Sunday, November 27, 2022

Habitual Thanksgiving

 

November 24, 2022 – Thanksgiving Day, Year C

© 2022 Evan D. Garner

Video of the service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 20:50.

Have you ever started your own business? You need to have a vision and a plan and money and lawyers and more money. My father started a hospital systems company when I was in middle school, and I thought the coolest part was the little embosser for the corporate seal that the attorney gave my dad when he signed all the paperwork. All that hard work and money and risk from my father, and that was my favorite part.

Do you remember seeing at a restaurant or another business that framed first dollar that the owners made? A source of pride. A testament to hard work. A reminder of where they’ve been. A statement of gratitude. I don’t see it as much anymore—probably because nobody uses cash these days—but I always get a little sentimental when I see a large, thriving, decades-old business that still has its first dollar framed upon the wall—that hasn’t forgotten where it came from.

Imagine starting your own restaurant. Developing a few recipes in your home kitchen that your friends and neighbors love. Hearing them say, “You ought to do this for living.” Returning to the idea over and over, unable to let it go. Dreaming about how much more you’d enjoy that than your current job. Finally getting serious about it. Scouting out a location. Taking out a loan. Assembling a kitchen. Buying all the supplies. Getting a business license. Hiring a few employees. Passing a health inspection. Testing it out among some close friends. Tweaking a few things. And then, at long last, with your marriage on thin ice and all your savings gone, opening to the public. 

Your first paying customer. Hands you some cash. You take one dollar out of what he hands you and glue it onto the mat that is set in the frame that you already had ready for this moment. You put the framed dollar on the wall while your spouse takes a picture with an iPhone. And then, before you have any time to celebrate, in walks your priest. He looks at you and smiles and says how glad he is that this day has finally come. And then, without warning, he walks over to the wall behind the register, takes the framed dollar bill off the wall, says something about first fruits belonging to God, and then walks out, taking your first dollar with him. 

For my sake and the sake of our stewardship efforts at St. Paul’s, I hope that story sounds ridiculous. But that’s pretty much what Moses tells the people of Israel to do when they get to the land that flows with milk and honey: “When you have come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his name.” Not the second fruits. Not next year’s harvest. Not what’s left over after you fill your pantry for the winter. But the first produce of your land you will give back to God. 

It almost feels like a punch in the gut—like Don Fanucci, the extortionist from Godfather II, showing up and demanding his cut. After escaping slavery in Egypt. After wandering through the wilderness for forty years. After surviving fire and drought and plague and famine. After crossing the Jordan and conquering the peoples who inhabited the land before they arrived. After learning how to grow crops in a new land. After tilling and planting and weeding and nurturing the plants. Finally, the very first harvest comes in, and God wants his cut. Or does he?

The Israelites’ first Thanksgiving is recorded as a highly prescribed affair. You take the first fruits in a basket to the place where God has chosen to dwell. You go to the priest and hand him the basket and make a solemn declaration of your intent. The basket is then set before God’s altar, and then you have short speech to make: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor…The LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction…The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand…The LORD brought us into this place and gave us this land…so now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me.” And then, after finishing your speech, you take the full bounty that God has given you, and you share it with the Levites and foreign residents—those who do not have any farmland of their own—and together you celebrate all that God has done for you.

God doesn’t want our harvest. God wants us to know how much God loves us—loves us enough to give us everything we have. We ritualize thanksgiving in order to remember where it all came from. We roast our turkeys and bake our pies and come to church so that we won’t forget. If we didn’t set aside particular ways to give thanks for all the blessings we have received, we might just begin to think that we were the only ones responsible for our bounty. We might believe that all of this belongs to us—that it doesn’t belong to anyone else—that there’s no reason for us to share what we have with others. 

When I was in seminary in England, I signed up to lead Morning Prayer in the chapel on Thanksgiving Day, which, over there, is just the fourth Thursday in November. My classmates scoffed at the idea that Americans would set aside a day on the calendar in order to give thanks. “Shouldn’t we be thankful every day?” they asked. Of course we should. But gratitude takes practice. And sometimes we need a prescribed excuse to get started. So why not start now?

Habitual thanksgiving prevents misplaced credit. Developing a practice of looking outside ourselves—of being thankful to God, to friends and family, to coworkers and shop keepers, to unseen farmers and migrant workers, to truck drivers and warehouse employees, to kindergarten teachers and cafeteria workers, to medical technicians and housekeepers—helps us remember how much we are loved. So many other people have helped us get to this point. A few of them are people whose names we remember, but far more of them have stories that are not told in classrooms or at dinner tables. But God has held all of us together in order to get us where we are. Everything we have is a sign of God’s abundant love for us. Today is a day to give thanks so that tomorrow we will still remember.


Monday, November 21, 2022

Coming Into Focus

 

November 20, 2022 – The Last Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 29C

© 2022 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 19:50.

On the scale of Cross to Empty Tomb, where do you like to stand? It is a silly question, of course. We know that one cannot have meaning without the other. The cross is incomplete without the empty tomb, and Easter has no power without Good Friday. But today’s gospel lesson—the crucifixion of Jesus—which we hear on a Sunday when we celebrate the kingship of Christ, asks us to consider more deeply where on that spectrum we look to find salvation.

Sometimes Christians focus so much on the cross that we obscure the significance of Easter. Preachers, poets, and hymn-writers commemorate the sacrifice of Christ with such enthusiastic, bloody detail that the glory of the resurrection feels more like a denouement. In pulpits where that approach is used, Jesus’ death is often described in transactional language—as the means by which the price of our sins was paid. But, when Christians talk about the cross as if God’s Son took our place, we might wonder why we even bother with Easter.

Other Christians, including many preachers from our own tradition, prefer to skip over the cross in order to rush to embrace the victory of the empty tomb. In part that is because the transactional approach leaves us with a depiction of God that we cannot reconcile with the rest of our faith. If God’s wrath can only be satisfied when taken out upon the innocent sacrifice of God’s own Son, where are we supposed to look to find the God who loves us and calls us God’s own? Honestly, the cross raises lots of questions that are hard—if not impossible—to answer. But, when we skip over it because we don’t know how to make sense of it, Easter becomes a victory over what—an historical bump in the road to salvation?

I don’t have the answers to those difficult questions, but today’s gospel lesson gives us some important insights into how to see the crucifixion as the place where Jesus’ kingship becomes most clear. Luke describes a scene in which the one who is killed by powers of this world is also the one who manifests God’s power to them. Hearing this story not on Good Friday but at the end of the church’s year—on the Sunday before Advent—gives us the chance to think about the cross as both the culmination of Jesus’ earthly ministry and the lens through which we anticipate the coming reign of God. 

Jesus himself helps us hear that in the first word he speaks from the cross: “Father.” “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing,” Jesus said, invoking God with the same intimacy that he had used throughout his ministry. “All things have been handed over to me by my Father,” Jesus said in Luke 10. “When you pray, say, ‘Father, hallowed be your name,’” Jesus taught his disciples in Luke 11. “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom,” Jesus said in Luke 12. To call God “Father” is to emphasize the closeness, the oneness, the intimacy, between Jesus and God. And to use that word from the cross reveals that, even in his death, Jesus affirms that he belongs to God.

We often think of the cross as the manifestation of humanity’s refusal to accept God’s will, yet Jesus speaks from the cross in a way that affirms its centrality to God’s salvific plan. In ways that defy our logic and anchor our faith, this moment embodies both. As Jesus confirms the continuity of his relationship with God, he shows us that not even his execution can thwart God work of salvation. The tragedy of Good Friday, therefore, is not an empty accident or an unredeemable mistake but the place in which we see and hear God’s saving love coming into focus.

Luke helps us understand that by recalling Jesus’ words of forgiveness uttered in the midst of his suffering: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Similarly, Luke remembers Jesus promising that one of the criminals who was next to him will be with him that day in Paradise. In both instances, Jesus shows us that his salvific work is not only accomplished through the cross but also proclaimed upon it. It is not only his death that saves us but his love for us generously offered despite his suffering. We need not wait until Jesus breathes his last to see God’s work of salvation being carried out upon the cross.

But, to see that work taking place not only in Jesus’ death but also while he hangs upon the cross, we must allow our understanding of what salvation looks like to change. The leaders scoff at the one who would call himself Messiah. The soldiers mock the one who would call himself King. The first criminal derides him as one powerless to save himself. And yet we must see in the crucified one the fullness of God’s power, the fullness of God’s reign, and the fullness of God’s perfect plan coming together for our sakes. Easter may confirm those things for us, but they are as true upon the cross as they are in the empty tomb, and I think that scares us.

