Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Practical Spiritual Advice

Jesus isn't really remembered for offering good practical advice. Instead, his teachings that reject societal expectations are the ones that get remembered: turn the other cheek, let the weeds grow along with the wheat, carry no change of clothes. This Sunday, though, as we hear part of Luke 14, we get to hear some basic, reasonable, practical advice with a deeper spiritual meaning.
When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, `Give this person your place,' and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, `Friend, move up higher'; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
Good advice, right? You don't want to sit down at the head table and be asked to move. How much better for you that you would take a spot in the back of the room and have your host come and ask you to move to a better seat? When you get on an airplane or sit down at a game, it's embarrassing to find that you've misread your ticket and have accidentally sat in a someone else's seat. Thanks, Jesus, for giving us some good advice about how not to embarrass ourselves.

But, of course, Jesus isn't really known for giving practical advice, so what's the catch?

Religion in one of many areas of life in which we seem to ignore the practical considerations and set ourselves up for a surprise that shouldn't actually surprise us. How many preachers who have made a living calling out notorious sinners end up with their pictures in the paper for being lecherous sinners themselves? How many politicians who have campaigned on promises of cleaning up Washington or the state capital have ended up in jail on corruption charges? How many of us live external lives of moral accomplishment yet cringe at the thought of our lurid gossip, our internet history, our private thoughts getting out in public?

Jesus doesn't stop with advice on where to sit. He goes on with advice on how to throw a party: "When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you." There's the bad practical advice but good spiritual advice that we've been looking for. And, of course, in neither case is Jesus simply talking about a dinner party.

In every generation, God reminds us of God's preference for the poor, the destitute, and the outcast. In every generation, God reminds us that those who take advantage of the vulnerable are the recipients of God's wrath. In every generation, God reminds us that how we treat them is how we treat God. As followers of Jesus, we humble ourselves not because we want to receive surprising honor in this life but because the only way we can reflect God's love for the world is by becoming the poor, the week, and the oppressed. We humble ourselves not to obtain a reward but because the humble are the rewarded. In a world that values cash, strength, and superficial beauty, that's terrible advice. In the kingdom of God, however, that just makes sense.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Age Matters

When someone says (or even implies) that I cannot do something (or do it well) because of my age, I get angry. In fact, I become furious--really filled with rage. There's something about hearing someone belittle me, discount me, write me off, because of who I am that sets me off. Not that long ago, parishioners often remarked at how surprised they were that I could be a successful rector despite my youth. With more gray in my beard, I notice that doesn't happen much anymore.

I am a person of remarkable privilege. By that I mean that my gender, race, ethnicity, physical and mental ability, sexuality, education, family of origin, economic status, religious identity, nationality, and career all give me advantages in this world. I didn't choose any of those. They were given to me. They aren't my fault, but whether I acknowledge them and how I use them is up to me. Other people don't have some of the privilege I have. Instead of giving them a "leg up" in the game of life, their identity--and more precisely how the world receives their identity--creates obstacles for them--obstacles that I don't have to climb in order to succeed, to reach my goals, to navigate the world freely and safely.

One common image used to describe privilege is a baseball game. Not everyone in life starts out in the same place. The thought that everyone has equal opportunity for success is a myth created by people like me--people of privilege. In fact, some of us were born on second base. We didn't cheat to get there. It's just where we started the game. The problem with privilege is not acknowledging it. It's like being born on second base and expecting everyone to celebrate the double you didn't hit. In the baseball game image, my long list of substantial privilege makes it more likely that I was born on second base the second time around--i.e., having already scored and then some. A few years ago, I completed a worksheet that helps individuals identity ways in which they are and are not privileged, and I checked zero boxes for lack of privilege. No, my parents were not wildly wealthy. No, I do not have extraordinary athletic ability. But, in all the reasonable, common ways, I am a unequivocally a product of privilege.

