Sunday, December 29, 2019

Adopted By God

December 29, 2019 – Christmas 1A

© 2019 Evan D. Garner

When I was a seminarian in Cambridge, most of my academic work took place at the University’s Divinity Faculty, where I attended lectures and studied in the library amidst undergraduate and graduate theology students. In my second year, I decided to run for a student position on one of the department committees and was elected. At my first meeting, I found out that there wasn’t much to it. We made our way through a brief agenda, noting without much discussion what classes would be taught and who would teach them. No one asked me for my input, and I didn’t have any to offer anyway, and, when the meeting finished, I left with a sense of empty fulfillment. I had a place at the table, but it didn’t seem to be worth much.

At my second meeting with the committee, that all changed. Again, we went through a short agenda without any room for my input, but, when we finished all of the items on the agenda that I had been sent by email, everyone at the table turned and stared at me. I froze. Quickly searching my mind for all the reasons they might be looking at me—was there some strange piece of Oxbridge etiquette I had missed that required junior committee members to offer to fetch a bottle of sherry before the meeting could be adjourned?—but I could think of nothing. The chair cleared his throat and, staring at me, announced, “That is the end of the open meeting agenda.” I nodded at him, trying to will myself into understanding what he meant. Finally, he leaned in and said to me directly, “It’s time for you to leave.”

As I collected my things, I glanced over at the agenda of the person next to me and noticed that hers was a good bit longer than mine and included things like “faculty evaluations” and “tenure appointments.” I went downstairs and stopped by the reception desk, where I explained to a member of the support staff how awkward it had been not being told that there was a second agenda for those parts of the meeting that a student representative couldn’t attend. “I felt like a red-headed stepchild,” I told her, but my British friend just stared back at me blankly. “I’m sorry,” I said, “I mean a ginger-headed stepchild,” but, she still just stared at me with a confused look on her face. “Do you not have that saying in England?” I asked. She shook her head. “What do you mean by that?” she asked. “Well, you know…,” I tried to explain, “how sometimes stepchildren aren’t accepted by their stepparents and that, presumably, that’s more obvious when the kid has ginger hair.” Tears formed in her eyes. “My son is a ginger, and I’ve remarried. Are you saying my husband won’t love my son because he has red hair?”

Sometimes language fails us when we try to describe the relationships of a blended family. Sometimes stepparents are more important to us than our biological parents, and other times they represent the antithesis of a parental relationship. When a grandparent cares for a child whose mother or father isn’t part of the picture, is it wrong for the child to begin calling that grandparent “mom” or “dad?” When a stepparent goes through the process of adopting a stepchild, do you call start calling him the “real father?” In that case, what does “real” even mean?

The apostle Paul uses the language of adoption as an image for our relationship with God in Jesus Christ, but what did he mean by that? It would be nice if there were other passages of scripture in the Old or New Testament in which the relationship between God and humanity was described as one of adoption, but Paul is the only biblical author who writes about God adopting us. There are plenty of passages about us being God’s children and about God marrying and remarrying God’s people in covenant love, but only Paul tries to frame our relationship with God as one of adoption. And I wonder whether my poorly-timed (some might say perfectly-timed) reference to a red-headed stepchild is evidence of why Paul’s image is particularly hard to understand—because many of us hear “adoption” and focus on what isn’t true instead of what is.

In the birth of Jesus Christ, we become children of God not only in metaphor but in a complete and total way. Jesus isn’t merely God’s representative here on earth, nor is he the personification of God’s spirit in human form. He is the infinite, eternal, almighty God who becomes as finite, limited, and vulnerable as any of us. He comes into this world just like the rest of us—born of a mother—yet his birth or, more accurately, the Incarnation is the indivisible union of God’s nature and our nature. That union is the means by which the incompatibility of divine perfection and human inadequacy is overcome. In him, human nature itself is transformed—burnished—by union with the divine, so that we, too, might be united with God—so that we might become fully God’s children.

In Jesus Christ, we are not merely claimed by God as “sort-of” children. In him, we become partakers of the divine nature, full children of God. In the middle of the two sections that make up our reading from Galatians, Paul writes that because we belong to God in Christ, “there is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no longer male and female” (3:28). In other words, the most basic elements of our human identity—ethnicity, heritage, class, and gender—no longer apply. For Paul, the supersession of our earthly identity is foundational to the Christian faith. Because we belong to God as children, we are set free from any need to try to define that relationship on our own terms and through our own effort. As God’s children, our relationship to God is no longer defined by how we behave—our accomplishments, our faithfulness, our religiosity or our lack thereof—but by the adoption God has enacted on our behalf.

