Thursday, February 28, 2019

The Broken Body of Christ

This post also appeared in this week's newsletter from St. Paul's in Fayetteville, AR. To read the rest of the newsletter, click here.

Earlier this week, the General Conference of the United Methodist Church voted to keep in place its bans on ordaining LGBTQ clergy and celebrating or hosting same-sex marriages. Many people are hurt by that decision. Some are Methodists who want more from their church. Some are Christians from other traditions who want more from the body of Christ. Some are LGBTQ individuals whose identities and relationships and ministries again have been judged invalid or, even worse, as sinful and shameful. Some are straight and cisgendered allies who grieve the damage done to individuals, families, congregations, and communities in the name of religion.

All members of Christ’s body, in one way or another, are wounded by this brokenness. Although they may not recognize their own experience of harm, even those who claim victory are marred by the damage done to the body of Christ by a decision that further divides members of the church. Despite our disagreements and differences, we are bound to one another in love, but that love is harder than ever to see right now. As Episcopalians know too well, these are forces that fracture us, polarize us, and inhibit our ability to receive and share the grace of God. No matter how the vote turned out, all suffer.

What will be our response to this painful decision? How will we support those who are experiencing deep loss? First, we need to see them and hear them. The vote at the General Conference was close, yet it effectively dismisses a huge number who believe that LGBTQ individuals should have a fuller place in the life of the Methodist Church. We may not have any control over the decision itself, but we can acknowledge those who are left behind by it. Second, when we acknowledge them, we can affirm their experience of loss by listening to them instead of telling them how we think things should have gone. It may be tempting to remind them that our branch of the Jesus Movement has “figured this stuff out,” but we haven’t. We may have found official ways to open the path to ordination to LGBTQ individuals and celebrate same-sex marriages, but there is still much disagreement and rancor over issues of sexuality and gender in our denomination, and discrimination plagues all churches, even our own parish.

If Methodist friends show up to worship with us because they feel rejected by their church, that is a cause for sadness not celebration. Of course, we will welcome them with open arms, but anytime someone feels pushed away from a church it is a divorce to be lamented not an opportunity to be enjoyed. Central United Methodist, our across-the-street neighbor with whom we partner in our Community Meals program, has released a statement that declares that the vote has not changed their “current understanding regarding human sexuality or the definition of marriage” and that they welcome all people. Those words remind me that the vote may have made it harder for progressive Methodists to have a place in their denomination, but it has not changed their theology of welcome and inclusion.

Finally, we must pray for the healing of Christ’s body and, through prayer, offer ourselves for the work of reconciliation. Without abandoning our faith, we must care more about unity than about being right. We must hope more for forgiveness than for victory. Schism tears all of us apart, even when we are convinced that God is on our side. Although we may disagree vehemently, we do not help matters when we vilify those on the other side, especially when we allow the sin of colonialism to portray Christians from other cultures or continents as less enlightened, less sophisticated, or less faithful. We may believe that those who disagree with us are undermining the work of the gospel, but they are striving to be faithful just like we are, and the possibility of transformation within the church is enhanced when we acknowledge that.

No one knows what will happen next. As someone who grew up in the Methodist Church and whose parents are still very active in the denomination, I love dearly many people who are directly affected by this decision and who face considerable and consequential uncertainty. You do, too. They are our relatives, friends, coworkers, and neighbors, and they are hurting, and, because of that, so are we. Pray for them, and pray for us, and pray for the church.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Odd But Important Timeline

Every year, on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, which is another way of saying the final Sunday before Lent starts, we go up the same mountain to watch Jesus transfigured before us, to see Moses and Elijah standing with him, to hear God's voice proclaim Jesus as God's beloved, and to walk back down the mountain alongside Peter, James, and John. This year, it's Luke's version. Next year will be Matthew, and the year after that will be Mark. There are subtle differences between the readings, and that's a subject for another blog post, but, for this one, I note how this pattern never changes. Lent is about to start, so we head up the mountain with Jesus.

Why? The Feast of the Transfiguration is celebrated on August 6, when we'll climb back up the mountain again. Why do we read this story now? Why is it always our pre-Lenten celebration? Part of the answer comes in the collect for this Sunday, in which we pray, "O God, who before the passion of your only ­begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory." But which is the chicken and which is the egg? Do we pray that collect simply because we always read about the same episode, or were collect and lesson sought intentionally? Why is it that we seek strength in seeing again the glory of God's Son revealed on the holy mountain?

Another reason is that the story of the Transfiguration provides a pivot point for the synoptic gospel tradition. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all turn their gospels around this moment. Mark does it most dramatically, but the others more or less follow suit. Before this mountain-top moment, the emphasis is on showing the crowds who Jesus really is as Son of God, Son of Man, Messiah, Christ. During the season after the Epiphany, we've heard sermons and seen miracles and learned parables that are designed to build a case for Jesus as more than just a special, dynamic, God-centered rabbi. We've been learning about Jesus as God-in-the-flesh, the Incarnate One.

That's why, right before they go up the mountain, Peter identifies Jesus as the Christ. After all the pieces of the puzzle have been laid out, God, we are told, has revealed this to Peter. And what is Jesus' response? "Good job, Peter. Now I'm going to die." Actually, this might be the real pivot point of the gospel. Peter identifies Jesus as the Christ, so Jesus sets his sights on Jerusalem and the terrible fate that awaits him there. And, before they go, before they begin the journey to the cross and the wilderness of Jesus' passion, God wants them to see that, despite the terrible events ahead of them, Jesus really is who Peter says that he is--whom God says that he is.

