Sunday, January 24, 2021

What To Take With Us


January 24, 2021 – Epiphany 3B

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 20:40.

“Follow me,” Jesus says, “and it will only cost you your career, your wealth, your future, your family, your friends, and even your life.” Who among us is ready to sign up for that?

Jesus begins his ministry by calling some of the disciples. First, it’s Simon and Andrew, and then it’s James and John. The gospel tradition wants us, a new generation of would-be disciples, to recognize what is being asked of us as we commit to following Jesus. Simon and Andrew are in the boat, casting their net into the sea, and Jesus calls out to them, beckoning them to follow him. Immediately they drop their net to answer his call, and, in so doing, they give up their career, their livelihood, and the security that it has provided for them and their families. 

A little farther down the road, Jesus calls out to the sons of Zebedee, who are in the boat with their father, mending the nets. Like the first pair of disciples, they respond immediately by putting down their work and leaving behind their father, their family, and their filial responsibility in order to follow Jesus. Only the hired hands—a symbol rich with layers of relational distance and incomplete commitment—are left behind to support their father. 

When we hear this gospel lesson, we confront the magnitude of what we must leave behind in order to follow Jesus. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” Jesus says a little later on in Mark. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” That costly truth is evident not only as the disciples’ commitment to Jesus matures but even from the very beginning, from the first moment they decide to follow him. But this gospel encounter reminds us that following Jesus is not only about what we leave behind but also what we take with us.

How was Jesus, an itinerant preacher who was only just beginning his ministry, able to woo these followers with only a few words? Perhaps he had spent more time than we realize building up a reputation for himself, but, in addition to that possibility, there is tremendous power in the invitation he offers. Jesus, we are told, came to Galilee “proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.’” Not that the time will come soon. Not that the kingdom is just around the corner. Jesus announces that God’s time is already perfected and that God’s kingdom is already here. He doesn’t ask his followers to trust that, with a little patience, they will reach their destination. He asks them to believe that their ultimate fulfillment has already arrived. He invites them—he invites us—to see that in him the fullness of God’s reign has already come and found us and that now it’s our turn to bring our whole lives into that reign. 

When Jesus speaks to Simon and Andrew, he does not tell them to quit being fishermen but promises to make them fish for people. He calls them to bring their trade with them into the kingdom of God. And, when he calls James and John, he does not ask them to forget the family they leave behind, but, as Mark’s gospel account shows, they continue to be known as the “Sons of Zebedee.” As disciples, their whole identity, even their family name, belongs to God. In committing to follow Jesus, these disciples do not simply forsake their previous lives. They bring their earthly identities with them in order that their entire lives might be devoted fully to the reign of God. And, if we see in Jesus what they saw, we must do the same.

Our decision to follow Jesus is not simply a decision to give up our wealth, to let go of our career, to leave behind our family, and to sacrifice our dreams for the future. When we choose to follow Jesus, we choose to bring those things with us—our money, our jobs, our relationships, our hopes, and our expectations—and devote them to the kingdom of God, which is already present all around us. Yes, being a disciple requires great sacrifice, but we are not called to sacrifice all the things that we love but to sacrifice the illusion that any part of our life belongs outside the reign of God.

One of the things I value most about the Episcopal Church is our understanding of the church’s mission. We do not measure the success of our ministry in terms of the number of souls that are rescued from hell and promised to heaven. We are not focused on establishing an escapist cult whose members care only about being whisked away from this planet and drawn up into a mythical paradise. Instead, we pursue and proclaim the presence of God’s reign in this world, here and now, all among us. Our mission is to restore all people to unity with God and to each other in Jesus Christ. In other words, our mission is to live fully in the kingdom of God here in this world and to invite others to live there beside us.

