Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Challenge of Shepherding



sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Associate Priest for Adult Formation

This fourth Sunday in Easter season is commonly known as Good Shepherd Sunday. We sang a paraphrase of Psalm 23, which may have been written 1000 years before Jesus: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want.” It’s hard for Christians to approach Psalm 23 and not think of Jesus, since he applied the role to himself. Jesus is the Good Shepherd—as opposed to the bad shepherd who ignores the sheep when the wolves come around. We recognize our shepherd’s voice and follow.

A shepherd (source: Wikimedia)
How do we follow our shepherd? We hear today from the Acts of the Apostles, the only narrative chronicle we have of the earliest years of the Church. We hear that “those who had been baptized devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” We quote this phrase verbatim in our baptismal covenant as central to Christian practice. In short, it means that we get together as a church every week to share the story of Jesus, to share a meal, and to pray. There are no solo Christians; we’re all in this together.

The ancient example shows us that those in Christian community took care of each other. They may have had their own homes where they broke bread and prayed, but they also brought their possessions and goods and shared them for the good of all. Now, it would be anachronistic to call this socialism, especially since it occurred on such a small scale and so long ago. But the intent was indeed that there were no self-made people: as any had need, their needs were met by the Church. The Lord was their shepherd, and they did not find themselves in want. After all, Jesus had told his disciples, who had sacrificed everything they called their own, that they would get everything back a hundredfold in this life, not in the next. They found everything they needed in Christian community. “And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”

From this we can understand that salvation means something very different from its popular definition. Salvation in the Bible doesn’t refer to “heaven after you die.” It doesn’t preclude it, either, but salvation definitely begins in this life, and it has to do with the freedom we find in taking care of each other instead of hoarding things for ourselves. It comes with a lessening of anxiety and a clarity of purpose. Salvation is often revealed in “signs and wonders”—that is, when we dedicate our lives to love, we can expect surprisingly joyful outcomes. Salvation means having life, and life abundantly—the reason Jesus stated for coming to be among us in the first place.

Follow the Good Shepherd does mean making good moral decisions. But it also means relying on God’s mercy and forgiveness for ourselves and others. Following the Good Shepherd means living in love and then letting God surprise us, not relying on our own understandings of the way things must turn out. The Good Shepherd calls us each by name, so by no means do we lose our individuality in community. But we are also responsible for far more than just ourselves and our immediate circle.

All of this follows from the metaphor of Jesus being the Good Shepherd, yes. But did you notice? Nowhere in today’s gospel reading does Jesus say he is the Good Shepherd! He says it a little later, actually, but it’s not the first metaphor he turns to. No, Jesus says today, “I am the gate for the sheep.”

Metaphors are a kind of poetic game, and games have rules. We choose the game we’re going to play today, and then we follow it to see where it will lead. Jesus is the Good Shepherd as well, and on other days he’s even the sacrificial lamb. But in this passage, Jesus has chosen the metaphor of the gate, so let’s play by the rules of this game Jesus has chosen for us.

If Jesus is the gate, then the sheep enter and exit the sheepfold through Jesus. Jesus has just said that those who enter by climbing the fence are thieves and bandits, so let’s be sure to use the gate. But if Jesus is the gate, then who is the Good Shepherd here? I want to suggest that some of us are shepherds, and some of us are sheep.

What makes one person a shepherd, and another a sheep? Let’s try this: shepherds are those in a given situation who have more knowledge and power than others. Sheep are those who are more vulnerable and less able to control their circumstances. Now, right away I want to caution against any attempt to decide once and for all which role you fill. The world is not cleanly bisected into leaders and followers, into powerful and powerless. Some days you’re the shepherd, and some days you’re the sheep. Let’s establish that as a given before we go on.