We, too, are about to head to Jerusalem. We have our own pilgrimage through the barren places of Lent. We may fast. We may pray. We may confess, repent, and return. The work of Lent is hard work, but it is good work. But why do we do it? We do it to join Jesus in the journey to and through death. We do it because this journey is where we find our own true meaning. We do it because this journey is where we see the truth that Jesus is God's anointed one. And the road is hard, and the darkness is real, and we ask God to show us the light of Christ's glory so that we might be sustained in those tough places.

And just to make the timeline really strange, next Sunday, we will go all the way back to where we began the season after the Epiphany, to the waters of Jesus' baptism, and journey with him from them into the wilderness--the internal wilderness of self-discovery. But that can wait for another week.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

We Know Love By Loving

February 24, 2019 – The 7th Sunday after the Epiphany

© 2019 Evan D. Garner

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

In last Sunday’s gospel lesson (Luke 6:17-26), Jesus gave us a glimpse at how strange the kingdom of God really is: “Blessed are you who are poor…blessed are you who are hungry…blessed are you who weep…blessed are you when people hate you.” It is a strange place indeed where those who suffer are identified as the blessed ones. Similarly, Jesus proclaimed woes to the rich, the full, the laughing, and the well-respected because, it seems, in the reign of God, those who enjoy blessings in this life are destined to experience hardship in the next. Jesus wanted his hearers to understand that success isn’t a sign that God loves you. On the contrary, it’s those who struggle who have God’s heart. Last week, Jesus told us what the kingdom of God looks like, and this week he picks right up where he left off and tells us how we’re supposed to live in it.

“Love your enemies,” Jesus says, “do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who abuse you.” That’s how people who live under the reign of God behave. We turn the other cheek. We give freely to those who would take from us. We share what we have with those in need and do so without expecting anything in return. In short, we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. And that makes sense. If God’s blessings belong to the poor, the hungry, the mournful, and the abused, we must pursue those blessings by giving up our riches, by letting go of our claim on our possessions, and by accepting with dignity the abuse that others would give us.

But that’s not just kingdom advice. That’s good human advice. What benefit is there to carrying around unresolved anger? And do you really want to lie in bed at night wondering when your neighbor is going to give back the cup of sugar that you lent her? There is deep peace in giving up our claim to retaliation. There is true joy in letting go of our attachment to the material world. Jesus might deserve credit for teaching us to love our enemies and to commit random acts of kindness, but you don’t have to be a Christian to think that’s a good recipe for life. Our community is full of agnostic hippies who have believed that for a long time. But it turns out that that’s not really the point of this gospel lesson.

Instead, there’s something that Jesus wants us to understand that really doesn’t make sense. After telling his disciples how those who live in God’s reign are supposed to behave, Jesus offers an even stranger rationale for it: “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?...If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? If you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you?” It seems odd to me that Jesus would use an economic framework to explain why his disciples should behave the way they do—that the purpose of engaging in such counter-instinctive behavior is to earn some sort of credit. But, when he describes the reward that is waiting for them, we see how strange God’s kingdom really is.

“Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High,” Jesus tells them, “for [God] is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.” But that can’t be right. Didn’t Jesus mean to say that God is kind to the generous and the faithful? Wasn’t he supposed to explain that those who love their enemies and do good to those who hate them and lend without expecting anything in return will receive the kindness—the blessings—of God? Why would he tell us how we are supposed to behave and then let us know that God is kind to those who don’t follow his instructions? What difference does it make if God is going to bestow God’s kindnesses upon us anyway? If God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked, then why would we bother taking the moral high ground? Why? Because we can’t be children of the Most High until we love others the way that we have been loved.

The strangest truth of all is that God does not love those who love God back. God does not love those who endure suffering unjustly. God does not love those who turn the other cheek, who do good to those who hate them, or who lend without expecting anything in return. Actually, God does love them but not because of how they have behaved. God also loves the ungrateful and the wicked. God loves the selfish and the retaliatory. God loves those who only love themselves. Regardless of who we are or how we act, God loves us and proves that love in the death and resurrection of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. In every generation, we reject God’s love, crucifying Christ yet again, and still God brings us to the new dawn of Easter, forgiving us, redeeming us, and calling us God’s own children. But how do we know that’s true? We can hear those words with our ears, and we might even be able to understand them with our minds, but we cannot know them with our hearts until we, too, have loved others like that.

Jesus wants us to know what it means to be children of God. What does it mean to belong to the family of God? What does it mean to be one of God’s beloved children? It means sharing the life of our heavenly Father. It means loving as we have been loved, forgiving as we have been forgiven, sharing our riches even with those who take advantage of us, and opening our hearts even to those who would stomp on them. Does it make a difference in how God loves us? Not at all. God’s love is already guaranteed regardless of how we act. We already belong to God. But living as God’s children completely transforms the meaning that our lives have.

Love like that is illogical, and, in a very real way, the only way to understand it is to practice it. Loving others the way that God loves them teaches us what it means to belong to the One who loves the world without limit. It shows us who we really are. It sets us free from our need to protect ourselves and get our due and win at the game of life. When we love others with the same reckless abandon with which God loves us, we discover the truth that the world cannot teach us—that we are all children of God not because of who we are or what we have done or what we believe but because of who God is. And those who love the world like that are the only ones who can see it.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Claiming God's Plan

Why must some people look at a tragedy and explain it by appealing to God's will? I suppose I understand the human instinct. When we encounter something that doesn't fit within our worldview, we must either change our worldview or ignore the dissonance. If we believe that God is good and that God has control over everything, when a terrible disaster hits we must either change how we understand that God works in the world or ignore the inherent conflict by either rejecting any theological reflection on the matter or redefining what has happened. I remember when a parishioner explained to me that God had intended Hurricane Katrina to punish all of the evil sinners of New Orleans. When confronted by such an abhorrent claim, there wasn't much I could do but say how wrong I thought he was and move on. But Gene got me thinking: when are we able to say that something is God's will?

