” the doctor yells back, already beginning to make his way from behind his desk to the door, but his command is only met with another defiant knock. “Where did my assistant go?” the man angrily wonders to himself as he approaches the door, grasping the handle and snatching it open.

When he does, he sees a familiar but completely unexpected sight: a young man in a military uniform with a mischievous but authentic smile on his face. For a split second, the physician does not understand what is happening. The frustration and anger have vanished, but his heart and mind do not quite know what emotions should replace them. By the time he is able to take in a breath, he recognizes that it is his son, who has come home from Afghanistan and has dropped by to surprise his father. The man wraps his son in an embrace as years of worry pour out in tears of relief. His knees buckle. His torso shakes as he sobs. The other men in his office, recognizing that their work will need to wait, offer a congratulatory pat on the back as they walk past, in response to which man does not relax his grip on his son even slightly.

I am a sucker for military reunion videos. The hospital nurse whose daughter comes home from South Korea. The cafeteria worker whose son sneaks into the kitchen to surprise her with a bouquet of flowers. The middle school teacher who takes her class to the pep rally not knowing that she will be the subject of the entire school’s celebration. It grabs my heart to see an adult so surprised and so overcome with joy that he or she acts like a little child. In that moment, the magic of surprise takes over and nothing else in the world matters except the miracle standing right in front of them.

One night, a long time ago, some men went to work out in the fields just like they did every night. It was cold and dark. Usually, not much happened. The hardest part was staying awake. But that night was different. All at once, the darkness was split apart, and the angel of the Lord stood before them, and God’s glory wrapped around them, and they were terrified. “Fear not!” the angel said, “For I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

On every level, it was a surprise too amazing to be true. It took their breath away. (Literally, they “feared a great fear.”) The Savior of God’s people, the Messiah, had been born in the ancestral city of David, the great king of Israel, and the news of this birth had come to them—some lowly shepherds? They were just in the fields doing their job—the kind of job no one really wanted to do—and the angel came to find them? This was news that belonged to someone far more important—a priest or a prophet, perhaps. But God’s messenger had come into the fields to find them and let them know. How wonderful! How incredible beyond imagination! What sort of miracle must this be in order for God to seek out these shepherds and share this news with them?

It is a miracle that startles the world by belonging not in a palace or in a hospital or even in an inn but in a feeding trough. “This will be a sign for you,” the angel continued, “You fill find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” The absurdity of what God had done was only magnified by the sign of its taking place. It was a confirmation that made as little sense as the message itself. God’s anointed was wrapped in throw-away rags and placed in a manger? Before the shepherds had a chance to contemplate the significance of what they had seen and heard, suddenly, alongside the angel was a multitude of the heavenly host—angels too numerous to count—all praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” And, when the angels had departed and gone back into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now and see this thing that has taken place.”

In order to receive the message of the angel, we, too, must be surprised. We, too, must let the confusing miracle consume us. The astonishing truth of Christmas is that, in order to save the world, God becomes a child. In order to protect us, God becomes as vulnerable as a newborn and as humble as a carpenter’s son. The astounding message of the incarnation is that, in order to heal us, God takes all that is broken within us onto himself. And all God asks of us in return is that we come and see.

God is doing something wonderful, something marvelous, something miraculous. Tonight we celebrate that God is at work reversing the course of human history, changing the darkness into light, transforming despair into hope. But, if we want to see it, if we want to be part of it, we must look where that miracle is to be found—not in places of wealth or power or influence nor among the religious leaders of our day but in the quiet, vulnerable, humble places where God’s greatest surprise is taking place. In every generation, God’s work is to reach out in love to those who least expect God’s love to find them. As such, that work will always surprise us. It is revealed to those who do not see it coming but who still keep room for hope in their hearts. It is alive in those who seek the miracle of surprise, in those who look for good news not in the headlines but in the stories of those they love, in those who refuse to let the noisy narrative of the world supplant the quiet narrative of God’s work within it.

Allow yourself again to be overwhelmed with the surprise that God gives to world this night. Behold this thing that God is doing with the same astonishment as the shepherds and the same amazement as the children around us. Hold onto hope with every ounce of strength you have and believe that God can bring the miracle of surprise to even the least likely circumstances. That is the miracle of this night. That is the message of the angel and the testimony of the shepherds. That is the truth of Christmas, revealed to those who believe in the power of surprise. Come, again, to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place. Let it take your breath away. Come and see God’s gift of love for the world. Come and see and be amazed.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Who Wants To Be A Shepherd?

4:30 p.m. Service - December 24, 2018 - Christmas I

(c) 2018 Evan D. Garner

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

What do you want to be when you grow up? A doctor? Lawyer? Teacher? Athlete? Mother? Father? Priest? Who wants to be a shepherd? Why wouldn't you want to be a shepherd? Have you ever been so smelly, so dirty that even taking a bath didn't get you clean? What about lice? Ever had to stay home from school because you had head lice? (Don't raise your hand for that.) What about money--how much do you think a shepherd gets paid? And work schedule--what sort of social life do you think a shepherd has?

For all of those reasons, few people grow up wanting to be shepherds, and that was as true in Jesus' day as it is now. No one wanted to be a shepherd. They were born into it or couldn't find another way to make a living. They weren't necessarily bad people, although later rabbinic traditions associate shepherds with thieves, but they weren't glamorous. They weren't important. They weren't special.

But on Christmas night, a long time ago, when Mary gave birth to Jesus and wrapped him in bands of cloths and put him in a manger--in a feeding trough--who were the people that the angel went to tell? The shepherds! The angel said to them, "Do not fear for I bring you good news of great joy which shall be for all people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord." God's greatest gift comes into the world, and God shares it with shepherds. Why?

