Thursday, February 15, 2018

Yet

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.

- Habakkuk 3:17-18

I've been musing a lot lately about the futility of faith. Yesterday at least 17 people, most of them children, died at the hands of yet another person who somehow thought that guns might solve his problems.

What will America do in response? There will be more "thoughts and prayers" -- or, as the president tweeted yesterday in an attempt to come up with a new phrase, "prayers and condolences." It's the same thing. It's so, so easy to say and not mean.

No political action will result. This is because the National Rifle Association reigns supreme over politicians' pocketbooks. The NRA is not a gun safety club; if anything, it is a gun recklessness club. The NRA doesn't want to protect people from harm. The purpose of it is that more and more guns will be sold in America. As if there weren't already way too many.

Now, last I checked, this country is still intended to be governed by, for, and of the people. We still get to vote. We still get to protest. We still get to call our senators and representatives. And I will be doing that today, and if there comes a time when these rights are taken away from us, I will not put up with that. Really, I don't expect my actions to do much. Yet that won't stop me.

Yesterday I was actively disagreeing with Paul in a passage in which he refers to our sufferings in life and calls them God's "discipline." He says that we discipline children, so why shouldn't God discipline us? The problem with this comparison is that discipline requires parents to be clear with their children about why a punishment is happening. A parent who punishes secretly or capriciously is not a disciplinarian, but an abuser. To whatever degree God seems hidden to our eyes, our sufferings cannot be considered discipline.

A person of mature faith may come to regard some of life's sufferings as God's discipline. But this is a personal theological stance. I am a priest, but I would never, ever, EVER say to another person, "Your suffering is a matter of God disciplining you." No, no, no. If God is an abuser, then our faith is for nothing. Suffering must exist for some other reason. If we suffer and don't understand why, this suffering cannot come from God.

Today we have this reading from Habakkuk, quoted above. I may have read it once or twice before in my life. But I am struck to the core today by its message: against all evidence to the contrary, I will place my faith in God. As Peter once said to Jesus, "Where else can we go? You have the words of life."

The thing is this: we are not going to survive this life. And we all know this. Whatever else we may say about God, we cannot say that God prevents us from dying. We may get angry about death when it occurs, but nothing will stop it. Death is coming for all of us. As 2Pac put it back in 1993, referring specifically to the trials that black women endure: "We ain't in to survive, 'cause it's a setup/ I know you're fed up/ But please, you gotta keep ya head up."

Not even life is an option for us for very long. Yet. Yet. Yet. Beauty. Love. Hope. Service. As long as there is the opportunity to love in this world, we will love. Jesus pointed out to us emphatically that love is the only thing that works. And it will conquer -- it has conquered -- even death. And that's true even if we can't see it now.

So what do you say? Are you game? Are you willing to live this way, believing in things you can't see, because they're the only things worth believing in? I am. Will you join me?


Sunday, January 28, 2018

Authority



sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Associate Priest for Adult Formation
The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, January 28, 2018
­­Authority. Where does it come from? To whom do we give it? Who has authority over you, and why? How do we recognize trustworthy authority when we see it?

And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once [Jesus’] fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

If this “new teaching” of Jesus was remarkable because it had authority, then what of the old teaching? What of the Law of Moses and the Prophets? It’s not like the people thought there was no authority there. Why did some people begin to ascribe more authority to Jesus than to the sources of authority they had had all their lives? Why would we?

Our readings today contain all sorts of images that you probably have to go to church to encounter: unclean spirits, [the raising up of a prophet], sacrifices to idols, sin and redemption. We hear loaded phrases and concepts that you won’t hear elsewhere: “the fear of the Lord,” “the assembly of the upright.” Whether we grew up in the church or are just exploring it for the first time, I assume that we don’t all understand or agree on what these things mean. So we look to someone with authority to help us unpack it all.

But to whom do you give such authority? To me? To Marsha, Chuck, or Jonathan? Why? Because we went to school? OK, maybe. Seminary is a great place to learn about all things Christian, and I would have a hard time trusting a clergy person who had never actually studied for the work. But is that enough? Most clergy have degrees, but some turn out not to be trustworthy at all. Some of us have been known to go off the rails into very questionable theology, not to mention problematic or even abusive behavior. There are people of all education levels who struggle to establish a moral compass, and we know that power tends to corrupt.