A happily married couple looks back on their life together and acknowledges that the "chance" encounter that brought them together sixty years earlier must have been God's plan for them. But what about the woman who filled in for a friend on a blind date and ended up marrying an abusive spouse? The man who overslept and missed his flight, which ended up crashing, is sure that God protected him, but what about the families of the victims of the crash? Was the same God denying them protection?

How do we make sense of it? We could claim that God isn't active in this world at all. It's a tidier position. That leads to no messy divine will problems...except in the absence that it produces. How do we understand prayer? Incarnation? Crucifixion and resurrection? What is our ultimate hope if God is merely watching what happens down here? On the other hand, we could claim that God is responsible for everything. If it happens, then it must be God's will--whether God caused it or allowed it to happen. Of course, that leads to terrible consequences that defy understanding. Maybe it's the lack of understand on our part that really matters, but I feel a need to find a middle ground.

On Sunday, the reading from Genesis begs us to consider those unanswerable questions. Joseph, reunited with his brothers, who had sold him into slavery, reveals his true identity to them and proclaims, "And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life...God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God." Joseph (or those who retell his story for us) makes a clear, linear connection between his brother's treachery and God's will. They intended it for evil, Joseph says later on after his father has died, but God intended it for good (Gen 50:20). All of that seems neat enough--a great story of providential intervention--but I think the authors of the biblical text want us to consider some other questions.

Joseph's time in Egypt led to the subjugation of the Egyptian people to Pharaoh. His "wisdom" in preparing for the famine resulted in exorbitant taxes for all the people. Yes, his plans have preserved the lives of many, but at what cost? Pharaoh ends up owning everything. Similarly, in Sunday's reading, we see Joseph's intention to move his family into Egypt: "You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children's children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. I will provide for you there." A few generations later, however, the Israelites become slaves, mistreated and persecuted even unto death. Joseph isn't really able to provide for them and their children and their children's children--at least not forever. That's God's job. Yet we know that the central moment of salvation for the Hebrew people will come as a result when God's people are set free. It feels like the Genesis text wants us to ask whether all of that really was God's will--as simply as Joseph seems to think it is--or whether there's more to it than that.

I don't think Sunday's sermon will focus on this (or even mention it), but it's a topic worth considering. The biblical text we are given begs us to ask unanswerable questions. It legitimizes our  messy, conflicted pursuit of the truth. It gives us permission to not understand and to keep asking anyway.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Seeing What God Sees

It takes a gift to see what the rest of the world cannot see. The artist who looks at the block of marble or the blank canvas and sees something beautiful. The collector who comes across a cheap lamp at a thrift store but recognizes a masterpiece. The scout who sees within an undisciplined amateur the superstar athlete. The parent who looks at a gangly, awkward teenager and sees a bright, promising adult waiting to come forth. Sometimes we are given the gift of seeing beyond what the world sees, but sometimes we need an expert to help us see it.

When Jesus comes down the mountain to address his followers, he invites them to see what the world cannot see. He invites us to see what God sees:
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you...for surely your reward is great in heaven.
Who would look at a beggar on the street or a family with an eviction notice on their apartment door or a person in the line at Community Meals and say, "Blessed are they because they have God's kingdom?" Who would look at a malnourished child or a grief-stricken parent and say, "You are blessed because God will fill your stomach with food and your heart with laughter?" Who would say to someone who is hated and despised, "Count your blessings because God has a reward for you?" Who would? God would.

But, when God says it, God means it in a way that we cannot. When we pat someone on the back and offer a word of encouragement, inviting them to keep their chin up and look ahead for better things, what do we mean by it? We are preconditioned to see what the world sees. Those are the eyes with which we were born. Those are the expectations with which we have been raised. We offer a word of hope because we trust that things can't get much worse, that surely someday God will have mercy on those who suffer now, that those who are dealt a bad hand in this life will find a better life in heaven. And that's true, but it's not the same truth that Jesus gives us--the truth that God sees.

"Blessed are you who are poor," Jesus says, "for yours is the kingdom of God." He doesn't say, "You who are poor will be blessed one day when God's kingdom is yours." He lets them know that they are blessed now. "Blessed are you who are hungry now," Jesus says, "not when you will be filled but now, even before you are filled." We naturally insert a temporal separation between the identity of blessedness and the condition of suffering, but that's not what God sees. God looks at those who are poor, hungry, weeping, and reviled, and God sees blessedness.

But that's not all that God sees.
Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
"Watch out!" Jesus says. "Look with caution!" "Behold with warning!" "You are used to seeing what the world sees, but don't fail to see what God sees." If you're rich, you've already received your consolation. If you're full, laughing and held in high esteem, your blessedness is given in earthly terms, but what does God see?

The invitation Jesus gives us is not to be afraid of our earthly wealth, our moments of plenty, our joy, and our relationships because one day God will punish us for them. Instead, Jesus invites us to see what God sees. He comes down the mountain to look us in the eye and be sure that we view the world with the same eyes that God has. And what, then, do we see? We see blessedness where the world cannot see it. We see value where the world places none. We see God's enduring preference for the poor and the suffering not as a consolation prize but as a first love. We see not only that worldly treasure is not a sign of true blessedness but that worldly treasure masks our ability to see what God sees.

Once we see the world through God's eyes, everything changes. Our priorities flip upside down. Our hopes are realigned. Where we spend our time shifts. Our grip on money loosens. The measure of our success is redefined. The source of our confidence is replaced. You know what that is? That's faith. That's hope. That's the redeemed, transformed life of a follower of Jesus, a child of God.

