Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Pondering in Our Hearts

sermon preached at Church of the Good Shepherd, Federal Way, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Rector
Christmas Eve, December 24, 2018

“But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”

Have you ever asked a question that you knew you’d never get a definitive answer to? “Hey, Google … what is the meaning of life?” … “Siri, tell me which religion is the right one.” … “Alexa, please add fulfillment and happiness to my shopping list.”

We inventive humans now have so many ways to try to manage our environment. But we still can’t manage everything, and that’s frustrating. Some days, it feels like we can manage nothing at all—not the kids, not the pets, not the spouse, not the boss, not the weather, not the government, not the passage of time, not the loneliness and anxiety.
That’s the point at which many of us turn to God, if we haven’t done so already. We cry out, “Help me manage all this!”

We all do this from time to time. I have a non-religious friend who said recently that she was gardening, and for each seed she dropped into the earth, she took a moment to think of specific types of people who have been victimized in our country recently. And she hoped that people of hateful words and actions might experience a moment in the night when they rethink their effect on people. She prefaced all this by saying, “I don’t pray. I vote.” As if the two things were mutually exclusive.

We all pray—and not necessarily because we think it will fix things. We pray because we’re human, and that’s what humans do. We pray because we can’t help it. We pray when we feel out of control. We may also pray when we feel an inexpressible joy! We retreat, we meditate, we keep silence, we burst out with unbidden exclamations. We pray in so many ways, because we don’t have all the answers, and no artificial intelligence will provide them for us.

Jesus also prayed, a lot: we read in the Gospels that he often went away by himself to pray, sometimes all night. Sometimes he stayed away so long that people got really anxious. I don’t know about you, but for me, making time for prayer almost always feels like shirking responsibility. It feels unproductive—like I’m wasting time. I think that’s because it should be a waste of time. To pray is to surrender what little control we have left.

Prayer has been on my mind a lot, so when I hear the Christmas story tonight, a certain line jumps out at me: “But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”

Mary: a teenager from Nazareth, minding her own business … suddenly she’s going to become a mother. So is her elderly cousin Elizabeth. When the two of them get together for some quality pregnancy time, instead of wondering how to keep her back from hurting in a few months, Mary sings a song about how God works against the rich and powerful and stands on the side of the poor and the oppressed.

So Mary’s not one of these supposedly tuned-out teenagers: she’s thought about this stuff. She knows her Isaiah: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” She knows that political and military leaders have no power over God. She knows her psalms: “Then shall all the trees of the wood shout for joy!” She has been given the promise that was given to Abraham: that her people will be blessed, and that they will be a blessing to all the peoples of the world. Mary’s done a lot of pondering in her short life. Maybe that’s why Joseph loves her. Maybe that’s why God chooses her.

Well, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Mary will give birth to Jesus, who will also spend a lot of time pondering. In him, the people will see not just a thoughtful man, a prayerful man, a wise man. They will see the very face of God.

And the very face of God needs to pray. What does that mean? You’d think that if anyone would need no prayer at all, it would be Jesus. But that’s to misunderstand, as if the purpose of prayer were to get something we might not otherwise be able to have. That wouldn’t be prayer; it would be a magic spell.

Prayer, on the other hand, doesn’t cause or convince God to give us something. It enables us to recognize what it has been God’s good pleasure to give us already. We pray because we love, and there’s only one place love could come from—from the one who created us out of love in the first place. We pray to be in relationship, because prayer brings us closer to God and closer to those for whom we pray. Prayer breaks down the barriers between us. It even breaks down the barriers between life and death.

And yes, sometimes we pray to ask God for stuff. This is about being honest not only with God, but also with ourselves. When we can only see one acceptable way forward, we let God know that: “Please: save my mother’s life.” When we have no idea of any way forward, we let God know that, too: “Help me! I’m lost!” We ponder in our hearts, and given enough time and practice, we trust God to hear and to respond.

I can imagine Mary there by the manger, Joseph sitting nearby. The shepherds, a bunch of rough, smelly men, have finally ended their joyful visit after going on and on about their encounter with angels. Now perhaps Joseph is nodding off, as he does in Giotto’s famous painting of the Nativity. But Mary is wakeful. She has made it through the uncertainty of pregnancy and birth. She is in Bethlehem, and she misses the comfort of her bed in Nazareth.

