Friday, March 25, 2016

Does Freedom Make God Die?

sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Curate
Good Friday, March 25, 2016

Imagine a scene with me, if you will. It is the spring of 1976. The United States is in the grip of bicentennial fever, with all sorts of scheduled events to commemorate the magic number 200. Everywhere we go, we hear about freedom, a freedom that so many fought and died for, the honor and pride of living in a free country.

Somewhere in this country is a three-year-old boy whose family has been taking him to church every week. Easter has just arrived, and the boy is present in church and listening. He may color in a coloring book, or just sit with his blankie and suck on two fingers. But he has been paying attention.

At home after church, the mother is working in her office when the little boy comes in with a question. “Mommy,” he asks, “Does freedom make God die?”

The mother is shocked. She has no idea what could have planted this question in her son’s head. But she turns to her son and answers, simply, “Yes.”

Salvador Dali,
Crucifixion (Corpus Hypercubus)
Freedom does make God die. Hey, freedom makes any parent die at least a little bit. To bestow a measure of freedom on a small, imperfect creature is to invite a whole world of hurt, not just for the child, but also for the parent. It’s the death of innocence, the smashing of unfettered possibility. It means potty accidents and crayoned walls, and sleepovers and science fairs, and a cell phone and a driver’s license, and experimentation with sex and drugs, and surprising successes and stunning failures, and convictions that are different from ours, and the stretching of the rubber band of protectiveness so far that it threatens to break. It’s just what happens as kids grow up. And woe to the parent who keeps trying to control the process well into the child’s adulthood. To let go is to die. But to cling is to kill.

We have just heard of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant. We have recited the anguished Psalm 22, we have heard the theology of Christ’s priesthood in the letter the Hebrews, and we have witnessed the entire Passion Narrative. But I want to set one more story alongside these many: the story of Cain and Abel. After Adam and Eve choose freedom are cast out from the garden into a much larger world, the first thing that happens is that Eve bears two sons. And then, one day, the older brother kills the younger. Why?

I think Cain kills Abel because life isn’t fair and offers no apology. God favors Abel’s sacrifice over Cain’s for reasons not even provided in the story. Feelings are hurt, grudges are nursed, and jealousy and insecurity lead to murder. Cain and Abel’s story is an etiology: a story that imagines a possible past in order to teach us why things are they way they are now. It comes right on the heels of etiologies about the creation of the world, the first human beings, and the choosing of freedom, which leads us to fall into a state of perceived separation from God.

The story of Cain and Abel is the story of all humanity. This week in Brussels, and then also in Ivory Coast, there were groups of people who felt compelled to kill, and they did. Perhaps they, too, were upset that life isn’t fair. Not to mention, this month in Yemen, two drone strikes have killed over 200 people. This is our world, and though we might want to call these killing actions insane, nothing about this is insane—it’s merely human. Human beings cause death to try to make life more fair. Kill the killers. Can’t find the killers? Blame everybody who looks like them, and then take away their freedom so they can’t kill, either. Clamp down on their lives so hard that they have no agency to kill. And when killing somehow happens anyway, clamp down even harder. Send in the drones. Go for their families, too. Make the sand glow.

Long ago and far away, there was another man who was killed. Why? Had he killed somebody? No, but there was reasonable cause to think he might. Why? What did he say? He said to love your enemies, and to pray for those who persecute you. And was this reasonable cause for a death sentence? Well, he was threatening our way of life. And what is that way of life? If you have a problem, you can always just kill it. You’d better kill it, actually, before it kills you.

Since so much freedom has led to so much killing, I guess it makes sense to assume that less freedom might lead to less killing. Our justice system relies on this assumption. But, funny thing about humans: we are made to be free. It may be that our very humanity depends on our freedom. And when we can’t be free, either we lash out and destroy others, or we withdraw into self-destruction.

God knew this. God gave us a garden of earthly delights, a place designed for its creatures to enjoy freely. And then God let us decide whether we really wanted that freedom. God could have clung to us, made us robots, caused us to serve only God and never ourselves. But instead, God chose to let go. To let go is to die … but to cling is to kill.

So God loved without clinging. God waited patiently, and then God invited a specific group of us into a mutually beneficial contract: Listen to me and trust me, and love me and one another, and I will be your God, and you will be my people. This will make you a blessing to all the people of the entire world. But in our freedom, we kept killing, and persecuting, and oppressing, and being careless with each other’s lives, and so we broke the contract—multiple times. So God sent especially insightful people called prophets to show us where we had gone wrong, to call us back to a life of trust in God and love for one another. And so often, we killed them, too.

The law and the prophets showed us how sinful we were, but it turns out that it’s hard to be in relationship with a Creator you can’t see. And so God became seen as Jesus, living among us, calling, teaching, healing. And how did we receive this gift of Jesus, God-among-us? We killed him.

