Sunday, December 5, 2021

When Forgiveness Comes And Finds Us

 

December 5, 2021 – Advent 2C

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Audio of the sermon is available here. Video of the service can be seen here with the sermon starting around 21:30.

Although it has been about ten years since I have seen it, just thinking about a video we used to show at Cursillo weekends still has the power to awaken within me the range of powerful emotions that accompany a story of brokenness and reconciliation. Cursillo is a movement in the Episcopal Church that focuses on spiritual renewal and congregational leadership. It exists throughout the church but seems to have gone dormant in this diocese. 

Anyway, the video I have in mind is one that portrays a terrible argument between a son and his parents—one so severe that the relationship between them disintegrates as the son leaves, promising never to come back. It has been so long since I have seen the video that I don’t remember the whole story, but I do remember that somehow years later word got from the son to his parents that, if he was still welcome in their home, if they were willing to accept him back, they should keep a lamp on in his bedroom window in case he came by and found the courage to knock on the door. I cannot recall exactly how things worked out, but I can remember tears streaming down my face as I watched two parents wrap their arms around their desperate son in moment of tender reunion.

Stories like that always make me cry. There’s something about the idea of being cut off from my family and then being welcomed back home or losing touch with a child and finally seeing them come back that tugs at tenderest part of my heart. But what if leaving a light on isn’t good enough? What if the brokenness is so deep that the one who is estranged never bothers to come back? What if the idea of returning home or welcoming someone back is so painful that we simply cannot do it no matter how much we love someone? We need a story that presents reconciliation not as something that is waiting for us if we find can ever the strength to turn around and come back. We need a savior who comes out and finds us where we are.

In the fifteenth year of Emperor Tiberius, which is about 29 AD, the word of God came to John, the son of Zechariah, in the wilderness. Unlike the other gospel writers, Luke provides the backstory to John the Baptizer and how he made his way out into the wilderness in the first place. The son of a priest, John’s birth had been announced by the angel Gabriel, who explained that this child would grow up to become a mighty prophet and that he would be filled with the Holy Spirit even before his birth. Luke doesn’t tell us about camelhair and leather belts or locusts and wild honey, but he doesn’t have to because everyone knows that a Spirit-filled prophet will have a hard time finding a home amidst city-folk. From the time he was an adult, Luke tells us, John made his home in the wilderness, on the edge of civilization, where he waited for God’s call.

John the Baptizer wasn’t the only religious figure of his day to dwell out beyond the reaches of society. The Essenes were an ascetic religious group who gave up on the Jerusalem temple as a spiritually corrupt institution and established their own Jewish community amidst the caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were eventually found. Before his prophetic call, it seems likely that John made his home among them. In his work Antiquities of the Jews, first-century historian Josephus gives an extracanonical account of John the Baptist, describing him as one who emphasized personal righteousness and piety and who taught that ritual washing was necessary for physical purity before God. [1] Josephus’ description of John sounds a lot like something the Essenes would have taught, but, when God’s long-expected word came to the Baptizer, he broke away from that community in order to proclaim a different teaching.

Having received God’s call, John the Baptist went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism for the forgiveness of sins. He didn’t go out and invite people to come back to the temple. He didn’t encourage folks to leave their homes and lives and devote themselves to the Essene way of life. He didn’t assure those who were estranged from society that the religious authorities would leave a light on for them if they would only come back. He went out and met them in the wilderness and delivered to them the good news that God’s salvation was coming out to find them. He told those who were unable to find a welcome in their local synagogues or in the Jerusalem temple that reconciliation and forgiveness were not waiting on them to come back but that the opportunity for turning things around had come all the way out into the wilderness to meet them where they were. And in Jesus Christ that’s where it meets us as well.

Sometimes we just don’t know how to take that first step. Sometimes the wounds of rejection run so deep that we can’t even imagine being welcomed back. In those moments of most profound brokenness, it doesn’t matter how eager people will be to see us if we ever darken the door again. We can’t even get to that threshold because we are convinced that we don’t belong there. But the good news of Jesus Christ is God’s promise that salvation and redemption and forgiveness are not conditional upon us finding our way back. They are brought out and handed to us even when we are stuck in the barren places, cut off from others. The path to reconciliation is one of repentance—of turning around—but John the Baptist helps us hear that the forgiveness we seek isn’t waiting for us when we complete the journey but is offered to us even before we take that first step.

In some ways, of course, this message of unconditional forgiveness and reconciliation isn’t intended for those who already come to church on Sunday mornings and already know that they will have a place in one of these pews and already believe that they will be embraced by God at the altar. Most of the people who need to hear the good news of God’s limitless grace and mercy are the ones who aren’t here. They’re the ones who have been pushed away by religious groups and institutions like ours—by the very people who think that leaving a lamp on in the window and waiting for penitent sinners to come back is all we are called to do—those who believe that it’s up to the ones who have gone astray to get their lives back in order before they walk through that door. But that’s not the gospel of grace. It’s just another way of saying, “Saints are welcome, but sinners need not apply.” And that’s not what it means for us to be the body of Christ.

Those of us who have received the good news of unconditional love are called to do more than welcome those who return. We must share that good news with those who doubt that they would ever have a place in a church like this one. We must reach out to them and go to those places—both physical and metaphorical—where broken relationships pile up, where three strikes and you’re out is the rule of life, where hope is hardest to find. Those are wilderness places, where city-folk like you and me are usually scared to go. But they are also the places where, in the tender compassion of our God, a new dawn from on high breaks upon sinners like us. 

If you already know in your heart that that dawn is breaking, you must go out and share that good news with those who have given up hope that there could ever be a new day. And, if you are among those who have been led to believe that God’s love and forgiveness will never be real for you until you become a better person and get your spiritual act together, hear this good news today: God has come out to meet you where you are. Even in the wilderness, a voice of hope cries out that God makes the crooked paths and rough places smooth and straight in order that all flesh shall see the salvation of God. 


