Monday, February 28, 2022

Seeing God In The Mirror


February 27, 2022 – The Last Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C

© 2022 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here. Video of this service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 20:40.

When you look in the mirror, what do you see? A sinner? A saint? Something good? Something not so good? Are you too old? Too fat? Worn out? Worn down? Do you even look anymore? Have two years of seeing your face on Zoom—and not having to show the world the rest of you—made you want to hide even from yourself?

Years ago, Al Franken, the now-cancelled comedian and former U.S. Senator, played Stuart Smalley on Saturday Night Live. Dressed in a light-blue cardigan and a yellow button-down shirt, Smalley, “a caring nurturer, a member of several 12-step programs, but not a licensed therapist,” began each episode of “Daily Affirmation,” his mock-self-help-show, by looking into a mirror and reminding himself, “I’m going to do a terrific show today, and I’m going to help people because I’m good enough; I’m smart enough; and doggonit, people like me.” By the end of each skit, however, Smalley had fallen apart, overwhelmed by his emotional struggles, hardly reminiscent of the mantra he had spoken only minutes ago. Accordingly, he concluded each broadcast the way he started, looking into the mirror and trying to convince himself of his own worth, though the second time around there was nothing convincing about it.

In a way, that is what Paul is trying to accomplish in his second letter to the Corinthians: “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.” Paul wants the Christians in Corinth to remember that, when they look into a mirror, what they should see are imperfect and broken people who are being made whole—being made perfect—one step at a time by the God who has united them to God’s own glory in Jesus Christ. But how are we supposed to look into the mirror and see that?

Paul used a story that was familiar to his readers in order to help them understand what it means to undergo that sort of transformation: the story of Moses coming down from Mount Sinai with his face shining like the sun. This is a strange story from Exodus that had piqued the curiosity of rabbis and biblical scholars for centuries. As amazing as it was, Moses’ shining face is only mentioned in one chapter of the Bible—Exodus 34—but that was enough to inspire volumes of spiritual interpretation.

The Exodus story tells us that, after spending forty days and forty nights in the presence of God, Moses’ face radiated with God’s glory. His shining face was enough to scare the people of Israel, who were afraid to draw near. Nevertheless, Moses beckoned to them, and, when they came close, he spoke to them all that the LORD had said, but, when he was finished, whenever Moses was not talking with God or telling the people what God had said, he veiled his face in order to avoid unnerving the people.

By the time Paul wrote this letter, however, different traditions associated with Moses’ shining face and the veil he used to cover it had arisen. Capturing one of them, Paul noted that Moses “put a veil over his face to keep the people of Israel from gazing at the end of the glory that was being set aside.” In other words, the glory that was reflected in Moses’ face was fading, and he veiled it in part because the people couldn’t stand to see it disappear. Despite being a considerable departure from the original biblical text, Paul was not making that part up. Rabbinical scholars had used other biblical passages like one later on in Exodus when even Moses was not allowed to enter God’s presence and another in Numbers when Moses was praised for being the meekest human on the earth and yet another when Moses was refused entry into the land of Canaan because of his disobedience to discern that, indeed, that divine glory, which had once beamed from the prophet’s face, must have faded.

Paul borrowed that tradition, which must have been familiar to his readers, and expanded it, reprojecting it through a Christian lens and adding a distinctly gospel-focused theological layer to it. When the old covenant—the Law of Moses—is read, Paul argued, that veil still covers the hearts and minds of those whose relationship with God is only defined by that covenant. Only in Christ, he wrote, is that veil set aside. This isn’t an anti-Judaic or anti-Semitic argument, as far too many Christians have made it out to be. This is merely Paul’s way of celebrating what is different and distinct about the Christian faith.

As a faithful Jew, Paul had excelled in his religious tradition, and his letters make it clear that he valued deeply that part of his life. When he encountered Jesus, however, he discovered a new way of belonging to God—one that allowed non-Jews to become adopted children of God without having to convert to those distinctly Jewish practices of the old covenant. Instead, as followers of Jesus, who in the waters of Baptism have received the Holy Spirit, we belong to God not through the customs we keep but through the one who lives inside of us—even God himself. And because God lives within us, God’s glory shines not as a reflection on our face from having experienced a momentary encounter with the divine but as the divine nature beaming forth from within our very being. Because that radiance comes from God living within us, we need no veil to cover the glory that otherwise would inevitably fade away. In Christ, therefore, who lives within us, that veil is set aside.

