sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler
The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 22B, October 4, 2015
|Carl Heinrich Block, Christ with Children|
I once heard a newly ordained priest preach on this passage about divorce. He was a 30-year-old man who had never been married, but he felt it was his duty to tackle the question, “Is divorce a sin?” No doubt many of the hundreds present had been through one or more divorces! But this preacher answered the question with an unqualified YES, divorce is a sin. And then he proceeded masterfully to put that YES into context, such that the divorcees in the room were able to understand that their sin was not necessarily any worse than the sins the rest of us have committed. We’re all in the same boat.
There’s a popular concept of Jesus as a softie, as someone who went easy on people. This passage is one example to the contrary, and there are many others. How about the passage in which Jesus says that lustful thoughts are also on the same level as adultery? How about Jesus’ frequent warnings to the rich that their failure to share is spiritually harming them? How about his insistence that if we’re not taking care of the poor and needy, we’re not fit to enter God’s Kingdom?
It seems to me that Jesus calls us to a much higher standard than the Pharisees ever envisioned. See, the Pharisees thought a person could actually fulfill the entire law of Moses. They didn’t understand why people didn’t pull themselves up by their bootstraps and make themselves worthier. That’s why Jesus was so critical of the Pharisees, at one point instructing them not to gripe about the speck of something in their neighbor’s eye before removing the giant tree limb from their own. In this teaching on divorce, Jesus informs us that, yes, we are all in the same sinking ship, even if it doesn’t feel like it. He sets us up to fail, so that we can let go of the illusion that we can make ourselves successful.
The Letter to the Hebrews talks about the sad condition of humanity. It begins with the passage we heard today, a sweeping summary of salvation history. God has tried to reach out to us time and time again, first speaking to us through prophets. Then God came to be with us in Jesus, and in so doing, God re-sanctified flesh and blood and bone as “very good.” And then Jesus went through hell right here on earth. One thrilling Christian narrative has it that Jesus also went through hell after he died, in order to liberate the souls imprisoned there and to destroy hell itself.
Last week Father Jonathan preached about his recent trip to Turkey and Iraq and the suffering he saw there among the refugees fleeing from so-called ISIS. He asserted that God does not inflict hell on us; we’re perfectly capable of inflicting it on ourselves and on each other. We saw that fact lived out again this week, in a scene in Roseburg, Oregon, that has become so familiar that we are ever more at risk of making peace with it. Please don’t make peace with it. Please don’t simply blame the shooter, or guns, or lack of access to mental health resources, and then throw up your hands and say, “Nothing will ever change.”
See, there’s a problem with the American narrative. It is contrary to the Christian narrative in one very key way. The American narrative tells us that we are nothing but a collection of solitary individuals who are only responsible to each other to whatever degree we choose to be. This, my friends, is a lie. We are all responsible to each other, whether we like it or not. But when we choose to deny that responsibility—when we say, “I am not my brother’s keeper”—we perpetuate the evil legacy of Cain and Abel.
The Letter to the Hebrews tells us that God has left nothing outside our control. God pursues us with love, but God doesn’t force our hand in any way, because God doesn’t use force. It is because we actually do have control over our lives that suffering is possible. But rather than step in and cause our suffering to cease, Jesus, the exact imprint of God’s very being, allowed himself to be arrested as a disgraced criminal, leaving his friends and family in peril. He would not take any violent action at all … and that’s the Teacher I follow. Jesus raised the bar of righteousness so high that we could never achieve it, and in so doing, he showed us what we already knew: we cannot win. Every one of us will fall apart and die one way or another.
If that were the end of the story, Christianity would be a religion of futility. But then Jesus came back. He wouldn’t stay dead! Jesus came back to show us what’s coming next, albeit in very mysterious terms that even his best friends and eyewitnesses couldn’t agree on how to fully express. Jesus gave us the blueprint of creation: his very self, poured out for us in love. And then he said, “Live by this blueprint, and you will live eternally. Give of yourself for the sake of others, and your life will truly matter—not only for the length of your tiny lifespan, but for all of eternity.” Or to put to briefly enough to slap on a bumper sticker: “Since all else fails, love.”
“Since all else fails, love.” If we can inflict hell on each other, we can also grow heaven among each other.
