Monday, August 13, 2018

Hungry, Angry, Lonely, and Tired

sermon preached at Church of the Good Shepherd, Federal Way, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Rector
The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 14B, August 12, 2018

Source: Pinterest

Someone reminded me this week of an acronym used by Alcoholics Anonymous. The acronym is HALT, and it’s meant to come to your aid when you’re tempted to take a drink. HALT stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. If you are craving a drink, you are probably one or more of these things. And recognizing this fact gives you an opportunity to analyze your feelings and make a decision, instead of just giving in to a momentary compulsion.

HALT: Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. It struck me that this acronym is versatile. It may be useful in combating any compulsive or self-destructive behavior. We all get hungry, angry, lonely, and tired—and sometimes all of them at once. What behaviors grab hold of you in these situations? Would it help to recognize the cause? This simple tool can be a path through which God’s grace can help us to think and to do those things that are right, instead of those things that we do automatically.

The ancient stories of our faith are meant to be played with, explored, turned over and over and looked at from different angles, allowing different facets of the story to catch the light. Let’s take this acronym, HALT, and apply it to today’s story about Elijah.

After going one day into the wilderness, I’m sure that Elijah was hungry, angry, lonely, and tired. But why? If you go back a bit and read the larger story, you’ll find that it was for rather complex reasons. Elijah had just scored a major victory for God’s people, besting the followers of the Canaanite fertility god Baal in a one-on-one liturgical smackdown. When you get home today, open your Bible to the First Book of Kings, chapter 18, and read this thrilling adventure story.

After the Hebrew God unmistakably demonstrated the most divine power—that is, a great show of it as opposed to literally none from the imaginary god Baal—Elijah ordered the killing of all the prophets of Baal who were present, hundreds of them. Yikes! And then, suddenly, rain came—the end of the drought that had wracked the countryside for over two years. Take that, you worthless heathens!

It sounds like the finale, doesn’t it? It sounds like the credits are about to roll. But the story isn’t over yet. Jezebel, the wife of King Ahab, sends a message to Elijah that she’s going to kill him. Elijah has won, and the rain is falling, but now he must flee for his life. He’s exhausted. He feels alone. He’s angry at his nation’s horrible leadership. And, of course, after a day of fleeing, Elijah is extremely hungry. No doubt some self-destructive behavior will rear its head. And that behavior is despair. Elijah gives up, throws himself on the ground, and begs for God to kill him. Despite what appears to have been a huge success, the prophet of God feels like a complete failure.

If you were God, what would you do for Elijah in this situation? Would you say, “Are you kidding me?” Or, “There, there—buck up, little camper”? No, you’d feed him! We can’t think clearly without basic sustenance. One thing at a time.

So God arranges, through an angel, for food and water to appear for Elijah in the wilderness. And only after Elijah has eaten, taken another long nap, and eaten again does he find that he has enough strength to continue toward his destination.

That destination is Mount Horeb, the traditional place where, many centuries before, Moses had met with God face to face. In times of trouble, have you ever felt the urge to make pilgrimage to a place that has been significant to you in the past, or significant to your people? Elijah finds a cave on the mountain and hides out there. It may, in fact, be the very cleft in the rock from which Moses was allowed to catch just a glimpse of God’s glory fully revealed.

Inside the cave, God asks Elijah, “What are you doing here?” Elijah complains that he is a complete failure. God says, “Go stand at the entrance to the cave; I’m going to pass by.”

There is a huge wind! Is God in the wind? No.

There is a huge earthquake! Is God in the earthquake? No.

There is a huge fire! Is God in the fire? No.

Finally, there is silence—a silence so loud Elijah can hear it, or a noise so soft that he can’t. Only now does Elijah recognize God’s true presence, in what some translators call “a still small voice.” And it’s whispering into Elijah’s ear: “halt.”

When I’m at the end of my rope and someone calls me up short, my first reaction is to shout, “Oh, you just don’t understand!” It’s the same with Elijah, who comes out of the cave and repeats to God the same words as before, an antiphon of his failure. But God ignores this and instead responds with very specific instructions: “Go anoint a new king of Israel, and also a new king of the neighboring kingdom of Aram. Go anoint Elisha to be your prophetic successor. Go on, now—get you gone.”

