Wednesday, April 29, 2020

For You Are With Me

This Sunday is "Good Shepherd Sunday," which, although properly known as the Fourth Sunday of Easter, has earned that nickname because every year on this Sunday we read a passage from John 10, pray a collect that identifies Jesus as "the good shepherd of [God's] people," and recite the words of Psalm 23. I haven't decided yet whether I will preach on the gospel lesson or Acts 2, which for me is the far more interesting though more limited passage, but I am fairly sure I won't preach on the psalm. Still, the psalm has something to say to me today, and I wonder whether you might find particular comfort in its words today.

Of all the psalms, the one people are most likely to know by heart is Psalm 23: "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want." The number of people who can recite it from memory is surely shrinking, but for many those words still have powerful meaning because of their connotation. Think of the moments in your life--other than Good Shepherd Sunday--when you've heard them. We say it at the bedsides of sick or dying loved ones. We say it at funerals or graveside services. We hear parents or grandparents reciting those sacred words in moments of quiet prayer. Of all the psalms--all 150 of them--why is Psalm 23 so special?

I often hear preachers and religious folks speaking of Jesus as the one who helps us understand that God is with us in the toughest moments of our life. Theologians declare the cross as the sign that God is with us in our own darkest moments, even arguing that God suffers and dies with us. I think it's strange that Christians think of Jesus as the one who made that revelation clear when, for at least several hundred years before that, God's people had been saying the words of Psalm 23.

The Lord is my shepherd; [therefore] I shall not be in want. God is the one who leads me into the green pastures of prosperity, security, and abundant life. Even when I come close to death, God is with me and comforts me with the power of God's protection. In the face of those who wish to do me harm, God sets out an overflowing banquet and showers me with God's blessing. God's promise to abide with me and hold me close to God is true all the days of my life and even forever.

Sound familiar? It sounds like the heart of Christian theology, which is to say that Jesus' self-identification as well as the understanding we gain from the gospel grow out of the Jewish tradition. There is nothing new or strange to us about God abiding with us as a shepherd cares for a flock of sheep. There are, of course, unique proclamations in the Christian faith, including the cross as the means by which God extends that covenant love and protection to all the peoples of the earth, but the God of David is the God of Jesus is the God of our faith.

We pray the words of Psalm 23 in the most vulnerable moments of our lives, including when our life or the life of someone we love is coming to an end. God is with us even in death. That has always been true. It's still true in a time of incredible uncertainty. Although I live in a community in which COVID-19 has affected remarkably and thankfully few people, in other places, there are bodies stacking up in refrigerator trucks, which line the valley of the shadow of death. Although I still have a job and the income it provides, so many in this community, throughout our country, and across the world are facing hardship I cannot imagine--a bare table and resources that have run dry. What does Psalm 23 say to those places and those households? Surely it is a reminder that God is with us in our most vulnerable moments. Even if God's protection does not protect us from physical death, God is the one who shepherds us through this life and beyond with a love and protection that death itself cannot defeat. That is who God has always been and the one on whom we always depend.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Pass The Rolls, Jesus

April 26, 2020 – Easter 3A

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the service can be seen here. (Sermon starts around 23:35.)

For the third Sunday in a row, we hear a story about Easter Day—the day when Jesus was raised from the dead. The first two were from John’s gospel account, and they convey a very different kind of Easter than the one that Luke tells us about today.

You remember John’s version. Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been rolled away. She ran and found Peter and the other disciple, who raced to the tomb and saw that Jesus’ body was missing. After they had left, Mary bent down to look into the tomb and saw a vision of angels who asked why she was weeping. When she stood up and turned around, she saw Jesus but thought he was the gardener. Then, in moment of deep personal connection, Jesus spoke Mary’s name, and, in that instant, the fullness of the Easter miracle was conveyed to her by the one who spoke her name. That’s the story we heard two weeks ago on Easter Day.

