Sunday, August 29, 2021

Our Inevitable Hypocrisy, God's Unfailing Love


August 29, 2021 – The 14th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 17B

© 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 17:30.

We face an interpretive challenge this morning as we read about Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees and scribes in Mark 7. It’s easy for us to know whose side we’re supposed to be on, and that leads us to assume the worst of Jesus’ opponents and to think of them only as a Christianized caricature of who they really were. But the problem with that is two-fold. Not only do we fail to recognize the full humanity and faithfulness of the Pharisees, but we also fail to appreciate the power of Jesus’ teaching because it’s just too easy to write off what he says as intended for someone else—hypocrites of biblical proportions—and not for us. 

So today I’d like you to forget just about everything you know about the Pharisees and give them a second chance. You likely have heard preachers and Sunday school teachers explain that the Pharisees were among the most faithful, observant Jews of their day. But you may not have heard that they prayed and fasted and tithed not only for themselves but on behalf of their less-fastidious compatriots. They considered it part of their religious duty to go the extra mile and do the extra thing in order to give everyone—even the relatively unreligious in their community—a good start with God. In a very real way, the Pharisees were not the exclusive hardliners of their day but the generous progressives.

The Pharisaic movement in Judaism began as a reaction to the concentration of power among the religious elites. During the Babylonian exile, after Solomon’s temple had been destroyed and God’s people were removed from their land, worship needed to take on a different shape. There was no temple in which sacrifices could be offered, so faithful Jews began gathering on the sabbath wherever they could to read the holy scriptures, to celebrate the domestic traditions of their people like circumcision and keeping kosher, and to lift up their prayers and praises and laments. In order to maintain the traditions that defined them as a people, they had to improvise and find new ways of doing ancient things so that, even without the priests to help them, they could be a holy people in God’s sight.

After the exile was over and the people were allowed to return to their homeland, a controversy arose. Some wanted to go back to the old ways and rebuild the temple and forget everything that had happened during the exile, but others recognized that Judaism itself had changed and that what it meant to be faithful to God had changed. So, when the priests became the central authority in Jerusalem and insisted that everything revert to its pre-exilic pattern, a group of separatists, known as the Pharisees, refused to go along with their plan. Their faith had grown during the hardship of exile. Their newfound relationship with God was real, and they believed that all people—not just the priests—were called to a life of peculiar holiness.

When Jesus preached the nearness of God’s salvation in the synagogues and on the hillsides and along the shore, the Pharisees must have thought that they had found an ally. His populist approach would have reminded them of their own priorities—that a relationship with God was secured not primarily through temple worship but through individual holiness. But, when they saw him eating with tax collectors and sinners and touching unclean lepers and teaching disciples that they could pluck grain on the sabbath or eat with unwashed hands, they knew that they had a problem on their hands. They had spent centuries interpreting the Jewish customs in expansive ways that gave everyone access to a life of holiness, but, instead of furthering their work, this radical rabbi seemed to be throwing it all away.

“Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” they asked Jesus. When we think of the Pharisees as narrow-minded religious conservatives, we hear that question as if they looked down on those who weren’t holy enough. But there’s another, deeper issue at stake. In the Law of Moses, the only regulations about handwashing apply to priests in the temple. There are no rules about ordinary people washing hands or cups or pots or kettles. But, when they were without a temple, the God’s people had looked for ways that they could maintain their religious identity, and ceremonial handwashing became a universal practice—a simple pietistic way to remember that, as the people of God, all Jews were called to a life of holiness. “What’s wrong with that?” the Pharisees asked Jesus. “What’s wrong with the traditions that have helped our people remember that they belong to God?”

The problem, Jesus says, isn’t the handwashing but the distorted motivation behind it. “You hypocrites!” Jesus calls them. Quoting Isaiah, he says, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.” The issue isn’t the Pharisees’ desire to make their religion accessible to everyone. It’s their tendency to confuse their methods for the thing they were intended to instill. In their attempt to democratize faithfulness, by defining in their own terms what it means to belong to God and insisting that others accept that vision, their progressivism calcified into its own version of reactionary exclusivism. Instead of making holiness available to everyone, they ended up denying that holiness to anyone who didn’t agree with them. When they could no longer tell the difference between their traditions and God’s commandments, the very ones who stood for allowing everyone in ironically became the ones who pushed others out.

