Sunday, February 24, 2019

Power, Love, and Dignity

sermon preached at Church of the Good Shepherd, Federal Way, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Rector
The Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany, February 24, 2019

Roman soldiers
(from Wikimedia Commons)
First, may I have a volunteer from the congregation? Specifically, I’m looking for someone who wouldn’t mind getting into a pretend fight with me.

Let’s pretend that we live in the Ancient Middle East. I am a Roman, and you are a Jew. Who has more power? Why? [clearly the Roman]

Now, let’s say that I’m having a bad day, and I pass you on the street. I decide that I don’t like the way you looked at me. How am I going to reprimand you? [A backhand slap]

Is this illegal? No. Because I’m a Roman, and you are a Jew. I’m within my rights as a Roman citizen. Also, note that I used my right hand. This is because we assume, in our society, that everybody is right-handed, and that we only use our left hands for tasks that are seen as “unclean.” I’ll let you imagine what such tasks might be—but suffice it to say that I would never consider using my left hand to strike you.

Now, if you were a Roman like me, and if we were of equal social status, I wouldn’t hit you like that. I’d punch you in the face, like in a bar fight. That’s not humiliating—that’s a fight between equals. It’s just boys being boys, right? Notice the difference. If I slap you with the back of my hand, which cheek am I striking? If I punch you with my fist, which cheek now?

OK, so let’s play this again. You are a Jew who is just coming home from hearing Jesus speak the words we just heard from the gospel. I see you and decide to mess with you: I smack you on the right cheek with the back of my hand. Now … “turn the other cheek.” What’s happening here?

Theologian Walter Wink[1] analyzes this situation in great detail in his book Engaging the Powers. When you do not cringe and cower, but remain standing and turn the other cheek, you are saying, “Try again. Your first blow failed to achieve its intended effect. I deny you the power to humiliate me. I am a human being just like you. Your status does not alter that fact. You cannot demean me.”

OK, one more. I’m a Roman soldier and you’re a Jew. I’m carrying my pack in the hot sun, and I’m tired. I see you and say, “Hey! Carry my pack!” The law says I’m allowed to do this, provided I don’t make you walk more than one mile. Some Romans, especially soldiers, had abused their right to conscript inferiors to carry their stuff, so this law was meant to curb the practice, as sort of a mercy rule. I have the right to treat you like my personal slave without notice. But if I make you carry my pack for more than one mile, I could be in serious trouble. I might only receive a reprimand, but I could be beaten or demoted—as a soldier, the punishment is up to the discretion of my commanding officer.

Now, you could be all grumpy and carry the pack for exactly one mile, then drop it and walk away. But instead, let’s say you cheerfully shoulder the burden and do your best to chat me up about my day and my family. One mile goes by, and I try to take back my pack. But you say, “Oh, no, it’s OK. I wasn’t doing anything else today anyway, and I’m enjoying our conversation.” And you keep walking. What has just happened? What should I do now? Furthermore, what if all the Jews started doing this?

We start to see what Jesus is up to here, and I’m grateful to Walter Wink for his book. The Jews couldn’t succeed at throwing out the Romans with an armed rebellion. But they could start a social revolution. By knowing the limits of the laws of the land, and by refusing to sacrifice their dignity, the long-oppressed Jews could rise above their station and begin living in the Kingdom of God.

Nothing speaks to this possibility more clearly than Jesus’ command, “Love your enemies.” There are four words for love in Greek, and Jesus chooses the most extreme one, agape. That’s not just general regard, or doing nice things. It means loving our enemies unconditionally and with abandon, the way God does.

In 2006, then-Senator Obama commented that Jesus’ teaching here is “so radical that it’s doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application.” True enough. As individuals and as a country, we must continue to be in relationship and conversation about how we live out our faith, and how our faith applies when engaging our enemies.

On one of the anniversaries of 9/11 a few years ago, I read something on Facebook that made my blood boil. A college acquaintance of mine, a man who spoke frequently of both his patriotism and his love for Jesus, suggested that every year on 9/11, we should use fighter jets to drop raw pork on all the mosques in the U.S. His ignorance and stupidity overwhelmed me, but I did my best to remain dignified. I wrote in response: “Love your enemies. – Jesus.” The conversation didn’t go smoothly after that. And while I don’t remember exactly what my old acquaintance said, I do remember feeling relieved to discover that he had un-friended me. I was relieved, but I was also a little sad. I had not sought to end that relationship. But letting his words stand would not have been “turning the other cheek.” It would have been failing to stand up for the dignity of the vulnerable.

Dignity is power. Walter Wink tells the story of a time when Archbishop Desmond Tutu “was walking by a construction site on a temporary sidewalk the width of one person. A white man appeared at the other end, recognized Tutu, and said, ‘I don’t give way to gorillas.’ At which Tutu stepped aside, made a deep sweeping gesture, and said, ‘Ah yes, but I do.’” Dignity!

Gandhi once said, “The first principle of nonviolent action is that of noncooperation with everything humiliating.” Dignity does everything it can to equalize the relationship. Violence has power, but dignity brings with it a fundamentally better kind of power.

