Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Wrath of God

homily preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Curate
April 16, 2015

Happy thirteenth day of Easter! Only thirty-seven left to go. Revel in the Easter joy.

That’s what our readings do during this season. We hear a lot about the early church from the Acts of the Apostles, that second volume of Luke’s gospel that traces the time from Jesus’ ascension to Paul’s final journey towards Rome. In this scene, the earliest apostles are already in hot water and already learning how to make their case—that following Jesus does not represent a betrayal of their Jewish faith but rather, in their belief, its joyful fulfillment. The reaction is that the authorities are enraged and want to kill them. And that’s the flipside of engaging with a joy this all-encompassing. It may demand our very lives.

We also hear a lot from John’s gospel during Easter season. This is because, of the four gospels, John’s gives us the most fully developed theology of the Risen Christ, tried and tested over a number of decades within Christian community. Often what we find in John’s gospel are not necessarily Jesus’ original words, but words that attempt to set Jesus within a larger context. Jesus starts by talking to one specific person, and then John uses this conversation to get us to a place where we’re all ready to hear some larger teaching.

In this case, though, the words we hear come from a scene in which Jesus is absent. The verses we have here may be intended to be those of John the Baptist, but since there are no quotation marks in biblical Greek, we’re not sure. John has just been saying that Jesus is the Messiah, and that John is stepping back to make room for him. Then come these verses, either meant to be spoken by John or by the narrating gospel writer. Either way, these words sum up a passage about Christ’s role in the world and in our lives: “the one who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks about earthly things. The one who comes from heaven is above all.”

One thing that can easily bug us about John’s gospel is that he often portrays things in stark, black-and-white, contrasting terms. This is a great method if you want to convince people to agree with you—you’re either this, or that—and John tells us right at the end of his gospel that his goal is to make us agree with him. Indeed, quite often in life we do have to make decisions between precisely one thing and precisely another. Specific situations call on us to decide something definitively.

But hypothetical situations do not, and this is why black-and-white pronouncements are not a great way to do theology in general. So when, in the Bible, we hear earth contrasted directly with heaven, or flesh contrasted directly with spirit, it’s a good idea to slow down and notice the import of what is being contrasted, and what is being asked of us personally.

The most striking contrast I see in this passage is one that we might not assume to be a direct contrast. I’m talking about the contrast between believing in Jesus and disobeying Jesus. “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God’s wrath.” The stakes are pretty high here: belief leads to eternal life, while disobedience leads to an inability to “see life,” and to “God’s wrath.”

John Martin, The Great Day of His Wrath
What is the meaning of “God’s wrath” for us, who are Easter people, who understand Jesus to have drawn all to himself, who revel in the joy of the resurrection? When, as John of Chrysostom said, “forgiveness has risen from the grave,” how can there still be talk of God’s wrath?

The “wrath of God” is a very specific phrase that sees specific use in Scripture. The Greek word we translate as “wrath” is “horge,” “a vigorous upsurge of one’s nature against someone or something” – “anger, wrath, indignation; as the divine reaction against evil, bringing judgment and punishment both historically and in the future; as a future culmination of judgment in an outpouring of the stored-up anger of God.” It is usually mentioned in the New Testament in relation to God’s attitude towards human sin.

We might not be comfortable talking about the wrath of God against us. But what about the wrath of God against our enemies? Is that easier to grasp? How about the wrath of God against terrorists, against exploiters and abusers, against the greedy and the dishonest? In these cases, we might want very much for God to show some wrath, because we harbor some wrath of our own. And why shouldn’t we? Injustice should make us very angry.

So if God has some wrath to dish out on the day of judgment, we have some idea who deserves it, right? Not so fast, writes Paul in his letter to the Romans. He tells us that when we judge others, we bring God’s wrath on ourselves. In other words, whatever “the wrath of God” means, nobody is immune to being at the receiving end of it.

Some corners of Christianity use passages like these to develop a theology that God’s very nature is so repulsed by our sinful actions that God cannot bear to be near us. Jesus is the one who washes our sin away and makes us able to come close to God again. The problem with this is that it seems to show Jesus to be a completely different entity from God. God can’t be near us, but Jesus can? This isn’t in keeping with our asserted theology that the three persons of the Trinity share one nature and are the one God.

