Friday, December 25, 2020

The Best Year Ever


December 25, 2020 – Christmas III

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here, with the sermon beginning around 27:45.

Have you stopped to remember what it felt like to open Christmas presents last year on Christmas Day? Honestly, it’s hard for me to recall it. So much of our holiday observances, including how our family gathers in the living room and takes turn passing out gifts and ripping off the paper, is a ritual we perform every year. This year, so much of that ritual has been taken from us that it’s hard to remember what it felt like to go through those holy gestures even just twelve months ago. Christmas 2019 really wasn’t that long ago, but it feels like an age has gone by since then.

Do you remember what it felt like to be a week away from a new year, standing on the threshold of all the possibility and promise that 2020 held? Perhaps you remember reading this time last year a reflection from Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times about how 2019 had been the best year in human history. His point, of course, was that despite all of the political rancor, environmental degradation, racial injustice, and wealth stratification, which usually hold our collective attention, worldwide metrics of health and prosperity had all moved in the right direction. Infant mortality was the lowest it had ever been. Life expectancy was a long as it had ever been. The number of people living in extreme poverty was as small as it had ever been. Debilitating illness and disease were as scarce as they had ever been. The literacy rate was as high as it had ever been. Still, despite all the empirical evidence, you would be forgiven for thinking this time last year that 2019 had been a whirlwind of chaos. What do you think about that now? I wonder what we would say to ourselves if we could go back in time.

In the year that Jesus was born, how do you think people in Palestine would have thought about the year that they had just had? Although my “research” is as sophisticated as a few Google searches, it seems that all the metrics we would point to as evidence of a fabulous 2019 pointed to a life of challenge beyond anything we could imagine. Infant mortality is estimated to have been as high as 30%. That means that one in three children did not live to see their first birthday. That had a profound effect on overall life expectancy, of course, which was only twenty to thirty years, but good news: if you made it to the age of fifteen you could probably expect to live to see forty-five or fifty. 

Poverty meant something radically different back then. There was no middle class. You were either wealthy enough to own land, or you worked for a subsistence wage every day until your body gave out. If you didn’t have a job or a family to take care of you, you begged each day, hoping that you could afford enough calories to prevent your body from cannibalizing itself.

Politically, the prospects for the Jews in Roman-occupied Palestine were not any better. From time to time, a zealous leader would stir up a rebellious force to challenge the authority of the empire, but they were always put down with both haste and brutality. Although the historical record is not fully reliable, around the year that Jesus was born one such rebel, Judas of Galilee, was said to have organized a revolt against the mandated census and the imperial tax that it would bring. Whether true or not, there is no doubt that anyone who had joined such a plot would have been arrested, tried, and executed, likely by being nailed to a cross.

In the midst of such overwhelming struggle and hopelessness—surrounded by seemingly unending darkness—it is hard to imagine anyone thinking of the year when Jesus was born as the best year in human history. But I wonder what Mary and Joseph thought. I wonder what Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist, the forerunner and herald, thought. I wonder what those shepherds on that hillside thought. Surely those who caught a glimpse of God’s salvation coming into the world recognized the power and brightness of that light even if it only came in a small, faintly glimmering hope in an otherwise cold and dark world. 

That is the nature of God’s salvation, which comes into our lives yet again this day. Like a single candle or cell-phone flashlight exploring the corners of your house when the power has gone out at night. Like that first, faint glow on the eastern horizon at dawn, when the sun’s rays are not yet streaming down on us directly but only illuminating by reflection the atmosphere above us. Like the light of this week’s planetary conjunction, when the faint but clear glowing of Saturn and Jupiter came together not nearly bright enough to light up the night but still steady and strong enough to reach us from a billion miles away. In the midst of what feels to so many of us like an unending darkness, God’s light shines. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

The incarnation, which we celebrate at Christmas, is God’s salvation coming into the world. It is God’s great reordering of human history. It is God’s inauguration of the reign of justice, freedom, and peace. And in it the full grandness of God comes to the earth in a tiny, gentle, barely-noticed way. Yet the power of that steady, small light is enough to shine brilliantly into the darkness, bringing hope and love and promise in ways that can never be overcome. 

God’s light does not come and shine so brightly that it pushes us away, forcing us to hide our faces and cover our eyes. It does not come so brightly that we are blinded by its startling power. Instead, it comes in ways that beckon us in, drawing us closer and deeper into the love of God. Our salvation is not manifest in a divine power that comes and obliterates our struggles but in the divine presence of the Word-become-Flesh, who enters into those struggles alongside us in order that we might receive that light and know its gentle, persistent, and unquenchable saving power.

No matter how difficult things become—no matter how dark the darkness may be—always remember that God’s light shines in that darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Salvation in Our Unscripted Lives


December 24, 2020 – Christmas I

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 30:30. 

Christmas 2020. It is a Christmas movie that practically writes itself. Instead of a bright pink bunny outfit from Aunt Clara, we have our own wardrobe that won’t fit anymore. Instead of overbearing houseguests, we have awkward Zoom encounters with our in-laws. Instead of being enrolled in the Jelly of the Month Club, we have been laid off. Instead of a tension-filled reunion with a long-lost parent, we have nurses holding up phones at the bedsides of our loved ones.

The thing about Christmas movies—really, any movie—is that something has to go wrong or else there’s no chance for things to come back right again. That narrative tension can come from something as seemingly insignificant as a Red Ryder BB gun or from something as deeply impactful as a suicidal ideation, but the script needs to explore those “unscripted” moments of life, when the characters’ trajectories go off in a direction that they never would have planned. The magic of the Christmas movie genre is the way in which those deviations become the very crucible in which the beauty, hope, and love of Christmas come back to those characters. At least in that way, Hollywood gets the story right.

The story of Jesus’ birth is filled with characters whose best plans go awry. Mary, a young woman who was engaged to a man from Nazareth, had her own dreams of what her life might be. Maybe she looked forward to a big wedding with family and friends. Maybe she hoped to start a family and watch it grow. Maybe she wanted the joy of a comfortable but quiet life. None of that would be hers. “Greetings, favored one!” the angel Gabriel had declared to her nine months earlier. Instead of planning for a wedding, she was planning for a birth. Instead of celebrating with mothers and grandmothers, aunts and cousins, she was trying to explain to them what had happened. Instead of imagining a long and happy life, she already knew that pain and loss lay ahead.

Joseph, the carpenter who traced his ancestry back to the royal line, had his own plans for the future. Maybe he had saved up enough money to buy his betrothed something special. Maybe he dreamt of teaching his children how to help out in his shop. Maybe he imagined being known throughout Nazareth as a talented craftsman. All of that now had to give way to other plans. Instead of making arrangements for their first night together, he was trying and failing to find room in an inn. Instead of anticipating the joy of holding his first-born child, he was trying to figure out how to care for a son that was not fully his. 

Like a skilled screenwriter, Luke gently acknowledges the contrast between the upended lives of Mary and Joseph and the comfortable lives of Augustus and Quirinius. The holy couple have had their lives turned upside down by those who never had to leave their palaces in order to be counted in the census. For those in authority, everything always went according to plan—a plan that had no need to take into account a young, expectant mother and her partner and their need for a room in which she could safely give birth. 

Though not mentioned in the story, think of the innkeeper who had to turn the young couple away. Think of the farmer whose manger—whose feeding trough—Joseph borrowed. When those two men settled in for the night, how did they expect things to go? Neither could have anticipated who would come and knock on their door. What about us? What about our plans this Christmas? What in our lives is going the way we always thought it would?

On this holy night, the miracle of Christmas comes not to those whose plans are perfect—not to those whose lives are completely mapped out—but to those who didn’t want things to happen this way—to those who had something else in mind. At Christmas, God comes to those who are open and available for something beautiful and unscripted. And this year, of all years, when nothing is unfolding the way we would have hoped, we find within ourselves a new sort of availability for what God is doing at Christmas.

Think of the shepherds. Oh, to be one of those shepherds! To be on that hillside, watching the flock, living in those fields! To not have anything planned except to sit in the moonlight and stare at the sheep and tell the same stories over and over while listening out for trouble! Oh, to be perfectly and totally available when the angel of the Lord breaks through the darkness and proclaims the wonder of the savior’s birth! To not be so tied up with a plan or bound by a schedule that the multitude of the heavenly host would need to appear on someone else’s hillside! To be ready and able to go at once into Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place!

In the birth of Jesus Christ, God’s salvation comes into the world, and that birth is announced not in palaces or temples or comfortable suburban homes but in a field, by a manger, under an overpass, in a tent encampment, in a nursing home, in a hospital, on a computer screen in a bedroom shut off from the world. But that is exactly where God’s people are ready to receive the miracle of Christmas. For the first time I can remember, I am desperate to hear the good news of our savior’s birth, and, for the first time I can remember, I am ready to drop everything to go and meet him. 