The cross of Christ makes us uncomfortable because we know that, if it says something significant about who God is and how God’s salvation comes to the world, it must also become operative in our lives in the very same way. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to suffer like that. I want my faith in God to save me from suffering, but that’s not what it means to be a Christian. Instead, what it means to believe in Jesus is to believe, as St. Paul’s writes, that the crucified one makes us “strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power [that we may] be prepared to endure everything with patience.” In Christ we do not escape hardship. We are given the power to endure it. 

It’s a lot easier to look at the cross of Christ and see the antithesis of God’s will than it is to behold within it God’s perfect love. It’s a lot easier to reject the crucified one as one who has failed to accomplish God’s will than to see in him the fulfillment of God’s salvific plan. It’s a lot easier to skip ahead to the joy of Easter than it is to linger in the shadow of the cross. But those who know real suffering in this world know that the power of God is not manifest in the absence of hardship but in its center. They know what it means to look upon the one who hangs upon the cross and see in him the hope of God’s arms reaching out to them in love. They know that Easter is more than a happy ending just as they know that Good Friday is more than a transactional exchange.

We come to the cross to see something more than our debts being paid. We come seeking more than a brief setback on the road to Easter. We come to behold the one who suffered to redeem our suffering. We come to be near the one whose struggle gives strength to our struggle. We come to worship the King of kings, whose glorious reign comes not on a heavenly throne but on the hard wood of the cross. To that king be glory, honor, and power, now and for ever. Amen.


Sunday, November 13, 2022

We (Must) Take Scripture Seriously

 

November 13, 2022 – The 23rd Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 28C

© 2022 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 22:20.

One year when I was in middle school, our youth group went to Panama City Beach for Spring Break. That might sound like fun, but we didn’t actually go to the beach for more than a few minutes. Instead, we spent the whole time at a renewal conference with other youth groups, listening to overly enthusiastic preachers, amazingly confident small group leaders, and a really loud Christian rock band that none of us liked. Although I don’t remember a lot about that conference, two things stick with me all these years later: I remember feeling pressured to give my life to Jesus publicly because I was made to believe that my private devotions weren’t sufficient, and I remember being asked to use the Bible to solve the “welfare crisis” in this country.

The youth in our small group were split up into pairs, and each team was handed a Bible and a societal problem that they were supposed to solve using biblical values. I don’t remember any of the other topics, but I recall flipping through the pages of scripture, desperately looking for anything that had to do with welfare. We were stumped. When it was our turn to share, we acknowledged that we hadn’t found anything but offered our firm conviction that “God helps those who help themselves.” “That’s not in the Bible,” the small group leader snapped back at us disappointedly, mistakenly attributing our words to Shakespeare. “Second Thessalonians 3:10,” was all she said by way of correction, waiting for us to find and read the verse aloud: “For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: anyone unwilling to work should not eat.”

I didn’t pay a lot of attention to politics back then, but looking back and realizing that a certain former Arkansas Governor was in the White House and that the “Welfare to Work” bill was being debated in Congress, I’m not surprised that we were asked to use the Bible to find a simple answer to that complex problem. I’m not sure what the leaders would have done if we had cited Matthew 25:5—“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat”—or Proverbs 25:21—“If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat”—or Isaiah 58:6-7—“Is this not the fast that I choose:…to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house?”

But what are we supposed to do with today’s reading from 2 Thessalonians? Here, the apostle Paul seems to say unequivocally that those who are unwilling to work shall not eat. Does he mean that? He even gives it as a command, flexing all his apostolic muscle to get his point across. But the Bible rarely offers simple, unequivocal answers to difficult issues, and it might not surprise you to learn that Paul probably wasn’t attempting to winnow down the welfare rolls in Thessalonica. 

It turns out that laziness or, as our translation puts it, “idleness,” wasn’t really the issue. The phrase (ἀτάκτως περιπατοῦντος) translated at the beginning of this passage as “living in idleness” more precisely means “walking in a disordered way,” as in a soldier who is “marching out of ranks.” Translators have a hard time knowing what Paul meant when he used that phrase because this is the only time it is found in the Bible. For a long time, English translations of the Bible kept the original idiom without attempting to explain it. For example, the 14th-century Wycliff Bible used “wandereth out of order,” and the 17th-century King James Version chose “walketh disorderly.” 

By the middle of the twentieth century, however, things had begun to shift. Translators wanted to provide more context, perhaps to be sure that overly literal interpreters didn’t think the problem in Thessalonica was Christians who couldn’t walk in a straight line. For example, when the American Standard Version, originally published in 1901, was updated in 1971, the phrase went from “walketh disorderly” to “leads a disorderly life.” But other translations wanted to go even further in the name of contextualization, borrowing (perhaps unfairly) from the surrounding text, changing “disorderly walking” to “living in idleness,” and Christians have been confusing what Paul had in mind ever since. 

It could be that the disorder or misconduct that Paul had in mind was sheer laziness, but reading the rest of the passage or, even better, the rest of First and Second Thessalonians is an important step to figuring it out. Whatever Paul wanted to convey, we see that he based his argument on the time he spent in that community: “For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not [disorderly] when we were with you, and we did not eat anyone's bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you.” 

You’d be hard-pressed to call Paul lazy or idle, but you could say that he was too busy doing important things like preaching and teaching to earn a living. You could say that an apostle like Paul shouldn’t have to pay for his own meals but should be entitled to live off the generosity of others. But Paul didn’t want to set that sort of disorderly example. He didn’t want other would-be apostles to take advantage of their authority, so he always paid his own way. 

If you took time to read the rest of First and Second Thessalonians, you’d discover that the overarching problem Paul was addressing in that community wasn’t lazy Christians, who expected others to feed them, but pretend-apostles, who expected the Christian community to treat them like royalty, hanging on their every word and providing for their every need. But you’d never know that if the only verse you ever read was 2 Thessalonians 3:10. Thankfully, we belong to a Christian tradition that takes the Bible more seriously than that.

“Blessed Lord, who has caused all holy scriptures to be written for our learning…” We prayed those words in the collect for today, acknowledging the God-given gift of not only the scriptures we like to hear but of all the scriptures. When Thomas Cranmer, the author of the first Book of Common Prayer, wrote those words, he was implicitly criticizing the dominant religious institution of the day not only for insisting that worship be offered in a language that the people could not understand but also for breaking up the reading of scripture with so many feast days that most of the Bible went unread during worship. Today, the dominant Christian culture does much of the same, prioritizing translations that reinforce their opinions and proof-texting select verses to fit their arguments. But the Word of God will not be weaponized like that.

If you want to know what the Episcopal Church believes about something, the right place to look is in our prayers, and today’s collect tells us what we believe about the Bible. We believe that God caused all holy scriptures to be written, not as a literal, factual record of history but as a divinely inspired gift that was written for a particular purpose—for our learning. We believe that God helps us do more than memorize the words on the page. We believe that God enables us to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them until they become a part of who we are. We believe, as the Rite I version of the collect puts it, that it takes patience—time and repeated encounters with God’s Word—to receive the full benefit of the comfort that God’s Word provides. And we believe that immersing ourselves in the richness of that Word will help us embrace and hold onto the ultimate hope that God has given us, which is everlasting life. In short, we believe that the whole Bible is God’s gift to us and that, when we study it deeply, it helps us maintain our hope in what God has promised us.

But Cranmer’s vision of a rich, scripture-fueled hope wasn’t to be accomplished by coming to church once a week and paying attention when the lessons were read. He imagined a church in which all people—clergy and laity—were committed to reading the Bible every day. In the preface to the first Book of Common Prayer, Cranmer wrote that, by coming to church and hearing the scriptures read every day, “the people…should continually profit more and more in the knowledge of God, and be the more inflamed with the love of [God’s] true religion.” Though it may sound like something you’d find in another denomination, there is nothing more Anglican or Episcopal than reading your Bible seven days a week. That’s why we offer Morning and Evening Prayer most days and encourage you to read the Daily Office on your own.

Throughout Christian history, isolated verses of scripture have been used to do terrible things—like defend slavery, perpetuate misogyny, dehumanize the poor, demonize individuals because of their sexuality, excuse abusive behavior, and justify genocide. But the whole canon of scripture tells a very different story—one of God’s persistent love for the world, preference for the poor, vindication of the oppressed, and redemption of the lost. We are a part of that story, and, if we want to tell that story that is good news for the world, we must take the Bible seriously—seriously enough to read the whole thing and to read it every day until it takes hold of our hearts and minds and shapes our lives into lives filled with hope. 


Monday, October 31, 2022

Enough Room, Even For Us

 

October 30, 2022 – The 21st Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 26C

© 2022 Evan D. Garner

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

Zacchaeus might have been short, but I think it was his shortcomings that sent him climbing up that sycamore tree. Luke tells us that “he was trying to see who Jesus was, but, on account of the crowd, he could not, because he was short in stature.” It was the crowd that stood between him and Jesus. If he had been taller, he could have seen over them, but no one was willing to let him stand up front. Think about the last time you were at a parade. Doesn’t the crowd usually make space up front for children or other people who either need to sit down just can’t see from the back? Don’t we know intuitively how to line up with the taller people in back and the shorter people up front so that everyone can get a peek?

