Sunday, September 23, 2018

Imperative Verbs

sermon preached at Church of the Good Shepherd, Federal Way, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Rector
The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 20B, September 23, 2018
Jeremiah 11:18-20; Psalm 54; James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37

I was hanging out with a friend recently, and she commented, “Sermons are when the preacher tells the people what to do.”

I was taken aback. “What?”

“Sermons are when the preacher tells the people what to do. And the people who come to church are those who are willing to be told what to do.”

I was intrigued. “And then they do it?”

“Oh, no, of course not,” she replied. “But they’re willing to sit there and be told. It’s a time-honored social convention lived out in all our churches every Sunday.”

“Do I do that?” I wondered aloud, reaching for my smartphone and its store of all my sermons in the cloud.

My friend laughed. “Probably! Wait … are you checking right now?”

A Word Cloud of 268 sermons ...
I scanned a couple old sermons, looking specifically for imperative verbs. “Choose … live … practice … listen … come … bring … immerse!” They were all over the place. Some of the verbs were very gracious and open, while others specifically ordered the congregation in a certain direction. It turns out that, in ways subtle and not-so-subtle, I’ve been telling congregations of people what to do for fifteen years!

I noticed something else, too. I noticed that my best sermons—the ones I’m personally proudest of, at least—were the ones with fewer imperative verbs—the ones in which I shared a personal story or made an observation—and then just let it be.

It took me 286 sermons to learn this. (Ah, the things computers can tell us!)

Well, if we have any humility at all, we learn to revel in the fact that we never stop learning. So naturally, the next place I looked for imperative verbs was in today’s readings.

Jeremiah has only one; he is telling his own story, a lament that there are people seeking to murder him. Then he implores God, “Let”—oh, what a nice, gracious verb! Oh, wait: “Let me see your retribution on them.” Well, I guess if there are people trying to kill you, you might want to see them hurt a little. It may not be especially honorable or enlightened, but it’s at least honest to include that part in your prayer.

The Psalmist is in a similar situation, and at least for storytelling purposes, we can understand today’s Psalm as being sung by David, before he is King of Israel, when he also is running from potential murderers. So David’s imperatives are also aimed at God: “Save,” “defend,” “hear,” “give ear,” “render,” “destroy.” It’s the same story: Rescue me from my enemies, God, and while you’re at it, get rid of them for me, will you? Understandable.

In the Letter of James, we find something very different, but there is a line in it that makes me chuckle: “You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder.” I can see you all nodding your heads—yes, that’s right. I can relate to that. I’ve been there before. Maybe James has been reading in his Bible about Jeremiah and David.

James, throughout his letter, is full of specific advice in the form of imperative commands. Today we hear these: Show your gentleness. Do not be boastful and false. Submit yourselves to God. Resist the devil. Draw near to God. James’s letter really does sound like a sermon, doesn’t it? And I’ll leave you to decide whether it’s good, solid advice. I just note that he is specifically telling the people what to do.

And then we get to the Gospel. Jesus says several things in this passage. How many imperative verbs do you see?

That’s right: None. Even in the face of being misunderstood, even in the face of an argument among his disciples, Jesus doesn’t command anything.

Instead, first he tells them what is going to happen: “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” We mused last week about how problematic it would be to accept such a fate for God’s Messiah.

Next Jesus asks them a question: “What were you arguing about on the way?”

Then, after the disciples’ shamefaced confession that they were trying to one-up each other, Jesus tells them the way things work in God’s domain: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” He doesn’t tell them what to do. He tells them how to get what they want, if that’s truly what they want, and to suspect that what they thought they wanted might not be the best thing to want. Then he leaves it up to them to work it out.

And once more, Jesus speaks: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Again, he’s telling nobody what to do. He’s just telling them the way things are in God’s world. If you choose, you can stop arguing and be a servant, and you will be blessed. If you choose, you can welcome all the vulnerable who are of no use to you.

