Sunday, March 28, 2021

Recognizing A Savior


March 28, 2021 – Palm Sunday, Year B

© 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 24:20.

The tragedy of the passion narrative is exacerbated by one case of mistaken identity after another. Almost no one recognized who Jesus really was. Pilate asked his prisoner if he was the king of the Jews. That inquiry was not theological in nature but political. “Are you the king of the Jews?” he asked. “Do you dare to rival the authority of Rome? Did you really believe that you could overthrow the empire?” To the Roman Governor, Jesus was just another political prisoner—an insurrectionist whose rebellion had been quashed before it even took off.

With the help of the religious authorities, the crowd began to see what Pilate saw. When the Governor asked which prisoner they wanted him to release, they chose Barabbas—another man who had been arrested for fomenting a rebellion. Unlike Jesus, however, Barabbas had at least managed to kill a few of the Roman occupiers during the uprising. “Then what do you want me to do with the one you call king of the Jews?” Pilate asked. “Crucify him!” they replied. “He is worthless to us! We’d be better off with Barabbas as our leader!”

Clothing him in a royal purple robe and placing on his head a mock-crown of thorns, the soldiers danced around their prisoner, pretending to salute him and calling out, “Hey! King of the Jews!” This was no David against Goliath or Samson against the Philistines. If this was the mightiest warrior king the Jewish people had to offer in their attempt to gain freedom from the Empire, the soldiers had nothing to worry about. Their spouses could sleep a little easier at night.

Those who walked by, when they saw the helpless, humiliated prisoner nailed to the cross, gasping for breath, they couldn’t help but laugh at the outlandish claims this firebrand rabbi had made only days earlier. “Destroy the temple and rebuild in in three days?” they asked derisively. “Why don’t you start by saving yourself from that cross!” In the same way, the chief priests and religious experts taunted him, saying, “If you really are the Christ, the king of Israel, come down from there. Then, we’ll believe you.” 

If only Jesus would just come down from the cross, then we would believe. If only he would gather his loyal supporters and lead them into battle against the Empire, then we would follow him. If only he would call upon God to rain down upon the earth with fire and brimstone in order to wipe out anyone and everyone whose particular brand of self-interested politics or narrow-minded religious views stand in our way, then we would hail him as the king of kings.

The problem for us is that, just because we know how the story ends, we think we have it all figured out. But we don’t. We are no different from the crowd that turned against him. We are no better than the religious authorities or the Roman soldiers. We are no more enlightened than the passers-by or than Pilate. If it were up to us to identify Christ in our midst, we would never pick the right one. The Christ we need is hanging shamefully on the cross, but we would rather look for the king whose triumph would magnify our own power instead of God’s. 

We would choose the Christ who showed compassion toward sinners, not the one who elevated the law’s demand, equating anger with murder and divorce with adultery. We would choose the Savior who welcomed outcasts to his table, not the one who talked about separating the wheat from the weeds and the sheep from the goats. We would celebrate the messiah who comes to lift up the downtrodden and restore the fortunes of the poor but not if that means pulling down people like you and me from our lofty seats and taking our wealth away from us.

Thankfully, God didn’t wait for us to get our act together before sending God’s Son to suffer and die on our behalf. Jesus died not for the righteous but for self-interested sinners like you and me. That death may have been a consequence of human sin, but it is also the means by which God has reconciled the world to Godself. That is why the centurion was able to see Jesus’ death and discern within it the very essence of God’s power. If we are going to recognize Jesus for who he really is, we must learn to see what that centurion saw. We must behold God’s power not in the king of our own making but in the prisoner who yielded his life for humanity’s sake.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Salvation on the Other Side


March 14, 2021 – Lent 4B

© 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 17:20.

It's the email you don’t want to open, the text message you don’t want to see, the phone call you don’t want to answer. There’s a pretty small gap between how good it feels to send an angry message and how bad it feels to get a response. You were right, which is to say that you were justified, in sending it, but sending it feels a lot better than getting a response. How long can you let that email sit unopened?

There’s a saying in sports that the game film never lies. The coach may not have seen you miss that block in real time, but, when it’s time for the team to sit down and look at the film, you know that you won’t be able to hide from it. Even if you skipped school that day or left the room before that particular play was reviewed, you know that your mistake will eventually find you.

It’s harder to hide from our mistakes these days. A few decades ago, our worst fears were a yearbook photo from our college days getting out. Now every social engagement, every conversation, every sophomoric political stance is recorded for the whole world to see years later, when we’re all grown up. Who wants to relive everything they did or said in their teens and early twenties? Don’t all of us want to hide from our worst moments—from our worst selves?

Thankfully, God seems to have a different plan in mind. On their way through the wilderness, the people of God grew impatient. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness,” they complained against Moses and God. “For there is no food and no water, and our very selves detest this worthless, loathsome food to our core.” We might not blame those who had been forced to survive for years on only manna and quail for becoming a little impatient, but the irony of their complaint—the ungracious, unappreciative, faithless whining of God’s people at the one who had rescued them from slavery in Egypt and who actually had given them food and water in the desert—should not be lost on us either. 

