Monday, July 31, 2017

What God’s Love Is and Is Not

The Rev. Josh Hosler, Associate Priest for Christian Formation, St. Paul’s, Bellingham, WA

Recently I heard a well-meaning youth minister encapsulate the Christian faith for a group of high schoolers in this way: “If you get baptized and believe in God, then you’ll go to heaven.”

If you ever wanted a quick and simple formula for Christian faith, this one fits the bill, because it tells us exactly what to do in order to get something we want. To be sure, the key pieces of it—baptism, belief in God, and heaven—are all cornerstones of our faith. The problem is that it’s wrong. This well-meaning statement, all too common among Christians, falls short of the essence of the gospel in three key ways.

God’s Love Is Not Conditional

First of all, it falls short because it is an “if … then” statement. God’s love is not conditional. Now, I do believe in baptism as a sign and sacrament of God’s saving action. But I don’t believe that God invented baptism, nor do I believe that it is a prerequisite for salvation. Baptism has its origins in Judaism as a ritual of cleansing from sin. John was baptizing people in the River Jordan as a sign of lives changed, of repentant people vowing a new beginning. Jesus also came to be baptized, though there was no need for it. Jesus said to John, “Baptize me anyway. This is right and proper.” So while humans invented baptism, God adopted it, making sacred something as basic and universal as getting wet. We are swimming in an ocean of God’s love all the time, every day. We use water to show this love to everyone around.

God has made baptism sacred, yes. Baptism and Holy Eucharist are by far the most common ways that Christians have seen God at work in people’s lives. But God does not then turn around and use sacred things to exclude people. Humans are the ones who do that—we exclude others, or we exclude ourselves, from joy by trying to place conditions on the freely accessible love of God. We try to make it a transaction.

God’s Love Is Not Transactional

Such a transaction runs contrary to 500 years of Protestant theology that has also worked its way back into other Christian branches as well, reminding them of what our faith has always been. We assert that we saved not by works, but by faith; we cannot earn our way to heaven. And while Paul writes that we are made right with God “by faith in Christ,” you could also translate that phrase as “by Christ’s faithfulness.” I believe that Paul’s phrasing is intentionally ambiguous. When we keep faith in Christ, we can see more clearly that Christ keeps faith with us. In short, it’s not a transaction; it’s a relationship.

Since God has adopted baptism on our behalf, God also calls us to it. To all appearances it may seem that we’re the ones who decide, “Let’s have the baby baptized.” We may seem to be the agents who seek baptism, and clergy may seem to be the agents who perform it. But God is somewhere behind our decisions. And if the impetus to baptize comes from God, and if a flowering of faith in one’s post-baptismal life comes from God, then we’re not the primary movers here. Neither seeking baptism nor a mustering of belief will secure salvation for us. Salvation is already ours, given freely by the unconditional lover.

Now, at the end of the day, I don’t know why some people get baptized and others don’t, or why some people understand their baptism merely as a box to be checked off, a one-time public service offered by the ordained. This might be a good place to reference the parable of the sower who sowed a lot of seeds in places where they were never going to sprout. All I do know is that, on those occasions when people embrace their baptism as the door to a joyful, lifelong project of growing in love and understanding of the One who created them and loves them eternally … well, I call that salvation.

God’s Love Is Not Self-Serving

And this leads us to the third way in which the statement falls short: the goal of “heaven” as commonly understood is self-serving and limited. I believe in heaven, and I believe that it is a gift to those creatures whom God loves. But I don’t consider heaven merely to be a place to which our individual souls are teleported at the time of our deaths.

For a time in high school I attended a conservative evangelical teen Bible study. It was led by a pastor’s wife who loved us dearly and had only good intentions. I remember her referring to a popular song of the day and finding great fault with its title, “Heaven Is a Place on Earth.” She seemed to feel that it was theologically dangerous to think this way, though I was just amused that she’d missed the implied sexual metaphor.

To say that “heaven is a place on earth” is not to write off the afterlife as mere fantasy. Rather, what Jesus referred to as “the kingdom of heaven” is not limited to the other side of death. It is love, and love cannot be contained, so it tears through that veil and lives among us right now, if only we have eyes to see it and ears to hear the good news of it. We can decide to live in the kingdom of heaven today. And we do that by loving God and by loving our neighbors as Jesus has loved us. Only when we love can we truly experience love from others. This might seem like a chicken-and-egg phenomenon, like trying to get job experience without a job. How does one begin?