No one was willing to make room for Zacchaeus, and he knew better than to ask. Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector—a title Luke may have made up to convey either that he was some sort of district leader among revenue officers or simply that he was exceptional at his job—particularly skilled at squeezing money out of his fellow Jews in order to fill the coffers of the Roman Empire. Regardless, Zacchaeus’s job had made him filthy rich, and that was a problem—a problem for Zacchaeus but also an interpretive problem for us as well. 

Think about it. What sort of people did Jesus like to spend time with? And who were the ones Jesus was always after to change their ways in order to find their place in the kingdom of God? We know that Jesus loved surrounding himself with tax collectors and other notorious sinners—those people whom polite society refused to welcome—but he didn’t seem to care for rich people whose wealth created a chasm between themselves and the poor. So what was Zacchaeus supposed to do? He was a complicated example of someone whom society had rejected but whose wealth had made him powerful. Would he be welcomed by Jesus or brushed aside? 

Zacchaeus had heard about Jesus, and he wanted to see who he was, but he couldn’t get too close, or else he might be further humiliated. He had heard that this rabbi believed that even tax collectors could be accepted at God’s table, but he was no ordinary tax collector, and he wasn’t sure whether that radical welcome would include the likes of him. So he climbed up into the boughs of a sycamore tree and hid among the leaves, hoping to see Jesus but also hoping to escape notice.

But Jesus noticed him. “Zacchaeus,” Jesus said to the little man hiding up in the tree. Does it surprise us that Jesus knew the man’s name? How shocking that must have been to everyone who heard it! “Hurry and come down,” Jesus continued, “for I must stay at your house today.” Notice the imperative behind Jesus’ words. “I must stay at your house today.” I must. Something compels me to be your guest today. The presence of God’s kingdom and the perfection of God’s promises require that Jesus come and lodge with Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector. His riches and way of life should have represented an obstacle to God’s reign becoming manifest in his life, yet this was the man whom Jesus sought out.

No sooner had Zacchaeus scrambled out of the tree to take Jesus into his home than the entire crowd began to grumble that Jesus had gone to be the guest of a sinner like that. Usually, when Jesus dined with tax collectors and sinners, it was the religious authorities who grumbled—the goodie-goodies who didn’t understand why a religious leader like Jesus would spend time with the riff-raff of their day. But this time, Luke tells us that “all who saw it”—all who beheld this radical gesture of reverse hospitality—began to complain about what it represented. None of them was comfortable with the thought of a faithful rabbi—even one known for keeping company with societal outcasts—entering the home of a traitor as notorious as this chief tax collector. This was a step too far, even for Jesus. Even the reign of God, which Jesus had come to make manifest among the lost sheep of Israel, had its limits.

But then something remarkable took place. We don’t know whether Zacchaeus heard the grumbling, though surely he knew what the crowd thought. Standing there, he said to Jesus, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” That represented a remarkable transformation—that the man whose work and whose wealth had cut him off from God’s people was now offering to give back so much of what he had—but the text leaves some important ambiguity about whose transformation we’re witnessing in this instant. 

Although many English translations, like the one we use in church, render Zacchaeus’ words in the future tense—“I will give” and “I will pay back”—the biblical text actually uses verbs in the present tense—“Half of my possessions, Lord, I give to the poor; and, if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I pay back four times as much.” It could be that Zacchaeus was using the present tense to convey a future resolve, which would imply that this encounter with Jesus had changed his life so radically that from now on he would give all that money away. But it could just as easily be that Zacchaeus was describing the way he already lived, revealing a quiet generosity that no one in the crowd had ever known. That ambiguity has fueled debates among scholars and preachers for generations, but I don’t think it really matters because I don’t think Zacchaeus is the one whose conversion is the focus of this story.

“Today, salvation has come to this house,” Jesus declared, “because he, too, is a child of Abraham.” Could it be that those words become true not because Zacchaeus has undergone a moment of transformation but because all of us who look on now see this child of God in the light of God’s grace? Can it be that Jesus’ insistence that he dine in the home of the chief tax collector changes our understanding of who belongs in God’s reign? Maybe we are the ones whose conversion this story is about. Maybe we’re the ones who are supposed to be changed by this encounter.

We believe in a God whose love for the world is bigger than anything we can imagine. We believe that God’s grace is big enough for tax collectors and sinners. We believe that God’s welcome includes the poor, the widow, and the orphan. But do we believe that God’s love is big enough for us as well? Very few of us fit neatly into one of the biblical categories of people to whom God reaches out in love. Is there room for complicated sinners like us in the kingdom of God? Can we believe that God’s love is meant for us as well? Or are we so worried that we won’t be accepted that we scamper up into the branches of a sycamore tree in the hopes that we might get a look at Jesus from a safe-enough distance that he won’t bother to tell us what we are afraid he might otherwise say—that we don’t belong?

Zacchaeus went looking for Jesus, but Jesus went looking for Zacchaeus as well. “I must stay at your house today,” Jesus said, showing us that God’s kingdom cannot be complete until even the least likely among us finds their place at God’s table. None of us belongs at that table because we are good enough, holy enough, or generous enough. We belong because God’s goodness towards us is always enough. There can be no limit to God’s welcome because there can be no limit to God’s love. May we hear in Jesus’ words to Zacchaeus the same words that God speaks to each one of us—I must stay at your house today. May we see that God’s reign cannot be complete until all of us are there.


Sunday, October 16, 2022

Faith Is Persistence of the Powerless

 

October 16, 2022 – The 19th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 24C

© 2022 Evan D. Garner

Just outside of the metropolis of Lineville, Alabama, halfway between Ashland and Wedowee and just north of Ofelia, is an institute for reverse missionary work known as SIFAT—Servants in Faith and Technology. Instead of sending people overseas to help those in need, SIFAT hosts community leaders from around the world—leaders who bring their particular problems all the way to Lineville, where, with the help of scientists, engineers, teachers, and agronomists, they explore what it will take to improve the lives of their own people back home.

Because SIFAT hosts so many people from around the world, they also serve as a place where independent missionaries and mission teams from nearby churches and organizations can come and experience a little taste of what life might be like in another culture. And I can tell you firsthand how jarring and bitter that taste can be.

A few years after I was ordained, I helped chaperone a group of youth at SIFAT for a spring break retreat. We weren’t going on a mission trip, but we wanted to broaden our understanding of what missionary work could be. One afternoon we were led to the Global Village—a tiny, makeshift hamlet in the middle of the woods, complete with a dirt road, tin-roofed lean-tos, a tiny market, several villagers, and a rather cantankerous policeman. We were split up into teams and told that our dinner that night would consist only of whatever our team could acquire from the actors in the village.

At first, this seemed like a fun game—a test that would challenge our ingenuity, pride, and persistence. Quickly, though, things became far more difficult than I anticipated. At one point, while our team was offering to do some manual labor in exchange for a few tortillas, some of the staff, who were posing as residents, stole our sleeping bags, leaving us without protection through the March night. When I complained to the policeman, he locked me up in jail for questioning his authority. 

When he wasn’t looking, I snuck out of jail, but I was dismayed to find that our youth, who hadn’t been given the tortillas they were promised, were now pretending to sell drugs to scrounge together enough food for the night. Then, one of them stole the backpack of a staff member, who thought she had tucked it away in a safe place, but, when the youth tried to trade the bag for food, we were told that the staff bags were off limits. I complained that our sleeping bags should have been off limits, too, but I must have raised my voice in an inappropriately confrontational way because I was then rearrested and given a stern warning by the policeman, who I honestly couldn’t tell whether he was speaking to me as a character from the village or a staff member at SIFAT who was worried I might take matters into my own hands.

The whole episode was designed to teach the youth that, in other parts of the world, people don’t get justice the way we do—that sometimes good, hard-working, honest people don’t get what they deserve—but the rage I felt meant that I was the person who needed to learn that lesson most. I understood how the game was supposed to work, but, when it was the youth on my team, whose welfare I was responsible for, who weren’t going to get anything to eat or any sleeping bag to sleep in that night, I lost it. There was nothing I could do to get what was right for my team—to get what should have belonged to us—and I snapped. It was truly a first-world, privileged response, and all it got me was thrown in jail.  

You don’t have to go overseas or even to Lineville, Alabama, to find people whose cries for justice fall upon deaf ears. They are all around us. They are our neighbors. They work hard and follow the rules and do their best, and, still, they don’t get what they deserve. They’ve asked for help. They’ve filed complaints. They’ve done everything they’ve been asked to do. And nothing. They have no earthly reason to believe that anything will ever change, but they keep trying. And their experience and identity help us understand this parable of Jesus.

