Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Easter Every Time We Meet

I did not grow up going to the Easter Vigil. It's only been 15 or so years since I've experienced the drama of gathering in the dark to wait and watch for the resurrection of Jesus. Because of that, I came to the tradition of the Easter Vigil not as a wonder-capable child but as a hyper-rational adult who wants to understand how things happen. In the case of the Easter Vigil, I find myself wanting to know when it happened. When did Jesus pass from life to death? It's easy to think that it happens in the middle of the service, when we switch all the lights on and ring our bells and proclaim the first "Alleluia" of Easter, but that's not right. As the suggested words that the celebrant uses to introduce the Baptismal Covenant makes clear, our Lenten observance has already ended even though the lights are still off. So when does it happen? How do we mark it? I suppose, not unlike Tenebrae, we could have a character dressed as Jesus spring up from behind the altar and yell, "Happy Easter! I'm raised!" But that's silly. And it misses the point.

It's mystery. We gather not to witness the miracle of the resurrection but to bear witness to it--to celebrate it, to embrace it, to dwell in it. The gospel account itself drives this point home. In Luke's account, which we read this year, the women go to the tomb, see the angels, return to the disciples, but the episode ends while the revelation is still incomplete. The men considered the women's words to be nonsense. Only later on, when we get to today's reading from the Road to Emmaus, do we see the miracle of Easter take hold.

Two disciples are walking down the road from Jerusalem, discussing what had taken place. Although Cleopas and the other disciple do not recognize him, the risen Jesus comes to them, walks with them, and engages them in conversation. The recall the events of Jesus death and report that some women had gone to the tomb, seen angels, and report that he is alive, but they do so without conviction. In response, Jesus opens the scriptures to them, explaining why the Christ had to suffer, die, and be raised again. And still they do not know.

Later on the journey, as they come to their place of lodging, the disciples urge the stranger to stay with them. While at table with them, Jesus takes bread, says the blessing, and breaks it. In an instant their eyes are opened, and the recognize who was with them, and Jesus vanished. They raced back to Jerusalem to tell the others what they had seen, kicking themselves for not recognizing him or understanding what he had been trying to tell them. When they arrive, they discover that Simon, too, had had an encounter with the risen Lord. Luke, however, doesn't recall that moment for us. We don't get to hear first-hand how Jesus showed up and revealed himself to Simon Peter. Instead, Luke presents the power and revelation of the resurrection at a table with broken bread.

When we gather together and break bread in Jesus' name, we do more than remember what happened to Jesus in Jerusalem. We do more than recall the miracle and mystery of passion, death, resurrection, and ascension. We reconstitute them in our minds and hearts and lives. We re-member him. We make Jesus present with us as he was present with the disciples. The Holy Spirit brings Jesus to us and brings us to Jesus. When we gather at the table, Easter happens.

This is bold work. This is dangerous work. To encounter the fullness of Easter changes everything. It brings us with Christ from death to life. It moves us from grief to joy. It transforms us from lost to found. Nothing can ever be the same. Maybe that is clearest to us right now in the tragedy in Sri Lanka, in which hundreds of martyrs were killed as they gathered around the Lord's table. Although I haven't confirmed it, I read a story that a priest, after being warned that his life was in danger, refused to evacuate and stayed at the altar until the prayer of consecration had been said. The radical truth of our resurrection is real at the table. The table is where we find the risen Lord. May we never be the same.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

He Finds Us

April 21, 2019 – The Sunday of the Resurrection: Easter Day

© 2019 Evan D. Garner

Last Sunday, Christians all over the western world went to church to celebrate Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and to prepare for the drama and death of Holy Week, and then, on Monday, we all watched in horror as Notre Dame cathedral went up in flames. Not all of it, we were relieved to learn, but, because of some handy Gothic architectural innovations and the tireless efforts of 500 firefighters, the fire was limited to the roof and the spire. Still, it was a tragedy that captivated the whole world, inspiring many of us to post our favorite pictures and retell our favorite stories from our trips to Paris.

Within a week, a billion dollars has been raised for the reconstruction efforts, and France’s President has pledged that the work will be finished in five years. But many, including the Yellow Vest protesters, are now outraged at how much money is being donated to rebuild a symbol of opulence. I note with delight, however, that giving to rebuild the three historically black churches in Louisiana that were burned in a suspected hate crime has spiked in response. Maybe you also read that the makers of the video game Assassin’s Creed have offered the laser-scanned images of the interior of Notre Dame they used to make their game to help with the rebuilding efforts. (Wonders never cease!)

A few days ago, Fr. Chuck told me about another social media development that has occurred since the Notre Dame fire. Did you hear that a woman in Scotland saw the image of Jesus in the midst of the flames while the cathedral burned? I went online and looked at a photograph and, sure enough, amidst the scaffolding, I could make out what looked like the face of Jesus in flame and shadow. But, when I went to another website to confirm it, I discovered that the part of the flames in which I had discerned the face of Jesus wasn’t the part that the woman and others had in mind. Instead, they saw a different figure of Jesus, one standing upright. I think their version looks more like Our Lady of Paris, but who am I to pour water on another person’s mystic vision?

Whether it’s the Virgin Mary in a piece of toast or the crucified Jesus in an oddly-shaped Cheeto or Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvador Mundi, the spiritual significance of an image is often in the eye of the beholder. In most cases, how we interpret a sign when it is presented to us depends on us.

Early in the morning of the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb. When she arrived, she looked up and saw that the stone had been rolled away. Immediately, she turned and ran back to find Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, to tell them that grave robbers had come and stolen the body of Jesus. A missing corpse—that’s how Mary interpreted the sign that the stone had been rolled away.