Marriage models God’s love for everyone around … except when it doesn’t. Parents teach their children how to love … except when they teach them how to fear. Businesses provide good things for society … except when they get so wrapped up in profit and self-interest that they cause more problems than they set out to solve. Religious communities also can lose their way and work against God’s love. And these things happen even while the marriages and parents and businesses and religions are doing lots of good things at the same time! We are a morass of successes and failures, every one of us, every day. We all do our best, except when we don’t, and we are all complicit in the sin of a sick society. And then we all die, all of us with our projects and aspirations. We all die.
But did we love? “Since all else fails, love.”
Elysia Gemora recently wrote this on the blog of EPIC, our campus ministry group: “It’s embarrassing, and yet, it is in our falling short where I (as a new-ish Episcopalian) have fallen in love with this community. More so than any other church I’ve experienced, Episcopalians welcome getting called out for mis-stepping and seek out critiques.”
I hope this does indeed describe St. Paul’s at its best. It is a proper display of Christian humility to learn to say, “I’m sorry,” and to ask, “How can I do better?” That is love working through failure. It isn’t the same as flailing around in a perfectionistic frenzy and then beating ourselves up when we drop the ball. We will drop the ball! Instead, it’s about recognizing that no, we’re not worthy, and we can’t make ourselves worthy, no matter how hard we try. But God considers us worthy. We’ll never be perfect, and yet God loves us anyway. What are human beings, that God is mindful of us? It’s shocking to think, and yet I firmly believe, that if I were to fail to mature in any way between now and the day I die, God would still love me infinitely. The same goes for you.
But how can we benefit from this love? Through humility and gratitude—humility and gratitude, powerful signs of a healthy Christian.
And so we come to Jesus’ remarks about children. A few weeks ago we were reminded that most children in Jesus’ time did not survive to adulthood. Children were bundles of potential, to be sure, but in the moment they were not seen as gifts but as useless nuisances. The youngest among them took and took and gave nothing that the community needed. This is what Jesus allows and blesses us to be: useless nuisances who might someday give something back for the sake of the Kingdom of God—or might not! And these are the people we’re called to love.
There’s another way to look at it, too. Children make lots of mistakes and then learn from them. I remind my daughter of this all the time, especially when I’m coaching her on her homework: Make mistakes! Please! I’ve learned almost nothing valuable without them. What we do naturally at first as children—learning from our failures—too many of us unlearn. We decide that if we can’t be right most of the time, we must not be adults yet. And so we either become entrenched in views and lifestyles that could probably benefit from some scrutiny, or else we retreat into comfortable familiarity and only do things we know we will succeed at. The older we get, the easier it is to be afraid of failure. But our fear will not save us.
What indulgence has God allowed you to foster due to your hardness of heart? What hardness of heart does God now call you to grow out of? Take counsel with me today from Jesus: failure is an option. We can thank God that there is nothing we can do to make God love us less—nothing whatsoever. That frees us up to attempt things. We cannot succeed or fail unless we practice, and this practice can flow from our gratitude. When we succeed, we will find that God was right there next to us all along, guiding our childish hands. And when we fail, we will find that our proper response is simply to let God love us back into wholeness—through the community around us, fellow citizens of God’s Kingdom.
So I invite you to practice with me! As we begin our fall pledge campaign, I invite you to make a financial pledge to St. Paul’s, even if you fail to fulfill it or have to modify it later. Don’t just put money in the plate: commit to a dollar amount for 2016. Strike out boldly to practice sharing, so that we may become better citizens of the Kingdom of God. In addition, I know a number of parishioners who are taking on new ministries right now. Practice something new for the sake of the mission of St. Paul’s. Or do something even gutsier: let something go, especially if it’s not feeding you, or if you perceive that it might no longer be feeding others. Change your priorities. Allow God to give you the strength you do not have in yourself. We’re all selfish, frightened beings, so let’s help each other work against selfishness and fear.
Since all else fails, love. Grow heaven among the people in your life. This kind of love takes practice. Will you practice alongside me? Let us pray.
Almighty and everlasting God, you are always more ready to hear than we to pray, and to give more than we either desire or deserve: Pour upon us the abundance of your mercy, forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things for which we are not worthy to ask, except through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ our Savior; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.