Sunday, September 30, 2018

The Uncontrollable Truth

sermon preached at Church of the Good Shepherd, Federal Way, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Rector
The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 21B, September 30, 2018
Numbers 11:4-6,10-16,24-29; Psalm 19:7-14; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50

I’ve heard this gospel passage all my life, starting in early childhood—this strange passage spoken by Jesus with all its blood and gore and its unquenchable fire of hell. It’s not the Jesus we’re used to, speaking such harsh, threatening words, promising such dire consequences for those who merely trip somebody up.

Today I think I see more clearly what prompts Jesus’ words. When he advises lopping off your hand, it’s not because that hand has a tendency to shoplift. When he advises plucking out your eye, it’s not because that eye tends to notice an attractive person you’re not married to. The hand and the foot and the eye cause us to sin when they, or any part of us, prevent truth from being spoken.

Our Old Testament and Gospel passages are paired intentionally, so let’s back up a minute. In the Book of Numbers, what does it mean that all these people were “prophesying”? To prophesy means to speak God’s truth, whether in some sort of religious ecstasy, as we probably have here, or through any other means. Why were Eldad and Medad prophesying in the camp instead of in the tent? This seems to have mattered a great deal to Joshua. Maybe he thought such a show of devotion was only appropriate in the tent, in the place where worship is the main point of gathering. I don’t know. But I notice that Joshua has more control over what goes on inside the tent than over what goes on in the camp or in the whole rest of the world. So he tries to stop these rogue prophets—but Moses won’t let him.

Turning back to the gospel, who are these randos who are casting out demons in Jesus’ name? John doesn’t know them, and that means he can’t control them, and he is alarmed. But Jesus isn’t interested in controlling them. In a reversal of a much more popular phrase, Jesus says, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” Sometimes, casting out demons just means speaking the truth in love, so that falsehood cannot take root. When you act freely on the side of truth and love, then you’re standing on Jesus’ side. Even offering someone a drink of water is to speak the truth in love.

So in essence, Jesus says, “When someone is trying to speak God’s truth, don’t you dare stick out your foot and trip them.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t go out of my way to trip people. It’s mean. But let’s try an experiment …

[get a young, able-bodied person to volunteer]

OK, so you’re walking along, and I stick out my foot, clearly on purpose, and I trip you. What do I owe you in this situation?

OK, so let’s try another scenario. You’re walking along, and I’m not watching what I’m doing, and I accidentally get in your way, and I trip you. What do I owe you in this situation?

[back to the lectern]

What if I said, “Well, I didn’t mean to trip you. Therefore I owe you no apology. Begone!”?

What if you came to me 36 years later and said, “Hey! You tripped me, and nobody would have believed me then, and you have no idea how much it has continued to hurt me ever since. But now I finally have the courage to tell you.” What do I owe you then?

This is an illustration of the difference between intent and impact. If I didn’t intend to trip you, is the effect on your body any different than if I had? If I didn’t intend to trip you, does that mean I’m off the hook for the pain I’ve caused? The impact is just as real.

The psalmist wonders about such things:

Who can tell how often he offends?
cleanse me from my secret faults.

Above all, keep your servant from presumptuous sins;
let them not get dominion over me;
then shall I be whole and sound,
and innocent of a great offense.

I get the part about wanting to be cleansed from “my secret faults.” I don’t like to think about the sins of my life that nobody else knows about. I want to be forgiven for these times. I also want to be forgiven for all my accidental offenses, the ones that are secret even from me.

But then, what does it mean to let presumptuous sins get dominion over us? I think the psalmist is saying, “It’s one thing to sin accidentally. When that’s called to my attention, I can do something about it. But what about the times when I insist on doing the wrong thing and won’t be dissuaded?”

And here, we’re into the territory of virtues and vices. A virtue is a good habit that we practice and practice to the point where it becomes our default setting. A vice is the opposite of a virtue. It’s a bad habit that we practice and practice until it has become our default setting. Everything we do in life—all our virtues and vices—train other people on how to react to us. We even train ourselves on how to react to ourselves. It’s so difficult to change once that training has taken root. Re-training ourselves and others can take a lifetime.

The psalmist says in another place, “Remember not the sins of my youth and my rebellious ways.” So let’s say you were at a party when you were 17 years old, and you did something that hurt somebody. (Yes, I realize that’s putting it way too mildly, but I’m trying to keep it light without making light of it. Please bear with me.) So you did something at the age of 17 that hurt somebody.

Now, it may be that the memory of that day has never left you, and you’ve always felt terrible about it. Or maybe you didn’t think it was that big a deal. Or maybe you don’t remember it at all. It may be that over the years you have trained yourself into all sorts of defense mechanisms to keep yourself from ever having to deal with it. Or it may be that you’ve just recently been blindsided with the realization of the effect you had.

My point is this: Once the truth comes out for all to see, what do you owe the person you hurt?

