Sunday, February 10, 2019

Caught Up

sermon preached at Church of the Good Shepherd, Federal Way, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Rector
The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 10, 2019

Jorge Orlando Cocco Santangelo, The Call
There’s a famous saying that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result. By that definition, Jesus of Nazareth is insane.

“Really, Jesus?” ask the fishermen. “We’ve been fishing all this time and haven’t caught a thing. You really want us to try again?” In a different version of the story Jesus has them cast their net on the other side of the boat, which is silly enough. In Luke’s telling, he says, “Put out into the deep water and let your nets down for a catch.” Shallow water versus deep water … there’s a really nice metaphor there, but I’m not going to explore it, because I don’t think Jesus necessarily knew more about fishing than those who earned their living from it. If deep water is a more likely place, then that’s where they were before. So I’m assuming that Jesus asks them to do exactly the same thing they were just doing. And the result this time is very different.

It reminds me of the movie Mary Poppins. Remember when Bert tries to say some magic words to help the children jump into the chalk drawing? Nothing happens. But when Mary Poppins takes the lead, they all jump easily right into the drawing and spend the afternoon galavanting around the chalky countryside. This is one piece of evidence for my elaborate theory that Mary Poppins is the Holy Spirit, while Bert represents the institutional Church.

But more about that some other time. The point is that Jesus’ presence makes things happen. When Jesus is at your party, you’ll never run out of wine. And when you’re fishing, you’ll bring in a huge haul. But the fish are only a symbol, and Jesus says so: “Do not be afraid; for now on you will be catching people.” It doesn’t have the same ring as the old phrase “fishers of men,” but it is twice as accurate.

Well, fish and boats and chalk drawings are all very nice. But I don’t want us to overlook the real drama in this scene: Peter’s reaction. When the net full of fish begins to weigh the boat down, Peter falls at Jesus’ knees, crying out, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” Does this reaction make sense to you? It does to me. Peter is genuinely afraid, and I get that.

The recurring biblical phrase “the fear of the Lord” does waaaay more harm than good when powerful people take it out of context. But there is a genuine fear here: an awe, a smallness, a terror in the human soul that comes from a more direct experience of the divine. Remember that on Mount Sinai, God warns the people to stay back lest they touch the mountain and die!

Today we hear Isaiah cry out, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” The prophet is afraid that this direct view of God’s glory will flat out kill him dead. But it’s not so much a perceived fear of physical injury we’re talking about here. It has more to do with feeling impure … unworthy.

C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity that “the real test of being in the presence of God is that you either forget about yourself altogether or see yourself as a small, dirty object. It is better to forget about yourself altogether.” Well, with due respect to Lewis, I’d rather we be able to understand ourselves to be beloved children of God, and only then to forget about ourselves and go about serving others! But feeling like a small, dirty object is also a well-known and well-chronicled experience of God. When we stand in God’s presence, we just might feel as if we need to be made clean.

And so a seraph, a heavenly being, touches Isaiah’s mouth with a hot coal—“Here. Now you are pure.” In the Bible, fire is more often used to purify than to harm. But was this purification necessary for God’s sake, or merely for Isaiah’s?

In the same way, note Jesus’ reaction when Peter falls down in front of him. Listen to his words: “Do not be afraid.” When you feel like a small, dirty object instead of a beloved child of God, you will be reassured that you are clean and worthy, and then you’ll be made useful. Isaiah got a hot coal to the lips, and then God gave him a specific task to carry out. Jesus just told Peter—with a chuckle, I imagine—“Come on, get over yourself. I know exactly who and what you are, and there’s no time for depressing navel-gazing. So get your ego out of the way. I choose you. And we’ve got work to do.”

Now, about that work. Once we’ve set aside the noisy ego that demands constant checks on our worthiness, we can get to business … but we may find that business to be a different challenge than we were expecting. This is certainly the case with Isaiah. His direct experience of God convinces him to sign up to be a prophet. Now he will have a message to proclaim on God’s behalf. But what is that message?

“Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.” Basically, God says to Isaiah: “Go and tell the people that they don’t get it, and they never will.”

At this point, if I were Isaiah, I’d be asking some pretty pointed questions of God. Like, for instance, “If you’re so powerful, why don’t you give me both a better message and the ability to prevent this catastrophe in the first place?” God’s task for us is not the task we ourselves would choose. And indeed, Isaiah will not be able to prevent the invasion of his country and the exile of his people.

Now, we can tell from context that the Book of Isaiah was penned by two or even three authors. The first part of the book, from which we heard today, takes place before the Babylonian Exile and is the only part to mention Isaiah by name. The second part takes place during the Exile. And the third part happens after the Exile is over. Taken as a whole, the Book of Isaiah chronicles poetically the journey of the Jews through most of the 6th century B.C.E. It wrestles with the question of how God could allow such horrible things to happen to God’s chosen people.