You know who can't see that truth yet? Those who think a tax break for the wealthiest earners in Arkansas is good news for our state. (You can read about it here.) You know why I moved to Arkansas? It's not because I want to save money on my taxes. It's because I want to be a part of what God is doing among us, and Jesus is helping me see more clearly that God's work is to celebrate the poor, the lost, the broken. When we reduce the money the state has to spend on healthcare, education, environmental protection, and important social programs for the least among us by $97 million so that our top earners can keep it, we're not seeing what Jesus is asking us to see. We're not looking at the world the way God looks at it. Who will help us see what God sees? What will we do to help our legislators, governor, and the electorate get a glimpse of true blessedness?

Monday, February 18, 2019

Love For Love's Sake

Yesterday, in Luke 6:17-26, we heard Jesus begin his Sermon on the Plain by encouraging the poor, the hungry, and the weeping that the time of their plenty will come, and we heard him warn the rich, the full, and the happy that they've already received their consolation. It seems that you can either be rich in heaven or on earth but not both. This Sunday, in Luke 6:27-38, we will hear Jesus continue his sermon with a different message that follows the same logic: "If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return." Jesus seems to be asking whether we want to reap the benefits of loving and lending in this life or the next because we can't have both.

Why do we love other people? Do we love them because we want to be loved in return? Do we love them simply because we do? Do we lend someone money because we want to borrow from them in the future? Or is the practice of lending and borrowing with a close friend a reflection of a relationship that blurs the lines of possession? Do we do good toward those who treat us similarly in a gesture of mandated reciprocation, or do we act kindly toward those who aren't our kin? I suppose that it depends.

For the purpose of this blog post, I want to leave the lending and good-doing behind and focus on love. Why do we love the people we love? We may not love them with the calculated purpose of receiving love back, but we typically love those who share love with us. We love our children even before they know what love is, but we are fostering in them a relationship that we anticipate will produce reciprocal love. We love our spouses not only when they are delightful, helpful, attentive people, but we love them for better or for worse. Still, the marital relationship is typically one of reciprocal love. Friends, coworkers, distant relatives, even strangers on the street--when we offer them love, we may not do so strictly because we expect something in return, but our love of them opens the path to something in return. Jesus asks, "What credit is that to you?"

Jesus urges us to love those who will not or cannot love us back. To do that, Jesus singles out our enemies: "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you." Jesus asks us to love those from whom we receive no earthly benefit. Why? For love's sake. "Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful." Notice that the Most High is kind not to those who love for no reason at all. God is kind to the ungrateful. We are not asked to love for the sake of receiving our heavenly Father's esteem. We are asked to love for love's sake because that's how God loves us. Our reward, therefore, is not a prize in heaven but the opportunity to know and experience God's love.

We love to know love. We love those who do not love us back to know the love that God has for us--a love that is not reciprocal in any way, a love that loves for love's sake. There is no more powerful force in the universe than love like that.

Friday, February 15, 2019

When Is Your Trust?

The line between preaching faith and preaching fear is thinner than you might think. In Luke 6, Jesus says, "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God...But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation." Is he trying to scare rich people into thinking that they will be left out of the reign of God? Is he trying to comfort those who lack resources in this life? Or is he trying to convince all of us how to believe in God?

It's Friday, and I don't usually post on Friday, but I didn't get a chance to write yesterday, and I am headed to diocesan Convention today, so I'm working. Plus, as my friend Steve Pankey noted on Monday, the opportunity to write on Luke's version of the Beatitudes doesn't come around very often. Matthew's version of these counter-cultural sayings only contains the "blessed" statements--the good news for the poor in spirit, the mournful, the meek, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. On top of that, as you can see in that brief summary, Luke also shifts the focus of the blessings from spiritual to material: "Blessed are the poor" vs. "Blessed are the poor in spirit." All of that to say, Luke takes the gloves off and pushes Jesus' preaching from a radical message of inclusion to an ultra-radical message of redistribution. Not only are the traditionally underprivileged people given a leg up in God's reign. The advantages that the privileged people have enjoyed evaporate.

The unusual sharpness of this message is reflected in the social media traffic I've seen among clergy colleagues. One asked a peer group how preachers in "rich" churches handle a gospel lesson like this one. Funny, I've always thought Jesus had tough words for rich people, but there's something about Luke's Beatitudes and the fact that it doesn't come up in the lectionary cycle very often that should make all of us who have a steady paycheck, a roof over our heads, and enough food to eat a little nervous.

It should make us nervous not because God is threatening to damn anyone who is financially secure but because having wealth makes it much, much harder to put our trust in God. After all, it's easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God's reign. The redistribution envisioned by Luke's Beatitudes isn't an earthly reset but a heavenly one. The point becomes clearer when we look at these parallel verses next to each other:
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.
Blessed are you when people hate you...for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
What is the point? The point is that those who suffer in this life are blessed by God because God knows them and loves them and will remember them in God's reign. Jesus asks those who live on the margins of life to have hope and put their trust in God's promise. The challenge for those who are lacking, it seems, is to trust that things won't always be hard--that God will remember them and take care of them. Likewise, Jesus warns those who have plenty in this life that they have already received their compensation. A simple reading is that Jesus is telling us that you can either be rich in this life or in the next but not both. Simple is usually right. Maybe it's my privilege showing, but I wonder whether Jesus is telling the rich that temporal blessings are just that--temporal. If your consolation, reward, and hope are the benefits you receive in this life, you can't understand what it means to hope for God's treasure in the next. The challenge for those who enjoy earthly blessings, therefore, is to believe that God is their only true hope.

