Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Meager Offering

Yesterday, I wrote about the ways in which Luke blends together (confuses?) the Jewish traditions associated with the purification of a woman after childbirth and the redemption of a first-born in order to convey a story about the faithfulness of Jesus' parents and the further identification of Jesus as the fulfillment of God's promises. Today, I want to shift the focus to one little detail that Luke recalls--the offering.

Luke tells us that Jesus' parents "offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, 'a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.'" The NRSV even puts in quotation marks the description of the offering as if Luke is directly quoting from Leviticus. In Leviticus 12, the entire chapter deals with this very thing--uncleanness and purification after childbirth--and it describes the offering that a woman is supposed to bring when she comes to the temple:
When the days of her purification are completed, whether for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring to the priest at the entrance of the tent of meeting a lamb in its first year for a burnt offering, and a pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering. He shall offer it before the Lord, and make atonement on her behalf; then she shall be clean from her flow of blood. This is the law for her who bears a child, male or female. If she cannot afford a sheep, she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement on her behalf, and she shall be clean. (Leviticus 12:6-12).
She (Mary) is supposed to bring a lamb under one year old and a pigeon or turtledove. The lamb is for the burnt offering--the holocaust--and the bird is for the sin offering so that the woman "shall be clean from her flow of blood." (Read yesterday's post.) But, of course, Jesus' parents didn't bring a lamb. Luke tells us that they brought what they were supposed to bring and identifies it as "a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons." Luke doesn't tell us any more than that, but what he's signifying to us is that Joseph and Mary couldn't afford a sheep. Instead, one bird took the place of the lamb. It was a poor woman's offering.

The nature of that burnt offering, which I've also identified as a holocaust, was a sacrifice that was completely consumed by fire. In other words, none of the meat was given to the priests. Nothing was left. It was a total offering. It was a sacrifice (think "something we give up" and not simply "an animal that was slaughtered in a ritual act") that represented a total gift. Nothing is held back. The sin offering, however, was efficacious in the killing of the animal and the blood that was offered. Typically, the priest would be invited to eat the flesh of whatever had been killed as a sin offering. Other offerings, too, were only partially given to God, but what is translated to us as "burnt offering" was how human beings gave all they had--their very best--to God.

The best that Mary and Joseph could muster was a second pigeon. I wonder how that felt to the priest who received their offering. I wonder whether he looked with pity upon the young carpenter and his even younger wife. Or perhaps he thought to himself, "Is that all you really can afford?" I wonder if any of the onlookers, seeking a young woman coming into the temple with a forty-day-old child and knowing what she had come to do, saw her holding a wicker cage with two birds in it and thought, "Just another poor young mother who barely has enough to make ends meet."

How often does the church separate its members into those who can afford to bring a lamb and those who can only afford a pigeon? I don't know any clergy who treat parishioners differently because their pledge is smaller than that of others. I don't know any parishes that give rich parishioners preferential treatment--a spot on the vestry, an extra hospital visit, an extra prayer. But I know lots of churches, including the one where I work and worship, that haven't found a good way of being a church that welcomes poor people. We are good at feeding hungry people on Mondays and Wednesdays, but we aren't very good at making space in our community for the poor on Sunday mornings. Why is that?

I don't think it's because we have strategies in place that are designed to keep poor people out, but I do think it's because we don't have strategies in place that are designed to bring poor people in. I'm grateful for our ushers, who give out bulletins, greet newcomers, and help people find a seat, but I wonder whether someone who lives on the street and hasn't showered in weeks would think of them as someone designed to keep them out or let them in. Twice a week, the food-insecure population is invited into our building to eat lunch. What would happen if those 200+ people were invited to have breakfast with us on Sunday mornings? Our ASA could skyrocket, but how many regular parishioners would still show up for breakfast and church?

For the most part, I don't think the church is a place that sees Mary and Joseph coming into the door with their meager offering and asks them to leave. I think we're happy to have poor people who are bold enough to walk in and participate in our worship. But I'd be surprised if there were many churches that were filled with Simeons and Annas who have the Spirit-given sight to see that the ones who come in with the poor-people's offerings are the ones who have brought the savior to us.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Whose Presentation?

This Sunday, instead of celebrating the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, the church stops to remember the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, which is also called Candlemas. It's the end of the long nativity cycle, which starts every year on March 25 with the Annunciation and takes us through the birth of Jesus and on to the Presentation exactly forty days after Christmas. Of course, Luke's is the only gospel account to mention this story, but it has its roots in Jewish tradition and law. What makes this account strange, however, is that Luke goes out of his way to tell this story but doesn't seem to know the traditions and customs all that well.

For starters, there was no expectation that a child would be presented in the temple. The act of going to the temple wasn't about the child; it was about the mother. Specifically, it was about a woman who needed to be ritually cleansed after childbirth. You can read about that expectation in Leviticus 12:1-8. The biblical text associates the uncleanness of childbirth with the uncleanness of menstruation. Because of the "curse of Eve," a woman is understood to be ritually unclean during her period. She may not sleep in the bed with her husband. She must live isolated from other people.  That's the same sense of defilement that a woman is understood to have contracted during the birth of a child. If a male child, she is ritually unclean for 7 days and then must remain in a state of purgatory--seeking purification--for 33 more days before coming to the temple to present an general offering and a sin offering to God. In other words, she must come and both give thanks and seek atonement. If it is a female child, the time is doubled to 14 days of uncleanness and 66 more days of purgatory. That gender distinction is not, of course, an accident but another layer of misogyny.