1. Josephus. Antiquities of the Jews, XVIII.5.2. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/josephus/ant-18.html, accessed 3 December 2021.


Sunday, November 28, 2021

Signs of Trouble, Signs of Hope

 

November 28, 2021 – Advent 1C

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Who is OJ Simpson? That depends on how old you are. If you are my parents’ age, you probably remember when “the Juice” was setting records at USC and in the NFL. People my age never saw him on the field, but I do remember being told that that mediocre actor I saw in The Naked Gun was once a legendary running back. Those who are my children’s age, of course, only know him as a famous defendant from a murder trial, if they know him at all.

Like most of you, I bet, I remember where I was when Simpson’s white Ford Bronco led an army of police cars on a low-speed chase around Los Angeles. And I remember where I was, sixteen months later, when the verdict in his murder trial was read. Likely a consequence of my age, I remember not really caring all that much about the trial and feeling a little surprised at how big a deal grown-ups were making about it. Except that one of my teachers kept the trial on in her classroom—a welcomed distraction from school work—I was not in any way invested in the outcome, but, if I had been forced to offer an assessment of Simpson’s not guilty verdict, I would have called it a miscarriage of justice—another example of a celebrity using his power, influence, and wealth to buy the outcome he desired.

Of course, I would have reached that conclusion not because I had weighed all the evidence offered at trial. I barely watched any of the proceedings. I could not have told you what the burden of proof was, nor could I have separated in any way the media’s coverage of the trial from the trial itself. Still, I would have told you that Simpson deserved to go to prison not because I actually cared about the outcome but because I belonged to a community that was predisposed to think that he was guilty. There were no black students in the classroom with me when the verdict was read. In fact, I was so insulated from anyone who thought otherwise that it wasn’t until fifteen years later, when the adult animated sitcom Family Guy reminisced about how differently white and black America had reacted to the verdict, that it occurred to me that anyone other than the defendant would have been relieved by the outcome. Sometimes we interpret world events not because of what happened but because of what attachments we hold.

“There will be signs,” Jesus tells us, “in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.” When those calamitous signs take place, Jesus explains, many “people will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” But when you see these things taking place, he tells us, “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

There are two kinds of people in the world, Jesus reminds us, and, when the cosmos is shaken to its foundations, we will discover who is who. Many will run and hide and panic because the sky is falling, but those who belong to Jesus will stand up tall and look toward the heavens in order to see that their redemption is drawing near. Those who belong to the world—whose values and hopes are enmeshed with the powers and institutions of the earth—will have every reason to cower in fear because everything they’ve built their lives upon will come crashing to the ground. But those whose only hope rests in the one who will come and make all things new will celebrate that great and glorious day because then and only then will their salvation be complete.

Our job, as people of faith, is to make sure that we can recognize those signs for what they are and embrace them when they come. In order to do that, though, we must also remember what Jesus doesn’t tell us to do. As eager as we might be for the perfection of all things, Jesus never tells us to make God’s kingdom come, only to look for it. We pray for it. We hope for it. We watch for it. But we do not make God’s reign come. That’s God’s work. Sometimes that work takes place through us, as we offer ourselves each day to live more fully within God’s reign, but the great and final consummation of God’s loving purposes is not up to us. It’s up to God. 

That’s most definitely good news. In part, it’s good news because it’s exhausting when we convince ourselves that we are personally responsible for making sure that goodness will win in the end. Aren’t you tired, too? Aren’t you tired of things not going God’s way no matter how hard you try? Yes, we are called to the tireless work of living within the kingdom of God, but that kingdom will always be bigger than any jury verdict, any piece of legislation, or any political victory we might celebrate. And it’s also good news that God’s reign belongs to God because, even when we think we’ve got the whole “standing on the right side of justice” thing figured out, sometimes we still mess things up—because we’re human. As mere mortals, there is no decision we can make—individually or collectively—that will bring God’s reign to its fulfillment. 

But we can recognize that when the sun and moon and stars begin to fall, when the waves and the sea begin to roar, and when the powers of the heavens begin to shake, that our redemption is drawing near and that it’s time for us to stand up and take notice. Sometimes Christians get confused by what all those things mean. Sometimes overly enthusiastic preachers claim that this particular natural disaster or that particular world event are signs that the end is near. I don’t know about all of that, but I do take comfort in Jesus’ words to his disciples: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.” Maybe interpreting the signs that God’s fulfillment of all things has come near is really as simple and obvious as seeing buds on a tree and knowing that summer is right around the corner.

Our problem isn’t that we focus on the wrong signs but that we fail to notice that these signs are evidence of the nearness of God’s reign. We miss them because we allow ourselves to be distracted by other priorities. Jesus warns his disciples not to let their hearts become weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life or else the day of Christ’s coming might catch them unexpectedly, like a trap. That’s a warning we must heed as well. In the Bible, drunkenness isn’t just an expression about the over-consumption of alcohol. The prophets use it to represent the state of losing one’s faculties to the allure of the world. Those who are drunk are drunk not only on wine but on all of the temporal, earthly pleasures that distract them from the centrality and importance of God’s heavenly reign. If the complete and chaotic reordering of the world feels threatening to us, maybe it’s because we’ve become so accustomed to the comforts of this life that we’ve forgotten how to recognize what God is doing when things get turned upside down.

