Thursday, April 20, 2017

Matter and Energy



homily preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Associate Priest for Adult Formation
Thursday, April 20, 2017

What is our beginning? What is our end? We think we know: conception and birth on the one hand and death and decay on the other. Between those two mileposts, we live and move and have our being.

That’s the scientific view. But those of us raised in the church were told as children that death and decay are not the end: that beyond the grave is a new and spiritual life. Well, they probably didn’t put it to us this way at first. Instead, they told us, “When we die, we go to heaven.” There may also have been a qualifier: “If you’ve been good. If not, well, you go to other place, the place with a name you’re not allowed to say.” (It was bad theology to use the threat of hell to make children behave, but that’s a sermon for another day.)

At first it was easy to believe it would happen just like this: when we died, we would be magically transported to a new place. Then at some point we learned that dead bodies rot away. Now we needed another explanation: where in reality is the one who has died? And so we learned to separate body from spirit, and to see spirit as better than body because it would not decay. If we grew up with any sort of shame about our bodies, sexual or otherwise, this division may have become much more pronounced, and it may have served as some sort of cold comfort.

It is at this point that our understanding of death and eternal life began to diverge from the witness of the gospel writers. Why do I say it happened at this point? Because the resurrected Christ is not a ghost.

In the earliest years of the Church, the fish became a symbol
for identifying fellow Christians. The Greek word "ichthus,"
for fish, is an acrostic for "Iesous Christos,
Theou Huios, Soter" ("Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior").
Fish also serves as the first meal for the Resurrected Christ.

We admit to this every Sunday in the Nicene Creed: “We believe in the resurrection of the body.” Do we? We say we do, but have we been properly grounded in what this might mean? When Jesus returns, not only is he in a physical body, but he’s hungry from the work of resurrecting! This story follows right on the heels of the story of the Road to Emmaus, in which two disciples walk with the resurrected Christ for seven miles without recognizing him: only when he breaks bread and gives it to them does his presence become clear. So Jesus is walking and eating just like they do, but in addition, there is a strange new quality to his body.

This may be puzzling to those of us who fully adopted a spirit-versus-matter dualism while we were still children. We had thought that our bodies were just something we had: a great tool at best, but not really “ourselves.” We can bite off our fingernails or even lose limbs and not lose any part of who we really are, right? We know from science that the body that was small enough to be born is not in any way the same body that moves and creaks painfully in our elder years. All the cells have replaced themselves many times over. So our bodies can’t really be all that central to who we are. Or are they?

Lately I’ve begun to think of myself differently than I used to. I am not a spirit trapped in a body, or even a spirit that has been given the incredible gift of a body. Rather, I am a deeply loved process. I am matter and energy trading back and forth. I am a continuation of myself at age 0, age 11, age 22, age 33, age 44. I am my body! This, too, is science, but it is also the gospel. The creature I am, whom God loves, is also the creature God loved at the beginning, when I was being formed secretly in the darkness of my mother’s womb. And Jesus comes back to us from the other side of death and decay to show us something of what lies in store. We will not say goodbye to our bodies, but we will be changed by the one who loves both matter and energy.

Now, it would be irresponsible of me not to admit that there is much else in the Bible to support the other, more familiar view of body versus spirit. When faced with the prospect of death, Jesus himself says, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” And speaking to the woman at the well, he says, “God is spirit.” If God is spirit and doesn’t have a mortal body, doesn’t that make spirit better than matter? These are both examples from John’s gospel, which tends to feel quite a bit less “embodied” and more “spiritual” than Luke’s.

Yet in this same gospel, after the resurrected Jesus appears inside a locked room like a ghost, he shows them the wounds in his hands, feet, and side. Jesus hasn’t simply traded in his badly damaged body for a new one. But his body is also able to do things that ours can’t. And let’s not lose sight of the fact that God does actually have a mortal body: that of Jesus of Nazareth. God chooses to exist on the same terms that we do: with a body that is limited in its lifespan.

