Sunday, April 17, 2022

Easter Hope


April 17, 2022 – The Sunday of the Resurrection: Easter Day

© 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 at 21:10.

She cradled his head against her chest, lovingly and dutifully cleaning his face, wiping his mouth, and closing his eyes. She dressed him in clean clothes and then brushed his hair into place. She and the other women with her hoisted his lifeless body onto their shoulders, carrying him to the place where he would be laid to rest. When they arrived at the grave, they tenderly composed his limbs into an almost sleepful pose. Then, giving the body one last embrace, they placed it into the earth, giving him back to his Creator.

Dionysius of Alexandria records in his letters moments like that—the selfless acts of Christians from the third century, who cared for the sick and dying. On the heels of a war and a famine, before anyone had time to recover, a plague descended upon the people of the Mediterranean, “a calamity more dreadful to them than any dread,” he wrote, “and more afflictive than any affliction.” He described how most people “repelled those who began to be sick, avoiding even their dearest friends…cast[ing] them out into the roads half-dead or throw[ing] them [out] when dead without [a proper] burial, shunning any communication and participation in death.” But those who called themselves Christians, on the other hand, embraced those who suffered, despite knowing that their proximity to the sick meant that “ere long they themselves [would share] in receiving the same offices.” [1]

Throughout the centuries, Christians have been willing to embrace death because of their faith in Jesus. The way that Jesus’ followers risked their lives to care for others was one of the principal reasons that Christianity grew and spread throughout the Roman Empire. Sixteen hundred years later, it was Christians like Constance and her companions who cared for those who were too poor to flee Memphis when Yellow Fever spread throughout the low-lying areas, knowing it would mean their death. During our own lifetime, while many church leaders used their voice to condemn gay men and intravenous drug users, it was faithful Christians who cared for those who were dying of AIDS back when no one really understood how the virus was spread.

Today, like those saints of God, we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ and, in it, God’s great victory over sin and death, but we also know all too well that the ravages of sickness and death, of evil and sin, still hold sway in this world. And that can make the good news of Easter feel, well, a little confusing. For many of us, this is our first time to be back in church after two or more years, and some of the people we most want to see and hug this Easter Day are no longer with us. Some of us have endured the pain and grief of divorce during that time. Some of us have lost our jobs. Many have lost their sense of belonging. A lot has happened in two years, and it’s not fair to show up in church and pretend that none of that matters. It all matters. It matters to us, and it matters to God. And we aren’t alone in needing some help understanding what Jesus’ resurrection means for us.

Early in the morning, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb—because sometimes, overwhelmed by grief, we have nowhere else to go. But, when she arrived, she saw that stone had been rolled away. So she ran and found Peter and the other disciple and told them that someone must have come and taken Jesus’ body away. When the disciples got to the tomb, they found it just as Mary had described it, and, when they looked inside, they saw that the linen wrappings and the face cloth that had covered Jesus’ body had been left behind. So they went away, back to their homes, confident that something significant had happened but still unable to understand what it meant.

Now bereft not only of her friend and teacher but also the opportunity to sit and pray near his body, Mary returned to the tomb to weep. There, angels appeared to her, but she could not see beyond her tears. Jesus himself came and stood next to her, but she could only imagine him to be the gardener. Only when he spoke her name, “Mary,” did she encounter the risen Christ. Only then was she able to begin to put the pieces together and start to understand what God had done. Quickly, Mary, the first apostle to carry the good news of Easter, went and announced to the disciples that she had seen the Lord, but, as we will hear next Sunday, the disciples still didn’t know how to make sense of her words. The process of learning to believe that God has defeated death takes time. Faith takes time.

This sometimes slow yet always deepening work of faith has been the pursuit of Christians in every generation since. As followers of Jesus, we spend our lives learning how to believe with all our hearts that, in the resurrection, God has already won the victory over death even though that victory does not make us immune to its harsh consequences in this life. With every painful diagnosis, with every fractured relationship, with every loved one lost, we renew the struggle to understand the power of Easter in our lives, and we are not alone in that struggle. 

In the same way, Paul wrote to a Corinthian church that was struggling to make sense of how, if Jesus had been raised from the dead, Christ’s faithful followers were still allowed to die. “All will be made alive in Christ,” Paul explained, “but each in [their] own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. [Only] then comes the end…For [Christ] must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. [And] the last enemy to be destroyed is death.” 

