Sunday, March 24, 2019

Universal Judgment Invites Universal Repentance

March 24, 2019 – The 3rd Sunday in Lent

© 2019 Evan D. Garner

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

Chad Post was a friend of mine at Birmingham-Southern College. He played baseball for the college and was known as quite a slugger. So distinguished was he on the baseball diamond that he was the subject of a piece in Sports Illustrated…but not for the reason you might expect. Instead, he was the subject of the weekly SI feature known as “This Week’s Sign the Apocalypse is Upon Us.” One afternoon, while playing a regional opponent, Chad teed off on a pitch, hitting it over the fence, out of the ballpark, and through the windshield of a car in the parking lot. The owner of the car? The pitcher who had given up the home run.

Every week, Sports Illustrated shares a wacky, off-the-wall story of such remarkable coincidence that one might interpret it as a sign that the end of the world has arrived. They are stories of athletes who tore their LCL while putting on a pair of shoes or teams banning high fives because pink eye was spreading through the clubhouse.  And, if you read Luke 12, you might get the impression that Jesus himself would approve of this kind of interpretation. He spends most of the chapter warning his disciples to stay alert and watch for the coming judgment of God. Finally, as the chapter comes to a close, Jesus chastises the crowd for not knowing how to interpret the present signs that God’s reign is imminent: “You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”

When we turn the page and get to chapter 13 and today’s gospel lesson, it seems that some in the crowd want to try their hand at the kind of apocalyptic interpretation that Jesus had in mind. They approach him and ask if he had heard about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices, implying that God had had a hand in their deaths because of some unknown unfaithfulness on their part. We don’t know exactly what happened except that some Jews from Galilee—the same place where Jesus was from—were offering their sacrifices at the temple in Jerusalem, when Pilate had them killed. Luke is the only gospel writer to recall this incident, and it isn’t substantiated by other historians. We do know that Pilate was brutal and that he was known for killing Jews who threatened the authority of Rome. It’s reasonable to think that these Galileans had come to Jerusalem for the Passover, a time of intense national pride and potential unrest, and had been murdered by the nervous governor while they were getting ready for the feast.

Whatever the reason, Pilate had them killed, and the crowd who asks Jesus about it seems to think that their untimely death was a sign that God was punishing them for some secret misdeed. That’s kind of like a preacher dying of a heart attack right in the middle of a sermon about adultery and everyone in the congregation wondering whether God had struck him down because he had been unfaithful. But Jesus rejects that insinuation: “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” And, to prove his point, he reminds them of another senseless tragedy: “Those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” God’s judgment may be at hand, but that doesn’t mean that the only people who experience it are people who deserve it.

When it comes to proclaiming a message of God’s judgment, it’s always easier to point a finger at somebody else. It’s “they” who need to worry about divine punishment. When God comes to set the world right, it’s not “we” who need sorting out. It’s always someone else. I remember when a parishioner in Montgomery, Alabama, told me that God had sent Hurricane Katrina to New Orleans in order to wash away all the notorious sinners on Bourbon Street. Gene was a man who squeezed more bigotry and hatred into 5’2” than anyone else I ever met, and I never figured out a way to help him understand the need for his own repentance. And that’s the real problem with identifying God’s judgment on someone else: it always causes us to forget the judgment that is coming for us as well. You can’t see that there’s a plank in your eye when you’re worried about the speck in someone else’s. That’s why Jesus says what he says to the crowd that asked whether the Galileans were getting what they deserved: “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” Repentance is everyone’s business.

As he often did, Jesus used a parable to explain what he meant: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none.” Frustrated at the tree’s lack of productivity, the owner spoke to the gardener and asked that the tree be cut down. “Why should it be wasting the soil?” he asked. But the gardener begged him to give the tree another chance. “Sir, leave it alone for another year,” he explained, “and I will dig around it and put manure on it. Let’s see if I can get it to grow figs next year. After that, if it doesn’t bear fruit, you can cut it down.” In the Hebrew Bible, fig trees are often used as an image for God’s people. When God’s judgment comes, the prophets explain, the only thing that matters is whether the children of God are bearing fruit. Jesus takes up the prophets’ metaphor in order to remind the crowd that preparing for judgment doesn’t mean pointing fingers at other people but turning inward. Keeping watch means shining the light of self-examination inside oneself in order to ask, “Am I bearing fruit?”

God’s judgment is imminent. All around us are signs that the apocalypse is upon us, and it’s not just pink eye and baseballs smashing windshields. It’s faithful worshipers being murdered by a terrorist. It’s another plane crashing within minutes of taking off. It’s walls and guns and overdoses and #MeToo. God’s judgment is here. How will we respond—by making a big deal about how other people live or by focusing on ourselves and our own failures? Jesus speaks some harsh words to us this morning: “Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” But what does that mean? Repentance doesn’t mean being miserable. It means turning around, coming back, and returning to God. In agricultural terms, repentance means digging around the fig tree, turning over the soil, and amending it with manure. We are all living in that extra year of grace, but that means that the time for us to bear fruit is now.