Despite Luke’s editorial introduction, the story of the widow and the unjust judge has less to do with always praying and more to do with not losing heart. To Jesus’ hearers, this parable would have been laughably cartoonish. “In a certain city, there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people.” You couldn’t make it any more ridiculous than that—to describe a judge, the arbiter of justice, as one who had no concern for human laws or divine statutes. 

And in his court is a widow who just doesn’t know how to quit. She’s a widow, which means that she is completely powerless—totally dependent upon others for her survival. Her late husband’s property would not have passed to her but, if she were lucky enough to have a son, she might be cared for in that son’s household. And, if she didn’t have a generous and compassionate son, she might return to her father’s family but only if her late husband’s relatives were willing to return her dowry to provide for her care. Otherwise, she would subsist only on the charity of those who might throw the beggar-woman a coin or two out of pity. And the fact that the widow was standing before the unjust judge lets us know that she has no other options.

“Grant me justice against my opponent!” the widow said to the unjust judge over and over and over again. He was her only hope, and yet hope was something he would not give. There was no one to plead her case—no one to stand up for her. Only a faithful judge—one who cared about what God would want or what the community would recognize as just—would have granted her request, but Jesus’ exaggerated representation of callousness had no intention of giving into the widow’s demands.

As the story stands, there is no reason to expect anything to change. The widow has no power, and the judge has no pity. There is nothing anyone can do to make a difference. But then Jesus surprises his listeners with an even more absurd twist. Just when the audience knows that the story cannot have a happy ending, Jesus gives the helpless woman the strange power of annoyance. And the judge, using a word that literally means “strike me under the eye,” says something like, “I will give her justice or else she might annoy me to death.” And, in that powerless widow, we suddenly discover a new sort of subversive power that depends not on her physical strength or influence but on her refusal to give up.

“Hear what the unjust judge says,” Jesus tells us. Even when no one could see it coming—even when everyone was sure that the judge would never give into the widow’s request—her persistence—her refusal to give up—worked. How much more, therefore, should we expect our gracious God, who is just and who does hear the cries of God’s people who lift their voices to God day and night, to save those in distress? Our God is nothing like the unjust judge, yet how quickly do we lose hope when the justice we seek is delayed?

Jesus asks us to remember what those around us cannot afford to forget. Even when it feels like nothing will ever change, we have a reason to hope because we belong to God. The persistence of the powerless shows us what it means to have faith—not in the institutions of this world but in the God whose justice and righteousness will triumph over those institutions. Their unbroken and unbreakable witness teaches us not to lose heart.

Do we believe in the one who brought God’s people out of slavery in Egypt? Do we believe in the one who raised Jesus Christ from the dead? If that is our God, we cannot lose hope. If that is our God, we know what the future will hold. And, if that is our God, we must press on for the sake of those who are denied justice in this world—not because we have the power to pull down the mighty from their thrones all on our own but because we belong to the one who does. 


Sunday, October 9, 2022

What Sort Of Faith?

 

October 2, 2022 – The 17th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 22C
Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10

© 2022 Evan D. Garner

Video of this service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 23:30. 

Lord, increase our faith! We could all use a little bit more. Just a tiny bit more faith and then we wouldn’t worry so much. If we had more faith, we wouldn’t worry about the economy and the stock market and whether we will have enough in retirement. We wouldn’t worry about politics or elections or Supreme Court rulings. We wouldn’t worry about our spouse or our children or our neighbors or our pets. 

If Jesus gave us more faith, we wouldn’t have such a hard time making our lives look the way God wants them to look. With more faith, we wouldn’t struggle to find the time and energy and money we wish we had to give freely to God’s work in the world. We wouldn’t find ourselves wanting the world to be a better place but not quite caring enough to do something about it. We wouldn’t feel pulled so sharply between the demands of this world and the demands of God’s vision for it. 

Lord, increase our faith! With a little bit more faith, temptation wouldn’t be so hard. Sin wouldn’t be so stubbornly difficult. And, when we fell, we wouldn’t fall so far, and we’d always have the confidence to get up and repent and return to the Lord. If only we had a little bit more faith. If only Jesus would give it to us.

For several weeks now, Jesus has been on a tear about what it means to belong to God and God’s reign. He’s told us that, if we want to follow him, we will have to hate our families and carry our cross. He’s made it clear that we will have to give up our claim on earthly wealth in order to partake in heavenly treasure. He’s reminded religious folks like us that our traditions and status don’t count for much and that it’s those who suffer the most who understand what it means to belong to God. No wonder the disciples are asking for more faith! If our entrance into the kingdom of God is as narrow and difficult as Jesus has made it out to be, we had better find some more faith, or else this isn’t going to go well for any of us.

But, as Jesus says, if we had faith the size of a mustard seed, we could say to one of those giant sycamores outside the church, “Be uprooted and planted in Lake Fayetteville,” and it would obey us. We don’t need more faith, Jesus tells us; we need true faith, deep faith, real faith. If we had even the tiniest speck of that sort of faith, it would be enough for God to work through us in mighty ways. Like a pinhole opening or the smallest crack under a door, faith like that—no matter how small it is—gives God an opening through which God can show up in powerful ways. If we want to belong to God and God’s reign—if we want our lives to be an image of what God is doing in the world—we should stop wishing for more faith and start looking for the kind of faith that transforms us.

And the best way to find that faith is to take a good, hard look at our spiritual posture. How are we approaching God? Are we looking for ways to make God’s kingdom come, or are we looking for ways to belong to the kingdom that God has already brought to the world in Jesus Christ? Do we seek a life that manifests our faith in God, or do we dream of inheriting whatever life God is calling us to? On the surface, the differences between those two kinds of faithful lives aren’t that significant. They sound a little like distinctions in faithfulness by degree. But, if we are to have the sort of faith that Jesus envisions for his followers—the kind of faith that moves mountains—we need to find that narrowest of sweet spots of believing in God in a way that lets God take over our lives and use us in ways more powerful that we could imagine all on our own.

I think that’s why Jesus responded to the disciples’ request for more faith with the provocative and problematic image of a slave coming in from the field. We can’t encounter this analogy without remembering the horrors of human bondage and acknowledging its legacies, which are still a reality today. We cannot hear Jesus hold up the identity of a slave as one we are supposed to pursue without also admitting that there is nothing good or right or holy about one human being owning another as property. 

Many English translations choose the word “servant” instead of “slave,” perhaps rightly implying that that role in ancient Palestine was more like that of an indentured servant than the chattel slave more familiar in the American context, but the human being in Jesus’ analogy clearly didn’t have the freedom to decide how to spend his evening, nor was he likely to receive any gratitude for the work he did. Part of me wishes that we could translate Jesus’ mini-parable into our contemporary context by making it a story about parent and a child or an officer and a soldier, but I don’t think that would convey the real point Jesus is making.

The issue isn’t being treated poorly or doing thankless work. That isn’t what it means to have the right kind of faith. In order to get across what it means to believe in God wholeheartedly and belong to God’s reign fully, Jesus must push the boundaries of what it means to belong to God’s kingdom out beyond where we are comfortable because there is nothing comfortable about belonging to God. No matter how hard we try, no matter how lofty our ambitions, we cannot belong to God on our own terms. We must give ourselves completely and unreservedly over to the vision God has for lives. And thanks be to God that, when we stop trying to fit God’s kingdom into our own understandings and allow God’s reign to remake our expectations completely, real faith takes control of our lives, and good things start to happen. That’s the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

This whole, long series of challenging teachings about what it means to be a disciple and what it looks like to belong to God’s reign has been Jesus’ attempt to get us to forget our place in this world in order to find our place in God. When Jesus tells us that we must forsake our families and that we cannot serve God and wealth, he is not saying that only orphans and poor people get into heaven. He’s showing us that our attachments to this world must dissolve completely if we are to develop a new way of being united with God. 

To answer that call, we don’t need more faith; we need the right kind of faith. And even the tiniest amount is enough. We need to find ways to believe that God’s will for our lives and for the world is the only thing that matters, and that’s not easy. No one said it would be easy, least of all Jesus. But, once even the tiniest seed of that faith begins to sprout in our lives and we catch a glimpse of the power of God manifest through us, that crack begins to widen, and that pinhole starts to open up. Pretty soon, God is using us to move mountains, and the things that once felt like they were standing in the way of God’s vision for our lives crumble away. That’s what happens when faith takes over. That’s what it means to belong to God.

Faith like that takes over when we let go. That sort of faith moves in when we get out of the way. When we stop telling God what we think God is supposed to be doing in the world, God will start showing us how God’s transformation is already taking hold. When we stop looking for the kind of faith that enables us to do what we think is best and start asking God to give us the sort of faith that trusts in God with our whole being, we will see just how powerfully God is at work in our lives and all around us. We don’t need any more faith than we already have. In Jesus Christ, God has already given us more than enough. We just need God to help us see it.


