Sunday, September 22, 2019

Clarifying Urgency

September 22, 2019 – The 15th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 20C

© 2019 Evan D. Garner

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

Do you think Jesus meant it? Do you really think that he meant that his followers should make friends by means of unrighteous wealth so that, when it’s all gone, they will receive us into the eternal homes? Do you think that what it means to be faithful to God is to lie, cheat, and steal until we fix for ourselves a place in heaven? Yeah, I don’t think so either.

This is a tricky parable—maybe the trickiest of them all. Lots of people have spilt lots of ink trying to explain away the most difficult parts in order to leave us with something that makes sense. Some of the debate is over where the parable actually ends. Our translation, like most others, suggests that the parable concludes when the master commends the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. That means that the challenging explanations about the children of light and the making of friends through dishonest means that follow belong to Jesus. But others think that it’s the master who encourages the manager to make friends through dishonest wealth, and, because the Greek manuscripts don’t come with punctuation marks, it can be difficult to tell when one person stops speaking.

Others argue that, while the manager may have been dishonest in his initial work, the act of telling the debtors to alter their bills in favor of a smaller payment wasn’t dishonest but a sign that the manager was willing to give up his commission in exchange for preferential treatment later on. Still others think that the manager was eliminating not his own commission but the interest that his master was charging—interest that was prohibited under Jewish law. In this interpretation, the manager would have been helping his master appear honorable, and, even if the master wouldn’t have been happy about forgoing his interest, he couldn’t very well punish his manager for doing the right thing. But I don’t buy any of that either.

Jesus isn’t revered because his teachings were easy. We don’t repeat his words in every generation because they sound like good advice. Turn the other cheek, love your enemy, hate your family, take up your cross, lose your life—most of the time, we celebrate the things that Jesus said that don’t make sense to us, and I think this parable fits right along with the rest. It’s a story about urgency and how Jesus’ followers are supposed to behave in light of that urgency.

The key word for me comes right at the beginning of the story, when Jesus tells us that the rich man’s manager had been squandering his property. Squandering is an interesting word. Not skimming of the top. Not making bad financial decisions. But squandering. Literally, it means to scatter recklessly. It’s the same word Luke uses in chapter 15 to describe the behavior of the prodigal son—the one who travelled to a distant land with his inheritance and squandered it in dissolute living. The manager’s job was to use his master’s resources wisely—to manage his affairs in a way that would benefit his master—but he wasted the opportunity and wasted the resources that were entrusted to him. It is as if the manager never expected his boss to ask about how things were going, and, when his boss finally asked for an accounting of his management, the employee knew that he was in trouble.

Quickly, the manager sat down and considered his options: “I am not strong enough to dig, and I am too ashamed to beg. Here’s what I will do. In order to earn favor with my master’s debtors, I will slash their debts so that, when I’ve been fired, they will owe me a favor and give me a job.” That’s dishonest. It’s cheating. It’s further betraying the trust of his master. But it was smart, and even the master recognized how smart it was. Jesus tells us that the owner commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness—for his cunning, his wisdom, his prudence.

It’s not supposed to make sense—at least not in earthly terms. Parables are designed to convey an unexpected or other-worldly truth, and those truths usually leave us challenged if not confused. Notice that the owner didn’t celebrate his employee’s dishonesty. He commended him for his shrewdness. The word translated for us as shrewdness implies that, for the first time, the manager paid attention to that visceral sense within himself and acted as if his decisions mattered—as if the way he used the resources entrusted to him could make a difference. And it was the urgency of the situation—the threat of being fired and ending up destitute—that clarified for the manager what he was supposed to be doing all along.

Isn’t that what Jesus is trying to teach all of us—that the lives we live, the relationships we value, the time we have, the talents we have been given, and the treasure that has been entrusted to us must all be devoted to the coming reign of God because the transformation of the world that God is enacting through Jesus Christ is a matter of utmost urgency? You don’t have to live in fear that the second-coming of Jesus Christ is imminent in order to appreciate that now is the time for us to act in order that God’s reign might fully come. Just ask the men and women and children who eat at Community Meals each week. Just ask the undocumented immigrants who hug and kiss their children goodbye in the mornings because they know that a knock could come at their door at any time. Just ask the spouses and children who drop off their loved ones at Caring Friends because a few hours of rest is the only thing that makes it possible for them to keep those who are struggling with dementia at home. None of those people has the luxury of sitting around and squandering the resources that have been given to them. And, if we are going to be followers of Jesus, then we don’t have that luxury either.

