Monday, June 28, 2021

Salvation on Aisle 8A


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

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here, with the sermon beginning around 19:15..

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Salvation in a Cedar or a Shrub?


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

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Cedar Trees and Mustard Seeds


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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 7, 2021

Trying to Stop God


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

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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