Sunday, June 20, 2010

Our Father

Here's a sermon I delivered on Father's Day three years ago. The lectionary readings are not the same today as they were that day, but it is about fathers.

June 17, 2007
sermon given at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Medina, Washington

When I sat down to look at today’s lessons, I was shocked and amused to find this reading from the Second Book of Samuel. It reads like something from a soap opera. But we didn’t hear the entire story this morning, so please allow me to summarize.

King David, the greatest political figure in biblical history, is a peeping tom. It seems he has become intimately familiar with the bathing habits of Bathsheba, the wife of a soldier named Uriah. So while Uriah is out fighting on the battlefield, David calls Bathsheba to the palace. They have an affair, and Bathsheba gets pregnant. Well! How about that for biblical family values?

Naturally, David tries to cover this up. He calls Uriah back from the battlefield: “Uriah, how’s the war going? Splendid, splendid. Hey, you look like hell. Go home and take a break. I bet you miss your wife – wink wink, nudge nudge!” And he packs a royal feast for Uriah to share with his household.

But Uriah refuses to go home; he goes to the barracks instead. He may not be out on the front lines, but he’s still a soldier on duty, and propriety keeps him from enjoying his wife’s company. So David calls him back the next night and, intending to override Uriah’s sense of honor, gets him drunk. No dice. Uriah stumbles over to David’s couch and crashes there.

So David takes drastic measures: the next morning, he sends Uriah back to the war, all the way to the front lines, where the fighting is heaviest, and he orders all the soldiers to fall back on cue. But – oops! – it seems nobody ever told Uriah the cue. Uriah is left exposed and is shot full of arrows. Immediately, King David sends for Bathsheba and marries her.

Where was Ken Starr during the David administration?

Well, this is where the prophet Nathan steps in to point out David’s sin in the reading we heard today. Nathan uses a simple parable to judge the king’s actions. David is distraught that he could have done something so unconscionable, and he begs God for forgiveness. Bathsheba’s son is born, but almost immediately, the baby gets sick and dies.

Happy Father’s Day!

Fathers and sons … fathers and daughters … most of us have at least some memory of our fathers, and many of us have ongoing relationships with them. Hopefully, we respect them more than we respect King David in this story. But even if we never knew our biological fathers, we all have a concept of fatherhood. Priests often play this role in a person’s life, for good or ill. You could say Nathan was a father figure to David when nobody else could be. And all of us who are the least bit familiar with Christianity know this phrase: “Our Father, who art in Heaven …”

In his classic book Your God Is Too Small, the Rev. J.B. Phillips wrote: “The early conception of God is almost invariably founded upon the child’s idea of the father. If he is lucky enough to have a good father this is all to the good, provided of course that [his] conception of God grows with the rest of [his] personality. But if the child is afraid (or, worse still, afraid and feeling guilty because he is afraid) of his own father, the chances are that his Father in Heaven will appear to him a fearful Being.”

Phillips went on to say, “Christ Himself taught us to regard God as a Father. Are we to reject His own analogy? Of course not, so long as we remember that it is an analogy. When Christ taught His disciples to regard God as their Father in Heaven He did not mean that their idea of God must necessarily be based upon their ideas of their own fathers … It is the relationship that Christ is stressing.” The relationship is that God is “our superior [to the degree that] we are the superior of an infant child crawling on the hearthrug …”

As someone who is relatively new to fatherhood, I’ll paraphrase Phillips in this way: God is Daddy coming to your crib in the morning. He smiles, sings softly to you, picks you up gently and changes your diaper.

Fathers and sons … fathers and daughters … we learn how to love from our parents. In his book Good Goats, the Rev. Dennis Linn postulates: “God loves us at least as much as the person who loves us the most.” But what if I have a deadbeat dad whom I’ve rarely met, who seems unable or unwilling to pay child support? How good can I possibly imagine God, my Heavenly Father, to be? As Keanu Reeves said in the movie Parenthood, “You need a license to buy a dog, to drive a car … you even need a license to catch a fish. But they’ll let any [expletive deleted] be a father.”