Maybe it's because God had a special place in God's heart for shepherds. Several times in the Bible, we read paradoxically that the Almighty One cares for us like a shepherd. Maybe it's because David was a shepherd, and Jesus, as his descendant, was laid in a feeding trough, was supposed to be seen as the one who will shepherd God's people. That might be right, but I think it's also something else. I think the shepherds help us understand the real miracle of Christmas.

We live in a world in which good people usually get good things and bad people usually get bad things. In many of our homes, that's what Santa Claus and Christmas are all about. The great and mythical present-giver has two lists: naughty and nice. And those on the naughty list get switches and ashes or perhaps lumps of coal, while those on the nice list get wonderful toys. But that isn't how God's Christmas gift works.

God's gift of God's Son is given not to the good people but to all of us--bad people, too. In the birth of Jesus, God takes upon God's self human nature--not just the good parts but the whole thing in order that all that is broken, tarnished, or fragile might be made whole and right and strong. The shepherds remind us that the miracle of Christmas is not reserved for the rich, the powerful, the impressive, or the religious. It is given to all of us--to all of humanity. If God had revealed this miracle to princes and priests, the rest of us may never have heard of it or, when we did, we might have heard them tell us that, in order to receive this gift, we must become like them--strong, powerful, and perfect. But that's the opposite of the Christmas message, and the shepherds remind us of that.

Who wants to be a shepherd? Yeah, me neither. But I rejoice that God's good news at Christmas comes to each and every one of us, no matter who we are, no matter how we behave, no matter where we live, no matter what. That's good news, and I thank God for giving us the shepherds so that we can see it.

Adoption as God's Children

This coming Sunday could easily be missed. It is the First (and this year only) Sunday after Christmas Day. Most of our liturgical, musical, and homiletic focus is spent on Christmas Eve. Like everyone else, many clergy, musicians, and other worship leaders go on vacation. Even if they don't, they've likely saved sermon prep or organ practice for the other side of Christmas, which means Wednesday, which probably means Thursday or Friday or not at all. I don't blame them. My own daily writing has become, well, less than daily because of the busyness of the pre-Christmas season. I don't blame them (us), but it's still a shame.

On Sunday, those who go to church will hear Paul's message of Christmas hope to the Galatians: "But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children." The incarnation, to use a word Paul does not use, is the means by which all of humanity becomes God's adopted children. Once our human nature is united to the divine nature, there is no going back. It may not change God, but it changes us forever.

For Paul, however, this new reality takes on an interesting approach: we are heirs. Think about the specificity of that notion. In a family, many people may have claim to relationship. Even close friends may call someone "mom" or "dad" or "aunt" or "uncle." When it is time for the family to be seated at the funeral, the children of the decedent often ask caretakers and other trusted individuals to join them in the place of honor. But, when it's time to read the will, those close associations don't really count for much.

Yet, in Christ, we are heirs. We are direct-line inheritors of the riches that God bestows upon us. We are not third-cousins or distant kin but heirs. The distinction Paul makes between slaves and heirs carries some cultural baggage that deserves unpacking, but the point he seems to be making is the totality with which the incarnation changes our identity. Even the children of Israel, Paul writes, were under a disciplinarian--a pedagogue, a teacher, a trainer--in the covenanted law. That does not necessarily imply a conditional relationship, but it does imply an incomplete one. The law is not wrong, nor is it bad, but its work was unfinished until all of humanity found its heir-ship in the birth of God's Son.

Although we often (and rightly) think of Paul as cross-centered, some of Paul's strongest and richest theology is incarnational. In Christ, there is no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, no male or female (Gal. 3:28). For if many died through Adam's trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many (Rom. 5:15). This Sunday, as we continue our celebration of the incarnation, we are reminded of an important truth: we are God's children--not a loosely connected extended family but direct-line descendants and heirs. Each of us and all of us belong to God as if we were God's only beloved daughter or son. It is not some abstraction that God has taken upon God's self. It is our nature--your nature, my nature--that is united with the divine in the incarnation.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Carrying Out Doubts

December 19, 2018 - St. Thomas, tr.

In trying times, there are other people who carry our faith for us. As we pray in the burial office, "Give courage and faith to those who are bereaved, that they may have strength to meet the days ahead in the comfort of a reasonable and holy hope, in the joyful expectation of eternal life with those they love." Those who have faith--the collective community of believers--ask that God would give faith to those who are struggling. People pray for us when we cannot find the strength or focus or confidence to pray. The towering faith of those who come into our lives and journey beside us for a while helps us find our own faith. When the paralytic was brought to Jesus for healing, Jesus noticed not the faith of the man lying on the bed but the faith of those who had brought him and lowered him down through the roof, yet Jesus pronounces forgiveness of sins and healing for the man whom they had brought. In a real way, therefore, the faith of others stands in for our own faith until our faith can be made whole.

I wonder if the same is true for our doubts.

This week, we remember the feast of St. Thomas, which is celebrated on December 21, the longest night of the year. Thomas, of course, is remembered primarily for the encounter we hear in the gospel lesson appointed for his feast: "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe." It is this moment that gives Thomas the true yet unfair nickname Doubting Thomas. One way to hear these words is to imagine a defiant Thomas, perhaps disappointed and hurt that he had been left out the first time Jesus appeared to his disciples, flatly refusing to believe what the disciples were saying to him. "We have seen the Lord!" they exclaim, but Thomas will have none of it. But is that what the story bears out? Thomas does not respond to the disciples, "I will never believe--not even if I see and touch it for myself!" Instead, he admits, "Unless I see it and touch it, I will not believe. Until then, I cannot believe." Might there be agony in his voice? Couldn't he be desperate to see what his colleagues had seen?

