Sunday, November 25, 2018

The End of the Story

sermon preached at Church of the Good Shepherd, Federal Way, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Rector
The Last Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 29B), November 25, 2018

If you were to tell the story of Jesus to someone who had never heard of him before, where would you start? You might consider starting with the story of Christmas. That would make sense. Or you could start with the Creation stories in Genesis and work your way through Jesus’ back story first. When Mark sat down to write the story of Jesus, he chose to skip Jesus’ birth and go right to his baptism.

These are all fine ways to begin the story of Jesus. But how would you end it?

You know, the word “end” has two meanings: it can mean the final chapter of a story. Or it can mean the ultimate intention or purpose of the story. On this final Sunday of the Christian year, we look to the end of all things—and there we find Christ, the ultimate destination toward which the entire universe is heading. Because of this, the end of a thing, the end of a situation, the end of a person is also the eternal beginning.

There is a great lesson in our children’s curriculum, Godly Play, in which we talk about how we measure time. The storyteller uses a thread to show that time is a line that has a beginning and an end. Then the storyteller ties the ends of the thread together to show that this is how we in the church measure time: Time is not just in a line, but also in a circle. The storyteller takes the thread and lays it on top of a special clock that measures the seasons of the church year. Today we reach the end of a line of time, and then we tie it to the beginning again as, next Sunday, we enter the season of Advent and start over. Every year we tell the story of Jesus. And today we tell the end.

We know how the Bible ends the story of Jesus: with the Revelation to John. I like to say that this book is primarily in Bible because it makes for a good ending. I mean, what if the Bible ended with the Letter of Jude? What a letdown. No, for a story this important, you need a slam-bang ending.

Many of us, when we were kids, attended Sunday school and may even have learned a lot about the order of the books in the Bible. I still remember a little song I learned then for finding my way around the New Testament: “Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, letters to the Romans, First and Second Corinthians, Galatians and Ephesians!” Et cetera. The Old Testament had more books and I never learned a song for it, but I did memorize some: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth. Et cetera, until I lose track, which I still do. You may know that the Old Testament ends with the prophet Malachi. Unless you’re Jewish, in which case it ends with First and Second Chronicles. Did you know that the books in the Jewish Bible are in a different order?

But that order was determined much later. Jesus didn’t have the Christian Bible. Jesus of Nazareth was Jewish. How did his Bible end? In Jesus’ time, the Septuagint, the authoritative Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, ended with the Book of Daniel, the last book to be written before Jesus came along.

Daniel is a very weird book. It starts with folk tales, some of which are probably familiar to many of us: the story with the lions’ den … the story with the fiery furnace, and Daniel’s three friends, Shadrach, Mesach, and Abednego … the story with King Belshazzar and the mysterious hand writing words of doom on the wall. Like the Revelation to John, the Book of Daniel makes for a great ending with all its apocalyptic imagery and dire consequences. And the book itself ends with these words:
“But you, go your way, and rest; you shall rise for your reward at the end of days.”

I was very excited this week to learn that the last words of the Hebrew Scriptures are words of resurrection. The Book of Daniel is the only book in the Hebrew Bible that mentions the resurrection of the dead. What a great way to leave off the first part of the story and to get ready to hear about the birth of a baby.

But just so we don’t get too sidetracked, let’s look at the portion of Daniel we just heard. It’s a vision of the End. The Ancient One is on the throne. It’s a scene of judgment. And then, says Daniel, “I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven.” This writing is so late, so near to Jesus’ time, that it’s not even in Hebrew: it’s in Aramaic, the language that Jesus himself spoke. Daniel sees “one like a human being”—or, for a more literal translation, “one like a son of man.”

Now, “son of man” is an expression that shows up in many places in the Hebrew Bible, and usually it just means “a man”—a human, a regular joe, as opposed to God. But in the Book of Daniel it’s bigger than that, because the Ancient One then gives to the Son of Man “dominion and glory and kingship”—“an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away.” This is a Messianic figure, a descendant of David, the one who will restore the Kingdom of Israel and rule it eternally.

Then, when the phrase “Son of Man” shows up in the story of Jesus, it’s because Jesus is using it to refer to himself.

And by the time we come back around again to the Revelation to John, we hear of the resurrected Jesus Christ, the “firstborn of the dead,” returning and appearing to everybody on earth. And we hear that God, the creator of all, is the Alpha and the Omega—the A to Z—the beginning and the end.

