Tuesday, December 30, 2014

A Call to Prayer

Dear Friends in Christ,

I write this letter to ask the members of our community to pray.

The traffic accident this weekend that resulted in the death of Thomas Palermo is such a tragedy.  And then there is the earth shattering news that it was caused by one of our bishops, the Rt. Rev. Heather Cook, who for reasons we do not yet know left the scene of the accident only later to return.

Please read Bishop Sutton’s pastoral letter to our diocese regarding this situation.  You may also want to read the statement the diocese released today that explains the search process.  Both are found on the home page of our diocesan website: www.ang-md.org.

Please consider that social media is not always an ideal platform to learn the most accurate information or for drawing conclusions.

It has been my experience when the ground under our feet gives way we want to rush to judgment, answers, and quick fixes.  It is much harder to sit with pain and sadness that we cannot fix.  But that is exactly what we are called to do as Christians who were shown God’s redemption through the life of one who walked through pain and sadness for us.

Sometimes all we can do is pray.  Pray for Thomas Palermo and his family who grieves.  Pray for Bishop Cook.  Pray for Bishop Sutton and your brothers and sisters in Christ in this diocese.  Go to church on Sunday (or before) and hear the story of God’s redemption told through the ages, pray the prayers with God’s people and remember the love made known to us through the breaking of the bread.

This Sunday we will pray these words together in our opening collect; may we remember our humanity and that each one of us is created to be a witness to the light we celebrate during Christmastide.

O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, your Son Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

In Peace,

The Reverend Arianne R. Weeks

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Stir it up Sunday!

Third Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

Rejoice in the Lord always!  And again I say rejoice!

Those words to Paul’s people in Thessalonica are the theme for the third Sunday in Advent – Gaudete or Joy Sunday.  It might seem odd to have a joy Sunday – in the holiday season – but Advent is a penitential season.  Two Sundays of John the Baptist remind us that we are preparing for Christ’s coming, and in repentance we find joy.  There is joy in waiting – just as there is joy in greeting.

And how could we not hear the joy in Isaiah’s proclamation – God has sent the prophets to bring good news to the oppressed and bind up the brokenhearted.  To proclaim the year of our Lord’s favor and to comfort all who mourn.

Just as last week we heard Isaiah encouraging God’s people to return from exile and come home – we now hear Isaiah being a cheerleader of sorts.  The people have a monumental task of rebuilding ahead of them.  They have been gone for decades and the Jerusalem they return to has been decimated.  All the signs of God’s presence and strength, especially the temple, lay in ruins. Think of rebuilding New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina – or Japan after a tsunami.

The people need words of encouragement and hope.  The people need to believe that it is they who will be called “oaks of righteousness” – that the people themselves – tired and overwhelmed as they feel – will be able to build up the ruins – raise up the former devastations.  The people are the planting of the Lord and the people themselves are the display of God’s glory.

You see the task before them isn’t just the rebuilding of a city – it is a rebuilding of their faith, their belief, and their trust that God is with them and would again work wonders.  Maybe some of us have experienced – surely all of us have seen a news story – when after a natural disaster or some devastating change to our home or community people return home, speechless with tears streaming down their face.  Just to face the task ahead requires every ounce of internal courage.

That is the prayer we prayed in our collect – stir up your power O Lord, so we might stir up our courage.  Isaiah is trying to stir the power of God up within God’s people – to help them see that they have it within themselves to repair the ruined cities and reclaim their mantle of praise.

Isaiah is trying to stir up their joy.

That’s the thing about joy isn’t it?  Sometimes we feel it – and sometimes we don’t!  It’s why if you’ve been here the past two weeks – there is clearly a theme Josh and I keep touching on….the difference between the Advent of the church and the spirit of the holiday season.  The later doesn’t care whether you feel it – it just puts tremendous pressure on you to show it.  Remember that Billy Crystal character from SNL in the 80’s, when he would say, “It’s better to look good than to feel good, dahling!”

But the joy in our faith is something entirely different and it’s not about what’s on the outside.  In John’s gospel Jesus says, I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you – and your joy be made complete.  Joy is that feeling of completeness in God.  That awareness that to rest in God’s hand is enough – because we know we are held – we know we are guided – we know we are being wholly restored through that connection.

God’s joy is found in our restoration.  It is why when Jesus enters the temple to put on his mangle of authority in Luke’s gospel he unrolls the scrolls and quotes Isaiah’s text.  He announces that he is the anointed one who has come to restore the people through the good news of God’s freedom and release.

We are not a people returning from exile – so what does restoration look like for us?

I think Isaiah encourages two levels, or ways of answering that question.  The first is what we do together – how we let God work through us and with us to repair the ruined cities and the devastations of many generations.

I have a bumper sticker on the window sill in my office that says – if you love peace, work for justice.  God’s restoration is the great reversal – when liberty is proclaimed to the captives and release to the prisoners.  When Mary proclaims in the Magnificat – and the mighty are cast down from their thrones as the lowly are lifted up!

The captives and the prisoners that Isaiah is referring to are the people who have come home.  They have been oppressed and enslaved through an unjust system that has been overthrown.

You don’t need me to tell you we live in a world – Christmas time or not – replete with unjust systems.  There are riots and protests in St. Louis, and New York and Baltimore that are trying to shine light on the unjust systems still in place and coming out of a long narrative of injustice that our country was built upon.  We are called to get stirred up about it.  We are called to educate ourselves and wrestle with our questions and our disagreements.

Maybe some of you read or heard something about the 2014 Unicef report on the state of the world’s children.  It’s not good.  In fact 2014 has been one of the worst on record for the children of our world.  The report chronicles a litany of violence, war, atrocities, and disease.  Up to 15 million children are directly entangled in violent conflicts.  The executive director of Unicef was quoted as saying, “Never in recent memory have so many children been subjected to such unspeakable brutality.” (NYTimes, 12/9/14)

The task of restoration – of restoring justice and peace in these places may seem impossible.  The numbers too large – the places too foreign and too far away, even when they are pretty close to home.  But that’s why we ask God to stir up God’s power.  Stir us up through prayer – through witness – through paying attention to the injustice in our world and shining light upon it.

And know that right now, our church is engaged in doing just this.  This weekend we are entering into a new partnership with Habitat.  Joining hands again with other churches to rebuild houses in Govans – right down the street – in addition to Sandtown farther in the city.  In both places building up from the devastation of past generations. We build-up people through the new ministry of 1K churches this year.  Seeking individuals who need the first investment in themselves so that, in the tag line of the ministry team – we don’t just give someone a fish to eat for a day, we teach them how to fish and eat for a lifetime.  And empower them to be the ‘oak of righteousness’ in their community that will be planted and shine forth the Lord’s glory. That is working for justice – that is working for peace.

Our preparing for God is helping to make the pathway straight – in the world and in our hearts.  This is the other work of restoration that we are called to do in this season – and it is internal and personal work.  Just as we are often frustrated or angry that God isn’t intervening fast enough to alleviate the suffering in our world, there are ways in which we are frustrated that God hasn’t alleviated the suffering in our individual lives.  Name them before God.  That line in our psalm – those who sowed with tears, will reap with songs of joy.  That’s one of the reasons we are having a Blue Christmas service next Sunday.