When we look at our own reflection in a mirror, Paul wants us to see a broken and imperfect person who is already being transformed into the image of Christ’s radiance one degree of glory at a time. That is not our doing, but God’s doing. Because of Jesus Christ, God comes to dwell within people who are far from perfect but in whom God’s perfection is taking shape. People like you and me. This is God’s gift to us, the work of the Spirit within us, and that work happening inside of us changes not only who we see in the mirror but how we see the world around us.

“Since, then, we have such a hope,” Paul wrote, “we act with great boldness.” God living within us and transforming us into God’s likeness gives us the courage and power to do great things in God’s name. Some scholars think that Paul added another layer of wordplay onto this passage. In Aramaic, which might have been on Paul’s mind as he was composing this letter in Greek, the word for “boldness” literally means “to uncover the face,” implying that one who acts boldly is one who looks you square in the eye and does not try to hide anything.[1] If, in Christ, the veil has been removed, we can afford to risk everything for the sake of the one who lives inside of us because we know that glory will never fade away. If the light of God’s glory shines from within us, always growing brighter, we need look no further away than a mirror to see one whom God has equipped to do great things.

What would you do if you knew that God had already given you everything you need to succeed? What risk would you take—what endeavor would you take on—if you looked in the mirror and recognized not only the person looking back at you but the brightness of God’s glory shining through the person standing there? What would be possible if it were not you alone who took up that cross but Christ living within you who bore it up on your behalf? You are already being changed into his likeness. Let that light shine forth for all the world to see.

1. Van Unnik qtd in Brevard S. Childs, The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary; Westminster Press, Philadelphia: 1974, 622.

Sunday, February 13, 2022

The Healing The World Cannot Give


February 13, 2022 – Epiphany 6C

© 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 18:20.

How much would you spend on tickets to see your favorite musical artist in concert? How long would you wait to get an autograph from your childhood hero? How far would you drive to get a rug that would perfectly complete the d├ęcor in your living room? How much would you give up to see a specialist who might be able to cure your incurable disease?

People came a long way to hear Jesus, to be healed of their diseases, and to be set free from the unclean spirits that troubled them. People came from as far away as the coast of Tyre and Sidon, way up north in Gentile country, just hoping that they might touch Jesus and receive his healing power. They came to Jesus because they had heard that he could give them the healing that they could not find anywhere else.

A lot has happened in the gospel since last week’s story about Simon Peter putting out into deep water and letting down his nets for a catch. Since then, Jesus has made quite a name for himself but not in the way that most people expected the Son of God to act. After the episode with Peter, he healed a leper by touching him and making him clean. Then, when some people brought a paralytic to him, Jesus not only restored his ability to walk but also announced that the man’s sins had been forgiven. He called Levi, the tax collector, to be one of his disciples and joined in a banquet with other notorious sinners. He encouraged his followers to eat and drink and celebrate God’s goodness instead seeking a closer relationship with God through traditional means like prayer and fasting. One sabbath, he allowed his hungry disciples to pluck heads of grain and eat them, and, on another sabbath, he healed a man whose hand was withered. 

Jesus wasn’t like other rabbis or religious leaders. He did all of the things that faithful, religious people knew not to do. And so the people came. They came from all over because they knew that Jesus could give them the kind of healing that they couldn’t get from anyone else. These were people whose illnesses couldn’t be addressed by an ordinary physician and whose brokenness could not be bound up by a regular religious figure. These people were afflicted in ways that left them outside the bounds of polite, religious society. They had no where else to go, and so they came to Jesus, who offered them the kind of healing that the world could not offer.

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.”

God’s people had always heard that one day God would come and lift up the downtrodden and rescue the oppressed, but these people didn’t come to Jesus because they wanted someone to pat them on the back and tell them that one day everything would be ok. They didn’t come to hear him preach that someday God would hear their cries and make all things new. They didn’t need someone to assure them that things wouldn’t always be this bad—that, in God’s great and perfect time, at some point the fortunes of the world would be reversed. They needed healing now. They needed restoration now. They needed consolation now. And Jesus gave it to them.

