Thursday, November 28, 2019

A Fuller Kind of Thanksgiving

November 28, 2019 – Thanksgiving Day, Year C

© 2019 Evan D. Garner

Near the end of his life, Moses looked out over the people of Israel as they neared the Land of Canaan and gave them this instruction: “When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name.” I wonder whether any of the Puritan separatists, who knew their Bible so well, had this passage from Deuteronomy in mind when they set sail from England for the world that would be new to them—a story of destiny and divine blessing and prosperity.

I wonder whether they started to question that association when the Mayflower’s companion vessel, the Speedwell, sprung a leak, forcing both ships to turn back for repairs. I wonder whether their attitude shifted when the Speedwell sprung another leak, this time farther out at sea, forcing another return, which ended the Speedwell’s chance for the trans-Atlantic voyage and which delayed the Mayflower’s departure until September. I wonder whether they lost sight of Deuteronomy’s vision during the difficult late passage across a rough ocean or when they arrived not in the Virginia Colony, where they had planned to settle, but in Cape Cod, unable to sail south against the November coastal wind. I wonder whether they had any sense that God was prospering their journey or that God had promised them this land when they landed at what they called Plymouth at the beginning of a winter far colder and harsher than any they had known in England.

The myth of the Thanksgiving story draws us in, beckoning us to return to that Pilgrim settlement every year as we prepare to sit down and eat our own distinctly American turkey with cranberries on the side. You may have noticed David Silverman’s piece in this morning’s New York Times, in which he calls us to acknowledge the “vicious reality behind [that] Thanksgiving myth.” We still tell the story as one of “Pilgrims and Indians,” and, in many preschools, our children are dressed up with construction-paper buckle-hats or headdresses and are given stereotypical native-sounding names like “Little Bear” and “Doe Princess.” But how often do we teach them the name of the native tribe those European settlers encountered? How often do we even say the name Wampanoag when we tell the story?

We focus on the friendly encounter between the native people and the colonists because it’s always easier to forget the fact that for almost a century the Wampanoag had known the Europeans who had come up the coast to capture and enslave some of their people and who had spread unfamiliar diseases through their population. (How do you think they knew how to speak English?) We give thanks that the indigenous people took time to teach the settlers how to plant corn and survive in a foreign land, but we don’t give thanks for the crops and villages and roads and monuments that were already established and that the settlers took for their own, perhaps with the story of Deuteronomy in mind. Silverman argues that the subsequent peace treaty that was signed has become a way for us to think of “America as a gift to white people,” allowing us to ignore the violence and genocide and forced removal of native peoples that followed for centuries.

The myth draws us into the story, but, increasingly, we feel a need to get the story right. We need the truth to give us something even more meaningful than a tale of our ancestors’ triumph over hardship in search of religious freedom. And I wonder whether the enacted expression of thanksgiving detailed in the Deuteronomy text might help us with that.

Moses sets out for the people of God a clear process for celebrating the first harvest they will receive in their new land. Take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground and put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose. And, when you get there, hand it to the priest, and, when the priest sets the basket before the altar of the Lord, you shall make this response: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor…” Moses tells God’s people to rehearse again the story of salvation—how God had heard their cry when they were afflicted in Egypt, how God set them free from slavery with great signs and wonders, how God led them through the wilderness and brought them to a bountiful land flowing with milk and honey. And then what does Moses tell them to do? To celebrate and share that bounty with the priests, who had no land of their own, and the aliens—the foreign people in their midst.

Ritualized thanksgiving is an opportunity for us not to ignore the truth of history but to acknowledge and embrace it. There is an instinct within us to take credit for our own success—to look at the bounty at our disposal and to identify as the cause of that bounty our own good decisions, our own hard work, and our own dedicated resources. But the root gesture of thanksgiving is to focus on someone else—something else that has given us these blessing. At the end of the prescribed liturgy, the people of God are called to celebrate and share their bounty with others as a recognition that it does not belong exclusively to them. That there are foreigners in their midst who are to partake in that bounty is a sign that God’s people are called to acknowledge those who have been displaced and from whom that bounty had been taken.

