Thursday, August 31, 2017

Your Spiritual Ancestors

homily preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Associate Priest for Adult Formation
Wednesday, August 30, 2017 (5:30 p.m.)
1 Thessalonians 2:9-13; Psalm 126; Matthew 23:27-32

Fill up, then, the measure of your ancestors,” Jesus says to the scribes and Pharisees. I thought I might understand what this meant, but I had to look it up just for sure. And I was right. Jesus means to say, “Finish the evil work your ancestors started.”

Jesus is giving his critics an outright dare: “Your ancestors killed the prophets, and I know you want me dead, too. Well, what are you waiting for? I’m standing right here.”

Jesus’ audacious challenge comes near the end of a prolonged tirade against the scribes and Pharisees, just before he announces that he will destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days. His critics really will take him up on his dare before much more time has passed. And when the evil forces take the bait, Jesus will win by losing.

This text is also problematic. Since the earliest days of the church, some Christians have used it to justify anti-Semitic persecution, as if Jesus, himself a Jew, with an all-Jewish cast of disciples, were condemning Jews in general and forever after. Of course this is ridiculous, but clearly, we can’t ignore it. Anti-Semitic forces are on the rampage in America right now, and we are derelict in our Christian duty if we don’t oppose them.

No, I see it like this instead: in every people and in every generation, there are those who will stand on the side of love and those who will stand on the side of fear. Our thoughts, intentions, and actions and their consequences are very complicated, and sometimes it’s hard to tease out whether love or fear is motivating us more. Self-reflection is crucial and must be renewed through constant vigilance. This is, in fact, what a life of faith looks like: pondering, acting, receiving feedback, and then allowing that feedback to change us.

We decide what kind of people we will become.

In my sermon last Sunday, I asked the question, “Who are your spiritual ancestors?” It’s a question that moves us beyond genetics into the ramifications of our own actions. As demonstrated by the way you act in the world, on whom do you pattern yourself?

Believe it or not, Jesus talked about this question quite a bit. He announced that he was giving his listeners “the sign of Jonah,” which I think we can connect to three days in the deep before a miraculous rescue. Jesus also called Peter a descendant of Jonah, though likely for more humbling reasons. And other people do it, too: some of Jesus’ followers call him “Son of David,” while others align him with Elijah, Jeremiah, or John the Baptist.

Furthermore, Jesus warns his self-righteous critics about relying on their genetic connection to Abraham, because “God is able from these stones to raise up children of Abraham.” At another time he even says their father is not God, but the devil.

Indeed, it is our actions, not our beliefs, that demonstrate who we really are. We are never lost causes in God’s eyes, no matter how deplorable our actions become. (After all, Jesus even compares Peter to Satan at one point.) But God needs us to be honest about the essence we take on. A person who tells one lie is not a liar, but a person who lies over and over earns the label. A person who entertains a fleeting racist belief is not a racist, but a person who uses his power to bolster white supremacy is a racist regardless of his inner thoughts.

Our actions matter. We become what God will call us on the last day. In one of his later parables of judgment, Jesus portrays God as saying to some, “Go away from me; I never knew you.” It’s terrifying to imagine that we might make ourselves unknown to God by closing ourselves off.

But it does us no good to live in fear of such a situation, either. If you have a history of low self-esteem, you might wonder frequently, “Am I deplorable?” The good news is that those who entertain the notion that they might be deplorable probably aren’t. It’s those who wall themselves in with excuses whom God has a hard time reaching. If we can make ourselves vulnerable to God, and if we can find people in our lives to whom we can entrust our own vulnerabilities, we already have a taste of salvation. This means deconstructing some of our defensive walls.

At this point, I’m reminded of a lyric from Pink Floyd about people who wall themselves off, and yes, it’s from the conclusion of the album The Wall.

All alone or in twos, the ones who really love you/
Walk up and down outside the wall/
Some hand in hand, some gathered together in bands/
The bleeding hearts and the artists make their stand/
And when they’ve given you their all/
Some stagger and fall/
After all, it’s not easy/
Banging your heart against some mad bugger’s wall.

It is through us that God reaches those who would make themselves inaccessible to human goodness. This ministry can feel free and effortless, or it can feel grinding and exhausting. We don’t always know how we do it, and I’m quite certain that we reach people in spite of ourselves.

I invite you to trust that God is acting through you to reach people who need to be reached. Sometimes that can and must look like bringing people with you to church. At other times it can just mean a kind word to a stranger. Sometimes it means saying the thing that will make everyone uncomfortable. And at still other times, it can look like acts of extraordinary courage or heroism—so extraordinary that we will never be able to identify where the strength to do it came from.

So when you look to your spiritual ancestors, you may be able to identify one in a self-deprecating way, in a way that says, for instance, “Oh yeah, I’m like Peter, always sticking my foot in my mouth!” Don’t stop there. I may feel like Peter the foolish fisherman today, but am I training to be what Peter became in time, an apostle, an evangelist, and a martyr? Identify the spiritual ancestors you wish to adopt for yourself. Roman Catholics do this well when they take on the name of a saint at confirmation. Which forerunners in the faith show you what it’s really like to be a Christian?

Finally, of course, remember that you will never actually be exactly like any of these people. I may have heroes, but I can only be myself. Our uniqueness is by God’s design, so let’s trust that God loves us in our uniqueness. Your unique witness to God’s love will knock down walls and reveal God’s love to others. In fact, I am confident that it is already doing so. Pray that you may see it for yourself. Amen.

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