Christians often claim that Isaiah saw Jesus coming from centuries away. And indeed, Jesus said and did many things that fell right in line with what Isaiah preached about. We should not make Isaiah’s work all about Jesus, though. Its value is not limited to the prediction of a new sect of Judaism that would then turn around and persecute Judaism! But within Christian circles, we can look to Isaiah and see and welcome the theological correlation.

Jesus brought the good news that the relationship between God and human beings is in the process of being repaired. From God’s perspective, it’s already repaired. All that’s left to do is to help us understand this reality and live into it. As this happens, God’s dream for the world is being realized. Well, it it’s true that is the best news ever! But again, what does it look like in reality? Jesus was captured and executed—and the Jesus movement, which had sprung up overnight like a sheltering broom tree, was chopped down in its prime, leaving only a stump. But wait … on the third day, what’s growing from that stump? Look! It’s still growing today. This is what resurrection looks like, and it’s the blueprint of creation.

Do you see Christianity as something that happened once, a moment in history, a static event, facts to learn, formulaic words to intone so you can get something that God might otherwise not want to give you?

Or do you see Christianity as something living, something not yet fully formed, a divine promise, a seed of a reality sprouting and growing into something we may not even recognize yet?

Which of these Christianities would you rather tell people about? The kind in which it’s about affiliation and appearances, and it’s every believer for himself, and we collect individuals so we can check off their salvation box?

Or would you rather tell of a Christianity in which together we build a community of human beings who give ourselves to each other in love, who walk with each other in joy and sorrow, who probably fail more often than they succeed, who never give up on each other, and who share this wild idea that somehow God is guiding us all into a better reality, even in this life, and not just in the next one?

One famous Episcopalian, the author Madeleine L’Engle, wrote this: “We draw people to Christ not by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”

I want to go out and catch people. But more specifically, I want people to get caught, with or without me or my religion—scooped up in the arms of eternal love, caught up in a transformed life of joyful service to others, caught up beyond the worries of every passing day. I’m not nearly as invested in Christianity succeeding as I am in God succeeding. If those happen to be the same thing, so be it—but Love doesn’t need me to be certain of that. Love just needs me to love.

The earliest followers of the resurrected Christ called themselves The Way. Together with them, we Christians walk the Way of Love. We usually fail. We sometimes succeed. We let out our nets for a catch when we love with abandon, worrying less about our own success, less about how worthy we are and how we look to others, and remaining concerned instead with whether love is taking root. Will you walk the Way of Love with me?

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Take, Bless, Break, Give

sermon preached at Church of the Good Shepherd, Federal Way, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Rector
The Third Sunday after the Epiphany, January 27, 2019

Today we drop into this reading from Nehemiah, and we find that we are late in the Old Testament story. The people of Israel have returned from the Babylonian exile and are resettling Jerusalem. Their prophets have told them again and again that the reason God allowed the exile was that the people sinned repeatedly, both by worshipping false idols and by oppressing the poor and powerless among their own people. Now that God has cleared the way for them to return, it’s time for a fresh start.

At the people’s request, the priest Ezra reads to them from the book of the law of Moses—that is, the Torah—all morning long. We suspect that he is reading from Deuteronomy, a late-breaking addition to their Scripture that refines and clarifies the law for their present time—a very long amendment to the constitution, if you will.

Then we read: “All the people wept when they heard the words of the law.”

Imagine the scene: thousands of people have gathered as a congregation at the Temple Mount. And they are openly weeping—overcome with emotion, certainly, at this monumental occasion. But they are also weeping with grief because they know that they have not kept the law. Yet Nehemiah and Ezra reassure them: “This is a holy day! There is no need to mourn. Instead, feast! And then share what food you have with those who have none. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

The people have been broken by exile, broken by their failure to keep the commandments of God … but also broken open by this new beginning. If they not only feast but also share with the poor, they are living into the law of Moses for real this time.

Every failure is an opportunity to begin once again, and the failure itself is our fuel for renewal. Take failure, add God’s joy at our existence, and the result is strength to go on, both wounded and transformed.

This happens to us as individuals, for sure, and the older we are, the more likely we are to have stories of our woundedness and the grace that keeps nursing us back to health. But it also happens to entire communities and nations. Very little in the Bible is about individuals, because we are all members of one body. Each one of us matters, but all by ourselves we can do very little. So by being part of a community, we own and are partially responsible for dealing with all its triumphs and all its failures.