Every once in a while, we get a glimpse of God’s great reordering of the world. These are moments when the power of Christ’s victory over sin and death breaks through into this life and reveals the ways in which God is bringing all things to their perfection. For many, those breakthroughs are deeply divisive and threatening, but for others they are signs of hope and promise. We must forsake our attachments to the ways of the world in order to interpret those signs for what they really are. We cannot make God’s kingdom come, but we can recognize it when it does. And, when we see those signs of God’s imminent reign as signs of hope and renewal, we become eager to stand up and lift up our heads and celebrate the day of Christ’s coming, not afraid of what will come but overjoyed at the one who comes to make all things new. To him be all honor and glory, world without end. Amen.


Sunday, November 14, 2021

Recognizing Labor Pains

 

November 14, 2021 – The 25th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 28B

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the service can be seen here with the gospel and sermon beginning around 20:20. 

I was in the fourth or fifth grade when my mother took me to Washington, D.C.. I had never been on a trip like that—just me and one of my parents—and I knew it was special. We saw some amazing things, including the National Cathedral on Easter morning. I had never been in a church that big, that grand, that amazing. The music was concert-worthy, and the liturgy was sublime, but the sheer volume of the space—a seemingly boundless expanse—transported me to another spiritual plane. In that Holy Communion, I experienced, as John Calvin might describe it, a heavenly encounter with the real Christ as my soul was transported above even the lofty heights of the cathedral’s ceilings into the divine presence.

A dozen years later, I went to Rome for the first time and again felt my soul ascend into the heavens as I stepped inside St. Peter’s Basilica. Feeling beneath my feet the place where centuries of innumerable pilgrims had made their way to the center of western Christianity, I looked up and admired the dome that had funneled their prayers to God. But in Rome I also visited the ruins of religious shrines where prayers to Castor, Pollux, Saturn, and various deified emperors long ago fell silent. I saw the relics of a fallen empire and perceived within the fractured columns and broken arches the same architectural features I had seen boast of imperial might in our nation’s capital. What a difference two thousand years makes!

Jesus didn’t need to look that far into the future to behold the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, which fell during the city’s siege in 70AD, but his words about not one stone being left on top of another were aimed as much at institutional powers as the structures that enshrined them. 

On their way out of the temple, one of Jesus’ disciples remarked how large and impressive the stones and structures of the temple mount were. Indeed, they were impressive by any measure. An ancient rabbi wrote that “one who has not seen the temple in its full splendor has never seen a beautiful building.”  Imagine, then, what that marvelous expanse of white marble and gold looked like to a Galilean tradesman—a country boy from a fishing village up north. Imagine how easy it must have been to stand in that place and feel God’s Spirit tugging your heart and mind and soul upward. Yet, in Jesus’ mind, those magnificent stones were already scattered, lying crumbling on the ground. 

It is the prophet’s role to stand in the courts of power and declare their emptiness and inevitable decline. It is the prophet who brings the sharp truth of God’s word that the structures and symbols of earthly power must always give way to divine strength. And it is the job of the faithful to discern within those difficult proclamations a message of transcendent hope.

Today’s gospel lesson is a transitional passage in Mark’s account of the good news. It comes after Jesus’ lengthy teaching about the role of the temple in contemporary Jewish life. He had turned over the moneychangers’ tables and openly questioned the authority of the religious leaders. He had used barely disguised parables and clever scriptural techniques to expose the hypocrisy of the temple’s authorities. As the disciples listened on, Jesus had laid out a host of reasons why the institutional religion of his day had let God and God’s people down. And, now as they left the temple precincts, one of those disciples couldn’t help himself. “What large stones and large buildings!” he remarked, overwhelmed by their splendor. “Do you see these great buildings?” Jesus asked in reply. “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

Those words were more than a prophetic rebuke. To announce the impending destruction of the temple was not only to threaten the structure itself but also everything that it represented. This was the home of God. This was the place where God met God’s people here on earth. To declare that one day it would lie in ruin was more than a critique of the religious leaders. To those who felt in that holy place an irreplaceable connection with their Creator, it was like announcing that God would abandon God’s people. Rebels and heretics had been killed for less.

But what happens to God’s people when those generational symbols of strength and comfort are threatened? What happens when the foundations upon which we have built our faith in God are laid waste? That’s what we hear about in the second half of this gospel lesson, which links the destruction of the Jerusalem temple with even greater forces that seem to threaten us. This is where Jesus offers hope to those who have felt the sting of existential threat and corporate loss.

The disciples asked their teacher, “When will this be? What will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” And Jesus replied with terrifying language about wars and rumors of wars, nations rising against nations, earthquakes, and famines. But all of those things, he told them, are just the beginning of the birth pangs. What an important image Jesus used to describe all that conflict! To him, they are not the last gasps of a dying people whose best days are behind them but the sharp labor pains of a people whose hopes are just being born. This is the future of a people whose broken symbols of earthly might are being torn down so that a new way of knowing God’s power and presence in their lives might take shape.

“Do not be alarmed,” Jesus says to us. “These things must take place, but the end is still to come.” Sometimes, when those symbols of power and strength begin to crack and crumble, it feels like God is abandoning us. Haven’t all of us, in recent months, discovered new fault lines in even the most basic building blocks of our lives? But Jesus teaches us to recognize that they must all fall away if God’s reign is to take hold in our lives. We cannot know the salvation of God until we have been emptied of the pretense of our own security. 

Like the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, we tend to confuse symbols of earthly strength, beauty, and majesty with the One into whose presence they are supposed to draw us. And, when those institutional structures are called into question by contemporary prophets, it feels as if everything we’ve built our lives upon might come crumbling down. Oh, that it would! Jesus tells his followers to look forward to that day. That’s because, if our hope is in anything of our own making, our future destruction is assured. Only when those symbols of earthly might have fallen away can God build in their place a new hope, a new possibility.