This series of blessings and woes is not a prediction for the future. It is a pronouncement that the future reign of God has come to the earth and is unfolding even now in the person of Jesus Christ. It is Jesus’ declaration that the long-promised redemption of the world is already here among us—that now is the time for healing, comfort, and restoration—that those who cannot find hope in the powers of this world can now rejoice because in Jesus Christ their salvation has come.

But woe to those who cannot see it. Woe to those whose healing and comfort are found in the riches of this world. Woe to those who need not look to God for their salvation because whatever refuge they cling to in this life will soon fade away. Jesus’ proclamations are not warnings of what will come to pass. They are assurances that, even in this life, even now, the only hope worth holding onto is the hope we find in God.

Jesus does not touch lepers and eat with tax collectors and flaunt sabbath regulations because he wants to enrage the religious authorities of his day. He does so because, in a society in which the dominant religion has become enmeshed with the powers of this world, there is a great multitude of outcasts and rejects who cannot find God’s healing touch. And healing them in God’s name is enough to enrage those in power. He does all of those radical things not because they are controversial. They are controversial because he, a holy man, the incarnate Son of God, would dare to do them and dare to do them now. 

Even today, people still come to Jesus in search of the healing that this world cannot give them. In the ancient world, it was the poor, the hungry, the mournful, and the persecuted who needed God’s salvation the most. And that hasn’t changed. The world would convince us that God’s goodness and blessing are reserved for those who have it all figured out—economically, materially, emotionally, and relationally. In our culture, the dominant religion identifies success with salvation. But we are broken in ways that the world cannot fix. Just below the surface—and sometimes in ways that cannot be hidden—we are falling apart. We need the healing that no earthly remedy can give.

We need Jesus. We need a God who loves us not because we are good enough, holy enough, or successful enough but simply because God loves incomplete, broken, worn out people like us. We need a savior who touches us and embraces when no one else will—one who will sit down and eat with us when, if the truth were ever known, no one else would dare to have us at their table. We need someone who loves not the person we wish we were but the one we really are. That person is Jesus.

Sunday, February 6, 2022

When The Kingdom Comes For You


February 6, 2022 – Epiphany 5C

© 2022 Evan D. Garner

Audio for the sermon can be heard here. Video for the service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 20:30.

Have you ever been fishing with someone who doesn’t belong in a boat? Someone who won’t touch the bait or recoils in horror when they actually catch a fish? Someone who doesn’t realize that sudden lateral movements aren’t a good idea when someone else is already leaning over the side? Someone who never stops talking and still can’t figure out why they haven’t caught anything?

I love fishing, but chatty preachers like me rarely get an invitation. Jesus liked quiet time a lot more than I do, but, in today’s reading from Luke, he didn’t get into Simon’s boat because he wanted to go fishing. He wanted to get enough space from the crowd that was pressing in to hear his message and use the natural amphitheater that the harbor would provide. We don’t hear much about his sermon that day, but it was probably similar to the message he had been preaching throughout that region—something like, “The kingdom of God is imminent, and it becomes manifest not among the holy and powerful but in the lives of outcasts and sinners.”

After he was done preaching, Jesus told Simon to take the boat out into deep water and put down his nets for a catch. That was a little bit like me delivering a sermon in a mechanic’s garage and then telling the owner how to rebuild a transmission. Jesus wasn’t a fisherman. He didn’t grow up on the water. Before he became an itinerant preacher, he was a carpenter, like his father. Simon and his companions had worked all night, and they had caught nothing. Plus, their nets, scholars tell us, were probably trammel nets, which were made of linen and only used at night, when the fish couldn’t see them.  Jesus telling Simon to put down those nets in the middle of the day, when the professionals couldn’t find any the night before, didn’t make any sense. But, then again, neither did the resulting catch.