I would say instead that while we can describe some actions as sinful, it is not the actions themselves that are sinful in black-and-white terms, but rather the quality of the relationship. Sin refers to our turning away from God, and I think this most often comes through our shortsightedness. God comes to us to be helpful and loving, but if we do not understand that we want God’s help or need God’s love, then we will turn away from it.

And so we come back to this strange contrast between belief and disobedience. We don’t normally think of these two things as opposites. But what might it mean if they are? Think of a parent-child relationship. What does it mean for the child to believe in the parent? I think it means trust. The child might say, “I trust that my dad will not leave me at the grocery store. I trust that my mom will come in and kiss me good night, even if I’m already asleep. I believe in them.”

In the same parent-child model, disobedience might have something to do with mistrust. A teenager might say, “I no longer trust that my parents understand my needs. I want to go out on the town with my friends, and I refuse to be prevented from doing so. So I’m going to swipe the car keys when they’re not looking, and just go.” The result will be a damaged relationship between child and parents.

We are in constant need of reminding that God always understands us and always has our best interests at heart, even when it hurts. No matter how much we talk about the “wrath of God,” we must never lose sight of the fact that God will never harm or destroy us. Any harm or destruction that does come to us does not come from God. Rather, God “gives the Spirit without measure.” God offers us more love and joy than we could possibly know what to do with.

What, then, does it mean for the “wrath of God” to be revealed on the day of judgment? Well, when the kid straggles in at 3:00 a.m. with alcohol on his breath and the car wrapped around a telephone pole, I can guarantee you there’s going to be some judgment and wrath! But why? Because of the damage to the car? No, of course not. It’s because of the parents’ worry about their child having been in danger. Whatever it takes to redeem this damaged relationship, then, the parents and the child will have to go through it. And that begins with judgment: accurate assessment of the damage, because it may seem at first that the relationship, not just the car, is totaled.

Maybe it’s a quirk of human nature, but I think that God’s judgment must just feel like wrath to us. Because judgment demands that we change. God demands that we grow beyond what we believe to be our limitations. We never have to worry about earning God’s love—that’s not even a question. But being in a loving relationship with God is hard work.

And so our Easter joy can even survive an encounter with the wrath of God, because divine joy is large and deep and comes to us as an ocean of grace. There is always more of God to love us back into life again, no matter how far gone we are, no matter how much it demands of us, no matter how long it takes. God is Love, and Love is calling us home. Amen.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

No Shame

homily preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Curate
Wednesday in Holy Week, April 1, 2015

“And it was night.” Night has fallen on Jesus. Betrayal has been set into motion, and nothing now will stop it. This week is steeped in frightening inevitability.

A friend of mine mused this week, “It’s surprising that we don’t hear about crucifixions happening in our world today.”

I replied, “I think we do—every single day. They just don’t tend to involve actual crosses.”

Aberdeen is a city in Washington with a 25% poverty rate, in a county in which 46% of residents rely on social services. The Rev. Sarah Monroe, our diocesan missioner with Chaplains on the Harbor in Aberdeen, Grays Harbor, and Westport, says, “In the face of dismal statistics, and in the face of a sense of communal despair, we seek to live in the light of the Gospel.”

A few weeks ago, a group of citizens in Aberdeen who have no homes were ordered to disband the largest homeless encampment in town. They have been evicted before. The city’s long-term goal is the development of a waterfront park—something that might be good for tourism and some eventual economic recovery, but which to date has been carried out with no consideration of the fate of today’s homeless citizens. At least once in the past, the city has burned their camp. The message from the city rings loud and clear: “We do not recognize your right to exist.”

What can we do? Can we quote today’s collect to these, our fellow citizens, and ask them “to accept joyfully the sufferings of the present time”? I wouldn’t dare. But I would certainly question what this prayer we pray today might mean.

Earlier this week, along with many other concerned people, I emailed the mayor of Aberdeen, Bill Simpson, urging him to give his citizens more time and asking him to work on creative solutions. He wrote me back and asked me for my ideas, and then he said, “In my solutions to most situations like this, I ask, ‘What would Jesus do?’”