We have been adopted. We have become God’s children. In the birth of Christ, God dwells in us so that we might dwell in God. As Christians, we claim that incarnate identity for ourselves through Baptism. As we emerge from the baptismal waters—even as infants—we undertake the transformation which that union with the divine entails—the burnishing of our imperfections through the indwelling of God’s holiness. That’s what the life of faith is all about. We spend our lives as sort of spiritual adolescents—as individuals who wrestle with our true identity as we mature into the people we have been reborn to become. And all of that begins with the miracle of Christmas. At Christmas, we celebrate again God who dwells not only with us but in us so that we might become God’s children and dwell with God forever.

Friday, December 27, 2019

God With Us

December 24, 2019 – Christmas I

© 2019 Evan D. Garner

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

He didn’t like riding the bus after school, but he didn’t have a choice. At the start of his third-grade year, his mother had gone back to work part time, and he was big enough, she had told him, to come home and get a snack and do his homework all by himself. It didn’t help that his bus driver was the meanest bus driver in the whole world or that she daily threatened to leave him if he didn’t hurry up and get to the bus on time. He was a good kid, perhaps even dutiful, and, as soon as the second bell rang—the bell for bus riders—he went straight from his classroom to the bus line outside. Even though he never even stopped long enough to say goodbye to his friends and practically ran through the halls, he regularly got to the bus after the driver had closed its doors and started to pull away from the school.

He had asked his teacher if he could leave early, when the first bell rang, because he was so worried about missing the bus, but there was no reason why a third-grader couldn’t get from the classroom to the bus on time, so she refused his request. He tried explaining his predicament to his mom, but what she heard was a son who really missed being picked up by his mother and spending the afternoons with her, so she gently reminded him how important it was that he rode the bus every day because she needed to work. He knew she was right. His father’s hours had been cut, and they needed her income to keep things afloat. He told his mother that he understood and that he would try his best.

A few days later, however, his best wasn’t good enough. Racing through the hallway to get to the bus, he had been scolded by a teacher, who made him stop and explain to her why he had been running. He simply said he was trying to get to his bus. She believed him but told him that he had to walk. Looking over his shoulder to confirm that she was still watching him, he walked as fast as he could to the bus line, but, by the time he got there, it was too late. His bus, Bus 81-7, was headed out of the school driveway and onto the main road. He just stood there, staring and helpless.

He walked back inside and went to the office. He spoke to the school secretary, his voice barely audible. She said something to him about sitting down and waiting, but he didn’t really hear what she said because his mind was stuck in that place of panic and fear. He waited for what felt like hours, and, as the school steadily emptied out—first the students, then the teachers, and finally most of the administrators—he began to realize that he was in big trouble. When the principal came out and spoke to him, reiterating that it was his responsibility to catch the bus, he nodded apologetically but kept back the emotions that were beginning to overwhelm him. All he could think of was how important his mother’s job was, how she couldn’t afford to take time off to come and get him, how critical it was for the whole family that he catch the bus.

Eventually, when the office door opened and his mother walked in, all his emotions broke loose. Any anger or frustration she had felt disappeared instantly as she beheld her broken son and saw how fully he had inhabited his failure. “I’m so sorry,” he said through his sobs, and she held him and assured him that everything was going to be ok. “I didn’t think you would come,” he said to her. “I didn’t know how I would get home.” “Well, I wasn’t going to leave you here,” she explained with a generous chuckle. “I was always going to come and get you.”

“In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

The miracle that is this night is not that a savior came into the world 2,000 years ago when the heir to David’s throne appeared in the Holy Land but that God’s salvation would come to people just like us in a moment as familiar as a birth and as close to us as a nearby pasture. Our savior comes not as a superhero who does battle with evil and whose success is featured in international headlines but as an infant whose power to save is as familiar as a parent’s loving embrace. The redemption of the world comes not in a legendary victory or a supernatural event that captures the attention of the whole world but in a birth as ordinary and universal as any we have beheld. In other words, on this night we celebrate God coming to each one of us and saving us in a moment as personal and powerful as any we have ever experienced.

It didn’t have to be that way, of course. God didn’t need to come as an infant who was born in a lowly stable and placed in a feeding trough by his teenage mother. God didn’t have to share the news of his arrival with, of all people, some shepherds—the kind of people whom no one really wants to listen to. God could have been born in a palace and could have declared the news of that birth on an elaborate golden easel, releasing official photographs through the media. God could have come down from heaven with power and great might and established God’s throne on the earth, demanding our allegiance. Eventually news of that decree would trickle down to us, mediated through official channels and passed along by emperors and governors, priests and religious officials. But then it would always be someone else’s news and someone else’s savior. God can’t wrap God’s arms around you in the news of something that happened long ago and far away. That is why tonight’s proclamation of salvation coming as a little child is so important.