One of the biggest challenges of our tradition, however, is remembering that it is not our job to make God’s kingdom come. Our job is to follow Jesus into the kingdom that he has already established on the earth. To that end, as Jesus’ disciples, we are still learning about—still being formed for—a life that belongs wholly within the reign of God. As strange as it may sound, we are not called to do good works in our community. We are not called to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and care for the needy and lift up the downtrodden. Instead, we are called to follow Jesus into that kingdom where there is no hunger or poverty or oppression. And, when we fully belong to that kingdom, when our whole lives become a part of God’s reign, then no one will go to sleep hungry or cold or alone or forgotten.

If the invitation Jesus were offering us today is to try our very best to make the world a better place, I dare say that invitation would not be good enough to justify giving up our jobs, our wealth, our families, and our lives. Maybe we would hand over a small part of what we have, but not the whole thing. No amount of goodwill on our part will make the world the place God wants it to be. But, in Jesus Christ, God has already done that work for our sake. In Jesus, God has already brought God’s reign to the earth. In him, God has already lifted up the lowly and filled the hungry with good things. Jesus calls us to follow him into that reign and to bring our whole lives along with us. The time is fulfilled. The kingdom of God is at hand. Believe in the good news—news so good that we would give everything we’ve got in order to be a part of it.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Can Anything Good Come Out Of Them?


January 17, 2021 – Epiphany 2B

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 25:00.

Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Can anything good come out of Gravette? Can anything good come out of Pea Ridge or Harrison? Out of Seattle or San Francisco? Out of Dardanelle or Delaware?

Today’s gospel lesson is a little bit geography, a little bit theology, and a whole lot of expectation. And, if we don’t hear what’s really going on between Jesus and Nathanael, we will miss a word of encouragement that feels pretty important in a time when encouragement isn’t easy to find.

Look at the way Philip sets up Nathanael for disappointment: “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote…” That’s not a casual invitation. Philip isn’t inviting Nathanael to come and hear a powerful preacher or meet a charismatic leader. He’s telling Philip that he has found the singular hope that God’s people had been waiting on for a thousand years. “This is it!” he tells Nathanael. “This is the one! This is the person whom Moses in the Torah and the great prophets of our people told us to look for.” But, as soon as Philip goes on to tell Nathanael that he’s talking about a man from Nazareth, all the energy and excitement and expectation in his words evaporate.”

We don’t know a lot about Nathanael. John is the only New Testament author to mention him by name, and he only mentions him twice—once in today’s lesson and again when Jesus appears to a handful of disciples after he had been raised from the dead. But, whoever he is, Nathanael seems to know his Hebrew scriptures pretty well. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” he asks. That sounds like a slight against the people of Jesus’ hometown, and it very well may have been, but what Nathanael was probably trying to remind Philip is that nowhere in the Torah or in the prophets is Nazareth even mentioned, much less depicted as the place from which the messiah will come. Bethlehem, sure. Jerusalem makes since. Even Egypt is possible. But Nazareth?

As far as we can tell, back then Nazareth was one stop past nowhere—a tiny village home to some working-class folks with no claim on greatness. Nowadays, it’s the largest city in the northern part of Israel, but back then it wasn’t even worth mentioning. The first non-biblical reference to Nazareth that archaeologists have found is from around 200 AD. There were plenty of cities from that part of Palestine that could have produced a prominent religious or political figure—Caesarea Philippi, Capernaum, Tiberius, Bethsaida—but pretending that the messiah was supposed to come from Nazareth is like expecting the next President of the United States to come from Ozark or Prairie Grove. But, despite what the scriptures said, Philip had found someone worth meeting, and, despite all of his expectations, Nathanael agreed to meet him.

They say you only get once chance to make a first impression, and Jesus was working with a deficit right from the start. Yet with one sentence he managed to flip everything around. When he saw Nathanael approaching, Jesus said, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Those are flattering words to say to a stranger, but they are more than a mere compliment. 

Another translation says, “Behold a true Israelite in whom there is nothing false!” The word translated as “deceit” or “false” is literally the word for “bait” or “lure,” a fishing or hunting word that implied setting a trap for someone by putting on airs or making a false presentation of oneself. In other words, Jesus identified Nathanael as a genuine descendant of Israel who didn’t need any pretense in order to convince others of his standing in the faith. That means that, in the exact subject area from which Nathanael had raised a reasonable objection to Jesus’ pedigree, Jesus repays Nathanael’s skepticism with a generous affirmation. He compliments the very thing Nathanael had been using against him. How remarkable!

