Monday, July 10, 2017

Let's Play Fairies!

sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Associate Priest for Adult Formation
Proper 9A [Track 2], The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, July 9, 2017

“Hey, Dad, let’s play fairies!”
The phrase burst out of a seven-year-old girl who was brimming with hope and anticipation. It fell on the ears of her forty-year-old father: “Dad, let’s play fairies!” Here was an invitation to intimacy, to quality time, to everything that parenting was supposed to be.
The man almost gave a knee-jerk reply, something like: “I’m sorry, kiddo, I’m busy right now.” But instead he checked himself. It would have been an excuse. Sure, the man had a lot on his mind. But he had heard recently a study that showed that American parents only play with their children, on average, for twenty minutes per week! And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon, and next thing you know, you’ve long since retired and your kid has moved away and is just like you. “Not me,” he thought to himself. “I’m not going to be that dad today!”
Sir Joseph Noel Paton, The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania (Wikimedia)
But neither could he throw himself into playing fairies with abandon. He wasn’t going to go all Mr. Banks, get fired from his stuffy, selfish job, and spend all night mending a kite. So feeling too weary to play but too guilty not to, he hedged. “Hmmm … playing fairies? Well, what would that be like?”
The little girl was too young to really roll her eyes, but he heard a preview of that phase in her reply: “Dad, you know! I’ll be Silvermist and you can be Oberon.”
Oh, if only it could be so easy. For this man remembered being a child, possessing the natural ability to play in just this way, taking on a character and immersing himself in a fantasy world. Every day at recess, he had been Luke Skywalker! And then, somewhere along the line, that creative, playful impulse grew up and became much harder to capture. So how about a board game instead? Or a card game? Something with legitimate rules to follow? No, not stuffed animals—what would they say or do? This man desperately wanted to spend time with his daughter, but he wanted to do it on his own terms. And it turns out that he was exactly like those in the generation of Jesus. (Stick with me on this.)
Jesus said to the crowd, “To what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’” The problem with Jesus’ generation was that they would only play on their own terms. I suspect the problem wasn’t limited to that generation, either.
What does it mean only to play on our own terms? The comparison Jesus makes is a strange one, and he does so in order to call out those who have been bad-mouthing not only him but also John the Baptist. They gripe about John, the grumpy, teetotaling radical, and then they gripe about Jesus, who drinks plenty of wine and hangs out with all the wrong people. Why are they OK with neither one?
To illustrate his point, Jesus compares his critics to children in the marketplace who begin by playing games but who end in an argument. One group wants to play wedding, and the other wants to play funeral. Both groups are too obstinate to compromise, and as a result, they miss out on the one thing they set out to do in the first place: to play! Instead, we might imagine a schoolyard scuffle breaking out, resulting in bloody noses and broken friendships.
In response to his critics’ grumbling, Jesus gives an invitation: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Grumbling is a very heavy burden. So is needing to be in control, and choosing the game ourselves, and failing to use our imaginations. Living an abundant life in God’s world takes imagination, but these critics could not imagine the vision Jesus offered them.
Yet can we be held accountable? Is it really our own responsibility to lay down this burden? When I try to let go of control, often I find that I can’t. When I try to muster more imagination, sometimes I find only futility. Paul got it right: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Why must we always seek to be in control? Why do we cling to our pride? Why is it so hard to suspend our need to be right? Sometimes we even decide we’d rather not love at all than leave our comfort zone. Graham Greene once wrote, “Hate is a lack of imagination.”
Laying down this burden is not easy. We will fail to do it time and time again. But circumstances keep conspiring to give us another chance. And in the times when, with God’s help, we do manage to lay down our burden, wonderful, graceful things can result. Relationships can deepen. Unforgettable memories can be carved. People can be helped. Justice can be done. God can be honored. To relax into the invitation to play means to let go of our self-consciousness and play this God-given game called life. Kids get it, says Jesus. God has hidden these things from the supposedly wise grownups and revealed them to the youngest among us. They never hesitate to play—their play is their work, and vice versa. We can, indeed, learn from our children, not just about how to play but also about Christian practice. A friend of mine once commented, “Kids do ministry like they do breathing.”
Yet maturity is also to be valued. Kids play, but they also fight, and bully each other, and selfishly cling to whatever it is they most want to do. Kids throw temper tantrums. Adults have known what it is to play, but hopefully, we have also learned what it is to set aside our own agenda and play someone else’s game for a while. We can always draw on the unique wisdom of each of our previous ages.
It may feel like this takes boundless energy. But what if it’s not up to us to conjure all that energy? Jesus says, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Oxen are yoked together by twos—imagine that you and Jesus are carrying a yoke together. Who is shouldering the greater share of the burden? Or imagine a bicycle built for two. Who is the stronger pedaler—you or Jesus? “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
And what is the nature of this yoke that Jesus offers? We take it upon ourselves by meeting Jesus in Scripture. We absorb the complex and beautiful person Jesus is, and in so doing, we let the living Christ speak to us in our own day. We hear his words about the Kingdom of God, and we begin to imagine it. Then we take on this yoke in service—in meeting others precisely where they are and learning from them. As we help provide for some of their needs, we also find our own spirits strengthened. The yoke of love—a love that is centered on God’s dream for the world—is a yoke we take on ourselves, not a yoke others place on us. We carry a burden we choose to carry—like in that old song, “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.”
The burden of loving is a burden that can feel so light we don’t necessarily notice it … or, at other times, so heavy that it demands our very lives. We walk the path Jesus walked. It’s not necessarily the kind of path people appreciate or give honor to. But then, Jesus never did go in for conventional glory. When it came time to ride into Jerusalem, he did so on a donkey, drawing a direct connection to the prophet Zechariah: “Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey.” Who knew that fulfilling prophecy could be so playful? And Jesus’ unbridled compassion was free of pretense and social correctness, and this is one reason his followers began to identify him with the God the Father and to worship him: “The LORD is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and of great kindness. The LORD is loving to everyone and his compassion is over all his works.” So when Jesus invites us to play, we don’t need to muster any energy in particular. We need only lay down our burden and say, “Here I am.”
Jesus invites us to exchange many burdens—distracted busy-ness, self-conscious pride, helplessness, smug certainty—for the more playful yet often arduous work of really loving each other. Hopefully, if we let go of our need to control everything, we can continue to carry the yoke in faith, knowing that even when it leads to a place of death, it will also lead through death into new life. When I look at it this way, I can see that everything I do in life involves a decision about whether to cling to my own crippling burdens, or to accept Jesus’ yoke instead.
So if you’re striving hard to earn God’s love, you’re wasting your energy. That’s like striving to make water wet, or striving to make gravity take effect on Earth. God’s love is not something to strive for, but something to relax into. There are many other things to strive for in life. Let the never-failing love of God serve as your main source of fuel.
But back to the man and his daughter. It’s been a few years, and fairies don’t come up as often in conversation, though Legos and dragons do. And stuffed animals still play a role: the stuffed cats have even formed their own ninja training school. The man is still busy a lot of the time, but slowly, gently, he is learning to play again. It hasn’t been a born-again experience, like it was for Mr. Banks in Mary Poppins. It’s been slow and gradual—two steps forward, one step back. But that creativity of childhood isn’t gone; it’s just showing up in new ways, only one of which is a dedication to play with his little girl. Amen.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Challenge of Shepherding

