Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Not My Job

homily preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler
Wednesday, April 20, 2016

So when I read this gospel passage earlier in the week, I imagined that I was listening to the NPR news quiz show, “Wait … Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” How many of you are familiar with this show, which airs on KUOW on Saturday mornings?

I imagined that Peter Sagal was welcoming a celebrity guest to the show, as he does each week to play the portion of the show called “Not My Job.” The task is to quiz a known personality on a topic not normally associated with his or her field of work. Now, this is usually some B-level celebrity, with some notable exceptions in the past, including Bill Clinton, whom Peter quizzed about “My Little Pony.” (The former president got three out of three questions correct, by the way.)

But this week is extra special. This week, Peter Sagal has called Jesus of Nazareth onto the show. So with apologies in advance to Peter Sagal and to NPR (and maybe Jesus, too!) for taking their names in vain … welcome Jesus of Nazareth, everybody! [applause]

Jesus: Thank you, Peter, thank you for having me on your show.

Peter: Jesus, we’re so glad you could join us today. In fact, we’re so honored to have you here that we’re going to do things a little differently this time. We’re going to ask you to pick our quiz topic. Honestly, we didn’t know what else to do. I mean, you’re the Son of God, right? Is there anything you don’t know about? Is there anything not normally associated with your field of work?

Jesus: Well, Peter, I guess you’ve got a point. I am the second person of the Trinity, and in the beginning, all of space and time was created through me. But I’m also just a humble carpenter from a little village in first-century Palestine. So I guess it depends on how you want to approach my story today. For instance, some people think that just because I’m the Son of God, I would have been able to speak English. Seeing as the English language wouldn’t exist for centuries after my earthly life, I think that’s a pretty dubious claim. You could quiz me on Shakespeare, and I wouldn’t know what you were talking about.

Peter: But, Jesus, don’t you pervade all things? Aren’t you speaking English with me right now?

Jesus: Yes, that’s a little confusing, isn’t it? It’s one thing to approach me according to my humanity, as Jesus of Nazareth. With my divinity—Jesus as Christ—you step right into a world or metaphors, and it’s easy to lose your footing.

Peter: Well, then what should we quiz you about?

Jesus: I have an idea. Why don’t you quiz me on judgment?

Peter: Judgment?

Jesus: Yes, judgment. See, that’s not really my job. I just said as much in today’s gospel reading, which was, after all, a brief summary of my entire ministry, and which I cried aloud just before the foot-washing and my arrest in the Kidron Valley.

Peter: Now, hang on a minute. You say judgment is not your job? How can you say that? I mean, looking at John’s gospel alone, you say in several places that judgment is the job that God the Father has given you to carry out. And the Nicene Creed says you “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.”

Jesus: Well, yes, you’re right—good biblical research, Peter! “Judge” is actually part of my ultimate job description. But honestly, from day to day, it doesn’t match up with my actual duties. See, if I went around describing myself as your “judge,” you’d hear it all wrong. You’d imagine a guy in a big wig, sitting on a really high bench, hurling condemnations from above about how naughty you’ve been. Frankly, that’s how most people see me, even many of those who claim to have been following me all their lives. It’s a real problem. They cheat on their diet and they imagine me wagging a finger at them. They cheat on their spouse and they imagine that I’m stoking the flames of hell—an existence I entered in order to destroy it, by the way.

Peter: Well then, what exactly is the nature of your “judging”?

Jesus: You might want to notice, for one thing, that the word in Greek is Krino, from which you get your English word “crisis.” When you think of me as your judge, think of me as coming into your life to force a crisis.

Peter: That doesn’t sound very pleasant!

Jesus: Oh, no, it isn’t pleasant at all. But ultimately, it’s extremely helpful. Remember that I know you far better than you know yourself. Most of the time you walk around fooling yourself into thinking you can live your life in some sort of balance between the short-sighted, selfish actions that give you immediate gratification, and the long-term, difficult work of love that makes you holy. But you can’t. You’ll always fall off the beam one side or the other, and usually it’s the first one. My job is to hold a mirror up to you and show you this fact.

Peter: So, no matter how much I try to be a good person, I will always fail?

Jesus: Right. And if I can help you see that, then something has to change.

Peter: But if I will always fail, then how can I change? How can I ever achieve perfection?

Jesus: Well, first off, you can let go of this perfection idea. When I said, “Be perfect,” I didn’t mean, “Be flawless.” I meant, “Be whole.” Be content with yourself. Make friends with all your character flaws and greet them when they show up; if you do this, you’ll have them on a leash, by the way. It’s your flaws that make you loveable anyway, not your star qualities. But my main point is this: Once you see yourself as you really are, maybe that will change the way you treat others. Maybe you’ll be more likely to love them. Because who’s really doing the judging here? I’m just holding the mirror. If you hear my words and don’t keep them, I don’t judge you for it, because I know you’re full of flaws. But if you can accept those flaws and understand that I always see you as whole and not broken—no matter what—well, my friend, that’s salvation right there. And ultimately, that’s my job: salvation, not judgment.

