Saturday, May 19, 2018

The Unforced Rhythms of Grace


homily preached at the EPIC (Episcopal Campus Fellowship) Visioning Day
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Campus Chaplain
Saturday, May 19, 2018
A reading from the Gospel according to Matthew.

Jesus, said, ‘Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: 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. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

‘Who then is the faithful and wise slave, whom his master has put in charge of his household, to give the other slaves* their allowance of food at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives. Truly I tell you, he will put that one in charge of all his possessions.

--

Today’s Gospel reading is appointed for the Feast of St. Dunstan, a fascinating character you can read about sometime, not now. In the short time I have with you today, I’d like to focus on the reading instead.

You never knew when or how your life will change. I mean, some things you can plan for, but I’ve heard it said that if you want to hear God laugh, tell God your plans. This doesn’t mean that God thinks your plans are stupid—only that we so often claim more control over our lives than we can ever truly have. It is good to plan, but it is better to learn how to adjust.

Jesus is not saying, “Be prepared for every eventuality,” or, “Control the situation.” Quite the opposite, really. He’s making clear what qualities you’ll need to cultivate in order to be spiritually ready for all the things you can’t control.

Be faithful: that is, trust that God’s presence and guidance are certain even when you can’t perceive them.

Be wise: that is, look beyond yourself and your loved ones and their immediate needs.

Be responsible: that is, communicate clearly and do what you said you would do.

Care for others: that is, go out of your way to be present to people, to listen to them, to befriend them, to pray for them, to make sacrifices for their sake.

Work diligently: that is, be willing to invest your money, your time, your lifeblood in things that matter.

When you do all this, you’ll find that you are given greater responsibility.

Now, you might joke that you don’t want greater responsibility. But I know you: you’re not lazy people. You’re conscientious people. You’re responsible people who are frequently under a lot of stress. So I get it: the last thing you want is for more work to be laid on your backs.

But remember, too, what Jesus says in another place: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Yes, Jesus places a yoke on our shoulders. Jesus gives us work to do. The paradox is that he promises us rest—our souls will be able to be at rest in the midst of that work. The Christian life isn’t something we tack onto our regular lives. It is a different kind of life, a method for prioritizing the needs of the world above our own ambitions. It may mean that you will have more work or less work, easy work or exhausting work, but it will guarantee that the work you do will be transformed work—holy work, work that will reveal God’s love to the world.

The contemporary paraphrase of the Bible called The Message puts the passage this way:

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

Learn the unforced rhythms of grace.

And what is “grace”? It’s a word that means a number of things in English, but which also carries a particularly Christian meaning. Grace is how God works. Grace means that whatever happens and no matter how bad things get, there is a way forward. Grace means that even when we are not in control and our anxiety is spiraling us downward, God is there, whispering, “Shhh. It’s not over yet.” Grace is unforced, and it is God’s path to peace and reconciliation.

So relax into the music. Ride the waves of the Holy Spirit through the rapids of life. Fuel up on bread and wine, Body and Blood, and then get back out there, where the Holy Spirit is showing you the work that is to be done. Have you been baptized? You have been given a mission. Not sure what that mission is? Go about your life following your passions, following what gives you life. Along the way, notice what the world does not have but needs desperately. Find the place where those two things meet, and dig in deeply, with reckless abandon. The Spirit will not abandon you. Jesus will give you rest. Your Creator is helping you create.

EPIC Visioning Day, 5/19/18
As I prepare to leave EPIC in my past, I want you all to know, first and foremost, how much I love you -- each and every one of you. It has been a distinct honor to be able to walk alongside you for this brief but crucial time in your life. As I go, I will need to make intentional space, an absence from you, so that others can fill the role I have tried to fill. But after a time and a season, if you want to reach out to me again, please do so. After a time, we can reconnect.

As for today, I will only be with you for parts of it. Most of the work belongs to the rest of you. Enjoy the work, and enjoy each other. Pay attention not just to your own feelings in this process, but also to what the others around you are going through. Love one another.

