Tuesday, March 20, 2018

We Wish to See Jesus

sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Associate Priest for Adult Formation
Lent 5B, March 18, 2018
Have you ever tried to be good—I mean, tried really hard over a significant period of time? Sometimes I say, “I’m going to be less openly critical of people I’m impatient with” … or, “I’m going to be more aware of my feelings in the moment” … or, “I’m going to call my elected officials every single weekday.” And I do OK for a while, but then I just somehow … stop. Maybe this is because I don’t actually want to make these changes in my life. They are a bother, and they keep me from what I really want: an endless stream of comfort and entertainment. Can you relate?
Now, of course I also find good works fulfilling. But it takes effort to do them, and sometimes I just don’t have the energy. And that’s not merely an excuse. I simply cannot be good by myself.
In our Collect of the Day, we prayed that God might help us want what God wants. This is a very countercultural statement: help us not to want what we currently want, but what God wants instead. I may want something sinful, but I don’t want to want it. In fact, I want not to want it. That’s not enough to get me all the way there.
Do you ever feel helpless in the face of goodness? When you fail to “be good,” do you throw your hands up in disgust at yourself? Do you beat yourself up? When C.S. Lewis became a Christian, he set himself the task of becoming the kind of person he thought a Christian should be: a purely good person. He failed miserably. And in that failing, he learned something crucial: this failure is not only normal. It’s the whole point.
The Hebrew Scriptures are the story of the People of Israel learning to be God’s chosen people, sent to reveal the nature of God to all the peoples of the world. Now, for the Hebrew prophets, “being good” revolved around two main goals: fidelity to the One God, and social justice. So it’s no surprise and not at all revolutionary that Jesus summed up the entire law as “Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
Was Israel’s status as the Chosen People to be dependent on their being good? Not really. Being good was part of what God asked of them, and they failed again and again and again. Yet the breaking of the covenant came not when they failed to be good, but when they failed to acknowledge their failure and turn to God for help. The murderous adulterer King David is the exemplar of the failed hero who repents and returns to God.
In today’s passage from Jeremiah, we hear God’s heartbreak at the broken covenant, and then we witness God’s resolve to do a new thing: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” This new covenant is eschatological: that is, it is a vision of what will happen at the fulfilling of all of God’s plans.
The new covenant won’t come by force, because that would defeat the purpose. We may sometimes interpret God as using force, and you’ll find plenty of evidence in the Bible for that. But ultimately, God wants us to think for ourselves and to accept God’s love freely. For as long as I believe myself to be in control of my own destiny, I will exert that control. When it fails me, I will have to depend on God. And then, hopefully, I’ll come out the other side and realize that there is very little I have actual control of, but that God would like to see me use that little bit of control to accomplish good works.
And so we do good works, small and large. We do our best. We treat our families and friends well, but also those who are of no apparent use to us. We feed the hungry and house the homeless. We give money to help make positive changes in the world. And it’s nice when I find that I can bear much fruit. But it won’t last—not reliably. I will fail again at being good.
Jesus himself finds “good” to be a suspicious label. When a powerful ruler addresses him as “good teacher,” Jesus says, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” Even the one who is to be equated by God won’t put up with being called good. Why?
For one thing, the notion of being good might lead us to think that there are only good people and bad people. Whenever anyone draws this distinction in black and white between good guys and bad guys, please be suspicious! It’s just not that simple. To be straight-up “good people” is beyond the reach of every one of us. And so we should also know that God has no time for our declarations about who is “a monster” or “purely evil.”
The notion of being good might also lead us to identify good people and put them on a pedestal. Then we find out that Martin Luther King, Jr. cheated on his wife. And Gandhi sexually exploited young girls. And not just him: how many of your celebrities have been taken down lately for their despicable actions with the simple hashtag “#metoo”? This is just the working out of justice. If you find yourself placing all your hope in a human being to fix what’s wrong with the world, you’re in for a disappointment. Our heroes, for all their good deeds, are proven not to be saviors through their bad deeds.