When it comes to the child, there is no biblical text that states a child should be presented to the Lord. And there aren't any texts from that period that suggest that it had become a custom. (See Joseph Fitzmyer's commentary on Luke in the Anchor Bible series.) Instead, the biblical and cultural expectation would be that an offering would be made to redeem the first-born. This seems to be Luke's attempt to incorporate the tradition expressed by Exodus 13:1-2, which states simply that the first-born of livestock and children belong to God and that, if the parent or owner will keep the offspring, a price or offering must be given to God to redeem that obligation. In Jesus' day, the custom was to bring 5 shekels to any priest and hand them over, saying, "Hey, buddy, this is for my first-born child." (Again, see Fitzmyer.) There was no trip to the temple. There was no presentation of the child to the Lord. All that was expected and practiced was an obligatory offering.

There are, however, connections between Luke's account of the presentation and Hannah's presentation of her son Samuel to God and to Eli the priest at the temple in 1 Samuel 1:21-28. Hannah had prayed for a child, promising to give him to the Lord, and, when her prayer was answered, she did just that, bringing her barely-weened son to the priests for a lifetime of service. That's a more entertaining story than the passages in Leviticus and Exodus. It certainly makes a better foundation for a gospel narrative.

I think Luke is trying to make several points with this story, all of which are worth holding onto, especially in the rare event of a Sunday-morning sermon on the feast of the Presentation. First, Luke wants us to see that Jesus' parents are faithful to their Jewish identity. He may have gotten some of the details wrong, but the overall expression of piety is effective. Jesus' parents will do whatever is asked of them by God. That's important. Second, Luke wants us to see how the truth of Jesus' identity is conveyed again to other individuals. The circle now has spread from Mary to Joseph to Elizabeth to some shepherds and now to Simeon and Anna and whoever else was watching in the temple that day. The truth of Jesus as Messiah is spreading as Luke continues to make a case for Jesus not only as God's anointed one but in particular as the light that has come into the world to be salvation of God's people and of all nations. Third, Luke gives us a glimpse at what the future will hold--a dark, disturbing prophecy for Mary about the sword piercing her own soul. Perhaps it's worth remembering that, in the Jewish context, that image of a piercing sword is not one of punitive violence but of discriminating separation. Like a butcher's cleaver, it forces Mary to make a painful choice, probably between being Jesus' mother and being Jesus' disciple, faithful even unto his death.

The problem with it all, however, is that it's easy for us to do what Luke does and miss the significance of what would have actually happened in the temple forty days after Jesus was born. The child probably went with her because babies need to nurse every three hours or so, but who knows whether Joseph would have been there. Although Luke portrays him as a faithful participant in this presentation moment, there wasn't anything for him to do. This was only about Mary. It was about her uncleanness. It was about the very thing that most clearly defined her as a woman becoming the very thing that made her wrong, impure, inadequate in God's eyes and in the eyes of the people who wrote and propagated the law that declared such. Mary was unclean because she was a woman. In other words, because Mary was a woman, she wasn't good enough. And that's still a problematic attitude in the church and in the secular world.

This continues to be the case in many cultures. As you may have read in the news, this approach to women and menstruation has led to the deaths of numerous young women, who are forced to sleep in menstrual huts in places like Nepal. I have been to a church in Ethiopia that had a sign on the door asking women who were on their period to stay out of the church because they were ritually unclean. Our prayer book--the "new" 1979 prayer book--still has a service in it that is based on this reality. It's called "Thanksgiving for the Birth of a Child," but it's modeled on the older prayer book service called "The Churching of Women." Traditionally, women were not allowed to come back to church or even have friends and extended relatives come and visit them until they had undergone this service, which is a mixture of thanksgiving for safe delivery and purification after childbirth. I've been in a vicarage to which women in the community would come and request that service so that their aunts and uncles and friends could come see their new baby. It still happens. All the time. All over the place. We continue to be uncomfortable with menstruation and, to the extent that it is related to it, with childbirth.

This Sunday is a chance to talk about it. The ritual, the text, the culture we live in almost demands it. We can't get past the misogyny and patriarchy that plague our world until we can have a conversation about "feminine hygiene" without needing to duck out or make some crass joke to ease our discomfort. One of my favorite takes on this was done by Mike Judge, who addressed this in the episode "Aisle 8A" in King of the Hill. If you grew up in a culture in which real men didn't buy tampons for their wives in the grocery store, it's worth watching. Do it for your daughters' and granddaughters' sake. Help them know that it's okay to be a woman. Let Mary's faithfulness be a reminder of the purification that we all still need.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Faithful To God's Reign

January 26, 2020 – Epiphany 3A/Conversion of Paul

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

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

When Jesus began his ministry, he picked up right where John the Baptist left off: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” That was pretty risky for a number of reasons. For starters, John had already been arrested. His message that God’s reign was right around the corner had gotten under the skin of the powerful people of his day, and they had thrown him in jail. When Jesus heard about John’s arrest, he was smart enough to leave Judea and head back north to Galilee, but he didn’t try to hide his message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” How long would it be before Jesus ran afoul of the authorities and found himself in the same sort of trouble?

