Sunday, October 21, 2018

The Suffering Servants

sermon preached at Church of the Good Shepherd, Federal Way, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Rector
The Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 24B, October 21, 2018

It feels weird to go from our Celebration of New and Mutual Ministry on Thursday night—and the first public playing of our new organ—and the celebration that followed at Twin Lakes Golf and Country Club—to this set of readings today. It is good to celebrate and make merry. Yet it’s also true that, as a mentor of mine used to put it: “The symbol of Christianity is a cross, not a smiley face.” So naturally, today’s readings are about pain and suffering. It’s like, “OK, everyone, the party’s over—back to work.”

In his 1943 book The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis wrote that pain is God’s “megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” If God didn’t use pain to get our attention, we would have no idea how much we need God or what God wants of us.

Eighteen years later, Lewis’s wife Joy died of cancer. And though I can’t find the quote, I’m sure I remember that he remarked, “I wish I’d known more about pain when I wrote The Problem of Pain.”

The odd thing about pain, of course, is that it looks different to the outsider than to the insider. We can talk and theorize about pain logically: “Well, if we had no pain receptors, we’d never know anything was wrong. If we didn’t hurt for others, we wouldn’t be motivated to act compassionately. If we didn’t miss people who had died, it would only reveal that their lives didn’t matter to begin with.” All of this makes sense, of course. But would you say any of this to someone who is actually in pain? I wouldn’t. No matter your suffering, you can be certain that I haven’t suffered in the same way you have.

So what is the meaning of suffering? Or is it possible that our suffering is meaningless? In our first reading today, we heard the Prophet Isaiah speak about a poetic biblical figure commonly called the Suffering Servant. Listen to the contemporary paraphrase from The Message by Eugene Peterson:

Who would have thought that God’s saving power would look like this? … He was looked down on and passed over, a man who suffered, who knew pain firsthand. One look at him and people turned away. We looked down on him, thought he was scum. But the fact is, it was our pains he carried—our disfigurements, all the things wrong with us. We thought he brought it on himself, that God was punishing him for his own failures. But it was our sins that did that to him, that ripped and tore and crushed him—our sins! He took the punishment, and that made us whole. Through his bruises we get healed. We’re all like sheep who’ve wandered off and gotten lost. We’ve all done our own thing, gone our own way. And God has piled all our sins, everything we’ve done wrong, on him, on him.

It’s no wonder that the first Christians looked at Isaiah’s writing and said, “A-ha! That’s Jesus he’s talking about.” And so, with this passage always in the background, various theologies began to form about the purpose and meaning of Christ’s death and resurrection. It has become commonplace among Christians, then, to assume that Isaiah was predicting the coming of Jesus some 800 years later, but let’s not begin with that assumption. Let’s wonder for ourselves: “Who is the Suffering Servant?”

Let’s ask James and John, who in today’s Gospel ask to be Jesus’ right- and left-hand men. All they can think about is grabbing power, but Jesus retorts: “You don’t know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?”

The silly fools answer: “Yes! We’re your men.”

“OK then,” says Jesus, “you will drink that cup.” (At this point, a shiver is in order, because we hear about that cup every year on Good Friday. A decade after that, King Herod Agrippa I ordered the murder of James, and although nobody knows for sure, some traditions hold that John, too, died a violent death.) Jesus tells them, “Your image of sitting at my right and left hand is completely the wrong image. If you really think this is a contest, then you’d better stop racing to the top and start racing to the bottom. You’d better become Suffering Servants.”

In other words, it’s useless to play the game of who loves Jesus more, or to do good deeds expecting a reward. It’s useless to try to be good so you can get into heaven. These intentions are misplaced and shortsighted. Doing God’s work in the world is a labor of love, and when we love others, we are willing to suffer for them. Jesus knew that Isaiah spoke the truth: the Suffering Servant is the only role model who can dissuade people from trying to claw their way to the top, ignorant of those they step on. The Suffering Servant transforms the entire situation.

The author of the letter to the Hebrews also has servanthood in mind when he refers to Melchizedek. Who was Melchizedek, anyway? Well, he was a minor character early in the Book of Genesis. Melchizedek was the king of Jerusalem—in fact, his name means “righteous king”—yet he brought Abram bread and wine and blessed him after a hard battle. In gratitude, Abram gave Melchizedek one tenth—a tithe—of all he had. Melchizedek is immortalized in one of the Psalms, and later in this letter to the Hebrews. He is held up as a model for priesthood, a model to which the author compares Jesus, our “great high priest.”

I think Isaiah may also have had Melchizedek in mind, but he took that servanthood idea further—not just humble, mutual stewardship, but also suffering. And then Jesus, reflecting on both Melchizedek and Isaiah, went even further, embracing death instead of power—even constructive power. Jesus could have been a political revolutionary and accomplished wonderful things for his own people, but instead, he took on a much more powerful, long-term work for the entire world, a labor of love that walked right through suffering and transformed the entire situation.