Jesus, in fact, gives Thomas exactly what he needs. A week later, he finds the disciples again and duplicates the first encounter, seemingly just for Thomas' sake. Before Thomas can say a word, Jesus responds as if he had heard already Thomas' disappointed struggle: "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe." Remember, as Lesser Feasts and Fasts 2018 points out, that Jesus had refused to give the disbelieving, hard-hearted Pharisees a sign, but he willingly gives Thomas a sign so close and real that it is to be touched. Jesus is responding to Thomas' openness. Despite his doubts, Thomas seeks faith, but the reality is that he cannot produce faith all by himself. He needs help. "Lord, help my unbelief!" the father of the epileptic boy cries out to Jesus. Thomas, in his own way, has uttered the same cry, and Jesus has heard it.

Without questioning the historicity of Thomas' encounter with Jesus, I note this episode's literary importance. In the gospel of Jesus as John tells it, the incredulity of the world needs a hero, and Thomas provides it. The resurrection of Jesus was--and for many still is--unbelievable. As Josephus wrote, a resurrection itself isn't beyond thinkable, but a crucified and resurrected messiah is preposterous (not his words but mine). To think that the rejected, defeated, shamed criminal who died on the cross at the hands of God's clearest enemy, the Empire of Rome, would still become the champion of God's reign, the one through whom God's victory would be declared, is incomprehensible. Yet it is true, and I believe it. But how do I believe it? How do I get over the hurdle of doubt? How can I know what the faithful know without first being faithful? Thomas shows us what it means for another to carry our doubts.

Thomas is the embodiment of our deepest questions, our sternest reluctance. Thomas' bold encounter, his honest inability to believe without proof, carries our skepticism to the feet of the Risen One. In him, the Holy Spirit gives us permission to say, "Unless I, too, see the mark of the nails in his side and place my finger in the mark of the nails and place my hand in his side, I will not believe." We receive that permission because we know that Jesus response to us is the same. If we, like Thomas, hold open the hope for faith, Jesus will come among us, offer to reveal himself to us, allow us to see and touch him, and give us the blessing of faith. "Have you believed because you have seen me?" Jesus asked. "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."

The journey from doubt to faith is not one of black and white, start and finish, right or wrong. It is a lifelong journey of struggle, of knowing and not knowing, of believing and questioning. In those moments when our doubts mount up, Thomas allows us to hand them to him so that he can bring them to the risen Jesus on our behalf. We are not rejected because of our struggle. We are welcomed because of our truth and honesty. No matter how large the doubts loom, no matter how hard faith is to hold, leave space in your heart for God and trust that God will receive your hope and grant you faith.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Who Will Invite Them Back?

December 16, 2018 – The Third Sunday of Advent, Year C

© 2018 Evan D. Garner

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

During this time of the year, the phone in the church office rings pretty often with calls from people who are looking for financial assistance. Utility bills are climbing, holiday expenses are piling up, and lots of people need a little help. I never promise to help people over the phone, but I will promise to listen to them if they will come down to the church and talk with me face-to-face. Several years ago, when I made that offer to a woman, she asked me where the church was located. I gave her the address and told her that we were right downtown. She then asked if there were any landmarks nearby, and I replied, “Ma’am, we are the landmark.” I had always presumed that our big, beautiful, nineteenth-century structure with the bell tower that stretched up toward heaven was an icon for everyone, but today’s gospel lesson reminds me how easily I make that mistake.

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Remember, these people hadn’t gone downtown to get the help they sought. They had traveled out into the countryside, into the wilderness, where the word of God had come to John, the son of Zechariah. Sure, they knew where the temple was, but they also knew that they wouldn’t find a place for themselves in the principal religious institution of their day. They were sinners. This crowd was made up of tax collectors and soldiers and other people who had either been turned away by the religious authorities or who had given up on religion altogether. They had ventured out into that place beyond where the comforts and security of civilization reached, and John wanted to know why: “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

Were they curious? Did they want to point their fingers and snicker? Did they want to see whether the rumors about the wild-eyed prophet were true? Or were they looking for something else? John, too, had given up on the religious practices of his day. He didn’t teach in the temple or worship in a nearby synagogue. He stayed out in the wilderness, where a fanatic like him was less likely to encounter resistance from the authorities. When John saw the crowd coming toward him, he naturally was suspicious: “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” In other words, “Are you like everybody else—people who think religion means showing up on the holy days and saying all the right words—or are you interested in a real relationship with God?”

Even after being taunted by him, the crowd asked, “What then should we do?” proving their genuine desire for the kind of spiritual transformation that only he could offer. With those words, John knew that they were serious. He had done his best to push them away, but they wanted more. So John told them what the fruits of repentance look like. If you have two coats, share with anyone who has none, and, if you have enough food to eat, share with those who are hungry. If you’re a tax collector, collect only the amount prescribed for you. And, if you’re a soldier, be content with your wages and don’t try to extort money from anyone with threats or false accusations. And that’s enough for now.

Notice that John doesn’t tell them to leave home and family and join him in the wilderness. Nor does he say to the tax collectors and soldiers that they should quit their unholy occupations and take up a more respectable trade. John’s invitation to a change of heart is far more modest than that. Be content. Follow the rules. Don’t threaten others. Share with those in need. And, if you do that, you will prepare yourself to receive the one who is to come.

To someone on whom the dominant religious culture has turned its back, that is good news. Wherever you are, whatever you’ve done, however you’ve lived your life, however far away from the faithful you have strayed, the invitation to return is as simple and near as a genuine gesture of holiness. How often in today’s religious culture does the message of repentance sound like that? We hear plenty about the “brood of vipers,” the “axe…lying at the root of the trees,” and the fire that consumes those who do not bear fruit, but we don’t hear much at all about the simple step that it takes to get back on track. The religious voices of today have convinced the world that the only way anyone can belong to God is by being perfect. And, if you and I won’t do anything about it, the world will think that they are right. The crowds will take one look at a church like ours—a symbol of the dominant religious culture of our day—and presume that they won’t find a welcome here.

