Monday, July 13, 2015

Ev'ry Time I Feel the Spirit ...

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

I once knew a high school girl who carried her Bible around with her a lot. She had put a sticker on its cover—a sticker that came into existence in the late 1980s thanks to musicians like Guns N’ Roses and the 2 Live Crew. The sticker on her Bible read, “Parental Advisory: Explicit Content.”

So I hope you’ll laugh with me that on the Sunday when we look back and celebrate that annual super bowl of children’s ministry, Vacation Bible School, what happens in our gospel reading? A king ogles his own daughter and awards her sexy dance routine with a severed head. Great. But this reading carries even more frightening connotations for us now, connotations we can’t laugh at, with the over-sexualization of young girls in the entertainment industry on the one hand, and so-called ISIS frequently beheading people as a political tool on the other. Our instincts urge us to shield our children from all that is risqué and violent in the world. But the Bible is about real life, and real life is rarely age-appropriate. So, then, the Holy Spirit may have something else in mind.

Salome with the Head of John the Baptist (Titian)
Some of you may ask, “Why this reading? Couldn’t you have used something else?” And the answer is no—we Episcopalians believe strongly in sticking with the readings we are given in the centuries-old lectionary cycle, not because we cannot change, but because we believe it’s not up to us to dictate all the conditions of our worship. Indeed, we share these readings today with millions of Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, Reformed Christians, Moravians, Disciples of Christ, Unitarian Univeralists, and a variety of other Christian denominations all over the world. So the weekly lectionary is a rare and strong sign of Christian unity, one that shouldn’t be thrown out.

In the Episcopal Church, we love the Bible, and we try to hear and to absorb whatever message it sends us today. And then it’s the preacher’s job to try to find the good news in the reading—no matter what it is—and to use it to connect to God’s good news at work in the lives of all of us.

So what is the good news here? What could possibly be good news in the grisly execution of John, one of the true heroes of Jesus’ time? Believe it or not, I think it has something to do with the theme we used for Vacation Bible School last week. And it has everything to do with the questions: “To whom do we listen? And based on what we hear, what do we decide to do?”

First, “To whom do we listen?” The theme of our Vacation Bible School this year was “Message Received: Hearing God’s Call.” Throughout the week, we sang, played, created, and told the stories of Samuel, Esther, Mary, Jesus’ disciples, and Lydia. Today we add the story of John, a homeless man who dressed in camel’s hair and ate locusts. John used harsh words to pronounce God’s judgment on all those who would stand in the way of people’s relationship with God. And then he announced that the long-awaited Messiah, the savior of the world, was on his way. 

When Jesus did show up, John’s job was to baptize him and get out of the way. Judgment, no matter how correct, needed to stand aside to make way for mercy. Both John and Jesus listened to God. Both John and Jesus were eventually murdered. Why? Because to people who assume they’re in good with God, the only thing scarier than God’s judgment is God’s mercy. Of course, Jesus did have harsh words of judgment for religious insiders who abused their power and their privileges. When we are given ears to listen to God’s judgment, we have to admit that we’re guilty of a lot of bad behavior. But Jesus’ judgment was also charged with mercy and forgiveness. And if we are forgiven, then other people are forgiven as well—people we’d rather see punished!

So that means that when we listen to God, we have to be ready to open our hearts ever wider. In order to be citizens of God’s kingdom, we have to let go of condemning people, and giving up on people, and insisting that people be punished. We have to want health and healing and wholeness for everyone—even those who hate us. And if that’s too hard for us, it means that we’re still working on becoming citizens of God’s kingdom.

In this work that is, in many ways, a letting go of unnecessary work, prayer is our greatest tool. We taught the kids this week that prayer is something we need to make time for every day. We can bring all sorts of feelings into prayer: joy, sadness, fear, anger, disgust. We are able to bring all of these feelings before God because Jesus felt them, too. So when we pray, no matter what we are feeling, God is there to help us through it. We might hear God speak to us in the silence of our hearts, and many of the kids told us they understood what that is like. We might even hear a real voice in our ears—a couple of the kids at VBS spoke of having had such an experience, and I’m not prepared to disbelieve them.

Yes, God is already speaking to our children and has been since the day they were born. That goes for us, too. So … “to whom do we listen?” Do we spend more time listening to human voices—to voices that promise quick fixes and easy answers, to voices that pander to our worst instincts, to voices that insist on keeping us busy and distracted at best, and judgmental and hateful at worst?

Or do we clear away the clutter and make time and make space to listen to that still, small voice inside us? When and how do you pray? If you are part of a family, do you pray together? When and how? Do you read the Bible and make connections between those ancient words and whatever is going on in your life right now? Are you ready to receive gifts from God through prayer, even if those gifts are not at all what you had requested?

