Thursday, May 30, 2019

Ascending Into Joy

May 30, 2019 - Ascension Day

I often wish that Jesus had ascended into heaven thirty-nine days after he was raised from the dead so that we could gather for worship on a Wednesday night instead of on a Thursday. (Who goes to church on a Thursday?) Ascension Day is one of seven principal feasts in the Episcopal Church (bonus points for those who remember the other six--answer below). It's a principal feast because it's important. It's essential to what we know about God and Jesus and to who we are as Jesus' followers. But we gather to celebrate it on a Thursday night because the Acts of the Apostles tells us that Jesus ascended into heaven forty days after the Sunday of the Resurrection. Apparently, forty is a number that has more spiritual significance than thirty-nine (a Wednesday) or forty-three (a Sunday).

But why is the Ascension so important? Why is it more important than the Annunciation or the Visitation or the Presentation or the Transfiguration? Because, at least as Luke tells the good news of Jesus, we cannot know the victory of the resurrection until we see Jesus taken up into heaven.

Luke's version of the Easter narrative is my favorite (or perhaps my second favorite behind Mark). In his telling of the story, the women who went to the tomb to finish preparing Jesus' body for burial found that the body was missing and that two men in dazzling white robes were there to tell them that Jesus had been raised from the dead. But, when the women went and shared the good news with the disciples, the men dismissed their words as nonsense. Later that same day, two disciples were on the road to Emmaus, when the risen Jesus came and walked with them. Although their eyes were kept from recognizing him, Jesus opened the scriptures to them, explaining why the Messiah needed to suffer and die and be raised from the dead. Finally, while sitting at the table with them, Jesus broke the bread, and they recognized him, and he vanished. The disciples ran all the way back to Jerusalem to tell the other disciples what they had seen, and there they learned that Jesus had also appeared to Simon. 

Then, with all of this good Easter news filling their hearts and minds, Jesus himself came and stood among them, and what was the disciples' reaction? They were terrified. They thought they had seen a ghost. The women found the empty tomb. The Emmaus disciples had seen the risen Lord. Jesus had appeared to Simon. But when Jesus came and stood among them, revealing the truth of the resurrection to them, they were afraid. Sometimes, no matter how much we want to believe good news, it's too much for us to comprehend. 

When Jesus led them out to Bethany, however, something changed. Jesus lifted up his hands and blessed them, and, while he was blessing them, he was carried up into heaven while they watched. And Luke tells us that, as soon as he was gone, "they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God." After the Ascension, something was different. In fact, everything was different. Instead of hiding behind locked doors, the disciples went out in public, into the temple, praising God openly. Instead of questioning in their hearts whether the news of Jesus' resurrection was real, they lived the lives of those who believed the good news. For them, the reality of Easter wasn't complete until the ascension. And now that they had seen the fullness of Jesus' victory over death, they were ready to receive the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

I wonder whether the same might be true of us and our faith and understanding. The resurrection of Jesus doesn't make sense. It is an unfathomable mystery that the crucified one would be raised from the dead--not as a ghost or zombie (as my children are wont to think) but as the first born of the new creation, the pattern of our own future resurrection into new life. When we are left only with stories of the risen Christ's encounters with the disciples, we have a hard time distinguishing between ghostly metaphor and true hope. But the resurrection isn't the end of the story. In order for the story to be rounded out, in order for us to receive it, the resurrection must be followed by the ascension. Otherwise, short of Jesus riding off into the sunset on a donkey (an admittedly unsatisfactory conclusion), where is he going to go? What will happen to the resurrected one? A mere disappearance would only reinforce our lack of understanding--a ghostly disappearance for a ghostly figure. The ascension, however, shows us that Jesus' victory over the dead is not a mere metaphor for hope or a bizarre zombie encounter but a real and tangible hope because he has to go somewhere and, as the risen Lord, that somewhere can only be at the right hand of God.

As followers of Jesus, what is our hope? We believe in the resurrection of the dead. We believe that God's love carries us through death into new life. That may be hard to believe, but it isn't an empty promise. It's not a metaphor for peace attained through a noble death. It's real. Despite all of our doubts, it's really real. And Jesus' ascent into heaven helped the disciples know that it is real because it carried the reality of Jesus' resurrection to its only possible end. It filled them with joy. And it has the power to fill us with joy, too, as we see in the crucified, resurrected, and ascended one our own hope for new and unending life at the right hand of God.

Seven Principal Feasts: Christmas Day, The Epiphany, Easter Day, Ascension Day, Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, and All Saints' Day

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Defined As God Sees Us

Sometimes a person isn't sure whether he or she is ready to be on the prayer list. Of course, lots of people with short-term challenged don't want the attention, but I mean the kind of person who knows that eventually she or he will crave the prayers of the congregation because they have a debilitating condition or a terminal illness, but that person isn't sure when it's time to be added to the official list. Others are ready to have their names read aloud in church from the very beginning, but some aren't so sure. For some who anticipate a precipitous decline, the thought of being put on the prayer list is a sign that the end is near.

I spent a good bit of time with one person who couldn't make up his mind. He is a person of prayer and believes in the power of prayer, but there was something about being added to the list that felt like an irrevocable admission of weakness. We talked about it for a while. He had asked many people in the parish to pray for him--enough that people would come up to me and ask why his name wasn't on the parish prayer list. He was open about his condition, but he didn't want people to stop and ask him all the time, "How are you doing?" Those on the prayer list, in his opinion, were the kind of people who belonged at home or in the hospital, not out for a nice dinner with his spouse or going to the mountains for the weekend. In short, he did not want to be defined by his condition. He did not want to become in the eyes of his friends and family and congregation the diagnosis he had received from his doctors.

In John 5, Jesus walked beside the pool of Beth-zatha near the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem. Many people who sought healing were gathered there--blind, lame, and paralyzed. They were there because the pool had magical healing properties. The legend was that an angel would come down and stir up the water with its wings and that whoever was the first into the pool after the water was stirred up would be healed. Among those who were lying there was a man who had been sick for thirty-eight years. For nearly four decades, the man had been ill. Unable to get down into the pool by himself, he watched others immerse themselves in its healing waters, but he had lost hope. He had no way to get past his illness.

Jesus came and saw the man who had been there a long, long time and said to him, "Do you want to be made well?" But the man didn't know what that meant. He didn't know what "well" was anymore. He had been sick for so long, and he had lost all his hope, so when Jesus came and offered him the chance to be made well, the only thing the man could see what the problem in which he was stuck: "Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and someone always gets there before I do."

As John describes the scene for us, we encounter a man who is defined by his condition. He is lame. He is sick. For a lifetime, he has been incapacitated. He's been in the same place for a long time--amidst the other "invalids." He only knows himself as the illness that plagues him. But Jesus sees something different. Normally, when Jesus comes and offers a healing miracle, it is to someone who has faith in his healing power--someone who has heard that he has the power to cast out demons or heal the sick or raise the dead. "Your faith has made you well," Jesus so often says to them, but not this time. Jesus asks the man if he wants to be made well, and the man simply recites his condition, but Jesus responds, "Stand up; take up your mat and walk." Jesus sees what the man cannot see--what we cannot see. Jesus sees a man who has life in front of him. Jesus sees a man who has the potential for healing. Jesus sees a man, not just an illness.