This night the angels of heaven come to a field on the outskirts of town, perhaps a little ways down Highway 112, just a short drive from the hospital. There, the glory of the Lord fills the hillside as the multitude of the heavenly host proclaims God’s favor and love for all people. The salvation that comes into the world is not merely the birth a hero who will grow up and do great things but the birth of Emmanuel—God with us and in us. By taking our very nature upon Godself, the birth of Jesus was a moment in history that changed all of history by bringing salvation not only to the world but to each and every one of us. We are, in the Incarnation, embraced by God and filled with God’s saving love. All of the brokenness, the struggle, the suffering, and the failures of our lives are wrapped up in God’s generous perfection. In the birth of Jesus, they are redeemed. In the infant Christ, our very imperfection itself is made holy.

The savior who comes into the world is as near to us as the very nature of God that dwells within us. It is as real and personal as a parent’s consoling embrace yet as powerful and wondrous as the almighty power of God. Hear again this night the good news of this night. Hear the angels sing the song of our savior’s birth. Draw near and see for yourselves our loving God, who heals us and saves us by being born within us.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Matthew's Christmas

Most of us know Luke's version of the Christmas story--Bethlehem, innkeeper, manger, shepherds, angels. We hear that version every year at Christmas. We probably know some of Matthew's version, too, because Christmas pageants often add the magi and Epiphany to the script. What I don't often do is read Matthew's version of the birth account by itself, without comparing it with Luke's version, trying to reconcile the two very different accounts into one script-worthy story.

This Sunday, the Fourth Sunday of Advent in Year A, we hear Matthew's version of Jesus' birth, but, if you're not paying close attention, you might miss it altogether. Mary, we are told, was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit, and Joseph, before he had divorced her quietly, was told in a dream that he should not be afraid to take Mary as his wife because the child within her was by the Holy Spirit. I'll write more about that in a minute, but skip ahead to the end of the dream and see that "When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus." Merry Christmas, y'all!

Since, compared with Luke, we don't often get this story by itself, I want to dig around in it for a little while. For starters, notice how Matthew begins his gospel account in the seventeen verses before Sunday's gospel lesson: "An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham..." You may not like reading lists of names, but take some time and read through it. Some of the names aren't all that familiar (Nahshon and Salathiel, for example), but a good number of them have played a big role in the story of salvation (like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, like Boaz and Ruth, like David and Solomon, like Hezekiah and Josiah). Matthew gives us a tidy summary that there were fourteen generations from Abraham to King David, fourteen more from David to the Babylonian exile, and fourteen more until the Messiah's birth. Matthew doesn't only want us to remember the names. He wants us to see the symmetry--the perfect and beautiful balance that has made Jesus' birth more than just a timely moment. For Matthew, it's a perfect moment in salvation history.

Matthew uses Hebrew prophecies to make a similar point. Not only in Sunday's passage but throughout his account, Matthew goes out of his way to make clear theological connections between what he knows about the Jewish tradition and what he understands to be true in Jesus. This week, we hear him remind us that Isaiah predicted that a virgin would conceive and bear a son and name him Emmanuel. Notice not only what prophecy Matthew highlights but also how he does it. The angel tells Joseph to name the child Jesus. But Matthew reminds us as an editorial comment that "all of this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet." Matthew isn't worried that the prophecy points to a virgin-conceived child named Emmanuel, not Joshua or Jesus (same name). For him, Jesus' birth is a broader yet clear fulfillment of that prophecy. As we find in the story of the flight to Egypt, making connections between Jesus' life and the Jewish tradition is important for Matthew because it shows us how clearly and intentionally Jesus is the focal point of God's larger story of salvation.

Lastly, as I've read through Matthew's birth and infancy narrative, I'm reminded how unimportant Mary seems. This is more or less her shining moment--that she was found to be with child. Matthew gives no account of how she got pregnant except to say that it's by the Holy Spirit. Matthew doesn't let us see her experience of that news as Luke does. Instead, it's all about Joseph. He has the dream. He decides to keep her. He has no marital relations with her. He named him Jesus. If you read ahead, he's the one who has a dream that warns him to flee Judea. Matthew tells us that "Joseph took the child and his mother" with him on that journey to a foreign land. Already, by that point, Mary's identity has become subordinate to her child's. Why? Because, in Matthew's mind, other than being a virgin who conceives, Mary has no role in the fulfillment of prophecy. It starts with the genealogy and continues from there. Perhaps it's interesting that, despite emphasizing the role Joseph plays, Matthew never refers to him as Jesus' father (something Luke does frequently). In the end, because of his emphasis on the patriarchal story (in fact treating Joseph like a patriarch, through whom God acts), Matthew neglects to tell us much about Jesus' mother, and, despite not being much of a Mariologist, I miss it. But I suspect that Matthew, who has a different understanding of how and why Jesus' story should be told, would be confused at that sense of loss.