When we lift something up in prayer – even, perhaps most especially, our hurt or anger or disappointment – we are taking a step towards healing, we make a way for the Lord in our hearts.  To deny those feelings within ourselves – to try and look good over feeling good – doesn’t last.  But God’s faithful covenant does.   When Isaiah speaks of these garments of joy that cover him – the robe of righteousness, the garland and the jewels of joy – those are the outward signs of the inward grace, the inward joy.  And the tears to get there don’t have to be hidden – they have to be wept.  Those who go out weeping, will come again with joy.

So on this third Sunday of Advent as we prepare – let us rejoice always, pray without ceasing.  Pray that God will stir up God’s power in the world – will lead us to see and walk towards those places in our world that are crying out for peace.  Pray that God will stir up God’s power in our hearts – to heal us where we are hurt – to lead us to reconciled relationships.  So that when we greet the light of Christ in a few days we find that our joy is, yet again, made complete.  Amen.

- the Rev. Arianne R. Weeks

Monday, December 8, 2014

Fading Flowers, Crumpled Wrapping Paper, and the Faithfulness of God

Isaiah 40:1-11
Mark 1:1-8

All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.

The beginning and ending of our passage from the prophet Isaiah are well known and beloved
passages of scripture. We tend to jump from the promise of comfort for God’s people and the promise that John the Baptist will prepare the way for Jesus, making straight a highway for God in the flesh, to the command to Isaiah to get himself up to a high mountain to proclaim God’s coming to God’s people. But we skip that middle bit, the bit about fading flowers and withering grass, since it’s the only part of this chapter that Handel didn’t include in his “Messiah.” On the surface, it’s an interruption, a bit of dreariness in the midst of a chapter filled with good news.

But to the people of Israel, 2 this was good news. Isaiah 40 begins the portion of this book of scripture known as “Second Isaiah.” The first thirty-nine chapters tell Israel why they have gone into exile, but this chapter marks the beginning of a declaration that the exile is drawing to a close. All people are grass, Second Isaiah says, and what he means is, “Your captors are grass, too.”  This seeming non-sequitur about the transitoriness of life is the word of comfort Second Isaiah is anointed to proclaim: Babylon the Great will fall, withering like grass, but God’s promises will endure.

Unlike the children of Israel, we’re not living in exile in a strange land. But I need to hear these words today. This can be such a stressful time of year, can’t it? There’s so much to do: gifts to buy, trees to decorate, cookies to bake, gifts to wrap, parties to attend, parties to host. I know that in Advent, the church invites me into a season of quiet waiting and simple preparation, but it can be hard for me to hear the still, small voice of God right now. It’s drowned out by Christmas carols on the radio and commercials on TV.

And those commercials. Have you noticed how loaded they can be? If you love your family, you will make them a perfect Christmas dinner. If you love your family, you will buy them this or that. If you love your family, you will drop everything to bake cookies.That’s before we even get to people like Kirk Cameron, who are shouting to everyone who will listen that the only way to “save” Christmas is for all of us, but especially mothers, to be cheerful and joyful all the time. And in the midst attempting to be perfectly spiritual and prayerful, like I think God wants me to be, I find my thoughts wandering and my mind worrying, “Will they like the presents I bought? Does the tree look perfect? Are all the corners of the wrapping paper crisp and perfect?”

At moments like this, I need to hear Isaiah’s words: The grass withers, the flowers fade, the wrapping paper will end up in the trash, and the tree on the curb. The prophet Isaiah’s words are a call to us to remain focused on what really matters: our trust in God’s promises to us, because God is faithful and will not disappoint. God will be faithful, even if I burn the ham. God will the faithful, even if the presents are a bust. God will be faithful, even if I do not meet my unrealistic expectations about how perfectly spiritual I am “supposed” to be during Advent.

This is the same message we hear from John the Baptist: The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me. In art, John is always depicted pointing away from himself, pointing toward Christ. John is another reminder that this season is not about us: it is about the faithfulness of God, revealed in Jesus Christ, the eternal, enduring Word of God, spoken to us as a promise of God’s love.

There’s a wonderful bit of spiritual wisdom that comes from Alcoholics Anonymous and other Twelve-Step Groups: “Stop shoulding all over yourself.” I repeat that to myself a lot, especially at this time of year. “Stop shoulding all over yourself.”

This is the message of the prophets that our collect bids us to heed: It is not about us. It was never about us, because we are like grass that fades. This is good news, even if it doesn’t immediately sound like it. This is good news, because it frees us from the terrible burden of trying to save ourselves, trying to be good enough.

This Advent, when there are so many clamoring voices telling you that it is all about you, that it all depends upon you, remember the words of the prophets. Stop shoulding all over yourself. It isn’t up to you to save Christmas. It isn’t up to me to save Christmas. Rest in the assurance of God’s love, revealed to us in Jesus,  revealed to us in water,  revealed to us in bread and wine.


Monday, December 1, 2014

Advent: Wait For It!

Advent 1
1 Corinthians 1:3-9

Who has been to Disney World?  Did you know that buried and built deep under the ground of Cinderella’s castle is a bunker called “The Disney Operational Command Center”?  It is the “brains” of the park designed to address the single most challenging problem Disney exec’s believe a visitor has to contend with – waiting in line.

I haven’t seen pictures – but according to what I read – the bunker is filled with flat-screen TVs displaying live feeds of all the rides and their lines – with green, yellow and red outlines so the watchers can see which lines are heading towards trouble.

When they start flashing red – someone in the command center might alert an operator of the ride to launch more boats, or send out more cars so more people can get off the line and on the ride.   Or they may ask Goofy or Snow White to head over and entertain the people while they wait.  Disney wants to do anything they possibly can to keep you occupied and distracted.

Because as the VP of the park was quoted as saying – “all those waiting moments really add up.”  (NYTimes 12/28/10)

I wonder if he has any idea of the theological depth of that statement….for yes indeed, all our waiting moments really add up.

We’re in a waiting period right now – aren’t we?  Christmas is the big event at the end of the line – but I’d offer that we have a choice as to which line we wait on.  Let’s call the first line the “holiday train.”  This is the Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Pumpkin Latte’s turned to Peppermint Mocha’s, door-busting deals at every store so you can decorate that house until it looks like the Southern Living catalog of Norman Rockwell Christmas perfection that we’re told is bound to make us happy!  On this line, people seem to wait anxiously; always fretting over all there is to do, surrounded by all the distractions and delusions that as long as they procure enough of the “stuff” out there, they will finally feel happy and complete in “here.”  It’s a Christmas all about holiday spirit, good cheer and being nice.  Which is not really anything to do with the in-breaking of God via the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.

Or, we can opt for the other line that we call Advent.  Advent is not intended to distract or entertain you.  Quite the opposite.  The waiting is where the focus is.  The waiting is the spiritual practice meant to prepare our hearts like we prepare the soil before spring planting.  We tend to what is going on in us.  We listen and question and think about where we are right now, with ourselves, with God.  It’s leaning into the waiting to help us focus and pay attention and get ready.

But – it’s hard!  Not gonna lie that kind of waiting requires intentionality and being entertained and distracted is just plain easier.  The one time in my life where I felt like I was able to live into the waiting was when it was sort of forced on me.  My daughter, Dorothea, was born on December 29th – and she was due Christmas eve.  So my Advent in 2004 was all about waiting!