Last Sunday, we heard the second half of John’s Easter story. Later that same day, despite what they had seen and heard, the disciples were hiding behind locked doors because they were afraid of the religious authorities. The risen Jesus, able to pass through those locked doors, came among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Before any of them was able to panic at the sight of what could have been mistaken for a ghost, Jesus announced himself to them. John tells us that he showed them his hands and his side as proof that the crucified one had been raised from the dead. That gospel lesson then picks up a week later, when, unlike the first time, Thomas was with the disciples behind those locked doors. Again, Jesus passed through the walls, announced his presence by offering them his peace, and presented his hands and his side as proof for any who would doubt the miracle of the resurrection. As the encounter ends, we hear Jesus say to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

This week, Luke tells us the same basic story—the moment when Jesus revealed himself to his followers and made the truth of Easter real in their hearts—but, unlike John, Luke seems determined to share that moment not as a deeply personal revelation or a dramatic presentation of the evidence but as a fleeting moment that vanishes as quickly as it is discovered and that could have been missed altogether had the disciples not been paying attention.

In Luke’s gospel account, the miracle of Easter takes time to unfold. As with the other three accounts, it is the women who came to the tomb and found it empty, but unlike those other versions, Luke’s Jesus did not reveal himself to the women. Instead, they encountered only the angels, who explained that Jesus had been raised from the dead, just as he had told them before he died. After this, they went and found the male disciples and told them what they had seen and heard, but the eleven dismissed their words as an idle tale. Peter ran to see it for himself, and, although Luke tells us that he was amazed, his gospel account makes it clear that the mere sight of the empty tomb was not enough for Peter or the other men to believe. After all, if Jesus really were alive, why didn’t he come and find the disciples? Why didn’t he show himself to them and put all their doubts to rest?

That’s because, for Luke, the miracle of Easter doesn’t reveal itself by walking through walls or speaking your name, nor is it confirmed by seeing the mark of the nails or the wound in his side. Instead, it takes a seven-mile journey from Jerusalem to a village called Emmaus and a simple evening meal before the truth becomes clear.

In Luke’s telling of the Easter story, it feels like the gospel writer goes out of his way to demonstrate all the possible vehicles of revelation that didn’t work. An empty tomb, a missing body, a vision of angels, the remembrance of Jesus’ prediction—none of that made the truth real. When Jesus came alongside the disciples who were walking down the road to Emmaus, they didn’t recognize him. “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place these last few days?” they ask him, but Luke wants us to see that they are the ones who do not know what has really happened.

When Jesus called them fools and showed them how slow they had been to believe all that the prophets had declared, still they did not know him. When he opened the scriptures to them, revealing how Moses and the prophets had shown that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and die before entering into his glory, their hearts burned within them, but still they did not see who was speaking to them. When they urged him strongly to stay with them that night because the day was almost over, they did not know whom they were inviting to be their guest. But, when he sat down at the table with them, took a loaf of bread, offered a traditional blessing, broke it into pieces, and gave it to them, their eyes were opened, and they recognized him, and he vanished from their sight.

The Eucharistic image of that moment is as clear to us as it was to them. The two disciples got up and ran the seven miles back to Jerusalem to find the eleven and their companions and tell them what had happened. When they did, they explained not only what had taken place on the road but also how Jesus had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread. That was a central part of their testimony—not simply that they had seen Jesus but that the risen Jesus had been revealed to them—had been disclosed to them—in the breaking of the bread.

We know that Luke had in mind the act of worship that has become central to the Christian tradition, but what did he understand by the breaking of the bread? What symbolic gesture would those two disciples have recognized when Jesus picked up a loaf and broke it open for them? And, fifty years later, when this story had become an integral part of the Easter narrative, in what ways had that Eucharistic gesture become pregnant with meaning so that the early Christians could discern within it the manifestation of the resurrected Jesus?

When we peer back through two thousand years of tradition and behold Jesus’ actions at that dinner table, we cannot help but see him perform the prescribed four-fold Eucharistic action of taking, blessing, breaking, and giving the bread. But surely that isn’t why those two disciples recognized Jesus in their midst. In that moment, just three days after Jesus had first told his apostles to share the bread and cup in his name, they couldn’t have recognized him in that liturgical gesture. And, even fifty years later, decades after the Eucharistic meal of bread and wine had become a weekly act for the Christian community, when Luke was sharing this story as the moment when the risen Lord was revealed to his disciples, it was not a medieval understanding of Christ’s presence in the consecrated elements of bread and wine that made him real to Jesus’ followers. Instead, it was the very thing that first held the Christian community together that made him known—a simple, ordinary meal that had been made extraordinary because Jesus himself had once shared it with them.

