Monday, December 24, 2012

My unexpected pilgrimage to Newtown, CT

My family is in Connecticut this week, spending Christmas with relatives. In addition to those we are staying with, a certain beloved great-aunt lives nearby. We decided to have lunch with her at her retirement community.

In this age of digital helps, we did not consult a map to find her. We merely plugged her address into our GPS app and said, “Go.” It told us the journey was a mere 45 minutes, so we allotted the proper amount of time, and off we went. I didn’t know in particular in what direction we were driving. I knew that Newtown was somewhere east of Danbury, but not being used to a state as tiny as Connecticut, I figured it must be some distance.

So I was surprised when the GPS directed us to exit at Newtown Road. Next thing I knew, we were driving right through Newtown, Connecticut, site of the school shooting that has shocked our entire nation. It has only been a week and a half since it happened, and the final funeral was two days ago.

A feeling of foreboding came over me as we began driving through Newtown. Occasionally we saw collections of little U.S. flags stuck in the ground. We saw green ribbons on mailboxes, and banners, both hand-painted and professionally made, that read, “Pray for Newtown.” Little stenciled signs read, “Trust in God … no matter what.” Businesses had hung out signs saying, “Our prayers are with you.” Another said, “We are Newtown strong.” A large sign with a green ribbon announced a Newtown grief recovery project. And we drove right past the Episcopal church where at least two of the slain children were members. Church of the Ascension in Silver Spring, MD, the church where I'm doing my seminary internship, has just raised and sent $9,000 to this church for the rector’s discretionary fund.

On the journey we were listening to an episode of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. It wasn’t appropriate to the scene, but it did act like a sort of a buffer. Maybe by listening to something kind of fluffy, we could keep the reality of the town from touching us directly. Plus, our 7-year-old was reading in the backseat, and we didn’t want to call attention to our surroundings. She knows about the shootings in general, but she hasn’t asked us further questions, and we didn’t want to frighten her unexpectedly.

For it occurred to me that we were probably passing some of the very homes these children lived in, homes that on this Christmas Eve contain no joy whatsoever—nothing but bleak loss and numb disbelief. Some of the people inside, well trained by our Christmas-loving culture, may be rehearsing the trite phrases, spoken by well-meaning neighbors and family: “It’ll all be OK in time.” “Your child is with God in heaven.” Or worst of all, “God just decided it’s time.” Some people speak truth, and others speak nonsense. But in a time like this, everything hurts, and that makes all of it nonsense—all of the words, that is. The presence of loving people is not nonsense—people who listen without judgment to any and every feeling that surfaces. They are God’s presence in the situation. They are the only way to go on.

The last thing we saw as we left town was a giant construction sign that read, “Thank you to our heroes … God bless our angels.” Crossing outside city limits raised my spirits a bit, and we went back to focusing exclusively on our podcast. I wanted to forget, but of course, I knew that wasn’t possible. I felt that I’d been on an unexpected pilgrimage, and I hadn’t engaged it as fully as I could have. In a way, I am writing this now as a kind of penance, because I did nothing to help. Ridiculous, I know. But maybe it’s not so ridiculous: I want to take some of the grief from Newtown and spread it among as many people as possible, to dilute it as much as I can.

Later in the evening, we attended a Christmas Eve Eucharist at St. Stephen’s in Ridgefield, CT. We were blessed by the music of the children’s choir, and we got to sing all the old familiar favorites. I was taken aback by how much I appreciated, perhaps for the first time, the later stanzas of “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear”:

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the heavenly hymn have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And warring humankind hears not
The tidings which they bring
O hush the noise and cease your strife
And hear the angels sing.

For lo!, the days are hastening on,
By prophets seen of old
When with the ever-circling years
Shall come the time foretold
When peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendors fling,
And the whole world give back the song
Which now the angels sing.

Amidst all the feelgood Christmas cheer, I noticed that this is not a feelgood song. If anything, it feels more like an Advent song: it’s about waiting. It is a realistic assessment of what the world is really like, and it engages it on its own terms. The hymn does not expect us to fool ourselves into believing that all is well with the world. In fact, it just won’t let us. But it is, as are all good hymns, hopeful. It looks forward to a time when things will be different than they are now … no matter how long it takes.

And again I think of those little stenciled signs: “Trust God … no matter what.” Yes, I will. I will do that. Not because I am able to, but because I must. In the wake of the past couple weeks, God is all we have left. “O hush the noise and cease your strife, and hear the angels sing.”