What if we all imagined that the worst thing we’ve ever done might someday be put on public display? How would we prepare ourselves to explain it? Would we be able to speak honestly about the agony of guilt, the work we’ve done to come to terms with it, the reparations we have made or are willing to make? Would we be willing to say, “You’re right—my vices are presumptuous sins, and they disqualify me”? Could we sacrifice the possibilities in our own lives for the sake of truth and growth? In short, would we be able to amputate our hard-won vices and enter into the Kingdom?

Or would we keep following our years of training, and deny, deny, deny, and deflect, deflect, deflect, and rage, rage, rage?

The reason prophets are not usually very popular is that the love that guides them is a higher love than the people feel ready for. God’s love will not abide coverups or half-truths or dubious, self-deluding explanations. God’s truth includes the whole truth and does not exclude the pain or any of the consequences that the truth might cause. But once that truth is told, then God’s love opens and expands for the sake of mercy and redemption and growth. God works toward and through and beyond the truth, so if you’re running away from truth, don’t go looking for God there.

Truth comes first, and the truth will never destroy us. And after truth come consequences, which won’t destroy us, either—not in God’s world. We may feel shamed and disgraced. We may have to give up a job we’ve always wanted. We may have to endure legal consequences.

In God’s world, this is not the end, but only the beginning. Before and alongside and after truth and consequences comes love. God’s love is like salt, and it’s like fire. What does salt do? It flavors and it preserves, but it also purifies. What does fire do? It heats and it destroys, but it also purifies. Purification is the common trait of salt and fire. “Everyone will be salted with fire.” Everyone will be purified. Throughout our lives, we are undergoing a process of being made better. And yes, sometimes it hurts.

We can help each other with this. James advises in his letter, “Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.” Healing is the goal. But on the path to healing, we must go by way of truth.

You know, we decide every day whether to enter the Kingdom of God. And the Kingdom isn’t located inside a church building. As the people who are the church, our job is to be a sign of the Kingdom, and we do that with varying degrees of credibility. But the actual Kingdom—the reality of God’s world breaking into and sitting alongside our own—this is something we can’t control. It’s out beyond our own schedules and our own comfortable liturgical practices. It’s out beyond our understanding of what it means to be an American, or to be men and women, or to be insiders and outsiders. None of those categories matter. What matters in God’s Kingdom is love.

Will we let others lead us into God’s Kingdom in ways that surprise and unsettle us? Will we allow the surgeon to cut away that which has infected us and start us on a path to healing?

The uncontrollable truth is what kills us, and the uncontrollable truth is what raises us up again. Amen.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Imperative Verbs

sermon preached at Church of the Good Shepherd, Federal Way, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Rector
The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 20B, September 23, 2018
Jeremiah 11:18-20; Psalm 54; James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37

I was hanging out with a friend recently, and she commented, “Sermons are when the preacher tells the people what to do.”

I was taken aback. “What?”

“Sermons are when the preacher tells the people what to do. And the people who come to church are those who are willing to be told what to do.”

I was intrigued. “And then they do it?”

“Oh, no, of course not,” she replied. “But they’re willing to sit there and be told. It’s a time-honored social convention lived out in all our churches every Sunday.”

“Do I do that?” I wondered aloud, reaching for my smartphone and its store of all my sermons in the cloud.

My friend laughed. “Probably! Wait … are you checking right now?”

A Word Cloud of 268 sermons ...
I scanned a couple old sermons, looking specifically for imperative verbs. “Choose … live … practice … listen … come … bring … immerse!” They were all over the place. Some of the verbs were very gracious and open, while others specifically ordered the congregation in a certain direction. It turns out that, in ways subtle and not-so-subtle, I’ve been telling congregations of people what to do for fifteen years!

I noticed something else, too. I noticed that my best sermons—the ones I’m personally proudest of, at least—were the ones with fewer imperative verbs—the ones in which I shared a personal story or made an observation—and then just let it be.

It took me 286 sermons to learn this. (Ah, the things computers can tell us!)

Well, if we have any humility at all, we learn to revel in the fact that we never stop learning. So naturally, the next place I looked for imperative verbs was in today’s readings.

Jeremiah has only one; he is telling his own story, a lament that there are people seeking to murder him. Then he implores God, “Let”—oh, what a nice, gracious verb! Oh, wait: “Let me see your retribution on them.” Well, I guess if there are people trying to kill you, you might want to see them hurt a little. It may not be especially honorable or enlightened, but it’s at least honest to include that part in your prayer.

The Psalmist is in a similar situation, and at least for storytelling purposes, we can understand today’s Psalm as being sung by David, before he is King of Israel, when he also is running from potential murderers. So David’s imperatives are also aimed at God: “Save,” “defend,” “hear,” “give ear,” “render,” “destroy.” It’s the same story: Rescue me from my enemies, God, and while you’re at it, get rid of them for me, will you? Understandable.

In the Letter of James, we find something very different, but there is a line in it that makes me chuckle: “You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder.” I can see you all nodding your heads—yes, that’s right. I can relate to that. I’ve been there before. Maybe James has been reading in his Bible about Jeremiah and David.

