Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Spiritual Exercise

July 31, 2019 - Ignatius of Loyola
1 Corinthians 10:31–11:1; Luke 9:57–62

Do you ever feel like we catch Jesus in a bad mood? In Luke 9, as the disciples and Jesus are walking down the road, several would-be disciples come to Jesus and offer to follow him, but Jesus seems disinterested if not annoyed by their requests. "I will follow you wherever you go," one of them says. But Jesus replies, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head." Jesus invites another person to follow him, but, when the man expresses a desire to go and bury his father, Jesus replies, "Let the dead bury their own dead." A third offers to follow Jesus but first needs to go and say goodbye to his family, but Jesus, in a direct rejection of Elijah's willingness to wait on Elisha to do the same, declares that no one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for God's reign. Grumpy Jesus, indeed!

I wonder, though, whether Ignatius of Loyola knew this passage from the gospel and knew it in a way that didn't hinge upon Jesus' attitude. I wonder whether he heard something else in this story.

Ignatius, like so many saints of old, was quite the rabble-rouser before he became a devout Christian. He was a fighter--actually a mercenary--who enjoyed fully the vanities and pleasures of the world (see Lesser Feasts & Fasts 2018). Once, after being gravely wounded in battle, he was convalescing in Loyola, where he experienced a great spiritual awakening. During that time, he felt God calling him to become a knight in God's army, and he was determined to devote his life to the service of God.

But Ignatius was not a priest. He was a soldier. He did not know theology. He knew fighting, discipline, and the art of war. Yet he used what he knew to pursue a life of service in God's kingdom. Like a skilled tactician, he made notes of his experience and began to share them with others. His notes evolved into a text now known as the Spiritual Exercises, which spoke of deep intimacy with Jesus Christ and the need for all to respond to Jesus' invitation, "Come, follow me."

His teachings were profound in their accessibility, and more and more people were drawn to them, but officials in the wider church were suspicious. Ignatius wasn't a priest. He wasn't a theologian. He was a convert-soldier who had had a profound religious experience. The religious experts rightly had been trained to be suspicious of ordinary people who sought a cult following after having a religious experience, so they pushed back, making Ignatius' work for God difficult. So, at the age of 37, Ignatius went back to school, to the University of Paris, where he trained to become a priest. While there, he did what he knew how to do--he shared his notebook with some fellow students, and, in the midst of their studies, he and six companions took vows to lives of poverty and service of the poor. Six years later, their order was officially recognized, and the Society of Jesus--the Jesuits--was accepted into the church, and Ignatius was accepted as its first Superior General.

To those who wish to follow Jesus but who need first to stay behind and take care of some business, Jesus seems to say, "Don't bother." But Ignatius shows us that one doesn't need to give up everything she knows in order to answer Jesus' call, "Come, follow me." Ignatius was a soldier who became a soldier for God. He did what he knew how to do--that which was his business--but he did it for Jesus. "I will follow you anywhere," a would-be disciple says, and Jesus replies, "There is nowhere--no hole, no nest, no bed--where we are going." Maybe following Jesus doesn't lead us to a particular destination. To the one who needs to bury his father, Jesus replies, "If you think you have to choose between discipleship and family, let the dead bury their own dead. But maybe it's possible to be faithful to my call without ever leaving home." To the one who needs to settle his affairs before setting off with Jesus, Jesus says, "You can't look back and be fit." But Ignatius knew what it meant to have his hand on the plow while still looking forward. Ignatius knew how to follow Jesus from where he was, from what he knew. He knew what it meant for all of us--soldiers, doctors, lawyers, farmers, therapists, teachers, homemakers--to answer Jesus' call.

Sometimes I preach a sermon on this same passage, and the point of the sermon is to remind us that following Jesus is costly and that, unless we are willing to give everything up, we can't be a part of the way of Jesus. That's true, too. And I think Ignatius of Loyola would recognize that in Jesus' call. But Ignatius reminds us that the call to follow Jesus is not for a select few. You don't have to be a theologian, a preacher, a Sunday school teacher, a member of the Altar Guild, or a Eucharistic minister in order to hear and respond to God's call. Whoever you are, Jesus is calling you. Whoever you are, you can say yes.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Greed, Which Is Idolatry

The Gospel lesson for this coming Sunday (Luke 12:13-21) ends with a mic-drop moment: "So it is with those who store up treasure for themselves but are not rich toward God." Every time I read this parable, I want to know more of what it means to be "rich toward God." But for today I want to explore briefly a related concept in the Epistle reading (Colossians 3:1-11), which isn't intended to tie in with the Gospel but just does.

In his letter to the Colossians, Paul uses strong language to urge his readers to leave behind their sinful ways: "Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly..." As is always the case with Paul, he's building his argument on the crucifixion of Jesus, arguing that just as sin was put to death in Jesus, so, too, must it be put to death in those who have been baptized into Jesus' death (i.e. us). Here's Paul's list of earthly things that must die within us: "fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry)." The NRSV puts the relative clause in parentheses as does the CEB. The ESV and ASV translate it as "covetousness, which is idolatry," leaving the bit about idolatry outside of parentheses. The CEV helps us understand the difference, by translating the latter part of Colossians 3:5 as "Don’t be greedy, which is the same as worshiping idols."

For the most part, the translators want us to be clear that Paul isn't saying that the Colossians are literally worshiping idols. Instead, they want us to know that Paul is equating the greed or covetousness of his contemporaries with the idol worship of the pagans around them. Paul isn't accusing these Christians of bowing down to golden calves or bringing offerings to the shrine of Zeus. But he is letting them know that their greed is essentially the same thing.

Greed or covetousness is the spiritual practice of seeking security, blessing, and happiness from earthly possessions. It is not merely the pursuit of material wealth. It is the substitution of material goods for God. It is idolatry. Paul wants us to see that it is as empty a pursuit as melting together our golden jewelry, forming it into a statue of a god, and worshiping the statue we have created. In other words, it's lunacy. And yet we still do it.

