Sunday, January 20, 2019

Gifts Given and Received

sermon preached at Church of the Good Shepherd, Federal Way, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Rector
The Second Sunday after the Epiphany, January 20, 2019

Each of the four gospels presents a different story of how Jesus began his public ministry. For Mark, it’s the exorcism of a demon. For Matthew, it’s the Sermon on the Mount. For Luke, it’s Jesus’ return to his hometown, where they almost throw him off a cliff. And for John, it’s this miracle of turning water into wine.

Now, John doesn’t refer to this as a miracle. He calls it a sign, the first of seven signs that form the narrative structure of his gospel. These seven signs move roughly in ascending order by amazing-ness until they peak with the raising of Lazarus from the dead. By comparison to that, yes, I suppose that turning water into wine is no big deal. But it’s still pretty cool.

Here’s the thing, though: the supernatural, miraculous aspect of this sign is not the main point. Jesus did become known as a wonder-worker, and that made many people flock to him. But he didn’t show up on earth for the sole purpose of overturning the laws of physics. If that had been the case, we could look back on Jesus as a one-of-a-kind person in human history, a source of scientific speculation and little else. Some historical people have been outliers. But what’s that to you and me now?

Luckily for us, John didn’t write his gospel as some sort of ancient Ripley’s Believe-It-or-Not. John tells us himself toward the end of his gospel that he wrote it “so that you may come to believe that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). And by that, he means abundant life in the here and now, not just on the other side of death.

John’s first hearers were an early community of Christians, some of the first who would not have been welcome in Jewish circles. This is why there’s so much language in John that is too easily appropriated for anti-Semitic purposes, something you’ll certainly hear more from me about during Lent and Holy Week. But the point is that they were a group who were defining for themselves what it meant to believe in Jesus Christ, and this led them through times of heartbreaking conflict with Jews and persecution from Romans.

So bearing all this in mind, why does John tell this story of Jesus changing water into wine? You may be a total skeptic about miracles, or you may be all in, but I don’t think it matters. With the first of seven signs, John wants us to know that Jesus makes every occasion a party. Jesus doesn’t show up in our lives to scold us or judge us or be disappointed in us or even to feel sorry for us. He comes to gladden our hearts.

Ancient Jewish weddings typically lasted about a week. At this late stage in the party a box of Bandit would have been perfectly understandable, but instead Jesus breaks into his private stash of Chateau Lafite. Jesus wants us to know that this is what God tastes like: like when your standards are low and you expect something passable and instead receive the most amazing thing ever, something that lifts your spirits and turns the occasion euphoric. Taste and see! Or, rather, taste and taste again—the goodness of God. Taste and learn. Enjoy a rich experience of God.

We might also note that this sign is a gift. It is completely unexpected; even Jesus didn’t know his mother would press him into it! Had the family been allowed to run out of wine, it would have been embarrassing, so Jesus saves them from feeling shamefaced and desolate. Jesus ushers in the graceful solution, and in so doing, he demonstrates that God gives us gifts all the time, every day, if we’ll just notice them.

(By the way: did you notice that while the powerful people in the story never find out what happened, the servants know all about it? That's also how God works.)

Now, the perpetual goodness of God isn’t news—it’s just a restating of what Jews already knew. Isaiah knew it, or whoever wrote these final chapters of Isaiah’s book, probably at the time when the formerly exiled Jews were resettling in the Promised Land. Isaiah saw that God’s work wasn’t finished yet, but he fully expected God to complete the process. And he promised the people that he wouldn’t shut up about it until God saw it through, until all the surrounding nations saw how loving and forgiving Israel’s God was. “You shall be called by a new name,” Isaiah wrote—not forsaken or desolate, but delighted in, an object of God’s devotion and loving-kindness. It’s just the way God is.

The psalmist knew this, too. Today’s psalm credits God with giving us all the light we need to see by and providing an extravagant feast besides. And we do indeed have the feast that is the whole world, if only we would not hoard it or pollute it—if only we would share it with everyone else.