Without hesitation, the two disciples raced out the door and ran to the tomb. The other disciple got there first, and, when he looked into the tomb, he saw the linen cloths lying there. Simon Peter caught up with him and went into the tomb and also saw that the body was missing and that only the cloths were left behind. The Bible tells us that, when the other disciple went in, he saw and believed, but it also tells us that they both went back to their homes without understanding that Jesus had been raised from the dead. What does that mean? What did they believe—merely that the body was missing, or did they see something else?

Mary came back to the tomb, weeping. When she looked inside, she saw something else—something new. Two angels dressed in white were sitting where the body of Jesus had been laid. “Woman, why are you crying?” they asked her. And, still, despite the rolled-away stone, the missing body, the grave cloths, and now the vision of angels, Mary did not know how to recognize what had taken place. Finally, as she turned around, she saw Jesus, whom she mistook for the gardener. “Woman, why are you crying?” the risen Lord asked her, but Mary was stuck in her grief: “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” But this was Jesus. And Jesus spoke her name: “Mary.” And, in an instant, through tear-flooded eyes, everything became clear.

From that moment on, Mary had no more ifs; she held no more doubt. The risen Lord had come to her—not in a vision or a hint or a sign, but in a flesh-and-bones, back-from-the-dead savior—and he had called her by name. It was the name that made it real. With it, the connection, the friendship, and the relationship all came flooding back. This wasn’t a dream or a wish but her beloved Jesus who had come and met her right in the midst of her deepest grief. That is the miracle of Easter.

We believe in Jesus, and we place our hope in God not because we have put all the pieces together or because we have interpreted the signs that have come our way but because the risen Jesus has come to us and spoken our names. Later in John’s gospel account, we read that Jesus came and met the disciples and spoke peace to them. We also read that Jesus came back a second time to meet with Thomas because he had not been with them the first time. In Acts, we read how the risen Lord met Paul on the Damascus road, calling him by name, and changing his life forever. And that’s how we also come to know the truth of Easter—not because the clues have led us to God but because, in the risen Jesus, God has found each one of us and called us by name.

We encounter reflections of holiness all around us all the time. We catch glimpses of the divine in the rainbow after the storm, in the whisper of the wind, in the chance encounter with an old friend, or even in the destructive flames that engulf a beloved cathedral. But the miracle of Easter is more than a brush with God. It is God coming to us in the midst of our deepest struggle and saying our name. It is God coming beside us when we feel most alone. It is God reaching out and turning our sorrow into dancing and our sadness into joy. Because of Jesus’ resurrection, we set our hope not in a sentimental moment but in the promise of never-ending life with the one who knows us and loves us and calls us by name.

Saturday, April 20, 2019


April 20, 2019 – The Great Vigil of Easter

© 2019 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the Easter Vigil can be seen here.

“The women’s words struck the apostles as nonsense.” Where have we heard that before? In every generation, leaders of the church have ignored the testimony of one disempowered group after another—women, people of color, the poor, those whose marriages ended in divorce, members of the LGBT community, the young, the old, and countless other groups whose words were dismissed as nonsense. Nonsense. Idle chatter. Folly. But God had given these women a story to tell—good news to share—and God was going to be sure that the world heard what they had to say.

All four gospel accounts record the miracle of Easter as coming first to the women. Why? History, of course, has something to do with it. The women alone were faithful enough to go and do for Jesus’ body what the Jewish custom prescribed. But it’s more than that. God could have brought the news of the resurrection to anyone, but God chose to reveal it to the women. The men who are credited for recording the gospel accounts might have thought that was a pretty bad strategy. In first-century Palestine, if you had something important—something monumental—to declare, you wouldn’t think to entrust it to women—at least not if you were a man. Women were too easily dismissed as empty gossips or unreliable witnesses. Their words counted for little more than nonsense. But God had something else in mind.

Easter reminds us that revolutionary truths always start at the bottom and work their way up. When God revealed the transformational hope of the empty tomb, God began with women because the men hadn’t yet made enough room in their minds and in their hearts to hear that news as anything more than nonsense. “It can’t be,” they said when they heard the women’s tale. “We don’t believe you.” The men were too accustomed to a world in which things worked out the way that they thought they should. The presumed defeat of the cross was too much for them to see beyond. They were too blind to see that God was doing something new even when it was staring them in the face. There was no room within them for the memory of Jesus’ words to sink in. We learn, therefore, that only those who are completely empty and lowly and vulnerable and powerless have the space available for God to come and fill it with good news. Maybe that’s why little children, like the three baby girls who have been baptized tonight, have so much to teach us about God.

In earthly terms, the message of Easter is pure nonsense. That God would bring back to life a three-days-dead man is absurd. More than that, that God’s anointed one, whom God had sent to rescue God’s people, would be rejected by those he came to save be and crucified as a shameful criminal is preposterous. And, even more than that, that the path to true victory and full participation in the reign of God would lead not in a parade of triumph over the Roman oppressors but, instead, through death and the grave is incomprehensible. It is all nonsense…unless. Unless you, too, have experienced complete loss and total destruction. Unless you also have known what it means to have no reason to hope in the powers of this world. Unless you, like the women who followed Jesus, have known what it means to have your story dismissed as idle chatter. Those are the ones among us who know first what it means to be filled with the hope of the resurrection.

But the good news of the resurrection did not stop with the women. God chose them because they had the capacity to be the apostles to the apostles. Having beheld the miracle, they returned to the city to find the disciples and bring the revolutionary truth of Jesus’ victory over death to them. Even though the men did not believe it, one of the disciples had enough space within himself for God to begin to work. Perhaps without saying a word, Peter left his companions and ran to the tomb to see it for himself. Sure enough, just as the women had said, the stone had been rolled away. Jesus’ body was not there. Only the grave cloth remained. But Peter didn’t understand it yet. He wasn’t able to put all the pieces together, but, in the end, that didn’t matter. Peter went home, wondering what had happened, pondering what he had heard and seen. Later that day, Luke tells us, when the time was right, when enough space had been opened within him, the risen Jesus came and revealed himself to Peter.

