Monday, September 26, 2016

Those Rich People

sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Associate Priest for Adult Formation
Proper 21C, The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 25, 2016

Last week at Western Washington University, our Episcopal campus fellowship, EPIC, had a booth at the annual InfoFair, a massive gathering of campus clubs. As usual, the university grouped most of the religious clubs in a row. We had the Mormons on one side of us, and on the other side were the atheists. The atheist club drew a much bigger crowd than we did, driven in part by their large sign that was decorated with the flames of hellfire and sported the words, “You’re Probably Fine.”

Now, most hardcore atheists probably have no idea that the god they don’t believe in is a god I don’t believe in either. I even thought about asking if I could borrow their sign and walk around with it a bit. But in the end I decided not to … not because I believe that God craves fiery punishment for anyone, but because I was working through the readings for today, readings that warn us not to be too self-assured. We hear loud and clear today that it is not at all safe to assume that we’re “probably fine” in the afterlife. After all, Jesus says, “The rich man … died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented …”

Just as importantly, we must not be flippant about the lives we live today. From the Prophet Amos: “Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches … they shall now be the first to go into exile.” And, from the First Letter of Timothy: “Those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.”

On the other hand, this set of readings isn’t really about us, is it? It’s those rich people God isn’t happy with! I’m so happy I’m not rich, and we’re not rich, so these readings can’t really be for our ears. No, we can just sit back and watch the smiting begin. Who’s with me?

The stand-up comic Eddie Izzard once did a routine about Robin Hood. Robin Hood is riding through the countryside and comes upon a very well-dressed horseman.

“Give us cash! I steal from the rich and give to the poor! Give us cash!”

“No, I’m not gonna give you cash.”

“Go on, I steal from the rich. Are you rich?”

“No, I’m … comfortable.”

“That’s no good, I can’t steal from the fairly well off and give to the moderately impoverished! That’s not gonna swing, is it?”

Hmmm. Maybe there are grey areas. Could it be that our society isn’t cloven distinctly into “the rich” and “the rest of us”? You know, when we compare ourselves to the rest of the world, most of us become the rich—even those of us who struggle to pay more than one mortgage, and those of us who won’t be able to send our children to college after all, and those of us who must keep adding more debt to the credit card. We’re not lying on beds of ivory (which sounds profoundly uncomfortable to me), but compared to others, most of us are feasting sumptuously every single day. Personally, I have not gone a single day in my life without enough to eat. So what’s the minimum standard? How worried should I be?

Maybe a good way to look at it is this: Would Robin Hood be justified in robbing you? And if you say no, on what do you base that?

The writer of the first letter of Timothy gives us a pretty solid baseline for our lives: “If we have food and clothing, we will be content with these.” It seems to me that once we have something more than the means of bare survival, we receive two things: we receive enough material wealth that we could share some and not die; and we receive an urge not to share, just in case our luck runs out. Let’s say we have a home of our own, perhaps, after scrimping and saving for a down payment. Maybe there are kids to feed, and perhaps a job is going sour. What will we do if something goes wrong? No, it’s not time to share yet. You may be having that reaction just listening to me right now!

But as time goes by, let’s say material success becomes a reality. Just maintaining the level of comfort we’re used to costs quite a bit of money, and we’re never quite certain that the money will keep coming. And next thing you know, we’re the rich man, feasting sumptuously every day, and walking right past the starving beggar. We’ll give eventually, we say. We’ll help our suffering neighbors once we have enough to feel secure.

I’m not saying all this to make you feel guilty; after all, I’m implicated just as much as you are. When I was in seminary, my family relied on financial aid and a lot of generous people to enable me to enjoy the luxury of three years of study. We didn’t feel financially secure. We didn’t give anything to the church during the first year! And I knew there was no guarantee of financial security after I graduated and was ordained. Thank God for St. Paul’s. But even during seminary, by any fair definition, I was still among the richest in the world. So let’s stop for a minute and look more closely at the readings, because there is indeed hope there.

The Prophet Amos doesn’t rail against rich people in general, but specifically those who “are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph”—that is, of the Jews’ ancient ancestor. Amos is shocked at the level of decadence in the two Jewish kingdoms of Israel and Judah. He’s also aware that the Assyrians are getting ready to sweep into Samaria, where they will march the elite of Jewish society into exile. Of course the rich will be the first to go, and then the Assyrians will be able to subjugate the poor and uneducated who remain. The rich and educated of Israel have made themselves vulnerable by their carelessness, as they have always had the means to make a just society but just didn’t feel like it. Nations that don’t provide for the poor become unstable, because the more the citizens are suffering, the weaker the nation is … no matter how powerful it looks from the outside. I’ve heard it said that you can judge a nation’s morality by how far it is willing to let any one of its citizens fall.