Peter: So what about the Nicene Creed: “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead”? And what about another passage in John’s gospel: “[God] he has given him authority to execute judgment”?

Jesus: Well, that’s a pretty deep mystery there. I would invite you to let go of all your assumptions about it, especially assumptions that include some sort of revenge against people who have wronged you, or assumptions that give you some sort of privilege over others just because you’ve been good. When I say it’s not my job to judge, I mean that I don’t keep score along the way. How can you judge a life that’s only half-lived? I let the weeds grow among the wheat, and if you don’t like it, well, you’re not the farmer. Suffice it to say that all the judgments that need to occur will occur in due time—or, really, outside of time, which God the Father invented anyway. And judgment doesn’t necessarily mean condemnation. It does mean accurate assessment for the purpose of growth. The point is for you to get the focus off of yourself, and put it where it belongs: on others. You do your job—loving God and loving other people—and I’ll do my job—saving all the lost and broken. So, Peter … what’s the first question in the quiz?

Peter: Well, I was going to ask you whether Hitler is burning in hell. That was supposed to be the lowball question we give to our biggest celebrities so they have an easier time winning. But now I’m not sure it’s my job to have a ready answer.

Jesus: Now you’re getting it! I may not spend all my time judging, but you’re even less qualified than I am.

Peter: So much for our quiz.

Jesus: That’s OK, Peter—I suggest we break format and break some bread together. And I see they’ve given you a glass of water to keep by your microphone, but if you’ll take a sip now you’ll find it’s actually a very nice Merlot. Welcome to the party!

Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Fairy Tale That Came True

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

Every week when we pray the Nicene Creed, we claim that Jesus died and was raised from the dead. To those of us who have spent our lives in the church, it’s easy to forget how strange this sounds. People don’t really come back from the dead, do they?

And yet the church has affirmed for nearly 2000 years that Jesus, the teacher and healer from Galilee, died and was buried. He was truly dead, dead, dead. His body was stiff and cold. And then somehow, sneakily, mysteriously, the tomb became empty. And we have story after story at the end of the gospels about Jesus appearing to his friends again, more alive, more solid, more real than he had ever been before.

The Fairy Tale by Walther Firle
What if it’s all just a fairy tale? What if these stories are just made up in order to give us hope, an example to follow, a meaning to our lives? Well, do people give their lives for fairy tales? Do they go to painful execution singing nursery songs to a god they don’t believe in? The resurrection stories are mysteriously elusive, and their details don’t agree with each other, and this is, to me, what makes them so believable. If the apostles had been hucksters, at least would have tried to get their stories straight. So what if a fairy tale actually happened? Better yet, what if all the most resonant fairy tales point to a deeper reality with resurrection at its core?

During the season of Easter, these fifty celebratory days, we work out the ramifications of resurrection for the world and for us. We do this liturgically by burning the Paschal candle at every Eucharist. We say “alleluia” every chance we get. We eliminate the Confession of Sin during this time to emphasize that we are swimming in Christ’s forgiveness; in the time of Resurrection, there is no need to dwell on our sins.

We also explore resurrection through the stories we read from Scripture this season. Two weeks ago we dealt with Thomas’s understandable doubts and Jesus’ acceptance of him in spite of them. Last week we heard Ananias come to believe that Saul, a persecutor of the Christians, could become Paul, a great evangelist for Christ. This week we hear of a resuscitation, as Peter raises the disciple Tabitha of Joppa from the dead. In the Revelation to John, we hear of Christ not as a shepherd, but as a lamb, a lamb sacrificed to secure the salvation of everyone, past, present, and future. And in the 23rd psalm, which we just sang as a hymn, we hear the roots of the metaphor Jesus employs in our gospel passage. Jesus describes himself as a shepherd who knows each of his sheep by name and guides them so that no one can snatch them away from him.

I see a common thread among all of these readings: an acknowledgment that even in the face of God’s resurrection power, dark places continue to exist. The evil forces of this world continue to operate, as if they are in denial that they have lost the war. And we can certainly find grounds for this denial all around us. People do continue to “walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” to suffer and to die. Jesus’ resurrection did not magically take away all the pain or establish an infinite utopia. So even today, we are left to ask the question, “If there’s an all-powerful, all-loving God, how can there still be so much evil in the world?” It’s just not fair.

Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection do make a difference, but that difference seems to be subtler than we’d like it to be. All that evil is still in the world, but it occurs in the context of resurrection. Any gains that evil seems to make are ultimately fruitless. God spreads an abundant feast before us and fills our chalice full, even as our enemies press upon us from all sides. Those who really, actually die are seen, in a much larger sense, to be eternally alive. [Those whom we see robed in white have come through the great ordeal, and God wipes away every tear from their eyes.] And in all this, at every step, comes Jesus’ assurance: No one will snatch the sheep from the shepherd’s hand. Jesus gives us eternal life, and we will never perish. It’s not just about “heaven after we die.” It’s about life today taking place within this context of resurrection. All the evil in the cosmos is subject to redemption, somehow, some way, eternally.

This is so difficult for us to wrap our minds and hearts around. Jesus tried to teach us, and he did so by telling his own fairy tales: parables, stories of the Kingdom of God, of God’s grace, and of God’s loving judgment. Resurrection means the lost sheep is found and restored to the flock. Resurrection means the prodigal son is given a welcome-home party. Resurrection means that a man beaten and left for dead is saved by his enemy. Resurrection means a prophet emerges from three days in the belly of the fish to find his own enemies repenting and forgiven.

As Jesus told his fairy tales, resurrection happened all around him in real life, everywhere he went—as if to underscore his point—as if to blur the distinction between fiction and non-fiction. Resurrection means that a rich man repents of his greed and repays those he had exploited. Resurrection means that a leper is healed, a demoniac is healed, a hemorrhaging woman is healed, and blind man is healed, and all of them are restored to their communities. Resurrection means that a hardened Roman centurion falls to his knees and cries, “Surely this man was innocent!”

After Jesus’ ascension, resurrection continued. Resurrection means a community of hope arising, simple fishermen becoming confident evangelists, Gentiles welcomed into the fold, women and eunuchs welcomed as church leaders, martyrs singing songs of praise even in the face of death as a means of strengthening those who continued to live.

And so it continues throughout history, with the moments of darkness and light so intertwined that often we can only tell in retrospect where the moments of resurrection lay. The Roman Empire becomes Christian, and for better or worse, it spreads the faith through governmental and military might. But 1700 years later, we emerge from the assumption of a Christian society into new, uncharted, exciting (and scary) territory. Resurrection means an end to slavery, freedom emerging from oppression, an end to baseless discrimination, and new understandings of what it means to respect the dignity of every human being. Resurrection will continue to mean new things!

And here is where we find ourselves. In the 21st century, we, too, experience resurrection as others have. We don’t have to rely exclusively on ancient texts to assuage our doubts: our very lives can be the evidence. What does this look like on the ground, as they say? What are some clues that might help us notice resurrection in action?

Well, for one thing, resurrection is more easily seen in retrospect. It might mean looking back on the darkest moments of your life—moments when someone victimized you, for instance, or moments when you acted shamefully—and trying to figure out how on earth things did get better. Sometimes resurrection is forward-looking. It might mean imagining greater things than we could before, or becoming braver than we used to be, for the sake of love. Resurrection might mean a surprising sense of peace where before there was only anxiety.

Maybe you can identify stories of resurrection in your own life, or maybe doing so is difficult. But resurrection is sneaky. One thing I know for sure is that it never looks like what we think it should look like, and it never sets things back to the way they were before. It does not ignore or minimize your pain; rather, it encompasses your pain and includes it and redeems it and sets in within a larger context. Remember that Jesus’ resurrected body, while it was physical and bore the wounds of his death, was also able to materialize within a locked room! There is great mystery in resurrection. Sometimes we have to expect to see it before we can. Sometimes we have to move beyond Thomas’s mantra, “seeing is believing,” to understand that believing is seeing.

This is one thing the church is for: to help us place our lives into the context of resurrection. (And how could we ever do this work alone?) Here in the church, we share the unconventional idea that God loves everyone eternally, even our enemies, even God’s adversaries. Here in the church, we find that whenever we follow some shepherd other than Jesus—that is, when we act in ways that run counter to love and forgiveness—the Good Shepherd is still searching for us and calling us back home. And ultimately, here in the church, we learn that love wins. We learn that if our situation is not OK, that only means it’s not over yet.

During this season of Easter, listen for the shepherd’s voice and follow. Watch for evidence of resurrection. Know that you have been given eternal life, and that no one can possibly snatch you out of the shepherd’s hand. The Good Shepherd calls you “greater than all else.” God considers the fact of you to be more important than your moral or immoral behavior, more important than your successes or failures, more important than your wisdom or foolishness, more important than what you can and cannot do, more important than anything people wish you would become, more important than anything else in the universe. You are the end, not the means, and that is why God loves you. You simply are, and that means that you live in a world defined by resurrection.

Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ, through whose resurrection we all share eternal life. May we always be ready to embrace the fairy tale that came true—that Jesus died and was raised from the dead—so that we can enjoy the fruits of resurrection in this life and beyond it. Amen.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

A Kingdom of Justice and Equity

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

The Rt. Rev. Edward Thomas Demby
Today is the feast day of two African-American bishops, one born free and one born into slavery, both important figures in the Episcopal Church in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Edward Thomas Demby was born in Delaware in 1869 to two freeborn parents. He grew up in the African Methodist Episcopal Church (which we typically abbreviate as the AME Church), attended Howard University, and was ordained. It was during his time serving as Dean of Students at Paul Quinn College in Texas that Demby was confirmed in the Episcopal Church and was soon after ordained to the Episcopal priesthood.
Serving in several congregations throughout the South and then being appointed Archdeacon for Colored Work in Tennessee, Demby wrote that working in that environment was like “building bricks without straw.” He worked for the full inclusion of African-Americans in the Episcopal Church, always swimming against the tide of Jim Crow. For many years he worked for no salary at all, but nevertheless he founded a number of black hospitals, schools, and orphanages.
Demby became bishop suffragan of the Diocese of Arkansas—the first African-American to serve as a bishop in the United States. (A bishop suffragan is an assisting bishop elected to do specific work throughout a diocese.) Demby served in many groups both inside and outside the church, including the Forward Movement Commission, the Joint Commission on Negro Work, the Race Relations Commission, the Southern Conference on Human Welfare, the American Association of the Advancement of Colored People, the American League for a Free Palestine, the American Humane Society, and the Sociology Society. He became the primary voice for the desegregation of the Episcopal Church and wrote many books and articles. At the age of 85, just a few years before his death, Demby was able to witness the landmark decision on Brown v. Board of Education.
The Rt. Rev. Henry Beard Delany

Henry Beard Delany, on the other hand, was born into slavery in Georgia just a few years before the Civil War began. Initially trained by his father as a farmer, carpenter, and brick mason, in his early 20s Delany became the recipient of a scholarship funded by his congregation, St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Fernandina Beach, Florida. He attended St. Augustine’s College in Raleigh, North Carolina, a school founded by the Episcopal Church immediately after the Civil War specifically to educate newly freed people. Delany studied music and theology, and after graduating, he stayed at St. Augustine’s to teach carpentry and masonry. He became the architect and chief builder of the school’s historic chapel. He also worked with students to build both a library and a hospital on campus.
During his time in Raleigh, Delany joined St. Ambrose Episcopal Church, and from there he was ordained to the priesthood in 1892. He was elected bishop suffragan in North Carolina, specifically for what the church then called Negro Work, in the same year that Demby was elected. Delany traveled throughout the Carolinas establishing black Episcopal congregations, since Jim Crow laws prevented any possibility of integrated churches in the South.
I personally can’t imagine living such an accomplished life as these two men did. Yet before this week, I had never heard of Demby or Delany. To be fair, our church has a long history, and there are many wonderful bishops I’ve never heard of. But it struck me that the work of African-Americans, especially, tends to be relatively unknown among us white folks. Growing up in small-town white America in the 1980s, my history books mentioned Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King and no other stars of the civil rights movement. Growing up in small-town white Episcopal churches, I never heard the names of any black Episcopalians.
This basic ignorance of important pieces of American history is just part of our landscape, a continuing, unthinking contribution to a world that needs African-Americans to preach the gospel “in spite of great opposition.” The two men we honor today, like the Apostle Paul and his companions, “worked night and day” to proclaim the gospel of God, urging and encouraging and pleading that we white folks should lead lives worthy of God. We’ve come a long way, yes. But our ignorance indicates that we can go so much farther.
You know, sometimes you’ll hear people scorn other people for their ignorance—for not knowing something that they think everybody should know. I try never to do this, understanding that we all learn things when we learn them, and that none of us has the time or energy even to learn everything that would be helpful even to ourselves, let alone to others. So today, I’m glad to have learned about Edward Thomas Demby and Henry Beard Delany. In researching them, I googled some of the churches where they served so faithfully.  I learned that one of my seminary classmates, Joyce Cunningham, serves as assisting clergy at St. Ambrose Church in Raleigh, the congregation that sponsored Henry Delany for ordination. This and many other historically black congregations in the Episcopal Church are the work of these two men and many other people.
I thank God for Demby and Delany’s legacies. They remind me that to know my own history is good, but that anything I can learn about another people’s history makes me a better person. Not only that, but doing so shows me that other people’s history is, in a very real way, my history as well—in this case, American history and Episcopal history. Finally, such learning helps fit me for God’s Kingdom: a kingdom of justice and equity, a kingdom that is alive in the world wherever the powerful choose to abdicate that power to others, and that is active in the world wherever people of every color, all beloved of God, love one another. Amen.