Is your life bearing fruit for God? If not, it isn’t too late. Turn around. Come back to God. Ask God for help. And let God bring your life to full blossom.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Still Learning

March 20, 2019 - Wednesday in the Second Week of Lent

In Matthew 20:17-28, Jesus and his disciples are on their way toward Jerusalem. The closer they get to the holy city the more emphatic Jesus is with his teachings: "See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised." He wants them to know what waits for him there. He wants to be sure that they aren't confused about what will happen in the City of David. Like a family driving to Orlando for family reunion but no intention of visiting Disney World, Jesus wants them to know that what awaits them is not what they expect.

But blessed Mother Zebedee is deaf to those teachings: "Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom." As they walk toward Jerusalem, she kneels down in front of Jesus, literally getting in the way. "Give my boys the seats of honor when you become king," she asks naively, just wanting the best for her sons. We instinctively fault her for her brazen request. What sort of person would ask for such a thing? How rude! But the real mistake isn't her forwardness but her misunderstanding of what awaits Jesus. He is coming into a kingdom, but it isn't the sort of kingdom any mother would wish upon her sons.

When the other ten disciples hear about it, they are upset at James and John. But, given the nature of Jesus' response to their anger, it seems that they, too, have missed the point. Aware of their grumbling, Jesus calls them together and offers this teaching: "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave." Jesus doesn't direct his rebuke at the two whose mother had made the request but at the ten who needed to hear the same lesson. "In the kingdoms of this earth, honor and greatness come to those who have strength, wealth, and power. But you can't be great in my kingdom unless you become a servant of others."

What is interesting to me is when this encounter takes place. At this point in the gospel, Jesus is standing in the shadow of Jerusalem. The rest of Matthew 20 tells of the healing of some blind men sitting by the road outside of Jericho, and, when we turn the page into Matthew 21, it is time for the triumphal entry into the holy city that we celebrate on Palm Sunday. In other words, this is it. There is no more time for this lesson to sink in before the real thing takes place. The disciples have journeyed as far as they will go with Jesus, and still they haven't quite figured out what it means to pursue greatness in their master's reign.

We have the benefit of 2000 years of hindsight. We don't have to figure this out on the fly. But we, too, are still struggling to understand it. Every year, as we journey through Lent, we are asked to confront the reality that we simultaneously live in two different worlds--one in which power and wealth are great and one in which vulnerability and servanthood are the marks of greatness. Which greatness will we see? Which one will we pursue?

It isn't our calling to seek the seats on Jesus' right and left, but it is our calling to pursue the kingdom in which greatness is seen among servants and glory is found among slaves. We live in both worlds, and until God's work in this world is finished, until the reign of God is complete, we will continue to live in both. But how we live in them matters. We have been given the gift of seeing the truth that the world does not know, and, if we want to follow Jesus, we must live in this world a life that is governed by the truth of the next. But, as the disciples' struggle reminds us, that isn't easy to understand or do. In fact, the only way to grasp it is to stand in the shadow of the cross and see what true kingship is really like.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Bad Things Happen To All People

For fun, I keep a running list of all the propers on which I have not yet preached. I've been ordained for almost 13 years, and, in that time, I've preached on The Last Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 29) in Year B four different times, but I still haven't preached on The Third Sunday in Lent in Year C...until this coming Sunday. When I made the preaching schedule for March, I had that in mind, hoping to cross it off my list, but, now that I look at the lessons, I'm not sure I want to. "...there were some present who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices." Seriously?

It's Monday morning, and I haven't done any exegetical study yet, so I don't know whose blood was being mingled with what sacrifices, nor do I know anything about the tower of Siloam that fell and killed 18 people, which Jesus mentions later in the reading. All I have are first impressions, and my first impressions are that this is a difficult passage. So, historical research aside, let's break it down.

The passage begins with "At that very time..." At what time? Why is the continuity important? Luke wants us to know that this teaching is connected with something that came before, but what? At the beginning of Luke 12, Jesus warns his disciples about the hypocrisy of the religious leaders of their day. Then he encourages them to acknowledge him even under the threat of persecution. He answers a question about inheritance by telling the parable of the rich fool, who thought he had it made but then, despite all his plans for the future, died that very night. Jesus then explains to his disciples that they should not worry about their material needs. He urges them to keep watch. He names his ministry as one that will bring division to the earth. He asks them to interpret the signs of the present age and finishes chapter 12 by exhorting his hearers to settle their disputes when they have the opportunity.