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Shedding Our Dragon Skin

sermon preached at Church of the Ascension, Silver Spring, MD
by Josh Hosler, Seminarian
The Second Sunday in Advent/ December 9, 2012

Last week our deacon, Terri, talked about the seasons of the church year, and especially about Advent. She set the stage very well for this season, as Christmas starts to break in from all corners, and as we sometimes try to hold it back just a little longer. I remember once, as a kid, my brother Seth coming up to me and saying, “It’s ten days until Christmas.” And I said, “I know. It’s ten days until Christmas.” And a sort of quiver ran through him, and suddenly he shouted, “Christmas attack! AAAAAHHHHH!” And he started running all over the living room, letting off his spare energy. I think this is the first feeling of Advent for a lot of us: what gifts will be under the tree? Will I get that Millennium Falcon that I can put my Han Solo and Chewbacca action figured into? It’s so soon … not yet. It’s almost here, not yet, but almost. And this is Advent language. It’s not just about Christmas, but it is in relation to Christmas.

And deep within that longing for Christmas, as a child, for me, there was this lingering suspicion that maybe the longing is even better than the having. Just to stay in the longing, because it’s such a luscious place to be. Advent is about the excitement of preparing our hearts for God’s arrival. The prophet Malachi demands that we make offerings to the Lord in righteousness. I think the assumption is that he didn’t see a lot of that going on, but that this was what God demanded: “offerings in righteousness.” What does that mean? “Righteousness” is one of those holy words, isn’t it? that maybe we don’t try to define very often. I learned what righteousness means in relation to Abraham: that Abraham was made righteous because he trusted God. Righteousness means trusting God. So when we make offerings in righteousness, we are making offerings with complete trust.

Advent is also about judgment, and that rings through loud and clear in Malachi’s passage as well. We don’t like to think about being judged. I think most of us tend to be the breed of Christians who say, “Well, God isn’t really like that. God isn’t that judgmental God that’s the stereotype.” And yet … and yet, we doubt. We wonder: What am I going to be judged for? I know that I have guilt over things I’ve done. What will the judgment be, and what will the consequences of that judgment be?

But at the same time, the idea of God approaching—the Advent idea of God coming to be with us—oh, to meet God face to face! Thy kingdom come! And then – oooh. To meet God face to face … Who can stand when he appears? How can I stand there without my knees knocking? What will my fate be? John the Baptist, in today’s Gospel, comes with that Advent judgment. But he also brings a baptism of repentance, a way to restore righteousness, a symbolic, sacramental act for those who are ready to turn away from their sins and begin anew.

In his book The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C. S. Lewis illustrates Malachi’s perspective very well. (Now, if you saw the movie but haven’t read the book, it doesn’t count, because Hollywood sucked the theology right out of it.) The main character is a little boy whose name is Eustace Clarence Scrubb … and he almost deserves it. This little boy is petty and rude and self-centered and tiresome … and the worst crime of all, he has no imagination whatsoever. And then, on a Narnian sea voyage (that he would rather not be on), Eustace’s own greedy thoughts change him into a dragon. Finally he understands the monster that he has been to everyone around him. He fears that his companions will desert him on the island where he has been transformed, and who could blame them?

Then, one night, the great Lion Aslan comes to Eustace, leads him to a pool of water, and invites him to bathe. But he orders Eustace to undress first. Well, Eustace, being a dragon, first objects that he hasn’t got any clothes on. And then he remembers that lizards shed their skins. And so he starts to pick at his skin, and it starts to flake, and then it starts to peel. And then he makes a tear, and the whole skin comes off. He leaves it there to get down into the water. But as he goes to step into the water, he realizes the skin is still on. Oh! There was another skin underneath the first dragon skin. So he steps back and starts to peel at that one. And that one eventually comes off. But he has yet another dragon skin underneath that one! For Eustace, it starts to feel like a hopeless situation.

That’s when Aslan says, “Come here. You must let me undress you.” Eustace recounts the story:

The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off. You know—if you’ve ever picked the scab of a sore place. It hurts like billy-oh but it is such fun to see it coming away.

This is what God’s judgment feels like. It hurts! And it helps us. When Eustace is finally without his skin, Aslan throws him into the water. And he comes out a boy again. In this way, according to the prophet Malachi, God refines us and scrubs us and peels away our reptilian skins. We can’t do it by ourselves.

To be judged, to be found wanting, and then to undergo the treatment … what better way to deal with sin than this? We are afraid of when God comes, because we will be judged. But the things to remember about judgment are these. First of all, God will never destroy us, no matter what. This is not a destroying fire. This is a refining fire, to purify and to make more valuable. The second is that “the one who began a good within us,” as we heard in our epistle, “will bring it to completion” by the last day.