Jesus showed the powerless what power they had. No matter our economic or social status, the power of love is available to everyone. Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery. But when the tables were turned and Joseph had his brothers in his power, he did not seek revenge, but reconciliation. Joseph saw that God had not brought hardship on anyone, but that God was working toward the graceful solution and enabling a broken family to begin to repair itself.

When Jesus returned from the grave, he didn’t seek revenge against the Romans who killed him, or the authorities who colluded with them. He appeared to his friends, and more—Paul tells us he appeared to hundreds of people all at once! These people became the Body of Christ in the world. Who could have guessed it would work out that way?

This is what resurrection is. A seed disappears into the ground, and we don’t know yet what it will look like when it sprouts. But we know for sure that it won’t look anything like the seed. The death of the seed makes possible the new life of the sprouting plant. “Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green”—that just might be my favorite hymn of all. Paul applies this plant metaphor to humanity, casting Adam as the dead seed and Christ as the sprouting plant, the new, reborn Adam. And like Christ, says Paul, we, too, will be raised to new life.

We undergo many deaths in our lives, but few are as difficult as the death of our ego, especially when we find ourselves in a position of power. True dignity is built on humility. If I see myself as powerful, and then someone comes along to challenge that power, I have the opportunity to become an abuser. But if I recognize myself as both powerless and dignified, especially relative to God’s eternal wisdom and power, I take the perspective of a student eager to learn, even if it means learning from my mistakes. Because I am God’s beloved child, loss of power does not mean I must lose my dignity. The same goes for every one of us.

And this is why Jesus commands us to love our enemies: because we are all in the same boat. Jesus wants us to want only the best for our enemies—life to the fullest, lived in joy and wonder. And that’s because every one of us, no matter what evil we may have done, is eternally a beloved child of God.

To love our enemies is the heart of dignity. And to be direct with those who would abuse us, rather than giving in to them, is a crucial component. It is virtuous to stay in relationship with those who despise us, rather than writing them off. But this can only happen with the understanding that it is our dignified choice to do so. Reconciliation cannot be forced. It does not happen under duress.
If we believe the soul is eternal, then we are never done with anyone; we may not be able to stay in relationship, but we can pray for justice to be done as God goes to work in the souls of sinners. We might not be able to imagine a good outcome for the evil ones of the world. But Jesus instructs us to live into what we will ultimately become—a sprout from a dead seed—and, as we pray, to wish the same surprising rebirth for everybody else on earth. Amen.

[1] Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1992), 175–182. These pages are referenced throughout this sermon.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

The Practice of Being #blessed

sermon preached at Church of the Good Shepherd, Federal Way, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Rector
The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 17, 2019

Instagram: it’s a scrolling set of photos that we 21st-century humans put on the internet to try to impress one another. Good Shepherd is on Instagram, and Nicholas Johnson and I have been posting occasional photos of good things happening in the life of our congregation.

On Instagram, you can tag any photo you like with what’s called a hashtag. The other day I searched for the hashtag “blessed.” Instagram displays over 100million photos marked “blessed.” As I looked down the page, I couldn’t help but notice how happy all these people look. And attractive. And well off. They’re showing off tight abs at the gym. They’re vacationing in beautiful places. They’re the parents of shiny happy children. Indeed, “blessed” seems to be, in Instagram-speak, the most common descriptor for people who appear to have life all figured out—at least for the moment of that snapshot.

We use “blessed” a lot in everyday conversation. Tragedy narrowly misses us and we comment, “God sure has blessed me!” We inherit a huge windfall and say, “Well, that was a blessing!” We gather our whole family together for a big Thanksgiving meal with all the trimmings, or we go on an international cruise with our loved ones, and we say, “I sure am blessed.” We live a stylish life spent with loyal friends and fun times in beautiful places, and we Instagram it: “hashtag-blessed.”

Well, Jesus put it best, didn’t he? “Blessed are the rich … blessed are the well fed … blessed are the cheerful … blessed are those everyone looks up to.”

Except he didn’t say any of those things. As you just heard, Jesus says precisely the opposite.

Blessed are those who beg for change or sleep on church floors. Blessed are those whose weekend bellies look forward to their taxpayer-funded school lunches. Blessed are those whose spouses have died and left them alone. Blessed are those who have been kidnapped at the American border … and their parents. Blessed are those who shoulder up their burdens on aching backs for another day of hard labor when they’d always hoped to be retired by now. Blessed are those who are assaulted because of their clothing or skin color. Blessed are those whose businesses fail because a big snowstorm damaged their property, drove away customers, and tipped them over the edge into insolvency.

And what about those who are enjoying that Thanksgiving dinner with all their relatives gathered around? Those who live in big houses with views of the water? Those who socked away a lot of money early on and now have lots of options? Those who are greatly admired in their communities for all the good work they have done?

Woe to them, says Jesus. Woe to them!

(Hey, look, I don’t make this stuff up. Jesus said it, and we claim to follow him. I’m just here to relay what the man says. What do you want? And I’m in the same boat with you. What gives, Jesus?)