"At that very time, there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices." Notice that Jesus teaches them to stay focused on what it means to follow him, to live in the next age, to recognize the coming of God's reign, and to do whatever it takes to inhabit the rule that Jesus brings to the earth, and the response of the crowd is to point out this bizarre sacrilegious practice. Because of Luke 12, I hear them saying to Jesus, "Some people have been killed and their remains desecrated by the unholy Roman occupiers. Is that a sign of the coming judgment?" And Jesus' responds, "It's not a sign of judgment against them but universal nature of judgment, which is upon us." The parable that follows--that of the tree failing to bear fruit--is a message to all of us that we must bear fruit.

Tragedy comes to everyone, Jesus seems to say. Whether you're slaughtered by Pilate or die in a construction accident, the message of repentance--of returning to God--isn't reserved for those whom we think deserve it but for everyone. Do you think God's judgment means bad things will happen to bad people? You're thinking too small. Everyone must bear fruit. Judgment isn't bad people getting their due. It's all people and all things being folded into God's reign of righteousness.

Of course, I need to do some homework and figure out the best I can what the crowd and Jesus were talking about. There may be something else going on. For now, though, this feels like a "gotcha" passage that is designed to remind all of us that the coming of God's reign--God's judgment--means that we have spiritual work to do. That sounds like a sermon on bearing fruit and repentance as the act of amending our spiritual soil by returning to the one who makes us holy, good, and fruitful. But we'll see. After all, I've had 13 years to get ready for this sermon, and it's only Monday.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Why We're Wrong About The Pay-For-College Scandal

This week, in our politically polarized culture, a scandal hit the news that succeeded in galvanizing our collective anger in ways that few things except child abuse and animal abuse can. Fifty people from six different states were accused by federal prosecutors of using large sums of money to buy their rich kids places at elite colleges and universities. Unless you were already a seven-figure donor to your alma mater, you had reason to be outraged. The rest of us worked hard to get ourselves and our children into middling-tier institutions of higher learning. We stayed up late encouraging our pre-teens to finish their science projects. We met with their teachers when they did not receive the grades that they deserved, and we met with those teachers and their principals again and again until they changed them. We spent hundreds of dollars on S.A.T. prep and tutors who would review, revise, and rewrite their college application essays. All these rich parents had to do was write giant checks so that their children could bypass the arena filled with bloodthirsty parents and modestly motivated students from which only the best and brightest emerge with an admissions offer.

Our outrage is our own condemnation. Yes, the tactics they used, which included faking a mental disability to allow an individually proctored college entrance exam from a proctor who helped a student cheat, were dishonest. No, a student whose parents sent in a photograph of another child in a boat, claiming that it was their own, should not have been given a spot on a university crew team because those parents also wired $200,000 into to a special account. But our anger at the parents and, even more so, at the students is not only misplaced but also unproductive as it masks our own complicity in the rigged system.

What started as social media outrage has become mainstream news. A student whose Instagram account featured a video post in which she claimed not to care about school but was only there to party has been identified as the daughter of one the parents who bought an elite admission. I did not learn about it on social media but heard about it on NPR. The video, of course, has been deleted, but screenshots of it with condemnatory comments are easily found on Facebook. And what does that accomplish? Do we think that the only students who care more about getting drunk at Greek parties than the learning process are those whose parents bought them a way into college? Sure, it's a slap in the face to her parents, who paid all that money to get her into a first-rate university, but countless other students, who have failed out or have been brought home by angry parents after a disastrous semester, have shown identical indifference to academia. Why aren't we outing and shaming all of the other students whose penchant for partying has eclipsed their devotion to study? Because we prefer to believe that only students like her, students whose families enjoy a level of wealth we can't imagine, are wasting spots at universities that would otherwise be available to us and our middle-class kids.

So perhaps we should blame the rich parents. These children likely did not ask their parents to pull strings and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to get them into the university of their choice. It's the parents who fueled this scheme. But what parent wouldn't do the same? If I thought a $250 S.A.T. prep course would help my child get into Harvard, I would spend it. If I had $2500 of disposable income to send my child to a week-long seminar on writing college essays and perfecting the interview process and I knew it would dramatically increase her chances of cracking the Ivy League, I would spend it. If I was rich enough to send my child to a school that costs $25,000 a semester and was buying a place for her in the prep-school-to-top-university pipeline, I'd take it. If I was fabulously wealthy and could afford $250,000 to be sure that my child would spend the rest of her life with access to the best life has to offer--the best jobs, the best homes, the best schools for her children--an investment that would more than pay for itself over that child's lifetime, I would spend it without hesitation. Sure, the parents in this scandal were not increasing their children's chance at admission; they were buying a sure thing, but can you blame a parent for that? Who wouldn't do the same?

And what about the child whose parents can't afford the $250 prep class? What about the student whose single parent works two jobs to pay the bills and isn't ever home at night to encourage her to finish her science project and can't take her from one extra-curricular activity to another? What happens to her potential, her intellect, her charisma, her God-given abilities if they never get the chance to apply to an elite institution because the test scores weren't as good, the grades weren't as high, and the student activity list wasn't as long?