Now of course before I got pregnant – I heard many times about how wonderful pregnancy is – lots of women say – I loved being pregnant.  Well not this woman!  My back hurt all the time – feet and ankles swollen – had terrible heartburn.  Sleeping?  It didn’t matter how many special pillows I bought, I never got comfortable.  And that December was the last month.  I was living in Queens in New York and working in Manhattan down in Tribeca.  So every day I took the train 45 minutes into the city – and in Queens it’s an elevated train – so there were all the stairs up to the station – all the stairs up to the platform – all the stairs up to the sidewalk once you got into Manhattan.  I remember one weekday coming home from work and I had walked the five blocks back to me street and I remember standing on the corner – my apartment was about ¾ down the block – and you know how they do in the movies when they show something far away and then zoom the camera somehow so the distance seems to triple?  Well I stood on that corner, stared down that block and that seemed to happen and I thought – I’m just going to sit down right here.  Surely someone or several someone’s will just come along eventually and carry me home.  Just didn’t think I could make it. Couldn’t wait any more!

But, of course I did.  And all of you in here – especially those of you with first- hand experience – know that no matter the hardships I wouldn’t trade it for the world, in fact I’d take double – because I knew what I was waiting for.  I was waiting to give birth to my daughter – waiting to meet a person that I had a part in creating.  Waiting to bring love into my life – into the world.  Waiting for the gift of God (Dorothea) that is beyond words – truly miraculous.

That feeling – hopeful expectation – is a gift of the faith-filled life and what Advent is all about. It is the waiting that Paul describes in his letter to his church in Corinth –  I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind….so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of God.

Hopeful expectation comes when we trust that God has already done something in us – God has already planted the seed – started us on a path.  The priest and writer Henri Nouwen said – “Active waiting means to be present fully to the moment, in the conviction that something is happening where you are and you want to be present to it.”

That’s the hopeful expectation of Mary, of Joseph, the shepherds, the Magi, John the Baptist, all the people in scripture believe God has started something in them!

And, the thing is, as we wait for the revealing – God is waiting for us to reveal those seeds God has planted.  God is waiting for us to reveal the light in our hearts.  God is waiting for us to give birth to the child of God, God created us to be.

So for those of you who want to skip the holiday train ride, and hop on the Advent waiting line I offer this practice – each day, at any point in the day – simply look around and pay attention.  Be present fully to the moment with the conviction that something is happening and God is there.  Name for yourself what is the grace God has given you in speech and knowledge and being that is being birthed in you.

May all of us enter into Advent time, in the words of Isaiah, remembering that we are the clay and God is the potter, and all those waiting moments are the work of God’s hands.  The moments that create our very lives and don’t we want to pay attention to that!  Because in each and every one of them – God is doing something in us and breaking into our lives all the time.  Keep awake for God is faithful.  Amen.

Monday, November 24, 2014

We are not sheep or goats!

Last Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 25:31-46

If you’ve been at church at least one Sunday over the past few weeks perhaps you, like me, will be relieved to hear we are at the end of these challenging teachings of Jesus.  Today is the last Sunday of the church year and next Sunday we start anew.  Switching gospels and leaving Matthew behind for Mark as we prepare for the coming of Christ. 

Chapter 25 of Matthew’s gospel is surely the most challenging consecutive set of stories.  First there was the story of the wise and the foolish bridesmaids.  Some have enough oil for their lamps – others don’t.  And the ones who don’t get shut out of the wedding feast.

Then there was the well-off landowner who doled out the talents – asking each of his slaves to turn a profit with what they’ve been given.  And while some are able to do it – even more so then expected – for the poor guy who was too scared to take a risk – he gets thrown into the outer darkness where there is the infamous weeping and gnashing of teeth.

And now we’ve reached the summit – when the king separates the sheep from the goats.  And the poor goats now find themselves in the strange company of bewildered bridesmaids and incompetent investors.

So why do we end the year with these stories?  To prepare by cowering in fear?  Having us wonder – are we sheep, are we goats – when we know we don’t always do what is right?  Is it meant to scare us into action?  Get us to start counting up our good deeds in order to joyfully await the birth of Jesus and feel good about all our Christmas presents?

I think it’s important – critical really – to hear the line that comes right after this morning’s gospel.  The beginning of chapter 26 – When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples, “You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.”

Jesus is preparing for something too.  Time is running out.  No more time for miracles or teachings.  No more time for breaking bread with his followers.  The end is just too near.

Earlier this week the priests of this region met with our bishops.  This is something we do once a year.  Bishop Sutton assigns a book for us to read and we get together and discuss it.  This year we looked at a book on heresies.  You know, teachings about Jesus and God that the Christian church deemed unorthodox – not right, not valid.  Mostly they sprang up during the earliest centuries Christianity – before the institutional church had secured a position of dominance by being closely aligned with a governmental power (as Jesus has railed against, but that’s another sermon).

Most of the heresies have to do with the nature of Christ.  Was he really human? Really divine?  But some are about the nature of God. 

Marcion of Sinope in 144 thought Christianity had a major marketing problem – the God of the Old Testament.  Marcion was a Christian – a Roman he had been converted by the teachings of Paul – and when he read the Old Testament he thought – well that God is just too mean. 

Look at Jesus – he teaches about love, forgiveness.  He couldn’t believe Jesus could come from the same God of the Hebrew bible – where there was so much wrath.  And he thought that kept people from the faith. So he put together his own bible and formed his own community – claiming Jesus was not the Jewish Messiah but a spiritual entity sent by a God who had not had previous interactions with the world.  He set up an either/or concept.  Old Testament bad.  New Testament good.

And I think this heresy is alive and well. I hear people say it all the time.  It’s not too hard to do because there are some really challenging stories (like what we heard from Zephaniah last Sunday) that interpret destructive events as coming from the hand of God.  But the canon, Old or New, is not that clean and tidy.  Yes – the wrath of God, the day of the Lord that is darkness and fierce judgment is in the Old Testament – but as we heard this morning – you can find that in the New Testament just as well. 

And remember, the Old Testament stories cover a little over a thousand years of history – a thousand years of people trying to understand the workings of God through their experience.

The gospel stories – they cover about three.  Not really an apples to apples comparison is it?  But I get it.  It’s easier to make generalizations and lump books into clear cut categories – then it is to struggle with the messiness and hold unanswerable tensions.

But this morning we are forced to.  Because our gospel has the judgment and eternal damnation – while our reading from the Old Testament has the good shepherd feeding his sheep.  What would Marcion make of that?

He’d have a problem.  And I think the problem, comes from comparing scripture instead of taking it whole – the good, the bad and the ugly as the movie title goes.  If you spend all your time arguing scripture against itself – God said this, but Jesus said that, or vice versa – that’s an either/or, right/wrong game – that would probably result in an angry stalemate.  The wisdom of the church is that we have to take the whole thing – this entire canon of stories that are not neat and tidy. 

At the start of Matthew an angel tells Joseph – you will call him Emmanuel, God with us.  At the end of Matthew, Jesus stands on a mountain and says to his disciples, “Remember, I am with you always,” God with us – is the beginning and ending of the gospel’s message.  God with us informs everything – especially how we interpret God’s judgment.

When you are with someone who is thirsty how can you not give them a drink?  One time, I was serving at a neighborhood supper, a soup kitchen.  It was the summer and hot.  Some guests came down as we were setting up the tables.  As I sat with them, talked with them,  it finally dawned on me that I kept swigging from a bottle of Poland Spring while they patiently waited for me to say, “Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry – let me get some water for the table.”  When you’re with someone – you can’t help but see their need.  You don’t think “Oh, let me do something good now because I’m a Christian.”  You just do it. 