Those aren’t just my words to you. They’re the words of someone else who was preparing to leave his friends for a time. First he washed their feet. (I’ll spare you that today.) Then he said, “Love one another as I have loved you.” I try to do just that, and I hope that you who have also joined in that work will continue it together. Amen.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Letting Go


homily preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler
Wednesday, May 16, 2018 (5:30 p.m.)

O God, the King of glory, you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven: Do not leave us comfortless, but send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and exalt us to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen. 

My mother used to tell me, “Some days you get the bear, and some days the bear gets you.” Or as a Haitian proverb has it, “A day for the hunter, a day for the prey.” Our lives contain states of anxiety and of comfort, and we fluctuate between them. And so we have structured our church calendar to honor these human fluctuations.

The season of Advent is a time of anxiety: everything is falling apart, everything seems to be ending, and we long for the coming of God into our lives. Then come Christmas and Epiphany: comforting times in which we experience Jesus of Nazareth, Emmanuel, God-with-us, and we learn the many ways that God is made manifest in the world. During Lent, we enter the wilderness with Jesus, to experience and to understand rejection and even the complete loss of hope. Our supposed Savior goes to the Cross, and there is only trauma and loss. Then our wildest hopes cannot compare with the shock and mystery and joy of Easter. Jesus is among us again—granted, he’s changed, but he’s also the same, even if we don’t always recognize him right away. And then, at the Ascension, he’s gone again.

We’re in the in-between, between Jesus’ Ascension and the Day of Pentecost. We had 40 days of joy and wonder. Now we’re in 10 days of uncertainty and anxiety—a seemingly comfortless time.

When we feel that we have been left comfortless, we long for a few things that might give us hope. We want protection from all that threatens us. We want unity, so that we don’t harm each other as we work out what all this means. We want strength to endure whatever we’re going through.

There are also things we need that we might not immediately recognize as wants. We need God to make us holy, even in or possibly as a result of our sufferings. Then, sanctified and exalted, we need to be sent. Turning outward to give hope to others is the best way of conquering hopelessness in our own lives.

All of these gifts would come to the disciples on the Day of Pentecost, through the gift of the Holy Spirit. But first there was an anxious, in-between time, when nobody really knew what to expect next, and when fear of permanent loss was palpable.

Do you have a sense of a past, blessed time in your life—a golden age? Do you wish you could get it back again—the time when the job was exciting, when the marriage was fresh, when the children were innocent, when some beloved person was alive? We see this in our country today: people longing for a past that they imagine once existed. There’s a desire for an idealized America that never existed, or at least that didn’t exist for a great many people. But even if it had existed, the past isn’t coming back. It was the same with the disciples: Jesus was back from the dead, but he was changed, and then he was gone, but he left them with a promise. We are only ever moving forward into something new.

"I'm freeeee ..." Everybody sing! All together now!
See, that’s what God is like: all things new, all the time. If we try to clutch and to cling tightly to yesterday’s gifts, we’ll only burn up needless energy while refusing the gifts of tomorrow. Our fear of the unknown can make us bitter and resentful. They say of death that “you can’t take it with you.” That’s also true of life. To practice resurrection is to practice letting go.

Paul boarded a ship in Ephesus heading for Jerusalem. He was going there to bring money for the building up of the church in its place of origin. From there, he intended to launch a mission to Spain. But his friends in Ephesus knew that they would never see him again, and so there were tears and hugs and kisses.

Jesus gave his disciples a farewell discourse on the night of his arrest, and he flipped back and forth between counsel and prayer. Jesus intentionally relinquished his friends into the hands of God the Father, and then he went to his death. In the garden Jesus experienced the depths of human anxiety. But when he rose again and appeared to his disciples, the anxiety was gone. There was no bitterness, no retribution after the disciples’ abandonment of him. There was only peace, a peace that he shared with them. And then he left them again, ascending in order to make a space for them to step into.

