Monday, March 28, 2022

Don't Underestimate God's Love


March 27, 2022 – The Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year C

© 2022 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here. Video of the service is found here with the sermon beginning around 23:15.

“This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them,” grumbled the Pharisees and scribes—the most faithful Jews of Jesus’ day. So Jesus told them a story. Actually, Jesus told them three stories. Although we don’t have time to hear all of them in church this morning, I bet you’re familiar with all three, though you may not have remembered that Jesus told them one after another to make his point. 

First was the parable of the lost sheep and the shepherd who left the ninety-nine behind in order to go and search for the one that was lost. When he found it, he called together his neighbors and friends in order to celebrate that the one which had been lost was now found. The second parable Jesus told was that of the lost coin and the woman who swept her house in search of it. When she found the coin that had been lost, she, too, called together her neighbors and friends to celebrate.

I can imagine the religious leaders hearing those first two stories and getting a sense of what Jesus was trying to teach them—that his ministry among tax collectors and notorious sinners was good and holy work. They might prefer to hob nob with the goody-goodies of their day, but the scum of the earth needed a rabbi, too. Jesus seemed to be teaching them that it was ok for him to throw a party because those who had been cut off from the family of God had found in his ministry a way to come back. That’s a nice sentiment. But then Jesus told them the third story and forced the Pharisees and scribes to confront their own lostness.

I have a hard time coming up with a contemporary parallel that conveys the level of disrespect and betrayal displayed by the prodigal son in Jesus’ story. Disputes over inheritance issues arose all the time, and a son might ask his father to go ahead and set aside what he was to inherit in order to make sure it didn’t get lost in the shuffle, but after that neither father nor son would be allowed to sell the designated property and spend the money until the parent’s death. For the son in Jesus’ parable to spend it on anything was itself a rejection of the parent-child relationship, which was sacrosanct, and to spend it recklessly in dissolute living was simply unthinkable.

Imagine Jesus telling a story about a child who stuck their parent in a substandard nursing home and pocketed their Social Security checks in order to use that money to fuel a gambling habit. But that’s not all. In the parable Jesus tells, the prodigal son, once things go south, hires himself out to a pig farmer in order that he might eat the carob pods that were fed to the swine. There are plenty of ancient Jewish texts in which the poor are said to have survived by eating those pods, but keeping pigs was a violation worse than death. 

The Talmud states, “Cursed be the man who would breed swine, and cursed be the man who would teach his son Grecian Wisdom” (b. Baba Qamma 82b). More than a violation of kosher dietary rules, the prodigal’s decision to work as a swineherd was a renunciation of his religious, cultural, and national identity. In a world in which the peoples of the earth were clearly divided between those who belonged to God and those who represented a threat to God’s people, the prodigal son had not only betrayed his family but had also betrayed his heritage by switching sides and working for the enemy. He might as well have become a tax collector and abused his people on behalf of the Romans.

And this is the one about whom Jesus tells his story—not just a notorious sinner but the kind of sinner whose entire life embodied the rejection of everything God and God’s people cared about. What is someone supposed to do when they are that lost? Where is someone supposed to go—to whom is someone supposed to turn—when they have burned every bridge behind them—when they have already thumbed their nose at God and their family, the only ones who would ever take them back?

“I know what I will do,” the lost son said to himself when he came to his senses. “I will return home to my father—not as his child but as a hired hand, a worker in the fields.” Even in his lostness, the son anticipated a measure of his father’s mercy. He knew his father well enough to expect that, even though he had squandered his identity as a child and an heir, he would be given a place among his father’s servants. Considering the shame that the son had caused the family, that would indeed be merciful. The Book of Deuteronomy says that a stubborn and rebellious child who refuses to respect his parents should be handed over to the elders and stoned to death in order that Israel might be purged from such evil (21:18-21). To take him in as a hired hand, therefore, would have been more than generous.

But, when the father saw his lost son walking in the distance, he threw aside his shame and ran in a most undignified way to embrace his boy and kiss him. “Bring the best robe and the finest ring and the nicest shoes,” he said to his servants, “and give them to my son. And go and get the fatted calf and kill it so that we can celebrate properly because this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”

It's not supposed to be that way, but that’s how God’s love is. That’s why Jesus tells the second half of the story. The older son, who had always done his father’s will, who had never done anything to bring shame upon his family, could not accept his father’s generosity and love toward his sibling. “You never even gave me as much as a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends,” he said to his father, genuinely hurt by the lavish reception his younger brother had received. “Why don’t you love me like that?” he asked.

To make his point to the Pharisees and scribes, Jesus tells three stories—the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, and then the parable of the two lost sons. Both sons are out in the fields. Both are approached by the father. Both underestimate the magnitude and nature of the father’s love. And both are lost until that love finds them.

When we underestimate God’s love, we, too, are lost. Whether we doubt our own lovability or the lovability of another, we hide ourselves from the goodness and mercy of God, who nevertheless comes out to find us. Jesus welcomed tax collectors and sinners and ate with them not only because they needed a rabbi, too, but because they are the ones for whom God is searching. It is at their table where the God of mercy and love is to be found. Whether we are a notorious sinner or a self-righteous Pharisee, we are beckoned to sit down at that table, too.

