Sunday, July 18, 2021

Sharing Hope

July 18, 2021 – The 8th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 11B

 © 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 22:35.

Three weeks ago, I walked down Dickson Street with a group from St. Paul’s, and I listened as the crowd cheered wildly and joyfully at the sight of our church’s banner. The whole event was a joyful, hopeful celebration, but I felt something special when thousands of people, who have no real connection with our church, lifted their voices in shouts of appreciation because, as I interpret their enthusiasm, they were delighted to see a group of Christians walking in the Pride parade. Although I know that St. Paul’s has long been a symbol of love and acceptance in our community, until that moment, I did not appreciate what it means to be a part of a church that is willing to show up and stand up for Pride.

Ever since then, I have been wondering what comes next. Over the years, we have done a lot of good in this community. When the crowd sees us walking down Dickson, they aren’t cheering simply because we showed up this year but because of all that we have come to represent in this town. But, when the parade is over, we roll up our banner and pack up our feather boas and put away our rainbow hats and look forward to next year, when the crowd will cheer us on again. One or two from the crowd may come through those doors because they are bold enough to come and look for something more, but many others are content to say to themselves what each of us has heard many times before: “I don’t go to church, but, if I ever did, I would go to St. Paul’s.” Today’s readings from Jeremiah and Mark make me wonder whether it’s time for us to do something more.

Back then, they probably weren’t wearing as much face paint, but the crowds we read about in Mark 6 were no less enthusiastic. The disciples had returned from the journey on which Jesus had sent them out two by two. They had taught and healed and cast out demons in Jesus’ name, and they were wildly successful. Jesus and his disciples had become so famous that they couldn’t even get a few minutes by themselves to eat. So Jesus bid his disciples to come away to a deserted place by themselves. They got into a boat and sailed to a desolate spot on the shore, but the crowd saw where they were headed, and they ran along the shore to meet them. As the eager crowd passed through one village after another, more and more people left their homes and hurried to meet them. By the time Jesus and the disciples came ashore, there were more than 5,000 people waiting for them.

By the end of the gospel reading, Jesus and the disciples left that place in the boat and sailed to the other side of the sea, but, again, a great crowd met them there. So eager were the people to be healed by Jesus that they pressed in on him as close as they could. They knew that if they could only touch the fringe of his cloak everything would be alright—that all that was amiss within them would be healed. Even though he must have been exhausted, Jesus, we are told, had compassion on them. When he looked out at the crowd, he saw beloved children of God who were like sheep without a shepherd.

There are a few times in the Bible when God’s people are described as sheep without a shepherd. When Moses asked the Lord to raise up a successor who would lead Israel into the land of Canaan, he begged God not to leave God’s sheep without a shepherd (Numbers 27:17). When Micaiah the prophet foretold the death of the wicked king Ahab, he said that he could see the soldiers of Israel scattered on the mountains like sheep that have no shepherd (1 Kings 22:17). When Zechariah the prophet described the worthlessness of the spiritual leaders of his day, he lamented how the people of Judah suffered for lack of a shepherd (Zechariah 10:2). But perhaps worst of all was the condemnation uttered by the prophet Jeremiah, which we heard in our first reading. “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord.” In this instance, the leaders of God’s people had not only failed to keep track of their vulnerable sheep, but, like wolves in sheep’s clothing, they had actually scattered the flock, driving them away.

I wonder how often someone who was desperate for healing tried to approach God only to be driven away by worthless shepherds. I wonder how often in the name of religion someone with authority has refused to acknowledge the needs of the vulnerable who come to them for help. I wonder how often we, in the name of Jesus, have taken a stand with oppression not because we believe that it’s right but because we are afraid of admitting that we might have been wrong all this time. In every generation, there are so-called religious leaders who, instead of shepherding God’s people to spiritual safety, scatter them and chase them away, coming between them and God.

