Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Advent, Day 4: Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream

For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
   and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
   and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
   and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
   neither shall they learn war any more.

- Isaiah 2:3b-4

My mother used to sing me a lullaby, and I, in turn, sing it to my daughter. It's this Simon & Garfunkel song. Sure, it comes from the days of hippies and anti-war sit-ins. Does that make it politically partisan or overly idealistic? Only if you insist on limiting its scope. When people joke scornfully about the people of the world just holding hands and singing together, the implication is that blithe optimism does nobody any good. In this they are correct.

I don't believe that there will ever be a time of world peace. I don't think humans are built for it. Nevertheless, this is the vision that prophets like Isaiah give us. True, the prophet Joel at one point gives us the reverse image of turning ploughshares into swords, but this is not an image of the ultimate aim of God's universe. God wants world peace, whether we ever get it or not.

Furthermore, I don't believe that world peace is something that just breaks out suddenly. We work for peace wherever we can, and we work hard for it. Peace does not mean the absence of conflict, but its transformation in the context of real relationship. Peace means learning how to deal constructively with disagreements. There is no such thing as "peace through strength"; that is just domination. That was the kind of "peace" put forth by the Roman Empire, and American politicians espouse nothing different from that. "Peace through strength" tends to make other nations angry and resentful. By contrast, real peace involves a refusal of violence on all sides, including the violence of strong-arming into submission. It involves the sharing of power.

You might see why I'm saying that I don't believe we'll ever achieve this peace. Humans can't get there. Instead we say, "Work for justice; pray for peace." There is no peace without justice, so our first step is clear. And justice doesn't mean mere punishment, as when politicians say, "We will bring the terrorists to justice." It's much bigger than that. Godly justice is about restoration of right relationship. We can do a lot in this area, but for justice too, we need to pray as well as work.

Did you know that there is less violence in the world right now than there has ever been before in all of human history? It doesn't feel like it because we are so digitally interconnected. And there is certainly plenty of hate and resentment to go around, always threatening to break out in violence. But maybe we really are learning a thing or two about peace--very, very slowly.

And when all else fails, there is still the kind of peace that Jesus brings us: not the kind of peace we work for in the world, but the kind that comes to us unbidden at moments when we most need it. Come, Lord Jesus.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Advent, Day 3: Praying for Time

Then the owner of the vineyard said, “What shall I do? I will send my beloved son; perhaps they will respect him.” But when the tenants saw him, they discussed it among themselves and said, “This is the heir; let us kill him so that the inheritance may be ours.” So they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.’

When they heard this, they said, ‘Heaven forbid!’ But he looked at them and said, ‘What then does this text mean:

“The stone that the builders rejected
   has become the cornerstone”?

Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.’ 

- Luke 20:13-18

Yesterday we talked about love, but love without adequate judgment helps nobody. Love isn't just a warm fuzzy feeling. Love is fierce when there are people who need defending.

Jesus' parables get harsher as they go. We might imagine that early on he wondered whether the people in power might actually come around to his way of thinking. But in Jerusalem during the last week of his earthly life, Jesus' parables turned very dark indeed.

Here's the thing, though, as I first heard pointed out by author Robert Farrar Capon in his book The Parables of Judgment: Nobody is excluded from the Kingdom who wasn't first included. It's not the notorious sinners who get the raw end of this deal; it's those who have always been considered upright and righteous. It's those who have always thought that they could arrange a heavenly place for themselves on their own steam who are in trouble. God has no use for them because they have no use for God. It's the great reversal.

When I'm honest, I have to admit that I, well fed and content, am far more likely to land in this category than in the other. Or as George Michael put it: "I may have too much, but I'll take my chances, 'cause God's stopped keeping score."

We are not saved by our actions, but we are judged by them. It's a crucial distinction. And those who truly understand that their actions cannot save them--that they are judged and found wanting--are far more likely to relax into the arms of their rescuer. As for the rest of us, well, "maybe we should all be praying for time."

Monday, November 28, 2016

Advent, Day 2: Love is the Seventh Wave

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
   remove the evil of your doings
   from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,

learn to do good;
seek justice,
   rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
   plead for the widow. 