If you were to tell the story of Jesus from the very beginning to the very end, how would you end it?

Would you think to end it with a Kingdom?

We don’t really know much about kings in our country, or any monarchs, really. Though many nations still have royal families, they feel old-fashioned to us—dated, especially since we Americans did away with the whole concept on principle the moment we declared our independence. What good does it do us to talk about Jesus as our king, especially when you consider the images we probably carry in our minds about what kings are really like?

So again I’d like to turn to language from Godly Play to help us out. “The people had been hoping for many years for a Messiah, a special person sent by God who would save them and be their King. A King is coming, but he is not the kind of king that people thought they were hoping for. This King had no army, no great house, and no riches. This King was a baby who was born in a barn.”

Do you hear it? We’re about to turn a corner. The ending is shifting back into a beginning again.

In today’s gospel we find the accused Son of Man, Jesus of Nazareth, standing in trial before the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. Pilate is supposed to be judging Jesus. But wait: who is judging whom here? Who has more power? Jesus stands whipped and beaten, bruised and bloody, and with all his dignity still completely intact, he proclaims, “My kingdom is not from this world. In worldly kingdoms, the subjects fight to protect their monarch. But this isn’t like that at all.”

“Wait,” says Pilate, “so you are a king?”

“Your words, governor, not mine. Call me whatever you need to call me if it will help you understand. I’m just doing what I was born to do: to tell God’s truth and to be that truth. Anyone who recognizes and honors truth is actually one of my subjects.”

This doesn’t sound like any king I’ve ever heard of. So maybe “king” isn’t the best title after all. Yet here we are on the Last Sunday after Pentecost, celebrating the Feast of Christ the King, also called the Reign of Christ. Take or leave the metaphor, but hear this: Jesus the Christ is, if nothing else, the icon of the way things are in God’s universe. Jesus is the truth of God’s love … in the flesh!

I have a challenge for all of you in the coming year. Spend as much of it as you can with us at the Church of the Good Shepherd and think about how you would tell the story of Jesus. Think of the stories in the Bible as your starting place, where you’ll find the main raw materials. But then, make the connections. Look at your own life. Look at your own beginnings and endings. What is truth—not just your individualistic version of truth, but your best approximation of ultimate truth? What events in your life speak most deeply of Truth? It is there, in those most truthful places in your story, that you’ll find Jesus.

Don’t be surprised if those places are extremely vulnerable ones. I think this is why we so often make small talk at coffee hour. Ideally, we’re here at church to compare notes on the presence of Jesus in our lives, but that would really require us to drop our guard, even to strangers. We can’t handle that much truth all that often.

But maybe a little bit at a time. Maybe in baby bites. You might get to know some people better in the coming year—develop some friendships—and talk intentionally about Truth. Talk intentionally about whose voice you follow, and why. Talk about your tragedies and your triumphs, your failures and your redemptions. Talk about your vulnerable places. These are the blessed places. These are the pivot points of your life. These are the cracks that let the Light in.
But one thing at a time. Today is the end of the story of Jesus: truths revealed, conclusions reached, promises fulfilled. And we’re also just turning the corner. I hear there’s a baby on the way.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Apocalypse When?

sermon preached at Church of the Good Shepherd, Federal Way, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Rector
The Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 28B), November 18, 2018

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To know that for destruction ice
Is also great,
And would suffice.

That’s Robert Frost’s 1920 poem “Fire and Ice.” We often hear about the remote possibility of hell freezing over, but not until this week have I heard of Paradise burning. The city of Chico, California suddenly has 50,000 new residents: refugees from nearby towns that wildfires have all but destroyed. Over 1000 homes have burned. More than 75 people have died, and hundreds are still missing. A woman being interviewed said, “It’s as if God has checked out.” I urge your continuing prayers for the victims of these fires.

Meanwhile, in Greece, archaeologists have just uncovered the ruins of the ancient city of Tenea. Historians knew about the city from ancient writings: it was founded 33 centuries ago and then abandoned 16 centuries ago. Clearly it was a very affluent place, as evidenced by the finding of exquisite pottery and jewelry. It was there for a long time, and then it was gone, and we’re just now finding it again. Everything that begins will end.

In our readings today, we hear of “a time of anguish,” and “the Day”—capital D—“approaching.” Jesus’ friends point out the wondrous spectacle of the temple in Jerusalem, and Jesus responds with a rousing … “meh.” He tells his friends, “It’s not long for this world anyway. It’ll be gone soon—very soon.”