This year, nothing has gone the way we would have planned it. And that itself is a gift. The birth of Jesus is God meeting us in that difficult place where nothing seems to be going right, because, even when nothing is, God is there. This Christmas, let us set aside the scripts and plans we would normally follow and recognize this thing that God has done—this thing that God is doing. Thanks be to God that this year, of all years, God isn’t going to let us miss it.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Find Your Rest in Jesus


December 22, 2020 – Blue Christmas Compline
Matthew 11:28-30

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

You may watch the whole service here.

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

What do we do with grief when grief has nowhere to go? How do we bear the weight of that burden when there is nowhere to lay it down and no one to help us shoulder it, even for a few hours? In this strange season, when we are cut off from extended family, friends, colleagues, and congregations—when the closest we can get to someone is six feet away—the burden of grief, loss, pain, and anxiety are magnified and intensified by our isolation. Even those of us who have not lost a spouse, a sibling, a parent, or a child are drawn into a deeper sense of loss by the powerlessness of circumstances beyond our control. And those who have experienced that first order of loss face a magnitude of complicated grief that I cannot comprehend.

In normal circumstances, the cycles and patterns of grief are mostly predictable, even if they show up in our own particular circumstances in unpredictable ways. Normally, we start by keeping ourselves busy with details—people to contact, services to plan, travel to arrange, meals to coordinate, death certificates to acquire, medical equipment to return, paperwork to file. The list of things to be done is exhausting, but we like it that way. Otherwise there’s nothing to do but face the depths of our grief. In these pandemic times, however, most of those details disappear. Instead, we are propelled unprepared into that place where our grief has no outlet. 

As the haunting silence and stillness of grief wear on, we would normally rely on close friends to call us, visit us, and insist on taking us out—to lunch, to shop, to do anything at all to give us a reason to get dressed and do something besides sit at home alone. Friends can be a helpful distraction like that. Usually without realizing it, they teach us that we are allowed to think about something other than our loss, even for a few minutes. Eventually, we learn how to put our grief on a shelf for a little while, and then, with practice, how to take it back down again without feeling guilty for having ignored it for a time. But, during the pandemic, we can’t do that. We’re told that we are supposed to stay at home, and we know how important that is, but we wonder whether people know how dangerous that can be at the same time.

For so many of us, church is the place where our grief finds its ultimate container. Unlike the busyness of details or the belovedness of friends, which help us focus on something other than our loss, church is the place where we are allowed to confront it fully and to do so within the fellowship of those who love us not by pulling us away from our grief but by wrapping their arms around it and us. This is the place where we are allowed to be imperfect, to be broken, to be lost, to be overwhelmed. This is the community that allows us to not know if we are going to make it—to not need to be sure that we can take another step. Without saying a word, the people we meet in this place offer us signs of hope and healing that emerge from the ashes of our loss. And, when our friends are able to love us like that, they do so not only out of friendship but also as representatives of that particular community of love. There is such comfort within these walls and in these pews and among these people. But not now. For now, this church remains empty.

Strangely enough, the pandemic has brought an emptiness to the church that many of us feel every year at this time. This is the one season of the year when it is hardest to bring our brokenness to church. As Christmas approaches and the magic of the holidays spreads throughout the community, even the church—that last place where we are permitted to be our true and honest selves—begins to ask of us what we cannot give genuinely in return—a happy face, a joyful spirit, a dose of Christmas cheer. At St. Paul’s, we try our best to hold onto the spirit of Advent—that hopeful, needful longing for comfort and consolation that are actually the focus of our life together during these four weeks—but even centuries of tradition are not strong enough to hold off the little encroachments of premature celebration. In that strange way, this year is like any other. Even in the church we find no room to lay our burdens down.

Yet Jesus is the one who says to us, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Jesus did not say those words from a pulpit. Nor did he say them as an invitation to come to church. He spoke those words of comfort to anyone who would follow him. And, in this season of longing and heartache, we find the deepest fulfillment of those words not by returning to a building that waits to be filled again but by returning to the one who speaks them again to us tonight.

Jesus did not call to himself those who were spiritually gifted or religiously proficient. He did not invite those who had it all together or who had figured out how to master the emotional, financial, and physical challenges that came their way. Instead, he beckoned to himself those who were weighed down by life. He reached out to those who had nowhere else to go. And he promised them rest.

Most gurus, masters, and teachers ask their disciples to engage in rigorous training. They throw upon us physical or spiritual exercises that are designed to strengthen us and prepare us for the challenges ahead. They train us for whatever exhausting tests await us. So often that is what churches do to us as well. They ask us to do more, to give more, to try more. But not Jesus. Jesus acknowledges that life itself is the exhausting test, and he promises to give those who follow him the rest that they desperately need.

The church is not the rest we need. The true church is the community of disciples who have found their rest in Jesus. We are the people who know what it means to be welcomed, accepted, and loved even with all the grief and struggle we bear. When we are cut off from that community, we experience the loss of those who know how to help us carry that weight. That loss is real, and its consequences are terrible. But, still, there is one who speaks to us words of comfort and hope. There is one who reminds us that we are loved even when we cannot see or embrace our loved ones. There is one who reaches out to us and invites us to come to him and find again that rest for which our souls long. 

Hear those words of Jesus spoken to you again this night: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” Wherever you are, no matter how heavy your burden, no matter how completely cut off you may feel, hear Jesus speak those words to you. Come to him, and find in him your true rest.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Anointed Prophet, Divine Vision


December 13, 2020 – Advent 3B

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here. Video of the entire service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 21:10.

In today’s reading from the Book of Isaiah, the ancient prophet declared of himself, “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me because the Lord has anointed me.” The image of an anointed prophet would have probably startled those who heard the prophet’s message. In the Hebrew tradition, prophets were not typically anointed. That privilege belonged to kings and priests—those set apart by God with a clear, divine mandate. Prophets, on the other hand, were usually those whose words came to God’s people from outside the established religious and political hierarchy. The prophet Elisha was a rare exception, whom Elijah himself anointed to be his successor in order that he might literally take up the mantle of confronting the corrupt kings and priests of his day. But, in Isaiah 61, the prophet claimed that authority for himself, thus defining his ministry and his message as one that God himself had both authorized and enabled.

In the Netflix series The Crown, when Queen Elizabeth is anointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury at her coronation, the solemn act takes place under a golden canopy. When one of the characters who is watching the event on television asks why the camera does not broadcast a clear view of that moment, he is reminded that those watching on television are mere mortals. But, for the anointed monarch, upon whom a manifestation of God’s power and authority is being imprinted, the distinction between divine and human begins to blur. 

When the prophet announces that God has placed God’s spirit upon him through his own holy anointing, he is asking us to hear his message as if God were the one speaking to us—as if it were God who had come down to accomplish this thing that the prophet foretells. And why was he anointed for this work? Why must God’s spirit come and consecrate him and set him apart and make him holy? Because the vision that God is delivering to the world through the prophet is God’s own holy vision for what the world will be like. It’s is God’s vision for what the world will become when all the princes and priests and presidents and prelates of the earth are enfolded into the complete and total reign of God.

This vision, the prophet announces, is good news for the oppressed and the means by which the brokenhearted will be bound up. But how does one bind up the wounds of a broken heart? Where does one find a bandage or a poultice for that? Yet, with these words, the prophet signals to us that the good news he brings is not merely emotional or spiritual consolation for those who have suffered but somehow a physical, tangible healing of their invisible wounds. 

Liberty for the captives and release for the prisoners may sound like a hopeful metaphor to those of us who have never experienced exile from our homeland or imprisonment because of our debts. But what about those who have been forced to live in cages or who have felt the powerlessness of having to choose between food on the table or medicine in the cupboard? Isn’t the prophet’s message of freedom and release more than an image of hope? Isn’t it a promise of real transformation? 

Over and over, we see that this prophet has been anointed by God to comfort those who mourn by providing for them—by allowing them to exchange their ashes and tears of grief and loss for the garland and oil of comfort and ease. Their ransacked and destroyed cities will be rebuilt. Their crumbling homes will be restored. They will be given their recompense—literally their true wages, their proper value, which had been taken from them. Given the extent of the economic imagery that the prophet uses, it seems likely that the binding up of those broken hearts that God had in mind included a recalibration of the financial systems that had imprisoned the poor and pressed the vulnerable to the edge of society and beyond. 

The prophet was probably envisioning the sort of economic transformation that was first recorded in the Book of Leviticus, in which God sets out the concept of jubilee: “And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family” (Lev. 25:10). In that year of jubilee, all debts were to be cancelled. Everyone who had been forced to sell themselves into indentured servitude was to be released from their obligation. All the ancestral land that had been mortgaged or sold by those who needed the money to pay their bills was to be returned to its original family. The liberty that the prophet had been anointed to proclaim—the freedom that God was bringing to God’s people—was a world in which no one was crushed under the weight of economic injustice, a world in which no one was held prisoner by the bonds of poverty.

