Monday, September 20, 2021

Wisdom From Above

 

September 19, 2021 – The 17th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 20B

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here. Video of the service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 19:00.

“Who is wise and understanding among you?” When James wrote those words, it seems he had a particular criticism in mind, but for a moment, let’s take him at face value. Who are the wise and understanding people in your life? Who is the wisest person you have ever known? Think about it. Think about who that person is. Picture them in your mind. Who is it? What is it that makes that person so wise? What is it about them that you admire most? What part of them would you most hope to emulate?

I wonder. If we all took time to share stories about the wisest person we have ever known and describe what it was about them that we admire so much, I wonder how many of our answers would sound the same and how many would highlight different sorts of wisdom. What is wisdom? In almost every circumstance, the answer is contextual. A wise boss has different skills than a wise grandparent. A wise physician is praised for different things than a wise soldier. A wise hedge fund manager can probably make you a lot of money, but a wise friend is the one who can help you spend it well. 

If you were putting together a team of people to lead a church—a vestry, perhaps—what kind of wisdom would you look for? Financial wisdom? Legal wisdom? Creative wisdom? Strategic wisdom? Conventional wisdom suggests that a balanced approach might be best—picking the wisest people from a number of disciplines, all of whom would work together to lead a church into its full potential. That sounds like a winning team. But how could you be sure that such a diverse pool of talent would come together and set aside their individual egos in order to accomplish the common good? How would the brightest and best ever figure out how to work together? Whose particular wisdom would be subjected to the wisdom of others in order to get anything done?

When James wrote to the Jewish-Christian community, he recognized that there were two competing wisdoms at work within the church and that they threatened to rip the Body of Christ apart. “Who is wise and understanding among you?” he asked. But, more than asking them to identify the people who they considered to be wise, he asked them to consider what kind of wisdom belongs in the church. In every generation, there are many people who are wise and who have gifts and talents to offer the Christian community, but, as James explained, there is only one wisdom that leads to the building up of Christ’s body.

If someone is truly wise, James wrote, that person must show by their good life that their works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. That is what wisdom from above looks like—wisdom that is “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” That kind of godly wisdom produces a harvest of righteousness—a bounty of deep and abiding goodness that resonates throughout the community and beyond. Because we belong to God in Jesus Christ, the one who gave himself up to death for the sake of the world, we measure fruitfulness and the wisdom that produces it in ways that don’t compute in earthly terms.

So often, though, the church forgets how to look for and rely on the wisdom that comes from above and falls into the trap of celebrating the sort of wisdom that carries weight in the boardroom and in the courtroom, in the state house and in the White House. It is to that kind of wisdom, James writes, that those who have “bitter envy and selfish ambition” in their hearts have revealed their true allegiance. Their wisdom is nothing less than earthly, unspiritual, and even demonic, and it always produces disorder and wickedness of every kind. 

The word James uses to convey what is translated for us as “selfish ambition” is an important word in this passage. It’s a peculiar word that the apostle Paul also uses several times to describe the forces that tend to fracture the Christian community. It is derived from the Greek word that literally means “work for hire” or “mercenary activity.” But the best way to understand what James and Paul have in mind when they use that word is to look at the only pre-New-Testament example of its use that historians and archeologists have discovered. In his work Politics, Aristotle used that word to describe “the narrow partisan zeal of factional, greedy politicians in his own day.”  Imagine that: leaders in the church, acting like greedy politicians, seeking their own interests at the expense of the community as a whole. 

I find it strangely comforting to know that the church has struggled with these forces since its very beginning. As Benedict de Spinoza, a seventeenth-century philosopher wrote, “I have often wondered, that persons who make a boast of professing the Christian religion, namely, love, joy, peace, temperance, and charity to all men, should quarrel with such rancorous animosity, and display daily towards one another such bitter hatred, that this, rather than the virtues they claim, is the readiest criterion of their faith.”  

What is the readiest criterion of our faith in the twenty-first century? As you read the news, look at social media, and listen to popular culture, what behaviors do you think most readily describe contemporary Christianity? In a healthy, balanced, peaceable congregation like ours, we like to pretend that we are immune from such rancor and hatred—that what fringe radicals do in the name of Jesus has nothing to do with us—but no branch of the Jesus Movement is isolated completely from all of the rest. And, as far as I can tell, the Christians who are getting the most attention—the ones with the microphones—are sowing the exact opposite of peace. As members of the Body of Christ, as participants in the wider Christian community, that isn’t someone else’s issue to address. It’s ours.

I find the church’s continual struggle with selfish ambition and worldly wisdom strangely comforting because that means the remedy for us is more or less the same as it was in James’ day. “Those conflicts and disputes among you,” James wrote, “where do they come from?” Not from the hearts of other people but even from within us. “Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?” James asked. Each of us—all of us—are subject within our hearts to that conflict between the wisdom from above and the wisdom of the world. As long as we are in this life, that war will take place within us. But God working through us has the power to put to death that selfish ambition that is as natural and familiar as every breath we take.

In the end, the answer is beautifully familiar to us. “Submit yourselves therefore to God,” James wrote. Subject yourselves, realign yourselves, reorient yourselves to your proper relationship with God. That is the principal act of worship. We worship God in order to situate ourselves where God can get through to us and shape our lives and lead us into true blessing. To get to that place, we have to let go of our own selfish ambition and cling to the wisdom of God. When we come to worship, we do this not only with our minds and hearts but with our bodies, too, every time we kneel. 

By submitting ourselves to God—by bowing before the Almighty—we are also resisting the devil. The word translated as “resist” is a word that literally means “withstand”—as in to take our stand against the one who would deceive us. When we “draw near” to God—when we worship God—we take our stand by refusing to bow to the one whose devilish wisdom brings disorder and wickedness into this world and into the church. 

True worship, therefore, is our real hope. This is where God’s people find their egos dissolved and their selfish tendencies replaced by the will of God. That happens every time we come together as long as we come together to worship—to submit ourselves to God. I don’t know what you came here today expecting to take away with you. But, if you’ll start instead with what you can give—with letting go of that part of yourself that gets in the way of what God is doing in your life—God will take it from you and will leave you something even better in its place.


Monday, September 13, 2021

What Kind Of Messiah Is Jesus?

 

September 12, 2021 – The 16th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 19B

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here. Video of the service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 18:45.

“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks. Has that question ever been more important for the church to answer? Who do you say that I am? Not who am I? Not what do the scriptures say about me? But you—my followers, my disciples—who do you say that I am?

Some of us say that Jesus is the one who cares about the poor and the vulnerable. Some of us say that he is the one who welcomes outcasts and sinners back into God’s fold. Some of us say that he is the one who protects the unborn. And some of us say that he is the one who protects the women whose bodies have become a political battleground. Some of us say that Jesus is the one who promotes freedom and liberty and self-determination. And some of us say that he is the one who demands sacrifice and surrender and selflessness. Some of us say that Jesus is the one who came to make his followers rich beyond measure. And some of us say that he came to teach them to embrace a life of destitute poverty. 

Who among us gets to decide who Jesus really is? We all claim to be Christians. We claim to be his followers, his disciples. In all our various churches, we read the same Bible and pray to the same God. But we talk about Jesus in radically different ways. We make him the centerpiece of competing platforms and conflicting lifestyles. As Christians, all of us call Jesus, “Savior, Lord, Christ, Messiah,” but do any of us remember what any of that means?

By the time we get to Mark 8, we have been asking the question, “Who is Jesus really?” for a long time. The gospel writer lets us know in the very first verse of his account that this is the “good news of Jesus the Christ,” but, except for that editorial introduction, we haven’t gotten a clear answer yet. The demons in chapter 1 recognized Jesus, but he silenced them before they had a chance to tell anyone about “the holy one of God.” After Jesus stilled the storm in chapter 4, the disciples wondered aloud, “Who is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” but still no answer was given. In chapter 6, people from his hometown expressed their confusion and derision that this carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James, Joses, Judas, and Simon, a man whom they knew well, could teach with such unfamiliar authority and power. 

Every miracle, every teaching, every encounter up to this point had been a way to make the case for Jesus’ real identity, and, just when things were starting to become clear, Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they replied, Moses or Elijah or one of the prophets. But then he turned the question back onto them and asked, “Who do you say that I am?” And Peter replied, “You are the Messiah, the Christ.” It’s the answer we’ve been waiting for. It’s the first time since the first verse of Mark that we’ve heard that word, Christ. It’s the first time anyone has acknowledged fully who Jesus really is, but it turns out, as our own continued disagreement over Jesus’ identity reveals, calling Jesus the Messiah is only half of the job.

The other half is deciding what Messiah means and what it means for us to give Jesus that title. We more often use the Greek version, Christ, of that Semitic word, Messiah, but they mean the same thing—anointed. To call Jesus the Messiah or Christ is to call him the anointed one of God—the one chosen and equipped by God to do whatever it is that God has entrusted him to do. To someone like Peter, it seems, the label “Messiah” evoked a connection with David, the great king, who was also described as God’s anointed. There are several first-century Jewish texts that let us know that many of Jesus’ contemporaries expected God to send a messiah to come and defeat the Romans and claim the throne of the Davidic king. When Peter called Jesus the Messiah, he was articulating his belief that Jesus was the one to come and restore the kingdom to God’s people, but, in the exchange that followed, we discover that Peter didn’t really understand what that meant.