How do we define ourselves? In the various moments of life, how do we see ourselves? Are we defined by our work? By our family? By our economic status? Our income? Our bills? Our debt? Do we reach a point when the only thing that we know about ourselves is the challenge that is overwhelming us? A debilitating addiction? A lack of employment? A terminal diagnosis? Jesus sees something else in us. As the incarnate one, in whom God's divinity and our humanity are made completely one, Jesus sees our true selves. He looks at us from within--from beneath the condition that defines us to the world and sees who we really are. We are human beings created in the image of God. We are God's beloved daughters and sons. We are the redeemed, forgiven, restored beloveds of our God. And to find that again, we need to hear Jesus say to us, "Stand up."

Even when you cannot see past your predicament, God can. Even when you feel like you are defined by your illness, God sees something else. Sit and wait in that place where Jesus comes and finds you and make space to listen to his gentle voice. Hear him call out to you and invite you to stand up.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Curious Omission

When I was an early adolescent, I read the Book of Revelation. The beast and whore and seals and trumpets kept my attention. One bit that worried me, though, was Revelation 22:18-19: "I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book; if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book." By "book" I understood that to mean the Bible, and I knew I was in big trouble. Following the example of both of my parents, I had underlined specific passages and scribbled notes in the margins. I was guilty of adding to the words of the prophecy of the book. God was going to add the plagues described in the book to me. I was terrified.

Eventually, of course, after being assured and reassured by my parents and my Sunday school teachers, I accepted that my initial interpretation had missed the mark. Adding to and cutting from the Bible isn't about the notes we write in the margins but our willingness to accept the complete text, in this case of Revelation, without skipping the parts we don't like or changing them by writing a happier ending. Yet that seems to be exactly what the church is doing on Sunday when we read from Revelation.

On Sunday, the lectionary appoints Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21 as the second reading. Notice that we're skipping verse 15 and verses 18-19. We've already read verses 18-19. They're the part about not cutting from or adding to the text. But what about verse 15? What does verse 15 say? "Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood." Why might we be skipping that verse?

The lectionary often skips isolated verses that distract from the overall meaning of the passage. For example, on Ash Wednesday we skip Matthew 6:7-15 so that the surrounding text about fasting and praying in secret can retain its focus instead of providing the potential sidetrack of Jesus' invitation to saying the "Our Father." There are lots of moments where one or more verses refers to or reflects a part of the larger chapter or passage that isn't being read, and, as such, would cause more confusion. This one, though, feels different.

As I wrote last week, the promised salvation contained in Revelation is God's promised triumph over those who oppress God's people--namely, the Roman Empire. The glorious victory for God's saints is deliberately contrasted with the terrible punishment of the representatives of evil embodied by the beast and the whore. This week's lesson, however, seems to have been cut short not in order to omit a side-tracking verse but to reshape the passage so as to avoid negative-sounding prophecy. The lectionary seems to expunge the part about the dogs, sorcerers, fornicators. murderers, and idolaters because we don't like to remember the part of tradition that is exclusionary. We'd rather hear the invitation "let everyone who is thirsty come" without thinking about those whom the Bible says are left out.

Maybe there aren't any people left out. Maybe we're all murderous dogs and idolatrous fornicators. But the theology of Revelation and the hope it was giving to the faithful Christians who were enduring separation from their homes and families, as well as torment and execution, is one of the faithful one come into the holy city while the evil ones are shut out. I don't feel the need to shut anyone out because I myself haven't ever been shut out. That's part of the privilege I was born into. But what about those who weren't?

It's complicated, of course, but it seems unfair to cut out verses we don't like. Maybe the lectionary authors hoped that, by cutting out the part about not omitting any parts of the prophecy, we wouldn't notice.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

The Gift of Faith

May 26, 2019 – The 6th Sunday of Easter

© 2019 Evan D. Garner

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

The man was hard to miss. He had positioned himself on the sidewalk so that people could see him on their way in and out of the store. He didn’t have a sign and didn’t bother to lift up his eyes to see the people who passed by, but there was a basket in front of him with a handful of change in it that told them why he was there. Paul gave him a quick look as he went inside to get the three or four things his wife had asked him to pick up on the way home, but the man gave no indication that he noticed that someone had walked past. There was something strangely calm about the beggar that got Paul’s attention. Up and down the aisles, grabbing the few things on his list, Paul couldn’t stop thinking about the man.

Like many people these days, Paul hardly ever carried cash, but a friend at work had paid him back for the bottle of wine that he had brought back from his trip to Napa. He used the $20-bill to pay for his things and kept the change in his hand as he approached the door. As he passed through the automatic sliding doors, Paul turned and stopped right in front of him, but the man did not even shift his weight to acknowledge Paul’s presence. “Good evening,” Paul said politely, but, still, the man did not respond. Confused and a little annoyed, Paul cleared his throat and said, “I said, ‘Good evening.’” The man slowly looked up and stared back at Paul and said, “Yes, I heard you.” Surprised at the man’s deliberate tone, Paul blurted out, “I walked over here to give you …” Paul stopped in midsentence and gathered himself and asked, “What are you going to do with the money you get tonight?” For more than a few seconds, the man just stared back at Paul. Finally, he said quietly but firmly, “Sir, that’s none of your business.” Paul was incensed. “None of my business? Are you kidding… Well, I’m not giving you anything,” he said exasperatedly. And the man replied coolly, “That’s your business, mister.”

Paul turned and walked quickly toward his car, shaking his head in astonishment. “Can you believe that?” he wondered aloud to himself. As he neared his car, a different man approached him, palms extended in a sign intended to communicate the universal sign for the absence of hostility. “Sir? Excuse me, sir?” he said as he approached. “Sir, I’m real sorry to bother you, and I don’t want to startle you here in the parking lot.” “What is it?” Paul asked, still a little upset about what had happened a moment earlier. “Sir, I hate to ask you for anything. I’m a prideful man, and I’ve never been in a position like this before, but my wife over there is pregnant.” The man gestured a few rows over in the parking lot to a woman standing by a car with a visible baby bump. “We are on our way to see her mother in Jackson, Mississippi. Her mother’s real sick, and we’re trying to get there, but I work for a landscaper, and there hadn’t been much work because of all the rain. Well, I ran out of money, and I’m trying to get my wife a motel room where she rest. Her blood pressure has been real high, and the doctor said she’s supposed to be on bed rest, but we’ve got to get to Jackson. Well, the room costs $48.00, and I’ve managed to scrape together all but $8.60. I’d be ever so grateful if there was any way you could spare a few dollars to help us get a place to stay for the night.”

Why do we help some people but not others? What makes us glad to give one person $5 but angry at someone else for asking? When we hand someone some money, what are we buying? What kind of response are we paying for? How much humility and gratitude from a beggar will it take to warm our heart?

At the pool of Beth-zatha, Jesus does something rather strange. He comes upon a man who has been lying there for a long, long time. For thirty-eight years, the man has been incapacitated. That’s almost as long as I’ve been alive. That’s a lifetime of knowing nothing except one’s inability. Jesus approaches the man and, perhaps because of the stuff that has accumulated around him, can tell right away that the man has been there for a long time. Jesus looks down at the man and says to him, “Do you want to be made well?” But all the man can say in response is, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up.”