The truth is that we’re all desperate for healing. We’re all standing in our own crowd, of our own particular identity, hoping that we will be found, that our needs can be met, that our brokenness can be made whole. Some of us, like me, have the benefit of belonging to a crowd that hasn’t ever had to fight hard to be accepted or to be taken seriously. While our needs are just as real as anyone else’s, we aren’t as vulnerable as others, and we haven’t known what it means to come to the church house door only to find that we aren’t welcome—that the shepherds are determined to drive us away. But there are lots of other people who have felt that kind of rejection and exclusion by the church. And it shouldn’t surprise us that many of them have given up on religion. It shouldn’t surprise us that, when Christians show up and grab the microphone, people who have been wounded by the church expect something other than love and acceptance to come out.

The crowd on Dickson Street, when they see us, knows that we represent a different kind of Christian, but I wonder whether showing up every year is enough. In every biblical example of sheep without a shepherd, including the one from Jeremiah, God promises to raise up new, faithful shepherds who will care for God’s people. Moses was succeeded by Joshua. Ahab and the rest of the Omri dynasty were eventually overthrown by Jehu. Zechariah and Jeremiah both promised that the self-interested shepherds who had led God’s people astray would be replaced by a righteous Branch, who would bring justice and righteousness to the land. Jesus came and offered healing to those who needed it most—those who had no where else to turn, those who had no spiritual leaders to help them find the healing promises of God.

Are we willing to do more to help people who have given up on God because they have been driven away by worthless shepherds find the healing that God still promises them? I don’t mean a campaign to get disaffected people to fill the pews and the offering plate. And I’m not just talking about the crowds at a Pride parade. I think we are in a unique position to offer a message of hope to people who haven’t heard words of hope from Christians in a long time. We have spent years building a deep reputation of genuine love and concern throughout the community. People see that the members of this parish are committed to the transformational power of unconditional love. They literally cheer when they see us. Over and over, they say that, if they ever went to a church, it would be here with us.

You’re already here, so you already know the healing power of hope and love that we share in this place—not by reputation but from within. You know how good it is to be a part of this community of faith. Think of how many other people would enjoy being a part of what we do here. Might you do something more to share it with others? Jesus is sending us out, just like the disciples, to offer healing in his name. Whom will you invite to come and find it with us?

Sunday, July 4, 2021

Good News That's Hard To Hear


July 4, 2021 – The 6th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 9B

© 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 16:15.

Why do people have such a hard time hearing certain things from those closest to them? Why do our children ignore us when we tell them that the person they have a crush on is nothing but trouble, but, when they hear it from their friends at school, they take it as gospel truth? Why do our parents refuse to listen to us when we tell them that they can’t say those things about women or immigrants or people of color, but, when the man who works in their yard invites them to recognize the full humanity of all people, it’s as if the scales have fallen from their eyes? Why are congregations eager to hear challenging, prophetic sermons from visiting preachers but take offense whenever the rector says something even remotely controversial?

Whatever it is, it’s not new. By the time we get to Mark 6, Jesus has done some pretty amazing things. He’s healed the sick. He’s cast out demons. He’s stilled the wind and the waves. He’s even brought the dead back to life. And now he’s come back home—back to his hometown, to the synagogue where he grew up. He’s been invited to preach, and, when he does, the people are offended.

Listen how Mark conveys to us how quickly their admiration turned to disgust: “‘Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offense at him.” It’s as if they were captivated by his wisdom and power until they remembered where he was from and who his mother and siblings are. “Wait a minute!” they said to themselves. “This is Jesus—the boy who grew up down just around the corner. Who does he think he is, coming back home and talking to us as if we didn’t remember him crawling around in diapers?”