Jesus’ decision to emulate John was also risky because of John’s success. Thousands of people had left their homes in the cities and villages of Judea in order to go out and hear the Baptizer preach his message of repentance. John had his own disciples—his own loyal following. If all Jesus was doing was copying the most famous preacher of his day, how would he show the crowds that he had something else—something better—to offer them?

But the most significant reason that I think that Jesus’ strategy of copying John was risky is because, in John’s case, it hadn’t seemed to work. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” the Baptist had proclaimed. The kingdom of heaven is the reign of God. It’s the way God wants the world to be. It’s the way things are when God is in charge. John told his followers that God’s being in charge was right around the corner—that the kingdom of heaven was at hand. And what did it get John? A quick trip to jail and, as we learn later in Matthew, the separation of his head from his shoulders by the edge of an executioner’s sword. If God’s reign really was coming at any minute, then why had John’s message been stifled by the corrupt and self-seeking powers of this world? And how would Jesus do any better?

When Jesus preaches, “The kingdom of heaven has drawn near,” he is asking his audience to believe that God’s ultimate work of setting all things right has come upon us. He asks us to trust that, even though the powers of evil seem to be gaining strength, what’s really happening is the power of God preparing to come into the world once and for all. The message that John proclaimed and that Jesus makes the foundation of his earthly ministry is one that asks us to believe that things won’t always be this way—that they are changing and will be completely transformed at any minute. That’s a risky proclamation. It risky to preach that reign of God is right around the corner because, when you do, the powers of this world bring their full force upon you in order that their grip on power might be maintained at any cost. And, when that happens, when God’s prophets are thrown in jail and executed, it’s hard to believe that, still, God’s kingdom has drawn near. Yet that’s exactly what Jesus and John before him would have us to believe with all our heart and soul and mind and strength.

The kingdom of heaven is love and peace and mercy and justice. It is the sick being cured of their disease. It is the poor having good news brought to them. It is the prisoners being set free. It is the mournful receiving consolation. It is the people who sat in darkness having seen a great light. It is the tax collector being called into God’s service. It is the sinner being invited to eat with the rabbi. It is forgiveness and restoration and hope and everlasting life. The kingdom of heaven is everything we see unfolding in the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. John the Baptist told us to get ready for it, and, through his death and resurrection, Jesus showed us that God’s reign has come upon us in God’s great repudiation of the powers of this world. And now the question for us is what we’re going to do about it.

What will our response to Jesus’ message be? Those who have no need for change, whose lives are sufficiently comfortable and privileged, shrug their shoulders and say, “Who cares? Why would we need any of that?” Others who have sat in the prison of darkness so long that they cannot even begin to believe that things would ever change say. “Preachers and prophets like you always say things like that. But why should I get my hopes up this time? Why should I allow myself to think that things really could get better?” But those who are desperate for God to come and make all things new and who find the strength to believe that that change is possible say, “Yes, Lord, I believe! I believe that God’s reign is coming, and I want to be a part of it!”

That is what repentance looks like. When Jesus says, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” he is inviting us to do just that—to see that God’s way for the world is right around the corner and, because God’s way is better than the one we already have, to turn around and embrace it. The ones who repent are the ones who follow Jesus into that way for their lives and for the world around them.

Before we start walking, however, we should take a lesson from our parish’s name sake and remember what happens if we try to make the reign of God come on our own. Paul, who before his conversion was known as Saul, knew in his heart that he was right and that he was doing what God would want him to do. In the name of religion, in the name of the God of Israel, he hunted down followers of Jesus, threw them in prison, tried to force them to blaspheme, and cast his vote against them when they were being condemned to death. Saul was convinced that it was up to him to make God’s ways happen on the earth, but he couldn’t have been more wrong. Because like him we are human—because we can never be completely free of self-interest—if it is up to us to make the world the way we think it should be, we will always mess it up. And, given enough time and space and power, we will mess it up as fully and violently as Saul.

Our work as the people of God is not to make the world the place God intends it to be but to be faithful to the coming reign of God and let that way of being shape our lives until we see God’s reign all around us. We cannot make God’s reign come by making a list of all the good things that the world needs and then pursuing them one by one. We can’t make the reign of God come at all. And that is good news that we need to hear. Jesus doesn’t tell us to bring God’s reign to earth. Instead, he tells us to see that it has already come near, to turn around and follow it, and to believe that God will help us pursue it.

When Jesus saw Simon and Andrew casting their net into the sea, he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of people.” When he saw James and John working alongside their father in the boat, he called out to them, too. All of them dropped their nets and the lives that those nets represented in order to follow Jesus. Why? Because Jesus had given them a glimpse of God’s reign that had come near, and he had invited them to follow him into it. That’s our identity, too. We are not simply a church full of people who like to do good things in our community. That’s nice, but it isn’t big enough. Instead, we are a church full of people who have seen the reign of God come near and who believe that, by following Jesus, we will become channels through which that reign will come to its completion. The only way that we can fulfill that potential is with God’s help. And, as we have seen, when God works through the people of St. Paul’s, the world begins to look a lot more like the world God wants it to be.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Conflicting Calls

In these first few weeks after the Epiphany in Year A, the lectionary authors go out of their way to establish a sense of continuity in the face of discontinuity. First, we read in Matthew 3 that Jesus comes to John to be baptized. Then, in John 1, we hear John's reflection and theological interpretation of that baptism. Finally, this week, back in Matthew, we are told that Jesus, upon hearing that John had been arrested, withdrew from Judea and went back north to Galilee, making his home in Capernaum. For that middle week, instead of giving us the intervening verses at the beginning of Matthew 4, when Jesus is led into the wilderness and tempted, a passage which we'll hear at the beginning of Lent, they jump over to John's account as if to continue the story in a way that Matthew didn't intend it to be continued.