All good leaders do this, and good parents, and good mentors. We share of ourselves, and then eventually, we move on. At some point, sooner or later, we all must commend our loved ones into the care of God and into the care of those who will come after us.

Do you want to practice resurrection as a way of life? Practice letting go. Really, truly live today and enjoy the people God has placed under your care. Enjoy them today and enjoy them tomorrow. And then, when the time comes, unbind them and let them go.

Nothing is ever truly lost. Christ’s Resurrection has assured the raising of the entire cosmos, and all of us are ascending with him into the nearer presence of God. Amen.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Salvation Trumps Survival


sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Associate Priest for Adult Formation
Good Friday, March 30, 2018

We are all born with a survival instinct: we want to prolong our lives. We know that our end will come, but that doesn’t typically alter our urge to keep on living. The survival instinct is a real gift in some ways, just like pain and fear are gifts. If we know what we might lose, we will work harder to keep what we have.

But in the Garden of Gethsemane just before his arrest, Jesus looked his own survival instinct squarely in the eye and said, “No. There are things far more important than staying alive.” As Christians, we trust that in some mysterious way Jesus’ death accomplished something unique: salvation for all of us, and that it planted a seed that would eventually sprout, grow, and reconcile the entire world to its Creator. But Jesus’ rejection of his survival instinct is a tool for justice that has served many others since.

Next Wednesday will be the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. On the day before his death by bullet, Dr. King said:
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will … I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land![1]

Last Saturday was the anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero. Days before his death by bullet, the bishop asserted, “As a Christian, I do not believe in death without resurrection. If they kill me, I will be reborn in the Salvadoran people.”[2]

The message can be found even in our children’s fiction. Dumbledore says to Voldemort: “Your failure to understand that there are things much worse than death has always been your greatest weakness.”[3]

Many people throughout history have figured it out: salvation trumps survival. Survival is great for keeping us alive. But salvation infuses us with eternal meaning. And it manifests itself specifically in giving our lives for those who are powerless and in danger.

So imagine, if you will, a conversation in the human mind between salvation and survival.

Survival screams: “They’re all after you, and they want to take everything away from you. Fight fire with fire.”

Salvation concedes: “You’re probably right; just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after you. But I will not defeat the enemy by becoming the enemy.”

Survival asserts: “You can’t love these other people; they hate you. Don’t you see where they come from, what they’ve done, who they’ve voted for, the labels they wear?”

Salvation replies: “You will try to separate us, but we will come together. We will fight for justice in ways you don’t even recognize as fighting, because we will not use violence.”

Survival rages: “Why do you refuse to defend yourself?”

Salvation responds: “I choose to defend others instead. It may look to you like I’m just standing here in silence and crying. But my tears are defeating death.”

Survival seduces: “You don’t know anything. You’re just being brainwashed by people with an agenda.”

Salvation speaks firmly: “I know my pain, and I trust my scars to guide me.”

Survival whispers: “I always have a plan. Why don’t you have one?”

Salvation’s voice trembles: “I don’t know the solution yet, but I do know that I would rather lose for the sake of love than to win for any unjust purpose. So I stand with love—whatever the cost—now and always.”

I have been dropping references here to some young people I want to honor today for their sacrifices. When fifth-grader Naomi Wadler speaks eloquently on behalf of children of color whose murders by bullet don’t make the headlines, we’d better listen. When teenagers like Emma González, Sam Fuentes, and David Hogg march for their lives, we’d better show up and act to help them. When Malala Yousafzai returns to Pakistan for the first time since a bullet nearly ended her life, she brings with her a strength that transcends her mere survival.

Emma González (Source: Mother Jones)
These young people could just put their heads down and keep muddling through school, nursing their indelible traumas. Instead they are placing themselves in harm’s way. They are being ridiculed and trolled and slandered and subjected to ad hominem attacks by powerful adults, because they dare to speak out for those who are being “wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities.” Our children are placing crucifixion in front of our faces, and in so doing they are unmasking evil forces. The indelible image of Emma González standing in front of the camera in complete silence, tears streaming down her face, is an image of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant, standing in the place of sorrow and bearing the brunt of evil. How will we respond? If we want change, we have to be willing to sacrifice.