Are you being a good shepherd? Are you showing others to the lush grass and the still waters? Are you meeting the sheep wherever they are and inviting them to a place of nourishment? This can be as simple a task as inviting a friend to church. It can be even simpler than that: Wear a nametag today, even if you don’t like nametags. Whenever you see a new face in our midst, introduce yourself. If the person looks lost—in the building or in the liturgy—offer to help. Sit with people you don’t know. Scoot to the middle of the pew so newcomers feel understand that there is a place for them next to you.

I heard a story recently about two parishioners—strangers to each other—striking up a conversation. One commented, “I’ve been coming to church for a long time, but I’ve never gone over to the Great Hall for coffee.” The other said, “Well, would you like to come with me?” “Sure,” said the first person, “I’d like that.” It really can be that simple. Good shepherds are always learning how they can be not just welcomers, but inviters.

At the next level, good shepherds are teachers of the Christian faith, either formally or informally. Some are called to be instructors, but others are called simply to teach by example. For instance, Christian parents are always their children’s main Sunday school teachers. And all of us are unofficial godparents to the children of St. Paul’s and sponsors to those of any age who aren’t as far along in their Christian life.

The job doesn’t stop at the doors of the church, either. Good shepherds are exemplars of the Christian faith in the whole world, every day—at work, at play, in formal and casual circumstances, with friends and with strangers. Ideally, people should be able to identify Christians by how we love.

But there’s more to the job than that. Are you defending the sheep from wolves? The wolves, I think, are people who wield power that is self-interested or even vicious. Good shepherds willingly place themselves in danger to protect the sheep. This can be high-level danger such as police, soldiers, and missionaries undertake. Or you can scale it to what stretches your level of comfort. Do you stand up to bullies? Do you go out of your way to meet and befriend people who are stuck in situations they can’t control? As a citizen, do work for solutions in society that will protect those with less power throughout our nation and the entire world?

Remember that while we are all called by name, the Good Shepherd leaves 99 sheep behind to find the one that is lost and carries it back home on his shoulders. Sometimes we can protect the sheep from wolves. But when we can’t, we can still love and honor the sheep who suffer and die, simply by being present with those who walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

How are we doing at shepherding each other at St. Paul’s? Do we know what people within our community need? Are we giving them space to ask for it? Are we giving them the dignity to ask on their own terms? How far are you willing to stretch yourself for people with whom the only thing you share in common is your faith in Jesus Christ? And what boundaries do you need to clarify to ensure that you can do this work without losing yourself in the process?

So this is the pattern for Christians who aspire to be Good Shepherds: Use the power you have to share power with others. Protect and serve those who are vulnerable, whether it means sharing a hymnal, standing in solidarity, or simply being with them. When we do these things, we are not the thieves and bandits who try to enter the sheepfold for their own selfish purposes. The pattern of Christian community is to come through the gate ready to give, not just to receive.

Now, you may be saying, “I have nothing in me to give. I just need to receive for a while.” You know what? Maybe this is your time to be a sheep. That doesn’t mean you’re stupid or “merely a follower” or incapable of independent thought. It just means that you’re in a vulnerable place right now, as all of us are from time to time. It’s OK: you are welcome here just as you are.

But I will say this to those who feel like sheep today: keep listening for the voice of the Good Shepherd who calls you to deepen and to grow. Your time to go from sheep to shepherd will probably come more quickly than you think. You may already be acting as the Good Shepherd in ways you don’t fully understand.

In your times of being a sheep, who have been the shepherds in your life? Maybe you can identify some of your shepherds in this very room. This is my challenge: Make time today to thank your shepherds. Hold up a mirror to reflect their gifts back to them. It doesn’t matter how small the gift; be sure to thank them. Now, if nobody thanks you today, don’t feel like you’re only a sheep and never a shepherd. Instead, take it as an opportunity to do some shepherding. Every day provides new ways to share God’s love with others.

Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” To enter through Jesus’ gate is to enter into salvation—to the safety of the sheepfold, but then to the challenge of shepherding.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Matter and Energy



homily preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Associate Priest for Adult Formation
Thursday, April 20, 2017

What is our beginning? What is our end? We think we know: conception and birth on the one hand and death and decay on the other. Between those two mileposts, we live and move and have our being.