“I the Lord love justice,” the prophet declares on God’s behalf. “I hate robbery and wrongdoing.” God’s vision for the world—God’s plan for how we live our lives here and now—is one of universal prosperity and abundance. But if God’s people were able to pursue that vision on their own, if they were able to come together and make the words of Leviticus 25 a reality in their lives, we wouldn’t need prophets to come and speak on God’s behalf and call us to account and show us the divine vision that we have chosen to forget. 

What is the anointed prophet asking us to see? Imagine what would happen to our economy if everyone’s debts were wiped away once a generation. Imagine what would happen to you and your family if the land on which your home is built was given back to its original occupants. Imagine what would happen if the generational wealth on which this parish depends was reset and redistributed not according to the value that its inherited owners have assigned to it but according to the intrinsic value of every human being the people of St. Paul’s come into contact with.

Imagine that? We can’t. I dare say that on our own we cannot imagine such a world. But God can. And, inspired by the Holy Spirit, God’s anointed one can. And that anointed one comes to make such a world a reality not only at the end of time—a final, last-gasp vision of egalitarianism—but here and now. It starts within our imaginations and then unfolds throughout our lives. But how will we ever see it? How will we ever pursue it? How will we ever get past our own limitations and make such a dream the reality we inhabit? We can start with the example of John the Baptist by remembering that we are not the messiah and by seeking the one who is.

We are not God’s anointed one. We are not God’s Christ. We are not the ones who make God’s kingdom come. But, as followers of Jesus, we are united to the one who does, and we are empowered by the Spirit that he has sent us. When we belong to Christ, that Holy Spirit, in turn, anoints us and propels us into God’s divine vision for our lives and for our world. It calls us to repent of the wrongs we have done and left undone, and it forms us for the holy life into which God calls us. With the Spirit’s help and inspiration, we can follow Jesus into that vision—not only in theory or metaphor but in ways that impact the decisions we make, the policies we support, and the priorities we fund. 

Like John the Baptizer, we look for the anointed one who stands among us, the thong of whose sandals we are unworthy to stoop down and untie. That is where we must start—at the feet of the anointed one whom God has sent to bring good news to the oppressed and to bind up the brokenhearted. If you yearn for that vision of the world with all your heart but find it just beyond your grasp, then give yourself back to the one who empowers us to pursue it. He will lead us there. And, if you aren’t ready to wrap your mind or heart around the vision of the world that the prophet declares, then give yourself back to the one who empowers us to imagine it. He will teach you how to see God’s vision for your life. God’s great intention for the whole world is unfolding all around us. And we who follow Jesus follow him into that vision.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

My Lord, What A Morning!


November 29, 2020 – Advent 1B

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 20:20 and the choral anthem beginning around 46:15.

How long has it been? How long have you been waiting? How long will you have to wait? There are 26 days until Christmas and 33 days until the end of the year. There are eight weeks until January 20, and there are 47 months until November 2024. How long have you been waiting? How long will you have to wait? How long until you graduate? How long until you retire? How long until your wedding day? How long until your baby is born? How long until you conceive? How long until the adoption is complete? How long until your child or spouse returns from their deployment? How long until the doctor calls with the test results?

This week, our children received their yearly Advent calendars in the mail from their grandmother. Behind each number is a small piece of chocolate, and you can be sure that all four of them will faithfully mark each day of the season as Christmas approaches. I miss the days when Christmas was the most important thing I waited and watched for. 

This year more than any I can remember, it feels like the whole world is waiting and watching for something else. For nine months, we’ve been cooped up, laid off, and hunkered down, and now, even though things will get worse before they get better, it feels like the end is in sight. How long until a vaccine will be released? How long until it becomes available to the general public? How long until all of us can be vaccinated? How long until it is safe for us to come back together again? How long until we can hug each other? How long until we can live without fear?

Every year, on the first Sunday of Advent, preachers like me try to convince their congregations that this season is not just about waiting for Christmas. Even though the streets are decorated and the stores are playing holiday music, Advent sermons attempt to remind us that this is a time to prepare ourselves—our homes, our families, our lives, our souls—for the coming of the Son of Man on that great and glorious day. In the worship of this season, our prayers, our music, and our readings all point to the final day of judgment. Traditionally during Advent, the church focuses on the “four last things” of death, judgment, heaven, and hell—not the pageant or the parties or the presents. In most years, that feels like a losing battle. Who cares about the end of the world when there is so much good to celebrate between now and the end of the year?

There is still so much good to celebrate, but it seems like something else is on our minds this year. This year we’re all hoping and waiting and watching and yearning for something different—a change of direction, a new start, a total do-over. This year, it feels like the faithful thing for a preacher to do is to remind folks that this struggle won’t last forever—that the hardship we face will give way to a new and brighter day—and that is exactly what Advent is all about in the first place.

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down so that the mountains would quake at your presence!” the prophet Isaiah wrote. Have you ever yearned for God so deeply that you called out and begged for God to come down? Have you ever wept the desperate tears of one who aches for God to come and turn everything around? Have you ever stayed awake all night, watching for the miracle that you would willingly trade your life for if it would only make it happen? 

In every generation, God’s people have waited and watched and hoped for God to come and set the world right. They wait not for the kind of salvation that can be accomplished in a laboratory or in a stimulus package. They yearn for something that is not made possible through politics or won in the courts. They hope for a deliverance that is not guaranteed by the military or defended by the police. They pray and watch and hope for that day when “the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light, [when] the stars will be falling from heaven and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” O that God would tear open the heavens and come down like that! O that God would come and turn the world upside down and give us the new beginning that we are all desperate for! 

If we are scared of judgment, we either don’t understand what it’s about, or there’s a part of us that recognizes that we’re on the wrong side of it. Advent is a time for us to take a look deep inside ourselves and deep inside the world around us and identify the ways in which we need God to come and turn us upside down and make us new.

At the beginning of Mark 13, Jesus’ disciples beg him to tell them when all of these scary-sounding things will be accomplished. “When will everything come crashing down?” they ask. They didn’t ask because they were afraid. They asked because they didn’t want to have to wait any longer. For generations, God’s people had been subjected to the tyrannical rule of one dictatorial power after another—the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Medes, the Persians, the Greeks, and now the Romans. When will it ever end? Sure, there had been fleeting moments of relative independence, rebellions that had provided the illusion of self-determination. But they had always given way to another despotic ruler. When would God’s people finally be secure? When would God come once and for all and take over on behalf of God’s people? When, indeed.

The answer Jesus offers is good news for God’s people: “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that [the Son of Man] is near, at the very gates.” Jesus invites us to reinterpret the signs of struggle that surround us. They are not an indication that God is abandoning God’s people, Jesus tells us. Instead, they are a sign that God’s salvation is near, even at the very gates. As Jesus’ disciples, we are called not to wait and watch for a salvation that is foreign to this world—for a victory that will only come after human history has run its course. We are called to anticipate a salvation that breaks through into this world, into this life, and to orient our whole lives around that promise, trusting that it will come at any minute.

Advent is a season of encouragement, a time to rekindle our confidence that God is coming and is coming soon. Despite what slick corporate marketers would try to convince us, we do not need any help believing that Christmas will come again this year. Even if it comes without its usual full dose of festive cheer, we know that the Christ child will be born again at Christmas. Even in 2020, we can count down those days. But the coming of our savior so long ago, which we celebrate again each year, is not merely an opportunity to reminisce, a chance to reenact what took place in Bethlehem 2000 years ago. It is a reminder to us that God’s salvation is not encapsulated in a heavenly vault, a gift that belongs to another place and time, but something that God gives to us here in this life. 

Jesus describes God’s great salvation as a moment when God will gather again to Godself those who have been scattered by the four winds even to the ends of the earth, and he reminds us that that salvation is very near to us. It is right around the corner. It is as close as the dawn. It will come at any moment, even here and now. So do not lose hope. Do not give up. Do not forget that he is coming to make all things new. Watch for him, and wait for him. Stay alert. Keep awake.

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Difficult Gratitude Is Rewarding Gratitude


November 26, 2020 – Thanksgiving Day, Year A

 © 2020 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here. Video of the entire service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 22:40.

You have heard that Samaritans and Jews hated each other. There was more than a rivalry or sectarian conflict between them. They were divided by layer after layer of history, ethnicity, culture, religious practice, and all the resentment that comes from such division. 

You will remember that shortly after King Solomon died, the nation of God’s people was divided into two: the northern kingdom of Israel with its capital in Samaria and the southern kingdom of Judah, which was centered on Jerusalem. If a civil war were not enough grounds for hatred, when the Babylonians came and destroyed the southern kingdom and took its people captive, many of the people from the north, who a generation earlier had been ransacked by the Assyrians, were left behind. They continued to read their holy text, the Torah. They continued to worship on their holy mountain, Mt. Gerizim. They struggled to survive, but, a generation or two later, when the residents of Jerusalem were permitted to return, they found new reasons to resent their Judean counterparts.