This is, after all, how children were generally viewed in the ancient world. They were a necessary nuisance. Young children were takers, hoarding valuable resources in a hand-to-mouth economy, all on the off chance that they would not get sick and die, but instead grow into valuable, strapping young farm workers and mothers of the next generation of children. You had to have children to take care of you in your old age. But until they hit puberty, at least, you just had to put up with them. Sorry, kids—that’s the way it was then. Aren’t you glad it’s usually different now? It might make you feel differently about washing the dishes, at least.

So Jesus doesn’t instruct his disciples to welcome children, at least not in Mark’s telling. He simply tells the disciples what will happen if they welcome the child, or the one the metaphorical child represents.

Now, this is not to say that Jesus never used imperative verbs. Off the top of my head I can think of many: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” “Work for the food that endures.” “Rejoice and be glad.” “Go and make disciples of all nations.” Today’s readings are not a scientific sample. But they do make me wonder, more broadly, which gospel writers are more in the habit of placing imperative verbs in Jesus’ mouth. How often, really, did Jesus command people to do things? How often did the gospel writers use their platform to tell people what to do, in Jesus’ name?

We can only develop theories. But this I have learned: every imperative verb is a “should.” When I, from the pulpit, say, “Let us do such-and-such,” I am using the authority the church has invested in me as an opportunity to plant a “should” in your head. Some preachers really use this authority strongly: “I’m the preacher, and I say you should only use your sex life in these specific ways. I’m the preacher and I say we as a congregation should become a refuge for persecuted immigrants. I’m the preacher and I say you should vote for candidate so-and-so.” (That last one, by the way, will put a congregation’s tax-exempt status at risk, per the Johnson Amendment of 1965!)

I may want you to do all sorts of things. I may want us to embark on all sorts of things together. And sometimes I’ll say exactly what I think our “shoulds” should be. But I’m not going to do that today, because I’m paying attention to Jesus and the way he preached. I’m also paying attention to Jeremiah and the Psalmist, who leveled their commands at God, a task that I think is fair game, and which we do all the time when we pray.

But to you? Today, I’m not going to implore you to do anything. And this is because I have heard the Gospel. I have heard the voice of the Messiah who knew they were going to kill him … the one who saw his own followers begin to attack each other and didn’t let that raise his anxiety level … the one who let his eye be caught by a young child instead. It’s almost like he was thinking, “They just don’t want to hear me talk about my own death, so they’re stressed out, and they’re taking it out on one another, and they’ll hash it out eventually, but while I’m waiting I’ll just go over here and play with this kid.” And lo and behold, the kid turned out to be a helpful metaphor. Want to welcome Jesus into your life? Want to welcome the one who sent Jesus? Hmmm, then you …

Nope. No imperative verbs today. Not going to go there. Wouldn’t be prudent.

Years ago I had a spiritual director who noticed that I was using the word “should” a lot. I was anxiously complaining about things I “should” be doing and ways I “should” be behaving, and finally he smiled gently and said to me, “The further I have gone on my journey into spiritual maturity, the more I have found that my ‘shoulds’ just fall away, to be replaced with what I may decide to do next.”

Hey! God loves you. Did you know that? Well, I’m telling you now. Theologian Marcus Borg put it this way: “God is besotted with you.” Now, there’s some news! So … once you hear this Good News, what next?

Well, how would a child react? If Jesus’ ultimate example is to welcome small children, then perhaps God welcomes us as if we were small children—even infants at the breast. Drinking milk. Receiving sustenance, like the Psalmist says: “It is the Lord who sustains my life.” We are being sustained. God is sustaining us this very moment. And all we need to do is whatever comes naturally in order to receive that sustenance.

Thomas Keating puts it this way: “The only thing God wants from you is your consent to be loved.” Wow.

So … I wonder what we’ll all do about that?

