Sunday, September 18, 2016

What If ...?

homily preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Associate Priest for Adult Formation
Wednesday, September 7, 2016 (5:30 p.m.)

Have you ever played fantasy football? For the record, I haven’t, because I’m just not that into sports. But if I were into sports, I’d definitely be excited about fantasy football. And this is because I like statistics. In fantasy football, you become the manager of a team of pro football players, handpicked by you from various real-world teams. Then your season plays out in conjunction with the real one, as the players’ real-world statistics determine how well your team does against others.

Fantasy football is a massive game of “what if.” We adopt a new reality based on an agreed-upon set of rules, and the “what-if” reality is affected by what happens in the real world around us.

I want to argue that the church is not unlike fantasy football.

First, look at the world around us. It is not as it should be. This is something that perhaps everybody in the world can agree on: there is a rift between what is and what should be. We would not all agree on how things should be, but at least we all understand that things are not as they should be right now. We want things to be better. Like fantasy football players, we wonder, “What if …?”

The universal human longing for a better world is what drives most, perhaps all, religion. And so we have inherited stories of a world long gone in which things were different—in which everything was as it should be. What if the world could be like that again? The Bible, as a collection of books and also as an overarching narrative, takes us from the Garden of Eden to the New Jerusalem, from a mythical past in which all was right, through the pain of sin, which is separation from God and the way things should be, to a newly restored world in which all is right again. Christians claim that this new world has somehow been made possible through Jesus Christ.

Possible, yes. But what about the here and now? Well, that’s tricky. Jesus spoke constantly about “the Kingdom of God,” a shorthand phrase for this “what-if” world. And he taught us what this “what-if” world would be like. Look at what we heard today from the Beatitudes, which form the beginning of the Sermon on the Plain:

Blessed are you who are poor,
   for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now,
   for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now,
   for you will laugh.

Furthermore, he predicted consequences for those who didn’t get with the program:

Woe to you who are rich,
   for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are full now,
   for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who are laughing now,
   for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

(It is never lost on me that I fit the description of the second group far better than the first. I have enough money and enough food. I am genuinely enjoying my life, and most people I know speak well of me. Woe to me, for I may have a harder time fitting into the “what-if” world than others do.)

So Jesus spoke of a coming Kingdom in which all wrongs would be righted, and everyone would have what they needed. And please note that he was not talking about “heaven after you die.” Jesus’ primary concern was with the here and now. He comforted a harassed and oppressed people who were the victims of our fallen world. But he also pointed out the ways that they themselves were capable of being the victimizers, whenever they set themselves up as better than some of their own people. And then Jesus died, and he rose from the dead, and the Christian claim is that this new reality will someday, somehow, be brought into reality because of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

Yes, the Kingdom of God was meant to be a reality in this world, not just in the next, but Jesus didn’t even speak of the Kingdom only as if it were something far off in a distant future. He also spoke of it as a present reality, and he took people to task for not participating in it. If you want the Kingdom of God, you need to imagine that it is already here, and then live in it.

Now, living in a “what-if” world was by no means a new idea. There were four main “parties” of Jews in Jesus’ world, and they all had fairly established ideas about what kind of world they wanted to live in. The Essenes were a group of Jews who had cut themselves off from society and lived a stern, harsh life in the desert, doing their best to create their own “what-if” world in which all of God’s commandments were kept in isolation from all those who would hurt them. But Jesus was not an Essene. He knew that participation in a “what-if” world is useless if you ignore the real world in the process.

The Herodians were Jews who allowed themselves, like their king, to be co-opted and used by the Roman Empire. They didn’t live in a “what-if” world at all. They were realists, cynically doing whatever they had to do in order to survive. Jesus’ Beatitudes would have seemed silly and naïve to them. Likewise, the Zealots, who wanted to overthrow the Roman Empire, had no time for dreaming. They believed they could build the Kingdom of God on earth through violent revolt.

And then there were the Pharisees, who were engaged with the world of Roman occupation, holding fast all the same to Jewish law. Of all of these groups of Jews, the Pharisees were the most likely to grasp Jesus’ approach, because they were actually trying to walk that fine line. But Jesus challenged their approach by pointing out all their hypocrisies. If salvation—that is, a fulfilled life in God’s present-day Kingdom—could come from following the rules and from temple sacrifice, they really couldn’t do any better than they were doing. So where was salvation? Could it be that God desired mercy and not sacrifice?

Jesus’ call to live in a “what-if” world was the culmination of what the Jews had been doing all along: claiming that their one God ruled all the earth. The psalms talk a lot about God raising up the downtrodden, feeding the hungry, bringing enemies to justice. The people prayed these psalms even when all evidence was to the contrary.

And so we, also, are a “what if?” people … a subjunctive people. The Beatitudes bear this out. What if the rulers of the earth belonged to God? What if the poor were blessed? What would that look like? What if the hungry were to be filled? What if those who have wept were to laugh? What if our suffering demonstrated to everyone our blessedness instead of our wretchedness? What if those who are sitting pretty now were to be put in their proper place?

Our liturgy does this, too. What if the water of baptism brought about death and new life? What if this bread and wine were body and blood? What if everyone were welcome at the table, despite all our differences? To many, it may seem as if we in the church are merely living a fantasy. If so, at our best we are at least planting seeds of our “what-if” world in places where they might grow—in people’s very lives. We plant seeds in our own lives by humbling ourselves before God, and in the lives of others by welcoming them in Jesus’ name.

So as the NFL season gets started, and as our real-world lives chug on, remember that we are a subjunctive people creating a “what-if” world. What if our discovery of God’s limitless love meant that we couldn’t just continue to participate in the real world anymore in the same way? What if we caught a glimpse of the Kingdom of God among us and chose to live in it? What then?

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