The legend of the pool was that an angel would come down and stir up the water with its wings, and whoever was the first to enter the pool after the water was stirred up would be healed. But that didn’t do the man any good. He was stuck. He couldn’t get into the water on his own, and there was no one who was willing to help him, except Jesus. And Jesus, the divine healer, had just asked him if he wanted to be made well, and all the man could see was his own predicament. For thirty-eight years the man had been stuck without an answer, and, at this rate, he’d be stuck for thirty-eight more. Even if he didn’t know who Jesus was, he could at least ask him for some help getting a little closer to the edge or maybe even ask Jesus to sit and wait with him until the angel came back. But the man was so accustomed to being incapacitated that he didn’t have the capacity to imagine that life could be any other way.

But Jesus didn’t let that get in the way. Jesus said to the man, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” And immediately the man was healed. He stood up, and picked up his mat, just as Jesus had told him to, and set off to pursue a new life with new possibilities that 60 seconds earlier the man didn’t even know existed.

Sometimes people are stuck. Sometimes they’re stuck in that place where life has been so bad for so long that they can’t imagine that life could be any other way but bad. Sometimes they’re stuck so low in the depths of depression that they can’t even want things to get better—much less do anything about it. Sometimes people are so caught up in the bonds of addiction that even when salvation is staring them in the face they can’t accept it. And what is our response? When we encounter someone whose life has been shaped by systemic challenges like poverty or mental illness or racism, what do we ask for in return? In order to share our hard-earned generosity with them, we ask for respect, humility, gratitude, and maybe even an apology that they have let things get so bad.

What happens when we’re the one who is stuck like that? What happens when the person whose life has always been the consequence of his or her own choices doesn’t have the power to change the outcome anymore? What happens when the soul-sucking, spirit-draining predicament of incapacity comes to us? What happens? Here’s what Jesus says: “It doesn’t matter.” Here’s what God says: “You’re still my beloved child.” That’s what Jesus says to all of us.

God wants us to believe in God—to put our faith, our trust, in God. But that’s not for God’s sake. God doesn’t need our confidence. God’s ego is not satisfied because billions of people are counting on God. God wants us to believe in God because faith leads to peace. God wants us to know and trust in the power of God’s saving love. When God became flesh and dwelt among us, God took our very nature onto God’s self not because we believed in God but because God believed in us—the faithful one giving faith to the faithless. Our salvation doesn’t begin when we find the ability to believe in God. Our salvation is born out of God’s decision to have faith in us. Even when we cannot believe, God believes in us and for us. That’s where salvation starts. That’s where faith starts. Before we can believe in God, God has already believed in us.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

The Only Answer

In John 13, Jesus said, "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." Not by whether you go to church. Not by whether you can name the 12 apostles or recite the Nicene Creed from heart. Not by whether you say your prayers every day. (In fact, Jesus told us to say our prayers in secret.) The world will know that we are Jesus' disciples if we have love for one another. But love is a lot harder than going to church and learning some names and saying some prayers.

Jesus said to his followers, "Where I am going, you cannot come. [But, in my absence,] I give you a new commandment--that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another." He speaks those words to us. He comes and meets us in flesh and blood, in bread and wine, and speaks to us again and again, "This is my commandment--that you love one another." Who we are, therefore, at the very deepest level is a people who love no matter how hard that might be.

Right now, it isn't easy to love people from Alabama. I'm from Alabama, and I feel very much loved by this community, but I also know that a lot of people in this community are angry at what the legislature in Alabama has done by making abortion illegal in almost every case. A political stunt designed to challenge Row v. Wade, the law has become a reason to post on Facebook about how Alabama and Alabamans are basically poop emojis. Of course, not everyone from Alabama thinks this is a good law. There are plenty of people in that state that are protesting vehemently. And even those who don't--even those who celebrate the passage of the law--are still human beings, made in God's image and loved by God.

Last summer, at General Convention, I saw conservative Christians from a certain church in Kansas (whose name I will not say or write) demonstrating against the Episcopal Church with signs that used a terrible slur to declared who it is that God hates. They believe that God hates homosexuals. I believe that God loves homosexuals. But, until something changes, that separation can never be closed. But I believe that love has the power to close it. I believe that God loves the people who believe that God hates homosexuals, and I believe that Jesus is calling me to love them, too. As long as two sides are separated by hate, nothing changes. Once love begins to reach across, the possibility of change exists. It may take generations, and it may be a bitter, hard, angry struggle, but love for one's enemies is the only way enmity can end.

God chooses to bridge the separation between God's self and humanity by offering love. Even to a world that repeatedly turns its back on the Creator, determined to find new ways to hate God, God reaches out in love. That's who Jesus is. That's what Jesus represents. And that's what makes us followers of Jesus. We are the ones who love across the lines of hatred. Jesus came to reconcile the world to God--to make the world the place God created it to be. And the only way that happens is love.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Two Sides Of Revelation

For the last several Sundays, the lectionary has led us through the Book of the Revelation to John, picking the passages that promise renewal and comfort and hope to God's people. Every week, we have read lessons about the triumph of the lamb or the elders gathered around the throne in praise or the martyrs who have come through the great ordeal. There's another side to Revelation, of course--the dark and scary and tortuous parts. Why don't we read those?

I find that most of the people with whom I work and worship on a regular basis don't have much of an appetite for God's promised punishment of the enemies of God's people. The lake of fire and the plagues of suffering and the indiscriminate death described in Revelation aren't as appealing. We'd just as soon read about the good stuff and lead the bad stuff to our ancestors or other contemporary Christians who are still living in the past. (How enlightened of us!) But there's a reason the suffering is described in such vivid, exaggerated detail. It's because that's what most Christians have endured.

Actually, if you read the Book of Revelation, you find that most of the suffering described in the text is not a punishment for bad people but a symbolic portrayal of what the early Christians lived through. The actual words of punishment are reserved not for those who fail to ask Jesus into their hearts before they die or before Jesus comes back (whichever happens first) but for the manifestations of evil itself in the great beast and the whore--symbols for the emperor and the empire. The apocalyptic suffering described in Revelation is God's way of saying to those in the first and second centuries who were being tortured and killed by the imperial authorities that their struggle is part of the end--that the suffering is nearly over because Jesus will return soon. Those of us, including the authors of the lectionary, who prefer to skip those parts have the luxury and privilege of not needing to confront the suffering of others, of not needing it to be redeemed.

God's people have long discerned a holy hope in the future suffering of their enemies. Those who oppress us now will become the oppressed. Those whose pursuit of wealth locks us in poverty will themselves become poor. Those who do not believe in the reordering of society as Jesus has revealed it will spend eternity in anguish. For some who suffer, that feels hopeful, but that isn't my hope. I don't need anyone to become poor in order for me to enjoy the fruits of wealth in this life. I don't need anyone to be locked up in order for me to be set free. In fact, there may be nothing more abominable than individuals who have power and privilege in this life preaching a hope that depends on the suffering of others. But I do not slight those whose hope depends on a complete reversal of this life. For most followers of Jesus, that is still true. I cannot, therefore, purge the Christian narrative of its references to suffering and the reversal of suffering without ignoring those whose hope depends on it.