Then there are the good fathers whose very example is hard to live up to. My father is a perfectionist. I say that not critically but with admiration, because I, also, tend toward perfectionism. But having grown up with my father, I have also seen some of his biggest flaws in action. For years, I’ve worked hard at not falling into any of the same traps he did. So imagine my shock when I realized a few years ago what I was really saying to myself: “My father tries to be perfect, so I’ll be perfect, too … only more so!” Dad, if you’re listening to the podcast … I love you. Happy Father’s Day. Forgive me.

For many of us, God is the Big Daddy who holds us up to impossible standards, and from whom we must seek forgiveness. Thank God for Jesus, who demanded that we do better, but who did not demand perfection. Jesus reminded us that God wants a relationship with us: a relationship of mutual caring, a relationship of authenticity, a relationship that brims with forgiveness simply because it is all about love.

So Jesus is at dinner with the richest and most powerful religious figures of his day. And a woman crashes the dinner party. The text says she was a “sinner.” What might this mean? A prostitute? (Yes, I know your mind went there first!) Well, even Jesus assures us in this passage that this woman has done some pretty awful things. She is an outcast – she is ritually unclean. And that means that anyone she touches, no matter how law-abiding he might be, will then have to go and perform certain rites to be allowed into the temple again. It’s the kind of thing that can throw off your whole weekend.

So the host of the party, Simon, is shocked—shocked—that Jesus allows this woman to touch him. And she doesn’t just touch him: she wets his feet with her tears, dries them with her hair, and smears ointment on them.

We don’t know anything about this woman’s father, but we do know something about her culture’s father figures, the Pharisees. All her life, she’s heard them pronounce that God despises her because of her sins, and that He always will. It is not the fault of Judaism; a simple reading of the Hebrew Scriptures could tell her God loves her, if she could only read. No, this is an issue of power—of the wealthy few living a comfortable life at the expense of women like her.

Then Jesus came along saying just the opposite of the Pharisees: that God forgives sinners. He was merely referring us back to the Scriptures again, but he was going a step further. He spoke about God’s forgiveness with such fatherly authority that he sidestepped the usual religious channels. This woman had heard all about Jesus, and she knew that if she could just touch him, he would understand.

Jesus showed us what a good father is really like: a living icon of God the Father. The example of Jesus can banish the ghosts of all our human fathers. Again, in Your God Is Too Small, J.B. Phillips wrote, “For all we know there many have been many of [Jesus’] hearers whose fathers were unjust, tyrannical, stupid, conceited, feckless, or indulgent.” The Pharisees could certainly have been accused of a few of these things. But Jesus redeemed the father-son analogy.

We human fathers do the best we can based on our image of God. If our image of God is warped, so will our parenting be. But if our image of God is refined by patience, gentleness, and forgiveness, our children will learn something about what God is really like. And we have Jesus as the example that both fathers and children can check themselves against.

In 2004, pop singer John Mayer gave us these lyrics:

Fathers, be good to your daughters/
Daughters will love like you do/
Girls become lovers who turn into mothers/
So mothers, be good to your daughters, too.


Thursday, June 17, 2010

Top 10 Reasons for Being an Episcopalian

This is a classic that always bears repeating ...
although personally, I prefer a font you can drown in!

The Top 10 Reasons for Being an Episcopalian
(according to Robin Williams)...

10) No snake handling.
9) You can believe in dinosaurs.
8) Male and female, God created them; male and female we ordain them.
7) You don't have to check your brains at the door.
6) Pew aerobics.
5) The church year is color-coded.
4) Free wine on Sunday.
3) All of the pageantry, none of the guilt.
2) You don't have to know how to swim to get baptized.
1) No matter what you believe, there is bound to be at least one other Episcopalian who agrees with you.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

What is a Christian? And why do we baptize?