Sound familiar? No matter how idyllic they are in the beginning, our attempts to mandate inclusion always result in the unintended consequences of judgment, condemnation, and hypocrisy. As Episcopalians, we are celebrated for our tolerance of everyone except those we perceive as intolerant. What does that say about our faithfulness? The way of Jesus will always expose the hypocrisy of our judgments because the way of Jesus is always more open and inclusive than we are. That way is built not on the holiness of the holiest among us but upon God’s own sacrifice and death for the sake of the world. Jesus Christ did not die for those whose lives reflect the perfect love of God but for sinners like you and me, whose best attempt is always doomed to fail. Our hope, therefore, is not that we would ever create a church or a religion or a community or a government that embodies the radical love and inclusion of God but that we would allow our vain belief that we could ever build it to die on the cross with Christ.

In times like this, when church and society are being pulled apart by the evil forces that deceive us and make us assume the worst in other people and the best in ourselves, our hope is found in Jesus. He helps us see our own hypocrisy for what it really is. And he helps us know that God’s love for us is not a reflection of our best efforts or even our best intentions but of God’s great and abiding love for the whole world. We can build no kingdom that supplants the reign of God, but thanks be to God that we don’t have to. We already belong to the one whose death and resurrection open the gates wide enough for all to walk in.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Fed By Christ


August 15, 2021 – The 12th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 15B

© 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 12:30.

What do you do well on an empty stomach? I am fairly productive first thing in the morning, when there’s nothing in my tank except a few cups of black coffee, but, by the early afternoon, if I have not eaten anything, things begin to go sideways. I get distracted. I get irritable. I get “hangry”—that particular kind of angry that accompanies a lack of food. I can’t say that I am at my best when my stomach is full, but, when it’s empty, I have my limits. Just ask my family or my colleagues.

As the academic year begins, our local schools are providing free breakfast and free lunch for all students through the end of the year. That’s good news for everyone. During the pandemic, our schools have looked for ways to feed hungry children, whose families normally depend on free or reduced meals at school for their children’s nourishment, but it hasn’t been easy with many children learning from home. No matter where you are, it’s hard to learn when your stomach is growling. It’s hard to stay focused when the pain of not eating demands your attention. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs puts physiological things like food, water, clothing, and shelter at the very bottom—the first need that must be met if a person is going to grow and develop—and an empty stomach leaves someone a long way from self-actualization—from being able to want to become the person you have been created to be. Just ask a kindergarten teacher.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus’ teaching on the Bread of Life takes a bit of a regression—from lofty metaphor to basic reality, from philosophical aspiration to physiological necessity. What had been a provocative image for spiritual salvation now becomes an even more provocative image for physical sustenance. At the beginning of this teaching, Jesus likened the Bread of Life to manna in the wilderness, but now Jesus wants to compare it with his flesh—the literal “meat” of his body—in ways that would eventually become fuel for the cannibalistic accusations that were levied against the early Christians. But for us it offers the hope that in Christ God is concerned not only with our spiritual welfare but also with the most basic needs of humanity—with the hunger that so often seems to get in the way of our spiritual growth.

In Jesus’ time, manna was often used as an image for divine revelation. Wisdom and truth from above were likened to the flaky white substance that God gave the ancient Israelites on their journey through the wilderness. We, too, describe unexpected gifts as “manna from heaven,” acknowledging that something good has come to us from an unexpected source. When Jesus described himself and his teachings as “the bread that came down from heaven,” the religious authorities grumbled against him because they saw nothing otherworldly about him. “We know Jesus,” they scoffed. “We know his parents and his siblings. He didn’t come from heaven. He came from Nazareth!” Jesus may have grown up in Galilee, but we know that the wisdom and truth he brought to the earth had indeed come from above.

We have the advantage of two thousand years of theological interpretation and instruction. Back then, the religious authorities were struggling to see beyond the reality they knew. Jesus had offered the crowd a challenging message: that he was the one who had come to sustain God’s people not only for a wilderness journey but for all time. He was the one who could feed them in a way that could give them eternal life. But it’s hard to wrap your mind around that lofty truth when the spiritual equivalent of your stomach is grumbling. It’s hard to believe that Jesus can give us spiritual fulfillment when our faith in God is in its infancy. We need basic nourishment first.