Well, now I’ve gone way beyond the little bit of the story we heard this morning, because I think the context of it is so crucial. We need to know why Elijah is so depressed, and we need to know what happens next, in order to fully appreciate God’s action in the story. We are playing, exploring, turning this story over and looking at it from different angles. And here’s what I notice from where I’m standing: Elijah wins an emphatic victory for his team through force. He solidifies this victory through violence against the other side. And then he finds that he has knocked down the hornet’s nest of royal authority. Violence begets violence. Could this be why Elijah’s victory feels so hollow?

In the cave, there is a violent wind, a violent earthquake, a violent fire. God is not in any of these violent things. Does Elijah get the point yet? Do we?

Strangely, though, God’s next instructions to Elijah imply a continuation of violence—more efforts on the part of the Israelites to utterly destroy the followers of Baal. The people aren’t ready yet to learn who God really is: the one to be found in the silence, in the peace. God is also to be found in patience. God hurts when we hurt, to be sure, and no doubt God longs for us to finally “get it” and understand what God is like. But God cannot and will not force us. God is playing the long game, and none of us—whether we worship YHWH or Baal—not one of us is disposable. God will not give up on any of us.

Many centuries later, in the Letter to the Ephesians, we find another set of specific instructions: here’s how to live in love in your own situation. These instructions include truth-telling, as much self-sufficiency as we can muster, giving away our wealth, and speaking constructively. We also hear, “Be angry but do not sin.” Or, to put it into the words of modern psychology and behavior sciences: feel the feelings, but don’t act on them blindly. Why are you striking out against your neighbor? Could it be because you’re angry—or hungry, or lonely, or tired? What will you do about it, so that your neighbor doesn’t pay the price for your feelings? Your neighbor matters and is not to be stepped on just because you’re having a bad day.

Jesus taught us that the field of our neighbors is much broader than we had ever understood before. Elijah couldn’t have imagined that the prophets of Baal were also his neighbors and were also to be loved. They were just The Enemy, to be eliminated as efficiently as possible, in full sight of all the people, so that fear would bring the Israelites back to the Living God. So why did this victory lead only to Elijah’s despair? Because God cannot be found in violence. God doesn’t work through fear and manipulation. God’s loving purposes cannot be accomplished through bitterness, wrath, slander, or malice. Violence grieves God’s Holy Spirit. And if we can still deny this—if we still think there’s such a thing as redemptive violence—then God’s not done teaching us yet.

But God is patient. We will come to God when God draws us. We Christians understand that to happen through baptism: God beckons through that still, small voice to think bigger, to feel more compassionately, to hold out hope for God’s action in the world, in our communities, and in our nations. The baptized are those who take on this project, and when we do, God keeps feeding us. But there’s bread, and then there’s bread.

The living bread comes down from heaven in human form and shows us God’s very face. “Come to me,” he beckons. “HALT your flailing around and come to me—all you who are hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. I will feed your bodies and soothe your anger. I will give you companions and refresh you. Walk alongside me into the conflict, bearing only love, and together we’ll stand with dignity in the presence of your enemies—because they, too, are a part of the one flock under one good shepherd.” Amen.

Monday, August 6, 2018

What Has God Ever Done for Me?

sermon preached at Church of the Good Shepherd, Federal Way, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Rector
The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 13B, August 5, 2018

Many years ago I worked at a store in Southcenter Mall, selling CDs and cassette tapes. (Remember those?) We were generally a young crew: college, post-college, just starting to figure out “how to adult,” as they say these days.

I had a co-worker named Mindy. One night after closing, Mindy and I and a couple others were talking, and the conversation shifted to religion. At the change of topic, Mindy almost immediately turned hostile: “I don’t believe in God.”

“Why not?” someone wondered politely.

“Why should I?” Mindy replied. “What’s he ever done for me?”

Now, do go easy on Mindy. I don’t think she had ever been to church, so it’s understandable that she could get to age 19 without an answer to that question, “What has God ever done for me?” At the time, I had no idea how to answer Mindy, so I let it go.

Fast-forward now to a time when I was the youth group leader at St. Thomas, Medina. There was a high schooler in the group named Sam who kind of hung back from the rest of the group, but nevertheless showed up every week. Once I asked him what it was that kept him exploring his faith at St. Thomas. Sam said, “Well, ever since I’ve come back to church, it’s become pretty clear that God’s got my back.”