In response to that complaining, God did what God did. God sent fiery, burning, poisonous serpents among the people to bite them and kill them. Who knows how many times the Israelites had encountered poisonous snakes on their journey through the wild territory between Egypt and Canaan, but now that the LORD had withdrawn his protection from them, they were in danger. The hardships of the wilderness, from which God had sheltered God’s people, now turned against them. 

The reaction from the people was as swift as it had been from God: “We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you,” they said to Moses. “Pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us.” Immediately, confronted by the consequences of their faithlessness, the people of Israel repented and returned to the one who had saved them and who had brought them safely thus far. So Moses prayed on behalf of the people, but the answer he received was, at first glance, utterly surprising: “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” In other words, make an icon—an idol—of the people’s suffering and hold it up on a standard bearer so that those who look upon it shall not die but live. 

God commanded that the people would be saved by gazing upon the very symbol of their disobedience and punishment. The thing that had killed them would become not only a reminder of their failure but a path to their renewal. Instead of commanding that the people would turn away from their misdeeds and never look back, God told Moses to hold the symbol of the people’s sin up to them so that they might look upon it and live. Repentance, we see, is not an effort to escape from our sin but to turn around and go through it back to God.

Centuries later, God’s people would make sense of this strange episode and record what it had taught them in the Book of Wisdom. There, the ancients wrote of that bronze serpent, 

For when the terrible rage of wild animals came upon your people and they were being destroyed by the bites of writhing serpents, your wrath did not continue to the end; they were troubled for a little while as a warning, and received a symbol of deliverance to remind them of your law’s command. For the one who turned toward it was saved, not by the thing that was beheld, but by you, the Savior of all.” (Wisdom 16:5-7) [1]

God’s people understood that, by looking upon the image of the serpent, they were saved not by the poisonous snake itself but by God, “the Savior of all.” In order to return to God and God’s salvation, the people needed to search for God not by hiding from their sin but by looking for the merciful one who stared back at them from the other side of it.

Doesn’t that change the way we hear what Jesus said to us in John 3:16? “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” How strange it seems at first glance to hear Jesus comparing his death with the bronze serpent that was lifted up in the wilderness. Usually, when Christians quote John 3, they skip verses fourteen and fifteen. But, when we think about how God used that serpent on a stick to bring God’s people back, the image of the Son of Man being lifted up just as Moses lifted up that serpent in the wilderness makes perfect sense. The cross of Christ shows us that God saves us not when we hide from our sin but when we believe—when we trust—that God’s love is more powerful than our worst moments, even our worst selves.

We have a hard time confronting the magnitude of our shortcomings. All of us would rather hide from them. Is it any wonder that the systemic sins of racism and misogyny continue to plague humanity? Who wants to face the truth of our part in those sins? Wouldn't we all rather pretend that we aren't caught up in them? How strange and yet how wonderful it is to hear that our greatest hope is found when we confront those sins head on! 

Think of all the ways we undermine the magnitude of God’s saving love by pretending that God only loves us when we’re good. We tell ourselves that good people go to heaven. We convince ourselves that we, too, are good enough to squeeze through the pearly gates. But that only makes us want to hide from our mistakes even more because we’re afraid that we won’t measure up. But believing in Jesus—believing what he says to us in John 3:16—means exactly the opposite. 

We look upon the one who was crucified on our behalf and there confront the fullness of our sin. We do so not to wallow in shame or to cower in darkness but to be reminded that we belong to the one whose love is bigger than our sin, whose mercy is greater than our faithlessness. Good people don’t go to heaven because they’re good. They go to heaven because of God’s infinite goodness. And the same is true for sinners like you and me. We are saved not because we deserve it but despite the fact that we don’t. That’s the way God’s love works. That’s who Jesus is. That’s what we are asked to believe. And believing in that is what gives us eternal life.


[1] Brown, Raymond E. The Gospel according to John: I-XII. Anchor Bible, Vol. 29. Doubleday; Garden City, New Work: 1966, 133.

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Interrupting Worship


March 7, 2021 – Lent 3B

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here. Video of the service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 22:45. 

“Roy,” Clark said, “can you imagine how your kids would have felt if, when you got to Florida, it was closed?” 

“They don’t close Florida,” said Roy.

In the closing scenes of the 1983 film National Lampoon’s Vacation, Clark W. Griswold tried to explain to Roy Wally why he had gone a little haywire. At the end of their family’s harrowing cross-country road trip, they arrived at Wally World only to find that it was closed for two weeks for cleaning and repairs. So Clark did what any of us would do. He kidnapped one of the security guards at gunpoint and forced him to let the Griswolds ride on all the rides. 

After they were arrested, in an attempt to garner some sympathy from Mr. Wally, Clark asked him to imagine how he and his family would have reacted if, after their own cross-country trip, they had come to Florida to find it closed. But they don’t close Florida.

Imagine walking all the way from Galilee to Jerusalem—sixty-five miles uphill—but, when you got to the temple to offer the appointed sacrifices, you found that some fanatical rabbi had chased all the moneychangers and livestock sellers out of the temple precincts. Imagine coming all that way to do the thing that God had commanded you to do only to discover that the temple was effectively closed.