And here is where God’s grace comes in. Grace refers to the receiving of gifts that we didn’t expect and that we didn’t earn. God’s love somehow bridges the gap so that we can experience love even when we clearly don’t deserve it yet. The birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ stand as the ultimate symbol of God’s grace in action. We don’t have to know anything at all about love in order to receive it unconditionally. We don’t have to have any faith at all—certainly nothing larger than a mustard seed—for God to be able to kickstart growth in us.

Baptism is a sign of this unconditional love. Holy Eucharist is a sign of this ongoing growth and renewal. Together, these two sacraments form the beginning and the middle of our lives in Christ, the end of which is heaven. To whatever degree we choose to live in heaven on earth, the transition of death will become less frightening and, I believe, far less jarring. Only those who are increasingly accustomed to self-giving will find that they are able to stand in God’s nearer presence.

God’s Love Is Unconditional, Relational, and All About Others

One we are rooted in Christ and growing, we find that we are able to spread God’s love to others. We plant, we water, and God continues to give growth. God is love, love so relational that God can somehow be both One and Three at the same time. God’s love is so uncontainable that God felt the urge to create the cosmos, in order to have a canvas on which to paint that love. Love, by nature, spreads, and so God created billions of awarenesses in God’s own image who also help to paint the canvas, each in our own way, each doing the very best we know how. We work together, but because we have free will, we also make a mess. The pain of our messes is horrific and cannot be erased. But God knows that pain and has lived that pain among us, so in a great mystery, God’s grace can and does redeem it.

And that, my friends, is the Christian story in a nutshell. So perhaps I might amend my youth minister friend's phrase in this way: “God calls us to baptism and belief so that we can experience heaven now and always.” The invitation to love stands open. Now: how do you want to live?

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Longing for a Field

sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Associate Priest for Adult Formation
Proper 11A [Track 2], The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, July 23, 2017

On Friday morning I journeyed to Camp Huston to spend a day with the high schoolers of our diocese at their summer camp, which is called Six-Day. I presided and preached at Eucharist, spent some time with a couple of their small groups, and made myself generally available for pastoral chats. It was great to have a chance to reconnect with these folks, some of whom I knew when they were much younger.

One group of youth decided to play “stump the priest.” They peppered me with questions, especially about the Nicene Creed and about the problem of evil. On another occasion, a 17-year-old girl pulled me aside for 45 minutes, asking me earnestly how one can come to believe in God and nurture that belief. There was great longing there among our young Episcopalians. This came at the end of a week in which I spent a lot of time listening to people of all ages who are in pain, people who feel lost, people who are longing for something better than they are currently experiencing.

(from Wikimedia)
Jesus speaks today of wheat seeds planted in a field. While everybody is sleeping, an enemy sneaks in and sows weeds among the wheat. The crime is not made apparent until both wheat and weeds are sprouting, mixed in together tightly. How can the weeds be uprooted without destroying some of the wheat as well?

It seems obvious to us—and to the farmer’s slaves—that a good farmer would attempt to pull the weeds. But this farmer is determined not to give up on a single stalk of wheat. I don’t know about you, but that’s not how I treat my lawn. When I’m digging up dandelions, I inevitably dig up some of the good grass as well. Why am I OK with this? Because while I like the appearance of a lush green lawn, there is no particular blade of grass that is of any importance to me.

You, however, are a stalk of wheat growing with other stalks of wheat among the weeds. Another way to see it is that all the good work that God has begun in you is wheat, and all the sins and shortcomings and distractions you find within you are weeds. God is not content with this situation, but God is content to allow it to continue … for now. Not only will God not abandon this corrupted field, but God will not allow a single stalk of wheat to perish. It just will not happen.

That’s comforting, but we’re still left with a problem, as voiced by the householder’s slaves: “Where, then, did these weeds come from?” The corruption all around us stands in stark contrast to everything we think we know about God. Whence all this evil? Where did all this pain and suffering come from? This isn’t a world worthy of God, the good and loving creator.

