Monday, August 13, 2018

Hungry, Angry, Lonely, and Tired

sermon preached at Church of the Good Shepherd, Federal Way, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Rector
The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 14B, August 12, 2018

Source: Pinterest

Someone reminded me this week of an acronym used by Alcoholics Anonymous. The acronym is HALT, and it’s meant to come to your aid when you’re tempted to take a drink. HALT stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. If you are craving a drink, you are probably one or more of these things. And recognizing this fact gives you an opportunity to analyze your feelings and make a decision, instead of just giving in to a momentary compulsion.

HALT: Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. It struck me that this acronym is versatile. It may be useful in combating any compulsive or self-destructive behavior. We all get hungry, angry, lonely, and tired—and sometimes all of them at once. What behaviors grab hold of you in these situations? Would it help to recognize the cause? This simple tool can be a path through which God’s grace can help us to think and to do those things that are right, instead of those things that we do automatically.

The ancient stories of our faith are meant to be played with, explored, turned over and over and looked at from different angles, allowing different facets of the story to catch the light. Let’s take this acronym, HALT, and apply it to today’s story about Elijah.

After going one day into the wilderness, I’m sure that Elijah was hungry, angry, lonely, and tired. But why? If you go back a bit and read the larger story, you’ll find that it was for rather complex reasons. Elijah had just scored a major victory for God’s people, besting the followers of the Canaanite fertility god Baal in a one-on-one liturgical smackdown. When you get home today, open your Bible to the First Book of Kings, chapter 18, and read this thrilling adventure story.

After the Hebrew God unmistakably demonstrated the most divine power—that is, a great show of it as opposed to literally none from the imaginary god Baal—Elijah ordered the killing of all the prophets of Baal who were present, hundreds of them. Yikes! And then, suddenly, rain came—the end of the drought that had wracked the countryside for over two years. Take that, you worthless heathens!

It sounds like the finale, doesn’t it? It sounds like the credits are about to roll. But the story isn’t over yet. Jezebel, the wife of King Ahab, sends a message to Elijah that she’s going to kill him. Elijah has won, and the rain is falling, but now he must flee for his life. He’s exhausted. He feels alone. He’s angry at his nation’s horrible leadership. And, of course, after a day of fleeing, Elijah is extremely hungry. No doubt some self-destructive behavior will rear its head. And that behavior is despair. Elijah gives up, throws himself on the ground, and begs for God to kill him. Despite what appears to have been a huge success, the prophet of God feels like a complete failure.

If you were God, what would you do for Elijah in this situation? Would you say, “Are you kidding me?” Or, “There, there—buck up, little camper”? No, you’d feed him! We can’t think clearly without basic sustenance. One thing at a time.

So God arranges, through an angel, for food and water to appear for Elijah in the wilderness. And only after Elijah has eaten, taken another long nap, and eaten again does he find that he has enough strength to continue toward his destination.

That destination is Mount Horeb, the traditional place where, many centuries before, Moses had met with God face to face. In times of trouble, have you ever felt the urge to make pilgrimage to a place that has been significant to you in the past, or significant to your people? Elijah finds a cave on the mountain and hides out there. It may, in fact, be the very cleft in the rock from which Moses was allowed to catch just a glimpse of God’s glory fully revealed.

Inside the cave, God asks Elijah, “What are you doing here?” Elijah complains that he is a complete failure. God says, “Go stand at the entrance to the cave; I’m going to pass by.”

There is a huge wind! Is God in the wind? No.

There is a huge earthquake! Is God in the earthquake? No.

There is a huge fire! Is God in the fire? No.

Finally, there is silence—a silence so loud Elijah can hear it, or a noise so soft that he can’t. Only now does Elijah recognize God’s true presence, in what some translators call “a still small voice.” And it’s whispering into Elijah’s ear: “halt.”

When I’m at the end of my rope and someone calls me up short, my first reaction is to shout, “Oh, you just don’t understand!” It’s the same with Elijah, who comes out of the cave and repeats to God the same words as before, an antiphon of his failure. But God ignores this and instead responds with very specific instructions: “Go anoint a new king of Israel, and also a new king of the neighboring kingdom of Aram. Go anoint Elisha to be your prophetic successor. Go on, now—get you gone.”

Well, now I’ve gone way beyond the little bit of the story we heard this morning, because I think the context of it is so crucial. We need to know why Elijah is so depressed, and we need to know what happens next, in order to fully appreciate God’s action in the story. We are playing, exploring, turning this story over and looking at it from different angles. And here’s what I notice from where I’m standing: Elijah wins an emphatic victory for his team through force. He solidifies this victory through violence against the other side. And then he finds that he has knocked down the hornet’s nest of royal authority. Violence begets violence. Could this be why Elijah’s victory feels so hollow?

