Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Get Out of the Boat

sermon preached at Goodwin House, Bailey’s Crossroads, Falls Church, VA
by Josh Hosler, Chaplain Intern
The Feast of St. James, Apostle/ July 25, 2012

Our saint for today is the apostle James—St. James. James was one of the twelve, and we usually hear about him in the same breath as his brother John. Together with Peter, the three of them made up Jesus’ closest circle of friends. Anytime Jesus invited only a few to come with him, Peter, James and John were the ones. They were invited to the mountaintop for Jesus’ transfiguration, although they didn’t really understand what happened there. They were invited to stay awake in the garden of Gethsemane while Jesus prayed, although they kept falling asleep.

Like some of the other apostles, James and John were fishermen. Jesus nicknamed them the “sons of thunder,” presumably because of their hot tempers and impulsive tendencies. At one point when some people really got them angry, they said, “Jesus, let’s call lightning down from the sky to smite them!” These hot, impulsive attributes are also on full display in today’s Gospel reading. Furthermore, the boys seem to have come by it honestly, because it’s their mother who drives the action. She comes to Jesus and kneels before him—a rather ironic stance considering the lack of humility in her request. She wants her two boys to sit at Jesus’ right and left when he comes to reign.

We don’t know whether this was her idea, or that of the two brothers. And we don’t know for sure what their concept was of the “reign of God,” but I have a hunch they took it pretty literally. When Jesus finally got around to using his charisma and miraculous powers to lead an uprising, throw the Romans out, and restore the glory of Israel, James and John wanted major roles in his administration in Jerusalem.

Clearly, Jesus sees this as a teaching moment. He 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. As we just heard in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles, James was murdered a decade after Jesus’ crucifixion by King Herod Agrippa I, and although nobody knows for sure, some traditions hold that John, too, died a violent death.)

When the other apostles hear about James and John’s request, they are jealous, of course. What if there’s not enough room in the hierarchy for them? But this is another teaching moment for Jesus. In the Kingdom of God, Jesus tells us, it is inappropriate to seek to be comfortable and in control. Instead, one should seek to become the servant of all. The position of servant is one of uncertainty and lack of control. We never know what we will be asked to do next; we are only to do it.

If we follow this to its logical conclusion, with everybody trying to be everybody else’s servant, I think the hierarchy would have to be completely dismantled. This is just what Jesus wants: mutual relationships all around, with nobody stepping on anybody else. Clearly, not everybody in the world will follow Jesus and get on board with the servant leadership program. But Jesus asks his followers to be servants anyway. Chances are, that will lead to some measure of suffering—the cup that Jesus is to drink.

What does this mean for us? Does Jesus want us to die martyrs’ deaths? It seems unlikely, especially in America today, that such an opportunity will present itself. But we can learn a lot from the Apostle James.

Like James, we are called to fish for people, or as the older, less gender-sensitive, but more poetic version put it, “fishers of men.” We are to get out of our boats and meet people with whom we’d probably rather not associate. We are to show them what it means to follow Jesus.

Like James, we sometimes seek to set ourselves up in a comfortable position. But Jesus reminds us that life doesn’t work like this for long. We may arrive at a measure of comfort, but we are not entitled to it. Furthermore, we must not get attached to any level of comfort if we are to follow Jesus.

Like James, we will have to drink the cup of suffering. I would venture to say that Jesus is simply describing here what humans must go through simply by virtue of being human. We may not have to die a violent death, as James did. But for every one of us, suffering is inevitable, and death is the gateway to eternal life.

“Do you seek great things for yourself?” asks the Prophet Jeremiah in today’s Old Testament reading. And Jesus asks the same thing in his own way of James and John and their mother. “Do you seek great things for yourself? Well, don’t. Seek instead to become a servant. Be uncomfortable, and walk humbly with God. Suffering leads to holiness.”

But this sounds so depressing. What can it possibly mean for us? If you live at Goodwin House, you may find yourself in a pretty comfortable place. And yet discomfort invades these walls, too. Friends develop new physical challenges that restrict their movement. Friends get sick. Friends suffer. Friends die. The suffering of our friends can make us suffer, too. Perhaps the biggest hazard is to believe that we don’t have to get out of our boat, or even that there is a boat we could stay in if we tried.