That’s the scientific view. But those of us raised in the church were told as children that death and decay are not the end: that beyond the grave is a new and spiritual life. Well, they probably didn’t put it to us this way at first. Instead, they told us, “When we die, we go to heaven.” There may also have been a qualifier: “If you’ve been good. If not, well, you go to other place, the place with a name you’re not allowed to say.” (It was bad theology to use the threat of hell to make children behave, but that’s a sermon for another day.)

At first it was easy to believe it would happen just like this: when we died, we would be magically transported to a new place. Then at some point we learned that dead bodies rot away. Now we needed another explanation: where in reality is the one who has died? And so we learned to separate body from spirit, and to see spirit as better than body because it would not decay. If we grew up with any sort of shame about our bodies, sexual or otherwise, this division may have become much more pronounced, and it may have served as some sort of cold comfort.

It is at this point that our understanding of death and eternal life began to diverge from the witness of the gospel writers. Why do I say it happened at this point? Because the resurrected Christ is not a ghost.

In the earliest years of the Church, the fish became a symbol
for identifying fellow Christians. The Greek word "ichthus,"
for fish, is an acrostic for "Iesous Christos,
Theou Huios, Soter" ("Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior").
Fish also serves as the first meal for the Resurrected Christ.

We admit to this every Sunday in the Nicene Creed: “We believe in the resurrection of the body.” Do we? We say we do, but have we been properly grounded in what this might mean? When Jesus returns, not only is he in a physical body, but he’s hungry from the work of resurrecting! This story follows right on the heels of the story of the Road to Emmaus, in which two disciples walk with the resurrected Christ for seven miles without recognizing him: only when he breaks bread and gives it to them does his presence become clear. So Jesus is walking and eating just like they do, but in addition, there is a strange new quality to his body.

This may be puzzling to those of us who fully adopted a spirit-versus-matter dualism while we were still children. We had thought that our bodies were just something we had: a great tool at best, but not really “ourselves.” We can bite off our fingernails or even lose limbs and not lose any part of who we really are, right? We know from science that the body that was small enough to be born is not in any way the same body that moves and creaks painfully in our elder years. All the cells have replaced themselves many times over. So our bodies can’t really be all that central to who we are. Or are they?

Lately I’ve begun to think of myself differently than I used to. I am not a spirit trapped in a body, or even a spirit that has been given the incredible gift of a body. Rather, I am a deeply loved process. I am matter and energy trading back and forth. I am a continuation of myself at age 0, age 11, age 22, age 33, age 44. I am my body! This, too, is science, but it is also the gospel. The creature I am, whom God loves, is also the creature God loved at the beginning, when I was being formed secretly in the darkness of my mother’s womb. And Jesus comes back to us from the other side of death and decay to show us something of what lies in store. We will not say goodbye to our bodies, but we will be changed by the one who loves both matter and energy.

Now, it would be irresponsible of me not to admit that there is much else in the Bible to support the other, more familiar view of body versus spirit. When faced with the prospect of death, Jesus himself says, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” And speaking to the woman at the well, he says, “God is spirit.” If God is spirit and doesn’t have a mortal body, doesn’t that make spirit better than matter? These are both examples from John’s gospel, which tends to feel quite a bit less “embodied” and more “spiritual” than Luke’s.

Yet in this same gospel, after the resurrected Jesus appears inside a locked room like a ghost, he shows them the wounds in his hands, feet, and side. Jesus hasn’t simply traded in his badly damaged body for a new one. But his body is also able to do things that ours can’t. And let’s not lose sight of the fact that God does actually have a mortal body: that of Jesus of Nazareth. God chooses to exist on the same terms that we do: with a body that is limited in its lifespan.