All of us are beckoned by God to come and behold the miracle of the empty tomb. Some of us come with the vulnerability and brokenness of the women and are among the first to receive the good news of Easter. Others race to the tomb after a delay, running not with certainty but with openness because, although God has begun to work within them, they need a little more time for the space within them to grow enough for God’s truth to take hold. Some are still waiting for the nonsense to give way to the truth because they are still wedded to the powers of this world. Yet to all of them, God’s invitation is the same: “Come.” In the end, it doesn’t matter whether you are first or last. As John Chrysostom preached in his Easter sermon,
If any have toiled from the first hour, let them receive their due reward. If any have come after the third hour, let [them] with gratitude join in the Feast! And [the one] that arrived after the sixth hour…and…any delayed until the ninth hour…and [even the one] who arrived only at the eleventh hour, let [them] not be afraid…for the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first. 
So come. You that are empty and broken, come. You that are beginning to break free from the bonds of this life, come. You that have not yet found space to exchange your dependence on the powers of this world for the hope that God has given us in Jesus Christ, come. Hear the story of the women who have seen and believed. Run beside Peter to the empty tomb and stare in wonder. Return to your home and push aside your power and privilege until there is enough space for the risen Lord to come and meet you. This great proclamation of hope has come into the world, and it has already found those who have enough space within themselves to receive it. But it is not finished yet. It is still bubbling up from the bottom and spreading through all people. And it will grow until all of us can see and know the victory that God has won in the resurrection of God’s Son.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Shocking Kind of Love

April 18, 2019 – Maundy Thursday

© 2019 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard on our parish's Soundcloud page. Video of the service can be seen on our parish's YouTube channel.

Sometimes it feels like Holy Week is designed to force us to pick sides. Every year, as we reenact the last week of Jesus’ life, we tell a story of friends and enemies, the faithful and the faithless. The gospel accounts portray these distinctions in the sharpest terms. Some in the crowd cry out “Hosanna in the highest!” while others scream, “Crucify him!” The characters in this annual drama remind us that, although a few recognize Jesus for who he really is—the anointed Son of God who has come to overthrow the powers of this world and usher in the reign of God—most see him as an imposter, a pretender, a trouble-maker. Every year, Holy Week shows us again what side we are supposed to be on, and Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial warn us that, if we aren’t careful, if we aren’t devoted, we, too, might fail when it really counts.

Maundy Thursday, though, reminds us that the only meaningful measure of faithfulness is love. Jesus does not tell us that the world will know that we are his disciples because of what we say with our lips or because of what we believe in our hearts. It isn’t our ability to stay awake and pray or our willingness to stand up and defend him that counts. Jesus tells us that the mark of our discipleship is the love that we have for each other. That is his command—that we love one another as he loves us. That’s the “mandate” from which Maundy Thursday takes its name. Before we get to the garden, before we get to the courtyard, before we get to the cross, we start at the table, where Jesus teaches us how to love.

Because Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father, he got up from the table and took off his robes and tied a towel around his waist and filled a washbasin with water and began to wash his disciples’ feet. This was his last moment with them—his last chance to teach them—and he wanted to use it to teach them about love. But it’s hard for us to know what it meant for Jesus the teacher, the rabbi, the master, to stoop down and wash the disciples’ feet. We live in a culture where foot washing is merely a ritual we enact every year because Jesus told us to. But, in Jesus’ day, it was a familiar practice that conveyed inflexible categories of social status.

Yesterday, during Community Meals, I watched volunteers patiently, lovingly wash the feet of anyone who was willing to have his or her feet washed. Some were old, and some were young. Some had had their feet washed in previous years, but some of them were new and nervous. I saw one man take off his socks and throw them straight in the trash can because he knew that he would be given a new pair to replace the filthy, almost unwearable pair that he had worn in the door. What makes Jesus’ act of humble service so hard for us to grasp is that the only time feet get washed in our church is when we do the washing. Imagine, instead, if every week the people of this parish drove to church in their fancy cars, walked in the door, and sat down to have their feet washed by people in our community who are homeless or food insecure. Imagine if, instead of providing a meal for those who need to eat, we came to church to dine on a meal being served by them. Imagine a church where those relationships, defined by wealth and status or the lack of them, were so ingrained in who we are and what we do that it would be utterly shocking for any one of us to break with tradition, stoop down, and dare to wash someone else’s feet.

The best measure of how incongruous Jesus’ actions were is Peter’s reaction to them: “Lord, are you going to wash my feet…? You will never wash my feet!” The disciple didn’t recognize this as a teaching moment but as an unthinkable gesture that confused the roles of teacher and student, master and servant. Jesus tried to explain, “You don’t understand what I’m doing now, but you will understand later,” but, still, Peter would have none of it. Finally, Jesus said to him, “Unless I wash you, you won’t have a place with me.” At that, Peter relented, offering to have his whole body washed if it were necessary.

Perhaps those of us who have no desire to have our feet touched or to touch the feet of someone else will take comfort knowing that the washing of feet wasn’t the point but the image Jesus used to get his point across. Tying a towel around his waist and washing the feet of his disciples was Jesus’ way of teaching them how shocking it is to love each other the way he loves us. This isn’t just washing someone else’s feet. It’s folding that person’s clothes and shining that person’s shoes. It’s spoon-feeding that person apple sauce. It’s changing that person’s bedpan and wiping that person’s backside. And it’s doing it not because it’s our job or because it’s the time of year when we do the thing that Jesus told us to do but doing it because we are so filled with love that all the social hierarchies fall away and we cannot help but fall on our knees and willingly, lovingly wash the feet of the person we encounter. If we want to follow Jesus, we have to love one another like that. But who among us has the guts to love others in ways that we find shocking and distasteful? How are we supposed to love people in ways that are as impossible for us as they were for Peter?