You know who else understands that sense of urgency? The children of this world do. Seventeen years ago, when I worked as a paralegal, I had to keep track of every minute of my day because our firm billed clients $90 an hour for my time. If it took me six minutes to go to the bathroom, the firm was out $9. Every minute of my day mattered. That’s how the world works. Insurance companies and doctors. State legislatures and teachers. Online retailers and warehouse workers. The economies of this world know how precious every moment, every dollar, every keystroke is. The children of this world know how to use the resources at their disposal to accomplish their purposes with blinding efficiency and greed-fueled urgency. What would happen if the children of light did the same?

You have been given so much. You have so many resources at your disposal. If you recognized that the time was urgent, that the reign of God was right around the corner, that the transformation of this world into the world that God dreams it could be was imminent, wouldn’t you do something about it? Wouldn’t you do anything and everything to make that happen? Wouldn’t you even give up all that you have in order to make that reality true?

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Parable Not Riddle

I love parables, and I especially love difficult parables, but Sunday's parable is really difficult. No matter how you slice it, you end up with someone--whether Jesus or the authority figure in the parable--saying, "Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes." That's not a throw-away line; it's the punchline. It's the conclusion. It's Jesus' own interpretation of his story. Maybe.

This week, as I prepare to preach on Luke 16:1-13, I am trying to resist the urge to approach this story of Jesus as a riddle to be solved and, instead, to trust that it's more like a piece of performance art. Parables are told to make a point. They are stories that use real-world imagery to portray an otherworldly truth and bring that truth back into this world. They convey a strangeness, an unexpected quality of God's reign, which usually requires a narrative twist or a perplexing conclusion to get that point across.

One approach to parables is to dissect them--to explain the guts out of them until there's nothing left but a dismembered pile of words. (Can you tell I don't like this approach?) Using this technique, we analyze a parable and look for allegorical structure or some hidden cultural truth that allows us to say with confidence, "Oh, that's what you mean there, Jesus!" But I trust that most of the people in his crowd went away still scratching their heads. Jesus once told his disciples that he spoke in parable to hide the simple truth from people and that only those who followed him like children would understand.

The approach I prefer is to learn as much as we can about the words and the setting, compare the passage with surrounding text and other related passages, and then ask what kind of impression is Jesus leaving us with. Rather than making sure all the pieces line up and all the loose ends are tied up, I like to leave things messy and allow Jesus the preacher to move us in ways that are deeper than or higher than the words he spoke.

This week, here are some words that are of interest to me. They're helping me understand the setting and context a little better. They won't "solve" the difficult parable, but they will help me know a little bit more of what Jesus had in mind.

Squandering - "There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property." What does squandering mean? The Greek word is διασκορπίζων. It literally means scattering. The steward's job was to manage the owner's resources, but he was scattering, throwing about, disseminating recklessly, wasting them. Lingering question: what's the relationship between the wasteful scattering of these resources and the shrewdness for which the owner later commends the dishonest manager?

Dishonest - "And his master commended the dishonest manager" and "make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth." What sort of dishonesty is this? The Greek word is ἀδικίας. Whether the noun or the adjective, the word literally means unjust or injustice. It is unrighteousness. This isn't merely a dishonesty that means deception. It means something that is contra-justice. Lingering question: does this word mean that Jesus implies do something dishonest or does it merely imply the absence of justice?

Shrewdly - "And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly." The Greek word is φρονίμως. It means wisely, prudently, shrewdly, and its root implies a sense that comes from one's own visceral opinion. This means that the owner commended the unrighteous manager for respecting his own opinion and insight. Lingering question: does that mean that the manager had not been paying attention to that insight earlier?

Wealth - "make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth" and "If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth." The Greek word, which is familiar to us, is μαμωνᾶ, from which we get mammon. That's a trigger word. Jesus, therefore, is telling his disciples to make friends for themselves by means of unrighteous mammon, and he is telling them that, if they cannot be faithful with the unrighteous mammon, they cannot be trusted with true [riches]. Notice that the word "riches" is implied but not actually contained in the text. It is, therefore, truth that Jesus is commending to them. Lingering question: does the use of the inflammatory "mammon" help us understand what Jesus is really commending--unrighteous wealth as a means to a righteous end?

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

God's Broken Heart

Yesterday, one of the lectors for this coming Sunday mentioned to me that, in preparation for this week, she was looking ahead at the lesson from Jeremiah with dismay. She's right: Jeremiah 8:18-9:1 is hard to hear. As Lora Walsh mentioned in her sermon this past Sunday, we're in the middle of a long stretch of readings from Jeremiah. She reminded us that Jeremiah is neither a gifted Hebrew poet nor a prophet who likes to focus on the plight of the poor or the oppressed.