As soon as Peter identified Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone about him. Why? Perhaps we find the answer in how quickly Jesus substituted for the label Peter had given him a less familiar, less provocative, though no less consequential label, “Son of Man.” In first-century Judaism, the Son of Man was not understood as the one would come and claim the earthly throne but the one who would come at the end of time and vindicate God’s people once and for all from the earthly powers who oppressed them. Peter, it seems, wanted Jesus to reign in power here and now, but Jesus had been anointed by God to usher in the that reign which will not be complete until the last days.

And how do we know this? Because of the way Jesus described his God-appointed mission: “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” That didn’t sound like the messianic figure Peter and his contemporaries were hoping for, and it’s not the Messiah or Christ that we hear most Christians talking about today. Jesus suffered and died and was raised from the dead not so that he and his followers could seize earthly power and reign in glory here and now. He gave himself up to death and God raised him from the dead so that those who follow him through the path of sacrifice, suffering, and death might be raised with him into the new life of God’s perfect reign. Christians agree that Jesus has opened for us the way that leads to eternal life, but we forget that cannot enter that life unless we suffer and die for his sake.

When Peter heard Jesus describe his own death, he took Jesus aside and rebuked him, as if the role of master and disciple had been swapped. All too often, we Christians do the very same thing. We rebuke Jesus every time we tell him, “No, Lord, not your way but my way.” When he tells us that we must deny ourselves, that we must take up our cross, that we must lose our life in order to save it, we pull him aside and say, “Not today, Jesus. I don’t want to give up my life. I don’t want to deny myself—my wants, my needs, my freedom, my family, my body. I don’t want to carry that cross. It’s heavy and hard and frightening.” And to that Jesus says, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

To accept the beam of the cross upon our own shoulders and walk the heavy-laden path of self-denial and suffering is to accept for ourselves the same disgrace that was heaped upon Jesus. To be his follower costs us dearly in this life. There is no way to walk the path of Christ—of God’s anointed—and escape the shame of rejection and denial. And yet, when we avoid that path in this life, when we are ashamed of Jesus and his words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of us when he appears in glory.

“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks us. In the end, of course, Peter was right. Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ. But, if he is our Messiah, we must accept for ourselves the pattern that he has given to us. We must pray that the Holy Spirit will give us strength not to win the battles ahead of us but to lose them with humility and dignity. We must ask God to put to death within us that tendency to seek our own needs instead of others’. When it comes to claiming Jesus for our side and using him as the justification for our agenda, it is those who do so who fail most profoundly to grasp the nature of Jesus’ messiahship. We must instead ask God to grant us the wisdom of setting our minds on divine things in order that we might lose our lives for Jesus’ sake and for the sake of the gospel.  


Sunday, August 29, 2021

Our Inevitable Hypocrisy, God's Unfailing Love

 

August 29, 2021 – The 14th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 17B

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 17:30.

We face an interpretive challenge this morning as we read about Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees and scribes in Mark 7. It’s easy for us to know whose side we’re supposed to be on, and that leads us to assume the worst of Jesus’ opponents and to think of them only as a Christianized caricature of who they really were. But the problem with that is two-fold. Not only do we fail to recognize the full humanity and faithfulness of the Pharisees, but we also fail to appreciate the power of Jesus’ teaching because it’s just too easy to write off what he says as intended for someone else—hypocrites of biblical proportions—and not for us. 

So today I’d like you to forget just about everything you know about the Pharisees and give them a second chance. You likely have heard preachers and Sunday school teachers explain that the Pharisees were among the most faithful, observant Jews of their day. But you may not have heard that they prayed and fasted and tithed not only for themselves but on behalf of their less-fastidious compatriots. They considered it part of their religious duty to go the extra mile and do the extra thing in order to give everyone—even the relatively unreligious in their community—a good start with God. In a very real way, the Pharisees were not the exclusive hardliners of their day but the generous progressives.

The Pharisaic movement in Judaism began as a reaction to the concentration of power among the religious elites. During the Babylonian exile, after Solomon’s temple had been destroyed and God’s people were removed from their land, worship needed to take on a different shape. There was no temple in which sacrifices could be offered, so faithful Jews began gathering on the sabbath wherever they could to read the holy scriptures, to celebrate the domestic traditions of their people like circumcision and keeping kosher, and to lift up their prayers and praises and laments. In order to maintain the traditions that defined them as a people, they had to improvise and find new ways of doing ancient things so that, even without the priests to help them, they could be a holy people in God’s sight.

After the exile was over and the people were allowed to return to their homeland, a controversy arose. Some wanted to go back to the old ways and rebuild the temple and forget everything that had happened during the exile, but others recognized that Judaism itself had changed and that what it meant to be faithful to God had changed. So, when the priests became the central authority in Jerusalem and insisted that everything revert to its pre-exilic pattern, a group of separatists, known as the Pharisees, refused to go along with their plan. Their faith had grown during the hardship of exile. Their newfound relationship with God was real, and they believed that all people—not just the priests—were called to a life of peculiar holiness.

When Jesus preached the nearness of God’s salvation in the synagogues and on the hillsides and along the shore, the Pharisees must have thought that they had found an ally. His populist approach would have reminded them of their own priorities—that a relationship with God was secured not primarily through temple worship but through individual holiness. But, when they saw him eating with tax collectors and sinners and touching unclean lepers and teaching disciples that they could pluck grain on the sabbath or eat with unwashed hands, they knew that they had a problem on their hands. They had spent centuries interpreting the Jewish customs in expansive ways that gave everyone access to a life of holiness, but, instead of furthering their work, this radical rabbi seemed to be throwing it all away.

“Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” they asked Jesus. When we think of the Pharisees as narrow-minded religious conservatives, we hear that question as if they looked down on those who weren’t holy enough. But there’s another, deeper issue at stake. In the Law of Moses, the only regulations about handwashing apply to priests in the temple. There are no rules about ordinary people washing hands or cups or pots or kettles. But, when they were without a temple, the God’s people had looked for ways that they could maintain their religious identity, and ceremonial handwashing became a universal practice—a simple pietistic way to remember that, as the people of God, all Jews were called to a life of holiness. “What’s wrong with that?” the Pharisees asked Jesus. “What’s wrong with the traditions that have helped our people remember that they belong to God?”

The problem, Jesus says, isn’t the handwashing but the distorted motivation behind it. “You hypocrites!” Jesus calls them. Quoting Isaiah, he says, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.” The issue isn’t the Pharisees’ desire to make their religion accessible to everyone. It’s their tendency to confuse their methods for the thing they were intended to instill. In their attempt to democratize faithfulness, by defining in their own terms what it means to belong to God and insisting that others accept that vision, their progressivism calcified into its own version of reactionary exclusivism. Instead of making holiness available to everyone, they ended up denying that holiness to anyone who didn’t agree with them. When they could no longer tell the difference between their traditions and God’s commandments, the very ones who stood for allowing everyone in ironically became the ones who pushed others out.

Sound familiar? No matter how idyllic they are in the beginning, our attempts to mandate inclusion always result in the unintended consequences of judgment, condemnation, and hypocrisy. As Episcopalians, we are celebrated for our tolerance of everyone except those we perceive as intolerant. What does that say about our faithfulness? The way of Jesus will always expose the hypocrisy of our judgments because the way of Jesus is always more open and inclusive than we are. That way is built not on the holiness of the holiest among us but upon God’s own sacrifice and death for the sake of the world. Jesus Christ did not die for those whose lives reflect the perfect love of God but for sinners like you and me, whose best attempt is always doomed to fail. Our hope, therefore, is not that we would ever create a church or a religion or a community or a government that embodies the radical love and inclusion of God but that we would allow our vain belief that we could ever build it to die on the cross with Christ.

In times like this, when church and society are being pulled apart by the evil forces that deceive us and make us assume the worst in other people and the best in ourselves, our hope is found in Jesus. He helps us see our own hypocrisy for what it really is. And he helps us know that God’s love for us is not a reflection of our best efforts or even our best intentions but of God’s great and abiding love for the whole world. We can build no kingdom that supplants the reign of God, but thanks be to God that we don’t have to. We already belong to the one whose death and resurrection open the gates wide enough for all to walk in.


Sunday, August 15, 2021

Fed By Christ

 

August 15, 2021 – The 12th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 15B

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 12:30.

What do you do well on an empty stomach? I am fairly productive first thing in the morning, when there’s nothing in my tank except a few cups of black coffee, but, by the early afternoon, if I have not eaten anything, things begin to go sideways. I get distracted. I get irritable. I get “hangry”—that particular kind of angry that accompanies a lack of food. I can’t say that I am at my best when my stomach is full, but, when it’s empty, I have my limits. Just ask my family or my colleagues.