This drive for continuity becomes itself a disruption. We heard yesterday in John 1 how Andrew and Simon came to Jesus after hearing John the Baptist identify Jesus as the Lamb of God. But this coming Sunday, we'll hear a conflicting account of the disciples' call: "As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen..." Which one is it?

Actually, I think the lectionary has given us a gift in this discontinuous succession of gospel passages. We should not be drawn into them as an opportunity to solve the problem of two conflicting accounts, discerning which author got it historically correct. Instead, we should ask how these two accounts, in their own distinct ways, present to us the good news of Jesus. What does John the Baptist's identification of Jesus as the Lamb of God tell us about discipleship? How is the calling of fishermen from the midst of their work a different expression of discipleship? How is it the same thing?

I might even back up earlier than that to start the comparison. Although Matthew does not show us that Andrew was one of John's disciples, he does show us that the calling of these disciples--and the inauguration of Jesus' ministry--is directly related to John: "When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee." John's ministry is drawing to a close, and Jesus' is just beginning. That's true in both accounts. In some ways, Matthew goes even further to show continuity between Jesus and John in that, as soon as Jesus opens his mouth, having represented God's light coming to people who sat in darkness, he declares, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near."

Back to the calling of the disciples. This Sunday, as I prepare to preach, I'm drawn to the exchange between Jesus and the fishermen. It would be a mistake to try to fit this account and John's account together--to somehow suggest that Andrew and Simon had a transformative experience with Jesus but went back to fishing and had to be called a second time. Instead, I want to know more about how the message that John the Baptist had delivered--a call to repentance--had been picked up by Jesus in a way that was as attractive for potential disciples in Galilee as it had been for John's disciples in Judea. These disciples drop everything to follow the one who is calling God's people to repent because God's reign has come near. I want to understand how Jesus' work isn't a break from the work of John or even a completion of it but a straight-line continuation. I'm sure that there's a lesson there for those of us who preach the good news of Jesus today.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Change of Plans

In Isaiah 49:1-7, we hear God's chosen servant experience a crisis of vocation: "The Lord called me before I was born...He said to me, 'You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.' But I said, 'I have labored in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity." Whoever it is whom God has chosen and called to a lifetime of work--be it a particular person or the entire nation of Israel--that figure has reached a moment when the work has proven utterly fruitless. From before the servant was born, God has called him to have a sword-like mouth and an arrow-like identity. He was to speak clearly and sharply and divisively. He was to proclaim the sharpness of God's word with deadly precision. But the result has been empty. He has nothing to show for it.

Still, though, the servant has faith and hope--perhaps not in his own ability but in God's ability despite the servant's own failures: "...yet surely my cause is with the Lord, and my reward with my God." The prophet-figure knows that he has been faithful, offering his life to God and putting his trust in God. The servant's crisis, therefore, is not endless or bottomless. It is just a good old-fashioned recognition of failure. But the prophet is willing to look beyond it and search for God on the other side of that failure.

In that openness, the servant discovers a change in plan: "And now the Lord says, who formed me in the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him...'It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.'" In other words, if your intended audience did not respond to your message, perhaps it's because you're not thinking big enough. Like a product launch that didn't take off because the target market wasn't big enough, the servant is told by God to expand his ministry beyond the original plan.

Be clear that this is not a proclamation that Jacob and Israel will be left behind. In the very next sentence, God is identified as "the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One." This isn't God pivoting from one audience to another. It is a recognition that the real fruit of this prophet's ministry can only be realized when the power of God's salvation is carried through the covenant people of Israel to the ends of the earth. Then, "kings shall see and stand up; princes, and they will prostrate themselves." And why will the peoples and nations of the earth take notice? "Because of the Lord, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you."

God's work of salvation--the making right and just and good for all time of all things--is always bigger than we expect. In fact, God's universal saving work is so big that to attempt to limit it is to misunderstand it. "It is too small a thing...," the Lord declares to the servant. If those who are working on God's behalf cannot see beyond the task in front of them, if they cannot recognize that their ministry is part of something bigger and not only an end in itself, then the ministry cannot be fruitful.

What an important reminder for today's church! The work in front of us is critical. It is our family, our congregation, our program, our ministry. It is our community and those we interact with on a regular basis. All of that is good and right, but it is forever part of something much, much bigger. If the work of growing the reign of God and making disciples for Jesus in your setting is a struggle, maybe it's because that work has lost touch with God's universal work. Maybe God has a change of plans in store for you and your work. It is too small a thing that the work of the gospel be limited in any way. People are hungry for something bigger than another place to spend a few hours on a Sunday morning. They want their own personal, tangible participation to contribute to the wider work of the world's transformation. It may start small, but it is too small a thing for it to stop there.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Important Setup

This Sunday's gospel lesson (John 1:29-42) feels like a letdown. Last week, we heard Matthew's dramatic account of Jesus' baptism in the Jordan. We saw what he saw--the heavens opened and the Spirit descending and alighting on him like a dove. We heard the voice proclaim that Jesus is God's Son, the Beloved, with whom God is well pleased. And, this week, John the gospel-writer gives his version of the same encounter not as a powerful narrative but as an explanatory recollection. It almost feels like a yada-yada moment. But this week's passage is pivotal in its own way.

"Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" John the baptizer proclaims. Twice in this passage, John identifies Jesus as God's Lamb. That may not be as interesting as God's own voice thundering from heaven and proclaiming Jesus as God's beloved Son, but, as John's way of introducing Jesus, it's critical. Flip ahead in John's gospel account and see what comes in the next few chapters.

In chapter 2, Jesus turns water into wine. We recognize that this isn't just a party trick but a sign of the messianic wedding banquet between God and God's people enacted in the person of Jesus. Later in chapter 2, Jesus chases the money-changers out of the temple precincts, essentially bringing the mechanics of worship to a halt. In chapter 3, Jesus meets Nicodemus, a religious leader among his people, and explains to him that his own ministry is to bring everlasting life to God's people. Then, in chapter 4, Jesus has a surprising if not shocking encounter with a Samaritan woman, which results in the woman identifying Jesus as messiah and her entire village hearing and believing the good news. That boundary-pushing behavior continues throughout John's gospel account.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus operates outside the dominant religious expectations of his time. He doesn't reveal God to God's people through a temple-focused ministry or through typical political processes. He challenges those in positions of power as a prophet would. And, in order to be recognized as a God-sent prophet instead of a godless radical, one needs an introduction like the one John the Baptist gives to Jesus: "Here is the Lamb of God! This is the one I've been talking about. This is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. I declare to you that this is God's Son." Not surprisingly, the temple leaders reject Jesus' prophetic action in the interruption of worship at the temple. The Baptizer engages in a conversation with his own disciples who question his identification of Jesus as the messianic bridegroom. For us, then, the question is how we will receive Jesus' signs--the actions that he undertakes as God's anointed one.

There's always a tension in the gospel between those who recognize Jesus for who he really is (God's Son) and those who reject him as a messianic pretender (usually religious leaders). Often, the disciples are portrayed as halfway understanding. This Sunday's gospel lesson seems to lay the question again at our feet. John the Baptist tells us that Jesus is the one of whom he has been speaking--the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. For the rest of the season after the Epiphany, we'll see other signs of who Jesus is. Whether we interpret them as indications of his heaven-sent identity or as evidence that he's an up-to-no-good trouble-maker depends on how we receive John's words. Will we recognize in Jesus the Lamb of God who takes away the world's sins?

Monday, January 13, 2020

In The Water With Sinners

January 12, 2020 – Epiphany 1A: The Baptism of Our Lord

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

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

Why would anyone want to hear a sermon about sin? We don’t come to church because we like feeling bad about ourselves. And we resent it when a preacher makes a living telling people how terrible they are in order to keep them coming back to fill the pews and the offering plates. But, in many cases, it seems to work. Why?

Two months ago, when I served on staff for the Happening weekend for youth from across our diocese that was held here in town, I came to St. Paul’s for the first part of Sunday morning, but, as soon as Sunday school was over, I got in my car and drove across town to rejoin those who were taking part in Happening. I don’t often get to drive around town on Sunday morning, but, when I drove past one of those big evangelical churches in our community—one of the congregations that is known for talking a lot about sin—I saw that the parking lot was packed. Why?

Two thousand years ago, a zealous preacher stepped away from the religious establishment and went out into the wilderness where he preached day after day about sin and the need for repentance. Instead of pointing their fingers and laughing at him or shaking their heads in disapproval, great throngs of people left the cities and villages, where the established synagogues were, to go out and hear the prophet’s message and be baptized by him in the Jordan River. In other words, they rushed out into the wilderness to embrace his preaching about sin. Why?

When Jesus of Nazareth began his earthly ministry, he started right there, among John’s followers. He left his home up north in Galilee and went all the way down south to Judea and out into the wild, where he sought baptism by John. All four gospel accounts locate the start of Jesus’ work right here, in this encounter between Jesus and John. It seems clear that Jesus, in one way or another, understood his ministry to be a continuation of John’s work—that, before he could take up his own mantle, Jesus had to begin with John’s proclamation of sin and repentance. Why?

Why was Jesus, the one who ate with sinners and welcomed outcasts, attracted to John’s preaching? And why would Jesus seek baptism by John? John preached a message of repentance. When he dunked you under the surface of the River Jordan, it was to symbolize the washing away of your sin. When you came up out of the water, it was the start of a new relationship with God. Baptism by John meant leaving behind your old ways of wickedness and embracing the new life of belonging to God. But Jesus didn’t need any of that. Jesus was God’s Son—perfect man yet perfect God. He was without sin. His will and God’s will were forever unified. In that sense, he didn’t belong there. John’s objection makes that clear to us: “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Yet there in the River Jordan is where Jesus got his start. There, in the same water with all the sinners, Jesus sought the new life of God’s great reign on earth. Why? Because Jesus knew that, if you want to find the power of God breaking into this world, you’ll find it wherever sinners go to seek redemption.