This week, however, we get a more tender sliver of a long speech by God that the prophet records. Admittedly, I find this reading a little confusing. God offers expressions of longing and pity: "My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick" and "O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!" But we also get words of God's refusal to do anything about the plight of those whom God pities: "Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their foreign idols?" and "Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?" It almost feels like God laments the fact that God's people are being punished by God. In other words, it's a "This is going to hurt me more than it's going to hurt you" kind of speech.

Why won't God make up God's mind and help God's people? Why does God care this much for Judah and yet is determined to destroy her?

Go back and read the rest of Jeremiah 8. Notice in particular how the chapter begins:
At that time, says the Lord, the bones of the kings of Judah, the bones of its officials, the bones of the priests, the bones of the prophets, and the bones of the inhabitants of Jerusalem shall be brought out of their tombs; and they shall be spread before the sun and the moon and all the host of heaven, which they have loved and served, which they have followed, and which they have inquired of and worshiped; and they shall not be gathered or buried; they shall be like dung on the surface of the ground.
Later on, God directs his anger at the religious leaders of the people: "How can you say, 'We are wise, and the law of the Lord is with us,' when, in fact, the false pen of the scribes has made it into a lie? The wise shall be put to shame...They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, 'Peace, peace,' when there is no peace."

The reality that the prophet sets before us is a universal tragedy that has its roots in the faithlessness of the leaders. Even if Jeremiah doesn't like to single out the plight of the poor, notice that in chapter 8 he writes, "from the least to the greatest everyone is greedy for unjust gain; from prophet to priest everyone deals falsely." It is the unjust business practices, which exploit the economically vulnerable, that have become so pervasive that God does not know where to find even a little fruit on the vine. From the top all the way down, faithlessness has spread until the point where there is no hope for repentance. The "perpetual backsliding" mentioned in 8:5 means that even the dire call for repentance is being ignored.

God wants to save God's people. God wants to rescue them. And, in time, God will. But, at this point in Judah's history, things have gotten so bad that there are no holy, righteous leaders to help the people get back on track. Instead, destruction must come. I think there is power in God's empathetic words in Sunday's reading. This is a loving parent who has done everything possible to turn a broken child's life around but still cannot get through. The love does not stop. The tears do not stop. God even wishes that God had eyes to cry and cry some more.

What do we do when lust for money and power and unjust gain become so rampant and pervasive that there is no one left to call God's people to account? In God, there are always second, third, fourth, and infinite chances. God will not reject us for eternity. But, at some point, we've forgotten what it means to repent and there is no one left to remind us how. Then, God's love must follow us even into our own destruction. Then, our hope is found not in this world or this life but in the next. Who will speak God's tender brokenheartedness to the world?

Monday, September 16, 2019

Pray For Everyone

Although religious life in 21st-century America is a long way from that of 1st-century Rome, I get the feeling that the relationship between the followers of Jesus and people in positions of authority in this day has begun to take on some of the characteristics of the parallel relationship in Paul's day. In 1 Timothy 2, when Paul wrote to Timothy and urged him to remember all people in prayer, mentioning specifically "kings and all who are in high positions," I bet several people among Timothy and his companions rolled their eyes. Why pray for those in authority when those in authority are using that authority to undermine the way of Jesus, to persecute disciples, to arrest, torture, and kill the followers of Jesus? Because, as Paul wrote, "there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself as a ransom for all."

Every Sunday, we pray for "Donald our President, Asa our Governor, and Lioneld our Mayor." In our church, in which most (but not all) parishioners proudly identify as liberal Democrats, those prayers aren't easy for everyone. Several of our lectors have told me that they have a hard time reading that part of the prayers. Knowing that the President's name is coming up, they get distracted and often make a mistake--not on that name but on other parts of the prayers immediately before or after. None of them has told me that they wish we left his name out. I think we all recognize a need to pray for our leaders, whoever they are, but that doesn't make it easy.

Recently, someone asked me if we could change what we pray from "our President" to "the President." I don't know if that was a serious suggestion, but I interpreted that remark as a need to express to me disappointment, frustration, and perhaps even despair. My response was pastoral rather than pragmatic. In a time of stress and fear, it is important to acknowledge those things that hurt us, and, taking Paul's instruction seriously, it is important for us to seek the strength we need to pray for those who hurt us.

Regardless of your political persuasion, it is hard to pray for those with whom you disagree, those whom you think represent everything you stand against, those whom you understand to be undermining the values you hold most dear. That could be a President or it could be an ex-spouse or a boss or the person who broke into your home and pilfered through your things. Prayer, when engaged seriously, necessitates intimacy, and I don't like being intimate with people I don't like.