We are surrounded by signs that that transformation is taking place. Jesus is the one who teaches us how to move beyond the comforting symbols and structures that are familiar to us in order to know the power of God and God’s love. His death and resurrection have shown us how to recognize in our losses and struggles signs of new life being born within us. As with any birth, that new life comes with pain and great difficulty, but it brings with it hope and promise. In the midst of conflict and strife, we stand at the cusp of something new and glorious. “Do not be alarmed,” Jesus tells us. These things must take place, but the end—the fulfillment of all things—is still to come.


Sunday, October 31, 2021

Why Worship?

 

October 31, 2021 – The 23rd Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 26B

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here. Video of the service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 20:00.

If Jesus moved to Fayetteville, where would he want to worship? Here? Temple Shalom? Genesis Church? What a ridiculous question! It’s as ludicrous as asking what kind of car Jesus would drive, which football team he would cheer on, and what candidate he would vote for. The reason that asking “What would Jesus do?” is so problematic is that it assumes we can yank ancient, first-century Jesus out of his particular context and wield him like a spiritual weapon to support our own agenda. Jesus doesn’t work that way. It’s a question that never helps us grow in faith. Still, though, I wonder what he would think about what we do in his name each week.

What would Jesus think about our music—the choir, the organ? Would he like the stained-glass windows—especially the ones that portray images of him? What would he think about Communion? Would he recognize the ways in which we try to “do this in remembrance of him,” or would our brand of worship be so strange that he would give it a hard pass?

As far as we can tell, the Jesus of the New Testament wasn’t a big fan of organized religion. All four gospel writers recall that, when Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, he went to the temple and turned over all the tables and chased the moneychangers out of the temple precincts. If someone walked in here and started pulling down candlesticks and throwing chalices on the floor, no matter who it was, we would call the police and have them arrested. Christians often look back and mistakenly associate that prophetic act with a rejection of second-temple Judaism, but a careful reading of the Gospel reveals a Jesus who wasn’t opposed to the faith he knew and loved but one who was deeply critical of some of its contemporary manifestations.

We usually think of Jesus as the victim against whom the religious leaders of his day plotted, but Jesus gave out as much pointed criticism of them as they shot back his way. For example, just before today’s gospel lesson, at the beginning of Mark 12, Jesus tells a parable that portrays the authorities as evil, murderous, greedy, and unfaithful. Who can blame them for returning the favor? In repeated attempts to undermine his legitimacy as a teacher of the faith, the Pharisees, Herodians, Sadducees, and scribes all came to him with trick questions, designed to force him to take an unpopular position, but he deftly dismissed them all by appealing each time to deeper religious priorities than their questions presented. 

Impressed with what he heard, one of the scribes—a latecomer to the rhetorical party—asked a different sort of question—not one that was designed to trap Jesus but one that sought genuine insight and instruction. “Which commandment is the first of all?” he asked Jesus, posing an ancient interrogative that would help a potential disciple discern whether this was a rabbi worth following. “Of all the precepts and commandments of our faith, to which one would you give priority?” 

Jesus began his response in a familiar place: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” The Shema, which affirms the singularity of God, is a prayer traditionally recited by observant Jews every morning and every night. It is the foundation of all that follows. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” By starting there, Jesus signaled that his approach to the faith of their ancestors—his authoritative teaching—was built on a traditional understanding of God. 

But Jesus didn’t stop there. “The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Our modern translation (NRSV) leaves out a word that the King James Version and our Rite I liturgy convey: “And the second is like” or “is like unto it.” Without the word “like,” we might assume that Jesus had a hard time narrowing his choice down to just one commandment and that, despite the scribe’s request for the foremost precept, Jesus offered two. But the word “like,” which is in the biblical text, helps us know that Jesus wasn’t struggling to make up his mind but that he understood the two greatest commandments—loving God and loving neighbor—to be alike and, in fact, inseparable. 

Notice how Mark conveys this by depicting the exchange between Jesus and the scribe as one that flowed linguistically without a break. After Jesus finished his two-prong teaching, the scribe echoed Jesus’ response back to him, listing all the components without distinguishing one from another: “God is one, and besides him there is no other” and “to love God with all the heart, understanding, and strength” and “to love one’s neighbor as oneself.” It’s as if we hear the scribe internalizing Jesus’ summary of the law as a whole, integral, indivisible expression of faithfulness. 

When thought of separately, there was nothing new about either of these two commandments, but, by combining them as if they were one to begin with, Jesus offered a new insight into what it means to be faithful. He taught that there can be no difference between loving God and loving neighbor. So remarkable was this teaching that the scribe, whose identity was enmeshed with the religious institutions of his day, responded with an uncharacteristic dismissal of temple worship: “This is much more important than all the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

So why bother with all those offerings and sacrifices? Why bother building a church and spending all that money on windows and pews, on the organ and the altar, on the clergy and the musicians? If loving God means loving our neighbor, why come to church at all? Why not turn over all the tables and throw down all the candlesticks? Why not spend all that money feeding the hungry and providing shelter to those in need? Because our love of God and our love of neighbor flow into each other in ways that strengthen both commitments and shape us for a life of faithfulness.

Left to our own devices, without God’s help, our love of neighbor would quickly become an exercise in self-interest. We would help those in need because it makes us feel good. We would give money away because we want to be held in high regard by others. Our pretense of loving of others would mask a deeper love of self. Eventually, we would define what it means to care for others in ways that reflect our own sense of what is most important and of who is most valuable. And the circles we draw around who deserves our love and who doesn’t always ends up reflecting our own priorities and not God’s. 

But, when we worship God—when we acknowledge that the Lord our God is one and that we are called to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength—our devotion begins to shape us. In worship, we encounter God, and that encounter with the divine changes us. It changes what we think is important and who we think is valuable in ways that conform us to the image and understanding of God. If God loves the world completely and unconditionally, our worship of God helps us love the world in that same way. It helps us leave behind our own definitions and cling only to God’s. And, if our worship does not accomplish that, then it has not helped us meet God at all. Worship that does not change us into the likeness of God is merely an exercise in idolatrous futility.

