Sunday, March 26, 2017

Anointed



sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Associate Priest for Adult Formation

David Anointed by Samuel, Dura Synagogue, Syria
(3rd century C.E.) Wikimedia Commons
Have you ever been anointed?

David was anointed king many years before he was crowned. The prophet Samuel came to Jesse’s house, where young David was the eighth son, a spare, an afterthought, the one keeping the sheep while the older boys were being considered for greater things. Yet God called David to be king over Israel. He was a fresh, bright, talented upstart, a little too handsome for his own good. David was a thorn in the side of King Saul for years before finally deposing him.

David was obviously flawed, a sinner many times over, a poet who gave voice to his passionate, tumultuous relationship with God. David went down as Israel’s greatest king not because of his virtue, but because he kept coming back to the one who was his shepherd, who made him and set him on the throne. David was anointed, and his son Solomon was anointed, and his descendants were anointed kings of two Jewish kingdoms until the Assyrians and Babylonians carved up the land. But God loved the people so much that he promised through the prophets that Israel would someday have a descendant of David on the throne again.

What would that look like? Well, obviously, some new bright young upstart would come along to lead a revolution and throw off the chains of the Jewish people’s oppressors. There would be a Jewish kingdom on earth again. What else could it look like to have a descendant of David on the throne? And so the people waited for the new Anointed One, the new Messiah.

When we think we see clearly, it’s hard to imagine any other way of seeing. But we’ve been warned: God does not see as mortals see. God did not choose Jesse’s oldest son, but his eighth. God passed right over the perfect number of seven and kept going into new territory. When we think we see clearly what must happen, it might behoove us to be skeptical.

Faces of Easter Image 5
(Godly Play Resources)
Centuries later, another anointing did occur. A remarkable young upstart did appear, in Galilee. This Jesus of Nazareth turned water into wine. He cured a young boy’s fever. He caused a paralytic to walk. He fed 5000 people with five loaves and two fish. He walked on water. And then, for a sixth sign, he anointed a man who had been blind since birth. He anointed him not with oil, but with saliva and mud applied to the eyes for the purpose of healing. He sent the man as an apostle is sent, sent him to wash the mud from his eyes. And then this newly anointed, newly sent apostle could see more clearly than any of the others around him.

This wasn’t in the script. Worse yet, this took place on the seventh day, the Sabbath, the perfect day that completes God’s perfect week. This was the day when the people rested. They did not go around giving sight to the blind. It just wasn’t done. Come to think of it, it had never been done.

Have you ever been anointed? When Jesus anoints you, don’t expect to be honored and placed on a throne. Life will probably get much more difficult. And don’t expect it to be clean: your anointing is likely to be full of spit and dirt. Oil smells good, and oil is for royalty, and we are anointed with oil at our baptism. But you can’t get too deep into a body of water without churning up some mud. After all, God got down in the mud to make the first human being. And God came to us as Jesus, allowing himself to get mired in the everyday concerns of our bodily lives.

Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams writes:

You might expect to find Christian people near to those places where humanity is most at risk … being baptized is being led towards the chaos and the neediness of a humanity that has forgotten its own destiny … You might also expect the baptized Christian to be … in touch with the chaos in his or her own life—because we all of us live not just with a chaos outside ourselves but with quite a lot of inhumanity and muddle inside us. A baptized Christian ought to be somebody who is not afraid of looking with honesty at that chaos inside, as well as being where humanity is at risk, outside.[1]

So anointing is messy business. But when you wash the mud from your eyes, you’ll see much more clearly. Jesus anoints this man, opens his eyes, and sends him to open the eyes of others. He gives the blind man a clarity of purpose, of vision, that those in positions of power cannot afford to see. They have their script, and neither this formerly blind man nor Jesus is following it. Where is the war leader, the military figure who will lead the people to bloody revolution on any day except Saturday? You won’t find him in the person of Jesus.

It is to this disappointment, that of a failed Messiah, that parts of our gospel passage today refer—and also to the disappointment of being expelled. The gospel writer tells us that the man’s parents are afraid of being expelled from the synagogue. But this is an anachronism. Synagogues were local worship houses for small communities of Jews. There were no synagogues in Jerusalem—not at this time, not while there was a temple. This reference comes from later times, perhaps around the year 100 when this gospel was written. The temple had been destroyed several decades before. The Jewish people were trying to figure out how to reemerge as a people faithful to God. Jesus’ followers would jeopardize the continuing viability of Judaism, so these Christians could not be called Jews. The original hearers of this gospel would have understood the anachronistic reference, because they were still stinging from being excluded.