Martin Luther wanted to make sure that as many people as possible could have access to the Bible in their own language, so that they could interpret it themselves without having to trust clergy. OK then, let’s test the spirit of the Reformation. Anyone with a basic education can read the Bible. Does the Bible have greater authority than clergy? Most of us would probably say yes, because it transcends denominational squabbles, and because Christian tradition has ascribed an immense amount of authority to this unique library of writings.

But we also know that selective reading of the Bible, with an agenda, is a problem. The Bible has been used to support the slave trade, to deny women leadership, and to victimize and persecute many, many different kinds of people. It has been used to support brutal wars and to justify child abuse. If you know even a little bit about the Bible, you’ll have to ask yourself, “What is the nature of the Bible’s authority?” There are a zillion interpretations of that question. And so the misuse of the Bible has caused many catastrophes—enough to make a lot of people in our day decide it’s time to chuck it.

Many of those people would say, “Look, we’ve found the most reliable source of authority there is: science.” A few days ago I was talking with a skeptical student who grew up in church, explored other churches in high school, and encountered enough hypocrisy to say, “Well, forget it. Science is the only god for me!” He was great to talk with, because his passion for justice was so raw, as was his indignation at any organization that oppresses people. He has come to believe that religion does more harm than good, and who was I to tell him his assessment is wrong? My job was to listen and to honor his feelings. And he commended me for not jumping down his throat. Hopefully I helped take a little of the edge off his anger.

See, this student was absolutely right about something: if you want to know what the facts are, look to science. Look stark reality in the face, and do not fear, because you’re better off working with what’s real than what only might be real. But what happens when you understand your own perspective to be limited?

Take this gospel reading, for example. We have a story about demon possession. Some read it and say, “Well! That means there really are demons, and I need to be afraid of them.” Others say, “Since there aren’t actually demons, this story is false, and by extension, the whole Bible is untrustworthy.” Some say, “Wow! What a gripping story. I wonder how I would have interpreted that event had I been there?” And still others say, “I have had experiences that I can only describe as demonic. This story tells me that Jesus has power to banish such forces from our lives.”

We can all read the same thing and not agree on what to do about it. And no amount of scientific knowledge or biblical scholarship will solve this puzzle for us. We can’t always have all the facts we need. We can only do our best to proceed based on what we know and what we value, and this process will always be subjective.

Paul is wrestling with this problem in the First Letter to the Corinthians. He writes, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” Jews conclude that there can only ever be one God—that it would be nonsensical for the divine creative nature to be divided against itself. All well and good, I agree. But there are also those, Paul says, without this knowledge, and some of them have become Christians. They know that idolatry is forbidden, but their understanding of what idolatry is could use some work. Allow me to be a seminary-trained clergy person for a minute and give you some back story.
The Greeks and Romans would offer meat in sacrifice to their gods, and then they would sell this meat in the marketplaces. To consume the meat was to participate in the worship of these gods. There was no way to tell whether the meat you were buying had at some point been sacrificed to an idol. Those whom Paul calls “strong” Christians trusted that God, the creator of the universe, would understand this situation and would not hold it against Christians for eating such meat. But for Paul’s “weak” Christians, the thought of participating in idol worship, even by accident, opened them up to all sorts of spiritual danger, so they thought it best to become vegetarians and avoid the whole mess completely.
It got tricky when these two groups of Christians met. Those who were more philosophically astute knew that no idol actually exists. Even if there are other spiritual forces, they are subordinate to and subject to the God who created all things. There is only one supernatural creator, and there is no competition for God’s job. The other group felt they had to be very careful of supernatural forces that might lead them astray. Should they be written off as superstitious fools just for playing it safe?
The “weak” Christians are not in essence weak people, even if they have much to learn from the “strong” Christians. But what’s important to Paul is that the “strong” Christians also have something to learn from the “weak” ones. Idolatry is a problem not because there are multiple supernatural gods, but because we create false gods all on our own: money, comfort, purity, tribalism, militarism. To build our lives around these, instead of around the one God, is sinful. Now, this can’t happen through inadvertent participation in someone else’s rituals, any more than running through a lawn sprinkler can accidentally baptize you. But the so-called “weak” Christians do have a point.
So Paul writes, “Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge.” Is Paul anti-intellectual? Absolutely not: it’s the educated people he labels as “strong.” But Paul knows that intellectualism without humility is dangerous, and that some simple people understand the nature of God’s love better than the rest of us. Paul counsels the “strong” Christians to give up some of their own freedoms for the sake of these people—those whose lack of education leads their conscience astray and makes them “weak.” Paul says what I love to say frequently, if only because I myself need to hear it over and over again: “It’s more important to be loving than to be right.”