John wasn’t preaching a guilt-ridden message of sin and shame. He was inviting broken people who had lost their place in the religious establishment to return to God’s fold by forsaking their sin and embracing the hope of a new life with God. I trust that’s what the evangelical churches around us whose parking lots are full and whose ministry in the community is growing are doing, too. It’s not complicated. It’s grace. The liberating truth of the gospel is that God shows up amidst those whose lives aren’t perfect whenever and wherever they start to look for God. I think that’s what Jesus meant when he said to John, “It is proper in this way for us to fulfill all righteousness.” The fulfillment or completion of all righteousness is the making right of all the broken relationships between God and God’s people. That can’t happen until all people—even the most isolated sinner—is invited to repent, to turn around, and to return to God.

Jesus didn’t need to be baptized by John in order to become God’s beloved Son. He didn’t need to forsake his sins before God would look down upon him and declare, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” But he needed to be baptized alongside all of us in order that we might see where God is to be found. For all of human history, people have looked for God in the lofty places where the angels sing, in the holiest shrines, and amidst the best and holiest people among us. But, when Jesus came to show us where God is to be found, he started in the river with a bunch of sinners. He wanted us to know that God has come among us—not among the saints who presume to have merited an audience with God but among the sinners whose humble search for a fresh start is where God’s power and love and presence shine through.

Today, we come to this church, to this font, to this water seeking again a fresh start. We come not as perfect people whose holiness has gained us access to God’s presence but as sinful people who are made holy because God has shown up right here among us. Today, we baptize three new saints of God—children of God whom God makes holy—into the fellowship of those who believe that this is where God is to be found. We believe that God is revealed not when good and holy people get together to impress God but when broken and imperfect people get together to look for God’s presence among them as they seek together a new life with God.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Alright, Steve

Yesterday, I wrote about the phrase in this Sunday's gospel lesson (Matthew 3:13-17) that I found most interesting: "to fulfill all righteousness." After making a humorous and snarky comment about my appeal to the CEV despite almost derailing his attempt to get the CEV added to The Episcopal Church's list of approved translations for public worship when I added the less-popular ESV to his 2012? General Convention resolution, my friend and colleague Steve Pankey noted that he's focused on a different phrase in the same passage: "well beloved." I hadn't thought as much about it, but, now that he's mentioned it, I can't stop thinking about it either, and I have a Sunday sermon to finish, so here goes.

When Jesus comes up from the waters of his baptism, Matthew tells us that he (and it was just him, it seems) "saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him." Then, Matthew recalls, a voice from heaven spoke (and we're not sure who heard it) and declared, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased." Although without any exegesis, the sentiment expressed in that phrase sounds both like something any child would want to hear from a parent and like the kind of thing only a twelfth-grade English teacher or a British royal would say to a child. Parent: "Child, with you I am well pleased." Child: "Thanks, I think."

But, as soon as I mention the antiquated nature of that phrase "well pleased," I must admit that there aren't many alternatives. The CEV isn't terrible--"This is my own dear Son, and I am pleased with him."--but it isn't great either. The Message is even worse--"This is my Son, chosen and marked by my love, delight of my life." I think the sentiment is expressed more clearly--more parentally, if that makes sense--but it seems to have lost the nature of divine speech. Although God is speaking about God's Son, it's still God who is speaking. Even worse than that is the CEB--"This is my Son whom I dearly love; I find happiness in him." Actually, that might be a reasonable rendering of the Greek, but it seems so shallow. How can happiness convey a real sense of delight that this pivotal moment in Jesus' life and in Jesus' relationship with God the Father must convey? There's a reason that the NRSV, ASV, ESV, NIV, GNV, MEV, KJV, NASB, and WEB all use "well pleased." Why mess with a good thing?

What does the Greek say? As my friend has surely seen, the word translated as "well pleased" is εὐδόκησα, which is a first-person aorist active indicative singular form of the verb that means "to seem good" or "to take delight in" or "to be favorably inclined towards." In other words, God declares, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with/in/by whom I am well pleased." It is, pretty much, what the majority of translations say it is--well pleased. Still, I may not have a better way of saying it, but speaking around it, describing it, and repeating it have value because, as Steve's focus on this phrase suggests, how we understand what this means has significant implications not only for Jesus' relationship with God but also our relationship with God.

The Greek word comes from the roots that mean "good" (eu) and "to think/seem" (dokeo). In other words, we might say that God looks at Jesus and says, "Seems good to me!" It is, at its core, a statement of approval. There is a sense of assessment coupled with the sense of joy. It isn't merely a parent enjoying time with a child--"This is fun! You make me happy!" It's also a sense of declaring something good--"I am well pleased with you because you have made me proud." Although this is fairly depicted as a tender father-son moment, it's a mistake to over anthropomorphize God's statement. The Greek text doesn't give us a God who is "joyful" (χαρά) but a God who esteems positively Jesus, the Son of God. That might sound limiting and detached, but I mean it as something far richer than the moment of happiness that the CEB would give us. This is a statement of lasting approval, of divine affirmation. The term "well pleased" implies a sense of anthropomorphized pleasure, but the root is still clearly divine speech--to think good.

