Monday, January 18, 2016

Signs in the Spotlight

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

First, I want to say congratulations to all of us on our engagement. Did you catch that? According to the Prophet Isaiah, God has asked us to be God’s bride, and we have accepted. We have entered into a covenant with God that is matrimonial and eternal.

OK, it’s fine if that metaphor seems weird to you. Metaphors are metaphors because they do break down and because they don’t work for everybody. But there are other metaphors for what it means to be a part of God’s church. One metaphor that shows up in our readings today is a wedding reception. Another is light. The common theme is celebration, because the light is shining in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it. Come join the party!

John’s gospel is full of these metaphors, and they play out in his storytelling. John approaches the story of Jesus not as a journalist, but as a theater technician with a spotlight. He chooses seven signs, or miracles, of Jesus on which to shine his spotlight. And then John makes sure we understand that this is only a sampling. At the end of his gospel he writes: “There are many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”

Alternately, you could say that each gospel writer is a curator of the Jesus experience. John makes explicit his purpose in writing his gospel in the first place: “These are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” John’s gospel is a theological mixtape, an extended dance remix mashup of Jesus’ greatest hits. Or it’s a cabaret celebrating the drama of Jesus’ life. Today the spotlight shines on the first of those seven signs, so let’s looked at each sign a little more closely.

Have you ever seen water turned into wine? Perhaps not. But have you seen a dead party come to life? Maybe not everybody here would be comfortable shouting “Praise Jesus!” just because your odd variety of friends seems to be getting along. But I think that’s kind of what the church is—odd people, people who might never cross paths otherwise, making common cause in their love of God and in service to the world. The One who turned water into wine causes the church to dance as well—whenever we choose to relax and enjoy the party!

Next in John’s gospel, Jesus heals a dying boy. Of course, most of us pray for those who are ill, and we do so together every week in church. Do we do it in the hope that they will get better? Of course. But it’s not like their getting better depends on how hard we pray. We pray because we love them, and we pray in the confidence that even people who die are held in God’s care. In this case, Jesus does heal this boy, and many other people throughout history have experienced surprising instances of healing. It’s just something God does, and it’s something to celebrate.

Third, Jesus causes a lame man to walk. It’s another physical healing, but with a different skew. This isn’t a life-threatening condition … more like life-stunting. Have you ever feared that life had passed you by, only to be surprised and excited by new opportunities and renewed abilities? Have you ever feared that there would be nobody there to help you in your time of need … and then there was? Perhaps you, too, were having trouble walking, in a sense … and then suddenly, you could.

Jesus feeds five thousand people on five loaves of bread and two fish. Have you ever feared that there wouldn’t be enough to go around … and then there was? Abundance is the assumed starting place of the Christian, because scarcity never leads to hope. God provides us with enough, if only we humans will stop our fearful hoarding and share with one another.

Sign number five: Jesus walks on water. It was one thing for God to help Moses make a way through the water that stood between his enslaved people and their freedom. But Jesus leads us right over the top of the water instead. Have you ever looked at what seemed to be a permanent barrier, only to find it was no barrier at all?

Jesus gives sight to a man born blind, and in a long, dramatic encounter, the formerly blind man comes to see the truth of Jesus far better than those who have always been sighted. Have you ever discovered perspectives and ideas and light that you never could have imagined before?

Finally, Jesus raises his friend Lazarus from death. And resurrection is happening today, all over the world, wherever people love and care for each other. That is what we in the church call God’s Kingdom, always breaking into the world, ready for us to participate in it as citizens who live in love. And wherever we find resurrection, the fear of death cannot remain.

In another part of John’s gospel, Jesus tells the people, “I am the light of the world.” But in Matthew’s gospel, he tells them, “You are the light of the world.” Both are true. Jesus brings us light through our baptism so that we can shine it into all the dark crevices of our world. You and I are part of God’s project to renew the world, to realign its values around love, mercy, forgiveness, health, abundance, and joy. God is stirring things up in you, bestowing gifts on you to use for the sake of this world renewal. These gifts are to be used abundantly—wastefully, even—without any restrictions regarding the kinds of people we extend them to. When the Holy Spirit so chooses, some people are so drawn to that light that they simply must shine as well. We are to welcome them and baptize them and involve them in God’s project as new Christians.

Other people shine God’s light in ways that are less familiar to us. They may never encounter our ways or understand them. Someone asked me last week about good people who never become Christians. I didn’t tell him I objected to his implication that Christians are typically good, and non-Christians not so much; I don’t think he really meant that, but that he was speaking out of an old habit. My answer to him was, “Honestly, I don’t worry about that. Why? Because God is good and trustworthy.” Whether other people become Christians or not has no bearing on our mandate to love them and to serve them.