And I think that’s the point.  I am not a sheep – I am not a goat – I, just like you, am (according to scripture) a beloved child of God, created in God’s own image.  And when I see people, which isn’t all the time.  When I am really with people in relationship, that’s when I most naturally act out of compassion, unaware almost, like those sheep, that I’m doing anything of great significance.  What I hear God reminding me of this morning is to pay attention to that, cultivate that.  See the people around me, be with the people around me.  Not out of fear – but because I believe God is with me. 

And acting out of compassion, generosity, love – that is what enables others to believe that God is with them too.

This is why we sit down to eat with one another on a Sunday after worship.  To cultivate being with each other.  This is why we’re reading a book in Outreach called “Toxic Charity.”  Because it’s about how we might re-envision and renew our ministries by seeing if we are in relationship with people. Apparently that is how we see Christ in the least of these and are moved to acts of compassion. 

God’s judgment is defined in the words of our opening collect which hearken to the Good Shepherd in Ezekiel – it is God’s will to restore all things.  To feed all with justice – meaning, all have food, all have water, all have safe and fertile pasture to live, work and most especially, rest.

If God is with us – then God calls us to be with one another – especially with the least of these.  That is how we best prepare to celebrate God’s coming into this world to be with us.  That is how we might find ourselves surprised, just like those sheep, as to the ways in which God with us, moves us to be the Good Shepherd in our world.  Amen.

The Rev. Arianne R. Weeks

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Day of the Lord

The Rev. Joshua Rodriguez-Hobbs

I hope you didn’t come to church this morning expecting to hear a nice, comforting word from scripture.

We are at the tail end of the liturgical year—Advent is only two Sundays away—and the lectionary is turning our attentions to thoughts of the end, the Day of the Lord, when Christ shall come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. Now, I don’t usually think of the Day of the Lord the way the prophet Zephaniah does: That day will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness…

I don’t know about you, but this was a hard reading for me to say “Thanks be to God” after I heard it. Zephaniah really lays it on thick, doesn’t he?

Zephaniah is known as a “minor prophet,” a designation that has to do with length. The “major prophets”—Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel—all wrote very long books. The minor prophets, on the other hand, all wrote short books, so short that all twelve on them could fit on a single scroll. In Zephaniah’s case, though, “minor prophet” is probably also accurate in terms of how much attention we pay to him. Let’s be honest: who among us has actually read Zephaniah? I’m not sure I had until this past week, when I realized I had to preach on this passage. I’m sure that I was supposed to read Zephaniah in seminary, but I don’t remember doing it, and I didn’t remember anything about this book of the Hebrew Bible.

So I brushed up on my history. If you remember back to Sunday School, after Solomon was king over Israel, the kingdom split into two countries: Israel in the north and Judah in the south. Zephaniah prophesied in Judah in the seventh century BC, shortly after the Assyrian Empire had conquered the kingdom of Israel and led its people away as slaves. In Zephaniah’s day, the leaders of Judah were convinced that such a fate could never happen to him, because they were sure that God was remote and distant, and acted in history neither to bless nor to punish. In the face of this complacency, Zephaniah cries out, like a street preacher with a sandwich board sign that warns that the end is near. That’s the context for this disturbing reading we just heard.

It’s easy to understand how this reading from Zephaniah gets paired with our parable from Matthew’s Gospel, because they’re both about the Lord returning to judge. If Zephaniah is upset because the people of Judah are too complacent to do anything, then the Master in Jesus’ parable of the talents is upset because the third slave is too paralyzed by fear to do anything. The people of Judah didn’t take the end seriously enough, but this slave takes the end too seriously.

There’s a real temptation with this parable to make it about our “talents,” the individual gifts and skills that we all have. Since God has given us talents, this interpretation goes, we should use them to serve and glorify God. In other words, work hard, and everything will be okay. That’s not what this parable is about. It’s about money. The word “talent” here is confusing, because it means something different in English than it did when Matthew wrote his Gospel in Greek. The translators of our Bible have just transliterated this word, changing Greek letters into English ones. Talent here refers to an ancient Greek unit of measure, equal to one hundred and thirty pounds, that was used for precious metals. This parable is about gold, and lots of it. Today, a talent of gold is worth almost $2.5 million. That’s per talent.

You know what’s funny about this parable? Each slave gets what he expects. The first two slaves don’t seem afraid of their master. They take huge risks with the money he gives them, like hedge fund managers do. They double their investments while he’s away on vacation, something that you can’t do with a safe investment. They believe that their master is fundamentally generous. After all, he’s just given them millions of dollars with no strings attached.

It’s that third slave who is so convinced that he has a harsh master who won’t tolerate failure. That’s why he buries his gold. That, for the record, is what the Law of Moses says you should do with the pledge on a loan so that you won’t be held liable to repay it if it’s stolen. This third slave is working to absolve himself of any responsibility for his own actions. And yet, he still excepts to be condemned and punished, which is exactly what happens to him.

Taken together, these two readings tell us something about the Last Day. We shouldn’t be complacent about it, like the people of Judah in Zephaniah’s day. Christ will return to judge the nations, and we will be called to give an account of our lives on that day, so we should prepare to meet our Lord. At the same time, however, we should not be afraid of this judgment, because the fundamental message of scripture is that Christ is a merciful judge. As the author of 2 Peter tells us, God is merciful, not wanting any to perish, but for all to come to repentance.

Even in Zephaniah, the Day of the Lord isn’t all bad. We just heard the absolute worst possible section of that book. The very next verse, chapter two verse one, begins a promise that God will be merciful if the people of Judah will repent and return to him. The final passage of the book is a promise that God will come as fire, not to destroy, but to purify all the people of the earth, as gold is refined by fire, so that we may be pure and holy, able to stand before God. Even God’s judgment is ultimately for our blessing.

What we should take away this morning about the Last Day is what St. Paul tells the Thessalonians: “God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.”


Monday, October 27, 2014

Pledging to Love God

Matthew 22:34-46
The Rev. Joshua Rodriguez-Hobbs

Confession time: this is my first stewardship sermon, and I am terrified that it is going to sound like an NPR membership drive.

I don’t know if you listen to WYPR, our local NPR station, but this past week was their fall membership campaign. As luck would have it, I spent a lot of time in the car this week, so I got to hear a lot about this membership campaign. It seemed like every few minutes they would cut away from the program I was actually listening to and tell me that for a pledge of just $5 a month, I could be the proud owner of an NPR phone charger. It was maddening. I’m halfway convinced that public radio and television fund raise in this way so that people like me will get frustrated and make a pledge just to end the campaign. I hope you don’t feel this way about our Walking the Way stewardship campaign, so let’s get back to our regularly scheduled Gospel lesson.

What a Gospel lesson this is! For the past few weeks now, we’ve been heard how the Pharisees and the Herodians and the Sadducees have been asking Jesus trick questions, hoping to trip him up. Today, we’re hearing the final exchange in this series of questions and answers, and Jesus knocks it out of the park with his answer.