James, throughout his letter, is full of specific advice in the form of imperative commands. Today we hear these: Show your gentleness. Do not be boastful and false. Submit yourselves to God. Resist the devil. Draw near to God. James’s letter really does sound like a sermon, doesn’t it? And I’ll leave you to decide whether it’s good, solid advice. I just note that he is specifically telling the people what to do.

And then we get to the Gospel. Jesus says several things in this passage. How many imperative verbs do you see?

That’s right: None. Even in the face of being misunderstood, even in the face of an argument among his disciples, Jesus doesn’t command anything.

Instead, first he tells them what is going to happen: “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” We mused last week about how problematic it would be to accept such a fate for God’s Messiah.

Next Jesus asks them a question: “What were you arguing about on the way?”

Then, after the disciples’ shamefaced confession that they were trying to one-up each other, Jesus tells them the way things work in God’s domain: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” He doesn’t tell them what to do. He tells them how to get what they want, if that’s truly what they want, and to suspect that what they thought they wanted might not be the best thing to want. Then he leaves it up to them to work it out.

And once more, Jesus speaks: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Again, he’s telling nobody what to do. He’s just telling them the way things are in God’s world. If you choose, you can stop arguing and be a servant, and you will be blessed. If you choose, you can welcome all the vulnerable who are of no use to you.

This is, after all, how children were generally viewed in the ancient world. They were a necessary nuisance. Young children were takers, hoarding valuable resources in a hand-to-mouth economy, all on the off chance that they would not get sick and die, but instead grow into valuable, strapping young farm workers and mothers of the next generation of children. You had to have children to take care of you in your old age. But until they hit puberty, at least, you just had to put up with them. Sorry, kids—that’s the way it was then. Aren’t you glad it’s usually different now? It might make you feel differently about washing the dishes, at least.

So Jesus doesn’t instruct his disciples to welcome children, at least not in Mark’s telling. He simply tells the disciples what will happen if they welcome the child, or the one the metaphorical child represents.

Now, this is not to say that Jesus never used imperative verbs. Off the top of my head I can think of many: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” “Work for the food that endures.” “Rejoice and be glad.” “Go and make disciples of all nations.” Today’s readings are not a scientific sample. But they do make me wonder, more broadly, which gospel writers are more in the habit of placing imperative verbs in Jesus’ mouth. How often, really, did Jesus command people to do things? How often did the gospel writers use their platform to tell people what to do, in Jesus’ name?

We can only develop theories. But this I have learned: every imperative verb is a “should.” When I, from the pulpit, say, “Let us do such-and-such,” I am using the authority the church has invested in me as an opportunity to plant a “should” in your head. Some preachers really use this authority strongly: “I’m the preacher, and I say you should only use your sex life in these specific ways. I’m the preacher and I say we as a congregation should become a refuge for persecuted immigrants. I’m the preacher and I say you should vote for candidate so-and-so.” (That last one, by the way, will put a congregation’s tax-exempt status at risk, per the Johnson Amendment of 1965!)

I may want you to do all sorts of things. I may want us to embark on all sorts of things together. And sometimes I’ll say exactly what I think our “shoulds” should be. But I’m not going to do that today, because I’m paying attention to Jesus and the way he preached. I’m also paying attention to Jeremiah and the Psalmist, who leveled their commands at God, a task that I think is fair game, and which we do all the time when we pray.

But to you? Today, I’m not going to implore you to do anything. And this is because I have heard the Gospel. I have heard the voice of the Messiah who knew they were going to kill him … the one who saw his own followers begin to attack each other and didn’t let that raise his anxiety level … the one who let his eye be caught by a young child instead. It’s almost like he was thinking, “They just don’t want to hear me talk about my own death, so they’re stressed out, and they’re taking it out on one another, and they’ll hash it out eventually, but while I’m waiting I’ll just go over here and play with this kid.” And lo and behold, the kid turned out to be a helpful metaphor. Want to welcome Jesus into your life? Want to welcome the one who sent Jesus? Hmmm, then you …

Nope. No imperative verbs today. Not going to go there. Wouldn’t be prudent.

Years ago I had a spiritual director who noticed that I was using the word “should” a lot. I was anxiously complaining about things I “should” be doing and ways I “should” be behaving, and finally he smiled gently and said to me, “The further I have gone on my journey into spiritual maturity, the more I have found that my ‘shoulds’ just fall away, to be replaced with what I may decide to do next.”

Hey! God loves you. Did you know that? Well, I’m telling you now. Theologian Marcus Borg put it this way: “God is besotted with you.” Now, there’s some news! So … once you hear this Good News, what next?

Well, how would a child react? If Jesus’ ultimate example is to welcome small children, then perhaps God welcomes us as if we were small children—even infants at the breast. Drinking milk. Receiving sustenance, like the Psalmist says: “It is the Lord who sustains my life.” We are being sustained. God is sustaining us this very moment. And all we need to do is whatever comes naturally in order to receive that sustenance.

Thomas Keating puts it this way: “The only thing God wants from you is your consent to be loved.” Wow.

So … I wonder what we’ll all do about that?