Nathanael, it seems, was immediately set back on his heels. “Where did you get to know me?” he asked, making almost as little sense as Jesus’ words had made to him. Jesus replied, “I saw you sitting under the fig tree before Philip called you.” At first glance, that seems like a strange or even off-topic response, but it could be that Jesus referred to a fig tree because, in the rabbinic tradition, scholars of the Jewish faith were said to have gathered frequently under the shade of fig trees to discuss the nuances of their religion. If so, Jesus is doubling down on his flattery. Here is a true Israelite in whom there is no deception. But how do you know that about me? Because I can tell that you are a careful student of the scriptures. 

Instead of arguing with Nathanael or defending himself or trying to explain how it is possible for the Son of God to come from Nazareth, Jesus finds and praises the best qualities in his intellectual adversary. Instead of tearing him down, which, when it comes to rabbinical arguments, we know Jesus to be fully capable of, Jesus compliments the skeptic. “Well done!” he seems to say. “You’re right: no one is looking to Nazareth as the place from which God’s anointed one will come, but, if you’ll give it a chance, you’ll see some pretty spectacular things.” And what is Nathanael’s reaction? “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”

What Jesus gave Nathanael was grace—an unmerited, undeserved, unearned dollop of favor. The benefit of the doubt. A chance to grow beyond his initial impressions. And that grace had the power to flip everything that Nathanael had already decided about Jesus on its head. All Jesus did was find the source of the conflict between them and breathe a little grace right there into the heart of it. Somehow, if Jesus had decided to pick a rhetorical fight with Nathanael or make a shameful example of him, I don’t think the story would have turned out the same way. Do you?

Grace seems to be in short supply these days. When was the last time you went driving through the country? You don’t have to get very far outside of town before you find yourself in the middle of nowhere. Some of you live out there in the middle of nowhere, where you can go a month without seeing your neighbors. I’ve noticed that, as I get further away from the center of town, the political signs in people’s yards begin change. And, although I’m ashamed to admit it, I’ve also noticed that, along with those signs, something begins to change in my heart and in my mind. All of my expectations of who I might meet and what kind of people they might be begin to shift. Why is that? I’m a child of the rural South, yet it has become pretty hard to see what part of me belongs out there, even if “out there” is really just a few miles down the road.

I don’t mean to suggest that the way forward for us is to ignore the very real dangers that arise when political, economic, and cultural differences become radicalized and weaponized. And I don’t pretend that other people who don’t look or sound like me wouldn’t have a harder time if their car broke down in the wrong part of Arkansas at sunset. But I do mean to suggest that doubling down on our worst expectations of other people won’t get us anywhere except more angry and more scared and more lost. 

Remember what Jesus said about himself: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” 

In Jesus Christ, God’s grace—God’s unconditional love—is breathed into this world, into each one of us. In him, we are not broken down or torn apart but built up by God’s love and favor. God loves each one of us, not because we deserve it—not because we’re any better than anyone else—but simply because of God’s infinite goodness and mercy. If God can love you simply because that’s who God is, that love has the power to free you up to love others in the same way. 

If you can remember that you are lovable not because of who you are or where you’re from or what you think but just because, then you can remember the same about others. That’s the only way anything will ever change. That’s the only way our expectations will ever get flipped upside down—when the love of God surprises us into believing that we, too, can love others just because God loves them first. 

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Salvation Within Us


January 10, 2021 – Epiphany 1B

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 22:30. 

Are we coming, or are we going—which is it? At what point on a journey do you stop leaving home and start heading somewhere new? The answer isn’t a mile marker but a mindset. Sometimes we go on a trip just to “get away,” and other times we embark on a journey toward something in particular. Usually, it’s a little of both. But what about right now? Are we coming or going?