It is this tension between two seemingly opposed understandings of our basic nature, that makes the resurrection appearances so thrilling to me. It is our inability to put it all together into a cohesive theory that reminds us who we are. We are God’s creatures; we belong to God and exist on God’s terms. We don’t fully understand or even want to accept those terms. We know from science that we are, like everything else in the universe, made up of matter and energy, and that matter and energy can be converted back and forth into each other. So we know that matter and energy are the chosen medium of the great Artist. But there is still so much we don’t know.

I imagine that our mortal deaths will bring us much wisdom. Surely death is the end of something significant, but Jesus shows us that it is also the beginning of something very exciting. Death is terrifying, yes. But I like to imagine that on the other side of that door, Jesus will greet us and welcome us as we look behind us for a moment and say, “Oh, that wasn’t so bad.” And then Jesus will lead our resurrected bodies into all sorts of new wonders. Amen.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Vulnerability



sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Associate Priest for Adult Formation
Maundy Thursday, April 13, 2017

Forty days ago, the season of Lent began with an episode of vulnerability: we had ashes imposed on our foreheads. On Ash Wednesday, we confessed our humanity and mortality to everybody present. Not everyone who attended the service was ready to do it … so they didn’t.

Tonight, Lent ends with an episode of vulnerability: we are going to wash each other’s feet. In our culture, it’s OK to be barefoot in public, but not in every place. It’s as much nakedness as we can reasonably deal with among strangers, and some people even have a hard time with that much. To remove our shoes is to be vulnerable, and to be vulnerable is to confess our humanity. Not everybody here will be ready to do it … so they won’t.

I remember once having a Facebook conversation with various friends about foot washing. We wondered together, “What is a parallel to foot washing in our present day?” After all, when we visit a friend’s house, there are no servants to wash our dusty, tired feet. So we tried to imagine some contemporary possibilities. Who shines your shoes? No, I’ve never even shined my own shoes. Who washes your car? No, I just wait for the rain.

Who picks up your garbage and recycling? This is smelly but not at all intimate. Consider yourself lucky if you ever see the people who take your garbage away, let alone get to know them. Or perhaps you worship with them. Do you know? Who cleans your bathroom? For that matter, how many bathrooms do you clean, and is one of them your own, or not? Now we are touching on assumptions about social class that Jesus was so intentionally subverting.

But in the end, my group of friends concluded that there is no modern parallel for the foot washing done in Jesus’ time. And that is why Jesus still calls us to wash one another’s feet. Immediately after intimately serving his friends, Jesus announces that “the Son of Man has been glorified.” In the act of washing their feet, Jesus shows us what the Almighty God, creator of the universe, is actually like. Jesus loves us in the same ways that God loves us.

How does Jesus love us? Sometimes he is like a friend and confidant, someone to share wine with at a wedding. Sometimes he embarrasses us, stepping over boundaries of order, separation, and safety that we have worked so hard to maintain. Sometimes Jesus praises us one moment for really understanding, and then in the next breath he calls us Satan. When we are afflicted, he comforts us. When we are comfortable, he afflicts us. It’s never just “me and Jesus,” because it seems there is always a crowd around him. With Jesus, there are no taboo topics, but to go there with him, we have to be willing to be wrong, to change and to grow. With Jesus, all the walls are torn down, all the borders transcended, and all the distinctions between holy and profane done away with.

And yet—and this so crucial—somehow all of this becomes possible without ever losing ourselves. As we move into greater vulnerability with Jesus, we don’t abdicate our privacy, swear off our individuality, or hand ourselves over to be abused by others. We don’t cede the right to protect ourselves from harmful situations. There’s a paradox here. The closer we draw to Jesus, the more dignity and integrity we find in our own being and in our own decisions about how we will live our lives. Our free will grows instead of diminishing. The more we come to be like Jesus, we may even come to discover the power to lay down our lives and take them up again, never losing sight of our status as God’s children. This is Christian maturity. With Jesus, we always begin and end as God’s beloved. But to stay in that relationship, we must also keep reminding ourselves that everybody else in the entire world is God’s beloved, too—even our enemies.