Before we can love others, we must first be loved. Before we can wash another’s feet, we must first have our feet washed. When Peter initially rejected Jesus’ offer to wash his feet, Jesus said to him, “You don’t understand what I’m doing now, but you will understand later.” That teaches us that we cannot know what it means to love one another until we know what it means to be loved like that by Jesus. Love like that has the power to change everything. Something remarkable happens inside a person who receives unconditional love. When we are loved not because of who we are or what we’ve done to deserve it, we discover inside of ourselves what God has seen all along—our true value as beings made in the image of God. We learn that we are loved and that we are worthy of love not because of what we believe or how we behave but because we were created in love and by love. That’s how Jesus loves us. That is the example he sets for us. And those who have discovered what it means to be loved like that have been set free from doubt and fear, free to be vulnerable to the world, free to fall down at the feet of others, free to wash their feet and love them the way God loves them—purely for love’s sake.

That’s what it means to belong to Jesus. More than anything else, that is what he wants to teach us this night.—that we are the ones who have been set free by love to love others just the same. The world will know that we are his disciples when we love one another.

The Three Days

This post is also in this week's newsletter from St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Fayetteville, Arkansas. To read the rest of the newsletter, click here.

We begin something strange tonight. Every year, as we begin the Maundy Thursday Eucharist, we start a service that does not really end until Easter has come. Tonight’s service opens in the traditional way, but, after Communion, instead of offering a dismissal, we dim the lights and strip the altar and leave in silence. Tomorrow, the Good Friday liturgy opens without the usual greeting and, again, ends in silence. At the Holy Saturday service, we pick up where we left off—with prayer and scripture and an anthem—but, yet again, we leave without any sort of liturgical conclusion. Finally, on Saturday night, when we gather for the Easter Vigil, we keep watch in the dark until it is time to proclaim the resurrection of our savior. Only then, when the Vigil is over, do we offer the dismissal, bringing to a close three days of worship.

Why do we do it that way? Partly it is because the story of Jesus’ passion and death cannot be finished until we reach his resurrection. Liturgically speaking, however, that theological continuity is bound up in the services themselves, making them, in effect, one, long service. Each section is integral. The church cannot celebrate them in pieces. They must be held together. Of course, members of the congregation can pick and choose, coming to the parts that they enjoy most. And, even if we omitted Holy Saturday morning or skipped the Vigil, Jesus would still be raised from the dead on Easter Day. But something would be missing.

The Triduum is a single, three-day journey with Jesus Christ from the upper room, across the Kidron valley, into the garden, to the high priest’s residence, to Pilate’s headquarters, to the Place of the Skull, into the tomb, down amidst the dead, and back to life again. This is one story. Even the waiting is important. There is no intermission. In the Anglican tradition, what we believe is expressed through our worship, and the liturgies of the Triduum remind us that every step of this journey is essential.

Borrowing from the example of a colleague and friend of mine, Scott Gunn, I want to make you a promise: if you join the congregation for every liturgy within the Paschal Triduum, you will be changed for the better. You cannot engage this holy journey without experiencing transformation. Even if you have walked this path for years and years, I promise that this year will again bring you something new. If it is your first time or your first time in a while, hold on! These three days are filled with the most exciting, most emotional, and most dramatic moments of our corporate life. You could come once or twice, but why would you want to miss any part of the story? Join us, and let God work within you the great Pascal mystery.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Interesting Strategy

April 15, 2019 - Monday in Holy Week

In the spring or fall, we like to leave our windows open. This time of year, that means Claritin for everyone, but it's worth it. Until the humidity sinks in and makes everything feel wet, we love to feel like the outside comes inside. In our family, however, the real problem with that is when the inside spills out.

We're a loud family, and, by that, I don't mean that we play loud music or sit on the living room sofa for a family sing-a-long. I mean that we're a house full of yellers. When things don't go well, we yell. Kids yell. Parents yell. An elevated voice comes naturally for us. Ask once. Ask twice. Scream. I don't like it. I recognize its counter-productive nature. I wish I were the kind of parent who, when frustrated, softens my tone to an almost-whisper, but I'm not. And, when the windows are open, there's a pretty good chance that anyone walking down the street can hear just how vocal a family we are.

The prophet Isaiah envisions something else:
But here is my servant, the one I uphold;
    my chosen, who brings me delight.
I’ve put my spirit upon him;
    he will bring justice to the nations.
He won’t cry out or shout aloud
    or make his voice heard in public.
He won’t break a bruised reed;
    he won’t extinguish a faint wick,
    but he will surely bring justice.
When I think of a prophet who has come to change the course that God's people are on, I think of the bullhorn preacher, which Rob Bell portrays critically in one of his Nooma videos. Think of Jonah, the prophet who walks through Nineveh, crying out that Israel's God will come and destroy the great Assyrian city. He has no relationship with the people. In fact, he resents that God would even consider forgiving them. He's walking and yelling a message of repentance. Sound familiar?

Isaiah, too, seemed to understand that when God's people imagined a prophet they pictured that sort of figure. His words are designed to surprise them. "Here is my servant," the Lord declares. The one chosen by God, anointed with God's spirit, is the one who doesn't shout in the streets or make his voice heard in public places. So gentle is he that he wouldn't even break an already-bruised reed. So soft is his voice that he wouldn't even blow out a barely-lit candle.

During Holy Week, there is a tendency to look at the prophecies of the Hebrew scriptures, especially those of Isaiah, and apply them to Jesus. The lectionary, which pairs them, seems to ask us to do that. But, instead of looking at the story of Jesus' last week and trying to fit it into the mold cast by the Old Testament prophets, I'll suggest there's more fruit in asking why God's approach to salvation, which was spoken by the ancient prophets and seen by God's people, was seen again in the person of Jesus. In other words, instead of asking in what ways is Jesus a fulfillment of Jewish prophecy, ask what Jesus and the prophets tell us about who God is and how God works in our lives.