When Mark tells us that they were offended at him, he uses a word that literally means “scandalized.” They weren’t merely put off by his words. They were tripped up, snared, stumbling-blocked because of them. But why? Because there was something incongruous about knowing a man since he was a boy and hearing that man proclaim the coming reign of God. They couldn’t hear this person they knew talk about the kingdom they didn’t. As Jesus declared, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” 

The closer you are to a prophet, the harder it is for you to hear what a prophet declares. And why? Because a prophet never tells you what you want to hear. The prophet brings the sharp, painful truth of God that is almost impossible to hear from someone you already know well—from someone who is a part of the life you already enjoy. What the people of Nazareth wanted was the sweet, smart, articulate boy whom they had celebrated as he grew up. What they got was a firebrand rabbi who came to turn their world upside down. And they weren’t having it. Jesus, we are told, was essentially ineffective in their midst—robbed of any power by their hardheartedness and unbelief. 

Is our response any different? The Jesus we know and love has been living in our homes and in our town and in our country for a long, long time. We’re familiar with him. He’s an intimate part of our lives. We even think of him as a friend. He’s loving and gentle and kind. He heals the sick and cares for the poor and welcomes the outcast. We love that Jesus. We admire his benevolent power and seek his life-giving ways. We appreciate the way he gently chastises us just enough to make us uncomfortable before quickly reminding us that he loves us just the way we are. He helps us see the world a little more like the kingdom of God but also permits us to take a piece of that vision back home free of charge—back to the families and jobs and lives we enjoy. He invites us to dream with him of a better place without asking us to give up on the place we already have.

But the Jesus we have welcomed into our hearts and homes isn’t the Jesus we read about in the gospel but the domesticated version whose spirit we have broken and whose power we have tamed. Jesus didn’t come to heal the sick. There were doctors back then who could take care of that. Jesus came to heal those who couldn’t find healing among the physicians of their day. He came to bring healthcare to those who fill up our emergency rooms and urgent care clinics because they can’t afford to go to a doctor until they’re desperate. 

Jesus didn’t come to cast out evil spirits in order that people like you and me could live a tranquil life. He came to overthrow the forces of Satan and the chains of the devil, which bind people to low-paying jobs and inhumane working conditions—the kind of jobs where people get Covid and then lose their jobs and then their homes because they can’t show up to butcher that chicken we buy for $1.89/pound so that the company that sells it can make a few more pennies and the stock price in our portfolios will go up.

Jesus didn’t come to still the storms that ruin our Fourth of July cookouts or quiet the winds that rock our fancy boats. He came to summon the primal forces of creation and subdue the destructive chaos of evil that is rampant in our world. He came to do battle with the hurricanes that devastate already-impoverished communities. He came to condemn the sinking apartment buildings that threaten to collapse. He came to stand up to the wildfires that our greed and ecological abuse are fueling. He came to save those whose lives are threatened by the sweltering heat that we have caused.

When Jesus came to the earth, he came not to bring the dead back to more of this life but so that those who die to this life—to this way of being, to the kingdoms that dominate our world—might be given a new and flourishing existence. We like to think that the heaven that awaits us is more of “Your Best Life Now,” but the unending reign of God into which Jesus Christ calls us is only found when we die to this world and the forces that have corrupted it—when we see that those forces are at work in our own lives—in our politics, our economics, our schools and hospitals, our cars and trucks, our consumption and waste—and recognize our need for repentance.

People look at me funny when I say that Jesus would have made a terrible rector. And that says as much about you and me as it does about him. There’s a reason he never stayed long in one place. There’s a reason that crowds cheered for him and disciples followed him yet the people who knew him his whole life rejected him. It’s hard to have the kingdom of God come nearby, and it’s especially hard when it moves in and takes up residence in your comfortable life. God’s reign displaces all of the powers and principalities in our lives. It will not share authority with any of the institutions we hold dear. Its demands are total and totally new. 

The kingdom of God that Jesus brings to the earth is most definitely good news for all people, including you and me, but it’s the kind of good news that challenges us to our very core. It promises us new and unending life, but we must first die to the life we know and enjoy if we are going to receive the one that God has promised us. Are we willing to die—to give up all of this—in order to be a part of God’s unending reign, or do we just want a Jesus who pats us on the back and makes us feel good about the life we already have?