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

This fourth Sunday in Easter season is commonly known as Good Shepherd Sunday. We sang a paraphrase of Psalm 23, which may have been written 1000 years before Jesus: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want.” It’s hard for Christians to approach Psalm 23 and not think of Jesus, since he applied the role to himself. Jesus is the Good Shepherd—as opposed to the bad shepherd who ignores the sheep when the wolves come around. We recognize our shepherd’s voice and follow.

A shepherd (source: Wikimedia)
How do we follow our shepherd? We hear today from the Acts of the Apostles, the only narrative chronicle we have of the earliest years of the Church. We hear that “those who had been baptized devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” We quote this phrase verbatim in our baptismal covenant as central to Christian practice. In short, it means that we get together as a church every week to share the story of Jesus, to share a meal, and to pray. There are no solo Christians; we’re all in this together.

The ancient example shows us that those in Christian community took care of each other. They may have had their own homes where they broke bread and prayed, but they also brought their possessions and goods and shared them for the good of all. Now, it would be anachronistic to call this socialism, especially since it occurred on such a small scale and so long ago. But the intent was indeed that there were no self-made people: as any had need, their needs were met by the Church. The Lord was their shepherd, and they did not find themselves in want. After all, Jesus had told his disciples, who had sacrificed everything they called their own, that they would get everything back a hundredfold in this life, not in the next. They found everything they needed in Christian community. “And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”

From this we can understand that salvation means something very different from its popular definition. Salvation in the Bible doesn’t refer to “heaven after you die.” It doesn’t preclude it, either, but salvation definitely begins in this life, and it has to do with the freedom we find in taking care of each other instead of hoarding things for ourselves. It comes with a lessening of anxiety and a clarity of purpose. Salvation is often revealed in “signs and wonders”—that is, when we dedicate our lives to love, we can expect surprisingly joyful outcomes. Salvation means having life, and life abundantly—the reason Jesus stated for coming to be among us in the first place.

Follow the Good Shepherd does mean making good moral decisions. But it also means relying on God’s mercy and forgiveness for ourselves and others. Following the Good Shepherd means living in love and then letting God surprise us, not relying on our own understandings of the way things must turn out. The Good Shepherd calls us each by name, so by no means do we lose our individuality in community. But we are also responsible for far more than just ourselves and our immediate circle.

All of this follows from the metaphor of Jesus being the Good Shepherd, yes. But did you notice? Nowhere in today’s gospel reading does Jesus say he is the Good Shepherd! He says it a little later, actually, but it’s not the first metaphor he turns to. No, Jesus says today, “I am the gate for the sheep.”

