Monday, May 24, 2021

Can These Bones Live?


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

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Impossible Choice


May 16, 2021 – Easter 7B

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 10, 2021

Back to the Basics, Forward with God


May 9, 2021 – Easter 5B

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the service can be seen here with the gospel lesson and sermon beginning around 15:15. 

Whose conversion do we celebrate in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles—Cornelius and the other Gentiles or Peter and the circumcised believers?

The authors of the lectionary know that our attention span is too short to read all of Acts 10 in church, but it seems that they are counting on you to know the rest of the story because this conclusion, all by itself, fails to convey the real power of this episode. When the Holy Spirit fell upon those who were listening to Peter’s words, God did something truly remarkable, but what happened to those Gentiles is only part of the story.

Rewind back to the beginning of Acts 10. We start in the house of Cornelius, the Roman Centurion who had earned the respect of his Jewish neighbors as a God-fearer. Despite his allegiance to the Empire, he was known as a generous and faithful man. One afternoon, while he was praying, an angel stood before him and told him to send messengers to the city of Joppa and to ask after a man named Simon Peter and to request that Peter come and visit him. Faithful to the vision, Cornelius did just that.

The next day, as those messengers were approaching the house where Peter was staying, Peter was up on the roof praying. There, he had his own vision—this one of a great sheet being lowered down from heaven, full of four-footed animals, reptiles, and birds. A voice told Peter to get up, kill, and eat what was before him, but Peter knew right away that that was impossible. These animals were unclean—not kosher—and he had never once tasted what the law forbade. “By no means, Lord!” he objected. But the voice said to him, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” And the sheet was taken back up into heaven. 

Three times he saw and heard the same thing. And, while he was standing there, pondering what that vision might mean, there was a knock at the door. Before he even knew who was standing outside, the Spirit told Peter that he should go with those men. Cornelius wasn’t the only one who needed a vision to get where this story ends up. Peter needed one of his own. As he himself declared when he arrived at Cornelius’ house, “It is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile, but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” God had shown him. God had revealed to Peter that God was about to do something the world had never seen. God was going to tear down the most fundamental barrier in human civilization and show Peter and the other circumcised believers that religious identity—that belonging to God—didn’t depend on who you were or where you were from.

Two thousand years later, those of us who hear each week that “whoever you are and wherever you are on your pilgrimage of faith, you are welcome in this place and at God’s table” might take that for granted. But Peter and his circumcised companions most certainly did not. When they saw that the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on those Gentiles, they were astounded. Peter’s question was not a rhetorical device. It was genuine. “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” he asked, querying himself as much as those around him. 

We get a glimpse at the magnitude of this theological and ecclesiological stretch in the next chapter, Acts 11, when Peter was called upon to defend himself by the other apostles and circumcised believers. “Why did you go into the home of uncircumcised men and eat with them?” they asked incredulously. Peter had to explain all over again the vision that he had seen three times and how it corresponded with Cornelius’ own vision and how the Holy Spirit had come upon those Gentiles just as it had come upon the apostles at the beginning of their ministry. Peter hadn’t been looking to break the rules or shatter the ethnic distinctions that he and his people had known for the two thousand years since Father Abraham had answered God’s call. But God had used Peter’s faithfulness—his prayerful devotion—to break open his heart in order that he might become a vessel for this new thing that God was doing. And because God had met him in that place of faithfulness, Peter was able to accept it with obedience.

God is doing something new in this moment. God is breaking down new barriers and teaching us new ways of recognizing what is holy. God is showing us new things that surprise us. But we won’t recognize them if we aren’t pursuing the familiar life of faithfulness. I think we vastly underestimate old patterns of holy living—things like praying morning, noon, and night, reading and studying the bible, memorizing scripture, singing psalms and hymns around the dinner table, fasting, and giving alms—the same things that Peter and Cornelius were doing before God brought them together.

Sometimes it feels like religion stands in the way of progress. For some, a rejection of the traditional religious framework is the only path to enlightenment. For those who have been wounded by religion itself, that is understandable. But there are others of us who come from within the community of faith who are eager to see God overturn the institutions that stand in the way of God’s reign being fully manifest in this world. We are the ones who pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done” and mean it with our whole heart. For us, the road to progress begins with the practice of our faith. We want to burst through those barriers that attempt to shackle God’s infinite, unconditional love, but we won’t get there by leaving God behind. We can only name as holy and sacred those things that the others would call unclean and profane if God takes us there.

In the end, it is our own conversion that we gather to celebrate this day—not simply our conversion to Christianity—to the way of Jesus—but our conversion to the possibility that God will do something new within us. Being open to that possibility is fundamental to the way of Jesus. To believe in the crucified and resurrected one is to believe that out of our own inadequacies God will bring new and abundant life. We are here today to pray like Peter and Cornelius and to ask the Holy Spirit to inspire us for whatever lies ahead. This thing that God is doing is too great and too wonderful even for our imaginations. We will not figure it out on our own. But God will use our faithfulness to open us up to whatever new possibilities God has in store for the world. 