So who is the Suffering Servant? It may seem that we’ve established him to be Jesus. That is the standard Christian answer, and I won’t tell you it’s wrong. But I do wonder what good it would do for Isaiah to predict the coming of a suffering savior so many centuries in the future. Isn’t that a little like telling a grieving person, “It’ll all be OK”? In the same way, I won’t just stand here and tell you, “The Suffering Servant was Jesus 2000 years ago,” and leave it at that.

Instead, I want to suggest that the Suffering Servant is Anne, a girl who wrote in her diary that she loved God and humanity with her whole heart … and then she died in a concentration camp. The Suffering Servant is Matthew, a young man who was lynched for being gay, but who has inspired many in our country to change their hearts, and who, 20 years after his death, will finally be interred in the National Cathedral. The Suffering Servant is Malala, a teenage Pakistani blogger who was shot in the head by the Taliban because her hunger for learning was a threat to their evil ideology. The Suffering Servant is a young Baptist pastor marching for freedom, and an unlikely Salvadoran archbishop preaching liberation. The Suffering Servant is an asylum seeker whose children are kidnapped by the American government, and a courageous woman who calls her attacker to honesty. Elders in failing health and their caregivers are Suffering Servants, and women who miscarry, and children shot and traumatized in their schools, and the flooded and foreclosed on, and the downsized and indebted and disenfranchised.

And yes, the Suffering Servant is a man who taught us to love one another, who healed us and blessed us and fed us, and whom we executed as a criminal. These are the suffering servants of God. These are the people who have become prophets by the experiences that they endured, and by their obedience to the call of love. And if you really must imagine seats to the right and left of Jesus, then these Suffering Servants are the people you must place in them.

Have you been a Suffering Servant, enduring trial after trial and wondering when things might finally get better? It’s hard for me to stand here as an outsider and say something helpful to you. It would be hypocritical of me to pat you on the shoulder and say, “There, there … I know how you feel.” I don’t know how you feel, because I’m not you.

But our faith tells us that Jesus is an insider. Because Jesus suffered, our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer does know how we feel. The medieval mystic Julian of Norwich wrote, “Between us and God there is no between.” In coming close to us, closer even than we are to ourselves, God chooses to take on our pain and suffering.

If that’s true—if God is with us in our suffering—then can any suffering be meaningless? I don’t know. I pray not. I pray that every sharp twinge, every burrowing ache, every hollow pit of despair is carved out of God, the God who is infinite and eternal and therefore cannot be depleted. When we can’t go on, I pray that God can, and that God will raise us up from our suffering and reveal to us a world so shot through with joy that we cannot yet imagine it. Amen.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Losing Faith in Our Stuff

sermon preached at Church of the Good Shepherd, Federal Way, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Rector
The Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 23B, October 14, 2018

Last week we heard Jesus’ strong words about divorce. And I said that I wished I could preach about a dozen sermons, and that if I missed anything important, or if anyone wished I had gone somewhere else with it, I hoped for further conversation. I’m really glad I said this, because honestly, last week I committed an act of homiletical malpractice: I didn’t adequately address the most challenging piece of Scripture we heard.

As I stepped into the pulpit, I still didn’t really like my opening paragraphs, but I hadn’t put my finger on why. In reality, I had made excuses all week for not spending more time with my sermon. Had I engaged in some amount of silence last week, God might have shown me that I oversimplified when I referred to divorce as sinful in general. I had said nothing about divorces that happen, for instance, because of abuse. And in my male privilege, I neglected to mention the fact that for centuries, male preachers have used Jesus’ words to lay guilt trips on women who won’t remain subservient to mean and violent men.

So let me be clear, first of all: to leave an abuser is not sinful. It is a painful and responsible choice. The situation itself is sinful in that it falls short of how God would have us love one another … but it is by no means guilt-incurring. On the contrary! When you leave someone who is hurting you, God leaves with you.

You know, most of the time I don’t even refer to specific behaviors as “sins” or “not-sins.” I don’t think that’s a helpful dichotomy. Rather, “sin” is a state of being, a situation we find ourselves in when our actions prevent us from living in loving relationship with our neighbors. This is precisely what Jesus rescues us from, so that we can live in love again.

But sometimes we don’t even know we need to be rescued, as is the case with the man who approaches Jesus in today’s gospel reading. His problem is not that he is abusive or malevolent: it is that he is overconfident. He thinks he’s really winning at this life thing. In his mind there’s one thing left: eternal life, or, as Jesus calls it, the Kingdom of God. He wants to achieve his salvation and then feel secure in having obtained it.

And there’s no reason to doubt his sincerity. He is a purpose-driven believer who has his best life now. This is his time. All he needs is that one key to perfection—which Jesus must certainly be able to provide for him.