What did you walk through those doors expecting to meet today? If it was anything less than a transformative encounter with Almighty God, you came for the wrong reasons. And, if you leave without experiencing that encounter, then we have not only let you down but God as well. How will you know whether we got it right? How can you tell that our worship is good and holy and faithful? If you bring to God your whole heart and soul and mind and strength, God will shape you into one who loves the world simply for the world’s sake. May that always be our focus in this place.


Sunday, October 24, 2021

Learning From Bartimaeus

 

October 24, 2021 – The 22nd Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 25B

© 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 18:45. 

We have been on quite a journey. For six weeks now, we have walked with Jesus and the disciples from their home base up in Bethsaida down south through Galilee, past Samaria, and on into Judea. Each Sunday, we have heard a gospel story from another stage of the journey, and each week we have moved a little closer to Jerusalem and a little closer to understanding what will happen there. Three different times along the way, Jesus has predicted his suffering, death, and resurrection, and each time the disciples have responded with disbelief and confusion, which, in turn, has led Jesus to offer another clarifying teaching about discipleship.

Today we have reached the last stop before we get to the holy city. Jericho is about 15 miles away from Jerusalem—a full day’s walk—and the road that leads to the capital makes its way steadily uphill, gaining over 3200 feet in elevation. For a pilgrim on the way to Jerusalem, Jericho was the last chance to spend the night and stock up on supplies before the taxing trek ahead. And, for us and the disciples, it our last chance to learn from Jesus before his triumphal entry into the city where he will be killed.

On the way out of town, which is to say after Jesus and the disciples had embarked on this final leg of their journey, a blind beggar, sitting on the side of the road, cried out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Like any beggar well skilled at his craft, Bartimaeus had set up shop on a busy thoroughfare, and, when he heard that a prominent religious figure was passing by, he seized on the opportunity to force that rabbi’s hand by inviting him to spare some change while the crowd looked on. At least that’s what the crowd thought when they heard Bartimaeus’ cry. “Be quiet!” they hissed at the annoying beggar. “Save your flattering appeals for someone else.”

The disciples and the crowd tried to protect Jesus, not unlike when they had tried to prevent parents from bringing their little children to the busy teacher, but Bartimaeus would not be deterred. He cried out, squawking like a raven, all the more loudly, all the more disruptively, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” And Jesus stopped. And the crowd stopped with him. “Call him here,” the rabbi said.

In the retelling of this story, Mark wants us to be sure to recognize the role that the crowd played in the episode. Those who had tried their hardest to silence the blind beggar now became his greatest cheerleaders. “Take heart,” they said. “Get up; he is calling you!” The same energy and enthusiasm with which they had denounced the helpless man now fuel their invitation to him. Their desire for decorum and efficiency now became a commitment to charity and inclusion. Bartimaeus, therefore, was not the only blind man to be given back his sight. 

As is true with many of Jesus’ miracles, when we read this story, we discover that the healing itself is only a small part of what is being conveyed to us. That the man regained his sight, while an essential element, is delivered to us almost as a passing thought right at the end. Instead of focusing on the miraculous event, Mark gives us a dramatic story about the conversion of the heart and the transformation of our minds. Once the healing is accomplished, Bartimaeus, who only moments earlier had been ridiculed by the crowd as being unworthy, joins them in following Jesus on the way. He is, in fact, the only person to receive a miraculous healing and then become a disciple of Jesus. That we know his name at all—Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus—is a testament to his subsequent faithfulness as a follower of Jesus. 

As we leave Jericho and make our way toward Jerusalem, what must we learn from Bartimaeus in order to make sense of what awaits us up the road? Surely the disciples couldn’t help but compare this blind beggar with the man who, a few days earlier, had knelt at Jesus’ feet and asked what he must do to inherit eternal life. This beggar man had nothing to offer—nothing to bring into their fellowship—yet he had been included, while the rich man, whose life overflowed with treasure and influence, had been sent away discouraged. The disciples had had a hard time making sense of that decision. The rich man was the kind of disciple whom any rabbi—any rector—would love to have as a patron. But the way of Jesus—the path that leads to the cross—has no use for those who would rather cling to their wealth than follow Jesus with their whole heart.

There isn’t much time left for us to figure out who Jesus really is and what it means for us to follow him before he makes his celebrated entry into Jerusalem. On the very next page, in the very next verse, it will be time for the disciples to go and find a colt and bring it back so that Jesus can ride it into the city. Soon, it will be time for the crowd, who will throw their cloaks and palm branches on the ground, to separate into two distinct camps—those who want to crown Jesus and those who want to crucify him. Our getting it right depends upon our ability to recognize what sort of messiah and savior Jesus is. The suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus are the defining moments not only of our faith but of our entire lives, and our ability to make sense of them depends on our willingness to learn from Bartimaeus.

Jesus calls out to each of us, beckoning us to follow him. The call that is issued to every disciple is an invitation to a life of poverty and powerlessness in order that the true power of God might transform us and renew the whole earth. Jesus does not call us to bring our wealth and influence into the community of faith so that the body of Christ might become a symbol of earthly power. He calls us to give it all away in order that we might belong to the one whose resurrection power is changing the world into the reign of God. That power to renew the world begins within us when we answer the call to follow him. As long as we are looking for God and expecting God’s salvation to come into this world through the channels of wealth and power, we are more blind even than Bartimaeus. But those who are willing to follow Jesus on the path that leads through suffering and death into the glory of the resurrected life are given new eyes to see God’s saving work in the world. Take heart; get up: Jesus is calling you.


Sunday, October 10, 2021

What's Keeping You Out Of God's Kingdom?

