Sunday, June 24, 2018

Boats in the Storm


sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Associate Priest for Adult Formation
The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 7B, June 24, 2018

Almighty God, who created us in your own image: Grant us grace fearlessly to contend against evil and to make no peace with oppression; and, that we may reverently use our freedom, help us to employ it in the maintenance of justice in our communities and among the nations, to the glory of your holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

We live in stormy times. When I first arrived among you four years ago, I wrote in a newsletter article, “Life is an epic adventure.” That sounds exciting, but it’s also harrowing. You don’t have an epic adventure without hardship and suffering—your own, or that of those around you. Once the story is read, you may be able place the worst episodes in perspective. But we can’t do that from where we’re sitting. We look around our nation and the world, and people are suffering. It’s especially blatant and unmistakable right now. We are part of broken human systems, and in many ways, we are complicit in them. We’re in uncharted waters in the middle of a storm.

Which boat are you in? I’ve got news for you: if you’re baptized, you’re not in any boat that belongs to your family or nation or ideology. You’re in Jesus’ boat. How do we, as Christians, respond to these stormy times? Some of us content ourselves with saying, “Well, I go about my life and try to be a nice person.” Unfortunately, that does next to nothing to address injustice and may actually help perpetuate it. Others of us fret and fuss and fume, flailing about busily to do something—anything—to make the anxiety go away. We don’t respond; we react. And the net result isn’t always positive.

Between these two extremes, some good work does get done. But meanwhile, where is Jesus? This is his boat we’re in, after all. We were counting on him to be our pilot, to steer our ship safely to shore. Instead he’s in the stern, asleep on a cushion! “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

Jesus Calming the Storm (10th century)
from http://imaginemdei.blogspot.com

When the disciples cry out, Jesus immediately wakes up and calms the storm. I find it annoying that the storm hadn’t disturbed Jesus’ sleep up to this point, but he does wake up, and he does help.

Some biblical commentators suggest that this is not a natural storm, but the product of evil forces. Jesus and his disciples are on their way to the country of the Gerasenes, where Jesus will send an unclean spirit out of a man and into a herd of pigs. Could this storm be an attempt to prevent Jesus’ arrival? In response, Jesus contends against evil and makes no peace with oppression. And if these commentators are correct, Jesus’ calming of the storm sends a warning to the forces that seek to oppose him on the far shore. Where Jesus goes, things get set right. Where Jesus goes, justice follows.

As Christians who know this, we come to church to find Jesus, imagining that we might wake him up and receive relief from the storm. But is this our experience? When we cry for help, does Jesus come to our rescue?

Well, first of all, just because there’s a storm doesn’t mean that Jesus is absent or asleep. Indeed, from Jesus’ reaction to the disciples—“Why are you afraid?”—I’m led to believe that they all would have been fine whether Jesus had calmed the storm or not. Jesus doesn’t calm the storm to save his friends from perishing. He calms the storm because they ask him to. It may be that the storm of the disciples’ own anxiety is far more dangerous than the storm raging around their boat.

Remember that at the heart of our faith is Good News: the news that in coming to be among us, in living and dying as one of us, Jesus has reconciled the entire universe to God. We can imagine all sorts of theories as to how this has happened—and we do. And we can splinter into tens of thousands of denominations and argue about how it works and what it means for the living of our daily lives—and we have. But that’s not the point. The point is that Christians dare to believe that Jesus has made everything right, and that even if the work doesn’t appear to be finished yet, it’s a fait accompli. It’s easy enough to say it. But do we believe it?

Maintaining trust in God, even in the face of Good News, is very difficult when the storms of life are raging all around us. This leap of faith is difficult for us because we are in pain. If the Good News is so Good, why is there still injustice and suffering? This is the big question of all theology. Job knew it, though his answer from God was, “Shut up and know your place!” I’m not sure I like that answer. As for me, the simplest answer I’ve been able to find is that much of this injustice and suffering continues because we inflict it, and because we allow it. If we want there to be less injustice and suffering, we will work to end it.