The prophet Micah said that a descendant of David would come from Bethlehem and would rule forever—a good shepherd to his flock, a man of peace. Mary chuckles to herself: her little family isn’t really from Bethlehem. They’re just here temporarily for the census. It’s a technicality. Of course, now Mary needs to heal from the process of giving birth. That’ll take at least a few days—enough time to ponder much more what this child may become.

But she can’t take too long to heal, because they’ll need to circumcise the boy on the eighth day. Maybe that can happen here in Bethlehem. Then comes the presentation on the fortieth day, and they’ll have to go to Jerusalem for that. Another journey, so soon—not as far as Nazareth. As is the duty of all observant Jews, they will bring their 40-day-old child to the temple and symbolically offer him to God.

Mary doesn’t yet know that when they arrive at the temple, an old man named Simeon and an old woman named Anna will swoon over the little baby—not just because he’s a cute newborn, but because they, too, will see on him the very face of God! Simeon will say that he can now die a happy man. But he will also say something frightening to Mary: “A sword will pierce your soul, too.”

Oh, the beginning of a new life. All the promise and hope. All the anxiety, too. You know, you can’t give birth to anyone without expecting that person to suffer a lot of pain over the course of a lifetime. If we all thought that pain was the worst thing that could happen, we’d never have children. If we all thought that death was the big enemy, we’d say it was better never to be born in the first place. But like so many of us, God apparently thinks pain and death are worth it for the sake of all the joy that will come with them. So God offers himself to us. Jesus is offered in the womb and in the manger long before he offers himself on the cross.

Do you ever ponder these sorts of thing in your heart? Do you ever ask questions you know you’ll never get a definitive answer to? People who show up at church tend to be ponderers, at least some of the time. It’s an important part of what we do here. We gather, we share ancient stories, we ponder the stories. We wonder together what they might mean for us. We pray—wasting an hour on a Sunday morning because we know can’t ever manage our lives as efficiently as we’d like. We are assured of God’s love for us, and then we share a small amount of food together—bread and wine, and if you’re willing to accept it, the very flesh and blood of God, uniting us, nourishing us, preparing us to go back out into the world again.

Out there in the world, we’ll go on living our lives, but we’ll do so knowing that God is with us and has always been with us. This will give us courage to live not just for ourselves, but for the sake of others. Like Mary, we will carry Jesus in our bodies, and we will show to the world the very face of God. Christmas has made this possible. Amen.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

A Life Unasked For

sermon preached at Church of the Good Shepherd, Federal Way, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Rector
The Fourth Sunday of Advent (Year C), December 23, 2018

I’ll never forget that first ultrasound—such an amazing experience, seeing that shape inside my wife’s body of our daughter to come. But being a musically oriented person, even less forgettable to me is the first sound of her heartbeat. I had a newfangled digital recorder in those days, so I asked for silence in the room and made a one-minute recording: swoosh, swoosh, swoosh, swoosh. Of course, I still have that mp3 stored on my computer: a sound that would otherwise go unnoticed, magnified. A vision that nobody on the outside could see, magnified.

“My soul magnifies the Lord.” What does it mean for Mary’s soul to magnify the Lord? The Greek word can mean simply to praise or to honor. But it can also mean to enlarge. Mary helps us see God close up—like a magnifying glass. Mary’s obvious pregnancy is a sign of what we can’t yet see. Mary’s youth, humility, and vulnerability are where God chooses to set up camp.

Today the psalmist gives us words we can use to ask for help: “Restore us, O God of hosts!” We ask for God to arrive and rescue us. The prophet Micah points us to Bethlehem specifically. And then we hear a story of how we can expect God to arrive: in the most unexpected way.

It’s not like we didn’t have hints before. Our spiritual ancestors found God on mountaintops where there was no one else around, and in the wilderness during their worst hunger pangs. They found God in stories, and they found God in dreams—in the strangers seeking welcome, and in a surprise overnight wrestling match. Elijah found God not in wind, earthquake, or fire, but only in the sheer silence that followed.