What does this mean for Sunday? I'm not sure yet. It may mean that I'm rewriting a sermon. (Thanks, Steve.) But, more importantly, I think it may mean that the waters of baptism are the means by which righteousness is fulfilled so that God might esteem us as good, too. We'll see what comes together in the next few days. And thanks, Steve, for bringing me back to the text in a fuller way. I'm always grateful for your partnership and friendship.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Fulfill All Righteousness

I've spent some time this week examining the phrase "fulfill all righteousness" that is found in Sunday's gospel lesson (Matthew 3:13-17). By itself, it's a funny phrase--what does it even mean?--but in the context of Jesus' baptism and the exchange he has with John the Baptizer, it seems even stranger. Here's what I mean.

Jesus comes to John in order to be baptized. But wait! Why would Jesus need to be baptized? John's baptism is a baptism of repentance. It's for people who want to return to God and belong to God by looking for the one who is to come and restore all things. The people who came to him were, above all else, confessing their sins (Matt. 3:6). In fact, when the Pharisees and Sadducees came out, John rebuked them, and, although it isn't perfectly clear from the text, it seems likely that John perceived that these religious leaders, who were presumed by themselves and others to be righteous, were not coming to forsake their sins. All together, it seems clear that John's baptism is about repentance and confession. Jesus, of course, doesn't need to confess any sins. He doesn't need repentance. Why would he be baptized?

John objects: "I need to be baptized by you." Matthew is the only gospel writer who recalls John's objection. He's the only one who felt it necessary to record John's hesitation. Matthew seems to be answering the presumed conundrum by addressing it through the objection and Jesus' reply. Why would Jesus need to be baptized? John didn't think so either. But Jesus had something in particular in mind.

Jesus responds, "Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness." When John hears Jesus' explanation, he consents. It seems like there is something in Jesus' words about fulfilling all righteousness that helps John understand why Jesus would need to (or choose to) be baptized. But what in the world does "fulfill all righteousness" mean and why did that answer John's (and our) questions about why Jesus would be baptized?

Let's start with the Greek: Ἄφες ἄρτι, οὕτως γὰρ πρέπον ἐστὶν ἡμῖν πληρῶσαι πᾶσαν δικαιοσύνην. If you break down the words, you find that there's no way to argue against the traditional English translation: fulfill all righteousness. The whole sentence literally reads, "You let at present this; for behooving it is to us to make full collectively all justice/righteousness." I translate the last word as "justice/righteousness" because the word "righteousness" has become a jargony term that religious people like me throw around without really knowing what we're saying. The key words in question mean exactly "to fill up all righteousness," and it's hard to argue with typical translations. But, as much as I prefer a hyper-literal translation for biblical study, I think in this case a relaxed approach that interprets those words can help.

Almost all mainstream English translations (NIV, NRSV, ESV, RSV, KJV, CEB, WEB) give us "fulfill all righteousness." As I've said, you can't argue with it. But what does that mean? A few paraphrases or even looser than thought-for-thought translations shed some light on it. The Message (woe to the one who uses only the Message!) renders that sentence as "Do it. God’s work, putting things right all these centuries, is coming together right now in this baptism." Clearly, that's not an attempt to translate the text. There's no mention of centuries or time in the Greek text, but Peterson understands "all" to mean "for all time" or "all these centuries." More importantly, though, I think "God's work, putting things right" is a fair (but loose) rendering of "righteousness. Similarly, the CEV, which I like because it tries to take out all the religious jargon, has it as "For now this is how it should be, because we must do all that God wants us to do." In some ways, that is an even less accurate paraphrase than the Message, but it attempts to convey the same point: fulfilling all righteousness is about doing/accomplishing all that God wants us to do. But, in a broader sense, I think the CEV has open up a new possibility for my interpretation that's faithful to the Greek text and that addresses the question of why Jesus would be baptized.

Here's what I get from that. I've always understood John's objection and Jesus' reply as a conversation focused specifically and exclusively on Jesus' baptism--that somehow the act of Jesus being baptized is itself the fulfillment of all righteousness--the completion of God's perfect plan. But is that what the text means? Perhaps Jesus is simply saying, "It's right for all people like us to be part of the completion of God's work of making all things right." In other words, Jesus' baptism isn't the moment when all righteousness is fulfilled but another moment--another sign, act, gesture--that models for us what it means to do all that we're supposed to do. Sometimes the act itself is important not because of what it accomplishes but because of what it means for someone to have done it.

This Sunday, we'll hear the story of Jesus' baptism. Matthew seems to want us to ask the question why--or at least acknowledge it. But the answer he gives isn't necessarily found in a theological explanation of Jesus' baptism. Instead, it might be an example of discipleship--of faithful obedience for followers of Jesus. It is right for us to fulfill all righteousness. Who can argue with that?

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

A Different Heavenly Vision

This Sunday is the First Sunday after the Epiphany, when we celebrate the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan. It's a big moment in the life of the church. Those in the East celebrate this as Theophany--the revelation to the world of God as Father, Son, and Spirit. Even after Christmas and Epiphany, it's hard to overstate it. But, tucked away in this Sunday's readings, is the lesson from Acts, which by itself is a powerful summary of the gospel but, when expanded to the surrounding text, shows the effects of another moment when God reveals God's plan of salvation to the world.