But during such stormy times, we can’t always work out what to do next, and sometimes we just want some comfort. I pray that you find that comfort here at St. Paul’s on a regular basis. But I also pray that you also find sufficient challenge: challenge not just to believe with your head and your heart, but to live the Gospel by actively relieving people’s pain, as individuals, and in organized groups. So much of that work already goes on in this place, and everybody is invited into it. As Christians, we have a duty to each other and to everybody in the world: a duty to love, not just with fuzzy feelings, but with bold actions. Comfort and challenge: these are two things to pray for in equal measure.

This past week, I looked back on articles I wrote in my first year among you at St. Paul’s. Most of them were about baptism, through which we are adopted into Jesus’ boat. And so, as I move on from St. Paul’s to take up my new position as rector of Church of the Good Shepherd in Federal Way, I will end here the way I began: with our Baptismal Covenant.

The first element of the Baptismal Covenant is the Creed. “Do you believe?” we ask three times, once for each person of the Trinity, and believing is a word which here means trusting. Are you willing to proceed with your life trusting in a Trinitarian truth that is realer than reality? Are you willing to step out into the darkness with this Creed as your guide?

After the Creed, we turn to five solemn vows, to which we respond, “I will, with God’s help.” I’ll say them now, and you can respond—but don’t do it unless you mean it! First:

Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers?
I will, with God’s help.
You have just promised to come to church—any church; it doesn’t have to be Episcopal—and to participate in its community, not just when there’s nothing else going on this Sunday morning, but as your central practice and deeply ingrained habit, and to keep praying, and to keep learning.

Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
I will, with God’s help.
You have just admitted that you are not perfect, and you have promised never to assume that you are in the right, but to keep learning humbly and turning around thankfully.

Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
I will, with God’s help.
You have just promised to evangelize. Evangelism simply means telling your story of God’s Good News in your life in a way that understands it also to be Good News for everybody in the world, not just a privileged few. This may or may not involve standing on street corners, but it never involves words of paranoia or hatred.

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
I will, with God’s help.
You have just promised to trust Jesus’ presence not only in those you know and love, but also in your enemies—whom you have promised to love as well as your friends. You have promised to treat everyone in the world as the divine creations they are.

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
I will, with God’s help.
You have just promised not to be silently complicit in any evil actions of your own people, your own church, or your own nation. You have promised to work to dismantle any system that dehumanizes—understanding that people are never to be used as a means to an end, for all human beings are a divine end in themselves.

So … how’s it going? How is your relationship with God stretching and growing? And how will you respond in the wider world outside of your private prayer life? Does it strengthen you to understand that Jesus is in the boat with you—to know that there is grace even in the storm, and that you are loved eternally and through every storm?

By the way, I notice that our Gospel text also says, “Other boats were with him.” Now, I might just be making this up, but I like to think that Mark, writing for the early Church, included this sentence as a way of including those catechumens who were preparing for baptism into the Body of Christ. They weren’t in the boat yet, but as they learned about the faith and heard the Gospel, the text gave them another boat to imagine themselves into, also under Jesus’ care. Perhaps you find yourself in one of these other boats, trying to figure all this out.

But whichever boat you’re in, we’re all in the same storm, and Jesus is here, too. We are surrounded by dangers and wonders, and sometimes it feels like we’ll all be washed overboard.

And then there are moments of surprising calm and peace, and with that calm comes a promise: we will be brought to the harbor we were bound for. “Now,” comes the voice, “now is the day of salvation.” Not just someday in the far-off future, and not just at the end of your earthly life: now. You are saved from the storm even in the midst of it. 

It has been my honor to sail these stormy seas with all of you for the past four years. Sail on, with Jesus as your captain. And when your anxiety becomes too much to bear and you cry out for help, may Jesus wake, stand on the prow, and cry out, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped!” Amen.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Three Things at Once


sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Associate Priest for Adult Formation
Trinity Sunday, May 27, 2018

This sermon will be about three things at once. I pray that the three topics may be one, acting with the same intention, mysterious but not incomprehensible, and not going on too long. This sermon will be about the Trinity, about the difference between flesh and spirit, and about the royal wedding. Of course.