Naturally, the anxious disciples have to ask: “Well, how soon are we talking?”

And Jesus says, cryptically, “What looks to you like the end of the world is really only the beginning.”

Most scholars agree that Mark’s gospel was written sometime around the year 70. Mark that date well, because it’s the year of the most important event in the Bible that is not explicitly mentioned in the Bible. That’s when the Romans sacked Jerusalem and destroyed God’s Temple.

By then it had been 40 years since Jesus’ crucifixion, and the nascent Jesus movement had spread all around the Mediterranean. It is crucial for Christians to know and understand that all four gospel writers wrote in the shadow of Jerusalem’s destruction: for Mark it was either imminent or immediately in the past; for the others it was a reality they were trying gradually to accept. For Jews, this meant the beginning of a complete reworking of their faith from the ground up. Jews still live in the post-Temple era that began at that time. Doubtless it felt to them, too, as if God had checked out.

When faced with the enormity of destruction and loss in our world, we cannot help but try to make sense of it, even if our arguments are clearly faulty. We blame ourselves or others. Some made sense of the destruction of Jerusalem by asserting that it was God’s punishment. In later times, many Jews would take the route of humility, naming their own people as idolatrous and unjust, seeing the loss of Jerusalem the way the prophets saw the ancient invasions by Assyria and Babylon.

Christians, unfortunately, would also come to blame the Jewish people, but in terms more like, “Well, Jesus came, and you didn’t listen to him.” This unfortunate dynamic was already going on in the writing of the gospels. We need to know that, and we still have need to repent of it. If you’re going to see death and destruction as God’s punishment, do it in humility. But for Christians, there is no warrant for turning the Messiah who died to save us all into a Messiah who lays waste to God’s chosen people.

Others of us just deny reality completely. I’m convinced that this is why some people still deny climate change even as the term “climate change refugee” comes into common parlance. It’s too big to accept, and even if we do, it’s so difficult to change our comfortable lives to meet the challenge. A few weeks ago a new report from climate scientists told us that we have a decade at most to make dramatic changes in our world to ensure human survival. I’ve had a hard time inwardly digesting this. I’ve done my research, and it seems clear that solving this problem will require the unprecedented cooperation of all the most powerful nations on earth, most of which don’t get along with each other. I am filled with hopelessness … and then I go back to my life. I just don’t have the bandwidth to handle such things for very long.

I want to suggest that, sooner or later, spiritual maturity means that when faced with disaster, we don’t need to feel guilty, blame others, or deny reality. Rather, we prevent it while we can, fight it while we can, and then simply accept it. Disaster happens because everything that begins must eventually end. To me, Jesus sounds heartlessly casual when he describes the kind of destruction we can expect to see: “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.” It’s important to hear Jesus’ words through the lens of Mark, writing of the siege of Jerusalem with a fateful inevitability. Do you hear in these words futility, or hope? Or maybe both?

Built into Christian theology is the ability to be both realistic and optimistic at the same time. Yes, it’s all going to end. Yes, there is hope even then. We hear it in our funeral rite: “All of us go down to the dust, yet even at the grave, we make our song Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!” When our world ends, God is here, and we are the song-makers of eternal life.

When you suffer grief and loss, where do you place your trust? When comfort and familiarity cannot continue, where do you see God’s Kingdom? Our call today is to see what’s real, acknowledge our fear and pain, and place it in its proper context. We can’t do this without God’s help. We can’t rise above our survival instincts and emotional overload without calling on the one who made us, who named us, and who keeps calling us to trust more deeply. If Jesus says that this is only the beginning of the birthpangs, what reason do I have not to trust him? Only my human perspective, which I know is woefully limited. Only my feelings, which are not the same as facts.

Someday this building will be gone. There will be no more Church of the Good Shepherd and no more brand-new organ in the choir loft. We don’t know if that’ll happen in a generation, or many centuries from now. But it’s definitely going to happen. There will also be a time when there is no United States of America. It will either be conquered and occupied like ancient Israel or come apart at the seams like Rome. Nations that fall typically do so right in the wake of their most prosperous times. So it will happen. And someday there will be not even be any more humans.

