Friday, March 30, 2018

Salvation Trumps Survival

sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Associate Priest for Adult Formation
Good Friday, March 30, 2018

We are all born with a survival instinct: we want to prolong our lives. We know that our end will come, but that doesn’t typically alter our urge to keep on living. The survival instinct is a real gift in some ways, just like pain and fear are gifts. If we know what we might lose, we will work harder to keep what we have.

But in the Garden of Gethsemane just before his arrest, Jesus looked his own survival instinct squarely in the eye and said, “No. There are things far more important than staying alive.” As Christians, we trust that in some mysterious way Jesus’ death accomplished something unique: salvation for all of us, and that it planted a seed that would eventually sprout, grow, and reconcile the entire world to its Creator. But Jesus’ rejection of his survival instinct is a tool for justice that has served many others since.

Next Wednesday will be the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. On the day before his death by bullet, Dr. King said:
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will … I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land![1]

Last Saturday was the anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero. Days before his death by bullet, the bishop asserted, “As a Christian, I do not believe in death without resurrection. If they kill me, I will be reborn in the Salvadoran people.”[2]

The message can be found even in our children’s fiction. Dumbledore says to Voldemort: “Your failure to understand that there are things much worse than death has always been your greatest weakness.”[3]

Many people throughout history have figured it out: salvation trumps survival. Survival is great for keeping us alive. But salvation infuses us with eternal meaning. And it manifests itself specifically in giving our lives for those who are powerless and in danger.

So imagine, if you will, a conversation in the human mind between salvation and survival.

Survival screams: “They’re all after you, and they want to take everything away from you. Fight fire with fire.”

Salvation concedes: “You’re probably right; just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after you. But I will not defeat the enemy by becoming the enemy.”

Survival asserts: “You can’t love these other people; they hate you. Don’t you see where they come from, what they’ve done, who they’ve voted for, the labels they wear?”

Salvation replies: “You will try to separate us, but we will come together. We will fight for justice in ways you don’t even recognize as fighting, because we will not use violence.”

Survival rages: “Why do you refuse to defend yourself?”

Salvation responds: “I choose to defend others instead. It may look to you like I’m just standing here in silence and crying. But my tears are defeating death.”

Survival seduces: “You don’t know anything. You’re just being brainwashed by people with an agenda.”

Salvation speaks firmly: “I know my pain, and I trust my scars to guide me.”

Survival whispers: “I always have a plan. Why don’t you have one?”

Salvation’s voice trembles: “I don’t know the solution yet, but I do know that I would rather lose for the sake of love than to win for any unjust purpose. So I stand with love—whatever the cost—now and always.”

I have been dropping references here to some young people I want to honor today for their sacrifices. When fifth-grader Naomi Wadler speaks eloquently on behalf of children of color whose murders by bullet don’t make the headlines, we’d better listen. When teenagers like Emma González, Sam Fuentes, and David Hogg march for their lives, we’d better show up and act to help them. When Malala Yousafzai returns to Pakistan for the first time since a bullet nearly ended her life, she brings with her a strength that transcends her mere survival.

Emma González (Source: Mother Jones)
These young people could just put their heads down and keep muddling through school, nursing their indelible traumas. Instead they are placing themselves in harm’s way. They are being ridiculed and trolled and slandered and subjected to ad hominem attacks by powerful adults, because they dare to speak out for those who are being “wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities.” Our children are placing crucifixion in front of our faces, and in so doing they are unmasking evil forces. The indelible image of Emma González standing in front of the camera in complete silence, tears streaming down her face, is an image of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant, standing in the place of sorrow and bearing the brunt of evil. How will we respond? If we want change, we have to be willing to sacrifice.

In every service of Holy Eucharist, we make our own “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.” It doesn’t sound like much at first. But in baptism, we vow to come to church, and do ministry, and give away our money—hopefully even ten percent—for the sake of that ministry. The church serves an unbelieving world, and the baptized are those who join in that work.

So “a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving” means so much more than dragging ourselves out of bed on a Sunday. It means dedicating ourselves to the practice of resurrection. This is the kind of sacrifice God wants: not innocent bloodshed, the system Jesus put to death in his death, but rather, living blood dedicating itself to love. For most Christians, that practice begins in church and then spills out into society.

Cornel West said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.”[4] Reinhold Niebuhr said, “Justice is an approximation of brotherhood under conditions of sin.”[5] And so we engage in the world of politics: the imperfect, day-to-day compromises and sacrifices of our common life together. The church must never be partisan, since no political party can come close to what love demands of our souls. But the church must always be political, tugging our society in the direction of justice and thus our best approximation of love.

Jesus stands boldly before Pilate, and the voice of salvation proclaims, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” That happens even among people who’ve never heard of Jesus, and people who have heard of him but misunderstand him, and people who have been clobbered with his name and want nothing to do with it. These people, too, hear the voice of Jesus when they demonstrate that they belong to the truth, when they make clear that salvation trumps survival.