Like them, we wait and watch and hope and yearn for that day when Christ will come and finally destroy that last enemy that plagues us. And yet, because on this day the stone is rolled away and because we see that the tomb is empty, we know that, in the end, death cannot win. In the resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has already delivered our great enemy a fatal blow. And we, who belong to Christ, must now endure the final and furious throes of that mortally wounded beast. Thankfully, we do not endure them alone.

I was moved this week by what Tim Keller, the conservative Presbyterian minister who is battling stage IV pancreatic cancer, said in the New York Times about what his illness has taught him about Easter. Shortly after his diagnosis, Keller realized that his faith would need to become something more than “a mental abstraction.” “I came to realize that the experiential side of my faith really needed to strengthen or I wasn’t going to be able to handle this,” he said. “It’s one thing to believe God loves you, [but] another thing to actually feel his love. It’s one thing to believe he’s present with you. It’s another to actually experience his presence.”

Because of Easter, we experience the presence of God even in our darkest moments—even in our death. As Keller put it, 

If the resurrection of Jesus Christ really happened, then ultimately, God is going to put everything right. Suffering is going to go away. Evil is going to go away. Death is going to go away. Aging is going to go away. Pancreatic cancer is going to go away…I do think that the great thing about cancer is that Easter does mean a whole lot more because I look at Easter and I say, ‘Because of this, I can face anything.’ In the past, I thought of Easter as a kind of optimistic, upbeat way of thinking about life. And now I see that Easter is a universal solvent. It can eat through any fear, any anger and despair. I see it as more powerful than ever before.” [2]

Because of Easter, we can face anything. Because of Easter, we know that God is with us in our ups and in our downs, in our best moments as well as our worst. And we know that not only in our minds but in our hearts and in our guts and in all the lived, embodied experiences of life. As Christians, we are a people who strive toward a reality that we know is already true even though we cannot see it yet. That is our journey of faith. And that journey, which begins here at Easter and which we share with all Christians across the centuries, is how we hold onto hope even in the midst of loss. For us, the power of Easter is neither locked in the past nor hidden away in the future. We carry it with us every day. It is our hope.

[1] Eusebius. Ecclesiastical History, VII.22.

[2] Warren, Trish Harrison. “How a Cancer Diagnosis Makes Jesus’ Death and Resurrection Mean More.” New York Times, 10 April 2022.

Friday, April 15, 2022

No One Else To Blame


April 15, 2022 – Good Friday

© 2022 Evan D. Garner

Video of the service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 30:45.

The ceilings of St. John’s Episcopal Church in downtown Montgomery are painted a rich, vibrant blue. On each magnificent wooden panel is stenciled a giant golden image—either a cross surrounded by a sunburst or a Star of David with “IHS” written in the middle. The images repeat, alternating across the ceiling of the church, unmistakable to any sighted person who walks through the door. But it hasn’t always been that way.

Decades ago, the stencils on the ceiling were hardly recognizable. Before electric lamps were installed throughout the church, worshippers gathered by the light of candles and oil lanterns. Over the years, the black, sooty smoke deposited a thick residue on the ceiling, obscuring its beauty. A costly but successful restoration brought back the brilliance of the ceiling, exposing to the congregation what no one really remembered having been there before. It was like discovering that that piece of art, which has been hanging mostly unnoticed in your living room for decades, is actually a priceless masterpiece. 

I used to walk into that church just to look up at the ceiling. One day, I came upon a man who had walked into the church to do the same thing. He looked at me and asked, “Are you the minister here?” “One of them,” I told him. With a cautious, almost embarrassed tone, he asked, “Is this a…Christian church?” When I told him that, yes, Episcopalians are Christians, he responded, “Well, I see the crosses and all, but, if this is a Christian church, why are all of those Jewish pictures painted across the ceiling?” When I tried to explain to him that Jesus was, in fact, Jewish, he refused to believe me. And, to be honest, if the only story he had ever heard about Jesus was John’s passion narrative, I wouldn’t blame him.

John seems to go out of his way to make sure that we are left with the impression that the Jewish people were responsible for Jesus’ death. But there is no doubt that the One who was crucified was killed under the authority of the Roman Empire using a distinctly Roman form of execution. The Empire reserved the brutality of crucifixion for slaves and seditionists—a warning to its subjects of what it would do to any who dared to challenge its power. But John’s gospel account makes it seem like the only people who actually wanted Jesus to be killed were his Jewish compatriots. Over and over again, to identify the group that begged Pilate to have Jesus killed, John used the Greek word Ἰουδαῖος, properly translated as “Jews.” But, given that Jesus and his followers were just as Jewish as anyone else, we need to push beyond the indiscriminate labels that John used to understand what really happened that day. 

