Sunday, November 11, 2018

Symbols of Power and Trust


sermon preached at Church of the Good Shepherd, Federal Way, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Rector
The Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 27B), November 11, 2018

It was early morning before my drive to Federal Way. I stopped off at the White Center Library and dropped Christy’s and my ballots into a gigantic metal box. I couldn’t hear a sound as they landed. I jiggled the handle to make sure they weren’t stuck. My work was done … and it felt like so little. It was all I had to give to my country that day.
Two little ballots. A handful of meal in a jar. A little water. A little oil in a jug. A couple of sticks. Two small copper coins. Our gifts are symbolic, and sometimes they feel merely symbolic. How do we use the power we have? And can we trust God to use it well?

A symbol is a tool for human communication, a shorthand. It is something that stands not only for itself but also for something greater than itself, and so it communicates and mediates the thing to which it points. A ballot, for example, casts a vote, but it is also a symbol of our power to change the context in which we spend our lives.
Meal, oil, and water come together to make cakes in this case they symbolize the meager final meal for a poor widow and her son. Two small copper coins symbolize a poor widow’s trust in the religious system to mediate her relationship with the God who created her.

We also have two other symbols that we only place here occasionally. What does our nation’s flag represent? It depends on whom you ask. My love for my country is conditional on its behavior: how much does America look like God’s dream for our lives? So the flag might symbolize what our country is right now, including the ways it has always fallen short and continues to do so. Or it might symbolize what we wish our country might become, in which case we fly the flag in the hope that someday we’ll get there. Veterans are those who have put their lives on the line, being willing even to use violence and to risk the resulting spiritual damage to defend people’s lives for the sake of this symbol and the hoped-for reality to which it points.

But for others, this symbol of a flag understandably rings hollow, because they have never seen the fruit of that hope. For some, this symbol speaks of empire, oppression, slavery, genocide, false promises, financial opportunism for the few causing chronic poverty for the many … all the worst effects of our American experiment. Their experience is real, too, and it’s only out of unearned privilege that any of us can pretend not to see these experiences or choose not to honor them.


And then there’s the other flag, that of the Episcopal Church. As a lifelong Episcopalian, I am reminded when I see it of the church I have grown up in all my life, and of all the people who have nurtured me in the Christian faith. For me it’s a much less loaded symbol than the United States flag is. Yet if I spend some time with it, I see within it the colors and the symbols of Great Britain. Ours is a colonial church: it is only because of the British Empire that you can find Anglicans in dozens of countries around the globe, including the U.S. When we spread our church, we also spread our culture, mostly unthinkingly. And that’s a topic for another time—but this symbol is complicated, once we decide to notice.

In other words, symbols are complicated things, and they don’t always mean the same thing to everyone. We place flags in our worship space today with the intention of honoring their best connotations, but we must never forget their worst and work to keep changing those. A trustworthy church is one that offers critique to the state: How well does our nation promote the love of our neighbors as ourselves? Whenever it falls short, we Christians must speak out. And so we vote, and we call and write our elected officials, and we protest. We get involved in the world because we are trying to reveal God’s Kingdom to the world. We use our power to build trustworthy institutions on behalf of those with less power.

Our readings today focus especially on questions of power and trust. When the widow of Zarepath receives Elijah into her home, she is receiving a member of the powerful prophet class, but he is now on the run from his own government, a refugee in a neighboring land. He has just come from forty days in the desert, where angels fed and waited on him. Elijah may be just as hungry and she and her son are. So when the prophet asks the widow to feed him first, it is not an unreasonable demand, but a dare against despair: “I dare you to feed me first, because I know that even on the brink of starvation, you trust God to care for you.”

Similarly, the widow in today’s Gospel reading gives all that she has: two coins, given in trust to the religious establishment. Jesus points out that no matter how little we have, we still have enough to be generous. He honors the gift even as he calls into question whether the establishment can be trusted.

Meanwhile, the rich are giving many large gifts. Jesus doesn’t criticize the wealthy for giving, but neither does he comment on them at all; he only raises up the gift of the poor woman. The gifts of the wealthy are simply expected: together the people pool their money and care for each other. This is how it’s supposed to work, and so it needs no commentary.

Instead, Jesus calls out the scribes, the authoritative religious scholars who interpret God’s law. He accuses them of abusing and impoverishing widows still further! And then here comes this widow to give all her money into the care of these same authorities. It reminds me of stories of people who give all their money to some televangelist, going deeply into debt because they have been manipulated to do so.

Jesus’ relationship with the temple was complicated. He certainly did not stand against the Jewish temple system wholesale. Jesus was a devout Jew who knew that the system could do good but often failed. He was no more anti-Jewish than a protester is un-American. It was for love of God and for love of his people that Jesus called out the injustice of the powerful. He did not want the widow’s coins hoarded by self-important, swaggering leaders who took all criticism as an attack. These, of course, were the people who would eventually collude with the Romans to have Jesus sent to the cross.