To those who have always lived a faithful life, whose behavior has never brought shame upon their family or their faith, that kind of love is offensive and infuriating. And, to those who have lived that life of deep shame, who have burned all their bridges more than once, that kind of love is impossible to imagine. Yet that is the love that comes looking for us, searching for those who are lost. Don’t be surprised by the company that Jesus keeps. And don’t be surprised to find that you belong at that table, too.

Sunday, March 13, 2022

Like a Mother Hen


March 13, 2022 – The Second Sunday in Lent, Year C

© 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 25:15.

My favorite Christological image has long been that of the pelican. Partly, that is because I grew up on the coast, where the sight of a Brown Pelican, while not unusual, is always special. But it’s also because of the nature of the connection between Jesus and that particular water bird—because of the ways that a pelican reminds us of who Jesus is and how Jesus saves us.

As early as the second century, Christians used the pelican to express the nurturing, loving care of Christ. You may have seen the icon of a pelican feeding its young in an altar frontal or a stained-glass window or another devotional image and wondered whether someone had mistakenly substituted the pelican for a dove, but the nesting sea bird offers an even more vivid reminder of Christ than the dove we more often see.

Although based on a misunderstanding of the bird’s behavior, mother pelicans were thought to feed their young by piercing their own breast with their long, sharp bills and nourishing their young with their own blood in a powerful gesture of maternal sacrifice. Actually, mother pelicans tuck their head down to their side, jerking it up and down, in order to regurgitate the fish that they have swallowed and partially digested so that their chicks can receive it as food, but why would we let advancements in ornithology stand in the way of a good analogy for Christ?

The ancient image of a pelican is especially important for contemporary conversations about Christianity. Feminist theologians have long wondered whether Christianity can be redeemed from its inherently violent and masculine context—an understanding of the faith that is, for most of us, inextricably linked to the execution of Jesus. If the central moment in our religious history is the death of our savior—a moment and act around which almost all Christian language about salvation turns—can our faith be built upon something besides violence? Given our two-thousand-year love affair with patriarchy and misogyny, one could rightly ask whether a religion that, at its core, celebrates an act of violence as the means by which salvation comes to the world could ever be freed from that dangerous, hypermasculine past. Or, to say it practically, we might ask how we, as parents and grandparents, could ever teach our children about God’s love, as revealed in Jesus Christ, without needing to glorify a gruesome execution in order to do it. 

Janet Martin Soskice, a Roman Catholic theologian who specializes in the role of women in the church, thinks we can, but we need the pelican to help us. Although some of her feminist colleagues think that Christianity cannot be separated from its violent imagery, Soskice believes that we can “turn” those images (her language) without rejecting them completely. For her, the cross, which remains essential to the liberating, loving, life-giving message of the gospel, can be turned into a symbol of nourishment when we think of it not only as a place of violent death but also as the place from which God feeds her children. 

Another common eucharistic image from the ancient world helps us make that connection. Perhaps you have seen the icon that depicts a stream of blood and water, flowing from the pierced side of Jesus, who hangs lifeless on the cross, being collected into a communion chalice, which presumably is then given to the church in Holy Communion. Guided by that image of Jesus’ sacrifice, when we look upon the cross, we encounter not only the one who was killed and raised on our behalf but also upon the one who, in the Eucharist, feeds us with the life-giving nourishment that flows from his breast. Those ancient Christians who chose the pelican as an image of how God saves us in Jesus Christ recognized that the sacrifice of the cross is a self-giving that nurtures God’s people in the same way that a mother feeds her child. And that’s a very different way of looking at what Jesus did for us on the cross.

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” Jesus declares. “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” Even Jesus himself, when choosing an image to represent his saving love for the people of Jerusalem, envisioned a mother hen, gathering her baby chicks under the shadow of her wings in order to protect them. 

In a world in which salvation usually comes adorned with armor plates and armed with supernatural powers or specialized weapons, Jesus asks us to consider his salvation as the one that comes to guard us and protect us and shelter us the way that a mother hen might collect her brood if a fox were lurking nearby.

Although it might sound surprising, given what we are led to believe about them in the gospel, the Pharisees came to Jesus and warned him that Herod was seeking to kill him. “You tell that fox that I have holy work to do and that that work is too important to let him get in the way,” Jesus said. “But I will be travelling today, tomorrow, and the day after because I must get to Jerusalem, where God’s prophets are always killed.”

Jesus wasn’t worried about Herod, who had authority up north in Galilee, because he knew that the climax of a prophet’s ministry must always take place in the seat of power, down south, in Jerusalem. Jesus left Herod’s region not to escape the fox’s threats but to give himself over to the fate that awaited him in the capital city. And, in so doing, he gave himself up for the sake of those he wanted to protect, even though he knew that some would not welcome a savior who came to protect them like that.