Keep in mind that, as a Roman citizen, Paul had access to reasonable jurisprudence than very few Christians had. That's a distinction that we cannot forget when we read Paul's words. I, too, enjoy many of the same privileges, and my perspective is tainted by them. I don't fault those who cannot pray for those in authority because they are threatened by them; however, many of the people who express to me a struggle praying for those in authority share most of the privileges I enjoy. There's a difference between refusing to pray and being unable to pray, and I leave that to you to explore.

Think about your theology of humanity. Think about your theology of prayer. What do you believe is fundamentally true about human beings? What do you think happens when we pray? If you, like Paul, believe that all people share the same Creator and believe that Jesus Christ and the unconditional love that he represents are God's gift to the whole world and believe that, when the Son second person of the Trinity took upon itself human nature in the Incarnation, God united God's self not only to a 1st-century Palestinian Jew but to all of humanity and believe that prayer is how we bring ourselves and those for whom we pray into God's presence, then how we think about the people we hate and what it means to hold them up to God in prayer is radically different from our instincts.

But sometimes it's better to start with practice than theology. That's why Paul tells us to offer supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings for all. We pray first, and our hearts follow. Pray for our enemies, Jesus says. Prayer has the power to change us. You cannot be intimate with God and not be changed. You cannot enter into the presence of the God who loves everyone and everything unconditionally and leave that encounter with prejudice and harboring resentment. Getting to that place in prayer, though, isn't easy, yet it's essential.

Pray for everyone, especially the people for whom you find it hardest to pray. Don't pray that God will magically change them into the kind of people you like. Pray for them until God changes you into the sort of person who can recognize the common humanity between you and them--until you have for them the same love that God has for them.

Knowledge Of Our Limitations

September 15, 2019 – Evensong on Sunday of Proper 19

© 2019 Evan D. Garner

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

If you ever overhear someone offering pastoral advice to someone who has experienced a tragedy and you hear that person say that the explanation for why this terrible thing has happened is found in the Book of Job, please do all of us a favor and take the Bible out of that person’s hand and whack that person on the back of the head with it. Job does attempt to wrestle with the deepest, unanswerable question of human existence, but, when it comes to why terrible things happen to good people, the only comfort Job offers is to confirm for us what thousands of years of philosophy and theology have deduced: there is no answer.

Keep in mind that Job is not a record of history but an intellectual exercise concocted by those who want to explore the hypothetical collision of the world’s richest and most righteous man with the evil deceiver, the Great Opponent called Satan. Step by step, in one horrifying catastrophe after another, Satan takes away Job’s property, his children, and his health—and all with God’s permission. Sympathetic friends, who sit with Job in mournful silence for seven days and seven nights, cannot resist the need to explain the inexplicable. One by one, they tell their friend that a good and just God would not allow such things to happen unless Job deserved it. “Even if you cannot think of what the fault is,” they beg him, “repent and confess, and God will show mercy.” But Job knows in his heart that he has done nothing wrong. And, in that way that only makes sense in an intellectual exercise, he cannot repent when there is actually nothing from which he can turn around.

Eventually, Job, too, is unable to persist without an answer, so he demands a reckoning from God, but the audience he receives is more terrifying than illuminating: “Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth? Declare, if you know all this. Where is the way to the dwelling of light, and where is the place of darkness, that you may take it to its territory and that you may discern the paths to its home? Surely you know, for you were born then, and the number of your days is great!” Unlike the reply of a petulant teenager, God’s version of sarcasm is truly frightening. It exposes the infinite gulf between Job’s ignorance and the mind of God. But it also exposes the innate spark of curiosity and the drive for knowledge and discovery that belongs to the species that was made in the divine image—that sense of inquiry that got Job into trouble in the first place.

Where is the way to the dwelling of light? What is the home of darkness? Where are the storehouses for the snow and for hail? How can one find the source of the distribution of light? Whence does the east wind originate? What causes the rain to fall in the desert places where normally no rain will fall, and how is the cycle of drought and flood essential for sustaining an ecosystem that vacillates between barren wasteland and verdant growth? These are the mysteries of Job’s day—the questions that filled the imaginations of ancient scientists. And Job’s inquiry, and the response that he receives from the Almighty, reflect a universal human desire to understand, to comprehend the world around us, to plumb the depths of interstellar space, and to mine the unfathomable mind of God.

Our quest for knowledge has helped us answer many of the questions that God threw back at Job, but that search has also confirmed for us that some pursuits are beyond our grasp. Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades, or lose the cords of Orion? We may understand the ordinances of the heavens, but can we establish their rule on the earth? One field in which scientific knowledge is exposing human limitations is climate science. As climate change promises one horrifying catastrophe after another, how long will it be before we wish that we could lift up our voice to the clouds and call the waters down upon the parched earth? When will we recognize that, although God may be the only one who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens, our actions have the power to cause the dust to run into a mass and the caked clods of earth to cling together?