And then there are people who intentionally turn away from all light, who allow fear and hate to rule them. We may be tempted to control such people or to bring them in line by force. We certainly have a duty to protect the innocent who suffer at their hands. But Christians must never attempt to use darkness for the sake of light, because obeying that urge is what has turned many people away from Christianity in the first place. Fear and hate cannot bring us any closer to love.

Shining the light of Jesus isn’t easy, and it’s not always clear to us whether we’re doing it right. And I want to pause here and say a word about our church in the news this week. You may have heard in the media that the Episcopal Church has been “suspended from the Anglican Communion,” an attention-grabbing phrase that contains very little truth. A lot of people don’t understand that the Anglican churches of the world, though they all have roots in the Church of England, have no authority over each other. The Episcopal Church is not a child that has been scolded by its parents. Our churches are more like cousins who used to be close but who lately have begun to drift apart.

Here’s what happened. It was the understanding of the other Anglican churches of the world that the Episcopal Church would make no further moves in the area of human sexuality without consulting with them first. And then we went ahead anyway: last summer we approved same-sex marriage, deciding to treat it the same way as any other marriage. Indeed, this is what we do at St. Paul’s. I have seen with my own eyes that same-sex couples stand on an equal level with opposite-sex couples in their ability to shine God’s spotlight on the world through the sacrament of marriage. Furthermore, I feel strongly that our gay brothers and sisters have had to wait far too long for the church to honor their lifelong unions as a sacrament.

In other cultures in the Anglican Communion, such a revelation isn’t possible yet, and many faithful Christians cannot comprehend that what we’re doing is true to the gospel. Some believe that we are merely capitulating to a decadent culture. I believe we have much to teach them. But it would be a grave mistake to imagine this as one-sided; churches in other parts of the world have much to teach us about the destructive power of materialism, and about the power of less individualistic, more communally responsible approaches to life. All these types of learning occur not primarily through logical proofs, but through relationship. We need to stay in communion so we can continue to learn from each other.

You may be one of those who are glad that the Episcopal Church has taken this step. Or you may be one of those who wishes we had honored our commitment to our cousin churches, though it may be generations before some of them accept such a decision. The consequences are that Episcopal Church representatives will not be permitted to vote in certain Anglican Communion committees for the next three years. Meanwhile, the Archbishop of Canterbury has been asked to convene a “task force” to assist in continuing dialogue.

Many are reacting with shock or sadness at this turn of events. But it seems to me that what is happening here is the best possible outcome towards staying in communion with those who disagree with our church’s actions. The Episcopal Church is experiencing real consequences for having betrayed the trust of other Anglican churches. But this decision also outlines specific steps for people to collect themselves, pray, and learn from one another. The Anglican Communion is not broken—it is just living in the reality of long-term relationship. It’s not easy, but for those parties committed to continuing to listen to each other, it can happen. Conflict is an invitation to intimacy.

So fear not. God is renewing our churches, and God is renewing the world. It’s happening now. We can’t see the future, but we know that God is good and trustworthy and is always doing a new thing. We come to the Gospel with different experiences that lead us to different assumptions about what is required of us as Christians. But whatever we don’t yet understand will be revealed in time. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not—will not—cannot overcome it. So let’s come together like we always do to pray and receive God’s blessings in the bread and wine. And then let’s shine our own God-given spotlight on the miracles of love and truth that happen in our world every day. Amen.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Our Ark Is on the Fritz

homily preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler
Thursday, January 14, 2016

The satirical newspaper The Onion once printed a story with the attention-grabbing headline: “Jesus Christ Implicated in Game-Fixing Scandal.” It seems that at the conclusion of a recent football game, one of the all-star players had told the press, “There’s only one man who’s responsible for this victory, and that’s my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!” Further investigation showed that similar attributions of power had been made to the same man all over the country, thus necessitating an investigation of the Almighty Son of God, who is pictured in the inset holding what was then still a rare piece of technology: a cell phone. You know, as Seahawks fever begins to boil over again in the lead-up to the Super Bowl, we should probably keep an eye on Jesus and make sure that everything this year is above board.

It seems that the urge to count on divine intervention in our victories has always been with us, far more in wartime than in sports. The Israelites counted on having God on their side. After their rout by the Philistines in today’s reading, the elders figure they can guarantee a victory by trotting out the Ark of the Covenant. After all, it worked many times in the past! And does it not represent God’s very presence among the people? It intimidates the Philistines, all right, but when battle is joined, the Israelites are crushed—30,000 soldiers killed! What has gone wrong this time? Why is our Ark on the fritz?