Recently on Facebook, I noticed a popular new page that everybody seems to be "liking." It's called, "Going to church doesn't make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car."

Well, duh: I figured that's self-evident. Baptism is what makes you a Christian, not going to church -- and your baptism can't be taken away, no matter how rarely you attend services. That Christians out there are using any other standard to measure who is and isn't a Christian is a source of some concern to me.

I think the confusion lies in the fact that some Christians have a hard time differentiating between the terms "Christian" and "good person." They feel that everybody who is a good person ought to be a Christian, and vice versa. The minute somebody deserves to have his "good person" label revoked, the implication is that he really wasn't a Christian in the first place, or isn't anymore. And the far more sinister assumption (which most would never admit) is that you can't be a good person unless you're a Christian. Clearly, the world is not this black and white!

Now, of course I'm bothered by the behavior of many Christians: greedy TV preachers, pedophile priests, politicians who use their faith to knock down their opponents, etc. But often, I'm also bothered by my own behavior. And there's no doubt in my mind that, no matter how much I mess up, I'm still a Christian. I always will be.

It also doesn't bother me that a good many people out there aren't baptized. Baptism is a sign of something that God has already done and is still doing: working through a person's life to help bring about the Kingdom. Just because we, as a community, haven't shown that sign publicly does not mean God does not love that person, or that the person is not doing good things.

Above all (and following logically from these points), failure to be baptized in no way relegates anybody to hell. We stopped believing that a long time ago. Yet some people (especially, I've noticed, the parents of non-churchgoers who won't baptize the grandchildren) still harbor some anxiety about this point -- anxiety that could probably be redirected to more constructive and faith-filled ends. I do understand the anxiety: who doesn't want their grandkids to have a good moral upbringing? But I don't believe that possibility hinges on baptism.

So that leads to an interesting point: Why do we baptize at all? If it is not necessary for salvation, and if not every good person need become a Christian, what's it for? Let's discuss.

Monday, June 7, 2010

With No Words at All

With No Words at All
sermon preached at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Medina, WA
by Josh Hosler, Associate for Christian Formation
The First Sunday after Pentecost: Trinity Sunday/ May 30, 2010

Christy and Sarah and I recently spent a week in Kearny, Arizona, visiting my parents. One night at their house, Sarah threw a big temper tantrum, so we sent her to her room for a five-minute time-out. Now, the room that my parents had set up for her has its own exit to the backyard.

After her time-out was finished, Sarah Sophia returned to us refreshed and happy. She said, “Guess what, Daddy? During my time-out, I went outside, and I prayed to God with no words at all. And I didn’t hear anything back … except the wind blowing through the leaves in the trees.”

These days, Sarah is actively wrestling with a question we all wrestle with at one time or another: Why, when I talk to God, do I not hear an answer? We have explained to her that you may well hear an answer from God, but it probably won’t come in the form of an audible voice. So it seems that Sarah Sophia has chosen to meet God on God’s own terms … by praying without words. Who says kids that young can’t grasp abstract mysteries? “Out of the mouths of babes comes wisdom.” I think Sarah understands in some way that the wind blowing through the trees was her answer—the Hebrew word ruach for wind, the wind of the Holy Spirit, the breath of Divine Wisdom.

“Out of the mouths of babes comes wisdom.” That well known expression is not a direct quote from the Bible. We heard the original quote in today’s psalm: “Out of the mouths of infants and children your majesty is praised above the heavens.” That’s true too, of course. But I’m fairly certain that the word “wisdom” worked its way into the quote because, for centuries, the lectionary of the Church has paired this psalm with today’s
reading about Lady Wisdom from the Book of Proverbs.

This week I came across a prayer about wisdom:


You of the whirling wings,
circling, encompassing energy of God:
you quicken the world in your clasp.
One wing soars in heaven,
one wing sweeps the earth,
and the third flies all around us.
Praise to Sophia!
Let all the earth praise her!