In every service of Holy Eucharist, we make our own “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.” It doesn’t sound like much at first. But in baptism, we vow to come to church, and do ministry, and give away our money—hopefully even ten percent—for the sake of that ministry. The church serves an unbelieving world, and the baptized are those who join in that work.

So “a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving” means so much more than dragging ourselves out of bed on a Sunday. It means dedicating ourselves to the practice of resurrection. This is the kind of sacrifice God wants: not innocent bloodshed, the system Jesus put to death in his death, but rather, living blood dedicating itself to love. For most Christians, that practice begins in church and then spills out into society.

Cornel West said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.”[4] Reinhold Niebuhr said, “Justice is an approximation of brotherhood under conditions of sin.”[5] And so we engage in the world of politics: the imperfect, day-to-day compromises and sacrifices of our common life together. The church must never be partisan, since no political party can come close to what love demands of our souls. But the church must always be political, tugging our society in the direction of justice and thus our best approximation of love.

Jesus stands boldly before Pilate, and the voice of salvation proclaims, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” That happens even among people who’ve never heard of Jesus, and people who have heard of him but misunderstand him, and people who have been clobbered with his name and want nothing to do with it. These people, too, hear the voice of Jesus when they demonstrate that they belong to the truth, when they make clear that salvation trumps survival.

Now, I know that many of you here today are busy dealing with unspeakable pain of your own: the sudden death of a loved one … the ongoing grind of caring for someone in failing health … the seeming void of a life that was once so full of optimism … the diagnosis that wakes you up to worry … the knowledge that you have hurt someone so deeply that they may never recover. You may be jobless, or friendless, or foodless, or addicted, or you may fear that nobody will ever truly understand or forgive you. Redemption is yours, but you’re not yet experiencing it, and so we pray with you and stand with you. And we will love you through this by making sacrifices.

Sacrifice comes in all types and sizes, and without it we cannot love. Good parents sacrifice sleep. Good executives sacrifice big paychecks and luxury jets. Conscientious people voluntarily sacrifice some of their God-given freedoms so that those with less power may become free.

I want to close with a story: a conversation I have been given permission to share, overheard at coffee hour this past Sunday.

Parishioner 1: “I’ve been so depressed lately. I used to be on medication for it, but it’s been awhile. I actually have a new prescription from my doctor, but I’m scared to go back on it because of the potential side effects.”

Parishioner 2: “I’ve just recently gone back on my anti-depressant; I also delayed doing so because of the same fears. Tell you what. If you go back on yours too, we can compare quirky side effects. Sound good?”

Parishioner 1: “OK! Let’s shake on it.”

This kind of sacrifice isn’t huge, but it’s far more than nothing. It’s not the passive lip service of “thoughts and prayers.” It’s not even the sincere but noncommittal “if you need anything,” which isn’t bad, which is sometimes all we have to offer, but which still isn’t much. Rather, what I witnessed is direct loving action, and it demonstrates and strengthens our salvation. And it’s something you can do, too.

I was struck by this incident because this resurrection work doesn’t come naturally to me. I miss chances all the time to do something very much like what this parishioner did: to dedicate a part of herself to another in an ongoing way. But God is growing me. And so I watch and learn, and then I seek opportunities to practice. The survival instinct prods, “Don’t get involved; it’s too much work, and you’ll be less free.” But salvation insists, “This is what I was born to do, and it will free me in ways I can’t yet imagine.”

We are Easter people, the ones for whom Jesus was willing to be betrayed and murdered. We belong to the truth, and so we practice resurrection. So this Easter—tomorrow evening!—“let us approach [the risen Christ] with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water … Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” Amen.