In a very real sense, the Church has always been in the business of telling this story a little carelessly, continually pushing the reality of Good Friday off onto someone else. Initially, it was Judas who became the focus of the Christian community’s anger, and the gospel tradition quickly identified him as the Satan-inspired reason for Jesus’ death. By the time John’s gospel account was written, only sixty or seventy years after these events took place, Christianity had broken away from its Jewish roots, and a rivalry, fueled by the threat of imperial persecution, began to shape the Way of Jesus in anti-Judaic or even anti-Semitic ways. That made it a lot easier for John to use the term “Jews” without having to explain what he meant. And, after that, it was hard to look back. In every generation since, whether during the Crusades or during the Reformation or during the rise of Fascism, Christians have routinely attacked Jewish people, blaming them for what happened to Jesus. Even now, our Jewish siblings know that they are more likely to be assaulted during the Christian Holy Week because of the way our sacred scriptures describe the Passion of our Lord.

More recently, scholars (and preachers) have attempted to recover the ways in which Jesus’ arrest, torture, and execution were the actions not of the Jewish people but of a Gentile state. The sign over the cross—the Titulus—in particular lets us know that Jesus was killed by the Romans for pretending to be a king no matter what spin the gospel stories might have put on the historical record. Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, in their book The Last Week, try to weave together the two strands of blame, showing the ways in which Jesus’ prophetic actions were a threat both to the Roman Empire and to the Jewish authorities whom the Romans had allowed to set up shop in Palestine. I like their synthetic approach and think it probably gets closest to the historical truth, but, even then, it still feels like we’re trying to find a way to blame someone else for what happened to Jesus. What if it wasn’t any of those people? What if the point of Good Friday is to show us that you and I are the ones responsible for Jesus’ death?

The Way of Jesus is the way of salvation, and Jesus—in both life and death—shows us that his way always involves the radical reversal of power in this world. That is the truth to which he came to testify, and it is the truth that neither Pilate nor the Jewish leaders nor you nor I can fully understand. No matter who we are, because we are human, when we are asked to renounce all our power in order to accept the salvation that is presented to us, we balk. We stumble. We fail. And then we look for someone else to blame. That’s why following Jesus always leads to the Cross, the ultimate expression of our failure to let go of our need to be in control of the outcome, to put down our desire to be found on the winning side, to give up our say in who comes out on top. And, whoever has the power to tell the story of who is right and who is wrong will always find a way to push the blame off onto someone else. 

And that is why I need to recognize not only my own complicity but even my willful participation in the death of Jesus. I need to know that my own failures—the very limitations and flaws within my mortal nature—are embodied in the one who hangs upon the cross. I’m not looking for someone else to take my place and suffer God’s wrath in my stead, but I need to know that the tragedy which unfolds on Good Friday belongs not to someone else to me. I need to recognize that I, too, cast my lot in favor of execution or else I will never know that what follows on Easter is meant for me.

We need to hear ourselves within the story of Christ’s death in order to find our place in the miracle of his resurrection. We need to do that not only because the anti-Semitic ways in which this story has been told throughout the centuries are an abomination to the one whom we come to adore this day but also because, as long as we are intent on blaming someone else, we will never know that God’s great reversal of the world is also the reversal of our own failures. Of course, none of us wants to look upon the manifestation of our self-seeking impulses, but that is where true healing starts. If it were up to us, we’d much rather find someone else to blame, but thanks be to God that we don’t need to.

Monday, April 4, 2022

All The Love We Have To Give

April 3, 2022 – The Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year C

© 2022 Evan D. Garner

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

We all know it’s coming. It happens every year. It’s unavoidable. There’s nothing we can do to change it, though perhaps some years we manage to push it off a little bit. All we can do is prepare the best we can and hope to get through it. Somehow, we always do.

I could be talking about taxes, but I’m not. I’m talking about Holy Week. I’m talking about the passion and death of Jesus, which we will encounter again one week from today. (How can it already be a week before Palm Sunday?) We have spent five weeks in Lent getting ready for the triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the fate that we know awaits Jesus there. The lectionary has done a great job of leading us from the temptation in the wilderness into deep conflict with the religious authorities before bringing us today to the last scene in Jesus’ life before he makes his way into the holy city. 