One of the great gifts that the Episcopal Church has is a downtown presence. In many communities like ours, somewhere within a block or two of the center of public life is an Episcopal Church. We have an historic place in the life of our community, but, as the religious landscape has changed, that place has become as much a liability as an asset. Just as in John the Baptist’s day, the line between the corridors of power and the corridors of religion has become blurred. Institutional religion and institutional authority are inseparable. The strange marriage of American Christianity and American politics has made it difficult to be a church in the world without being thought of as a church of the world. People who walk down the sidewalk and see St. Paul’s assume that a big fancy church like ours is full of big fancy people who believe that their big fancy God only cares about big and fancy people like them. I know that’s not true, and so do you, but what are we going to do about it?

We need to become a wilderness church without abandoning our place in the center of society. We need to be a path that leads those who have been pushed out into the desert back to the center of public life. We need to be a refuge for those on whom religion has turned its back. We need to take our message of God’s infinite grace, acceptance, and love to those who live on the fringe of civilization so that they might discover that they belong right at the center of God’s reign. But, in order to be a church like that, we have to become like John the Baptist. We have to become a little bit wild, a little bit uncouth. We must leave the comfort of these pews and meet the crowds of disenfranchised people where they have gone—far away from center of public life. They aren’t coming downtown to find what they seek because they assume that downtown gave up on them long ago. To them a downtown church isn’t the icon of hope that we intend to be, but we can change that.

To do so, we must offer the good news of repentance to the world—not as a threat to the imperfect but as an invitation for the disaffected to return home. Repentance is simply a turning around, a coming back. The dominant religious voices of today would have us believe that some people just aren’t worth saving, but that’s not the good news of the gospel. The good news is a message that brings crowds of people streaming toward the prophet in search of a place to belong. The good news is a message that offers healing and restoration for those who are willing to turn back from their wandering and take that first step towards home. But who will invite them to take that first step? Who will take that good news out into the wilderness so that those who have been driven away might find their way back? Will we? We cannot believe that God’s love belongs to all people and then pretend that someone else will share that love with the world. There are eight days until Christmas Eve—eight days to tell someone who has given up on church that our church is different, that all they have to do is show up with an open heart. Whom will you invite to come back home?

Thursday, December 13, 2018

They Shall Know Us By Our Fruit

Like his synoptic partner Matthew, Luke liked the image of fruit. In his gospel account, the image of fruit appears 11 times, starting in opening chapter--"blessed is the fruit of your womb"--and going all the way to the end--"I will not drink the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes." By comparison, Mark hardly mentions fruit at all (3x), but Luke lets the image of fruit be a consistent vehicle for describing a life of faithfulness.

"No good tree bears bad fruit," Jesus says in Luke 6:43. When the sower scatters the seed in Luke 8:14ff., that which falls on good soil "bears fruit with patient endurance," but the seed that falls amidst the cares and concerns of the world is choked out and so never bears mature fruit. Luke's version of Jesus tells the parable of the barren fig tree in 13:6ff., the owner of which wants to cut it down for not bearing fruit, and the narrative that follows immediately is that of the bent-over woman, whose synagogue leader resents the healing Jesus offers her on the sabbath.

On Sunday, we will hear John the Baptist urge the crowd to "bear fruits worthy of repentance," and that's the concept I want to focus on. What does it mean to bear that kind of fruit? John is questioning the sincerity of the crowd: "Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?...Do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.'" He wants the kind of behavioral change that true repentance produces. That's the fruit of a repentant life.

For John, that fruit is sharing resources with those who have none, collecting only what is due, refraining from violence or extortion, and living a contented life. What does the fruit of repentance look like today?

So often the individuals who cry for repentance have a particular sin in mind. Whether it's homosexuality and abortion or payday lending and environmental degradation, the call to repent is often uttered by those who adopt a position of self-righteousness. We have everything figured out, thank you very much, and it's time for the "others" among us to get their own lives in order. But that's not grace. That's not preparing the way for the savior who comes to baptize us with the Holy Spirit and fire. Turning away from a life spent pursuing ungodly aims is repentance, but John's invitation isn't a demand that the crowd get their lives in order. It's simpler than that. It's more accessible than that.

We prepare the way for our transformation by turning away from self-sufficiency and turning toward God-dependency. The fruit of that is the act of generosity, the gesture of societal change. But it's not the sharing of the coat or the food or the contentment that is our salvation. Those are the fruits of repentance. John isn't the end of the story. He's still preparing the way. The invitation we hear this Sunday is a reminder to get ready--to turn away from the systems of self-interest and toward the thing that God is doing in the world. That turn makes the path for the savior straight and level, but it's only the first step.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Reversing Excommunication

I haven't ever excommunicated someone. I've thought about it, but there's paperwork involved, and it hasn't ever felt worth it. In the Episcopal Church, clergy can excommunicate (i.e. deny Communion to) someone "who is living a notoriously evil life" or people "who have done wrong to their neighbors and are a scandal to the other members of the congregation" or when they see that there is "hatred between members of the congregation" (BCP p. 409). In fact, the rubrics require me to do so, using the word "shall" several times in the instructions. If I excommunicate someone, however, I have to speak privately to the individuals involved, explain my reasons, show what must be done for readmission to Communion, and write the bishop a letter within fourteen days. Like I said, it's a lot of work. I haven't done it, but I know of colleagues who have. Appropriately, it's an extreme measure, but it's one that offers benefits to the individuals and the wider community not because of its punitive nature but because it anticipates readmission. It's the coming back--the repentance--that matters.