Yet even then—even when the last human breath is taken on this planet—all will be redeemed and renewed in God. God operates outside our timeline. For God, all times are “apocalypse now.” My end will come, and yours will too, hopefully long before any final endings for humanity. And God will be ready to receive us into the arms of an eternal life that’s even more real than the one we’re living now.

Another poet, Mary Oliver, wrote in “The Summer Day”:

I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

In last week’s reading, the poor widow gave her one wild and precious life to God completely. She entrusted her lifeblood, two small coins, to a Temple that would be destroyed forty years later. Today is the conclusion of our annual pledge campaign: we’re about to turn in our pledge cards to support the work of the Church in this temporal world.

Now, I need you to know and to trust that we do not save ourselves by giving; God’s got you covered, not the Church. Your soul does not hang on your pledge card! Yet we only have this moment in which to give. We only ever get to live one moment at a time, so let’s live it. Let’s do what we can do today.

After all, Jesus showed us how to do this. When we are baptized into Christ, we become his people in the world. At that moment, our possessions cease to be our own: they are for God’s purposes. How could we be Christians if we weren’t constantly giving ourselves away for the sake of the abundant life of others—even abundant life in the face of hopelessness and despair? If “wars and rumors of wars” are only the birthpangs, then God is our doula, and I can’t wait to meet the baby! What looks to us like the end of the world is really only the beginning.

So I want to close with the words of one more poet, the prophet Habbakuk, whose words we don’t hear enough in church. Writing at the time of the Babylonian conquest of Judah—another end of the world for God’s chosen people—Habbakuk wrote:

Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation. (3:17-18)


Sunday, November 11, 2018

Symbols of Power and Trust

sermon preached at Church of the Good Shepherd, Federal Way, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Rector
The Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 27B), November 11, 2018

It was early morning before my drive to Federal Way. I stopped off at the White Center Library and dropped Christy’s and my ballots into a gigantic metal box. I couldn’t hear a sound as they landed. I jiggled the handle to make sure they weren’t stuck. My work was done … and it felt like so little. It was all I had to give to my country that day.
Two little ballots. A handful of meal in a jar. A little water. A little oil in a jug. A couple of sticks. Two small copper coins. Our gifts are symbolic, and sometimes they feel merely symbolic. How do we use the power we have? And can we trust God to use it well?

A symbol is a tool for human communication, a shorthand. It is something that stands not only for itself but also for something greater than itself, and so it communicates and mediates the thing to which it points. A ballot, for example, casts a vote, but it is also a symbol of our power to change the context in which we spend our lives.
Meal, oil, and water come together to make cakes in this case they symbolize the meager final meal for a poor widow and her son. Two small copper coins symbolize a poor widow’s trust in the religious system to mediate her relationship with the God who created her.

We also have two other symbols that we only place here occasionally. What does our nation’s flag represent? It depends on whom you ask. My love for my country is conditional on its behavior: how much does America look like God’s dream for our lives? So the flag might symbolize what our country is right now, including the ways it has always fallen short and continues to do so. Or it might symbolize what we wish our country might become, in which case we fly the flag in the hope that someday we’ll get there. Veterans are those who have put their lives on the line, being willing even to use violence and to risk the resulting spiritual damage to defend people’s lives for the sake of this symbol and the hoped-for reality to which it points.

But for others, this symbol of a flag understandably rings hollow, because they have never seen the fruit of that hope. For some, this symbol speaks of empire, oppression, slavery, genocide, false promises, financial opportunism for the few causing chronic poverty for the many … all the worst effects of our American experiment. Their experience is real, too, and it’s only out of unearned privilege that any of us can pretend not to see these experiences or choose not to honor them.

And then there’s the other flag, that of the Episcopal Church. As a lifelong Episcopalian, I am reminded when I see it of the church I have grown up in all my life, and of all the people who have nurtured me in the Christian faith. For me it’s a much less loaded symbol than the United States flag is. Yet if I spend some time with it, I see within it the colors and the symbols of Great Britain. Ours is a colonial church: it is only because of the British Empire that you can find Anglicans in dozens of countries around the globe, including the U.S. When we spread our church, we also spread our culture, mostly unthinkingly. And that’s a topic for another time—but this symbol is complicated, once we decide to notice.

In other words, symbols are complicated things, and they don’t always mean the same thing to everyone. We place flags in our worship space today with the intention of honoring their best connotations, but we must never forget their worst and work to keep changing those. A trustworthy church is one that offers critique to the state: How well does our nation promote the love of our neighbors as ourselves? Whenever it falls short, we Christians must speak out. And so we vote, and we call and write our elected officials, and we protest. We get involved in the world because we are trying to reveal God’s Kingdom to the world. We use our power to build trustworthy institutions on behalf of those with less power.