Yes, that sounds a lot like a stewardship sermon. I'm convinced that the most important spiritual thing that most of us can do is let go of our claim on wealth. I have good company, though, as Jesus seems to share that concern. You can't get into the reign of God if your hope is in your bank account, your paycheck, your insurance policy, or your 401(k). That much is plain. Do you have to sell it all and become poor? Maybe. Must you be willing to do that for the kingdom's sake? If you want to be among the blessed in God's reign, the answer seems to be yes.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

A People Who Love

February 13, 2019 - Absalom Jones

Church splits are hard on everyone. When a large part of the congregation is unhappy with the minister and walks out. When the rector and most of the parish break away because they are angry with the denomination. When an affair or abuse or fraud occurs and a congregation divides between the resentful and the sympathetic. Whatever the reason, when a congregation is split in two, it is painful. Church is supposed to be the place where we can leave our differences behind and be united as followers of Jesus. Following the example of the first Christians, listening to the admonitions of the apostle Paul, striving to accept Jesus' commandment to love one another, we want our congregations to be places of unity, and, when they are not, the pain and disappointment and anger and embarrassment pile up and sometimes spill over in hateful ways.

Jesus said to his disciples, "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you." He said those words to Thomas the doubter, Peter the denier, John the naive, and Matthew the tax collector. Jesus shows us what love is. He demonstrates a love that does not depend on liking someone, agreeing with someone, being treated nicely by someone. The love that unites us as the followers of Jesus, as the people of God, is a love that must transcend our arguments, our disappointments, our theological disputes, and the differences between us. That's who we are as followers of Jesus. So what happens when we can no longer love each other like that?

In 1784 Absalom Jones and his colleague Richard Allen were the first African-Americans to be licensed as lay ministers and preachers in the Methodist Church. They ministered primarily to the black congregation at St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church, drawing more and more worshippers with their clear, evangelical call for the abolition of slavery. Uncomfortable with Jones and Allen's growing popularity, in 1792 the vestry of St. George's decided to require black members to move to segregated seating, first along the wall and later in the balcony. Fed up with this racism, Jones and Allen led the black members of the congregation in prayer and then a walk-out on a Sunday morning. The disaffected worshippers built their own church and applied for admission in the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania under the conditions that they be accepted as a parish, allowed to govern their own affairs, and that Absalom Jones be licensed as a lay minister and, if qualified, ordained as an Episcopal clergyman. In 1795, Jones became the first African-American deacon and priest in the Episcopal Church.

What do you do when you look around the church and realize that it is impossible to obey Jesus' commandment and love one another as he has loved us? What is the faithful response when the thing that makes you Christians--the thing that defines you as a church--no longer exists in your community of faith?

Sometimes preachers like me appeal to John Calvin's definition of the church as the place where the word of God is faithfully preached and heard and where the sacraments are administered according to Christ's institution. But who gets to decide whether the word is faithfully preached in a congregation that endorses segregation or that embraces marriage equality? It seems that Calvin actually had something more basic in mind than doctrinal definitions. Calvin meant wherever the proclaimed word and administered sacraments are provided to and received by the congregation together--as in not separated--then the church is faithful. In other words, as Jesus said, it's our job, our duty, to love one another as he loved us regardless of our disagreements and to let Christ himself be the thing that unites us despite our differences. Usually, it's easier to run away from painful disputes and go somewhere else or start a new church, but are such moves an effort to be faithful to Jesus' love commandment or avoid it?

Sometimes, a faith community becomes so plagued with self-interest, idolatry, and sin that love becomes impossible. When members are pushed to the fringe or asked to sit upstairs because their political aspirations make the majority congregation uncomfortable, the word is no longer able to be preached and received by a congregation, nor are the sacraments being administered according to Christ's ordinance when all the white disciples receive first and the black disciples get what's left over. In cases like that, those who leave aren't leaving because they disagree with the preacher or because they don't like the direction that the denomination is taking. They're leaving because you cannot love someone as Jesus loves them when you treat as less than human, as less than yourself.

Ironically, perhaps, Absalom Jones' witness to us--his boldness and his courage--is not an invitation to split away from those whom we find to be close-minded but to stay connected to one another in love. But that love isn't something you or I get to define. It is the love that Jesus has shown us. It is the love that defines who we are. We must always love one another as we have been loved, even when it costs us dearly. Thus, we cannot fracture the body of Christ because of our disagreements. Instead, we must be willing to give up everything we value for the sake of loving those who are different, those who disagree, those we find repugnant. If someone will not love us like that, they have pulled away, but, as followers of Jesus, as disciples obedient to his commandment, we still love them just the same.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Really Real Resurrection

Although a deeply Pauline Christian, I find the apostle to be a little wordy from time to time, but I don't recall Paul ever being as redundantly repetitious as he is in Sunday's reading from 1 Corinthians 15: "If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain...For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins." Over and over and over, Paul holds a rhetorical mirror up to the Corinthian church as if to say, "You do understand what you're saying, right? You can't believe in the resurrection unless you believe in the resurrection."

I can imagine Paul receiving word that some of the leaders among the Corinthian Christians had begun to question whether the resurrection of the body is a reasonable hope. "Sure, we believe in Jesus' resurrection. That's central to our faith, but the resurrection of the rest of us...well, maybe it isn't that important." Over the years, Christians were dying. Their bodies were placed in the ground. Jesus had been gone for a decade or more, and the corpses, although not piling up, were collecting in graves. Everyone knew what happened to a dead body. You don't need to know about cell structure and decomposition to know that a body stinks after a day or two. By the end of a week, what is left is in the kind of condition that no one wants to inhabit for eternity. After a month or a year or ten years, the only thing left to be raised from the earth is a collection of zombie-like remains. Yuck!

