Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Rubble or Our Sins

sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler
Ash Wednesday, February 18, 2015

“Oh, where do we begin: the rubble, or our sins?” That’s a lyric from one of my favorite popular songs of the past couple years: “Pompeii,” by the band Bastille. “Oh, where do we begin: the rubble, or our sins?” And that’s a really great question at the beginning of  Lent. We live in a beautiful world, but we’ve made a mess of it. So now what do we do? Do we start by sifting through the rubble and making repairs? Or do we first need to fix ourselves so that we don’t cause further damage?

It seems to me that this question—“Where do we begin?”—is the source of some of the great theological and political divides in our nation. Is it up to our governments, businesses, religions, schools, and other organizations to clear away the rubble and start constructing a better world? Certainly large groups of people are capable of effecting good change if they can act somewhat in tandem—God help us! Or must we depend on each individual to reform and to stop sinning? Again, God help us, because individuals will always mess things up. So how will we ever make any progress towards a healthier, less self-destructive society?

Let’s ask the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah urged the nation of Judea, as a political entity, to shape up and to begin to work for justice. We can hear within this Isaiah reading the roots of the popular protest slogan, “No Justice, No Peace.” He taught that the exile in Babylon came as a result of the nation’s sins. When we project Isaiah forward into our context, it strikes me that the prophet would likely be very concerned about many things: predatory lenders, labor contracts, the military industrial complex. He would be shocked at our cruelty to immigrants. He would marvel at our stubborn refusal to address climate change with any sort of urgency. Isaiah rails against hypocrites who make a show of doing something religious—maybe printing slogans on their merchandise that seem to honor God—while at the same time engaging in business practices that oppress fellow human beings. Look at the income inequity in our country, and the poverty and misery that result. These would be of special concern to Isaiah.

But then Isaiah prescribes, as a remedy for our corporate sin, practices that any individual can do on any day: “share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house.” He speaks of removing the heavy yoke from workers, of no longer pointing fingers and speaking evil. Oh, where does Isaiah begin: the rubble, or our sins? Isaiah makes no distinction. When our organizations change and our individual hearts change, preaches Isaiah: “Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.” Certainly our nation is at its best when it is known as one that repairs breaches and restores streets. And we are at our best when this is work we all do together—not work that we count on other people to accomplish for us.

Isaiah makes no distinction between individual and national behavior because our modern concept of individual rights and responsibilities has developed over millennia. Not nearly as many people today would affirm that God punishes nations for corporate sins. Do you remember when Pat Robertson insisted that God allowed 9/11 to happen in order to punish America for secularizing our public schools? Naturally, most of us were deeply offended. And we would be just as offended if someone were to suggest that God has sent ISIS to punish the West. This doesn’t fly for us, because we know too many innocent people. We have absorbed the later biblical principle that asserts that innocent people do not suffer divine punishment on behalf of the guilty. (Well, maybe once!) Laying aside the question of what is sinful in the first place, we’re more likely to say that individuals sin, and that those sins working together cause bigger and bigger problems, and so we bring our doom upon ourselves.

If that’s the case, then how exactly does God relate to nations on the world stage? When we turn to the Gospels, we find that Jesus doesn’t seem to care much one way or the other about the Roman Empire. It is his context, but it need not stand in the way of us loving God and loving each other. Borders and principalities are human constructions, and they will continue to change, but God does not. Oh, where does Jesus begin: the rubble, or our sins? Jesus’ answer to us today is very quiet and patient. We are to choose carefully where to put our attention and our energy. We are to be God’s people wherever we are, and in whatever circumstances we find ourselves in.

Do good things, says Jesus, but see if you can get away with doing them secretly. Don’t do good things in the hope of a reward. Jesus also rails against hypocrites who make a show of doing something religious—maybe wearing a sandwich board on a street corner and screaming at sinners—as if they could strong-arm God into dispensing some sort of vending machine blessing. I can’t tell whether Jesus is being tongue-in-cheek, or sincere, when he tells us that those hypocrites who make a show of their good deeds will receive their reward. It may be that he’s saying their efforts are not futile. But Jesus calls his followers to a higher standard. Feasts can be public, but fasting is private. Worship can be corporate, but our deepest prayerful longings are personal. Our faith proceeds from our one-on-one relationship with God and spreads outward to our community and the world.

But above all, says Jesus, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” What do we value most, and why do we value it? We need look no further than our check registers or credit card statements to find our hearts. (A priest I know once commented, “I guess my heart is in lunch.”) If Lent is a time for self-examination, then we could do worse than to examine our finances—and Isaiah would certainly say the same, whether we are individuals, churches, or nations! How much do we insist on maintaining control of our material wealth? When we give a gift, do we really give a gift, or is it more like a contract? If even in giving gifts we want to control what happens to them, then that may suggest that our possessions own us.

