Saturday, January 24, 2015

Monty Python's Life of Brian: How Is This a "Jesus Film"?

On Wednesday nights at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Bellingham, WA, we’ve been enjoying a Jesus Film Festival for the season of Epiphany: films that help illuminate the life of Christ in a variety of ways. When our gathered audience heard that one of the films featured would be Monty Python’s Life of Brian, and furthermore that I would happen to be away at a conference the week it was shown (?!), one person asked me to compile some thoughts to guide a post-film discussion. How does a film this silly and profane qualify as a “Jesus film”?

SPOILER ALERT: Don’t read this until you have seen the film Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

No, really. It's OK to laugh at our faith!
I have long believed that it is healthy to laugh at our own faith. For one thing, if we can’t laugh at our own faith, we certainly have no right to laugh at anyone else’s—and how much fun could we have then? So, indeed, in Life of Brian, “blessed are the cheese makers.” But as for the meek inheriting the earth—well, one man in Jesus’ audience grumbles, “Everyone knows the meek are the problem!” Hearing the Sermon on the Mount from the perspective of the crowd in attendance opens me up to a lot of questions about the world in which Jesus lived.

After all, how many other films approach the cultural context of the Bible in an imaginative way? Perhaps Life of Brian and Ben Hur stand alone in this field. Rather than focusing on events in the life of Jesus, Life of Brian enters the world around Jesus and asks all sorts of playful questions. Would a punitive stoning have been regarded as a day’s entertainment? What was it like to be the illegitimate child of a Jew and a Roman? Despite their renowned cruelty, were the Romans generally held in high regard for the advances they made in health, technology, communication, and general ordering of society? When a leper healed by Jesus couldn’t beg anymore, how might he have made a living? And perhaps most crucially, how did the Roman musicians hold up those ridiculously long trumpets?

Poor Brian. He never catches a break.
Except, perhaps, from aliens from outer space.
Life of Brian also looks at resistance movements in light of human nature. When we see the People’s Front of Judea scorning the Judean People’s Front, the divisions in our present-day political movements and faith communities are reflected back at us. How hard can it be for people with different opinions to work together to resist a common enemy? Ask the members of Congress and the president to work together for peace. Ask the police officers and protesters of Ferguson, Missouri, to work together for justice.

We hear that there were many people in Jesus’ time claiming to be the Messiah, but I don’t know a thing about any of the others. Was it really so easy to get people to follow—as easy as standing on a street corner shouting? When we see Brian’s followers split into those who “follow the gourd” and those who “follow the shoe,” we laugh at their superstitious nature. But how easy would it be for you to just switch to another faith, even one that’s only marginally different from your own? Have you ever visited a Christian church that was so different, you felt completely out of place and overwhelmed with the sense that “this is just wrong”?

Most of all, I’m struck by Brian’s excoriation of the crowd that follows him: “Think for yourselves! You don’t need to follow anyone!” The crowd laps up his words eagerly, but then continues hounding him as their divine leader. Jesus, too, wanted us to think for ourselves. When he was asked, “Should we pay taxes to the Romans?,” he put the question back in the questioners’ laps: “Figure out what belongs to Caesar, and what belongs to God. Then pay it.” Of course, the merest examination of their faith would remind them that everything belongs to God, but Jesus still hasn’t told them precisely what to do. He has only given them a frame in which to hang their picture.

Jesus continually pointed beyond himself to the Father: “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” But this fact does not endanger an understanding of Jesus’ divinity; it only suggests that humility is a divine quality. St. Paul’s parishioner Natalie Greene remarked on Facebook this week, “Christ works so humbly that non-believers also do His work.” So we, too, if we are to follow Christ, are to think for ourselves—that is, we are to listen to the wisdom of others, but ultimately come to faith within ourselves, as we listen for God’s direction in our lives.