As Luke understood it, the risen Jesus came to his disciples not in a grand performance or in a ritualized celebration but in something as plain and common as passing a basket of fresh, hot rolls down the table. It wasn’t by saying their name. It wasn’t by appearing in dramatic fashion. It wasn’t by offering the proof of his wounded hands and side. It wasn’t by explaining the scriptures to them. For Cleopas and the other disciple, Jesus was made known to them in something that they would have done whether Jesus was sitting with them at the table or not. What transformed that ordinary act into an encounter with the risen Jesus is the same thing that made the breaking of bread the central act of Christian worship—Jesus is present when simple things become sacred.

In this time of physical distancing, when we are not able to come to church and break bread together, we must look for Jesus’ presence where the disciples first found it—not in a service of Holy Communion but in a simple evening meal. I don’t mean that breaking bread at the dinner table is the same thing as sharing the Eucharist, but I do mean that, if we’re waiting on the doors of our churches to be opened before we start looking for the presence of Christ in our midst, we will have missed the one who is sitting at the table with us. If this season teaches us to look for Jesus in ordinary moments that are made holy by his presence in them, then, when we are able to come back together, we will have rediscovered the most important truth about the Eucharistic feast. Then, all of this waiting and longing will not have been for nothing.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Peter and the Crowd

I've missed writing on a regular basis. That wasn't easy before the pandemic, and it's gotten even harder. This morning, I'd like to offer a reflection on the first reading for this coming Sunday--Acts 2:14a, 22-32--and, more generally, on the theme of anti-Judaism that comes up a lot during this time of the year.

Last week, a Jewish synagogue in Huntsville, Alabama, near where I lived a few years ago, was vandalized with ethnic slurs and other neo-Nazi hate speech. The terrible, ungodly action took place on the first night of Passover and in the middle of the Christian Holy Week. That timing, of course, was not coincidental. This is the time of the year when Christians recite the biblical account of Jesus' arrest, mock-trial, condemnation, torture, and death. The biblical account, written in its present form after Christians and Jews had become distinct and, in some cases, rival traditions, frequently identifies the opponents of Jesus as "the Jews." Of course, Jesus was Jewish, and his disciples were Jewish, so it doesn't make any sense to think of all Jews as being opposed to Jesus, but the choice of words in the biblical account fuels such sentiments.

In fact, the historical account--biblical and otherwise--makes it clear that Jesus was executed by the Roman authorities using a distinctly Roman form of punishment reserved for runaway slaves and insurrectionists who dared threaten the rule of the Empire. To the extent that anyone who was Jewish was responsible for Jesus' death, it can only fall upon the religious and political leaders who, in an attempt to preserve their power, handed Jesus over to them in order to appease the wrath of the Empire. That may be a decision worthy of criticism and condemnation, but the gospel makes it clear that Jesus was widely supported by the Jews of his day even if he frequently ran afoul of some particular Jewish groups like the Pharisees, scribes, teachers, and Council.

Now to Sunday's reading from Acts, in which Peter addresses the Jewish crowd and lambasts them for ignoring Jesus' "deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him." How do we hear those words in our churches today AND stand up against those who would spray paint swastikas on the sides of Jewish synagogues? We must recognize that Peter's criticism of the crowd is not a criticism of their religion but a criticism of those individuals' failure to recognize the surprising, tradition-stretching work that God was doing through Jesus. In other words, we must recognize Peter's criticism of us in that same speech.

How different do Peter's words sound if you identify yourself not with Peter and the disciples who stood with him but with those who were the recipients of his polemic? To what extent have you, despite identifying as a follower of Jesus, ignored the deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God has done through God's chosen servants? When have you and your religious tradition failed to reflect the fullness of God's tradition-stretching work? When have you and your cultural ancestors stood on the wrong side of history and found it easier to hand over for crucifixion the prophets of suffrage, integration, inclusion, and economic reform? If, in the first century, Peter was speaking to his fellow Israelites, then, in the twenty-first century, those words are intended for us--privileged, established, wealthy churchgoers like you and me.