So what will we do when God arrives? And will we be able to stand when he appears? This is what we must trust: that no matter how God judges us, and no matter what the consequences of that judgment may be, we will be in the presence of the one in whom we delight, the one whom we have sought all our lives, whether we knew it or not, and that even in the presence of God’s fiery, loving, refining judgment, we will be able to stand. Amen.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Something Blessed This Way Comes

sermon preached at Church of the Ascension, Silver Spring, MD
by Josh Hosler, Seminarian
Proper 28B/ November 18, 2012

In high school and college, I was an aspiring poet. I used to carry around a brown leather folder with a blue steno pad in it, and every day I would write at least one poem. As mediocre as most of my poems were, they did serve as a sort of prayer journal. Occasionally when I was feeling especially mopey, I would add to a multi-part, rambling, stream-of-consciousness poem called “Uncertainty and I.” I spent a lot of my youth being uncertain. I think I expected that to change. I’m not sure why.

I really disliked uncertainty then, and I dislike it now. Don’t you? I prefer to know how things are going to go: what time I’ll be home tonight, what my schedule looks like for the next week, and what I’ll be doing five years from now. Well, come to think of it, that’s never possible. But wouldn’t it be nice?

Maybe you have a higher tolerance for uncertainty than I do. But I think we all get anxious about it. If you’ve ever been between jobs, you’ll know what I mean. Or if you’ve waited on college applications, or anticipated a bad breakup, or watched as your job dissipated, or been wheeled into an operating room. It’s tough not knowing. It’s tough living in suspense.

Funny thing about suspense, though: many of us love it in movies and books and plays, as long as it’s not about us. When we can sit in suspense about someone else’s life, especially a fictional character, we actually enjoy it. But when it concerns us: “Don’t keep me in suspense.” We want things resolved, and for the good.

Today’s readings drip with an uncertainty that is almost unbearable. As we approach the end of the church year—this is the second to last Sunday—we can feel the end of all things approaching. From the apocalyptic vision of Daniel, to the psalm begging for God’s protection, it’s as if we’re ramping up to a climax. In the reading we just heard from Mark’s gospel, Jesus has entered Jerusalem to preach and to witness, apparently very aware that the time of his suffering is imminent. Throughout Mark’s account, Jesus’ speeches have grown lengthier and bolder. To say in public, “The Temple will someday be torn down,” might be a little like saying, in public, on the National Mall, “The time is coming when the United States will be overthrown.” Blasphemy. Don’t you remember 9-11? Have you no scruples, no patriotic pride? (No idea how to behave in the presence of uniformed national security officials?) But Jesus is not afraid.

His disciples, however, are afraid, and they clam up. Only afterward, when the group of friends is sitting at a safe distance, half a mile to the east on the Mount of Olives opposite the Temple, do they squeak out, “Uh, Jesus, what were you talking about back there? I mean, we believe you—you’re the Messiah—but can we have a little warning, please? Don’t keep us in suspense.”

And Jesus answers in a funny way. He doesn’t tell them what end-times signs to look for, but what signs not to look for. The things you imagine to be signs, says Jesus, will turn out not to be signs at all. Uprisings, wars and rumors of wars, even earthquakes and, we might add, hurricanes are not indications of the end of the world. But they’re not meaningless, either. They are, as Jesus says, “the beginning of the birthpangs.”

What an odd expression—let’s unpack that for a moment—“the beginning of the birthpangs.” Are birthpangs a sign of the end? Well, for a mother who’s really sick of being pregnant, I suppose they could be interpreted that way. Remembering my wife Christy’s situation seven summers ago, I have heard that it’s difficult to live in the uncertainty of pregnancy, the in-between time when your body is changing and stretching and making you ill one moment and thrilled the next. If it’s your first pregnancy, maybe you wonder how you’ll survive it—kind of like the teenage me, with my daily poems, wondering how I would survive adolescence. Jesus is telling us that all of creation is pregnant. And that means not the end, but the beginning of something new, a new creation of God. Whatever that new creation might be, it will not be born without deep pain and struggle, and a whole lot of uncertainty.

Jesus was very politically astute: he knew a time would come when the Temple would be destroyed. It took about forty years, but it did happen. There was an uprising of the Jews which the Romans put it down brutally, overrunning the city of Jerusalem and eventually burning the Temple to the ground. Of course, Jesus was doing more than just making a geopolitical prediction. He was trying to shift his disciples’ focus. Jesus loved the Temple, and he hated to see it put to exploitative use. It’s one thing for people in authority to perpetuate injustice; it’s another to do it in a place that is supposed to be holy. This is what frustrated him most about the Pharisees: their hypocrisy and apparent lack of concern for God’s priorities—as if the ancient written laws of the Torah were higher than God Himself.