In the cave, there is a violent wind, a violent earthquake, a violent fire. God is not in any of these violent things. Does Elijah get the point yet? Do we?

Strangely, though, God’s next instructions to Elijah imply a continuation of violence—more efforts on the part of the Israelites to utterly destroy the followers of Baal. The people aren’t ready yet to learn who God really is: the one to be found in the silence, in the peace. God is also to be found in patience. God hurts when we hurt, to be sure, and no doubt God longs for us to finally “get it” and understand what God is like. But God cannot and will not force us. God is playing the long game, and none of us—whether we worship YHWH or Baal—not one of us is disposable. God will not give up on any of us.

Many centuries later, in the Letter to the Ephesians, we find another set of specific instructions: here’s how to live in love in your own situation. These instructions include truth-telling, as much self-sufficiency as we can muster, giving away our wealth, and speaking constructively. We also hear, “Be angry but do not sin.” Or, to put it into the words of modern psychology and behavior sciences: feel the feelings, but don’t act on them blindly. Why are you striking out against your neighbor? Could it be because you’re angry—or hungry, or lonely, or tired? What will you do about it, so that your neighbor doesn’t pay the price for your feelings? Your neighbor matters and is not to be stepped on just because you’re having a bad day.

Jesus taught us that the field of our neighbors is much broader than we had ever understood before. Elijah couldn’t have imagined that the prophets of Baal were also his neighbors and were also to be loved. They were just The Enemy, to be eliminated as efficiently as possible, in full sight of all the people, so that fear would bring the Israelites back to the Living God. So why did this victory lead only to Elijah’s despair? Because God cannot be found in violence. God doesn’t work through fear and manipulation. God’s loving purposes cannot be accomplished through bitterness, wrath, slander, or malice. Violence grieves God’s Holy Spirit. And if we can still deny this—if we still think there’s such a thing as redemptive violence—then God’s not done teaching us yet.

But God is patient. We will come to God when God draws us. We Christians understand that to happen through baptism: God beckons through that still, small voice to think bigger, to feel more compassionately, to hold out hope for God’s action in the world, in our communities, and in our nations. The baptized are those who take on this project, and when we do, God keeps feeding us. But there’s bread, and then there’s bread.

The living bread comes down from heaven in human form and shows us God’s very face. “Come to me,” he beckons. “HALT your flailing around and come to me—all you who are hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. I will feed your bodies and soothe your anger. I will give you companions and refresh you. Walk alongside me into the conflict, bearing only love, and together we’ll stand with dignity in the presence of your enemies—because they, too, are a part of the one flock under one good shepherd.” Amen.

Monday, August 6, 2018

What Has God Ever Done for Me?

sermon preached at Church of the Good Shepherd, Federal Way, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Rector
The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 13B, August 5, 2018

Many years ago I worked at a store in Southcenter Mall, selling CDs and cassette tapes. (Remember those?) We were generally a young crew: college, post-college, just starting to figure out “how to adult,” as they say these days.

I had a co-worker named Mindy. One night after closing, Mindy and I and a couple others were talking, and the conversation shifted to religion. At the change of topic, Mindy almost immediately turned hostile: “I don’t believe in God.”

“Why not?” someone wondered politely.

“Why should I?” Mindy replied. “What’s he ever done for me?”

Now, do go easy on Mindy. I don’t think she had ever been to church, so it’s understandable that she could get to age 19 without an answer to that question, “What has God ever done for me?” At the time, I had no idea how to answer Mindy, so I let it go.

Fast-forward now to a time when I was the youth group leader at St. Thomas, Medina. There was a high schooler in the group named Sam who kind of hung back from the rest of the group, but nevertheless showed up every week. Once I asked him what it was that kept him exploring his faith at St. Thomas. Sam said, “Well, ever since I’ve come back to church, it’s become pretty clear that God’s got my back.”

From my first story to my second, I hope you noticed a gigantic difference in maturity between two young people. Mindy had no frame of reference from which to begin to grow into faith. You know, some people decide never to bring their kids to church under the assumption that they’ll make up their own minds when they’re older. As a result, we have millions of young people like Mindy. Most of those who are given no model never come to any understanding of what the church is for. But those who are placed even in rather faulty faith communities, as long as they are not traumatized or abused by that community, might well use it as a starting place from which to grow into a deeper knowledge of God. That was Sam’s situation.

But here’s the thing that both Mindy and Sam had in common: they were both thinking of God as someone who will do something for us if we do something for God. Mindy, perceiving that she had received no gifts from God, felt she owed God nothing. Sam, having genuinely tried to offer God something, felt that God was giving him something in return. Sam’s perspective was more mature. But in both cases, the perception of the relationship was primarily transactional. You give me this, I give you that.