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Stay Connected Now, Bear Fruit Later


May 2, 2021 – Easter 5B

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

“Try hard to relax.” It’s a pretty silly thing to say, isn’t it? You should work harder to not work so much. Since doing nothing doesn’t come naturally to you, you should practice it more. Sayings like those are basically non-sensical.

In a way, that’s what Jesus tells his disciples to do. In these final instructions before he leaves them, Jesus says, “Abide in me.” I think most modern translations use the word “abide” because it sounds more official and significant than “remain” or “stay,” but the word Jesus uses—the thing he tells his disciples to do—really is as simple as that. Stay put. Remain here. Dwell in me. If you abide in me, you will bear fruit, and, if you don’t, you won’t. It’s really that simple. If you want to be my disciple, all you have to do is stay put in me. But I wonder if the disciples knew how hard that would be.

Just hours after Jesus spoke these words to his disciples, he was arrested. He was tortured. He was executed. His crucified body was put on display as a warning to any of his followers that, if they dared challenge the authority of the Empire, they, too, would meet a ghastly end. And where were the disciples? Hiding in the shadows. Scattered to the wind. Nowhere to be found. “All you have to do is remain in me,” Jesus said, but that wasn’t easy at all.

In the early church—actually by the time John’s gospel account was written—the principal test for Christian disciples was not how much they knew about Jesus but whether they were willing to be counted among his followers in the face of persecution. Martyrs were the witnesses who sacrificed their homes and possessions, their relationships with family and friends, and even their own lives rather than renounce their faith in Jesus. Abiding in him would enable them to bear much fruit, but the seeds for that fruit, as Tertullian (sort of) wrote, would be their own blood. 

Still, although more challenging in practice than in theory, being a disciple really does start with abiding in Jesus. If we abide in him, even in the face of opposition and struggle, we will bear the fruit of discipleship. Jesus does not say to his disciples, “Go out and bear much fruit in order than you might remain connected with me.” Instead, he tells them to stay where they are—connected and rooted in the vine—in order that, in him, they might bear much fruit. No matter how hard we try to get that backwards, our first calling as disciples of Jesus is simply to remain in him. Bearing fruit always comes later.

What has abiding in Christ looked like for you during the pandemic? How have you stayed connected to the vine? On the one hand, being a Christian really is as simple as staying connected with Jesus, but doing that during a time when all of us are cut off from one another and the usual vehicles for spiritual growth are unavailable to us is hard. Collectively, we are the body of Christ. We are nourished as the body of Christ when we assemble and receive the body of Christ, but, for many of us, that most basic of Christian practices—coming together for Holy Communion—is not possible right now. Sure, we say our prayers and read the Bible and share our bounty with those in need, but doing those things in isolation rather than as part of the community of faith makes it hard for us to recognize them as practices that keep us connected with Jesus. It feels like what we really need is to return to normal—to go back to the way things were before we had to wear masks and stay home and keep six feet of distance from one another.

But isn’t there a peculiar holiness to this challenging chapter of our lives? Isn’t there a sense in which what we are going through is analogous to God’s pruning of the branches that bear fruit in order that they might bear more fruit? Aren’t we learning new ways of staying connected with Jesus and, through him, with one another? Aren’t we learning all over again why those familiar practices, which we have had to set aside for a time, are important and valuable in the first place? Aren’t we called to return to them not as if nothing has changed but with full recognition that everything is new and different?

“Abide in me as I abide in you.” Though it takes considerable effort and intention on our parts, those who abide in Jesus will bear much fruit and for no other reason than the fact that that’s where they remain, where they dwell. What does it mean to be fruitful in the years ahead? How will church be different when all of us are able to come back together again? We don’t know. We can’t know. And that’s ok. Our calling is not to bear that fruit in order that we might be worthy of Christ. Our calling is to remain in the vine so that in us Christ might bear whatever fruit God will bring to bear. 

In this time of pruning, when branches that bear fruit are cut back in order that they might be more fruitful and when branches that no longer bear fruit are removed to give room for new growth, our calling is clear. We must remain in Christ. That is always the definition of faithfulness, but it is clearer than usual in this pandemic time. Now more than ever, our prayers matter. They matter because they hold us together and hold us together in Christ. We must remain rooted in the vine even and especially when it is hardest to do so. It isn’t easy to stay connected with Jesus during this time when we are forced to stay apart. And our desire to be fruitful—our tendency to measure the success of our faith in output instead of identity—often gets in the way of what really matters.

Abide in Christ. Remain in Christ. Dwell in Christ. You belong to Christ not because you bear fruit but in order that Christ might bear fruit in you. In this time of our collective struggle, don’t lose sight of what really matters. Don’t be discouraged because bearing fruit is hard or looks different during the pandemic. Christ is the vine, and you are the branches. Our job, our calling, is merely to be what God has made us to be—a branch that remains connected to the vine no matter what wind and rain and last frost comes. Stay put. Abide. Remain in the vine and wait until that vine bears fruit in us once more.