As the academic year begins, our local schools are providing free breakfast and free lunch for all students through the end of the year. That’s good news for everyone. During the pandemic, our schools have looked for ways to feed hungry children, whose families normally depend on free or reduced meals at school for their children’s nourishment, but it hasn’t been easy with many children learning from home. No matter where you are, it’s hard to learn when your stomach is growling. It’s hard to stay focused when the pain of not eating demands your attention. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs puts physiological things like food, water, clothing, and shelter at the very bottom—the first need that must be met if a person is going to grow and develop—and an empty stomach leaves someone a long way from self-actualization—from being able to want to become the person you have been created to be. Just ask a kindergarten teacher.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus’ teaching on the Bread of Life takes a bit of a regression—from lofty metaphor to basic reality, from philosophical aspiration to physiological necessity. What had been a provocative image for spiritual salvation now becomes an even more provocative image for physical sustenance. At the beginning of this teaching, Jesus likened the Bread of Life to manna in the wilderness, but now Jesus wants to compare it with his flesh—the literal “meat” of his body—in ways that would eventually become fuel for the cannibalistic accusations that were levied against the early Christians. But for us it offers the hope that in Christ God is concerned not only with our spiritual welfare but also with the most basic needs of humanity—with the hunger that so often seems to get in the way of our spiritual growth.

In Jesus’ time, manna was often used as an image for divine revelation. Wisdom and truth from above were likened to the flaky white substance that God gave the ancient Israelites on their journey through the wilderness. We, too, describe unexpected gifts as “manna from heaven,” acknowledging that something good has come to us from an unexpected source. When Jesus described himself and his teachings as “the bread that came down from heaven,” the religious authorities grumbled against him because they saw nothing otherworldly about him. “We know Jesus,” they scoffed. “We know his parents and his siblings. He didn’t come from heaven. He came from Nazareth!” Jesus may have grown up in Galilee, but we know that the wisdom and truth he brought to the earth had indeed come from above.

We have the advantage of two thousand years of theological interpretation and instruction. Back then, the religious authorities were struggling to see beyond the reality they knew. Jesus had offered the crowd a challenging message: that he was the one who had come to sustain God’s people not only for a wilderness journey but for all time. He was the one who could feed them in a way that could give them eternal life. But it’s hard to wrap your mind around that lofty truth when the spiritual equivalent of your stomach is grumbling. It’s hard to believe that Jesus can give us spiritual fulfillment when our faith in God is in its infancy. We need basic nourishment first.

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven,” Jesus said. “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” If you thought spiritual bread was hard to digest, just wait until you try to tackle the body and blood of Jesus. Like a precipitating agent that causes a substance to fall out of solution in a chemical reaction, Jesus’ identification of the bread from heaven with his body pushes those who hear this message in opposite directions. 

Those who take issue with his claims about having a heavenly origin find this latest assertion impossible to swallow. No one eats human flesh. We don’t need a divine teacher to tell us that. And, according to Jewish law, blood can never be consumed because, as the life of a creature, it belongs to God. When Jesus begins to speak of his flesh and blood as if they are food for God’s people, the religious authorities need no more reason to write him off. That is sacrilegious nonsense.

But, to those who are hungry for the salvation that Jesus offers, who are looking to him to meet their most basic needs, this invitation to feast on his flesh and blood becomes not a gruesome, unholy practice but a way to meet God through the most basic of human pursuits. In Christ, we find God in something as ordinary and essential as bread. In him, we discover that God wants to feed us first in order that that nourishment might grow into something much more substantial.

Traditionally, we approach life as if there is a tension between the spiritual world and the physical world—between the soul and the body. But in Christ we discover that they are inseparable. By giving us his body, his flesh, Jesus invites us to receive him not through some rigorous spiritual practice but in something we can touch and smell and taste and chew and swallow. In case we missed it—in case we think that this is just another strange philosophical metaphor—halfway through this gospel lesson Jesus stops using the generic word for eating (φάγω) and replaces it with the word that means munching, gnawing, or chewing (τρώγω). When we feast on the flesh of Jesus, therefore, we do so not only in our hearts and minds but with our mouths and stomachs, too.

The Holy Eucharist, which we gather to celebrate today, is a strange and beautiful thing. We eat and drink the body and blood of Jesus not only to remember his death and resurrection but to partake in his life-giving body and blood. This is how we make our Communion with Almighty God—not by elevating our minds to the heavenly places but by receiving the corporeal Christ here in our hands and mouths and stomachs. How freeing it is to know that we encounter God not because we have molded our spiritual selves into the right shape but because God has taken on our flesh and given that flesh up for our sake! We meet God not only when our minds are perfectly attuned to spiritual realities but even when our stomachs are rumbling and the distractions of our physical needs press in upon our prayers. How is that possible? Because Jesus gave us not only wisdom and truth, which feed our spirits, but his flesh and blood, which nourish our whole selves.

This means that Holy Communion is not only a foretaste of the banquet that awaits us but also sustenance for the journey we are on in this world. It is how we carry the power of God with us into the world where God’s presence can sometimes be hard to discern. As John Chrysostom said of the Eucharist, “Christ has given to those who desire Him not only to see Him, but even to touch, and eat Him, and fix their teeth in His flesh, and to embrace Him, and satisfy all their love. Let us then return from that table like lions breathing fire, having become terrible to the devil; thinking on our Head [meaning Jesus], and on the love which He has shown for us.” [1] We return from that table and go out into the world like lions breathing fire not because we have ascended to the heights of spiritual contemplation but because Jesus Christ has descended to us and filled us with real food, his own flesh and blood, the Bread of Life. 


1.   Chrysostom, John. “Homily 46 on the Gospel of John.” https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/240146.htm. Accessed 13 August 2021.

Sunday, August 8, 2021

From the Mountaintop into the Valley

 

August 8, 2021 – The Transfiguration

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here. Video of the service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 18:05.

When was the last time you experienced a moment so wonderful, so beautiful, so joyful that you wanted it to last forever? The vacation you didn’t want to end. The honeymoon you wished would stretch on another week, another month. The victory celebration that you wanted to linger in forever. We all know what awaits us on the other side of those moments. The work that must be done. The ups and downs of marriage that inevitably come. The season after the championship, when we have to start the process all over again. But isn’t that where the real, deep, abiding joy is to be found—not by staying up on the mountain top but by coming back down into the ordinary, real world and bringing with us the memory of that moment as we reengage the challenges and struggles that await us?

In today’s gospel lesson, our friend and role model Peter found himself in the midst of one of those mountain-top experiences, and, as it began to fade, he allowed his desire to stay forever in that moment get the best of him. “Master,” he said to Jesus, “it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah,” not knowing what he said. He was groggy, weighed down with sleep, and, like he did so many other times, he opened his mouth before he really thought about what he would say. But sometimes those unguarded moments are the times when our deepest desires come out. 

Peter didn’t want to leave. Even if he didn’t understand what was happening, he knew it was good, and he didn’t want it to go away. He wanted to preserve this moment for ever. So, when he saw the great icons of the faith, Moses and Elijah, begin to fade away, he interrupted awkwardly and interjected himself where he didn’t belong. “Let us build three dwellings”—literally, three booths—“one for each of you, so that you—so that we—can all stay here forever.” In that naïve request, we see that Peter was motivated not only by a desire to remain on that mountain top but also by his desire to celebrate that moment for what it really was—the coming together of Law and Prophet and Christ, a complete manifestation of God’s great work of salvation in the lives of God’s people.

Although the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration is a central episode in Christian scripture, the telling of that moment is deeply rooted in the Jewish tradition of Sukkot, or the Feast of Booths. It has become a less important observance in contemporary Judaism, but in Jesus’ time, the Feast of Booths was as important as any other religious observance. The first-century Jewish historian Josephus called it the “most important and holy feast” in the Jewish year. Back then, it was simply referred to as “the holiday,” in much the same way as the days that connect Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are now called collectively the “high holidays.” 

When Peter suggests that they should build booths for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, a first-century faithful observer would automatically be taken to that annual festival, when people would come to Jerusalem from all over and set up their own temporary shelters or booths in order to remember and reenact their ancestors’ sojourn in the wilderness. That practice was a way to celebrate how God had led God’s people from slavery in Egypt toward freedom in the land of promise. 

Understandably, Peter thinks that this is the moment worth celebrating, that this glorious display of God’s saving work is the thing that should be bottled up, commoditized, liturgized, and dispensed back to God’s people. But, just like that time in the wilderness so many centuries earlier, this was a temporary moment on a journey toward something else. Remembering and celebrating moments like that can be helpful, as we celebrate this moment again today, but, when we get stuck in them and begin to mistake the transition for the destination, we lose sight of the salvation God is leading us to.

We don’t need help magnifying the mountain-top experiences of our lives. We need help finding hope in the midst of life’s valleys, and that’s what this episode is really about. Notice that Luke identifies for us what Jesus, Moses, and Elijah had been talking about. “They appeared in glory and were speaking of [Jesus’] departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” Literally, the text tells us that they were speaking of Jesus’ “exodus.” The use of that word is no accident. That exodus, that departure, that salvation-giving journey would be found not on the mount of Transfiguration but in the depths of betrayal, suffering, rejection, and death that awaited Jesus in the holy city.