This kind of love isn’t socially acceptable. And yet this is what Jesus has mandated—Maundy Thursday, Mandatum, Mandate, Command. Our new command is not just to love, but to love as Jesus loves.

Like Peter, we resist Jesus. We would rather control the relationship than let it happen to us. But once it is made clear to us how important it is, we’re all in. “Not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Peter doesn’t get it, doesn’t get it, doesn’t get it … and then he gets it, much too late not to be publicly embarrassed by it. I’ve been Peter. I can relate to him. Jesus just happened to Peter—over and over again, from the shores of Galilee to the courtyard of Caiaphas and beyond.

Jesus just happens to us. If we were baptized as babies, Jesus just happened to us then, and we had no control over that relationship. Late on Saturday night we will baptize Shandi and Randy Kyllingmark, and Jamie, Alex and Libby Scott, because Jesus is happening to them. But tonight, in just a few minutes, some of those who are already baptized will stand up in front of us, confess their sins, and have their feet washed in preparation for the renewal of their own baptismal vows. And then they will turn around and wash your feet.

We are following Jesus’ instructions here: in the same way that Peter submitted to having his feet washed, so must we. Why? Because to truly understand Jesus, we need always to be moving a higher level of vulnerability. We don’t all need to be in the same place, but we do all need to be moving in the same direction.

I want to stress that point. Far too often we compare ourselves to other people of faith. We wish we had more faith, or we wish that we accomplished more good works. We wish we had someone else’s gifts, and we undervalue our own. Lately I’ve been trying hard not to do this. Instead of telling myself what’s lacking in my relationship with Jesus, I’ve been asking myself, “What is the actual, honest nature of my relationship with Jesus these days?” And then I have thanked Jesus for being in my life. This in itself is a step toward greater vulnerability.

But for as long as we resist, for as long as we keep telling Jesus his behavior is inappropriate, we can have no share with him. We need to keep reminding ourselves: we do not know what Jesus is doing, but later we will understand.

Jesus points the way along this path, but he also goes ahead of us, like a shepherd leading us to the good grass. “Eat and drink with me,” Jesus coaxes. “Allow me to wash your feet, and then wash one another’s feet. Stay awake and watch with me. Pray with me. Put away your sword. You may deny ever knowing me, but you can still decide what to do after that. Whatever happens tonight, keep on living. Love one another as I have loved you.” See, God the Father has given all things into Jesus’ hands. And when Jesus goes to the Father, we are in his hands with him. It really will be OK. And that is what makes it possible for us to risk vulnerability.

I don’t know if you saw any news headlines today. There was no good news at all that I saw, and most of it was frankly horrific. At times like these, I can’t find it in me to be optimistic. But here’s the thing about the vulnerability Jesus is calling us into: optimism is not required. Instead of optimism, Jesus is calling us into hope. Hope means that it’s not all up to us … but some of it is, and that’s where Jesus is pointing us. There is loving work to do, and we’re the ones to do it. That is hopeful—not blithely optimistic, but constructively hopeful. And it starts with our willingness to be vulnerable to each other.

So here we all are. And if you’re not ready to allow your feet to be washed, try again next year, and bring this to prayer: “Where are the moments of real intimacy in my life? And how widely do I make my caring known to those around me, in my family, in my circle of friends, in my community, in my nation, and in the world? How can I grow in this direction?”

Lent ends tonight, and the Great Three Days have begun. This is only the first step. We will take the next step tomorrow, Good Friday, with the same liturgy at noon or at 7:00 p.m. And then we will return again Saturday evening at 8:00 for the Great Vigil of Easter to light a new fire, to hear by candlelight the ancient stories of God working to redeem the world, and to baptize new Christians. We are Christians. This is our story. Allow Jesus to happen to you … so that you, too, can step into your part in the story.

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).