Reflecting later on God’s loving abundance and on Jesus’ restatement of it, Paul writes sternly to the earliest Christians in Corinth. He reprimands them for being too individualistic and self-serving, as if the church were a place to go get something for yourself and not care about those around you. But today’s passage is what follows that reprimand: encouragement. Paul names specific behaviors that can help the community. Yes, you are an individual, and as such, you have special gifts and skills to put to work among us. Yes, your mere existence is enough to delight God to no end. And you are now invited to stretch yourself in new ways—ways that benefit not only you, but everyone around you, both inside and outside the church.

Since God keeps giving us gifts, we don’t need to worry about running out of them. And since we have this consistent flood of gifts, we are also asked to give them away to others.

Now, in my six brief months among you, I have observed what a giving congregation Good Shepherd is. We don’t shy away from jumping into the deep end and doing whatever needs to be done, whether it’s setting up the altar for worship, making breakfast for hungry people, attending weeknight meetings … even carefully cleaning up used needles in the woods. Some of us do so while simultaneously nursing persistent aches and pains, the ever-present reminder that while God’s gifts may never run out, our time on earth will.

And this can lead to great anxiety: “Who will do these things when I am gone? What if nobody does?” Those are some important feelings. But when we let our anxieties get the better of us, we’re not giving God much room to operate.

Let me back up for a moment and make this observation: a gift is not a contract. This was a refrain in my family as I was growing up: a gift is not a contract, so don’t hold it over others after it’s given. They make like it or not, they may make use of it or not. The gift came from your place of delight. But our delight in others should not depend on what they do with the gifts we give them.

This was such a valuable perspective for me to learn growing up. It didn’t exactly make me good at writing thank-you notes, seeing as I was under no contractual obligation to do so! But it did help me to let go of some of my expectations of other people.

In the long run, it also helped me with another skill that can be hard to come by: the gift of receiving. If there’s no implied contract, I can just delight in the gift without immediately wondering what I’ll do to pay the person back. Receive the gift. Thank the giver. Delight in the gift to whatever degree you will. And then let it be. Receiving is a difficult skill to learn, but it can be learned at any age, whether the gift is something material or something a little harder to pin down—like the loving presence at your sickbed when you are totally unable to get up and be, quote-unquote, “useful.” This is a time when all we can do is learn to receive.

Learning new lessons can really stretch us. Sometimes stretching means acquiring a new skill that the wider world finds to be useful. But sometimes stretching just means letting go: letting go of the fact that we can’t keep doing the things we used to, or letting go of our expectations for what the next generation will do.

John wrote his gospel to pass on what he had learned to future generations. He knew he’d have no control over what they did with it next, and that’s why he took great care in the telling. It’s the same with us: when it comes to the living of our faith, the best we can do is to pass it on carefully to younger people and let go of it. Sometimes we’ll tell stories and find young people eagerly sitting at our feet. Other times we’ll feel like nobody is listening and that important perspectives are being lost.

But even though we won’t be here forever, God isn’t going anywhere. The Holy Spirit will continue to guide the Church in ways that we can’t even imagine. Indeed, we probably wouldn’t approve of some of these ways, if we were allowed to stick around for centuries and watch. But we don’t get to do that.

You have gifts to give, but they don’t always mean wearing yourself out. Sometimes the gift is in the hand-off. Sometimes the hand-off will be fumbled, but our intentions will still have been clear. Some projects that are dear to us eventually end, while others may last far longer than we could have dreamed.