In case we didn’t pick up on the exodus allusion, Luke introduces this story with an explicit reference to Jesus’ death. The lectionary version of this gospel lesson omits that connection by abbreviating the first verse in order to make sure we don’t hear a reference to a part of the story that we may not have read recently, but I think it’s impossible to appreciate the Transfiguration without it. Listen to the unabridged version of the first verse of this passage (Luke 9:28): “Now about eight days after these sayings, Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.” Luke wants us to know that, as we climb up that mountain with Jesus and the disciples, the words that had been spoken eight days earlier were still ringing in their ears. And what were those words? After Peter, for the very first time, had identified Jesus as the Christ, Jesus had said to the disciples, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised,” and “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” 

That is the life-giving, liberating, salvation-granting exodus that awaits Jesus and the disciples in Jerusalem. No wonder Peter wants to stay on that mountain. We all want to stay on that mountain. It is easier to hang on to the joy we know rather than risk losing it amidst the struggle and suffering that await us, but God’s saving work in our lives is not complete on the mountain top. It is not finished in those transient moments of glory and joy that we experience up there among the clouds. Instead, it is wrought in the hard moments of pain and struggle that we encounter back down on level ground—in those moments into which we bring new confidence because of what we have seen on that mountain top. 

Remember that life’s struggles have been changed because of the one who was glorified on that mountain and yet descended again back into the brokenness of the world. God and God’s salvation are not waiting for us, hidden away on a distant peak. That salvation, which was on display in the transfiguration of Christ, has already come down into the muck and mire that we experience in order that we might be lifted from them. The glorification of Jesus Christ would be an unattainable goal if it were not for the cross and the tomb. That shining hope that he brought to the world would always be beyond our grasp if it had remained up on that mountain. Thanks be to God that it didn’t! Jesus didn’t stay up there so that we could admire him from afar. He came back down to where we are. Because of what happened in Jerusalem, his exodus becomes our exodus. His struggles redeem our struggles. Our hope is found not in the fleeting moments of transcendent glory we experience in the good times but in the one whose transcendence and glory come down and meet us in the ordinary, difficult places of life. Our hope is in the glorious  one who suffered and died for our sake, our savior Jesus Christ. 


Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Our Life's Work

 

What is your life's work? And is that the same thing as the way you have made a living?

This week, a fire broke out at Princeton Theological Seminary, and a friend and colleague posted on Facebook that we should give thanks that no one was hurt but also grieve how much must have been lost. "A whole lifetime is in many of our offices," she wrote. She's right. I can't imagine what I would do if I lost even my computer (yes, I back up) not to mention my office.

What is your life's work? Do you get paid to do it? Do you get paid doing something else so that you can afford to do the thing you really love to do? Whether we get paid or not, our life's work is the thing that consumes us. It is the occupation that fills our days and sometimes our nights. Sometimes it empties them, too. And it is easy and natural for us to associate our work with our living, but I'm not sure that's always the case.

In last Sunday's gospel lesson (John 6:24-35), we hear a lot about what work is and what work is not. Jesus tells the crowd that seeks him, "Don't work for the food that perishes but for the food that endures to eternal life." The crowd, however, isn't spiritually minded. They're after him not in search of ethereal enlightenment but physical nourishment. They don't understand what he means. "[If God is the one who will give us that eternal food], what must we do to perform the works of God in order to attain it?" Literally, they ask, "What must we do to work the works of God?" In other words, they're still thinking about the kind of work that gets you paid and fed. But Jesus has something else in mind.

"This is the work of God," he tells them, "that you believe in the one God has sent." And all at once their preconceptions begin to fall apart in their minds. Believe? Work? What does that mean?

My colleague Pam Morgan, in her sermon on Sunday, drew us back to the Garden of Eden--back to the paradise where Adam and Eve were given the fruit of every tree and plant in the garden to eat except for one. When they disobeyed God and ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, however, their eyes were opened, and, when God found out, he drove them out of the garden and told them that, for the rest of their days, they would have to work for their food. Pam reminded us that the ground would only yield to the human produce after he toiled over it. Work and bread, she said, were forever linked.

The most fundamental pursuit in our lives is to seek nourishment. We toil and labor in order that we might pay the bills and eat our daily bread. It's easy, therefore, for us to assume that work also defines our relationship with our creator--that just the ground is cursed by God in order that we might have to work in order to reap its harvest, we, too, must be cursed in order that we would have to work our way back into God's graces--back into the garden of paradise. But that's not true. It's never been true.

Jesus came to show God's people--to show us--that God's eternal provision isn't the kind of bread we have to work for. On the contrary, in order to receive it--to participate in it--all we are asked is to believe in it. "What must we do to work the works of God?" the people ask. "This is the work of God," Jesus says, "that you believe in the one God has sent."

What is your life's work? What is your deepest calling? Jesus knows that your stomach needs to be filled, too. He made sure to provide bread for the 5,000. But that was only a sign--a sign that pointed to something much bigger and much more important. No matter how it is that we work for the bread that perishes--that gets crusty, stale, and moldy--we are beckoned to make our principal occupation--our life's true work--the work of believing in the one whom God has sent, our savior Jesus Christ. Believing in Jesus won't fill your belly. Most of us still have earthly work to do in order to pay the bills and put food on the table. But when it comes to our place at God's eternal table--when it comes to belonging to God for all time--that work has been done for us. All we are asked to do is believe.

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Sharing Hope

 
July 18, 2021 – The 8th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 11B

 © 2021 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 22:35.

Three weeks ago, I walked down Dickson Street with a group from St. Paul’s, and I listened as the crowd cheered wildly and joyfully at the sight of our church’s banner. The whole event was a joyful, hopeful celebration, but I felt something special when thousands of people, who have no real connection with our church, lifted their voices in shouts of appreciation because, as I interpret their enthusiasm, they were delighted to see a group of Christians walking in the Pride parade. Although I know that St. Paul’s has long been a symbol of love and acceptance in our community, until that moment, I did not appreciate what it means to be a part of a church that is willing to show up and stand up for Pride.

Ever since then, I have been wondering what comes next. Over the years, we have done a lot of good in this community. When the crowd sees us walking down Dickson, they aren’t cheering simply because we showed up this year but because of all that we have come to represent in this town. But, when the parade is over, we roll up our banner and pack up our feather boas and put away our rainbow hats and look forward to next year, when the crowd will cheer us on again. One or two from the crowd may come through those doors because they are bold enough to come and look for something more, but many others are content to say to themselves what each of us has heard many times before: “I don’t go to church, but, if I ever did, I would go to St. Paul’s.” Today’s readings from Jeremiah and Mark make me wonder whether it’s time for us to do something more.

Back then, they probably weren’t wearing as much face paint, but the crowds we read about in Mark 6 were no less enthusiastic. The disciples had returned from the journey on which Jesus had sent them out two by two. They had taught and healed and cast out demons in Jesus’ name, and they were wildly successful. Jesus and his disciples had become so famous that they couldn’t even get a few minutes by themselves to eat. So Jesus bid his disciples to come away to a deserted place by themselves. They got into a boat and sailed to a desolate spot on the shore, but the crowd saw where they were headed, and they ran along the shore to meet them. As the eager crowd passed through one village after another, more and more people left their homes and hurried to meet them. By the time Jesus and the disciples came ashore, there were more than 5,000 people waiting for them.

By the end of the gospel reading, Jesus and the disciples left that place in the boat and sailed to the other side of the sea, but, again, a great crowd met them there. So eager were the people to be healed by Jesus that they pressed in on him as close as they could. They knew that if they could only touch the fringe of his cloak everything would be alright—that all that was amiss within them would be healed. Even though he must have been exhausted, Jesus, we are told, had compassion on them. When he looked out at the crowd, he saw beloved children of God who were like sheep without a shepherd.

There are a few times in the Bible when God’s people are described as sheep without a shepherd. When Moses asked the Lord to raise up a successor who would lead Israel into the land of Canaan, he begged God not to leave God’s sheep without a shepherd (Numbers 27:17). When Micaiah the prophet foretold the death of the wicked king Ahab, he said that he could see the soldiers of Israel scattered on the mountains like sheep that have no shepherd (1 Kings 22:17). When Zechariah the prophet described the worthlessness of the spiritual leaders of his day, he lamented how the people of Judah suffered for lack of a shepherd (Zechariah 10:2). But perhaps worst of all was the condemnation uttered by the prophet Jeremiah, which we heard in our first reading. “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord.” In this instance, the leaders of God’s people had not only failed to keep track of their vulnerable sheep, but, like wolves in sheep’s clothing, they had actually scattered the flock, driving them away.

I wonder how often someone who was desperate for healing tried to approach God only to be driven away by worthless shepherds. I wonder how often in the name of religion someone with authority has refused to acknowledge the needs of the vulnerable who come to them for help. I wonder how often we, in the name of Jesus, have taken a stand with oppression not because we believe that it’s right but because we are afraid of admitting that we might have been wrong all this time. In every generation, there are so-called religious leaders who, instead of shepherding God’s people to spiritual safety, scatter them and chase them away, coming between them and God.

The truth is that we’re all desperate for healing. We’re all standing in our own crowd, of our own particular identity, hoping that we will be found, that our needs can be met, that our brokenness can be made whole. Some of us, like me, have the benefit of belonging to a crowd that hasn’t ever had to fight hard to be accepted or to be taken seriously. While our needs are just as real as anyone else’s, we aren’t as vulnerable as others, and we haven’t known what it means to come to the church house door only to find that we aren’t welcome—that the shepherds are determined to drive us away. But there are lots of other people who have felt that kind of rejection and exclusion by the church. And it shouldn’t surprise us that many of them have given up on religion. It shouldn’t surprise us that, when Christians show up and grab the microphone, people who have been wounded by the church expect something other than love and acceptance to come out.

