Monday, June 20, 2011

Both Singular and Plural - my final St. Thomas sermon

sermon preached at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Medina, WA
by Josh Hosler, Associate for Christian Formation
Trinity Sunday/ June 19, 2011

In the beginning, God, the Great Author had an idea. God acted on that idea, writing a created order into being. And it was very good! Then the creator did something extraordinary by becoming a character in the story: God became one of us at Christmas and lived among us for thirty years—thirty little years that, despite their brevity, are an indelible part of the eternity of Space and Time. The Energy of God was a gift to us in flesh … and we killed him.

But that wasn’t the end of the story, because God wouldn’t stay dead. The Energy of God returned to us at Easter. The Power of God was revealed and ran rampant at Pentecost, and we began to realize that this Power had always been a part of God’s nature as well, just as the Energy of God had been there in the very beginning before God created darkness and light, math and physics, male and female. Idea, Energy, Power … that’s how Dorothy Sayers described God in her book The Mind of the Maker. More traditionally, we say Father, Son and Holy Spirit … three faces of God that we call the Trinity.

I have a new way of thinking about the Trinity—and may I discover a new one every year! This year, I see the Trinity this way: God is so transcendent, so all-encompassing that God can’t even be said to be merely singular or merely plural. In her book The Case for God, Karen Armstrong writes: “The reason the Trinity is not a logical or numerical absurdity is because God is not a being that can be restricted to such human categories as number … the whole point of the doctrine [is] to stop Christians from thinking about God in rational terms.” Similarly, God is not merely transcendent, but also intimate. God orders the universe, and God lives in your heart; God is not just above all but underlying all.

If God is both singular and plural, then so are we. We are distinct individuals to be loved and respected as such. And we are a community of believers. To quote the rock band U2, “We are one, but we’re not the same—we get to carry each other.” We are not just solitary, Ayn Rand-ian individuals. Nor are we to serve a Marxist hive of industry. We need to be completely ourselves, and we also rely on each other. Indeed, we are made in God’s image, and love is the glue that binds us together. And my story and your story and Jesus’ story are all part of the Great Story.

The most recent piece of my story goes like this. Seven years ago this week, I was up at Camp Huston for a high school camp called Six-Day. I had an opportunity to say a few words during the Eucharist one day—and it turned out to be something of a sermon. Our presider was the Rev. Cynthia Espeseth, whom I had just met. After the Eucharist, she pulled me aside and asked, “What do you do for a living?” I explained that I had spent nearly ten years working with client radio stations around the country to provide music programming solutions. Cynthia replied: “Why? You are called to be a priest. While you were preaching, you had 50 teenagers in the palm of your hand. Do you have any idea how rare that is?”

To hear this surprised me. See, both my parents are Episcopal priests, which is wonderful, but I always figured that was their deal and not mine. I was clearly called to lay music ministry, lay youth ministry, and a career playing hit songs on the radio. I pondered her words after camp … and two weeks later, I was laid off. So I called Cynthia and said, “Let’s have coffee.”

Over time, not only did I find employment in the church—which at first I viewed as a temporary refuge—I also found the calling that Cynthia insisted was there for me. But there was no inner voice saying, “You should be a priest.” Maybe it happens that way for some people. I feel that my call is authentic especially because it came from the outside. First Cynthia, and then a large variety of people who didn’t know each other—from St. Thomas, from St. Mark’s Cathedral, and from all around the diocese—began to insist that God was calling me to the priesthood.

And, yes—God is calling me in that direction. But God is calling you in that direction, too. As baptized Christians, we are called into “the priesthood of all believers,” ministering to each other and with each other. It is the Church, a human organization blessed by God, that is calling me toward sacramental priesthood, to be a person set aside to carry out sacramental functions like Holy Eucharist, Healing and Reconciliation, and to stand as a symbol of what our baptismal ministry might look like. Because you have called me to deep discernment, further education, and potential ordination, I will go—I’m not in this for personal fulfillment or career advancement, even if the result looks rather like those things. I’m in this because I am privileged to have been present while the Holy Spirit blows through St. Thomas and the Diocese of Olympia. I’m in this because the Church is my community, and the community, blessed by God, has called me. You have convinced me.

This may seem like a fine distinction, but let’s think about it for a moment. If my call to the priesthood were made directly by God to me as an individual, I might want to just go off to grad school, get my M.Div., and insist that I be made a priest. But that’s not at all how it works. Priesthood is, first and foremost, about building community. So first, and most importantly, my wife Christy and I began talking about this potential call. I met with Jeff Lee about it. Then Dwight Russell helped form a discernment committee made up of Karl Kunkel, Claudia Ballheim, Vesta Loyd, Tucker Moodey, Matt Griffith, and Carolyn Busby. We met together regularly for two years to ask God whether I am called to be an ordained priest.