Isaiah and Jesus remind us that we belong to a God who comes to rescue us quietly. We see in them that the one who brings justice to the whole earth accomplishes God's work not through force or volume but through meekness, gentleness, and patience. We are programmed to look for salvation in big, bold, blustery ways. We expect another Moses to come and tell Pharaoh to let us go, bringing dramatic plagues and other feats of wonder to prove his point, but God shows up in ways the world hardly notices at first. But how is God going to get anything done like that? How can I, as a parent, get anything done if I don't yell at my kids?

Salvation isn't someone tying your shoes for you or beating up the bully who bothers you. Salvation is God bringing us into God's self, into the divine life. Our place in salvation is participatory. God invites us to participate in the work of transformation. There is power in God coming among us, filling us with the Holy Spirit, and equipping us to do the work of the gospel in the world around us. But that power becomes manifest in gentle ways. Jesus is God's anointed one. He is the one who has come to execute justice, the one on whose teaching the coastlands wait. But we, too, are filled with that same Spirit to participate in that same saving work. If God only showed up in manifestations of grandeur, we could only be observers. Instead, God's strategy is to use us in clear, persistent ways that bring steady but gentle change to the world.

There are moments when God comes with a mighty hand, sweeping away all that threatens us, but we are far more likely to encounter God's salvation in the meekness of others. This week, as we journey with Jesus, we are beckoned not only to watch and marvel at the one who brings God's gentle yet complete salvation to the world but also to see our place in that strategy of salvation. If we are to become God-anointed instruments in the world, we have to put down our bullhorns and take up the persistent life of love's whispers--not to be overcome by the evils of the world but to triumph with Christ over them.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Words Matter

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

You may have heard Barbara Brown Taylor’s interview on NPR’s Fresh Air a few weeks ago. If not, you can listen to it here. An ordained Episcopal priest who left parish ministry to become a religion professor and author, Taylor reflected on what she has learned about God from exploring the world’s religions alongside her undergraduate students. I do not share all of her conclusions, but the insight she offered that has had the biggest impact on me was her perspective on Good Friday. While she acknowledged its centrality in the Christian story, Taylor admitted that she no longer goes to church on Good Friday. For her, as one who believes in God’s unconditional love for all people, the gospel’s portrayal of Jesus’ execution at the hands of the Jews is too painful and incongruous with the faith of Jesus—not to mention an example of historical negationism.

I have been sympathetic to that perspective for several years. The historical and textual evidence surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion demonstrate beyond a doubt that Jesus was executed by Roman imperial authorities as an insurrectionist. Although the gospel largely portrays the issue as a conflict between Jesus and the Jewish authorities over religious views, the conflict that led to his arrest and death was political. Evidence of this is found in all four gospel accounts, which recall the titulus that hung above the cross, proclaiming the powerless, visibly defeated Jesus as “the King of the Jews.” Crucifixion was Rome’s grotesque and brutal way of warning other would-be rebels that the Empire always wins. (Of course, at Easter God reveals something else.) Even the gospel account itself acknowledges that the cross was an inappropriate method of punishment for a religious dispute, as seen in the words of Pilate: “Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law.”

Historical accounts show that, in the century after his death and resurrection, the way of Jesus became a source of increasing conflict within the wider Jewish community. As Christianity became a predominantly Gentile religion, synagogues expelled the followers of Jesus, exposing them to persecution by the Roman authorities. The Christians, in turn, attacked the Jews, initiating a conflict between the adherents of the two religions that sadly continues to this day. The gospel accounts, which were written in their present form in the latter part of the first century, absorbed this anti-Judaic sentiment, shifting primary blame for Jesus’ death from the Roman authorities to the Jewish leaders, going so far as to literally wash Pilate’s hands from any stain of responsibility.

In every generation since, followers of Jesus have used these anti-Judaic elements to fan the flames of anti-Semitism, and Holy Week has become an especially dangerous time for Jewish people who live among Christians. John’s gospel account, which was the last to be written, is the primary text we use on Good Friday, and it gives Jesus’ opponents the imprecise and misleading label of “the Jews,” perpetuating our confusion by associating the violence against Jesus with all descendants of Abraham. Jesus himself was Jewish, as were his disciples, so to portray him as a victim of the Jews not only fails to convey the role of the Roman Empire in his death but mistakenly lays the blame at the feet of all Jewish people, which is historically and theologically inaccurate.

In an attempt to respond to that discrepancy as Jesus might, we will use a different translation of the Bible during Holy Week. Published in 2011, the Common English Bible is a careful, accurate, contemporary translation that makes several clarifying substitutions, including, where appropriate, “Jewish leaders” for “the Jews.” This switch has a few notable consequences. First, we must recognize that using a different version, while a step in the right direction, cannot undo centuries of misuse and abuse. As Christians who have a role in telling and interpreting the story of Jesus’ death, we must use our voice to do more than fix a few misleading labels and instead take every opportunity to set the record straight. Second, some of the words and phrases with which we are accustomed will be different. For example, the CEB uses “the Human One” instead of “the Son of Man,” which, although perfectly reasonable and accurate, does not yet roll off our tongues quite as easily. Finally, using updated language to articulate a deeply familiar story gives us the opportunity to hear something new within this ancient but living text. Starting this Sunday, let your ears and your mind latch on to what sounds different, and trust the Holy Spirit to use it to draw you more deeply into the life of God.

Although I respect her decision and that of anyone else who feels as she does, I disagree with Barbara Brown Taylor’s decision to avoid church on Good Friday. Of all days, this is a day when I need to be in church to confront the fullness of my sin, including those institutional and systemic sins of which I am a part. Among them is the anti-Semitism that has infected the faith to which I have given my life, and I come to church on Good Friday to repent of it. Maybe a simple change in translation will open further the door for all of us to repent more completely.

