Thursday, July 31, 2014

Ignatius of Loyola

homily preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler

In verse 4 of our reading from Proverbs today, the writer asserts that having lots of money can indeed be considered a gift from God. He writes, “The reward for humility and fear of the LORD is riches and honor and life.” I wondered at first whether the word here for “riches” had a figurative sense, but no. The Hebrew word means, literally, “making money.” And sometimes the Proverbs do fall into rather simplistic forms of conventional wisdom: if you do this good thing, this other good thing will be the guaranteed result. Certainly there are preachers in our time who will point to this verse and say, “See? God want you to have a Ferrari in your driveway!”

But there’s a much larger context here, of course. Regardless of whether you think riches are a direct gift or even a reward from God, we are told in the same passage that it is not a particular virtue to try to get rich. Personal integrity is of higher value.

image from Wikipedia
Today is the feast day of Ignatius of Loyola, sixteenth-century Spanish knight, hermit, priest, and theologian. I feel a special kinship with Ignatius because during my high school years I lived in the town of St. Ignace, Michigan—named so by the Jesuit missionaries who made first contact with the Ojibway people in Northern Michigan in the late 1600s.

Ignatius started out as a brash, glory-seeking knight. During the Italian War of 1521-1526, at the Battle of Pamplona, he was severely wounded. As he was recovering at Loyola, Ignatius underwent a spiritual conversion. He decided to serve only God, and not his own glory or Spain’s. He then proceeded to develop a series of spiritual exercises to order his life, and he shared them with friends. Later, while studying for the priesthood, he and six companions founded the Society of Jesus … the Jesuits. The Jesuits took a vow of poverty and dedicated their lives to serving the poor.

How interesting! They didn’t dedicate their lives to getting rich and then giving much of the money away. They chose to remain poor. As money landed in their hands, they passed it on, keeping only enough to maintain a bare existence. This was Ignatius’ perception of what it means always to put God first.

We might look at it this way: money is a tool that we use in this life in order to exert control over our environment. Anytime we find ourselves with that particular ability, we can thank God for allowing us that measure of freedom, whether or not we see the money as coming directly from God. But our money is by no means the essence of who we are as God’s creatures.

I don’t know whether this means that those of us who maintain a certain level of material comfort are dishonoring God. Certainly we don’t all have the same capacity for a life of constant discomfort. But often I do ask myself, “Do I have too much?” And it’s probably a good question for all of us to ask ourselves. Also: “By having the luxuries I have, am I keeping basic necessities from others, even in a way that’s hard to perceive or change? Where do I choose to invest, and do the companies in which I invest honor the rights of human beings who have little control over their circumstances?” These are hard questions, and we may not like the answers. But they open up all sorts of possibilities for spiritual growth. I’m sure Ignatius would not left us off the hook, either.

I saw something going around Facebook this week. It said, in essence, “Poverty is not merely about not having enough money. It is not having enough money, and also never having the opportunity to get enough money.” As a person who began in a life of privilege, Ignatius chose poverty in order to stand in solidarity with those who were chronically poor. And as a high-profile person who willingly denied a comfortable life, he called attention to the forces of injustice that keep large swaths of the world impoverished.

My colleague the Rev. Sarah Monroe in Aberdeen just received a $24,000 grant to work on alleviating poverty in that community. Furthermore, she plans to use her work as a case study in order for the Episcopal Church to learn how we might address poverty in other contexts. I am in awe of people who do this sort of work—embedding themselves in an uncomfortable situation in order to help others get what they need to survive.

So Sarah’s ministry will be in my prayers. And when I think of her and St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Aberdeen, I will also think of Ignatius of Loyola and the good example he gave us 500 years ago. Amen.

Monday, July 28, 2014

They Will Bathe Their Feet in the Blood of the Wicked ... wait, huh? The Violent Psalms

I sometimes have trouble with the psalms. They make up an indispensable part of every liturgy known to me, but there are only 150 of them. Sometimes it's like tuning in to a radio station that only plays 150 songs ... and some of those songs have lyrics I don't appreciate very much.