So it must be the universities, right? I have not read any news that these places of higher learning, which accepted these huge donations in exchange for an admissions letter, are being investigated? Where are the criminal charges against U.S.C. or UT Austin or Georgetown or Wake Forest or any of the other schools whose officers accepted bribes? Perhaps they, too, need to be dragged into court, but I don't know that it's their fault either. Can we blame an institution of higher learning for accepting a student whose parents will fund places for three more? Sure, colleges want bright students, but they also want big donors. They need big donors to keep the doors open, to keep the research happening, to offer scholarships to underprivileged students, and to attract next year's class. What's wrong with giving the children of generous alumni a leg up in the admissions process? Universities, in the interest of providing a diverse student body that benefits the overall learning process, might also extend admissions offers to students whose academic credentials aren't as strong as another cookie-cutter applicant. Maybe the university should be allowed to decide what is best for itself. The problem, though, is when they hide that truth.

If universities are at fault, it's in portraying themselves as institutions that care only about academics--as egalitarian places where learning is all that matters. But those of us who like to cheer at football games have known that's not the case for a long, long time. The truth is that universities are primarily places of learning, but they are also places of social formation, of the free exchange of ideas, and of wealth concentration and wealth generation. Maybe we're the ones who have enjoyed buying into the false belief that the academic institutions we revere--both those we attended and those we were not quite smart enough to get into--only reward with an admissions offer those students whom we would find deserving.

And there's the real problem--us. We are part of a culture that perpetuates the belief that elite institutions produce elites. To some extent, they do. Although a top student in the small liberal arts institution that I attended, I found myself considerably out of my depth--under-prepared and under-resourced--when I went to graduate school in Cambridge. But, as this whole pay-for-college scandal proves, not everyone with an Ivy League degree is worth it. Yet those who hire or give clerkships or offer research fellowships to recent graduates, when sorting through piles of resumes, find it easier to focus on the ones with Princeton, Yale, or CalTech on them. People wear "Harvard" sweatshirts even though they have never been to Massachusetts. Most of us buy into the myth that greatness only comes from greatness, that those who have special abilities or who are especially hard-working, will rise to the top. We believe that because we want to believe it about ourselves.

Since this is a Christian blog, that's the theological claim I want to make. We want to believe in our own goodness and are willing to burn at the stake those who threaten our perception of ourselves. We humiliate twenty-year-olds because their place in an elite university undermines our memory of our own high-school accomplishments. We send their parents to jail because we want to believe that we worked hard for everything we have. We shake our finger at the universities because we wish that they had seen our true talent even though it was hidden. If we want to "fix" the system that rewards legacies and doles out success in exchange for money, we need to start by addressing our own place in that same system. In religion, we call that repentance.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Biblical Family Systems

On Sunday, we'll read a defining moment in the life of God's people and in the life of Abraham and his descendants' family system. In Genesis 15, we hear God promise Abram a child. In a vision, God comes to Abram and reminds him that his "reward will be very great." But Abram is stuck in his childlessness: "O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?...You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir." In other words, "Why bother giving me such a great reward if it's merely going to disappear when I die?" But God had something else in mind: "This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir."

In this defining moment, Abram believes God, and that trust, despite all the odds, becomes the basis for Abram's standing in God's eyes--his righteousness. As Christians, we are descendants not necessarily of Abram's biology but of his soteriology. We, too, as Paul writes citing Abraham, are saved by faith. But don't lose sight of the consequences of this promise and trust. It brings life and struggle all at once.

Abram, who becomes Abraham, trusts God. He stakes his life, his identity, his future on what God has promised. If the promise turns out not to be true, Abraham's relationship with God crumbles, and, in effect, God himself crumbles. God must be the all-faithful-one. As the story of Abraham's relationship with YHWH is told, the fulfillment of this promise becomes as critical for the Lord's identity as for the children of Abraham. For Abraham, all that potential becomes tied up in the birth of a child.

But having a child proves to be difficult. In the next chapter of Genesis, Abram, convinced God will give him an heir, has sex with his wife's slave, who gives birth to Ishmael. The men who wrote the Hebrew Bible and guarded its text and its interpretation tell us that the initiative behind that sexual relationship belonged to Sarai, Abram's wife: "So, after Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Sarai, Abram's wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her servant, and gave her to Abram her husband as a wife." But it's never that simple, is it? Even before a child is born, the promise of a child functions as an individual in the family, demanding the sacrifice of marital fidelity.