 

October 10, 2021 – The 20th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 23B

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here. Video of the service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 21:00.

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” asked the man who knelt before Jesus. “You lack one thing,” Jesus said lovingly in reply. Just one thing. And so do you. And so do I. We all do. We all lack just one thing. If Jesus told you what that one thing is, where would you find the strength and courage to pursue it?

What is that one thing that is keeping you out of God’s kingdom—preventing you from entering fully into God’s reign? Over the last several weeks, Jesus has pointed out a number of possibilities. Are we willing to take up our cross and follow him even if it costs us our life? Are we willing to be last of all and servant of all even if it means giving up our status in society? Are we willing to cut off our hand or our foot or pluck out our eye if they are causing us to sin? Are we willing to cling to God’s kingdom in the way that the story of creation asks us to cling to marriage—wholeheartedly and without compromise? And today, in his encounter with the rich man, Jesus asks us, are we willing to sell everything we have and give it away to the poor in order to have treasure in heaven?

Some of the things—the vices, the sins—that Jesus points out as barriers to God’s promise of eternal life require a bit of cultural translation. Wrestling concepts of divorce and marriage, personhood and gender, away from their ancient contexts and bringing them forward into contemporary life in order to make sense of Jesus’ words is hard but important work. But, when it comes to wealth—riches, possessions—we don’t need any help understanding what Jesus meant. In fact, our experience of wealth—both collectively and individually—is so enormous that, if anything, Jesus’s words aren’t sharp enough.

The man who knelt before Jesus is described by Mark as having many possessions, but what does that mean? Is that rich like Jeff Bezos or rich like you and me? The words translated for us as “many possessions” can imply that the man owned a lot of property or land, but it can also simply mean “a lot of stuff.” Know anybody who has too much stuff? We get a sense of how broad Jesus’s target audience is when, after the man had gone away, he explained to his disciples that the call to radical dispossession applied not only to that particular man but to all who have wealth and to anyone who is rich. But those words that are translated as “wealth” and “rich” don’t imply the piles of money into which Scrooge McDuck might dive headfirst but merely the stuff we use and having enough of it to meet our needs. The biblical model for being rich is one of being fully resourced—of having everything we need.

It is to those of us who have our needs met that Jesus says, “You lack one thing: go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then, come follow me.” So radical, so painful, so challenging are those words that even before the disciples can object and ask Jesus to clarify what he means, Jesus tells them that it would be easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than for people who have all their needs met to enter the kingdom of God. This might be hyperbole, and, as R. T. France puts it, “The nature and degree of renunciation of wealth which the gospel requires may be something which will be worked out differently in different times and circumstances, but, if we lose sight of the principle that affluence is a barrier to the kingdom of God, we are parting company with Jesus at a point which seems to have been fundamental to his teaching as all three synoptic writers understood it.” 

As someone who meets both the biblical and contemporary worldwide definitions for what it means to be rich, I know that my possessions get in the way of my place in God’s great and glorious reign. That’s because I cannot own anything without feeling in some measure the pull away from complete devotion and dependence on God and toward confidence in my own self and wealth. In that way, the problem of riches parallels the problem of idolatry. The biblical prohibition against graven images is absolute. The ancients understood that any painting or statue or image that depicts God will inevitably become itself an object of worship, replacing the unseen deity with the image right in front of us. In very much the same way, whenever I have food in my pantry and clothes in my closet and money in my bank account, I will always begin to believe that those things are my own doing—the sustenance and safety net of my own creation—instead of the gifts from God that they always are.

All of our possessions—no matter how magnificent or modest—are obstacles to our entrance into the kingdom of God. Anyone who owns anything is in trouble. If you don’t go to bed hungry tonight, sleeping out under the stars, you have the kind of wealth that prevents you from being a full participant in God’s reign. “Then who can be saved?” we rightly ask along with Peter and the other disciples. Our hope is found in Jesus’ reply: “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

Our hope—our only hope—is clinging to the mercies of the God who loves us more than we can imagine. That is our hope no matter how rich or poor we are. But it’s a lot easier to cling to God and God’s goodness when your fists aren’t full of dollar bills and your arms aren’t wrapped around your retirement fund and your focus isn’t on making sure that you have enough money to take care of yourself. How will we ever learn to depend on God when we have so much other stuff to depend on?

This is a spiritual problem with practical implications. Although we cannot sell enough of what we own to buy ourselves a place in heaven, we can adopt financial practices that teach us how to put our trust in God instead of in our wealth. If our possessions are what lure us away from trusting in God completely, we need to find ways to let go of them. If God’s grace and mercy are what bring us into eternal life, we need to pursue whatever habits have the power to multiply those precious things in our lives. We need more of God and less of us, and getting that balance right begins with giving away more and keeping less for ourselves. 

When the man came to Jesus and asked what he needed to do in order to inherit eternal life, Jesus reminded him of the commandments. When the man responded that he had kept all these since his youth, Jesus looked at him and loved him. Literally, he “agape-ed” him. “You only lack one thing,” Jesus said. Only one thing stands between you and the kingdom of God. Only one thing is getting in the way of your complete and total participation in God’s rule in your life. And that thing is you. 

We get in the way. All we need is to trust in God, but our instinctive need to trust in ourselves—our wealth, our status, our ego, our wisdom, our happiness—prevents us from giving our lives over to the reign of God. How does that change? Where do we find the strength and courage to let go of our attachment to this life and cling instead to the mercies of God? That strength comes from not from us but from God. In Jesus Christ, God has loved us so fully, so completely, so perfectly that we have been set free from the need for self-sufficiency. Because God’s love for us has no limits, we can afford to depend on God alone. 