The ageism I have experienced has been a passing struggle, and, now that I'm approaching 40, it has gone away completely. In another 25 years, I may begin to encounter another form of age-based discrimination, but, for now, in the prime of my career, it's not an issue. What is an issue is that millions of other people experience that discrimination and other forms of discrimination yet have no way to express it, seek relief from it, or deal with it except to suffer and be filled with rage. Because of my privilege, I've had the luxury of moving on, letting it go, or even speaking out about it because I've known I'm secure in my job, in my relationships, in my place in society. Others can't simply move on and trust that time will fix it. Others can't speak out without risking everything.

This Sunday, Jeremiah responds to God's commission with a statement of his inadequacy: "Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy." Of course, Jeremiah is not to be the one to speak. God will give him words to say: "Do not say, 'I am only a boy'; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you, Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you." I don't know the extent to which Jeremiah's critical self-analysis was the product of a culture that devalued the contribution of young people, but I do recognize that same sentiment in my culture for that same reason. And the church, with its focus on tradition, continuity, and ancient expressions of the faith, is as bad at it as any institution.

God tells Jeremiah that he should not discount his youth because God will give him something to say. Not everyone is a Spirit-inspired prophet like Jeremiah, but why would we expect anything less from them? To discount the contributions of someone because of their age, gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, sexuality, etc. is to discount God. It's to say that someone is of less value as a human being, which is to say that someone is less than human. Age and experience are assets. They shape us and teach us. I wouldn't expect a sixteen-year-old to know what it feels like to be a grandparent, but I expect that God could use that sixteen-year-old to teach me something about unconditional love.

This Sunday's Track 1 Old Testament lesson is about more than God surprising a young prophet with a lofty commission. It's about God surprising us with the people God uses to teach us and lead us.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Object Of Anger

This coming Sunday's Gospel lesson (Luke 13:10-17) is my favorite healing miracle. It's the story of the bent-over woman, whom Jesus calls to the center of the synagogue and sets her free from the debilitating spirit that has afflicted her for eighteen years. The healing itself isn't as dramatic as calling Lazarus back from the dead or even healing the centurion's servant from a distance. But there's something powerfully ordinary about her situation that makes Jesus' healing really important.

As I read this story again today, I am drawn to the words that the leader of the synagogue directs to congregation: "There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day." Imagine this scene. Everyone is gathered together for sabbath prayers. The leader of the synagogue is well-dressed and wants everyone to see it. He knows his isn't the largest or fanciest synagogue, but it's well-run and a shining gem in the community. The crowd is larger than normal because Jesus is in town, and many have heard that the visiting rabbi is a remarkable preacher and healer. The leader is nervous because he knows that a fire-brand like Jesus can draw as much unwelcome notoriety as sought-after attention, but, at first, things go well.

Then, all of the sudden, Jesus notices a woman who has trudged up to the back. He catches a glimpse of a figure who looks more like a question mark than a person. Calling out to her, Jesus asks her to step forward into the center of the gathering. She freezes. Panics. She begins to turn to walk out, hoping she can get away, but Jesus calls out to her again, and those in the crowd around her gently push her forward, almost against her will. Jesus speaks softly to her, so quiet that no one else can hear it, and he places his hands gently on her arched-over back. Immediately, as if a rubber band had sprung back into its unstretched shape, she snaps upright. People in the crowd are amazed. As they begin to giggle and titter with expressions of joy, the woman herself begins to hop and spin and dance with her arms stretched up toward heaven, tossing her head back and singing aloud a song of joy. It is one of those heart-warming moments that no one who witnessed it will ever forget.

And then the leader calls out, "Settle down, all of you!" As immediate as the woman's healing, the joy floods out of the room. "There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day." Heads drop. Eyes gaze downward. Sandals shuffle along the floor. Even the woman, whose joy seemed uncontainable, has ceased her jubilant display.

In a sense, the leader was right, of course. Her life wasn't in danger. She could have come the next day to be healed. The healing itself was a breaking of God's law, the rules governing rest on the sabbath. But, in several even more important ways, the leader was wrong.