There’s another layer here, that of the gospel writer. Whoever Mark was, most biblical scholars think he was writing this earliest gospel right around the time of that Jewish uprising, around the years 66 to 70. In the way he framed Jesus’ words, he may have been telling the first Christians, “Yes, I know things are falling apart around our ears. Jerusalem may well be doomed. But these wars and rumors of wars are just the way the world works. It’s not news. The real news is the good news of Jesus, the Christ—the news I’m putting down in this book.”

The author of the letter to the Hebrews shares the good news with us in a different way—something that feels less like impending doom and more like a slow denouement. Here, we learn about the single, sacrificial, once-for-all offering of Jesus’ life, a proclamation that the battle is over, the enemy is defeated, and all that’s left is to make sure everybody has heard the good news. That’s a good antidote for all this uncertainty.

In faithful prayer, we find God’s saving grace to be a certainty, a shelter in time of storm. In the good news of Jesus Christ we can find relief from our doubts and fears. And that can make the inevitable uncertainties of life a little easier to bear. We no longer need God to take all our uncertainties away. As a matter of fact, in becoming human and living one day at a time with us, God has sanctified uncertainty.

So when you hear of wars and rumors of wars—and we are hearing our fair share right now, aren’t we?—when great institutions in all their ancient honor and credibility crumble to dust, when jobs disintegrate and businesses drown, we can still act boldly in faith. We know the story isn’t over.
Just weeks before his assassination in 1980, Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador said, “I don’t believe in death without resurrection.” Jesus has told us not to let death trouble us, because through the fog of uncertainty, something blessed this way comes.

The author of the letter to the Hebrews put it best: “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And 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.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

I Am the Very Model of Postmodern Seminarian (annotated)

I greatly enjoyed singing this at the annual Fall Variety Show last night. Many thanks to the Rev. Curtis Farr, a fine pianist, for playing a very difficult accompaniment on a piano with a stuck B-flat key.

Enjoy this annotated version specially prepared for the layman (a term not quite intended literally!).
©2012 by Josh Hosler


I am the very model of Postmodern Seminarian
Liturgical, post-liberal, only mildly post-sectarian
I stand in Easter, kneel in Lent, and genuflect and all of that
And each year on St. Francis Day I get a blessing for my cat
I know I should be praying—clergy skills I should be masterin’
But look! My new submission’s up on Every Day I’m Pastorin’!
I root for Fighting Friars, but I’m puzzled, so I am askin’ y’all …
(Askin’ y’all … Nasty fall? … Aspinwall? … Ah, yes!)
What’s up with VTS-ers getting injured playing basketball?
What’s up with VTS-ers getting injured playing basketball?
What’s up with VTS-ers getting injured playing basketball?
What’s up with VTS-ers getting injured playing basket-basketball?
But I can write an ember letter, print it and ship overnight
Then turn around and exegete a field ed congregation site
And still, in matters Orthodox and Protestant and Marian
I am the very model of Postmodern Seminarian!
And still, in matters Orthodox and Protestant and Marian
He is the very model of Postmodern Seminarian!

I know our church’s history, three thousand years or so of it
Christians behaving badly—this is mainly what I know of it
Jerome was such a sexist prig, Augustine should’ve throttled him
Erasmus was the coolest dude, I wish we could have bottled him
I know my systematics, from the Gnostics down to Bishop Spong
Our dean can sure be counted on to prove each theologian wrong
And now we’ve learned Christology so moderate, no splinter views …
(Splinter views … Winter news? … Lent abuse? … Ah, yes!)
At least, until we’ve made it past our candidacy interviews!
At least, until we’ve made it past our candidacy interviews!
At least, until we’ve made it past our candidacy interviews!
At least, until we’ve made it past our candidacy inter-interviews!
My Niphal and my Hiphil aren’t so bad—I might get used to them
But still, I think I’ll wait before I journey to Jerusalem
And still, in matters Orthodox and Protestant and Marian
I am the very model of Postmodern Seminarian!
And still, in matters Orthodox and Protestant and Marian
He is the very model of Postmodern Seminarian!