Sure, there were also times when our ancestors found God in the spectacular and undeniable: in a worldwide flood, in deathly plagues, in the parting of the sea, in the tumbling of city walls, and in the grandest of temples. But they also found God in the midwife resistance of Egypt, in a talking donkey, in the healing of foreign generals, in the feeding of foreign widows, and in a valley of dry bones.

Jeremiah heard God telling him to bury his dirty underwear, to dig it up after a month, and then to tell the people that they were like it. Hosea heard God telling him to marry a prostitute and to give their children insulting names, and then to tell the people that they were like that. When God is around, you cannot expect to be flattered or coddled. But you can definitely expect to be surprised and challenged, and nevertheless to find comfort inside the challenge!

Did all of this run through Mary’s mind that day when the angel showed up? Surely she already knew of God’s penchant for enabling unexpected pregnancies. But those usually happened on the other side of 40, or even 90. And they never happened to girls who weren’t even trying to get pregnant!

When Mary finally got to Elizabeth’s house to share the news with her elderly cousin, she could have just sung a song about how good God had been to her personally. Her song begins: “My soul magnifies the Lord.” But it doesn’t stay there. Mary’s song is a song of apocalypse and justice. Mary’s song pits God against the proud, the rich, and the powerful. Mary recognizes that God has stuck by her people all along, and that even when it doesn’t look like God is with them, faith tells her that God is just around the corner—hiding in a place you’d never suspect. If rich people are still oppressing the poor, if tyrants are still scoring victories, if money still talks and crime still pays, then the story isn’t over yet!

Patty Wickman, Overshadowed
And Mary has the proof—right there in her young body. She can feel God growing inside her, little reptilian-esque buds turning to human fingers and toes, a tiny heartbeat quickening with a life that resists the deadly world around it. Cradled in Mary’s uterus is the creator of creation, the one who stands on the side of those who live against the odds. How many fetuses make it to birth? How many babies make it to adolescence? How small is the chance that this unborn child will become an adult, someone of will and influence? All the uncertainty of pregnancy in the ancient world belongs to Mary. Yet so does a messenger’s incredible reassurance: “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”

And so one body has become two. Mary has put her body on the line for God with the words, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.” And now God offers his very own body to Mary and to the world—a sacrifice to us. If God knows all and sees all, then God sacrifices these things to be among us—an offering to us. Love is nothing if not self-giving. “Here,” says God. “I literally give you myself, in the flesh. Yes, I have always given myself to you in so many ways, and many have seen and recognized me. I have made daily visitations to all of you. But I don’t want just to visit. I want to move in with you. Here: I pour myself out to you.”

Jesus is offered in the womb long before he offers himself on the cross. His is a life unasked for—the ultimate unwanted pregnancy. He just shows up: “Greetings and salutations!” Nothing we do can keep him from arriving in our world.

Later in the story, we will ask him to leave, not just impolitely, but violently. All the worst impulses of humankind will fall on him, to beat him, to mock him, and finally to kill him. But even that won’t keep him away. He’ll just show up again: “Greetings and salutations!”

It seems we can’t prevent God using even the most stringent form of birth control. And it seems we can’t make God stay away, either. If Jesus is God in the flesh, then God is indeed making the divine home here among mortals—and plans to stay awhile. Forever if necessary. Until we all come to the knowledge and love of the One who created us!

So the Creator of the Universe will keep showing up wherever we least expect, and so inconveniently! She’ll show up on Pentecost, in flames of fire that speak and understand all the languages we can devise. He’ll show up to strengthen the martyrs as they suffer torture and death in the Roman arenas. She’ll appear to mystics like Hildegard and Julian in a cloud of unknowing. He’ll appear to St. Francis in the birds and in the beggars. She’ll serve as muse for the great writers and musicians. He’ll drive the abolitionists to expand the definition of freedom. She’ll guide the suffragettes to seek equality, and he’ll march alongside Martin. She’ll take every opportunity to call bishops and kings up short. He’ll appear in tents in the woods and question our priorities. They’ll appear in our churches and in our families and question our categories and our pronouns.

