Thursday, March 26, 2015

God Who Does Stuff

homily preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Curate
Thursday in the Fifth Week of Lent, March 26, 2015

I’m fond of saying that the most radical claim we make as people of faith—and by this, I mean all monotheists, not just Christians—is that the God who created everything is God who actually does stuff. None of this deistic, set-the-world-spinning-and-walk-away belief for us! The more deeply you immerse yourself in the life of a worshiping congregation, hopefully, the more you find this to ring true in your life—the easier it is to see evidence of God at work in you.

Meanwhile, many who claim to be believers will settle for a vague belief that “something created all this.” That is profound and wonderful, and it’s a very good start. But that’s not all we’re about here. In the church, we understand God to make promises and then to follow through.

all art by Gertrud Mueller Nelson
For thousands of years, we have believed this. We are the descendants of those who believe that God makes and keeps promises. Today’s readings are about God keeping promises. But though God promises to Abraham a land to call home and descendants to populate it, Abraham catches only a glimpse of it during his lifetime. We may wonder, “What was the point, then? Can’t God promise and deliver something that is more immediately satisfying? And if the promise is going to take so many generations to come, can’t we call into question our own understanding of what has been promised?”

Well, yes, we can. And while we may choose to assert that God doesn’t change over time—something I don’t think we can be sure about, by the way—we can certainly observe that our understanding of God continues to change and to deepen. This very fact can be very difficult for people to accept. In a world so given to uncertainty and tragedy, we want something certain and understandable to hang our beliefs on. How can we keep our belief in God steady if people’s beliefs about God keep changing?

Yet I wouldn’t want to go back. I wouldn’t want to live in a time before the scientific method, because the scientific method shows us how God actually does stuff in ways we can apprehend and measure. I wouldn’t want to live in a time when we settled for existing in separate tribes that were all terrified of each other—something we still have in many places in the world today, though perhaps now we can begin to see beyond it! I wouldn’t want to go back to a time when we assumed that men and women were relegated to specific roles in society, and when we assumed that God wanted it this way. I look forward to more freedom in the world, and also for people to gain a greater sense of our responsibility to each other. Jesus commanded us to “love one another,” and we still have so much work to do as we learn how to love. I pray that God will continue to show us how all the new things we learn from each other are actually a part of God’s long-range plans.

Now, about the gospel passage: I would be remiss if I didn’t clarify that the situation in it is not quite as portrayed. This is not actually a showdown between Jesus and “the Jews.” Jesus, obviously, was a Jew, as were all of his earliest followers. When we hear, in John’s gospel, the phrase “the Jews,” we need to imagine ourselves standing with them. Jesus is talking to us—not to members of some other religion, but people who share his own faith.

In today’s gospel passage, those who are challenging Jesus—the Jews, or rather, those of us who share Jesus’ faith—revisit the promise to Abraham. This turns into a teaching moment, and Jesus folds time back on itself to announce that Abraham saw Jesus coming and was glad. Here we have a key piece of Christology—Jesus claiming that he existed before Abraham. Yet it’s deeper than that. He doesn’t say, “Before Abraham was, I was.” He says, “Before Abraham was, I AM.” The verb tense transcends our ability to pin Jesus down to a specific timeline. Not only this, but Jesus also references the very name of God given to Moses in the wilderness: “I AM.” Centuries later, the theologian Arius insisted that Jesus was the first of God’s creations and was not to be equated precisely with God. No doubt Arius’s opponents quoted this piece of scripture in their quest to condemn Arius as a heretic.

So what do you think of all this? Better yet, what do you feel about all this? Did Abraham experience Jesus from two thousand years away? Have you experienced Jesus in your own life, two thousand years removed on the other side? If we can, perhaps Abraham did, too, even if he never imagined the name Jesus.

This is the project of religion: not just to cogitate and to wonder, but to experience a transcendent reality. If God is all in our heads, God might be a figment of our imaginations. But when we get out of our heads and down into our hearts, we find Jesus there waiting for us. He smiles and says, “I’ve been here all along. Welcome.” We find that, in him, we are home. He sets a table for us, and the table is called Wisdom. In preparing a home for us, he is our host, and when we invite him into our new home, we find that he is also the guest. But better yet, we don’t even have to provide for our guest, because Jesus is also the meal. Jesus is host, guest, and meal, and he invites us to relax into his hospitality. Jesus promises us a home, just as God promised Abraham a home—not an immediate place to lay our heads, but a legacy for the future and also an image of being taken care of that transcends every timeline.

We are deep into Lent. Next week we will revisit the events in the final week of Jesus’ earthly life. It will be almost like we are there ourselves. Don’t just think about it. Experience it. Settle into the mystery in which Jesus suffers for us and then goes ahead of us into death to prepare a home for us. Like Abraham, we can see that home from afar, and this will allow us to fall deeply in love with God all over again. Amen.

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