An incredible amount of suffering has resulted from
misreadings of the gospel writers' accusations against "the Jews."
(Image: Persecuted Jews, 13th century) Wikimedia Commons
Never forget that Christianity is not against Judaism, but a branch extending from it. The blind man’s parents are “afraid of the Jews”? Nonsense: they themselves are Jewish. So is everybody else in this story. So whenever you hear “the Jews,” you might substitute “the Jewish authorities,” or, “those of God’s chosen people who thought they knew the script.” Better yet, substitute, “You and me and all of us, because we usually think we know better than God, too.” We’ll see this play out very clearly when we get to Holy Week, when the tide turns against Jesus.

So as I was saying, Jesus of Nazareth turned water into wine. He cured a young boy’s fever. He caused a paralytic to walk. He fed 5000 people. He walked on water. For a sixth sign, he anointed a man who had been blind since birth. And for a seventh, as we will hear next week, he raised his friend Lazarus from the dead. Seven miracles: a Jewish number of perfection. But that’s not all. At the conclusion of John’s gospel, we read: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

These seven signs are given to help us arrive at fullness and perfection. But when we think we see clearly what must happen, it might behoove us to be skeptical. God didn’t stop at the perfect number of seven but kept going into new territory—past the seventh son, past the seventh miracle, past the seventh day of Sabbath and into an eighth day of new creation. On Monday of Holy Week, we’ll hear how Lazarus’ sister Mary anointed Jesus’ body for burial. She did it while he was still alive, and she spent a fortune on it. Six days later the women will go to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ dead body—on the eighth day—but it will not be there.

We are Christians, and this is our story. We are always telling the story, but Lent is the time we tell the guts of the story. Don’t pay it polite attention and then not let it transform you. Did Jesus literally heal a man born blind? Good question, but apply a new lens and catch more light: is Jesus healing you?

Did Jesus literally raise Lazarus from the dead? Good question, but apply a new lens and catch more light: is Jesus raising you to new life, right here, right now? If you’re not sure, then dare to believe it and see what happens. These stories are written down “so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

Like the blind man, you were born so that God’s works might be revealed in you. In your baptism, you are anointed as a new kind of royalty, a spiritual descendant of David, a new kind of monarch who serves others instead of ruling over them. You are anointed for healing, sometimes surprisingly quick healing, but oftentimes painstaking and slow as you come to see new realities in a larger world and wash the mud from your eyes. You are anointed and sent as an apostle to spread Good News. And you are anointed for burial, for though the death of your body is imminent, God is already raising you into new life.

Is this poetic? Sure. Is it literal? It’s beyond that: it’s supra-literal. This is the stuff of a world that includes our “real world,” denies none of it, yet is even more real, a world that includes all the everyday stuff of our lives but applies a new lens to it so we can catch new light—the light of Christ who has come into the world.  The darkness can never overcome this light. Jesus comes to make us what he is—a priest anointed to approach holy things, a prophet anointed to bring a message, a king anointed to serve. Can you see it from where you are? Step into the water and accept your baptism. Ask to be healed and accept the mud applied to your eyes. Step into the light and accept your anointing, and then go and tell others. Amen.



[1] Rowan Williams, Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014).

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Lent Is an Imposition



Do you resist Lent? Do you see it as an imposition upon your routine? During Lent we are presented with opportunities to engage in self-examination, repentance, fasting, and service. If you take on a Lenten discipline, will you come to resent it? If you don’t, will you feel guilty?

For three Saturdays in a row, St. Paul’s hosted a series called Islam 101. With over 180 people present each week, we learned about the history and basic tenets of Islam and got to know a few Muslim neighbors in Whatcom County. The Muslim emphasis on practice impresses me. To follow the five pillars of Islam means speaking the Muslim confession of faith, praying five times daily, giving alms, fasting during Ramadan, and making pilgrimage to Mecca at least once if possible. Anyone who does these things is a Muslim.

But Christians, at least those in the circles I run in, don’t have any absolutely required practices. As the historical “shoulds” begin to fade from our decreasingly Christian-dominant culture, it seems that we mark our Christian identity by things that we think in their heads and believe in our hearts, whether they affect our daily behavior or not. This is not the church the apostles envisioned.

I want to suggest that Lent is, indeed, an imposition. We mark it strongly on Ash Wednesday with the imposition of ashes on our foreheads. The season of Lent beckons to us urgently, whispering, “Life is short. How are you spending yours?” We don’t believe that the purpose of life is to ensure a trip to heaven. Rather, our life is the time God has given us to learn how to love. We cannot do this merely in our heads—or even merely in our hearts, since love is not a feeling but a way of life. We can only love in relationship with each other.