It's easier to get comfort in the bank account whose balance we can see, whose bills we can feel with our fingers, whose spending power we can apply to the food we taste and the car we drive and the security system we install, than in the God whose love and blessing and protection and promise are real and lasting and triumphant but, alas, ethereal. When Moses was delayed on Mt. Sinai and the people panicked, they made a golden calf not because they wanted to thumb their nose at God but because they were scared and wanted to see the god who had delivered them from Egypt. They needed something to see and touch so that they could believe in it. Big mistake. And we duplicate it.

Put greed to death. Paul encourages his readers to remember that because Christ has died and has been raised and has been seated in the heavenly places, we, too, have power to set our minds on those heavenly things and places. The power comes not from within us, which is why Paul is so bold as to say that the sin within us must be put to death. It is the reversal of power. We must allow the greed in us to be put to death so that our hearts can belong with God and not chasing a cheap substitute we can see and feel. It feels good to buy nice things, but, if greed is our motivation, the good feeling we pursue is idolatry. Look around your house, your garage, your life. Could you let it all go? Or are you building a shrine full of idols?

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Trusting God To Say Yes

July 28, 2019 – The 7th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 12C

© 2019 Evan D. Garner

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

Whose door would you knock on at midnight if an unexpected guest showed up at your house and you had nothing to offer? Or, to contemporize Jesus’ analogy, whom would you call at two o’clock in the morning if your husband fell and you couldn’t get him back into bed? Whom would you call to come and watch your sleeping children if you had to take another child to the hospital? Whom would you wake up in the middle of the night if you needed someone to bail you out of jail?

Actually, it’s pretty hard to imagine a scenario in which I would call upon someone in the middle of the night, and I think that was Jesus’ point. Because the roads were dangerous, people didn’t travel after dark, so there really wasn’t any chance that out-of-town company would show up on your doorstep at midnight. But, in the extremely unlikely event that they did, whom would you ask for three loaves of bread so that you weren’t embarrassed to have nothing for your visitors?

Whoever it is, you had better be sure that they would say yes. The urgency of the request requires an affirmative response. You can’t afford to knock on a second door, and that’s not only because your guest is waiting. It’s also because you can’t afford for the neighborhood to know that you were up in the middle of the night, knocking on doors and asking for bread. If you were to wake someone up in the middle of the night to ask that person for a favor and she were to say no, how would your relationship survive it? In order to even ask, it has to be the sort of person whom you know will say yes. You wouldn’t have asked if you weren’t desperate, and, if you’re close enough to that person to knock on her door, the person on the other side must be gracious enough to grant your request. In other words, in this ridiculous scenario that Jesus imagines, when a person who is that desperate for help knocks on someone’s door, there never was a possibility that the answer would be no.

That’s what Jesus teaches us when he teaches us how to pray. He teaches us to know that, when we approach God, the answer will always be yes. That’s not because God is in the wish-granting business. It’s because God is our Father.

Jesus was praying in a certain place, and, after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” The words that followed are as familiar to us as they are bare. “Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.” (It’s short enough not even to need a block quotation when typing it out into this sermon.)

The first thing Jesus teaches us is to call God “Father.” That’s where it starts, and everything else flows from that. For some of us, “Father” is a term laden with disappointment and frustration and hurt. For all of us, no matter how exemplary or neglectful our paternal role model was, the “Father” Jesus has in mind exceeds not only our experience but even our greatest hopes and our highest expectations. In the prayer Jesus taught us, what matters is not that we can imagine God in terms analogous to our earthly parents. What matters is that we can approach God as if God were as near and familiar to us as the one who raised us. For as long as there have been children, there have been parents whose children have asked to borrow the car, to borrow twenty dollars, to borrow a jacket. Like a little child who pulls on her mother’s skirt and reaches up with open arms, asking only for a hug, Jesus invites us to approach God as if God were the one whose loving “yes” was even more certain and more loving than that of the most wonderful parent on earth.

The rest of the prayer Jesus teaches us also hinges upon that parental understanding: “Hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. Forgive us as we forgive others. Do not bring us to the time of trial.” Daily bread? Your kingdom come? Who would ask for such things? Those words are the truest prayer of the one who is a true child of God. To call God “Father” not only has implications for who God is but also for who we are as God’s children. In the prayer that Jesus taught us, we put ourselves, as Rowan Williams wrote, in the place of Jesus.  Just as Jesus’ relationship with God becomes our own, so, too, do the words that we say and the hopes that they contain.

Like a child who has inherited a parent’s physical features or mannerisms, we reflect in our lives and hopes and dreams the fact that we belong to God as God’s children. Every time we say, “Our Father,” the practice of rehearsing that relationship in prayer further shapes us, drawing us more and more deeply into the divine presence, aligning our heart’s desire with that of the heart of God. In time, the simple prayer that Jesus taught us and the practice of praying it over and over change what we want into what God wants, leaving us content with daily provision, reconciled relationships, and submission to God’s will.

That hasn’t always been the case, of course. Just as a child’s disappointment at opening a Christmas present to find clothes evolves into an adult’s delight to find the same gift, so, too, does our delight in God and God’s will evolve as we are able more fully and faithfully to call upon God as our Father. We pray the words, “Our Father,” until we know that those words are true—until our deepest desire is God’s deepest desire. In the end, therefore, God grants us not only what we need but also what we truly want in a reciprocal desire that Jesus identifies as the Holy Spirit.

When Jesus teaches us to pray, he teaches us the same thing that he has always taught us—to believe, to know, to count on God’s unwavering love. The Lord’s Prayer, therefore, is an exercise in faith—a statement of what we believe and what we hope to believe. Jesus invites us to call God “Father” because, as the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ is the one who inseparably brings God to us and us to God. We pray the prayer that Jesus taught us not because there is magic in those words but because there is power in approaching God with trust in our hearts that God is our Father, our Mother, our eternally loving parent. That trust—that faith—has the power to shape us into the children we are bold enough to claim to be—the children that Jesus has taught us that we are.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Family Affair

If you think Amos' dead bodies and prostitute wife were bad, welcome to Hosea. Having moved from the historical works into the prophets, the RCL Track 1 Old Testament readings have taken us into difficult texts. This Sunday, we begin the book of the prophet Hosea by meeting the prophet's own family--a wife of whoredom and children whose lives are valuable primarily because they are expressions of God's judgment against God's people.