And this brings us to the rich man in Jesus’ parable. In this gripping story, Jesus gives us much of the imagery we still attribute to the afterlife: a heaven above, a burning fire of hell beneath, and a giant chasm between them. Doubtless Dante drew on these images and expanded on them, so we should remember that this is a parable, not a divine description of a metaphysical reality. It’s a story, sort of an ancient equivalent of the old “A man dies and meets St. Peter at the gate” story. Except, in this case, St. Peter is present and actually listening to the story! Huh.

I notice that Jesus assumes that there is continuity between our lives now and our lives on the other side of death. From Hades, the Greek underworld, the rich man instructs Abraham first to send Lazarus to him with just a drop of water, and barring that possibility, then as a messenger to warn his family of their potential fate … as if poor Lazarus were still some poor lackey he could order around. But it is too late. The rich man’s entitled soul has never practiced the art of generosity—and, yes, generosity is an art that must be practiced. The rich man has been building a giant chasm all his life.

What if he had noticed Lazarus at the gate? What if he had started giving early on, before he became a self-made man, when he didn’t have two dimes to scrape together, but when he could have given one of his two nickels away? How might things have gone differently? Would he ever have become so rich? And if not, would that have been so awful?

Many of Jesus’ later parables, especially, urge us not to wait to change our lives. We don’t like to imagine a time, on either side of the grave, after which it will be too late to change. But if we assume a continuity of existence, then we can’t assume that death means we will suddenly become infinitely wise or abundantly giving. At what point will change just become too difficult for us to bear? And is this moment, right now, too soon to begin really living?

And so we come back to us. If we have any wealth beyond that which will buy our daily bread, we have the privilege of deciding what to do with it. Being responsible with money means spending some and saving some, of course, but it also means learning how to share—and that’s the hardest part. The gift of material resources is particular to our earthly lives, and whether or not we use it, we will lose it. So God says, “Use it!” Because to whatever degree we do not share with those in need, we are implicated in their suffering. We cannot live our lives separately from them because we are not a planet full of isolated individuals. We were made to love each other. And if we place faith in God’s love, then we are obligated to share our wealth with those who need it more.

Maybe you’re sitting there right now, looking at your situation and saying, “I just can’t. The chasm I’ve built is too wide and too deep.” If that’s how you feel, fear not, because you can still entrust yourself to the great bridge-builder and step out in faith.

That’s Good News. And that’s why the psalmist is able to proclaim, “Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help! Whose hope is in the Lord their God … who gives justice to those who are oppressed, and food to those who hunger.” May God use us as instruments of justice for the oppressed, and may we always share what we have with those who are in need. If we are a Christian people, then let’s practice the generosity of God. Amen.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

What If ...?

homily preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Associate Priest for Adult Formation
Wednesday, September 7, 2016 (5:30 p.m.)

Have you ever played fantasy football? For the record, I haven’t, because I’m just not that into sports. But if I were into sports, I’d definitely be excited about fantasy football. And this is because I like statistics. In fantasy football, you become the manager of a team of pro football players, handpicked by you from various real-world teams. Then your season plays out in conjunction with the real one, as the players’ real-world statistics determine how well your team does against others.

Fantasy football is a massive game of “what if.” We adopt a new reality based on an agreed-upon set of rules, and the “what-if” reality is affected by what happens in the real world around us.

I want to argue that the church is not unlike fantasy football.

First, look at the world around us. It is not as it should be. This is something that perhaps everybody in the world can agree on: there is a rift between what is and what should be. We would not all agree on how things should be, but at least we all understand that things are not as they should be right now. We want things to be better. Like fantasy football players, we wonder, “What if …?”

The universal human longing for a better world is what drives most, perhaps all, religion. And so we have inherited stories of a world long gone in which things were different—in which everything was as it should be. What if the world could be like that again? The Bible, as a collection of books and also as an overarching narrative, takes us from the Garden of Eden to the New Jerusalem, from a mythical past in which all was right, through the pain of sin, which is separation from God and the way things should be, to a newly restored world in which all is right again. Christians claim that this new world has somehow been made possible through Jesus Christ.