The technical term for this problem is theodicy. Traditionally, Christians believe God to be all-loving, all-knowing, and all-powerful. If all three of these conditions are true, so the model goes, no evil can exist. So which of these is failing us—God’s love, God’s knowledge, or God’s power? Maybe evil happens because God doesn’t care about us as much as we thought. But where could love come from, if not from God? By definition, we cannot find ourselves able to love more effectively than God does. Maybe God is out of touch with our suffering. It can be easy to feel this way. Yet by definition, God is not merely a distant creator but also closer to us than we are to ourselves, so God must be well aware of all that we’re going through.

The third possibility is that God isn’t all-powerful. Maybe God would like to stop the enemy from planting weeds but is unable to. But that’s what Jesus came for, right? To save us from the power of sin. So why, after the Resurrection, does the enemy still have power over us? And so our response is to go ahead and pull weeds wherever we see them. We do it all the time. Every time we use force to accomplish a greater good, we’re trying to pull the weeds ourselves. And when we do, some of us see ourselves as acting on God’s behalf.

But when this work is flawed, our good intentions can’t redeem it. As predicted, we uproot wheat as well. For instance, any time we choose to view a given human being as nothing but a weed, we miss the wheat to be found somewhere in that person’s soul. “Don’t go weeding,” the farmer urges. “Let the weeds and the wheat grow together until the harvest. Your souls are not in danger as long as I have anything to say about it—and I do,” says the farmer. “I do. Your understanding of power is different from mine. My kind of power is not the kind that pulls weeds.” So maybe the problem is in our assumptions about God’s power. What is the all-powerful God chooses to allow rather than to coerce?

Yet we do have stories of God acting by coercion or force, so we must ask ourselves what these stories are for. What about the Great Flood? What about Sodom and Gomorrah? Or God drowning Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea? Or God striking down rebellious Hebrews in the wilderness? What about God smiting the sons of Eli the priest? And it’s not just in the Hebrew scriptures. What about the time in the Acts of the Apostles when two Christians withhold their property from the community by deceit, and God smites them dead? And what about all that vengeful end-times stuff in the Revelation to John?

Placed in context, though, we find that these smiting stories really are few and far between. We focus on them because they are so off-putting. But when we read the Bible through, we find it to be a story of God longing for the same thing we long for: a field with healthy wheat and no more weeds.

Whether or not we believe that God occasionally smites people in extreme situations, the overall arc of the story is of God’s grace working in surprising ways. God calls a people to show God’s love to the rest of the world. And then, time and time again, God uses people who don’t even recognize divine power to reveal God to the world. The fickle Pharaohs of Egypt, the dictators of Assyria and Babylon, the liberator King Cyrus of Persia, and the murderous King Herod all unwittingly play their parts. Whether well-intentioned or not, the rich and powerful turn out not to have any control over the situation at all.

In the meantime, God calls on the poor, the powerless, and the despised to act at decisive moments, not just for the sake of the chosen people, but for the sake of the world. An assortment of women and girls protect Moses throughout his childhood. Rahab the prostitute helps the Israelites take Jericho. Gideon wins a battle with a tiny army and without killing anyone. Ruth the foreigner becomes the grandmother of King David. Elisha saves a foreign widow from starvation and raises her child from the dead. Jonah saves the people of Nineveh without even trying very hard, and against his better judgment. Esther risks her own life to save her people from genocide. Teenage Mary consents to give birth to God.

Priest and author Robert Farrar Capon writes of God’s right-handed power and God’s left-handed power. The right-handed power is the kind we find most appealing because of its efficiency. Got a problem? Fix it. Smite them. Pull the weeds. Finish this nonsense now. But God’s left-handed power, the kind that works through surprising, graceful scenarios to lead to greater freedom for everyone—this is where it’s at, says Capon. This is the true nature of God. And it’s this knack for left-handed power, for surprising grace, that leads God, at least, to trust that this beautiful mess of a universe really will come out all right in the end.

Now, it may sound like I’m saying that it would be sinful to stand up to evil at all. Should we just spend our lives rolling over and coping? Of course not. But we do have in our toolkit this cautionary tale of the danger of pulling weeds. Violence may seem to give us rewarding results in the short term, but it’s not what God asks of us. God’s solution is the graceful one, the one that’s good not only for us and ours, but for everybody. We don’t always have the capacity to imagine such a solution, let alone to see it through. But if we can find the courage, Jesus shows us a constructive path marked by nonviolence, patience, and forbearance. And Jesus has sent us the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth—into the graceful solutions that we might miss if we’re not looking out for them.