I tend to shy away from those passages of the New Testament that are anti-Judaic. They so easily fuel hatred and bigotry and antisemitism. But that's not what the Holy Spirit is saying through them. Even if the human authors reflect a period in which those sentiments had infected the church, we know that the Holy Spirit does not breathe through them. In order to be faithful to the text and to the risen Christ, I must not ignore those texts, leaving them to the hate-mongering of anti-Semites, but write and teach and preach on them in ways that support the Spirit's work of correcting our collective misunderstanding of them. We need to hear Peter's speech again and afresh and the criticism it offers of us, not them.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

We Need Good News

April 12, 2020 – Easter Day, Year A

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

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

I’m ready for some good news.  I want it. I need it. And I don’t mean the kind of good news that pretends that things aren’t as bad as they seem—that it is fine for large congregations to gather on Easter Day. Neither do I mean the kind of good news that’s only good by comparison—like a death count that isn’t as high today as it was yesterday. I mean real, honest-to-goodness, so-good-it’ll-make-you-cry good news. And on this Easter Day, when we stand beside Mary Magdalene weeping outside the tomb, that good news comes and finds us.

Early in the morning, while it was still dark, Mary walked alone toward the tomb. As she approached, she looked up in the dim light and saw that the stone had been rolled away. Her heart sank. She knew the worst had happened. Not bothering to look in, she spun around and immediately ran to find Peter and the other disciple to tell them what she was sure to be true: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”

The two disciples got up and ran back to see for themselves what Mary had reported to them. When they got there, they stooped down to look in. They even went all the way into the tomb themselves. They saw on the floor the linen wrappings and the face cloth that had been on Jesus head. They believed what they saw—that the tomb was empty—but they still didn’t understand what had happened, so they went back home.

A little while later, Mary returned to the garden where the tomb was. She stood there, weeping—her tears now tears of a double-loss. First, her heart had broken at the death of Jesus, and, now that someone had stolen his body, she couldn’t even stand and weep near his corpse, gleaning what small shred of comfort she could by being near his body. In the midst of that grief and loss and distress, she bent down to look into the tomb, and, where the body had been, two angels were sitting there, dressed in white. “Why are you weeping?” they asked her. “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him,” she replied. Then, turning around, she saw a man whom she presumed to be the gardener. So sure was she that the worst had happened—so stuck was she in her grief—that she could not recognize the one who was speaking to her. “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” he asked her. Her response gave voice to the very best hope she had in that moment: “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” All Mary wanted was to find his body again. Even if he were dead, all she hoped for was to be close to him again.

“Mary!” Jesus said to her. “Rabbouni!” she replied.

That is the good news of Easter. That is why we celebrate this day—even if it’s from our homes, behind closed doors, cut off from family and friends. We celebrate because God has raised Jesus Christ from the dead. And that isn’t just good news for this moment but good news for all time. It’s not the good news that the worst has hit its peak. It’s not a slowing death rate or a decrease in unemployment. It isn’t baseball games being played in empty stadiums or college football starting back on time. It isn’t even a vaccine—though surely that would be a welcomed relief. We need the kind of good news that is more than just an improvement in our current situation. As desperate as this moment might seem, we need more than a solution to today’s problem. We need something that will give us life and hope and confidence today and tomorrow and the next day and the day after that no matter what happens. The good news we need is the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The resurrection matters. Easter matters. It matters because, when God raised Jesus from the dead, God changed everything for the better. Before Jesus spoke her name, Mary Magdalene was stuck in her struggle and loss and grief. The best she hoped for was a lead on where she might find Jesus’ body. But, into that hopeless moment, hope itself came and found her. “Mary!” Jesus said to her. “Rabbouni!” she said back to her Lord, and, in that moment, the very thing she feared the most was turned on its head.

The resurrection is more than a consolation prize. It’s bigger than a light at the end of the tunnel. In the resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has turned the darkness of our darkest tunnel into new and radiant light. It’s God exchanging the walls that hem us in for a newfound freedom from all that we fear. Although all of us would welcome even a little bit of good news, and the whole world is praying for an end to this pandemic, the truth is that we need even more than that. We need more than a cure for today’s illness. We need the antidote to death itself. We need to know that there is a God who loves us and who has the power to rescue us from whatever terrible trouble comes our way. We need the good news of Easter.