In CPE I learned to feel so deeply I can cry on cue
I haven’t done this yet in colloquy, but I am tryin’ to
Refectory food is yummy so I’m wearing my “om-nom-nom” smile …
(You can thank Ms. Annie Pierpoint for this rhyme.)
And in the 1823 you know I kick it Gangnam style!
Youth ministry with Kimball, Mercer, and the gang is outasight
When I’m a new associate I’ll have a plan for overnights
In Dr. Roberts’ choir I love to rock a chant that’s Anglican
(Anglican … Spanglican? … Manglican? … New-Fanglican? Oh,
forget it. Nothing rhymes with Anglican. Let’s just admit that it
can’t be done and move on, shall we?)
 The music of our church can put me in a space that’s liminal
As long as we are singing from the ’82 blue hymn-inal
But still, in matters Orthodox and Protestant and Marian
I am the very model of Postmodern Seminarian!
But still, in matters Orthodox and Protestant and Marian
He is the very model of Postmodern Seminarian!

In fact, when I can make it through an eighty-hour bummer week
When I can wade in deep enough to handle every plumbing leak
When I can quell the gossip of my great, over-remarking lot
And when I competently write a sermon in the parking lot
When feeding hungry people means that finally I’ve learned to cook
When I can make agnostics pause and give our faith another look
Of all the things they’ll say of me, this clearly is the gladdest one:
            (Gladdest one … Maddest one? … Saddest one? … Sad, mad, glad … scared? No, no, no
… Ah, yes!)
What don’t they teach our future clergy over there in Addison?
What don’t they teach our future clergy over there in Addison?
What don’t they teach our future clergy over there in Addison?
What don’t they teach our future clergy over there in Addis-Addison?
The church is changing quickly, there’s no doubt it’s happened radically
I’m even learning laundry skills by living up at Braddock Lee
And still, in matters Orthodox and Protestant and Marian
I am the very model of Postmodern Seminarian!
And still, in matters Orthodox and Protestant and Marian
He is the very model of Postmodern Seminarian!

Monday, October 29, 2012

Hurricane Sandy, All Saints, All Souls

Here's some music for the feasts of All Saints and All Souls (available through Spotify), which I'm publishing here just before we get hit with the worst of Hurricane Sandy/Frankenstorm.

Basically, this is a collection of music about the phenomenon of death and various responses to it.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Suffering Servant

sermon preached at Church of the Ascension, Silver Spring, MD
by Josh Hosler, Seminarian
Proper 24B/ October 17, 2012

In his 1943 book The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis wrote that pain is God’s “megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”[1] God uses pain, he says, to get our attention. Without pain, we would have no idea how much we need God or what God wants of us.

Eighteen years later, Lewis’s wife Joy died of cancer. And though I can’t find the quote, I’m sure I remember that he remarked, “I wish I’d known more about pain when I wrote The Problem of Pain.”

The odd thing about pain, of course, is that it looks different to the outsider than to the insider. We can talk about pain. We can theorize about its potential purposes. We can use all our rationalization skills and say, “Well, pain is necessary. It’s helpful. If we had no pain receptors, we’d never know anything was wrong. If we didn’t hurt for others, we wouldn’t be motivated to act compassionately. If we didn’t miss people who had died, it would only reveal that their lives didn’t matter to begin with.” All of this makes sense, of course. But would you say any of it to someone who is actually in pain? To stand here and talk about suffering is to talk as an outsider, and that means I have to be careful what I say. It’s not that I haven’t suffered. But you can be certain that I haven’t suffered in the same way you have.

So what is the meaning of suffering? Is there any meaning to it at all, or is it useless and needless? In our first reading today, we heard the Prophet Isaiah speak about a poetic biblical figure commonly called the Suffering Servant.

Listen to the version of Isaiah’s prophecy from Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase in The Message: “Who would have thought that God’s saving power would look like this? … He was looked down on and passed over, a man who suffered, who knew pain firsthand. One look at him and people turned away. We looked down on him, thought he was scum. But the fact is, it was our pains he carried—our disfigurements, all the things wrong with us. We thought he brought it on himself, that God was punishing him for his own failures. But it was our sins that did that to him, that ripped and tore and crushed him—our sins! He took the punishment, and that made us whole. Through his bruises we get healed. We’re all like sheep who’ve wandered off and gotten lost. We’ve all done our own thing, gone our own way. And God has piled all our sins, everything we’ve done wrong, on him, on him.”

Many Christians argue that this passage predicts the coming of Jesus some 800 years later, but let’s not begin with that assumption. Let’s wonder ourselves: “Who is the Suffering Servant?”

Let’s ask James and John, who in today’s Gospel ask to be Jesus’ right- and left-hand men. All they can think about is grabbing power, but Jesus retorts: “You don’t know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?”

The silly fools answer: “We are able.”