One cannot engage the real work of thanksgiving without a deep dive into honesty and humility. Confronting the truth may shake the myth we hold dear, but it does not threaten our ability to be thankful—it strengthens it. Today, when you sit down at the table, give thanks for the food before you and for those who prepared it. But don’t forget the people who grew it and harvested it and packaged it and loaded it and transported it and unloaded it and stocked it and sold it and marketed it. Don’t forget the soil and the air and the sun and the rain and the nutrients that helped that food grow. Don’t forget those who will clean up and take out the trash and pick up that trash and haul it to the dump. Your ability to celebrate the bounty of this day is not diminished when you remember those people. You do not need to take credit for all of that in order to celebrate. Similarly, don’t forget the people who for centuries lived on the land where that food was grown, where it was processed, where it was sold, and where you will sit and eat it. Around here, that’s the Osage and the Caddo and the Očeti Šakówiŋ. Don’t forget that your bounty is for them, too. This day, of all days, is a day to remember that, and doing so doesn’t hurt us. It makes our gratitude even fuller.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Peter's Brother

"You're Peter's brother, aren't you?" I wonder how many times the Apostle Andrew heard that as the Christian movement spread. In every account of the twelve disciples, Andrew is listed by name, yet he is often thought of as Peter's brother. In the synoptic account of their calling, as we have in the gospel lesson appointed for the feast of St. Andrew, Peter and Andrew and James and John accompany each other inseparable, but, when it is time for Jesus to take with him only his very closest followers, it's Peter, James, and John who go with him--no Andrew. The perennial fifth wheel, Andrew has his own contribution to the Way of Jesus, but it's rarely remembered without peering into the shadow of his boisterous brother.

In John's version of things, Andrew plays a different, more prominent role. In the disciples' calling story, it is Andrew who overhears John the Baptist remark that Jesus of Nazareth is the one about whom he had been speaking, and it is Andrew who goes and finds his brother Peter and brings him to Jesus. In John's account, it is Andrew who brings to Jesus a boy who has five barley loaves and two fish when they need to find some way to feed the 5,000 people in the wilderness. In John's gospel account, it is Andrew whom Philip consults when some Greeks ask to see Jesus, and it is Andrew who decides to bring their request to Jesus. Maybe John the gospel writer was a younger brother who knew too well what it feels like to go to school and be compared with an older sibling. At the very least, he allows us to recapture some of Andrew's identity without needing to receive it through the legacy of Peter.

Isn't it nice to remember that you don't have to be an oldest child to be a saint of God? In a spiritual way, Paul makes that case in Romans 10, when he reminds his readers that there is no distinction between Jew and Greek. In the next chapter, Paul will use a botanical image to describe how the Gentiles have been grafted into the stem, the root, the people of God, the children of Abraham. For Paul, although our path into salvation history may be distinct, as citizens of God's reign there is now no distinction among us--there is neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, first nor last, older nor younger. Instead, all of us have been given gifts to share with the work of salvation.

"Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved," Paul quotes emphatically, "But how are they to call on the one in whom they have not believed?" Paul knows that those who turn to God and call out to him will be answered and saved, but not everyone knows that. "And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?" How? The God who answers all who call is calling all who know God to share that good news with others. "How beautiful the feet of those who bring good news!" Paul writes, quoting Isaiah.

One of the beautiful challenges of believing in a God who loves everyone and who makes no distinctions is recognizing that the good news of that love must be delivered to everyone. Evangelism isn't someone else's job. There may be more prominent people in the Christian community who get credit for doing impressive things, but they might not be standing next to you when a prophet calls out. They might not be the ones whom some seekers approach with a question about the Way of Jesus. They might not be on that elevator, in that shopping line, on that park bench, in that waiting room when the opportunity to share good news comes. It's not someone else's job. As a child of the good news, it's yours.

