Forty days is a long time. A lot can happen in forty days. You could quit a job, move, and start a new job in forty days. You could take and pass a one-quarter class at Virginia Theological Seminary. You could recover from a serious illness, or conquer a video game. The gestation period of a squirrel is about forty days.
Forty days is a period of time that comes up a lot in the Bible: forty days and forty nights, especially. It’s a holy amount of time, overflowing with symbolism. The church decided centuries ago that there are forty days in Lent, not counting Sundays. Many of us took on some sort of spiritual practice during the forty days of Lent. But now it has been forty days (43 actually) since the Day of Easter.
For Jesus’ disciples, the first forty days after the Resurrection were a sort of anti-Lent. They moved from fear and confusion to sudden joy as Jesus appeared to them at different times and in different ways. We have many stories in our four gospels of the appearances of the resurrected Christ, and they most certainly don’t agree with each other. But how could they? The experience was so deep, so profound, so euphoric that the disciples struggled to describe it at all, let alone try to get their stories straight. Gathering scientific data was not their primary concern. The fact of the matter was that Jesus had been dead, and was now alive! And now the most important thing in the world was to tell everybody.
But they weren’t ready to do so on the very first day. I imagine there was still as much fear as joy during that time, as Jesus came to be among them, showed them his hands, feet and side, blessed them, ate with them, but just as often mysteriously disappeared again. It wasn’t like before, with all of them trooping around the Galilean countryside, following the call of a teacher and healer. He still bore the wounds of crucifixion—nothing in the past had been undone. He had not come back so much as gone forward, and somehow he was beckoning the disciples forward with him.
It may be that by the fortieth day, they were finally starting to get used to the new situation. They would think he was gone, and then he would call to them from the seashore, urging them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat, and then sharing breakfast with them on the beach. They would think he was gone, and then they’d realize he’d been walking beside them for seven miles and they just hadn’t recognized him. He was different. His very body was different, like a hologram that you might mistake for something else if you look from the wrong angle. You had to shift your vision to see him. You had to want to see him. Sometimes believing is seeing.
Maybe they were finally getting used to this new Jesus, this resurrected Christ, in all his characteristic strangeness and overwhelming reassurance, when the Day of the Ascension came. It had been forty days. Jesus was raised from the dead. But now, a very odd thing happened. Jesus wasn’t finished yet. He had more to do, and it meant that he would leave them yet again.
“Is this the time?” his friends asked him. “After all your earthly ministry, and after your brutal murder, and after that horrible Friday and Saturday, and after your returning to be with us again, is it finally time for you to reclaim our country for us and be our king?” As usual, even after forty more days and after everything that had happened, the disciples were still asking the wrong question. They had forgotten that it wasn’t the same anymore. Not only was it not the same as before Jesus’ death, but it wasn’t the same as it had been in previous generations. There was to be no return from this exile, no exodus across a river, no re-entering the Garden of Eden. There was to be no retaking of the land from the Romans. Jesus was not going to suddenly transform from a man of peace into a conquering warrior. Yet still, they clung desperately to their preconceived notions of the way things should happen.
But the risen Christ was patient with them—maybe even more patient than he had been before his death. “You don’t need to know,” he said. “You just need to follow these instructions. Go back into the city and wait until you have been clothed with power from on high.” And then he was gone.
It took two angels to pry them from that spot. “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” they asked. “Are you looking for shapes in the clouds—the shape of things to come, perhaps? If you must know something of the future, we can tell you that he’ll be back, and he’ll come the same way you saw him go.”
Well, I don’t know what that means. Do you? It’s very mysterious. But that’s OK. Jesus had just told them that it wasn’t their job to understand. That’s so hard for us! In our day and age, we feel we have a right to understand. We’re entitled to an explanation, and if we don’t get one, we jump to the conclusion that it’s a lie, or that it’s historically outdated, or that we can just ignore it. Or worse, we feel compelled to develop our own story than says exactly what it means, and then urge people to subscribe to it!
I hope we won’t insist on doing either of these things with the Ascension—neither explain it away, nor throw it away. I want to assert that some things can, indeed, be left as mysteries. That doesn’t mean we stop thinking, pondering, imagining about them, either. We need to let the imagery seep into our hearts. The question is not, “Is this story true?”, but, “What is this story for?”