The life of a Christian is a life on the edge, using whatever energy we have in the service of others. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take care of our own needs, of course. But it does mean that taking care only of our own needs is not a Christian path.

What do you have to give today to someone in need? A visit? A smile? A hug? A listening ear? We each have a variety of gifts to give, but in my ten weeks at Goodwin House, these simple gifts are the ones I have been able to give most frequently. Sometimes they haven’t seemed like much, but they have forced me to get out of my boat of safety and security. And every time I have gotten out of that boat, God has rewarded me by sending amazing people into my life. I have met people who have suffered much and who have suffered little; people who have accomplished much and people who wish they had accomplished more; people who doubt and fear, and people who love and trust. Most of all, I have met people who love and give. And I am ever grateful to them and to God for these experiences.

What does it mean for you to get out of the boat, like James? And how will you do so this week? Amen.

Monday, July 23, 2012

What Does God Want Us to Do?

sermon preached at Church of the Holy Cross, Dunn Loring, VA
by Josh Hosler, VTS seminarian
The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost/ Proper 11B/ July 22, 2012

How can we know what God wants us to do? This question has intrigued humankind forever. It’s a question that ties in directly with the question of what God’s call is to us as individuals and as a community. But it’s not always such a lofty question, either. It shows up in our day-to-day ethical dilemmas—should I tell someone what I overheard when eavesdropping?—and in the decisions we must make regardless of not being able to predict the future—should I take this job? should I sell the house? No matter how many plans we make, we only get to live our lives one moment at a time. And in each and every moment, there is the possibility of one of us asking, “How can I know what God wants me to do?” We ask it, and our biblical ancestors asked it as well.

In our story today from the second book of Samuel, King David’s enemies have been squelched, and the land is at peace. Now David can finally carry out the reforms he’s been wanting for so long. And his first decision is to build a temple for God. Now, this plan is most appropriate, pious, and innovative. David wants to thank God for the military victories and the good fortune of the Kingdom of Israel. Finally, after all these years, the Promised Land has been conquered and settled, and David is not going to take it for granted or even take credit for it. The king is going to build a monument to God’s sovereignty, not his own—grander than the royal palace. How countercultural! What a bold demonstration of faith!

David runs the plan by the priest Nathan, his closest adviser. Now, Nathan is accustomed to asking the question, “What does God want us to do?” But this time, without blinking, Nathan says, “Brilliant! Go for it.” Nathan has his own internal monologue in which, of course, God wants to have a huge, glorious temple. God is so great that we should be obligated to do our best for Him! And certainly God’s house should be far grander than our own. (Not to mention, it’ll be a real poke in the eye at all the nations we’ve just defeated.)

But God has something different in mind. And it’s a good thing that Nathan is listening when God speaks to him that night. God says: “Don’t build me a house. Let me build you a house.”

You see, God has led the people of Israel to victory many, many times, and always against the same enemy: fear. God has told the Israelites again and again that they will succeed, and they finally have. They’ve conquered their enemies and their fears, and now they can rest. But the real strength of Judaism so far has been its inability to put down roots. As soon as there’s a temple, God knows that the kingdom of Israel, free from fear, will most likely go toward the other extreme: complacency. When Israel gets to be a real country like all the other real countries, there may be shady alliances, politically motivated marriages, backroom deals … the king may make many bad decisions that affect many thousands of people.

So God says to Nathan, “I do not require four-star accommodations. You don’t need to take care of me or defend my honor by making sure there’s a place worthy of me. You can’t create such a place, and I don’t want such a place. I just want you. I want you to be my Holy of Holies. In fact, I will build you a house, and then we can all live in it together.” This is what is known as the Davidic covenant, and it is outlined in today’s psalm: God’s promise that a descendant of David’s will always be on the throne.

Well, you can’t say God doesn’t try. Through Nathan, God stops David from building that temple. But God predicts that this temple is going to happen eventually, and sure enough, David’s son Solomon comes along, begging and pleading for a temple. Finally, like an exhausted parent, God gives in and says, “Alright already! Build your temple and see what happens. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

Sure enough, one generation after Solomon builds that temple, the complacent kingdom is in disarray. The nation of Israel splits, and the two sides are both eventually conquered, first by the Assyrians, then the Babylonians, then the Persians, then the Greeks.