In Sunday's gospel lesson (Luke 3:7-18), John the Baptizer makes it his ministry to readmit those who have been excluded from the community of faith--excommunicated. The crowds have come out into the wilderness to be baptized by him. John's baptism was a sign of repentance, renewal, forgiveness. In the Jewish tradition, water is used to cleanse and purify. Traditionally, those who wish to be admitted to the faith or readmitted to the community of faith because of ritual impurity as a result of things like menstruation, childbirth, and ejaculation must go through the mikveh--full immersion in water to achieve ritual purity. It's not the same thing as John's baptism, but it's close. And, back in John's day, most people who needed this sort of cleansing could find it a lot closer to home than the wilderness and the River Jordan. These crowds, however, didn't go to their local synagogue or to the temple, and I suspect it's either because they sought a kind of renewal not offered in the institutional religion or because that institution would not accept them.

Who was in the crowd that day? Some of them were tax collectors and soldiers. These were people who were not acceptable to the religious authorities. They had no access to the community. Their livelihoods had cut them off from the faithful both ritually and socially. No one wanted to spend time with a tax collector or a soldier. These were men whose job it was to support the evil Roman empire by squeezing every last penny they could from their own people or by roughing up anyone who dared to cross the political authorities. They couldn't get readmission to the community of faith anywhere else. John offers them a path into God's reign through a baptism of repentance that happened outside the bounds of religion.

And what did he ask of them? Not that they give up their occupations but simply that they lived within modest bounds: "collect only what is due, do not resort to extortion, and be satisfied with your wages." This is not the "anyone who sets hand to the plow and looks back is not worthy of the kingdom of God" that Jesus will declare later on. This is a low bar, a gracious invitation, an easy buy-in. John wants everyone to know that they, too, can be part of the reign of God, and the path that leads to God's reign is low and flat and easy.

What is the message of John today? The path into the kingdom must be as simple as the straight way John made in preparation for the coming of God's anointed one. In order for transformation to take place, what we ask of the sinners among us must be as gentle as John's request. In time, of course, God will take hold of us and complete that transformation. For now, this week, this Sunday, the good news is aimed specifically at those who will not feel welcome in our churches. That means the preacher can't let the message be contained within the walls of the building. Instead, the preacher must equip the saints in the pews to carry the message of admission or readmission to the community of faith to those who thought they weren't invited. That will be the measure of a good sermon this week.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Good News?

The word "gospel" literally means "good news." In English, that word comes from a combination of "good" and "spel," which means "news." Of course, in English "good" and "God" share the same root, so it's both "good news" and "God's news." In Greek, however, the word is εὐαγγέλιον, which is the combination of "eu," which means good, and "angelon," which means message. You can also tell that the word for "angel," which is a messenger, is part of that word. In English, we don't call the gospel the "evangelon," but we do call people "evangelists" or "evangelicals," both of which come from the word for gospel or good news.

Except in the introductory citation of each of the four gospel accounts, most translators render the Greek word εὐαγγέλιον as "good news." This Sunday, at the end of the gospel lesson (Luke 3:7-18), we hear Luke offer his editorial assessment of what John the Baptist had been proclaiming: "So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people." But, when we hear John's message, do we hear good news?

"You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?"

"Bear fruits worthy of repentance."

"Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."

Good news? Really? Is this "good news" as in "the gospel," or is this really supposed to be "good news" as in "glad tidings," which is another way to translate the Greek word εὐαγγέλιον? Who is glad to hear this?

Luke isn't the only one who identifies this as good news. Those who heard John also thought of this message as good news. How do we know? Look at their response: "The crowds asked him, 'What then should we do?'" Instead of being pushed away by his sharp call to repentance, those who had come out into the wilderness to hear John and be baptized by him wanted to know how they might bear that repentance-worthy fruit. John then explained to them that they must give up their extra coats and extra food so that everyone could have enough. They must stop their dishonest practices and be content with what they have. In other words, the fruit of repentance is a change of lifestyle enacted in anticipation of the coming of God's reign.

After hearing all of this, how did the crowd react? "As the people were filled with expectation...all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah." Such good news was this that the crowds began to believe that John might be the anointed one whom God would send to rescue God's people. This was, indeed, good news. John's vision for their lives was God's vision for their lives, and they recognized it as such. The hard, sharp, scary invitation to repentance had been received as a way for the people to see the coming of God's messiah. That is good news in any generation.

This Sunday, as I prepare to preach, I'm trying to balance our need for comfort and joy, which comes in the first and second readings, and the good news of repentance. In fact, as John and Luke and the crowds understood, they are one and the same, but I live in a culture where the good news of repentance has been hijacked by religious figures who associate repentance with fear and guilt and shame. In John's day, the religious leaders offered a similar call. They used fear and guilt and shame to manipulate people into adopting a religious system that benefited them and underscored their own goodness. John's message in the wilderness was one of true repentance--a re-turning to God instead of a returning to religion. There is good news in returning to God, and this week's preachers have to find a way to offer it despite representing the sort of religious institution that John the Baptist (and Jesus) came to reject.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Stack 'Em and Rack 'Em

Yesterday, we heard Luke introduce John the Baptist's ministry (Luke 3:1-6) by listing the political and religious authorities who were exercising power in that day before declaring that the word of God came to John in the wilderness. Luke likens his work to Isaiah's vision of a voice crying in the wilderness, "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight." His "baptism of repentance" was a preparation for the one to come. This Sunday, as we continue in Luke 3, we see what that preparation looks like.

First, John taunts those who came out to be baptized: "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" That's an interesting approach to building a ministry--insulting those who come out to see you, and mocking their motivation. But John understands an urgency to his work that requires him to sift through all the B.S. and get to the real issue: "Do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor.'" Given contemporary approaches to ministry, the response is surprising: "What should we do?" John berates them for being unfaithful, and they set aside their own pretense and ask what real repentance and faithfulness look like.