You don't have to make speeches like Peter. You don't have to lead a company of apostles, bear witness to magistrates, argue with intellectuals, or become the patron saint of Scotland, dying on an X-shaped cross. But, if you spend your life hiding in the shadow of those who do, you'll miss the chance to be fully you and share the witness God has given you to share. Do you believe in God? Do you believe that God loves everyone? Do you believe that God answers prayer? Then you have good news to share because there are plenty of people in your life who do not know those things. And how will they call, how will they believe, how will they know unless you tell them? How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Who Is Our Righteousness?

November 24, 2019 – The Last Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 29C

© 2019 Evan D. Garner

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

Years ago, when I was a newly ordained minister in an unfamiliar community, I wondered aloud to my boss whom I might vote for in an upcoming local election. Sensing that I felt the need to lend my support to just the right candidate, my boss told me a story. Several years before that, the mayor of Montgomery had stopped my boss on the sidewalk during a local parade to thank him and our church for remembering the mayor in our prayers every Sunday. It was a thoughtful remark and showed genuine gratitude, but then the mayor took it a step further: “I’ll try my best to honor those prayers and be a good Christian mayor,” he said. My boss’ reply left him stunned: “Why don’t you focus on being a good mayor and let me worry about the Christian part.”

The mayor was surprised. I, too, was surprised when my boss told me the story. Why wouldn’t an Episcopal priest care whether a politician shared his Christian identity and the values that come with that faith? Because ultimately we can’t trust leaders who look and sound and think like us any more than those who don’t.

Human beings have struggled with identity politics for as long as there have been politics. The ancient Israelites begged God to allow them to have a king—a person who would unite them and rule them and show them the right way to live. God didn’t like that plan, and the prophet Samuel didn’t like that plan. They both told the people that they would regret that decision, that their king would seize their wealth and enlist their children in his army and among his servants, but the people insisted. Finally, God and the prophet gave in. And who was chosen to be their king? Saul, whom the prophet tells us was taller and more handsome than anyone else in Israel (1 Sam. 9:2). Saul was a natural choice because he reflected the image of what all the people imagined a king should look like—a taller, better-looking version of themselves. And how did that work out? At first, things went well, but eventually greed got the better of him, and his faithlessness earned the nation a generational curse that would follow them for centuries.

We project upon our leaders the idealized image of ourselves because what we really want is to be in charge. We think that someone who is like us will want the things we want and work for the causes we would support, and, in a sense, that’s true because they end up being just as self-interested and self-serving as we would be if we were in their place.

“Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the LordIt is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them.” For generations, God’s people had been led by kings who had taxed the poor in order to give to the rich, who had condemned widows’ houses in order to make way for their own palaces, who had forced back-breaking labor upon their people in order to pay tribute to foreign rulers. Prophets like Jeremiah describe that kind of behavior as “going after false gods.” But by that they mean something more than bowing down before an idol or praying to a foreign deity. Misplaced worship is just a symptom of a deeper problem.

 The people of God are called to worship the one who rescued them from slavery in Egypt. They are called to follow the one who led them through the wilderness. They are called to belong to the one who delivered them from their enemies and kept them safe when they were vulnerable. But you can’t do that if you’re trampling upon the poor and the needy. The people had chosen kings because they thought that good and godly leaders would help them follow God, when, in fact, what they got were kings who cared more about themselves than the people they served. In other words, they got more of themselves—more of us.

But how can anyone ever do any better? When the failure of our flawed human nature is a guaranteed outcome, how can things ever change? Jeremiah is able to envision a different possibility: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, who will reign and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” But this leader is not to be known for his own accomplishments. In fact, he isn’t even significant enough for the people to remember his name. Instead, he will be called, “The Lord is our righteousness.” Not the king is our righteousness. Not the leaders. Not the priests. Not the prophets. The Lord.

Because they are too limiting, I don’t like using masculine images or labels for God when I can help it, but, in this case, the biblical text uses “Lord in all capital letters to convey that particular deity who is the unique God of Israel. As the story of salvation history shows, that God has a very particular approach to righteousness, which the prophet anticipates being manifest in that future leader.