A thousand years after David, the Israelites are still an occupied people. Now the Romans have conquered the known world. Through a combination of strict religious observances, carefully recorded Scripture, and the distinctive mark of circumcision, the Jews are still Jews—still proud, still chosen, and still listening for God’s voice. It’s at this point in the history of Planet Earth that God says, “OK. The time has come.” And then God raises hiddenness, obscurity, and mystery to a whole new level. God decides to build us a different kind of house … inside the body of a 14-year-old girl. And Mary, with all the bold, optimistic foolishness of a teenager, says, “Well, God … I guess you know best. Let’s do this.”

Now, that’s a story for another time of the year. But all year round, we do tell the story of the building of God’s house in Jesus. Today’s passage from the letter to the Ephesians tells us that through his death and resurrection, Christ “has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” No doubt the Israelite kings couldn’t have imagined that God would rather reconcile the peoples of the earth than keep a temple intact in Jerusalem, or that Israel’s many ancient enemies are not necessarily God’s enemies. Both Jews and Gentiles have been made one in Christ, says the epistle, “with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.”

All this is heady stuff, theological and geopolitical and even cosmic. We could take it any number of ways. But today I don’t want to wander too far from the original question: “How can I know what God wants me to do?” I think even Jesus struggled with this question. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus and his friends have been extremely busy. They’ve been teaching and healing all over the countryside, and they’re happy but exhausted. So Jesus says, “Tell you what. Let’s take a little retreat.” But everywhere they go, they find themselves mobbed by groupies.

Have you ever felt as if your work wouldn’t leave you alone? Have you caught yourself eating lunch at your desk, texting at your child’s orchestra concert, or bringing the laptop on your family vacation? In today’s Gospel you may find some measure of solace: it seems that something similar happened to Jesus and his disciples. And when they found themselves surrounded by the crowds, they had to make a decision: send the people away, or teach and heal some more. Jesus chose the latter.

When we are trying to make a decision, we might well turn to the Bible, especially to the example of Jesus. If Jesus decided to put off self-care for the sake of another day of teaching and healing, shouldn’t we, also, give everything we have for the people we love? Shouldn’t we run ourselves ragged for our children, sacrifice our schedules for our friends, and never stop dashing around from home to church to school to work? Well, not necessarily. Self-care is important, too, and on other occasions, Jesus did successfully get away. Once he even elicited the reaction, “Where have you been? Everyone is looking for you!” And he didn’t apologize for having made himself scarce.

My point is that Jesus had options, and so do we. As much as we might wish God would take away the pain of making a difficult decision, ultimately, it’s up to us. God gave us free will, and most of the time we’re not afraid to use it. Why should we become afraid of our free will just because, on one occasion or another, the stakes seem higher?

Recently I shared a conversation with a friend about a decision she will soon have to make: a very clear-cut decision that will affect where she goes next in life. She said, “I’ve been praying about it, but I haven’t received an answer.”

I said, “That sounds really hard, and I can tell that making this decision scares you. But I wonder … when God doesn’t answer, maybe the message is: ‘This one really is up to you. But fear not: I will be with you, no matter what you decide, and whatever the consequences may be.’”

We do have to make our own decisions, but we are not without guidance. We have Scripture. We have our community of faith. We have our own God-given reason. Most of all, we have Christ, who never stops working even when our energy flags. He chooses at every turn to knock down the barriers that separate people from each other, bringing healing and restoration to outcasts and to people who know all too well just how many bad decisions they have made.

In Christ, God has built us a house. But when we live in love, we become the Church, and today’s epistle describes the Church as the very body of Christ, growing “into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.” Well, would you look at that? It seems God has allowed us to build a temple in His honor after all. Amen.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

What is CPE For? Simply This ...

I have two weeks of CPE left to go, and I've learned so much. This is the week I will work on recording all that I have learned in my final self-evaluation. But I think it all boils down to one very simple idea:

It is incredibly valuable to be able to name the emotions you are feeling before you make a decision based on them.