As Jesus remarked, one of God's children had been set free from Satan's grip. This wasn't work on the sabbath but a timeless triumph over evil. Something this good and godly couldn't be wrong. And the leader knows it. Notice that he directs his anger not at Jesus, who had healed the woman, but, through the woman's example, at the crowd: "...come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day." He can see that he is losing the order that he, after years of careful cultivation, has imposed upon the congregation. Jesus' healing and the woman's miraculous dancing are unquestionable signs of God's reign breaking through, and, if the synagogue leader doesn't rein it in, he'll never get it back. He can't afford to direct his remarks at the healer or the one who has been healed because he knows that will only intensify the people's understanding of how God had worked in this moment. He has to go around it. He has to objectify it. Twist that which had been a success into a sign of failure by pointing a finger not at the miracle itself but at the joy that others had received from it. It's a losing battle, but it's a fight the leader knows he must wage.

Sound familiar? It's funny to me--actually laugh-out-loud yet tragically humorous--that so often people, gripping the rules that they believe God has made, refuse to accept the beauty and truth and rightness of what God is actually doing. Despite claiming to believe in the one whose entire ministry was a rejection of the power-centralizing rules of religiosity, these Christians enforce the rules of another generation at the expense of the miracles happening all around them. And the response is the same: "There are six days on which work ought to be done..." Rules for the sake of rules. Miracle be damned.

But the reign of God is breaking through. It is always breaking through.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Hearing Jesus

August 18, 2019 – The 10th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 15C

© 2019 Evan D. Garner

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

Sermons are like stump speeches: if you want people to like what you say enough to put some money in the plate, you should say the things that they want to hear. To that end, love is pretty popular. I have never heard someone complain about a sermon on love. Caring for those in need ranks right up there, too. We all like forgiveness, and reconciliation sounds nice. Hospitality is a winner, and you don’t need any polling data to know that peace is popular among those in the pews. We can all get behind a platform of love, prosperity, forgiveness, reconciliation, hospitality, and peace. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, a Christian or an atheist, an Episcopalian or a Methodist—we can all agree that those are good things. But the problem is that saying all of the things that everyone likes to hear doesn’t usually get a lot done.

Prophets, on the other hand, aren’t interested in stump speeches. Prophets don’t come to tell people what they want to hear. They come to tell people what God is saying to them. And I’ve noticed that God doesn’t have a habit of saying something just to hear herself talk. Usually, when God has something to say, it’s because people like us need to hear it, and we usually need to hear the very thing none of us wants to hear, which is why prophets make pretty lousy politicians and are almost as bad at being rectors.

Jesus was a prophet. Although we try our best to forget it, Jesus didn’t come to earth to tell people what they wanted to hear. “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” he declared, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” Fire, stress, division—these are the images Jesus used to describe his ministry. And the division that Jesus has in mind does not reflect the kind of broad-brush dividing lines that separate society but the miniscule splintered factions that even tear families apart: “father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” Why did Jesus come to bring that kind of division and not the message of peace and harmony that we all want to hear? Because the love, prosperity, forgiveness, reconciliation, hospitality, and peace we all like come with a cost.

Unconditional love sounds good until you see that it’s your enemy who is nestled in the bosom of God. Truly caring for the poor means eliminating poverty, and, although there is enough wealth to go around, it has to come from somewhere, which means that universal prosperity requires some of us to have less. Forgiveness and reconciliation are good news in theory, but when it’s your turn to say, “I’m sorry,” or, even harder, to say, “I forgive you,” the cost may be too high. Hospitality sounds like something we can all get behind. Who doesn’t love a practical opportunity to show kindness to another? But what happens when that kindness is needed at an inopportune time or is required for someone who refuses to respond with gratitude? Surely, peace is God’s will for the earth. Luke writes about peace more than any other gospeller. Just two chapters ago, Jesus sent out his disciples with instructions to offer their peace to any home that would take them in. But God’s peace is not the avoidance of conflict but the wholeness that results from the unequivocal levelling and the fire’s purification that Jesus envisions. Understandably, not everyone is enthused about that vision for the world.