As one would expect, the relationship sours. Hagar, we are told, becomes proud and does not obey Sarai as she once did. Of course, it's never that simple, is it? Sarai was harsh and bitter, and who would blame her? Hagar flees, but the Lord brings her back, we are told, and a son is born. Later, when God promises a child through Sarah, Abraham is content to have Ishmael be his heir, but God has something else in mind. Isaac is born, and, about the time the child is weened, the older half-brother behaves roughly, earning him and his mother an expulsion from the family of covenant. God protects them, having made God's own covenant with Hagar, but the rift is complete. And Abraham says goodbye to his first-born son, the son he thought would be the proof of God's faithfulness.

This family drama continues with the near-sacrifice of Isaac, and a resulting separation between father and son that endures. We are told that Abraham's act was a gesture of faith and confidence. Perhaps. Maybe it was colored with grief. Or maybe God needed to prove Abraham's faithfulness and focus because his heart still pined for his lost child, proving he was able to let go. Regardless, the definition of faithfulness, which had been bound up in the birth of a child is transferred to the willingness to kill a child, and the system carries that stain for generations. Esau and Jacob, whose mother had her favorite. Yesterday evening, in the Daily Office (assuming 2 lessons in the morning and 2 in the evening), we read in Genesis 37:1-11 of Joseph's audacious and offensive dream that he, his father Jacob's favorite, would become greater than anyone else in his family. It continues. It always does.

As I read about Joseph and his brothers, still thinking about Abraham this coming Sunday, I was reminded that we can't escape our family. Joseph couldn't help his arrogant dreams because he was his father's favorite. His father couldn't help having a favorite because, much like Sarai, Joseph's mother, Jacob's favorite wife because of another family drama involving Rachel and Leah's father and God's strange expressions of faithfulness, had conceived unexpectedly and given him a son. And Jacob was only acting the way he had known his own mother to behave by having a favorite. And she had only behaved that way because she was the wife of Isaac, who had grown up under the shadow of being his father's second-born but covenanted child. Yes, it's complicated. What's the point?

We can't escape our family condition. We are self-seeking creatures who act only with what we know. That's a good description of sin. As broken, fallen people, it is part of who we are until we are set free from sin in Jesus Christ. We must die with him in order to be reborn into a new family, where unconditional love sets us free from the need for self-definition at the expense of others. That's what it means to be reborn into the family of God.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Blessed Is The One

When we say or sing the Sanctus ("Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of power and might..."), we (almost) always include "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord." In the expansive-language texts approved by General Convention this summer, that shifts to "Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord." But who is the one who comes in the name of the Lord? Is it Jesus? Is it the presider? Is it all of us?

As I read this coming Sunday's Gospel lesson (Luke 13:31-35), my first thought is gratitude for the Old Testament lesson (Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18) because it has more fodder to offer a preacher than the strange, short passage about a momentary encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees. But my second thought is to wonder what Jesus had in mind when he said to his hearers, "And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, 'Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.'"

The NRSV, CEV, and CEB use "Blessed is the one," but the NIV, WEB, ESV, and RSV all use "Blessed is he." What's the difference? Who is the one who comes in the name of the Lord? Does Jesus mean Jesus? Is this a reference to himself--that they will not see him again until they acknowledge his own blessedness as the one who comes in the Lord's name? Or is this a reference to another--perhaps to all the others who come in the name of the Lord, which is, perhaps, his name?

The Greek word that is rendered as "the one who comes" is a participle: ὁ ἐρχόμενος. It is a form of the verb ἔρχομαι, which, not surprisingly, means "to come." In this form, it means "the coming-one." It is a singular masculine nominative present middle participle. So singular and masculine is arguably right. Notably, Jesus doesn't say, "Blessed are the ones who come." But does the singular masculine coming-one mean Jesus himself or, in that gender-ambiguous way, anyone who comes?

Historically, the presider at the Eucharist has crossed himself (gender-specificity implied) when that part of the Sanctus is proclaimed. Back when all priests were male and "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord" was spoken, it was easy to associate the coming-one with the priest at the table. In many congregations, everyone crosses herself or himself when the presider says those words, implying that everyone gathered at the table is coming in the name of the Lord. But that interpretation, although a valid expansion of what Jesus said, would seem to be a plural concept that is missing in his words. Instead, he keeps it singluar. Who is the one?

Rightly or wrongly, when I am standing at the altar and saying the Eucharistic prayer, I say those words not thinking about myself but about Jesus. I find myself answering Jesus' invitation by identifying him as the blessed one who comes in the name of the Lord, and so I look for him to be present with us in that moment. I don't cross myself, but, then again, I don't cross myself very often anyway. Also, because of that, I don't mind the use of the singular masculine pronoun "he." But I also don't mind the expansive-language version of "the one" because I trust that Christ's identity is bigger than his gender.

As you can tell, I'm picking at the gospel lesson for any sort of foothold. There's not a lot to go on for a sermon this week. As I wrote above, I'm more interested in the Genesis lesson, but, for what it's worth, I am interested in how we hear Jesus' words this Sunday. We gather at the altar and repeat them week after week, and it seems we're not really clear what we mean when we say them. I don't think clarity is coming anytime soon, but I appreciate the opportunity to think about it at some point other than the passing moment when the words are said or sung at the altar.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Do Less

March 10, 2019 – The 1st Sunday in Lent

© 2019 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen on the St. Paul's YouTube channel.