“OK then,” says Jesus, “you will drink that cup.” (At this point, a shiver is in order, because we hear about that cup every Good Friday. James was murdered by King Herod Agrippa I a decade after Jesus’ crucifixion, and although nobody knows for sure, some traditions hold that John, too, died a violent death.) Jesus tells them, “Your image of sitting at my right and left hand is completely the wrong image. If you really can’t operate in any way other than hierarchy, then you’d better flip that model upside down and start being Suffering Servants.”

In other words, it’s useless to play the game of who loves Jesus more. It’s useless to do good deeds because you expect a reward. It’s useless to try to be good so you can get into heaven. These attitudes are misplaced and selfish. Doing God’s work in the world is a labor of love, and love often leads to suffering. Jesus knew Isaiah’s prophecies. He knew that Isaiah spoke the truth when he wrote of the Suffering Servant: this is the only model of leadership that can dissuade people from trying to claw their way to the top, ignorant of those they step on. The Suffering Servant transforms the entire situation.

The author of the letter to the Hebrews also has servant leadership in mind when he refers to Melchizedek. Who was Melchizedek, anyway? Well, he was a minor character early in the Abraham saga, when Abraham was still Abram. Melchizedek was the king of Jerusalem, yet he brought Abram bread and wine and blessed him after a hard battle. For this humble show of kindness, he is immortalized in one of the Psalms, and later in this letter to the Hebrews. He is held up as a model for priesthood.

I think Isaiah may have had Melchizedek in mind when he wrote, but he took that servanthood idea further—not just humble stewardship, but also suffering. And then Jesus, reflecting on both Melchizedek and Isaiah, went even further, embracing death on a cross rather than desire for power—even power for positive change. Jesus could have been a political revolutionary and accomplished wonderful things for the Jews, but instead, he took on a much more powerful, long-term work for the entire world, a labor of love that could not begin to happen without deep suffering.

So who is the Suffering Servant? It may seem that we’ve established him to be Jesus. That is the standard Christian answer, and I won’t tell you it’s wrong. But I do wonder what good it would do for Isaiah to predict the coming of a suffering savior 800 years in the future. Isn’t that a little like telling a grieving person, “It’ll all be OK. The pain will fade with time”? That may be true, but because it’s unhelpful in the moment, it’s total nonsense!

So I won’t stand here and tell you, “The Suffering Servant is Jesus,” and leave it at that. Instead, I want to suggest that the Suffering Servant is Anne, a girl who wrote in her diary that she loved God and humanity with her whole heart … and then she died in a concentration camp. The Suffering Servant is Malala, a 14-year-old Pakistani blogger who recently was shot in the head by the Taliban because her hunger for learning is a threat to their oppressive way of life. The Suffering Servant is Matthew, a young man who was lynched for being gay, but who has inspired many in our country to change their hearts. Elders with Alzheimer’s are Suffering Servants, as are couples who have suffered miscarriages, and people who have been flooded and the foreclosed, and people who have been downsized and indebted. And yes, the Suffering Servant is a man who taught us to love each other, who healed us and blessed us and fed us, and whom we executed as a criminal. These are the suffering servants of God. These are the people who have become prophets by what they have experienced. And if you really must imagine seats to the right and left of God, then these Suffering Servants are the people you must place in them.

Have you been a Suffering Servant, enduring seemingly never-ending difficulties and wondering when things might finally get better? It’s hard for me to stand here as an outsider and say something helpful to you. It would be hypocritical of me to pat you on the shoulder and say, “There, there … I know how you feel.” I don’t know how you feel, because I’m not you.

But our faith tells us that Jesus is an insider. Because Jesus suffered, our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer does know how we feel. The medieval mystic Julian of Norwich wrote, “Between us and God there is no between.” In coming close to us, closer even than we are to ourselves, God has chosen to take on our pain and suffering. God suffers right along with us. And Jesus is the sign that this is the case, that there is no place too impure, scary, or painful for God to tread.

If that’s true, if God is with us in our suffering, then can the suffering be needless? I don’t know. Let’s pray not. Let’s pray that every sharp twinge, every burrowing ache, every hollow pit of despair is carved out of God, the God who is infinite and eternal and therefore cannot be depleted. When we can’t go on, let’s pray that God can, and that God will raise us up from our suffering and reveal to us a world so shot through with joy that we cannot yet imagine it. Amen.

[1] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1943), 81.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Chronological Dance Party

I will turn 40 this coming Wednesday. To celebrate, I threw a dance party at the seminary at which I played one song from each year of my life. We had a fabulous time, and some of my friends were real troupers to dance through all the decades.