Of course, all sorts of people
would still love to get their hands on that Ark ...
The emphasis on the death of the priests Hophni and Phineas ties the story to its greater context: Samuel, as a little boy, has already relayed a message that God intended to punish these two priests for their flagrant abuses of power. This is the fulfillment of that prophecy. No amount of hiding behind the Ark of the Covenant will change God’s mind, because the Ark is not a magical talisman, and humans have no magical ability to control God.

I notice that there is no suggestion that perhaps God is not involved in this military action. Of course God always takes the side of the winner in a fight, because God gets what God wants. If your people are on God’s bad side, you can expect things to go badly for you. The modern idea that God might not have a dog in this fight was one that I don’t believe would have occurred to anyone in that time and place. Everything worked together in God’s plan at all times.

So Israel is defeated, and in today’s psalm we read of a much later occasion, the defeat of Jerusalem that led to the Jews’ exile in Babylon. But the outcome is the same: feelings of rejection, humiliation, helplessness, injustice, waste. We all wish that we could magically make God help us. I once heard someone pray, “What can we do to attract God’s presence here?” That struck me as magical thinking, and not true to a mature understanding of God’s nature.

Yet it’s an honest human feeling, and God honors our honest human feelings. God hears us when we call, “See me! Remember me! Save me!” And the psalmist provides an argument intended to appeal to God’s actual nature. Why should God save? “For the sake of your steadfast love.” The Hebrew word is chesed. This is where Israelites place their trust: God’s steadfast love, God’s chesed, is the thing about God that it is always safest to assume. And if that’s the case, then what have we to fear in the long run?

Christ Cleansing a Leper
by Jean-Marie Melchior Doze, 1864
(from Wikipedia)
Now let’s look at the gospel. Here is a leper coming to Jesus and begging him, “See me! (Most people treat me like I’m invisible.) Remember me! (Most people would rather forget me.) Save me! (Because that’s what God does, and you are to be equated with God.) If you choose, you can make me clean.” The leper knows that Jesus has the power to heal him, but he understands that he must not assume Jesus will decide to use that power. The leper knows he has no magical talismans, but he clearly identifies Jesus with God’s chesed. Why would God not choose to save him? And indeed, Jesus does choose, and the leper is healed.

Well, this seems like a tidy enough ending. Whereas the priests and elders of Israel failed to see that they couldn’t control God and were punished for their arrogance, the leper saw clearly, and he was rewarded for his humility. Now we might expect Jesus to say to those around him, “See? You don’t need religion. You just need me.” Yet he doesn’t do that. He tells the leper, “Let’s keep the source of your healing between you and me. Go through the appropriate ritual. Show a priest that your disease has passed, and make the thank-offering that our tradition prescribes for such a joyous occasion.”

Rather than see the priestly office as a con job or an ineffective attempt to control God, Jesus honors it. We might imagine this as Jesus telling the leper, “Humor the priests, because they need to feel useful.” But I think it’s more than that. Jesus sees the value that communal ritual plays in keeping people in relationship with God. The leper’s healing is to be a testimony to God’s goodness, not just a promotional tool for this itinerant miracle-worker. The leper doesn’t need to make a sacrificial gift in order to keep his healing. But such an offering will be appropriate, and God will honor it just like God honors the newly healed man. Jesus urges the leper to make his ritual behavior match the reality of his relationship with God.

Now, there’s no indication in the story that the leper actually does this. In fact, he seems to disobey Jesus directly by spreading the Good News everywhere that Jesus has healed him. This makes life difficult for Jesus: suddenly he can’t go about openly in the towns without being mobbed.

I wonder how all this sat with Jesus. Was he angry? Frustrated? Mildly sad that the leper had missed the point? Or did he ever really expect the leper to follow his instructions? Have you ever felt so overjoyed at a surprising turn of events that you completely forgot to thank God for it? This happens to me all the time: I’m quick to pray when I’m in trouble, but I’m slow to pray when everything is going well. The college student is quick to call home when the money runs low, but otherwise, you might not hear from her. Such are we human beings, and God knows that. And God loves us anyway. Joy is more important than due ritual process, and it should always be celebrated.