The real beauty and power of this day is that the good news we seek isn’t something we find but something that finds us. We don’t need to be able to see past tomorrow’s headlines in order to have hope. We don’t need to know how today’s struggle will end in order to believe that God will bring us through it. We have hope because of God’s great love for us. We have hope because, even when our eyes are full of tears, God’s resurrection power finds us. We have hope because God has met us in the very worst of our fears in order that those fears might be banished by the light of the resurrection. We have hope because, this day, Jesus lives.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Death Call

April 11, 2020 - Holy Saturday

When you die, someone will make a phone call. That's how it works these days. Whether you die at home or in the hospital or in a nursing home or in a hospice house, when you die, someone--a nurse, a hospice employee, a family member, or a friend--will pick up the phone and call a funeral home. They will make arrangements to come and collect your body and take it to their facility, where they will hold it and prepare it either for burial in a casket or for cremation. So removed are we from the physical processes that precede burial that I once made that call on behalf of a widower who, because couldn't stand the thought of seeing his beloved's dead body, refused to come back up to the hospital and make it himself. Of course, it hasn't always been that way.

Joseph of Arimathea, a respected and influential man, who loved Jesus from a distance, out of secret because of fear, came to the Roman Governor and asked for the body of the crucified Jesus. He and Nicodemus, who was a leader of his people and who had also come to Jesus in secret, carried the lifeless body to a place nearby where they could wash it and anoint it and wrap it with linen cloths before laying it in the tomb.

Their love for Jesus had been hidden, but now, in his hour of need, it shone forth in this ritual action. The weight of their devotion was felt physically in their hands and arms and backs as they carried the corpse away from the cross. The strange mixture of fragrant spices and sun-baked death hung in the air. Although not revealed during his life, their faith was clear in this labor of devotion. And, when it was finished, they placed his body in the tomb and rolled the stone into its place. There was nothing else to do.

Today, we live in that place of nothing else to do. We have done what we can, and now there is nothing. Some of us have followed Jesus with the kind of faith and action that people notice. Others have been quiet, perhaps even secret disciples. But, in the end, all of us reach that point at which what we can do is finished. All we can do is wait and hope.

How will you love Jesus in that place of doing nothing except waiting? Whenever we lose someone we love, part of what helps us get through the first few weeks is all the stuff that has to be done--funeral arrangements, family affairs, financial issues, insurance claims, returning medical equipment, paying bills. But then what? The quiet emptiness is hard. It's easier to have something in our hands--to express our love as an act of devotion. But what do we do when everything is finished? How do we love someone when there is nothing left to do? 

Friday, April 10, 2020

The Crucified King and God

April 10, 2020 – Good Friday

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

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

Pilate told them, “You take him and crucify him. I don’t find any grounds for a charge against him.” The Jewish leaders replied, “We have a Law, and according to this Law he ought to die because he made himself out to be God’s Son.” When Pilate heard this word, he was even more afraid.

On Good Friday, we encounter the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth as the punishment of both a king-pretender and a God-pretender. For Pilate and the Roman Empire on whose behalf the governor acted, Jesus was condemned as an insurrectionist—one who pretended to be the king of the Jews. Rome was a brutal occupier of first-century Palestine. Any who dared challenge the authority and might of the Empire was quickly put down. The titulus—the sign that hung above Jesus on the cross—identified in bitter irony the would-be king of the Jews, making that proclamation in Aramaic, Latin, and Greek to be sure that any who passed by and saw the condemned rebel would remember what Rome would do to those who would be king.

For the religious leaders who brought Jesus to the governor’s palace, their prisoner was condemned as a blasphemer—one who pretended to be the Son of God. According to the Law of Moses, there was only one punishment appropriate for someone who made himself out to be God, and that was death by stoning. But Rome had prohibited the Jewish authorities from executing anyone, so they appealed to the occupying power for the sentence of death by describing Jesus as one who sought to overthrow the Emperor, and in return the sentence was pronounced.

But, if that had been who Jesus really was—a failed rebel and a messianic pretender—we never would have heard about him. We wouldn’t be here today, celebrating the strange and horrible victory that God wins for us on the cross. Rome executed thousands of rebels and other notorious criminals by crucifying them, and almost none of them is still known by name. Throughout the millennia, religious leaders have put to death more heretics and blasphemers than we can count, and only a few of them are worth mentioning. If Jesus were just another leader of just another cause, the remembrance of his death might make a compelling story, but, other than some heart-warming entertainment for a time when compelling entertainment is scarce, what difference would his death make to us now? Yet, as his disciples, as the ones who celebrate Jesus as both our king and our God, we understand that death to be the very source of our life and the ultimate victory over all that plagues us.