Being loved like that gives us the courage to give more of ourselves away, and the more of ourselves we give away the more we come to know and depend on God’s love. It is a virtuous cycle, and, by loving us from the beginning, God has taken the first step. How will you respond to that love? By holding on to what you have or by trusting God and letting it go?


Sunday, October 3, 2021

Children Know

 

October 3, 2021 – The 19th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 22B

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Video of this service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 24:30.

Jesus says, “Truly, I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” What does that mean? What does it mean to receive God’s kingdom like a little child? I want to be a part of God’s reign. I want to live in the kingdom of God. Don’t you? Don’t all of us? Today, Jesus challenges those of us who want to be a part of God’s great and glorious reign to receive it as if we were little children. Today, we ask what little children can teach us about belonging to God and God’s kingdom.

How does a child receive the kingdom of God? Eagerly. Whole-heartedly. With clarity. Without compromise. A child knows instinctively what is of God and what is not. A child knows that you cannot come to church and promise to love your neighbor as yourself and then get in your car and yell obscenities at the driver who cuts you off on the way home. A child knows that you cannot boast of putting a big check in the alms basin and then grumble about the blight that “street people” have become on this town. A child knows that you cannot promise to love your spouse for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish until you are parted by death and then wake up one morning and decide you don’t love them anymore. 

Preachers like me are rightly cautioned not to oversimplify Jesus’s teaching on marriage and divorce. Jesus, for one, never knew what it meant to balance the demands of work, children, and marriage. And surely the church can do better than to shame couples who are trapped in lifeless unions or, worse, yoked to abusive partners. There is nothing holy or godly about clinging to a relationship in which your safety or dignity is threatened. But, by appealing to the perspective of children, Jesus applies a standard for marriage as an image of God’s love for the world that is remarkably simple and effective. A child knows the difference between a marriage that unravels because their parents just don’t want to try anymore and one that was over and gone long before anyone said a word to them. And part of what it means for us to receive the kingdom of God is to recognize the difference for ourselves.

This gospel passage isn’t actually about divorce. This isn’t Jesus’s way of defining under what circumstances a marriage is justifiably terminated, which, if it were, is basically never. Instead, this is yet another piece of Jesus’s teaching about the nature of God’s kingdom, and, in this case, Jesus appeals to the institution of marriage as a way to explain what it means to prioritize our place in the reign of God. In short, Jesus shows us that getting our hearts right about marriage helps us understand what it means to get our hearts right about God.

Admittedly, this isn’t a straightforward theological argument that Jesus makes. He uses an unusual approach that takes some careful consideration. Before we break it down, though, it may help to remember what he did back in Mark 7, when he was refuting the religious authorities, who questioned why he allowed his disciples to eat with unwashed hands. Do you remember how that argument went? The Pharisees asked why Jesus ignored all the traditions about handwashing and the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles, and he turned their accusation back upon them, quoting not the relevant passages from Leviticus but the prophet Isaiah, who wrote, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” Instead of appealing to a direct discussion of the legal texts, Jesus proposed a sideways move, effectively dismissing the norms for ritual purity by prioritizing the content of one’s heart over the content of one’s actions.

Again, the Pharisees come to test Jesus, this time asking whether it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife. That they would ask about divorce reveals to us that this was as challenging a topic in Jesus’ day as it is in ours. As before, Jesus chooses not to engage in a straight exploration of the relevant text, which would be Deuteronomy 24—a passage about divorce—but instead he appeals to Genesis 2—a passage that conveys not the limitations of marriage but its unfathomable power: “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”

What happens when we start not with the circumstances under which a marriage can be dissolved but with the beautiful, unbreakable bond that exists between two persons who have committed themselves to a holy, lifelong, monogamous union? For starters, it challenges gender stereotypes, even back in Jesus’s day. When Jesus explained to his disciples that a man who remarries after divorcing his wife commits adultery against her, he was again challenging the theological assumptions of his time. Back then, rabbinical teaching held that men couldn’t commit adultery against women. Instead, only a man, whose honor and claim upon his wife were besmirched by infidelity, could be the victim. Because a man was allowed to divorce his wife for practically any reason, including disappointment in their love life, it made no sense to hold a man responsible for his actions as long as his indiscretion did not threaten another man’s marriage. But that isn’t true if we understand that marriage isn’t simply a contractual arrangement between two people but a mutual, mystical, spiritual union as fundamental to our identity as our personhood. 

Jesus wants people to remember that marriage, as an institution that embodies the power of unconditional, indissoluble love, is such an overwhelming and important good that human beings cannot approach it as something that can be unraveled or dismissed but as something that must be embraced even in the face of adversity—just like the kingdom of God. When we commit to love like that, even and especially when staying committed is hard, we give ourselves over to something that has the power to change us—even to soften the hardheartedness within us that otherwise might pull us apart. When we are immersed in unconditional love, we are set free from all the insecurities that cause us to tighten up and close down and shut ourselves off. 

But love like that isn’t easy. It draws out and quells our self-interestedness. In order to take hold within us, it exposes our vulnerabilities and anxieties so that they might be healed. Sometimes the process of dying to self is too much for us to bear. Sometimes the change we face is so painful that we would rather fold up and quit. But those who want to enter the kingdom of God must receive it like a little child. And the little child within us knows that having something that good is worth giving up everything else we have. 

Lots of marriages have been under incredible strain because of the pandemic. Although the last nineteen months have made being together especially difficult, the pandemic has brought to the surface the reasons why marriage is always hard. It is hard to give up ourselves for the sake of another. It is hard to let go of our own needs and wants in order to be a part of something bigger. It is hard to be vulnerable especially when it scares us to death. But the life-giving power of marriage isn’t realized when everything is going well but when love rescues us even when things are falling apart. Isn’t that also what it means to belong to the kingdom of God?