The problem with temptation, of course, is that it’s so darn tempting. The cartoon representation of an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other doesn’t do it justice. Even if we know what the right decision is, the choice is rarely that clear because it isn’t the bad choices that tempt us; it’s the good ones. No one wakes up in the morning, kisses a beloved spouse, and then heads out the door determined to commit adultery. Instead, it’s when marriage is a struggle, when the love between two spouses is little more than a distant memory, that one begins to look for that love somewhere else. There’s nothing wrong with giving and receiving love. It is a beautiful thing to hear someone say, “I love you,” and mean it and to say those words back with equal devotion. But, when you find yourself looking for that kind of love from someone other than your spouse, that love isn’t good but a perversion of the good.

That’s temptation. Temptation is looking for something good in the wrong place or for the wrong reason. Pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth—the “seven deadly sins” are nothing more than good things taken too far. It is good to know one’s intrinsic worth as a human being, made in God’s image, but an inflated sense of one’s importance becomes pride. Everyone should have access to the material goods necessary to sustain life, but they don’t because many of us, motivated by greed, think that real security is found in having more and more. Those who excel challenge us to work hard and strive for greatness, but, when unbalanced, that drive can quickly become envy of them. All of our sins and all of our temptations to sin are born out of goodness because temptation wouldn’t be tempting if it weren’t to something good.

That makes today’s gospel lesson more than a story about making good choices. It’s about Jesus discovering and confirming his true identity through battle with temptation. After forty days of fasting in the wilderness, Jesus is approached by the devil, who says, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Of course, Jesus is the Son of God, and, as we’ll see later in the gospel, he is able to produce enough bread to feed a multitude in the wilderness just as God had done for Israel so long ago. And what’s wrong with bread? What’s wrong with the Son of God coming and changing stones into loaves so that everyone might have enough to eat? With one quick wave of the hand, Jesus could end not only his own hunger but that of the whole world. But that would undermine the truth that in God there is already enough—an abundance—that God, the source of all good gifts, has already given us all that we need.

In an instant, the devil showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and offered to give them to him if he simply would worship him. We know what’s wrong with worshiping the devil, but what’s wrong with Jesus ruling over all the kingdoms of the world? Isn’t he the King of kings and Lord of lords? Isn’t he the one who is destined to overthrow the unholy empires of the world and set God’s people free from their oppressive rule? But to grab that power and assert it isn’t how God works. God is gentle and humble and comes among us as a servant. Jesus’ kingship must be manifest through powerlessness and even death. Even if the end result were a good thing, to seize power like that would be to pursue the devil’s way instead of God’s way.

Finally, the devil takes Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple and invites him to confirm, once and for all, that he really is God’s anointed one. Quoting the psalm we read earlier, the devil reminds Jesus that the messiah is one who will be carried in the hands of angels lest he dash his foot against a stone and encourages him to jump off to prove it. And the devil is right: Jesus is the anointed one, the messiah, and the scripture does say that. It must have been tempting for Jesus to do it—to shut the devil up, to satisfy any lingering doubt in his own mind, to demonstrate to the world that all of God’s promises will be fulfilled. But we aren’t in control of those promises, and Jesus knew that. Tempting though it is to use the Bible to support our cause and prove that we are right, God’s word isn’t something for us to wield on our own terms. Instead, God’s word only becomes clear over time. God does fulfill God’s promises, but that doesn’t happen in an instant but through patient discovery.

Jesus is the Son of God. He has the power to feed God’s people in the wilderness and satisfy the hunger of the whole world. As God’s anointed one, his reign is promised and foretold in scripture. But Jesus comes to that identity not by asserting it on his own terms but by devoting himself to the divine will and allowing the divine will to shape and direct and call forth his gifts and powers. In every case, his true self is manifest when he chooses not to step forward and prove himself but to wait and trust in God. In the wilderness, therefore, Jesus proves himself by demonstrating that he is the one who belongs fully to God.

It is no accident that this formative encounter takes place in the wilderness—that barren place beyond civilization where life is sustained through hardship. The people of God had experienced their own formative time in the wilderness, where they demanded that God give them bread to eat, where they fell down to worship a golden calf, and where they put God to the test with their constant grumbling. Through struggle and failure and return and repentance, the people of Israel discovered what it means to belong to God, to depend completely on God’s bounty, and to live within the boundaries of the divine will. And we, too, are on a wilderness journey through Lent, in search of our true identity as the children of God—an identity we obtain not by asserting ourselves but by denying ourselves—through askesis, self-denial, and spiritual discipline.