It is a cheapened hope to say that, when God's reign is complete, the abuser and the one who is abused will simply shake hands and make up. It is an empty promise to say that, when Jesus returns, the poor who have struggled on the edge of existence will finally get a seat at the same table where the wealthy have been seated the whole time. This Sunday, as we read the end of Revelation and hear its promise of a new Jerusalem where all nations are welcome and all peoples gather at God's throne, let us not forget what it takes to get there--God's great reversal promised and enacted in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We cannot enter glory until we face the shame.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Healing Perspective

Like a movie in which the villain waits behind a door that the hero is about to open, we want to shout at the invalid in John 5:1-9 to change the unalterable direction of the story. To the hero, we want to yell, "Don't open it!" and to the invalid we want to say, "Just say yes!" Of course, the beauty of a story like that is our desire to participate in the action even though our efforts are useless.

The Holy Spirit notwithstanding, John is a gifted writer. He leads us to the Sheep Gate and the pool, by which the infirm and lame gather in hopes of healing. He brings us to a man who has been lame for 38 years--a long, long time. Jesus, perceiving that the man had been there for a long time, asks the man, "Do you wish to be healed?" Even unspoken, the answer is yes. We all know that the answer is yes. Jesus, too, knows it. He would have to be a callous, insensitive jerk to ask the question and not know the answer. Instead, he asks to invite the man to participate in his own healing.

But the man doesn't say yes. Instead, he says, "Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up." We might expect Jesus to shrug his shoulders and walk off, bewildered that the man was so close to the healing he sought but did not know enough to ask for it. But Jesus doesn't do that. The man can't see beyond his predicament, but Jesus can, and Jesus gives him another opportunity to participate in the miraculous sign that follows: "Stand up, take your mat, and walk."

I'm not preaching this week, but, if I were, I would choose this gospel lesson because there are so many possible directions for a sermon:

  • Jesus brings healing even when we can't see past our own problems.
  • Jesus shows us how to hold onto the man's dignity.
  • The man teaches us not to expect manufactured humility when we offer to help someone.
  • The story teaches us to look for salvation in new, non-traditional ways.
  • The story is a reinterpretation of the wilderness paradigm.
The lectionary authors have done us both a disservice and a favor. By cutting the story here, we lose sight of what follows--an intense debate about sabbath and law. One could expand the text or even focus on the final sentence and preach about sabbath observance and Jesus' willingness to challenge it, but the gift we have been given is to leave that behind. It's hard to read the rest of the encounter and return to the healing moment. John always tells complicated stories that are never as simple as "a man was healed" or "Jesus rejects traditional interpretation of sabbath." This week, though, despite being a complex reading, we have the chance to focus on the initial encounter, and that seems to have much fruit.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

In The Pursuit Of Love

May 19, 2019 – The 5th Sunday of Easter

© 2019 Evan D. Garner

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

Who is the person you have the hardest time believing is loved by God? I asked that question several years ago at a Theology on Tap gathering. Our Theology on Tap tradition was to gather for drinks and fellowship for about thirty minutes, until the clergyperson would stand up and ask everyone a question. Sometimes the questions were good enough to get people talking about them for a while. Other times, people went right back to whatever they had been talking about—vacation or family or politics or football. This question, though, led to some impassioned and difficult conversation.

Who is the person you have the hardest time believing is loved by God? Some people named historical figures who have come to represent evil itself—Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Charles Manson, or Ted Bundy. Others named generic categories of reprehensible people like child molesters or abusive parents. Although no one said it out loud, at least one person had in mind someone she knew well because she came up to me a week later to tell me about it. She was angry and hurt by my question, which had brought to mind a moment of abuse from her past. A person of deep faith, she knew that God loved this person but coming face to face with that truth was painful.

Who is the person you have the hardest time believing is loved by God? To put it another way, who is it that hurts you the most to know that that person, too, will live forever in God’s eternal reign? It may not have been as personal to them, but the apostles and believers in Judea were hurt when they heard that the Gentiles had received the word of God. Acts tells us that, “when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’” They were angry because they had gotten word that their leader, the rock on which Jesus had promised to build his church, had taken the good news of salvation to those who had long been enemies of God and God’s people. Those who had witnessed first-hand the triumphant resurrection of Jesus Christ after being executed on a Roman cross were not ready to believe that God had room in God’s heart for the Gentiles who had killed their Lord. Sure, God is loving and merciful, but not like that, they said to themselves.

Looking back with the benefit of two-thousand years of hindsight, I can’t tell what’s harder to believe—that God brought the good news of salvation to the Gentiles or that the first Christians couldn’t understand that it was possible. Remember how the book of Acts tells the story of the spreading of the gospel. First, there was Pentecost, when the Spirit enabled the apostles to proclaim the good news of Jesus in all the languages of the known earth so that the faithful Jews who had gathered from all over could understand it. Then, because of persecution, the believers were scattered from the holy city and brought the gospel to the outskirts of Judea and on to Samaria, where even the Samaritans believed. Later on, the Holy Spirit led Philip to interpret the Hebrew scriptures to an Ethiopian eunuch, who, although a faithful worshiper of Israel’s God, was in no way an ethnic Jew. Should it have surprised the apostles and other believers, then, that God would take the next logical step and bring the message of salvation to the Gentiles?

God’s message of boundless grace and unconditional love may be certain, but, in every generation, God is working with narrow-minded, self-interested human beings like us. And we don’t like it when God’s love comes to the people we find it hardest to love. In order to burst through the limitations we would impose on God’s love, God must come and surprise us and shake us up to see what God sees.

That’s what God did in this passage from Acts. In order to show the church that God’s saving love belonged equally to the Gentiles, God gave parallel visions to Cornelius and to Peter. The first, a Roman centurion, had a vision of an angel, who came and told him to send men to nearby Joppa and bring Peter back with them. Then, as the men were approaching the city, God brought Peter into a trance, showing him the strange vision of a sheet being lowered from heaven with all sorts of unclean animals in it. When the heavenly voice from heaven told Peter to rise, kill, and eat, Peter refused, saying, “Nothing unclean has ever entered my mouth,” and the voice replied, “What God has made clean, you shall not call profane.” Three times this happened—God’s way of making sure that Peter understood what God was saying to him. By the time he got to Joppa, Peter was ready for what awaited him there—faithful children of God who were eager to hear the message of salvation. When Peter finished telling them about Jesus, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had come to the apostles, and Peter was convinced: “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”

When Peter explained to the Christian authorities step by step what had happened to him, they were silenced. Then, they broke their silence by praising God and saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.” Even those whom the church would exclude are brought into the family of faith by God, whose power and love are greater than our closemindedness. God gave those Gentile believers the Holy Spirit even before the church was willing to baptize them. That’s how God always works—not according to the rules or human precepts but according to God’s divine purpose of universal love. And, just as Peter insisted that the Gentile converts be baptized, the church must always be ready for God to shake us up and show us something new.

St. Paul’s is a church that has discovered and embraced the power of God’s limitless love. We have affirmed God’s love and acceptance of LGBTQ individuals even before the instruments of the church had approved it. We have celebrated same-sex marriage and embraced the full participation of transgender people in the life of our church even before the wider church had found room for them. We have recognized that God may call individuals to the Communion table even before they are baptized. We have sought to be a place that proclaims God’s universal, saving love for all people regardless of their race or ethnicity or what they believe. For some of us, that openness comes naturally, while for others it is challenging. But all of us have our limits.