All week at Vacation Bible School, we sang a song that names gifts God gives us in prayer: “Listen! Listen, God is calling/ Through the Word inviting/ Offering forgiveness, comfort, and joy.” Forgiveness, comfort, and joy are gifts that God gives us—hopeful gifts, even if such gifts mean we have to do the hard work of changing and growing. God is always speaking love into our hearts, if we have ears to listen. As we grow and change throughout our lives, God is there to help. And so, this week, we also sang the old spiritual: “Ev’ry time I feel the Spirit/ Moving in my heart, I will pray.”

Then comes the second question: “Based on what we hear, what do we decide to do?” Learning to understand what we hear in prayer is called discernment, and it’s a skill we never finish developing. In the first letter of John, it’s called “testing the spirits.” John the Baptist listened to the voice of God and spoke the truth. He let people know that change was coming—change in the way God relates to all of us. Then John began to take his marching orders from Jesus. He baptized Jesus, and we know he kept working after that, because his work got him thrown into prison, where he sat on that fateful night when Herodias (who, confusingly enough, seems to have had the same name as her mother) danced for her father.

Sometimes listening to God and taking our marching orders from Jesus leads to dire consequences. At the very least, it will sometimes make life more difficult. It will inspire us to give of ourselves for others, to deepen our compassion for every human being, and sometimes to speak truth to power … to take an unpopular stand. Sometimes it will leave us feeling disoriented and lost, because only God knows the way. And then, as we follow that way, we will find that it leads us to places we never could have imagined. Eventually we will learn that even death is no barrier to God’s love for us. Jesus demonstrated this most powerfully for us on the cross, where he hung in agony and simultaneously forgave his enemies. Such hard-won strength takes practice. Such unconditional love comes through years of prayer.

Christianity is about real life, and real life is rarely age-appropriate. If you have children in your life, don’t hide this fact from them. Share your own struggles—in ways they can understand, to be sure, and without unduly overloading them. Don’t make them responsible for your feelings, but do keep finding ways to connect them with the larger world into which they are growing, and to look upon this world with eyes of compassion.

Indeed, that kind of work was happening this week at St. Paul’s. On Thursday morning we all gathered in the Great Hall: the entire group of children, along with teen and adult helpers, and along with various parents who were arriving to take them home. Together we sang “Here I Am, Lord,” the chorus of which goes: “Here I am, Lord/ Is it I, Lord?/ I have heard you calling in the night/ I will go, Lord/ If you lead me/ I will hold your people in my heart.” We sang the final chorus a cappella, and as the last note faded into silence, the silence lingered in the air. Yes, a group of sixty children ages 3 to 10 was completely silent for a number of seconds, until I finally broke the silence to dismiss them to their homes. In retrospect, I wish I’d let the silence go on longer, because I perceived that God was speaking through that silence to every one of us. Amen.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Go Yourself

homily preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Curate
Genesis 22:1-14; Psalm 116:1-8; Matthew 9:1-8

Caravaggio, The Sacrifice of Isaac
When I was in seminary, I had the distinct pleasure of translating the story of Abraham’s binding of Isaac from Hebrew into some semblance of English. The first thing I noticed when translating it is the lack of emotional language in the passage. We don’t hear how anybody feels; we only hear what they do.

Emotion may be the single most important commonality of all human life in every place and time. I have learned in recent years that my ability to name and express my emotions in appropriate ways has everything to do with my ability to make good decisions regarding my relationships with others. To look at it from the other direction, our relative inability to feel—especially, the widespread cultural expectation that men should not express emotions in sensitive ways—may be one of the greatest evils we face. How many killings could be avoided if people, especially men, were able to say to themselves, “Hey, I’m angry,” before reacting to that anger? How many divorces could be avoided if couples knew right from the start how to express their emotions respectfully to each other, trusting that those emotions would be received with care and love?

During the summer of seminary when I interned in a retirement community, my mentor said, “Men don’t usually tell you how they’re feeling. You have to listen deeply for the emotion underneath. So let them tell their stories, and whatever you do, don’t hinder those stories. Let them finish. Receive their stories with love and care, and within them, you’ll hear and understand the feelings they have never been taught how to name.”

So we needn’t be surprised to find so little emotion in this story of Abraham and Isaac, and, for that matter, throughout much of the Bible. Perhaps lack of expressed emotion is an unthinking byproduct of the fact that the Bible was probably all written by men—or maybe it’s by design. Maybe by removing the characters’ emotions from the story, we are better able to place ourselves into it. How would you feel if God told you, in no uncertain terms, to kill your child … your only child … whom you love? (I’ve always wondered how Sarah felt, or if Abraham ever told her what had happened, even afterward.) But Abraham doesn’t react with emotion. He just obeys.