One thing the lectionary omits, however, is just how obvious it was to everyone around him that Jesus was going to die. At the beginning of the previous chapter of John’s gospel account, Jesus learned that his friend Lazarus was sick even to the point of death. When he informed his disciples that they would be going to Judea—closer to the heart of the conflict that had been growing between him and the religious authorities—they responded with words of warning: “Rabbi, [they] were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” When Jesus confirmed his plan to go despite the danger, Thomas remarked, “Then let us also go that we may die with him.” 

When he got to Bethany, as John reminds us at the beginning of today’s gospel lesson, Jesus raised his friend from the dead, giving him back to his sisters, Mary and Martha. But what the lectionary doesn’t include is what the authorities thought about that miracle. At the end of chapter 11, in a passage we never hear in church on a Sunday morning, John tells us that, when many people learned of this miracle and believed in Jesus, the authorities became even more concerned. “What are we to do?” they asked each other. “This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” In their minds, the situation had grown dire. Too many people had begun to think of Jesus as the one who would lead a rebellion against the Romans, seeking to restore the kingdom to God’s people. Such a rebellion was all but certain to fail, and the brutal Empire would surely respond by eliminating anyone in a position of authority.

“From that day on,” John tells us, “they planned to put him to death.” Jesus knew he was in trouble. He knew better than to hang out in Bethany, where they would find him, so he and his disciples snuck off to a town called Ephraim, on the edge of the wilderness, where he could hide…until today—until the Passover drew near and Jesus recognized that his time had come. At the start of today’s gospel lesson, Jesus decided to head back to Bethany, back to his friends’ house, back into the lion’s den, where the authorities were certain to find him and arrest him and kill him. 

In a very real way, therefore, the reality of Holy Week was as clear to Jesus and his friends as it is to us. There was no doubt in their minds what would happen next. The only question to ask is how we are supposed to get ready for the death we know is coming—the death that there is nothing we can do to stop. And, in today’s story, we see two very different responses to that reality—one of Judas and one of Mary.

“Why wasn’t this perfume sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” Judas asked. Isn’t that a good question? Shouldn’t we ask that question of ourselves every time we gather in this beautiful space and hold up our sterling silver Communion vessels in remembrance of Jesus? John tries to let us off the hook by telling us that Judas was a thief and only asked that question because he wanted the funds to be put into the common purse, where he could skim off the top, but that doesn’t change the value of the question. Whether asked in deception or without an ulterior motive, shouldn’t we also ask why that perfume worth three hundred denarii—an entire year’s wages for a laborer—belonged instead on Jesus’ feet? 

Although he may have been a thief, Judas’ question sounds like the sort of logical, rational, intellectual response of a disciple who knew that his master would soon be dead. He recognized in economic terms the pointless waste of the costly perfume on the feet of a leader whose movement was careening toward its end. Perhaps such a lavish display would make sense at a coronation, if Jesus were to be crowned the Davidic king, but Judas knew that there would be no happy ending. Although his master had a strong following among the common people, without the support of the religious and political elites, his movement was doomed to fail.

Mary, on the other hand, was already acquainted with the sting of death. When Jesus finally arrived in Bethany after her brother Lazarus had already succumbed to his illness, she came to him and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” And yet, in a way that defied all expectations, Jesus called the dead man out of the tomb and gave him back to his sisters. Like the disciples, Mary knew that Jesus’ conflict with the authorities would end in death, but she responded with a devotion that transcended logic and understanding. She poured that precious perfume upon his feet and wiped them with her hair, lovingly and intimately preparing his body for the death and burial that awaited. For Mary, the only possible response to the expected death of Jesus was to give him all the love she had to give.

Every year, we encounter again the passion and death of Jesus. We know the story, and we know well how it will end. But each time we come again to this moment we must decide how we will prepare for what awaits. For many of us, the logical calculus represented by Judas’ question comes naturally. We want to understand why it had to happen this way and what sort of value is conveyed in the brutal death of the one whom God has sent. But the fullness of Jesus’ self-offering for the sake of the world cannot fit into our rational comprehension. Our intellectualism alone will never make enough room to receive the death that gives life to the world.

In order to find our place within this saving drama, we must, like Mary, respond with unwavering devotion. We must pour upon our savior’s feet the perfume of our unceasing prayers and wipe them with our constant attention. Our part in all of this is to walk beside Jesus and pray with him and sit with him and weep with him every step of the way. By the time we come to church next Sunday, it will be time for us to embark on this journey of devotion. So clear your calendar and get yourself ready. We know that, soon, Jesus will be handed over to the authorities and killed. And there’s only one thing for us to do. We must give him all the love we have to give.