Some of the psalms come off sounding very self-righteous. For instance, look at Psalm 69, in which the psalmist is crying out against the people who are persecuting him. For the first 25 verses he asks God to save him from impending doom, which is certainly understandable. But beginning in verse 26 he prays for revenge: “Pour out your indignation upon them, and let the fierceness of your anger overtake them.” And that verse is tame compared to what follows.

Another example is Psalm 58, which is an option for reading during Morning Prayer today, but only an
option. (Is this because its bleakness and violence offend our sensibilities?) The first two verses feel like something I’d like to shout in Israel and Gaza right now: “Do you indeed decree righteousness, you rulers? do you judge the people with equity? No; you devise evil in your hearts, and your hands deal out violence in the land.” But within a few verses, the psalmist has sunk to their level: “O God, break their teeth in their mouths … Let them be … like a stillborn child that never sees the sun … let them be cut down … The righteous will be glad when they see the vengeance; they will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked.”

Of course, revenge is a real human desire. Those who feel wronged want to get back at those who have hurt them. If they feel powerless, they may implore God to do the deed. I remember the time my car was broken into during church. When we came out to the parking lot and found the shattered glass and a big hole where the stereo had been, one friend burst out in frustration, “They broke into your car during church?! Ooh …. God’s gonna get them!”

It’s a feeling I understand, but it’s not something I believe. God doesn’t get back at those who do evil, at least not in any way that would satisfy our rage. The good go on being persecuted, and the evil go on succeeding in their schemes. God doesn’t avenge; God redeems. This is my theology on the matter, anyway.

Yet the psalms—and much of the Bible, for that matter—are full of times when God exacts revenge on behalf of the people. Consider the second book of Kings, in which King Jehu wipes out all the descendants of the former King Ahab. It’s bloody, royal intrigue worthy of an HBO series: the heads of Ahab’s 70 children stacked up outside the city gate, and all the worshippers of Baal gathered into one place on false pretenses so they can be massacred in one fell swoop. It is tribal terrorism. Yet God is portrayed as being in favor of it, merely because it is instigated by those who claim to be on God’s side.

So what are our options for understanding the violent psalms and stories of the Bible? Well, one option might be to say, “Indeed, God is a violent God, and God has many enemies, and I am not one of them. In due time, God will wreak vengeance on my enemies, and I’ll enjoy it to the fullest.” But this doesn’t square at all with the example of Jesus, or for that matter, many passages in the Old Testament that tout God’s gentleness and mercy. Joshua may say to the Israelites at one point, “God will not forgive your sins,” but most of the Hebrew Scriptures speak to the contrary. To claim God as a God of vengeance (who is conveniently on our side) is to ignore the overall thrust of salvation history. It is also to wrap ourselves in a thick cloak of self-righteousness that blinds us to our own sins.

Another way to understand the violent psalms is to say, “It’s just how people thought back then; it’s of no use to us now.” We could stop reading these portions, decreeing them irrelevant to our faith. But most Christians balk at this suggestion. It’s a little too easy, isn’t it? And yet it’s difficult: do we each get to decide what is kept and what is thrown out? That’s where American individualism gets out of control.

The answer could be a complicated and confusing mix of both these options. And that’s entirely possible: we’ll never fully understand God’s will, but I’m comfortable with God getting angry about injustice. I’m also comfortable saying, “Not all Scripture is created equal.” Some parts of it are more relevant to us today than other parts. Other parts I have found to be pretty useless—at least, so far.

But there’s one more important factor: I am not everybody. I am a 21st-century American. I have led a pretty easy life. Disaster could strike at any time, but it hasn’t struck me yet. I don’t consider this to be any particular blessing, as if those who led a difficult or violent life were cursed. It’s just my context. I can’t possibly understand everything. Neither can any of us.

Furthermore, the Bible is not just a theology textbook—or a history textbook—or a book of fables. It is all of these things and more. The Bible can connect us with our deepest emotions, and the psalms are especially good at doing this. We Westerners are notoriously out of touch with our feelings. Violent emotions may offend or frighten us, as if we were immune to the very human desire for revenge. The psalms can help us delve into these feelings and own them, so that we can decide what to do with them.

The psalms can also put us in touch with feelings we don’t share with others. I don’t want God to break the teeth of the wicked; I want God to heal them and show them a better way. But through the psalms, I can pray for those who do harbor vengeful desires, bringing them before God and holding them in God’s presence. And, again, I can check to make sure I’m not just fooling myself when I say I don’t share these emotions.