“Praise to Sophia” …. those are unusual words to hear in church. Are we worshipping idols at St. Thomas? Actually, no … this prayer comes from the medieval Christian mystic Hildegard of Bingen. And “Sophia” is the Greek word for Wisdom, the Divine Wisdom personified in today’s reading from the ancient Book of Proverbs. In the original Hebrew, the word is Chokhmah, also a feminine name. Christian theologians see this
passage as a very early reference to what we now call the Holy Spirit, the power of God turned loose on the world. (If you’ve stood next to me while we recite the creed, you may have heard me change the gender of the Holy Spirit from “he” to “she.” This passage is one reason why.)

In this reading from Proverbs, I am most struck by the time in which it is set—that is, before time, or more accurately, outside of the construct of time. Lady Wisdom, Sophia, the Divine Feminine, the Holy Spirit, was there with God creating the universe! If you’re not that familiar with this reading, give it another look. Get out your Bible at home and read all of Proverbs chapters 8 and 9. It’s not widely quoted text, but it is beautiful and poetic, and I believe it speaks volumes about the nature of God as expressed in the Trinity.

So this is a wisdom Sunday. This is Trinity Sunday. This is the day when we make at least some faltering attempt to figure out how God can be one person and three persons simultaneously, and even both masculine and feminine. This is the Sunday when the rector invites a layperson to preach.

That’s OK—it really is useless to try to explain the Trinity, no matter who you are. One year on Trinity Sunday I was visiting Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. Their dean, Alan Jones, was the preacher, and he opened his sermon with these cautionary words: “It is said that nobody can preach on the Trinity for more than 60 seconds without lapsing into heresy.” Yet every year at this time, each congregation sends another heretic into the pulpit to try to contain the Trinity in mere words. If that is my task, then so be it. I’ll do my best not to use too many words.

It may be tempting to believe that only the most intelligent theologians can understand the Trinity. But this isn’t true at all. For one thing, no human can ever understand the Trinity. It’s a mystery, and as such it doesn’t belong to the realm of intelligence. The Trinity belongs to wisdom.

Sarah Sophia asked me once what the word “wisdom” means. Struggling to create a definition suitable for a young child, I answered, “Wisdom means knowing a lot about what’s really important.” Wisdom can’t be confined to formulas. It can be experienced, but it can only be expressed in metaphor.

To that end, and in an effort not to reinvent the triune wheel, as it were, I’d like to quote early 20th-century English author Dorothy Sayers. She gave us a very helpful metaphor for the Trinity in her stage play The Zeal of Thy House. Here, she identifies creativity as primary evidence of the fact that we are created in the image of God:

For every work of creation is threefold, an earthly trinity to match the heavenly.

First, there is the Creative Idea, passionless, timeless, beholding the whole work
complete at once, the end in the beginning: and this is the image of the Father.

Second, there is the Creative Energy begotten of that idea, working in time from
the beginning to the end, with sweat and passion, being incarnate in the bonds of
matter: and this is the image of the Word [that is, Christ].

Third, there is the Creative Power, the meaning of the work and its response in the
lively soul: and this is the image of the indwelling Spirit.

And these three are one, each equally in itself the whole work, whereof none can
exist without the other; and this is the image of the Trinity.

In her book The Mind of the Maker, Sayers expounded this metaphor at great length. And her metaphor really works for me. I can observe the fact and the truth of it every time I create something, whether it’s in words, in music, or in physical form. Let’s say I want to write a novel. It starts with an idea, and contained in the idea is the whole work, but it isn’t fleshed out yet. So I flesh it out, expending energy and time and, in the old days, paper and ink, to create the work. The book has the physical boundaries of cover and pages, and the time of my work has a beginning and an ending. Finally, I can share the finished novel with others, and if I’ve done a decent job harnessing the energy to give birth to the idea, the story I have created has power to inspire others … idea, energy, power.

As created beings, we are products and images of the Creative Idea, Energy and Power of God, and while we can speak of the three aspects individually, they cannot really be separated. We are the characters in the Great Story. And as if that weren’t enough, the author, the originator of the first Creative Idea, has also become a character in the story!