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Jesus Is ... ?

sermon preached at Church of the Good Shepherd, Federal Way, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Rector
The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 19B, September 16, 2018

So who is this Jesus, anyway? Who do you say Jesus is?

Those of us who grew up in the church have in our heads certain ideas about Jesus, developed gradually over many years, with different pieces of the story ingrained at different ages. We may have started with an idea of Jesus as a baby born in a barn, who grew up to be a kind man who loved children. Then we may have heard that he died but somehow came back again, and that he still loves us today.

Only later did we probably begin to hear stories of times when Jesus was clever, or angry, or sad. And perhaps only as adults did we begin, for instance, to tease out the name Jesus of Nazareth from his title, Christ, and to absorb the impact of the idea that Jesus might actually be God in some mysterious sense. Even those of us who didn’t grow up in church have no doubt absorbed ideas about Jesus all our lives from Western culture, where Christian identity is still dominant.

I think it’s both possible and important to set all of that aside and approach Jesus with fresh eyes … frequently. It’s a challenge, but it can be done. One way is to sit down and read the entire Gospel of Mark in one sitting. You can read it in about an hour. Better yet, since the Gospel was meant to be heard and not just read silently, you can get a group of people together to read Mark out loud to each other, alternating readers by chapter. I did this in Bellingham with a group of college students, and it took us about an hour and a half. We stopped at the midway point and again at the end to discuss what we had read.

From Mark’s Gospel we get an urgent thumbnail sketch of the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth. And I can’t dictate to you what surprises you might encounter, because they’re different for everyone. But one thing you might notice is that Mark often gives brief versions of stories we know better from the later Gospel writers Matthew and Luke, who took Mark’s work and expanded on it.

Today’s passage is one such example. Those of us who are familiar with the Gospels hear Peter name Jesus as the Messiah, and perhaps something in our brains says, “Oh yeah—this is the part where Jesus pats Peter on the back for noticing that he is the Messiah and for naming it. And then he gives Peter the keys to the Kingdom and sets him up to be the first Pope in Rome.” That’s racing through layers of interpretation and centuries of historical hindsight, of course. But look: in Mark’s earlier version of the story, none of that is there.

[Jesus] asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And [Jesus] sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

The Greek word for “sternly ordered” could also be taken as “rebuked” or even “threatened.” So Jesus could have said, “Shh! Don’t let my secret out.” But that strong verb tempts me to put it more like, “Whatever you do, don’t go there!

Well, what is a Messiah? First-century Jews didn’t all agree on this, but in general, the idea taken from the writings of the major prophets was that God had promised to send a rescuer, a military hero, a successor to David who would restore the earthly Kingdom of Israel. (“Christ” is simply the Greek translation of the Hebrew word “Messiah.”) When Jesus says, “Don’t tell anyone this,” it could mean one of two things. Either Jesus is denying that he is the Messiah, or he is saying that the Messiah will not do the things that people expect of him, so it’s not a helpful term.

In the next breath, Jesus starts teaching them not about the role of the Messiah, but of the “Son of Man.” Slow down and look at this for a moment. I was well into adulthood before it occurred to me to wonder what “Son of Man” meant; I had always just blown through it, knowing that Jesus was referring to himself. But what does this phrase mean?

While the word Messiah shows up in the Hebrew Bible 39 times, the phrase Son of Man shows up 107 times, mostly in the Book of Ezekiel. Sometimes it’s used as a form of address: God addresses Ezekiel as “Ben-Adam,” “Son of Man,” which can be translated, “O mortal.” So a Son of Man is just a man, who will die, as opposed to God, who will not.

But a similar phrase shows up in a bizarre vision in the Book of Daniel. This part is in Aramaic, the language Jesus himself spoke, and it’s “Bar-Anash,” or “Son of Humanity.”