Sometimes I am bothered by biblical texts in which God commands God's people to commit genocide against their enemies. Sometimes I am bothered by texts in which women are treated as property or sexual objects. But this passage from Hosea, in which a family becomes an instrument of the prophet's mission, hits really close to home. Would God ever sacrifice the identity of a child simply to prove a point? Would a preacher like me?

Hosea has a family. He marries a woman named Gomer, and they have four children--two sons (Jezreel and Lo-ammi) and a daughter (Lo-ruhamah). Actually, I think other translations of the Bible help us out by rendering some of those names as translations from Hebrew into English. For example, the ESV names the daughter "No Mercy" and the second son "Not My People." In other words, at God's command, Hosea names his daughter "No Mercy" as a sign to the people that God will not have mercy on them and his son "Not My People" as a sign that God is no longer their God.

What is it like to grow up with those names? "You're that prophet's kid, huh?" the kids at school must have said. "Your dad's a crazy man!"

What would lead someone to give his family so completely into his prophetic ministry? Surely Hosea knew what he was doing to his children. Surely he glimpsed the pain into which he was drafting them. Like many of the prophets, Hosea had a sharp message. Maybe he wanted his hearers to understood that his message cost him, too. Maybe he wanted the people in positions of power to see that he was also bearing the burden of his prophecy. I don't know whether that makes it right, but, as a preacher who is known to tell stories about my kids from the pulpit, I want to hope that Hosea had something bigger in mind.

On the other side of Hosea's sharp message, however, is a word of comfort. We receive an injection of hope at the end of Sunday's lesson: "Yet the number of the people of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which can be neither measured nor numbered; and in the place where it was said to them, 'You are not my people,' it shall be said to them, 'Children of the living God.'" A complete reversal of what he has already declared, Hosea reminds God's people that, even though they will not be God's people for a generation symbolized by his son's name, eventually it will be said again that they do belong to God. Maybe Hosea was so desperate for hope that he was willing to sacrifice even that which was most dear to him in order to pursue it. Then again, maybe that's just wishful thinking.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Gospel At 50,000 Feet

Sometimes it helps to read a gospel lesson from the macro-perspective. In the biggest sense, what is this story, this encounter, this passage trying to teach us? This coming Sunday, in Luke 11, Jesus will teach his disciples how to pray and then use two potentially troubling analogies to get his point across. If we forget what the passage looks like from 50,000 feet, tt's easy to get lost in the details, in the weeds, and misinterpret Jesus' point.

On the other hand, sometimes we need to get down into the details because the macro-perspective just isn't right. For example, last Sunday, when we heard the story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10, it is easy to step back and think that Jesus is saying that the contemplative life is better than a life of busy service. But, if you look at the details--at the text itself--you notice that Jesus isn't taking issue with Martha's service but with her drawn-apart-ness, her distraction. Something is pulling her away from whatever the one important thing is. Sometimes we need to get down and take a close look or else the careless sermon misses the true point.

This week, I think a back and forth between macro- and micro-perspectives is helpful. Jesus' disciples ask him to teach them how to pray, and Jesus offers a simple answer, the framework of which is now very familiar to us. "When you pray, say: 'Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins for we forgive those indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial."

That's it. That's all Jesus tells them to say. It's simple. It's straightforward. There's no petition for healing. There's no intercessory prayer at all. Just an acknowledgment of God, a hope for God's reign to come, a request for daily sustenance, a mutual commitment to forgiveness, and a petition to stay out of trouble. There's no magic to it except, perhaps, at how minimalist it is. (Have you read the psalms?)

But what is Jesus trying to teach us? Does he mean that the only words we should pray are these words? What about intercessory prayer? What about thanksgiving? What about silent prayer? And why does Jesus spend so much time praying in the garden before he is arrested? How many times did he need to say these simple words?

Of course, there's more value to this teaching than the words themselves. The two analogies that follow help us see what Jesus had in mind. "Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him and midnight and say to him, 'Friend, lend me three loaves of bread...'" At the end of the analogy, Jesus gives a practical, pragmatic explanation: "at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs." Jesus' teaching on prayer, therefore, isn't just about saying particular words; it's also about being persistent in prayer.

The second analogy offers an additional understanding: "Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish...? How much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!" On the one hand, this is a simple reminder that God will give good things to those who ask him, but it's also a reminder that Jesus shows us that God is our heavenly parent. The "Our Father" of the Lord's Prayer is substantial. We approach God with confidence that God will hear us and respond to us as a loving parent would. Our prayers, therefore, are offered in confidence. Part of what Jesus wants to teach us about prayer is that we engage in prayer confident that God will receive our prayer and respond to our prayer in goodness.

So we step back up to the macro-perspective and receive the Lord's Prayer as more than powerful words. This is a tool for persistent, confident prayer. Every day, when we say the words that Jesus taught us, we are not only doing what he taught us to do, but we are also given the means to pray over and over and over--to stay connected in prayer. And these words, with their bareness, invite us to pray with confidence that God will give us all that we need--not just our daily bread but whatever we need that day. The words aren't powerful because they're magic; they're powerful because they invite us into a powerful practice. Jesus wasn't just teaching the disciples what to pray. He was teaching them how to pray.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

A Good Portion For Everyone

July 21, 2019 – The 6th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 11C

© 2019 Evan D. Garner

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

In March 2013, when our daughter was five, Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected by the College of Cardinals to be the next Pope. When we told our daughter that the Bishop of Rome had chosen Francis to be his papal name, she was ecstatic. “That’s my name!” Frances exclaimed. “Maybe I can be the Pope someday, too!” Anticipating her disappointment, I tried to explain that a woman could not be the Pope, and, for the first time in my life, I found myself telling my first-born child that there was a dream that she could not pursue because she was a girl.

