Thursday, July 28, 2016


homily preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Curate
Thursday, July 28, 2016, 10:00 a.m.

"Father knows best" ... not.
In the past week I’ve been inundated with surprising pastoral care situations. I won’t go into the details except to say that there was a common thread: strangers seeing my collar and then expecting me to be able to tell them exactly what God wants them to do.

I’ve been a priest for two years now, and I still find this a little surprising. It puts me in mind of what Karl Marx said about religion being “the opiate of the masses.” It shouldn’t be, but it can be. Wherever Christian leaders have taught people not to think for themselves, but to rely on others to do their thinking for them, trouble lies close at hand. This nurturing of dependence on other human beings is not true to anything that Jesus teaches us.

For Jesus taught us freedom—freedom that grows from love. How did he teach us? Through words, yes, but not with an instruction book, but with stories. Parables. Our education in the faith is actually best done in an abstract way, because each of us must live our own life and make our own decisions.

All of this plays into people’s various misunderstandings of what education is supposed to be in the first place. For instance, people who haven’t made much of an effort to read the Bible might feel as if they are not qualified to be helpful to others in matters of faith—guilt-laden, they’ll confess that they just don’t have the knowledge. This assumes that book knowledge is what makes one an expert. Book knowledge is helpful, but it’s not the only kind. By itself, it downplays the wisdom of our actual lived experiences of God. Book knowledge is a good thing, but it doesn’t necessarily lead to wisdom.

By the same token, our actual lived experiences of God usually need interpretation through the lenses of others to set them into a larger context. Book knowledge can help with this process—knowledge of various strands of Christian theology and how they might fit in with our individual situation. Wisdom comes through openness to all sorts of knowledge.

Is this how we become followers of Jesus? Didn't think so.
But in our culture today, book knowledge is the kind of education we usually think of first. Many people’s understanding of education is what I jokingly call, “open head, insert facts.” This works pretty well with math. But as a result, for instance, some parents choose not to let their children take communion yet because they don’t think the children have enough facts in their heads. Meanwhile, the most important knowledge of communion is experiential: Here is the path your baptism set you on. Here is community. Here is invitation and inclusion. Here is sustenance for your Christian journey. Here you are touching the holy. Here is love. The youngest children understand at least some of these things instinctively. Book knowledge will come later, but it will be inspired and informed by first-hand knowledge of the thing itself. We are not merely being educated, but formed.

From the font directly to the table
to begin experiencing Holy Communion.
(Source: Wikimedia)
I think our entire faith lives are like this. We don’t truly learn about things before we experience them. Rather, we experience things and reflect on them theologically. The task of Christian “educators”—and yes, I put that in quotes on purpose—is not to “open head, insert facts,” but to help people learn to draw close to the mystery of God. In Godly Play, that can be as simple as beginning a sentence with “I wonder …”

One of my favorite authors, Robert Farrar Capon, put it best:

Christian education is not the communication of correct views about what the various works and words of Jesus might mean; rather it is the stocking of the imagination with the icons of those works and words themselves. It is most successfully accomplished, therefore, not by catechisms that purport to produce understanding, but by stories that hang the icons, understood or not, on the walls of the mind.[1]

And this is why, at St. Paul’s, we refer not to “education,” but “formation.” My new title is Associate Priest for Adult Formation. My job is to help form faithful adults. I’m not the potter, but I invite people into the potter’s house for the sake of being formed under the potter’s hands. I can’t tell people what God wants them to do or become, but I hope I might inspire them to draw nearer to God and to discover holy freedom. Freedom in Christ means freedom to be fully human, with all the choices and responsibilities that entails, and with all the love that demands. How did the Mother Abbess put it in The Sound of Music? “A dream that will need all the love you can give/ Every day of your life, for as long as you live.” This is the Christian life.

And because this is the Christian life, and not just the life of a priest, this is your work, too: to nurture in other people freedom in Christ. True freedom doesn’t just mean we get to do whatever we feel like. True freedom comes with an awareness of our responsibilities to each other.

An image of God
(Source: Pixabay)
Our potter works with very willful clay. God will keep working to form us into something beautiful, even if we must shatter first and be thrown back into the furnace. As individuals, we are broken and re-formed into something new. But note that Jeremiah was not writing to individuals, but to the house of Israel. In the same way, the whole church is continually being broken and re-formed.

I believe that we are living in a time of the church being broken—not destroyed forever, but broken into pieces so that it can be cast into the furnace and re-formed into something more useful to a new situation. This doesn’t mean that everything we love about the church we grew up with must disappear. But it does mean that new things will spring up alongside the old. “Therefore,” says Jesus, “every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

Jesus’ parable of the net catching fish, which goes alongside this saying, is a parable of judgment. When God looks at what the church has become, God goes through and sorts the good from the bad—not necessarily good and bad people, but good and bad aspects of our souls and our systems. The church is being invited, every single day of our Christian  lives, to leave behind that which destroys and to embrace that which leads to a deeper love. In this way, we and the potter work to shape our clay. But if we willful clay jars sabotage the potter’s hand, the potter can still start over with us.

None of us is ever lost. None of us is abandoned. God does not disown God’s children. Rather, God has created us to live in freedom—freedom to make our own decisions, our own mistakes, our own triumphs. God’s hand is always guiding the wheel, and no destruction is permanent. Today I pray that we will remember this throughout our lives, and live and act from the reassurance and joy that comes with drawing ever closer to God, the potter. Amen.

[1] Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of Grace

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