The crowd on Dickson Street, when they see us, knows that we represent a different kind of Christian, but I wonder whether showing up every year is enough. In every biblical example of sheep without a shepherd, including the one from Jeremiah, God promises to raise up new, faithful shepherds who will care for God’s people. Moses was succeeded by Joshua. Ahab and the rest of the Omri dynasty were eventually overthrown by Jehu. Zechariah and Jeremiah both promised that the self-interested shepherds who had led God’s people astray would be replaced by a righteous Branch, who would bring justice and righteousness to the land. Jesus came and offered healing to those who needed it most—those who had no where else to turn, those who had no spiritual leaders to help them find the healing promises of God.

Are we willing to do more to help people who have given up on God because they have been driven away by worthless shepherds find the healing that God still promises them? I don’t mean a campaign to get disaffected people to fill the pews and the offering plate. And I’m not just talking about the crowds at a Pride parade. I think we are in a unique position to offer a message of hope to people who haven’t heard words of hope from Christians in a long time. We have spent years building a deep reputation of genuine love and concern throughout the community. People see that the members of this parish are committed to the transformational power of unconditional love. They literally cheer when they see us. Over and over, they say that, if they ever went to a church, it would be here with us.

You’re already here, so you already know the healing power of hope and love that we share in this place—not by reputation but from within. You know how good it is to be a part of this community of faith. Think of how many other people would enjoy being a part of what we do here. Might you do something more to share it with others? Jesus is sending us out, just like the disciples, to offer healing in his name. Whom will you invite to come and find it with us?


Sunday, July 4, 2021

Good News That's Hard To Hear

 

July 4, 2021 – The 6th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 9B

© 2021 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 16:15.

Why do people have such a hard time hearing certain things from those closest to them? Why do our children ignore us when we tell them that the person they have a crush on is nothing but trouble, but, when they hear it from their friends at school, they take it as gospel truth? Why do our parents refuse to listen to us when we tell them that they can’t say those things about women or immigrants or people of color, but, when the man who works in their yard invites them to recognize the full humanity of all people, it’s as if the scales have fallen from their eyes? Why are congregations eager to hear challenging, prophetic sermons from visiting preachers but take offense whenever the rector says something even remotely controversial?

Whatever it is, it’s not new. By the time we get to Mark 6, Jesus has done some pretty amazing things. He’s healed the sick. He’s cast out demons. He’s stilled the wind and the waves. He’s even brought the dead back to life. And now he’s come back home—back to his hometown, to the synagogue where he grew up. He’s been invited to preach, and, when he does, the people are offended.

Listen how Mark conveys to us how quickly their admiration turned to disgust: “‘Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offense at him.” It’s as if they were captivated by his wisdom and power until they remembered where he was from and who his mother and siblings are. “Wait a minute!” they said to themselves. “This is Jesus—the boy who grew up down just around the corner. Who does he think he is, coming back home and talking to us as if we didn’t remember him crawling around in diapers?”

When Mark tells us that they were offended at him, he uses a word that literally means “scandalized.” They weren’t merely put off by his words. They were tripped up, snared, stumbling-blocked because of them. But why? Because there was something incongruous about knowing a man since he was a boy and hearing that man proclaim the coming reign of God. They couldn’t hear this person they knew talk about the kingdom they didn’t. As Jesus declared, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” 

The closer you are to a prophet, the harder it is for you to hear what a prophet declares. And why? Because a prophet never tells you what you want to hear. The prophet brings the sharp, painful truth of God that is almost impossible to hear from someone you already know well—from someone who is a part of the life you already enjoy. What the people of Nazareth wanted was the sweet, smart, articulate boy whom they had celebrated as he grew up. What they got was a firebrand rabbi who came to turn their world upside down. And they weren’t having it. Jesus, we are told, was essentially ineffective in their midst—robbed of any power by their hardheartedness and unbelief. 

Is our response any different? The Jesus we know and love has been living in our homes and in our town and in our country for a long, long time. We’re familiar with him. He’s an intimate part of our lives. We even think of him as a friend. He’s loving and gentle and kind. He heals the sick and cares for the poor and welcomes the outcast. We love that Jesus. We admire his benevolent power and seek his life-giving ways. We appreciate the way he gently chastises us just enough to make us uncomfortable before quickly reminding us that he loves us just the way we are. He helps us see the world a little more like the kingdom of God but also permits us to take a piece of that vision back home free of charge—back to the families and jobs and lives we enjoy. He invites us to dream with him of a better place without asking us to give up on the place we already have.

But the Jesus we have welcomed into our hearts and homes isn’t the Jesus we read about in the gospel but the domesticated version whose spirit we have broken and whose power we have tamed. Jesus didn’t come to heal the sick. There were doctors back then who could take care of that. Jesus came to heal those who couldn’t find healing among the physicians of their day. He came to bring healthcare to those who fill up our emergency rooms and urgent care clinics because they can’t afford to go to a doctor until they’re desperate. 

Jesus didn’t come to cast out evil spirits in order that people like you and me could live a tranquil life. He came to overthrow the forces of Satan and the chains of the devil, which bind people to low-paying jobs and inhumane working conditions—the kind of jobs where people get Covid and then lose their jobs and then their homes because they can’t show up to butcher that chicken we buy for $1.89/pound so that the company that sells it can make a few more pennies and the stock price in our portfolios will go up.

Jesus didn’t come to still the storms that ruin our Fourth of July cookouts or quiet the winds that rock our fancy boats. He came to summon the primal forces of creation and subdue the destructive chaos of evil that is rampant in our world. He came to do battle with the hurricanes that devastate already-impoverished communities. He came to condemn the sinking apartment buildings that threaten to collapse. He came to stand up to the wildfires that our greed and ecological abuse are fueling. He came to save those whose lives are threatened by the sweltering heat that we have caused.

When Jesus came to the earth, he came not to bring the dead back to more of this life but so that those who die to this life—to this way of being, to the kingdoms that dominate our world—might be given a new and flourishing existence. We like to think that the heaven that awaits us is more of “Your Best Life Now,” but the unending reign of God into which Jesus Christ calls us is only found when we die to this world and the forces that have corrupted it—when we see that those forces are at work in our own lives—in our politics, our economics, our schools and hospitals, our cars and trucks, our consumption and waste—and recognize our need for repentance.

People look at me funny when I say that Jesus would have made a terrible rector. And that says as much about you and me as it does about him. There’s a reason he never stayed long in one place. There’s a reason that crowds cheered for him and disciples followed him yet the people who knew him his whole life rejected him. It’s hard to have the kingdom of God come nearby, and it’s especially hard when it moves in and takes up residence in your comfortable life. God’s reign displaces all of the powers and principalities in our lives. It will not share authority with any of the institutions we hold dear. Its demands are total and totally new. 

The kingdom of God that Jesus brings to the earth is most definitely good news for all people, including you and me, but it’s the kind of good news that challenges us to our very core. It promises us new and unending life, but we must first die to the life we know and enjoy if we are going to receive the one that God has promised us. Are we willing to die—to give up all of this—in order to be a part of God’s unending reign, or do we just want a Jesus who pats us on the back and makes us feel good about the life we already have?


Monday, June 28, 2021

Salvation on Aisle 8A

 

June 27, 2021 – The 5th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 8B

© 2021 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 19:15..

Though as a child I was forbidden from watching Bevis and Butthead, the show that made its creator, Mike Judge, famous, as a teen and young adult, I found his second great satirical work, King of the Hill, irresistible. Set in the fictional town of Arlen, Texas, King of the Hill uses exaggerated portrayals of southern America to poke fun at many of the institutions that had shaped my childhood. Judge’s knowledge of sports-obsessed, religion-obsessed, meat-obsessed, masculinity-obsessed culture enabled him to offer insights so subtle that the audience couldn’t always tell whether he was building those institutions up or cutting them down.

One of those episodes, which for the most part still holds up, is entitled “Aisle 8A.” In the episode, the main character, Hank Hill, and his wife Peggy are babysitting their neighbors’ daughter, Connie, while her parents are out of town in Hawaii on a business trip. One morning, after Peggy rushes out the door to her substitute teaching job, Hank learns that Connie has gotten her first period. He panics, of course, at one point asking the equally panicked girl, “Do you know how to tie a tourniquet?”

As the episode unfolds, we see how the show challenges all the stereotypes around menstruation. Faced with what he has termed a crisis, Hank musters all the “manly” courage he can and takes Connie to the Mega Lo Mart to get the necessary supplies. When it comes to teaching her how to use those supplies, however, he gives up. Unable to call his wife on the phone while she is teaching, he instead calls the police, who whisk Peggy away from the school and bring her home. After Hank euphemistically explains what was going on to his spouse, who had assumed that someone must have died, Peggy says, “Oh Lord! Oh, poor Connie!” to which Hank replies, “Poor Connie? Poor me! I had to learn about ‘Megalobsorbancy!’ Shocked, Peggy says, “You went down Aisle 8A? We have been married for twenty years, and I can’t get you past Aisle 5,” to which Hank retorts, “I wasn’t joy riding, Peggy. It was a medical emergency.” Mike Judge wants us to recognize that, when it comes to menstruation, twenty-first-century America isn’t all that different from first-century Palestine.