As we read and hear Matthew's birth narrative, I encourage you to do more than compare it with the version you know better. Notice why this is important to Matthew. If you haven't read all the way through Matthew's gospel account yet this liturgical year, do it. Hear again why the genealogy is important, why Joseph plays a critical role, and how Matthew understands Jesus' birth, life, and death as more than just another chapter in salvation history. If we don't stop to hear it now, it may be three more years before we notice again.

Monday, December 16, 2019

The Savior We're Waiting For

December 15, 2019 – Advent 3A

© 2019 Evan D. Garner

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

Speaking God’s truth to powerful people doesn’t always work out well for the preacher. Just ask Joan of Arc or Oscar Romero or Martin Luther King Jr. or Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Or ask John the Baptist, who, as Suzanne reminded us last week, had traded the luxurious life of a temple priest for the hard-pan existence of a wilderness prophet. Having left the courts of power to which his birth entitled him, John pursued ministry on the margins of society and chose as his pulpit a perch that allowed him to lambast those in positions of political or religious authority.

He defiantly preached the nearness of God’s judgment and the new order that would come with it, refusing to soften his words when speaking to those whose power that coming order would overturn. In today’s gospel lesson, we learn that John had already been arrested and thrown into jail, and, in Matthew 14, we learn what he had said to get himself in trouble. Herod, the ruler of that region, had divorced his first wife in order to marry Herodias, his half-brother’s first wife, and John the Baptist refused to keep quiet about it. Ignoring those who warned him not to preach about politics, the Baptizer spoke of the unlawful marriage as exactly the kind of corruption among the so-called leaders of God’s people that God’s anointed one was coming to clean up. Not surprisingly, Herod was furious, so he had John arrested and held in prison. He wanted to have him executed, but he knew how popular the prophet was and was afraid of how bad it would look if he killed his most vocal critic.

I wonder what John thought about the whole situation—that his faithfulness, his commitment to proclaiming the unadulterated word of God, was the reason he was in prison. He had given his whole life to the work of showing people the straight and simple way into God’s reign. He had sacrificed a life of comfort in order to prepare the way for God’s anointed one to come and do God’s work, and what did he have to show for it? Here he was in prison, while Jesus, the one whom everyone spoke of as the anointed one, was out and about, having dinner with Pharisees and keeping company with sinners and prostitutes. I wonder what all those people who had gone out to the River Jordan to be baptized by John thought about the fact that the one to whom John had been pointing hadn’t yet found a way to get the forerunner out of prison. And, as the days went on and any sign that the prophet might escape Herod’s wrath waned, I wonder whether John himself started to wonder what sort of Messiah he had been pointing to.

“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” John’s disciples asked Jesus on the prophet’s behalf. It was a reasonable question. The Hebrew scriptures and Jewish tradition contain many different and at times conflicting examples of what God’s anointed one would be like. Some passages anticipate a priestly figure who would come and purify the people’s flawed worship as if with a refiner’s fire. Others envision a prophet like Moses who would come and lead God’s people into a new era of covenant life. Some predict a warrior who would defeat the enemies of God’s people or a king who would rule God’s people with justice and righteousness. Like many who lived in Roman-occupied Palestine in that day, John and his disciples wanted to know whether Jesus was the kind of the anointed one who would come and defeat the oppressive empire and set God’s captives free. But, when they asked Jesus whether he really was the one they had been looking for or whether they should wait for another, Jesus said to them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who does not stumble because of me.”

That’s how Jesus defines his ministry as God’s anointed one. What do you think? Is that the one you’ve been waiting for, or are you searching for something else? What kind of messiah do you want Jesus to be? What kind of savior do you think he is? It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that Jesus has come to fix all of our problems—yours and mine. But, as much as the redemption of the whole world includes every one of us, God’s plan of salvation is a lot bigger than the needs represented among us.

The language Jesus uses to describe his ministry is an echo of Isaiah 35, a chapter in which the prophet envisions not only the healing of those who are sick and the comforting of those who mourn but the renewal and restoration of all who need help getting into God’s reign. When the blind can see, the lame can walk, and the ritually outcast are cleansed, when the deaf can hear, the dead are raised, and even the forgotten poor become recipients of God’s good news, then can all people travel the highway that leads from the desolate wilderness into the everlasting joy of God’s reign. The work of God’s anointed one is nothing less than ushering all people into the joy and gladness of God’s never-ending rule. Of course that means you and me, but it’s also a lot bigger than us.