Unexplained pronouns are always an invitation to search the wider passage of scripture, and the start of this reading from Acts 10 begs for that: "Peter began to speak to them, 'I truly understand that God shows no partiality...'" Who are the "them" to whom Peter is speaking? Given the number of speeches that are made in Acts, it could be any number of audiences, but a quick look at the beginning of chapter 10 reveals that this is part of Peter's interaction with Cornelius, the faithful Roman soldier. As a quick reminder, in this episode, God offers two temporally and thematically coordinated visions. First, Cornelius, a Gentile who is known to be kind to the Jewish people and who is labeled as a God-fearer, has a vision while praying. God's messenger (angel) speaks to him and says, "Send to Joppa for a man named Simon," and Cornelius obeys. The next day, as Cornelius' dispatch approaches Peter's house, Peter has a vision of a sheet being lowered to the earth with all kinds of unclean (not kosher) animals and hears a voice telling him to rise, kill, and eat. Initially, Peter refuses, but God's voice corrects him, saying, "Do not call anything I have made unclean."

By the time we pick up with Peter's speech, the reader and the characters involved can see how God is pulling everything together. Peter has gone with the dispatch back to Cornelius' house. They have exchanged pleasantries and confirmed each other's parallel visions. And now Peter makes theological sense of what has happened with his words: "[Now] I truly understand that God shows no partiality." This is, perhaps, Luke's version of the story of the magi--an epiphany of God's salvation to all peoples. It may not use a star and some astrologers from far away, but it relies on a heavenly vision (actually two) of no small consequence. The work of faith is to be obedient to them and to interpret them, as Peter does, in the larger narrative of salvation history.

I am preaching this week, and we will celebrate three baptisms in our parish, so I look forward to preaching on Matthew, but I don't want to leave this powerful story of epiphany behind. Peter was surprised at what he discovered--that God would use explicitly forbidden means (the command to eat unclean food) to show the limitlessness of God's saving love. The law is good because it reminds the people under the law that they belong to God, but what about those people not under the law? How will God bring them into God's gracious covenant? The story of the wise men, the story of Cornelius and Peter, the story of Paul and the Damascus Road, and so many more in both the Old and New Testament are stories that show us God is always pushing the boundaries of who is included in God's plan of salvation. Will we have the Spirit-inspired faith to interpret those signs in our own day?

Monday, January 6, 2020

God Of The Stars

Last night at sunset, our parish gathered to welcome the feast of the Epiphany by saying farewell to the twelve days of Christmas with a bonfire of our trees and wreaths and garland. After a prayer, we stood in awe of the flames that licked the sky before heading inside for chili and cornbread and fellowship across generations. Later on, when I walked out of the house with some friends, we noticed a bright light, hanging in the sky, shining down upon us. It was Venus, we confirmed, and not a star, but, as we walked the dimly lit gravel driveway, several of us stumbled over the uneven terrain because we were still looking up in awe at the heavenly lights.

For as long as human beings have been on this planet, we have stared up at the stars in wonder, and we have gathered around fire in admiration. They are useful and powerful, manageable yet untamable. The God of Abraham made covenant with our spiritual ancestor by appearing as a smoking firepot that processed through a corridor of sacrifice and promised to Abram that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars of heaven in Genesis 15. Today, as we celebrate the Epiphany, we recall how the same God who made Godself known in specific ways to specific people as the one true God would not let that particularity be the end of the story. Instead, the God of all creation revealed the birth of Jesus through the astrological charts of some pagan stargazers, bringing them all the way to Bethlehem.

They couldn't have gotten there on their own. As we read in Matthew 2, the wise men from the East saw a star at its rising and interpreted it as a sign that the king of the Jews would be born. But where would they find him? Perhaps they knew to go to the capital city, or, as the story suggest, perhaps the star itself somehow led them. When they arrive in Jerusalem, where a sort-of Jewish king was already enthroned in mock-political, Roman-invested authority, they ask Herod for help: "Where is the child who has been born the king of the Jews?" Herod then consults the prophets, who report that the king is to be born in Bethlehem, the city of David, and sends the wise men off, asking them to return and report.

The star led them to the place where the child was. Does that mean that the sign persisted until the moment when they arrived in the village? Did the star somehow point the way physically? Were the astrological charts somehow effective in helping them find a specific address? No one in Bethlehem, except, perhaps if you mix in Luke's story, some shepherds, knew anything about a king being born. If you showed up as a tourist and asked to see the king's house, they'd probably take you to the ancestral home of David, where you could buy a t-shirt and a postcard. However it worked, we know that the magi had help finding Jesus.

And what did the wise men come to see? Were they expecting the family they visited to identify as royalty? They knelt and paid the child-king homage, opening and presenting gifts, perhaps an attempt to solidify a future alliance between their peoples. It must have been a ridiculous sight, for these foreigners to come and make such a fuss about a child whom no one knew about. Yet God brought them there. When they left, did they know what they had seen? Did they convert to Christianity (anachronism, I know)? Did they become children of the God of Abraham? Or is Epiphany just a sign for us generations later that God's good news is intended for all people.

God announced the birth of a savior in cosmic communication--a message that could be interpreted across ethnic, cultural, and religious boundaries. God used the movement of the planets and stars to declare Jesus' arrival. It makes me wonder whether God waited until Jupiter was in a particular part of the sky to send Jesus to the earth. It makes me wonder how the pagan, godless signs might actually be reflections of God's presence in creation.

Today, we proclaim that our God is the God of all people and wills for all people to know God's saving love. Today, we offer ourselves into the work of helping people find that truth about God--that the God we know is not confined to our understanding yet our understanding of God leads us to share knowledge of God as good news for the whole world.