Our study of how the world works has helped us understand the relationship between rising levels of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and other greenhouse gasses and rising global temperatures. But, as Dr. Walsh preached this morning, our knowledge of that relationship has not helped us avert disaster. Citing an article written by Jonathan Franzen in this week’s New Yorker, she wondered whether the kind of apocalyptic devastation envisioned by prophets like Jeremiah might, for us, be inevitable. Why would rational human beings ignore generations of science to the detriment of future generations? How immediate must the negative impact be before we will accept the warnings of modern ecologist-prophets? It seems as though the more we learn the more we, like Job, discover our own limitations. But that may also be our greatest hope.

The source of our species’ true power is our insatiable drive to learn. The pursuit of knowledge is our greatest aim. How we use that knowledge—and, in fact, whether we use that knowledge—is, in every generation, our yet-to-be-answered question. Honest and open inquiry is humble. It admits and even embraces its own limitations. And those who seek not only data but truth bear the responsibility for communicating those limitations. The more we know the more we realize how much we do not know. The more powerful our knowledge makes us the more we recognize our own powerlessness. And that is where our hope lies. Our hope as a species depends upon our willingness to confront our limitations, to accept them and embrace them and adapt to them. In an age of increasing understanding and increasing peril, those whose task is the faithful and pure pursuit of knowledge are the prophets from whom we most need to hear.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Universal Welcome, Universal Cost

September 8, 2019 – The 13th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 18C

© 2019 Evan D. Garner

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

It’s passages like this one, when Jesus seems to be setting the bar for his followers unattainably high, that make me think that it’s a shame that Jesus never learned what we say here every Sunday: “Whoever you are and wherever you are on your pilgrimage of faith, you are welcome in this place, and you are welcome at God’s table.” He probably could have doubled or even tripled his number of followers if he had stopped talking about the requirement that his disciples give up all of their possessions and, instead, let anyone and everyone follow him.

For too much of Christian history, the church has placed its emphasis on conforming before communing and believing before belonging. People who don’t go to St. Paul’s stop me around town to tell me how much it means to them that we welcome everyone. Quoting our invitation to the table, they want me to know that, even though they aren’t part of our church and often identify as atheists, it matters to them that a church like ours—an icon of established religion—cares more about breaking down historic barriers than erecting more hurdles to keep people out. Many of you have told me that those words of invitation have been transformative in your lives—that you never expected to hear someone tell you that you belonged at God’s table and that you never would have bothered going to this or any church had you not heard it.

And that makes me wonder why more churches haven’t figured it out. Surely they care about hospitality. Surely they recognize the spiritual, gospel value in declaring that anyone and everyone is welcome at God’s table. Why, then, do so many churches insist on putting doctrinal barbed-wire around the altar and guarding the gate to keep away outsiders? Maybe it’s because they worry that a universal welcome will hide Communion’s universal cost.

Luke tells us that large crowds were travelling with Jesus, and, almost as if to scare them off, Jesus turned to them and said, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father, mother, wife, children, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” Wonderful pep talk, huh? What does Jesus mean? And why does Jesus say these words to the people who were following him? I presume that some element of hyperbole was involved—Jesus was known to exaggerate to make a point—but there also must be an element of truth to these words. What is it? Jesus wants his would-be disciples to know that following him is a costly endeavor, and, more than that, that being his disciple will cost them everything they have—especially the things they hold most dear.

Why? Because you can’t be a disciple of Jesus and carry on with life as you’ve always known it. You can’t be a student of the reign of God—a participant in what God is doing in the world through Jesus Christ—and hang onto the people and possessions you enjoy. If you’re a citizen in God’s kingdom, those things don’t belong to you anymore. Not even your own life belongs to you anymore.

Jesus came to enact God’s great reordering of society, and nothing is left outside of that transformation. In him, the lost are found, the broken are made whole, and the poor become rich, but those aren’t hypothetical, metaphorical changes. Just as the incarnation is a real moment in human history, so, too, is God’s work of turning the world on its head a movement with real, tangible, financial, relational consequences. The lifting up of the downtrodden requires the pulling down of the haughty. The celebration of the vulnerable involves the humiliation of the strong. Being a disciple of Jesus means being a student of that kind of transformation, and that’s the kind of transformation that you can’t give part of yourself to. You’re either all in or all out.

In this gospel lesson, it feels like Jesus is looking back at the crowd and saying to them, longingly and lovingly, “I want all of you to be my followers, but you need to know what that is going to cost you. It’s going to cost you everything—even your own life. If you want to be my disciples, you have to be willing to let go not only of everything you have but even the concept of possession itself. If you belong to me, nothing will belong to you anymore. Be sure that’s what you want. Count the cost. I’m on my way to Jerusalem, and the fate that awaits me there will catch you up, too. Don’t come any further unless you’re sure you’re willing to give up everything you have.”