In Mark chapter 5, Jesus encounters two desperate people—a father who would give anything for his daughter to be healed and a woman who would give anything for her own healing. Both are humbled by their condition. Jairus, a leader of the synagogue, a powerful man by any measure, throws himself down at Jesus’ feet, begging him repeatedly to come and save his twelve-year-old daughter from death. The woman, whose menstrual bleeding has continued for twelve long years and who has exhausted all of her resources in search of a cure, slips unnoticed through the crowd in order to get close enough to touch Jesus’ cloak, trusting that even contact with his clothes will heal her of her ostracizing condition.

Both are desperate. Both are humbled. Both have no other hope other than Jesus. Yet that is where their similarities end. Jairus is the cultural embodiment of power. As the leader of the synagogue, he was rich enough to be its patron, holy enough to be its figurehead, and connected enough to be its advocate. How strange it must have been for the crowd to see this symbol of authority and control—the man who could have gotten anything he wanted, whose favor in God’s eyes should have granted him the miracle he sought—fall helplessly at Jesus’ feet and beg for his charity. The woman, on the other hand, is not even worthy enough to have a name—at least not one worth remembering. Isolated from her family, banned from the synagogue, shunned by the community as a woman scorned by God, she had spent all that she had in search of a cure that would allow her to rejoin society—to find once more her place in the family of God. She could not afford to make herself known to Jesus because she could not risk him refusing her request.

It is no accident that the nameless woman interrupts Jesus on his way to heal Jairus’ daughter. As the local religious authority, he is the one responsible for making sure that unclean women like her are not permitted in the synagogue—that they dare not get in the way of God’s presence among God’s people. It is no accident that her interruption delays Jesus long enough that Jairus’ daughter dies. Imagine what he felt when he saw Jesus stop in the middle of the crowd. Imagine his anxiety as he wondered whether this, his last hope, would make it to his house in time. Imagine the grief and rage he felt when he learned that his daughter had died and recognized who it was that had gotten in the way of his daughter’s healing. 

But why should his need for a miracle be more important, more valuable than hers? This was that nameless woman’s only chance for healing, too. Mark begins this story as if there is only enough time for one of them to be healed—as if Jesus will only be able to help one of them. And by sandwiching together these two desperate needs, Mark forces us to wonder why anyone would presume that the woman’s opportunity for healing wasn’t as important as Jairus’—why a religious outcast wouldn’t have as much of a claim on God’s saving love as the leader of the synagogue, why anyone would ever believe that a woman’s ritual impurity could get in the way of God’s salvation.

In the end, of course, it wasn’t too late. “The child is not dead but sleeping,” Jesus said to the mourners who had gathered and who laughed at his ridiculous assertion. Putting everyone but the child’s parents and his closest disciples out of the house, Jesus took the dead girl by the hand and spoke tenderly to her in Aramaic and brought her back to life. Nothing—not even millennia of religious tradition—could stand in the way of God’s healing love.

In the end, Jesus shows us that both Jairus and the nameless woman have an equal claim on God’s salvation. At twelve years old, Jairus’ daughter was on the cusp of womanhood, and, after suffering for twelve long years, the woman’s womanhood itself was broken. Jesus touched and healed them both. Both are called daughter. Both are restored. 

In Jesus Christ, God’s salvation comes to all people regardless of what the world would say about who deserves it. In fact, that salvation comes in ways that reject and defeat and destroy any attempt by others to restrict it—especially attempts by those who presume to speak on behalf of God. In Jesus Christ, we see that all people have a claim on God’s saving love. He has the power not only to heal all who are wounded, suffering, and broken but also to heal the brokenness that separates us from each other. You cannot know the saving power of God’s love and deny that love to anyone else. You cannot receive the healing touch of our savior and decide that someone else does not deserve that touch. God’s love has no limits. Who are we to stand in God’s way?


Sunday, June 13, 2021

Salvation in a Cedar or a Shrub?

 

June 13, 2021 – The 3rd Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 6B

© 2021 Evan D. Garner


Audio of this sermon, which is substantially different from the text below, is available here. Video of the service can be seen here.

Where is your home? Where are you at home? Not necessarily the place you sleep at night, though for many of us that is our home. Where in this world do you belong in a way that no one could ever take that from you? As Robert Frost wrote, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” Where is that home for you?

Three years ago, when Elizabeth and I drove for the first time to Northwest Arkansas, we noticed how dramatically the land changed as we moved from the rice patties of the Mississippi Delta through the Arkansas River Valley and on into the Boston Mountains. We grew up in places where pine trees lined every interstate and highway so thick you can only see a few feet into the woods as you drive by. We were trying to imagine what it would be like to live in a place where the roads are dotted by cedars that are spread out far enough that you can see the undulations of the rocky ground between them. 

Last week, I had coffee with Jacob Adler, the former rabbi at Temple Shalom, and we spoke about the ways in which where you live and where you’re from shape the way you read the Bible. A while back, he told me, he had been asked to translate a series of novels set in the Ozarks into Hebrew. One problem he encountered was the word “cedar.” Around here, he explained, we all know what cedar trees are—those scrubby, evergreen trees on the side of the road that, if you try to hang Christmas ornaments on them, the branches bend down to the ground. To someone who lives in the Levant, however, a cedar tree is something quite different.

In fact, to a botanist or arborist, the cedars of Arkansas and the cedars of Lebanon have very little in common except their fragrant, reddish wood. Rabbi Jacob explained that our cedar trees aren’t really cedars at all. They’re a form of juniper (Juniperus virginiana), which have narrow trunks and reach heights of maybe 50 or 60 feet. The cedars of Lebanon (Cedrus libani), however, are, as the scriptures suggest, magnificent trees with massive trunks and branches that stretch upwards of 130 feet or more. When the prophet Ezekiel asks us to imagine a “noble cedar,” under which “every kind of bird will live” and in whose branches “winged creatures of every kind” will find shade, he isn’t asking us to picture the floppy cedars we know made cartoonishly large but the giant legends of the Levantine forest, big and strong enough to make a home for all of God’s people.

“I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar,” God declares, “I will set it out…I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain.” The good news we hear in today’s reading from Ezekiel comes from the end of chapter 17, but that good news of a secure home for all people is actually the second half of a parable, which doesn’t begin so positively. At the beginning of the chapter, the prophet tells of a great and colorful eagle that came and snapped off the top of another cedar tree. That sprig, which represents King Jehoiakim of Judah, was taken off into exile by the eagle, who represents king of Babylon. When the sprig was planted in the city of merchants, a name for Babylonia, however, it died. That particular monarchical line was not to grow. 

In his place, we are told, the eagle-king of Babylon took another seed, Jehoiakim’s uncle, Zedekiah, and planted it back in Jerusalem as vassal king, allowing it to grow and prosper as long as he kept the peace and paid tribute to his master. But this seed, which had been planted by the Babylonian king, did not grow into a mighty cedar but into a vine more like a willow. At first, the vine showed promise for God’s people—a luscious, green, flowering vine that spread out beside the river. Soon, however, those shoots reached out toward a second eagle, this time representative of Egypt, with whom Zedekiah tried to establish a secret alliance that would lend military support for a rebellion against the Babylonian overlords. Yet, when the time for rebellion came, no help from Egypt was to be found. And, like the vine that he was, Zedekiah was pulled up from the ground with very little effort, and the city of Jerusalem was utterly destroyed, and God’s people were left without a home.

When the time comes, God declares, “I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar…I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain…in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar. Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind.” The parable of the cedar tree and the willow vine teaches us that our hope for salvation—our need for a secure home that is big enough to house all people and strong enough never to be shaken—is answered not by the kingdoms of this world but by the kingdom of God. The hope we wait for comes from God.

No matter how good our intentions are, we cannot vote for a candidate who will make God’s reign come to the earth. No matter how pure our motives are, we cannot support a legislative agenda that will establish God’s rule in our land. No matter how enlightened our dreams are, we cannot build a church that will bring the fullness of God’s kingdom to this community. Yes, our prayer, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” should affect the way we use our vote and our voice as much as it affects the way we build our church. But, no matter how good it may feel to see our preferred candidate win an election, we cannot confuse the kingdoms of our own creation with the reign of God. 

Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.” Jesus said, “[The kingdom of God] is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of seeds on the earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

In every generation, God’s people wait and watch for God to come and establish his perfect reign on the earth. In order to help us see it, Jesus borrows from Ezekiel’s parable and adds new layers of understanding to it. Instead of following the prophetic pattern that God’s people expect, Jesus invites us to see that the kingdom of God sprouts forth from the earth in ways that transcend human understanding. Instead of a mighty cedar, which grows up from the sprig that God has planted, Jesus asks us to think of God’s reign as if it were a mustard plant—something that starts as small as the smallest seed on the earth yet still grows big enough for the birds of the air to nest in its branches.