That victory is uniquely possible because the one who died for us on the cross is exactly who the political and religious leaders of his day declared that he was not—both king and God. In the mythology of the ancient world, the death and resurrection of a divine or semi-divine figure like Osiris was not unusual. Such myths of death and rebirth were associated with the natural cycles of the world.  But the concept of a crucified god—a shamefully executed deity who rose again victoriously—was unheard of. Even in the strange mythologies of the ancient Near East, it simply did not make sense. Why would a god of power endure the rejection of the powerless in order to reveal a victory that could only be achieved through death? And why would a king accept such a fate not merely as an injustice but as the very heart of that king’s royal prerogative?

Why? Because our God is not a God of transactional religion but a God of redemptive grace. Because our God knows that it is not the holy who need redeeming but the broken whose very brokenness needs transformation. Because the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, our God and king, fully human and fully divine, is the means by which the powers of Sin and Death, which have held sway over the human race, are themselves put to death.

In the cross of Christ, our instinctive understanding of king and God is itself put to death alongside the Nazarene. Our knowledge of how the world works and who God is is itself executed. Our inherited worldview and our religious impulse are shattered. The cross is the reversal of how we expect redemption and reward to be bestowed upon us. When our king and our God is nailed to the cross, the very wrong within us becomes the center of how God acts instead of the antithesis of where God is to be found. Instead of being buried under pretense or swept under the rug or stuffed into a closet or pinned upon a scapegoat, our brokenness is embraced by the Divine and held by God for all the world to see. Instead of embracing and being manifest in our best efforts and our greatest successes, God embodies our biggest failures and our profoundest shortcomings so that we might receive redemption not through the myth of our outrunning them but through the truth of God’s accepting them—of God taking them onto God’s self so that all that is amiss within us and the world might be transformed.

On this day, we stand in the shadow of the cross of Christ and gaze upon the one who was crucified on our behalf. On this day, we confront the breadth and depth of all our failures not in shame but in hope because, in Jesus Christ, we find that they are not merely excused but are embraced, not wiped away but absorbed, not pushed aside but enwrapped by God. They are taken on not only by a sympathetic human figure whose unjust and noble suffering inspires the world but by a God who, by accepting them, has defeated their power and their essence. Today, we celebrate the awful and awesome death of our king and our God and proclaim the new and unending life that that death has brought us.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Our Best-Laid Plans

April 9, 2020 – Maundy Thursday

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

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

Everything was set. All of the details had been taken care of. The venue was carefully selected. The menu was thoughtfully chosen. The guest list was finalized. But, when the moment for the big event arrived, everything fell through.

Recently, that has been the case for many of our best-laid plans. Weddings have been postponed. Vacations have come and gone without us. High school and college graduations have been replaced by diplomas sent home in the mail. Holy Week worship has relocated from crowded churches to online services watched at home. Normally, these are occasions when we would plan for the very best, yet our experience of them of late has been anything but. I sense that that same spirit of disappointment and let-down must have filled the hearts and minds of the disciples as they sat with Jesus in the upper room.

During the weeks and months that led up to that last supper together, it had become clear to the disciples that Jesus had been preparing to take over the throne of his ancestor David and rule over all the whole world in God’s name. Think about everything that had happened. For years, Jesus had been working powerful signs that had revealed his true identity as God’s Son, including his last and greatest miracle in the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Although the religious and political leaders had begun to plot against him, the entire Passover crowd in Jerusalem had celebrated his entry into the holy city as if it were a royal procession. They hailed the one who rode on the back of a colt as the one whom prophets had identified as their king, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” With God on his side and the people behind him, Jesus was in position to take back power from Herod and Pilate and even the Emperor.

Describing how the disciples and Jesus gathered at the table that night, John the narrator brings all of these expectations to a head in the words he uses to set the scene: “Jesus knew the Father had given everything into his hands and that he had come from God and was returning to God.” So what did Jesus do in this moment when his closest followers gathered to raise a glass in honor of their teacher-who-would-be-king? In what way did he choose to embrace his identity as the Son of God, the Christ, the one coming into the world? He got up from the table and took off his outer robe and tied a towel around his waist. He poured water into a washbasin and knelt down on the floor in front of his disciples and began to wash their feet. That is not what a king would do. That is not where God’s anointed one belongs. And yet it is where Jesus placed himself, beneath his followers, in an act of humble service on their behalf.