Maybe that’s what we need to say every week when we invite people to the table: whoever you are and wherever you are on your spiritual pilgrimage, you are welcome in this place, and you are welcome at God’s table, but be careful because coming to this table will cost you everything. No matter who you are or what you believe, you already belong to God. Of course, God is beckoning you to come and find your place at God’s table. But, when you accept that invitation, you invite the transformation that God is undertaking in the world to take place in your life as well.

In spiritual terms, we believe that those who receive the Body of Christ become the Body of Christ. We who gather at the table, therefore, assemble not only as members of God’s family but also as members of Christ’s body. And that means that we are the ones in whom and through whom the work that Jesus came to do continues to be accomplished. We come to be fed, to be nourished, and to be strengthened, but we also come to be re-membered, to be re-assembled, and to be re-constituted as the Body of Christ. Anyone and everyone is welcome to come. You don’t need to be a saint, and you can bring your doubts with you. But it is a mistake to think that you can come to the table and not be changed. How can you partake of the Body of Christ without taking part in the Body of Christ?

Today is our Ministry Fair. Almost all of the programs and opportunities for service we have are represented in the parish hall. If you want to give some of your time and energy to doing good and godly work in this community, go and sign up. It’s important work, and we need you, and it’s absolutely worth it. But, if you want to be a part of something even bigger and you’re willing to give your whole life—all that you have and all that you are—to the transformation God envisions for the world in the gospel of Jesus Christ—then this is the invitation for you. 

Whoever you are and wherever you are on your pilgrimage of faith, God is inviting you to lose yourself in the life-giving work that God is doing in the world. If you want Jesus’ vision for the world to be your vision for the world, then this is the place where you can find it and give yourself to it. But be careful: it will cost you everything.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Double Trouble

September 4, 2019 - Proper 17C

How often have you made a bad decision that compounds itself by leading to more trouble? You're running late, so you take a shortcut that isn't really a shortcut, and you end up even later than you were to start. You forget to buy your spouse a birthday present, so, at the last minute, you spent way too much money on a gift, and your spouse, seeing through your carelessness, is upset because you spent too much money. Your not happy with the fountain of living water that God has given you, so you dig and install your own cisterns, but yours are cracked and they won't hold any water.

Well, that last image may not literally apply to your life, but it's the image Jeremiah uses to describe his people's faithlessness. They've gotten themselves into double trouble. They've abandoned the faith of their ancestors, giving up on God, and the gods they've turned to for help in a time of crisis aren't any use at all. They weren't happy with the fresh spring of salvation God was steadily providing them, so they decided to rely on their own supply, but their own supply failed.

Prophets are often confused with fortune-tellers--people who predict the future. Prophets, as my colleague Fr. Chuck has reminded us repeatedly, don't tell the future. In fact, they're more likely to be historians that future-predictors. They interpret the present situation in light of God's ongoing relationship with God's people. Jeremiah spends much of this passage recalling how Israel got itself into this mess: "What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me?" He notes that the leaders of the people, including their priests, seem to have forgotten how to say, "Where is the Lord?" Despite bringing them into the land of Canaan, despite carrying them through the deadly wilderness, despite rescuing them from bondage in Egypt, the people have forgotten who God is and what it means to belong to God and depend on God.

What have they done instead? In Jeremiah's day, the people of Israel were in trouble. They had been repeatedly attacked by rival nations like the Assyrians. Raiders from places like Nineveh terrorized the villages in the north of Israel. Territory was disappearing into enemy control. So Israel did what any declining nation-state would do: they made alliances with other nations, who were also threatened by the Assyrians and who promised to help Israel for a price. Before long, the people started to wonder whether their salvation would come from some other god, whether their God had forgotten them or, perhaps, wasn't as strong as the other gods. So they paid their tribute and said their prayers and sold their faith in Israel's God. For a while, it worked. Extra troops and military hardware kept the Assyrians away, but, when they decided to press hard on the attack and besiege Samaria, the capital city, did Baal and Baal's people come to help? No, it was like storing water a cracked cistern that leaked and ran dry.

Cross the sea to Cyprus and send messengers to Kedar and ask whether it has ever happened in all of human history that a people decided to change their gods (not that there are such things). Have you ever heard anything so ridiculous as a people whose lives, whose nation, whose history has centered on the Almighty One giving up on the source of their salvation--their fountain of living water--in exchange for a cheap knock-off you can buy on the street?