From my first story to my second, I hope you noticed a gigantic difference in maturity between two young people. Mindy had no frame of reference from which to begin to grow into faith. You know, some people decide never to bring their kids to church under the assumption that they’ll make up their own minds when they’re older. As a result, we have millions of young people like Mindy. Most of those who are given no model never come to any understanding of what the church is for. But those who are placed even in rather faulty faith communities, as long as they are not traumatized or abused by that community, might well use it as a starting place from which to grow into a deeper knowledge of God. That was Sam’s situation.

But here’s the thing that both Mindy and Sam had in common: they were both thinking of God as someone who will do something for us if we do something for God. Mindy, perceiving that she had received no gifts from God, felt she owed God nothing. Sam, having genuinely tried to offer God something, felt that God was giving him something in return. Sam’s perspective was more mature. But in both cases, the perception of the relationship was primarily transactional. You give me this, I give you that.

To be fair, most of us start here. Or, maybe we don’t start here, but the transactional nature of our culture eventually places us here. In general, we think that people should get what they deserve, and that sounds reasonable enough. But the sinister corollary is that when people don’t deserve, they shouldn’t get.

Jesus knew all about this kind of thinking. He calls it out in today’s Gospel. After the feeding of the five thousand, which we read last week, he crosses over the water to Capernaum—on foot, you may remember—and the crowds follow him in their boats. “Now, why have you come?” Jesus asks them. “Not because you saw God at work in me, but because I fed you.”

Now, any youth group leader will tell you that if you want to gather young people, serve them an abundance of food. There’s nothing wrong with that. Heck, that’s the center of community-building in all times and in all cultures! So Jesus gathers people, feeds them, and then says, “OK, my newfound friends, it’s time to go deeper.”

It’s the same with the Hebrews in the wilderness. We heard the story, and then we read the psalmist’s poetic retelling of it:

So mortals ate the bread of angels;
he provided for them food enough.

Gathering of the Manna (15th century)
Source: Wikimedia Commons
I talked last week about enough-ness. Manna is the ultimate biblical example of God demanding that the people learn enough-ness. “Here’s food—enough for all. It looks a little strange. It tastes … OK. You’ll get sick of it after a while. But it’s enough.”

The people see the manna, and they say, “What is it?” So they name it “manna,” which is literally Hebrew for, “What is it?”

Oh, and God gave them quails, too. Thousands of quails—in the parallel story in the Book of Numbers, there are so many quails that they had quails coming out their ears and their nostrils. God gave them enough and more. God provided for them.

The bottom line is that every time we eat, we have the opportunity to notice that God is behind the food. When we enjoy the sunshine, we can notice that God gives the warmth. When we receive love, we can notice that God inspired it. We can accept every gift in this world with gratitude, knowing that whatever unseen, mysterious force is behind the existence of any food, any warmth, any love—that’s who God is. That’s the One we church people are always talking about. God gives gifts! What has God ever done for you? What good thing does not come from God?

Once we agree on this simple definition of God, we’re ready to go deeper. Our new task is to move in the direction of maturity, from the transactional to the interpersonal.

The one writing to the Ephesians—Paul, or more likely one faithfully riffing on Paul a generation later—urges this maturity from the Christians in Ephesus. “We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people's trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.” In other words, God wants you to think for yourself, not just copy some flavor-of-the-month huckster who may not have your best interests at heart. God wants a relationship with you—not just with the people you think are holier or more credentialed or more spiritually mature than you are.

So grow up!, he says. Get rooted in a community that can provide you with the words of Scripture at one shoulder and the wisdom of the Church’s traditions at the other. Then step out in faith. Step out into the world in the full confidence that God’s got your back. And then you’ll find that you are, indeed, growing.

The goal here is to grow “to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” Can you imagine becoming so much like Jesus that people might mistake you for him? Neither can I. So don’t expect to get there. We are all works in progress. We should not expect anybody, including ourselves, to reach the destination, but only to move in that direction.