OK, everybody sing it together now!
The closing scene of the movie, famous for its cynicism, pokes fun at the blind optimism that might drive someone to sing, “Always look on the bright side of life.” Blithe platitudes don’t help anyone, least of all those who are suffering, and rarely has this been made clearer than in Life of Brian. The hapless Brian has lived a life alternately marked by luck and misfortune, but consistently marked by misunderstanding and lack of control. Likewise, with a little examination, we find that we are not so different from Brian. We only have the illusion of control over our lives. And we might even be left with the question: “Does God redeem fictional characters? Is there some divine hope for Brian? If so, can it be that there is also divine hope for me?”

But if you don't believe me, there's also this recent piece from The Telegraph. I hope you enjoyed the film!

Sunday, January 11, 2015


sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler

It's hard to believe, but last Sunday, it was still Christmastime. It was the eleventh day of Christmas, and we sang Christmas carols together. Now Epiphany has passed, the Wise Men have gone home by another road, and we seem to be on fast forward. Already Jesus has increased in wisdom and years to the age of thirty. And today we mark the day of his baptism by John in the River Jordan.

I think that the experience of water may be the most universal human experience of all. We are born through it. We need it to survive. Our bodies are made mostly of it. In ancient Hebrew cosmology, when God began creating all that is, there were already waters over the face of which a wind from God would sweep. In creation, God hollowed out a space in the middle of the primordial waters so that life might exist. Water is life, but water is also chaos and death. Only God’s Word holds back the waters. Indeed, in the story of Noah’s flood, God pulled back the divine hand and allowed the waters to invade the hollowed-out space, destroying nearly all life and washing creation clean again. As we heard in the psalm: “The LORD sits enthroned above the flood.” In chaos and storm and in spite of it, God can always be found.

Much later, it was watery chaos through which the Israelites walked on dry land to freedom. And much later than that, water vapor from the breath of God moistened the dry bones of the people of Israel and resurrected them from exile and despair. So it’s no wonder that it was in water that John baptized Jesus, a simulated drowning, a prefiguring of his death. When we baptize people into the Body of Christ, we pretend to drown them and draw them alive again from the water. We do this to show what God has done and will continue to do throughout their lives. Baptism is a really big deal.

Today we will baptize Eleanor, Everly, Nelmi, and Erik. We will use the tiniest splash of water to stand in for the very waters of chaos through which God saves all of us. They will receive full initiation into God’s Church, the Church that transcends denominational differences, the Church that we humans continue to sustain as a sign on earth of God’s eternal love. These four children will become the world’s newest Christians, and all of us here will promise to help raise them in the Christian faith and life. Though they have parents and godparents, all of us will also become responsible for them! So pay attention to what you are promising. I always remind parents and godparents to hold the congregation to these promises. Furthermore, if these families ever move away, some other church will share the privilege of these promises, and the parents and godparents can feel free to hold those people to the promises as well. We are one Church, and this is what we Christians do.

Christianity is not a solo sport. When we join the Church, we deepen a one-on-one relationship with God, of course. But it’s impossible for that to happen in isolation. We need to be in relationship with each other, because unless we are, Jesus’ commandment to “love one another” makes no sense at all. Our faith is very personal, but it is never private. And that’s hard to wrap our minds around in radically individualistic America. Today, we promise to raise Eleanor, Everly, Nelmi, and Erik with a much deeper understanding: God loves them as individuals, and God loves everyone through them and through all of us—no exceptions. Eleanor, Everly, Nelmi, and Erik will prepare for their baptism after the fact—for the rest of their lives, in fact, with our help.

But baptism is not the only thing we are about today. Today, we will admit Cari into the catechumenal process, the ancient practice of preparation for baptism at the Great Vigil of Easter. Cari’s preparation will take place on Wednesday nights in Journey, and many other people will join her in fellowship and learning every week in order to renew their own baptismal vows in the presence of our bishop in the season of Easter.

Baptism and communion are at the very center of the Christian life. Do go out of your way to meet and become acquainted with the children who are baptized today and their families; with the people who intend to be baptized; and those who intend to renew their baptismal vows. I invite you to pray for them, and also to consider how you, yourself, are living out your baptism these days.