Now, I know that many of you here today are busy dealing with unspeakable pain of your own: the sudden death of a loved one … the ongoing grind of caring for someone in failing health … the seeming void of a life that was once so full of optimism … the diagnosis that wakes you up to worry … the knowledge that you have hurt someone so deeply that they may never recover. You may be jobless, or friendless, or foodless, or addicted, or you may fear that nobody will ever truly understand or forgive you. Redemption is yours, but you’re not yet experiencing it, and so we pray with you and stand with you. And we will love you through this by making sacrifices.

Sacrifice comes in all types and sizes, and without it we cannot love. Good parents sacrifice sleep. Good executives sacrifice big paychecks and luxury jets. Conscientious people voluntarily sacrifice some of their God-given freedoms so that those with less power may become free.

I want to close with a story: a conversation I have been given permission to share, overheard at coffee hour this past Sunday.

Parishioner 1: “I’ve been so depressed lately. I used to be on medication for it, but it’s been awhile. I actually have a new prescription from my doctor, but I’m scared to go back on it because of the potential side effects.”

Parishioner 2: “I’ve just recently gone back on my anti-depressant; I also delayed doing so because of the same fears. Tell you what. If you go back on yours too, we can compare quirky side effects. Sound good?”

Parishioner 1: “OK! Let’s shake on it.”

This kind of sacrifice isn’t huge, but it’s far more than nothing. It’s not the passive lip service of “thoughts and prayers.” It’s not even the sincere but noncommittal “if you need anything,” which isn’t bad, which is sometimes all we have to offer, but which still isn’t much. Rather, what I witnessed is direct loving action, and it demonstrates and strengthens our salvation. And it’s something you can do, too.

I was struck by this incident because this resurrection work doesn’t come naturally to me. I miss chances all the time to do something very much like what this parishioner did: to dedicate a part of herself to another in an ongoing way. But God is growing me. And so I watch and learn, and then I seek opportunities to practice. The survival instinct prods, “Don’t get involved; it’s too much work, and you’ll be less free.” But salvation insists, “This is what I was born to do, and it will free me in ways I can’t yet imagine.”

We are Easter people, the ones for whom Jesus was willing to be betrayed and murdered. We belong to the truth, and so we practice resurrection. So this Easter—tomorrow evening!—“let us approach [the risen Christ] with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water … Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” Amen.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