Jesus tells us that that shouldn’t surprise us. “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at?” he asked the crowd. “A reed shaken by the wind…? Someone dressed in soft robes?” John the Baptist preached a message of hope that is more refreshing than a walk in the wilderness and more permanent than a leader who wears royal robes. The one who preaches about the coming of God’s judgment and God’s imminent reign shares a vision of a new kind of authority, but he isn’t pointing us to the kind of king who lives in a palace. And it’s a good thing because we’re searching for more than that. God’s people head out into the wilderness because they’re looking for the kind of change they can’t get from their political or religious leaders—their President or their priest. We’re looking for more than an answer to today’s problems—a solution to the crisis of the moment. We’re looking for the full and unending life that God has in store for us and for the whole world.

Jesus could have led a rebellion that attacked the prison where John was being held and set him free. He could have rallied the entire Jewish nation and led an insurrection against Roman occupation of the land promised to their ancestors. He could have called down legions of angel-warriors and established a new kingdom here on the earth. But he didn’t do any of that because the reign of God that Jesus began is bigger than a prison break or a political victory or a world-wide government. Instead, Jesus spent time with outcasts, welcomed sinners, and made space at the banquet table for the estranged. Like John the Baptist, he spoke truth to the powers of his day and was executed because of it. But his death at the hand of earthly powers was overcome by God’s resurrection power, and through that death and resurrection God inaugurated a reign of divine power, which includes all of us and so much more.

Is this the one we have been waiting for, or should we look for someone else? Is Jesus’ vision for the renewal of the world the salvation you’ve been hoping for, or has your focus been narrower than that? Go tell the world what you have seen and heard: in Jesus Christ, “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Through Christ, all people can dance and sing and rejoice their way into God’s new and everlasting reign. That is good news of the savior we’ve all been waiting for.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Drawn To A Prophet

In Sunday's gospel lesson, Jesus asks the crowd, "What did you go out into the wilderness to look at?" Jesus wants them to consider why they went out to see John the Baptist. "Did you go to see a reed blown by the wind? Someone dressed in soft clothes?" Apparently, this wasn't a nature expedition or a red carpet celebrity show. "No," Jesus reminds them, "you went to see a prophet--and more than a prophet!" That Jesus would stop to note that fact suggests that, even in Jesus' day, heading out of the city in search of a prophet didn't make complete sense. It's also a truth that many in mainline churches like my own find hard to accept. Yet, if we look around at popular Christian culture, on what books people spend money, and at which churches there is rapid growth, we might discover that people still defy our expectations and flock to prophets.

Maybe it's because I preached last night on the gospel lesson from Advent 2, but the connection between last week's gospel lesson, in which the people come in droves to hear John and be baptized in the Jordan, and this week's gospel lesson, in which Jesus asks them why they went, seems to need some pondering. In Matthew 3, John is described as one who wore camel's hair and who ate locusts and wild honey. In other words, he wasn't just a city preacher who pitched a tent in a remote location to demonstrate a momentary commitment to counter-cultural preaching. He lived and breathed the wilderness. Then, in Matthew 11, Jesus mentions John's clothing a second time, asking the crowd whether they went out into the wilderness expecting to find someone in soft clothes. They may not have known exactly what they would find, but the point Jesus is making is that surely they didn't go out into the scrappy desert to see someone in fine city clothes. And, as I prepare to preach on this second text, that's the point I want to dig around in for a little bit longer.

In the gospel narrative, the fact that John was an outsider needs to be mentioned twice. Why? In order for the crowd (and us) to get full appreciation of what the initial wilderness encounter with the Baptizer represents, we need to reflect again on the nature of his life and message as that of an outsider. And I think the key for us is to marvel that people wanted to see it. Why?

If you want to see a well-refined religious presentation and hear a seminary-educated preacher who makes pithy insights into ancient biblical texts, you don't go to a tent in the parking lot of the abandoned K-Mart on the edge of town. But that's exactly where all of those people went. They wanted something they couldn't get in the city, in the temple, in the synagogue, in the courthouse, in the marketplace. This isn't a criticism of second-temple Judaism, the religion of Jesus's day. It's a criticism of religion more generally. It's a criticism of the inevitable alliance of earthly power and spiritual seeking that inhibits the coming of the Lord.