We would do well to remember our own salvation history. We're even further removed from the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We're a long way from the Red Sea and Mt. Sinai and the Jordan River. The exile to Babylon and the return are of ancient memory. Victory over the Selucids and, later, the preservation of the faith under threat of Roman rule are a long time ago. The Empire and all of Europe became Christian, but it's hard to remember how that happened. People seeking freedom and prosperity came to this land, bringing the faith with them, but, looking back at the genocide of native peoples that resulted, it's hard to know what part of that success was God and what part was tyranny. We survived world wars and terrorist attacks. We've made it through depressions and recessions and plenty of personal downturn and hardship that doesn't get a label. We're here. We've come a long way. Does anyone remember how we got here? Or have we forgotten how to say, "Where is the Lord?"

Times aren't always easy. Just as in ancient Israel, we encounter periods of drought, economic downturn, political strife, and military threat. Who will see us through? Who will watch over us? In whom or what will we put our confidence? Sometimes the spring of water that has been provided for us slows down to a trickle. Sometimes we wonder whether the fountain will dry up completely. Will we dig cisterns for ourselves--not a measure of precaution but a gesture of self-reliance--or will we remember where our help comes from in every generation?

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Less Potter, More Clay

Want a recipe for homiletical disaster? Tell a group of committed progressive Christians who are being critical of their evangelical counterparts that they aren't any more faithful than their opponents. Or, from the other side, try telling a group of committed evangelical Christians who are lambasting the faithlessness of liberal Christianity that actually they're the ones who don't get it.

Sunday, I don't plan to do that, but the reading from Jeremiah 18 sure is tempting. What I love most about this reading is that the prophet is walking around one day, listening for the Lord's direction, and, when he comes to the potter's house and watched the potter do his thing, the word of the Lord came to him. This prophecy--this teaching--is born from an everyday encounter, an EfM theological reflection unfolding before us. When the prophet sees how the potter, while throwing a pot, loses the form that he was striving for and starts over with another vessel, it occurs to the prophet that that's how God works. God is the potter, and we are the clay. As ridiculous as it is for the clay to say to the potter, "I'm sorry, but I was planning to become a water jug and not a flower vase," so it is ridiculous for us to say to God, "I'm sorry, but, since we're the truly faithful ones, we're planning on you to prosper our ministry and thwart theirs."

It feels good to have God on your side. It feels good to know that you are doing something not for selfish reasons but in response to a divine commission. But, when we're the ones calling the shots and giving our work a godly label, we're not serving God but casting idols for ourselves--images that look a lot like what we think God looks like but, in fact, are formed from our image--our understanding--instead of God's.

The prophet wasn't talking about the split between evangelical and liberal Christians, of course. He seems to have been talking about Israel and its rival nations: "At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it." The prophet wants the people to understand that security is never guaranteed. We cannot rest on the promises our ancestors were convinced they heard from God. Even this morning's Daily Office reading from 1 Kings 8 reminds us that, although God seems to promise Solomon that God will never take the divine name away from the temple that Solomon had built, by the end of the reading--likely the product of a redactor's pen--God tells Solomon that, if he is faithless, the temple will become "a heap of ruins." If God is God, then we are not, which means that, like clay in the potters hand, our job isn't to determine what will happen but to be faithful as it does.

Of course we think God is going to champion our cause for ever. Of course we're convinced that we're right. The problem isn't pursuing what we think is God's path. The problem is forgetting that we're clay. We're clay. When we forget that God is the artist, the potter, the architect, then we begin to decide what God is going to do, and that always leads to trouble. The message is a simple one. The prophet finds it in the simplest everyday place. Of course we're the clay. Of course God is the potter. But, as the prophet declares, sometimes that means that God is "shaping evil against you." What is our response? We could try telling God that God isn't allowed to do that--that God is supposed to be loving and faithful in ways that we have defined for God--but we might have more success if we tae the prophet's advice: "Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings." The hardest sins of which to repent are the sins of self-righteousness. Just ask the liberal and conservative Christians who are fighting each other.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Making Space for God's Invitation

September 1, 2019 – The 12th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 17C

© 2019 Evan D. Garner

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

I don’t think Jesus really cares where you sit at a dinner party, but where you sit probably says something about you that Jesus does care about.

Sabbath meals with a visiting rabbi are a little like Sunday lunches with the bishop after a visitation. The leaders of a congregation do everything they can to show off how holy and hospitable they are. A devoted parishioner with an impressive house offers to host. Everyone on the vestry contributes. And, when the appointed time arrives, people clamor for a chance to talk with the guest of honor. Actually, clergy usually aren’t that much fun to talk to after a busy morning. Having spent almost all of their energy in worship, they’re more likely to doze off than entertain you. Still, people press in, hoping for a chance to sit close by even though they’d probably have more fun if they hung back and grabbed a seat on the other end of the room, where the trouble-makers like to gather.