Symbols, by their nature, engage us in such conversations about power and trust. In this story, the powerful give a chunk of their money away as a matter of course, and good for them. But they don’t have to stop and think very hard about how it will be used, because there’s more where that came from. The system, as it stands, has served them well, so why question it or challenge it?

The poor widow, on the other hand, has invested all her trust. She gives all that she has, because who knows? Someone else may yet need it more than she does. Jesus doesn’t judge whether the widow’s gift is wise or foolish. He just names it as the largest gift of all.

So here I stand before you all in a long robe, a religious scholar and interpreter of Scripture. Based on today’s Gospel reading, you have every reason not to trust me. And I don’t demand your trust. You have given me this pulpit, and I’m doing my best not to abuse it. But call me out when I do, OK?

We have all these symbols to consider: flags, ballots, robes, coins, bread and wine and water, the offerings we give today, and next week, our pledge cards, which symbolize our trust in God—and our trust in the church to use our gifts well. I will not tell you where to place your limits on giving. I just encourage you to give, to make a specific pledge in faith rather than merely saying, “I’ll give some when I have some.” Pledging our money is a spiritual practice, and practiced givers can tell you how transformational it can become.

Just remember that the gift you pledge is not merely to keep the lights on at Good Shepherd, though it will help do so. Your pledge is a symbol of the sweat of your brow given back to God. It is a symbol of your trust: trust in the institution of the church to whatever degree you can muster that, but more broadly, trust in God to act both inside and outside of the church, to act in both our wise and our foolish decisions, to act for the sake of redeeming everything and everyone.

We are dealing with many symbols today, but there is one more still: a symbol bigger than any other in this room, far more important than any nation’s flag or any amount of money. The cross incorporates and redeems all these other symbols.

So as the psalmist urges, “put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of earth.” Put not your trust in political parties and national borders, for the one who gave his life transgresses all such categories. Put not your trust in flags, for the one who gave his life protects you in every situation. Put not your trust in coins, for the one who gave his life stands on the side of the poor over against the powerful. Put your trust in the transforming power of generous, self-giving love, a love that gives justice to the oppressed and food to the hungry, a love that cares for the stranger, the orphan and widow—a love that frustrates the way of the wicked.

Stand on the side of love and place your trust in love. And may the symbols you offer for the sake of love not only point to the One who is greater but also help show God’s Kingdom to be present all around us. Amen.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Unbinding


sermon preached at Church of the Good Shepherd, Federal Way, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Rector
The Feast of All Saints [transferred], November 4, 2018

There were once three brothers who were traveling along a lonely, winding road at twilight. In time, the brothers reached a river too deep to wade through and too dangerous to swim across. However, these brothers were learned in the magical arts, and so they simply waved their wands and made a bridge appear across the treacherous water. They were halfway across it when they found their path blocked by a hooded figure.

And Death spoke to them. He was angry that he had been cheated out of three new victims, for travelers usually drowned in the river. But Death was cunning. He pretended to congratulate the three brothers upon their magic, and said that each had earned a prize for having been clever enough to evade him.

So the oldest brother, who was a combative man, asked for a wand more powerful than any in existence: a wand that must always win duels for its owner, a wand worthy of a wizard who had conquered Death! So Death crossed to an elder tree on the banks of the river, fashioned a wand from a branch that hung there, and gave it to the oldest brother.

Then the second brother, who was an arrogant man, decided that he wanted to humiliate Death still further, and asked for the power to recall others from Death. So Death picked up a stone from the riverbank and gave it to the second brother, and told him that the stone would have the power to bring back the dead.

And then Death asked the third and youngest brother what he would like. The youngest brother was the humblest and also the wisest of the brothers, and he did not trust Death. So he asked for something that would enable him to go forth from that place without being followed by Death. And Death, most unwillingly, handed over his own Cloak of Invisibility.

Then Death stood aside and allowed the three brothers to continue on their way, and they did so, talking with wonder of the adventure they had had, and admiring Death’s gifts.

In due course the brothers separated, each for his own destination.

The first brother traveled on for a week or more, and reaching a distant village, sought out a fellow wizard with whom he had a quarrel. Naturally, with the Elder Wand as his weapon, he could not fail to win the duel that followed. Leaving his enemy dead upon the floor, the oldest brother proceeded to an inn, where he boasted loudly of the powerful wand he had snatched from Death himself, and of how it made him invincible.

That very night, another wizard crept upon the oldest brother as he lay, wine-sodden, upon his bed. The thief took the wand and, for good measure, slit the oldest brother’s throat. And so Death took the first brother for his own.

Meanwhile, the second brother journeyed to his own home, where he lived alone. Here he took out the stone that had the power to recall the dead, and turned it thrice in his hand. To his amazement and his delight, the figure of the girl he had once hoped to marry, before her untimely death, appeared at once before him.

Yet she was sad and cold, separated from him as by a veil. Though she had returned to the mortal world, she did not truly belong there and suffered. Finally the second brother, driven mad with hopeless longing, killed himself so as truly to join her.

