Sunday, August 23, 2020

Seeing, Believing, Giving

August 23, 2020 – The 12th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 16A
Isaiah 51:1-6; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the service can be seen here. (The sermon begins around 21:50)

A Christian. A believer. A disciple of Jesus. A follower of the Way. A member of Christ’s Body. Born again. We use lots of different labels to identify the followers of Jesus. Which one of them fits you? Maybe all of them. Maybe none. 

I don’t know where you are on that mythical spectrum of conviction that reflects the breath of our congregational life. I don’t even know how one could express the complexity of the Christian faith in a rhetorical device as simplistic as a scale from 1 to 10. You might think of yourself as a Christian. Or maybe you think of yourself as a seeker. Or perhaps you’re just tuning in because you like what this church does in the community or because you have found this to be a friendly and welcoming congregation. Regardless, you’re here, and I’m glad you’re here. I trust that you’re here because you want to be, and, no matter why you’ve decided to join us, you are most welcome. You don’t have to be a Christian to take part in our worship, but today I want to talk about the ways in which being a Christian—in which being a follower of Jesus—affects our lives.

In today’s Gospel lesson, we see that when someone recognizes Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the Living God, that person’s life begins to change dramatically. Jesus looked at his disciples and asked, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They replied with a range of options: “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” In other words, the crowds were so impressed by Jesus that they likened him to the great religious figures of their tradition. But then Jesus turned the question back on them, and asked, “Who do you say that I am?” And Simon Peter replied, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” After that, everything changed.

This was a turning point, not only for Peter and the other disciples but for the entire Gospel narrative. This was the first time that a human being had identified Jesus as the Messiah—as God’s anointed one. For the first half of the Gospel account, Jesus had spent his time teaching, preaching, and performing miracles in order to show his followers who he really was—the one through whom God’s fullness had come to the earth. But, now that Peter had put all of the pieces together and recognized Jesus for who he really was, Jesus’ focus shifted. 

From this moment on, Jesus began preparing for his departure by equipping his followers for what they would do in his absence. Notice what he said to Simon Peter: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” With those words, Jesus began the process of handing over his authority to his followers. As soon as Peter identified Jesus as God’s Son, Jesus began giving him new work to do. And the same is true for us. 

There comes a point in a Christian’s spiritual journey when that person’s focus shifts from trying to figure out who Jesus is to trying to figure out what that person is supposed to do because of it. For some of us, the realization that Jesus is the Son of the living God comes to us the way it came to Peter—in an instant. But, for many of us, coming to faith is an awakening that unfolds gradually over time. Regardless of how we get there, however, the result is the same. When we recognize who Jesus is—when we grasp that the one who ate with sinners and outcasts and wrestled with the powers of his day and proclaimed the nearness of God’s reign and died upon the cross and was raised from the dead is the one whom God sent to transform this world into the paradise that God has in store for us and all people—then we can no longer afford to think of Jesus as a great religious figure. In pursuit of God’s fullest dream for us and for our world, we must proclaim him as the ultimate authority of our lives, to whom our every thought, every word, every action, and every impulse belong. In other words, once we, like Peter, recognize who Jesus really is, we can’t go back to the way things were because we, like him, now have important work to do.

And what is that work? What does the life of one of Jesus’ followers look like? What do our lives look like when the reality of who Jesus is takes over? For each of us, the Christian life may take on different pursuits, but, collectively, that life is characterized by sacrifice. In particular, it looks like “a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.” The part of Paul’s Letter to the Romans that we read today is his appeal to them that they might live lives that reflect the fullness of their faith. He has already outlined the significance of who Jesus was and what God has accomplished through him, and now he shows them what it means to live a Christian life: “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” 

How often do you think of your relationship with God as one of sacrifice? Not the bloody, violent kind that is designed to appease an angry deity, but the generous, self-giving kind that is, at is heart, a full cooperation with God’s purposes. Think about the kind of sacrifice that a baseball player makes, when, instead of swinging for the fences, he lays down a bunt, knowing that he will get out but that, in the process, one of his teammates will get closer to home. Or think about the kind of sacrifice that a chess player will make—not as a trick to fool an opponent but as an intentional giving up of a piece in order to secure something more valuable in return. If Jesus really is the Son of the living God—the one through whom God’s fullness has come to the earth—what part of your life wouldn’t you give over to him, knowing that, whatever the outcome, it is in Christ that your best future lies? 