But what does it mean to declare that that God is our righteousness? As Fleming Rutledge describes in her book Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ, in both the Hebrew of the Old Testament and the Greek of the New Testament, the words “justice” and “righteousness” are the same word, and, in both cases, the root of the word is both a noun and a verb (p. 21). When Jeremiah envisions a ruler who will be known as “The Lord is our righteousness,” he foresees a leader who will simultaneously enable and give way to God’s justice and the judgment necessary to fulfill it—to God’s rightness and the making of all things right.

This is a big change for God’s people, who are being asked by the prophet to stop searching for the leader among them who can do godly things and to start searching instead for God. What might the kingdom—the collective identity of God and God’s people—look like if the Lord were our righteousness instead of an idealized projection of ourselves? It might look like a community that places at its center the values embodied by a criminal, rejected by the powers of this world, abandoned by the zealots of his time, and nailed to a cross as a sign of utter humiliation and defeat.

What does “The Lord is our righteousness” look like? When the penitent thief recognized that Jesus had accepted a sentence of death that he did not deserve, he saw the title that had been placed above his head not as an expression of irony but as an expression of truth: “This is the King of the Jews.” So he said to the condemned, defeated man hanging next to him, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” How could anyone look upon the dying Jesus and see a king who was prepared to enter into his reign? How could anyone see beyond the agony and shame to behold a royal figure? The thief saw within Jesus a kingdom not built out of power or wealth, of security or prosperity, but of sacrifice and love, of humility and generosity.

Who is our righteousness? To whom do we look to be God’s justice in the world? To whom do we give our faith as the one who can make all things just?

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Rereading Apocalyptic Stories

Imagine walking into the Sistine Chapel, looking up at the ceiling, and whispering to yourself, "Wow!" only to have someone behind you say, "Yeah, but it will all be gone some day!" Then, you spin around to see what sort of pessimistic jerk would say such a thing, and you discover that it's Jesus.

In Sunday's gospel lesson (Luke 21:5-19), Jesus was walking around the Jerusalem temple, when he overheard some people remarking about how beautiful the sacred structure was. As if unable to help himself, Jesus spouts off, "As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down." He's right, of course, but does he have to say it? Does have have to ruin the moment? Or, to ask a spiritually meaningful question, why would Jesus respond like that?

One approach is to assume that those who were speaking about the temple had misplaced affection for the structure. John's version of Jesus seems particularly antipathetic toward centralized worship, and it's reasonable to believe that Luke's Jesus shared some of that sentiment. Maybe Jesus' comment was a criticism of the current religious dynamic, which depended, according to that logic, too heavily on physicality and not enough on spirituality. That sounds like an argument that an Essene--a sect that many believe Jesus' teachings reflected--would make.

Accordingly, perhaps Jesus' teaching to us is that we place too much emphasis on buildings and altars and vestments. Most of the Episcopalians I know love their church building and the altar guilds who make sure that everything is adorned just so. We could all use a reminder that our worship of God may be enhanced by those physical things but it does not depend on them.

Another approach is to think about this passage from a historical perspective. Toward the end of the first century, the Jerusalem temple was destroyed. In response to a widespread Jewish rebellion, the Romans destroyed the temple in 70AD. There was intense persecution, and many Jews and Christians were killed. By the time Luke's version of the gospel was written, it is likely that this event had already taken place. Jesus' remarks--whether understood as genuine future-prediction or a historical revision to reflect events that had already taken place--likely should be tied to this particular historical event.

Accordingly, Jesus' words are intended to offer hope to those who read them. The temple was destroyed, and people were being killed, but the end hadn't come yet. "How long, O Lord?" the ancient cry was repeated. And Jesus' answer is, "Even longer, but don't lose hope." To us, therefore, the message is the same. We may not face another destruction of the Jerusalem temple, but the chaos that comes to this life is not a sign that God is losing but that God's intervention must be sought and hoped for as fully as ever.