Just look at this Galilean wedding from two thousand years ago. We don’t know the names of the couple anymore, but we do know that Jesus made their wedding incredibly special. A party began that day in Galilee, a party that continues even until now. And we are all invited, and so are all the people we wouldn’t have expected—even the people we might not have invited ourselves. Together let’s offer to the world the fermented fruit of the gifts we have been given. Together with Jesus’ help, we’ll make every occasion a party. Amen.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

What Is Baptism?

sermon preached at Church of the Good Shepherd, Federal Way, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Rector
The First Sunday after the Epiphany, January 13, 2019

The water splashes the baby’s head and a cry fills the room. A teenager dipped backward into a swimming pool three times comes up again dripping and beaming. A woman steps down into the muddy waters of the Jordan, her white robe billowing around her.
Holding my goddaughter Rose,
with her other three godparents

What is baptism? What is it for? What does it do?

In 1982 in Lima, Peru, a group of Christian leaders from many different denominations and from all over the world met as the World Council of Churches. They produced a document together that includes their definition of baptism, something that at least most Christians the world over can agree on:

Baptism is the sign of new life through Jesus Christ. It unites the one baptized with Christ and with his people … Baptism is participation in Christ’s death and resurrection (Rom. 6:3–5; Col. 2:12); a washing away of sin (1 Cor. 6:11); a new birth (John 3:5); an enlightenment by Christ (Eph. 5:14); a re- clothing in Christ (Gal. 3:27); a renewal by the Spirit (Titus 3:5); the experience of salvation from the flood (1 Peter 3:20–21); an exodus from bondage (1 Cor. 10:1–2) and a liberation into a new humanity in which barriers of division whether of sex or race or social status are transcended (Gal. 3:27-28; 1 Cor. 12:13). The images are many but the reality is one.[1]

It’s not a very tight definition, is it? We could spend all year unpacking the many images it presents us with. It seems the World Council of Churches decided that it’s better to present everything baptism could possibly be, rather than limiting people’s perception in any way.

So it should come as no surprise to us that, right at the beginning of the Church, there was already disagreement about baptism. In today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Peter and John encounter some Samaritan converts who have been baptized with water in the name of the Lord Jesus. “Not good enough,” they say. “You need the Holy Spirit to come to you.” Peter and John don’t get the Samaritans wet again, but they do lay hands on them and pray for the Holy Spirit to be present in their lives, and that does indeed come to pass. Peter and John set this community straight about the correct formula for effective baptism.

If this sounds to you like an argument over the proper recipe for a magic spell, well, I confess that it sounds like that to me, too. Why would Peter and John assume that the Holy Spirit was not with these newly baptized believers? Just because they didn’t ask specifically? Do we not believe that God is always with us anyway, in everything we do?

Well, yes … but ritual also matters, not so much to God as to us. We Episcopalians long ago decided that we recognize as valid any baptism done with water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Anyone who baptizes by another formula, we don’t consider to be Christians. And that’s not actually very restrictive at all. We welcome as fellow Christians the vast majority of self-proclaimed Christians throughout the world.

Furthermore, we understand that baptism needs to be done with the full acknowledgment either of the person being baptized or the person’s parents. It cannot be accomplished accidentally, or through manipulation or deceit. And it cannot be accomplished without a community of faith acting in support. Even in the case of a private baptism, which is no longer our standard practice, we assume that the intent is to admit a new person into the Body of Christ.

And like Peter and John, we don’t re-baptize people. We assume that it “took” the first time. But we also have rites of renewal that help assure people that the Holy Spirit is with them. Whether through confirmation, reception into the Episcopal Church, or any other renewal of baptismal vows, the church has ways of saying publicly, “Fear not. We are all together in the Body of Christ. We all matter—no exceptions.”

I find it crucial that the Lima document makes no mention of baptism rescuing us from eternal damnation, an unfortunate and flawed understanding of what baptism is for. Christians of all stripes acknowledge that our salvation lies in the work of Jesus Christ—not in our own actions. If we said that baptism rescues us from hell, then it would be all on us to make that happen. Again, it would be a magic spell. But thankfully, baptism is not “fire insurance.” What would it say about God if it were?

We can look to today’s gospel reading for reassurance of this. Did Jesus need to be rescued from hell through the waters of baptism? Did he need his sins to be washed away? In other versions of this story, John protests: “Jesus, you should be baptizing me!” No, says Jesus. This is the right way to go about this.

