Sunday, January 27, 2019

Take, Bless, Break, Give

sermon preached at Church of the Good Shepherd, Federal Way, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Rector
The Third Sunday after the Epiphany, January 27, 2019

Today we drop into this reading from Nehemiah, and we find that we are late in the Old Testament story. The people of Israel have returned from the Babylonian exile and are resettling Jerusalem. Their prophets have told them again and again that the reason God allowed the exile was that the people sinned repeatedly, both by worshipping false idols and by oppressing the poor and powerless among their own people. Now that God has cleared the way for them to return, it’s time for a fresh start.

At the people’s request, the priest Ezra reads to them from the book of the law of Moses—that is, the Torah—all morning long. We suspect that he is reading from Deuteronomy, a late-breaking addition to their Scripture that refines and clarifies the law for their present time—a very long amendment to the constitution, if you will.

Then we read: “All the people wept when they heard the words of the law.”

Imagine the scene: thousands of people have gathered as a congregation at the Temple Mount. And they are openly weeping—overcome with emotion, certainly, at this monumental occasion. But they are also weeping with grief because they know that they have not kept the law. Yet Nehemiah and Ezra reassure them: “This is a holy day! There is no need to mourn. Instead, feast! And then share what food you have with those who have none. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

The people have been broken by exile, broken by their failure to keep the commandments of God … but also broken open by this new beginning. If they not only feast but also share with the poor, they are living into the law of Moses for real this time.

Every failure is an opportunity to begin once again, and the failure itself is our fuel for renewal. Take failure, add God’s joy at our existence, and the result is strength to go on, both wounded and transformed.

This happens to us as individuals, for sure, and the older we are, the more likely we are to have stories of our woundedness and the grace that keeps nursing us back to health. But it also happens to entire communities and nations. Very little in the Bible is about individuals, because we are all members of one body. Each one of us matters, but all by ourselves we can do very little. So by being part of a community, we own and are partially responsible for dealing with all its triumphs and all its failures.

For instance, as Americans, we are the inheritors of an evil legacy: the genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement and abuse of Africans, just to name two—most of which has taken place within our own laws. The effects of this evil continue to this day as poverty and prejudice. But we are also the inheritors of a set of higher standards that we have yet to live up to. The Founders keep whispering down the generations to us the cherished values that they themselves did not keep: that all people are created equal, that everyone has a right to live and to be free and to make the most of our lives.

We’re not there yet. America is still growing up, and it’s going through a stormy adolescence right at this moment. We’ve tried on various noble identities for ourselves. But in recent decades, and especially in the present day, we are giving in to the self-destructive habits of idol worship—such as the worship of money—and the oppression of the poor. I pray that we come through it. I pray that we Americans will wake up to the way we treat the vulnerable in our midst, because they are us. I pray that someday we can tell a true story of our nation’s own acts of self-harm, repentance, and transformation.

Like us, the people of Israel were victims of their own self-destructive habits. Our Christian story includes their story: their exodus from Egypt and settling in the Promised Land—their glory days as a monarchy—their fall from glory into division, dissolution, and disgrace—their freedom from exile by the hand of God. They returned home demoralized but liberated, ready for a fresh start in the land they understood God to have given them. They rededicated themselves to being a light to all nations, so that everyone in the world could come to know through their example the goodness and love—and forgiveness—of God.

To the degree that we have adopted the Israelites’ story, it is also our story. But speaking genetically, most of us, in our ancestry, were among those grafted onto Israel’s story through Christian baptism. We are not the Chosen People, but we, too, have a role to play in God’s hopes for the entire world.

Our story centers more specifically on Jesus, a Jew from Nazareth in Galilee, who Luke tells us began his itinerant ministry with a “soft launch” and then headed home for the official kickoff. It’s Saturday: the Sabbath, the time for everyone to gather for worship. The synagogue is the local place to gather, since the temple in Jerusalem is so far away. Every major town has a synagogue. And every literate man of a certain age has opportunity to read to the assembled congregation, just as Ezra did nearly half a millennium before. The pattern begun there continues to this day.

Jesus is handed the scroll of Isaiah. I wonder how it was selected? He unrolls the scroll and finds a specific passage. I wonder whether it was the appointed passage for the day, or whether Jesus chose his own text? Either way, Jesus reads to his congregation and to ours the blueprint for his ministry:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

This text from Isaiah dates from around the time when that crowd gathered with Ezra and Nehemiah. It describes the very situation they were experiencing. They had been oppressed captives, but they were now free.

But here’s the thing: Jesus doesn’t quote the text precisely as it appears in Isaiah. Here’s how it appears there:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
  because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
  to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
  and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
  and the day of vengeance of our God;
  to comfort all who mourn.

It goes on from there, and it’s beautiful, and had the passage been written down yet for Ezra to read to the people that day, it would have been no less apt and also would have inspired weeping.