As I watched in the night visions, I saw a Son of Humanity coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed. (Daniel 7:13-14)

That still sounds to me like the supposed job description of the Messiah: conquer and rule. But Jesus doesn’t leave it there. He says that this “Son of Man” must be rejected and killed—and then come back again, though I can imagine the general outcry from Peter that drowns out this rather important point.

Mark writes that Jesus “said all this quite openly.” To me, this is like the times when I’m hanging out with my mother, and she says, “So, about our will … when we die, you’re required to want this Navajo pot, which has been in the family for generations.” It’s like, hey, don’t talk like that without giving me time to prepare for it! (At the same time, though, isn’t it a good thing to be able to talk openly about your own inevitable death, with your own family?)

More on that topic some other time. The point is that all of this is too much for Peter, who rebukes Jesus. And then Jesus rebukes Peter. There’s a whole lot of rebuking going on. Why? Because Jesus has a different idea of what the plan is, and it’s not a plan that the disciples are going to be able to get on board with—at least, not before Jesus dies. So Jesus shouts, “Get behind me, Satan!” Whoa, that escalated quickly! How often do you refer to your best friend as your worst enemy?

And what has Peter done to receive this treatment? Well, who has Satan been in Jesus’ life? Mark doesn’t go into great detail about Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness immediately following his baptism—Matthew and Luke would develop that story—but we do know that Jesus was “tempted by Satan.” Satan’s job is to offer alternatives: “Well, you could suffer and die. Or you could do something else.”

Does anyone remember that scene in The Lord of the Rings when Frodo decides he’s not strong enough to bear the burden of the evil Ring of Power? He offers it to the wizard Gandalf to carry instead. And Gandalf’s eyes flash: “Don’t tempt me, you fool!” Even Gandalf, who seems perfect, fears that he might give in to an alternative path. Another great wizard, Albus Dumbledore, once said, “Dark times lie ahead of us, and there will be a time when we must choose between what is easy and what is right.”

As we walk through our lives, we can’t literally see the future. But sometimes we can see, with some degree of accuracy, where all this might be going. Through his focused life of prayer, Jesus saw what was coming and resisted the temptation to choose another path. He saw that he was about to reveal the blueprint for a holy life, and so he began teaching others to build their lives on that blueprint. Jesus suffered for our sake, yes, and to save us eternally. But Jesus also suffered so that we can see how it’s done. “Take up your cross and follow me.”

It’s not like we can choose not to die. But we can choose not to take up our cross. We can avoid a lot of heartache in life—or so we think—by struggling to keep power over others, to save face in front of others, and not to give our hearts away to anyone else. When we refuse to take up our cross, we say we’d rather inflict harm on others than take any onto ourselves. We say no to the training, the exercise that will prepare us to die for real. We say no to the Love who made us all and wants so much more for us than mere comfort.

So, after all this … who do you say Jesus is? What does your own life tell you about who Jesus might be?

Who do I say Jesus is? That depends on the day. But today …

I say that Jesus is the one who shows me both the easy path and the right path, heads down the right path ahead of me, and beckons me to follow. That way lies death: the death of my ego, the death of my assumptions, the death of anything that might come between me and the way of Love. As I walk with Jesus, he says, “Don’t fret those times you gave in to temptation. I get it. I’ve been there, too. But you’re walking with me now, and this road never ends.”

And as we walk that road, I exercise my legs for going and my lungs for telling, and my heart for loving gets healthier and stronger. And I look around and see that we’re not alone on this road, Jesus and I: how could we be? The narrow door I struggled to fit through led to a path that has widened to a super highway, and all sorts of people are on it with us: heroes and scoundrels, saints and sinners, all going together through various deaths and resurrections. We’re all carrying our crosses, and we’re singing all the walking songs: happy songs, sad songs, comic and tragic songs. Where are we all going? We can’t see very far ahead to know. But as we walk, Jesus patiently whispers to me, “Love. It’ll hurt you. It might even kill you. But love anyway. Because trust me—nothing else works.” Amen.