For a first-century Christian, the resurrection of the body had its problems. How will God put everything back? When will that happen? How will we live forever? For a Greek-minded believer, it's easier to imagine God welcoming the spirit or soul of the believer into a non-physical realm, leaving behind the earthly matter-suit one doesn't need for the afterlife. Maybe Jesus' resurrection was physical because his followers needed to see it and know it in order to believe it. Maybe we can believe in the resurrection of Jesus without needing to believe in our own resurrection. Sound familiar?

At the risk of being labelled out-of-touch, scientifically illiterate, old-fashioned, close-minded, and spiritually naive, I want the record to show that I believe in an actual, real, physical resurrection. Like all beliefs that are worth having and sharing with others, a claim like that needs careful consideration and should be based on something more than "my mama told me so" or "I read it in the Bible." How do all the body's cells get put back together? If I am an organ donor, do I get my organs back, and, if so, what happens to the poor person who needed them? What sort of body will I have when I come back--the over-the-hill, out-of-shape, tired body that most of us have when we die or something fresher than that? Where will we all go? The earth is already crowded with the people who are living today. What about the billions of people who have believed in Jesus and who have died? And what about the people who haven't believed? If you are a universalist, you've got to find room for them, too, and, if you're not, where is the physical hell? And what happens to the physical universe? It won't go on for ever. Sure, it can exist for a long, long, long time, but, compared with forever, that still isn't very long at all. If we are resurrected in a physical body, where will that body last forever when the sun swells and swallows up the earth, when all of energy of all of the stars in the universe dissipates into a big sigh or collapses back together in a big crunch? The answer? I don't know.

I don't know how all of that happens. I can't explain the bodily resurrection. I can appeal to alternate planes of existence (Kathryn Tanner) or to some other fundamental change in reality, but I don't know how to explain the physical resurrection in a physically limited/defined universe. But neither could Paul. And Paul wasn't worried about it either.

Paul's response is not to explain away all of the questions or concerns or unanswerables of the Corinthian Christians. Instead, he wants to remind them of the importance of the bodily resurrection and encourage them to believe even in things they cannot understand. We are not merely spirits in mortal flesh. We are mind-body-spirit beings whose existence cannot be real without our physical bits. Paul wants his readers to know that the resurrection is not a metaphor for resting in peace. He wants them to remember that following Jesus is not (only) about living a good life, standing up for justice, and being the hands and feet of the Incarnate One after his ascension. Following Jesus is about new life, everlasting life, living forever in God's reign. Jesus wasn't making this stuff up, and we don't follow him because he told nice stories. We follow him because doing so leads us through death and beyond--into God's victory even over the physical realities we inhabit.

No, I don't know how that works in a twenty-first-century, scientifically informed mindset. Neither did Paul. Of course I might be wrong about it, but dismissing something because I can't explain it isn't good epistemology. And there are too many important reasons to believe that which we cannot prove.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

By God's Grace, We Are Who We Are

 February 10, 2019 – The 5th Sunday after the Epiphany

© 2019 Evan D. Garner

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

It’s flu season, and that means that it’s a good time to know the difference between a symptom and a sickness. Fatigue, runny nose, headache, body aches—is it the flu? A cold? Or are you just run down after a hard week? You can’t catch exhaustion, but you can catch the flu, and, if you get the flu, there’s nothing you can take to make the sickness go away. Tamiflu, if you take it early on, may help make symptoms less severe and shorten your recovery time, but, ultimately, with the flu, the body has to heal itself. You can treat the symptoms, but you can’t treat the sickness. And, as we see in all three of today’s lessons, the same is true for sin: we might be able to treat the symptoms, but the sickness itself is another issue.

In these three readings, the prophet Isaiah, the apostle Paul, and Simon Peter all have encounters with the holy that call them up short. When he saw a vision of Israel’s God sitting on a throne and the hem of God’s robe filling the temple, Isaiah cried out, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Reflecting on his unworthiness, Paul described himself as “the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle because [he] persecuted the church of God.” And, when Simon saw the miraculous catch of fish that he and his companions had taken after letting down the nets where Jesus had told them to, he threw himself down on the ground at the rabbi’s feet and begged, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”

Since all three of these passages contain stories of sinfulness and inadequacy, you might expect our worship today to have a somber, perhaps even Lenten tone, but that is not the case. Instead, each of these passages is a story of joy, of forgiveness, of newfound fruitfulness. Likewise, when we hear a preacher start a sermon about sin, we expect to hear something that will either make us feel bad about ourselves or make us angry at the preacher’s hypocrisy. I hope you’ll find that isn’t the case either. And the reason that we harbor those expectations is because so often we are asked to feel guilty about the symptoms without ever being invited to address the underlying issue.

In that imprecise way that is so often indicative of church-speak, we use the word “sin” to describe two different things. It is both the laundry list of things done and left undone that we call “sins,” and it is also the inherent imperfection of our lives—the gap between our will and God’s will that we call “sin.” But don’t get caught up in the religious jargon. It doesn’t really matter what we call it. You don’t have to be religious to know that things aren’t the way that they could be—that, no matter how hard people try, the lives and communities we create aren’t perfect. In society, we’ve dealt with disease and poverty and exploitation and death for all of human history. And every single one of us, in one way or another, has dealt with dishonesty and infidelity and greed and self-centeredness in real and personal ways. That dishonesty is a sin, but the inevitability of it is also sin. One is a symptom, and the other is a sickness, and today readings, as well as the collect for the day, are all about finding a way to deal with the underlying problem.

When Isaiah lamented his uncleanness, when Paul explained his unworthiness, and when Simon fell down at Jesus’ feet, it wasn’t because they were overcome with guilt over something that they had done. It was because they recognized their inadequacy—their fundamental inability to reflect in their lives the perfection embodied by the one who had made them. When each one was brought into the presence of the divine, he crumpled in weakness not in fear that some secret misdeed might be discovered by God but because the presence of God had brought into stark relief the unworthiness that they embodied. And, in each case, what was God’s response? God took whatever was lacking and made it whole, commissioning each one for holy work.