Here's the list of songs that I played:

1972 - The Doobie Brothers - Listen to the Music
1973 - Stevie Wonder - Superstition
1974 - Bachman-Turner Overdrive - Takin' Care of Business
1975 - Average White Band - Pick Up the Pieces
1976 - K.C. & the Sunshine Band - (Shake, Shake, Shake) Shake Your Booty
1977 - Abba - Dancing Queen
1978 - Bee Gees - Stayin' Alive

(Most of us at the party are too young to remember disco clubs, and we wondered: was there any disco move other than the pointing-in-the-air-and-then-back-to-your-hips thing?)

1979 - The Village People - Y.M.C.A.
1980 - AC/DC - You Shook Me All Night Long
1981 - Olivia Newton-John - Physical

(That song bombed so badly that I stuck an extra song in to make up for it!)

1981 - Rick James - Super Freak
1982 - J. Geils Band - Centerfold
1983 - Michael Jackson - Billie Jean
1984 - Chaka Khan - I Feel for You

(Around this time, a lot of the people present recognized that we had hit their birth years. We began cheering to welcome people to the world as their respective songs played.)

1985 - a-ha - Take On Me
1986 - Prince & the Revolution - Kiss
1987 - Beastie Boys - (You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party!)
1988 - Rick Astley - Never Gonna Give You Up
1989 - The B-52s - Love Shack
1990 - Vanilla Ice - Ice Ice Baby

(Right around this time, one of my speakers bit the dust, and I had to cut down to one speaker, taking care not to crank it up too loud. Thanks a lot, '90s bass music!)

1991 - C+C Music Factory - Gonna Make You Sweat
1992 - Right Said Fred - I'm Too Sexy
1993 - Tag Team - Whoomp! (There It Is)
1994 - Ini Kamoze - Here Comes the Hotstepper
1995 - Dave Matthews Band - What Would You Say

(This song also bombed on the dance floor, and that surprised me. But we all needed a break by then.)

1996 - Los Del Rio - Macarena
1997 - Third Eye Blind - Semi-Charmed Life
1998 - Will Smith - Gettin' Jiggy Wit It
1999 - Lou Bega - Mambo No. 5 (A Little Bit of ...)
2000 - Santana - Smooth
2001 - Shaggy - It Wasn't Me

(Since I was playing this song for adults instead of Episcopal teenagers at a church event, I didn't get in trouble like I did eleven years ago!)

2002 - Jimmy Eat World - The Middle
2003 - Justin Timberlake - Rock Your Body
2004 - OutKast - Hey Ya!
2005 - Gwen Stefani - Hollaback Girl
2006 - 'Weird Al' Yankovic - White & Nerdy

(Christy said, "I can't believe you picked this song!" But people loved it.)

2007 - Rihanna - Umbrella
2008 - Flo Rida - Low
2009 - Miley Cyrus - Party in the U.S.A. [Da Sooper Yooper Remix]

(In my custom remix, Miley sings about Jay-Z, and we hear some Jay-Z. She sings about Britney, and we hear some Britney.)

2010 - Train - Hey, Soul Sister
2011 - LMFAO - Party Rock Anthem
2012 - PSY - Gangnam Style

After we got up to the present day, I said, "OK, what songs did I skip that I shouldn't have?" And we kept on dancing. Thank you, everyone who turned up to dance, even if it was a temporary study break. I hope y'all did well on your Greek exam today!

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Shoplifters Will Be Reconciled

sermon preached by Josh Hosler for HOM-500: Homiletics
at Virginia Theological Seminary, September 26, 2012
Proper 8B

Like many in my generation, I was exposed to the musical Les Misérables in college, fell in love, and read the book. The first character introduced in Victor Hugo’s 19th-century masterwork is a bishop. When an ex-con named Jean Valjean shows up on the bishop’s door begging for a meal and a bed, the bishop obliges. In the night, Valjean makes off with the bishop’s silver. He is caught by the police and returned to the bishop for identification. But instead of saying, “Take him back to prison,” the bishop says, “You left without saying goodbye—and you didn’t even take all the gifts I gave you! In addition to the silver, I meant for you to have these candlesticks.” Once the befuddled police have left, the bishop looks into Jean Valjean’s eyes and tells him, “I have bought your soul for God.”

The bishop in this story is my hero, but I can’t imagine ever being like him. We know better than to open our homes to the homeless, or to give our money away when it’ll probably go toward drugs. We know the smart thing is to give to the church, or to government organizations that will assess people’s needs for us. But to give even more of my possessions to someone who has stolen from me only a moment ago? I can’t begin to imagine it. Yet something very much like this happens to Jesus in today’s passage from Mark’s Gospel.