I think the project of “being good” is a trap and an idol. We can’t live our best lives now. We can’t better ourselves into salvation. Safety and prosperity and self-actualization are short-sighted illusions. Giving away your money and forgiving your enemies is great when you can manage it, but it will not win you any brownie points. We can’t earn our way into “the good place.” Do good when you can. Repent of the evil you have done and make amends. But for God’s sake, don’t think you can be good.
So if that’s not the goal, then what is? Jeremiah hears God saying, “They shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.” And how will this come about? “For I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”
God will forgive us, and then we will know God. We can’t be good until we know our evil and then find ourselves forgiven. We will be good when our trust in God’s goodness restores us to goodness.
How does this connect with today’s gospel reading? Some Greeks came to the festival of Passover to worship. They said, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” I am fascinated by the identity of these “Greeks.” There’s a silly part of me that wants to imagine them as sorority women and frat boys. But most likely, they are “God-fearers,” a term for Gentiles who hang out in the synagogues and at the temple. This was apparently a popular thing in the Greco-Roman world.
Today we might compare God-fearers to people who come to church, but who don’t seek baptism and thus a full commitment to the Christian faith. But there’s a key difference: Jews don’t generally proselytize. There never was a mission to convert the whole world to Judaism; it was always understood to be an ethnic distinction and not a matter of belief. These Greeks could have been circumcised and become Jews if they wished, but there was no theological urgency to do so. The God-fearers were an expected, respected part of the Jewish community.
So these Greeks show up, and while we never find out whether they get to see Jesus, the effect on Jesus is apparently profound. He says, “The hour has come.” Once the Gentiles wish to see Jesus, the tipping point has been achieved, and the message is about to go viral. Nothing now will stop the spread of the Gospel. This is Jesus’ cue that it’s time to complete his work. Not many years later, Paul will write, “There is no longer Jew or Greek,” and I like to imagine that these anonymous Greeks are the ones who got that ball rolling.
Jesus knows now that there is only one thing left to do: to surrender his life to those who wish to silence him. Jesus will die, and then the evil powers of this world will be unmasked, exposed, subjected to judgment. The evil one who has been ruling the world will rule it no longer. “And I,” says Jesus, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all to myself.” Our English translation says “all people,” but in the Greek, it’s just “all”—so I prefer to think of it as “all creation.” Everything in our creation dies and rises to new life in Christ.
And this is why I am not in direct pursuit of “being good.” Jesus has begun the work of writing the law on my heart. My good works will be honored, and my evil works will be judged. But seeking holiness through some quid pro quo, tit-for-tat, transactional system of good works never lasts for long. Goodness can only grow and thrive in the context of eternal love. And please know that this is not a mushy kind of loving feeling, but fierce, fiery, loving action—the love by which God pursues us. And that love includes loving judgment and the expectation of growth and change. The phrase I keep returning to this Lent is, “God is growing me.”
I think I’m rather like those Greeks. I just wish to see Jesus, because to see Jesus is to begin to know Jesus. Jesus is the one who is life springing from death, the one who shares that death with us for the purpose of abundant life for all of us. I wish to see Jesus so I can follow Jesus into his death. I wish to stand before him and offer myself as a living sacrifice. I wish to unpack all the evil in me, lay it at his feet, and say, “Well, here it is—all of it. Please judge me. Please burn away all these worthless things. But be on the lookout for a single good grain that can be buried with you. Please nourish it and help it to grow. I can’t do this work—only you can.”

Indeed, I have learned that in my baptism, I have already joined Jesus in his death, and now my life is “hidden” there with him—hidden like a seed growing deep in the earth. Amen.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

A Foolish Story

sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Associate Priest for Adult Formation
The Third Sunday in Lent, Year B, March 4, 2018
I’m here to share a little foolishness with you in the form of a story.