God will just keep showing up—whether we’re ready or not. Wherever you see that the small are doing mighty things, that the sidelined are standing up to those who would exploit them, that the humble are exerting a quiet influence that the pompous cannot match … that’s where God is. The home of God is truly among mortals!
And you can also count on God showing up here today as we come to the table. God came into a human body, and now we will welcome God into our bodies as well, to strengthen and nourish us, to give us eyes to see and ears to hear.

Join us here again tomorrow night to welcome Christmas. Welcome Christ into the world with all your heart. Just don’t expect it to happen in a neat and tidy way, but in a way that challenges us all to grow and also provides comfort in the challenge … as if we ourselves are pregnant with all the possibilities of Love. Amen.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

You Are a Forest

sermon preached at Church of the Good Shepherd, Federal Way, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Rector
The Third Sunday of Advent (Year C), December 16, 2018

Today we hear that people are leaving the bustling city of Jerusalem and going all the way out to the wilderness around the Jordan River to hear John tell them how awful they are. “You brood of vipers!”

I love that insult. I should use it more often. What if I preached like John the Baptist? Let me try it for a minute. I’m excited. And in honor of this occasion, I haven’t shaved in three whole days. Here we go ...

“You brood of vipers! Who gave you a heads-up that you should all be in church? It’s not like you really mean it. You’re just going to go home and keep doing the same things you’ve always done. You say you’re a Christian, but you’re not interested in changing your lives—only in making yourselves feel better! Your carbon footprint is gigantic, and you have no plan to stop using coal, oil, and plastic. You have too many clothes in your closets and too much money in your pockets. Your clothes and technology come from sweatshops, and you’d know that if you bothered to spend five minutes on Google. People in your neighborhood are homeless and hungry, and the help you offer them is just a Band-Aid. What’s the point in you coming here for forgiveness? Brood of vipers!”

So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

I’m guessing that you wouldn’t like me much if I preached like that. (I seem to remember that John lost his head.) I wouldn’t like me much either, because it would make me a complete hypocrite. If anyone needs to go down to the Jordan for a cleansing and a fresh start, it’s me. And maybe you, too. I don’t know. Join me at the river if you like, but be warned that before anything else happens, we’re all going to endure what feels like verbal abuse from John. We’ll think it’s verbal abuse, but it’s really just stark truth-telling. When we’re accustomed to politely running our own lives, right judgment feels like violence. John comes to us with the words of a healthy conscience—and our conscience really doesn’t care about our tender feelings.

One of the core messages of Advent is that the world’s a total mess, and we are collectively responsible for it. It’s a message that won’t sit well with many of us. Of course we’re doing the best we can, right? We do give our money and we do feed the hungry and we do shelter people in need! Of course we only have so much time and energy, and we come from a certain context, and we have certain expectations of comfort in life and the means to sustain that comfort. Life is hard enough without becoming total ascetics and forswearing all pleasure in life just because someone has it worse off than we do!

This is also true. It’s not our fault as individuals. It’s not our job to become total killjoys. And guilt trips offer no path to life abundant.

Here’s the thing, though: we hear the words of the Bible very differently than the ancients did. We wouldn’t even recognize their view of things like personal responsibility and individualism. They didn’t have Descartes—“I think, therefore I am.” They didn’t have Immanuel Kant—“I had to remove knowledge to make room for belief.” They didn’t have the Enlightenment, the Scientific Method, democracy, human rights, capitalism, health care, the notion of progress. They had none of the perspectives that lead us to make the excuse that when bad things happen, it's probably someone else’s problem.

But we do. And sometimes, some of our most cherished perspectives on the world can also get in our way. Our ancient ancestors were just people like we all are. They were just the same. And they were very, very different. So when we listen to the same words that were given to them, we need to adjust our ears to think less like individuals and more like a community.

What does John say will be the result of our collective sins? He warns us that “even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

And here’s where I want to give you some solid reassurance. John seems to have used “trees” as a metaphor for “people.” If you are a tree, you have every right to feel paralyzed right now. If you are a tree, you’re waiting for that ax to start in to work on you and end you—and for the fire to lick you up and make you crackle and pop. Many Christian preachers love threatening people with these images.