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven,” Jesus said. “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” If you thought spiritual bread was hard to digest, just wait until you try to tackle the body and blood of Jesus. Like a precipitating agent that causes a substance to fall out of solution in a chemical reaction, Jesus’ identification of the bread from heaven with his body pushes those who hear this message in opposite directions. 

Those who take issue with his claims about having a heavenly origin find this latest assertion impossible to swallow. No one eats human flesh. We don’t need a divine teacher to tell us that. And, according to Jewish law, blood can never be consumed because, as the life of a creature, it belongs to God. When Jesus begins to speak of his flesh and blood as if they are food for God’s people, the religious authorities need no more reason to write him off. That is sacrilegious nonsense.

But, to those who are hungry for the salvation that Jesus offers, who are looking to him to meet their most basic needs, this invitation to feast on his flesh and blood becomes not a gruesome, unholy practice but a way to meet God through the most basic of human pursuits. In Christ, we find God in something as ordinary and essential as bread. In him, we discover that God wants to feed us first in order that that nourishment might grow into something much more substantial.

Traditionally, we approach life as if there is a tension between the spiritual world and the physical world—between the soul and the body. But in Christ we discover that they are inseparable. By giving us his body, his flesh, Jesus invites us to receive him not through some rigorous spiritual practice but in something we can touch and smell and taste and chew and swallow. In case we missed it—in case we think that this is just another strange philosophical metaphor—halfway through this gospel lesson Jesus stops using the generic word for eating (φάγω) and replaces it with the word that means munching, gnawing, or chewing (τρώγω). When we feast on the flesh of Jesus, therefore, we do so not only in our hearts and minds but with our mouths and stomachs, too.

The Holy Eucharist, which we gather to celebrate today, is a strange and beautiful thing. We eat and drink the body and blood of Jesus not only to remember his death and resurrection but to partake in his life-giving body and blood. This is how we make our Communion with Almighty God—not by elevating our minds to the heavenly places but by receiving the corporeal Christ here in our hands and mouths and stomachs. How freeing it is to know that we encounter God not because we have molded our spiritual selves into the right shape but because God has taken on our flesh and given that flesh up for our sake! We meet God not only when our minds are perfectly attuned to spiritual realities but even when our stomachs are rumbling and the distractions of our physical needs press in upon our prayers. How is that possible? Because Jesus gave us not only wisdom and truth, which feed our spirits, but his flesh and blood, which nourish our whole selves.

This means that Holy Communion is not only a foretaste of the banquet that awaits us but also sustenance for the journey we are on in this world. It is how we carry the power of God with us into the world where God’s presence can sometimes be hard to discern. As John Chrysostom said of the Eucharist, “Christ has given to those who desire Him not only to see Him, but even to touch, and eat Him, and fix their teeth in His flesh, and to embrace Him, and satisfy all their love. Let us then return from that table like lions breathing fire, having become terrible to the devil; thinking on our Head [meaning Jesus], and on the love which He has shown for us.” [1] We return from that table and go out into the world like lions breathing fire not because we have ascended to the heights of spiritual contemplation but because Jesus Christ has descended to us and filled us with real food, his own flesh and blood, the Bread of Life. 

1.   Chrysostom, John. “Homily 46 on the Gospel of John.” Accessed 13 August 2021.

Sunday, August 8, 2021

From the Mountaintop into the Valley


August 8, 2021 – The Transfiguration

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here. Video of the service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 18:05.

When was the last time you experienced a moment so wonderful, so beautiful, so joyful that you wanted it to last forever? The vacation you didn’t want to end. The honeymoon you wished would stretch on another week, another month. The victory celebration that you wanted to linger in forever. We all know what awaits us on the other side of those moments. The work that must be done. The ups and downs of marriage that inevitably come. The season after the championship, when we have to start the process all over again. But isn’t that where the real, deep, abiding joy is to be found—not by staying up on the mountain top but by coming back down into the ordinary, real world and bringing with us the memory of that moment as we reengage the challenges and struggles that await us?