Jesus died, descended to the dead, rose again, and then ascended into heaven. This is how we talk about it in the Nicene Creed. I hear these theological doctrines pointing to a savior who is always on the go. The Son of Man has no place to rest his head. He came to be with us, to teach and to heal. He descended to the dead to be with those who feared they were lost. He burst the gates of hell and bore it up on his back, releasing all those who were trapped within. He appeared to the women and the men who had known him best and loved him most. He spent forty days with them. Why?
A lot can happen in forty days. In forty days, you could benefit from a diet, quit smoking, quit biting your nails, or take a forty-day pilgrimage or sabbatical. If you didn’t have a day job, you could watch all seven seasons of The West Wing. Forty days is a short time, but it’s a long time. It was enough time. During that forty days, Jesus helped his disciples move from fear to faith. He appeared to them enough, and reassured them enough, that they were ready to move from that hill outside Bethany—with a little prying from two angels—and go back into the city to wait. In the meantime, Jesus moved from his temporary spatial location on earth to complete the work of resurrection—to ascend—to go from being Somewhere to being Everywhere. Resurrection does not mean a return to the way things were, but a going forward into a future that’s better than we could possibly imagine. And Jesus brings us along with him into that future.
Next Sunday we will celebrate Pentecost, the Jewish feast of “first fruits.” That’s when the resurrection went public, when the disciples harvested the first fruits of the reassurance and strength Jesus had given them for forty days. Indeed they did return to the city, and they waited. And when, to their strength and reassurance, God added to them the power of the Holy Spirit, they were ready. They were ready to go out to the ends of the earth and set the world on fire with the Good News that Christ is alive, that the exile is over and we can go on up to the new Jerusalem, that our exodus is accomplished across a new, eternal river, that a new Eden awaits, and that the entire universe has been delivered from death and saved forever. Amen.
Sunday, April 28, 2013
sermon preached at Church of the Ascension, Silver Spring, MD
by Josh Hosler, Seminarian
The Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year C/ April 28, 2013
“See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” Amen.
I have a cousin who is a Southern Baptist. We don’t have much in common politically, but we do share a love of C. S. Lewis, and I respect his deep involvement with disaster relief efforts. We both do the work we do from the heart. We both feel called by God to live a life of faith. Recently my cousin posted on Facebook this quote from a Baptist pastor and author named David Platt: “Faith is the anti-work. It’s the realization that there is nothing YOU can do but trust in what has been done for you in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.”
When I read this quote, all the things I don’t understand about my cousin seemed to become less important. Faith is the anti-work. All we can do is trust. Yes. We have faith in common, my cousin and I. It works to overcome the barriers that stand between us. Faith gives me hope.
Christians hope together as well. Some say the Christian hope is that we will go to heaven when we die, while others hope for “thy kingdom come on earth, as it is in heaven.” There’s nothing wrong with believing both things at the same time. Either way, “the home of God is among mortals.” This is our common hope.
One morning when I was about twelve years old, I woke from the most amazing dream of my life. Inspired by C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, I dreamed I had died, along with my entire family, and that I found myself in a beautiful, sunny land with green, rolling hills. All my friends were there, and new friends as well. My brother and some other boys were playing together, had a disagreement, and got into a fight. But they found that their blows did nothing to harm each other, so they shrugged and stopped fighting. The great lion Aslan was there, too: he divided us into groups and had us sit down on the grass to eat together. We reached into our pockets and drew out as much food as we wanted. There were games and fun, and there were deep, important conversations. Above all, there was a growing realization that this was forever: that we would never have to be parted or miss anybody ever again, and that death was only a memory.
This dream felt like a promise, and it has sustained me ever since. I think this passage from the Revelation to John is intended to be a promise as well. In John’s vision, the very cosmos is changed: not only is there no need of a temple, but there is not even need of the moon or sun, for light pervades everything. The sea, for the Hebrews a longtime symbol of primordial chaos, has been done away with. There is no more war or fighting, for the very leaves of the trees are able to heal broken nations. The tree of life, which God prevented Adam and Eve from touching when he banished them from the garden, is now available to everyone. A river waters everything all around; perhaps it flows with the waters of baptism. In this place, we are all marked and sealed on our foreheads as God’s own forever. This unifying promise is the Christian hope.