- Isaiah 1:16-17

When people portray the Old Testament as featuring a vengeful God and the New Testament as featuring a loving God, they are betraying their lack of knowledge of the Bible. It's far more accurate to say that the Old Testament portrayal of God is frequently less affected by Greek thought, whereas the New Testament God has been put through the filter of Hellenism. It is Greek influence that gives us images of God as more distant and less personal. This influence extends back into parts of the Old Testament that were written later, such as the first of the two Creation stories in which God is above all and through all. We can tell that the second Creation story is more ancient because God gets down into the mud to make the first human being. If God is omniscient and omnipresent, then neither image of God is false.

But the point is that the God of Love is there from the beginning. The difference is that in more ancient Hebrew thought, God is more likely to be portrayed as showing that love through righteous anger. We love because we care, and we get angry because we care. When the prophets show God about to smite the people with vengeance, we might imagine a parent getting ready to distribute spankings on disobedient children (which, whatever we may have rightly learned about the effects of corporal punishment on children, is one way that parents have applied discipline for nearly all of human history).

Here, though, we see God's love revealed: This is how I want you to act! Cease to do evil! Learn to do good! This has been my message all along!

Love did not become a new notion to God with the coming of Jesus. Love was the goal all along. But thanks to Jesus, we learned to see love in a new way--and would you look at that? In the New Testament, God is also personal, and not at all distant, and gets angry. All these things Jesus was and is to us.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Advent, Day 1: It's the End of the World as We Know It

But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed. - 2 Peter 3:8-10

If you're like me, you've felt lately as if the world were coming apart. A narcissistic, bullying, sexually predatory, congenital liar has been elected president. An enabler of white supremacists has become chief counsel to the president-elect. The next head of the EPA refuses to believe that climate change is actually happening. And those are just some of the most egregious signs. It's so easy to feel helpless.

The season of Advent begins not with cheery holiday shopping, but with gloom and doom. Destruction happens in this life. Everything that we hold dear will someday come to an end. Yet that gloom and doom is tinted with hope. God is within and through and behind everything.

It may feel like the world is ending right now, but it is not. We live and we love. As a matter of fact, as long as there are opportunities to practice the kind of love Jesus taught us, life is well worth living.

Julian of Norwich wrote, "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well." Words are cheap. But the Christian witness is not blithe optimism. It rests on a deeper hope that even as the world actually does come apart, whether for us personally or for everyone at once, God is there. God loves us, and God rescues us at the end of all things.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Accountability and Kindness: Hugh of Lincoln

homily preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Associate Priest for Adult Formation
Thursday, November 17, 2016

Hugh of Lincoln

Have I mentioned lately how much I love preaching midweek sermons about the saints? Through their example we have access to the long stretch of history in which Christians have lived out their lives through much work and much suffering. Today we drop into 12th-century England to get to know Hugh of Lincoln, whose call from God was to redirect royal power to the advancement of God’s Kingdom.

Hugh was born into French nobility, so growing up he knew what it meant to have power and privilege. But he learned humility and piety from his father, and he was ordained at the age of 19. Hugh became a Carthusian monk and was appointed as prior of a series of monasteries in France and then England.

When Hugh arrived in England, Henry II was on the throne. You may remember that Henry killed Thomas Becket—murder in the cathedral. As a form of penance, Henry established the Carthusian monastery in Somerset to which Hugh was appointed. But Henry’s remorse knew limits, apparently, because Hugh arrived to find the monks living in tents and the builders not working because the king had not paid them.

Hugh’s first meeting with the king was tense, but Hugh chose his words carefully: “I do not despair of you. I know how much your many occupations interfere with the health of your soul.” Accountability and kindness: the combination of these forces would keep Hugh in relationship with his monarch for many years. Hugh persisted in bothering the king for money until the monastery was finished.

One of Henry’s favorite games was to find legal loopholes and exploit them for his own financial gain. Many English dioceses were without bishops, and it was the king’s job to appoint bishops. But if he didn’t appoint them, he didn’t have to pay them. And there was no law that said he had to rush to appoint important government figures. Why not wait a while? Hugh pestered the king again and again to fill the vacancies, and then he was surprised to find himself elected bishop of Lincoln. Suspicious of the forces behind the vote, Hugh demanded a secure recount—and he still won the election, so he had to serve.