When Jesus braided together a whip of cords and chased the people and the livestock out of the temple grounds, he was effectively cancelling worship in that sacred place. By pouring out the coins and turning over the moneychangers’ tables, he was grinding to a halt the religious system at the heart of his people’s national life. Worshippers weren’t allowed to use ordinary coins to make their contributions to the temple. They had to exchange their Roman currency for Jewish coins that, while essentially worthless for everyday commerce, were acceptable at the temple because they did not have the Emperor’s graven image on them. And the people who came to the temple were counting on the livestock sellers to provide them what they needed to make their sacrifices. After all, who wants to ride in the backseat of a station wagon halfway across the country with a goat between your legs?

One of the mistakes we often make when reading this passage from John or its parallel in the synoptic gospel accounts is to assume that Jesus was interrupting temple worship because there was something fundamentally flawed about it. As Christians, we are quick to substitute our own version of worship and our own understanding of sacrifice for that which Jesus was protesting. But, if that’s what we think Jesus had in mind, we are not only doing a bad job of reading the bible by perpetuating the anti-Judaic and anti-Semitic interpretations of the New Testament, but we’re also ignoring what this dramatic moment has to say about the need for reform in our own worship.

Jesus’ prophetic action was a Jewish correction for Jewish worship. It’s hard to sift through the early Christian influences that shaped this passage into the form we have in the New Testament, but it’s pretty clear that Jesus was focused on the confusion of economic practices and religious rituals. “Take these things out of here!” Jesus declared as he chased the livestock from the temple courts. “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” Literally, Jesus said, “Stop making the house of my Father a house of trade.” Somehow, the practices that were supposed to support temple worship had become an impediment to it.

Since we know that the livestock and currency exchange were necessary, it could be that the merchants were charging outrageous prices and commissions that made it difficult for ordinary people to participate in temple worship. Or it could be that the convenience of procuring one’s sacrifice at the entrance to the temple had undermined the spiritual connection between the things being offered and the hearts of those making the offerings. Whatever it was, Jesus took issue not with the worship that was happening in the temple but with the system of trade that had evolved to support that worship. And, by interfering with it, Jesus had forced God’s people to stop and think about why they had come to the temple in the first place and how they would accomplish the thing that they had come there to do.

Imagine if someone came and stood at the doors of your church and declared that no worship would happen in this place for a whole year. Imagine if someone came and took all the Communion wafers and wine away. Imagine if someone took all the prayer books and hymnals out of the pews. Imagine if someone declared that the congregation is no longer allowed to sing. Imagine if someone forbade the passing of the offering plate and the passing of the Peace. What would happen if someone came and took away all the stuff that makes our worship happen? How would we have a meaningful, transformative encounter with Almighty God if all the ways we usually have that encounter were taken away from us?

For fifty-two weeks, we have had to look for God in places and in ways that we never could have imagined. Some of us have been more successful at that than others. And many of us who cannot come back to church yet are still having to do just that. But, on this first Sunday back, when we have people in the pews for the first time in a year, we must stop and think about why it is we come into this place. We must stop and consider all the things that we have learned about looking for God over the past twelve months or else we will simply build everything back the way it was without listening to what Jesus is trying to teach us right now.

What does it mean to worship God at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church? What is it we come to do in this place every week? Over the last year, what have you really missed? What can the worship we share in this space give us that we cannot find anywhere else? I promise it’s not the Communion wafer or the cheap port wine or the hard wooden pews. It’s not the choir or the sermon or the stained-glass windows. It’s what all of those things are supposed to help us find in this place. It’s what that little piece of bread is all about. It’s what we can’t experience on the other side of a screen. It’s what we would willing sacrifice a lazy, care-free Sunday morning for without any hesitation. It’s the life-giving, life-changing encounter with God that we can only have when we have it together.

God is with us when we worship from home—absolutely and without question. God is also with us when we go for a walk in the park or play a round of golf or sleep in on a Sunday morning. But there is something fundamentally different about meeting God in that place where everyone is welcome—whoever they are and wherever they are on their pilgrimage of faith. We gather together in this place to have Communion with God and with each other. That Communion is not defined by the table fellowship of a family or by membership in an exclusive club. Here, everyone is welcome. When we are together at God’s table, we encounter the one who loves all of us unconditionally. And that encounter, experienced alongside all sorts and conditions of humanity, has the power to shape us into people who can love the world that same way.

Until we can all come back, therefore, that encounter will be incomplete. Until these pews are full—not merely full of people but full of anyone and everyone who wants to be here—we cannot experience the real spiritual power of Holy Communion. So let’s resist the temptation to hurry up and put everything back the way it was. Let’s hold off long enough to remember that we’re not here simply to say our prayers and to get a piece of holy bread. We are here to meet God and to do that together. How many of those things that we have had to let go of over the last twelve months are things that help us do that? Let’s not confuse those things for the reality to which they are directing us—a reality that cannot be complete until we’re all back together again. Otherwise, we’ve forgotten why being in this place really matters.