Friday, December 25, 2020

The Best Year Ever


December 25, 2020 – Christmas III

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Salvation in Our Unscripted Lives


December 24, 2020 – Christmas I

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Find Your Rest in Jesus


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

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

You may watch the whole service here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Anointed Prophet, Divine Vision


December 13, 2020 – Advent 3B

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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