When I keep these things in mind, I find it easier to read—and, indeed, to pray—the psalms.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Ordination Day

The chancel of St. Luke's Episcopal Church, Scranton, PA,
where I was baptized on December 10, 1972
Mark this day, but don’t.
This is the day, a day, yet another day that the LORD has made.
This is the day when God and the Church agreed on a fairly minor issue.

Meanwhile, echoes of December 10, 1972, rain down on me. That was the day that I was marked—I, and not the day. That was the day that I was sealed by a power that is far beyond us all and that is inherent in our very being.

Really? A little water in a glorified birdbath? A little oil on the forehead, and a long-lost candle? Was it not a moment decided by forces of self-interest, people clinging to old ideas, people repeating the old tropes of their clan, people betraying their helplessness, people seizing the reins and demanding a gift from God?

Yes, it was. It was also this.

Like errant arrows, wrote Lewis, our prayers require re-routing. We use water, and God says, “Ah, yes! There is plenty of it about, and you need it to survive, and it is all for you. Use water with my blessing.”

We use oil, and God says, “Ah, yes! It is a little rarer, and sweet-smelling, and it pleases you. Therefore it pleases me.”

We light candles, and God says, “Ah, yes! It is a little reminder of the great Light in the great Darkness. It helps you feel less alone. Go, then, and shine your light.”

So that was a very important day. And now, more than four decades later, the clan says, “We want this baptized person to work for us in a specific way.”

And God says, “Ah, yes! That’s a good fit. He’ll continue to help you grow, and you’ll continue to help him grow. Ordain, then, with my blessing.”

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Spoiler Alert: sermon from July 20, 2014

sermon preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Deacon

I'm going to begin this sermon with a spoiler alert. If you have never seen the movie Return of the Jedi … well, you've had 31 years to do that. So, tough luck: I'm going to give away the ending.

image from
At the end of Return of the Jedi, Luke Skywalker and his father, the evil Darth Vader, are locked in a vicious lightsaber battle while Emperor Palpatine watches with glee. Young Luke's friends are trapped in military ambushes elsewhere, so all other hope appears lost. The Emperor knows that if he can get Luke to strike out in anger and murder his father, Luke will be consumed by the Dark Side of the Force. It would seem that Luke has no choice but to resort to violence and destruction, to kill Vader and the Emperor and try to turn the tide of the war. Yet instead of giving in, Luke gives up. He tosses his weapon aside and announces that the Emperor has lost!

image from
The Emperor's face contorts with rage, and he begins to shoot blue lightning bolts out of his hands. Luke writhes on the floor in agony, and inside Darth Vader, a struggle is raging. It's so pronounced, you can see it right through that horrid black helmet. Vader looks from his son to his master and back again, and then he makes a decision. He picks up the Emperor and throws him over a balcony to his death. In doing so, he sustains injuries that will shortly take his life. But that doesn't matter. Darth Vader has saved his son. The spark of good has risen to the surface, and Darth Vader—no, Anakin Skywalker—dies a redeemed man.

image from
In our time, are there many fictional characters as universally synonymous with evil as Darth Vader? Yet that evil is ultimately redeemed. And it happens not through the evil one's destruction, but through his self-sacrifice. We might even call this a story of wheat and weeds.

In Jesus' parable of the wheat and the weeds, the farmer's servants alert their master about a spoiler: the farmer's enemy, who sneaks into the field in the middle of the night and plants a bunch of weeds. Now, this is ridiculous. Why didn't the enemy just ravage the field, uprooting all the wheat and destroying it? Presumably, the enemy doesn't have that kind of power. He cannot destroy, but he can spoil.

Darnel, from
Now, what will the farmer do in response to this mischievous and evil act? Like last week's farmer who sowed seeds in every conceivable place, whether the seeds could be expected to grow there or not, this farmer also makes a questionable farming decision. He decides to let the weeds grow. This particular weed is called darnel, and it looks so much like wheat that in some cultures they call it "false wheat."