Are we living, or are we dying—which is it? You remember that line from The Shawshank Redemption, first spoken by Brooks, the elderly prisoner, and then repeated by Red, the man who follows in his footsteps: “Get busy living or get busy dying.” Which one is it? The answer probably has something to do with age, but surely it is more than that. What does “over the hill” really mean? Don’t some of us live our best life even in our final few years? Right now, are we living or dying?

Are we avoiding hell, or are we embracing heaven—which is it? A long time ago, I asked a mentor of mine, a devout Muslim whose faith I admired, why he went to such considerable lengths to practice his faith. “Because I don’t want to go to hell,” he replied. When he turned the same question around on me, I wasn’t prepared, so I repeated back to him the same answer he had given. Looking back, I wish that I had said, “Because I want to go to heaven.” On this faith journey we are on, what is our answer? Are we avoiding hell or embracing heaven?

Today we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus, and, in so doing, we celebrate nothing less than the transformation of the whole human race—from the sin and death and destruction we know so well to the freedom and life and flourishing we find in union with God. But sometimes I think we forget that that’s the journey we are really on. 

Many of us, I think, are like those disciples in Ephesus, who thought of themselves as Christians but who had never received the baptism of Jesus. They had received the baptism of John, the baptism of repentance, by which they were cleansed from the sins of their past, but still they were missing something. They knew what to leave behind but didn’t know where to go. Then, when they were baptized in the name of Jesus, and Paul had laid hands on them, a dramatic transformation took place. They were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in tongues and to prophesy. We tend to eschew such dramatic expressions of Spirit-fueled activity, but, as Moses said, “Would that all God’s people were prophets, and that God would put his Spirit upon them!” (Num. 11:29). Though we tend to forget it, we, too, were baptized not merely to escape the consequences of sin but to initiate in us the full manifestation of God’s power. We were baptized to become one with God.

In the western Christian tradition, when we talk about salvation, we tend to use the language of accounting. Our sins are debts that must be forgiven or paid off. Because we are enslaved to sin, our souls must be bought and paid for. In Christ, we are redeemed. That mindset leads us to look at salvation as if it were accomplished solely in the cross of Christ—that moment when the price of our sin was paid. We look to his death, therefore, in order to find forgiveness. 

But the eastern tradition embraces a much bigger understanding of salvation. Instead of using the language of accounting, they use the language of being—that of our nature, of ontology. In the incarnation, the Word became flesh, and God united Godself to human nature. In the baptism of Jesus, the one who knew no sin took upon himself the fullness of our sin. In the death of Christ, therefore, that which is broken within all of us was itself put to death so that, in our own baptism, we might be raised with Christ to the new life of union with God. We are saved, therefore, not only at the cross but also in the womb of Mary, in the River Jordan, at the empty tomb, and in the waters of our own baptism.

We are baptized, therefore, not only to leave our particular sins behind but to enter into a new life of oneness between all of humanity and God. And, in weeks like this one, when the full brokenness of human nature manifests itself in a violent attack at the center of our national life, I need to know that that’s how God’s salvation is accomplished—not only through the innumerable individuals whose sins have been washed away in the waters of baptism but in the complete restoration of human nature that has been accomplished in Jesus Christ. 

That is the journey we are on, and we are on it alongside the whole human race. That victory, that renewal, that restoration has already been achieved, even if, in this life, we can only see it in part—as St. Paul said, like looking through a glass dimly. Even in moments when evil and sin appear to be winning, we know that, in truth, they have already been defeated. That truth lives within us. It lives within our human nature, united through Christ to the very core of our human being. 

Our hope, therefore, is not simply that the good people would outnumber the bad, for that would always leave us wondering and worrying that evil might one day triumph. Instead, our hope is that the full transformation of human nature, which has already been accomplished by Jesus Christ, would be completely realized in our lives. That is the life into which we have been baptized. That is the hope to which we cling. That is the truth into which we have been adopted. That is the reality we see unfolding in our lives when we look to Christ, whose victory over sin and death was not only accomplished on the cross but woven into our very nature by the Holy Spirit in the waters of baptism.