And God loves us anyway when we wheedle God, and needle God, and pester God to help us with little things that don’t matter much in the scheme of things. I’m sure many people are praying that God will help the Seahawks win the Super Bowl. And it’s silly, yes. Would that we would pray as fervently for situations of actual suffering and pain in the world … yet sometimes we do. And God loves us, and God loves us. Amen.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

The Wild Star

homily preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler
The Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 2016

No doubt some of you were at church on the fourth Sunday of Advent. That’s the day the children contributed the Advent pageant to our liturgy. Of course, we didn’t call it a Christmas pageant because it wasn’t yet Christmas. But we covered all the relevant subject matter. We even introduced the Magi using Godly Play language: “They are always late, it seems. Every year they are late. They don’t usually arrive until January 6th, but we remember them anyway, because, like us, they are on the way to Bethlehem.”

During that pageant, we also introduced the Wild Star—the star that these astrologers from the east couldn’t find on any of their charts—the star that went wherever it wanted to go. And Katy, age 5, dressed as a star, came tearing joyfully down the center aisle and headed for the side aisle. The Magi saw the star and set out to follow it, to see what message it wanted to reveal to them. But our particular Magi had a slow time spurring their camel to action, so they were late. By the time they got to the side aisle to follow the Wild Star, the Wild Star had torn up the center aisle again … and it was now behind them! You could see the looks on their faces as they scanned this gigantic room for the star and eventually had to turn all the way around to find her: “Wait, what?”

There’s something wonderfully appropriate about that. We try to follow the Wild Star, and next thing you know, it’s following us. Have you ever set out to seek God, only to find that God was actually pursuing you—to use a different metaphor, the hound of heaven hot on your heels? Christy and I have a plaque in our house that reads: “Love—a fierce, fiery love—the love by which God pursues us.” That fiery star is after us.

A friend of C. S. Lewis once found himself, to his own great shock, becoming a believer in Jesus Christ. Lewis remarked, “The Holy Spirit is after you. I doubt you’ll get away!”

God calls us to join in that loving pursuit, later or sooner. It’s never too late to begin the journey, actually. So in that spirit, here we are at January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany. Christmas has just now ended. The season of Epiphany, which begins with the arrival of the Magi, is all about the revealing of Christ to the world.

We could talk about all the little tidbits I love to point out about the Magi: that they are not called kings in the Bible, but that this idea comes to us through today’s reading from Isaiah and today’s psalm … that there aren’t necessarily only three of them, but that we assume three because of the three gifts … that they appear only in Matthew’s gospel, while the shepherds appear only in Luke’s gospel … that because of this, they don’t come to a stable, but to a house where Mary and Joseph seem to have been living for some time.

Those are all interesting things to think about. But I think the most important thing is that Jesus is born like any other baby. Like any other Jewish boy at the time, he is circumcised at eight days old, dedicated to God at forty days old. His parents bring him to the temple at the age of twelve years, and he ditches them like any self-focused middle schooler might, so excited to learn about God that he forgets about the needs of his parents. Jesus is just like us.

At the same time, there’s something different about this boy. These few stories are all we have of his childhood, and then the revealing picks up again when Jesus is a mature adult coming to John for baptism. We will celebrate that feast this coming Sunday. Jesus is baptized like anyone else might be, but a voice from heaven announces him to be God’s son. Jesus is just like us, except that he’s completely different.

Throughout the next five weeks, we will continue to explore the paradox of the one who is completely human and completely divine. It’s the most shocking claim we make as Christians. How could an ordinary person perform such miracles of healing … such signs of wonder … such bold, loving actions in violation of social norms, conventional wisdom, and any sense of propriety? Where did his graced words of comfort and challenge come from? They couldn’t have come from an ordinary man. Here, indeed, was a man who should be worshiped as God! Wait, what?

The scandal of Jesus, the man-who-is-also-God, is the theme of the season of Epiphany. This is the man who said, “Let your light shine,” all the while letting his own light shone brightly. At our baptism, we receive our light, and then it is time to let it shine, let it shine, let it shine. It is our job to seek out God’s plans and then show up and be a part of them. That doesn’t mean giving God one hour a week, but our entire lives. We are to become increasingly aware of God’s loving presence. We are to be ever more conscious of God’s demands on our time and energy, because God wants our every moment and our every effort. And this is important, too: this doesn’t mean burning ourselves out, but converting the very nature of the things we are doing already! God blesses our good works, and God redeems our failures. God gives us each other: our families, our friends, our colleagues, and strangers—all of our interactions with people are to be baptized by God’s call to us.

I hope that you can stay for dinner tonight, and then stay the evening. Come learn about Journey, our name for the catechumenal process, that ancient series of rites that leads to baptism for those who are not yet baptized, and to reaffirmation of our baptismal vows for everyone else. Join a group of people who are chasing after God by exploring the ways he was revealed to us in Jesus. But once you join that "Jesus Movement," don’t be surprised to turn around and find that God is chasing after you! Amen.