In the meantime, we find suffering to be at the heart of the human condition. As I look out at all of your faces, I know that there must be immense suffering represented here. Maybe you have entrusted some of that suffering to someone else in this room. This is good, because church is a place to be honest with our feelings. The more we share one another’s burdens, the more powerful is our witness to God’s love. God’s power abdicates power and trusts the process of the growth taking place in the wheat field. The power that comes from our love and care for each other is what will allow our wheat to grow strong and tall, even among all these weeds.

God is not content with this situation, but God is content to allow it to continue … for now. Not only will God not abandon this corrupted field, but God will not allow a single stalk of wheat to perish. It just will not happen. And so we wait, and we are filled with longing. We and God together long for a field free of weeds. We hope for what we do not see, and we do our best to wait for it with patience. If there are still weeds in the field, then the story’s not over yet. Amen.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Let's Play Fairies!

sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Associate Priest for Adult Formation
Proper 9A [Track 2], The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, July 9, 2017

“Hey, Dad, let’s play fairies!”
The phrase burst out of a seven-year-old girl who was brimming with hope and anticipation. It fell on the ears of her forty-year-old father: “Dad, let’s play fairies!” Here was an invitation to intimacy, to quality time, to everything that parenting was supposed to be.
The man almost gave a knee-jerk reply, something like: “I’m sorry, kiddo, I’m busy right now.” But instead he checked himself. It would have been an excuse. Sure, the man had a lot on his mind. But he had heard recently a study that showed that American parents only play with their children, on average, for twenty minutes per week! And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon, and next thing you know, you’ve long since retired and your kid has moved away and is just like you. “Not me,” he thought to himself. “I’m not going to be that dad today!”
Sir Joseph Noel Paton, The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania (Wikimedia)
But neither could he throw himself into playing fairies with abandon. He wasn’t going to go all Mr. Banks, get fired from his stuffy, selfish job, and spend all night mending a kite. So feeling too weary to play but too guilty not to, he hedged. “Hmmm … playing fairies? Well, what would that be like?”
The little girl was too young to really roll her eyes, but he heard a preview of that phase in her reply: “Dad, you know! I’ll be Silvermist and you can be Oberon.”
Oh, if only it could be so easy. For this man remembered being a child, possessing the natural ability to play in just this way, taking on a character and immersing himself in a fantasy world. Every day at recess, he had been Luke Skywalker! And then, somewhere along the line, that creative, playful impulse grew up and became much harder to capture. So how about a board game instead? Or a card game? Something with legitimate rules to follow? No, not stuffed animals—what would they say or do? This man desperately wanted to spend time with his daughter, but he wanted to do it on his own terms. And it turns out that he was exactly like those in the generation of Jesus. (Stick with me on this.)
Jesus said to the crowd, “To what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’” The problem with Jesus’ generation was that they would only play on their own terms. I suspect the problem wasn’t limited to that generation, either.
What does it mean only to play on our own terms? The comparison Jesus makes is a strange one, and he does so in order to call out those who have been bad-mouthing not only him but also John the Baptist. They gripe about John, the grumpy, teetotaling radical, and then they gripe about Jesus, who drinks plenty of wine and hangs out with all the wrong people. Why are they OK with neither one?
To illustrate his point, Jesus compares his critics to children in the marketplace who begin by playing games but who end in an argument. One group wants to play wedding, and the other wants to play funeral. Both groups are too obstinate to compromise, and as a result, they miss out on the one thing they set out to do in the first place: to play! Instead, we might imagine a schoolyard scuffle breaking out, resulting in bloody noses and broken friendships.
In response to his critics’ grumbling, Jesus gives an invitation: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Grumbling is a very heavy burden. So is needing to be in control, and choosing the game ourselves, and failing to use our imaginations. Living an abundant life in God’s world takes imagination, but these critics could not imagine the vision Jesus offered them.
Yet can we be held accountable? Is it really our own responsibility to lay down this burden? When I try to let go of control, often I find that I can’t. When I try to muster more imagination, sometimes I find only futility. Paul got it right: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Why must we always seek to be in control? Why do we cling to our pride? Why is it so hard to suspend our need to be right? Sometimes we even decide we’d rather not love at all than leave our comfort zone. Graham Greene once wrote, “Hate is a lack of imagination.”