That character, the Creative Energy in the world, said such wonderful things and did such amazing things as a human being that most of us here today have chosen to commit our lives to him. In today’s reading from  John’s Gospel, the Creative Energy of God said, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of Truth comes, she will guide you into all the truth.” I can’t think of anything more exciting or more powerful than to imagine what these things may be that we can’t yet bear to know or to understand.

Oh, wow—look at my wrist. I’ve already been preaching heresy for several minutes. But let’s do one more thing.

In our house, one indispensable part of bedtime is Quiet Time, when Sarah and I share three minutes of silence. The silence isn’t always continuous: sometimes it shakes out something that Sarah wants to say before she ends her day. So something is said, we reflect on it, and we go back to silence. But usually it’s just Sarah and God and me in the silence, for three minutes.

As our brothers and sisters in the United Church of Christ say in all their literature, "God is still speaking, comma ..."


And not by words, but in silence can that sentence be completed …



Friday, June 4, 2010

The Music of the Kingdom

When I was in high school, I wrote a term paper on Ralph Waldo Emerson. I was especially struck by his essay "The Poet," in which he wrote about poets plucking perfect, already-written poetry from the ether and miswriting it, thus creating the imperfect poems that are still among the greatest we know. That inspired me to write this poem in college, a poem about music of which I am still proud 18 years later.

The Music of the Kingdom

To pluck from the sky and transcribe, line by line,
The most aimless harmonies of the Divine!
God's half-sleeping mind conjures up countless airs
That, upon their rejection, escape down His stairs.

They drop from the Kingdom as crumbs from a table
And drift through the heavens; and minds that are able
May reach up and swipe them, one at a time,
And notate and sing them, and add to them rhyme.

And thus, compositions that strayed from the flock
Were taken and written by Mozart and Bach.
Imagine then, friends, in the Kingdom, how awed
We will be by the music that WAS fit for God!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

25 years ago next week ...

... my life changed forever. Those of you who know me understand what a music geek I am. But June 9, 1985 was a huge day. That's the day I first tuned in to American Top 40 with Casey Kasem. And these were the top 40 songs that week.

# Title Artist
1 Everybody Wants to Rule the World Tears for Fears
2 Everything She Wants Wham!
3 Axel F Harold Faltermeyer
4 Suddenly Billy Ocean
5 Heaven Bryan Adams
6 Things Can Only Get Better Howard Jones
7 In My House The Mary Jane Girls
8 Don’t You (Forget About Me) Simple Minds
9 Fresh Kool & the Gang
10 Walking on Sunshine Katrina & the Waves
11 Angel Madonna
12 Sussudio Phil Collins
13 Smooth Operator Sade
14 Smuggler’s Blues Glenn Frey
15 A View to a Kill Duran Duran
16 The Search Is Over Survivor
17 Raspberry Beret Prince & the Revolution
18 Never Ending Story Limahl
19 Just a Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody David Lee Roth
20 Would I Lie to You? Eurythmics
21 Say You’re Wrong Julian Lennon
22 Crazy for You Madonna
23 One Night in Bangkok Murray Head
24 One Lonely Night REO Speedwagon
25 Voices Carry ’til tuesday
26 You Give Good Love Whitney Houston
27 Some Like It Hot The Power Station
28 The Goonies ‘R’ Good Enough Cyndi Lauper
29 We Are the World U.S.A. for Africa
30 Tough All Over John Cafferty & the Beaver Brown Band
31 Everytime You Go Away Paul Young
32 Rhythm of the Night DeBarge
33 Sentimental Street Night Ranger
34 Getcha Back The Beach Boys
35 Invisible Alison Moyet
36 Crazy in the Night (Barking at Airplanes) Kim Carnes
37 Glory Days Bruce Springsteen
38 Lucky in Love Mick Jagger
39 Cannonball Supertramp
40 Just as I Am Air Supply