It is this tension between two seemingly opposed understandings of our basic nature, that makes the resurrection appearances so thrilling to me. It is our inability to put it all together into a cohesive theory that reminds us who we are. We are God’s creatures; we belong to God and exist on God’s terms. We don’t fully understand or even want to accept those terms. We know from science that we are, like everything else in the universe, made up of matter and energy, and that matter and energy can be converted back and forth into each other. So we know that matter and energy are the chosen medium of the great Artist. But there is still so much we don’t know.

I imagine that our mortal deaths will bring us much wisdom. Surely death is the end of something significant, but Jesus shows us that it is also the beginning of something very exciting. Death is terrifying, yes. But I like to imagine that on the other side of that door, Jesus will greet us and welcome us as we look behind us for a moment and say, “Oh, that wasn’t so bad.” And then Jesus will lead our resurrected bodies into all sorts of new wonders. Amen.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Vulnerability



sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Associate Priest for Adult Formation
Maundy Thursday, April 13, 2017

Forty days ago, the season of Lent began with an episode of vulnerability: we had ashes imposed on our foreheads. On Ash Wednesday, we confessed our humanity and mortality to everybody present. Not everyone who attended the service was ready to do it … so they didn’t.

Tonight, Lent ends with an episode of vulnerability: we are going to wash each other’s feet. In our culture, it’s OK to be barefoot in public, but not in every place. It’s as much nakedness as we can reasonably deal with among strangers, and some people even have a hard time with that much. To remove our shoes is to be vulnerable, and to be vulnerable is to confess our humanity. Not everybody here will be ready to do it … so they won’t.

I remember once having a Facebook conversation with various friends about foot washing. We wondered together, “What is a parallel to foot washing in our present day?” After all, when we visit a friend’s house, there are no servants to wash our dusty, tired feet. So we tried to imagine some contemporary possibilities. Who shines your shoes? No, I’ve never even shined my own shoes. Who washes your car? No, I just wait for the rain.

Who picks up your garbage and recycling? This is smelly but not at all intimate. Consider yourself lucky if you ever see the people who take your garbage away, let alone get to know them. Or perhaps you worship with them. Do you know? Who cleans your bathroom? For that matter, how many bathrooms do you clean, and is one of them your own, or not? Now we are touching on assumptions about social class that Jesus was so intentionally subverting.

But in the end, my group of friends concluded that there is no modern parallel for the foot washing done in Jesus’ time. And that is why Jesus still calls us to wash one another’s feet. Immediately after intimately serving his friends, Jesus announces that “the Son of Man has been glorified.” In the act of washing their feet, Jesus shows us what the Almighty God, creator of the universe, is actually like. Jesus loves us in the same ways that God loves us.

How does Jesus love us? Sometimes he is like a friend and confidant, someone to share wine with at a wedding. Sometimes he embarrasses us, stepping over boundaries of order, separation, and safety that we have worked so hard to maintain. Sometimes Jesus praises us one moment for really understanding, and then in the next breath he calls us Satan. When we are afflicted, he comforts us. When we are comfortable, he afflicts us. It’s never just “me and Jesus,” because it seems there is always a crowd around him. With Jesus, there are no taboo topics, but to go there with him, we have to be willing to be wrong, to change and to grow. With Jesus, all the walls are torn down, all the borders transcended, and all the distinctions between holy and profane done away with.

And yet—and this so crucial—somehow all of this becomes possible without ever losing ourselves. As we move into greater vulnerability with Jesus, we don’t abdicate our privacy, swear off our individuality, or hand ourselves over to be abused by others. We don’t cede the right to protect ourselves from harmful situations. There’s a paradox here. The closer we draw to Jesus, the more dignity and integrity we find in our own being and in our own decisions about how we will live our lives. Our free will grows instead of diminishing. The more we come to be like Jesus, we may even come to discover the power to lay down our lives and take them up again, never losing sight of our status as God’s children. This is Christian maturity. With Jesus, we always begin and end as God’s beloved. But to stay in that relationship, we must also keep reminding ourselves that everybody else in the entire world is God’s beloved, too—even our enemies.