Laying down this burden is not easy. We will fail to do it time and time again. But circumstances keep conspiring to give us another chance. And in the times when, with God’s help, we do manage to lay down our burden, wonderful, graceful things can result. Relationships can deepen. Unforgettable memories can be carved. People can be helped. Justice can be done. God can be honored. To relax into the invitation to play means to let go of our self-consciousness and play this God-given game called life. Kids get it, says Jesus. God has hidden these things from the supposedly wise grownups and revealed them to the youngest among us. They never hesitate to play—their play is their work, and vice versa. We can, indeed, learn from our children, not just about how to play but also about Christian practice. A friend of mine once commented, “Kids do ministry like they do breathing.”
Yet maturity is also to be valued. Kids play, but they also fight, and bully each other, and selfishly cling to whatever it is they most want to do. Kids throw temper tantrums. Adults have known what it is to play, but hopefully, we have also learned what it is to set aside our own agenda and play someone else’s game for a while. We can always draw on the unique wisdom of each of our previous ages.
It may feel like this takes boundless energy. But what if it’s not up to us to conjure all that energy? Jesus says, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Oxen are yoked together by twos—imagine that you and Jesus are carrying a yoke together. Who is shouldering the greater share of the burden? Or imagine a bicycle built for two. Who is the stronger pedaler—you or Jesus? “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
And what is the nature of this yoke that Jesus offers? We take it upon ourselves by meeting Jesus in Scripture. We absorb the complex and beautiful person Jesus is, and in so doing, we let the living Christ speak to us in our own day. We hear his words about the Kingdom of God, and we begin to imagine it. Then we take on this yoke in service—in meeting others precisely where they are and learning from them. As we help provide for some of their needs, we also find our own spirits strengthened. The yoke of love—a love that is centered on God’s dream for the world—is a yoke we take on ourselves, not a yoke others place on us. We carry a burden we choose to carry—like in that old song, “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.”
The burden of loving is a burden that can feel so light we don’t necessarily notice it … or, at other times, so heavy that it demands our very lives. We walk the path Jesus walked. It’s not necessarily the kind of path people appreciate or give honor to. But then, Jesus never did go in for conventional glory. When it came time to ride into Jerusalem, he did so on a donkey, drawing a direct connection to the prophet Zechariah: “Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey.” Who knew that fulfilling prophecy could be so playful? And Jesus’ unbridled compassion was free of pretense and social correctness, and this is one reason his followers began to identify him with the God the Father and to worship him: “The LORD is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and of great kindness. The LORD is loving to everyone and his compassion is over all his works.” So when Jesus invites us to play, we don’t need to muster any energy in particular. We need only lay down our burden and say, “Here I am.”
Jesus invites us to exchange many burdens—distracted busy-ness, self-conscious pride, helplessness, smug certainty—for the more playful yet often arduous work of really loving each other. Hopefully, if we let go of our need to control everything, we can continue to carry the yoke in faith, knowing that even when it leads to a place of death, it will also lead through death into new life. When I look at it this way, I can see that everything I do in life involves a decision about whether to cling to my own crippling burdens, or to accept Jesus’ yoke instead.
So if you’re striving hard to earn God’s love, you’re wasting your energy. That’s like striving to make water wet, or striving to make gravity take effect on Earth. God’s love is not something to strive for, but something to relax into. There are many other things to strive for in life. Let the never-failing love of God serve as your main source of fuel.
But back to the man and his daughter. It’s been a few years, and fairies don’t come up as often in conversation, though Legos and dragons do. And stuffed animals still play a role: the stuffed cats have even formed their own ninja training school. The man is still busy a lot of the time, but slowly, gently, he is learning to play again. It hasn’t been a born-again experience, like it was for Mr. Banks in Mary Poppins. It’s been slow and gradual—two steps forward, one step back. But that creativity of childhood isn’t gone; it’s just showing up in new ways, only one of which is a dedication to play with his little girl. Amen.