In today’s gospel lesson, our friend and role model Peter found himself in the midst of one of those mountain-top experiences, and, as it began to fade, he allowed his desire to stay forever in that moment get the best of him. “Master,” he said to Jesus, “it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah,” not knowing what he said. He was groggy, weighed down with sleep, and, like he did so many other times, he opened his mouth before he really thought about what he would say. But sometimes those unguarded moments are the times when our deepest desires come out. 

Peter didn’t want to leave. Even if he didn’t understand what was happening, he knew it was good, and he didn’t want it to go away. He wanted to preserve this moment for ever. So, when he saw the great icons of the faith, Moses and Elijah, begin to fade away, he interrupted awkwardly and interjected himself where he didn’t belong. “Let us build three dwellings”—literally, three booths—“one for each of you, so that you—so that we—can all stay here forever.” In that naïve request, we see that Peter was motivated not only by a desire to remain on that mountain top but also by his desire to celebrate that moment for what it really was—the coming together of Law and Prophet and Christ, a complete manifestation of God’s great work of salvation in the lives of God’s people.

Although the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration is a central episode in Christian scripture, the telling of that moment is deeply rooted in the Jewish tradition of Sukkot, or the Feast of Booths. It has become a less important observance in contemporary Judaism, but in Jesus’ time, the Feast of Booths was as important as any other religious observance. The first-century Jewish historian Josephus called it the “most important and holy feast” in the Jewish year. Back then, it was simply referred to as “the holiday,” in much the same way as the days that connect Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are now called collectively the “high holidays.” 

When Peter suggests that they should build booths for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, a first-century faithful observer would automatically be taken to that annual festival, when people would come to Jerusalem from all over and set up their own temporary shelters or booths in order to remember and reenact their ancestors’ sojourn in the wilderness. That practice was a way to celebrate how God had led God’s people from slavery in Egypt toward freedom in the land of promise. 

Understandably, Peter thinks that this is the moment worth celebrating, that this glorious display of God’s saving work is the thing that should be bottled up, commoditized, liturgized, and dispensed back to God’s people. But, just like that time in the wilderness so many centuries earlier, this was a temporary moment on a journey toward something else. Remembering and celebrating moments like that can be helpful, as we celebrate this moment again today, but, when we get stuck in them and begin to mistake the transition for the destination, we lose sight of the salvation God is leading us to.

We don’t need help magnifying the mountain-top experiences of our lives. We need help finding hope in the midst of life’s valleys, and that’s what this episode is really about. Notice that Luke identifies for us what Jesus, Moses, and Elijah had been talking about. “They appeared in glory and were speaking of [Jesus’] departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” Literally, the text tells us that they were speaking of Jesus’ “exodus.” The use of that word is no accident. That exodus, that departure, that salvation-giving journey would be found not on the mount of Transfiguration but in the depths of betrayal, suffering, rejection, and death that awaited Jesus in the holy city.

In case we didn’t pick up on the exodus allusion, Luke introduces this story with an explicit reference to Jesus’ death. The lectionary version of this gospel lesson omits that connection by abbreviating the first verse in order to make sure we don’t hear a reference to a part of the story that we may not have read recently, but I think it’s impossible to appreciate the Transfiguration without it. Listen to the unabridged version of the first verse of this passage (Luke 9:28): “Now about eight days after these sayings, Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.” Luke wants us to know that, as we climb up that mountain with Jesus and the disciples, the words that had been spoken eight days earlier were still ringing in their ears. And what were those words? After Peter, for the very first time, had identified Jesus as the Christ, Jesus had said to the disciples, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised,” and “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” 

That is the life-giving, liberating, salvation-granting exodus that awaits Jesus and the disciples in Jerusalem. No wonder Peter wants to stay on that mountain. We all want to stay on that mountain. It is easier to hang on to the joy we know rather than risk losing it amidst the struggle and suffering that await us, but God’s saving work in our lives is not complete on the mountain top. It is not finished in those transient moments of glory and joy that we experience up there among the clouds. Instead, it is wrought in the hard moments of pain and struggle that we encounter back down on level ground—in those moments into which we bring new confidence because of what we have seen on that mountain top. 