But I want to start with our Psalm today, Psalm 29. There’s a verse in it that’s very strange. The Book of Common Prayer has it, “The voice of the LORD makes the oak trees writhe and strips the forests bare.” But if you really dig into the ancient Hebrew text, it could just as easily read, “The voice of the LORD brings labor pains upon a doe and causes a mountain goat to give birth prematurely.” We don’t know which is correct. But what if the psalmist intended to say both things at the same time?

This is why I love the Hebrew language, and this is why Psalm 29 is my very favorite psalm. What better poetry could there be than poetry that offers not one meaning, but many? What better faith could there be than a faith that is poetry and not just rote teaching? And what better text to speak to such a faith than the Bible we have, such a curious conglomeration of texts written by multiple authors over more than a thousand years—texts that alternately delight and horrify, relieve and confuse? What a weird thing this is, this faith that has been handed on to us. And is there any weirder inheritance of ours than the doctrine of the Trinity?

Is the Trinity in the Bible? Well, yes and no. No, if you mean a semi-cohesive theological formula by which 1+1+1=1. That would come later, in the era of the early Christian councils of the fourth and fifth centuries. But within the Bible, we do find God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit—sometimes in surprising places and situations. The author of the Gospel of John declares that Christ always was—begotten, not made, working with God the Father at the very beginning. And we find God the Holy Spirit in Genesis 1 as well: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the waters.” Wind: Ruach in Hebrew. Ruach also means breath, and the spirit of life. Ruach shows up in the psalms, and in Isaiah, and in other places in the Hebrew Bible. We find the Wisdom of God in several books, usually represented as feminine, as the divine Sophia. She could be equated with Christ or with the Holy Spirit, as could “the voice of God” in that wonderfully weird Psalm 29.

Paul talks about God’s holy Spirit today in the Letter to the Romans: “For those who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.” So then, according to Paul, the Holy Spirit frees us from bondage to fear and replaces that fear with belonging. We see this clearly whenever we baptize someone, as we baptized Lucy, Finn, and Alice last week. Oh, the joy on their faces! We baptized them with water as Jesus instructed his apostles, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Well, the Trinity is all about threes. But we find today in our readings that both Paul and Jesus are talking in twos, in a duality of flesh and spirit. Now, I think this is one of the most dangerously misunderstood areas of Christian theology because of the unconscious biases we carry in our own times. When we think of spirit, we think of that which is invisible, incorporeal, elusive—and somehow less than real. The Holy Spirit is more traditionally referred to as the “Holy Ghost,” and unfortunately, that makes me think of spooky haunted houses more than the fiery love of God. And when we think of flesh, don’t all our minds automatically go somewhere in the area of sex, and even to some sort of condemning of sexual desire as somehow dirty or at least less than holy?

So first, understand that in ancient Hebrew thought, there wasn’t much of a differentiation between our bodies and our souls. Our ancestors in the faith never would have thought of human beings as souls trapped inside a troublesome and limiting body. Indeed, without your body, your soul could not be, and the notion of an afterlife had only partially developed by Jesus’ time. We have the Greeks to blame, and primarily Plato, for our body-soul dualism. The Hebrew differentiation of flesh and spirit is not, as it turns out, a parallel.