One of the Pharisees, an expert in the Law, asks Jesus to name the greatest of the six hundred and thirteen commandments in the Law of Moses, and Jesus responds with what is unquestionably the best possible answer: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” What makes this answer so great is that it’s an excerpt from the Shema, the central passage of the Torah. The Shema is found in the book of Deuteronomy, and its name comes from the first words of the passage in Hebrew: sh’ma Yis’ra’eil
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep this words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign upon your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.[1]
This is the first passage of Torah that Jesus, and the Pharisees, and all Jewish children learned. The Pharisees began the custom of reciting it twice a day, as the first words they spoke in the morning and the last words they spoke at night. If you visit the home of a Jewish friend, you might notice a mezuzah, a small box on their doorframe with this passage of Torah written on a piece of paper inside it. This is a passage that expresses a central truth of what it means to follow God: there is only one God, the Lord of heaven and earth and all things in them, who has chosen a people as God’s own to love and serve God.

Jesus’ response to this expert in the Law’s question is so simple that any child could have given it. But it’s also an answer that we spend our entire lives figuring out what it really means to love God with all that we are and all that God has given us.

That brings us back to stewardship. Loving God with all our heart, all our soul, and all our ind is going to impact how we use our money. I know, this isn’t the fun part of the sermon. But it’s important, and that’s why I don’t what this sermon to sound like an NPR pledge drive. Making a pledge of your time, talent, and treasure should not be something that you do so that we will stop our stewardship campaign early, and Arianne and I will stop preaching about money. Yes, your pledge is important because it supports the life and mission of this community. It allows us to pay the bills and keep the lights on. The time and money you donate allows us to serve people who are in need through outreach ministries like Neighbor to Neighbor, Our Daily Bread, and Loves and Fishes. It allows us to provide quality programs for our children and teenagers. It provides for the upkeep of this beautiful blessing that we have been blessed with. But more than all of this, what you pledge to the church is the best possible barometer of where God is in your priorities.

I didn’t always think this way. When I sent to seminary, I was not a pledging member of St. Christopher’s Church in Lubbock, TX, the congregation that sponsored me for ordination. I told myself that I was just out of college, I was about to go to seminary, and that I would start pledging when I got a “real” job. And besides, I gave to the church. Each Sunday, I would dig around in my wallet and put a few bills, generally the smallest, in the collection plate. Now, in seminary, I had to do an internship in a local church, and as luck would have it, almost as soon as I started there, they began their fall stewardship campaign. And this campaign was all about how making a pledge to the church was not about meeting an obligation that we had to God. Instead, the act of making a pledge was our grateful response for the blessings that God had given us through our parish family. Now, every month while I was in seminary, I got a check from St. Christopher’s, and there were some months when that check was the only thing that allowed me to make ends meet. I didn’t pledge to the church, and yet they were supporting me with their prayers and their finances. In response, I wasn’t showing any gratitude to them, or to God, who had placed them in my life to be a blessing. So, that year, I wrote my first pledge.

I would be lying if I told you that it was easy to make that first commitment. It wasn’t a big pledge, but for me at the time it represented a sacrificial amount of giving. And I would be lying if I told you that it was easy this year to meet the vestry’s challenge to raise my own pledge to Good Shepherd by five percent. It’s never easy to do that. But it’s important. It’s a way of expressing the profound gratitude that I have for being a part of this parish community. It’s also a way of loving God with all that I am and all that God has given me.

So, as we continue to talk about walking the way with Jesus in the coming weeks, I invite you to spend time in prayer, asking yourself how your pledge of time, talent, and treasure reflects where God is in your priorities. Ask yourself is that is where you want God to be. Ask yourself how you can best love the Lord your God will all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind. Amen.

[1] Deuteronomy 6:4-9.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Paul's Worry and Joy

Sunday, 10/12/14
Philippians 4:1-9

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 

When was the last time you remember feeling pure, unadulterated joy?  How do you define that feeling?  It’s happiness right?  But it’s deeper than that – like a profound contentment with what is happening here and now – in the moment – with no worries or anxiety about what was – or is – or is to come.

Earlier in Matthew’s gospel before Jesus starts shocking his listeners with challenging parables like the one we just heard – he teaches about worry.  Don’t worry about what tomorrow will bring.  Why do you worry about what you will eat, what you will wear, he says.  For as your heavenly Father clothes the lilies of the field and feeds the birds of the air – God will give you all that you need.  Don’t worry – but strive for the kingdom of God – and everything else will fall into place.  Don’t worry about tomorrow – for today’s trouble is enough for today (6:25-34)

Personally speaking – telling myself not to worry – is rarely helpful.  It’s too intellectual.  Because worry is a state of being.  I’m agitated, anxious. Stressful scenarios and possibilities play on a loop in my head – and it’s pretty hard if not impossible to simply turn the worries off – like flicking a switch.  Is that what Jesus is telling us to do?  How does striving for God’s kingdom help me deal with my own problems?  And is it only when all the problems are solved and the worries are over that I will know pure, unadulterated joy - again?

Well alongside these parables of Matthew (Ch. 22), we have also been reading through Paul’s letter to the Philippians and this morning, we reach the end.  It’s a letter that I think, helps us with these questions – and offers a spiritual practice to help us live into Jesus’ words. 

This letter is unique to Paul’s epistles in that it exudes unadulterated, joy. And, if there is one line that summarizes all four chapters – it’s this – Rejoice in the Lord always, and again, I say rejoice! 

Right at the beginning Paul says, I thank my God every time I remember you, being filled with joy when I pray for you (1:4).  And he goes on to say that just thinking of the faith of the Philippians – the first community Paul founded in Greece – his thoughts of them brings joy to his faith.  For he knows that they struggle – they have worries – but he knows they are trying  – and simply praying about that, even though they are far away,  he says, those prayers makes his joy complete (1:25, 2:2)

Now maybe, you’re thinking, well that’s great for Paul, 2,000 years ago!  What did he know about my worries and my problems?  Maybe you’re thinking he wrote this letter at the end of his ministry – in the comfort of his retirement – after a fine meal while gazing over the vineyards and mountains of the Grecian countryside.   The strife is o’er the battle done – and with thoughts of the glory of heaven that awaited him he wrote a letter of encouragement and farewell to a church he’d left long ago.

(Sometimes I wonder if Paul was a little like a preacher.  Does he write his letters to encourage his communities?  Or, to encourage himself?)

Because Paul certainly was not enjoying a luxurious retirement.  He writes from a dank, dark, prison cell in Rome.  Who knows what his meals, if he had any, even were.  Who knows if there was a window – let alone a shaft of light – to let him see the countryside?   Paul sits imprisoned facing a death sentence. Because he has committed treason with his preaching and teaching. He’s been sharing the good news, in this letter and in the streets: that The Son of God did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited – like the rulers of Rome, and most rulers do – but Christ emptied himself taking the form of a slave.

Meaning – Christ did not come to earth as a god, using supernatural powers to magically make all our – or his - worries disappear.  Jesus cared – he cried – he worried, he got mad and frustrated – and yet he was able to abide in God.  And for that – for fully entering into our human experience, and still walking towards a culminating act of love – God highly exalted him, giving him the name that is above every name – so that at the name of Jesus – not the name of the emperor – every knee should bend on heaven and on earth and under the earth. And every tongue should confess that Jesus is Lord.

That’s chapter 2 of Philippians and it’s the treason that gets Paul thrown in prison.

Don’t you think Paul sat there with worries?  Don’t you think he was scared?  Surely he thought at some point – well the birds of the air and the lilies of the field really have no idea what real worry is?

So how is it in the midst of that experience he says – Rejoice in the Lord always, and again, I say rejoice?