But before I could reply, I found out from Sarah Monroe that the mayor had already given his decision: no more time. No reprieve. The eviction would go forward as scheduled.

Aaron Scott works for Chaplains on the Harbor. I told her what the mayor had told me. “What would Jesus do?” she wondered. “Jesus would die for the people in this encampment.”

Indeed, he would. Indeed, that’s why we’re all in church this week.

I bet that the people living in this encampment in Aberdeen are feeling betrayed: betrayed by their government and their society. Jesus knows something about betrayal. What did Jesus do? As we hear in the letter to the Hebrews, “For the sake of the joy that was set before him [he] endured the cross, disregarding its shame.”

Those who have been homeless know far more about shame than I have ever known. And, by the way, shame is not the same thing as guilt. Episcopal author and TED Talk veteran Brené Brown has come to this conclusion in her fourteen years of research, which centers on vulnerability and shame. She defines guilt as an appropriate feeling that comes when you know you have done something wrong. God sometimes points our guilt out to us so that we can benefit from it. If our hearts are open, guilt leads naturally to confession, learning, and self-correction.

Shame, on the other hand, is never God-given. Shame is imposed on us from outside by fearful voices. While guilt admits, “I did something bad,” shame insists, “I am something bad.” It’s all too easy to wonder whether a person has brought homelessness on himself through his bad decisions. Maybe we’ll feel less bad about a person’s misfortune if we can lead ourselves to believe the person deserves it. Funny thing about Jesus, though—he favored mercy, and mercy can only come to those who don’t deserve it. Mercy comes because we are God’s good creations.

And so the shameful cross was imposed on Jesus. Shameful eviction is imposed on the homeless in Aberdeen. Shame hides behind a cloak of respectability and tells us that we must always get what we deserve. Shame tells us, “You don’t get it, and you never will.” Shame can never lead to joy, because it has already written an ending in which joy can never again be possible. Shame is a liar, because it has given up on what God has created. It tries to rob us of our right to exist. In the end, shame did this to Judas.

But Jesus endured the shame that was imposed on him. He endured it in order to expose it for the lie that it is. Shame cannot win, because in God’s reality, shame has no power to destroy us—even when it takes our very lives.

It is for this reason that Jesus could say, at the moment of his betrayal, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.” Even on the cross, Jesus was already reigning victoriously. What does victory look like, or royalty, or glory? We should know by now that our ability to identify these things is severely impaired. Somehow, Jesus’ betrayal by Judas spelled the beginning of the end for the forces of darkness.

We might ask, “If Jesus suffered so that we wouldn’t have to suffer, then why is there still so much suffering?” But Jesus didn’t suffer so that we wouldn’t have to suffer. Jesus suffered in order to show us how to suffer. And so we do pray, “Give us grace to accept joyfully the sufferings of the present time, confident of the glory that shall be revealed.” Despite all appearances to the contrary, suffering will lead to glory.

But woe to those by whom suffering comes!

Why? Those who oppress others, who dismiss others, who give up on people, who impose shame on them … does God shame and condemn these people?

No. Because shame never comes from God. And that’s a good thing, because I’ve been one of those by whom suffering comes, and I bet you have, too. I have been a part of systems that perpetuate injustice. I have personally shamed other people, giving up on them. I have said to people some form of, “You don’t get it, and you never will.” Have you?

Imperfect creatures just tend to shame each other. Woe to those by whom suffering comes, because we have so much painful growing still to do. And may God bless us, and may God give us the grace to accept our guilt and to begin to grow.

This is why we need Jesus. We need Jesus to go ahead of us to the cross, to show us how it’s done, so that we can bear our crucifixions, tiny and great, without bitterness, without rage, without losing our souls. We can suffer without shame. And maybe Jesus will also stoke compassion and self-awareness in us: compassion to keep us from rushing to the judgment of others, and self-awareness to keep us from crucifying others.

To whatever degree that can happen—to whatever degree we can free ourselves and others from the cycle of shame—the Kingdom of God comes. Indeed, it is already here! We just need to decide to participate in it. We need to decide to be citizens of the society where there is no shame, no withdrawal of necessities for supposed lack of deserving, no crucifixion of those who are inconvenient to us.