If we believe that Jesus is who we proclaim him to be, our lives are no longer our own. You cannot agree with Peter—you cannot share the faith of Paul—you cannot proclaim Jesus as the Son of the living God—and only give back to God a part of your self. To believe that Jesus is God’s anointed one—the one through whom God’s purposes are being fulfilled—is to make more than a commitment of your intellectual or emotional capacity. It asks more of you than ten percent of your income or one day of your week. This faith we share consumes your whole being. If you think that that is asking too much, don’t give up yet. Keep exploring the Way of Jesus Christ. Walk that path until you discover where it leads—until you see fully who it is that beckons you to walk beside him. Because, when you do, when you recognize who Jesus really is, you’ll want to give him everything.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Infinite Mercy

August 16, 2020 – The 11th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 15A

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here. (Sermon begins around 20:15.)

It feels pretty good to be on the side of inclusion, doesn’t it? Whether it’s race or gender or sexuality or education level or immigration status or wealth, when you’re on the side of a debate that thinks that everyone belongs, that everyone should have access, that everyone is equal, it feels like you’re on the right side of history. But you know how you can tell if your concept of inclusion is misplaced? If it excludes someone.

For months, now, we’ve been making our way through Paul’s Letter to the Romans. It is his treatise on the gospel—his systematic exploration of the Christian faith. It is his masterpiece, his magnum opus. In it, he has explained how the good news of Jesus Christ is the means by which God has brought the fullness of God’s reign to the earth. And, if you read the first eight chapters, you get a pretty good understanding of how it all fits together. But, when we get to chapter nine, we hit a wall, and the name of that wall is Israel.

Israel is God’s beloved child, God’s first love. And, just as the prophet Isaiah had foretold, God was using Israel to reveal God’s salvation to the ends of the earth. This is one of the reasons that Paul knew that Jesus was more than a prophet—because through him all nations were finding their way into relationship with God. And, as God’s great work of salvation was nearing completion, the same God who time and again had gathered together the outcasts of Israel had now begun to gather the other peoples of the earth to Godself. Isaiah’s prophecy that all would worship on God’s holy mountain—that God’s house would become a house of prayer for all peoples—was being fulfilled. The apostle Paul and the Christians in Rome had witnessed how God had used Jesus Christ to accomplish that great work and bring even the Gentiles into covenant relationship with Israel’s God. But there was just one lingering problem: Israel.

Even by the time Paul was writing to Rome, the way of Jesus had become a mostly Gentile religion. What had begun as a branch of Judaism dedicated to spiritual renewal had become a faith in which non-Jews had begun to call themselves the spiritual descendants of Abraham. All the while, Abraham’s biological descendants had been quite happy to keep to themselves, thank you very much. But, if Jesus Christ were the means by which God had, once and for all, brought all nations to Godself, why weren’t the children of Abraham getting onboard? If Jesus really was who he said he was and who Paul said he was, how was Paul supposed to explain the near universal refusal of his fellow Israelites to adopt the faith of God’s messiah?

For the most part, he didn’t. And, more than that, he seems to have been critical of those who would try. At the beginning of today’s lesson, Paul wrote, “I ask, then, has God rejected God’s people? By no means!” But, in the part of chapter 11 that the lectionary skips over, Paul turned his focus to those who would presume to take Israel’s place: “If some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the rich root of the olive tree, do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember that it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you.” It seems that some of the Gentile Christians had interpreted Israel’s rejection of Christianity as a sign that God had moved on—that God had withdrawn God’s love for God’s people and transferred it to the new Israel. But Paul wouldn’t have it. “The gifts and calling of God are irrevocable,” he wrote. There must be another way.

There is a danger, I think, that, in a similar way, we would inadvertently restrict God’s mercies by casting God’s great work of salvation in the image of our own inclusion, and I think the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman exposes some of those tendencies. How do we hear this shocking story? How do we make sense of Jesus’ words and the woman’s persistence? Whose limited understanding of salvation is being challenged here? Is it Jesus who is being taught a lesson, or are we the ones who have something to learn?