Rather, when Paul differentiates the flesh from the spirit, it’s a matter of where we choose to put our focus. The flesh will always demand certain things, and it is right to do so. We cannot stay alive without eating and drinking. But when we limit our focus to these things—to mere survival, or to satisfying the present, immediate need—we are remaining “of the flesh.” This can be selfish, such as when we say, “Well, I’ve got mine, so that’s all that matters.” Or it can be as good and as innocent as taking pride in a personal accomplishment. There are many perfectly appropriate matters “of the flesh.”
To become “of the spirit” means to set a higher standard for ourselves that is beyond our instant gratification. Some people aren’t able to do this, because they’ve never felt secure enough “in the flesh” to go beyond it. There’s nothing inherently wrong with being “of the flesh,” just like there’s nothing inherently wrong with being a child. It is a phase of the journey, and it is leading somewhere, all in God’s good time.
Furthermore, we are never fully “of the spirit,” but we also must attend to the needs “of the flesh.” When we say, “If I don’t take care of myself, I won’t have any energy to give to others,” we are setting healthy boundaries, and this is a matter “of the flesh.” But this taking care of ourselves serves the parts of our lives that are “of the spirit.”
One of the ways we can remain stuck “in the flesh” is to remain enslaved to our most irrational fears, and it is to this tendency that Paul addresses the Roman church in today’s reading. Paul is saying, “God has adopted you into the only family that matters. Relax. You belong to God, and God will not let you fall.” But, he warns, living “according to the flesh” happens when we let our fears run wild, when we try to seize control over our lives in every way we can. It happens when we have no qualms about hurting others to protect ourselves.
Likewise, Jesus urges his potential disciple Nicodemus to relax into God’s love and to be born anew. As we age, we find ourselves burdened with fears that, it turns out, are unfounded once we understand how eternal God’s love for us is. Being “born again” means letting God put our fears to death and starting over.

The Most Rev. Michael Curry,
Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church
(image from express.co.uk)
A week ago Saturday, our presiding bishop Michael Curry preached at Windsor Castle at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, and he brought the house down! Bishop Curry preached about love—not a surprising topic at a wedding. But here’s the shocking thing: church weddings are not primarily about the couple. Weddings are about God—about what holy things God is accomplishing through the couple as they publicly declare their commitment to each other for life. When Bishop Curry quoted Song of Solomon—another Spirit-rich Hebrew text—and said that love is a fire, I could only think, “Wow! Pentecost came a day early in England!”

Indeed, the love Bishop Curry points to is a fierce, fiery love—the love by which God pursues us. This joyful love catches us up in its playful embrace and then sends us outward. Wherever that love spreads, God’s work is accomplished, and that’s Good News! This is why Bishop Curry quoted the Hebrew prophets to point out, during a wedding, that God’s vision is for an end to poverty, and end to violence, and end to exploitation. No wedding is only about the couple, because one of the most important ethical values of committed, sexual love is that it provides energy that the couple can then turn outward on the world.

Furthermore, as I looked at the shots of stony-faced congregants at that wedding, and also at those who occasionally let slip a smirk or a smile, I thought: “Bishop Curry is pointing to a love that can free us from fear. It can burn up all our stuffy, anxious self-consciousness and free us to love joyfully and with abandon!” This love also burns up all our self-righteous bigotry ... all our gross ambitions for power ... all our selfish lusts for that which we cannot control ... all the ways that we do live according to the flesh. This burning, consuming fire of the Spirit is what God's Judgment is. It may hurt … a lot. But I say, bring it on! I want to be free to live according to the Spirit—God’s Holy Spirit.

Bishop Curry will be with us at St. Paul’s for a brief time on Friday, June 15, at 3:30 p.m. We’re not giving out tickets, so show up early and save seats! It won’t be a church service—just a public address with some question-and-answer time. But I bet that Bishop Curry will make us feel like we’re in church—not dry, stuffy church, but spirit-filled, fiery church! We are the Church, and when we love God, love one another—and while we’re at it, love ourselves—we can help God to change the world.

And so the Holy Spirit proceeds from God the Father and does God’s will in the world. The Risen Christ is the redeeming energy of God, given as a gift to us, a gift without conditions. We even killed that gift, only to find him alive again without bitterness, with no urge for revenge, but giving us the kind of peace that only God can give. And all of this proceeds from the Mind of God, the Creator, the one who brings order out of chaos and meaning out of randomness, the one who is three who act in love together, with unified purpose, but who show that love to us in a diversity of ways. The unity and diversity of God are with us all the time, calling us further up and further in, moving us ever onward toward a world organized around love. Amen.