But to let the weeds grow? Wouldn't it make more sense at least to try to tell the difference—to uproot as much darnel as possible, even if some of the wheat is accidentally lost as well? Otherwise, both the wheat and the weeds will go to seed, and you'll never get rid of the weeds! I know this much just from pulling dandelions in my yard. So it's perfectly logical to take a loss on the wheat in an attempt to get the weeds under control.

Logical, yes, but that's not how Jesus works. Why? Because the wheat is simply too precious. In the field of the world in which God has planted all the wheat of creation, every stalk counts. Rocks and rivers and animals are wheat. And within ourselves, we find that our kindness, love, and generosity are also stalks of wheat. So we're not just individual stalks; God is carefully, lovingly growing wheat within each one of us, and God wants every single stalk to go to seed. To lose even one is an unacceptable loss.

But now, thanks to the farmer's enemy, weeds can be found in us as well. Our meanness, self-centeredness, fear, greed, and apathy ... our preference for comfort over self-giving love ... our insistence that all good things are scarce and must be hoarded ... even our lack of concern about the presence of weeds is a kind of weed.

And so often the weeds do, indeed, look like wheat! I may be dedicated to another person in a way that looks very much like love. But if that dedication becomes codependency or possessiveness, it's actually a weed. My love for my family could become a chronic fear of losing them. My interest in financial security for my child could so easily become failure to trust that God will provide.

This week in the news, it's seems we can find almost nothing but weeds. Isis has taken over large swaths of Iraq and Syria. A Malaysian jet was shot down over Ukraine by ... somebody. The Nigerian girls are still missing—how many months has it been now? Israel began a full-scale ground invasion of Gaza, and politicians and civilians alike are calling for the blood even of the innocent. Thousands of malnourished, frightened children have crossed the border from Mexico, and as the government tries to figure out what to do with them, mobs of U.S. protesters are blocking the buses, doing all in their power to prevent any compassion for foreign children. In times like these, what are we to do about all these weeds?

When we turn to Jesus for help, we get a very strange answer: do nothing. Let the wheat and the weeds grow together. You don't have the ability to judge which is which.

But wait a minute, Jesus. Are you kidding? I know this dictator is a weed, and that corporation, and this politician, and that chemical, to say nothing of this terrorist and that molester! Are you saying we can't pull these weeds? No, he says, because the problem is too complex for that. Remember that we're not just saying people are either wheat or weeds, but even our very traits and tendencies. Remember how many people longed for the death of Darth Vader, notorious mass murderer … yet all the while his son Luke longed for his salvation. Remember that Moses was a murderer, and King David was an adulterer, and St. Paul persecuted the followers of Jesus.

Episcopal priest and author Robert Farrar Capon puts it this way: "Since good and evil in this world commonly inhabit not only the same field but even the same individual human beings—since, that is, there are no unqualified good guys any more than there are any unqualified bad guys—the only result of a truly dedicated campaign to get rid of evil will be the abolition of literally everybody."[1] Capon goes on to point out that this doesn't mean Christians can never resist evil, but we should understand that violence cannot lead to salvation, and it will never ultimately destroy evil.

It strikes me, then, that the best we can do in the meantime is to be wheat and to do what wheat does: grow, and produce seeds. Maybe we can be so fruitful that we'll even keep some weeds from growing.

image from
In his explanation of the parable, Jesus tells us what will happen at harvest time: "The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers." So that will mean inspecting every one of us. Ancient church father Gregory of Nyssa envisioned this process to be like pulling a thick, dirty rope through a small metal ring very quickly, stripping off all the filth and impurities that have collected on it. Or I like to imagine the gentler image of a school nurse inspecting children's heads for lice: a tedious yet loving task.

So God's kingdom, then, begins the way it is now, with everything and everybody in it. Nobody will be left out who wasn't first allowed in. It sounds as if the whole creation is being translated into a new state of being, and only then can the sifting begin. If I have hate in my heart, it will be rooted out. If I have greed in my soul, it will be burned. All these little sins that have become so much a part of me have no place anymore, no matter how much I might want to keep them. Like Darth Vader on the Death Star, I will be reduced only to my wheat. All that remains will be that which I am willing to give away for the sake of love. And that purest part of me—the part God created and adores—will exist and grow to maturity eternally. So will it be with every one of us.