Want to find a straighter way? Want to find a clearer path? Want to find a certain route into the reign of God, the transformation of your life and this world? You can't start in the city center. You have to start on the edge of town, where power itself fears to come. That the people were still hanging around--that they were listening to Jesus--means that they weren't done searching yet. They had found something in the wilderness that gave them hope. That's what draws crowds to the fiery tent preachers in our own day--hope. Those of us who inhabit fancy churches and climb into brass-lined or carved-wood pulpits and are perplexed that the crowds are going somewhere else could do a lot worse than heading out to the nearest revival and immersing ourselves in that message of hope.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Safety In The Wilderness

On Saturday night here in Fayetteville, a police officer, Ofc. Stephen Carr, was murdered while sitting in his patrol car at the police station waiting on his partner to join him. Within a minute, officers came out of the station, engaged the suspect, and shot and killed him. In so many ways, our community is reeling from that tragedy. Anytime a police officer is killed in the line of duty--shot during a firefight or surprised and killed by a burglar--the community responds in shock and disbelief. In this particular case, however, when the officer is executed for no other reason than wearing the uniform and sitting in his vehicle, we don't know how to make sense of either the death or the vulnerability of being a police officer. We all know that accepting the responsibility of protecting and serving in that way comes with risks, but we don't expect someone to be a target for murder just because they are a police officer.

Although often in the line of fire, police officers aren't usually the vulnerable ones. They carry firearms and wear bullet-proof vests. They are members of a community colloquially called "the force." The law understands that they may have to use deadly force, and, although the balance has recently come under scrutiny because of the number of unarmed black people who have been shot by police officers, it tries to take into account the nature of making split-second judgments in potentially deadly situations and give officers the benefit of the doubt. We need police officers to be strong and tough because many of us can't be. Victims of crimes are called victims for a reason. We need police to be invulnerable because so often we are vulnerable, and, when the one who is charged with keeping us safe is himself the victim of senseless violence, we are all touched by that loss. It forces us to acknowledge the limits of our own safety and security.

There are many people among us who live in the kind of wilderness that biblical prophets such as Isaiah use as an image for vulnerability. The city or town or village is that place where people and families have pooled together their resources to make things safer. You may have a stray deer or coyote in your suburban back yard, but, for the most part, lions and tigers and bears belong somewhere else. I don't worry about getting jumped on the way to my mailbox at the end of my short subdivision driveway. But that's a privilege I enjoy. In the summer, I may check my kids for ticks when the come in from playing outside, but I don't ever call out to them, "Watch for snakes!" when they're throwing the football in the front yard.

For prophets like Isaiah, the wilderness is an almost uninhabitable place where no one wants to dwell. It is territory that must be crossed when going from village to village. And, in Sunday's reading from Isaiah 35, it is the place through which God's people will need to travel when returning from exile. Only, in Isaiah's vision, God has come to make even the unsafe wilderness a place where anyone can walk without fear: "The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom." Isaiah writes of a day when God will rescue God's people from disaster, destruction, and danger, and, to express this, he envisions a time when the hot, desolate wilderness will become a flourishing swamp. The lions and jackals that wait to attack whatever walks through it will not be found there anymore. So safe and clear will the path be that even fools won't get lost.

Of course, Isaiah isn't only talking about geographical wilderness. The wilderness journey back from exile in Babylon may be likened to the wilderness journey from slavery in Egypt, but the prophet has a fuller sense of transformation in mind: "Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy." We may have a fuller appreciation for the full place of differently abled people in our community, but the prophet's idea is that even those who are physically vulnerable among us will have reason to celebrate. The prophetic wilderness, therefore, is more than a landscape. It's a life of insecurity that comes from any number of causes. When God comes to save God's people, everyone who dwells in insecurity will be secure, and it is those who live on the margin--pressed toward the edge of civilization--who feel that need most acutely.

Tragedies like this one remind me how grateful I am for those who accept vulnerability for the sake of the vulnerable. They also remind me that, no matter how important the security that is provided by police officers is to us, until God's transformation of the world is complete, there will always be vulnerable people in our midst. Sometimes they are the ones we least expect to be at risk. The prophets teach us to hope not for isolated places of security, which provide only illusions of invulnerability, but for the transformation of insecurity itself. Our gratitude goes to the ones who risk their lives for the sake of others, but our hope remains in the one who promises to make all secure.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

The Prophets' One Job, Not Two

This Sunday, we'll ask God to "give us grace to heed [the prophets'] warnings and forsake our sins," but, just as the season of Advent is about more than lamenting our wretchedness, the work of the prophets and our response to that work is bigger than that. In the opening phrase of Sunday's collect, we describe the mission of prophets in two ways: "Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation..." As I keep looking for ways to combine the joy of the pre-Christmas culture all around us with the the austerity of our Advent's liturgical texts, I think this collect has an answer.

The prophets' work is unitary. It is not partly to preach repentance and partly to prepare the way for our salvation, nor is it to preach repentance first so that later on, consequentially, the way for salvation might be prepared. The work of preaching repentance is the work of preparing the way for our salvation because the way for our salvation is the returning to God that is our repentance. The difference between hearing John the Baptist's message as one of hope and one of condemnation depends upon our ability to hear the work of repentance as the work of salvation. The prophets are beginning us to come back to God because God has shown them that the people's salvation is their return.