Now, Jesus has misquoted Isaiah, yes, but it’s not a matter of being sloppy. It would have been common practice for a reader in the synagogue to paraphrase the text to make a point. They didn’t place value on careful, literal quoting like we do today. Remember that in Nehemiah, we hear that the leaders read “with interpretation.” Jesus is doing so here.

Most noticeably, Jesus adds the line about “recovery of sight to the blind.” He will indeed restore sight to a man just before he rides into Jerusalem in the week of his arrest. He will spend all the time between now and then living into the words he is quoting and urging people to see, to notice, to learn what they had missed before. And then he will be broken: broken on the cross, broken by human sin. And in Christ’s resurrection, we will be broken open one more time.

That’s how it works, isn’t it? We find ourselves broken, weeping, disconsolate. We can let that brokenness take us. Or we can let God take us. When that happens, the first thing we’ll find is that we cannot avoid the truth of our brokenness. Indeed, we need it, because it will be God’s fuel. Reconciliation cannot begin without truth-telling.

We will soon take bread and bless it, just as Jesus did. We will break it, just as Jesus did. And then we will allow Jesus to give it to us. Twentieth-century theologian Gregory Dix observed and wrote about the fourfold action of the Eucharist: take, bless, break, give. We let Jesus take us in the divine hands like bread. We let him bless us for all that we are, in all our brokenness and belovedness. We let him break us open: we admit to the brokenness we feel and let Jesus into it. Then we let Jesus give ourselves back to ourselves, transformed into something new.

These actions are not forceful actions on our part, but rather the opposite. They are actions of consent. Let Jesus—allow Jesus to take, bless, break, and give. Every time this happens, Jesus is present with us, both wounded and transformed, and offering us the same transformation even in the depths of brokenness. Every time this happens, Isaiah’s prophetic words have been fulfilled in our hearing. Amen.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Gifts Given and Received

sermon preached at Church of the Good Shepherd, Federal Way, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Rector
The Second Sunday after the Epiphany, January 20, 2019

Each of the four gospels presents a different story of how Jesus began his public ministry. For Mark, it’s the exorcism of a demon. For Matthew, it’s the Sermon on the Mount. For Luke, it’s Jesus’ return to his hometown, where they almost throw him off a cliff. And for John, it’s this miracle of turning water into wine.

Now, John doesn’t refer to this as a miracle. He calls it a sign, the first of seven signs that form the narrative structure of his gospel. These seven signs move roughly in ascending order by amazing-ness until they peak with the raising of Lazarus from the dead. By comparison to that, yes, I suppose that turning water into wine is no big deal. But it’s still pretty cool.

Here’s the thing, though: the supernatural, miraculous aspect of this sign is not the main point. Jesus did become known as a wonder-worker, and that made many people flock to him. But he didn’t show up on earth for the sole purpose of overturning the laws of physics. If that had been the case, we could look back on Jesus as a one-of-a-kind person in human history, a source of scientific speculation and little else. Some historical people have been outliers. But what’s that to you and me now?

Luckily for us, John didn’t write his gospel as some sort of ancient Ripley’s Believe-It-or-Not. John tells us himself toward the end of his gospel that he wrote it “so that you may come to believe that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). And by that, he means abundant life in the here and now, not just on the other side of death.

John’s first hearers were an early community of Christians, some of the first who would not have been welcome in Jewish circles. This is why there’s so much language in John that is too easily appropriated for anti-Semitic purposes, something you’ll certainly hear more from me about during Lent and Holy Week. But the point is that they were a group who were defining for themselves what it meant to believe in Jesus Christ, and this led them through times of heartbreaking conflict with Jews and persecution from Romans.

So bearing all this in mind, why does John tell this story of Jesus changing water into wine? You may be a total skeptic about miracles, or you may be all in, but I don’t think it matters. With the first of seven signs, John wants us to know that Jesus makes every occasion a party. Jesus doesn’t show up in our lives to scold us or judge us or be disappointed in us or even to feel sorry for us. He comes to gladden our hearts.

Ancient Jewish weddings typically lasted about a week. At this late stage in the party a box of Bandit would have been perfectly understandable, but instead Jesus breaks into his private stash of Chateau Lafite. Jesus wants us to know that this is what God tastes like: like when your standards are low and you expect something passable and instead receive the most amazing thing ever, something that lifts your spirits and turns the occasion euphoric. Taste and see! Or, rather, taste and taste again—the goodness of God. Taste and learn. Enjoy a rich experience of God.

We might also note that this sign is a gift. It is completely unexpected; even Jesus didn’t know his mother would press him into it! Had the family been allowed to run out of wine, it would have been embarrassing, so Jesus saves them from feeling shamefaced and desolate. Jesus ushers in the graceful solution, and in so doing, he demonstrates that God gives us gifts all the time, every day, if we’ll just notice them.