Can it really be that the goodness in us cannot be destroyed by the bad? Can it be that no matter what evil things befall us, God will ensure that we are, in the end, whole and redeemed? Can it be that even our most horrific sins will accompany us beyond the grave, and that God's gift will be a great unburdening? Can it be that the wheat field of this polluted, weed-infested world will bear a bumper crop anyway? Jesus seems to say so. He tells us that God cares for every grain of our wheat.

Like the psalmist, we may sometimes want to run from God and hide in the darkness in order to preserve our most familiar, most comfortable, most addictive sins. But once we find that God cannot be escaped, and once we understand that God has no interest in destroying us, that omnipresence turns to the comfort of a mother rocking us gently. We can turn to her and plead, "Search me out … and know my heart … look well whether there be any wickedness in me and lead me in the way that is everlasting." Let us pray.

O God, you have searched us out and know us. You trace our journeys and our resting places. You know our wheat and our weeds. Never let the weeds overtake us and choke us. Bring us, we pray you, safely to your threshing-floor. Root out any evil you find in us, as painful as that may be, and make us fit for eternal life and eternal joy. Amen.

[1] Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of the Kingdom (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1985), 101-102.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Nothing Separates Us

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

- Romans 8:35-39

These words have long been a great source of comfort to me. I first noticed them when I sang them in a song I learned in 1990 when I attended the Episcopal Youth Event (EYE) in Missoula, Montana:

For I am sure/
I do believe/
In present time/
Or things to come/
In heights or depths/
In death or life/
Nothing separates us from the love of God.

This song was introduced at EYE, and in subsequent years we sang it again and again at youth events in the Diocese of Olympia. I was honored to play piano in the band that accompanied our singing in these events for many years.

And the words are really quite striking. Nothing? Nothing. Does God get angry and frustrated with us? That seems very likely. Does God long for us to change our lives? Most definitely.

Does God cut us off? Never.

Image from
The image I've posted here can be a helpful image. In certain Christian circles, it is a very common trope. And it does get across our feeling of perpetual separation from God. We cannot be totally in sync with God all the time. We're lucky if we can manage it some of the time ... on our own steam.

But luckily, it's not up to us to assure this connection. The reality, from God's perspective, is this: there is no separation. Julia of Norwich put it this way: "Between us and God there is no between."

I knew a young boy once who came across Julian's quote, and it startled him. He asked, "Does this mean that we ARE God?"

I replied, "Not quite, John. But almost. Almost."

God never lets us go. Never. Ever. Ever. Nothing can EVER separate us from the love of God.

And don't let anybody -- Christian or not -- tell you otherwise.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

We Are Now Bellinghamsters

And yes, apparently, "Bellinghamsters" is the approved collective term for those of us who live here. Yesterday we took in a Bellingham Bells baseball game (we beat Cowlitz 5-1) in order to help solidify our status. Thanks, Foster family, for inviting us!

In our first couple days here we didn’t have ready access to wi-fi, so I only posted on Facebook. Now maybe I can catch up with some photos. We pulled in on Tuesday afternoon, walked through our new house with the landlady, and enjoyed the wonderful hospitality of Kathy and Fred Mintz. We spent the night there while we waited to hear the status of our moving trailer. Although it had left Virginia three days late, U-Pack did a great job making up time and told us it would be here sometime Wednesday. All day Wednesday we waited around, and the trailer finally pulled up at 7:15 p.m. Many thanks to the folks who helped us unpack our beds so we could sleep in our new house that very night. The next day we dug into 
the trailer in earnest, and more St. Paul’s folks helped us finish it in only two hours! We even got to cancel the professional movers we had hired to help. And Sarah has already made a good friend.

We picked Henry up from Katie Watkins’ apartment that afternoon. He was a little miffed at everything that has happened to him, but as expected, he’s now beginning to settle in.

The Mintzes had us over again on the 4th for dinner and fireworks by the lake. Here are the deer we saw in their driveway.

Christy’s parents and sister came up from Bellevue today to hang out with us. At the Bellingham Farmers Market, Sarah got into a swordfight, but she bested her man, and we were able to move on to Fairhaven to hang out at Village Books.

It is so great to be home again—or, at least, close enough to home that this, too, will begin to feel like home before too long.