That Matthew would identify the woman anachronistically as a Canaanite and not, as Mark did in his telling of the same story, with the more specific ethnic label of Syrophoenician is not an accident. Matthew wants us to imagine this encounter as if it were a direct manifestation of the conflict between the ancient Israelites who had taken possession of the land that had been promised to Abraham and the Canaanite residents who had stood in their way. In other words, in Matthew’s version of the story, the woman isn’t merely a Gentile; she is, to a faithful Israelite reader, a very real obstacle to the fulfillment of God’s promises. But, instead of finishing the story as if the only possible outcome was a triumph over God’s enemies, Matthew shows us that those who represent impediments to God’s salvation can become the very means by which that salvation is accomplished.

Kneeling at Jesus’ feet, the woman says to him, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Her faithfulness is not a rejection of the harsh-sounding words that Jesus had said to her but an expansion of them—a twisting of them to make clear an even fuller reality. Jesus had rightly come to rescue “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” That’s the way God’s salvation must work. It has to start with God’s chosen people. It’s what they were chosen for. It would not be right to reject God’s love for God’s covenant people—to take the food away from the children in order to give it to those who would come after them. But, because God’s reign was coming to its fulfillment in Jesus Christ, it was now possible to see God’s covenant love expanding to include even those who for centuries had stood in the way of God’s salvation. 

I wonder whether we’ve become so accustomed to being recipients of that salvation that we’ve forgotten whose mercies really determine how that salvation works. We have a tendency to say to God, “We’re the enlightened ones. We’re the inclusive ones. We’ll let you know who truly belongs in your kingdom.” But what we don’t realize is that even our best efforts at being inclusive will always fall short of God’s great and limitless mercies. No matter how wide open our welcome may be, we will inevitably reject some whom God would embrace. Don’t think so? Which political or religious group has members that you find the hardest to love? Whose ideology or platform has convinced you that they are nothing more than an obstacle to God’s reign on the earth? In the end, who do you think gets to decide whom God will love? 

Like the Pharisees, we have a habit of substituting our version of holiness, which we naturally understand to be the fullest possible expression of God’s love, for the real thing. But Jesus shows us that God’s love is always bigger than we think it is. Even if it works on us in reverse, the encounter with the Canaanite mother proves that. Do we really think that Jesus is the one whose vision of God’s kingdom is too small? Do we really believe that we’re the enlightened ones who have it all figured out? The good news of Jesus Christ is that God loves everyone—even those whom we would never imagine that God could love. And, if that truth doesn’t shock us, then we have underestimated not only God’s love for others but God’s love for us as well. As people of faith, as followers of Jesus, we are called to believe that God’s mercies are always bigger than we expect them to be. Otherwise, we can’t know what it means to belong to the one who loves us that same way.

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Not Going To Leave Us Now


August 9, 2020 – The 10th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 14A

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the service can be seen here. (The sermon starts around 23:15)

At the end of his life, Moses stood before the people of Israel and delivered one last pep talk. They had been on quite a journey together. From Egypt, through the Red Sea, and into the wilderness, where on Mt. Sinai God had given them the Law. Then on toward the River Jordan and the land of Canaan, which the people were now prepared to enter. Moses knew that he would not be completing this last leg of the trip with them, and he wanted to leave them with some words of encouragement. “Blessings and curses,” he reminded them. “Those who obey the Lord will be blessed, and those who don’t will be cursed. As long as you remember that, no matter what hardships await you in the land that you are about to enter, God will be with you, and you will be blessed.”

But the people weren’t so sure. There was some murmuring among the crowd as one person whispered to another, “Easy for him to say; he’s Moses! He’s been telling us to obey the Lord our God ever since he came down the mountain, and how has that worked out for us?” But Moses wasn’t finished. “You haven’t made it this far for God to abandon you now. You’ve come all this way and now stand on the edge of the land that has been promised to you. Surely God hasn’t brought you here to leave you now. Quit saying that this commandment is too hard for you. Quit worrying that you’ll never find it. It isn’t up in heaven or across the deep. It’s very near to you—even on your lips and in your heart. Belonging to God isn’t something you accomplish. It’s who you are. All you have to do is remember that, and everything will work out for you.”