To be fair, most of us start here. Or, maybe we don’t start here, but the transactional nature of our culture eventually places us here. In general, we think that people should get what they deserve, and that sounds reasonable enough. But the sinister corollary is that when people don’t deserve, they shouldn’t get.

Jesus knew all about this kind of thinking. He calls it out in today’s Gospel. After the feeding of the five thousand, which we read last week, he crosses over the water to Capernaum—on foot, you may remember—and the crowds follow him in their boats. “Now, why have you come?” Jesus asks them. “Not because you saw God at work in me, but because I fed you.”

Now, any youth group leader will tell you that if you want to gather young people, serve them an abundance of food. There’s nothing wrong with that. Heck, that’s the center of community-building in all times and in all cultures! So Jesus gathers people, feeds them, and then says, “OK, my newfound friends, it’s time to go deeper.”

It’s the same with the Hebrews in the wilderness. We heard the story, and then we read the psalmist’s poetic retelling of it:

So mortals ate the bread of angels;
he provided for them food enough.

Gathering of the Manna (15th century)
Source: Wikimedia Commons
I talked last week about enough-ness. Manna is the ultimate biblical example of God demanding that the people learn enough-ness. “Here’s food—enough for all. It looks a little strange. It tastes … OK. You’ll get sick of it after a while. But it’s enough.”

The people see the manna, and they say, “What is it?” So they name it “manna,” which is literally Hebrew for, “What is it?”

Oh, and God gave them quails, too. Thousands of quails—in the parallel story in the Book of Numbers, there are so many quails that they had quails coming out their ears and their nostrils. God gave them enough and more. God provided for them.

The bottom line is that every time we eat, we have the opportunity to notice that God is behind the food. When we enjoy the sunshine, we can notice that God gives the warmth. When we receive love, we can notice that God inspired it. We can accept every gift in this world with gratitude, knowing that whatever unseen, mysterious force is behind the existence of any food, any warmth, any love—that’s who God is. That’s the One we church people are always talking about. God gives gifts! What has God ever done for you? What good thing does not come from God?

Once we agree on this simple definition of God, we’re ready to go deeper. Our new task is to move in the direction of maturity, from the transactional to the interpersonal.

The one writing to the Ephesians—Paul, or more likely one faithfully riffing on Paul a generation later—urges this maturity from the Christians in Ephesus. “We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people's trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.” In other words, God wants you to think for yourself, not just copy some flavor-of-the-month huckster who may not have your best interests at heart. God wants a relationship with you—not just with the people you think are holier or more credentialed or more spiritually mature than you are.

So grow up!, he says. Get rooted in a community that can provide you with the words of Scripture at one shoulder and the wisdom of the Church’s traditions at the other. Then step out in faith. Step out into the world in the full confidence that God’s got your back. And then you’ll find that you are, indeed, growing.

The goal here is to grow “to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” Can you imagine becoming so much like Jesus that people might mistake you for him? Neither can I. So don’t expect to get there. We are all works in progress. We should not expect anybody, including ourselves, to reach the destination, but only to move in that direction.

Our journey is anything but an individual pursuit. These New Testament references to “the body” mean “the church.” And here we learn concrete ways of undertaking this journey to maturity together: “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love.” We hear of “speaking the truth in love”: this means being genuine and honest while respecting the dignity of the person to whom you are speaking, even if the relationship is problematic. Maturity and reconciliation will come to us all, with time and prayer and through God’s action. In the meantime, there is joy to be found when we all trust in God together. When trust God to be at the center of all of our relationships, we will grow into the humility we need in order to stick together.

Jesus feeds the people, and they follow him. Even after that miraculous feeding, they ask him for another sign of wonder to help them come to trust in him. They remind Jesus of the example of Moses, who gave the Hebrews manna as a sign. “No,” says Jesus. “Moses didn’t do that; God did. As a matter of fact, God is behind every sign and every feeding and every occasion of joy. The bread from God gives life to the world.” Life to the world!—not just to a few people, but to all life on earth.

In the face of this realization, what can we do but ask for more? “Give us this bread always!” It’s the cry of the maturing. Just like the Woman at the Well, when the metaphor was not bread, but living water: “Sir, give me this water, that I may never be thirsty again!”

That woman experienced a shift, and the crowds around Jesus in Capernaum experienced a shift, from the transactional to the interpersonal. God is not merely a service provider. God loves us. God has given us everything, and the freedom to do with everything what we see fit. It’s scary, and more often than not, we do mess it up.

Yet here we are, standing in the face of love with no preconditions. God is still loving us, still giving us gifts, and still gently urging us: “Go deeper. Come grow into me. I’m already growing within you.” Amen.