Metaphors are a kind of poetic game, and games have rules. We choose the game we’re going to play today, and then we follow it to see where it will lead. Jesus is the Good Shepherd as well, and on other days he’s even the sacrificial lamb. But in this passage, Jesus has chosen the metaphor of the gate, so let’s play by the rules of this game Jesus has chosen for us.

If Jesus is the gate, then the sheep enter and exit the sheepfold through Jesus. Jesus has just said that those who enter by climbing the fence are thieves and bandits, so let’s be sure to use the gate. But if Jesus is the gate, then who is the Good Shepherd here? I want to suggest that some of us are shepherds, and some of us are sheep.

What makes one person a shepherd, and another a sheep? Let’s try this: shepherds are those in a given situation who have more knowledge and power than others. Sheep are those who are more vulnerable and less able to control their circumstances. Now, right away I want to caution against any attempt to decide once and for all which role you fill. The world is not cleanly bisected into leaders and followers, into powerful and powerless. Some days you’re the shepherd, and some days you’re the sheep. Let’s establish that as a given before we go on.

Are you being a good shepherd? Are you showing others to the lush grass and the still waters? Are you meeting the sheep wherever they are and inviting them to a place of nourishment? This can be as simple a task as inviting a friend to church. It can be even simpler than that: Wear a nametag today, even if you don’t like nametags. Whenever you see a new face in our midst, introduce yourself. If the person looks lost—in the building or in the liturgy—offer to help. Sit with people you don’t know. Scoot to the middle of the pew so newcomers feel understand that there is a place for them next to you.

I heard a story recently about two parishioners—strangers to each other—striking up a conversation. One commented, “I’ve been coming to church for a long time, but I’ve never gone over to the Great Hall for coffee.” The other said, “Well, would you like to come with me?” “Sure,” said the first person, “I’d like that.” It really can be that simple. Good shepherds are always learning how they can be not just welcomers, but inviters.

At the next level, good shepherds are teachers of the Christian faith, either formally or informally. Some are called to be instructors, but others are called simply to teach by example. For instance, Christian parents are always their children’s main Sunday school teachers. And all of us are unofficial godparents to the children of St. Paul’s and sponsors to those of any age who aren’t as far along in their Christian life.

The job doesn’t stop at the doors of the church, either. Good shepherds are exemplars of the Christian faith in the whole world, every day—at work, at play, in formal and casual circumstances, with friends and with strangers. Ideally, people should be able to identify Christians by how we love.

But there’s more to the job than that. Are you defending the sheep from wolves? The wolves, I think, are people who wield power that is self-interested or even vicious. Good shepherds willingly place themselves in danger to protect the sheep. This can be high-level danger such as police, soldiers, and missionaries undertake. Or you can scale it to what stretches your level of comfort. Do you stand up to bullies? Do you go out of your way to meet and befriend people who are stuck in situations they can’t control? As a citizen, do work for solutions in society that will protect those with less power throughout our nation and the entire world?

Remember that while we are all called by name, the Good Shepherd leaves 99 sheep behind to find the one that is lost and carries it back home on his shoulders. Sometimes we can protect the sheep from wolves. But when we can’t, we can still love and honor the sheep who suffer and die, simply by being present with those who walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

How are we doing at shepherding each other at St. Paul’s? Do we know what people within our community need? Are we giving them space to ask for it? Are we giving them the dignity to ask on their own terms? How far are you willing to stretch yourself for people with whom the only thing you share in common is your faith in Jesus Christ? And what boundaries do you need to clarify to ensure that you can do this work without losing yourself in the process?

So this is the pattern for Christians who aspire to be Good Shepherds: Use the power you have to share power with others. Protect and serve those who are vulnerable, whether it means sharing a hymnal, standing in solidarity, or simply being with them. When we do these things, we are not the thieves and bandits who try to enter the sheepfold for their own selfish purposes. The pattern of Christian community is to come through the gate ready to give, not just to receive.

Now, you may be saying, “I have nothing in me to give. I just need to receive for a while.” You know what? Maybe this is your time to be a sheep. That doesn’t mean you’re stupid or “merely a follower” or incapable of independent thought. It just means that you’re in a vulnerable place right now, as all of us are from time to time. It’s OK: you are welcome here just as you are.

But I will say this to those who feel like sheep today: keep listening for the voice of the Good Shepherd who calls you to deepen and to grow. Your time to go from sheep to shepherd will probably come more quickly than you think. You may already be acting as the Good Shepherd in ways you don’t fully understand.

In your times of being a sheep, who have been the shepherds in your life? Maybe you can identify some of your shepherds in this very room. This is my challenge: Make time today to thank your shepherds. Hold up a mirror to reflect their gifts back to them. It doesn’t matter how small the gift; be sure to thank them. Now, if nobody thanks you today, don’t feel like you’re only a sheep and never a shepherd. Instead, take it as an opportunity to do some shepherding. Every day provides new ways to share God’s love with others.

Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” To enter through Jesus’ gate is to enter into salvation—to the safety of the sheepfold, but then to the challenge of shepherding.