You know how when something big (really big) happens in your life – maybe you get something or someone you never thought you would.  Maybe you suffer the loss of something or someone you never thought you would.  And in that experience – in the days surrounding the event, whatever it is, you realize very quickly what matters.  What, the theologians say, is of ultimate concern.  The people, the relationships, the stuff of living that is really and truly important.  What the Mastercard commercial calls – priceless. 

Paul, like Jesus, is encouraging us to remember what is priceless – always.  That is how we hold onto, how we can connect with our joy in the midst of our worries.

Beloved, Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure,  whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is excellence in anything worthy of praise, you’re your life – and surely there is - think about that – Paul writes. (Philippians 4)

The lilies of the field and the birds of the air – don’t have to remind themselves of their connection to God – for some reason, we do.  I’m sure all of us are bringing our prayers, our worries, our supplications to God this morning – hoping for the results we want or the answers we crave.  Paul says – when you bring those cares, bring the thanksgivings too.  Remind yourself what you already know to be good in your life.  Because it is that awareness of what we’ve already been given that helps us reconnect with joy. 
For as Christians, we rejoice in the Lord.  God is good – all the time!  All the time – God is good! Our joy cannot be separated from our belief that all good things, all the priceless things, are of God.  And they are still there - even when we are worried, even as we struggle.

That is knowing the Lord is near.  That is tapping into the peace of God which surpasses intellectual understanding – by thinking on these things.

One way of striving for the kingdom of God (in Jesus’ words) is by thinking on the kingdom now (in Paul’s words).  Those good things that have been and are being done for us and giving thanks for that treasure.  It’s not a quick fix to our problems – but a way of being, that we cultivate.  So put on the mind of Christ today – For the Lord is near.  Rejoice in the Lord, always and again I say rejoice.  Amen.

The Rev. Arianne R. Weeks

Monday, October 6, 2014

Faith after the "But"

The Rev. Joshua Rodriguez-Hobbs

Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard

That’s how Isaiah begins our Old Testament lesson this morning, one of the most heart-breakingly beautiful passages of scripture. It moves back and forth between Isaiah’s voice and God’s, speaking of the back-breaking work of planting and tending a vineyard that never produces good fruit. It is beautiful and poetic, but it is also hard to hear, especially on a day like today, when we have a baptism. Actually, the lectionary cuts off the reading before we get to the really hard parts. The rest of this chapter is a list of the sins that the leaders of Israel have committed. Isaiah calls them to account because they join house to house and add field to field, until there is room for no one but you. And for this, Isaiah says, God is sending Israel into exile.

This portion of Isaiah was written immediately after Israel went into exile in Babylon. The wounds are fresh, and the grief is raw. Isaiah and his community are trying to make sense out of why God has abandoned them, why the temple in Jerusalem has been destroyed, why their people has been scattered to the four winds. The explanation Isaiah offers, the explanation that Israel eventually finds satisfying, is that God has punished them for being unfaithful to the covenant they swore with God. Now, when we talk about this, we usually talk about idols and worshiping false gods, and that is certainly one of the things that prophets like Isaiah decried. But more than idolatry, the prophets talk about economic injustice. The reason, Isaiah tells us, that God’s vineyard has not borne good fruit is because God’s people have exploited one another, and have pursued their own profit above the common good. The covenant Israel swore with God was based on the Exodus: the story of God delivering the children of Israel from slavery. The Law God gives them at Sinai is based on this experience of slavery and deliverance. Because they have been slaves, the children of Israel are not to exploit one another. Because they have been slaves, the children of Israel are not to pursue profit at all costs. Because they have been slaves, the children of Israel were supposed to rest from labor every seventh day. They were supposed to let the land rest from agriculture every seventh year. But they did not. And so, they went into exile, devastated, wondering how they could sing the Lord’s songs in a strange land.

Jesus takes up Isaiah’s vineyard song in our Gospel reading today. Like the vineyard song, this isn’t an easy parable to hear, is it? There’s a strong element of condemnation. We’re told that the owner of the vineyard will put the wicked tenants to a miserable death. But who tells us that? It’s not Jesus. It’s the chief priests and Pharisees who prescribe this punishment for the wicked tenants, not yet realizing that this parable is about them.

How many times have you done that? How many times have you pronounced a harsh word of judgment against yourself, sure that God would judge the same? What is your response when tragedy strikes? Is it that God must be punishing you for your sins? You can point to a few verses in the Bible that would support that: "I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.[1]" It’s easy to focus on that first half, isn’t it? The thing is, in the story of God and God’s people, the emphasis is always on what follows after the but. And there is always a but. Always.

Isaiah sings other songs for the vineyard, later, songs of how God will replant it and how it will bear fruit. Jesus never tells us what happens to the tenants. He tells the chief priests and Pharisees that the rule of the kingdom of God is going to be taken away from them, but he doesn’t tell them that they will be kicked out of the kingdom. God’s story never ends in judgment. God’s story always ends in redemption, in grace.

That’s why it is good for us to hear stories like Isaiah’s vineyard song and Matthew’s parable of wicked tenants today, when we are going to baptize two beautiful girls. They are a reminder that our unfaithfulness is never the last word. We’re about to make a lot of promises when we renew our baptismal covenant. You know the drill; we've talked about it for three weeks in a row now. But this morning, I hope you notice the exact response we each make to the promises: I will, with God’s help. We don’t do it on our own. God’s people never have. We are tenants in God’s kingdom by God’s grace. The only possible response we can have to this is humble gratitude. Gratitude because God’s love for us is so great that it always comes in mercy. Humility because we can never earn or merit God’s love, but God loves us anyway, just because we exist.

The growth in the knowledge and love of God that we each began at baptism ends with God's perfect love casting out all our fears. It may take a long time for us to get there, but when we do, we learn to focus on what comes after the “but:” God’s steadfast love to the thousandth generation, the return from exile, the patience of the master of the vineyard, and love made concrete in water and in bread and wine. Amen.

[1] Exodus 20:5-6, NRSV

Monday, September 15, 2014

Forgiving as We Have Been Forgiven

The Rev. Joshua Rodriguez-Hobbs
Matthew 18:21-35

I remember hearing this Gospel lesson read aloud in church as a child. I was eight or so, and I had just learned multiplication. The King James Version, which is what I heard that morning, translates the number in the passage as “seven times seventy,”and I sat in the pew trying to figure out the exact number of times I had been wronged by my younger brother, so that I could subtract that number from four hundred and ninety. I was so very determined that I was not going to forgive him any more times than Jesus said I had to.

I think that’s the mindset that prompts Peter to ask Jesus this question, “How many times do I have to forgive?” I think he probably felt pretty magnanimous about offering a number as large as seven. As a child, I remember thinking to myself, four hundred and ninety is way too many times, Jesus. Matthew’s Greek is a little confusing here, but seventy-seven times or four hundred and ninety, the point is that Jesus gives Peter a number that’s too large to practically keep track of, whatever our eight-year-old selves might think. But part of me still wants to.

I’m willing to guess that’s the reality for most of us. Forgiveness is a hard, messy, and uncomfortable business, especially when we are talking about wrongs that have been done to me, or wrongs that I have done. And that’s what Jesus is talking about this morning. Peter’s question isn’t about abstract conflicts. Peter’s question begins “If another member of the church sins against me…” It comes at the end of an entire chapter in Matthew’s Gospel that is devoted to handling conflicts within the church, not outside it. This is intimate stuff, where we wrong and are wronged by people that we know, people that we hope will love us and who hope that we love them. It’s not easy. I wish it were. I’d like it to be easier, but I’m not any more comfortable with forgiveness at twenty-eight than I was at eight.