Indeed, the list of male-only dreams has shrunk considerably over the last decade. Women now serve in combat roles in our military. The Olympics now allow women to compete in boxing and ski jumping. (Maybe Greco-Roman wrestling and nordic combined will come next.) A few years ago, a woman was almost elected President of the United States, and perhaps it’s worth noting that, as a teenager, Hillary Rodham wanted to be an astronaut until NASA let her know that they only accepted men into their program.

As a five-year-old girl who had grown up in the Episcopal Church, our daughter was confused to find that a position in the church was closed to her. She had seen women preach from the pulpit and preside at the altar. Why couldn’t a woman be Pope? I tried to explain the differences between the Roman Catholic Church and The Episcopal Church, but, as I did, as much as I would have liked to define misogyny as an exclusively Roman problem, I had to confess that patriarchy isn’t confined to the other side of the Tiber. And so, as both her father and as an embodiment of the patriarchy that still plagues the church, I explained to my little girl that she could do anything she set her mind to…unless the men in this world decided that she couldn’t. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

We see a different view of how the world might be in today’s Gospel lesson. On their way toward Jerusalem, Jesus and his disciples stopped in a town, where they were received as guests in the home of a woman named Martha. Entertaining a dozen or more men from out of town is quite an undertaking in any era, and Luke lets us know that Martha was overwhelmed by the task of being the host. Actually, he uses a strange word to describe what Martha experienced—a word that, as my friend and colleague Steve Pankey noted in his blog this week, literally means “drawn about.”  Martha was drawn about—pulled apart, running all over the place—trying to get everything done, and finally she had had enough. “Lord,” she said to Jesus, “don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the serving by myself? Tell her, then, to help me!”

Mary, on the other hand, had been sitting quietly at Jesus’ feet, listening to him the way that a disciple would. She was captivated by the teacher’s words. All of the necessary tasks—the cooking and serving and filling glasses and making sure the guests were enjoying themselves—they all fell away as Mary sat intently focused on the visiting rabbi. Her failure to help wasn’t just a selfish indulgence. In the eyes of everyone in the room, it was a failure both as sister and as woman—at least in the eyes of everyone except Mary and Jesus. Everyone who noticed that Martha was overwhelmed by her tasks would have expected Mary to get up and help. When Martha reached her breaking point, she turned to the religious authority in the room because she knew that an arbiter of their ancestral faith would surely agree that Mary’s place was by her sister’s side, back in the kitchen, gaining personal satisfaction from working hard to be sure that the men were happy. But that’s now how Jesus saw things.

“Martha, Martha,” he replied, “you are worried and distracted by many things—by the many chores you have set yourself to accomplish. Actually, only one thing is needed.” For a split-second, Martha must have wondered what that one thing was. Did Jesus need a glass of water? Or maybe he meant that a single dish or a loaf of bread would be sufficient. Or perhaps he noticed that there was only one more thing to do before Martha could sit down and relax beside her sister. “Only one thing is needed,” Jesus said to her. “Mary has chosen the good part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Some translations use the comparative form and describe Mary’s portion as the “better” part, but the Greek text is ambiguous, and I think it makes more sense to hear Jesus naming Mary’s choice as good without needing to compare it with her sister’s decision to serve the guests. Jesus says to Martha, “Mary’s choice is a good one. It is good for her to be here among my disciples. This is where she belongs. What about you? Where do you belong? Don’t be drawn about—pulled in so many different directions. Where do you want to be? Where is your place? Don’t let other people tell you where you belong. Don’t worry about what they say or do. Let go of all their chatter. Stay focused in your own mind. Only one thing is needed. Where do you know that you belong? Find that place, and no one will take it away from you, even if that place is here as one of my disciples."

In many ways, the church still claims to be the moral framework for our society. Despite declining attendance and declining influence, representatives of Christianity still tell us what the world is supposed to look like, and the world is listening to them. But most Christians (and certainly the loudest ones) who are telling us what is right and what is wrong aren’t articulating God’s vision for the world. They are sharing their own self-serving vision wrapped up in a Christian disguise. We know this because their vision is nothing like God’s vision for the world. Their vision limits access to healthcare, promotes economic disparity, seeks to silence the voices of those with black or brown skin, and treats women and minorities as second-class citizens—as less important, less valuable than white men. How else could the President of the United States tell four female members of Congress, “Go back where you came from,” and gain support from his supposedly Christian base?

That isn’t how Jesus sees the world. Jesus envisions healing for all, prosperity for all, freedom for all, and dignity for all. That’s why he healed the lepers, celebrated the poor and the helpless, criticized the rich and the powerful, and welcomed women like Mary among his disciples. Jesus shows us that God unconditionally loves and values every single human being, and that doesn’t leave any room for racism or classism or toxic masculinity. Jesus makes room among his beloved followers for those whom the powerful would prefer to send back to the place where they presume that they belong. But Jesus shows us that they belong right next to him, right here with us.

That is God’s vision for the world, and, if we are going to be followers of Jesus, it must be our vision as well. For too long the church has stood on the side of the powerful, the connected, and the privileged. We have allowed Jesus’ voice to be coopted by those who seek to serve themselves and not the welfare of every human being. Their vision for the world seems to be unfolding all around us, and it is not only different from God’s vision but a threat to it. We cannot, therefore, be silent any longer. We must take back Jesus’ voice and let it speak to those in power. We must let Jesus’ voice be our voice. Only one thing is needed. If Jesus wouldn’t let the good portion be taken away from anyone, why would we?

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

What's Wrong With Amos?

Last Sunday's reading from Amos was a bit harsh. Speaking to the priest who would silence the prophet, Amos declared, "Your wife shall become a prostitute in the city." That's personal. So tough were Amos' words that a parishioner stopped me on Monday just to tell me how unpleasant they were. "Wait until you hear what the prophet says this week!" I replied.

This week, Amos continues his work. "The end has come upon my people," the Lord declares through the prophet. "I will never again pass them by." The dead bodies will pile up. Feasts become fasts. Celebrations become lamentations. Everyone will mourn as if she or he had lost an only child. But why?

