Sunday, September 20, 2020

The Privilege of Suffering

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

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 13, 2020

We've Been Given 10,000 Talents--Now What?

September 13, 2020 – The 15th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 19A

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here. (The sermon begins around 24:00.)

Last Sunday we heard Jesus tell the disciples that they must go to great lengths in order to maintain the spirit of forgiveness that exists between them. If someone sins against you, go to that person in private and point out the wrong and see if you can win that person back. If that fails, take two or three with you. If that won’t work, get the whole church involved. And, if the offender won’t listen even to the whole church, let that person be to you as a tax collector and a Gentile. If someone will not seek forgiveness, that person cannot remain a part of a community that is defined by forgiving love. 

Naturally, Peter wanted to know if the same thing applied in reverse: “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” If a person is given three chances to repent before they are cut off from the community of faith, how many chances are we supposed to give an apologetic repeat offender before we kick them out as well? Should we forgive them as many as seven times? But Jesus replied, “Not seven but seventy-seven times.” If the need for repentance and reconciliation is unequivocal, the demand for forgiveness must be limitless, too.

To get his point across, Jesus told a story that dabbled in the absurd. When a king began to reckon accounts with his servants, he found that one of them owed 10,000 talents. That’s roughly 164,000 years’ worth of wages or more than $5 billion in today’s money. More than a mere slave, this servant must have overseen a major operation within the kingdom. Somehow, over time, his negligence accumulated until he owed a staggering amount—more than any servant could have ever repaid. When confronted with his gross mismanagement, the servant fell down on his knees at the king’s feet and begged for more time: “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” Perhaps realizing that the man could never have come up with that much money, the king did the almost unthinkable: he forgave the entire amount. 

Later on, that same servant came across a man who owed him 100 denarii or about three months’ worth of wages—around $12,000 in today’s money. That was no small amount, but, in comparison with $5 billion, it was almost nothing. This time, as before, the second debtor fell down on his knees at the first servant’s feet and made an identical plea: “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” But the first servant refused to show mercy. He had his fellow servant thrown into prison until the debt was paid off. And you remember how the story ends.

I don’t know what’s harder to believe: that a servant could ever amass a debt that big or that a servant who had a debt like that be forgiven could ever be so blind and hypocritical. It’s hard to imagine anyone being so obtuse. What kind of person would ever receive a gift of that magnitude yet fail to show even a fraction of the same generosity to another person? No one would ever act like that. No one would ever be that self-absorbed. No one would ever be that blind to their own dependence upon the goodness of others. Would we?

On whose generosity is your life built? On whose forgiveness and understanding are the relationships you value established? On what privileges is your success manufactured? How much of what you have and who you are and where you live and what doors have been open to you is an accident of birth? And how much of it is what you have earned all by yourself? 

My parents helped me open a savings account when I was in the second grade. When I was in middle school, my father gave me $500 to invest in a guardian account, which he opened on my behalf. Although I recognized that going to college could cost my family a lot of money, it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be able to go to wherever I chose because we couldn’t afford it. It certainly never crossed my mind that I might not go to college at all. I have had my share of hardship, by which I mean that I have applied for jobs I didn’t get and that I have had to forego things I wanted because I didn’t have the money to buy them. But I have never wondered what would happen if I went to the doctor or the hospital or the pharmacy and could not pay. I have never needed to know where to get clothes or food or Christmas presents for my kids because I couldn’t afford them. I have never worried that, if I were the victim of a crime and called the police, I might be the one who was taken to jail or, worse, shot before I had a chance to explain myself.

You can call it generosity or mercy or forgiveness or privilege, but, whatever you call it, my life has been built on a lavish gift that I do not deserve, and I trust that, in at least one or two ways, yours has, too. We are judged—we are held accountable—not because we have received such a gift but because we have failed to recognized it as such. And, because we have not recognized the gift that we have been given, we are judged for not using that gift for good. We are the merciless slave. As hard as it is to believe that anyone could be so blind, we are the ones who blind ourselves to the magnitude of the gift that we have been given. We hide our eyes from it because to see and recognize how much we have been given is to see and recognize how little we can take credit for all on our own. We live in a world that assigns value to human beings on the basis of how much they have achieved and attained and accomplished. Any head start or leg up or free pass undermines our worth in worldly terms. But that isn’t true in the kingdom of God. 