Several years ago, a colleague of mine remarked that he had been invited to go to a conference by another priest. “It will change your life,” the inviting priest promised. “But I like my life just the way it is,” my friend replied. Jesus came to change everything—to turn the whole world upside down. We like thinking that means good news for the poor, the oppressed, the immigrant, and the refugee. But we prefer to envision that transformation coming at a cost that is borne by someone else—the ultra-rich, the super-powerful, the eminently-established, and the unquestionably-privileged. But, if we think the change that Jesus came to bring to the world won’t mean a change in our lives, then we haven’t been listening to what he has to say.

“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” When Jesus looks out at the world, that’s what he sees—a world ripe for fiery transformation. What do we see when we look around? When you see a cloud rising in the west, you know that rain is coming. When you feel the south wind blowing, you know that there will be a scorching heat. When you see the inverted yield curve, you know that recession is on the way. “You hypocrites!” Jesus says to us. We know how to interpret signs in the weather and the economy, but we refuse to interpret the signs that Jesus’ ministry has brought to us. The radical, transformational message of the gospel is as clear as day—why do you think the powers of this world nailed Jesus to a cross?—but we brush the true gospel aside, cover it up, and disguise it with warm and fuzzy platitudes that make us feel like we’re a part of something godly.

We are, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, yielding wild grapes. God has gifted us a vineyard. On a very fertile hill, God has dug it, cleared it, planted it, tended it, and guarded it. In love, God has bestowed upon us all of the resources and blessings of our lives for one purpose: in order that we might bear fruit for God’s reign. But, when God comes to collect the harvest, instead of grapes, God find wild grapes. Instead of justice, God finds bloodshed. Instead of songs of righteousness, God hears the cry of the poor. Yes, God’s dream for the world involves the super-rich being pulled down from their lofty places and the desolate-poor being lifted up out of the dust, but there’s a whole lot of us here in the middle for whom that dream involves our own transformation. The reordering of the world that Jesus envisions is not an external change that we will witness but an internal baptism that we will endure.

Despite how popular it might be in certain circles, the reign of God cannot be funded by a wealth tax. That’s because God’s dream for the world is not merely the wealthy few giving up their riches so that the poor can have a little bit more. God’s dream is bigger than that. It’s you and me and all of us inhabiting a world in which none of us will tolerate poverty, hunger, discrimination, oppression, and degradation. It’s a world in which no one is satisfied with her life until all of us are satisfied.

I don’t know about you, but I like my life. I like it a whole lot. And that’s a problem. It’s an affliction that makes it hard for me to hear the gospel of Jesus—the good news of God’s dream for the world, a dream which requires a costly transformation. In fancy theological terms, the name for that affliction is sin. And that’s why I need the transformation of the gospel to occur within me. That’s why I need the baptism that Jesus has come to bring to the earth. Because I need to hear what Jesus has come to say to me. We all do. And, until that transformation takes hold of our hearts and minds, we will only hear what we want to hear. And, usually, that doesn’t get a lot done.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Sacrifice and Example

Almighty God, you have sent your only Son to be for us a sacrifice for sin, and also an example of godly life: Give us grace to receive thankfully the fruits of his redeeming work, and to follow daily in the blessed steps of his most holy life; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

So often our collects have a beautiful symmetry that reflects a deeper and even more beautiful symmetry of our faith. This Sunday, as we collect all of the thoughts and prayers of our parish into one articulation, we will identify Jesus as both sacrifice and example and ask God to help us receive and follow. That is an articulation of and a hope for the one, unified, two-fold life of the follower of Jesus.

But I think the order matters.

You don't have to be a Christian in order to think that turning the other cheek, praying for and loving our enemies, welcoming the stranger and the outcast, and giving up our riches for the sake of the poor is a good way to live. Jesus gave us and the world an example of a good life. A secular humanist could do a lot worse than treating others the way that Jesus did. You don't need to receive the benefits of his sacrifice for sin in order to admire his example.

But Jesus isn't just a godly example.