St. Paul wrote that “faith, hope and love abide, these three, but the greatest of these is love.” Love really unifies us. This is the “new command” Jesus gives us, that we “love one another.” It may seem hypocritical to suggest that love is a special mark of Christians. After all, you don’t have to be a Christian to love, and we can see Christians failing to love everywhere we look. How can love be that by which everyone will know that we are Jesus’ disciples?
I believe that Christianity stands at a crossroads today. As individuals and as Christian communities, we need to decide just how seriously to take Jesus’ command. It’s not easy. Love comes with a cost. It will cause us to reevaluate our priorities. It will draw us into scary places, places where might be wrong, where we are unable to control the outcome of events. But having faith in Jesus means trusting that love, in the end, works—for even if it costs us our very lives, it cannot cost us our dignity as children of God. So how do we begin to love one another?
In our baptismal covenant, we promise to “respect the dignity of every human being.” This promise has always pulled strongly on me. I believe it is a very good starting place for the Christian who wants to learn to love more deeply.
So in what actions do we show that we respect the dignity of others? A few practices come to mind, and they begin very simply. First, get to know people’s names and stories. In my time in the Dominican Republic in January, I was invited to help serve food to hungry people in the courtyard of the Episcopal cathedral. I watched closely for signs that dignity was being respected. While there was some room for improvement, I noticed immediately that the people to be fed were called by name. A logical next step for the organizers would be to learn the people’s stories: where they have come from, where they hope soon to be, what they most desire, and what they most fear. To do so with a needy population introduces a higher risk, but it is the only possible way to move from merely meeting people’s daily needs to promoting transformation in their lives.
Another helpful practice is to allow oneself to be wrong. Recently I heard a story about a woman who, while working in a library, was confronted by an angry customer who couldn’t find the topic “Psychology.” She complained, “What kind of library is this? I can’t find Psychology anywhere in the ‘S’ section of the card catalogue!” The library employee patiently suggested, “Oh, let’s try the alternate spelling of Psychology, under ‘P.’” The problem was solved, and the customer’s dignity was respected.
In my life as a parent, I am constantly presented with the choice of whether to build my daughter up or break her down. When my patience runs thin and my anxiety runs high, I fear that I respect her dignity less often than I should. When she is unreasonable, she can box herself into a corner and refuse to see any solution to whatever problem she may face. But when I can find within myself the capacity to suggest a graceful solution to a problem that seems to her intractable, I have respected her dignity. Creativity and improvisation are key elements in respecting human dignity.
Likewise, to respect dignity as often as possible, one must not lose the forest for the trees. Once I was working with a teenage boy who was writing an article for a church newsletter. His atrocious grammar showed me he had never paid attention in English class. But he cared what he was writing about, and I missed that passion completely. I spent so much effort trying to get him to rewrite his article that he gave up and stormed out in a huff. We were never able to build a rapport again after that. I had failed to respect his dignity.
Finally, to respect dignity means to treat the other as an equal, no matter what society may dictate. My 13-year-old goddaughter Kaia spends much of her time training and showing dogs. Last week she told me sagely, “You have to treat them like equals. If you yell at them, they’ll only be afraid of you. If you plead with them, they’ll say, ‘I don’t have to do this.’” I replied, “I think that’s very wise, and I wonder how you might apply it to relationships with people.” She said, “Well, that’s much harder.” Yet this is exactly what Jesus did: everyone he encountered, from the rich and powerful to children and outcasts, received his respect. Peter respected the dignity of the Gentiles to whose home he was called when he followed the Holy Spirit’s direction not to make a distinction between himself and them.