In Luke's account of this interaction, John gives them a clear image of what repentance looks like: "If you have two coats, you must share one with someone who doesn't have one. The same is true for those who have more than enough food to eat. If you're a tax collector, take only what is prescribed, and, if you're a soldier, be satisfied with your wages, and don't extort anything from anyone." Although his method may be a little startling, the message should not surprise us. Luke identifies John as a counter-image of power, and his message of repentance is exactly that: turn away from the concentration of power and privilege you possess and redistribute it in the community. Rubber, meet road.

But this image of material repentance is not an end in itself, and I think that's the real point of this passage: "As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, 'I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming.'" John's proclamation led people to think that he might be the one on whom they had been waiting. The people knew the various messianic expectations that filled the culture of Second Temple Judaism. They heard John's counter-cultural, outside-the-temple, outside-the-authorities message of economic equality and wondered whether this might be the messiah who would come to usher in God's reign. But John was just getting them ready. Likewise, our response to John's invitation to repentance is just getting us ready.

When I was in high school, I worked in a hospital pharmacy. There was one day every six months when everyone was scheduled to be at work, and no one was allowed to miss for any reason: inventory day. Every box, every bag, every pill, every ounce had to be counted and inventoried. "Rack 'em and stack 'em," we'd say, as we lined up box after box, bottle after bottle, of endless pills. It was an impressive display of organization. One person would arrange every item in a particular category and call out numbers for another person who would record it on a sheet. But, before that count could be taken, everything had to be in its proper place, returned to its bin, lined up. Sunday's gospel lesson reminds me of that.

John's work is to line everything up--to get all things and all people in order--so that we can receive the one who is coming. Repentance, as Suzanne Stoner preached yesterday, is a return to our true created selves--the goodness, the image of God, with which we were made. Sin is a distortion of that identity, and it manifests itself in economic disparity, dishonesty, extortion, and scarcity. The Christ is coming to save God's people, and repentance is how God's people turn around to see it. Yes, it involves a change in heart and mind, but those squishy, hard-to-define emotional components have easy-to-see manifestations in how we live. Advent is about getting ready, and John reminds us that's more than a wishful thought.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Daily Reminder of Hope

Earlier this week, my friend and colleague Steve Pankey acknowledged in a post that when Canticle 16, The Song of Zechariah, comes up in Morning Prayer, that part of him that is still only half-awake wishes we could skip the rehearsal of Old Testament prophecy and begin with the good stuff: "You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High." I sympathize with that. Often, if the canticles are long (Te Deum, anyone?), I skip them entirely and offer a moment of silent reflection as a response to the readings. But, when it comes to Zechariah's Song, I have a different experience.

The Principal of the seminary where I was for two years insisted that The Song of Zechariah be read every day in Morning Prayer. The only acceptable exception was the one day when that passage of scripture was appointed as the second lesson. That was his thing. I don't know exactly where that motivation came from, but I think it was a liturgically-minded evangelical's reaction to the anglo-catholic's insistence that Mary's Song never be omitted from Evening Prayer. If you've been to Evensong or say Evening Prayer, you'll notice that, even in our twentieth-century prayer book, the expectation is that you will say the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis every evening. Sure, the rubrics allow another selection, but those are the only two printed within the text of the office. And my Principal was right: the history of Anglican worship expected that the Benedictus would be the second canticle in Morning Prayer. (See 1662 BCP: "Then shall be read in like manner the Second Lesson, taken out of the New Testament. And after that, the Hymn following; except when that shall happen to be read in the Chapter for the day, or for the Gospel on Saint John Baptist’s Day.)

If you were leading Morning Prayer and dared to skip it, by the time you had made your way to your study and opened your e-mail, you'd have a missive from the Principal reminding you that such an omission was not allowed. In part because of his Benedictus fastidiousness and in part because we read it every single day, Morning Prayer doesn't feel right to me when we don't read it. I also use an online format to provide Morning Prayer, and I haven't found one that allows me to indicate my preference for Zechariah's Song every day. Because of that, whenever it happens to come up, I delight in saying the whole thing. I'll gladly skip the Song of Moses or the Benedicite, but I relish in the words that Zechariah proclaims.

Listen to the way John the Baptist's father understood the story of salvation unfolding in the ministry of his son: "This was the oath [God] swore to our father Abraham, to set us free from the hands of our enemies, free to worship him without fear, holy and righteous in his sight all the days of our life." What good news that is! Hear his confidence that God is coming to God's people: "The dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace." Remember, Luke doesn't locate this canticle after John the Baptist had matured in his ministry. And he doesn't place it as a retrospective on Jesus' resurrection. This is given to us right at the beginning. (Luke doesn't tell us how old JBap was when his daddy sang this song, but the implication is that it happened right after the child was named.) This is a statement of faith--of confidence in the future God was bringing to God's people. Isn't that something we need to hear every day?

Faith isn't a backward looking proposition. What has happened in the past is the foundation of our faith, but we aren't asked to believe in the past. We're asked to believe in the future. We are asked not to have faith that the tomb is empty. We're asked to have faith that God will rescue us and that the empty tomb is our sign, our proof, that God will keep God's promise. Each day, we wake up not to wrestle with the doctrines of our religion but to wrestle with the doubts about what each day will bring. Will I be ok? Will my family be ok? Will my church be ok? Will our country be ok? The answer in God is yes. Faith is seeing each day as another day when the dawn from on high will break upon us and bring salvation to those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Clement's Gift

The church has always had a bit of a public relations problem: "Jesus said, 'Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me'" (from John 5:57-63). Accusations of cannibalism, while not the only criticisms levied against the followers of Jesus, were common in the first century or so of Christianity. Those who ate the bread and drank the wine in memory of Jesus' death and resurrection insisted that they did more than share a memorial meal. "This is the Body of Christ," they insisted, and we insist it still. Many years ago, as a friend knelt at the altar rail, I teased her before giving her the bread: "I didn't think vegans were supposed to eat flesh." Of course, it was a silly comment that conveyed no real confusion or concern, but I wonder... Without appealing to explanatory doctrines or attempting to define an undefinable mystery, how do we navigate that strange way of taking Jesus at his word without losing our grip on reality?