Who is the person you have the hardest time believing that God loves just as much as God loves you? Maybe it’s someone from your past, or maybe it’s someone with whom you can’t ever imagine having something in common: a conservative, a liberal, a Republican, a socialist, a chauvinist, a feminist, a preacher who uses religion to oppress others, a terrorist who murders in the name of God, someone who thinks that abortion should be illegal in every case, someone who thinks that reproductive choice is the cornerstone of a free society. Who is it that you struggle most to see as a recipient of God’s unconditional, saving love…because, whoever it is, no matter how much you reject that person and everything he or she stands for, the one thing you have in common is God’s love for you.

As I’ve said before, the problem with unconditional love is that it’s unconditional. We don’t get to decide who gets it or how it should be doled out because no one can put restrictions on unconditional love. It belongs to everyone—even to those who reject it as nonsense. As soon as you try to limit it, it crumbles and loses all of its power. But the very thing that makes it hardest to accept is also its real strength. Like Peter and Cornelius and the apostles in Jerusalem, when we experience the limitless nature of God’s love, it changes us. It alone has the power to break the bonds of prejudice and resentment and set us free to love as we have been loved—without limit.

The invitation, therefore, is not to decide to love the unlovable, for that in itself would be impossible. Instead, we are invited to pursue the love that God has for us and for the world. That’s what followers of Jesus do. We seek God’s love for us so that we might be set free to love the world with that same reckless abandon. When we are immersed in that love and its shocking limitlessness, we begin to see the artificial barriers fall away. We begin to find it possible to do the impossible and love others the way God loves them—the way God loves all of us.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

How Will They Know?

They will know we are Christians by our...
Historically authentic expressions of worship
Culturally relevant liturgies
Rubrical precision
Willingness to discard the rules to make worship truly meaningful
Faithful adherence to Nicene orthodoxy
Openness to the Holy Spirit's guidance
Uncompromising commitment to the authority of scripture
Reliance on tradition, reason, and experience
Holiness of life
Ability to identify with the outcasts and sinners of society
Baptismal ecclesiology
Open table
Dependence on the ancient four-fold ministry of bishops, priests, deacons, and laity
Rejection of the eroding bastions of patriarchal clericalism
Celebrated heritage
Postcolonial, postracial, postgender identity
Belief in the sanctity of all life
Conviction that a woman should have control over her own body
Devotion to established understandings of sexuality, marriage, and gender
Refusal to accept outdated definitions of love, relationship, and personhood

Jesus did not say any of that. Instead, as we hear again this Sunday, Jesus said, "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." Everyone will know that we are disciples of Jesus if we have love for one another.

Everyone in the church wants to be right. And we want to be right for good and right reasons. We want our doctrine, discipline, and worship to help the world know the saving love of God in Jesus Christ. On every issue, whichever side we are on, we are on that side because we believe that it will help the work of the gospel. Even though we reach diametrically opposed conclusions about what God's will for the world and the church are, we all want to be faithful to Jesus. When we reject women's ordination or embrace it, when we refuse the sanctity of marriage to a same-sex couple or encourage it, when we restrict Communion to the baptized or fling the sacramental gates wide open, we do so because we are trying our best to be faithful followers of Jesus.

I think Jesus knew what he was saying. I think he knew what sort of polarized, fractured community the church would become, so he reminded us what really matters: "Everyone will know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another." Love first, doctrine second. Love first, discipline second. Love first, all other ethical, liturgical, exegetical, soterilogical, theological considerations second.

How much effort do we give to love? How important to us is it that the world see how much we love one another? Instead of trying to prove our fidelity to Jesus by showing the world how right we are, let's show them what it means to be a disciple of Jesus by loving one another as we have been loved. We will not agree with one another, but we will show the world the gospel of Jesus Christ when we love each other anyway.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Surprise Salvation

I've written several times about how easily I get bored with Jesus' final discourse in John. Although full of beautiful theology like this Sunday's "I give you a new commandment: that you love one another," it's sooooo long, and there's almost no narrative action. Give me short, pithy parables, dramatic miracles, or conflict with the religious authorities. This long-winded, red-letter stuff is hard to preach on. This Sunday, I'm drawn more closely (and desperately) to the drama of Acts 11.

This morning, as I read Peter's account of his vision in Joppa, the part that grabs my attention is the very end of the lesson. In verse 18, the "circumcised believers" were stuck silent by Peter's testimony, and they praised God, saying, "Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life." Even to the Gentiles. Even to them. Even to us. Whether the surprise was genuine emotion felt by the Jewish followers of Jesus or Luke's way of conveying the remarkable nature of this expansion of God's saving work doesn't really matter. This is huge. That the God of Israel would include the peoples of other nations in God's work of salvation without first requiring that they become citizens of Israel--members of Abraham's ancestral family--is radical theology.

I take it for granted, of course. And so did the church. By the time the New Testament was compiled in its present form, the Way of Jesus had become a principally Gentile movement. These stories in their redacted, revised form, therefore, reflect this truth. Paul had already had his revelation. He had already written to the Galatians about the foolishness of forcing circumcision upon Gentile converts. The Jerusalem synod had already taken place. This was settled. But, in the moment, which Luke peels back the narrative curtain to let us see how it might have happened, there was nothing settled about it.

The Lord (note, here, the ethnic specificity that the term "Lord" implies) chose Abraham to be the father of God's people so that, through them, the whole world might come to know the power of the Lord. The descendants of Abraham were to become a light to the nations. The prophets envisioned all nations streaming to God's temple--a union of all the peoples of the earth under the banner of Israel's God. But, in this moment, God proves God's self to be bigger than that. God is not only the God of Israel who waits for the nations to know him. God is the God of the Greeks. God reaches them and includes them directly. Jesus Christ has become the mediator of a new covenant--the means by which God enacts relationship with others. Although perhaps not a rejection of the first vision of salvation coming to the nations of the earth, this wasn't the means by which the people of God expected that salvation to spread. God's grace had always been mediated through the people of God. And now the people of God were understood to be bigger than the descendants of Abraham. This is new stuff. This is, in fact, a new religion.

The words that the circumcised believers give us are the hinge upon which the Way of Jesus pivots from a branch of Judaism to its own distinct religion: "Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life." Same God. Same salvation. Same Christ. Different relationship. Different dispensation. Different way. It takes a while before it all sorts itself out, but this is the moment when salvation comes not merely in a newly translated language (Pentecost) or in a uniting ethnic expression (Samaritans) or in an expansive understanding of Israel (Ethiopian eunuch) but in a new way. In Peter's account of what happened in Caesarea, God reached the Gentile converts before they had become children of Abraham. As Paul will later imagine, Jesus made it possible for Gentiles to be grafted into the tree.

What does this mean for today, when we take this ingrafting for granted? I think we too easily forget how new, how radical, how other this moment of salvation was. This wasn't, "Play by our rules, our believes, our practices, and we'll let you into the salvation club." This is God doing something bigger than the faithful people could see. This is God surprising us with salvation. Where will it surprise us next?

Monday, May 13, 2019

Destination Change

In contemporary Christianity, how much of the emphasis is on going to heaven? I grew up being invited to accept Jesus Christ as my savior so that, when I die, I would go to heaven. In the last few years, I shared ministry with an evangelist in Alabama who regularly (perhaps nightly) preaches that the only thing that matters is knowing where we will go when we die. In the burial office, the gospel reading that is chosen most often by the decedent or the family is John 14:1-6, in which Jesus tells his disciples, "In my Father's house, there are many dwelling places...And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going." Even this Sunday's gospel lesson (John 13:31-35) recalls Jesus telling his disciples, "Where I am going, you cannot come."