We keep killing because, ever since Cain, we think it will solve our problems. But killing has never solved any problem. The best it can do is kick the can down the road. And so we keep kicking, and killing, and kicking …

But here’s the thing. How does God respond to all our sin, all this killing? Does God solve problems by killing them? No. God’s solution to the problem of sin is simply to forgive it. All of it. Right in the middle of our act of killing him, Jesus forgives us. He lets it all go, and he dies. Jesus had warned us that those who try to save their life will lose it. This applied to him as well, as he shows us so clearly. We exercised our freedom by killing our Creator, and our freedom made God die. God let go, and we killed God.

When this happened, the evil forces at work among us were unmasked, and death lost all its power. God wouldn’t stay dead, and God came back to us not with words of hate and revenge, but with words of forgiveness and peace. And after all this, God allows us to retain our complete freedom: freedom to choose to love, or to choose to kill. Freedom to help, or freedom to ignore. Freedom to care, or freedom to numb. Ultimate forgiveness, and ultimate freedom.

We are free creatures, and every day we pay the price. We are perpetrators of freedom, and we are victims of freedom. But we can also be the beneficiaries of freedom … when we love and when others love us in return. We are the beneficiaries of freedom when we somehow find it in us to forgive, and short of actual forgiveness, at least to say the words of forgiveness so that we can begin its long, painful process. We are the beneficiaries of freedom when we rediscover our own dignity, the dignity granted to us in our very creation, the dignity that is not damaged even by execution on a cross, the dignity that belongs to each and every creature, that no human can remove, and that even God will never take away, no matter what horrors we feel free to inflict on others. We treat our freedom responsibly when we recognize that Christ is present in every other person who has ever existed, and act accordingly.

You, here today at St. Paul’s: you are forgiven. You are forgiven for everything. Jesus took care of that 2000 years ago, and you don’t have to worry about it ever again, though it is natural to worry and to need to be reminded time and time again. Your sins are no more. And you, here today at St. Paul’s: God loves you so much that God has made you free. You can choose your path, and God will love you no matter what decisions you make, be they great decisions or terrible decisions. There is no distance from God short of the distance we insist on maintaining.

Now then: What are we going to do with all of this forgiveness, and all of this freedom? There’s too much of it to carry. Where will we put it? Whatever we choose, we must remember this: Yes, children, freedom does make God die. And freedom makes us die. To let go is to die. But to cling is to kill. Which we will choose?

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Knowing Jesus

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

My grandfather’s name was Harold Fremont Smith. He was an American Baptist pastor who moved his family all around the Pacific Northwest—Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho. He helped establish Cascade Meadows, a Baptist camp out on U.S. 2, west of Leavenworth.

I never knew my grandfather. He was killed in a car accident five years before I was born. My mom has always wished that my dad, my brother and I could have known him, because to know someone in the flesh is such a gift. You can never fully express to somebody what it was like to be able to hear, smell, touch a certain person who is now gone.

Mary knew Jesus. And before we say more, let’s get straight that this is not Jesus’ mother Mary we’re talking about here, but Mary of Bethany, who may or may not also have been Mary Magdalene—that’s a topic of considerable scholarly debate. There are so many Marys in the Gospels, you could certainly be forgiven for confusing them.
But Mary of Bethany definitely knew Jesus. This is the Mary who shirked her housekeeping duties (to the dismay of her sister Martha) in order to listen to Jesus’ teachings. This is the Mary who grieved with Martha over the death of their brother Lazarus, and then rejoiced when Jesus frightened death away. It seems that, spiritually, Mary was a step ahead of the game.

Jesus and the disciples have come to Bethany because it is their launching pad. Bethany is a mere two miles from Jerusalem. In the morning, Jesus will ride into the city on a borrowed donkey, and the events of Holy Week will begin. But tonight, Mary surprises everyone. She graces Jesus’ feet with spikenard perfume worth a worker’s wages for a year—a year! And then she scandalously caresses Jesus with her hair and, I imagine, with free-flowing tears.

Mary understands that in the days to come, Jesus is going to give himself away until there’s nothing left. And until he does, Mary intends to stay as close to him as she can. She’s going to anoint his body for burial while he’s still alive, so she can inhale the fragrance that will always remind her of her Lord. Mary knows that Jesus’ days are numbered, and she’s already grieving. Why is this so hard for Judas to understand?

Oh, but I’ve been Judas. I totally get where he’s coming from. When’s the last time you dropped a year’s wages on a bottle of wine, no matter how important the occasion? And if you had, don’t you think some conscientious Christian would have objected on principle to a $20,000 Chateau Lafite?

Now, at this point I want to confess something to you: I don’t actually believe the gospel writer’s aside about Judas being a thief. He may have been stingy, and he may have totally misunderstood Jesus’ mission and purpose. But Judas was so passionate about law and order that he turned Jesus in for incitement, and his conscience wouldn’t even let him keep the blood money. And then he hanged himself over it! No, Judas was a slave to God’s law—he was no thief. It’s a shame that the writer of John’s Gospel felt the need to slander Judas, as if his name weren’t already reviled worldwide. Feel free to side with the Bible over me, though—that’s OK.