Well, first off, and this is important: I know people who fit into both categories: those Jesus says are blessed, and those Jesus says “woe” to. Chances are you have identified with both categories simultaneously and may even do so this morning. The world isn’t cleanly bisected into the “blessed” and the “cursed,” any more than there’s such a thing as “good guys” and “bad guys.” Even when Jesus talks about the rich and camels through the eyes of needles, he assures us that all things are possible with God. Anyway, only you know which category fits you better today. God help me, so do I.

But you see the problem, right? If those who are happy and healthy and radiant are “blessed,” what does that say about those who are suffering? So it’s clear that we’ve gotten all mixed up about what it means to be “blessed” in the first place. I think blessing has less to do with comfort and more to do with practice.

When I was 10 I began learning to play the cornet, and I took to it right away. I enjoyed practicing, but I was such a natural that I didn’t need to practice all that much; I could still shine. A couple years later I asked my parents to sign me up for piano lessons. Those were much harder and demanded more practice than I wanted to give, so instead of working harder at practicing the piano, I quit. But those two situations have something in common: I had a choice to practice or not. And my parents had a choice: they could afford to rent me a cornet and to pay for my piano lessons. We weren’t rich, but we definitely weren’t the blessed poor that Jesus talks about.

So stick with me here … not all practice is a matter of choice. When your children are hungry, you don’t get to quit. If you can find someone willing to hire you, you take on the practice of a second job.

When your children are in danger, you don’t get to quit. If the danger is bad enough, you’ll take them and flee to a place you pray will be safer. You take on the practice of pilgrimage, hoping to find a new life as you place survival above fear.

When your loved one dies, you don’t get to quit. You have no choice but to grieve. You can let it destroy you, or you can take on the difficult practice of mourning.

Jesus tells us that people in such situations are already close to God, because all of their practices are born of necessity. When we cannot provide for ourselves, we can only ask God to help. And that lack, says Jesus, is a blessed state, rather than the comfort we long for. When you’re poor, hungry, weeping, despised: well, you have no choice but to practice trust in God. There’s nothing else left to do. But when you’re rich, well-fed, laughing, and admired, well, you will probably fall into the trap of believing you built that all by yourself. I know I do. It’s not that God doesn’t want us to be happy and healthy. But Jesus warns us that when we get too comfortable it puts us in danger, because it puts other people in danger from us.

A college student once told me that as a child he used to go to church with his grandmother, and he had loved those times. But he stopped going. “Why?” I asked. “What about your grandmother’s church doesn’t fit you anymore?”

He thought for a moment. “Oh, it still fits,” he said. “I’m still a Christian, for sure. It’s just that I don’t need church anymore.”

Go easy on the guy. Nobody ever told him that Christianity is not a solo sport, or that he’ll need a community when pain and hardship finally land in his lap. In the meantime, woe to this student in all his comfort! He’s missing out—and others are missing out on him.

For those of us who in this moment are living more comfortable lives—and I am most certainly one of these—where does our hope lie? It lies in community and in practice. When we have more money, more time, more energy than we need, directing it toward community will strengthen us for the hard times that will inevitably come our way. And it’ll help keep us from unthinkingly victimizing others with our privilege.

But for the comfortable, the burden of choice is on us. Christianity is a funny religion—nobody’s going to force us to practice. If we were Muslims, we’d be practicing the Five Pillars of Islam: faith, prayer, charity, fasting, and pilgrimage. You can’t be a Muslim without them, and I do appreciate the earnestness and rigor that comes with Islam. Christianity has practices too, of course, including all of the above. We just don’t decree that any of them are absolutely required for you to continue being a Christian.

Yet if the church isn’t at least offering opportunities to practice, then we’re not doing our job. (And yes, I mean “us,” as in “everyone here,” not just “the clergy.”) So we do offer such opportunities. And beginning in a few weeks, we’ll offer a specific opportunity at Good Shepherd. I want to invite all of you to come practice our upcoming formation series, “The Way of Love: Practices for a Jesus-Centered Life.” It’ll be held at 9:00 each week beginning March 10—and yes, there will be childcare! We’ll break into small groups to learn together about seven different categories of Christian practice, summed up in seven easy-to-remember words: Turn, Learn, Pray, Worship, Bless, Go, Rest. I hope that those of us who take on this weekly practice of a slightly busier Sunday morning will come away with new practices, with rooted trust, and with deepened friendships.

On Saturday, April 6, we’ll have an extra session that will specifically be intergenerational, and we’ll share it with the families whose children are preparing for baptism at the Great Vigil of Easter. On that day we’ll be an entire church family learning about these practices together.

Please pre-register, because we want to be intentional about dividing people into smaller learning groups. The form is on the back of your service leaflet. Or you can register online through the link in our weekly email.

When we practice, individually and together, our faith grows. When we practice, we don’t settle for the comfort of easy answers or unearned confidence. Belief in God is trust in God, and trust takes practice. Let’s practice together. And then, when hardships come along—and they will—we’ll be better suited to bless God and one another.

In the meantime, when something wonderful happens in your life, do thank God for it. But if you post it on Instagram, try a hashtag other than “blessed.” Then look for the ones Jesus tells us are blessed … and bless them with your friendship, your advocacy, and your humility. Amen.