Our journey is anything but an individual pursuit. These New Testament references to “the body” mean “the church.” And here we learn concrete ways of undertaking this journey to maturity together: “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love.” We hear of “speaking the truth in love”: this means being genuine and honest while respecting the dignity of the person to whom you are speaking, even if the relationship is problematic. Maturity and reconciliation will come to us all, with time and prayer and through God’s action. In the meantime, there is joy to be found when we all trust in God together. When trust God to be at the center of all of our relationships, we will grow into the humility we need in order to stick together.

Jesus feeds the people, and they follow him. Even after that miraculous feeding, they ask him for another sign of wonder to help them come to trust in him. They remind Jesus of the example of Moses, who gave the Hebrews manna as a sign. “No,” says Jesus. “Moses didn’t do that; God did. As a matter of fact, God is behind every sign and every feeding and every occasion of joy. The bread from God gives life to the world.” Life to the world!—not just to a few people, but to all life on earth.

In the face of this realization, what can we do but ask for more? “Give us this bread always!” It’s the cry of the maturing. Just like the Woman at the Well, when the metaphor was not bread, but living water: “Sir, give me this water, that I may never be thirsty again!”

That woman experienced a shift, and the crowds around Jesus in Capernaum experienced a shift, from the transactional to the interpersonal. God is not merely a service provider. God loves us. God has given us everything, and the freedom to do with everything what we see fit. It’s scary, and more often than not, we do mess it up.

Yet here we are, standing in the face of love with no preconditions. God is still loving us, still giving us gifts, and still gently urging us: “Go deeper. Come grow into me. I’m already growing within you.” Amen.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Full to Bursting

sermon preached at Church of the Good Shepherd, Federal Way, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Rector
The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 12B, July 29, 2018

Have you ever felt full to bursting?

I’m sure you’ve felt empty before: those times are easy to remember. Empty of energy, empty of stomach, empty of options. That’s a common enough human feeling.

But feeling full: well, that’s another thing altogether.

I feel full today, and we haven’t even had our picnic yet. I feel full to bursting, as if we’d already had loaves and fishes and were just now gathering up the leftovers. I feel full to bursting with welcome, and hospitality, and love. I hope you find that you’re being offered some of that food, too.

You know, Jesus says to his disciples at one point, “I have food to eat that you don’t know about.” This kind of food is what I feel full of today.

First I felt full of busy-ness. First came the moving in, getting reacclimated, making many trips to the hardware store. Then came the balance of just spending some time at home with our two kittens, getting reacquainted with old friends in the neighborhood. Finally, now has come the first week in the office, filling out employee paperwork, learning the wifi password, finding out the hard way that Good Shepherd has an alarm system. I made my first pastoral visit, got the liturgical brain download from Father Roy, and spent two and a half hours at the bank with Dilcia so that I can spend money.

I also learned that many wonderful people have taken great care in preparing for my arrival and that of my family. My office is painted—thank you so much! People have been taking time out of their busy work schedules to meet with me and brief me on everything I need to know. I feel full of abundance. I feel full of the caring of this beloved community.

Now, abundance feels great, but it’s not like I really need it. Enoughness is fine with me. Actually, I think enoughness is the conversation I’m more interested in having with people, because enoughness is what our whole culture needs to work on. Our default setting, it seems, is that even when we have enough, we keep wanting more. We want to sock some away, which is one thing—or we want to be gluttonous, which is another. We do this out of fear, and the result is that others don’t have enough. In contrast, our call from God is to carry each other, to make sure that we all have enough. And from what I’ve seen so far, the Church of Good Shepherd is doing this work.

You know, the boy who offered his food to Jesus didn’t seem to worry about whether there would be enough; he just gave generously without fear of missing his own lunch. Centuries before, Elisha may have worried about whether there would be enough, but he considered a factor that many of us would overlook: this unnamed “man of God” had brought an offering from the “first fruits,” the earliest reapings of his harvest, specifically in order to share it. Elisha expected that wherever generosity is found, God will guide the process. It takes a child or a prophet to see this. A child or a prophet can tell you that the only way you can have enough is to give away what you have, freely, without fearful hedging, without an agenda, but simply because your giving gives joy to others. Children and prophets can see the enoughness.