This past week, a seminary colleague who remembered that I live in Baltimore called me and asked, “Don’t you feel called to preach about Ray Rice this week?” Don’t worry; I said no. But I think this question, which was an attempt to deflect this question about forgiveness to something that is so external to our life together as a parish community, represents an attempt to make things easier. Let’s face it: it so so much easier to talk about someone else’s sin, especially someone who we don’t know, especially a celebrity. Talking about our own sins, talking about the people who we need to forgive is hard. Jesus knows that it’s hard. But he doesn’t make it easier. He doubles down with the parable he tells in answer to Peter’s question. Do you notice the shift that’s happened? Peter asks about forgiving someone else, but Jesus responds with a parable that is equally about our own need to be forgiven.

Now, it’s really easy to get caught up in the details of this parable.We’re trained to thing that kings the Jesus’ parables always represent God. Maybe that’s not a good thing this time, because this parable is about a king who’s willing to sell us into slavery to cover our debts, and who tortures us when we fall short of forgiving. We believe that God is more merciful than that. We’ve got to pay attention to how very exaggerated this parable is, though. That’s a sign that Jesus doesn’t intend us to take it literally. The first slave in the parable owes ten thousand talents. A talent was equal to about fifteen years’ wages for an ordinary worker in those days. So this slave owes the equivalent of one hundred and fifty thousand years’ worth of income. No one ever owes that much money. Like forgiving seventy seven or seventy times seven times, this is supposed to be an absurdly large sum. But this slave, who has been forgiven, doesn’t extend that forgiveness. He immediately goes out and finds someone who owes him some money, an amount that was equal to about one hundred days’ worth of work. It’s not insignificant, but it’s nothing like the debt that he just got out of paying. And you’d think that this slave would show mercy, having been showed mercy. But he doesn’t. He wants revenge. And it’s his downfall. And he receives the exact same punishment he subjected his fellow slave to, but our first slave can never repay his debt, so he’ll never finished being punished. And Jesus tells us that God will do the same thing to us if we don’t forgive others.

That’s harsh. That’s not what I want to hear. I wonder though, since we’re not supposed to take this very hyperbolic parable literally, if this punishment that we’re promised doesn’t occur here and now. When you are really caught up in keeping track of wrongs done, in how many times you need to forgive someone, you get miserable quickly. All the more so if you just flat out refuse to forgive. It takes a lot of energy to carry a grudge, especially against someone close to you. There’s release in forgiving, just like there’s release in being forgiven. St. Paul puts it this way in his letter to the Colossians: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ forgave you.”

Close your eyes, and take few moments to ask yourself: “Who do I need to forgive? What grudge am I carrying?" Remember, you have been forgiven much. Extend that forgiveness to that person in your life this week. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ forgave you. Amen.

Monday, September 8, 2014

What is Church?

Jesus said, "If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone...For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them." Matthew 18:15ff

Well – I have to tell you – for some of us this is day 3 of church, church and church!  Josh and I – and the clergy of this diocese and many of the people of this diocese have been together non-stop for 72 hours!  And are finally at the resurrection day of completion for celebrating the gathered faithful giving thanks to God in Christ.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about – let me explain.  Yesterday, as you may know from our announcements, we ordained Heather Cook a bishop and consecrated her ministry as a Suffragan bishop in our diocese.   Of course when a someone is ordained bishop – the person who does so – is our presiding bishop Kathryn Jefferts Schiori.  And it is her practice – maybe the practice of all presiding bishops to meet with the clergy of the diocese before the big event.

So Friday morning Josh and I and I guess about 100 other priests gathered at St. Michael and All Angels downtown to hear her – but she didn’t do much talking.  She had us think about God’s words at Jesus’ baptism – you are my son and with you, I am well pleased.  And she reminded us of our baptism – because at our baptisms – regardless of whether or not we are priests – God speaks those words to us as we are marked with the sign of Christ.

You are my beloved – with you I am well pleased.  She invited us to close our eyes, sit with the thought quietly for a few minutes.  And then she invited us to turn to our neighbor and talk about what that phrase made us think about.

And then, she opened it up – and one by one – many of us shared our thoughts on that phrase.

Someone once said to me – you know, priests are a little like fertilizer – they shouldn't be all clumped together, its much better to spread them around.  And yes, some truth to that.  Because we tend when we’re speaking in those situations – to want to prove our spirituality, our faith, our knowledge.  And, I’m one of that group, and yes – I lump myself and my insecurities in with that need to.  And listening to everything being said – I wondered to myself – Jesus, is this what you were thinking of when you talked about the church?  Jesus never seemed really keen on the religious experts.
And then yesterday – the 11am service at Redeemer – holy moley was that an event.  It started at 11am I got there at 10 and had to park down the road, on a side road that was already packed with cars.  And inside the building was swarming with people – clergy getting vested, a gazillion acolytes – choir members – people preparing the reception inside and outside.  Signs for restrooms and gathering rooms and special orders for the procession.  Hats off to the organization team, honestly, it was truly controlled chaos.

And then they line us up for the procession – and I was part of I think the 3rd section of the procession which began with banners from every single church – our banner carried faithfully by Cynthia Frasier (thank you Cynthia) – then all the clergy (even though the first shall be last, somehow clergy always get the best seats) – then the bishops.  And as we process into the church – the church is packed like Easter morning – with Praise my soul the King of Heaven joyfully being sung full voice by everyone there.  It was indeed the church triumphant!  And I wondered to myself – is this it Jesus?  Is this what you imagined when you talked about church?

Because I totally underestimated that event – Josh and I scurried out of that service right after the sermon because at 2 o’clock we had a funeral.  Hugh Stierhoff, 83, member of Good Shepherd for at least 20 years if not more.  Taught Sunday school, came regularly, and it was pretty full in here.  Family and friends from near and far – I think we counted about 100 people.  And yep, in the midst of that I wondered – how about this Jesus – is this what you imagined your church would be?

And then – at the end of the service the the family and I and Josh processed to our columbarium – holding the “earth to earth, ashes to ashes and dust to dust” that we are at the last – and now we were down to 15?  18 people – gathered around a niche and tearfully saying final prayers – a small flock, a family taking comfort in the faith of God’s eternal promise.

This, I think, is what Jesus imagined when he talked to his disciples about church.  Its not a building – stones will always topple, Jesus said (Matt 24:1-2).  It’s not pageantry and banners and us looking and singing our best – they did that right before the crucifixion with those shouts of Hosanna in the highest (Matt 21:1).  It’s the small gatherings – its 12 disciples – or 18 vestry – or 15 mourners – or 2 or 3.  A community of people working through something in Jesus’ name – that is what church is really all about.

You know that phrase – where 2 or 3 are gathered there Jesus is.  You hear that one a lot, its pretty well know.  It’s either the phrase we use when only a few people have shown up for a church event.  Or we use it when talking about prayer and worship.  If only 2 or 3 are gathered to pray Jesus is there.

But this morning we have the phrase in context (and this is the only place it occurs in the scripture) is not about prayer or worship – it’s about conflict and disagreement.  Specifically when one member of the church has a conflict with another – feels they’ve been sinned against or wronged. 

