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.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Henry



homily preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Associate Priest for Adult Formation
Saturday, December 24, 2016 (4:00 p.m.)
Readings: Isaiah 9:2-7; Godly Play Christmas pageant

My wife, my daughter and I have a very old cat named Henry. Well, his full name is actually Henry Kramer Hosler the Ninth, Secret Agent Cat, but I’m not going to explain all those names right now. Suffice it to say that Henry is fifteen years old, and he’s a real piece of work.

Henry has been overweight most of his life, and now he has arthritis. His vet has switched him from dry food to super-expensive canned food, which we now feed him twice a day instead of only once, and to which we add flax oil to ease his aching joints. Because we’ve added morning feedings on top of evening feedings, Henry now shows up at our bedside every morning precisely an hour and a half before we intend to feed him, like a cute, furry, malfunctioning alarm clock. “Mrow! Mrow! Mrow! Mrow!” I hit the snooze button—or, rather, I pet the snooze button very gently. And we put up with all this because we love him.

Yes, Henry really sits like this while he eats.
What hindquarters?

Another side effect of Henry’s weight and age is that he has begun to lose feeling in his hindquarters, so he doesn’t always know where they are or what they are doing. Henry has been a reliable litter box user for most of his life, but more and more over the last several years he has begun to think outside the box. He’s making a real mess of our basement, but we clean it up dutifully because we love him. Oh yes, and Henry is frequently underfoot, and because he’s less spry than he used to be, sometimes we step on his paws right in the middle of trying to feed him. And then the apologies flow.

Have you ever had really demanding needs? Have you ever annoyed someone? Have you ever gotten in the way, or spoken too loudly, or interrupted at the most irritating moment and been shouted at unfairly? It happens among us humans like it happens with Henry. Maybe you also know what it’s like for another person to forgive you, or to apologize to you, and for warm feelings to return between you. Hopefully you even know what it’s like for someone to do the loving thing for your sake even when you don’t deserve it, and even when the warm feelings are far, far away.

Henry is a pest, but I sure do love him. And I’m reminded of that during those precious times when I lie down on the couch for a nap, and Henry jumps up and cuddles next to me. If I call him from the couch, he knows it’s nap time and he comes and joins me—a few minutes after I call, of course, just so it’s clear that it was his idea and not mine. Henry fits right under the crook of my arm. And waking up next to a purring or sleeping Henry is what heaven means to me. Sometimes I even sing to him.

Why on earth would I ever want my time with this little embodied creature to end? Henry’s high needs and quirky behaviors are so totally worth it.

God came to be with us, embodied and physical. God needed a diaper change and a warm breast full of milk. God had height, and weight, and smell, and a smile, and those things all kept changing. God tasted and touched. God laughed, and God sang. God gave up the unlimited nature of being God and emptied himself into human form, because it wasn’t enough to have created us. God had to know what it is like to be us. Because of Jesus, I know that God understands how I feel in all my own embodiment.

It’s not our good qualities that help people love us. It’s our limitations. It’s the things we do imperfectly or downright badly that make some people say, “I sure do love you.” Don’t believe me? Ask your parents. Just ask me, because Henry’s sins make me treasure his little life all the more. I know it’s not going to last all that much longer—maybe just a couple more years, maybe less. His time, like ours, is limited. And so our naps on the couch together are precious.

Henry is dependent on us. We are all dependent, too, and not just when we are children. All our lives, we are dependent on the love of God that holds our souls in life. We are dependent on God’s redemption to put our needs and our quirks and our sins into the larger perspective of that unending love.

You know, God isn’t just a nice idea, or a moral compass, or someone to talk to when it’s convenient or to cry out to when we’re desperate. And God isn’t out there somewhere in a galaxy far, far away. God is so close and so real that it’s easy not to notice that God is here. God is the one who cradles us and the one who challenges us to grow. God is the one who sings softly to us, lullabies about peace and justice and all things being made right. If you’ve ever felt that longing for a better world or that longing for union with God, that feeling that there’s something much bigger than yourself that you want to be a part of forever and ever, that’s because God has been singing these lullabies to you.

God is singing lullabies to you right now, whether you’re listening or not. God sings both inside and outside the church, though in church we try specifically to help each other to listen. God sings to us in joy and in pain. God sings when we’re at our best and when we feel like a total mess. God is always singing love.

God loves you on days when you feel loved and cherished and on days when you live in fear that they’ll learn the truth about you. God knows you far more deeply than you know yourself and never stops loving you, no matter what.

And Jesus? Jesus is God’s gift to us, God’s very self in a form we can understand. God loves us so much that God came to be with us on our own terms—just for the span of a little life, a life like yours and mine, a life like Henry’s. Jesus’ life had a beginning and an end, just like our lives do. But because that life comes from God, there will be no end for us—only more and more love.

This Christmas, let God love you. Make time to receive God’s love. Set aside the frantic rushing around and the cultural expectations and the family dynamics and just be still for a while. Be still as a family, because most kids treasure silence too, if you are patient and make time for them to practice it. Teresa of Avila said that prayer is simply wasting time with someone who loves you. Waste some time during these twelve days of Christmas. How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given!

My own prayer to God this Christmas is simply this: “Hold me.” I am assured of God’s love, but I ask for it anyway, because I need to give voice to my longing. I commend this prayer to you as well, and the courage to believe that maybe it’s the only prayer you need right now: “Hold me.” Once we learn to receive God’s love, the way Mary and Joseph received Jesus, amazing things can begin to happen. God is singing lullabies to you, and God is cradling you in the crook of God’s arm as you sleep.

May God bless you and all those you love this Christmas season. And may Jesus the Messiah come to be with you, to hold you, and to nap with you on the couch. Amen.