And now, let’s do it. Let’s baptize four people into full membership in Christ’s Body. Let’s admit one other into a process that will lead to baptism at the Great Vigil of Easter on April 4. And let’s honor and pray for those who will renew their baptismal vows during Easter season in the presence of our bishop. Amen.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Dream of God

sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler
Rite-13 Pre-Retreat Eucharist

Piero della Francesca, The Old Testament Prophet Jeremiah (c. 1466)
I want to thank K. for reading to us from the Prophet Jeremiah, a man who once told God, “Don’t make me a prophet! I’m too young.” But we’re never too young to do God’s work; whether we want to, or whether we even intend to, is another question. Indeed, when our daughter Sarah was 2, Christy and I took her and my youth group to El Salvador. During our time there, Sarah served as our ambassador, breaking down walls of strangeness and distrust with her beautiful smile and curious nature. So, contrary to what Jeremiah would have preferred, you’re never too young for ministry.
In this reading, Jeremiah gives us a vision of bringing everyone home from the places where they’ve been scattered. You might think of the whole family coming home for Christmas, but much better than that. He’s also talking about the people of God returning from having been banished from their homeland. Has anyone here read The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis? If you have, remember the end of the book—that’s the kind of homecoming Jeremiah is ultimately talking about. We can imagine all these things at once when we hear this reading.
When I was in middle school, the thing I loved most about church camp and youth events was that everybody belonged. Now, we weren’t perfect about it, but at least we knew that was supposed to be the goal. Teasing and put-downs were not all that common, and when they did happen, we were doubly aware that such things didn’t belong. Furthermore, we knew that everybody had something to contribute. When we sang around the campfire together, I felt God moving in our midst, turning strangers into the best of friends.
I was raised in the church, but my experiences at camp and on youth retreats helped me understand God all the more: God has created all of us, we all belong together, and we are all meant to love one another. Jesus taught us this at the cost of his life. And then, by rising from the dead, he showed us that even death can’t stop God from continuing to bring us all together.
Is the circle of kids at your school like the circle of friends here? Can you talk about the same things you discuss in Rite-13? Is it sometimes like this? Have you had experiences at school that felt better than school? In the same way, when we’re at our best, our experiences at church point beyond this world to one in which God always feels near to us, binding us all together in friendship, love, and camaraderie. We all belong, and we all have gifts to share.
Just as the Magi brought gifts to the baby Jesus, we bring our gifts to God when we use them among each other, and especially when we use them to make our circle of friends even bigger. Because, as Jesus told us, the Kingdom of God isn’t someplace far away, in the sky or in heaven or in the great beyond. The Kingdom of God, he said, is among you. Where is God? Right here in this circle. In fact, calling it a Kingdom is a little misleading. Perhaps we could call it the Dream of God.
Have you ever caught a taste of God’s Dream? You don’t have to wait for it, you know. God’s Dream is here every time we act towards each other out of love, especially when we don’t expect anything in return, and especially when we overcome difficult temptations to do so. Maybe you’d rather exclude somebody, but you include the person instead. Maybe you’d rather speak hurtful words, but you hold them back and find something constructive to say. Maybe you stick up for someone who’s being mistreated. When the church is on the ball, we get this part right. When we’re not on the ball, we get it just as wrong as any other group of people in the world.
The Kingdom of God is right here among us; we just have to decide whether we’re going to be citizens of it. The Dream of God is right here among us; we are invited to live in it with God. And in every moment of our lives, we have an opportunity to decide whether or not to do that. Will you do that this weekend? Will you go out of your way to be good to each other, to get curious about and learn about each other, and to create the kind of community that is God’s Dream?
Among you are two boys who want to be baptized. They’ve been raised in the church, but between one thing and another, they’ve never officially become members of it. That will happen at the Great Vigil of Easter on April 4. Between now and then, you are the group who will get to help prepare them for it. Although they are not able to join the rest of you this weekend, maybe this weekend you can imagine together some ways to help them become more and more a part of you. It’s not that hard, really. Just get to know them. Invite them in. Learn who they are. Be there for them.
When Jesus said, “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light,” he meant that loving is as easy as falling off a log. And then he went to the cross to show how difficult it can be as well. That’s what being a Christian is all about: always doing the loving thing, whether it’s easy or not. What do you think? Are you up for it? Amen.