So, that tells me something else about what Jesus thought church would be.  He thought it would be a community of people who make mistakes, who hurt one another, who disappoint one another – BUT – just as God does with us – it is a community of people who have been given the grace to work through hurt and anger and disappoint – in a whole, new way.

For example, let’s pretend Jesus is talking to a 21st century Peter – he might say, if another member of the church sins against you in an email – do not reply with an email!  We’ve all been there, right?  We read this epistle in our In box that gives a one-sided, and totally unfair representation of an point of contention.  In the church – I think Jesus wants us to then go and talk it out!

Jesus has this crazy idea that relationships are in person – not on Facebook, or email, or through an opt-in opt-out dialogue box or tweeting or texting what we think and feel and want to say.  Jesus says – go and talk to the brother or sister you have an issue with because – you are a member of the church.  You are a member of a family that gathers in Christ’s name.

Please note, my friends, this instruction of Jesus’ is not to the crowds – this is specific to the people who want to be in a Christian community. I don’t say that to be exclusive – or to suggest we are any better than any other community or religion – but Jesus is saying, this community is to practice Christ-like behaviors when we are together.

You know, right that this is why we have committees?  We’re great with the jokes about committees – how many Episcopalians does it take to change a lightbulb?  1 to start the committee, 1 to suggest a motion, yadda, yadda, yadda.  But really – work done by committee is harder than just having one person do everything (the trap of church is that you know, one person doing everything)  Because in the committee we have to practice working together.

This – worship – this is practice too.  This is how as a community we practice reading the bible, praying the bible, praying for each other and the world, remembering Christ’s life and sacrifice for us, remembering our vows to seek and serve – this each Sunday is practice.  But conflict rarely comes into it because we are following a script!  It’s all spelled out, what we’re supposed to do.

But, when we have to deal with scheduling Sunday school – scheduling readers – making decisions about how we spend our money – how we raise our money – how we maintain the property – how we handle a problem – that’s when we see if we just talk the talk or walk the walk.  Where 2 or 3 are gathered struggling with something difficult in a loving way – that’s where Jesus says he is.

So, here we are again – start of the program year.  And it’s also a week that marks my third year as rector of this church.  And I have to tell you brothers and sisters I continue to be surprised that the people of this church do not know one another.  Very often I mention someone to someone else and they do not know who I’m talking about and I’m shocked because this is someone who attends regularly, who I see often.  And here we are in S’maltimore/Baltimore in a church that is not mega size!  So it seems in this community we need to do some relationship building, some being together in groups of 2 and 3 or more and working out what God wants us to be doing here and now.

I invite you therefore, if you have not participated on a committee or ministry team in this church for the last three years to try it out!  Get involved with some people and strengthen this community because it will not only be good for us as a church – but more importantly – it will be a witness to the beloved community that we are.  For that is what Jesus imagined a church would be – a beloved community of people who know that they too are beloved.  And that what we are called to do in Christ’s name to spread some much needed good news.  Amen.

- The Rev. Arianne R. Weeks

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

When It's Okay to Make Mistakes

Matthew 16:21-28
The Rev. Joshua Rodriguez-Hobbs

Pop quiz time: Do you remember last week’s Gospel lesson?

It’s really important for understanding today’s Gospel lesson, because it’s the first half of the story we’re hearing today. In case you’ve forgotten, or if you weren’t in church last week, let’s refresh everyone’s memories. Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And his disciples reply, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” Then Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter replies, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Jesus shouts, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” And yet, this Sunday, five verses later, Jesus tells Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!” What happens? How do we get from Jesus calling Peter blessed to Jesus calling Peter Satan?

It’s clearly got something to do with what Jesus tells his disciples between the two statements he makes to Peter. From that time on, Matthew tells us, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great sufferings at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed…Peter doesn’t like this. It goes counter to all his expectations about the Messiah. Peter believed that the Messiah was God’s Anointed One, sent by God to restore David’s kingdom on earth. That’s what he means when he calls Jesus the “son of the living God;” it was one of the titles of the kings of Judah, David’s heir. The king of Judah, the Hebrew people believed, was God’s agent on earth, adopted as God’s son on the day he took the throne. When Peter acclaims Jesus as the son of God, that’s what he’s thinking of, not that Jesus is God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one being with the Father. Peter thinks Jesus is supposed to be the king who will defeats the Romans, and that means that he cannot go to Jerusalem to die. Peter is setting his mind on human things, not divine things.

I’m a lot more like Peter than I care to admit. I think that’s why I like Peter so much. He’s always messing up like today, when he goes from blessed to Satan, or a few weeks ago, when he tried to walk on water, but sank. Peter, try as he might to get it right, never seems to actually do anything right. But Peter, poor, misguided Peter, is probably the disciple that best exemplifies the Episcopalian and Anglican view of the spiritual life. Some Christian traditions focus on the fact that we humans are basically good. We’re made in the image of God, and we basically get things right. But that doesn’t seem true for Peter, does it? No matter what Gospel you read, Peter gets things wrong, even though he tries so hard to get them right. Other Christian traditions focus on how sinful and depraved we humans are. They tell us that we are incapable of even wanting to do anything good. But Peter proves them wrong, too. Peter really, really wants to get things right. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be trying nearly as hard as he does. In the middle, you’ve got us Episcopalians, there with Peter. We want to do the right thing, but a lot of times, we fall short, don’t we?

The truth is, I don’t always understand heavenly things. I don’t get this losing my life to find it. I’d much rather just keep it in the first place. But Jesus says that if I do that, I’ll lose it. And this reality that Peter and I share, this fact that we are all so prone to focus on the things we do understand, rather than the ones we don’t, this fact that we want the messiah we expected to arrive on our time table, this reality is at the heart of the way we Anglicans see the Christian life. We want to get things right, but so often we don’t.

If you ever get bored and flip to the back of your Prayer Book, you’ll find a section marked “Historical Documents.” One of these documents is called the “Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion.” They were originally written in Queen Elizabeth’s I reign, set out as a guide to the things that the Church of England believed. And one of these articles (the twenty-first, if you’re worried about that sort of thing) says something really remarkable, something that no one really said before it was written: “When [general counsels of the Church] be gathered together, (forasmuch as they be an assembly of men, whereof all be not governed with the Spirit and Word of God,) they may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God." In 1571, when the bishops of the Church of England wrote this, no one made this claim. Everyone said that the mistakes that you thought other people in the church made were a sign that they weren’t really part of the church. That’s why Luther left the Roman Catholic Church. It’s only in England that you get a group of Christians admitting that the church gets it wrong sometimes. Peter got it wrong, and he had Jesus with him!

This is the heart of Anglican spirituality: we want to get it right, but sometimes we get it wrong. We pair this realistic view of our humanity with a high view of grace. We believe that somehow, in a way that we cannot understand, Jesus Christ shows up at the altar every Sunday, in bread and wine, to give us grace to journey on. Jesus teaches Peter why he’s wrong. He doesn’t just call him Satan and write him off. Jesus doesn’t write us off, either, even when we’re wrong. We, like Peter, are going to vacillate rapidly between the high and low points of our spiritual journey. We, like the counsels of the church, since they are made up of people, are going to get it wrong sometimes, even when we’re talking about God. The good news is that God doesn’t leave us there. God doesn’t abandon us in error. God gives us grace, and grace helps us to continue to journey closer to God, so that mistaken step is never our last. Thanks be to God for that. Amen.