Friday, October 1, 2021

The Authority of the Servant Christ


September 29, 2021 – The Feast of St. Michael and All Angels
The Ordination of a Deacon

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Video of this service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 23:45.

It took a hard-fought fight to get us here. God wants us to be here. God has gathered us here together. And, anytime God’s people gather together in God’s name, there is power among them—a holy force of righteousness that radiates throughout the assembly and out into the world. The forces of evil that seek to undermine God’s goodness in the world are always fighting to keep us apart, and God’s angels are fighting back in order to give us safe passage—in order to allow us to come together and receive those edifying, life-giving experiences of God’s grace that we need so very much.

In a plane of existence beyond what we can see—absolutely real yet surprisingly close to us—a spiritual battle is taking place. Angels are protecting God’s people from the demons who want to deceive them, cause them to stumble, and lead them astray. For most of human history, those battles took place up in heaven, where archangels would lead companies of angelic principalities and rulers into war against the forces of darkness. According to the angelology of post-exilic Judaism, upon which the Christian faith is built, whatever happened up in the heavenly realm became manifest here on the earth. If God’s celestial armies beat back the armies of God’s enemies up there, then down here the terrestrial soldiers who fought for God’s people would win their fight against the Assyrians or Egyptians or whomever they were locked in battle against. The affairs of individuals, tribes, and even entire nations were understood to be a reflection of a great unseen spiritual war taking place beyond our sight.

But, with the death and resurrection of Jesus, everything changed. As we read in Revelation 12, when Jesus won the ultimate victory over evil and death, there was no place left for the ancient serpent and his angels in heaven. The great dragon who had been defeated was thrown down, sent to the earth where he could unleash his wrath. We often think that the Book of Revelation is written about future events that will take place at the end of the world, but most of the strange insights it offers are about life here and now, in that time in between Christ’s victory and the consummation of God’s reign at the end of time. We, the saints of God who live in that in-between time, are beset on all sides by the forces of wickedness, but thanks be to God that St. Michael and all the angels are fighting for us.

In ways we cannot see and cannot know, it took a hard-fought spiritual battle to bring us together tonight. And the victory we claim is nothing less than “the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God.” But, because that is our victory, because, as the loud heavenly voice proclaims, we have conquered Satan “by the blood of the Lamb,” the nature of the fight to which we pledge ourselves requires of us something of inestimable cost. If we are to conqueror with Christ, then we must die with Christ. Our testimony, given with our lips and with our lives, must reveal the cruciform nature of Christ’s victory. If the Lamb has defeated the great Satan by the shedding of his blood, we who follow the Lamb must give our lives as well. That is the only way real victory can be won—by the giving up of ourselves for Christ’s sake. And one of the principal ways that we see that other-worldly, counterintuitive victory-through-death manifest in our lives is in the ministry of deacons. No wonder I don’t like deacons very much.

One of the first things I said to Kathy when I arrived in Fayetteville more than three years ago was how much I don’t like deacons. I said that not to dissuade her from continuing her formation as one called to this sacred ministry but to let her know how hard it would be to see this journey to its end and embrace the strange and challenging ministry that awaited her. People in positions of authority, especially those in the church, whose power reflects the powers of the world—things like wealth, position, access, and voice—are always challenged by deacons. When deacons carry out their “special ministry of servanthood,” serving particularly “the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely,” they inevitably confront those whose power and privilege have widened the gap between the church and the needs of the world. They expose the hypocrisy of Christians who claim to follow Jesus but are not quite willing to follow him as far as he would lead. They remind us that we can only stand victorious with Jesus and all the angels if we, too, lay down our life.

Appropriately, therefore, deacons serve in the church with almost no real authority. They go and work wherever the bishop tells them to. They are not paid for their ministry. While bishops are told to guard the faith and priests are told to take their share in the councils of the church, deacons are told to assist the other clergy. In the liturgy, their most visible roles are to read the gospel and set the table, which the congregation tends to interpret as servant’s work. But that service, as Christ himself has shown us, is impregnated with incredible power. The one whose duty it is to serve is given the responsibility of revealing to us the nature of Christ in our midst. By their words and actions—both within the liturgy and beyond the walls of the church—deacons teach the rest of us that we can only serve Christ when we serve the helpless among us. They say without compunction to those whose ministry begins at the altar that the church is too focused on itself and not enough on the world. And that is a challenging word that all of us need to hear.

All Christians, the ordinal reminds us, are called to follow Jesus by serving God through the power of the Spirit. Deacons remind us that we serve God by serving the least among us in Christ’s name. “Who is greater,” Jesus asks us, “the one at the table or the one who serves?” Of course it is the one at the table, he admits. We all know where the one in charge is to be found. But Christ did not come into the world to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. The life he gives to us and the victory over sin and death that he wins for us are not attained through force or through the securing of or protection of power. Christ’s victory for us is won through the cross—through the total and complete emptying of himself for the sake of the world. If we are going to be a part of that victory, we, too, must be emptied, and those who accept the call to serve as deacons help us know how.

Kathy, for many years, you have embraced the holy work of caring for the least among us—those whose needs are overlooked and whose voices are usually ignored. Now, you are accepting the call to bring that work into the very heart of the Christian community not only to invite the church to join in that work but also to challenge us to be shaped by it until we are conformed to the image of the servant Christ. As you may have noticed throughout this arduous process, the church tends to resist that. At diaconal ordinations, we often say that the work of the new deacon is largely a continuation of what has come before, but that is only halfway right. The other half—the ministry of bringing the authority of the servant Christ back into the church—is much more difficult but no less important. And that is why we seek the Holy Spirit and pray that it will come upon you with grace and power to equip you for this work. For when you carry out your ministry, it is not you who will do it but Christ working through you. And, when you help us see that, when you help us recognize how Christ is truly at work among us, you help us follow Jesus.


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.