This kind of love isn’t socially acceptable. And yet this is what Jesus has mandated—Maundy Thursday, Mandatum, Mandate, Command. Our new command is not just to love, but to love as Jesus loves.

Like Peter, we resist Jesus. We would rather control the relationship than let it happen to us. But once it is made clear to us how important it is, we’re all in. “Not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Peter doesn’t get it, doesn’t get it, doesn’t get it … and then he gets it, much too late not to be publicly embarrassed by it. I’ve been Peter. I can relate to him. Jesus just happened to Peter—over and over again, from the shores of Galilee to the courtyard of Caiaphas and beyond.

Jesus just happens to us. If we were baptized as babies, Jesus just happened to us then, and we had no control over that relationship. Late on Saturday night we will baptize Shandi and Randy Kyllingmark, and Jamie, Alex and Libby Scott, because Jesus is happening to them. But tonight, in just a few minutes, some of those who are already baptized will stand up in front of us, confess their sins, and have their feet washed in preparation for the renewal of their own baptismal vows. And then they will turn around and wash your feet.

We are following Jesus’ instructions here: in the same way that Peter submitted to having his feet washed, so must we. Why? Because to truly understand Jesus, we need always to be moving a higher level of vulnerability. We don’t all need to be in the same place, but we do all need to be moving in the same direction.

I want to stress that point. Far too often we compare ourselves to other people of faith. We wish we had more faith, or we wish that we accomplished more good works. We wish we had someone else’s gifts, and we undervalue our own. Lately I’ve been trying hard not to do this. Instead of telling myself what’s lacking in my relationship with Jesus, I’ve been asking myself, “What is the actual, honest nature of my relationship with Jesus these days?” And then I have thanked Jesus for being in my life. This in itself is a step toward greater vulnerability.

But for as long as we resist, for as long as we keep telling Jesus his behavior is inappropriate, we can have no share with him. We need to keep reminding ourselves: we do not know what Jesus is doing, but later we will understand.

Jesus points the way along this path, but he also goes ahead of us, like a shepherd leading us to the good grass. “Eat and drink with me,” Jesus coaxes. “Allow me to wash your feet, and then wash one another’s feet. Stay awake and watch with me. Pray with me. Put away your sword. You may deny ever knowing me, but you can still decide what to do after that. Whatever happens tonight, keep on living. Love one another as I have loved you.” See, God the Father has given all things into Jesus’ hands. And when Jesus goes to the Father, we are in his hands with him. It really will be OK. And that is what makes it possible for us to risk vulnerability.

I don’t know if you saw any news headlines today. There was no good news at all that I saw, and most of it was frankly horrific. At times like these, I can’t find it in me to be optimistic. But here’s the thing about the vulnerability Jesus is calling us into: optimism is not required. Instead of optimism, Jesus is calling us into hope. Hope means that it’s not all up to us … but some of it is, and that’s where Jesus is pointing us. There is loving work to do, and we’re the ones to do it. That is hopeful—not blithely optimistic, but constructively hopeful. And it starts with our willingness to be vulnerable to each other.

So here we all are. And if you’re not ready to allow your feet to be washed, try again next year, and bring this to prayer: “Where are the moments of real intimacy in my life? And how widely do I make my caring known to those around me, in my family, in my circle of friends, in my community, in my nation, and in the world? How can I grow in this direction?”

Lent ends tonight, and the Great Three Days have begun. This is only the first step. We will take the next step tomorrow, Good Friday, with the same liturgy at noon or at 7:00 p.m. And then we will return again Saturday evening at 8:00 for the Great Vigil of Easter to light a new fire, to hear by candlelight the ancient stories of God working to redeem the world, and to baptize new Christians. We are Christians. This is our story. Allow Jesus to happen to you … so that you, too, can step into your part in the story.