So where are we in our quest for one foolproof source of authority? So far we have shot down clergy, the Bible, education, science, and conscience. It’s not that we cannot find authority in these things. They all have something important to offer, but it must be offered in context.

In the Anglican tradition, we have relied since the 17th century on Richard Hooker’s helpful model of authority: the three-legged stool of Scripture, tradition, and reason. We might disagree on whether one of these legs should be longer than the other two, but we generally agree that all three are important. If the Bible is our only authority, it is easily misused. If church tradition is our only authority, we make ourselves witless sheep. And if we ourselves are our only authority, we will miss all our own blind spots.

But here’s the thing: I don’t believe for a second that I’ve just given you the ultimate model: “oh, the three-legged stool. Amen.” Because at this point, I notice something: all these potential sources of authority we have suggested imply that the seeking of authority is an individual pursuit! It’s as if we can check off a box that says, “I personally listened to the correct authority, so I personally will now be OK.” Individualism: it’s so much a part of our culture that we can get most of the way through a sermon before realizing it’s there.

Yet look at Paul: He asks individuals with power—those with more education—to surrender some of that power willingly in order to take into account those with less. In another place, he asks those with more money and leisure time to wait for the working-class folks to arrive before eating all the food. The question of authority must always take others into account, and it must mean giving away power, giving away privilege, giving away money, to someone who needs them more. God’s Holy Spirit can be seen to be at work in places where these things happen.

The “new teaching” of Jesus was baldly authoritative because it reminded the Jews of what had been in the old teaching all along. The purpose of the Law and the Prophets had always been to build up love, not certainty, and then to let that love shine worldwide. This is how we love and grow: we alter our lives for others. We listen to others, and we reserve judgment. And in this church, we follow the One who cast out the demons: demons of confusion, hatred, and self-righteousness. We stand together with all our questions, and we look to the one who is Love to teach us how to love. When we dedicate our lives to love, we are on our way to discovering the one true authority who redeems us from all evil and binds us all together. Amen.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

God's Response to Murder, from Abel to Zechariah ... and Beyond



Today in the Daily Office we read in 2 Chronicles about the killing of the prophet Zechariah. King Joash has him killed in the court of the temple, of all places. The account says, “As he was dying, [Zechariah] said, ‘May the LORD see and avenge!’” (24:22)

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus refers to this incident specifically during a prolonged rant against lawyers:

Woe also to you lawyers! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not lift a finger to ease them. Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your ancestors killed. So you are witnesses and approve of the deeds of your ancestors; for they killed them, and you build their tombs. Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,’ so that this generation may be charged with the blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be charged against this generation. Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge; you did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering. (Luke 11:46-52)

When he says “from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah,” Jesus gives us English speakers an extra-special gift: here is the history of murder in the Bible covering our own alphabet from ‘A’ to ‘Z.’ Of course, the main point is that it covers the sweep of Scripture from its first book to its last: the Jewish canon begins with Genesis and ends with 2 Chronicles. Jesus charges “this generation” with the murder of all prophets ever, a category he then places himself at the end of with the fat exclamation point of his own crucifixion.

But whereas Zechariah, in his dying, cries for the LORD’s vengeance, what does Jesus cry out? Luke’s gospel contains the disputed verse, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (23:34). Many early church fathers quote this verse, including Ignatius, Irenaeus of Lyons, and Hippolytus of Rome. But it appears only in Luke’s gospel, and early manuscripts from a wide distribution of geographical areas omit it. This prompts a crucial question: is its omission because it was never there in the first place—meaning that a later tradition added it? Or was it omitted later by those who did not believe it belonged there?