Continuing, then, as a bishop, Hugh did not give special treatment to royal favorites. Henry’s appointed forester in Lincoln had been mistreating the poor, so Hugh excommunicated him. At another time, Henry tried to appoint a totally unqualified buddy to a lucrative clergy post that required Hugh’s approval. Hugh refused, and the king was furious. However, Hugh’s obvious piety and his refusal to give up on King Henry restored their relationship. Hugh's biographer wrote that “of all men only Hugh could bend that rhinoceros to his will.”

After Henry’s death, Hugh also served under Kings Richard and John. During the Third Crusade, armed mobs were ready to attack the prominent Jewish population of Lincoln. Hugh stood up to them and quelled the violence through his authority and his carefully chosen words. Accountability and kindness!

When Richard requested church funds for foreign wars, Hugh flatly refused, creating a crucial legal precedent that would begin to chip away at the power of the crown and would play a role in the creation of the Magna Carta. We could even call it an early example of the intentional separation of church and state. But Hugh’s steadfast kindness to the king made the refusal much easier to take. Richard said, “If all bishops were like my lord of Lincoln, not a prince among us could raise his head against them.”

Hugh served under yet a third king, John. One year on Easter Sunday, Hugh was preaching at length about the duties of kings, and John quietly slipped out of the congregation. Hugh never really managed to get John to warm up to him.

Lord Acton said in the 19th century, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Hugh would have answered that quote with a big “Amen”! The relationship between Hugh and his monarchs, especially Henry, reminds me of the relationship between the prophet Nathan and King David. Hugh taught us much about the art of checks and balances. When powerful people do all they can to shore up more power for themselves, somebody has to stand up to them. But it’s not enough just to be belligerent to them. God wants justice, and God also wants mercy, because only the marriage of these two forces brings about grace and allows love to flourish.

The Letter to Titus gives us some tools for this toolbelt: “Show yourself in all respects a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, gravity, and sound speech that cannot be censured; then any opponent will be put to shame, having nothing evil to say of us.” That can mean something as great as remaining kind to those who don’t deserve it. It can even mean something as simple as posting only from reliable news sources on social media!

So to sum up, what is a Christian’s duty regarding powerful rulers? What are some tips Hugh passes down to us over 800 years of history?
  • Stand up to powerful people who stiff their contractors.
  • Stand up to powerful people who make themselves rich at the expense of the poor, even if they do so legally.
  • Stand up to powerful people who use loopholes to avoid doing their duty.
  • Stand up to powerful people who give authority to the unqualified, the undeserving, and the hateful.
  • Stand up to powerful people whose prejudices enable and encourage bullying and mob violence.
  • Stand up to powerful people who have no qualms about fighting wars with money that could instead help the vulnerable.
  • Speak God’s truth in these matters, even if this causes some people to walk away. You may lose them from your life, but God will never lose them.
  • Finally, don’t give up on powerful people, because God loves them, too. Understand that their many occupations interfere with the health of their souls. Understand that this is true of us as well, and that we all require perpetual training in self-discipline, prayer, and hope.
In our era, we do some of this work with our vote, but it can never stop there. Unlike Henry’s subjects, every one of us has a voice. Use it. When you see these abuses happening in our country, call your senators and representatives. Call and write to the most powerful leaders in our nation, and hold them accountable, with kindness wherever possible. This is work I myself have been doing all week long. Teach our leaders that the people are watching, and that the people will hold them accountable.

And if there is standing up to do, don’t wait to do it. Jesus advises us today on the importance of the present moment: “If the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.” Will you be the faithful and wise servant of God whom God will find at work? When God is the thief who breaks in to steal your heart, will you be ready to stand up to powerful people in God’s name?

The Collect we prayed today for Hugh’s feast advises us to fear nothing but the loss of God. That’s not as easy as it sounds. But with God’s help, we can, like Hugh, exhibit “cheerful boldness” and “commend the discipline of holy life to kings and princes.” Amen.