Once upon a time there was a Creator who made a universe. And the Creator put creatures in the universe and gave them the ability to become creators themselves. The Creator gave them a space in which to create and said, “It is very good.” But it didn’t stay that way. The creatures chose a path of fear and scarcity. They gave in to their worst impulses and abused and murdered one another. They grieved their Creator and broke the relationship.
So the Creator made a series of deals with the creatures: “If you’ll listen to my advice and heed it, we’ll have a good relationship.” The Creator sent a Law, and then the Creator sent prophets to correct the creatures when they failed to follow it. And finally, when it became clear that none of this was working, the Creator launched a rescue mission. The Creator became the Created and lived among the creatures on their own terms, for the span of one human life, subject to all the changes and chances of that life. Jesus called disciples, healed the sick, and spoke words of comfort and challenge: the Good News that the Creator’s community of love was in the process of arriving.
And then the creatures killed him. They mocked Jesus for his foolishness, abused him, tortured him, and hung him on a cross to die.
But then—then!—in the sneakiest twist of all, Jesus came back from the dead to say to those who had been closest to him: “OK, I’ve done it. It’s all been repaired. You have nothing more to fear. You are citizens of my community, and I love you eternally. Trust me, and you will benefit from my love. Now go and spread this Good News!”
Many of the creatures rejoiced at the Good News and rushed to share it, but nobody really understood it completely, and there wasn’t unanimous understanding of what made the News so Good or how exactly it had taken effect. In fact, the evidence was sketchy that it had had any effect at all. Most of the creatures went on in fear and scarcity and kept on abusing and murdering one another—including many of those who most ardently proclaimed the Good News. But others told the story compellingly, and as a result, some learned to live lives of thankfulness, joy, and self-sacrificial caring. So here we are today, the inheritors of a story in which the Creator becomes the created, dies, and saves the unwitting world of creatures who still struggle to understand just what happened there.
Does this story make sense to you? Or does it just sound like foolishness?
Paul writes to the Corinthians, “The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God … For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
We all know what it feels like to be foolish and weak. It’s not a good feeling, so we spend much of our lives avoiding it. We shore ourselves up with money, education, possessions, street smarts, influence … we grab onto anything we can to avoid foolishness and weakness. But sooner or later, it all fails us. Sometimes we do look ridiculous. Sometimes we do run up against the limits of our strength. At the end of the day, we are all, always, foolish and weak.
Death is the epitome of these things. Death comes to snatch every last one of us away, foolish creatures who act as if life goes on forever—weak creatures who try to stay alive and fail. Every last one of us.
I think that’s the key.
If the Creator wanted to rescue all of us, why not do so using the very mechanism that we are all fated to experience? Only some of us gain lots of knowledge, or a measure of security, or a host of praise from others. Not everyone. So these can’t be saving mechanisms. Only the thing toward which we are all heading—only death—is the universal experience. So of course, only death can be the door to eternal life.
But mark this carefully, because this is crucial: eternal life is not merely something we have to wait for. Our task is not to hang around waiting for the salvation of death. Remember how sneaky this Creator is. The mechanism of death has been built backward, so that every time we experience the foolishness and weakness that are a foretaste of death, we are actually participating in our own rescue!
This part is a little harder to grasp, but I myself have experienced it. I have gone through crises of faith, of employment, of self-confidence, of health, of good things ending—all of which have deepened my dependence on God to provide a hope that I cannot manufacture. Now, whether God sends crises into my life is for me to wonder about, not you. Likewise, I wouldn’t dare offer that interpretation about anything specific in your life. Above all, I don’t believe that God brings harm upon us. To whatever degree God’s hand is in our various crises, it is exclusively for opening up new possibilities for Love.
This is my challenge to you, and to me, too: to trust that the Creator is creatively involved, not only at the beginning and at the end, but at every point in the middle as well. “See! The home of God is among mortals,” we hear in the Revelation to John. In our times of happiness and security, the Creator is with us, sharing our joy. When tragedy occurs, God is the first to cry. And through our everyday foolishness and weakness, we are in the process of being saved.