Monday, September 19, 2022

How To Make Friends In Heaven


September 18, 2022 – The 15th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 20C

© 2022 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 22:25.

Are you a Christian or an Arkansan? An Episcopalian or an American? Do you pledge allegiance to the flag or to God? I hope the answer can be both. Usually, we are able to hold onto both parts of our identity as citizens of this country and children of God’s kingdom without experiencing much conflict between them. One aspect informs the other. We can be both. Just as I am a priest and a husband, a father and a son, an uncle and a sibling, we all experience dual identities that we hold together without even thinking about it—until we have to. Do I cheer for Arkansas or Alabama? Usually, it’s both, but, once a year, I have to choose. Once a year, I must decide where my true allegiance lies.

Today’s gospel lesson is hard to hear in any age, but I think that understanding and applying the parable of the dishonest manager to life in the twenty-first century is even harder than it was back when Jesus first said these words. “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property.” In the strange story that follows, Jesus describes a manager who cuts backroom deals with his master’s debtors in order to curry favor with them so that they will take care of him after he is fired. In the end, the owner actually praises the dishonest employee for his shrewdness, and then Jesus offers an even more astounding summary by encouraging his followers to “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that, when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” What does any of that mean?

Before I try to pull apart the parable and make sense of it, let me remind you that this passage comes right on the heels of three other parables—those of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the two lost sons, also known as the parable of the prodigal son. If you can’t remember the details of those parables, don’t worry. Suffice it to say that Jesus wanted his audience of religious leaders to understand why he always ate with tax collectors and sinners, so he told them three parables of lostness. God is the one who seeks after and finds those who have gone astray. God is the one who always welcomes the lost back into the fold. But, at the beginning of this parable, the audience changes. Instead of speaking to the scribes and the Pharisees, who didn’t like the fact that Jesus’ ministry was a model of this seeking out the lost, Jesus tells this story to his disciples—his followers—as if to remind us what it means to belong to the one who has come and found us.

So what is life as one of Jesus’ disciples supposed to look like—like a dishonest manager, quickly and quietly telling his master’s debtors to cancel large portions of what they owe in order to benefit from that malfeasance down the road? Well, sort of. This isn’t a parable that is supposed to teach us how to run a business or how to cheat and get ahead. But it is supposed to teach us that we should approach our place in God’s kingdom with the same focus, intensity, and urgency that someone who belongs fully to the ways of the world would approach the news that they were about to lose their job. But making sense of this parable requires us to separate the dishonest wealth, which is the currency of this world, from the shrewdness of the manager, which has a place both in this world and in the kingdom to which we belong.

Let’s look more closely at the story Jesus tells. The owner of a large agricultural business has heard that his chief manager is squandering his property. As soon as the manager learns that he must turn in his books and that he will lose his job, he hatches a plan. He tells one of his master’s debtors to change his bill from 100 baths of oil to 50 and another to change what he owes from 100 kors of wheat and make it 80. Those weren’t small amounts but hundreds of gallons and hundreds of bushels, worth tens of thousands of dollars in today’s money. And, because he was his master’s legal agent, those decisions were final. The manager’s dishonesty would surely be discovered, but there was no way for the owner to get his money back.

Part of what makes this parable so hard to understand is how Jesus seems to celebrate that deception. Plenty of scholars have tried to relieve that awkwardness by suggesting that the manager was simply foregoing his commission or eliminating the interest and, thus, making his master look better, but the debts that were cancelled were too large to be an interest charge or a commission. But, if we look carefully at the text, we see that Jesus isn’t actually praising the man’s dishonesty. The owner in the parable commends his manager’s shrewdness, and Jesus likewise encourages his followers to be shrewd as they deal with the dishonest wealth of this world, but the deception isn’t what’s celebrated here. The thing that is being held up for us to emulate is shrewdness—the ability to use the resources at hand to accomplish our goals. The question for us is whose goals are we trying to accomplish with the resources we have been given.

The children of this age, Jesus explains, know exactly how to get what they want with what they have. They know how to use money to manipulate a situation. They know how to make sure that, when the bill comes due, they aren’t standing there emptyhanded. And the tax collectors and sinners who were Jesus’ disciples would have been very familiar with that way of life. They all knew what it meant to belong to this world and to be good at it. It came naturally.

But the children of light—the ones who belong not to this age but to the kingdom of God—aren’t very good at using what resources they have to attain what God envisions for the world. And we aren’t good at it because using the currency of dishonest wealth to achieve godly results doesn’t come naturally at all. Shrewdness and sainthood don’t usually go together, but Jesus wants us to realize that, in fact, they do. For those of us who belong to God and God’s reign, we must—like the manager—use anything and everything at our disposal to accomplish our true purpose, and, because our true home is not in this world but in the world to come, our true purpose can only be to serve God.

We cannot serve God and wealth. We have to choose. Will we try to make enough room for God amidst our financial priorities, or will we trust that there is enough room for us and our flourishing in the kingdom of God to which we must devote all our wealth? If we belong to God—to the one who seeks us out and finds us—all our riches, our relationships, our positions, our power—everything we have in this life must be devoted to God as clearly and cleverly as the manager, who used his position to secure a comfortable place for himself when he was dismissed from his management. 

Because we belong to God, we are not waiting for someone to welcome us into an earthly home. We wait for God to welcome us into the eternal habitations. In this life, our wealth—the inherently dishonest currency of this world—is an opportunity to make friends for ourselves among those whom we know to be seated at God’s table—the poor, the outcast, and the disenfranchised. They are the ones who can welcome us into the eternal homes. So, when you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends, your relatives, or your rich neighbors in case they may invite you in return, and then you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid [when they welcome you] at the resurrection of the righteous.


Wednesday, September 14, 2022

The Strange Love of the Cross

 

September 14, 2022 - Holy Cross Day
Isaiah 45:21-25; Galatians 6:14-18; John 12:31-36a


You know those moments from your past that fill you with embarrassment and shame? Things you said or did that you now look back on and wish you could go back and undo them? I don't dwell on any of them very often, but, every once in a while, when I'm in a particular setting or my mind wanders back through the past until it lands in an uncomfortable spot, I am overwhelmed by that sense of regret. Where do those memories live when they aren't at the front of our mind? What sort of baggage are we carrying around? Why do we keep reburying those things when they pop back up? In the end, when this life is over and we set our burdens down, what do we think happens to them?

Today we celebrate the feast of the Holy Cross. One legend has it that the original cross, the True Cross, on which Jesus was crucified, was discovered by Helena, the mother of Constantine during a missionary journey to found churches and relief agencies in fourth-century Palestine. When taken to the spot on which Jesus was said to have suffered, died, and been buried, Helena saw that a pagan temple stood in on the site. She ordered it to be destroyed and the earth under it to be dug out and carted away. As they dug away the dirt, they discovered three buried crosses, one of which must have belonged to Jesus and the other two to the thieves who hung on either side of him. To determine which once was the True Cross, they brought out a noble woman of the city who had suffered from an illness for many years and caused her to touch each cross. Finally, when she touched the True Cross, her illness was miraculously healed. Helena and her associates established that cross as an object of devotion in what would be come the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, but she took with her the Holy Nails and a few fragments of wood back to Constantinople, where this devoted mother ordered that some of nails be melted down and incorporated into the emperor's helmet and the bridle of his horse for added protection.

I'm not sure that I believe any of that legend, but I am sure that the legend points us to a remarkable and, perhaps, even more important discovery--the transformation of the cross from something we would bury in the ground as a reminder of a shameful death into to something we would venerate as a symbol of our new and everlasting life. We may take it for granted, but that discovery took a little time.

In the first century, the Apostle Paul wrote boldly of the cross of Christ as something in which he boasted--the source of his own transformation--but that wasn't something his readers would have taken for granted. First-century Christians largely did not know what to do with the cross. The earliest iconography and symbology that Christians used omitted the reminder of Jesus' execution. Paul instinctively used the shame of the cross to highlight the glory of God, but a fuller appreciation for how the instrument of shame and death could become a sign of life and hope took a hundred years or so to develop. By the end of the second century, mosaics begin to depict the cross as a reality to celebrate, but the first disciples of Jesus and the generation or two that followed them were so traumatized by the execution of Jesus that they preferred to bury that memory and all signs of it literally in the ground.

To me, that sounds familiar. My instinct is to hide away the reminders of my shame because, on the surface, they represent for me my greatest failures. Those are moments from my past that I would just assume leave behind. And yet a part of me knows that they have to come out--out of the dark, out of the ground, of out me--in order that I might be healed. And the cross of Christ is how they come out without the sting of shame and death.