(By the way: did you notice that while the powerful people in the story never find out what happened, the servants know all about it? That's also how God works.)

Now, the perpetual goodness of God isn’t news—it’s just a restating of what Jews already knew. Isaiah knew it, or whoever wrote these final chapters of Isaiah’s book, probably at the time when the formerly exiled Jews were resettling in the Promised Land. Isaiah saw that God’s work wasn’t finished yet, but he fully expected God to complete the process. And he promised the people that he wouldn’t shut up about it until God saw it through, until all the surrounding nations saw how loving and forgiving Israel’s God was. “You shall be called by a new name,” Isaiah wrote—not forsaken or desolate, but delighted in, an object of God’s devotion and loving-kindness. It’s just the way God is.

The psalmist knew this, too. Today’s psalm credits God with giving us all the light we need to see by and providing an extravagant feast besides. And we do indeed have the feast that is the whole world, if only we would not hoard it or pollute it—if only we would share it with everyone else.

Reflecting later on God’s loving abundance and on Jesus’ restatement of it, Paul writes sternly to the earliest Christians in Corinth. He reprimands them for being too individualistic and self-serving, as if the church were a place to go get something for yourself and not care about those around you. But today’s passage is what follows that reprimand: encouragement. Paul names specific behaviors that can help the community. Yes, you are an individual, and as such, you have special gifts and skills to put to work among us. Yes, your mere existence is enough to delight God to no end. And you are now invited to stretch yourself in new ways—ways that benefit not only you, but everyone around you, both inside and outside the church.

Since God keeps giving us gifts, we don’t need to worry about running out of them. And since we have this consistent flood of gifts, we are also asked to give them away to others.

Now, in my six brief months among you, I have observed what a giving congregation Good Shepherd is. We don’t shy away from jumping into the deep end and doing whatever needs to be done, whether it’s setting up the altar for worship, making breakfast for hungry people, attending weeknight meetings … even carefully cleaning up used needles in the woods. Some of us do so while simultaneously nursing persistent aches and pains, the ever-present reminder that while God’s gifts may never run out, our time on earth will.

And this can lead to great anxiety: “Who will do these things when I am gone? What if nobody does?” Those are some important feelings. But when we let our anxieties get the better of us, we’re not giving God much room to operate.

Let me back up for a moment and make this observation: a gift is not a contract. This was a refrain in my family as I was growing up: a gift is not a contract, so don’t hold it over others after it’s given. They make like it or not, they may make use of it or not. The gift came from your place of delight. But our delight in others should not depend on what they do with the gifts we give them.

This was such a valuable perspective for me to learn growing up. It didn’t exactly make me good at writing thank-you notes, seeing as I was under no contractual obligation to do so! But it did help me to let go of some of my expectations of other people.

In the long run, it also helped me with another skill that can be hard to come by: the gift of receiving. If there’s no implied contract, I can just delight in the gift without immediately wondering what I’ll do to pay the person back. Receive the gift. Thank the giver. Delight in the gift to whatever degree you will. And then let it be. Receiving is a difficult skill to learn, but it can be learned at any age, whether the gift is something material or something a little harder to pin down—like the loving presence at your sickbed when you are totally unable to get up and be, quote-unquote, “useful.” This is a time when all we can do is learn to receive.

Learning new lessons can really stretch us. Sometimes stretching means acquiring a new skill that the wider world finds to be useful. But sometimes stretching just means letting go: letting go of the fact that we can’t keep doing the things we used to, or letting go of our expectations for what the next generation will do.

John wrote his gospel to pass on what he had learned to future generations. He knew he’d have no control over what they did with it next, and that’s why he took great care in the telling. It’s the same with us: when it comes to the living of our faith, the best we can do is to pass it on carefully to younger people and let go of it. Sometimes we’ll tell stories and find young people eagerly sitting at our feet. Other times we’ll feel like nobody is listening and that important perspectives are being lost.

But even though we won’t be here forever, God isn’t going anywhere. The Holy Spirit will continue to guide the Church in ways that we can’t even imagine. Indeed, we probably wouldn’t approve of some of these ways, if we were allowed to stick around for centuries and watch. But we don’t get to do that.

You have gifts to give, but they don’t always mean wearing yourself out. Sometimes the gift is in the hand-off. Sometimes the hand-off will be fumbled, but our intentions will still have been clear. Some projects that are dear to us eventually end, while others may last far longer than we could have dreamed.

Just look at this Galilean wedding from two thousand years ago. We don’t know the names of the couple anymore, but we do know that Jesus made their wedding incredibly special. A party began that day in Galilee, a party that continues even until now. And we are all invited, and so are all the people we wouldn’t have expected—even the people we might not have invited ourselves. Together let’s offer to the world the fermented fruit of the gifts we have been given. Together with Jesus’ help, we’ll make every occasion a party. Amen.