So incongruous was the gesture that Peter initially refused to accept what his master was doing, saying, “No, you will never wash my feet!” And, even after Jesus explained that the washing was necessary, Peter’s remark about washing his whole body showed that he still did not understand what his rabbi was trying to do. This was not some ritual cleansing or symbolic teaching. This was Jesus showing his disciples who he was and who they must become. “Do you know what I’ve done for you?” he asked them. “If I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you too must wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example: Just as I have done, you also must do.” Being a disciple of Jesus isn’t about literally washing other people’s feet. It’s about following the example that has been set for us—pursuing the pattern of perfect humanity that the Incarnate One has embodied. It is about striving for a divine kingdom and embracing a revolutionary power that can only be expressed in humble and loving service.

If I have washed, Jesus says to us, you must wash. What I have done, you also must do. You do not understand what I am doing now, but you will understand later. The crown of thorns, the hard wooden cross, the cold rock-hewn tomb, the miracle of Easter.

Jesus doesn’t simply tell his followers what they should do. He does it himself in order to show them who he is—who God is—and who they must become. In loving sacrifice, he has not only washed our feet but given himself up to death for our sake. If we call Jesus Lord and teacher, for that is what he is, we cannot confine his example to an annual reenactment—a symbolic performance of humility that his disciples undertake once a year during Holy Week. Instead, we must see in him the example of perfect humanity and recognize our calling to pursue it—not only because we are his followers but because we are human beings, for in the Incarnation he has shown us who we really are.

This year, we cannot gather in church to wash one another’s feet, which is our collective loss. In our livestream worship, we will recall Jesus’ act of humble service by pouring water into a washbasin and remembering what he commands us to do in his name. Maybe you will ritually wash the hands or feet of one another in your homes, recalling that same mandate of love, but many of us live alone. Whose feet or hands will they wash this year? The peculiar circumstances of this Holy Week and the distance between us that they require help us remember that following the example of Jesus means more than washing one another’s hands or feet. It means loving one another as we have been loved—humbly and sacrificially.

In that last supper with his disciples, Jesus’ plans didn’t fall through, though the expectations his disciples had for that meal probably did. Yet, in place of those expectations, they discovered something more valuable than any celebratory meal that they could have arranged. In this time of our own necessary adaptation, when we cannot raise a glass together at weddings or graduations, when we cannot embrace one another at birthdays or funerals, when we cannot assemble as the people of God on the holiest days of the year, we, too, have an opportunity to let go of our own expectations of what will make us happy and discover again the source of our true joy. As disciples of Jesus, as the people of God, as human beings made in the divine image, we are called to love others as we have been loved. We are called to let go of our own expectations of how the best moments of our lives will unfold and, instead, trust and believe that by giving everything up for the sake of others, we, too, will rediscover the deepest joy imaginable—one that can only come from living in and sharing God’s love.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Overcoming Aloneness

April 5, 2020 – Palm Sunday, Year A

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

Audio of the sermon will be available here. Video of the service will be uploaded here.

In the end, all Jesus wanted was the companionship of his closest friends. Yet none of them was able to stay awake with him for even an hour.

As they came into Jerusalem, Jesus knew that trouble was ahead. His message that the reign of God was coming to the earth in a way that would supplant the powers of this world had angered both the Roman and Jewish authorities. The religious leaders of God’s people had struck a bargain with their imperial masters: as long as taxes were paid and insurrectionists were put down, religious life could continue in Palestine. But Jesus had begun to threaten that arrangement. Like the prophets of old, he had accused the chief priests and scribes and Pharisees of pretending to care about their religion so that they could pursue their own self-interests while betraying God and God’s people. The everyday folk were beginning to think that Jesus was right. And, once the crowds were on his side, it was only a matter of time before Rome cracked down on them all. Something had to be done.

Sitting at table with his friends, Jesus told them the hard truth: one of the twelve would betray him. “Not me. Surely not me. It can’t be me, Rabbi,” the disciples all said in turn, but the scheme had already been set in motion. More than that, he explained that all of them would fall away out of fear. “No matter what, I’ll never stumble,” Peter said to him, and all the disciples agreed with him. “Even if we must die beside you,” they said, “we will give up our lives for your sake.”

Only hours later, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus said to Peter, James, and John, “Stay with me. Keep watch with me. My heart is full of sorrow—so much so that I feel as if I will die. Don’t leave me alone.” But, when he came back, he found them all asleep. “Could you not stay awake with me for even an hour?” he asked them. But they could not. Not even for an hour could they stay awake with their rabbi, their master, as he approached his own death. Jesus was afraid for his life. All he wanted was the company of his friends, and even that was denied him.