In the kingdom of God, a person’s worth isn’t measured in dollars earned or decisions made or work performed. When God’s authority and God’s economy are operative, a person has value because that person has been made by God and loved by God. Are we willing to live in that reality? That’s the first step—admitting that each one of us is equally precious to God. If we can believe that, then we can let go of the notion that our output—our résumé—is the ultimate measure of our status. And, if we can stop evaluating ourselves on the basis of what we have accomplished, then we can begin to recognize and admit how much we have been given. And, if we can start to see how much of our lives has been built upon that gift, then we can break the cycle. We can receive mercy and show mercy. We can forgive as we have been forgiven. We can love as we have been loved.

The only thing more absurd than the parable that Jesus told is our collective failure to show mercy to others despite all of the mercy that we have been given. Why do you think the economic and political systems of our day are resisting those who would ascribe equal value to people whose lives have always mattered less? If you think that 10,000 talents is a great sum of money, try calculating the economic impact that four hundred years of slavery, segregation, discrimination, redlining, mass incarceration, and police brutality have had on America. Far more than $5 billion, it has produced a debt that none of us could ever repay. For many of us, whether we are the direct descendants of people who owned other human beings as property or are those who have benefitted from our race in other ways, our prosperity has been built, in part, on the backs of others. We are judged by God not because we were born into that advantage—not because we have been given that privilege—but because we have been unwilling to acknowledge it and to use it to show generosity to others.

Jesus came to welcome us into the kingdom of God—the reality in which love abounds, in which forgiveness is limitless, in which mercy is overflowing. The magnitude of that gift is unfathomable, but the consequences of that gift are very real and very measurable. No one who has received a gift like that has ever failed to reflect its power in their daily lives. No one has ever been loved like that without showing that kind of love to others. To do so would be unthinkable. To do so would be absurd.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

Unity Matters


September 6, 2020 – The 14th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 18A
Ezekiel 33:7-11; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here. Video of the service can be seen here. (The sermon begins around 18:20.)

Years ago, not long after I was ordained, I received a phone call from a distraught mother. Her son had received a diagnosis of an uncurable disease—not fatal but life-changing and life-limiting and utterly unalterable—and she wanted me to do her a favor. She wanted me to pray. She wanted me to pray that, despite everything the doctors had told her, God would heal her son. Without hesitation, I agreed. I believe in miracles. As unlikely as it may be, I believe that sometimes God reaches down and intervenes in our lives in ways that doctors cannot explain. “I would be happy to pray,” I told her. But that wasn’t all she wanted.

“I need you to call another priest—another member of the clergy—and I need you two to pray about this together.” I hesitated. “Why?” I asked. “Because,” she explained, “I was reading the Bible today, and I read the passage where Jesus tells his disciples that, when two or three of them agree about anything they ask for, it will be done by their Father in heaven. I believe with all my heart that, if you and another priest pray about this, God will hear you and grant your request.” I let silence fill the space between us. This wasn’t faith. This was magic. This was Christianized witchcraft. But I wasn’t strong enough to say so. I wasn’t strong enough to tell this distraught mother that God doesn’t work like that. Instead, I started to explain that the prayers of laypeople are just as strong as those of clergy and to tell her that I didn’t think that’s what Jesus had in mind when he said that to his disciples, but she was convinced, and I wasn’t willing to speak clearly enough to disabuse her of that notion. So I promised her that I would do as she asked. 

I didn’t tell my boss and ask him to pray with me. He would have recognized right away what kind of foolish trouble I had gotten myself into. And I couldn’t call any of my colleagues close by. They, too, would have seen my request for what it really was—the half-hearted prayer of a spiritual coward who didn’t have the guts to tell a grieving mother that he couldn’t conjure up a miracle on demand no matter how many other clergy he prayed with. So I called one of my friends and colleagues back in England—the one whose brand of Anglican Christianity most prominently features the gifts of the Spirit, like speaking in tongues and the laying on hands for healing. But even he saw straight through my request. “You know, God doesn’t work like that,” he explained. I told him that I knew that already but that I had promised the mother that I would do what she asked and I needed him to pray with me about this thing. And so we prayed, even though I knew that God wasn’t going to use our prayer to give that mother what she wanted.

God doesn’t work like that. God doesn’t look down and say, “Oh look! Two or three are gathered together in Christ’s name, and they’re agreeing with one another about their prayer request, so I suppose that I had better fulfill their request.” No, despite what today’s gospel lesson says, God has not given us the power of communal wish-fulfillment. But God has given us a power, and I believe that the power we have been given is even greater. As followers of Jesus, who believe that, in Christ, the kingdom of God has come to the earth, we have been given the power to act on God’s behalf in order that God’s kingdom might be manifest in us. 