Over and over and over again, we talk about going to heaven. There's nothing wrong with heaven. I like heaven. I think heaven has a central place in the gospel. I don't think the gospel is pure social cause--that the goal of the Christian life is to make a difference here and now. I think preachers should talk a lot about heaven, but it seems that we've misplaced it.

In our reading from Revelation 21 this Sunday, we are given a vision of heaven: "I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God." In this vision, the one seated on the throne exclaims, "See, I am making all things new!" The earth is not a paper plate or a red plastic cup. It is not discarded. It, too, is made new. God does not transport us from the earth to live with God in heaven. God comes to earth to live among us:
See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them as their God;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.
I think the implications of this are more significant than a mere destination change. The vision of God coming to earth rather than us going to God changes how we live in the earth. It changes how we value our bodies and the physical world. It brings back that fundamental, foundational theology that we are not gnostics and that all of creation is good. We do not live this life so that we can escape it. We live this life so that we and this world and all that is in it might be transformed.

Something changes when you put out fine china instead of disposable plates. Something happens when you buy a house instead of renting it. Something blossoms when you stop dating and get married. Similarly, our whole theology of God and creation and heaven and salvation changes when we stop thinking of and talking about the earth as if it were the only thing keeping us from God. Yes, I know that there are important cosmological implications for what happens to the physical earth and the physical universe in the forever timescale, and, no, I'm not trying to solve those issues here. But I am saying that the implications for recapturing a heaven-comes-to-earth theology instead of a we-are-just-waiting-to-go-home theology changes not only the stewardship of creation, but it also changes our theology of the human person, including issues of sexuality and gender and ability and age. There are incarnational implications and interfaith implications.

Changing the way we talk about heaven from somewhere else to here on earth changes lots of things, but those things can't begin to change until the religious culture shifts. Preachers and teachers must recapture the goodness of creation and leave behind the escape-pod theology. Parents must fill out their description of going to heaven to include a sense that heaven is coming to earth and that those who belong to Jesus get to live with him in the new earth forever. Heaven is essential, but how we talk about it matters.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Enthusiastic Preacher or Messiah?

May 12, 2019 – The 4th Sunday of Easter

© 2019 Evan D. Garner

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

Do we want Jesus of Nazareth to be our rabbi, our teacher, our spiritual guru? Or do we want him to be our messiah, our anointed one? Before you answer, take a minute to think about it. We all know what the presumed right answer is, but the safe choice is rabbi. We don’t have to listen to our rabbi. Clergy are wrong all the time. If we don’t like them or the brand of religion that they are peddling, we pick up and move to another congregation. We can disagree with them, and it doesn’t cost us anything. But, if Jesus is our messiah, if he is God’s anointed one, we don’t have a choice any more. If he is our messiah, we don’t get to duck the hard truths he gives us. We’re forced to accept them or accept the fact that we are turning our backs on God himself. So what will it be?

That’s the question John leads us to in this gospel passage. It’s winter. It’s the Feast of the Dedication. (Happy Hanukkah!) Some of God’s people had gathered together in the temple to celebrate the anniversary of its rededication. About two hundred years earlier, Jewish rebels had overthrown the tyrannical and unholy dictatorship of Antiochus IV. He was the one who had built an altar to Zeus right in the middle of the Jerusalem temple, desecrating the most holy place in Judaism by sacrificing pigs within its walls. In response to such evil, God had raised up an anointed leader to deliver God’s people.

In that generation, God’s messiah had been Judas Maccabeus or “Judah the Hammer,” who had earned his nickname because of his fierceness in battle. He had proven himself to be God’s anointed one by leading God’s people in victory over the unholy occupiers of God’s Promised Land. You remember the Hanukkah story. After defeating their enemies, Judah and the other priests purified and rededicated the temple, but they discovered that they only had one day’s worth of oil for the lamp that must never go out. Miraculously, however, the one-day supply burned for eight days instead of one—long enough for new kosher oil to be produced. It was a sign that God’s Spirit had come back into the holy place.

And now it was Jesus’ turn. With thoughts of that anniversary filling their minds, the religious authorities approached Jesus and asked, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the messiah, tell us plainly.” In the centuries that followed the rededication of the temple, the Seleucid Empire had given way to Rome. Antiochus and his supporters had been replaced by Caesar and Pilate and Herod. Again, God’s people and God’s Promised Land were in need of a deliverer. The religious experts must have wondered whether this radical rabbi, who preached unabashedly about the imminent coming of God’s kingdom, might be another Judas Maccabeus, another messiah. “If you’re the one, tell us plainly!” they begged him. But Jesus replied, “I have told you, and you do not believe.”

What had Jesus told them? This chapter in John is full of Jesus’ explanation of who he is. “I am the good shepherd,” he had said to them. Of course, the image of a shepherd brought someone else to mind. Another anointed leader of God’s people had gotten his start as a lowly shepherd boy. But, by the time he died, King David had grown the kingdom of Israel to the largest and most prosperous it would ever be. He had led God’s army victoriously into battle. Under his leadership, they had overthrown the enemies of God’s people. In his own generation, David had been God’s messiah, and it must have been tempting for the religious leaders to imagine that this radical rabbi from Nazareth might turn out to be another David. But powerful leader wasn’t the kind of messianic shepherd that Jesus had in mind.

“I am the good shepherd,” Jesus said. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” For Jesus, the role of shepherd wasn’t a quaint part of the story—a humble persona for the anointed leader to project. It was the very essence of messiah. It was the definition of the work God’s anointed one was commissioned by God to do. Jesus did not pretend to give up power and wealth in order to win over the hearts of the people. He believed that powerlessness and poverty are the way of God. He did not feign vulnerability in order to trick the enemies of God’s people and lead them into a trap. He accepted the cross as the fulfillment of his ministry. He accepted the crown of thorns as the symbol of his majesty. “If you are the messiah, tell us plainly,” we say, searching for victory and success and triumph within the one we follow. But he already has told us and has shown us what messiah means.

Some cannot recognize in the crucified one the anointed one of God. To them the concept of an executed savior or a defeated messiah is complete nonsense. Others can see it, but they understand and believe not because Jesus the lowly shepherd messiah, the Christ who is killed on the cross, makes sense. They believe it because they belong to him. “My sheep hear my voice,” Jesus said. “I know them, and they follow me.” Believing is belonging. “You cannot believe in me unless you belong to me,” Jesus said. That means that, unless we belong to the vulnerable, powerless Son of God, we cannot believe that Jesus, the crucified one, reveals the truth of God to the world. Until we belong to the one who empties himself and lays down his life for the sheep, we cannot recognize Jesus as God’s messiah.

Do we want Jesus the crucified one to be our messiah? Is he the one whose truth about God we want to believe? Is he the one to whom we want to belong? If he’s just a radical rabbi, we can enjoy his fiery sermons and then go back to our regular lives. But if he is the one to whom we belong, if he is our shepherd, then we cannot just listen and move on. We must take up our cross and follow him. We must give up everything we hold dear—family, friends, career, and wealth—for the sake of God’s reign. We must even die beside him because, in him, we see the way to eternal life.

If Jesus is our messiah, we cannot have wealth as long as the poor are among us. If Jesus is our messiah, we cannot have security as long as there is violence in our schools or in our streets. If Jesus is our messiah, we cannot have a nation as long as there are refugees being turned away at the border. If Jesus is our messiah, we cannot have mothers or fathers or siblings or children as long as there are vulnerable widows and orphans in our midst.