This story rings true to me—maybe just because it is so bizarre. And not just enough to make me say, “Yeah, I’ll go along with that,” but also, “Not only will I go along with that, but I’ll build my life around it!” In baptism, we audaciously take this Christian story of salvation through weakness, which can be told in so many different ways, and entrust ourselves to it. Not everybody is going to adopt the Christian story, but that’s not our concern. We only need to share it: to say to those we meet and love, “Look! Here is my story, and here is this ridiculous, sweeping back story, and here’s how the one fits into the other.” And then see what happens. See how the Holy Spirit decides to move.
It’s hard to be a creature of the Creator. We’re always looking for the right answers, because wisdom makes us feel better about ourselves. And we’re always looking for signs that we’re on the right track: if not a burning bush, then anything at all. The temptation is always there to shore ourselves up, to make ourselves less vulnerable to attack. But when we acknowledge to one another that we are all foolish and weak—when we become this vulnerable—we make ourselves easier to love. Nobody really loves those who think they have it all figured out; there’s no joy there. Joy grows out of vulnerability.
Jesus knew that—learned that? Being human, he learned the whole range of human emotions, including anger, as we hear in the gospel today. A lot of people wield anger as a sword or a shield. But in reality, anger makes us more vulnerable because it’s so honest. And I think that when Jesus shows us his anger in the Temple, it is driven by love.
The march from Selma to Birmingham, 1965
Source: assets.pewresearch.org
Our college group, EPIC, has been on retreat here at St. Paul’s all weekend. Yesterday we watched the film Selma, reflected on the work of Martin Luther King, Jr., and mused on the responsibilities of white folks to dismantle racism in our society. One of the main emotions the film brought out for us was anger: righteous anger at the white people who were perpetuating these injustices. We couldn’t help but bring the conversation up to our own times, where naked bigotry in Charlottesville last summer drove home for us just how much growing white folks still need to do. We wondered about Dr. King’s commitment to nonviolence: was it foolishness? Or was it the power of God and the wisdom of God? And naturally, we came around to today’s gospel reading, of Jesus in the temple.
At one point in the movie Selma, a New York Times reporter says to Dr. King, “You say you’re committed to nonviolence. But aren’t you inciting violence?” King replies that his work is to hold white folks accountable for the violence they have always perpetrated in secret—to bring it out into the light where it can no longer hide. Dr. King took his example from Jesus himself, the Creator who became the Created and exposed the evil in all of us.
On that day in the temple, Love demanded that injustice be opposed as publicly as possible. In the face of injustice, righteous anger is the holiest of responses. By expressing his anger, Jesus shows us God’s heart.
When you feel angry, ask yourself: “Does this anger come from fear and urge me toward self-protection? Or does it come from love and urge me to risk?” If it comes from fear, watch out! This is the enslaving force that God is trying to rescue you from. But if your anger comes from love, you can risk a creative course of action. “What would Jesus do?”—well, he might flip tables. He might pick up a whip and drive all the cattle out of the temple.
Jesus became angry out of love for God and for his fellow Jews. When we address the injustices of our times—racism, financial inequity, the abuse of those with less power—we, too, are to act out of love. We can do this by staying grounded in the conviction that all our fellow creatures are to be loved, simply because we are all creatures of the Creator. Have you, at some point, been called to force a crisis for the sake of Love?
So that’s what I’ve got for you today: Jesus’ righteous, loving anger, and Paul’s foolish proclamation. Is that enough? I pray that the foolishness of the gospel will always be enough to guide me. May I become an absolute fool in the eyes of the conventionally wise. And I hope you might foolishly join me in it. Let us go to great, gutsy lengths to love one another and to keep sharing the Good News of this ridiculous, saving story. Amen.