"When I am lifted up from the earth," Jesus proclaimed, "I will draw all people to myself." This, John tells us, was to indicate the kind of death that we was to die. The confusing, strange, beautiful, counter-intuitive truth of the cross is that, by dying for us, Jesus lifts from us the shame of our own little, painful deaths. If the cross of Christ is the consequence of humanity's brokenness, then the empty tomb shows us that the death of Jesus is also the death of our own death--our own brokenness, our sin. We find salvation, therefore, not in running away from the cross or our own shame that belongs there but by turning toward it, uncovering it, looking at it, and giving it over to the saving power of God.

Because of Jesus, we believe that even our very worst has no power to defeat God and God's forgiving love. Because of Jesus, we believe that the things we most want to hide have already been confronted and defeated by God. We celebrate the cross not because it is an instrument of shame and death but because, though such an instrument, God has redeemed us and healed us and made us whole. Jesus Christ stretched out his arms upon the hard wood of the cross so that all people might come within his saving embrace. 

Which One Of You?

 

September 11, 2022 – The 14th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 19C

© 2022 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 22:00.

Jesus sure did spend a lot of time with sinners. Of all the details in the gospel accounts, Jesus’ preference for spending time with social outcasts and notorious ne’er-do-wells is among the most well-known and reliable. Jesus loved hanging out with troublemakers, and all four gospel writers make a big deal about it. I wonder why Jesus liked spending time with sinners so much. Maybe it’s because they were more fun to be with than the religious leaders of his day. (I can believe that.) Or maybe it’s because Jesus knew that they were the ones who needed saving the most. (I don’t believe that.) Or maybe it’s because Jesus wanted to teach religious folks like you and me something about who God is and how God saves us.

If you think about it, Jesus’s decision to spend all that time with tax collectors and sinners doesn’t make a lot of sense. God is holy. God is faithful. God is righteous. The people at Jesus’ table were the exact opposite of that. Why would the Son of God, the Incarnate Word, the Holy One choose to hang out with people whose lives made it harder for God’s people to recognize God in their midst? God is always for God’s people, but these tax collectors worked for the enemy of God, the Roman Empire. By collecting taxes on behalf of the empire, they helped keep God’s people in its imperial shackles. We tend to dismiss the Pharisees and scribes because we know that members of their religious group were opposed Jesus, but it’s hard to fault them for grumbling about the company Jesus kept. 

If you were trying to build a following of people whom God could use to manifest God’s triumphant power in the world, why would you surround yourself with imperial sympathizers and faithless degenerates? Why? Because those notorious sinners are exactly the ones through whom God’s reign becomes manifest on the earth. Jesus wasn’t eating night after night with people whom polite society had rejected simply because he had sympathy on them. He surrounded himself with outcasts because God’s power comes into this world when those who are lost are found and recovered. And Jesus told some parables about that to make his point. 

“Which one of you,” Jesus began, “having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” There is some debate over whether Jesus’ depiction of the shepherd’s willingness to leave behind the ninety-nine is realistic. We even discussed it in staff meeting this week. Would Jesus’ audience have been surprised to hear that a shepherd would risk losing some or all of the ninety-nine just to search for the one that was lost? By presenting an unrealistic shepherd, is Jesus trying to tell us something shocking about the radical compassion of God? Surely he is, but I’m not convinced that’s the way he wanted to make his point. 

Historians have found secondary sources that describe under what conditions a shepherd would be justified—and thus be held blameless—for leaving an entire flock behind to search for a single lost sheep. As long as the temporary caretaker wasn’t blind or drunk or foolish, the action Jesus describes was considered reasonable and justified. Luke, however, doesn’t elaborate on the circumstances surrounding the shepherd’s decision to leave them behind except to say that he left them in the wilderness. That’s a less-than-comforting description, which may indicate a truly reckless act, but the fact that there were established rules for leaving the sheep behind makes me think that the point of this parable is more nuanced than that and that Luke decided to skip over those details because they weren’t as important.

I am more interested in the way that Jesus presents his parable—with a question that pulls his audience into the heart of his illustration. “Which one of you,” he asked, “having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” Which one of you? Even though the way that Jesus posed his question assumes that anyone who heard it would answer in the affirmative, in this case, the short answer was none of them…because none of the religious leaders he was addressing would have ever imagined themselves as a shepherd.

Shepherds weren’t good people. They were smelly, shady, and poorly behaved. There’s a reason they worked out in the fields, away from everyone else. An ancient proverb says that all shepherds are thieves because they always let their sheep graze on grass that didn’t belong to them. We know that David, before he became Israel’s king, was a shepherd, and we know that the psalmist and some of the prophets dared to liken our God to a keeper of sheep, but those were exceptions that proved the rule. No Pharisee or scribe would have ever deigned to think of himself as a lowly shepherd, and for Jesus to suggest it was the shocking part. That’s the part of the story that no one saw coming—that these good, faithful, religious types would be forced to imagine themselves crawling up and down a hillside, calling out in a most undignified manner for a single lost sheep.

I dare say the same is true for us. I only know one or two parishioners who have any sheep to lose, but, in our case, I don’t think this parable is about sheep. How many of us, having a hundred children in the Head Start program and having one fall behind, would not leave the ninety-nine to learn by themselves in order to get the one that was lost back on track? How many of us, supervising a hundred people on probation and losing one of them, would not stop calling to check on the ninety-nine and go after the one that was lost until we found them? How many of us, having a hundred children in foster care and losing contact with one of them, would not ignore the ninety-nine until we found the one that was lost? 

We belong to a God who searches diligently for each one of us and who rejoices when we have been found, but, even more amazing than that, we belong to a God whose salvation is manifest in this world only when the entire hundred are back together again. This parable isn’t about God seeking out and welcoming a stranger who didn’t belong among the other ninety-nine in the first place. This is about God showing the ninety-nine that they cannot be complete until the one who is missing—the one who has belonged in their midst the entire time but who has been lost to them—has been brought back into the fold. 

How often do we regularly and routinely identify our place in society as one that is linked inextricably to the welfare, inclusion, and prosperity of everyone else around us, especially those who live on the margins of life? How often do we think of God’s saving work not as something that elevates the individual out of whatever spiritual, economic, or physical crisis they endure but as something that brings the one who has been estranged by hardship back into a community that cares for them? If this sounds like a different way of imagining what Jesus’ death and resurrection accomplished, it is.

Jesus came among us and lived and died and was raised from the dead to set us free from the power of sin and death. The work of evil in this world is something that would try to convince us that the community of God’s children can be complete even while some of us are still missing. The isolating power of sin would hide from us the fact that all our lives are fully linked with one another and with God. But thanks be to God that Jesus has defeated those powers that would seek to pull us apart.

If you are here in this church or watching online but feel that you don’t really belong in this place among God’s people—if you feel like a lost sheep hiding in plain sight—then know that Jesus has come to seek you out and find you and bring you back home. And know that we cannot experience God’s saving love without you. And, if you’re here and already know that you belong in this place, then don’t forget that your place among God’s people cannot be complete until everyone is here beside us. Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until you find it? “Which one of you?” Jesus asks. 


Sunday, August 28, 2022

A Different Sort of Dinner Party

 

August 28, 2022 – The 12th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 17C

© 2022 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 21:15.

Jesus says, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor…but go and sit down at the lowest place.” Jesus also says, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, don’t invite your friends or relatives or rich neighbors…but invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” Those are pretty clear instructions. And they probably made his hearers uncomfortable, given that Jesus offered them while being entertained at a formal sabbath dinner by a local religious authority. 

But today I wonder whether Jesus meant those words as an earthly teaching or as heavenly advice. Is he telling us how to behave at a dinner party or how to get ready for God’s eternal banquet? Sometimes our knowledge of God shapes the way we live our lives, but sometimes it’s the way we live that shapes what we know about God.

It was, again, the sabbath. This probably wasn’t the same sabbath or the same synagogue that we heard about in last week’s gospel lesson, when Jesus called the leader of the synagogue a hypocrite and invoked the law of Moses in ways that made him look pretentious and foolish. I doubt Jesus hung around that place long enough to go over to that man’s house for Shabbat dinner. But the setting isn’t all that different. In the opening verse of today’s reading, Luke tells us not only that Jesus was headed to the home of a leader of the Pharisees for dinner on the sabbath, but he also tells us that everyone in the place was watching him closely—scrutinizing his every move and every word.