How simple is that? Well, it's a simple idea. But how many of us are able to name our feelings at any given moment? I know it's difficult for me. But now I'm practicing. Now I find more and more situations in which I am able to say to myself, for instance, "Hold up. Feel that? Your heart rate just went up. Why? What feeling is this? OK, it's nervousness. Now, why? What about this situation is making you nervous? Maybe it's important to know something about that before you speak."

Obviously there are situations in which we need to act without the benefit of taking time to name our emotions -- that's what some emotions are for, I think. But it is so valuable just to have the option. It slows me down at times when slowing down is helpful not only for me, but for the people I'm interacting with.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Call

sermon preached at Church of the Holy Cross, Dunn Loring, VA
by Josh Hosler
The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost/ Proper 9B/ July 8, 2012

Today’s readings seem to me to be all about the people God calls to be leaders. As a seminarian discerning a call to the priesthood, leadership is a topic I think about a lot. I seek leadership, I wonder about the qualities of a good leader, and sometimes I even dread leadership. We assume our leaders must have lots of know-how to do the job well. But listen closely to today’s readings and you might find a counter-message about leadership. It seems that leadership has less to do with what you know than with your people skills. And it also has less to do with perfection and more to do with whom you trust—that someone being God.

Take King David, for instance. When he was still very young—maybe twelve years old?—Samuel anointed him king, but didn’t tell anybody. Saul remained king of Israel for many years after that day. David, meanwhile, gained a positive reputation of his own, starting with that Goliath incident, and this made Saul very jealous. David loved King Saul and stuck with him through the king’s mental illness and even when the king tried to kill him once or twice. Eventually, though, Saul brought about his own downfall, because his people skills were severely lacking. And when that happened, as we hear this morning, “all the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron” and said, “Look, we are your bone and flesh … [God has said] it is … you who shall be ruler over Israel.” David’s people skills had earned him a following that made his reign inevitable, the fulfillment of God’s call to him.

David has gone down in history as the ultimate Jewish king, but it’s not because he was perfect. The Bathsheba-and-Uriah incident is evidence enough of David’s moral failings. But on that occasion, David repented and recommitted himself to God. Perfection is not a requirement for a good leader. Good leaders are people who are conscientious enough to own up to their mistakes and who trust God to bring good out of a bad situation. In fact, David and Bathsheba’s son, Solomon, became the next king, and his reign marked the golden age of Israel.

Paul was another imperfect leader. In today’s reading from his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul talks about a mystical experience that happened to a friend of his—presumably, he’s speaking about himself in an intentionally humble way, so that it won’t sound like he’s bragging. Paul uses this experience to justify his call from God. I have a feeling that being humble was a challenge for Paul. After all, he had the audacity to take this strong Jewish faith in Jesus and open it up to the whole Gentile world. I have no trouble believing that was exactly what God called Paul to do. But it would take a person of sizeable ego to even think of taking on a project like that. And a large ego often doesn’t translate into the kind of people skills one needs to be a good leader.

So Paul worked hard to temper his ego with faith. God’s words to him were these: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul knew that a perfect person—even if such a one were possible—could never earn the respect of common people who are all too aware of their own imperfections.  So he kept reminding himself of his own weaknesses, and he even boasted about them, because they demonstrated that whatever good works Paul did, it was God who actually deserved the credit.

Even Jesus, with his divine people skills, had difficulty getting some people to follow him. Ironically, it was the people who knew him best—the residents of his own hometown—who couldn’t believe in him. And I’m not sure why that amazed Jesus so much. Local kid disappears for a few years, comes home, and suddenly he’s talking like he’s the son of God or something. But we all know him as Mary’s boy—the carpenter—and we know all his brothers and sisters. Has he lost his mind?

Yet Jesus has so many followers by this time that he’s equipping them to be leaders, to spread the Good News to more people at once. He calls his apostles to go out two by two, and to be completely dependent on the people they meet to provide for all their needs. (Incidentally, this scene always reminds me of Yoda urging Luke Skywalker to leave his light saber behind.) Jesus teaches his apostles that the people who will not receive them in all their humility don’t have ears to hear Jesus’ message anyway. And when the apostles go out, completely unprotected and unguarded, possibly with minimal know-how or people skills, but with childlike trust, they work miracles in Jesus’ name.