Why is that so hard for us to hear? I was raised in the Christian faith. I've known the love of God in Jesus Christ since before I was born. The message of repentance isn't unfamiliar to me. The gentle "Let's say sorry to God" invitation common in mainline Protestant children's Sunday school classes and vacation Bible schools has always been part of my life. But the call to repentance still makes me uneasy. It makes me shift in my seat. Why? Why, if I have experienced the infinite love of God, is repentance so hard? Because there's a part of me that can't help but think of repentance as something I have to do in order to prove to God that I'm worthy of salvation. If I repent hard enough and fully enough, God will wave God's magic salvation wand and save me. But repentance isn't a hurdle for me to climb before I can be saved. It is the act of salvation itself.

Just skim through the lessons for this Sunday:

"He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth." (Isaiah 11)

"Give the King your justice, O God, and your righteousness to the King's Son; that he may rule your people righteously and the poor with justice...He shall defend the needy among the people; he shall rescue the poor and crush the oppressor." (Psalm 72)

"The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope." (Romans 13)

"Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." (Matthew 3)

All of these passages envision the salvation of God's people because God's reign is coming near. Isaiah and the psalmist ask the people to envision a new ruler of the people who will be anointed by God to rule with justice and righteousness. Paul understands that Jesus Christ has called all the peoples of the earth to come into God's reign. John the Baptist knows that the one who is more powerful, the one who comes to baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire, has brought near the reign of God, and his message of repentance is an invitation to enter that reign.

Yes, repentance means forsaking our sins. It means leaving behind the worldly ways. It means giving up a life that is perpetuated by greed, selfishness, lust, and fear in order to enter God's reign. But we don't have to become perfect before God will love us. Repentance isn't about us defeating sin in order to become worthy of God's reign. It's about fleeing toward God's reign because we need God's help defeating sin. You can't separate repentance and salvation. Hearing the call to repent is the same thing as hearing the call to sit down at God's banquet table. Isn't that good news?

Monday, December 2, 2019

Advent Disconnect

This year, as we enter Advent, I feel sharply the disconnect between the language the church uses to express the hope of this season and the language the world uses to express its own version of hope. In a Sunday school class, we read the four collects for the Sundays of Advent and the proper preface we use during the Eucharistic prayer each week. We read the text of "Lo he comes with clouds descending" and watched a video of a cathedral choir and congregation singing the last stanza. And it's hard to ignore the huge gulf that separates our liturgical language of sin and judgment from the world's language of pretty lights and material pursuits. What does the church do about that?

I believe fully that both spheres are peddling messages of hope. The consumer-driven world wants us to find the warmth of love, family, and security this season. It is better to give than to receive, and Amazon makes it easy for us to express love for others through one-click shopping. The church also has a message of hope, but it's harder to hear over the din of what's going on around us. We are broken. We are sinful. The fact that we feel strongly the desire to escape our reality through the pretense of the holiday season underscores that brokenness. And an escape is valuable for as long as it persists. But, before you know it, it's time to take down the tree and face the reality of mid-January. And then February. And then March. The church wants the world to know that there is lasting relief for that suffocating sense of loss, grief, hurt, and futility that plague us, and it isn't found in pretty paper or bright lights. But making the connection between the beloved sentimentality of the holiday season and the reality check of Advent isn't easy.

This Sunday, we will hear John the Baptist preaching a message of repentance and pointing us to the one who is to come, Jesus Christ. But why would we focus on that? Why would people stop long enough in the holiday rush to listen to a message like that? Because we are called to repent and return to God not so that we can obtain a moment's forgiveness--temporary relief from our guilt--but so that we can be made new and whole by God. The message of repentance doesn't stop with rejecting the futile pursuits of worldly ways. It always includes an invitation to be remade. As we prepare for the second advent by commemorating the first advent, we invite the world to behold the first coming of Christ as the means by which God makes the world new--taking our brokenness onto Godself--in order that we might pursue the second coming of Christ as the ultimate fulfillment of that re-creation. And the gulf between the two approaches to hope becomes the very means for proclaiming the gospel.

I need more than a feel-good season of the year. I need more beauty than even the prettiest lights. I need more hope than a present under the tree. I need to know that, even when the holiday shine has faded, there is something real to hold onto. The instinct we feel to celebrate this season of hope, light, joy, and peace is a good one. The desire for connection and love is good. Those of us who climb in pulpits this season do our congregations a disservice by lambasting those impulses, but we also deny the fullness of the Advent gospel if we're merely preaching a pre-Christmas message. Instead, we can invite people to see beyond December 25 or January 6. The hope that the world would sell us might fade, but the message of repentance and return and renewal is one that persists. But preaching it doesn't mean wagging fingers at Amazon or early-decorators or mid-December carolers. It means helping us see the common need and the bigger hope.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Do You See What God Sees?