More than 1200 years later, the apostle Paul had his own pep talk to write. The Christians in Rome were discouraged. They had come into the church because they had been convinced that the way of Jesus was the way that led to their salvation. But, since then, things had gotten tough. Persecutions were on the rise, and faithful believers were being handed over to the Roman authorities for torture and even death. These nervous Christians were beginning to wonder whether they had made a bad decision—whether choosing the way of Jesus had been a mistake. But Paul wanted them to remember why they had come into the Christian faith in the first place. He wanted them to remember that their salvation wasn’t something that they needed to go and find. It was already very near to them—on their lips and in their hearts. All they had to do was to remember that and to trust that everything would work out for them. But holding onto faith in the midst of struggle isn’t easy. 

To make his point, Paul did something rather remarkable with the story of Israel’s journey through the wilderness. He set up a contrast of ideas—not as a theological conflict but as a temporal dialectic—a tension of experiences in order to convey a fuller truth. In our reading from Romans 10, Paul quotes Moses from two very different moments on the journey from Egypt to Canaan. First, he pulls from Leviticus 18: “The person who does these things will live by them.” Moses had said those words in the shadow of Mt. Sinai. There were part of long list of commandments that God had given God’s people. This was a moment when Israel was still discovering that belonging to God meant behaving in a particular way. But, in the very next sentence, Paul quotes Moses from Deuteronomy 30, when Moses had addressed God’s people at the end of their journey, right before the crossed the River Jordan. That’s when Moses had said, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’ The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.” At that point, Israel could look back at their time in the wilderness and know what it meant for God to be with them even when they struggled to do the right things. 

Paul labels the first idea as “the righteousness that comes from the law” and the second as “the righteousness that comes from faith,” but he doesn’t present those ideas as oppositional to one another. He describes them as if they are two moments from the same journey. Having reached the end of their struggles in the wilderness, the people of Israel were able to see that because God’s word was near them—even on their lips and in their hearts—they could do and live by what God asked of them. Paul believed that the same was true for the Christians in Rome. If they could believe that the cross of Jesus had given way to the empty tomb, they could know that God and God’s word would be with them no matter what. If they could believe that God had raised Jesus from the dead, they could maintain their faith in God despite whatever hardships they faced.

How might the same be true for us as well? All we really want is to know that everything will be ok. That’s why we ask our beloved if they really love us. That’s why we seek our parents’ affirmation even after they’ve given it for the 1000th time. That’s why our cat brings in little wiggly presents from the backyard when we come home from vacation. We will do whatever it takes to know that the ones who hold our hearts and lives in their hands will take care of us—that they will shield us from all that threatens us. And only when we’ve come through significant struggles and have seen them prove that their love and protection are certain can we live into the confidence of that certainty. Only then can the relationship between us blossom as one that does not depend upon our attempts to win another’s affection but upon a love that transcends those attempts.

We live in a time when strife, sickness, anxiety, and isolation are mounting. Things aren’t getting better, and it doesn’t seem like they will get better anytime soon. We are desperate to know that, in the end, everything will be ok, and it feels like we’ve reached a point where there’s nothing we can do to convince ourselves that it will be. That’s why we need faith. Having reached the limits of our own efforts, we need to turn back to the one who loves us with a love that has no end. We need to lean on the one whose salvation cannot be broken. We need to rely on the one whose care for us is bigger than our moments of struggle and is founded instead upon goodness and mercy.

Paul knew the transcendent power of believing in Jesus Christ. He knew that Jesus was the ultimate sign of God’s abiding presence and love. He knew that the same God who turned Christ’s death on the cross into a triumph over the grave would save God’s people from all danger because, in Christ, God would be with them always. 

You are one of God’s people. Look back over the journey that you have been a part of—a journey from bondage into freedom, from death into life. As a child of God, you have already travelled with your spiritual ancestors through valleys of great peril into a land of promise and plenty. God has not brought you this far only to abandon you now. You may face dangers and hardships, but you do not face them alone. God is very near to you—on your lips and in your heart. Belonging to God isn’t something that you accomplish. Because of Jesus Christ, it’s who you are. All you have to do is remember that, and everything will work out for you.