To take the time to get to know people, to be willing to be wrong, to find creative solutions, to “keep the main thing the main thing,” and to insist on an equal relationship—in all of these practices, we respect people’s dignity. Examples abound. I might find myself offended by something a friend has said in public. But I will delay an appropriate confrontation until my friend and I are alone. Perhaps I find myself overly eager to hear my wife’s deepest feelings about a job interview, but I will wait until she is ready to share. In some cases, I might even give up something very precious to me—my pride, my reputation, perhaps even money—so that another person will not lose face. Only through respecting dignity can we rise to the type of love Jesus asks of us. Only through respecting dignity can we aspire to the paradox of giving ourselves away completely without losing ourselves at all. This is what Jesus accomplished on the cross, and it is the heart of Christian love.
The main intentions of all these actions are twofold: to build up the other’s self-worth, and to sublimate our urge to control. But these practices can also deepen our relationship with God. We cannot promote others’ self-worth for long without finding that we also love ourselves more, and in this, we are loving God’s creation from more than one angle. We cannot let go of control too many times before we realize that it is not usually fatal to do so, and this deepens our trust in God. We begin to trust that simply by our practice of respecting dignity, love will result. By respecting each other’s dignity, we can achieve true unity—not uniformity, but unity. Jesus unites us around the common purpose of love, and in so doing, he reveals God’s Kingdom already breaking into this fallen world.
We have been given a promise of eternal life, and we have also been promised that loving one another is the way to fit ourselves for such a life. May the Holy Spirit continue to guide us in our efforts to respect the dignity of every human being, that with faith and hope, we may love one another as Jesus has loved us. Amen.
Tuesday, April 16, 2013
"Got Jesus?" This bumper sticker drives me crazy, because to "get Jesus" or to “bring Jesus” to people is a fallacy. We don’t get to decide who Jesus will meet or where Jesus will be at work. Jesus is not an inanimate object for the transporting and obtaining, but a person who is even more alive than we are.
The work of Christians is to perceive where Jesus is already at work, and then decide whether to join in his work, and how deeply. Any one of us—Christian or not—can participate in Jesus’ work without even realizing it. But to come to a deeper understanding of Jesus and his work in the world is a joyful and exciting state to be in. That’s the path I choose, and I hope to be helpful to others as well, not bringing Jesus from somewhere else, but showing them Jesus already hard at work and encouraging them to join in this difficult, joyful work.
What is the work of Jesus? We see it revealed in the Gospels, in the story of the thirty years of Jesus’ limited, earthly life. He called people, taught people, fed people, and sent people. When you feel called, taught, fed, and sent, pay attention. Jesus is there, loving you into a fresher, deeper expression of yourself.
It’s not supposed to be easy. Actually, it’s supposed to call you outside of yourself. When you give deeply of yourself to another person, you are working with Jesus. When you find yourself using gifts you didn’t even know you had, you honoring the call of Jesus. When you have to stretch to understand another person’s perspective, you are making room for Jesus. When you are more interested in continuing the conversation than in resolving it once and for all, you are acknowledging your own limitations and trusting that Jesus has more to teach you.
Does this mean that Christians never say no, never reject another’s perspective? Of course not. The work of discernment also includes moments of rejecting an agenda that is contrary to Jesus. But we are to make such judgments very carefully, lest we find that our own limitations are preventing us from finding the good that is in front of us.
Is it necessary for people to be Christians in order to engage in work with Jesus? Absolutely not. But as a baptized and confirmed Christian, I have chosen to walk in Jesus' footsteps, wherever they may lead. Anyone who is doing the work of Jesus is a companion of mine.