During the Babylonian captivity, much had changed. One people had lost its holy city and its temple, but the other had remained at home. Without the central apparatus of its religion, the people of Judah had developed new sacred practices—new ways to stay connected to God while in exile—but the people of the northern kingdom did not recognize these perverse new practices. Even the central stories of their shared ancestry had been reshaped by the experience of devastation and exile and return, but these new sacred texts were rejected by the Samaritans as a bastardization of God’s word. But, for the Judeans, to reject the scripture and practices of the exiles was to deny their experience of pain, grief, and loss. You can imagine, then, why such hatred persisted between these two peoples—ancient siblings separated by political conflict, sectarian separation, and divergent experience.

In Jesus’ time, that hatred wasn’t just a chapter from history. It was a lived experience. Josephus, the Jewish historian, recalls that, when Jesus was about seven years old, Samaritans snuck into Jerusalem during the Passover festival. At midnight, when the temple was open for pilgrims to enter and pray, this group of Samaritans came and threw parts of dead bodies into the temple in order to defile the sacred spot during the holy festival. Like ransacking a synagogue and spray-painting anti-Semitic graffiti on its walls, this act was designed to strike at the very core of who their embittered foes were. Samaritans and Jews were known to attack each other, especially in the territory in which today’s gospel lesson takes place—that no-man’s land between Samaria and Galilee. They would capture their enemies and, if they could find any Egyptian traders nearby, they would sell them into slavery. That hatred was the basis for the parable of the Good Samaritan, the story Jesus used to question everything we know about who is our neighbor. And it’s the background for today’s story about a miraculous healing.

Despite all that separated Samaritans and Jews, as the story of the ten lepers begins, there is nothing left to distinguish one leper from another. All ten are united in their shared ostracization from society. Leprosy was any number of stigmatizing skin ailments that required complete separation from other people. You could not worship with the community. You could not stay in your own home. You could not eat with your own family. You could not embrace those you loved in times of joy or loss. You lived completely and totally apart. “Unclean, unclean!” you would yell in public places in order to make sure that people knew to stay away from you. And, if you dared to get close enough to touch someone, you could be put to death. You were no longer rich or poor, male or female, Samaritan or Jew. You were simply defined by the illness that held you prisoner.

These ten lepers, united in their condition, were united in their plea for mercy: “Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’” And, from a distance, Jesus answered their request: “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And, as they went, they were healed. The miraculous healing itself is overshadowed by what follows. There was no dramatic prayer, no intimate touch, no incantation or prescription, just Jesus working his power from a safe distance. But as soon as they were healed, something powerful happened: the ethnic distinction, which had been hidden by their leprosy, suddenly recrystallized. 

Jesus told them all to go and show themselves to the priests at the temple, but the Samaritan did not have access to that religious option. He did not have a place among God’s people at the holy mount. Being examined by a priest was a necessary step in the process of being readmitted to Jewish society. What was this Samaritan supposed to do? Presumably, he had his own separate religious rites for rejoining his people. But, instead of walking toward Mt. Gerizim, he turned around and came back to Jesus. Praising God with a loud voice and falling at the Jewish rabbi’s feet, he thanked him. 

“Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Jesus asked. It’s easy to hear those words as a criticism of the other nine, but they were simply doing the right thing, the very thing that Jesus had asked them to do. It seems unlikely if not unreasonable for Jesus to be upset with them. Perhaps a better translation would be, “Of the ten, how remarkable that this stranger was the only one who came back to give praise to God!” Jesus marvels on our behalf that a Samaritan, separated from all that Jesus represented by generations of sectarian conflict and violence and hatred, was moved to return and offer thanks. And that faith, Jesus tells us, is what made that man well.

Sometimes gratitude is harder to show than others. Last week, I was getting my haircut when the conversation turned to the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday. “There isn’t much to be thankful for this year,” one of the other customers remarked from behind his mask, giving voice to the struggle that all of us are feeling. But one of the barbers immediately piped up, “Sure there is! It’s just that we’ve forgotten how to see it.” We are all untied in our struggle and in our suffering. There is no one among us—friend or foe, sibling or rival—who has not been hurt by the pandemic. We all have good reason to shake our fist at God and grumble about how difficult these last nine months have been. And God would receive our grumbling graciously and lovingly, as a parent receives the pain and struggle of a child.

But this is also a remarkable opportunity to be thankful and to express our gratitude. It takes a little more work this year than usual to name those things for which we are thankful, but there is restorative power in doing so. Practicing thanksgiving allows us to stay connected with one another and with God not only in our struggle but also in our restoration. It reminds us that we are not alone even when we are isolated from one another. And it brings forward into our conscious lives that truth that lives within us even when it is hidden by our struggles—that we are beloved by God, that we are saved by God’s love, and that God will forever hold us in God’s loving arms.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Criteria for Judgment


November 22, 2020 – Proper 29A

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here with the sermon starting around 20:20.

Have you seen the meme that depicts a ladle of soup being poured into a bowl held by outstretched arms? The picture is accompanied by the words, “Jesus doesn’t care how many Bible verses you have memorized. He cares about how you treat people.” It’s been popular on social media this week, and I can’t tell if that’s because we’re getting close to Thanksgiving or because my friends who are socially-conscious Episcopalians want to wave this Sunday’s gospel lesson in the faces of their more scripturally-conscious counterparts from other traditions. Well, today I want to start this sermon by saying something controversial, which I hope I will be able to clear up by the time I’m finished. While it’s true that Jesus doesn’t care how many Bible verses you have memorized, it’s also true that he doesn’t care how you treat people. What do I mean by that?

Today’s gospel lesson isn’t about caring for the poor, the sick, the stranger, and the imprisoned. It’s about judgment. “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.” In this passage, Jesus isn’t evaluating candidates for the Rotary Four-Way Test award or the Nobel Peace Prize. He’s sitting in ultimate judgment of all the nations, and he’s separating one from another as easily as a shepherd separates sheep from goats. We can’t rightly understand what he’s telling us about how we’re supposed to treat each other until we hear what he’s saying about judgment.

For two long chapters of Matthew’s gospel account, Jesus has been on a tear about judgment. One day soon, he declares, everything will change. The Jerusalem temple will be destroyed. The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give out its light. Suffering will befall all people, including the beloved children of God. And that day of judgment is coming when no one expects it—like a thief in the night, like a bridegroom who arrives at midnight, like a master who returns and demands an accounting from his servants. When it came to judgment, back in Jesus’ day, everyone wanted to know the same thing we still want to know today—when will God finally come and set all things right? When will God at last separate the wicked from the righteous, the sheep from the goats, the wheat from the tares? And today’s gospel lesson is Jesus’ answer to that persistent question, and his answer caught everyone by surprise.

As Jesus begins this description of judgment, at first everything sounds just as we would expect it to. The Son of Man is to be seated on his glorious throne, surrounded by angels. He is to gather all the nations and separate them once and for all. So far that sounds right. What else would we expect from God’s ultimate judgment besides a clear and decisive vindication for God’s people and a rejection of God’s enemies? No problem there. But, when Jesus begins to describe the criteria for that judgment, everything that the world has always expected gets turned on its head. 

Jesus explains that those who are gathered at his right hand will be the ones who gave him food when he was hungry and drink when he was thirsty. They were the ones who welcomed him when he was a stranger and clothed him when he was naked. They were the ones who took care of him when he was sick and visited him when he was in prison. Even the righteous themselves are surprised to hear what the King is saying. After learning that they are to be welcomed into God’s eternal habitations, they respond in utter disbelief. “When was it that we saw you in need and helped you?” they ask. And Jesus delivers to them and to us the crucial teaching of this passage: “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family you did it to me.”

The surprising truth of God’s judgment is that God’s ultimate ordering of the universe manifests itself not in broad strokes that divide humanity along national, ethnic, or macroscopic lines, but according to the microscopic minutiae of everyday life. For all of salvation history, God’s people had understood that one day God would separate them from their enemies, but now Jesus was inviting them to see that, when God sets the world in its ultimate order, the distinction between those who belong at God’s right hand and those who are to be cast into eternal punishment is clearest when we look at how we have lived each day. The way we care for others or ignore the needs of those around us is, in fact, the clearest indication of whether we belong to God.

But don’t mistake the sign for the thing that it is pointing to. Jesus does not simply reward those who gave food to the hungry and drink to those who thirst, who welcomed the stranger and clothed the naked, who ministered to the sick and visited those in prison. He welcomes to his right hand those who did those things to him—those who cared for Jesus, their Lord and Savior, by caring for the least of the members of his family. How they cared for those in need is a sign—an indication—of their deeper identity, their fundamental belonging to God. And it is that identity, that allegiance, that belonging that distinguishes those at the right hand and those at the left.  