So anyway … Mary knew she had one last chance to show Jesus how much she loved him. Have you ever given an extravagant gift, far more extravagant than the situation called for? Whether you’ve had the means to donate a lot of money to a good cause, or you’ve just splurged on a present for your spouse without an occasion, it’s kind of fun, isn’t it? Because deep down, the one receiving the gift knows it’s not about the money. It’s just that you couldn’t pass up the perfect gift.

In Mary’s case, the gift is so perfect it’s prophetic. What’s a year’s wages compared to Jesus? Can you answer that for yourself? Mary knows Jesus well enough to understand that he is worth more than anything money can buy.

Judas, on the other hand, has the mindset we might have when doing last-minute Christmas shopping: Well, she’s only my cousin. Is $25 too much to spend? Twenty? What about a gift for my brother’s girlfriend? Fifteen? If they get engaged first, should I up it to thirty? So I’d like to ask Judas: How much nard would have been an appropriate amount for Jesus? Maybe an eighth of that? Or a month’s wages? Is Jesus worth more than a diamond engagement ring? Where would you draw the line, Judas?

See, Judas is the fun police. He’s well-intentioned, but he’s insufferable. I’ve known people like him, and I’ve got enough bleeding-heart tendencies to slip into that attitude myself occasionally: somewhere in the world right now, someone is suffering. And as long as that’s true, none of us is allowed to have any fun!

But it’s no use, don’t you see? There will be many other opportunities to help the poor. Tonight, Jesus is moving inexorably from life toward death, and Mary knows it. Judas knows it, too. Judas is already wondering, “What if he’s not the Messiah after all? Mary may have thrown away a year’s wages, but I’ve thrown away three years of hard work and passionate hope, and I don’t think Jesus is committed to the cause. He’s not proving himself to be the kind of leader who could successfully carry off a coup against the Romans! In fact, I’m starting to think it’s time to cut my losses. Yes, the only way for me to stay in control of this situation is … to turn Jesus in.” Or maybe Judas is thinking, “All I need to do is set up the right conditions. If I arrange an arrest, Jesus will resist, and the coup will begin! That’s how I can control this situation.” Indeed, maybe that’s at the heart of Judas’s problem: he thinks he can actually be in control of any situation at all.

Mary has a different perspective. She may not know how any good could possibly come from Jesus’ death, but as a woman, she rarely expects to be in control. So she is relinquishing it. Mary knows the words we heard this morning from the Prophet Isaiah:

I am about to do a new thing;
          Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
          And rivers in the desert.

And today’s psalm—maybe that was on her lips too as she worked to ease the fire in Jesus’ head and feet:

Those who sowed with tears
          will reap with songs of joy.
Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed,
          will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.

Mary will go out weeping, carrying the seed of faith that is to be buried in the ground, dead to the world. She doesn’t know how God’s grace will work—just that it will work. It has to work, because it comes from God. As Paul would write decades later:

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

Paul wrote from the other side of the Resurrection, with a bittersweet longing that he never knew the man Jesus. But Mary did. She heard him and smelled him and clung to his body desperately, knowing that very soon he would be snatched away.

All life eventually leads to death. We know this. We live this reality every day. But as Christians, we also understand the flip side of that coin: All death leads to life. That’s the Good News!

Thirty-six years ago this month, Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated in San Salvador right in the middle of celebrating the Mass. Just two weeks before he was killed, Romero told a reporter: “I must tell you, as a Christian, I do not believe in death without resurrection. If I am killed, I shall arise in the Salvadoran people.”

Several days before his murder, Romero said, “You can tell the people that if they succeed in killing me … I forgive and bless those who do it. Hopefully, they will realize they are wasting their time. A bishop will die, but the church of God, which is the people, will never perish."

And just moments before his death, in his homily, Archbishop Romero said, “Those who surrender to the service of the poor through the love of Christ will live like the grain of wheat that dies. . . The harvest comes because of the grain that dies … We know that every effort to improve society, above all when society is so full of injustice and sin, is an effort that God blesses, that God wants, that God demands of us.” And then he was shot. I have visited that church; I have stood in the very spot where Oscar Romero died.

I wish I had known Archbishop Romero. He understood that justice runs much deeper than politics and much deeper than not spending money on extravagant things. Justice means standing in solidarity with the powerless, something that Jesus specifically instructed us to do time and time again. There is no scarcity in this world short of the scarcity we inflict. God has given us everything we need. Why would we keep it from each other?

I also wish I had known my grandfather—the pastor, the father, the husband that my relatives knew.

As for Jesus … well, in this place, we try to know Jesus a little better every week. Maybe it’s not as easy for us as it was for Mary. Maybe it doesn’t feel as real. But there’s a part of me that understands that Jesus is actually more real now than he was in those thirty years in Palestine. If Jesus doesn’t feel all that real to you, at least rest assured that the journey toward him is ongoing, and that you are real to Jesus. Paul wrote, “I press on to make [the knowledge of Christ] my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”

Mary knew Jesus, and thanks be to God, we can know Jesus, too. In this final week before Holy Week, let’s remember the value of knowing people in the flesh, but let’s also remember that faith means trusting that every death leads to new life. And now let’s speak that faith together.