The problem with the Christological image of a hen or even that of a pelican is that a bird doesn’t stand much of a chance in the face of those who would throw stones at God’s anointed. If you asked us which savior we’d rather stand behind, how many of us would pick a chicken instead of an eagle, a pelican instead of a fighter jet? But the saving love God brings to the world in Jesus Christ isn’t found in political or military triumph. It is the love that saves us through surrender, that protects us through vulnerability, that nourishes us through sacrifice.

Believing in a God who rescues us like that costs us something in this world. It costs us to give up our hopes and expectations of physical, emotional, and economic security. It costs us to follow that kind of Jesus into those places where he confronts those with authority and is rejected by them. If Jerusalem is the city where an ancient Jewish prophet must go to die, where would we expect Jesus to confront the powers of this world today? Where are we going to be called to stand with Jesus? 

Who will reject as blasphemous Jesus’ message of vulnerable protection and sacrificial nourishment as our greatest hope and, thus, the pattern God calls all of us to live by? Who will be the first to pick up a stone and throw it at those who come in Jesus’ name when that is the way that they talk about salvation? Jesus promises us that we will not see him until we are willing to say that he is the blessed one who comes in the name of the Lord—that his way of gentle sacrifice is God’s way of saving the world. May we be gathered under the shelter of Christ’s wings and nourished by the blood that flows from Christ’s breast until we know the saving love that God has for all of God’s children.

Wednesday, March 2, 2022

Our Altar Call


March 2, 2022 – Ash Wednesday

© 2022 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here. Video of the service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 17:10. 

Today, we do the most un-Episcopal of things in the most Episcopal way: we have an altar call. This is the only day of the year when the congregation is invited to come up to the altar twice. First, we come to receive ashes. Then, we come back to receive Communion. That might not feel much like the altar calls we associate with evangelical churches, where preachers lay on thick the message of sin and guilt and shame before encouraging penitent sinners to come forward and give their lives back to Christ. But, if you think about it, isn’t that what we do today? First, we are reminded of our mortality, and then we are beckoned to come forward and receive God’s mercy. We just don’t do it with all that yelling and crying and pressure.

Some of us love Ash Wednesday and the forty days of Lent. Others feel beaten up by them. I wonder why. I suspect that part of the reason I love Lent so much is that deep down I know that I need to be knocked off my high horse every once in a while. I have the privilege of riding through this world mostly immune from the struggles, hardships, and discriminations that others feel. Lots of people have shame upon shame heaped on top of them. They are ostracized by religious types—even by family and friends—who “don’t approve of what they have been doing” and “have decided to cut off communication until they repent and return to the Lord.” Others just seem to get life’s short straw over and over again, and they can’t help but wonder why bad things keep happening to them. The last thing anyone like that needs is for the church to set aside a day—let alone an entire liturgical season—to remind them of their brokenness. 

The rest of us, however, are more likely to need a little help encountering our limitations and moral failings. To those of us who are largely shielded from the hardships and criticisms of others, the world offers a different trap. We become so accustomed to being treated as if we have all our ducks in a row that we begin to worry that, if the truth ever got out, everything would fall apart. We begin to believe that we are only loved because we are good enough to deserve that love, and that’s a dangerous lie to build a life on. By offering us a safe dose of humanity’s universal brokenness, Ash Wednesday gives us a tiny reminder that it’s ok to be imperfect because God loves us anyway.

I wish the church did a better job of presenting that same message of hopefulness to those for whom the Litany of Penitence is an all-too-familiar recitation of their wrongs. What would Ash Wednesday be like if we paid as much attention to lifting up those who are bent over under the weight of their guilt as we do to setting aside one day when the high and mighty get a glimpse of their own brokenness? Don’t we need both? Isn’t that what Ash Wednesday is really about? As Christians, don’t we believe that all human beings are both totally sinful and totally loved? Isn’t that the source of our greatest hope—that we can be honest about ourselves and also know that we are loved by God just the way we are?

Our liturgy, when it is done right, embodies both of those truths, which normally do not inhabit the same space, the same thought, the same being. We come first to the altar to remember that we are dust—that we are mortal and fragile and that there is nothing we can do to prevent our inevitable return to the earth from which we came. But then we come back to the altar to remember that we are redeemed—that God loves us enough to die for us not because we deserve it but precisely because we don’t—because we are just dust. We encounter both of those things today—our emptiness and God’s perfecting love—and our hope lies in the intersection of the two.

What do you need to hear God say to you today? If the everyone keeps telling you that your life must be wonderful because they think you have it all figured out, come up to the altar and let God say to you that it’s ok if things aren’t as good as they seem. God doesn’t love you because you’re perfect. God loves you even though you’re nothing but a bunch of dust. And if you’ve heard nothing from the world but struggle, rejection, and failure, come up and hear something else. Hear God say that you are made in God’s image, that you are loved just as you are, and that God has already redeemed you. 

Because of Jesus Christ, both of those things are true. Because of Jesus, we find our hope right here, where our honesty and God’s love meet.