Neither the righteous nor the unrighteous recognized the significance of what they were doing or neglecting to do. But Jesus, the Son of Man, recognized it within them. If the point of this passage was that only those who care for the needy will receive a heavenly reward, we would all be in serious trouble. Sure, we’re mostly kind and generous and, at times, even selfless. But what about that one time when we don’t give $20 to the panhandler on the street? What about the extra jacket hanging in our closet? What about the sick and imprisoned whom we have never even thought about visiting? What if one of them is Jesus? What happens if we fail him when it really counts?

Thanks be to God that God’s judgment does not work like that. The question for us is not how many poor and needy individuals we will help in this lifetime, nor is it how many Bible verses we will commit to memory. The question is whether we will give ourselves over completely to the one who cares for the poor and the needy, who rescues the lost and the broken, who embraces the outcast and the unloved. The question for us is whether we will belong to God and thus allow the way of Jesus to transform our lives. 

You cannot get to heaven by feeding or clothing or otherwise caring for those in need. You get there by belonging to God in Jesus Christ. But you cannot belong to God in Jesus without feeding and clothing and caring for those in need. Those are the indispensable characteristics of the divine life. Those are the clearest descriptions of what a life that belongs to God looks like. When the Son of Man comes and sits upon his throne in judgment, he will not ask you what Bible verses you have memorized or how many times you cared for those in need. He won’t have to ask. Those are not the criteria for God’s judgment. They are the fruit of the lives of the people who belong to God.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Honest Worship Changes Us


November 8, 2020 – Proper 27A

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here. (The sermon begins around 20:10.)

What do you miss most about worship at St. Paul’s? It has been exactly eight months since a congregation bigger than ten gathered for Sunday-morning worship here in the nave. What do you miss? What do your heart and soul ache for? Over the last few weeks, I have bumped into several members of our congregation who have discovered that the building is open every weekday for private prayer, and I’ve heard several of you say how much you have missed just stepping into this holy space. Many of us miss the people—both the familiar individuals we see when we gather together but also the whole congregation—the mass of people filling the pews, lifting their voice toward God as one. Some of us miss the music—feeling our bodies resonate with the powerful organ or the congregation’s full-throated signing of a favorite hymn. Several have told me how much they long for Communion—the consecrated body and blood of our savior and the unity between us that that sacrament both reflects and inspires. 

For many of us it is the liturgy itself that we miss most—not only receiving Communion but standing and sitting and kneeling and singing and listening and praying together the familiar and comforting words of our worship. What we do here in church every Sunday is an anchor for the rest of our week. This place and the prayers we offer within these walls provide steadiness in a chaotic time, reassurance in the midst of anxiety, access to God when God feels so far away. No wonder we miss it so much. We need it now as much as ever, and yet we must remain apart, at least for now. We all miss worshipping at St. Paul’s, but I wonder what God misses most about our worship.

Hopefully, God thinks more highly of our solemn assembly than the worship that took place back in Amos’ day. “I hate, I despise your festivals,” God declared, using two verbs of rejection in order to intensify God’s sense of displeasure, “and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.” Actually, the word the prophet uses to pronounce God’s judgment against Israel’s worship is the word for smell—God refuses to smell the fragrance of their convocations. Then, the attack on the senses continues. “The offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harp.” The prophet wants the people to know that there is absolutely nothing about their worship that God will accept—not the sight or sound or smell of anything that they offer to God. Everything they do in worship is abhorrent to the Lord. 

But why? Are the harps out of tune? Are the cantors under-rehearsed? Are the burnt offerings undercooked? Are the sacrifices less than perfect? In some chapters of Israel’s history, the prophets take exception with the content of the people’s worship. Out of laziness or greed, the people stop giving back to God their very best and instead bring whatever is left over—the lame and diseased livestock and the grain that has already spoiled. But not this time. This time, as far as we can tell, the music and offerings and incense were of the highest quality—a reflection of the people’s economic prosperity. In Amos’ day, God rejected the people’s worship because it was all show and no substance—because it went through all of the motions but didn’t make a difference in the people’s lives.

In the last verse of today’s lesson, God named for God’s people what was missing: “Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” We know that verse out of context because the prophets of our own day have used it to name God’s vision for our society. But, for Amos, it was the distillation of everything that was missing from among God’s people.

When Amos travelled from the southern kingdom of Judah to the northern kingdom of Israel, he brought a challenging message to a people that didn’t want to hear it. This was a time of great prosperity and security. The markets were up. The borders were secure. Trade routes and trade deals kept goods flowing in and out of the country and profits flowing into the coffers of business executives and government officials. People enjoyed both summer and winter houses (3:15). Their furniture was plush and opulent (6:4). They drank and ate and adorned themselves without limit (4:1; 6:6). 

All the while, as the rich got richer, the poor sank deeper into poverty. They lost their homes to unchecked gentrification (2:6-7). They were denied justice by judges and politicians who accepted bribes (5:10, 12). They were cheated in the marketplace by dishonest merchants and left to starve by those who cared only about making money (8:5). And what did all of that have to do with worship? Why was the prophet so intent on declaring God’s rejection of the people’s offerings and prayers? Because religion that is only practiced in temples and synagogues and churches and not in streets and marketplaces and housing developments is not religion at all. Because worship that pretends to ascribe honor and glory and praise to God without shaping its people in the ways of God is nothing more than self-congratulatory entertainment.

In Amos’ day, people flocked to sacred shrines in order to celebrate their prosperity. At Bethel, God had revealed Godself to the people’s namesake, Jacob, whom God had renamed Israel. At Beer-Sheba, God had met each of the patriarchs in order to reassure them with the promise that God would always be with them. At Gilgal, Joshua had built an altar of twelve stones where the people had crossed the River Jordan into the Promised Land. It was at Gilgal where Saul had been crowned Israel’s first king. At these three centers of ancestral power, God’s people celebrated God’s limitless favor and endless blessing, but, back in the cities and towns, people were hungry and homeless, helpless and hopeless. And God wasn’t going to put up with it any more. God wasn’t going to receive the prayers and offerings of a people who ignored the very ones God cared about most, no matter how beautiful their worship was.

You cannot worship our God in a place of splendor while God’s people live in squalor. You cannot give glory to the Most High and ignore the depths of the people’s suffering. You cannot preach a message of salvation when there are people who need rescuing right on the other side of the church’s doors. Real worship—God-centered worship—is not merely a sacred performance or an offering to the Almighty of our Sunday best. It is a transformative encounter with the one who welcomes the stranger, lifts up the downtrodden, speaks good news to the poor, and binds up the brokenhearted. It is a moment when sinful, selfish human beings like us are met by the one who loves them and whose love has the power to make them holy. And real worship does just that—it shapes us into a reflection of our holy God so that we might take the truth of who God is with us back into the world for the rest of the week.

That kind of transformation happens whenever worship is honest. We must be honest about who God is and what God demands and about ourselves and our inability to meet those demands without God’s help. When we come to worship, we bring to God our very best because God is the one to whom only our best can be given. But we also acknowledge before God our very worst because we recognize our brokenness and our sinfulness and because we know that we need God’s help if we are going to be a part of making justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream. That’s why we come back to this place every week—in order to remember who God is and who we are and to be transformed by an encounter with God’s perfecting love. 

If our worship is going to be honest—if we are going to be honest before God—we must know and trust and believe that God’s love is bigger than our failures, that God’s capacity to forgive is more powerful than our capacity to sin. That’s what makes worship at St. Paul’s truly special. This is a safe place to be a sinner because we believe that God’s love has no limits. But it’s also a place that believes that God calls us out of our sinfulness and into new lives of holiness. And, most important of all, it’s a place that believes that God will meet us here in order to make that transformation possible.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Seeing the World through Jesus' Eyes


November 1, 2020 – All Saints’ Day

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here. (Sermon starts around 23:50.)

“One was a doctor, and one was a queen, and one was a shepherdess on the green: they were all of them saints of God, and I mean, God helping, to be one too.” Today is All Saints’ Day, the day when the church celebrates all of her saints—those who lived “not only in ages past” but also the “hundreds of thousands still” here on the earth. Saints of God are the holy men and women and children who live among us and in every generation who, as the hymn declares, love to do Jesus’ will. But what does that really mean? What does it take to be a saint? How much do you really have to love doing Jesus’ will?

In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus describes a way of life that we often associate with sainthood: “Blessed are the poor in spirit…Blessed are those who mourn…Blessed are the meek…Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…the merciful…the pure in heart…the peacemakers…those who are persecuted.” Isn’t that what sainthood looks like and sounds like—meekness and mercy, persecution and poverty of spirit? But how will even our best intentions get us to that vision of holiness? What could ever make the hymn we sing about wanting to be saints of God and meaning to be saints of God something more than a Sunday-school pipe dream?