On this particular sabbath, Jesus noticed how the guests took their seats, maybe not clamoring for the places of honor but doing their part to make sure that they got a good seat. When everyone had settled down, he told them a parable: “Whenever 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…” Jesus used an image that is as familiar to us as it was to his original audience. We know that awkward feeling when we look across the room and see our six-year-old sitting by himself at the head table at our boss’s daughter’s wedding. We know how good it feels to have someone invite us to join them in their skybox. But Jesus wasn’t dishing out advice for dinner parties. He was telling people a parable about how God’s kingdom works.

A parable is a story or an analogy that uses real-world imagery to portray an other-worldly truth and then bring that truth back into this world. Like any preacher, Jesus had his eyes and ears open for an experience or an encounter that would work in a sermon, and watching the guests take their seats gave him one. Jesus wasn’t offering a passive-aggressive criticism of how the guests had selected their seats. They didn’t need Jesus to tell them that it’s risky to sit in an honored place without knowing that it belongs to them. Instead, Jesus was using that universal experience of wanting the best seat without wanting to sit in someone else’s spot to teach the guests something about God. If God’s kingdom is like a dinner party, Jesus explained to them, it’s the kind of dinner party where everyone seeks out the lowest seat because they know that God is the kind of host who says to the lowly, “Come, sit up higher with me,” and says to the haughty, “I’m sorry, but that seat belongs to someone else.”

The truth is that Jesus doesn’t really care where you sit. Jesus cares how you think of yourself and how you think of other people. In his life and ministry, Jesus reveals to the world that God loves the lowly, the poor, and the vulnerable. Jesus shows us that, in God’s great reordering of the world, those who occupy the places of honor will be pulled down from their seats so that those who have been trampled by the powerful may sit beside God. That’s what Jesus’ death and resurrection are all about, which is why we talk about it here in one way or another every single Sunday. Maybe we talk about it so much because it’s a truth that isn’t easy to grasp. It’s hard to internalize in our minds and hearts and lives that unconditional love is the opposite of everything we know. Maybe that’s why Jesus uses parables like this one to try to get his point across—because it’s hard for those of us who live in this right-side-up world to understand what God’s upside-down kingdom is all about.

In this passage, Jesus used another image to try to explain what he meant. He turned to his host and said, “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, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” Pay particular attention to the words Jesus used to explain his rationale to his host. Jesus didn’t tell him not to invite his friends and family in order that they might repay him. He told him not to invite them just in case they might repay him. There’s a difference. It’s one thing to buy someone a present or do someone a favor expecting nothing in return, and it’s a whole different thing to do it because you know that they will never be able to repay you. That’s what Jesus wants us to see about the kingdom of God—that, in God’s reign, good things come not as payback to those who have done good things but good things come to those whom God loves. And whom does God love? God loves the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind—those who, in the eyes of society, have no way of ever paying God back.

Again, Jesus isn’t telling us that our friends and family shouldn’t be invited to our daughter’s wedding. What Jesus wants us to see is that, if God’s kingdom were a wedding banquet, it would be the sort of wedding banquet where the host invites the kinds of people who could never repay the invitation. If you want to experience the reign of God, give it a try. Be the kind of host who throws a party for the people who can’t pay you back and learn what it means to be celebrated in God’s kingdom.

If you want to be a part of what God is doing in this world, you have to see the world the way Jesus sees it. You have to see that true status comes not from who we are or what we’ve done but from God, and you have to see that our God is the sort of God who gives out that status indiscriminately—as an underserved gift. If you’re the kind of person who finished high school, went to college, got a job, worked hard, started a family, bought a house, had children, and then threw a big party when your daughter got married, you’re the kind of person who is going to have a hard time seeing the world the way Jesus sees it—the way God sees it.

God is spilling God’s love all over the place, indiscriminately and recklessly. Sure, God loves rich and successful people, too. They are recipients of God’s love just like everyone else. But, when you’re the sort of person whose accomplishments are recognized by the world, the sort of person who gets to sit in places of honor without worrying about someone else more distinguished than you bumping you from your seat, it’s really hard to see how God’s love works.

So what are we going to do about it? You can’t just start sitting in the lowest seat because Jesus says it’s the way to get moved higher up. Believe me; I’ve tried. Instead, you must pursue the kind of emptiness that makes enough space in your life for you to be defined by God’s unmerited love. It’s more than caring about the poor, though caring about them is a good place to start. It’s becoming the poor. It’s pursuing poverty. It’s emptying yourself of everything you’ve ever accomplished in this life. When the only seat left for you in this world is the lowest one, then you will have made enough space in your life to hear God say to you, “Friend, move up higher.”