Practicing Faith

As we prepare for Holy Week, with its daily dose of drama, conflict, and suffering, is it fair for me to ask why? Why not give up the extra services--the daily Eucharists, the special gatherings for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, the nighttime worship for Easter Vigil--and just jump from Palm Sunday to Easter Day? The story is, more or less, complete even without the daily journey. We could give our choir, altar guild, ushers, bread bakers, bulletin creators, janitorial service, and clergy a break and just hit the high points? Why not? Because a faith worth holding on to takes practice.

Religion is designed to do one of two things: reinforce the instincts we already have or remind us that our instincts aren't good enough on their own. And we don't need religion to tell us that we were right all along. As I read the first lesson from Morning Prayer today (Jeremiah 26:1-16), I am reminded that prophets come to tell the people of God what they need to hear even though they don't want to hear it. God's blessings are not manifest in the riches of this world but in its poverty. Self-interest is ultimately doomed to fail. Love wins where the sword cannot. God loves me even though I don't deserve it. My value as a human being is not measured in my accomplishments or my possessions but in my createdness--my fundamental identity as a relational being who is loved in order that I might share love. Those aren't the things we can learn in economics class. They are the things we need the prophets to tell us. They are the truths we need Holy Week to instill in our hearts.

On Sunday, if we're still paying attention, we will hear the prophet Isaiah declare, "The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward. I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting. The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced." The prophet tells us what our sin-blinded selves cannot see without help: the one who suffers innocently is not rejected by God but embraced by God.

In the collect for Palm Sunday, we ask God to "grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection." Wouldn't it be easier to skip the first half of that petition and ask God to help us jump past the suffering part and live only in the resurrection? It might be, but that's not where resurrection is to be found. Death comes first. Loss comes first. Struggle and suffering and hardship come first. We could skip the tough parts, but we would inadvertently skip the good ones, too, because, in Christ, God shows us what our instincts fail to see: God is not found in the absence of suffering but in the heart of it. Until the prophets teach us to see the world that way, we won't find God in it.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Read The Whole Story

If you will be present for worship at all during Holy Week--from Palm Sunday through the Easter Vigil--I recommend that sometime this week you take thirty minutes to read carefully the whole story of Jesus' last week. You could read either Luke's version or John's version or, if you're feeling particularly eager, both. Luke's version ties in with what we've been reading for most of Lent and with what we will hear on Palm Sunday. John's version is our focus during the Triduum of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Eve. Either is good, but the point is to read at least one of them in its entirety before you get to church on Palm Sunday or Good Friday, when the passion narrative gets read in the context of a "we'd better keep things moving or else this service will last two hours" service.

If you read Luke's version, I encourage you to start at the beginning of Luke 19, when Jesus arrives in Jericho and has an encounter with Zacchaeus, the tax collector. If you read John's version, I hope you'll start in John 11, when Jesus comes to Bethany the first time because his friend Lazarus is sick. In both cases, what happens before Jesus' entry into Jerusalem is crucial. In Luke, Jesus' decision to eat with a tax collector and name him as a child of Abraham is both the reason the religious authorities resent him and a sign of his authority. In John, the same is true of Jesus' raising Lazarus from the dead. It is both the reason the authorities want to kill him and the sign that his reign will defeat death itself.

When you read them--and I hope you will--pay attention to how the gospel writer portrays each character. What impression of the religious authorities do you take away from the text? What about Judas--to what extent his he responsible for his actions? In what ways does he represent larger forces of evil? What about the other disciples--as a group and as individuals? And what words would you use to characterize Jesus after reading the whole account?

Also, pay attention to the political issues at play. When we only read or study sections of the passion narrative, we tend to focus on what we perceive as religious issues. The "cleansing of the temple" feels like Jesus' rejection of Judaism. The religious authorities' interrogation is portrayed as a disagreement over Jesus' self-proclaimed messiahship. When you read the whole story, however, those religious issues take a back seat to issues of politics. Follow the money. Follow the power. On the way into Jerusalem, why do the religious leaders urge Jesus to tell his disciples to keep silent? What does Jesus mean when he replies that "even the stones would cry out?" When we study the whole text, we discover that Jesus was killed not for challenging the nature of Second-Temple Judaism but for challenging the religious and political authorities' (they were one and the same) hand-in-glove relationship with the Roman Empire. Jesus wasn't objecting to their religion but their refusal to proclaim the religious truth that God would come to set God's people free.

Finally, let the drama of the week wash over you all at once. We try to enact this on Palm Sunday with mixed success. Some colleagues suggest we eliminate the passion narrative from Palm Sunday and stick only with the story of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, saving the cross for Good Friday. There are good reasons for this, but, this year at least, I think it's good that we hear the whole thing. We need to experience liturgically--even if inadequately--the heights and depths of Jesus' last week. The problem, of course, is that, in addition to reading about Jesus' entry into the holy city and his betrayal, arrest, torture, and death, we also need to sing hymns, say prayers, hear a sermon, and make Eucharist. That's too much to grasp the whole thing, so take some time before Sunday to read it--all of it.

If you can, read it all in one sitting. Put down the screen, and read it the old-fashioned way. Hold the Bible in your hand and turn each page, allowing yourself to flip back and read it again if your mind begins to wander. Set aside half an hour to do it. It's worth it. Trust me.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Seeing Jesus As Mary Sees Him

April 7, 2019 – The 5th Sunday in Lent

© 2019 Evan D. Garner

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

What’s important to you? What do you truly value? The family you love and that loves you back? The friends that support you on every side? The job that leaves you feeling fulfilled? Your health? Your wealth? Your faith? The freedom to do and say and think what you want without fear of reprisal? How much do you value those things that are important to you? If you tried to put a dollar amount on those intangible things that are most precious, how much would they be worth? How much income would you be willing to give up for the job you’ve always wanted? How much is your freedom worth? How much money would you pay to stay healthy or for a cure for the incurable disease that has come to you or someone you love? How much would you pay for another year with that person who has already died? How much for single a day?