Who decides what passages of the Bible are read figuratively and which ones are literal truth? What great council of the church officially declared which verses are hyperbolic, which ones are parabolic, and which ones are to be taken straight from the page? I take it for granted that the truth in Jesus' words does not always depend on their factual accuracy, but who gives me permission to read the gospel that way? How do we know we're doing it right?

Clement of Alexandria lived in the second and third centuries, which is to say a long, long time ago. A well-educated philosopher, he became the head of the catechetical school in Alexandria and was Origen's teacher. His gift to the church of his day was to straddle the worlds of pagan intellectualism and the Christian faith, and he did so in a way that remains a gift to us today. Back then, many so-called Christians believed that the teachings of Jesus were too strange, too other-worldly, too intellectual for ordinary people. The knowledge (gnosis) of truth was revealed only to the select few who could comprehend it. Salvation was for those who were able to set aside the burdens of this life and this world in order to escape to the divine life. The knowledge (gnosis) was, therefore, a secret that not only should not be shared with everyone but could not be shared with them. But that wasn't God's vision for salvation, and, despite having some resonances in the teachings of Jesus, it wasn't indicative of his ministry.

It would have been easy for the Christian faith to become a primitive, anti-intellectual faith. "Just read what's on the page, and believe it with your heart, and you will be saved," one might imagine the Sunday-school teachers of the day saying. But Clement knew there was more to the way of Jesus. Bringing his philosophical education to his work, he encourage the leaders of the church to teach the saving knowledge and truth of Jesus that is salvation for the world not from the world. He opened the scriptures to allegorical and metaphorical interpretation that had somehow been lost between the rabbinical tradition of the apostles and the Greek influence of the growing church. He invited us to trust that the words of Jesus are true in ways that transcend our simple experience of this life yet that reflect powerful our embodied, created existence. He became a voice for Christianity that is still very much needed today.

There is nothing wrong with a simple faith. There is deep value in a literal reading of all of scripture. It can make a mess of lots of things, but it can be deeply formative to read Jesus' parables as real history. But we cannot stop there. If those who preach and teach the way of Jesus cannot leave behind the need for only literal biblical exegesis, the faith of the church fails to reflect the experience of the faithful. People turn away from the truth because it isn't true anymore. Yet the instinct to remove the way of Jesus from the way of humanity is an equally fruitless pursuit. The gospel cannot save us from the world because the world God made itself is good. Our brokennesses do not need forsaking but redeeming.

Clement invites us to heard the words of Jesus again through the voice of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit's guidance does not lead each of us to her own truth but leads all of us to God's truth, which, although everlasting, is not static. Being faithful to God means being faithful to scripture and faithful to the one who guides us as we read it. Clement knew that. May we know it and share it, too.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Our Rural God

Some people are city folks, and some people are born for the country. I grew up in a built-up community within a rural county, and I encountered on the high school football field some of the tension and conflict between those who worked in buildings and those who worked in the open. We did not have a weekly livestock auction in my hometown, but you only needed to drive fifteen minutes away to the "downtown" of one of our rivals to find one. As the world shrinks and more small and mid-sized farms are either industrialized or developed as subdivisions, rural life is fading. I'm glad to live in a place where cattle and sheep are only ten minutes away, but those farms, which have existed much longer than the urban sprawl that threatens them, now feel out of place.

Perhaps that loss of rural identity helps us understand what God is doing in Luke 3:1-6, which we will hear this Sunday: "In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness." The distinction could not be clearer. Luke names for us emperors, governors, and tetrarchs. He identifies the high priests. And then he tells us that the word of God found John out in the wilderness. The contrast between the powers of this world, which seem concentrated in the cities of Rome and Caesarea Maritima and Jerusalem, and the power of God, which came to John way out in the undeveloped, virtually uninhabited wilderness, is striking. And it is striking for many of the same reasons that the conflict between rural and urban identity still exists today.

The city is a place of power and strength. People are presumed to be wealthier and better educated. They control the flow of money through the community. Their social graces are refined. Their libraries are centers of learning. Their hospitals offer advanced techniques. And their religion is highly polished, too. The finest preachers and musicians are called to the big urban congregations. They are the model for how worship might look if every community of faith was well-resourced.

The country is a place of diffused resources. Individual landowners may have great resources, but those who live and work among them likely do not. In fact, many of the owners prefer to reside in the comforts of the city while the work is done out on the farm. Independence is valued so much that social graces are sometimes frowned upon as unnecessary capitulation to someone else's expectations. The books in the libraries have been read and loved until the pages are worn. In the community health clinic, everyone knows you by name, but they'll quickly send you to town if anything serious is wrong. Religion in the country is real and powerful but not at all polished. The piano has been out of tune longer than anyone can remember, but it still plays the old favorites. Everyone recalls when the preacher was really in his prime, but his sermons now have the season appropriate for someone of his experience. You can't find a congregation more loving or committed anywhere else, but newcomers aren't seen often.

And where does God show up? To whom does God reveal God's word? Where will the real, Spirit-filled prophet be found? Who can call God's people to repentance in preparation for the coming Day of the Lord?

God shows up outside the presumed power-structure of the day. The baptism of repentance that John proclaimed was not merely a change in moral behavior but a change in resource, in power, in priority. It is a turning-around from human-produced reliance and an embrace of the lean and hard life of depending only on God. That means a change in our understanding what and who is important, and the rich city preacher like me has a hard time proclaiming that message with any integrity.