Either Jesus is our messiah or he isn’t. Either he represents who God is and what God wants in this world, or he’s just another enthusiastic preacher who had some good ideas a long time ago. If he is our messiah, then the way of the cross must be our way because only by following him can we ever enter the reign of God. And, if he’s not our messiah, then power wins and greed wins and wealth wins and nothing ever changes. To whom will you belong?

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Biblical Belonging

When I am preparing to preach, I spend the whole week reading and thinking about the passages. Usually, I read them in the morning and then think about them as I write a blog post, take a shower, drive to work, go for a run, or lie in bed falling asleep. Sometimes, in busy weeks, I spend more time thinking and less time reading, and the result is often a sermon that, while resemblant of the text, is not a direct reflection of it. This week, I've focused on John 10:26, the verse in which Jesus responds to the Jewish authorities who question his messianic identity, saying, "But you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep." All week, I've been wondering what a sermon will be if my focus is on the relationship between belonging and believing, but, this morning, I discovered that the word "belong" doesn't belong in the text.

It just isn't there. In fact, there isn't really a Greek verb for belong (at least not in the NT). Maybe this is obvious to others, but belong is just a way of saying "be of." The English "belong" comes from the Old English "belangian," and it has to do with property rights. Although not fair to the etymology, think of the verb "to be" plus "go along with" to get "belong" or "something that goes along with." If I belong to you, I go along with you. If that hat belongs to me, it goes along with me. If I move, I'll pack it up and take it with me. If I don't want it, I release my possession of it, and it no longer goes along with me because it does not belong to me anymore.

The Greek of John 10:26 is "ἀλλὰ ὑμεῖς οὐ πιστεύετε, ὅτι οὐκ ἐστὲ ἐκ τῶν προβάτων τῶν ἐμῶν." Literally, that means, "But y'all don't believe because y'all aren't of my sheep." I understand why the NRSV (and the RSV before it) added the word "belong" to that verse. The preposition ἐκ, which means "of," means that those to whom Jesus is speaking are not from, of, taken out of his sheep. Forgive the cumbersome language, but those who are not not of his sheep are of his sheep, which is to say that they are identified as belonging to his sheep. The implication, of course, is that those to whom he speaks are not part of his flock and, thus, do not belong to his sheep. But there's no word for belong. Note that the NIV, ESV, CEB, CEV, and KJV all find other ways of saying it, ranging from "you are not among my sheep" to "you are not of my sheep" to "you are not my sheep."

Most people may not think this makes a difference, but I think it does. Before I launch into a sermon about belonging before believing and ask a congregation what it means to belong to Jesus, I need to recognize that, when Jesus spoke to the authorities, he wasn't asking them to think of themselves in that social, hierarchical, with-which-group-do-you-identify kind of way. He was asking them something more fundamental about their identity. This wasn't a question of what club or faction or persuasion they were. Jesus is naming that they aren't of his sheep. Are you of Jesus or not? Are you of his sheep or not? Not, when you woke up this morning, did you recommit yourself to Jesus' flock? Not did you remember to mail in your club dues? But are you of Jesus' sheep?

In biblical terms, belonging isn't part of our identity. I belong to a church. I belong to a civic organization. I belong to a neighborhood association. I belong to an alumni association. Those things go along with me until I put them down, stop paying my dues, or stop showing up. Being of Jesus' sheep is different. Sheep don't decide which flock is theirs. They are or they aren't. As I prepare to preach this week, I'm asking what it means to be of Jesus' sheep in that deep, larger-than-the-intellectual-decisions-we-make sort of way.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Good Shepherd Sundays

Although not an official observance in the Episcopal Church, the Fourth Sunday of Easter is effectively Good Shepherd Sunday. The collect reminds us that God's Son Jesus is "the good shepherd of [God's] people." The psalm is always Psalm 23, in which the psalmist declares, "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want." Every year in the three-year lectionary cycle, the gospel reading comes from John 10, in which Jesus identifies himself as the "good shepherd," but what makes this liturgical observance strange is that, because we move through John 10 progressively each year, you have to have a pretty good memory to hold on what is being said about Jesus the good shepherd.

In Year A (2016-17), we read John 10:1-10, in which Jesus distinguishes himself from those bandits who would enter the sheepfold without using the gate. The gatekeeper, on the other hand, opens the gate and calls the sheep by name, leading out those who follow the voice they know. In Year B (2017-18), we read John 10:11-18, in which Jesus describes himself as the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. Because of its use in the burial office, this is the part of John 10 we know best. This time, Jesus distinguishes himself from the "hired hand" who runs away when the wolf comes and scatters the sheep. This year, we get to John 10:22-30, in which Jesus responds to those who question his identity by explaining that only those who belong to his sheep believe who he really is.

The challenge is that, when Jesus explains himself to the religious authorities who are questioning him by saying, "I have told you, and you do not believe," we need to remember what he has told us--that he is the gatekeeper who knows the sheep by name, that he is the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. All of that good shepherd description happens right before Sunday's gospel lesson, but we need two year's worth of memory to remember it.

Maybe it's worth reading all of John 10 before we get to church on Sunday. It certainly seems like a good idea to read it before we preach in church on Sunday. Otherwise, this year's gospel lesson can too easily be construed as Jesus declaring that "the Jews" (John's word for Jesus' opponents) are condemned because they don't belong to his flock. That can't be what Jesus means. Read John 10:16, in which Jesus declares that there are "other sheep that do not belong to this fold" who are part of Jesus' flock. It may be that the religious authorities cannot recognize Jesus' voice because they don't belong to him, but Jesus' primary understand of flock is the People of Israel. It's we Gentiles who are those that belong to the other fold.

Instead, a fuller incorporation of John 10 helps us hear Jesus say that those who do not believe are those who do not live as belonging ones. Belonging precedes believing. The works make Jesus' identity plain, but, until one belongs to the flock of the good shepherd, those signs cannot be understood. This passage, therefore, isn't about a combative Jesus dividing elect from unelect along ethic lines. It's about realizing the consequences of following the good shepherd. Just as the good shepherd knows the sheep, so, too, do the sheep recognize the good shepherd.

Don't lose touch with the goodness of Good Shepherd Sunday (whatever that is). We hear good news this week. We hear it every week. But it helps to step back and read all that Jesus says about the good shepherd before we read the concluding part.

Monday, May 6, 2019

A Great Multitude

I don't know much about the Book of Revelation. It's weird, of course, and highly symbolic. I've threatened to teach a Bible study on it a time or two, but I never have. It's one of the first books of the Bible that I read from start to finish, but, as a ten-year-old, I did not understand much. I may not understand much more, but the setting provided in this coming Sunday's lesson from Revelation 7 caught my attention: "I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands." That's a pretty broad and far-reaching vision of the faithful gathered around the throne.

Revelation was written during a time of distress. Persecution was reality. Christians were being killed by the Roman authorities. The images of Babylon and the beast are stand-ins for Rome and the Emperor. The text is designed to give hope to early Christians. No matter how bad things get, it seems to say, Jesus will come and make them better. The mistake, of course, is reading the text as a clear and precise prediction of what will happen. I think John the Divine and those who knew and loved this text during the early centuries of the church would be astonished at those who think a New World Order with 666 as its sign will take over the world. They'd ask us to step back and see the big picture. "Where's your hope?" they would ask. "Why do you search God's Word for fear?"