So baptism, for Jesus, was not something that brought about his salvation. Rather, it was his ordination to ministry. Jesus gets wet in the Jordan River, and the Holy Spirit appears undeniably—in “bodily form,” we hear, and that’s mind-blowing! Then Jesus is immediately driven into forty days of fasting and temptation in the wilderness, a vision quest from which he returns to begin his work of calling, teaching, and healing those around him.

Baptism is our ordination to ministry as well—not like my own ordination as a priest, but rather the common ordination that all Christians undergo. In the Episcopal church, we don’t refer to seminary-trained clerics as “ministers.” We use the word “ministers” to refer to everyone who is baptized. We all have work to do! If you are baptized, you are a minister.

Wait, you ask—even baptized infants are ministers? Well, sure. As a friend of mine once remarked, “Children do ministry like they do breathing.” My own daughter, at the age of two and again at the age of three, joined a group of us in El Salvador to work alongside fellow Christians, and with her blonde hair and winning smile, she helped breach barriers of language and culture. Older children would see her and want to pick her up and carry her around. On those two journeys, we referred to Sarah as our ambassador.

Baptism is what makes you a Christian. You can trust in Jesus Christ without being baptized—indeed, that’s how adults come to desire baptism. You can know that you are loved eternally and never be baptized at all. But baptism ends your time as a solo believer. You can climb a mountaintop on Sunday morning and fetch yourself a very real spiritual experience, and there’s nothing wrong with it. But it will not help reconcile the people of the world to God and to each other. That work must be done in community with other believers. As another mentor of mine once said, “You can’t be a Christian in a vacuum.” Baptism is not just about the salvation of individual souls, but the incorporation of individuals into God’s community. The church is a messy place fraught with potential and actual conflict. But it’s also where the real possibility of divine love takes root.

I get many questions about the relationship between baptism and communion. Should people who aren’t baptized receive communion? In one sense, there’s some dissonance there, because we understand communion to be a weekly renewal of our membership in the Body of Christ. If we haven’t joined the church through baptism, does it make theological sense to receive? Most Episcopal churches still maintain that those who aren’t baptized should come forward for a blessing.

But there’s also a school of thought that says everyone should be welcome, because we can’t expect people to understand these fine distinctions of theology when they just want to be fed. The church doesn’t own Jesus, and Jesus doesn’t turn people away on a technicality. Just recently I’ve been given a new image to help me understand this perspective: Baptism makes you a member of the family of the church, and in communion, we share a family meal. We also joyfully feed guests at the same table.

But guests aren’t asked to do the dishes; family members are. Once you commit to the family of the church through baptism, you’ll be given work to do. We prepare people for baptism with classes and such because we want to make sure they understand the responsibilities that come with baptism: responsibilities to all the other members of the family. The project of the church is to act as a sign of God’s love to the world and to break down walls of hate and division. The God-project is to bring everyone back together from far away and from the end of the earth, and also to bring in the people we didn’t even know were missing. Every baptized person has a hand in this.

Well then, you say. What if I never knew this? What if my parents had me baptized as “fire insurance” but never really understood the implications? I don’t know if I want all that responsibility!

To you, I say: Hear again at these words from the prophet Isaiah. “Do not fear, I have redeemed you: I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.” These words came before there was any baptism in the Jordan, before Jesus came to be in the world. Yet these words are for you. And they are also for an entire people and an entire world. You have passed through the waters of baptism to reassure you that all shall be well. And baptism is an invitation to help make that a reality for everyone else.

And to any of you here who are not baptized, I say: Pray about it. Ponder the charge that it represents, and don’t rush. Open up a conversation with me and with other folks at Good Shepherd about baptism. Let’s talk. Amen.

[1] From Baptism, Ministry and Eucharist (also known as The Lima Document), World Council of Churches, 1982