The mistake, however, seems to come when people read passages like this one and separate them from their original historical context and begin to wonder what particular moment in our future they may represent. Language about the end of the world seems to become a reason for people to predict when the end will come. There is nothing in this passage that tells us the end is near. In fact, it's quite the opposite: Jesus said, "These things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately." This passage is not about end-prediction. It's about warning us not to fall into the trap of thinking either that the end must be near because things have gotten bad or that we have no reason to hope because the end is delayed for so long.

Apocalyptic nuts make me want to tune out whenever Jesus says something about the end times. But that instinct reflects the extent to which I have allowed them to reinterpret a message of hope and encouragement as one of fear and narrow-minded prediction. I need to reread passage like this one and look not for a literal explanation but for the spiritual significance that was intended by the author.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Willingness To Work

When I was in middle school, our youth group went to a revival of sorts in Panama City Beach. I don't remember all of the details--whether it was a Spring Break trip or a weekend away--but I do remember how attractive the thought of going to the beach was and how disappointed we all were that we didn't get much (any) time on the beach. I also remember how highly pressured we were to give our lives to Christ in order that we might be saved. As someone who had tried to give his life to Christ every night since I could remember only to wake up the next morning unsure of whether it had worked, I found the teaching they offered that one must publicly give one's life to Christ a seductive invitation to really, really make it work this time. (It didn't.) And I also remember a strange Bible study about social issues.

We were split up into groups of four and handed a Bible. The leaders told us that we were supposed to use the Bible to address certain issues like sex before marriage, abortion, and homosexuality. Our group was asked to find what the Bible said about welfare. I remember it well not because I recognized it at the time as a traumatic experience but because of how beautifully simplistic the results were. Our group scoured the concordance/index for any references to "welfare," but found none. We tried to think of a passage but couldn't. Finally, when we were called upon to give our answer, I offered the best we could come up with: "We didn't find it in the Bible, but we think that God helps those who help themselves." We knew right away that we had made a mistake.

"That isn't in the Bible," the leader snapped at us. "That's Shakespeare." (Actually, it's older than Shakespeare, but that didn't seem to matter to her.) She then told us that the right answer is found in 2 Thessalonians 3:10. So, dutifully, we opened our Bibles and read, "For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat." What fools we had been! The answer was so simple and beautiful! Of course Paul would have something to say about this. If you weren't willing to work, you shouldn't eat! It was all clear to us now.

This Sunday, we'll hear those words in our second lesson (2 Thessalonians 3:6-13). I'm sure Paul knew that community well enough to speak to the particular circumstance that made that an issue, and I trust that they knew Paul well enough to hear his instruction not as a cold-hearted demand for a work requirement. I wish I had known the Bible well enough to respond to the leaders of that conference by pointing to Jesus feeding the 5,000 or God raining down manna in the wilderness or Jesus' command that we feed those in need in Matthew 25. As I prepare for church this week, I'm taken back to a moment from my past, and I see it as a gift as I remember how easily it is to find a simplistic answer in the Bible even when one is asking difficult questions. At this point, I don't really worry about what the Bible tells me about welfare. I trust that the generosity of God and of Jesus Christ and the command to be generous in the Christian community inform my approach to issues like that. But I can't afford to forget that many religious arguments depend on a narrow reading of scripture and that, in response to them, we all have good news to share. But, in order to share it, we must be immersed in God's word daily.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Our Generous God

November 10, 2019 – The 22nd Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 27C

© 2019 Evan D. Garner

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

Today’s gospel lesson revolves around a parable, but what makes this one different is the fact that Jesus isn’t the one who tells it. Instead, it’s some Sadducees who come to Jesus and tell him a story:
A man dies leaving behind a wife but no children, so his brother does his religious duty and marries the widow in order that she might be cared for. Then that brother dies, too, so the next brother in line takes on that responsibility and marries the widow. Before long, however, that brother also dies, so a fourth and then a fifth and then a sixth and finally a seventh brother all marry the widow in turn. Eventually, the last brother and the widow also die. So, in the resurrection, whose wife will she be?
Their story comes with some patriarchal cultural baggage, but they make a good point. Haven’t you ever wondered about that? When your mom remarries after your dad dies, don’t you wonder how God will sort that out when everyone gets to heaven? At which dinner table will she sit? Who will sleep in the bed next to her? I know that when people get married they make their vows “until we are parted by death,” but I’ve really never liked that part. I understand that people get lonely and want to remarry after their spouses die, but can’t we get back together with our true love when we get to heaven? It would be a shame to spend so much of this life figuring out how to live with someone only to spend eternity without the benefit of that perfected relationship.