In today’s gospel lesson, Mary shows us that her love for Jesus is worth more than $25,000. On their way to Jerusalem for the Passover festival, Jesus and his disciples stop in Bethany at the home of his friends. Lazarus and his sisters throw a dinner party for the man who had raised him from the dead, and, while Jesus is sitting at the table, Mary takes a jar of costly perfume made of pure nard and anoints Jesus’ feet with it, wiping them with her hair. The rich, musky fragrance fills the air, and with it comes resentment. “Why was this perfume not sold for 300 denarii and the money given to the poor?” Judas asks.

A denarius was a day’s wage for an ordinary laborer, which makes 300 denarii almost a year’s income or, at the current minimum wage in Arkansas of $9.25, around $25,000. It was a fabulously lavish gesture on Mary’s part—an act of pure love and devotion. If it were not for the gospel writer’s editorial comments, letting us know that there were ulterior motives behind Judas’s question, we might ask Jesus the same thing: why wasn’t the costly perfume sold to provide meals for the hungry or shelter for the homeless? “Leave her alone,” Jesus says cryptically. “She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.”

Mary sees something in Jesus that Judas and the other disciples cannot see, but what is it? What does she know about Jesus that the others do not know? For starters, she knows the cost of losing someone you love. In John 11, the previous chapter, Jesus had come to Bethany because Mary’s brother Lazarus had died. When Mary left her home to go out and meet Jesus, the mourners who were with her in the house had followed her. They, too, had seen the miracle unfold—how Jesus had asked that the stone be rolled away and then had called Lazarus back from the dead. They had been amazed when they saw the dead man walk out of the tomb, his hands and feet and face still wrapped up in strips of cloth. But some of those who had seen the miracle were troubled by what they had seen, so they went and reported it to the religious authorities. News traveled fast in the small town, so it didn’t take long before Mary had heard that the authorities were planning to kill Jesus because of what he had done.

Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem, where the religious leaders were waiting for him, and Mary knew what would happen to him there. She knew that Jesus had traded his life for the life of her brother, his friend, and she knew that there was no gift too costly to give as an expression of her gratitude. The perfume was only part of it. She lovingly anointed the rabbi’s feet. She wiped them with her hair as a gesture of deep connection and complete devotion. But her action was more than a lavish gift of thanksgiving. It was also an act of preparation. Because she had seen her brother brought back from the dead, Mary knew that Jesus’ death would not be the end but a new beginning. She had seen that Jesus was the one who had power even over death itself. She recognized that her brother was a foreshadowing of the age to come, the era that would be inaugurated by Jesus’ death and resurrection. She gave Jesus everything she had because she recognized him as the one who, through his own death, would bring abundant, never-ending life to God’s people.

For the followers of Jesus, his death and resurrection is more than a symbol of hope. It is God’s transformation breaking into the world. It is not abstract theology but real change taking place all around us. It is the poor made rich. It is the imprisoned set free. It is the mournful overcome by joy. It is the dead brought back to life. That is the gospel at work, and Jesus shows us not only that it is possible but that it is already happening. In Christ, God has realigned the values of this world to conform to the values of God’s reign. Those who, like Mary, can see that transformation taking place are willing to give everything they have to become part of God’s work in the world. And those who, like Judas, can’t see it or aren’t willing to see it are stuck in that place where poverty and oppression and death seem unconquerable. For them, the economics of the problems we face cannot be overcome, but, for us, they already have. 

You know the people and the groups in this community who have gotten a glimpse at God’s resurrection power unfolding in the world. They are the ones who pursue the impossible tasks of justice and reconciliation and universal prosperity with reckless abandon. They are the people who give up the security of well-paying jobs to take up the work of justice. They are the organizations who risk their reputation to become champions for the poor. They are the ones who live on the edge of survivability in order to help others thrive. That’s what it means to follow Jesus—to recognize that his death and resurrection mean the transformation of this world and to give up everything we have for the sake of that transformation.

That’s what it means to be a Christian, and that’s what it means to be the church. We are the Marys in this world. We are the ones who can see that Jesus’ death means abundant life for everyone. We are the ones who recognize that there is nothing more important—nothing more valuable—than the transformation that God is enacting in the world through God’s Son, Jesus. We call ourselves Christians because that’s what we believe, but do our lives reflect it? What do we really value? Where do we spend our time and our money? What do we allow to catch our imagination? In what do we place our confidence? In what do we place our hope?

Come and fall down at the feet of Jesus. Bring everything you have and offer it to him not because he wants your riches but because in him all lives become rich. Let go of what you value and embrace only what God values. Live a life defined by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ here and now. Don’t wait for heaven, because the needs of this world cannot wait, and, because of Jesus, they don’t have to.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Doing the Dishes

I've used it in a sermon before, but I never get tired of being reminded by Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn that sometimes in a relationship motivation is more important than behavior. In a scene from The Break Up, after a dinner party, Aniston's character goes into the kitchen to do dishes while Vaughn's character sits on the couch, playing a video game. When she asks for help, he reluctantly agrees, but she's not satisfied. Eventually, as the argument heats up, she says, "I want you to want to do the dishes!" to which he replies, "Why would I ever want to do dishes?" What makes it so good is that it's so real. 

This Sunday, it may not get much attention, but we will pray a collect that begs God to help us want to do the dishes...and everything else that God would want us to do: "Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord..."

If you strip away all of the Lenten theological code words, you're left with an interesting statement of what we believe about God and about ourselves: "God, you alone can control our wills and desires: give us grace to love and desire what you want because only there will we find true joy." That leads us to three powerful, scary, and radically counter-cultural truths that are central to the Christian faith.

