Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Bread for the Journey

sermon preached at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Medina, WA
by Josh Hosler, Seminarian
The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost/ Proper 14B/ August 12, 2012

Good morning! It’s great to be back.

Every three years in our church’s lectionary, we get into what I like to call the “bread cycle.” The Gospel readings from the past few weeks have all revolved around bread. Today not only the Gospel but also our Old Testament reading is about being fed with holy food.

I find the theme of holy food relevant to my own role as your seminarian. A little over a year ago, you sent my family and me to Virginia Theological Seminary with such deep support, such nourishing bread for the journey, that I simply can’t express my gratitude enough. When Christy, Sarah and I packed up our little Honda Civic and headed out on our eleven-day road trip to Virginia, your love and prayers came with us. That was the week of last year’s Vacation Bible Camp, and every night in our hotels we visited the St. Thomas blog to learn about what had happened that day. From a distance, the St. Thomas community has continued to feed us all year long, through blog posts, Facebook posts, the Collect newsletter, phone calls, and your prayers.

Now my first year of seminary is complete. I’ve learned a lot, but not always the things I could have predicted. Sure, I’ve studied the Old Testament, and Church History, and I now have a working knowledge of Hebrew grammar. I’ve studied the development of Christian formation curriculum and evaluated a number of models of youth ministry. These academic efforts are important and lots of fun, but they don’t begin to speak to the grace I have found at seminary—in my classmates and their families, in my professors, and in countless other people. As I continue at every step to discern my call to the priesthood, it is not the classes, but the people who have transformed me. I’ve been given opportunities to volunteer as a hospice chaplain and to spend time with hospital patients in crisis. Both of these experiences prepared me for the most revelatory aspect of my seminary experience so far: CPE, which stands for Clinical Pastoral Education.

CPE is sometimes called pastoral boot camp for seminarians, and for me, it was a ten-week chaplaincy internship at Goodwin House, a retirement community established by the Episcopal Church. Every weekday I got to know the residents, listening to them, and praying with them and for them. This required me to slow down my usually quick pace—as Bishop Greg put it, to “bridle my energy.” I had the honor of meeting a Holocaust survivor, a groundbreaking female archaeologist, an accomplished surgeon, a poet, and a nuclear engineer. Some of them suffer from various forms of dementia, and others have minds that are clear but bodies that just won’t cooperate anymore. The residents told me their amazing life stories, and I listened. Gradually I learned to reflect their feelings back to them, and I found that these affirmations deepened our relationship. I felt as if I were on holy ground and being fed with holy food, learning at the feet of men and women who have trained chaplain interns for years. I even got to DJ a dance party for people who can’t remember what day it is, but who still love to cut a rug to Glenn Miller and the Andrews Sisters. Once my daughter Sarah joined us to dance, too.

Our group of chaplains also spent time together throughout each week, confidentially sharing conversations we’d had with the residents and offering each other feedback in a clinical method sometimes called “care-frontation.” I felt humbled and vulnerable as I shared my stories. The CPE experience forced me to look at myself and my people skills very honestly … and I found myself wanting.

I never thought I was perfect, but I had no idea how far off the mark I can get. I thought I was in touch with people’s emotions, but when pressed, often I couldn’t tell you what I’m feeling in any given moment, let alone gauge what other people in the room might be feeling. I already knew that I can get a little uptight when I’m under stress, but my time in CPE shed new light on a host of past failings in my life, and how most of them tie back to this exact tendency. There were moments when I felt like I was grieving the death of a loved one, only to discover that the person whose death I was grieving was myself … the old me. And then my wonderful supervisor would say, “You never get rid of your ‘stuff’—you just learn to become a better student of it.”

At one point early on in CPE when I was feeling discouraged, a classmate reminded me of something I’d nearly forgotten: God called, and I answered. God was not going to abandon me. My classmate was for me the angel of the Lord bringing me holy food for the 40 days and more of CPE. I knew I’d come out the other side not only with new skills but with a whole new way of relating to people, a way that would begin with more honesty about myself and that would translate into a much deeper pastoral sense and a renewed  appreciation for other people in all their joys, sorrows, and complexities.

This has been a huge change from my default setting, which has been to work quickly and manage every detail in an effort to “get it right.” Our Collect for the day asks that we might be given “the spirit to think and do always those things that are right.” The reason we say this in a prayer is that it’s not possible for us to “get it right” by ourselves. No matter how much we try to manage the world around us, eventually, that technique will fail us. And that’s when we need God to step in and redeem us.

I wonder, in fact, if this is what Elijah is going through in today’s Old Testament reading. He has just bested King Ahab and Queen Jezebel and the prophets of their god Baal, and now the queen is after his head. Elijah flees into the desert, a place people don’t go unless they have to, but a place where people always seem to encounter God. He sits down under a solitary broom tree and prays to God that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.”

In all our flailing efforts to live the kind of life God wants for us, it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that a momentary setback means complete failure. It’s hard to be gentle with ourselves at moments like these. We compare ourselves with our heroes and find ourselves wanting, rather than just being ourselves and trusting God to call us further and to guide our steps.

As a matter of fact, our salvation does not depend on our doing anything right at all. God loves us infinitely and eternally. Period. That is why God will sustain us—not in order that we might “get it right” the next time, but merely in order to give us another chance to live in love. And once we realize that God never depended on our “getting it right” in the first place, living in love becomes so much easier and more joyful.

The angel gives Elijah a first meal, and this gives him the solace he needs to rest peacefully. This is what my classmate’s words did for me: they reminded me that God’s call to me and the church’s call to me can endure many temporary setbacks. Elijah’s second meal is for strength, so that he can go for the long haul, and this is what the remainder of my time at CPE became for me. My conversations and prayers with the residents of Goodwin House, and my time with my peers and supervisor, fed me in new ways with each passing week. I learned that my ongoing work is to be in touch with my feelings and those of others, that I might spend less time in my head and more time with my heart turned outward. From one holy meal to the next, we are living healthy spiritual lives when we seek both solace and strength, both pardon and renewal. The church exists so we can get out of it. It is our base of operations, our source of bread for the journey. It is not a place to hide away.

Elijah went forty days and nights on that meal until he came to the mountain of the Lord, the same mountain where Moses had met God face to face. Amazing! We can always go farther than we think we can, solely on what God gives us. In your moment of despair, has the angel of the Lord ever said to you, “Get up and eat”? It’s not always a banquet, but it is always enough. It’s about trusting that there will be enough—that despite all evidence to the contrary, God is with us and will make a way, even if we can’t begin to imagine it. God’s entire creation is shot through with grace. We do our best, or we don’t. We try, or we don’t. We fail—without fail! And at every turn, God is there to say, “Here’s more bread for the journey. Get up and eat.”

Whether in moments of bleak hopelessness like Elijah’s, or in minor fits of the blues, God is there. The angel of the Lord has brought us a meal. Thank you for being angels for me and for my family, bearing Christ to us, generously providing love and prayers as bread for the journey. In the same way, we are all angels of the Lord for each other and for the world. When we live in love, there is always enough. There might even be a banquet to last us 40 days and more. Let’s taste and see that the Lord good. Amen.