Leaving this mystery unsolved for the moment, we can wonder on whose behalf Jesus prays for forgiveness. In the immediate, obvious sense, it is directed at the soldiers who are nailing him and two other convicts to crosses. The soldiers are the ones most directly guilty of murder, carrying out the state-sanctioned violence that will shortly end these men’s lives. They are just following orders, of course, and they do this all the time. They are paid executioners in need of forgiveness.

Of course, the main point is the stark difference between Zechariah’s dying words and those of Jesus. Zechariah begs God for vengeance, while Jesus does precisely the opposite. Jesus has not stopped the sorry practice of murder that we humans find so necessary; he simply changes the response to it. And then he turns and forgives the repentant criminal hanging alongside him: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (11:43).

Rembrandt, The Stoning of St. Stephen
There’s one more murder to look at it right now: that of Stephen, the first martyr of the Church, whose feast we celebrate today. The sequel to Luke’s gospel, from the same hand, is the Acts of the Apostles, where we find in 7:54-60:

When [the assembled mob] heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.

The received Greek text doesn’t actually say that Stephen “died,” but that he “fell asleep,” reflecting the young Church’s new understanding of death as a temporary state that is not to be feared. And Stephen himself asks God to forgive his own murderers.

So back to that disputed verse at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion: Did he actually say it? I’m inclined to say yes, because Stephen was apparently aware that his Lord had done so. At the very least, Luke sets up an intentional parallel. In response to Zechariah, Jesus suggests a new course of action, and Stephen picks up on it.

But please note that these are not paid executioners; they are an angry mob. So to insist that Jesus only forgave the soldiers because of their role and their ignorance is short-sighted. Stephen clearly saw the need for a wider application.

If Jesus said it, and Stephen picked up on it, then the later manuscripts that exclude Jesus’ forgiveness betray an intentional removal of the sentence. Why? I don’t think that’s a difficult question to answer: there will always be those who think forgiveness is an improper response. It’s obviously not justified. It’s one thing for the punishment to fit the crime, but what happens when the punishment is revoked completely? What of justice and future deterrence? If we all just forgave murderers, wouldn’t the murder rate skyrocket?

(For the record: while it's a discussion worth having, I don’t think that “slippery slope” argument holds water here.)

During the heyday of state executions at the Tower of London, there was a tradition that the executioner would ask forgiveness of the doomed one. In our own times, we have numerous examples of Christians forgiving those who have murdered their loved ones, whether in shootings in American schools and churches or through the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa. I cannot imagine how I would react in any of these situations, but I doubt that forgiveness could possibly be my first inclination. 

But I keep coming back to Jesus on the cross, having just recently recounted the entire history of murder from Abel to Zechariah. Even in the agony of his crucifixion, Jesus has the ability to say, “We’re going to do this differently from now on.” He demonstrates for all of us, for all the rest of human history, that God’s response to sin is simply to forgive it. Jesus does indeed charge “this generation” with the blood of all the prophets … but then, in his dying and rising, he revokes the charges.

What of the Revelation to John, the Omega of the Christian Bible? Do we not find vengeance there? Many would like to think so, and you’ll certainly find a lot of frightening, violent imagery to support their case. But the overall thrust of the book is of justice restored to an oppressed people. It does not deny that the history of murder will continue, but it concludes with the restoration of all things in Jesus Christ:

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. (22:1-3a)

The tree of life makes its first appearance here since the Garden of Eden. Whether all the accursed murderers are banished or redeemed, those who suffer persecution are assured that all shall be well. In general, it's safe to assume from all this that our idea of vengeance looks very different from God's.

None of this is accomplished by our murdering each other, of course. Unfortunately, many people still need to learn this; there is a whole branch of radical Christianist thought that wants to stoke the forces of war, specifically in the Middle East, in order to actually bring about Christ’s return. Think of them as the Christian version of ISIS, just not yet living out the violence they dream of.

But more importantly, God’s goal is restoration, not “getting even.”

Whether we like that solution or not, we are left to wrestle with it as the history of murder continues.