Hear the prophet's indictment of the people:
Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, 'When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat.' The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.
Let's pick that apart. First, the prophet addresses his damning predictions to those who "trample on the needy and bring to ruin the poor of the land." Although he is just getting warmed up, it's worth noting how the prophet initially identifies his audience. He doesn't begin with "idol worshipers" or "those who pray to Baal." The focus isn't on religion; it's on behavior. The problem isn't described as a theological one but a practical one. Those who have come into the crosshairs of the prophet are those who have taken advantage of those in need--the poor.

Second, note how it is that the evil ones have mistreated the poor and needy. They say to themselves, "We will make the ephah small and the shekel great and practice deceit with false balances." In other words, they are cheating in their trade. They are taking the money of the poor and selling them less than a full measure of food. And what can the poor do about it? To whom will they bring their complaint?

Third, look how bad things have gotten. The wicked are those who "[buy] the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals." The prophet holds up a mirror of truth, showing the powerful that they aren't just cheating the poor. They are, in effect, making people a transaction. The lives of the poor become no more valuable than a handful of change or even a pair of sandals. That's a consumerist culture. That's I'd rather spend my money on cheaply-made, sweat-shop-produced than care about the people who make them. That's Amazon Prime Day.

Finally, notice that there is an inherent religious problem going on. The evil ones say to themselves, "When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain, and the sabbath so that we may offer wheat for sale?" In other words, when will the religious festivals be over so that we can get back to what we really care about--making money at the expense of the poor and defenseless? And that's the real problem. Religion and behavior--theology and practice--are never separate.

What does it mean to belong to the God of Israel? What does it mean to be faithful? What does it mean to abandon idol worship? What does it mean to stay true to the faith of the ancestors? It means honoring the poor, the widow, the orphan. It means caring for the stranger. It means providing for those who are hungry. It means lending without demand of interest. It means using fair scales in trade. It means championing the cause of the defenseless. It means standing up for those who are oppressed. And when we forget it? When we pursue the false gods, when we begin to blend our religion with practices that are more advantageous for us, we give up those commitments. And soon the consumer-culture becomes our god.

The prophet has some harsh words for us this week, and we are desperate to hear them. We don't like hearing them, and that's exactly why we need them most. When will the weekend be over so that we can see the deals that will be offered on Amazon Prime Day? When will the Fed cut interest rates? When will I have enough money to retire? How easy it is for us to forget what really matters--to brush aside our God and the demand that we care more for others than ourselves--and pursue what is important to us.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Do You Know Mary?

Do you know Mary--the one who sits at Jesus' feet and listens to what he is saying? Do you know the one who lets her sister Martha take care of all of the serving, busying about the house, entertaining all of the guests, while she soaks in all that the master has to say?

This Sunday, after reading Luke 10:38-42, preachers everywhere will be encouraging their congregations to give up the anxieties and concerns that distract us from the good life of sitting and contemplating our relationship with God, but I wonder how many of us really know this Mary.

There are two sets of Mary-Martha sisters in the New Testament. John's version is more famous. His Mary and Martha have a brother named Lazarus, who is Jesus friend. Lazarus, of course, dies, and Jesus comes to raise him from the dead. In that episode, we find Mary staying at home, mourning, while Martha, upon hearing that Jesus was in town, gets up to go and find him. Martha is the one who engages Jesus in the first question and answer. Only later, when she goes back to the house and tells her sister that Jesus is calling for her, does Mary get up and go talk to Jesus. A little later in John's account, Jesus stops back by Bethany and dines at Lazarus' house. Martha serves, and Mary wipes Jesus' feet with her hair. Perhaps there's a similar approach to crisis and busyness embedded in that story, but part of me thinks I just want the stories to line up.

Luke's Mary and Martha occupy only the five verses we will read this Sunday. There is no other mention of Mary or Martha in Luke. In fact, there is no other mention of "Martha" anywhere in the New Testament except John and Luke's stories about the sisters. "Mary" is mentioned many times, but it can be hard to keep the Marys straight. In Luke's gospel account, "Mary" occurs throughout the opening chapters, always referring to Jesus' mother, then in a passing reference in Luke 8 to "Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out," then in the story about the sisters, and finally in the list of women who go to the tomb, including "Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them." In other words, Mary and Martha appear out of nowhere and disappear just as quickly. They are momentary characters, yet their story feels pivotal.

I wonder why Luke chose to tell the story of Mary and Martha but Matthew and Mark left it out. And I wonder why John picks up the story of Mary and Martha and makes it his own, by bringing their brother Lazarus into the story. I wonder whether John's sisters are even the same as Luke's pair--probably, given the subject matter, but they seem to play a very different role in the telling of the gospel. This Sunday, since Luke uses them in isolation, I wonder how much the preacher should talk about Mary and Martha as if they are familiar characters.

I'm preaching this Sunday, and, if you can't tell, I'm trying to avoid simply saying, "Do less; pray more." There's value in that for sure, but what else is this text about? Because Mary and Martha are one-off characters in Luke, I trust that they fit in here for a reason. They immediately follow the parable of the merciful Samaritan, which we heard yesterday. Just before that, Jesus says some strange things about God hiding the truth from the wise and revealing it to infants. He praises his disciples for having eyes that see what they see. "Just then," Luke tells us, "a lawyer stood up to test Jesus." So that means that Jesus is on a role about how someone enters, finds, or sees the reign of God. The disciples have found that they see it through the eyes of infants. The lawyer finds that he must set aside his assumptions about who is his neighbor in order to enter it. Mary and Martha learn that nothing else matters as much as the pursuit of the reign of God that has come to the world in Jesus Christ.