Jesus took the depth of our loneliness with him to the cross. He knew the isolation, the distance, and the quarantine we experience so that he might carry it with him to death. The separation we feel in this time of physical distancing has brought to the surface a deeper aloneness that many of us experience in life. Some of us are staying at home with spouses and children, but others among us depend upon the church and work and the gym and little things like trips to the grocery store to keep us connected with other people. This time apart has shown us how isolated we really are, and many of us are desperate for even an hour of companionship. And yet, even in the depths of our loneliness, we are not alone because of the one who bore the bitter weight of all rejection on our behalf.

When we look to the cross of Christ, we find true hope. We find that hope not because we find an escape from our struggle but because we behold the one who embraced that struggle with us and within us. Our loneliness does not vanish as if it were a mere dream, but it melts away because, in the crucified one, we discover that even in our aloneness we are not alone—that even our deepest solitude is overcome by God’s love.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

In Each Others Arms

April 1, 2020 - Wednesday in 5 Lent

Video of this service can be seen here. (The Sermon begins around 18:50.)

We aren't supposed to go this long without hugging one another. Maintaining physical distance is the right thing to do in this time of pandemic, of course, but it isn't supposed to be this way. Being apart from one another runs contrary to who we are--both as human beings and as the people of God.

In the readings for Evening Prayer tonight, Jeremiah warns of a disaster that spreads "from nation to nation" and of "a great tempest that is stirring from the farthest parts of the earth." That sounds familiar to me--not because I believe that the coronavirus has been sent to us by God but because the calamity we face is something that affects all of us. This is not a nation-specific crisis. It is a pandemic. And, much like the pandemics of old, back when medical science had not discovered how diseases were transmitted, the response to a plague was not only physical distancing but social distancing. I read this week of a victim of the bubonic plague whose body was left out in a field and guarded by townsfolk so that no one would come close to it. Even in death, a pandemic leaves us ostracized from our community.

In fact, some of the reasons that the plague only became a recurrent problem relatively late in human history are population density and intercultural commerce (see this article). The closer we live together and the more we interact with other people the more likely an epidemic or pandemic will strike. As long as we are apart from one other--isolated from those who could carry terrible infectious diseases--we can stay safe. (Maybe in our isolation it would serve us well to read some of Edgar Allen Poe's works.) But we aren't supposed to live apart from one another. We aren't supposed to be cutoff from one another and the world.

When his disciples tried to keep eager parents from bringing their children close to Jesus so that he might touch them, Jesus rebuked his disciples and said, "Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it." They were not being held at bay by the disciples because of fear of contagion. Instead, it seems that disciples didn't think that the needs of the parents and children deserved their rabbi's attention. But that instinct ran contrary to everything Jesus embodied. What does it mean to belong in God's reign? What does life in the fulfillment of God's promises look like? How do those who live lives that point others toward God behave? Like children.

My youngest child, who is four years old, still likes to sit in my lap. In the evenings, as dinner is finishing, she invariably asks if she can come and sit in my lap. Partly, that's because she wants to be finished eating the foods she doesn't really like, but also it's because she likes to be held. She wants someone who loves her to wrap his arms around her and remind her through a physical embrace that she is loved. A few days ago, I noticed that, when no one else was around, one of my older children came and sat in my lap, too. Is there anything that the child inside each of us needs more in this time of anxiety and uncertainty than a warm and loving embrace? Is there any better way to describe what it means to participate in the loving reign of God? (Maybe that's why Jesus is so hard on those who get divorced.)

As the church--as the Body of Christ--we must overcome the necessity for physical distancing that this pandemic brings. We cannot be who we were created and called to be if we respond to this moment of crisis by withdrawing from one another. Yes, if a child not in your family tries to run and jump in your arms, you may need to take quick action to maintain good physical separation, but we must recognize something wrong in this need for apartness. We must remember that this is not how things are supposed to be. We must long for physical reunion with one another--for the loving embrace of the community of faith--and we must respond to that longing with non-physical gestures of connection. We must pray for one another. We must say "I love you" and "I miss you" to each other. We must call and check on each other. We must hold onto one another especially when we can't because that is what it means to be part of God's reign. That's what it means to be the Body of Christ. That's what it means to be the people of God.