This Sunday, as I sit in what has become the well-resourced city church, I'll notice the plain yet beautiful wooden walls that remind me of the rural heritage of our congregation. I'll listen for the message of the gospel transmitted to us from its country roots. And I'll ask God to help me see what has become difficult to see: God's work beginning in the wilderness so that the earthly powers might be transformed.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

The Powers Are Shaking

December 2, 2018 – The First Sunday of Advent, Year C

© 2018 Evan D. Garner

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

In a community like ours, children are allowed to wander around at the ball park while their older siblings play baseball. Parents keep an eye on their children, of course, but they also know that everyone else—friends, other parents and grandparents, and most anyone at the field—will help them watch out for danger. One of the understood duties that everyone shares is to yell out “Heads up!” whenever a player fouls off a pitch, sending it over the backstop fence. When you think about it, however, “Heads up!” isn’t always the best thing to say. Last spring, I joined a field full of spectators as we watched in horror as a ball sailed back into the stands toward a three-year-old, who had stopped bounding down the sidewalk to innocently and obediently look up at the sky when everyone cried out, “Heads up!” There was nothing any of us could do. No one had time to get to the ball or the child, and we all exhaled with great relief when the ball bounced off the sidewalk a foot from the vulnerable child. Maybe yelling “Duck!” or “Take cover!” would be better.

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars,” Jesus said. “There will be distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world for the powers of heaven will be shaken…[But] when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads because your redemption is coming near.” It really doesn’t make sense. Disaster and destruction, confusion and chaos, are on the way, and Jesus wants us to lift up our heads and stare what is coming in the face? What does he mean? There’s nothing more natural than hunkering down when danger approaches. How is Jesus’ invitation to resist that instinct and hold up our heads an invitation to faithfulness?

Well, for starters, it seems that he’s not really talking to us. We come to church in the daylight. We park our cars on the street and walk right in the front door. We wear crosses around our necks and share religious social media posts because we want people to know that we are Christians. To be a Christian in northwest Arkansas is to belong to a community of power. We are the majority. We have generational influence. We aren’t making a case for ourselves and our religion under threat of persecution like the first Christians had to. They came to church under the cover of darkness because they didn’t want to be killed. They snuck around from house to house, staggering their arrivals the way a group of spies might plan a clandestine rendezvous. They exchanged signs of their faith in secret and used coded messages to communicate with one another. When Jesus told his followers that the powers of the heavens would be shaken, to a group of believers that constantly feared what those powers-that-be might do to them, that was undoubtedly good news.

The central theology of Christianity, like that of its Judaic ancestor, is built on a belief that God will come and rescue those who have no power of their own. When God’s people were enslaved in Egypt, God came to deliver them. When God’s people were scattered in the Babylonian exile, God remembered them and brought them home. When Jesus preached up and down the countryside of first-century Palestine, he offered the familiar message of rescue for the lost and salvation for the oppressed, and he identified it with his own ministry. In him, the reign of God had come near, and that reign meant an end to the tyranny of Rome. But the Empire wasn’t the only object of Jesus’ prophecy of power-reversal. Jesus preached that the reign of God meant riches for the poor and security for the widow and orphan. In Christ, God’s way of justice and righteousness had come to those whom the religious elites had held in the bondage of hypocrisy. Those who had been pushed to the margins of religious society—the tax collectors, the lepers, the prostitutes, and other notorious sinners—were welcomed by the one who came to reveal the great reversal of power that God’s reign represents.

Who in today’s world would hear the news that the nations are in an uproar and the powers of the heavens are being shaken as good news? To whom does that message come as a proclamation of hope? Is it not the victim of abuse who for years had been silenced by men in positions of power over her and her family? Is it not the person among us who suffers from mental illness whose care was long ago abdicated by a society that would rather spend its tax dollars in celebration of its own prosperity than caring for the least among them? Is it not the incarcerated African-American who followed the path from school to prison that was appointed for him by those who refuse to see beyond the labels that our dominant society affixes to young men of color? Is it not the caravan of migrant men and women and children, who fled their homeland because the evil powers of the drug trade threatened their lives and whose hope for resettlement has been met with tear gas at the United States border?

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint with fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken…[And] when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” If you are like me—a well-educated, white, middle-class man with access to all the comforts and protections that our society can provide—the thought of God’s great reversal of power probably makes you want to duck for cover. And it’s easy to think that these words of Jesus aren’t intended for us—that the message of the coming of God’s reign is meant for another people in another place or culture or time. But, of course, these words aren’t just good news for someone else. They’re the good news we need to hear as well.

As Suzanne mentioned when we discussed this gospel lesson in staff meeting this week, the thought of God coming to level everything out is good news both for those whom God will raise up and for those whom God will bring down. Why? Because we are prisoners of our own success. We have built ourselves up in order to insulate ourselves from the nightmares that life can bring. But how long will it last? Can we really create a security for ourselves that will carry us all the way through this world and into the next? The hairline cracks in the veneer of our manufactured perfection eventually catch up with all of us. None of us can enter the reign of God on our own merits, and we need God’s righteousness and justice, which are made manifest in the limitless love God gives the world in Christ Jesus, to set us straight—to help us see that we, like everyone else, have no power to save ourselves, but, in fact, God already has.

“Be on your guard,” Jesus says, “so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap.” It is easy, in a life of comfort and plenty, to forget that the coming of God’s reign is something for all of us to anticipate with urgency. Until the powers of this world give way to the power of God, none of us can dwell in God’s reign. But Jesus tells us that that reign is very near: “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.” Jesus wasn’t wrong. He wasn’t mistaken about God’s timing. We just have to see and interpret the signs that are all around us. Jesus tells us that they are as easy to see as the budding leaves on a fig tree, as familiar to us as another day’s news. The powers of the heavens are being shaken. They are being shaken all around us. “Stand up,” Jesus says, “and raise your heads.” Will we understand the reversals of power that unfold in the world around us as signs of God’s reign—as evidence of our own salvation—or will we keep our heads down and let God’s reign pass us by?