I also began meeting with a spiritual director, a priest who helped me notice God at work in my life. Next came more official meetings with Bishop Greg Rickel and the Diocesan Commission on Ministry. And I’ve spoken with many of you about this call, testing new ideas, bouncing things off you, all the while continuing to do my baptismal ministry among you: preaching, teaching, encouraging, wrangling, and listening. Adults, youth, and children have all contributed to my sense of call. Seven years is not too long a time to move from an initial call to acting on that call—not when it means moving my family across the country into the unknown.

To embrace this call is a bit of a challenge for me, immersed as I am in a culture so radically individualistic. But as popular as the notion is that religion is all about “me and Jesus” and “personal salvation,” or at least “what’s best for my nuclear family,” the Church has never really worked this way. In fact, as this is Trinity Sunday, let’s remember that even God alone is community. In fact, I have an icon of the Holy Trinity right here that I’d like to share with you.

Many of you have seen this image of the Trinity before. We see three figures, and they’re seated at a table. But the table has four sides, and they—God—are inviting you to come eat with them. This particular icon was written by Katrina Hawking. (On a side note, did you know that icons are not painted or drawn, but written? This is because when an artist creates an icon, that person is simply writing down truths that already are—not creating new truths. The preexisting idea is “written” again.)

Anyway, as I said, Katrina Hawking wrote this icon. Katrina was my wife Christy’s college roommate. She met her husband Robert—and I met Christy—when the four of us were all members of the young adults group at St. Mark’s Cathedral in the mid-’90s. Today, the Hawkings worship at All Saints Church in Seattle, and twice in the past year, St. Thomas has been especially helpful to All Saints, by supporting both a toy drive and a rummage sale. Katrina writes on the back: “The Rublev Icon on the Trinity … Trinity Sunday 2011 … from All Saints Episcopal Church, Seattle, Rainier Valley.” Excellent iconographer that she is, Katrina has left her own name off it, but that doesn’t mean I can’t share it! Katrina and her family are here today, in fact: Katrina, on behalf of St. Thomas, thank you. I pray that St. Thomas and All Saints will continue to do ministry together. God is a community of love, so we are also called to be in community with each other.

Today, as we emphasize the plurality of God, I want to thank the communities of St. Thomas, St. Mark’s Cathedral, and many others throughout the diocese for helping me discern the call my family will now act on. My prayer is that you will do some of the things I have done, not because I won’t be here to do them anymore, but because you, too, are called by God. I pray that you will continue to extend hospitality, not just to those you already know, but especially to those you don’t. Invite them to the table. Listen to them and learn their stories. Do you know everybody who is seated around you today? Do me a favor. At the Peace, greet someone you’ve never met before! And then continue to do that every week, not as a token effort, but because we are called to practice the hospitality of God. You never know—you may meet some of the most pivotal people in your life that way.

I also want to urge you to keep coming to church. One of my favorite authors, Anne Lamott, wrote this: “God doesn't want or expect you to get it together before you come along, because you CAN'T get it together UNTIL you come along. You can spend half of your time alone, but you also have to be in service, in community, or you get a little funny.” So be both singular and plural. Come to church even when you don’t feel like it; allow others to benefit from your presence. Be the individual you are, and give yourself to others. Get involved in a ministry that takes you outside yourself and your family and into the lives of others. And when doubts creep into your faith, name them and bring them to the altar with you. Place your doubts into the community of believers and allow God to transform them.

As my family and I go out from this community, it is not a permanent goodbye. I will no longer be your Associate for Christian Formation, but I will be your seminarian. I will be available by email and on Facebook, and I will keep up my blog. I will stay in touch with you as this adventure progresses. And I will continue to thank you for all the ways you have formed me, supported me, and helped me grow.

In the meantime, Jesus has commissioned all of us: go make disciples! Spread the Good News that God creates us, redeems us, and sustains us. Dare to believe that God is both beyond you and within you, both singular and plural, both personal and communal, present in both good and evil situations, working toward reconciliation, working toward love. God is love, and God is with all of us, always, to the end of the age. Amen.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Blogging through seminary

I hope to keep up this blog throughout my time in seminary. I have no idea how much time I'll feel I have for this, but I am so grateful to the parishioners of St. Thomas, Medina, and all the other friends in Western Washington who are supporting my family as we begin this adventure. Stay tuned for my ruminations on the seminary experience ... and, as usual, reflections on popular music, which I can't help but write from time to time as well.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The magic of countdowns

I’m all about countdowns. There’s something magical about them, after all – like a game of sports and a high school dance all wrapped up into one. Where have all the countdowns gone?

I heard my first countdown on June 9, 1985, when Casey Kasem told me the #1 song was “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Tears for Fears. I had listened thinking this might just be a great place to tape all my favorite songs off the radio in one fell swoop. But as the countdown went on, I began to hear the statistics – “up four notches” – “sliding down twelve spots” – and I realized that if I tuned in again next week, I could compare and keep track. Maybe I could even make predictions!