This year, allow Lent to impose itself on you. Seek after God through prayer and self-denial. This might mean changing your routine or adjusting your priorities. You can commit to weekly church attendance and daily prayer, to acts of charity and occasions for learning. You can engage in self-examination, in prayer, in journaling, and in intentional humility. You can commit to full participation in the services of Holy Week. If fasting is something you are capable of, give it a try, especially on Good Friday. Make a practice of service by giving of your money, time, or talent.

But understand that feelings of unworthiness, of not being “good enough,” do not come from God. As Augustine of Hippo put it, “Our hearts are restless until they find rest in you.” An invitation to deeper practice is just that—an invitation. Failure to live up to a practice does not mean we have let God down. Rather, it is a chance to accept the invitation again, always with the assurance that God loves you infinitely and will never give up on you. Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and not through any act of your own, God has made you worthy of salvation. How will you live out that immensely good news? And how will you share it this Lent?

Monday, February 13, 2017

Raising the Bar



sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Associate Priest for Adult Formation

I want you all to think back to when you were kids. What if you heard your parents say this? “You know, you probably shouldn’t run out into the street when there’s a car coming. You might get a little bit hurt. And that hot stove? I wouldn’t recommend touching it without a potholder. Your call, really, but it’s just a suggestion.” What if your parents had said that?

Now let’s imagine something different. What if your parents had said, “Here’s a list of 613 rules for you to follow. You have to keep every one of them, and never, ever break one, even by accident. If you do break one, you’d better apologize right away, because if you don’t, you’ll be grounded for the rest of your life.”

Which kind of parent would you prefer? Which kind of parent is God more like?

What if God were more like the permissive parent, setting the bar really low? What if God said, “Well, here are some commandments. But they’re more like suggestions, really. Do try to keep them. But if you don’t, well, no big deal. I’ll forgive you”? I think most of us live our lives as if God were kind of like that. But a quick glance at today’s readings tells us something very different, and more than a little alarming!

Look, first, at the impossible standard set by today’s psalm: “Happy are they whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord … who never do any wrong, but always walk in his ways.” Who are these people? Well, it may be helpful to know that Psalm 119 is a long acrostic poem: 22 stanzas, each of which contains eight verses, each beginning with one of the 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet. This first stanza contains the most basic theology, because in ancient times it may have been the first one children were taught as a means of learning written language. So the audience is children, the law of the Lord is the school subject, and living blamelessly fulfills the learning rubric.

Psalm 119 points to the Law of Moses: that is, the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. In Jesus’ time, the scribes interpreted the Bible like constitutional lawyers, and the priests managed procedures for making restitution when laws were broken. But at the center was a basic understanding, which we heard just now from the apocryphal Book of Sirach: “If you choose, you can keep the commandments.” God is good, and God’s Law shows us how to be good. We have free will, so let’s choose to be good like God. Easy, right?

Under a systematic, codified approach, people of relative privilege like the Pharisees could keep most of the rules most of the time. Some rules about purity were inevitably breached periodically, and then there would be certain animal sacrifices, so that citizens could be accepted back into the community. But the poorest of all couldn’t afford the sacrifices, which placed them forever outside the community of God’s people. And those with physical disabilities like blindness, or with chronic diseases like leprosy, were caught in the same trap, with no recourse. These were left behind, shut out, kept from the promised benefits of society. We have such people today as well, don’t we?

Jesus loved the Law and the Temple, but he also saw that the system had become abusive, focused more on correctness than on mercy … and this made him angry. We might expect Jesus to say, “You know all those rules that the Pharisees use to oppress the poor? They don’t matter at all! Break them. Make your own rules. Just be groovy and love each other—that’s all God wants.” We often think of Jesus’ message as being rather like this, because he did break some of the rules repeatedly—I’m thinking especially of the Sabbath, and of purity codes regarding women and people with diseases. But instead, in this excerpt from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says something like this:

“Of course murder is against the law, but is it so hard not to commit murder? I say that even if you are angry with someone, you might as well have killed the person! If you say, ‘You idiot,’ you deserve to be thrown on the garbage heap! Adultery is wrong, but if you even fantasize about it, then you’ve already done it! So if your eye wanders into lust, pluck it out! If your hand wants to strike someone, cut it off!” Jesus certainly has our attention, but now he sounds rather like the God of 613 laws. Now what do we do?