To accept suffering joyfully does not mean to accept it cheerfully. It means to accept in our hearts what we may not yet fully believe with our minds—that suffering will always lead to glory. That there is no death without resurrection. This is joy!

It is from this perspective that the prophet Isaiah can proclaim, in the voice of the suffering servant:

The Lord GOD helps me;
therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
he who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
Let us stand up together.
Who are my adversaries?
Let them confront me.
It is the Lord GOD who helps me;
who will declare me guilty?

This is holy work: to be disgraced, and then to stand there and insist that we are not actually disgraced … to endure the hostility of those who are afraid of us … to stand there, to all appearances completely broken, and to name ourselves as beloved of God and completely whole. There is NO SHAME in God.

Yesterday clergy and citizens gathered with the homeless in Aberdeen to advocate, to strategize, and to make sure that all those affected know their civil and human rights. Then today I read this update from Aaron Scott:

For everybody keeping watch on the situation of our friends at the river encampment in Aberdeen: no eviction has taken place. The mayor has indicated that a no-trespass order will be in effect for April 13. Campers are considering their options, service providers are stepping up with offers for support, community members are engaged in the ongoing discussion about real solutions, but no decisions have been made yet. What we DO know: any true progress that happens here will come from the leadership of camp residents themselves. Nothing about us without us!

So you can see that God, and God’s people, are hard at work in Aberdeen. Today there is a beam of hope. And if tomorrow brings the kiss of betrayal, may it lead without delay to God’s glory, in some way we cannot yet see.

Night has fallen on Jesus. Betrayal has been set into motion, and nothing now will stop it. This week is steeped in glorious inevitability. Tomorrow night we will observe Jesus’ new commandment: “Love one another.” This command was also given to Judas—a love that bears no shame, but calls out guilt, all the while offering a generous invitation to grow. Amen.

Holy Week and Easter Are Countercultural

This article was supposed to be published in the April 2015 issue of The Messenger, the newsletter for St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Bellingham, WA. It was inadvertently left out, so I am publishing it here.


In the 1970s and ’80s, I was raised in two Christianities at once: the Christian-ish, civil religion of our dominant culture, and the Christianity of my local congregation. At a young age, most of what I considered the most attractive features of religion came from the dominant culture: Christmas trees, the Easter bunny, Santa Claus, and the idea that Christianity basically meant being nice to people.

Meanwhile, in my local congregation I learned the more central features of Christianity: the stories of Jesus and about Jesus, the thrilling Old Testament adventure stories, the Lord’s Prayer, the Nicene Creed, loving our enemies, death and resurrection. My faith was fed week in and week out by story and communal prayer and liturgy. I didn’t notice any difference between these two Christianities until I was an adult, and that realization was slow in coming.

Since then, Christianity in our context has changed. Fewer people have been baptized into the Church, and fewer still have grown up as members of a congregation. Unfortunately, a record number have experienced religion as a hostile force, or at least as a feature of society one can choose to ignore. On the other hand, Christian-ish, civic religion permeates our nation’s politics and self-image, and many of the societal structures we take for granted were originally built on it.

But Holy Week and Easter are countercultural. They are not generally understood by civil religion, despite long predating it. (If they were understood, we wouldn’t see secular organizations scheduling Easter egg hunts on Holy Saturday!) They are ancient, deep rituals steeped in power: power to expand our understanding of ourselves as human beings who seek clarity and meaning in a mysterious universe full of danger and joy.

I’d like to invite you to attend church with us on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Great Vigil. On Thursday, April 2 at 7:00 p.m., bring an offering of nonperishable food. Come have your feet washed, and wash the feet of others. Watch as the altar is stripped. On Friday, pray in the darkness and touch the Cross. On Saturday, come to the bonfire and light a candle. Hear the stories of our faith. Be sprinkled with water and smell the anointing oil. Ring bells and sing loudly with the first “Alleluias.” Bring friends. Bring children in pajamas, with pillows and blankets, and camp out. Bring anyone and everyone who could use some Good News.

Then, experience Easter as a season lasting for fifty days. As we tell the kids in Godly Play: Easter “is so great that it keeps on going. You can’t keep it in one Sunday. It overflows and goes on for six more Sundays. It makes a whole season!” We are Christians. This is our story. Help us tell the story!