Instead, says Jesus, “store up for yourselves treasure in heaven.” Do good deeds because they’re good. And in the meantime, above all, stay in relationship with God.

One year when I was a youth group leader, I told the high school kids, “You know, Lent is a great time to work on things about yourself that need to change.”

“Or,” added a 14-year-old named Adam, “you could let God work on changing you.”

I was totally undone. Adam schooled me that day, and I will always be grateful. “Oh, where do we begin: the rubble, or our sins?” Maybe that turns out to be a false dichotomy. Maybe it wasn’t that great a sermon illustration! We see the rubble of our world all around us. We see the rubble within us as we examine ourselves and find ourselves to be sinful people. These things are painfully real. But “where do we begin”? We don’t. God does.

So here we are, about to receive the mark of ashes on our foreheads. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Our lives and our world are rubble and dust, yet God looks at it all and sees beauty. God sees us healthy and whole, and God holds out Jesus to us—an image of what we may yet become. In the Garden of Eden, we made the ill-advised decision to become like God. And God said, “Well, if you insist. This is going to be harder than you think, but nevertheless, let’s get started.”

So whatever you do with your Lent, don’t make it depend completely on your willpower versus some bad habit. Sure, you can go on a diet, or stop biting your nails, or give up chocolate or alcohol. These are good things to do, because it’s always good to come to a deeper understanding of what outside forces have control over us. The best thing I ever gave up for Lent was complaining, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t complained since!

So if and when your willpower fails, don’t believe for a second that you have failed God. God loves you infinitely. Do you believe that? As Paul wrote to the Philippians, “God has begun a good work in you.” And no matter how much rubble piles up in us or in the world around us, God will see that work through to completion. This is the Christian story: that God has acted in the world and will continue to act in the world. It’s not all up to us to get it right, because Jesus took care of that part. Now our job is simply to relax into Jesus, to be grateful for the gift of eternal life, and in response to it, to love more and more deeply. Amen.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

You Don't Need to See My Identification

You know the scene in Star Wars when Obi-Wan uses a Jedi mind trick to fool the weak-minded stormtroopers into letting his group pass through the checkpoint? The other day that happened to me, only I'm not aware of any particular kinship with The Force, at least not as George Lucas imagined it. In my case, I experienced a big fat case of unearned privilege. It happened when I arrived at my bank, feeling frustrated after being foiled at the Rite Aid’s Western Union kiosk.

Now, the first evidence of unearned privilege is the fact that I’ve gone 42 years without ever having sent money via Western Union. You know the stereotype: Western Union is for sending bail money, or money to the family members back home who didn’t cross the border illegally, or money to that cousin who’s always making bad decisions, but to whom I'm going to give a break just one more time. Indeed, when I picked up the phone at the kiosk to dial in my order, the phone literally smelled like homelessness. And I thought, “Wow, I’m in a totally new situation here.”

I was using Western Union to send money to a seminary colleague, a priest in Burundi who is raising money for a truck that will be very helpful to his congregation. After some research, I was sure I had all the tools I needed to transfer money from my clergy discretionary fund all the way to Africa. I had established a security question and an answer, and I had messaged those to my friend. I got off the phone at Rite Aid and brought my ten-digit code to the register to pay the money.

Now, I’m a new priest. I had written checks from my discretionary fund before. But this was the first time I’d used my debit card, and I couldn’t, for the life of me, remember my four-digit PIN. This was frustrating and more than a little embarrassing. As a line formed behind me, I inputted several different possibilities, but none of them was correct. So I had to admit defeat and cancel the transaction.

But I wasn’t totally foiled yet. It was Friday at 4:00, and dadgummit, I was going to finish this before the weekend. So I drove to the bank where I have my discretionary fund, walked in with good humor, and admitted I didn’t know my PIN.

I was immediately directed to a desk where a woman greeted me with, “No problem! Let’s take care of this for you.” She asked me to swipe my card. She asked me to input my new desired PIN. And then she said, “You’re all set! Thanks for coming in.”

I paused. “Um,” I said, “shouldn’t you check my ID or something?”

For an instant the woman looked like a deer in the headlights. Then she regained her composure, smiled broadly, and said, “Normally I should, but I decided to take you on good faith.”

Good faith. So I should be grateful, right? I should be glad that my bank loves me, right? No, not at all. Because, number one, anyone could bring my wallet in there. And number two, I couldn’t help but wonder, “Whom would you not take on good faith? What is it about me that makes you inherently trust me?”

"No, it's OK. I'm a white Jedi."
Bear in mind that I did not wave my hand vaguely and murmur, "You don't need to see my identification." And no, I was not wearing my collar. And I wasn’t especially well dressed. This was supposed to be my day off.