So tracking American Top 40 became my hobby. It brought me great joy to keep my little notebook of charts, and around school, I became known as the keeper of the musical knowledge. To be honest, I’m sure I was pretty obnoxious about it – “Oh, you like Michael Jackson? Did you know that he’s had four #1 hits off the same album, and if ‘Dirty Diana’ goes to #1, he’ll set a new record?” I even have some old tape recordings of myself at age 13, playing DJ, counting down my favorite songs.

At the end of each year, I would do my own math to try to predict the biggest hit of the year. Then I’d settle down in front of the radio on New Year’s Eve to listen and compare. Often I did pretty well, though I kept wishing I had all the same numbers Billboard did, so I would know in advance whether INXS would edge out George Michael for the top hit of 1988. (My numbers told me they would; they didn’t.)

On into college, I continued by hobby, and I even got to take it to the airwaves. On WOCR-FM in Olivet, Michigan, I hosted a weekly countdown show called “The Real Top 40” – because by this time, American Top 40 had abandoned the Hot 100 in favor of a countdown with less rap and metal. I was offended by this decision, and I was determined to bring the REAL hits to my fellow college students. I don’t think most people cared, but I was having a ball. It was during this time that my notebook of countdowns became a database full of numbers and statistics.

Throughout the ’90s, though, I noticed something was wrong: more and more of the hits weren’t appearing on the countdown. From “Mr. Jones” to “Don’t Speak” to “Men in Black,” huge hits were being ignored completely on the technicality that you couldn’t go into a store and buy a physical single of them. I thought, “Who cares? I thought the idea was to measure popularity of hits—and these songs are extremely popular!” I began to track airplay-only hits as well and count them in my year-end lists. I stopped caring what Billboard’s list said, because it didn’t seem to reflect reality anymore. Also, with BDS and Soundscan now providing true accuracy, recurrent songs were wearing out their welcome on the chart. I really didn’t need to hear LeAnn Rimes’ “How Do I Live” for 69 weeks in a row!

Things improved in 1998 when Billboard began to allow the airplay hits onto the chart, and I also appreciated the move in favor of a multi-format chart. But since then, I’ve never felt that Billboard has the balance quite right. They have been slow to react to new changes—like the advent of the digital single—and every week, I feel like I could create a chart that, while not perfectly accurate, would at least be more fun to listen to as a countdown.

So in 2009, I created “American Top 100.” Every week I pull together several Billboard charts and crunch the numbers into something that I believe shows what’s really most popular. It’s a multi-format chart, but it’s weighted toward mainstream top 40 music. Digital sales are counted but given less weight; as a result, songs from “Glee” is not allowed to flood every chart. Country songs squeak into the top 40 region only if they truly deserve it. And best of all, songs that fail to bullet begin to get penalized. For every week they fail to bullet, they get more and more points taken away from them until they gracefully fall off the chart.

I put this countdown on the air for over a year on as “American Top 50,” though the show is taking a hiatus while I go back to school for the next few years. I know it’s not as accurate as the Hot 100 in reality. But in my mind, there’s nothing more fun to listen to than a good old-fashioned countdown. So now, having collected all the past hits in iTunes, I can do that: call up a playlist from the past on my laptop, and start listening.

What will I listen to today? Maybe I’ll snag this week twenty years ago, when BDS and Soundscan hadn’t quite kicked in, and the #1 song was “Rush Rush” by Paula Abdul. There were eight debuts on the top 40 that week, led by DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince's "Summertime," so that’ll make it pretty exciting.

Monday, June 13, 2011

An old poem, revisited

I wrote this poem fifteen years ago. I came across it again today and still really like it. It reminds me how futile it is to ever think we can truly get our act together.


How do I focus on you, Lord?
How do I drop the statistics and snippets of songs,
Regretted past actions and various wrongs
And point my face upward to you?

Right now, I feel only like kneeling.
But if I look down, I’ll see footprints to follow,
Reminding me that my intentions are hollow,
Well-thought, but devoid of you.
After all, you see through.

But if I raise my face to the overcast sky
And await your grace, I’ll just wish I could cry
For my frivolous habits and self-centered goals,
And I’ll doubt once again in refillable holes.
I’ll retreat to routine and accomplish so little!
Only you know how I can get.
I’ll look up and feel further regret.

So all that remains is inside.
Whether it’s strict meditation (no hope of success)
Or more rumination (redundant, I guess),
In myself I will find no peace.
I’m helpless, to say the least.
So focus me, Lord! Remind me whom I serve
And promise me more than I truly deserve.
You’ve done it before, as I’m finding.
Sometimes, I just need some reminding.

- Josh Hosler, August 26, 1996