Don’t you want a place to call home? Don’t you want to be secure in ways that carry you all the way through this life and even into the next? Don’t you want to belong in a way that is so deep and so true that nothing could ever take that away from you? That is God’s promise to us, in the kingdom that God establishes here on the earth. God’s reign is the one in which all the birds of the air—all the peoples of the earth—can build their nests in its protective shade. We find that place of belonging in the one who unites the peoples of the world through his own sacrificial love. 


Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Cedar Trees and Mustard Seeds

 

This Sunday, regardless of whether your congregation is reading the RCL Track 2 lesson from Ezekiel, do yourself a favor and read all of Ezekiel 17 before you get to church on Sunday. I recommend that you read the CEB, which helps clarify some of the pronouns that get confusing. Here's a side-by-side comparison of the NRSV and CEB that you can read in 3-5 minutes.

It's the end of the chapter--verses 22-24--that are the reading for Sunday, but the rest of the chapter not only adds context to those verses but helps us understand what Jesus means when he talks about a mustard plant becoming big enough for birds of the air to nest in its shade. And, more than that, the first part of the chapter helps us understand why Jesus may have told the first parable in the gospel lesson--that of the farmer who scatters seed and does not know how it grows--and, perhaps most importantly, why Mark sandwiches the two parables together.

The first parable portrays the kingdom of God as something that comes up from the ground despite the farmer's lack of understanding. God is the one who gives the growth. The second parable portrays the kingdom of God as something that starts small yet becomes big enough to provide shelter for the birds of the air. And Ezekiel 17 portrays God's salvation as something that will not come through human intervention but through divine intervention--like a God-planted cedar sprig that will grow up into a mighty tree that is big enough for all the birds of the air to make nests in its branches.

In other words, not only is God's kingdom surprisingly big enough to shelter all, but it's also God's work, not ours. We don't make the kingdom happen. Our hope is in God. 

Read the bits in Ezekiel about the Jerusalem king who was taken off into Babylon, who made an oath with his captor yet sent ambassadors to Egypt to ask for help. His efforts are described by the prophet not as a mighty cedar but as a vine that can be plucked up without much effort. God is the one who plants the cedar. God is the one who provides real security. 

Sunday's parables give us glimpses of God's kingdom as Jesus understood it. Reading Ezekiel 17 helps us understand those glimpses even more fully. 

Monday, June 7, 2021

Trying to Stop God

 

June 6, 2021 – The 2nd Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 5B

© 2021 Evan D. Garner


Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service is available here with the sermon beginning around 18:00.

If you got word that your grown-up child was in trouble, what kind of trouble would it be that would make you go and get that child to save them from themselves? Not what would make you want to go and rescue your child. Parents of children from 2 to 52 often feel that protective instinct. I mean what kind of trouble would it take for you to actually get up and go after your grown child in order to save them? Legal trouble? Marital trouble? Financial trouble? A trip to the hospital? A trip to jail?

In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus’ family comes to save him from himself. Back at home in Nazareth, they’ve heard what kind of trouble he’d been getting up to. It started as a few whispers accompanied by concerned looks, but it quickly got worse. People were beginning to talk openly about that firebrand rabbi. “He’s lost his mind,” they said, “a good boy like that, causing all that trouble.” Friends with connections throughout the region had told Jesus’ family that he had been saying and doing some really controversial stuff. He had managed to enrage the local authorities more than once, and those friends had heard that they had even sent for the religious leaders down in Jerusalem. If they got ahold of him first, it might be too late. Mary and her family had better hurry down to Capernaum, where Jesus and his followers were camped out. If they went quickly, they might be able to stop him before it really got out of hand—before the real trouble started.

But they didn’t make it in time. When the religious officials from the capital city arrived in Capernaum, they pronounced their official judgment upon Jesus: “He has Beelzelbul, and by the ruler of demons he cast out demons.” That’s a strong accusation—not merely that Jesus was making outlandish claims but that Satan himself was operating through this controversial rabbi. By the time a theological disputation devolves into calling one’s opponent an agent of Satan, there really isn’t much room left for dialogue. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day had labeled him a prince of the devil, which meant that anything he did or said was automatically evil and that any claim he made about God was tantamount to blasphemy and worthy of execution by stoning. For most preachers in any tradition, that’s not a recipe for vocational advancement.

So what was it that Jesus did and said that got him in so much trouble? Why were the local and national religious leaders determined to sabotage his ministry? In the Gospel according to Mark, Jesus gets himself in trouble right from the very beginning. As soon as he was baptized, he was led by the Holy Spirit out into the wilderness, where he was confronted by Satan. When he got back into town, he found that Satan was waiting for him there as well. After calling a few disciples, Jesus’ first two miracles were to cast out a demon in a synagogue on the sabbath and the next day heal a leper, daring to touch the man in order to make him clean. Quickly, the compassionate rabbi, who was willing to flaunt the established rules, made a name for himself throughout the region. 

Then, Jesus healed a paralytic man, but, before he did, he pronounced that the man’s sins had been forgiven—a claim that was likened by some to blasphemy. He followed that up by spending time eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners, which only made the religious community more upset. Then, at the beginning of Mark 3, Jesus again entered a synagogue on the sabbath, but this time the authorities were watching to see what he would do. When a man with a withered hand came to him in order to be healed, Jesus turned their own expectations back on them, asking, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath—to save life or kill?” But, when the authorities refused to answer his question, he was grieved at their hardness of heart and healed the man anyway. From that moment on, Mark tells us, the authorities went out and conspired to destroy him.

That’s more or less where today’s gospel lesson picks up—with reports of that meddlesome behavior reaching both his family and the religious leaders in Jerusalem, both of whom come to find him. One group comes to stop him before he gets into even more trouble, and the other comes to bring the full weight of that trouble upon him. And Mark sandwiches those two pursuits together into one episode to help us understand that, whether we’re coming to save Jesus from himself or coming to label him as an agent of Satan, we’re guilty of the same thing. We can’t stand in the way of the gospel’s work without standing in the way of God. A house divided against itself, Jesus tells us, cannot stand.

This isn’t easy work, but it’s important work. People who confront institutions of power are always vilified in the most extreme terms. When religious institutions are challenged, the challengers are called demonic. When economic institutions are challenged, they are called communist. When national institutions are challenged, they are called unpatriotic. When familial institutions are challenged, they are called traitorous. And labels like that make it hard to get anywhere in this world. It’s hard to get a job or a friend or a spouse or a loan or a or a pulpit if people who matter in this world have called you evil. 

And if my child was doing or saying something that brought heat like that upon them, I would want to get up and run after them and grab them by the shoulders and shake some sense into them. I’d want to pick them up and put them in the back seat of my car and race away from danger. Wouldn’t all of us want to restrain our loved one before something bad happened to them? But what happens if that person we love is under fire because they are standing on the side of justice? What is the right thing to do if that person we are so worried about has put their life on the line for the sake of the gospel?

Jesus came to love those whom the world knew to be unlovable. He told sinners that they were forgiven. He invited outcasts to sit at his table. He gave healing and wholeness to those whom the religious traditions had been unable to help. And, when he did all of that, the people who had been in charge of the religious rules for generations were furious. They were angry enough to conspire in order to have him killed. And all Mary and her family wanted to do was rescue him and take him away from all of that.

“Who are my mother and my brothers?” Jesus asked when told that his family was standing outside. “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Jesus’ work was to make sure that everyone had a place in God’s family. And those of us who are committed to that work discover that our true home—our true family—is the one we have in Jesus Christ. 

We belong to a God who loves us not because we’re good enough, religious enough, or holy enough. We belong to a God who loves us just because. Believing that—believing that all people matter to God not because of what they have or think or say or do, where they’re from, or who they love—is threatening to those people and institutions that for generations have been in control of who gets a seat at the table. To some, it is even so threatening that they would respond by trying to kill those who talk about God and the world like that. What will we do in the face of a threat like that? Will we try to restrain the ones we love who face such danger? Or will we ask God to give us the strength to lend our voice and our bodies and our lives to stand with them?


Monday, May 24, 2021

Can These Bones Live?

 

May 23, 2021 – The Day of Pentecost: Whitsunday, Year B

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here. Video of the entire service is available here with the sermon starting around 19:10.

Can these bones live? Can these dry bones, the scattered remains of God’s people, the symbol of their abandoned hopes and unfulfilled dreams, come back to life?

The hand of the Lord came upon the prophet Ezekiel and brought him to the middle of a valley that was full of bones. God led him up and down that valley among all those bones—an exhausting tour of death and destruction. And the voice of God said to the prophet, “Mortal, can these bones live?” And the prophet replied, “O Lord God, you are the one who knows.”

These bones were very dry. Not the bones of those killed these last few weeks in Palestine or even the bones of those tortured and murdered in Syria over the last several years. These bones had been dead so long that there was no tissue still clinging to them. These were the kind of bones you find in unmarked graves in Tulsa or Elaine. These were the scattered, abandoned bones of those whose lives had been forgotten and whose deaths hardly anyone remembered. Life had long ago deserted these bones, and now the prophet was asked to imagine whether they might live again: “Mortal, can these bones live?” And the prophet replied, “O Lord God, you are the one who knows.”