You may remember hearing some words from today’s gospel lesson a few weeks ago when we heard Jesus tell Peter that he is being given the keys to the kingdom of heaven and that whatever he binds on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever he looses on earth will be loosed in heaven. Today, we hear those words spoken a second time, but this time Jesus is speaking not only to Peter but to all of us. We are the ones to whom Jesus has given that authority—not as individuals but as the church, as the ecclesia, the collective body, literally, of the “called-out” ones. Jesus has called us together in order that, as his followers, he might invest in us the authority to decide what to bind and what to loose, what is required and what can be left aside, what is of God and what is not. Because that power resides in us, we no longer need a voice to thunder from the clouds in order to hear what God is speaking to us. When we hear the voice of the church speaking as one—literally as a symphony, as a harmony of voices that speaks one truth—then we have heard the voice of God declaring where God’s kingdom shall be found.

But how is that possible? How is it possible for selfish, greedy, sinful human beings like us to get it right every time? Have you seen what scandals have rocked the church in this and every generation? Have you read what horrific deeds have been done in the name of Christianity by the church’s leaders? I do not pretend that simply because Jesus has handed over the authority to declare what is God’s will that the church will always be on the right side of history. Far from it! But I do believe that we have been given the power to make clear to the world what is God’s will whenever we are united in Christ’s name.

Truly I tell you, whatever you bind and loose on the earth will be bound and loosed in heaven. Truly I tell you, if two or three of you agree about anything, it will be done by my Father in heaven. How is that possible? Why is that true? Because, as Jesus says to us, “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Throughout history, Christians have spent immeasurable time and energy wondering about the day when Christ will return as he promised. That day is absolutely worth waiting for, but how much time and energy do we spend recognizing that Christ is already here whenever two or three of us are gathered in his name? That is what he promises us. If the kingdom of God has come to the earth in Jesus Christ, then that kingdom—that reign, that authority, that rightness—is here on the earth whenever and wherever we gather together in Christ’s name.

And the key to all of that, Jesus tells us, is unity. It only works—the kingdom of God is only manifest in us—when the unity of that kingdom is manifest through us. That’s why Jesus explains in such detail the lengths to which we must go in order to preserve the unity between us. “If a member of the church sins against you,” Jesus says, “go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” And, if that doesn’t work, then two or three others are to be recruited to try, and, if that doesn’t work, the whole community should get involved. Finally, if even that doesn’t work, Jesus tells us to treat the one who breaks our unity as a Gentile and a tax collector. What remarkably harsh and final words coming from the one who consistently welcomed misfits and outcasts to his table! But those are not idle words or an empty threat. Jesus knows that only when the power of forgiveness and reconciliation are manifest throughout the community of his followers can he truly be there among them. Once that power vanishes, he does, too.

I’ve spent so much time and energy over the last few months trying to figure out how and when we can come back together in person that I haven’t paid enough attention to the real threat to our spiritual community. As hard as it is for us to stay apart from one another because of the pandemic, the real danger we face isn’t the coronavirus, which may have the power to push us apart physically and even to kill us if we are not careful but alone cannot dismember the body of Christ. No, the real threat to us is the threat of disunity, which, as the thing that has the power to undermine Christ’s presence among us, is truly the work of evil. And, in this time of physical separation and political uncertainty and cultural division, we can see all around us how the forces of evil are at work, trying their best to pull us apart in ways that seek to rob God’s kingdom of its power on earth.

But we have hope. Our hope is not that we would overcome our differences in order that Christ might be present among us. Instead, our hope is that, because Christ is already present among us, we have the power to overcome whatever differences and disagreements seek to pull us apart. God did not wait for humanity to get its act together before sending God’s Son to the earth. God came and brought God’s kingdom to the earth in order that we, in all our brokenness, might be made whole. As those who have been restored to unity with God in Christ, we have been given the power to make that unity manifest throughout the earth. Now, that isn’t easy. It isn’t easy to reach out to the one who has wronged us and seek reconciliation quietly instead of sharing our hurt with the world in order to bring shame upon our adversary. But that is the work of God’s reign on the earth. That is where Jesus is to be found. For where two or three are gathered together despite all that would pull them apart, there Jesus and the power of God’s kingdom will be found—even right here in the midst of us.