For instance, as Americans, we are the inheritors of an evil legacy: the genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement and abuse of Africans, just to name two—most of which has taken place within our own laws. The effects of this evil continue to this day as poverty and prejudice. But we are also the inheritors of a set of higher standards that we have yet to live up to. The Founders keep whispering down the generations to us the cherished values that they themselves did not keep: that all people are created equal, that everyone has a right to live and to be free and to make the most of our lives.

We’re not there yet. America is still growing up, and it’s going through a stormy adolescence right at this moment. We’ve tried on various noble identities for ourselves. But in recent decades, and especially in the present day, we are giving in to the self-destructive habits of idol worship—such as the worship of money—and the oppression of the poor. I pray that we come through it. I pray that we Americans will wake up to the way we treat the vulnerable in our midst, because they are us. I pray that someday we can tell a true story of our nation’s own acts of self-harm, repentance, and transformation.

Like us, the people of Israel were victims of their own self-destructive habits. Our Christian story includes their story: their exodus from Egypt and settling in the Promised Land—their glory days as a monarchy—their fall from glory into division, dissolution, and disgrace—their freedom from exile by the hand of God. They returned home demoralized but liberated, ready for a fresh start in the land they understood God to have given them. They rededicated themselves to being a light to all nations, so that everyone in the world could come to know through their example the goodness and love—and forgiveness—of God.

To the degree that we have adopted the Israelites’ story, it is also our story. But speaking genetically, most of us, in our ancestry, were among those grafted onto Israel’s story through Christian baptism. We are not the Chosen People, but we, too, have a role to play in God’s hopes for the entire world.

Our story centers more specifically on Jesus, a Jew from Nazareth in Galilee, who Luke tells us began his itinerant ministry with a “soft launch” and then headed home for the official kickoff. It’s Saturday: the Sabbath, the time for everyone to gather for worship. The synagogue is the local place to gather, since the temple in Jerusalem is so far away. Every major town has a synagogue. And every literate man of a certain age has opportunity to read to the assembled congregation, just as Ezra did nearly half a millennium before. The pattern begun there continues to this day.

Jesus is handed the scroll of Isaiah. I wonder how it was selected? He unrolls the scroll and finds a specific passage. I wonder whether it was the appointed passage for the day, or whether Jesus chose his own text? Either way, Jesus reads to his congregation and to ours the blueprint for his ministry:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

This text from Isaiah dates from around the time when that crowd gathered with Ezra and Nehemiah. It describes the very situation they were experiencing. They had been oppressed captives, but they were now free.

But here’s the thing: Jesus doesn’t quote the text precisely as it appears in Isaiah. Here’s how it appears there:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
  because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
  to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
  and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
  and the day of vengeance of our God;
  to comfort all who mourn.

It goes on from there, and it’s beautiful, and had the passage been written down yet for Ezra to read to the people that day, it would have been no less apt and also would have inspired weeping.

Now, Jesus has misquoted Isaiah, yes, but it’s not a matter of being sloppy. It would have been common practice for a reader in the synagogue to paraphrase the text to make a point. They didn’t place value on careful, literal quoting like we do today. Remember that in Nehemiah, we hear that the leaders read “with interpretation.” Jesus is doing so here.

Most noticeably, Jesus adds the line about “recovery of sight to the blind.” He will indeed restore sight to a man just before he rides into Jerusalem in the week of his arrest. He will spend all the time between now and then living into the words he is quoting and urging people to see, to notice, to learn what they had missed before. And then he will be broken: broken on the cross, broken by human sin. And in Christ’s resurrection, we will be broken open one more time.

That’s how it works, isn’t it? We find ourselves broken, weeping, disconsolate. We can let that brokenness take us. Or we can let God take us. When that happens, the first thing we’ll find is that we cannot avoid the truth of our brokenness. Indeed, we need it, because it will be God’s fuel. Reconciliation cannot begin without truth-telling.

We will soon take bread and bless it, just as Jesus did. We will break it, just as Jesus did. And then we will allow Jesus to give it to us. Twentieth-century theologian Gregory Dix observed and wrote about the fourfold action of the Eucharist: take, bless, break, give. We let Jesus take us in the divine hands like bread. We let him bless us for all that we are, in all our brokenness and belovedness. We let him break us open: we admit to the brokenness we feel and let Jesus into it. Then we let Jesus give ourselves back to ourselves, transformed into something new.

These actions are not forceful actions on our part, but rather the opposite. They are actions of consent. Let Jesus—allow Jesus to take, bless, break, and give. Every time this happens, Jesus is present with us, both wounded and transformed, and offering us the same transformation even in the depths of brokenness. Every time this happens, Isaiah’s prophetic words have been fulfilled in our hearing. Amen.