First, we can't help ourselves. We've prayed similar words before during Lent, and it's the backbone of the Christian understanding of human nature. The issue is not a question of how hard we're trying. Everywhere else in the world--home, school, work, friendships--we equate our efforts with success, but not when it comes to our relationship with God. We can't make it better. In the eternal sense, in ways that matter beyond our day-to-day lives, we can't make ourselves better.

Second, we can't even want what's best. Even more troubling (and liberating) is the truth that our desires are misaligned. This is what makes the first point so unavoidably true. If it were up to us, we'd practice the equivalent of staying up all night, eat ice cream, and never exercise. And, if you're saying to yourself, "But I love exercising," then you might be one of those people who, if left up to yourself, would do nothing but eat right, exercise, and pamper yourself to the detriment of those other relationships and pursuits that are important. It's not the substance of the pursuits that matters. What matters, theologically speaking, is that we're preconditioned to be in it for ourselves and not for others, for self-gain and not for self-sacrifice. We need God's help not only to do better but to want to do better. It's a damning diagnosis of ourselves, but it's the first step toward getting better.

Finally, what God wants for us is a good, joyful, fruitful life. Usually, when preachers start talking about self-sacrifice, they want our money or our volunteer hours or our guilt-motivated "yes" when they ask for something. That's what's wrong with religion, but it's not what's wrong with God. God wants what is best for us, what is joyful for us, what is fabulously satisfying in the long term for us. The ways of the world are ephemeral, varied, and illusive. Today's fad is tomorrow's reject is the next day's retro. God doesn't work like that. True joys are found in the one who sets us free from the guilt of trying to do what's right even though we don't even want to do what's right. Guilt cripples us. Grace liberates us. And God is in the grace business.

Give us grace, Almighty God, that we might want what you want--what is truly best for us--and empower us to pursue it. That's our prayer. That's our hope.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Reading for Tone

I spent the first part of last week focusing on some parish newsletter articles, and the latter half of the week I was on vacation, so this blog was neglected. Although I enjoyed a few days away, I did regret not writing on the parable commonly identified as the Parable of the Prodigal Son. It only comes up in the lectionary once every three years, and it deserves more attention than that. This week, I'm focused on some other writing projects, so, again, this space might be neglected. Unlike last week, however, I'm preaching on Sunday, and, if I don't spend at least a little time digging into the texts, a number of us will regret it.

Yesterday, Lora Walsh asked us to hear the parable as Jesus' original audience would have heard it--to strip away the centuries of Christian filtering and discover again a story of an impartial father who, like so many "heroes" of the Hebrew scriptures, lavishes affection on one son to the exclusion of the other. If we can do that, we then encounter an elder son who brings us to our own critical theological choice: will we accept an image of God who plays favorites and rewards some to the exclusion of others or will we recognize in God a limitless love that invites both the one who is culturally identified as preferred and the one who is seen as not-so-preferred to the banquet? It was a great sermon, and the invitation it gave me/us required an alternative reading/hearing of the text.

This Sunday's gospel lesson (John 12:1-8) invites us to do the same. Jesus and his disciples are visiting with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. In a lavish gesture of love and adoration, Mary anoints Jesus' feet with a costly ointment, wiping them with her hair. It was a sign of unreserved love. Judas Iscariot interrupts the moment, asking, "Why wasn't this perfume sold for 300 denarii and the money given to the poor?" And that brings us to the difficult interpretive moment: how will we hear Judas' question?

We are all preconditioned to hear things in particular ways. When a person in disheveled clothing approaches us in the grocery story parking lot, we expect him to ask us for money instead of pointing out that our tire looks flat. When a needy parent calls us on the phone, we expect her to tell us that we need to drop what we are doing to come solve a minor problem rather than tell us that she is going on vacation with her new boyfriend. When a child who relentlessly tattles on his sibling comes to us with eyes full of tears, we expect him to blame his sister rather than acknowledge that he created a situation that led to his own hurt. When Judas shows up, we expect him to have a sinister motive no matter what he says, but must that be the case?

John the gospel writer adds some editorial comments that interpret the scene for us: "But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 'Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?' (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.)" The words in parentheses are put there by the editors of the NRSV and other translations. These are John's comments. No one (except, perhaps. the Holy Spirit) said them. Originally, this scene unfolded without subtitles. But John himself can't get past Judas' identity as the one who betrayed Jesus. It's like being preconditioned to add an expletive every time you mention your ex-spouse. But I wonder how this scene would look and sound to us if we didn't have the editorial interpretation--if Judas wasn't always depicted in black with a malicious glint in his eyes and a hook-nose.

I'm not suggesting that we dismiss John's interpretation altogether. It is, after all, biblical text. And, yes, Judas is the one who betrays Jesus. But might there be some hermeneutical value in hearing Judas' question in a different tone? Instead of the ulterior-motive-laden question that John wants us to hear, what happens if Judas question comes from an inquisitive, genuinely curious disciple who is searching for an explanation of faithfulness? "Why wasn't this perfume sold for 300 denarii and the money given to the poor? Rabbi, why? Help me understand. Help me see the good in this gesture." If we can hear that--even for a second--we return to the real focus of this gospel lesson.

This story isn't about Judas. It's about Mary and her gesture of love. Because of John's editorial remarks and our precondition to think the worst of Judas, the disciple's' question and Jesus' answer lead us down a rabbit hole of unanswerable ponderings. Instead, we should start by watching the extreme gesture of love and asking along with Judas, "Why wasn't the perfume sold?" so that we can hear Jesus answer more clearly: she has been saving it for my burial--to demonstrate to me and to God and to all the world her love. The question for us, therefore, isn't what could be done with the money but what does it mean to love like that. I may not have much time to write about it here, but, this week, I'm looking for the depths of that love--a love that makes no sense unless you can see the love that is contained in the death that awaits Jesus.