But what if we don’t have enough? Well, in that case, our challenge is to give from the “not enough”—to trust that God’s abundance is not only a factor, but is the main factor. Sometimes, in the short term, we do indeed run out of things. And that’s when we need to count on our community to sustain us. When we make our motto “I’ve got mine,” we get in God’s way. But when we trust in God’s abundance and pair that trust with generosity, God may well work through the process so that we find ourselves full to bursting.

In that “full-to-bursting” spirit, this passage from the Letter to the Ephesians is precisely what I wish for all of us. Now, we don’t know for sure whether Paul wrote this letter, or whether we should attribute it to someone writing in Paul’s name a little later on. But whoever this person is, the longing is obvious: a longing for the community of Christians in Ephesus to share a “full-to-bursting” experience.

After all, what do we do in the Church? We become “rooted and grounded in love”—not just love in general, not just love as a random act of kindness, or a thoughtful word, or even as genuine love between two people. In the Church, we seek to connect with a higher love, a bigger love, a self-sacrificial love that does not forever diminish the one who is sacrificing—the love from which and through which all love proceeds. Why is there love? Because of the Love that made us all. In the Church, we dare to believe in and trust this Love. And we do it not merely as disconnected individuals, but by dedicating ourselves to a community.

My desire for all of you, and for us together, is that we will comprehend “with all the saints” the non-existent boundaries of this Love: the infinite “breadth and length and height and depth.” My desire is that our minds be blown, and that our hearts be blown open, by the knowledge of this Love.

We begin this work together with our regular Sunday worship, and with a picnic. While a church picnic may be only a poor reflection of God’s infinite love, it’s a good, humble starting place. It’s a place to share and to experience enoughness, or even abundance. I mean, honestly, how many church potlucks have you attended where there wasn’t enough food? It can happen, but I think it’s pretty rare. So let’s start with a picnic. Let’s start by feeding each other.

From there, we can move on to carrying each other. I can already tell that there’s a lot of that going on. Some have more, and some need more, and so we share what we can.

But, you know, I haven’t said a word yet about the other story we just heard. We heard John’s version of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, yes—incidentally, one of the tiny handful of stories of Jesus that appears in all four gospels. But then we heard another story, that of Jesus walking on the water. In John’s gospel it’s combined with the storm. But here, Jesus doesn’t calm the storm as such. He just comes to be with his friends, and suddenly, they’re at their destination.

I think this is important, and you might not catch it if you’re not paying close attention: “Immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.” John is referring back to one of the psalms, which his community would have known and cherished. We hear in Psalm 107: “Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress. He stilled the storm to a whisper and quieted the waves of the sea. Then were they glad because of the calm, and he brought them to the harbor they were bound for.”

What harbor are you bound for? This harbor may be any number of things, but you can identify it by naming your deepest longing. Maybe you long for rest and refreshment. Maybe you long for justice and peace in our nation and in the world, for the hungry to have food, for the lonely to have companionship, for lost children to be reunited with their parents. Maybe you yourself are facing injustice, or violence, or famine, or loneliness. Your harbor may be clear and immediate relief from these ungodly forces. Alternately, your harbor may appear at the end of a long, satisfying career, or at the arrival of happier times, or in renewed relationships with those from whom you have been estranged. At this point in your life, your harbor may even be death herself, and the joyful rest on the other side of her.

Whatever your harbor is, know that Jesus is guiding you there, but that you’re not the only one in the boat. You’re in the boat with all of us who belong to Jesus. Or perhaps you are in a neighboring boat on the same waters, even if you haven’t yet joined Jesus’ crew through baptism.

Plenty of food, and safe harbor. These are the things I want for you, and for us at Good Shepherd: to be rooted and grounded in love; to be full and satisfied, replenished for the work ahead of us, and with leftovers to share; to comprehend with all the saints the fullness of God’s love; to know Christ and to make Christ’s love known to others; and through the storm, to reach the land to which we are going.

Friends, we’ve got this -- with God's help. And I feel honored to have been invited in. It won’t always be easy or certain. I’m sure I’ll let you down more than once, and I’ll pray that our relationships can grow deeper even in—or especially in—the fertile soil of conflict. Be patient with your new rector. I’ll certainly do my best to be patient with you.

I’d like to close with a prayer from Thomas Merton. I prayed it most recently at the occasion of the graduation of several university students, but I think it also fits our situation. I hope it resonates with you, too.

"My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”