The classical understanding of Abraham’s obedience is that his faith in God is so strong, he never has any doubts that this will turn out OK. If Isaac is miraculously spared, it will be OK. If Isaac is killed, somehow, God will make that OK, too. But with all due respect to centuries of tradition that maintains this view, I think its helpfulness in our own culture is a bit limited. What father could possibly do this? What good father wouldn’t rage against God, or just flat-out refuse to honor the commandment? Doesn’t Abraham at least owe his son a strong emotional reaction?

Likewise, rabbis and priests throughout the ages have taught about Isaac’s supreme act of obedience, as evidenced by his apparent lack of reaction to being bound as a potential sacrifice. Either he is a remarkably self-aware youth who doesn’t mind that God wants him dead, or he is a grown man who still doesn’t seem inclined to use his adult strength to fight off his hundred-year-old father. The story doesn’t tell us that Isaac was compliant, or that Abraham somehow overpowered him. It only says that Abraham bound him. What are we to make of this?

No emotion. No emotion anywhere. And yet … when we receive this story with care and love and hear it through to completion, this story is dripping with emotion. God says, “Take now your son … your only son … whom you love … Isaac.” This is the child of promise, the child who demonstrates God’s love for the human race in the divine promise to make from Abraham a people who will be a blessing to the entire world. Isaac is the only thread binding Abraham to all of us today. Isaac is of crucial importance to the fate of the entire world.

After identifying in no uncertain terms the object of the story, God says something very strange to Abraham. Our translation has God telling Abraham to “go,” but that’s a great example of the English language not being built to convey the proper meaning of a Hebrew word. God actually tells Abraham, “Lech lech’a,” which we could render literally as, “Go you,” or “Get you going,” or even, “Go yourself.” It’s a verb tense called ethical dative. We find it in English in Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew in the phrase, “Knock me at this gate,” and we understand instinctively that Petruchio isn’t asking for a clonk on the head. So, God tells Abraham, “Go you”—“go yourself.” The implication might even be, “As you go to the Mount of Moriah, you will find that you are journeying ever more deeply into the very essence of who you are.”

We also find strong emotion underneath a few recurring words and phrases. When God calls Abraham, Abraham replies, “Hineini”—that is, “Behold: here I am.” When Isaac gets inquisitive on the journey and says, “My father,” Abraham replies, “Hineini, my son.” And when the angel of the Lord calls to Abraham from heaven, Abraham also replies, “Hineini—Behold: here I am.” Abraham’s raw, naked presence stands before God and before Abraham’s beloved son. Abraham is present in all that he is. He has truly gone more and more deeply into his very essence.

You may also have noticed that when Abraham leaves his servants behind and goes on alone with Isaac, he instructs them to wait there, “and we will worship, and we will return to you.” We will return. Does Abraham say this in order to hide God’s command from Isaac for the time being? Or does he say it because he cannot imagine that Isaac will not survive this ordeal somehow? What agony is going on inside him?

There is even emotion in the angel’s response—which, in typical form in the most ancient Hebrew writings, begins to sounds more like God’s voice with every passing word. “Stay your hand and don’t do any harm to him, for now I know that you are one who fears God, and you have not withheld your son … your only son … from me.”

God holds us in life, and God holds us in death. God is one who demands everything of us, because there is no reality in which we might preserve ourselves apart from God. Let’s remember that with these most ancient stories, especially, the appropriate question is not, “Did this event really happen?,” but rather, “What is this story for?” While we may quibble with the premise that God would test Abraham—and Isaac, for that matter!—in such a cruel and manipulative way, I don’t think that’s what this story is for. Closer to its purpose is something about the all-encompassing sovereignty of God, that not only we but also our children and all our hopes and all our future are ever held in God’s loving embrace.

Also closer to its purpose must be something about the fact that Isaac is not killed after all. The tribe next door may sacrifice their children to Molech with frightening regularity. But we, the people of Adonai, we will not be like other peoples. We understand the fear of God not to be an abject fear that the crops will die, but a deep reverence and awe in the face of God’s unrelenting love in all circumstances, good or bad. We know that God wants not only our obedience, but our joy. God wants us to have life, and have it abundantly. And so we obey God in all things—because those who fear God know that they have nothing to fear. When God calls, we say, “Hineini.” And when we do, we trust that we will hear the command, lech lech’a: go yourself. Amen.