“Now that this [coal] has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out,” the seraph said to Isaiah so that, when God spoke and asked, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” the would-be prophet could answer boldly, “Here am I; send me!” Paul might have been the most zealous persecutor of the church, but Jesus appeared to him not to condemn him to the same death to which he had condemned so many Christians but to redirect his zealotry and commission him as an apostle to the Gentiles. When Simon Peter cried out to Jesus, “Depart from me for I am a sinful man,” I suppose that Jesus could have taken him at his word and thrown him overboard, but he didn’t. Instead, he said to him and to all who had witnessed the miraculous catch of fish, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” Those aren’t stories of shameful people being comforted despite their mistakes. They are moments when imperfect people are granted wholeness by the one who sought each of them out in love.

Much like the flu, we can treat the symptoms of sin, but there isn’t much we can do about the underlying sickness. We can say that we’re sorry when we do something wrong, but how long will it be before we need to apologize again? We can forsake the misdeeds of our past even before the photographs from our medical school yearbooks have been made public, but is that enough to remove every stain of prejudice from our hearts and minds as well as the institutions that have made us who we are? When we come to church and say the words of the confession and hear the priest pronounce God’s absolution, we start over with a clean slate, but do we really believe that God desires a people who will yo-yo-diet their way through sin and forgiveness week after week? Treating the symptoms is fine—even beneficial—but God wants more than that. God wants to heal us and make us whole.

God isn’t looking for perfect people who are able to make this world the place that God dreams it could be. Instead, God is looking for ordinary, broken, sinful people like you and me who are willing to be made perfect so that this world might become the place that God dreams it could be one person at a time. That is the power that God’s unconditional love has in our lives. The world needs all the goodness we can give it. We can and must fight injustice and poverty and disease over and over and over again. But our hope isn’t merely that we might add a little goodness to a cold and broken world every time we encounter sin. Instead, in order to truly transform this world, we must be set free from that part of ourselves that time and again stands in the way. We must be made perfect in love so that we might love others perfectly. And, when we love the world like that, we find that it isn’t we who are loving it but God who is loving it through us.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Releasing Everything

People who have given up everything for the sake of a particular cause fascinate us. How could that Roman Catholic priest give up children, family, sex! for the church? How could that activist abandon all hope of a stable income by filling her resume with arrests instead of jobs? What compels a person to give up fame and fortune to spend more time with his family? The counter-intuitive, counter-human-instinct decision to let go of obvious self-interest for the sake of a more subtle self-interest confuses us and delights us. Some of what we feel is admiration. Some is bewilderment. Some is a fundamental recognition that we don't have what it takes to follow their example.

In Sunday's gospel lesson (Luke 5:1-11), after a compelling sermon, a miraculous catch of fish, and a dramatic confession, we run the risk of missing the most amazing detail of all: "When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him." Luke didn't have to include the detail about what they left behind. Luke could have written, "They decided to follow him," or "Having made arrangements for their extended absence, they followed him," or "Certain that their families and jobs would be waiting for them if the disciple business proved to be unsustainable, they agreed to giving following him a chance." I joke, of course, but the significance of leaving everything is real.

Most Greek manuscripts record the act of leaving everything as "ἀφέντες πάντα." The verb ἀφίημι comes from the words "apo," which is a prefix or preposition that means "away" and "heimi," which is a verb that means "to send." Of course, the disciples didn't pack up their stuff and send it away. They left it behind. In this context, a better sense might be "release" or "discharge" or even "remit" or "forgive" as in a financial obligation. In a real way, therefore, the disciples decision to leave everything behind wasn't just a drop-the-nets-and-go mentality but a relinquishing of their obligations and relationships. They were letting go of everything, showing their families and friends and colleagues that they were out of the fishing business.

That might be an overstatement. We see in John's account of the gospel that, after Jesus has been raised from the dead, Peter takes the disciples fishing again, suggesting, perhaps, that, before Jesus had commissioned him to carry on the work of an apostle, he went back to his old way of life. Maybe the life of a fisherman was never that far from Peter the disciple. Maybe, when they needed some money to fund the work of Jesus the itinerant preacher, they all spent a few days fishing. Who knows? But, what we do know, is that Luke wants us to realize how much they gave up. They didn't just put their nets in storage. They released everything. They walked away in the fullest sense. And they invite us to do the same.

Following Jesus will cost you everything--your career, your family, your income, your hopes, your plans. In order to follow Jesus, you have to let go of all of that. You may still get to be a teacher, doctor, banker, or gardener. You may still go home every night to your spouse and children. You may continue to save money for retirement. But, for a follower of Jesus, those things are no longer hers or his or ours. They are the Lord's. It isn't our career anymore. It belongs to Jesus. It isn't even our family. Even that becomes God's. When we follow Jesus, We let go, relinquish, send away everything.

The truly compelling part, the part of the gospel lesson we are likely to miss, is that they did it willingly and joyfully. Jesus didn't tell them, "If you want to follow me, you have to abandon everything first." Instead, Jesus said, "Do not be afraid; from now on, you will be catching people!" And the disciples got out of their boats, left everything behind, and followed him. The true fruitfulness of their lives was found not on the sea but by following him. It is that true fruitfulness that sets us free from our grip even on our own lives.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Forsaking Sin

When I lived in Montgomery, Alabama, I was a member of the Kiwanis Club that was responsible for hosting the Alabama National Fair. Kind of like a state fair that wanted to brag about itself, the Alabama National Fair was a typical conglomeration of amusement park rides, street food vendors, animal husbandry and horticulture competitions, circus acts, and exhibitors. Several of the exhibitors were religious in nature, and one had a display that included three riddles about God. Designed to teach passers by about Christianity, there were three questions about God stenciled above three hinged wooden flaps under which the answers were written. I don't remember all three, but one of the questions was, "What is one thing that God has never seen?" The answer, which quoted some out-of-context Bible verse, was "sin."