But that’s not the point, and it’s also not what the Sadducees are asking. They don’t really care about marriage. They aren’t actually curious how marital relationships get sorted out in the ultimate reign of God because they don’t believe in the resurrection. They think the whole thing is as silly as you wondering which husband your mother will be married to when she gets to the pearly gates. The Sadducees tell Jesus their story as an intellectual trap—a way of proving what they already know: that those sects of Judaism that believe in the resurrection have got it all wrong, that they are perverting the word of God by adopting unfounded, frivolous, modern cultural adaptations like the resurrection of the dead. It doesn’t matter what the Greeks or Romans think. Nowhere in the Torah—the Books of Moses—do the scriptures mention anything about heaven or being raised from the dead.

The Sadducees are right about that—the only references to heaven or hell in the Hebrew scriptures are oblique examples that are given by the latter prophets, most notably a second-century addition to the Book of Daniel that reflects pagan influences on Judaism. Even though they might be right about that, they couldn’t be more wrong because, as Jesus shows us, their minds are stuck in an earthly perspective.

“The people of this age marry and are given in marriage,” Jesus says, “but those who are worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.” Why? Because that’s not how heaven works. Marriage is an important institution in this life, but it has no place—it makes no sense—in that age where all relationships are perfected. The intimacy I share with my spouse and children in this world is a mere shadow of the union we all have with God in God’s reign. Here on earth, marriage is a sign that provides us a glimpse of what divine love is like, but in heaven that love fills everything and everyone. You don’t need a ring on your finger or vows that define your relationship in order to experience true fidelity. Jesus shows the Sadducees that their mistake isn’t trying to understand how marriage works in the kingdom of God but failing to grasp what the kingdom of God really is. You can’t understand who God is or what God is doing by trying to squeeze the limitless love of God into rigid human constructs. You can only understand by allowing the Holy Spirit bring your heart and mind and soul even into God’s own heart and mind.

To make that point, Jesus takes their argument and turns it on its head not by explaining the nature of heaven but by pointing to the nature of God: “And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.” That’s a generous reading of Exodus 3 that you can’t get to using human logic. Instead, Jesus shows us that we have to read the Bible by allowing the Holy Spirit to bring us into the living mind of God. If God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, he tells us, then the patriarchs must be alive to God. Why? Because we know that God is a God of the living. Just as the Sadducees could not understand how heaven works because their minds were stuck in an earthly mentality, we, too, will never grasp the generous truth of God until our minds inhabit it.

In Jesus’ day, the big theological debate was over the resurrection. The Bible didn’t say it. Purists wouldn’t have it. Logic couldn’t understand it. But many had come to believe that the promises of God must be fulfilled not only in this life but also beyond this life. They knew and believed in a generous God. Everything they had ever known and experienced about God encouraged them to let their minds be stretched by their faith. And that faith led them to a hope that is bigger than the words on a scroll and bigger than the traditions of the elders. It brought them to grasp an even bigger truth about God than the world had yet known.

I don’t know what the next really big theological dilemma will be. We have had our own struggles over marriage, and it doesn’t seem like the Body of Christ is finished wrangling over it yet. Passages like this one, with its roots in patriarchy and misogyny, reflect an understanding of gender and authority that aren’t locked in the past. They’re still alive and well not only in ultra-conservative churches but even in congregations like ours, where women may not be required to cover their heads and remain silent in church but routinely are told how pretty they look before they are complimented on how smart they are. That inherited behavior may come from good intentions, but it makes it harder for us to take women’s contribution to the leadership of this church seriously.