Today, we are those apostles. We are the ones Jesus has sent out to bring the Good News that nothing can separate us from the love of God. The message of God’s forgiveness is often met with resistance, with hardness of heart, and even with fear and violence. You’d think people would be happy to hear that God loves them. But people are less likely to believe the Good News when the people who bring it don’t quite believe it themselves. As a matter of fact, I think that’s what trips up the Christian cause most often. Even Christians with lots of book-smarts or people skills need to trust the one who granted those gifts in the first place.

Do we really believe that God loves us, supports us, sustains us, and has given us everything we need? Do you believe that you have everything you need to follow God’s call to you? Have you thought of it in those terms before? Are you saying to yourself right now, “I’m not called by God. That’s for priests and really, really saintly people”?

Yet here we are in this time of sabbatical at Holy Cross, looking at our own calls as a community and as individuals. We do have everything we need. We have our baptism, which is the mechanism by which we were called in the first place. At your baptism, the Holy Spirit entered you with incredible power, and a community of faith promised to do everything in its power to help raise you in the Christian faith and life. You may not be in that same community anymore, but those people were representatives of a deeper truth: the Christians who surround you today are the ones who can support you in God’s call to you now.

Your call may not be the same as it used to be. Whether it’s to a certain career, or to raise a family, or simply to listen in this moment to a friend who’s feeling down, God’s calls to us come and go. And if you are not baptized, that doesn’t mean God is not calling you. The call may well be to baptism first, and to further instructions later! We’re not always prepared for a call when it comes—in fact, I’d be wary of anyone who claimed to be prepared. It takes trust to embrace a call: trust that God will equip us. There’s a great bumper sticker that says, “God doesn’t call the fit—God fits the called.” As I go through seminary, this phrase means more to me than ever before.

This summer I’m enrolled in CPE—Clinical Pastoral Education—sometimes called pastoral boot camp for seminarians. My CPE experience is a ten-week chaplaincy internship at Goodwin House, a retirement community in Alexandria. I spend every weekday getting to know the residents, listening to them, and praying with them and for them. This has required me to slow down my usually quick pace—to bridle my energy. We also spend lots of time as a group of chaplains, sharing the conversations we’ve had with the residents and offering each other feedback in a style sometimes called “care-frontation.” It’s a little uncomfortable sometimes! The CPE experience has forced me to look at myself and my people skills very honestly … and I find myself wanting.

I never thought I was perfect, but I had no idea how far off the mark I can get. I thought I was in touch with people’s emotions, but when pressed, often I couldn’t tell you what I’m feeling in any given moment, let alone gauge what other people in the room might be feeling. I already knew that I can get a little uptight when I’m under stress, but my time in CPE has shed new light on a host of past failings in my life, and how most of them tie back to this exact tendency. I am also beginning to understand how often I talk about myself at the expense of getting curious about other people in all their joys, sorrows, and complexity. There are moments when I feel like I’m grieving the death of a loved one, only to discover that the person whose death I’m grieving is myself … the old me. But as my CPE supervisor Dan Duggan is fond of saying, “You never get rid of your ‘stuff’—you just become a better student of it.”

We all go through times like this sooner or later—that is, if we are ever to grow. Like David, we fall into sin, but hopefully we repent and understand that God has forgiven us. Like Paul, we find we have a thorn in our side, something that will never go away, but which we just might learn to manage better … and the example of which might actually be of some help to others. Like Jesus, we find that even when we try to honor God’s call, there are people close to us who don’t see it and who won’t be there for us. But like Jesus’ apostles, we are called to just go out and do it, whether we’re prepared or not, because God will be there with us in ways that we can’t begin to imagine.

My call to the priesthood has taken shape over many years, and it has been spoken to me through the mouths of many people. Likewise, if you’re confused about God’s call to you, it may be time to listen to the voices of your community, and also to spend more time in quiet contemplation, listening for the still, small voice of God.

Whatever my call, I’ll never be competent enough to do it exactly right, and neither will you. Our spiritual competence is completely dependent on God, and that’s good news, because faith tells us God will not let us down. Do you believe that? If not, can you at least imagine it? That’s all you need, really … a little imagination, a sense of wonder, and a heart to know and love God. God is calling you, in all your imperfections, to grow more and more into the person you were meant to be—to become more and more yourself. Are you listening? Amen.