“Good teacher,” he begins, kneeling in reverence before the master rabbi, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Now, for just a moment, let’s pause the recording. I want to tell a very brief story of my own. Early in our marriage, Christy and I wanted to buy a house, but we lacked the savings to make a down payment. And then, at just the right moment, my grandmother died and left us $12,000. And we had what we needed.

What did I have to do to inherit that down payment?

Yeah, that’s what I thought. I’m starting to think that the man might be missing the point. Furthermore, it’s not like we actually needed a house; we just wanted one. Was God in that process? I refuse to claim certainty.

OK, hit the play button again. Jesus answers the man’s question with a question: “Why do you call me good?” It’s like, hey, buddy, stop for a moment and wonder. What makes me good? What makes you good? What’s the source of all this goodness?

Yet the man doesn’t stop to wonder; he plows onward, eager to share that he has perfected the art of following the law! He has never done anything wrong—and maybe he’s not just kidding himself. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he is, indeed, a very earnest, very good man, not like the people Amos excoriates, the people who are intentionally trampling the poor. This man is one of the good rich people. They do exist … right?

I don’t think it occurred to this man once that he might go away from Jesus grieving. Indeed, I think that his privileged position taught him that you can achieve anything you put your mind to.

Jesus replies: “You lack one thing: sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

I’m going to pause the recording again and tell you about a dream I once had. I was with a group of people under a gigantic, permeable dome. We all knew that beyond the dome was heaven. We watched as a man and a woman, a married couple, pondered this fact. Then the woman suddenly took off into the air and flew, shooting up joyfully and puncturing the dome, which sealed again behind her. Her husband stood on the ground and watched. And he turned away, grieving, because he was too scared to follow her.

Meanwhile the rest of us were eager to fly after her, and we knew that we could. But there was just one thing: we had in our midst a gigantic machine of some kind, and we couldn’t imagine leaving it behind. So we tried to lift the machine and fly with it beyond the dome. But even with all of us working together, we couldn’t lift it more than a couple inches off the ground. So we resigned ourselves to staying down below, because we weren’t going anywhere without our machine.

Both in Jesus’ time and today, it’s the same situation: we are addicted to our possessions. We might say and believe that our possessions aren’t what counts, but what if we were given a distinct opportunity to put our money where our mouths are?

That’s what happens to this man in Jesus’ presence. For all his earnest and self-confident kindliness, he is called up short. In the Kingdom of God, having wealth holds us back. Period.

We all want to “get it right,” just like this rich man did. What if we can’t get it right?

What if we cannot help ourselves, but instead must become helpless? What if we cannot receive unless we are first empty?

What if even a good, steady job that benefits the world can’t get us closer to God, but unemployment can?

What if our generosity can’t earn us points in “the good place,” but our poverty blesses us?

What if our carefully managed plans for a safe life just lull us into a false sense of security? What if being in danger is actually better for our spiritual growth?

What if the woman who leaves an abusive man and steps out into uncertainty is surrounded by angels, while the couple who have a good, untroubled marriage for decades are in danger of losing their souls?

What if such a realization drives us into a form of grief that is actually the first step toward benefiting from our salvation?

See, here’s the thing: Jesus makes clear in the gospels that God sides with the unemployed, the homeless, the hungry, the lonely, and the abused … over against the rest of us. God loves us all, to be sure, but God doesn’t love our possessions, or our security, or our confidence. “Believe in yourself” is not the gospel and often runs contrary to it. When things are going well for us, we are so easily led into the false belief that we are in control. It’s not until we come to understand ourselves as poverty-stricken—voluntarily or otherwise—that we can begin to receive God’s love.

I’m telling you this with great trepidation. I walk away from this gospel passage grieving, because I have many possessions. And I wonder what it would take for me to lose all faith in their saving power.

Oh, the word of God is indeed “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow”! God’s judgment of the folly of our lives is real, and it will cause us to grieve.

Jesus’ disciples are shocked. It’s as if, for one fleeting moment, they actually understand the gospel. When we talk about the baptized life, we’re talking about an alternative lifestyle, a lifestyle that stands in stark contrast to that of, for instance, American culture, because it is both totally free and costs us everything.

This week I’ve been reading The Cost of Discipleship by Lutheran pastor and Nazi resister Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He writes about Levi the tax collector, a man with many possessions who did indeed follow Jesus:

At the call, Levi leaves all that he has … not because he thinks that he might be doing something worthwhile, but simply for the sake of the call … The disciple simply burns his boats and goes ahead … The disciple is dragged out of his relative security into a life of absolute insecurity (that is, in truth, into the absolute security and safety of the fellowship of Jesus).[1]

You may now be saying, “Well, it’s not like it makes sense for all of us to sell everything we have”! I’m not saying that. But what if we all took just one step toward beginning to understand that we don’t actually own anything—that we have no right to keep any particular possession?

What if we practiced giving ourselves away?

What little thing can we do this week to lose faith in our stuff, to open our hands wide and say to God, “All that I have is yours, and so I offer it back to you”?

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1959), 58.