We are still a long way from valuing every human being regardless of their gender identity, and undoing generations of using the Bible and religion to bind women and non-binary individuals in lesser roles requires changing the way we talk about God and changing which sacred texts we prioritize as well as how we incorporate them into our faith. Similarly, we’ve used the Bible and our doctrines to speak of people of color as less than human for far longer than we’ve spoken of equality, and reversing millennia of religious tradition requires people who have benefitted from doing things the way they’ve always been done to see something new. And we cannot see something new until our minds are lifted beyond the scope of our experience and understanding and brought into the generous mind of God.

Our God is always more generous than we imagine God to be. Our God is always more loving than we expect God to be. But believing that does not mean leaving behind the faith of our ancestors. On the contrary, it means carrying that faith with us into whatever new understanding the Holy Spirit is leading us. It means trusting that our generous and gracious God may still have things to show us.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Trying to See

November 6, 2019 - Proper 26C

Our congregation has two Wednesday services--one in the morning and one in the evening--both of which serve as a principal service for those who attend. Whether because of work or health or mobility or family or emotional needs, they are people for whom Sunday-morning church is difficult. Because of that, we typically read the lessons from the previous Sunday, which usually govern our worship for the whole week. This week, though, is different. Because we observed All Saints' on Sunday, we need to use a different lesson for the midweek services, and I'm delighted to see that it's the story of Zacchaeus.

Today, I want to talk about people who are short. In particular, I want to talk about two kinds of people who are short: people who happen to be short and people whose small stature plays a prominent role in their identity. For example, according to unreliable internet sources, Beethoven was 5'3", but no one thinks of Beethoven as being short. Danny DaVito, on the other hand, is 5'0", and being short is part of his identity as an actor. Bruno Mars is 5'6". Dolly Parton is 5'0". Prince was 5'2". Their height may have shaped their stage presence and drive to succeed as musicians, but we don't speak about them as short musicians--just musicians.

Other people, however, are known for their short height either because they overcame it or because they utilized it. Muggsy Bouges, the basketball star, is perhaps most famous because he is 5'3", making him the shortest player ever to play in the NBA. Genghis Kahn, the Mongol warrior, was only 5'1". At least in part, they are known because they succeeded in a field in which one normally wouldn't expect a short person to succeed. Harry Houdini, however, used his 5'4" stature to become the greatest escape artist of all time. And today's gospel lesson gives us another example.

Zacchaeus was a number of things, and it isn't an accident that among the things we remember about him was his short stature. But, before we think about his height, let's also notice that Luke tells us that he was "a chief tax collector and was rich." That's like saying "wealthy scam artist" or "wildly successful arch-criminal." Tax collectors were traitors who worked for the Roman Empire--the oppressive, occupying force that had come into Palestine and demanded tribute from the people who lived there. Tax collectors made their living by extorting money from their own people, and the really good ones used all kinds of pressure tactics to squeeze ever last penny they could from others. A chief tax collector who was rich was like the wealthy person at the top of the Ponzi scheme who enjoys the comforts provided by effectively stealing from others.

That kind of identity made it easy for Zacchaeus to be labeled a "sinner." And his height didn't help either. Even though we know in our rational minds that physical attributes have nothing to do with how God sees us, biology and history and culture have shaped us in ways that lead us to look down--literally and judgmentally--upon those who aren't as tall, aren't as thin, and aren't as fair-skinned as we are. But in Zacchaeus' story, his stature became the locus of an encounter with Jesus.

Zacchaeus couldn't see Jesus. Luke tells us that he was trying to see who Jesus was but couldn't because the crowd kept getting in the way. So he ran ahead and climbed up a sycamore tree so that he could catch a glimpse, and Jesus noticed. What kind of wealthy grownup would climb a sycamore tree in order to see a celebrated rabbi passing through town? Either someone who cared so much about Jesus that he would do anything to see him or someone who knew he could not fall any lower in the estimation of his peers and had nothing to lose. Either way, it became the opportunity for an encounter with Jesus.