Remember that life’s struggles have been changed because of the one who was glorified on that mountain and yet descended again back into the brokenness of the world. God and God’s salvation are not waiting for us, hidden away on a distant peak. That salvation, which was on display in the transfiguration of Christ, has already come down into the muck and mire that we experience in order that we might be lifted from them. The glorification of Jesus Christ would be an unattainable goal if it were not for the cross and the tomb. That shining hope that he brought to the world would always be beyond our grasp if it had remained up on that mountain. Thanks be to God that it didn’t! Jesus didn’t stay up there so that we could admire him from afar. He came back down to where we are. Because of what happened in Jerusalem, his exodus becomes our exodus. His struggles redeem our struggles. Our hope is found not in the fleeting moments of transcendent glory we experience in the good times but in the one whose transcendence and glory come down and meet us in the ordinary, difficult places of life. Our hope is in the glorious  one who suffered and died for our sake, our savior Jesus Christ. 

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Our Life's Work


What is your life's work? And is that the same thing as the way you have made a living?

This week, a fire broke out at Princeton Theological Seminary, and a friend and colleague posted on Facebook that we should give thanks that no one was hurt but also grieve how much must have been lost. "A whole lifetime is in many of our offices," she wrote. She's right. I can't imagine what I would do if I lost even my computer (yes, I back up) not to mention my office.

What is your life's work? Do you get paid to do it? Do you get paid doing something else so that you can afford to do the thing you really love to do? Whether we get paid or not, our life's work is the thing that consumes us. It is the occupation that fills our days and sometimes our nights. Sometimes it empties them, too. And it is easy and natural for us to associate our work with our living, but I'm not sure that's always the case.

In last Sunday's gospel lesson (John 6:24-35), we hear a lot about what work is and what work is not. Jesus tells the crowd that seeks him, "Don't work for the food that perishes but for the food that endures to eternal life." The crowd, however, isn't spiritually minded. They're after him not in search of ethereal enlightenment but physical nourishment. They don't understand what he means. "[If God is the one who will give us that eternal food], what must we do to perform the works of God in order to attain it?" Literally, they ask, "What must we do to work the works of God?" In other words, they're still thinking about the kind of work that gets you paid and fed. But Jesus has something else in mind.

"This is the work of God," he tells them, "that you believe in the one God has sent." And all at once their preconceptions begin to fall apart in their minds. Believe? Work? What does that mean?

My colleague Pam Morgan, in her sermon on Sunday, drew us back to the Garden of Eden--back to the paradise where Adam and Eve were given the fruit of every tree and plant in the garden to eat except for one. When they disobeyed God and ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, however, their eyes were opened, and, when God found out, he drove them out of the garden and told them that, for the rest of their days, they would have to work for their food. Pam reminded us that the ground would only yield to the human produce after he toiled over it. Work and bread, she said, were forever linked.

The most fundamental pursuit in our lives is to seek nourishment. We toil and labor in order that we might pay the bills and eat our daily bread. It's easy, therefore, for us to assume that work also defines our relationship with our creator--that just the ground is cursed by God in order that we might have to work in order to reap its harvest, we, too, must be cursed in order that we would have to work our way back into God's graces--back into the garden of paradise. But that's not true. It's never been true.

Jesus came to show God's people--to show us--that God's eternal provision isn't the kind of bread we have to work for. On the contrary, in order to receive it--to participate in it--all we are asked is to believe in it. "What must we do to work the works of God?" the people ask. "This is the work of God," Jesus says, "that you believe in the one God has sent."

What is your life's work? What is your deepest calling? Jesus knows that your stomach needs to be filled, too. He made sure to provide bread for the 5,000. But that was only a sign--a sign that pointed to something much bigger and much more important. No matter how it is that we work for the bread that perishes--that gets crusty, stale, and moldy--we are beckoned to make our principal occupation--our life's true work--the work of believing in the one whom God has sent, our savior Jesus Christ. Believing in Jesus won't fill your belly. Most of us still have earthly work to do in order to pay the bills and put food on the table. But when it comes to our place at God's eternal table--when it comes to belonging to God for all time--that work has been done for us. All we are asked to do is believe.