I can't remember the Bible verse either, but I suppose that, in one way, that makes sense. Sin seems like the kind of thing that God has not seen. I think the point of the display was to encourage the viewer to forsake sin and turn to God, but I found it to be an invitation to contemplate the nature of sin. What is sin? Although I wasn't willing to accept the exhibitor's claim on the surface, why might sin be something God has not seen? What is God's attitude toward sin? When God "looks" down from heaven and "sees" me preparing to sin, does God avert God's "eyes," withdrawing the divine presence from my general vicinity until the sinning is over? Is this similar to the Augustinian claim that the Holy Spirit withdraws from the bedroom during the procreative act in order not to witness the transmission of original sin?

This Sunday, we have three different lessons that in one way or another deal with sin. In Isaiah 6, the prophet cries out, "Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!" In response, the angel brings a coal and touches his lips, declaring, "Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out." In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul writes, "For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain." In Luke 5, when Peter recognizes that the man in his boat is a representative of the divine, he falls down on his knees and confesses, "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!" In all three cases, sin seems to be something that threatens to keep the individual away from God's presence, out of God's commission, apart from God's plan. Of course, in all three cases, that isn't the end of the story.

This Sunday's collect is a little different in structure from a typical collect. There is no address or acknowledgment--no "Almighty God, who in creation has declared all things good..." Instead, we jump right to the petition: "Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins, and give us the liberty of that abundant life." It's as if the collect anticipates our need to get right down to business. There's no prelude, no spiritual foreplay, just our need. The lessons this Sunday reflect that urgency. Three people who, upon encountering the holy, need to be set free from their sin. I don't take a lot of comfort in considering a God who does not see sin, but I desperately need God to set me free from it so that I can dwell securely in God's presence. The problem isn't God's but mine, and the answer comes from God. That's where I'm headed in this Sunday's sermon--back to the basics.

Monday, February 4, 2019

A Peculiar Calling

The last time we read this Sunday's gospel lesson (Luke 5:1-11) in church was February 7, 2010. This reading only appears in the proper for The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany in lectionary Year C. In the last two Year Cs (2016 and 2013), Ash Wednesday came too early for us to have enough Sundays in between Epiphany and Lent to need a fifth Sunday. That means that it has been nine years since we heard Luke's version of the calling of Peter, James, and John. What should we notice this year?

First of all, Luke is the only one who tells the calling of these three disciples like this. Matthew and Mark prefer a simpler version, in which the only technique Jesus uses is the invitation itself: "Follow me, and I will make you fish for people." It is remarkable in those accounts that the disciples leave their boats and follow him, but Luke wants us to see more.

John also likes the story of the abundant catch of fish, which he weaves into a post-resurrection narrative. It it, Peter and the other disciples have labored all night in vain, but the mysterious risen Jesus tells them to put down their nets in a particular place, and, when they come back full of fish, Peter recognizes Jesus and dives in the water to swim toward him.

Although the point John makes is similar--recognition through abundant catch--Luke is the only one who puts the miraculous catch of fish in the calling story. Jesus meets the disciples where they are--not just physically but also metaphorically--using an image that makes sense to them. (You can read all four versions here.)

What is that image to us? Luke tells the story of Jesus leading the disciples to abundance. Not dissimilar to the episode from the wedding in Cana, Jesus shows his disciples (and us) that he is the one who can provide abundantly. The disciples decision to follow him, therefore, is a desire for abundance--fullness, fruitfulness, everlasting provision. More than that, because of Peter's acknowledgment that they had toiled without success, Luke's calling narrative is a confirmation that life spent not following Jesus is likely to end up barren or at least lacking the abundance that only Jesus can provide.

That Jesus calls these disciples immediately after preaching a sermon the a crowd is another interesting detail. At this point in Luke's account, Jesus has already secured a substantial following. Yet it wasn't his preaching that grabbed the disciples attention. Although it may have provided some foundation, it was the action--the catch of fish--that led Simon to see clearly what he was dealing with. This makes Jesus' invitation to become "fishers of people" clearer. He isn't just offering the disciples a chance to catch lots of fish but a fruitful ministry as his disciples. In other words, they aren't attracted to Jesus because he's a supernatural fisherman but because he has shown himself to be the one who can lead them to fruitfulness--a truth presented in his teaching and confirmed in the miracle.

Also notice that Jesus uses Simon--maybe even needs him--before Simon agrees to follow as a disciple. Jesus asks for the boat. Who knows whether there was any financial arrangement. Jesus may have rented the boat for a few hours, or maybe Peter thought a kind gesture would help his "luck" on the water the next night. Regardless, Jesus uses Peter and his boat before asking him to follow as a disciple. Luke is the only one who tells the story like this, and I wonder what the implication is.

Lastly, Simon has a moment of confession when confronted by the power Jesus demonstrates in the miraculous catch. He falls down and admits his unworthiness. Matthew and Mark portray the decision to follow Jesus as something the disciples accept. Luke, however, shows a transformation that occurs before the call is accepted. Maybe that's implicit in the other accounts, but Luke is the only one who makes it a central part of his account. John also reflects this epiphanic moment in his post-Easter narrative. For them, revelation precedes commitment.

This Sunday, we hear a story that we haven't heard in a while. It's good to let it sink in for a few days before we hear it.