Monday, October 15, 2018

Losing Faith in Our Stuff

sermon preached at Church of the Good Shepherd, Federal Way, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Rector
The Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 23B, October 14, 2018

Last week we heard Jesus’ strong words about divorce. And I said that I wished I could preach about a dozen sermons, and that if I missed anything important, or if anyone wished I had gone somewhere else with it, I hoped for further conversation. I’m really glad I said this, because honestly, last week I committed an act of homiletical malpractice: I didn’t adequately address the most challenging piece of Scripture we heard.

As I stepped into the pulpit, I still didn’t really like my opening paragraphs, but I hadn’t put my finger on why. In reality, I had made excuses all week for not spending more time with my sermon. Had I engaged in some amount of silence last week, God might have shown me that I oversimplified when I referred to divorce as sinful in general. I had said nothing about divorces that happen, for instance, because of abuse. And in my male privilege, I neglected to mention the fact that for centuries, male preachers have used Jesus’ words to lay guilt trips on women who won’t remain subservient to mean and violent men.

So let me be clear, first of all: to leave an abuser is not sinful. It is a painful and responsible choice. The situation itself is sinful in that it falls short of how God would have us love one another … but it is by no means guilt-incurring. On the contrary! When you leave someone who is hurting you, God leaves with you.

You know, most of the time I don’t even refer to specific behaviors as “sins” or “not-sins.” I don’t think that’s a helpful dichotomy. Rather, “sin” is a state of being, a situation we find ourselves in when our actions prevent us from living in loving relationship with our neighbors. This is precisely what Jesus rescues us from, so that we can live in love again.

But sometimes we don’t even know we need to be rescued, as is the case with the man who approaches Jesus in today’s gospel reading. His problem is not that he is abusive or malevolent: it is that he is overconfident. He thinks he’s really winning at this life thing. In his mind there’s one thing left: eternal life, or, as Jesus calls it, the Kingdom of God. He wants to achieve his salvation and then feel secure in having obtained it.

And there’s no reason to doubt his sincerity. He is a purpose-driven believer who has his best life now. This is his time. All he needs is that one key to perfection—which Jesus must certainly be able to provide for him.

“Good teacher,” he begins, kneeling in reverence before the master rabbi, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Now, for just a moment, let’s pause the recording. I want to tell a very brief story of my own. Early in our marriage, Christy and I wanted to buy a house, but we lacked the savings to make a down payment. And then, at just the right moment, my grandmother died and left us $12,000. And we had what we needed.

What did I have to do to inherit that down payment?

Yeah, that’s what I thought. I’m starting to think that the man might be missing the point. Furthermore, it’s not like we actually needed a house; we just wanted one. Was God in that process? I refuse to claim certainty.

OK, hit the play button again. Jesus answers the man’s question with a question: “Why do you call me good?” It’s like, hey, buddy, stop for a moment and wonder. What makes me good? What makes you good? What’s the source of all this goodness?

Yet the man doesn’t stop to wonder; he plows onward, eager to share that he has perfected the art of following the law! He has never done anything wrong—and maybe he’s not just kidding himself. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he is, indeed, a very earnest, very good man, not like the people Amos excoriates, the people who are intentionally trampling the poor. This man is one of the good rich people. They do exist … right?

I don’t think it occurred to this man once that he might go away from Jesus grieving. Indeed, I think that his privileged position taught him that you can achieve anything you put your mind to.

Jesus replies: “You lack one thing: sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

I’m going to pause the recording again and tell you about a dream I once had. I was with a group of people under a gigantic, permeable dome. We all knew that beyond the dome was heaven. We watched as a man and a woman, a married couple, pondered this fact. Then the woman suddenly took off into the air and flew, shooting up joyfully and puncturing the dome, which sealed again behind her. Her husband stood on the ground and watched. And he turned away, grieving, because he was too scared to follow her.

Meanwhile the rest of us were eager to fly after her, and we knew that we could. But there was just one thing: we had in our midst a gigantic machine of some kind, and we couldn’t imagine leaving it behind. So we tried to lift the machine and fly with it beyond the dome. But even with all of us working together, we couldn’t lift it more than a couple inches off the ground. So we resigned ourselves to staying down below, because we weren’t going anywhere without our machine.

Both in Jesus’ time and today, it’s the same situation: we are addicted to our possessions. We might say and believe that our possessions aren’t what counts, but what if we were given a distinct opportunity to put our money where our mouths are?

That’s what happens to this man in Jesus’ presence. For all his earnest and self-confident kindliness, he is called up short. In the Kingdom of God, having wealth holds us back. Period.

We all want to “get it right,” just like this rich man did. What if we can’t get it right?

What if we cannot help ourselves, but instead must become helpless? What if we cannot receive unless we are first empty?

What if even a good, steady job that benefits the world can’t get us closer to God, but unemployment can?

What if our generosity can’t earn us points in “the good place,” but our poverty blesses us?