Our readings today focus especially on questions of power and trust. When the widow of Zarepath receives Elijah into her home, she is receiving a member of the powerful prophet class, but he is now on the run from his own government, a refugee in a neighboring land. He has just come from forty days in the desert, where angels fed and waited on him. Elijah may be just as hungry and she and her son are. So when the prophet asks the widow to feed him first, it is not an unreasonable demand, but a dare against despair: “I dare you to feed me first, because I know that even on the brink of starvation, you trust God to care for you.”

Similarly, the widow in today’s Gospel reading gives all that she has: two coins, given in trust to the religious establishment. Jesus points out that no matter how little we have, we still have enough to be generous. He honors the gift even as he calls into question whether the establishment can be trusted.

Meanwhile, the rich are giving many large gifts. Jesus doesn’t criticize the wealthy for giving, but neither does he comment on them at all; he only raises up the gift of the poor woman. The gifts of the wealthy are simply expected: together the people pool their money and care for each other. This is how it’s supposed to work, and so it needs no commentary.

Instead, Jesus calls out the scribes, the authoritative religious scholars who interpret God’s law. He accuses them of abusing and impoverishing widows still further! And then here comes this widow to give all her money into the care of these same authorities. It reminds me of stories of people who give all their money to some televangelist, going deeply into debt because they have been manipulated to do so.

Jesus’ relationship with the temple was complicated. He certainly did not stand against the Jewish temple system wholesale. Jesus was a devout Jew who knew that the system could do good but often failed. He was no more anti-Jewish than a protester is un-American. It was for love of God and for love of his people that Jesus called out the injustice of the powerful. He did not want the widow’s coins hoarded by self-important, swaggering leaders who took all criticism as an attack. These, of course, were the people who would eventually collude with the Romans to have Jesus sent to the cross.

Symbols, by their nature, engage us in such conversations about power and trust. In this story, the powerful give a chunk of their money away as a matter of course, and good for them. But they don’t have to stop and think very hard about how it will be used, because there’s more where that came from. The system, as it stands, has served them well, so why question it or challenge it?

The poor widow, on the other hand, has invested all her trust. She gives all that she has, because who knows? Someone else may yet need it more than she does. Jesus doesn’t judge whether the widow’s gift is wise or foolish. He just names it as the largest gift of all.

So here I stand before you all in a long robe, a religious scholar and interpreter of Scripture. Based on today’s Gospel reading, you have every reason not to trust me. And I don’t demand your trust. You have given me this pulpit, and I’m doing my best not to abuse it. But call me out when I do, OK?

We have all these symbols to consider: flags, ballots, robes, coins, bread and wine and water, the offerings we give today, and next week, our pledge cards, which symbolize our trust in God—and our trust in the church to use our gifts well. I will not tell you where to place your limits on giving. I just encourage you to give, to make a specific pledge in faith rather than merely saying, “I’ll give some when I have some.” Pledging our money is a spiritual practice, and practiced givers can tell you how transformational it can become.

Just remember that the gift you pledge is not merely to keep the lights on at Good Shepherd, though it will help do so. Your pledge is a symbol of the sweat of your brow given back to God. It is a symbol of your trust: trust in the institution of the church to whatever degree you can muster that, but more broadly, trust in God to act both inside and outside of the church, to act in both our wise and our foolish decisions, to act for the sake of redeeming everything and everyone.

We are dealing with many symbols today, but there is one more still: a symbol bigger than any other in this room, far more important than any nation’s flag or any amount of money. The cross incorporates and redeems all these other symbols.

So as the psalmist urges, “put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of earth.” Put not your trust in political parties and national borders, for the one who gave his life transgresses all such categories. Put not your trust in flags, for the one who gave his life protects you in every situation. Put not your trust in coins, for the one who gave his life stands on the side of the poor over against the powerful. Put your trust in the transforming power of generous, self-giving love, a love that gives justice to the oppressed and food to the hungry, a love that cares for the stranger, the orphan and widow—a love that frustrates the way of the wicked.

Stand on the side of love and place your trust in love. And may the symbols you offer for the sake of love not only point to the One who is greater but also help show God’s Kingdom to be present all around us. Amen.