We can take heart in knowing that Jesus’ words aren’t a prescription for holiness. They aren’t a recipe for sainthood. They are a description of blessedness. These are the characteristics of God’s favor. These words describe the people and places where God and God’s salvation are to be found. The only imperative Jesus offers comes at the very end, when he tells his hearers to rejoice and be glad. As strange as it may sound for a preacher to say it, those of us who wish to be numbered among the saints of God aren’t supposed to go out and pursue a mournful countenance or purity of heart. In fact, as Christians we believe exactly the opposite—that saints of God aren’t holy people whom God claims for his own but ordinary, flawed, sinful people like you and me whom God claims for his own in order that they might be made holy.

The way that Matthew sets up this gospel episode is important. Right before this passage starts, at the end of Matthew 4, we see that Jesus’ popularity has undergone a meteoric rise. Starting with the villages near his home town, Jesus went about “proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and sickness among the people.” And the people noticed. His fame spread quickly throughout the region, and, before long, crowds from all over were flocking to him so that he might heal the sick, diseased, lame, and demon possessed among them. Soon he was unable to go anywhere without a great crowd following his every move. And that’s where today’s gospel lesson starts—with Jesus surveying the crowd around him and deciding to go up on the mountain to sit down.

Matthew doesn’t tell us that Jesus left the crowd or that he went away from them. Nor does he mention that the crowd dispersed and went home. No, all he tells us is that Jesus saw the crowd and then went up on the mountain and sat down and began to speak to the disciples and teach them about the kingdom of God. But where did the crowd go? Where did the unrelenting mass of people who were desperate to see and hear and touch Jesus go? I don’t think that they went anywhere. I think that, as Jesus began to teach his disciples the strange truth about where God’s blessedness is to be found, the crowd was standing close enough to hear him—close enough to overhear what Jesus was teaching the disciples. And I like to imagine that the crowd, who had been impressed by Jesus’ ministry but hadn’t quite understood what he was all about, heard these strange words as an invitation to a new way of seeing the world. 

Blessed are the poor in spirit? Blessed are those who mourn? Blessed are the meek and merciful? Those who yearn for righteousness and who suffer persecution? In what bizarro world is that true? In this world, Jesus tells us, when we finally see the world as God sees it. Jesus did not come to the earth to win any political campaigns or to build a new religious institution. He came in order that we might be saved from our sins and reconciled to God and to each other. And that doesn’t happen in places where people already have everything figured out, in communities where everyone has all of their needs met, in households where prosperity insulates people from the brokenness of the world. No, God’s salvation—God’s blessing and favor—come to those who are desperate for it. And Jesus came to show us that truth.  

He is the one who reveals strength in weakness and salvation through sacrifice. He is the one who welcomes the outcast and lifts up the downtrodden. He is the one who shows God’s love for the unlovable and God’s blessing among those whom the world holds in scorn. He is the one who dies a shameful death so that sinners like you and me might have everlasting life. That’s what it means to be a disciple of Jesus—to see the world through those eyes. That’s what it means to be a saint of God—not to be an example of holiness for all the world to admire but to give our lives over to the one who came to proclaim God’s blessedness among the poor, the hungry, the meek, and the mournful. And those of us who believe that—who believe that that’s where God’s blessedness is to be found—are the ones who are made holy by God in Jesus Christ. That’s what makes us saints.

If that sounds strange to you, don’t worry: it is strange. It’s strange to think of the poor in spirit as the ones who display the riches of faith. It’s strange to see those who mourn as the ones who have a claim on true joy. In fact, it is so strange that, as Jesus warns his disciples, the world will push back against those who inhabit that strange approach to life. “Blessed are you,” he tells them, “when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” And what are his disciples to do in the face of such rejection? “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” If Jesus isn’t speaking these strange words directly to you, don’t worry. You’re still close enough to hear them, and the invitation is yours if you want it. 

In every generation, there are saints among us who have caught a glimpse of what the world looks like through Jesus’ eyes. They are the strange sort of people who have devoted their lives to the belief that the way of poverty, struggle, emptiness, and loss is the way that leads to abundant, overflowing life. They are the ones who know what it means to be saved not by the goodness of their own making but by the blessedness given to them by Jesus. They are, in fact, disciples of Jesus—sinners made holy by the grace of God, chosen and beloved to become God’s saints, “and there’s not any reason, no not the least, why [we] shouldn’t be one too.”

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Amazing Rhetoric


October 18, 2020 – The 20th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 24A

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here. (Sermon begins around 22:45.)

“Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When the Pharisees heard what Jesus said, they were amazed, and they left him and went away. Matthew tells us that they were amazed. But what do you think that means?

In English, our word “amaze” comes from a Middle English word (amasen), which means to bewilder or perplex. In other words, Jesus stunned them with his words. He confounded them. He bested them. And, since they knew that they had been beaten, they went away, ashamed.

But in Greek, the language in which the New Testament was written, the word (thaumadzo) carries a different connotation. Its root (thauma) is the word for miracle, and it means to wonder or marvel. The Pharisees were amazed. They marveled and wondered at what Jesus had said. They were impressed. And, since they knew that they had encountered something remarkable, they went away, in awe.

Because Matthew goes out of his way to let us know that the Pharisees were out to get Jesus—that they were plotting to entrap him and that they came to him with malice—we naturally assume that what happened between them was a confrontation from which there can be only one winner. We, too, are impressed by Jesus’ rhetorical skill, and, knowing who the bad guys are in the story, we are quick to credit Jesus with a resounding victory. But maybe we should hear this encounter a different way.

In his gospel account, Matthew is fond of the word “amaze,” using it ten different times. And each time it reveals a moment of conversion. The disciples were amazed when Jesus stilled the storm and when he withered the fig tree—both signs of the divine power working within him. The crowds were amazed when Jesus cast out evil spirits. Pontius Pilate was amazed when Jesus uttered not a single word in self-defense. Even Jesus himself was amazed when the Roman Centurion showed enough faith to trust that Jesus could heal his sick servant from a distance. When Matthew uses the word “amaze,” he does so to show the reader that something has changed within the heart or mind of a character in the gospel—that something new has been revealed and understood—and that’s what’s going on within the hearts and minds of the Pharisees, who came to Jesus in order to put him to the test but who left with something new to think about.

When we read this passage, we usually think that the Pharisees put Jesus in an impossible spot. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” they asked him. But what’s so hard about answering that? We are told that the Pharisees took some of the Herodians with him—people who were loyal to the puppet regime that the Romans had set up in Palestine. But they wouldn’t have been surprised to hear a firebrand rabbi talking big about refusing to pay the emperor’s taxes. Sure, they could have used such a statement against him in legal proceedings, but, by this point, Jesus was already in Jerusalem for a showdown with the authorities. What did he have to lose? Why not just tell them what they wanted to hear? Why not say, “This land was promised to our ancestor Abraham. It belongs to us. I have come to take back David’s throne. Let’s show the emperor where he can put those taxes!”? Why not say the thing that nearly everyone wanted to hear? Because you can’t make God’s kingdom come by throwing gasoline on a fire—even if you’re right. 

We want to win. The stakes are high, and we want to win. We want to show everyone on the other side that they are wrong and that we are right, and that might be true, but what are we accomplishing by shaming those who disagree with us? What does God gain when we demonize those on the other side? Look instead at what Jesus did. When the Pharisees came to him and asked whether it was lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, he asked them for the coin that was used for the tax. He asked them for the coin because, somewhat ironically, he didn’t have one and because he was betting that they would. Then he asked them to name whose head and title were found on the coin, asking them to acknowledge the graven image that had been kept in their pockets. And finally he asked them to decide for themselves how they would navigate the theologically confusing world of living under the authority of a pagan emperor yet refusing to accept the authority of anyone except God alone.

Jesus wasn’t the only one who had to figure this out. They did, too. And, instead of taking a side and scoring some cheap points with the crowd, Jesus held up to his opponents the deeper reality that they all faced together. All of them had to figure out how to be faithful to God while doing everyday things under Roman occupation like carrying around coins and paying taxes. In the end, the Pharisees were amazed. That doesn’t mean that they went away converted to Jesus’ cause. This kind of conversion—this sort of amazement—is more subtle than that. They went away aware of something new—with a new sense that even Jesus, this tradition-challenging, authority-questioning rabbi who threatened everything that they thought mattered, was striving to be faithful to God, and, despite all their expectations, could find a way to invite them to do the same.

Are things all that different for us? We believe that God’s reign has broken through in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. We believe that, in Christ, God is turning the world upside down. But we can’t make that kingdom come any faster or any more fully by throwing shade on our opponents. As sure as we are that we are on the right side of history, we can’t make God’s kingdom come by besting those who think that we’re wrong. Instead, we have to let God amaze them. We have to invite them to see that God is at work in the people and places where they never expected to find God. We have to ask them to consider what it means to be faithful to God in their own circumstances—not because we know the answer but because we’re all still trying our best to figure that out. Imagine what would happen if, after engaging in serious political, economic, or theological debate, we all walked away amazed—not converted to each other’s side but converted to the possibility that God is at work in all who seek to be faithful. 

Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s. In the end, you can’t separate the two. But you can be faithful to God in both.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Celebrate With All You've Got


October 11, 2020 – The 19th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 23A
Isaiah 25:1-9; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service is available here. (Sermon begins around 21:50.)

Being too busy to go to a party is so last year, isn’t it? When was the last time you skipped a social event because you hadn’t had a quiet weekend at home in months? I miss those days. I miss feeling the urge to skip a wedding or a birthday party or a baby shower or a dinner because I just want to stay home. How we hear this parable of Jesus depends, in part, on whether we’re hearing it with pre-pandemic ears—back when you and me and everyone I know was busy—or with our current-day ears—when most of us would give up our first-born child for a night out with other adults.

For most of us, I think the first half of this parable sounds like good news. The king threw a big wedding banquet for his son. The original invitees were either too busy or too self-absorbed to make time for the party, but that was good news for everyone else. Except for the extreme behavior of some of the characters in the parable, the setup to the first half is pretty reasonable. Naturally, the king was upset when the first round of guests refused to show up. If anything, his decision to fill the guest hall with whoever could be found—both good and bad—was a remarkable expression of inclusion. This party was too important to allow those who would not come to ruin it, and the latecomers were thrilled to be included.

I don’t know about you, but I’m always grateful when someone offers me their ticket to the symphony or to a sporting event. It’s like having a ticket to the Masters. I can’t imagine why anyone would give up a chance to go to Augusta National, but, if they’re too busy with their farm or their business to go, I’d be happy to take their place. We like that image of the kingdom of heaven. How good it is that our God is willing to fling wide open the doors to that great and glorious banquet so that everyone who wants to be there can find a place at the feast! And, as long as we hear this parable with the ears of those who are grateful to be included, it is good news indeed. At least, the first part is.

But then the parable takes a dark and startling turn. As the king walks through the banquet hall, delighted and relieved that his son’s wedding feast wasn’t a total flop, he notices that one of the guests isn’t dressed appropriately. “How did you get in without a wedding garment?” the king asks, but the guest stares back in stunned silence. In the blink of an eye, everything has changed. The music and dancing stop. No one utters a word. The king orders his servants to bind the intruder hand and foot and throw him out into the outer darkness. What kind of king is that? What kind of God is that? One minute, everyone is raising a glass to toast the generosity of the magnanimous host, but the next everyone is staring at the floor, hoping that the nightmare will end.

If you’re confused, that’s ok. So am I. So is everyone. And I think that’s the point. Sometimes preachers try to explain away the awkwardness of the second half of this parable and, in so doing, rob it of its power. Some claim that the second part didn’t belong with the first but was added on generations later to warn Christians not to give up in the face of persecution. Others try to soften the inexplicable harshness of a host who would expect a last-minute guest to be wearing formal attire by asserting that wedding robes would have been handed out to all of the guests at the door, but there’s no historical evidence that that was the case. No, we’re left with a difficult text that challenges us and our preconceptions of God and God’s reign to their core. And that’s the point. 

We like it when the kingdom of heaven is what we expect. We like it when God behaves the way we want God to behave. We like it when the doors are flung wide open and anyone and everyone is invited to come to the party. But liking that and talking about God like that and telling people that we belong to a church that believes that everyone is welcome isn’t good enough. You don’t get to be a part of the celebration if all you do is show up and watch other people make it happen. And you don’t get to share in the festivities if you decide to stay home and let other people take your place. The kingdom of heaven is like a wedding banquet that a king threw for his son. It doesn’t matter whether you’re the first one to get an invitation or the last one to show up. What matters is that when you arrive you celebrate with everything you’ve got.

Jesus isn’t talking about the kingdom of heaven that is waiting for us when we die. He’s talking about the reign of God that has already broken through into this life. Jesus came to the earth and lived and died and rose again so that you and I and everyone else might have a place at God’s table. But it’s not good enough that we have received an invitation. And it’s not good enough that we show up for the party. It’s not good enough that we wear crosses around our necks. It’s not good enough that we call ourselves Christians. It’s not good enough that we belong to a church like St. Paul’s. It’s not good enough that we believe in our hearts that God’s love belongs to everyone. Our host wants to see that we’re all in. For a celebration this important, anything less than our full participation—anything other than our very best—isn’t good enough.

You can’t believe in a God who welcomes everyone and not welcome everyone yourself. You can’t believe in a kingdom where everyone has a place and not make room in your own heart for whoever wants to come in. We believe in a God who flings wide open the doors to the kingdom. We believe in a God who searches high and low so that everyone might come in. You and I have been given a ticket to the celebration that God is throwing for us and for all people. But the fact that we’ve been included at all is itself a miracle of generosity and love. Like everyone else, we have been given a ticket because God loves us enough to find us and beckon us to come in. In this life—right here and now—being included in God’s great banquet is the most important thing that will ever happen to us. If we can’t find a way to celebrate that and to celebrate it with everyone else whom God has invited in, we’ll be the ones who miss out.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Bearing Fruit In Another's Vineyard

 October 4, 2020 – Proper 22A
Isaiah 5:1-7; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here. Video of the entire service can be seen here. (The sermon begins around 23:00.)

When I lived in Montgomery, Alabama, I took night classes at Troy University in my spare time. Although the main campus of the university was located in a small town an hour or so away, Troy had established a satellite campus in downtown Montgomery by purchasing and renovating several out-of-use buildings, including the old Whitley Hotel. Although dormant for decades, the hotel was a majestic building with an elegant lobby and a grand staircase that wound up to the upper floors, and the university did the city a favor by bringing it back to life. 

In the middle of the repurposed lobby was a large and detailed mosaic, which featured the emblem of the university. Legend had it that, not long after Troy bought the old hotel, university officials had the original mosaic painstakingly replaced, tiny tile by tiny tile, to further cement its presence in the urban community. But, when the work was finished, something wasn’t right. Part of the emblem wasn’t exactly the way it was supposed to be, and the university’s president, an exacting sort of woman, insisted that it be done again.

As the artisan chipped up the mistaken portion of the mosaic in order to redo it, the president walked through the lobby and asked the worker how everything was going. Frustrated, the laborer responded with little more than a grunt, so the president asked him what was wrong. Not realizing who it was that was speaking to him, he replied, “Some witch is making me do this all over again,” only he didn’t use the word “witch.” She replied, “Oh really? Well, guess what: I am that witch. Pack up your things. You’re fired.”

When we fail to recognize the authority of those standing in front of us, we shouldn’t be surprised when judgment comes crashing down upon our heads. 

Today’s gospel lesson is all about authority. Will we recognize and respect Jesus’ authority, or will we substitute our own version of right and wrong in its place? As Suzanne noted last Sunday, this chapter of Matthew is filled with expressions of and challenges to Jesus’ authority. First, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey while the crowd shouted, “Hosanna!” as if he were prepared to claim the throne of his ancestor David. Then, he went straight to the Jerusalem temple, where he turned over the tables of the moneychangers and drove them out of the temple precincts, effectively halting the worship that was taking place there. All the while, the religious authorities watched Jesus perform these prophetic and symbolic gestures, which both questioned their legitimacy and asserted his own authority in their place. Something had to give. The crowds were cheering for the radical rabbi, but, behind the scenes, the people in power were plotting his demise. 

Exasperated and probably a bit nervous, the religious leaders came to Jesus and asked him to explain by what authority he was performing these radical, divisive, and lawless acts. How could a religious figure like him allow himself to be at the center of such unrest? In response, he told them two parables—the parable of the two sons, which we heard last week, and the parable of the wicked tenants, which is our focus today.

“Listen to another parable,” Jesus told them, a parable about a landowner who carefully and deliberately prepared a vineyard before leasing it to some tenants and going off to another country. It must have taken more than a few years of hard work by those tenants before the vines began to produce their fruit. Eventually, though, it was time for the landowner to collect his share of the harvest, so he sent some servants to get what was his due—the portion that had been agreed upon back when the vineyard had originally been leased to those tenants. 

But the tenants weren’t interested in giving up any of the fruit of their labor. They were the ones who had worked hard every day, season after season, bearing the heat of the summer sun, pulling up weeds, pruning back the vines, carefully nurturing the tender shoots until harvest time. They had done all the work, they told themselves, so every bit of the produce should be theirs. They didn’t care whose land it was, who had made all of the improvements to it, who had hired them to take care of it. So they attacked the landowner’s slaves, beating and killing and stoning them. And, when the landowner sent a second group of slaves, even more than the first, they treated them in the same way. Finally, the landowner recognized the need for serious action, so he sent his son, his agent, someone who could officially speak for the family and engage the local officials if needed, but the tenants refused even to respect the landowner’s son. Instead, they convinced themselves that, once the heir was out of the way, the vineyard would be theirs. So they killed him.