This week, instead of trying to fit Luke's version of Mary and Martha into John's account of the friends of Bethany, I'm going to work on fitting these sisters into Luke's bigger story. In Luke, they are presented as part of a bigger whole, and, in order to see it, I have to leave behind what I know from John. In the end, it will probably say something like, "Do less; pray more," but I hope it will say that as an invitation to something bigger because something bigger is surely what Luke had in mind.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Answer The Question

When everyone was preparing for exams in Cambridge, the Dean of St. John's College would offer some helpful advice during the Sunday-morning chapel breakfast. He'd offer a few valuable insights, and, as he concluded his remarks, he always finished with some form of "ANSWER THE QUESTION." In that model of examination, students spend an entire academic year reading and writing and learning in anticipation of the final exams. It's tempting, therefore, to see a question about Paul and misogyny and start regurgitating the practice essay you'd written about Paul's treatment of women in his letters, when, in fact, the question was something like, "What was Paul's vision for gender roles in the church?" They're related topics, but, in order to get a good mark, the student must tailor her response to the question that has been set.

On Sunday morning, as we hear the familiar parable of the Good Samaritan, we need to pay attention to the question Jesus is answering with his story or else we might come up with an answer that doesn't actually fit the situation. Notice that a lawyer comes to Jesus and asks what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus responds by asking the lawyer to demonstrate what is written in the law, and the man offers the expected response: love God and love your neighbor. There's nothing wrong with that. But the lawyer goes a step further. "Wanting to justify himself, he ask[s] Jesus, 'And who is my neighbor?'"

Jesus answers the man's question with a story. In the parable, we see that neither a priest nor a Levite stop to help a man in need. Instead, a Samaritan checks on the man, tends to his wounds, carries him to a nearby inn, spends the night caring for him, and provides the money to the innkeeper and promises to pay whatever is needed to care for the man.

The story is a remarkable challenge to ethnic prejudice. Samaritans hated Jews, and Jews hated Samaritans. Preachers who use football rivalries to convey the enmity between the peoples do not do it justice. I don't like Auburn fans in the sense that they cheer for Auburn, but I don't have a problem respecting their humanity, calling them friends, and loving them. Samaritans and Jews thought of each other as less than human. If three Samaritans were in a bar, and one of them said to his friends, "What do you call a robbed, beaten, and left-for-dead Jew?" the presumed answer would be, "Good news." For the hero in the story to be a Samaritan, therefore, is to throw all of the assumptions of the lawyer, Jesus' Jewish audience, and those of us who read and retell this story out the window. If you understand the ethnic background, you cannot hear this story without being challenged.

This is not a story about caring for those in need. Even though the Samaritan did far more than what would have been expected of any good citizen, this is not a parable that teaches us to drop everything and care for the wounded, homeless, sick, malnourished person we come across. Remember the question that the man asks Jesus: "Who is my neighbor?" When Jesus finishes the story, he says, "Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?" Refusing, perhaps, to say the dreaded name of the rival people, the man replied, "The one who showed mercy." This isn't a story about showing mercy. It's a story about neighbors. The final instruction Jesus offers, "Go and do likewise," means "Go and treat even Samaritans with mercy, loving them as much as you love yourself."

Love your neighbor as yourself. Who is your neighbor? Exactly. We don't need help loving the people who love us. We don't need God to send God's Son to the world and take our nature upon himself and die on the cross and be raised again to learn how to love our family and friends. Following Jesus and pursuing the reign of God is about loving the ones who hate us, who persecute us, who wish we were dead and loving them as much as we love ourselves. That's the barrier-shattering love that God shows us in Jesus. This Sunday, as we hear a familiar story, don't forget the question that is being asked. This isn't about "What must I do?" but "Whom must I love?"

Wednesday, July 10, 2019


Last month, I spent three weeks taking classes at the School of Theology in Sewanee. It's my third summer to do that, but it's the first time I lived in the dorm. In my previous summers, I've been able to rent a house from a seminarian and share part of the time with my family, but, this year, it was just me. The week before I left, I began to scramble to get together the things I needed to take with me. I had already ordered and received all of my books, but I discovered that I needed things like extra-long twin sheets. (I haven't had those in my closet since I graduated from college.) Like a kid going to summer camp, I hastily went through the e-mail with the recommended packing list, and, like the parent of a kid going to summer camp, I ordered everything I needed from Amazon--at least everything I thought I needed.

At Sewanee, here's what I discovered. No one tells you to bring hand soap or a hand towel. Unless you like overhead fluorescent lights, you may want to bring a lamp. And all those dress socks I packed? I didn't wear them to class a single time.

In Luke 10, Jesus sends out seventy followers, and here are the instructions he gives them: "Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road." In other words, don't bother packing anything, and don't try to make friends along the way. Just show up in whatever town you go to, and trust that things will work out. Knock on a door and say, "Peace be to this house!" And if the people there are willing to share in peace, your peace will rest on them. If not, it will return to you, and you can go to another house. When you find a family that will welcome you, stay there until your work in that town is done. Eat whatever they provide, and stay focused on your work. And, if no one will take you in, shake off the dust and keep moving. Regardless, the kingdom of God is on its way.

I wonder what it felt like to go out to prepare the way for Jesus but to be so under-equipped. I wonder what it teaches us to travel light. I wonder what lessons we learn when we put down our smart phones and leave behind our wallets and head out down the road to see what we will discover. I wonder what we might learn about depending on God and the generosity of others and the limits of our own abilities and the limitlessness of the Holy Spirit's power.

When the seventy return, they are filled with joy that even the demons submit to them! In their travelling light, depending on whatever provision God will bring to them, the seventy discovered that they had remarkable power--even power over evil spirits. But Jesus reminds them to keep everything in perspective. "See, I have given you power to tread on snakes and scorpions and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing will hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven."

Setting down the encumbrances of this life and travelling light--living on the edge of complete dependence on God--gives us access to great power. When we recognize that we are sustained not by our own efforts but by God's never-failing love, we find the Spirit's power breathing through us. We are given the courage to face the evil of this world. We receive the power to risk our lives and our fortunes for the sake of justice. We are able to proclaim with authenticity, "The kingdom of God has come near!" But those who live in that place of powerful dependence on God don't celebrate merely the stuff they accomplish--the kind of stuff that gets your name in the local newspaper. There's something more important to celebrate. Those who live and eat and drink and breathe upon God's blessings are those who belong to God--those who are citizens of God's reign.