This is a story within a story. On his way to heal the daughter of a prominent religious leader, Jesus is interrupted by a woman who has been menstruating for twelve years straight. In Jewish culture, this would have made her a permanently unclean outcast. Does she have a husband? Doubtless he left her long ago. Does she have children? We’ll never know. But we do know that she is desperate for a cure, and that no physician has been able to help.

She has heard of Jesus, though, and she knows that his touch is supposed to be magical. He’s a busy man. She may have just witnessed Jairus approaching Jesus to ask for healing for his daughter. But what if she could get just close enough to touch Jesus’ clothes? She sneaks up behind him in the crowd. The moment she touches his cloak, she feels inside her body that the hemorrhaging has stopped. She is stunned—that was some magic! And Jesus turns around, saying, “Who touched me?” He is puzzled, too.

Perhaps if the woman hadn’t been so shocked, she could have gotten away faster. She could have shoplifted a cure from Jesus, and nobody would have been the wiser. But when she sees that Jesus knows something is going on, she comes clean. She respects him too much to run away—and besides, she’s grateful! But what if he is angry? What if Jesus doesn’t accept her apology? The woman comes to Jesus in “fear and trembling.” It’s worth noting that Paul uses the same words in his letter to the Philippians: “Therefore … work out your own salvation in fear and trembling.” Suddenly the woman is being judged by the Son of God Himself. What will he do?

Mark tells us that the woman “told him the whole truth.” Maybe she confesses that she’s been ill for twelve years, most certainly a punishment for her sins. She confesses that she thought she could get away with taking just a little bit of his magical cure—not enough to drain him dry, but just enough to help a suffering woman. And now she’s so, so, sorry … she had no right, no right, and now she’s held him up, and this man’s little girl might die, and everything is all wrong, and it doesn’t even matter that she’s cured, because she has hindered the Lord.

But then something better than magic happens. Jesus kneels down, looks her in the eye and says, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

Hang on a minute. Wasn’t she already cured? What’s left to be healed of? Yet this word “healed” is different from the word Mark used for the healing of the woman’s body. Then, she was only cured. This healing runs deeper. It’s the kind of healing Jairus asked for his daughter. It’s the kind of healing the woman herself envisioned might happen before things got all mixed up. Now that Jesus has received her graciously and given her words of hope, she knows that the curing of her disease was only the first step. Had she shoplifted her cure and gotten away, she might no longer have been an outcast. But what of God? Had Jean Valjean made off with the bishop’s silver and not been caught, he could have sold the silver and begun to set up a new life for himself. But the bishop wanted more for Valjean, and indeed this was the beginning of Valjean’s lifelong journey of faith. In the same way, Jesus wanted more for this woman.

How often do we approach God from behind, sneaking in to ask for just one little thing, afraid to linger lest his eyes meet ours? Our troubles might be as big as a chronic health condition or as small as a nagging sense of malaise. They may even be our fault, so we think we have no right to complain. When we suck it up and soldier on, we imagine that we are being humble. But really, we’re thinking far less of ourselves than God does. God wants more for us than we can possibly imagine: new life, abundant life, life free of disease but also rich in relationship. Amen.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Life and Labor

A Collect for Labor Day: Almighty God, you have so linked our lives one with another that all we do affects, for good or ill, all other lives: So guide us in the work we do, that we may do it not for self alone, but for the common good; and, as we seek a proper return for our own labor, make us mindful of the rightful aspirations of other workers, and arouse our concern for those who are out of work; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


School begins again tomorrow, and I will once again become extremely busy. I love being busy. I love the adrenaline rush that comes with accomplishing lots of things very quickly. It’s something I know I do well—that is, accomplish things quickly. But to do something quickly is not necessarily to do it well.

One of my goals for CPE was to “slow down … to reduce the value of adrenaline in my life.” I learned that I can do this and that very good things happen when I do. But I don’t like to slow down. I feel less productive when I slow down. When I accomplish less, I question whether I’m allowing myself to become lazy. And then I look around for some other way to push things forward, whether it’s schoolwork or my own personal hobbies.

So my prayer for this school year is that I accomplish what needs to be accomplished, and that my actions might be compassionate, not merely busy, and by no means frenetic. I want my actions to be for the sake of others, not just for myself. I want more of my actions to arise from my awareness of feelingsthose of others and myself. I want to make time each day for silence—which will be easier when I’m on campus and out of the apartment. I want my spirit to dwell in gratitude for the opportunity to be in seminary in the first place.