No one except for the tenants was surprised at what happened next. Even the religious leaders, to whom Jesus had addressed this hardly masked parable of condemnation, knew what the landowner would do to those wicked tenants. They knew that they would be rounded up and executed for their lawlessness. No matter how firmly they had convinced themselves that their ridiculous plan would work, the tenants were always going to be punished for their refusal to respect the one in whose vineyard they had labored. 

It is a hard message for those of us who prefer our brand of Christianity to be the open, accepting, universal variety to hear Jesus say that the kingdom of heaven will be taken away from someone and given to someone else. But, in an age in which the words of Jesus and the authority of the church are used by some even to legitimize evil, it is a truth that we must confront. 

What does it mean for Jesus to proclaim that God’s kingdom will be taken away from the religious leaders and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom? You may have been taught in the past that this parable is about God’s favor being withdrawn from the children of Abraham and bestowed upon Gentile Christians, but that isn’t true. The church, at times infected with the sin of anti-Semitism, has made that claim, but this parable isn’t about chronology. It’s not about the vineyard being taking away from those who came first and given to those who come second. It’s about the responsibility to be faithful when the opportunity presents itself. 

As the prophecy of Isaiah 5 makes clear, God takes the vineyard away from those who forget whose vineyard it really is—those who forget that God is the one who requires justice and rejects bloodshed, who demands righteousness and will not abide the cry of the suffering. If you read the rest of that chapter of Isaiah, you will see that the people in power had used their authority to take possession of the land of the vulnerable, to throw lavish banquets for themselves while people in the streets were hungry, and to acquit the guilty in exchange for a bribe. Jesus picked up on this image and made it the center of his parable because the religious leaders of his own day had done the same thing. They had forgotten whose vineyard it really was. They had forgotten that the kingdom of God belongs to the poor and the weak and the vulnerable. They had ignored the plight of those who were eager to line the sides of the road and shout, “Hosanna!” as Jesus came into Jerusalem. They had turned their backs on the blind and the lame who Matthew tells us flocked to the temple to be healed by Jesus as soon as he had chased the moneychangers out.

Whose vineyard are we working in? In whose kingdom are we called to bear fruit? Do we recognize the authority of the one who comes to collect the landowner’s due? Or have we been working so long that we have forgotten that the fruit of our labor actually belongs to someone else?

The blind and the lame do not need any help recognizing Jesus as the one who comes to bring God’s kingdom to the earth. The poor and the weak don’t need him to tell them a parable in order to see whose authority he represents. It is always the powerful, the rich, and the well-connected who need to be reminded what sort of reign Jesus has come to establish. On the spectrum that extends from religious elites to social pariahs, I can tell on which end most of us belong. Maybe that’s why we need Jesus more than most people—because, left to our own devices, we might begin to think that this vineyard we inhabit is our own doing, that we are responsible for its produce, and that its bounty belongs to us. It doesn’t. And, as long as we remember that, God will help us bear fruit for the one to whom the kingdom belongs. 

Sunday, September 20, 2020

The Privilege of Suffering

September 20, 2020 – The 16th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 20A

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here. Video of the service can be seen here. (The sermon begins around 23:00.)

“I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.” Those words have come to symbolize Muhammad Ali’s opposition to the Vietnam War and, more specifically, his opposition to a government that would draft young black men and send them, in his words, “10,000 miles from home [to] drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam [while] so-called Negro people in [his home town of] Louisville [were] treated like dogs and denied simple human rights.”  Ali knew that his service in the military would not put his life at risk—that, instead, he would be trotted out as part of the Army’s public relations game in the same way that his predecessor in the ring, Joe Lewis, had been used to drum up support for World War II. But Ali wasn’t willing to play their game. He wasn’t willing to accept the privilege of suffering on their behalf.

On April 28, 1967, when he reported for his scheduled induction into the military, Ali refused three times to step forward when his name was called, and it cost him. It cost him his heavyweight championship belt, his license to fight in the ring, and the esteem of white America. Ali believed that the government was asking black men and boys to suffer for the sake of a country that would not even recognize their basic humanity, and he refused to take part. Though he is now celebrated as an accomplished athlete and a beloved hero, sports commentator Dan Le Batard has noted more than once that Ali only became popular when Parkinson’s Disease robbed him of his voice.

Today, we hear what the apostle Paul has to say to those who suffer: “God has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well.” Those are Paul’s words to the Christians in Philippi, who faced persecution because of their faith, but what would he say to Muhammad Ali? What would the white, Christian preachers of the twentieth century, who so often used Paul to reinforce their worldview, say to the man whom they insisted on calling Cassius Clay? What would a present-day preacher like me—a privileged white man, who stands in a pulpit insulated from the rallies and riots and racial strife of our day and so far untouched by the ravages of a pandemic—what would I dare to say about Paul’s exhortation to suffer and to count that suffering as a God-given privilege?

Sometimes words only make sense to the people to whom they were originally entrusted. Maybe Paul has nothing to say to those who are asked to fight and die for a country that treats them as second-class citizens, to those who are asked to submit obediently to the police who murder them with impunity, to those who are sent into poultry plants and slaughterhouses in the midst of a pandemic because a chicken in every pot is still the American way. But Philippians is still in our holy book, and, no matter what Paul intended, his words are still proclaimed in our congregations as if they belong to the Lord. So it is our obligation—our duty as people of faith and as citizens of a predominantly Christian society—to wrestle with these ancient words and to see if they have anything to say to us and to our world today.

What could make these words good news not only for a privileged few but for everyone? What must be true about Paul and his circumstance and about the Philippians and their circumstance and about their love for each another in order for the apostle’s teaching to be received not as a violation but as a hopeful encouragement? In part, Paul’s words rang true because they were written not from a place of individual security but of mutual struggle. Although his chains were the consequences of his own free choices, the shackles that Paul wore were not merely for show or rhetorical effect. His life, as we heard in the opening of this passage, hung in the balance. A man who had enjoyed the freedom and privilege of Roman citizenship now faced the real possibility of death at the hands of the Empire. 

While one’s own experience of suffering does not, in and of itself, give someone the authority to command others to endure their own suffering, Paul’s credibility on this point comes from something else. He wrote to the Philippians not only as one who had endured hardship but as one who recognized that his own suffering had become the source of his friends’ struggle—that their grief was the result of his grief. Paul wanted to relieve them of that burden. He wanted them to see that, if he was able to count his own suffering for Christ’s sake as a privilege, they, too, could endure whatever hardship they faced by seeing it as a gift from God.

That may have been some comfort for Paul’s friends in Philippi, where the apostle had spent time laboring beside them, but where in those words do we find comfort and encouragement for the church today? The critical struggle we face is not figuring out how to count as holy the sympathetic suffering we endure on behalf of friends who look like us and talk like us and live on the same side of town as us. We’re all too good at that. And we certainly don’t need any help telling those who endure hardships that they should count their suffering as the privilege that God has ordained for them. That’s been our besetting sin for millennia. If we are to find real encouragement in Paul’s words, we will only hear it when we, with God’s help, begin to unwrap and upturn our understanding of privilege. When we stop thinking of privilege as a gift that is supposed to shield us from suffering and start thinking of it as an obligation that propels us into suffering for the sake of others, we will know why Paul’s words are words of hope.

Paul may not have understood privilege in the same way that we do—as an accident of birth that we might devote to the work of the gospel—but he did understand the ways in which living in Christ reoriented the believer’s engagement with the world. For those whose faith-trained sight remains focused on “the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus,” whatever suffering we experience in this life is not seen as an obstacle to our union with God but as a means by which we share in the resurrection of the one who suffered on our behalf. For, if God is for us, who could be against us? If Christ is on our side, who could ever condemn us? 

It is with that confidence of faith that Paul is able to proclaim later on in this same letter, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death.” That resurrection power is available to us as well. It is given to those who have faith enough even to suffer and die. If those of us, whose religion has been a shield from our own suffering and the suffering of others, cannot empty ourselves of that privilege and embrace the privilege of suffering, then we have not known the power of Christ’s resurrection. And, without knowing that power, we cannot live lives worthy of the gospel of Christ.

Paul has so much to say to us, but we cannot hear what he has to say if we pretend his words were written today. Instead, we must ask the Holy Spirit to help us hear afresh what was written so long ago. Paul does not and cannot ask people who suffer for the sake of unholy systems of oppression to dress that suffering up as if it were a gift from God. But he can and does invite those of us who live with the comfort of earthly privilege to consider the ways in which our faith in the God of Jesus Christ requires us to set aside our invulnerability and pursue suffering for the gospel’s sake. While those of us who have been insulated from the suffering of others cannot rightly claim kinship with those whose suffering we now seek to undo, we can, with God’s help, begin to recognize how we are called not to withdraw from that suffering but to embrace it—how we, like Paul, might even call our own suffering a gift from God—a privilege we bear for the sake of others.