In the time of the prophet Ezekiel, God’s people had suffered great loss. Their nation had been defeated. Their cities had been destroyed. Their homes had been demolished. Their people had been carted off in exile. Their God, as far as anyone could tell, had abandoned them and forsaken their name. There was no life in them. Their future was as good as dead. Could these bones live?

God said to the prophet, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them, ‘O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live.” 

And when the prophet opened his mouth and proclaimed what God had told him, there came a noise—a rustling and rattling—as the bones came together, bone to its bone. What a terrifying sound that must have been! As the prophet looked on, sinews came upon them, holding the bones together, and then muscle tissue and then skin. A multitude—a legion—of Israel standing there, reembodied but breathless until the prophet prophesied to the breath that came from the four corners of the earth and blew new life into those once-dead bodies. What an incredible and terrifying sight that must have been!

Standing there, looking out at the great multitude of God’s resuscitated people, the prophet heard the Lord explain that those dry bones were the whole house of Israel—all of God’s people—who had suffered so long that their “bones were dried up, and [their] hope was lost; [they were] cut off completely.” That’s all they knew. That’s all they could see. They were as hopeless as skeletal remains in a hastily dug mass grave. But not to God. God was not through with them yet. In God, their dry, lifeless hopes found new breath, new life. God was going to do something exciting and terrifying and totally unexpected. God was going to bring them back to life.

God’s Spirit is the breath that breathes life into old, dry bones. And Pentecost is the day when we celebrate that breath coming to breathe God’s new life into the broken, dry bones of this world not just in a moment two thousand years ago but each and every day. 

The Spirit’s work in our own day is the same as it was back then. On the night he was arrested, Jesus promised his disciples in John 16, that he would send the Holy Spirit or Advocate, as he called it, to come and prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment. That’s a fancy way of saying that the work of the Holy Spirit is to turn the world’s expectations about Jesus and his ministry and God’s plan for the world on their head. The powers of this world thought that they could defeat the one who came to rescue the lost and lift up the downtrodden by nailing him to a cross. They thought that by killing him in that shameful way they would prove his ministry had run its course. But they were wrong.

At Easter, God reversed their judgment, and at Pentecost God reverses it yet again. The powers of this world think that they have won whenever they convince the brokenhearted and despondent that the world will always be this way—that their hopes and dreams are as lifeless as a valley full of dry bones. But they are the ones in whom God’s Spirit breathes new life—not only at Pentecost but ever since. 

These are the last days, Peter tells us, when God’s Spirit is poured out upon all flesh—male and female, young and old, slave and free. In his own vision of God’s saving work, the prophet Joel imagined a day when God’s Spirit would flow so freely that no one would be excluded from its power, and Peter understood that day to have been ushered in at Pentecost. That was two thousand years ago, yet we still live in those last days. God’s work of bringing new life to the broken world is still unfolding. God’s rejection of those who would rob others of hope continues. 

The arrival of God’s Spirit was not simply a moment in the past but the inauguration of a new era of God’s ongoing activity in the world. And, as recipients of that Holy Spirit, we are the ones who bear the good news of that new life and new hope to the world. We are the ones empowered for that sacred work. Those who are baptized into this community of faith are those whom God calls and equips to carry the good news of salvation to the ends of the earth.

Whose bones lie scattered in the valleys of today—sometimes even literally? Whose lives have become so hopeless that they cannot see beyond the death and destruction piled around them? What is God’s Spirit saying to them? What are we saying on God’s behalf?

This is the work of the Holy Spirit—to give hope to the hopeless, direction to the lost, and strength to the weary. Even more than that, God’s Spirit is what brings new life to the dead. The Spirit is what brings the promise of resurrection to the ends of the earth. It is the power of God which stands in direct opposition to the powers of this world. It is more than tongues of fire and spontaneous translation. Those strange phenomena must have been exciting to behold, but they were merely signs of this new thing that God is doing. God is breathing new life into long-dead, long-forgotten, long-ignored people and places and institutions. What signs of new life will God show the world through us? Can these dry bones live? God is the one who knows, and we are the ones who are called to make it known.


Sunday, May 16, 2021

Impossible Choice

 

May 16, 2021 – Easter 7B

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon will be available soon. A video of the service is available here with the sermon beginning around 12:50.

Perhaps the most important tool in my pastoral counseling toolbox is a coin. Heads or tails—which will it be?

People don’t come to me for advice all that often, but, when they do, I find that the most important thing I can give them is the confidence of knowing that they can’t make a wrong decision. Or, to say that another way, if you can see a situation from all sides and still don’t know the right thing to do, what would happen if you flipped a coin and let chance decide? Does the idea of letting a monumental decision rest on the flip of a coin free you up to make the decision you’re struggling to make?

Today’s story from the Acts of the Apostles is one of my favorites. The eleven apostles have gathered with the other believers in Jerusalem. They have seen the risen Jesus ascend into heaven, and now they wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. But before God’s Spirit can breathe through them, empowering them to carry the good news of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth, the symbolic community of the apostles needs to be reconstituted. 

When Judas “turned aside to go to his own place,” as Peter put it, the twelve lost one of their founding members. One of the disciples whom Jesus chose had betrayed him and, in gruesome fashion, had met his own demise. For a few reasons, the remaining disciples, who now understood themselves to be apostles or “sent ones” because of the commission the risen Jesus had given them, recognized the need to put the twelve back together. 

Partly, that’s because twelve is an important symbolic number in Judaism, and an early Christian tradition held that the twelve disciples were representative of the twelve tribes of Israel. But it was also because the remaining disciples were desperate for healing. They had been wounded from within their own fellowship. One of their own had betrayed their master and everything he stood for. Even though the empty tomb had pushed aside any argument that a real messiah would have known better than to pick a traitor as one of his closest confidants, the remaining eleven and the other believers must have been eager for a way to move past those doubts. Choosing another apostle from among the community of believers who had been with them from the beginning was an important way to do that.

When it was time to make their choice, the apostles got together, held a televised debate among the leading candidates and, after a series of primary elections, used a secret ballot to ensure that the right person was chosen to take Judas’ place. No, that’s not what they did. Faced with the biggest decision that the way of Jesus had known, the eleven came together, identified two people who were qualified, prayed to God for guidance, and cast lots to determine who the twelfth apostle would be. 

Was it chance? Was it luck? Was it magic? Was it faith? What did the apostles understand about the nature of lots, of God, and of themselves to lead them to effectively draw straws to decide who would join them as one of the most important leaders of the church? In the Jewish tradition, casting lots had long been an acceptable way to determine an outcome. In Leviticus 16, we read that, on the Day of Atonement, two goats were to be brought before the Lord and lots were to be cast to determine which one would be sacrificed and which one would be sent out into the wilderness bearing the sins of the people as a scapegoat. When it was time to divide up the land of Canaan among the tribes of Israel (Numbers 26:55), the divisions were made by casting lots. When determining which soldiers would go into battle (Judges 20:9) and which priests would go into the sanctuary to offer the appointed sacrifices (Luke 1:9), God’s people relied on lots. But all of those decisions were moments when the outcome clearly didn’t depend on a careful evaluation of the options. We wouldn’t say the same thing about choosing the twelfth apostle, would we?

Another thing to remember is that while the Jewish tradition accepted the casting of lots as a faithful way to make a decision, God’s people did not understand that process to be magic. This was not a séance or a mystical way to divine God’s will. With the strange and notable exception of the Urim and Thummim, the sacred objects that were kept in the high priest’s ephod and which had long since stopped being used to determine God’s will, the superstitious practice of conjuring up the right answer through an incantation or spiritual medium was outlawed. When Peter prayed and asked God to show them which of the two candidates should join in their ministry and apostleship, he wasn’t asking God to reach down and manipulate the dice as they were cast, yet, at the same time, he was expressing a confidence that, whatever the outcome would be, God and God’s will would be revealed through it.

What does it mean to believe in God like that? This isn’t a passage about primitive models for decision making or a primitive faith that understands God’s will to be most fully revealed at the roulette wheel. This is a story about believing that God’s loving plan for us is bigger than any decisions we would make. It’s a story about trusting that we can’t choose ourselves outside of God’s providential care. It’s a lesson about believing that God’s presence and will can be discerned no matter what direction our lives take. It’s a reminder that we are to seek a deeper understanding of that truth in all of the decisions we face. That’s the kind of faith I need to get me through every day.

When we elect a vestry, we don’t cast lots to determine who should serve, but, if we did, our church wouldn’t fall apart. And, even if it did fall apart, God’s reign on the earth wouldn’t unravel because of it. God’s plan is bigger than that. God’s love for the world is bigger than that. Believing in God does not require us to let go of our intellect—to discard the brains that God has given us—but it does require us to accept that, even when we make a catastrophically bad decision, God’s love for us will not be defeated. We are supposed to think carefully before making big decisions, and it is good practice to put smart, thoughtful people in positions of leadership, but no matter how carefully we think our way through a situation, we still might mess things up. And that’s ok because we can’t mess them up so badly that God can’t work through our mistakes to bring all things to their perfection. 

No matter how bad our choices are, we can’t choose our way beyond the limits of God’s loving care. When it comes down to it, we might as well flip a coin. That isn’t a belief in chance or luck or fate. It’s confidence in the God who loves us.