But new times, with new perspectives and new lenses, call for new metaphors. Today I want to suggest that you are not a tree. You are an entire forest, inseparable from the even larger network of forests that includes everyone else.

As a forest, you have all sorts of trees inside you: oaks, firs, cedars, a whole bed of ferns. You have old, stately trees and new saplings. You have healthy trees and diseased trees. You have rotting logs that are gradually turning to mulch, and you have surprising twigs sprouting out of them. You have favorite, long-standing trees that are not at all healthy. You are a forest full of trees. And your Savior is coming to begin a controlled burn.

Today we all stand planted at the river, enraptured by John, this wild man who is hurling invective at us. But his words aren’t hateful. They’re just cutting. And some of our most familiar trees are taking a hit. Hack. Hack. Hack.

“What, then, should we do?” Hack. Hack. Hack.

“What should you do?” John replies. Remember that a moment ago he told these people there was no point in them even coming to him. But now it’s different. John is happy to answer a question born of sincere panic. “Want to nurse some of your trees back to health? Here’s what you do. Notice the people you’re stepping on. Live more simply: give away what you don’t need. Tax collectors? OK, we’ll call you hedge fund managers: Question the source of your easy money. Soldiers? OK, we’ll call you law enforcement: Call your prejudices into the light and admit to how they affect your behavior. You’re all part of the same system!”

So John says. But if it sounds like he’s giving us tips on how to save ourselves, think again. Our good works will never save us. Salvation is coming regardless! John is just teaching us how to make salvation less painful.

See, your forest may have many, many bad trees in it. Those trees are going to get chopped down and burned. But your Creator planted you lovingly in the very beginning and has always been tending you. In the middle of your forest are trees that grew from seeds taken from the Garden of Eden. You have in you fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and some of its fruit is good, and some of it is bad. But you also have in you fruit from the Tree of Life, and that fruit will never go bad. That divine fruit will keep spreading new seeds, no matter what else happens in your forest.

John’s words are cutting, but they are not themselves the cut. John comes first to bring the necessary judgment. But someone greater is come next, to begin the Great Clearing.

I went to the doctor once with a badly swollen pinkie, an infection probably brought on by the stuff I was spraying to get the moss off my roof. The doctor looked at my finger and said, “Yup—we’re going to have to drain it.” She wasn’t able to give my pinkie anesthetic. So she sat me down and invited me to turn my head. Then she took a scalpel and started slicing the edge of my finger. And it hurt—oh, did it hurt! I remember sitting there with my eyes closed and letting out a racking sob. I remember the doctor saying, “Oh, wow—there’s so much of it coming out. Do you want to see?” No, of course not. Another sob shook my body. And as the doctor wrapped my cut finger in a bandage, she patted my arm gently. I had been a good patient.

The doctor’s judgment was that the infection needed to come out.

The gardener’s judgment is that some of our trees will need to be cut down and burned.
John is not the one who will do this. John takes us for a swim in the Jordan, where in his presence, in all sincerity, we say, “I’m sorry. Please allow me to start again.”

And then, the one who is still coming will also go for a swim with John, because we need to know that he’s just like us. Just like us, and also not like us at all. This one will be just a son of a woman, just another human being. And this one will be the Son of Man, the one coming into the world bearing a winnowing fork, if you don’t mind one more change in metaphor. A winnowing fork is for separating the useful grain from the useless chaff. Did you hear that? He’s going to keep the grain! Your grain will be used for bread. Your chaff will burn up.

“What, then, should we do?” Oh, it’s such good news. If you’re even asking this question, then God is already at work in you, preparing you, smoothing the rough places in your soul. God wants good fruit from you, because if you can’t bear good fruit, you won’t be able to grow at all when someday you’re replanted in heavenly soil. But the Master Gardener is here, with tender hands and a green thumb.

And you may be a whole forest, but you are only one forest in a planet full of forests, all dependent on each other for life. We are responsible for each other, but God is responsible for all of us.

So do not worry about anything. Sing aloud! Rejoice and exult with all your heart! Draw water from the springs of salvation: suck it up into your roots! Though the ax will chop and hack, and though fire will burn up all that is diseased, you shall fear disaster no more. Amen.