December 1, 2019 – Advent 1A

© 2019 Evan D. Garner

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

I have good news for you today because Jesus has good news for you today. That shouldn’t surprise us. The word gospel means “good news,” and I trust that, in one way or another, it is always good news for God’s people. But, in order to hear the good news in today’s gospel lesson, we may need to use our collective imagination.

“But about that day and hour no one knows…” Jesus says, “For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man… Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” To us, those words sound scary, but imagine what they sounded like to the disciples, who for their whole lives had known the unrelenting power of Rome yet now heard from their master that everything could change at any moment. Imagine what those words meant to first-century Christians, who had celebrated Jesus’ victory over death yet faced the threat of deadly persecutions with no end in sight. Imagine what hope those words bring today to those who are imprisoned because of their faith or isolated from family because of sectarian violence. Imagine how good those words might sound to someone who is being crushed by the weight of debt or struggling to get out of bed each day because of mental illness. At any moment, even when you least expect it, the Son of Man will come and change all of that. Isn’t that good news?

The good news of God’s coming judgment isn’t imaginary, but it requires us to change the way we think of judgment and change the things we look to for hope. The season of Advent and the message of hope it conveys are a reminder that judgment isn’t something we’re supposed to run away from but something we are called to cling to. This season isn’t about preparing for Christmas—the first coming of God’s Son. It’s about preparing for Advent #2—the second coming, when the Son of Man will come and judge the world. Sure, we need time to do our shopping and put up decorations and plan our parties, but aren’t those just ways of covering over the cracks in our lives with shiny wrapping paper and bright sparkling lights? That’s not the kind of preparation this season is about. Advent is about getting ready for God to peer beneath the pretty surface and expose those cracks so that God might heal them once and for all. And, for those of us who have been covering them up for our whole lives, that takes preparation.

The spiritual question we must wrestle with during this season of Advent is whether those cracks define us. Are the flaws we hide—the brokenness we carry within ourselves—the things that really matter, or are they just dross waiting to be refined? When we hear the word judgment, what is our instinctive response? To suck in our bellies and hold up our heads. To smile as if everything is ok. To sweep that stubborn bit of rubbish under the rug. To hide our failures in the closet. To hang up lights and put ornaments on the tree. To spend too much money on meaningless stuff and wrap it in pretty paper that we’ll just throw away. Our response to judgment is to pretend that everything is ok because the alternative is unthinkable. We react that way to judgment because we think that judgment means condemnation, but God has a different sort of judgment in mind. God’s judgment isn’t pointing a finger at that which is flawed so that we might be forever ashamed. God’s judgment is exposing our weakness so that we might be made strong. It’s naming our grief so that we might be forever comforted. It’s revealing our failures so that we might be perfected.

That’s good news, but it isn’t easy. It requires a new way of thinking about ourselves and about God. It requires faith not in ourselves to get the job done but in God to do what we cannot accomplish on our own. It requires hope in the face of adversity even when it seems like adversity is winning. It requires a commitment to the impossible. It requires a renewal of our faith.

In the days of Noah, Jesus reminds us, people went on eating and drinking and getting married because they had no idea that things could ever be any different. But Noah and his family were given the gift of seeing what the rest of the world could not see—that God would come and make all things new. In the same way, when the Son of Man comes to execute God’s final judgment—God’s final making right of all things—people won’t see it coming, yet, just when they least expect it, it comes. Even though life’s insurmountable challenges may seem stacked against you, Jesus will come at any moment. Even when the powers of this world seem to be gaining strength, Jesus will come at any moment. Even though the tidal wave of grief and loss are suffocating you, Jesus will come at any moment.

The image Jesus uses to describe the coming of the Son of Man is that of a thief in the night: “If the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake.” So what does Jesus tell us? Not “Sleep on for there is no use keeping watch,” but “Be ready! Stay alert! Keep watch!” What’s the difference between the owner of the house, who cannot anticipate the coming of the thief, and the disciple of Jesus, who despite not knowing when the end will come is urged to keep watch? The disciple waits with faith and hope.

We know that the brokenness of this life cannot be the end of the story. We know that the struggles we carry cannot not define us. How do we know? Because we have seen God send God’s Son into the world to take all of that brokenness onto God’s self and defeat it through the cross and empty tomb. The first Advent gives us confidence as we wait for the second. In the good news of Jesus Christ, we see that our future is certain in God’s great making new of all things. In the promised coming of the Son of Man, we see what this world cannot see or, perhaps, will not see—that God’s judgment is coming at any moment and that that’s good news.