Take a step away from over-preparedness for life. Look at the stuff you've packed. Examine your bank account, your 401(k), your life insurance policy. Think about your house, your lake house, your cars. Think about your resume, your degrees, your CV. What would happen if you set them aside and learned even just a little bit better what it means to depend on God? What power would you find? What identity would you discover? You are God's children. God will provide for you. God has a purpose for you. That's true of everyone who belongs to God. What's getting in the way of celebrating your participation in God's reign?

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Nameless Prophets

July 7, 2019 – The 4th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 9C

© 2019 Evan D. Garner

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

She didn’t have a name—at least not one worth mentioning—but she did have the answer. She was young when the invading army destroyed her village and took her captive but not so young than she didn’t know about her people and their God. She also knew that her mistress’ husband was a powerful man, a mighty general, who, despite all his authority, carried in his body a terrible weakness. An entire army did whatever he asked, and neighboring kings cowered in fear when they heard his name, but that same warrior was utterly powerless over his leprosy, and everyone knew it. An ironic blemish on his otherwise invulnerable image, the skin condition was a silent enemy that could not be defeated. But the Israelite slave girl knew better.

We are not told why she spoke to her mistress. Maybe she hoped for something in return, or maybe she acted out of compassion, but, whatever her reason, the nameless slave girl took a risk and explained to the general’s wife that there was a prophet in Israel who could cure her husband. It was a bold, even brazen, statement—one that a slave girl had no business making, one that must have stemmed from genuine faith. Who did this captive servant think that she was, suggesting that her native people had access to a curative power that their Syrian counterparts could only dream of? And yet there was something so reckless about her offer that made the general’s wife believe that it might just be possible.

The general’s wife didn’t have a name either—at least not one that is told to us—but she knew how to get a man whose life depended upon an unwavering display of power to attend to his hidden weakness. She knew how important the possibility of healing was to her husband, and she also knew how hard it would be to convince him to go to Israel—to the land of their sworn enemies—in search of it. Only when the time was right, when she knew that he would be receptive, did she mention what her slave girl had told her. She didn’t oversell it for fear of putting him off but deftly hinted at it, planting a seed and allowing the mighty general to imagine what his life would be life if he were freed from his terrible disease. In the end, her hints were enough. Unable to get the fantasy of healing out of his mind, the warrior approached his own master in order to get permission to leave the country in search of a cure.

The king of Aram also didn’t have a name—at least not one that the narrator bothers to record for us in this passage—but he did have plenty of money, and he was willing to give a considerable amount of it to his favorite general if it would help. As a man of unrivaled power, the king did what he knew how to do in order to get his warrior the cure he was after. Assuming that such miraculous power would be found in the courts of a king, he wrote a letter to his counterpart in Israel, introducing his general with confidence that the Israelite king would give him what he sought. But the king of Israel, who also didn’t have a name worth mentioning, panicked when he read the Aramean king’s letter. “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy?” he screamed in fear, ripping his clothes apart. The king was the most powerful man in Israel, yet there was nothing he could do to meet his rival’s demand. “It must be a ruse—a plot to pick a quarrel with me!” the king exclaimed, unable to see beyond his own impotence.

For generations, the prophets had tried to show the people of God that God’s power had deserted the palace of Israel’s faithless kings, so it shouldn’t surprise us that the king didn’t have a clue how to respond. But, when word came to the prophet Elisha that the king had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, “Let [the man] come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.” He didn’t need to say it, but the message made it clear that the Israelite king needed to learn that same lesson. When the general left the palace, it must have been a ridiculous sight to see him with all of his horses and chariots and silver and gold and festal garments go parading away from the palace and down the neighborhood streets until the whole company came to the prophet’s house. Surely the prophet heard them coming, yet, when they approached, the prophet didn’t even bother to go outside to meet them. Instead, he sent a messenger—another nameless individual—with instructions that the leprous warrior should go and dip himself seven times in the River Jordan.

When he heard it, the general was filled with rage. He had never been treated so dismissively. “Doesn’t he know who I am? Doesn’t he know the power that I have? Doesn’t he know that I could flatten his little domicile as if it were made of straw?” the Aramean warrior yelled, cursing the arrogant prophet. “I thought that for me he would surely come out and call upon the name of his God and wave his hand over the spot, yet all he did was send me a messenger with a ‘folk remedy’ I could have gotten back at home. [1]  I could have saved myself the time and trouble and dipped myself in one of the rivers of Damascus.” But, as the angry man stormed away, a few of his servants, none of whom had a name worth writing down but who were brave and skilled enough to speak to their enraged master, approached him and said, “If the prophet had asked you to do something difficult, wouldn’t you have done it without question? Why, then, won’t you do this thing that is simple? Don’t you want to be healed?”

We live in a world in which people hunger and thirst for power. The currency of our lives is strength and wealth and control. Weakness and vulnerability are anathema. Yet our God is the God of the poor and the oppressed. Our God has always been on the side of the weak and the destitute. God’s salvation comes not to the invincible but to the defenseless, not to the self-reliant but to the completely dependent. In the story of Naaman the leper, it is the nameless slave girl, the nameless wife, the nameless messenger, and the nameless servants who point the afflicted warrior toward the power of God. Their emptiness becomes a vessel for God’s action. The nameless kings of Aram and Israel remind us that those who think that power is something to be grasped have failed to understand the true nature of power. We learn an important lesson from their ironic powerlessness. And, in the end, we see that only when Naaman empties himself, admits his need, and accepts the prophet’s menial instructions does God’s salvation come to him.

In a world that is infatuated with its own power, we must become empty and broken vessels for God’s salvation. The threat of war is real. Hostilities mount all around us. Our nation’s military might is on full display. But God’s reign of peace comes through empty, vulnerable, powerless people like us. If the power-drunk world is going to discover the way of God, we must become like nameless prophets, who give up the identities that we have earned for ourselves or that have been given to us by our ancestors in order to point people to God. We must be stripped of all earthly power. We must let our vulnerability stand in stark contrast to the powers and principalities around us. Then, God’s might will be revealed to them in us. Then, in our weakness, they will know the saving power of God.