Possible, yes. But what about the here and now? Well, that’s tricky. Jesus spoke constantly about “the Kingdom of God,” a shorthand phrase for this “what-if” world. And he taught us what this “what-if” world would be like. Look at what we heard today from the Beatitudes, which form the beginning of the Sermon on the Plain:

Blessed are you who are poor,
   for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now,
   for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now,
   for you will laugh.

Furthermore, he predicted consequences for those who didn’t get with the program:

Woe to you who are rich,
   for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are full now,
   for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who are laughing now,
   for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

(It is never lost on me that I fit the description of the second group far better than the first. I have enough money and enough food. I am genuinely enjoying my life, and most people I know speak well of me. Woe to me, for I may have a harder time fitting into the “what-if” world than others do.)

So Jesus spoke of a coming Kingdom in which all wrongs would be righted, and everyone would have what they needed. And please note that he was not talking about “heaven after you die.” Jesus’ primary concern was with the here and now. He comforted a harassed and oppressed people who were the victims of our fallen world. But he also pointed out the ways that they themselves were capable of being the victimizers, whenever they set themselves up as better than some of their own people. And then Jesus died, and he rose from the dead, and the Christian claim is that this new reality will someday, somehow, be brought into reality because of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

Yes, the Kingdom of God was meant to be a reality in this world, not just in the next, but Jesus didn’t even speak of the Kingdom only as if it were something far off in a distant future. He also spoke of it as a present reality, and he took people to task for not participating in it. If you want the Kingdom of God, you need to imagine that it is already here, and then live in it.

Now, living in a “what-if” world was by no means a new idea. There were four main “parties” of Jews in Jesus’ world, and they all had fairly established ideas about what kind of world they wanted to live in. The Essenes were a group of Jews who had cut themselves off from society and lived a stern, harsh life in the desert, doing their best to create their own “what-if” world in which all of God’s commandments were kept in isolation from all those who would hurt them. But Jesus was not an Essene. He knew that participation in a “what-if” world is useless if you ignore the real world in the process.

The Herodians were Jews who allowed themselves, like their king, to be co-opted and used by the Roman Empire. They didn’t live in a “what-if” world at all. They were realists, cynically doing whatever they had to do in order to survive. Jesus’ Beatitudes would have seemed silly and na├»ve to them. Likewise, the Zealots, who wanted to overthrow the Roman Empire, had no time for dreaming. They believed they could build the Kingdom of God on earth through violent revolt.

And then there were the Pharisees, who were engaged with the world of Roman occupation, holding fast all the same to Jewish law. Of all of these groups of Jews, the Pharisees were the most likely to grasp Jesus’ approach, because they were actually trying to walk that fine line. But Jesus challenged their approach by pointing out all their hypocrisies. If salvation—that is, a fulfilled life in God’s present-day Kingdom—could come from following the rules and from temple sacrifice, they really couldn’t do any better than they were doing. So where was salvation? Could it be that God desired mercy and not sacrifice?

Jesus’ call to live in a “what-if” world was the culmination of what the Jews had been doing all along: claiming that their one God ruled all the earth. The psalms talk a lot about God raising up the downtrodden, feeding the hungry, bringing enemies to justice. The people prayed these psalms even when all evidence was to the contrary.

And so we, also, are a “what if?” people … a subjunctive people. The Beatitudes bear this out. What if the rulers of the earth belonged to God? What if the poor were blessed? What would that look like? What if the hungry were to be filled? What if those who have wept were to laugh? What if our suffering demonstrated to everyone our blessedness instead of our wretchedness? What if those who are sitting pretty now were to be put in their proper place?

Our liturgy does this, too. What if the water of baptism brought about death and new life? What if this bread and wine were body and blood? What if everyone were welcome at the table, despite all our differences? To many, it may seem as if we in the church are merely living a fantasy. If so, at our best we are at least planting seeds of our “what-if” world in places where they might grow—in people’s very lives. We plant seeds in our own lives by humbling ourselves before God, and in the lives of others by welcoming them in Jesus’ name.

So as the NFL season gets started, and as our real-world lives chug on, remember that we are a subjunctive people creating a “what-if” world. What if our discovery of God’s limitless love meant that we couldn’t just continue to participate in the real world anymore in the same way? What if we caught a glimpse of the Kingdom of God among us and chose to live in it? What then?