They shouldn’t have caught anything, but, when they did what Jesus asked, their nets became so full that they had to call their partners over to help out, and still both boats were in danger of being swamped. When he saw what happened, Simon threw himself down at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Simon’s reaction was almost as astounding as the catch of fish. 

This is the first time that Luke uses the word sinner in his telling of the gospel, yet Simon Peter invokes that label for himself in a way that doesn’t fit with all the other times that Luke uses it. Every other time, Luke uses sinner as a singularly defining label for someone obviously beyond the bounds of polite, religious society. Jesus eats with “tax collectors and sinners.” A notorious sinner comes and anoints Jesus’ feet and wipes them with her hair. Jesus predicts that he will be handed over to sinners and be crucified before being raised on the third day. Usually, the gospel presents sinners not as ordinary but imperfect people like you and me but as the kind of ungodly human beings who deserve to be on a wanted poster or, worse, the target of our hypocritical gossip.

Peter wasn’t a sinner in that sense. He wasn’t a tax collector or a prostitute. He wasn’t poor or diseased or disabled, which in that time would have signified someone whom God had rejected. Peter wasn’t a rich man—not rich enough to stay ashore while hired hands went out in the boat—but he was successful enough that everyone would have assumed that he was just fine in God’s eyes. And yet, when he saw that overwhelming catch of fish, Simon Peter was cut to his core, and he threw himself down in a gesture of complete unworthiness and begged Jesus to depart from him.

There was something about what Jesus did in that boat, by showing the professional fishermen a measure of fruitfulness and success that they could not otherwise fathom, that called Simon up short in the most profound way. I don’t want to suggest that, in order to understand Peter’s reaction, we need to read back upon this gospel lesson the kind of Pauline understanding of sinfulness that we get in Romans 3, where Paul writes that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” But I do believe that, when the fullness of God’s kingdom came that close to Peter and touched upon his vocational life in a way that he found deeply personal, he recognized in one huge, overwhelming moment that his life was woefully inadequate for what God was doing in and through Jesus Christ.

When the power of God’s reign comes that close to us, we don’t need to be a notorious sinner in order to feel like we don’t belong, like we don’t measure up. We can listen to sermons and read the lessons and sing the hymns each week and not worry about our place in the kingdom of God, but, when God’s holy power hits us square between the eyes and comes up next to us in our own particular circumstance, our reaction is the same as Peter’s: “Not me, Lord. You don’t mean me. You can’t mean me. I’m not good enough. You must mean someone else. Someone in that pew over there.”

This wasn’t the first time that Simon had met Jesus. Simon had heard Jesus preach in the synagogue at Capernaum. Afterward, he had invited the rabbi to come back to his house for a meal. There, Jesus had healed his mother-in-law and, after sunset, had stood at the door, casting out demons and healing a multitude of sick people. At least a twice, Simon had already heard Jesus’ message that the kingdom of God had come near and that God’s vindication would be found in the lifting up of the downtrodden, the release of the prisoner, and the consolation of the poor. He had sat in the boat that day and listened to Jesus tell the crowd standing on the shore about the transforming power of God’s love. But it wasn’t until he put out into deep water and let down his nets for a catch that Simon Peter discovered that the kingdom of God had come to find him. 

We don’t belong in that fishing boat with Jesus either. We don’t deserve to inherit the magnificence of God’s reign. We can’t imagine our place in something that perfect and wonderful. We aren’t good enough, talented enough, or holy enough to be the ones God welcomes into God’s kingdom. And yet that kingdom comes to find us. And it asks us to devote our lives and labor to the building up of God’s reign in the world. We are the ones to whom Jesus says, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” 

We know that God’s love belongs to all people. We’ve heard Jesus say it before. But have we heard him say it to us? It’s easier to believe that God loves notorious sinners and outcasts than it is to believe that God loves us like that. That’s because God’s love is easier to understand in the abstract—when it’s given as a platitude instead of a prescription. But Jesus came to bring God’s love to sinners like you and me—real and imperfect people who need to be loved just like that. There is no one on this earth who belongs in that kingdom any more than you do. So put out into deep water and let down your nets for a catch. Allow the magnitude of God’s reign to come right up next to you in your own particular circumstances. And be astounded that the power of God’s love has come to find you—even you.