Saturday, February 22, 2014

Faiths in Progress

“senior sermon” preached at Virginia Theological Seminary, Alexandria, VA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler
February 21, 2014

This is a prayer by Thomas Merton.

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.” Amen.

I’d like to tell you about my first non-restaurant, non-retail job. Just a year out of college, I became a playlist editor for a radio consulting company in Seattle. I won’t go into all the details of the job, though I will say that, for a pop music nut like me, it was a dream come true. But after about a year, it became apparent to my manager and my co-workers that something wasn’t right. I was doing sloppy work, making mistakes that were hard to justify to my co-workers and even harder to clean up without causing great inconvenience to our clients. At the same time, I was being vocally critical of some of the systems I had to follow, without yet fully understanding the purpose of those systems. I only wanted to do the things I enjoyed, and I only wanted to do them my way. As a result, I was in danger of losing my job.

My manager was a young, quiet guy named Kris. When he spoke, he was always measured and thoughtful. He took me aside and said, “Be proud of the job you do … not the job you have.” Indeed, I had gotten so wrapped up in the glamour of having a real job in the radio industry that I had come to take it for granted, almost as if I were entitled to it. My manager’s words stuck with me and began to help me change my attitude, enough so that I was a valuable employee, with several consecutive job titles, for eight more years. Kris’s words have also echoed through my ordination process, and they came back to me especially in CPE, where I found myself still occasionally wrestling with the demons of arrogance and entitlement. In the working world, indeed, even in the church, our colleagues and parishioners judge us by our works, not by our faith. And that’s not always a bad thing.

Even so, we live in a works-obsessed culture. Those who are unable to work, and those who cannot find work, are so easily written off as lazy or worthless. So I wonder: how did the Protestant work ethic come out of a tradition that claims that it is only by faith that we are saved? The letter of James looms large in our tradition, despite the fact that Martin Luther famously called it “the epistle of straw.” Maybe we fear that if we don’t work hard enough, God will not understand or even notice the depth of our faith. And so we in the church do work hard to justify God’s love for us. And we can all be proud of the work we have done at seminary, both on-hill and off-hill, both visibly and internally.

But we also need to keep teaching this truth: that if our salvation hung on our good works, we’d all be in a lot of trouble. Salvation is a free gift. Heck, I’ll risk heresy and claim that not even faith is a requirement for salvation, at least not the kind of faith that we can muster on our own. It is in God’s very nature to save us and to call us into deeper holiness. But having a gift and benefiting from it are two different things. Anyone can receive a package but refuse to open it.

And that’s where works come in. When Jesus instituted the Last Supper, he didn’t just give his disciples something to believe; he gave them something to do. Just by being alive, we can and must do works of some kind. And God chooses to trust us in these works, even when we’ve done nothing to deserve it. How else could we ever learn to be trustworthy?

This is a story that once ran in the Atlantic Monthly: “The composer [Igor] Stravinsky had written a new piece with a difficult violin passage. After it had been in rehearsal for several weeks, the solo violinist came to Stravinsky and said he was sorry, he had tried his best, the passage was too difficult, no violinist could play it. Stravinsky said, ‘I understand that. What I am after is the sound of someone trying to play it.’”

And so we try, and fail, and try again. Our good works are the jerky, halting results of our continuing efforts to try. God does marvel at our good works and even at our mere attempts at good works. These are the good works we hear about in both the epistle and the psalm today: supplying people’s bodily needs, being generous in lending, managing our affairs with justice, and giving freely to the poor. For the authors of the scriptures, “good works” are to be equated with these specific things—not just keeping the Ten Commandments, but actively working for social justice.

But what if we can’t ever seem to do enough? What if we can’t show enough evidence to our parishioners, to our colleagues, to our bishops, that our work is justified? What if, no matter how hard we work, the budget is in the red, the boiler is on the fritz, the elders are grumpy, the youth have all fled to Sunday morning soccer practice, and we and our families are chronically unhappy? It’s a nightmare scenario for a parish priest. And that’s why it does no good to dwell on it. This is where we meet the limit of our ability to rely on our own works. No matter how proud we may be of the job we do, there are times when our best just doesn’t seem to be good enough.

On a pilgrimage to El Salvador in 2007, I met Noah Bullock, a missionary from the U.S. who worked for the Episcopal Church, doing precisely the works mentioned in today’s readings. He told our group, “Every day when I wake up, I make a list of things to do today, knowing full well that I will fail to do almost everything on the list. But that’s OK, because those failures will teach me what I must put on tomorrow’s list.” Or as Mother Teresa put it: “God doesn’t call me to be successful … only faithful.”

And so we come back to faith, and the words of my radio consulting manager get flipped on their head. Years after my time in radio, when I had become a full-time lay associate in a parish, my rector said to me, “Don’t just be proud of the job you do; praise God for the job you have. Feel privileged to be a witness to God’s work through you.” When things are going well—and they will—we must share the honor with God. When things are going badly—and they will—it may be time to step back and try to imagine God’s larger view.

When I arrived at VTS and began meeting many of you, one of the first things I noticed was my classmates’ works—and I was very impressed. I remember meeting a class full of missionaries, youth ministers, academics, and chaplains, not to mention the wealth of career experiences people brought from outside the church—author, teacher, social worker, political campaign worker, medical examiner, lawyer, EMT, counselor, tinker, tailor, soldier, spy! (OK, not all of those are accurate. At least, not that I’m aware of.) I feel so honored to have shared my seminary journey with people of such good works.

But over time, I have also come to know the deep and varied forms of faith we have shared with each other. I feel proud of the job I have as a seminarian: that is, I am honored to be a witness to God working through each and every one of us. We are on many different paths, and our ministries will take distinct forms, depending on our gifts, the world’s need, and God’s call. Those of us with spouses, partners, and children find that they, also, have been in a process of discernment, sometimes laden with anxiety, at others times bursting with unexpected grace. All of us are works in progress, but we are faiths in progress, too.

We can’t do it all. But we will do much. What great works will we enable? What great works will God privilege us enough to witness? I can’t wait to find out. Let’s get to work—faithfully. Amen.

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