We are, as we prayed in the collect for this Sunday, “assaulted by many temptations,” and all of them, in one way or another, are temptations to become our own god—to pursue our own good for our own sakes instead of trusting in the giver of all good gifts and waiting patiently for our salvation. The invitation God gives us is not to do more—not to assert ourselves in triumph over the one who tempts us—but to do less—to sit still and engage the holiness of waiting on God. If it were up to us to win the fight over temptation, we would lose every time, but it isn’t our job to defeat the devil. Our job is to belong to the one who already has. We follow Jesus’ example not in pursuit of his unwavering willpower but in pursuit of his unwavering devotion to his true self. We, too, belong to God, and we discover our true selves when we trust in the one who made us. 

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Knowing By Loving

Gregory of Nyssa was one of the greatest theologians of the fourth century. His mystical, contemplative work, The Life of Moses, reveals and conveys a depth of understanding of who God is--insight into the mystery of the Holy Trinity--that has held up to inquiry and scrutiny and all of the theological development that has taken place over the last 1600 years. But, like so many great minds of the early church, he almost wasn't.

Gregory hated his role as bishop. His older brother, Basil of Caesarea, needed a trustworthy colleague in a difficult time, and so he appointed Gregory as Bishop of Nyssa. Gregory called his ordination "the worst day of his life." Earlier, he had become a Christian as a quiet contemplative who was overwhelmed when the relics of some martyrs were transferred to his family's chapel. The faith he practiced was one of awe and reverence not power and control. He did not want to lead others in the faith. He preferred a secular life with a quiet, internal faith, but that choice was taken from him. (Don't we all love our older siblings?)

His work as bishop was not universally successful. Not a gifted manager, Gregory was accused of mishandling the church's funds. Although he would be acquitted, he preferred to run away into hiding, where he stayed for two years until a new emperor was ruling Rome. Even after he came back, he did not flourish. There was something about being asked to serve in a capacity that he hadn't chosen for himself that stifled not only his leadership but his faith.

And then his brother died. Although not close to Basil, he was shocked by the news. Soon after, he received the difficult news that his sister Macrina was dying. So he quickly went to her side and spent two days talking with her about death and the soul and the resurrection. And there he discovered his true ministry--leading the church as pastor and teacher and writer and bishop by contemplating the nature of God. It was love and devotion that had drawn him to the Christian faith, and it was love and devotion that gave his faith meaning.

In the gospel lesson appointed for the feast of Gregory of Nyssa (John 14:23-26), Jesus says, "Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them." But he wasn't just speaking those words to his disciples. He said them in response to a question. Judas (not Iscariot), trying to understand his master's peculiar teaching, asked, "Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?" And Jesus' response was love. Those who love Jesus will keep his word and the Father will love them and the Father and Son will come to them and make their home in them, and the Holy Spirit will lead them to that truth. The world cannot know who God is because the world does not know love. And we know God because we love with true devotion.

During the season of Lent, we are reminded that to know God is to love God and to love God is to know God. We journey with Christ into the wilderness and down the road that leads to rejection, suffering, and death as an expression of our own devotion and love. God reveals God's self to us not in a purely mental operation but through a devotion of the heart, soul, body, and mind. The journey we take is not a burden but a freedom. Each of us, in our own way, follows the path that leads to our true self as one made in the image of God. When we give God our fullest love, we, like Gregory, find our true place in God, equipped to serve the one we love.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Guaranteed Lottery Ticket

March 6, 2019 – Ash Wednesday

© 2019 Evan D. Garner

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

A few months ago, the Mega Millions jackpot was over $1.5 billion. Did you buy a ticket? I did. Here in Arkansas, it was as easy as walking into a gas station and buying one. Back in Alabama, a state that doesn’t participate in the lottery, anytime the jackpot gets really high, someone you know at work or a friend or a cousin will collect money and take off of work to drive across the state line to buy everyone tickets. I only play when the jackpots are huge, and I don’t ever expect to win—rationally speaking, no one should—but what I am buying is a chance to dream. It’s fun to think about what you would do with all of that money, and it seems a little easier dream about it when you have a ticket in your hand.

The odds of winning the Mega Millions jackpot are 1 in 302,575,350, and still we dream. The odds of reaching the end of your natural life are a perfect 1 in 1, yet how often do we think about our own death? Perhaps you’ve noticed how people tend to talk about “when I win the lottery” but always seem to say “if I die.” Why is that so out of balance? Why do we take time to consider seriously the astronomically minuscule likelihood of becoming a billionaire yet hardly give more than a passing thought to planning for the end of our lives? Because death makes a lousy commercial.