Now, if I say, “It’s because I’m white,” doubtless many will respond, “You can’t prove her intent.” No, I can’t. I could say, “It’s because I wasn’t smelly.” But it’s no use. Because no matter how you look at it, I gave off some sort of vibe that told the woman, “He can be trusted completely.” Subconsciously at least, this bank clerk believed her radar for trustworthiness to be infallible. And that radar was triggered by something about my physical appearance and demeanor.

And that, my friends, is what is known as unearned privilege.

And I fell right into it and left, so baffled that I didn’t even have the wherewithal to tell her how little I appreciated her “good faith.”

Friday, February 6, 2015

Opening the Door

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

What a confusing pairing of readings we have today! On the one hand, we are celebrating the feast day of Cornelius the Centurion, the first uncircumcised man to become a Christian, and the first one not to follow the Jewish dietary laws. We are reveling in the understanding that salvation is not just for the insiders, but for the entire world.

On the other hand, we have Jesus of all people telling us that there will be many who are shut out of the Kingdom—those to whom God says, “Go away from me, all you evildoers!” And these will be the very people who thought they were God’s favored ones.

Peter Baptizing the Centurion Cornelius
Francesco Trevisani, 1709
from Wikipedia
In one story, we have Peter going to the home of Cornelius. A Jew enters the narrow door of a Gentile, in the process opening his own narrow heart much wider to welcome Gentiles into a Jewish faith. In the other story, we have a door that is shut to keep the insiders out. The insiders try to go in the door, but they are not able. They try to come in only to be thrown out.

Whom is this door shutting out? “Many,” says Jesus. Yes, but which many? Well, these many seem to come from among those who ate and drank with Jesus, and whose streets Jesus taught in. They are the ones who feel most strongly that Jesus is one of them. Now, it would be far too easy—and lazy!—to say that Jesus is shutting out “the Jews.” Obviously he’s not, because the church will be built, initially, by Jews. No, because this is the way Scripture is, it addresses the immediate situation of Jesus’ time and place, and it also speaks to us in our own time and place.

So who are the ones in our world who feel most strongly that Jesus is one of them? Yikes: I think he means us. We are the ones who are in danger of being shut out, even as we see Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all the prophets going in. And it’s not just the heroes of our faith assembled here, either—people from every corner of the earth will go in. But it may well be that we won’t.

Now, I don’t set out to frighten a congregation. I’m supposed to stand here and speak good news. But I always try to meet the text where it is, gloss over none of it, and then look for the good news in it. It seems to me that if it’s not good news for everyone, then it’s not good news at all. We know from other parts of Scripture that God wants wholeness and healing for everybody—no exceptions. So why are there exceptions here? And why does it seem that “church people” may well be among them?

When I look for commonalities between these two stories, the first thing I notice is that the question of “who’s in” and “who’s out” has nothing to do with one’s religious affiliation. You thought Jesus was just for Jews? Well, guess what, church: God has just changed the rules to let everybody in. Can you accept that? And if we then thought that Jesus was just for Christians, then we, like those in the story who thought they had the right credentials, may be in for a rude awakening. God loves outsiders and outcasts! Jesus demonstrated it time and time again.

But what of the insiders? What might cause those of us who consider ourselves insiders to be thrown out? Here and in other places in Scripture, there seems to be a theme of whether God knows us. I remember a passage from one of the Chronicles of Narnia in which someone asks one of the children, “Do you know Aslan?” And he responds carefully, “Well … Aslan knows me.” And that’s what counts. It is more important for God to know us than for us to know God. No matter how much we say, “I know you, Lord!,” that counts for nothing.

What might cause God not to know us? Well, instead of asking whether God’s door is open to us, maybe we need to ask whether our door is open to God. And where is God to be found in our world? In each other. In the people we encounter every day. Most of all, we’re likely to find God in those who are inconvenient or bothersome to us, and even in our enemies. Is our door open to them?

Peter was faced with a decision: either to open his door to a new understanding of God’s expansive grace, or to shut it in God’s face. Likewise, Cornelius had to decide whether to open his own door to welcome Peter in. When they both decided the door should be open, amazing things began to happen. But it didn’t happen all at once. It took another few years for Peter to convince the church in Jerusalem that this was OK—that this new understanding of the universal extent of God’s favor wasn’t a total betrayal of the faith of their ancestors. Discerning God’s will is not easy, and it’s not to be taken lightly. But in this story, we see that God’s will is to include, not to exclude.

So what about those many whom Jesus says will be shut out? What if the narrow door is actually their own? God’s door is very wide; our door, by comparison, is narrow. It may be that in looking diligently for God’s door to be open, they refused to open their own door. And God can’t possibly know us if we never open our own narrow door. And so the outsiders become the insiders in Jesus’ topsy-turvy description of the kingdom, upending all our assumptions and never allowing us to rest on our laurels. We have no credentials, save our openness to God’s invitation to love. We can consent to be loved, or we can shut God out. And when it comes down to it, aren’t we all, every one of us, outsiders and outcasts? Now that’s some good news. Amen.