We know how the story ends. Jesus stops and tells Zacchaeus to hurry down so that he can dine in his home. The crowd grumbles because the rabbi has chosen to eat in the home of a sinner. Zacchaeus declares that half his possessions will be given to the poor and anything he has defrauded he will repay four times over. And Jesus declares that salvation has come to his house because he, too, is a child of Abraham. But don't lose sight of how it all began. Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus, but he couldn't. Zacchaeus had nothing to lose and everything to gain. His humiliation in the eyes of the people made it possible for him to climb a tree as if he were a child, and his child-like action made it possible for Jesus to see him, and that, in turn, made it possible for transformation to happen.

When God comes looking for us, what is our reaction? Do we hide in the garden and cover ourselves because we are ashamed? Or have we reached the point where we realize that we have nothing to lose--that how the world sees us isn't the measure of our identity, that when God comes near we can risk climbing a tree in order to see past our limitations? In the story of Zacchaeus, both his height and his sin made it possible for him to meet Jesus. They are not accidents. They are integral to his salvation. What about you? God is coming to meet you--coming to dine in your house today--not because you're a good person, not because you're perfect, but because you are available, and you are available precisely because you are imperfect.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

United in God's Love

November 1, 2019 – Eve of Commemoration of Faithful Departed

© 2019 Evan D. Garner

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

Every time we remember something we recreate that memory in our mind. Each recollection builds not purely upon the event itself but upon the last time we remembered it. Our wedding day, our child’s first step, that hurtful exchange with our friend, our father’s last few hours—each act of remembering brings a moment back into our consciousness and reassembles or reconstitutes it, allowing it to live on not only in the deepest recesses of our mind, where our brain stores away silent, unilluminated thoughts for safe keeping, but also right out in the front of our thoughts, where it still lives and breathes and shines.

The same is true for those we have loved and lost. Their memory is not static—a snapshot of the last time we saw them—but a living remembrance that comes back into our lives both when we recall them into our consciousness and, often, when they show up unexpectedly. I have heard many people who are bearing the struggle of grief tell me that they still see and hear their loved one—not only when they close their eyes but also when they are sitting quietly or eating a meal or brushing their teeth. They come to us not in a strange or spooky ways, but in an ordinary, comforting sort of way that seems natural for someone whom we love that much. Memories remain alive even if we know that the ones we hold in our hearts are no longer with us. But, when we remember those we love not only in our minds but also in the presence of God, something else is true.

“The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,” the Book of Wisdom reminds us, “and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish, they seem to have died, and their departure was thought to be a disaster and their going from us to be their destruction, but they are at peace.” As people of faith, who put all of our hopes and trust in the love of God, we know that those who have died are kept alive not only in our memories but also in the unending love that God has for us. Though our experience of suffering and loss in this world is undeniably true, God has given us a vision through that suffering and beyond this life and, in Jesus Christ, has allowed us to see and know that, because of God’s love, they are not lost to us but live on in the presence of God.

Whenever we come into God’s presence, therefore, we come into their presence—not only because we cherish their memory but because the Holy Spirit brings us into the communion of all the saints and all the souls that have returned to God. Although they dwell in a plane of existence beyond our reach, as we encounter the divine, our souls are lifted into that space that is beyond space and into that time that is outside of time. And, again, because of love, we are united with them in God’s presence.

For centuries after the Reformation, our tradition rejected the practice of praying for the dead because it was thought to be a practice designed to change the status of the souls of the departed—an attempt to move them from purgatory to heaven. But, after World War I, attitudes began to shift. Millions of dead across a continent torn apart by war left twentieth-century Anglicans struggling to find a response that would be faithful both to the innumerable losses and to the theology of a Protestant church. What they discovered is what so many of us already know—that praying for those who have died is not about promoting souls from one realm of existence to another but about holding in our hearts and minds and before God those whom we have lost but still love. And that act of love and prayer, which we gather to celebrate this evening, teaches us again a truth that dwells at the very center of our faith—that in God nothing is lost and that in God we remain united to one another.