Today, the church invites us to consider what the world asks us to forget: we will all die one day. There’s no amount of retinol, no plastic surgeon’s nip or tuck, no exercise regimen, no sunny retirement community, no reverse mortgage, no life annuity that will enable us to escape the inevitable. The commercials on television don’t come out and say it, of course. To name it would cause the illusion to disappear. But the world is selling us one excuse after another to pretend that our turn won’t come. Today, this one day of the year, as we mark ourselves with ashes, with the very carbon of which we are made—the very dust to which our bodies one day will return—we proclaim the strange yet universal truth of our mortality, and that is very good news indeed.

Why is that good news? Because, as Jesus tells us, we’re either storing up treasure for ourselves here on earth or up in heaven, and the pile of money and accomplishments and reputation that we make for ourselves in this life won’t do us any good when we’re dead. More to the point, an honest glimpse at our own mortality enables us to see what God is offering us instead. In the end, no matter who we are or what we’ve done, all of us become the same pile of lifeless, breathless fertilizer, yet God loves each of us just the same anyway. That’s radically good news.

Whenever you give alms, Jesus tells us, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing so that your giving may be done in secret. Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door where no one except God can see you. Whenever you fast, wash your face and don’t talk about it or post about it on Facebook so that people won’t know what you’re doing. If you practice your piety so that others can see it, you might be held in high esteem by them, but what good will that do you in the end? The harder you work to build a name for yourself in this life the harder it is to see the truth that God loves you no matter what. Whether your name is on the children’s wing at the local hospital or on a plaque in the cemetery for unclaimed corpses left at the morgue, you are the same beloved treasure in God’s eyes.

Remembering that is repentance. Embodying that is repentance. Embracing that truth is repentance. We come to church on Ash Wednesday not to convince God that we are sorry for all of the mistakes that we have made but to return to the fundamental truth that we so often deny: that we are God’s beloved creation, and God hates nothing that God has made. The collect for Ash Wednesday envisions something truly remarkable and perhaps even miraculous. We seek to obtain of God “perfect remission and forgiveness.” We are here in pursuit of a forgiveness that isn’t momentary or partial but perfect, complete, whole, and finished. And we get to that place of perfect forgiveness not by pretending that we are good enough for God’s love but by doing the opposite—by “worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness.”

In other words, we take off the mask. We stop pretending. We quit putting our best foot forward and jump all the way in with our whole imperfect selves. We say to God, “Here I am—the broken, sinful, imperfect, selfish creature that you have made and that you nevertheless embrace as your own beloved treasure.” To say that and believe it is truly to return to God.

Today, as we come forward to be marked with the ashen cross, we receive, in effect, a lottery ticket that is guaranteed to pay off some day. And, when it does, when we stand naked before the one who created us, the only thing that can clothe us is God’s love and mercy. Between now and then, we can either make a name for ourselves in this life or accept the name that God has given us, which is “Beloved.” But hearing God whisper that name into our ears is pretty hard when we’re busy convincing the world and ourselves how good we are.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Wilderness Identity

Wilderness is central to our identity. Wilderness is where the identity of God's people was formed. Wilderness is where God manifested God's self to God's people. Wilderness is where Law was given, and hardship was endured, and salvation was provided. Wilderness is where we go with Jesus every year on the First Sunday in Lent. Wilderness is where we wander for the forty days of Lent. Still, I wonder whether we really know what wilderness is.

As we begin Lent this Sunday, we will read Moses' words to the people of Israel in Deuteronomy 26 as he helps them prepare for life without him and without wilderness: "When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name..." The mention of first fruits makes this feel like a stewardship lesson, and it is. It is a lesson in the stewardship of memory through the stewardship of resources.

Notice that God isn't interested in the material possessions. God is inviting a renewed relationship. Moses told the Israelites what to say when they brought their offering to the Lord:
Today I declare to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us...A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.
This is a corporate exercise in celebrating the past. What will be done with that offering? "Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house." This is a remembrance of the past, a recognition of the transformation, and a celebration of salvation. God wants God's people to throw a big party so that they will remember that they were once slaves, that they were set free, that God guided them through the wilderness, and that God brought them into a place where they could cultivate the land, live in security, and build a civilization.

That's the most basic stewardship lesson of all: we remember God's saving work in our lives by setting aside our first fruits and dedicated them to God. And if we don't? Read Judges. Read Jeremiah and Isaiah and Joel and Micah and any of the prophets. When we forget who we are as those whom God has saved, everything falls apart. Just ask the corporation that strays from its core principles. Just ask the famous athlete who forgets the people who supported him on his path to stardom. Just ask the person who, when crisis hits, discovers that she had been neglecting her friendships when things were good.

We practice stewardship to remember. Otherwise, the plenty around us fools us into forgetting where it all came from. This Lent, as we journey into the wilderness, remembering our mortality, we also look back at God's saving work. We respond to it as stewards of our time, our diet, our prayers, and our memory. Whatever you give up or take on this Lent, let it be an act of stewardship. Practice your spiritual discipline to remember that you belong to God--that you are who you are and you have what you have because God loves you.