But then our gospel lessons skips over five verses. Perhaps that’s because, in those five verses, Jesus does, more or less, the same thing he did last week: he heals on the sabbath someone who was sick. I think the committee that put together the lectionary wanted to spare you from hearing the same sermon two weeks in a row. But I think it’s helpful to know that, when all the eyes were fixed on him, Jesus again stepped out beyond the traditions of his people and their faith. By healing a man with edema-swollen limbs on the day when no work was supposed to be done, Jesus was claiming for himself an authority to reinterpret the heart of the Jewish faith. “If on the sabbath you would waste no time pulling out a child or an ox that had fallen into a well,” Jesus said, using logic strikingly similar to that of last week’s encounter, “surely it is within God’s good and gracious will that we heal someone in need on the sabbath day.”

No one uttered a word in reply. Their silence said everything. And now that Jesus had demonstrated his authority as one who could apply the ancient teachings of God’s people in ways that impacted their contemporary lives, he turned his gaze back upon those around him. It was his turn to scrutinize their actions—those of his host and the other guests. When Jesus noticed how everyone found their place at the dinner table, he offered some practical-sounding advice: “When you are invited to a wedding banquet,” he began, swapping their current setting for an encounter even more tightly governed by societal norms, “don’t sit in the place of honor, or else someone more important than you might come and the host would be forced to ask you to move down while everyone in the room looked on at your shame.” Instead, he offered, you should sit at the lowest place so that your host might come and invite you to move up higher, and you would then be held in high esteem by all the guests.

At first, this feels like good, reasonable party etiquette. If you went to the wedding of a family friend whom you hadn’t seen in years, would you choose the spot at the head table beside the wedding party? Of course not! We all know better than that. And so, too, did the people listening to Jesus. In fact, they knew those social conventions even better than 21st-century Episcopalians. In the ancient near-eastern world, a formal dinner was a highly prescribed exercise in honor culture. You wouldn’t need to find your place card at the table where your host wanted you to sit. You already knew before you walked in the door where you belonged. Rich, powerful, important people sat up front, close to the action, while less well-connected, less affluent people filled in further down. Knowing your place was as obvious and familiar as knowing your own name.

But a closer look makes this teaching feel less grounded in reality and more like a vision of something else. You might be bold enough to stretch from your station just a little bit, hoping that you might earn some status points in the eyes of your peers by moving a few places closer to the host, but no one was naïve enough to presume to take the place of honor, which surely belonged to someone else. And how often does a host, who is busy hobnobbing with people to the left and right, stop and notice that someone on the other side of the room should be brought up higher? Would someone really take the lowest place just to give the host a chance to show everyone how important they really were? It sounds to me like Jesus is beginning to mix earthly advice with heavenly instruction.

The second part of what Jesus says seems to confirm that: “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, don’t invite your family, friends, or rich neighbors or else they might invite you over to their house in return. Then you won’t have any reward in heaven. But, when you throw a party, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind—people who could never pay you back—and then you will be rewarded at the resurrection of the righteous.” In that culture, honor dictated that everyone return an invitation with a reciprocal invite. I may not invite you to my party just so you can invite me over to yours, but it is nearly impossible to imagine a circumstance in which you would not return the favor. That’s just what polite people did back then—unless you didn’t have the means to throw a party in the first place. 

Normally, a host would never invite someone who couldn’t return the favor—not only because the host wouldn’t get the pleasure of the reciprocity but because the demand on reciprocation was so great that it was rude or shameful to place that social burden upon someone who couldn’t invite you back. To invite the poor and disabled was, in a real way, more callous and insensitive than leaving them off the guest list. Yet Jesus tells us that those are exactly people whom we must invite—those who could never pay us back. That’s because he knows something about God’s great banqueting table that doesn’t fit into the dinner party analogies that his contemporaries understood so well.

What if God’s great and final banquet with all of humanity is the sort of place where you don’t have to stretch to a higher station in order to receive the host’s honor? What if your place at God’s table doesn’t depend upon your status in the world’s eyes? And what if an invitation to God’s triumphant wedding feast is one you would never be expected to repay? What if God loves the world and everyone in it without expecting anything in return? How wonderful and magnificent are those truths about God, but, given how unfamiliar they are in this world, how are we ever supposed to know them?

Sometimes what we know about God shapes our lives in ways that reflect God’s reign. But other times we change the way we do ordinary things because doing them differently has the power to teach us something about who God is and what God sees in us. Why do we gather at this table every week, using the words of invitation we know and love? Why do we come to this Sunday banquet, where everyone is welcome and everyone is given a seat of honor regardless of what they have to give back? 

This holy table is not only a reflection of what we believe about God—the one who welcomes us all and honors us all, never expecting anything in return. It is also the place where we learn how to believe those things. We need help learning those divine truths that sound too big, too amazing, too radical to be true. And that is why we practice in this place every week. This table can never become a place where only some of God’s people are welcome and where worldly status determines who is most important. Not only would this altar then fail to reflect the heavenly banquet that it must always represent, but then all who gather around it would lose the chance to learn just how much God loves them. Don’t we all need more of that?


Sunday, August 21, 2022

When They Stand Up Straight

 

August 21, 2022 – The 11th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 16C

© 2022 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here. Video of the entire service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 19:10.

She appeared out of nowhere. This woman, whose gaze had been bent down toward the ground for eighteen years, shuffled toward the assembly well after the service had begun. She knew that she did not belong in that place. No one needed to remind her of that. A woman in her condition was, to her peers, the embodiment of humanity’s brokenness, the inherited sinfulness of a people. No one wanted to see her, especially in a holy place on a holy day, so she made a habit of sneaking up to a door or a window to catch a few words of the rabbi’s teaching—a brief chance to feel normal, like she belonged among the children of Abraham, before returning to the reality of her downcast life.

But this sabbath day was different. Jesus saw her. He noticed her. Before she could slip away, right in the middle of his sermon, he saw the woman who for eighteen years had lived an invisible life, and he called her over. From beyond the edge of the assembly, where no one would notice her, Jesus invited the woman to come and stand beside him in the center of attention, where the scrutinous and critical stares of the congregation beheld her. There, before God and everyone in the synagogue, Jesus laid his hands upon her and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” 

Immediately, the woman stood up straight and began praising God. Her voice, which had been silenced by those who believed that a woman such as her would never have anything worth uttering to the divine, was lifted up in song and praise. This child of God looked up toward heaven, reaching toward her Creator with both body and soul, and spoke words of healing and wholeness for everyone to hear. And the ruler of the synagogue was furious.

Indignant, enraged, grieved, and pained, the man who was in charge of maintaining order within the religious assembly immediately lashed out at the entire crowd: “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” He knew well what would happen if this sort of renegade action took hold within the community, so he did what any good religious leader would do: he reasserted his authority over the congregation and called into question the legitimacy of the visiting rabbi who had done this unholy thing. Invoking the law of Moses, he reminded the people of their sacred obligations. Only if a life were in danger should the sabbath be broken. This woman had carried this infirmity with her for nearly two decades. Why couldn’t she wait one more day and honor God by coming to be healed after the sabbath was over?

But what if the healing she sought—the restoration she needed—wasn’t available after the sun had set and the sabbath was over? What if her salvation had as much to do with confronting the religious leader as with having her spine straightened out?

Two thousand years later, in a thoroughly Gentile Christian community that is largely unfamiliar with sabbath observance, we have hard time recognizing just how right the leader of the synagogue was. Five times in this passage of only eight verses, Luke mentions that it was the sabbath, drawing even a Gentile reader into the heart of the matter. Apart from being one of the ten commandments, why was keeping the sabbath so important? A few centuries before Jesus came to that synagogue, after the first temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed, God’s people looked for ways to remain faithful even when they were unable to worship on God’s holy mountain. During the Babylonian exile, household practices like circumcision, keeping kosher, and observing the sabbath became the principal ways that a people remained connected with God and their ancestors. Even though by the first century, when Jesus lived, another temple had been built, gatherings like this one—synagogues in which the community came together in faith on the Lord’s Day—were the primary way that Jewish people lived out their faith. Anyone who threatened that, including an eloquent rabbi from out of town, threatened the very core of Jewish identity.

Are our reactions any different than that of the leader of the synagogue when it’s our identity under threat? What would happen if we allowed religious leaders to bend our sacred traditions until they started to break? What would become of our religion if preachers and teachers, theologians and seminary professors, bishops and convention deputies started to question the very core of our faith—the central practices that we have inherited from our spiritual ancestors? Won’t everything we hold dear start to fall apart? 

If we listen to people like Jesus, how long will it be before we no longer recognize the church we hold dear? How long until this place is filled with formerly bent-over people who now stand up straight? How long until we let women speak in this sacred assembly—even let them preach or preside at the Lord’s Table? How long will it be before women’s voices and stories and experiences and bodies are as valuable as a man’s? What will happen to these sacred walls or the foundation upon which they are built if trans voices were ever lifted up to the heavens in praise of their Creator? What will come of us if we allow the people whom religious society has kept bent down toward the ground for generations to stand beside us and praise the same God who has made us all? Would those who come together in this place still be called children of God? Could we have a church like that and still call ourselves holy?