What if our carefully managed plans for a safe life just lull us into a false sense of security? What if being in danger is actually better for our spiritual growth?

What if the woman who leaves an abusive man and steps out into uncertainty is surrounded by angels, while the couple who have a good, untroubled marriage for decades are in danger of losing their souls?

What if such a realization drives us into a form of grief that is actually the first step toward benefiting from our salvation?

See, here’s the thing: Jesus makes clear in the gospels that God sides with the unemployed, the homeless, the hungry, the lonely, and the abused … over against the rest of us. God loves us all, to be sure, but God doesn’t love our possessions, or our security, or our confidence. “Believe in yourself” is not the gospel and often runs contrary to it. When things are going well for us, we are so easily led into the false belief that we are in control. It’s not until we come to understand ourselves as poverty-stricken—voluntarily or otherwise—that we can begin to receive God’s love.

I’m telling you this with great trepidation. I walk away from this gospel passage grieving, because I have many possessions. And I wonder what it would take for me to lose all faith in their saving power.

Oh, the word of God is indeed “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow”! God’s judgment of the folly of our lives is real, and it will cause us to grieve.

Jesus’ disciples are shocked. It’s as if, for one fleeting moment, they actually understand the gospel. When we talk about the baptized life, we’re talking about an alternative lifestyle, a lifestyle that stands in stark contrast to that of, for instance, American culture, because it is both totally free and costs us everything.

This week I’ve been reading The Cost of Discipleship by Lutheran pastor and Nazi resister Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He writes about Levi the tax collector, a man with many possessions who did indeed follow Jesus:

At the call, Levi leaves all that he has … not because he thinks that he might be doing something worthwhile, but simply for the sake of the call … The disciple simply burns his boats and goes ahead … The disciple is dragged out of his relative security into a life of absolute insecurity (that is, in truth, into the absolute security and safety of the fellowship of Jesus).[1]

You may now be saying, “Well, it’s not like it makes sense for all of us to sell everything we have”! I’m not saying that. But what if we all took just one step toward beginning to understand that we don’t actually own anything—that we have no right to keep any particular possession?

What if we practiced giving ourselves away?

What little thing can we do this week to lose faith in our stuff, to open our hands wide and say to God, “All that I have is yours, and so I offer it back to you”?

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1959), 58.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Since All Else Fails, Love

sermon preached at Church of the Good Shepherd, Federal Way, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Rector
The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 22B, October 7, 2018
Genesis 2:18-24; Psalm 8; Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12; Mark 10:2-16

I once heard a newly ordained priest preach on this passage about divorce. He was a 30-year-old man who had never been married, but he felt it was his duty to tackle the question, “Is divorce a sin?” No doubt many of the hundreds present had been through one or more divorces! But this preacher answered the question with an unqualified YES, divorce is a sin. And then he proceeded masterfully to put that YES into context, such that the divorcees in the room were able to understand that their sin was not necessarily any worse than the sins the rest of us have committed. That didn’t let anyone off the hook, but at least we knew we’re all in good company.

And it isn’t meant to whitewash or explain away Jesus’ tough words, either. There’s a popular concept of Jesus as a softie, as someone who went easy on people. This passage is one example to the contrary, and there are many others. How about the passage in which Jesus says that lustful thoughts are also on the same level as adultery? How about Jesus’ frequent warnings to the rich that their failure to share is spiritually harming them? How about his insistence that if we’re not taking care of the poor and needy, we’re not fit to enter God’s Kingdom? But then, he also says, “Let the one without sin cast the first stone.” We’re all in the same (sinking) boat.

Meanwhile, today we begin hearing from the Letter to the Hebrews, and we will do so throughout October and November. It’s probably not really a letter as much as it is a sermon, and it begins with a sweeping summary of salvation history. God tried to reach out to us time and time again, first speaking to us through prophets. Then God came to be with us in Jesus, and in so doing, God re-sanctified flesh and blood and bone as “very good.” And then Jesus went through hell right here on earth.

We know that hell is on earth. We turn on the news, and we see so much suffering … the suffering of workers who have jobs but still cannot afford to feed their families … the suffering of immigrant children living without their parents in camps all around America … the suffering of those who have experienced trauma, that condition that causes the worst of past moments to remain forever present. God has no need to inflict hell on us; we’re perfectly capable of inflicting it on ourselves and on each other. Such suffering has become so familiar that we are ever more at risk of making peace with it. Please don’t make peace with it. Please don’t simply throw up your hands and say, “Nothing will ever change.” We do have the ability to change things.

Indeed, the Sermon to the Hebrews tells us that God has left nothing outside our control. God pursues us with love, but God doesn’t force our hand in any way, because God doesn’t use force. It is because we actually do have control over our lives that suffering is possible. But rather than step in and cause our suffering to cease, Jesus, the exact imprint of God’s very being, allowed himself to be arrested as a disgraced criminal, leaving his friends and family in peril. He would not take any violent action at all, even in self-defense … and that’s the Teacher I follow. Jesus raised the bar of righteousness so high that we could never clear it, and in so doing, he showed us what we already knew: we cannot win. Every one of us will fall apart and die one way or another.