Friday, April 12, 2013
Wednesday, April 10, 2013
You divided the water from water
In creation you made us a space
When the rains of the flood burst upon us
The rainbow revealed your true face
So baptize us in this water
Make room for us all in your boat
Baptize us in this water
The water that keeps us afloat
You delivered us through the water
To a dry land you led us ahead
And you quenched all our thirst in the desert
And provided our daily bread
So baptize us in this water
Release us from captivity
Baptize us in this water
The water that sets us free
You have led us to lie by the water
You have pastured the greatest and least
And you offer to all who are thirsty
Your wisdom, and spread us a feast
So baptize us in this water
Invite us to drink without pay
Baptize us in this water
And shepherd us all today
You have wetted and breathed on our dry bones
You have raised us and caused us to stand
You have drowned us and brought us up singing
By rivers in your promised land
O baptize us in your water
And heal us with leaves from your tree
Baptize us in your water
And water us eternally
© 2013 by Josh Hosler
Monday, March 25, 2013
mini-homily preached at Church of the Ascension, Silver Spring, MD
in the midst of Luke’s Passion Narrative
by Josh Hosler, Seminarian
Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday/ March 24, 2013
Judas decided not to tell Jesus he had sharpened his sword and brought it along. It seemed like Jesus might object, and Judas really needed him not to object. After all, Jesus had tens of thousands of devoted followers in town for the Passover feast. If he asked them to, they’d rise up and take the city from the Romans. Then they could buckle down for the real fight! There would be a siege, of course, but if Jesus could feed 5000 people with five loaves of bread, that wouldn’t be a problem. Before the year was out, the Jews would have their country back, and their Messiah as King! So Judas kept his sword carefully stowed, and he waited.
On the Sunday before the Passover, the gang rode into town. People started laying palm branches at the feet of the donkey. It was the weirdest demonstration you’ve ever seen, because there was no dissent within the ranks. No troublemakers, no conflicting agendas, no need to reach for Judas to reach for his sword. The people adored Jesus. They were ready to make him king; it was as if they were waiting for a cue. Jesus’ little stunt against the money-changers wasn’t it, though. It did upset a lot of people, what with Jesus running around smashing things and shouting, “God is not for sale!” But the authorities didn’t make for him then because they were so shocked. They actually allowed him to stay in the temple and teach. Teach? Was this revolution ever going to happen?
See, Judas worried that demonstrations of humility and minor acts of vandalism might not have the intended effect. It was then that he realized he should have been not just the treasurer, but also the PR and marketing guy. He had friends among the Pharisee higher-ups, and he always had the big picture in mind. Jesus needed a handler, and Judas would have been the best person for the job. For one thing, he could have converted all those rambling parables of the Kingdom of God into useful sound bites. Judas was a do-er … he couldn’t stop doing. But Jesus didn’t want Judas to do anything like that. So in the end, Judas took his game elsewhere. And everything unraveled pretty quickly after that.
Did Jesus knew how all this would shake out? It’s hard to say. But here’s one thing Judas just didn’t understand: that week that Jesus rode into town, trashed the temple, told his final parables, and called his friends together for a meal … that was the beginning of the end of religion. That might sound confusing, so let me clarify. By “the end of religion,” I don’t mean the end of communities of faith. We will always need places like this where we can worship God and organize to help the poor, who are still with us. We need to keep practicing, because at our best, we help reveal little pockets of the Kingdom of God. When the Kingdom comes, it slips in quietly, through the back gate. But it can never come into being until we’ve put away our swords.
We also need to get together to keep telling the parables—those rambling stories that can’t be reduced to sound bites. There was no way for Jesus to give us his message directly, as if God were some sort of mathematical formula. So through his stories, Jesus planted seeds in our imaginations. He left pearls, treasures for us to find … but we don’t find them when we don’t want to look. Jesus mixed his yeast into the dough. Will we let the dough rise? He invited us to go fishing, and he showed us how much sustenance we could catch if only we were hungry enough. Are we hungry enough? Are we paying attention?
If Judas had been paying attention, he would have seen that Jesus didn’t just tell parables. In the end, first by giving us bread and wine and then by submitting to everything that happened afterward, he became a parable.
And so it ends at the beginning. The end of religion means the end of oppressive, arbitrary rules and the beginning of a deeper relationship that put the rules into greater perspective. It means the end of dogmatically dictated sacrifices at the expense of the needy. It means the end of the anemic systems we create to try to “get right with God,” like: “God, if you do this for me, I’ll never do such-and-such again.” And arguments about who’s in and who’s out. And even the fear of death. Jesus’ time among us was a little taste of the day when there will be no dissent or oppression, because we’ll all learn to relax into God’s love and relax into loving each other. On that day, we’ll all understand that God truly has given us everything we need. I wonder if Judas understands that now? I hope so. I hope he finally came around—even through despair and on the other side of the grave, I hope he found the arms of his friend Jesus warm and welcoming.