Sacrifice matters. I don't mean in the "God demands blood to atone for the wrongs of humanity" kind of sacrifice, though that is a primitive, ancient, and powerful expression of the concept I have in mind. What I mean is the giving up of something of value for the sake of renewal. In the "we all make sacrifices" kind of way, to live the good life that Jesus envisions requires the giving up, abandonment, and surrenderof something we can't ever truly give--our selves.

The way of Jesus--the true selfless love for other at the cost of one's self--requires death. It necessitates the death of the self, the "me," the "mine" that is each of us. Without that death, the steps of that most holy life are steps we can take only in fleeting moments of inspired selflessness before the self creeps back in. Eventually, after a time of turning the other cheek and loving our enemies, our needs pop up again. The only way that changes is sacrifice. Because of Jesus' death--a death to which Christians are united in Baptism--that part of us has died.

Of course, that death and rebirth isn't yet complete in us. But those who are followers of Jesus, those who call themselves Christians, accept a life that is built upon the benefits of Jesus' death. In the ministry of the baptized, we pursue our own after-death life. We don't seek to walk in the blessed steps of his most holy life until after we have received the benefits of his sacrifice for sin. His yielding of something of value makes our transformation possible. When we preach, when we teach, when we tell our children about the love of God, we share the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ by telling people that they are not called first to live a holy life that they can never obtain but are called first to die a holy death with Jesus so that, in being reborn, they can pursue the life that Jesus has given them. It's still a unified, two-fold life, but the order matters.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Thank God For Hebrews 11

Last week, I went to the beach with our family. This week, as I begin to think about a sermon for Sunday, I feel a strong desire to go back to the beach and hide for another week. Have you seen these lessons? "And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard...I will make it a waste." "They burn it with fire like rubbish." "I came to bring fire to earth, and how I wish it were already kindled." One of the challenges of mid-summer preaching is monotony. Sometimes it feels like Jesus has said the same thing for four weeks in a row. This week, though, we have another mid-summer challenge--the apocalyptic Jesus and his angry words. Although I still have some time to find hope in the midst of these challenging readings, at this point, I'm mostly thankful for Hebrews 11.

I'm not sure that a sermon (or blog post) on this passage is helpful. Maybe it's better to just read the words a second time. Picking up where we left off in church yesterday with Abraham and Sarah and Isaac and Jacob, who "desire[d] a better country, that is, a heavenly one," we read of saints who fought battles, ruled peoples, stood up to tyrants, and displayed God's might. The list of their accomplishments is overwhelming. As we read this passage, it is actually hard to stay focused on the words and not let your mind swirl around in image and recollection. "Yet," as the author says, "all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect."

That's a bold and potentially problematic theological statement--that all of those saints of God who came before did not receive the ultimate prize because the ultimate prize is something in which we all must share. That is how the Christian author interprets the accomplishments in faith of our spiritual ancestors. Keep in mind that the word "perfect" means "finished" or "complete." God's work can't be finished in their day, in other words, because that work still needs to come to us. The author does not mean that in a halfhearted, our-faith-is-better-than-yours way but in a Christocentric expression of genuine admiration.

Their faithfulness, which the author celebrates, is exemplified in their willingness to commit to God and God's work while still knowing that that work would not reach its fulfillment in their lifetime. "Therefore," the author continues, "since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us." We see the work of God reach its fullest expression in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of God's Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus is the "pioneer and perfecter of our faith." We focus on him as we pursue our own faithfulness.

There is such hope and encouragement in these words--not only because of their positive tone but also because of the way in which the author incorporates faithfulness from the Jewish tradition into a Christian story. Yes, there is a supersessionist bent, but it's hard to be a Christian without either ignoring Jesus' Jewish identity or ignoring the uniqueness of the Christian faith. Still, in an important way, this passage is not critical of the Hebrew saints as being mere shadows of the fuller faithfulness to come. It seeks to celebrate their faithfulness fully in their own day and marvels at how those who put their confidence in God did so without ever seeing God's promises fully completed. On a Sunday in which there's not a lot of hope to be found in the lessons, I'm thankful for the hope that Hebrews gives us. I don't know whether that will come out as a sermon, but at least I know there's more to this coming Sunday than judgment.