Well, let me ask if you this in all honesty: Have you ever broken a law? Ever gone four miles over the speed limit? Ever downloaded digital content that you didn’t pay for? Ever lied to cover your tracks? Ever stretched the definition of what the money was earmarked for? Ever backstabbed a friend? Ever promised to do something and then didn’t? Show of hands for any or all of the above?

Want a good series of books about how difficult it is
to be a moral person? Read A Series of Unfortunate Events.
Source: Flickr
Not all of these things are directly comparable, of course, but what’s clear is that we’re all in the same sinking ship. We don’t typically teach this to kids right off the bat. But in his book The End, children’s author Lemony Snicket writes, “It is very difficult to make one’s way in this world without being wicked at one point or another, when the world’s way is so wicked to begin with.”

I think of Jean Valjean, the protagonist in Les Miserables, who steals a loaf of bread to feed his starving family, gets caught, and winds up serving 19 years on the chain gang. Immediately upon his release, out of desperation, he steals again, this time from a bishop. And then that bishop shows Jean Valjean both mercy and grace, and in so doing, he changes a criminal into a saint.

We teach our children to follow rules, and well we should. But I hope we don’t stop there. As they get older, hopefully we teach them that there are many kinds of rules, and that some are more important than others, and that some are enforced more rigidly than others, and that some change over time, and that some rules conflict with each other, and that some people live in situations that make certain laws very difficult not to break, and that there have been times in history, even in our own country, when our laws were so bad that those of good conscience absolutely had to break them!

All of this must follow, yes. But first, we teach children that law and order is important. Jesus isn’t throwing away this basic truth. God has standards. The thing is, it seems that God’s standards are way too high for us to live up to. And ironically, sometimes the mere presence of rules can make us prone to breaking them. “See this delicious-looking fruit? Don’t eat it!”

Paul writes extensively about this in the Letter to the Romans: if law and order could save us, it would have done so a long time ago. God has given us free will because love must be chosen freely. You’ve heard it said, “You can’t legislate morality,” right? It’s true: no rule can force us to love God, and no rule can force us to show mercy and compassion to others.

When we encounter people living outside the bounds of society’s laws or of our interpretation of God’s laws, how do we treat them? Are we eager to learn why a person has broken a rule? Do we know if they had a choice? If so, do we have a full understanding of the factors that went into that choice? Do we know what might drive people to make different decisions than we ourselves would make? Can we understand why another person might prioritize the rules differently than we would? Only when we seek that depth of understanding can justice be tempered by and strengthened through mercy and grace.

Truly, as Jesus did make clear on other occasions, the only law is love, and all other good laws, whether religious or civil, can teach us how to tackle the one law. So what does God expect of us, really?

Thomas Powers, onetime contributing editor to the Atlantic Monthly, told this story many years ago: “The composer [Igor] Stravinsky had written a new piece with a difficult violin passage. After it had been in rehearsal for several weeks, the solo violinist came to Stravinsky and said he was sorry, he had tried his best, the passage was too difficult, no violinist could play it. Stravinsky said, ‘I understand that. What I am after is the sound of someone trying to play it.’”

God doesn’t expect perfection, but sincerity and true repentance. Following the Law is all well and good. But trying to follow the Law and failing? Sometimes, with God’s help, that can be even better. Our inevitable failure to follow the Law is steeped in God’s grace. God cares more about how much we care than about how lawful we are.

Jesus knew the Law of Moses inside and out, and he loved it and lived by it. He didn’t abolish it; he refocused it on love, and in so doing, Jesus held a mirror up to all his people, whether or not they believed themselves to be sinners. Jesus raised the bar so high that none of us can ever jump it! And that’s good news, because it means we can let go of perfectionistic judgment. It means we don’t have to be afraid anymore. We can use the rules to grow! And once perfectionists like me get that into our thick skulls, God can finally, really get to work in our lives.

So don’t avoid hell by keeping the rules more stringently. Rather, embrace heaven by trusting in God’s love more deeply. And when you fail—and you will, again and again—be gentle with yourself, and be gentle with others. Sometimes we just mess up, and then we need both justice and mercy. Sometimes we commit great acts of evil and need God’s justice and mercy all the more. But sometimes we break rules because we didn’t see any other way forward, and then we need grace from God and, more tangibly, from each other. You have your own stories; learn the stories of rulebreakers you don’t understand.

“If you choose, you can keep the commandments.” God gives the growth. Trust that you will grow, and that the people you love will grow, and that your enemies will grow. With God in charge, growth is inevitable. It’s in the tough, heartbreaking work of trying and failing and growing and trying again that life becomes joyful, love becomes real, and the Kingdom of God comes more clearly into view. Amen.