What if the bent-over woman needed the sort of healing that only a radical, institution-questioning, tradition-shattering rabbi could provide? What if the very spirit that had bound her for eighteen long years—the satanic weight that had pressed her down, bowing her entire existence further and further from God—what if that spirit was precisely the sort of religious oppression that only the Son of God could cast off?

To be clear, the institution that Jesus confronts in this controversial healing is not Second Temple Judaism, the faith of his people handed down from their ancestors. What he confronts is humanity’s inexorable drive to restrict and restrain the unconditional love of God until it conforms to the image of their best intentions. When Jesus rebukes the leader of the synagogue, notice that he does not discard the law of Moses but uses it to expose the hypocrisy of his opponents: if you would loose your livestock every few hours on the sabbath in order to let them drink, he explains, how much more should we loose this daughter of Abraham from the spiritual bond that has imprisoned her for eighteen long years? The problem Jesus identifies is not sabbath observance but the ways in which people use religion to bind others and prevent them from receiving God’s grace. The danger Jesus exposes is how easily good and faithful people like us confuse the liberating work of God with the threatening work of the devil.

If the relationship with God that Jesus offered the world was as universally popular and inviting as we like to make it out to be, the religious and political leaders of his day would not have crucified him. The ways that Jesus spoke about God and God’s reign were that threatening. To people in positions of religious authority today—even and especially those who call themselves Christians—the way of Jesus remains just as threatening. But, in his death and resurrection, Jesus does something that reorients us—that recalibrates the way we know God and God’s will for the world. 

Because God has come among us in the flesh and because in Christ God has suffered and died for the sake of the world, there can be no rule or tradition or best intention that stands in the way of God’s love. Because God responded to humanity’s rejection of God upon the cross by raising Jesus Christ from the dead, we know that nothing has the power to restrict or retrain God’s unconditional love, and we know that anything or anyone that tries to cannot be of God. Although human beings continue to try to twist God’s will and invoke it in ways that bend other people down to the ground, those who look for Christ will always find him raising those people up in our midst.

In his book, The Meaning in the Miracles, Jeffrey John quotes a YWCA Bible study that captures the meaning of this miracle for today:

What is the kingdom of God like? It’s like more and more Bent-Over Women standing up. How can we know if the kingdom of God is actually coming? Why not look around and see if there are any formerly Bent-Over Women standing up? …Brother, if you ever see a Bent-Over Woman beginning to unbend and straighten herself, at the very least you had better give her a little standing room, because that isn’t just another Bent-Over Woman standing up. That’s your sister rising to her full stature—and that’s God’s kingdom cranking up! And sister, if for whatever reason you are still bent over and weighed down, and you think that’s the way it was intended to be or must always be, then know that you have been given divine permission to straighten yourself fully and to stand up. And know too that since it is Satan who wants you to be a slave, only the Devil himself would say that now is not the time or this is not the place. If your spirit is bent over, you are free to rise up! Let it be so, brothers and sisters! Again and again and again, let it be so! [1]


1. Through the Eyes of a Woman, ed. W. S. Robins, YWCA, 1986, p 190, quoted in J. John, The Meaning in the Miracles, Canterbury Press, 2001, p 212-13.

 


Sunday, July 31, 2022

Learning To Be Rich Toward God

 

July 31, 2022 – The 8th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 13C

© 2022 Evan D. Garner

Video of this service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 17:15.  

If I were a rich man,
Ya ba dibba dibba dibba dibba dibba dibba dum,
All day long, I'd biddy biddy bum,
If I were a wealthy man.
I wouldn't have to work hard,
Ya ba dibba dibba dibba dibba dibba dibba dum,
If I were a biddy biddy rich idle-deeddle-daidle-daidle man. [1] 

In the 1971 film adaptation of Fiddler on the Roof, Tevya the dairyman sings those words at first while shoveling hay for his lame horse but later while dancing around his barn, triumphantly waving his arms about as he imagines what his life would be like if he only had more money. “If I were a rich man…” Who among us doesn’t sing some form of those words in their heart? If I were a rich man…if I had a little bit more money…if I got paid what I’m really worth…if I won the Mega Millions jackpot…then my life would be better…all my problems would go away. But would they?

Twenty-one years ago this summer, I sat in the small home office of farmer in the middle of Illinois as he looked at soybean and corn futures on a computer monitor and tried to decide what to do. A faithful man, who made buckwheat pancakes every morning of his children’s lives whether they wanted them or not, this farmer explained to me that commodity prices had been depressed for several years. Instead of selling his entire harvest each year, he had put much of it into silos, hoping that the prices would increase, but they hadn’t. Now his barns were full. He had no place to store his crops. And he didn’t know what to do.

“I know what I will do!” the rich fool in Jesus’ parable said to himself. “I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all of my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’”

In the parable Jesus tells the crowd, the rich man did not get rich by accident. He might have been a fool in God’s eyes, but everyone in the town knew him to be a shrewd businessman. He knew that when the land produced abundantly—a bumper crop—the price of grain would fall. Rather than sell his harvest at a discounted price, the man decided to use his capital to tear down his barns and build larger ones, increasing his capacity to wait out the glut. Maybe next year there would be a drought. Maybe global supply chains would be interrupted and geopolitical instability on the heels of a global pandemic would send prices through the roof. This rich man could afford to wait. And the longer he waited the richer he would become.

Except that he forgot one thing: “You fool!” God said to him. “This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” The man who excelled in agribusiness somehow forgot that his life was on loan and that the owner of that debt could call it in at any minute. There is no barn big enough to store enough grain that we could ransom our own lives.

But Jesus wasn’t giving advice to rich farmers in ancient Palestine, nor was he speaking to middle-class farmers in modern-day Illinois. He was speaking to a crowd of ordinary people in response to a man whose brother had refused to divide his father’s estate and share it with him. “Tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me,” the scorned sibling had said to Jesus. And the parable of the rich fool was Jesus’ way of teaching all of us how to be rich toward God.

Notice that the brother—not unlike the rich farmer—assumed that he was in the right. Instead of asking Jesus for an interpretation of the Jewish laws of inheritance governing his particular situation, he jumped to the end and asked Jesus to tell his brother to split the estate between them. “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity,” Jesus might have responded, quoting Psalm 133. Although there were rules that determined how much of an estate should be given to each brother, scripture makes it clear that it is better—even ideal—when siblings can live together on the family estate and share their inheritance rather than liquidate the property and divide the proceeds among them. But this angry brother was already beyond that. They were past the point of negotiations. He wanted his check, and he wanted it now.

But how will an inheritance check make everything better? How will all that money help a man feel his parents’ love when he cannot even sit down and break bread with his sibling? Like fences and neighbors, careful estate plans make for better sibling relationships, but the key to maintaining a healthy family isn’t making sure that everyone gets the right amount of money. It’s remembering that a parent’s love cannot be measured in real estate or an investment account. It’s making sure that material things do not take the place of what really matters. It’s remembering that one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.

We all want to be the rich farmer. We want to have enough grain stored in our barns that we can say to our souls, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” Tevye’s song becomes our retirement plan. If I were a rich man, I wouldn’t have to work hard. If I had enough money, I wouldn’t have to worry about anything. If I save enough, I won’t need anything else. Everything will be taken care of. But our lives do not consist in the abundance of possessions. Our true security does not come from a retirement account or a pension or an inheritance check. That is vanity.

If the most important question in our life—the one we ask the most—is, “When will I have enough,” then we are not being rich toward God. We cannot belong to God if our bank accounts make us feel like we belong to ourselves. Everything we have belongs to God, and we must give it all back. The rich farmer didn’t produce anything. The land did. The angry brother didn’t earn his inheritance. His parents did. You are not responsible for your own success. God is. And learning that truth is the first step to becoming rich toward God.

But that truth runs contrary to everything our economy, our nation, and our lives were built upon. There is no truth more difficult for us to apply to our own lives, yet no truth is more central to our salvation. Your entire life is one big loan from God. It is an obligation you can never repay. And you don’t even have to try. 

In fact, until you stop pretending that the sum total of your life’s accomplishments is anything other than a gift from God, you’re going to have a pretty hard time figuring out that God’s love is the only thing that can save you. Not your money, not your career, not your family, not your perfect plans, not even your best success—the only thing that can save you is God’s gift of love that is Jesus Christ. And God has already poured that love out upon you in lavish measure. If you want to experience that love—if you want to know the freedom from anxiety that comes from that love—if you want to be rich toward God—stop storing up treasures for yourself and start giving it all away.


[1] Lyrics from “If I Were a Rich Man” by Chaim Topol from Fiddler on the Roof. Connection with this parable made by Klyne Snodgrass in Stories with Intent, 2008, p. 400.