If that were the end of the story, Christianity would be a religion of futility. But then Jesus came back. He wouldn’t stay dead! Jesus came back to show us what’s coming next, albeit in very mysterious terms that even his best friends and eyewitnesses couldn’t agree on how to fully express. Jesus gave us the blueprint of creation: his very self, poured out for us in love. And then he said, “Live by this blueprint: give of yourself for the sake of others, and your life will truly matter—not only for the length of your tiny lifespan, but for all of eternity.” Or to put to briefly enough to slap on a bumper sticker: “Since all else fails, love.”

“Since all else fails, love.” If we can inflict hell on each other, we can also grow heaven among each other.

Marriage is a way for two people to show God’s love to everyone … except when it isn’t. Parents teach their children how to love … except when they teach them how to fear. Businesses provide good things for society … except when their pursuit of profit causes more problems than solutions. Politicians act as servants to the people … except when they act as abusers of the people. Religious communities also can lose their way and work against God’s love. And these things happen even while the marriages and parents and businesses and politicians and religions are doing lots of good things at the same time! We are a morass of successes and failures, every one of us, every day. We all do our best, except when we don’t, and we are all complicit in the sin of a sick society. And then we all die, all of us with our projects and aspirations. We all die.

But did we love? “Since all else fails, love.”

I knew a college student a few years ago who, after a couple years spent with our campus ministry group and our church, said: “It is in our falling short where I (as a new-ish Episcopalian) have fallen in love with this community. More so than any other church I’ve experienced, Episcopalians welcome getting called out for mis-stepping and seek out critiques.”

I hope this does indeed describe us at our best. It is a proper display of Christian humility to learn to say, “I’m sorry,” and to ask, “How can I do better?” That is love working through failure. It isn’t the same as flailing around in a perfectionistic frenzy and then beating ourselves up when we drop the ball. We will drop the ball! Instead, it’s about recognizing that no, we’re not worthy, and we can’t make ourselves worthy, no matter how hard we try. But God treats us as if we were worthy! We’ll never be perfect, and yet God loves us anyway. What are human beings, that God is mindful of us? It’s shocking to think, and yet I firmly believe, that if I were to fail to mature in any way between now and the day I die, God would still love me infinitely. The same goes for you.

But how can we benefit from this love? Through humility, gratitude, and service to others—powerful signs of a healthy Christian.

And so we come to Jesus’ remarks about children. Two weeks ago I commented that most children in Jesus’ time didn’t survive to adulthood. Children were bundles of potential, to be sure, but at first they were not seen as gifts but as useless nuisances. The youngest among them took and took and gave nothing that the community needed. This is what Jesus compares us to … and allows and blesses us to be: useless nuisances who might someday give something back for the sake of the Kingdom of God—or might not! And these are the people we’re called to love.

There’s another way to look at it, too. Children make lots of mistakes and then learn from them. Indeed, I’ve learned almost nothing valuable without mistakes! What we do naturally as young children—learning from our failures—too many of us unlearn. We decide that if we can’t be right most of the time, we must not be adults yet. And so we either become entrenched in views and lifestyles that could probably benefit from some scrutiny, or else we retreat into comfortable familiarity and only do things we know we will succeed at. The older we get, the easier it is to be afraid of failure. But our fear will not save us.

What indulgence has God allowed you to foster due to your hardness of heart? What hardness of heart does God now call you to grow out of? Take counsel with me today from Jesus: failure is an option. We can thank God that there is nothing we can do to make God love us less—nothing whatsoever. That frees us up to attempt things. We cannot succeed or fail unless we practice, and this practice can flow from our gratitude. When we succeed, we will find that God was right there next to us all along, guiding our childish hands. And when we fail, we will find that our proper response is simply to let God love us back into wholeness—through the community around us, fellow citizens of God’s Kingdom.

So I invite you to practice with me! In a couple weeks we will begin our fall pledge campaign. We will invite you to make a financial pledge to Good Shepherd, even if you fail to fulfill it or have to modify it later. We’ll ask you not just to put money in the plate, but to commit to an actual dollar amount for 2019. You’ll have a concrete opportunity to practice sharing, so that we may become better citizens of the Kingdom of God.

In addition, we’re about to share a Celebration of New Ministry, two Thursdays from now. We will commit to going forward into new ministry efforts together. As you learn about them, you can look for specific ways to be a part of them, to practice something new to support the mission of Good Shepherd. Or you can do something even gutsier: let something go, especially if it’s not feeding you, or if you perceive that it might no longer be feeding others. God doesn’t want us to busy ourselves to death; rather, God invites us to change our priorities. And God offers us the strength we do not have in ourselves. We’re all selfish and frightened much of the time, so let’s help each other work against selfishness and fear.

Since all else fails, love. We can grow heaven among the people in our lives. This kind of love takes practice. Will you practice alongside me?