[1] For the reference to a "folk remedy," see Walter Brueggemann's 1 & 2 Kings, copyright 2000.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Our National Story

This post is also an article in our weekly parish newsletter. To read the rest of the newsletter and learn more of what God is doing in and through St. Paul's, Fayetteville, click here.

In The Episcopal Church, we celebrate Independence Day as a religious holiday—a major feast in the life of our Church. As you might expect, that is not without controversy. Although this church was founded in parallel with the founding of this country, The Episcopal Church has since become a global institution, with dioceses and parishes and people in seventeen different nations from France to Taiwan, from Columbia to Haiti, from Micronesia to the Navajo Nation. Although they use the same prayer book and have the same Presiding Bishop, their national symbols and observances are different from ours.

Another controversy surrounding our Church’s celebration of Independence Day centers on the collect. As Byron Rushing, Vice-President of the House of Deputies, writes in an annual e-mail, “Many of us do not consider the words, ‘the founders of this country won liberty for themselves and for us,’ in the Independence Day collect to be accurate. Look around your congregations and reflect if all the ancestors of the ‘us’ got their liberty then.” He continues, “This phrase is only possible because slavery was forgotten or [because] the ‘us’ was not meant to include me.” This year, I find his reminder particularly damning.

Most of my ancestors came to this country by choice. They may have been fleeing a potato famine or religious prejudice, but they boarded the ships that carried them across the Atlantic because they hoped for something better. Those who were forced onto ships at gunpoint and in chains did not come across the sea with any hope of a better life. Nevertheless, their descendants’ narrative, although markedly different, is not separate from my own. Our stories overlap. As a white American, my freedom and prosperity were built upon their ancestors’ enslavement. The collect for Independence Day, therefore, not only fails to consider those citizens of our nation whose freedom was not won by our country’s founders but also fails to reflect the enslaving chains and dehumanizing three-fifths compromise upon which those founders built this nation. We cannot rewrite history—nor should we try—but we can confront its complicated, ugly legacy in order that we might do better.

The story of Israel’s founding provides an insightful parallel. After smashing the first two tablets in anger at his people’s apostasy, Moses went back up Mt. Sinai to receive again the Law from the Lord. When he returned, he offered these words that summarized the relationship between God and God’s people:
So now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you? Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the Lord your God and his decrees that I am commanding you today, for your own well-being…Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer. For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:12-13, 16-19)
The story of God’s people is inseparable from the story of slavery. In bondage, the descendants of Abraham learned that God has a preference for the poor, the oppressed, and the enslaved. Accordingly, their founding documents stress the importance of welcoming and loving and caring for the stranger. In Deuteronomy 10, we learn that such behavior is as important to the Jewish identity as circumcision. Our nation’s founders, on the other hand, experienced slavery from the side of the oppressor, giving them the luxury and privilege of forgetting or ignoring a whole mass of people when they declared, “…all Men are created equal.”

We may still have the luxury and privilege of naiveté, but we are not compelled to forget or ignore the inequality written into our national story. We watch human beings who are fleeing violence and poverty risk their lives to cross into this country. Literally, they are drowning in search of freedom. It may be a subconscious calculus, but our national response is evidence that we still believe that their lives are less valuable than ours, that brown skin is less precious than white skin. How can we call ourselves children of God? Our God is the God who “executes justice for the orphan and widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.” Our biological ancestors may not have been slaves, but our spiritual ancestors were. This year, as we celebrate the birth of our country, the “Land of the Free,” I wonder whether we might stop to consider the ways in which freedom remains unequally distributed among the residents of this nation. I wonder how we might take up our founders’ hope and make it even better.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Calling and Sending

Yesterday, when the Gospel lesson (Luke 9:51-62) was read in church, I heard something that I didn't notice during the week leading up to Sunday. That happens a lot, and, when it does, it feels like the Holy Spirit is inviting me to pay more careful attention. It was the story of Jesus interacting with would-be disciples and holding up to them a standard of urgency that none was ready to accept. One who volunteered to follow received a discouraging response from Jesus: "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no where to lay his head." The other two would-be followers have family matters that demand their attention, and, at first glance, it seems like Jesus dismisses them as unworthy of his ministry.

But, as the Gospel lesson was being read, I noticed what Jesus actually says to them: "Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God" and "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God." Even if Jesus questioned their commitment, in a way, he still invited them to pursue the kingdom of God. Rather than with a dismissal, another way to hear his words is with the invitation they contain: "You go proclaim the kingdom of God" and "Be fit for the kingdom of God."

This Sunday, in the next chapter of Luke, we will hear Jesus send out his disciples with some particular instructions:
Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road...Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, `The kingdom of God has come near to you.' But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, `Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.'
 That's not an easy commission. Jesus tells them to take only the bare minimum of what they need and trust that they will find everything else on the journey. They are to depend upon the generosity and faithfulness of those to whom they go. There's a level of trust and immediacy to that calling that not everyone can accept.

On the wall in the chapel of the seminary where I was formed for ordained ministry, a plaque commemorates those missionaries who left their homes to go overseas and died without ever returning home. As you might imagine, all of those titans of faithfulness were from the nineteenth or very early twentieth century. Missionaries don't live like that anymore. Partly, our understanding of mission and evangelism have changed, and partly the ease of international travel has grown, but along with those developments has come a change in how we commit to the work of the Gospel. We don't leave home expecting never to return. We don't set out underprepared. We don't give our whole lives--physically, financially, spiritually--to the work of proclaiming the kingdom of God.

For most of us (me included), answering Jesus call is easy. It comes with more reward than sacrifice. We say, "Lord, let me say farewell to my family" or "I need to be sure that I can take a year off to care for my dying parent," and Jesus says, "Sure, of course. Family is important. The work of the kingdom can wait." But that's not what we see in Luke 9, and maybe that's why discipleship doesn't look a lot like Luke 10. This week, before we marvel at the disciples' success and wonder how that fruitfulness could be indicative of our own ministry, let's remember what sort of commitment they made in the first place. Maybe the secret isn't really a secret after all.