These words from Sunday's lesson imagine the fulfillment of God's promises being demonstrated when people from every nation, language, tribe, and people gather together around God's throne. That feels so contrary to human instincts. When under threat, my instinct is to get smaller, think more exclusively, build walls, check IDs, and keep people out. But the church's vision for the end of the world is the opposite of that. It's a great multitude of people too big to be counted who have come from all over assembling together to worship God. The authorities of the world use ethnic, religious, and political differences to divide, but God overcomes those ungodly powers not by homogenizing the saints into a great, white, monolithic culture but by embracing all of the differences and bringing them all together. Even the first Christians understood that. They were not held together because of ethic identity but because of a shared faith that crossed all national, linguistic, and ethnic barriers.

That's not what Christianity feels like today. We argue across continents. We disagree within our communities. We primarily gather to worship in ethnically, politically, and economically homogeneous congregations that not only fail to reflect the true Body of Christ but that actually undermine our experience of it. We care more about being right than about being whole. As the tide of secularism continues to sweep from one post-Christian culture to another, the greatest threat comes not from a political entity but from ourselves. We have lost the enormity of God's hope for us. When we envision the fulfillment of God's promises, does that vision look like Revelation 7, or does it look like more and more and more of us? The Holy Spirit helped the first Christians see something bigger even when the powers of this world threatened to pull them apart. They trusted that the multitude of the faithful would always be bigger, more diverse, and more complicated than they could imagine. What about us? What sort of church are we hoping for?

Thursday, May 2, 2019

One Story, Two Conversions

Much is made of the story of Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus recorded in Acts 9. Ever since, preachers have made a big deal about the one who persecuted the church becoming the chief apostle to the Gentiles. And they are right to do so. Even Paul himself wrote about the life-changing moment in several of his letters, emphasizing that his conversion was a pattern for others. On Sunday, we will hear at least part of Paul's conversion story, and those congregations in which the optional longer reading is heard will have a chance to see a second, perhaps even more interesting conversion--that of Ananias.

In the appointed passage from Acts, we read about Ananias, the disciple of Jesus who lived in Damascus. The Lord appeared to him in a vision and told him to go and find Saul of Tarsus and lay hands on him that his sight might be restored. But Ananias hesitated: "Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name." In other words, Saul was famous--infamous among the disciples of Jesus. Saul was known as the arch-enemy of Christ. He was responsible for arresting Christians and consenting to their executions. He was not only an enemy of the Way but represented and embodied everything that threatened those who followed Jesus. And God had chosen him "to bring [God's] name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel." And God had chosen Ananias to believe in that otherwise impossible reversal.

Of course, Ananias did what God asked him to do, but I think we undervalue the commitment to faith that he represents. He knew that Saul was a cold-blooded religious fanatic who took pleasure in killing Christians, yet, at God's command, he sought him out in order to bring God's saving work to him. He risked his life because he knew the power of God's salvation in Jesus Christ. He trusted that God's new life was possible even in Saul, the one who most fully represented a threat to that life.

What does it mean for us to be so filled with faith--with confidence in God's saving work--that we see within others that same possibility? What happens when we, like Ananias, recognize within our enemies the potential for salvation? How might the reign of God come even to places where it is hardest to imagine because those who follow Jesus trust that, in God, all things are possible? In the Episcopal Church, we don't talk much about conversions. For the most part, we trust that God's love is bigger even than a moment when the realization of that love hits us in what could be described as a conversion moment. But God is in the conversion business. God is changing death to life, lost to found, hopeless to hopeful, enemy to friend. Those who follow Jesus are the ones who can see it. Are we the ones who, like Ananias, see the possibility of that transformation unfolding even among the people and places we find least likely to receive God's love?

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

The Journey After

May 1, 2019 - St. Philip and St. James

Last night, I was on a conference call with a group that is exploring the ways in which The Episcopal Church has articulated its theology of money. We've only just begun our work, but a colleague on the call expressed what it means to be the church in a world dominated by love of wealth in a compelling way: "People come to church looking for a god that is better than money." Think about that for a second. The god of our world is self--self-sufficiency, wealth, power, control. That god does not give itself to the people. It is never satisfied. It demands unending sacrifice. Nothing is ever enough. You can call it money or fame or success or accomplishment, but, whatever it is, it isn't good. We need something else. We come to church in search of something better than that.

We hear the prophet Isaiah offer good news to the children of Judah. They have been searching for God, and the prophet promises that they will find what they seek: "The Lord waits to be gracious to you; therefore, he will rise up to show mercy to you." Even though Lord may give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, the Teacher will not hide himself any more. You will see the Teacher with your own eyes. When you turn to the right or to the left, you will hear a gentle voice from right behind you, saying, "This is the way; walk in it."

We are in search of a better Teacher. We want something better than the gods of this world guiding us on life's path. We need the Teacher to show us the truth of love and mercy. We come to church, we say our prayers, we read daily devotions, we go to Bible studies, we do all that we do in search of the God who will lead us, guide us, rescue us. Even if it is at times difficult or painful, we want to be on the path that leads us eventually to freedom, peace, love, acceptance, forgiveness, redemption. That path leads to God. Our God waits to be gracious to us. Our God is a God of justice. The Lord is not an all-consuming, never-ending fire that consumes all we would give and more but a God of complete and perfect love, accepting and forgiving even God's imperfect children.

Sometimes the religion we pursue helps us get a little closer to God, helps us find a path that leads to deep peace, but sometimes we are led on a path that leads further from that truth. We confuse religion with God. We replace the Teacher with one who demands complicated, impossible, hard-to-discern tasks that never lead us anywhere. We find a preacher who tells us that we aren't good enough unless... We read a book that tells us the secret to happiness lies within us if we only try... At first, the promise of real achievement through personal struggle gives us hope that we are on a path that leads to peace, but, when the only force that guides us is self-improvement, the illusive and empty promise of perfection becomes our unattainable goal. We wander.

In his farewell address to his disciples, Jesus spoke of this path: "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." Don't get lost in the Jesus-only access to heaven piece. That's a conversation for another day, which is less a response to this gospel lesson and more a response to those who misuse it as a weapon. Instead, focus on the hope that fills this passage. How will we get to the Father? How will we find our way to God? Who will show us the right path? What voice will tell us to turn right or left? Jesus. "I am the way," Jesus says.

Philip, giving voice to the longing of all humanity, says, "Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied." Philip knows that he and his companions are close to the truth. Jesus has led them this far. If he could just give them a glimpse at the ultimate destination, Philip and the other disciples could make it the rest of the way. But Jesus' response is better news than he expected to hear: "Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father." It's like running the exhausting last mile of a marathon and discovering that you've already passed the finish line. Where will we find the right path to the Father? It's not illusive. It's not difficult. It's right in front of us because God has already found us.

Life is a journey. Faith is a journey. But the goal, the end, the destination isn't ahead of us. It's already behind us. It's already with us. It's already within us. God has come to us in Jesus. We journey ahead not in search of the right path but knowing the path has come to us--that we are not alone in our pilgrimage. When to go right or left, therefore, isn't a matter of finding the answer but remembering it, of hearing that voice we already know so well, of knowing the Teacher who stands behind us and points us onward.