And so Death took the second brother for his own.

But though Death searched for the third brother for many years, he was never able to find him. It was only when he had attained a great age that the youngest brother finally took off the Cloak of Invisibility and gave it to his son. And then he greeted Death as an old friend, and went with him gladly, and, equals, they departed this life.

Does anyone know where this story comes from? That’s right: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I was thinking about this parable of the Three Brothers this week. In it, death seems like an enemy at first but becomes a friend. So I wondered, “Should Christians regard death as an enemy, or as a friend?”

Almost uniformly, the biblical writers viewed death as an enemy. In Jesus’ time and certainly beforehand, the majority opinion among Jews was that death is simply death, with nothing afterward. To be sure, God had authority over death, and the prophet Isaiah spoke of a time when God would “swallow up death forever.” He didn’t say it would happen at a specific point in the future—he didn’t even really think in those terms. Rather, Isaiah’s prophetic concern was that God, the giver of divine justice and mercy, must surely destroy the shroud of death and wipe away everybody’s tears.

Over time, a new idea began to form that when the Messiah came, the dead would be raised. The raising of Lazarus is a foretaste of that story of Resurrection—a dead man walking out of his own tomb after four days of decomposition, to hear Jesus say, “Unbind him, and let him go.” The story tells us that Jesus is our Resurrection and Life even in the presence of the enemy who comes to steal our breath, our spirit, our ruach away.

Paul, also, treats death as evil when he writes to the Corinthians: “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” This quote from the Bible appears on the gravestone of Harry Potter’s parents, James and Lily. And it leads Harry to wonder whether the evil ones in his story, the Death Eaters—the ones who make it their mission in life to avoid death at all costs—whether they might actually be in the right. How can death be a friend? And so Harry Potter, with the Apostle Paul, most of the other people in the Bible, and most of us, recoils from death and cannot imagine shaking his hand.

Yet I want to propose that while we may never see death as a friend, we can choose whether to view death as an enemy, or as an adversary.

How does an adversary differ from an enemy? An enemy only wants to destroy us. But an adversary is one we contend with and work against, whether or not we should. Indeed, when Jesus calls me to do something, and I run in the opposite direction, I have made Jesus my adversary! But this does not make Jesus my enemy.

An enemy only wants to destroy us. But what if death doesn’t destroy us at all? What if God created death in the first place, and only our fear of death is the enemy?

Most Christians will tell you they believe that when we die, we go to heaven. I do, too. But there’s a bigger story here: Jesus is the Resurrection right here, right now. C. S. Lewis once said, “Die before you die. There is no chance after.” Once we have taken our final breath, we will never die again. But did we prepare ourselves? How do we let go of our fear of the death that none of us can escape?

What if death is less of an ending and more of a difficult transition, on the other side of which we can look back and say, “Oh, is that all that was”?

What if death is something we can practice and prepare for?

What if preparation for our death is a project of unbinding?

It seems to me that this is how Jesus dealt with death. For a time, early in his ministry, he managed to avoid it. He prevented people from throwing him off a cliff, for instance, and this gave Jesus more time to live his life and fulfill his mission. But then something changed. Jesus knew that the cross awaited him. In John’s gospel, the raising of Lazarus was the trigger for Jesus’ arrest. And so Jesus walked right into death.

In the Harry Potter parable, the first brother couldn’t let go of his need for power and control. But Jesus didn’t conquer death through force. He didn’t seek a military revolution and a throne. So Jesus is not like the first brother.

The second brother’s situation is more complicated, and he may seem like Jesus at first because he brings someone back from the dead. But he couldn’t let go of his fear of death and clung desperately to a past that was not his to claim. Jesus, however, at his friend’s tomb, didn’t conquer death through denial; everyone knew Lazarus would someday die again. Jesus only sought to give comfort and a sign of hope to those who fear death. So Jesus is not like the second brother, either.

Instead, Jesus conquered death by dying. He put on the cloak of humanity, the cloak that makes us all invisible to death for a time. But when the right moment came, Jesus unbound the clasp of his cloak and, without resisting, allowed death to take him. As Andrew Lloyd Webber once put it: “To conquer death, you only have to die.”

I hope that when my death comes, I can do it like Jesus did: not fighting it, not fearing it, but simply enduring it. This is a mark of the saints of God, and becoming one of the saints takes practice. So I keep practicing. I practice by letting go of little things I don’t need: my foolish pride and control-freakishness … my entitlement and arrogance … my rage and fear of the future … and ten percent of my salary! I let these things go. Each letting go is a practice run at death. And as I practice, I find the Resurrected Christ right here with me, offering surprising little resurrections.
 
“The home of God is among mortals!” Perhaps this quote from the revelation to John is the most Christian statement we can make. God would rather hang out with those who die. Because of this, the dead are those who have endured the great ordeal and are still, like all of us, held eternally in God’s embrace. But they are also those who have gone on ahead of us. And we practice for our own death when we learn to unbind them … and let them go. Amen.