We Wish to See Jesus

sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Associate Priest for Adult Formation
Lent 5B, March 18, 2018
Have you ever tried to be good—I mean, tried really hard over a significant period of time? Sometimes I say, “I’m going to be less openly critical of people I’m impatient with” … or, “I’m going to be more aware of my feelings in the moment” … or, “I’m going to call my elected officials every single weekday.” And I do OK for a while, but then I just somehow … stop. Maybe this is because I don’t actually want to make these changes in my life. They are a bother, and they keep me from what I really want: an endless stream of comfort and entertainment. Can you relate?
Now, of course I also find good works fulfilling. But it takes effort to do them, and sometimes I just don’t have the energy. And that’s not merely an excuse. I simply cannot be good by myself.
In our Collect of the Day, we prayed that God might help us want what God wants. This is a very countercultural statement: help us not to want what we currently want, but what God wants instead. I may want something sinful, but I don’t want to want it. In fact, I want not to want it. That’s not enough to get me all the way there.
Do you ever feel helpless in the face of goodness? When you fail to “be good,” do you throw your hands up in disgust at yourself? Do you beat yourself up? When C.S. Lewis became a Christian, he set himself the task of becoming the kind of person he thought a Christian should be: a purely good person. He failed miserably. And in that failing, he learned something crucial: this failure is not only normal. It’s the whole point.
The Hebrew Scriptures are the story of the People of Israel learning to be God’s chosen people, sent to reveal the nature of God to all the peoples of the world. Now, for the Hebrew prophets, “being good” revolved around two main goals: fidelity to the One God, and social justice. So it’s no surprise and not at all revolutionary that Jesus summed up the entire law as “Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
Was Israel’s status as the Chosen People to be dependent on their being good? Not really. Being good was part of what God asked of them, and they failed again and again and again. Yet the breaking of the covenant came not when they failed to be good, but when they failed to acknowledge their failure and turn to God for help. The murderous adulterer King David is the exemplar of the failed hero who repents and returns to God.
In today’s passage from Jeremiah, we hear God’s heartbreak at the broken covenant, and then we witness God’s resolve to do a new thing: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” This new covenant is eschatological: that is, it is a vision of what will happen at the fulfilling of all of God’s plans.
The new covenant won’t come by force, because that would defeat the purpose. We may sometimes interpret God as using force, and you’ll find plenty of evidence in the Bible for that. But ultimately, God wants us to think for ourselves and to accept God’s love freely. For as long as I believe myself to be in control of my own destiny, I will exert that control. When it fails me, I will have to depend on God. And then, hopefully, I’ll come out the other side and realize that there is very little I have actual control of, but that God would like to see me use that little bit of control to accomplish good works.
And so we do good works, small and large. We do our best. We treat our families and friends well, but also those who are of no apparent use to us. We feed the hungry and house the homeless. We give money to help make positive changes in the world. And it’s nice when I find that I can bear much fruit. But it won’t last—not reliably. I will fail again at being good.
Jesus himself finds “good” to be a suspicious label. When a powerful ruler addresses him as “good teacher,” Jesus says, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” Even the one who is to be equated by God won’t put up with being called good. Why?
For one thing, the notion of being good might lead us to think that there are only good people and bad people. Whenever anyone draws this distinction in black and white between good guys and bad guys, please be suspicious! It’s just not that simple. To be straight-up “good people” is beyond the reach of every one of us. And so we should also know that God has no time for our declarations about who is “a monster” or “purely evil.”
The notion of being good might also lead us to identify good people and put them on a pedestal. Then we find out that Martin Luther King, Jr. cheated on his wife. And Gandhi sexually exploited young girls. And not just him: how many of your celebrities have been taken down lately for their despicable actions with the simple hashtag “#metoo”? This is just the working out of justice. If you find yourself placing all your hope in a human being to fix what’s wrong with the world, you’re in for a disappointment. Our heroes, for all their good deeds, are proven not to be saviors through their bad deeds.
I think the project of “being good” is a trap and an idol. We can’t live our best lives now. We can’t better ourselves into salvation. Safety and prosperity and self-actualization are short-sighted illusions. Giving away your money and forgiving your enemies is great when you can manage it, but it will not win you any brownie points. We can’t earn our way into “the good place.” Do good when you can. Repent of the evil you have done and make amends. But for God’s sake, don’t think you can be good.
So if that’s not the goal, then what is? Jeremiah hears God saying, “They shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.” And how will this come about? “For I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”
God will forgive us, and then we will know God. We can’t be good until we know our evil and then find ourselves forgiven. We will be good when our trust in God’s goodness restores us to goodness.
How does this connect with today’s gospel reading? Some Greeks came to the festival of Passover to worship. They said, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” I am fascinated by the identity of these “Greeks.” There’s a silly part of me that wants to imagine them as sorority women and frat boys. But most likely, they are “God-fearers,” a term for Gentiles who hang out in the synagogues and at the temple. This was apparently a popular thing in the Greco-Roman world.
Today we might compare God-fearers to people who come to church, but who don’t seek baptism and thus a full commitment to the Christian faith. But there’s a key difference: Jews don’t generally proselytize. There never was a mission to convert the whole world to Judaism; it was always understood to be an ethnic distinction and not a matter of belief. These Greeks could have been circumcised and become Jews if they wished, but there was no theological urgency to do so. The God-fearers were an expected, respected part of the Jewish community.
So these Greeks show up, and while we never find out whether they get to see Jesus, the effect on Jesus is apparently profound. He says, “The hour has come.” Once the Gentiles wish to see Jesus, the tipping point has been achieved, and the message is about to go viral. Nothing now will stop the spread of the Gospel. This is Jesus’ cue that it’s time to complete his work. Not many years later, Paul will write, “There is no longer Jew or Greek,” and I like to imagine that these anonymous Greeks are the ones who got that ball rolling.
Jesus knows now that there is only one thing left to do: to surrender his life to those who wish to silence him. Jesus will die, and then the evil powers of this world will be unmasked, exposed, subjected to judgment. The evil one who has been ruling the world will rule it no longer. “And I,” says Jesus, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all to myself.” Our English translation says “all people,” but in the Greek, it’s just “all”—so I prefer to think of it as “all creation.” Everything in our creation dies and rises to new life in Christ.
And this is why I am not in direct pursuit of “being good.” Jesus has begun the work of writing the law on my heart. My good works will be honored, and my evil works will be judged. But seeking holiness through some quid pro quo, tit-for-tat, transactional system of good works never lasts for long. Goodness can only grow and thrive in the context of eternal love. And please know that this is not a mushy kind of loving feeling, but fierce, fiery, loving action—the love by which God pursues us. And that love includes loving judgment and the expectation of growth and change. The phrase I keep returning to this Lent is, “God is growing me.”
I think I’m rather like those Greeks. I just wish to see Jesus, because to see Jesus is to begin to know Jesus. Jesus is the one who is life springing from death, the one who shares that death with us for the purpose of abundant life for all of us. I wish to see Jesus so I can follow Jesus into his death. I wish to stand before him and offer myself as a living sacrifice. I wish to unpack all the evil in me, lay it at his feet, and say, “Well, here it is—all of it. Please judge me. Please burn away all these worthless things. But be on the lookout for a single good grain that can be buried with you. Please nourish it and help it to grow. I can’t do this work—only you can.”

Indeed, I have learned that in my baptism, I have already joined Jesus in his death, and now my life is “hidden” there with him—hidden like a seed growing deep in the earth. Amen.