Monday, June 23, 2014

Finding by Losing

The Rev. Joshua Rodriguez

Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

What are you willing to lose for Jesus? What are you afraid that Jesus will ask you to give up for his sake?
Those aren’t easy question to answer, are they? Our Gospel reading this morning isn’t an easy one to hear. It brings up disturbing questions, like: Do I love Jesus more than my mother or my father? What am I afraid of? This passage from Matthew’s Gospel is one of those bits of scripture that often gets referred to as a “hard saying of Jesus.” That’s a bit of an understatement, isn’t it? This is really challenging stuff, and I’m willing to bet that it’s not the sort of thing that you were hoping to hear when you came to church this morning. It’s certainly not what I want to hear Jesus say to me. But it is something we need to hear.

This section of Matthew’s Gospel is part of a much longer speech that Jesus gives to the twelve disciples before he sends them out on their own for the first time. Jesus is preparing them to go out to by two to preach that the “Kingdom of Heaven is near.” More specifically, he’s preparing them for their preaching to be rejected. He’s preparing them to be told that his miraculous powers come from the devil. He’s preparing them for death threats. He’s preparing them to be disowned by their families. He’s warning them: things are not going to be easy. And he’s giving them a chance to say, I’m sorry, Jesus, but you’re asking more than I can give. He wants them to know what they’re getting into.
You see, preaching that the Kingdom of God has drawn near often gets people into trouble, because it points out how fragile and transient human kingdoms are by comparison. Preaching the Kingdom of God, where self-sacrificial love is the basis for all authority, points out that human kingdoms are based on the domination of others. Preaching the Kingdom of God calls on people to change, and none of us like change.
These fears of being beaten, slandered, killed, or disowned were all too familiar to the community for which Matthew’s Gospel was written. They were excluded from daily life in their communities. They were shunned by their families. They were beaten and killed by the Roman authorities. The thought of losing their life for Jesus’ sake was a very real possibility.

Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

It’s easy to look around today and think that Jesus’ words don’t also apply to us, not really. We’re not in any real danger of being beaten or killed for our faith. But still, when I read this passage from Matthew’s Gospel, I hear those questions at the back of my mind: What are you willing to lose for Jesus? What are you afraid that Jesus will ask you to give up for his sake? And there’s another one, one very similar to a question those first disciples had to have asked themselves: What injustice is Jesus calling me to confront?

These are still dangerous questions. In Canterbury Cathedral in England, there's a chapel dedicated to the martyrs of our own times. It’s easy to think of martyrs as people who lived long ago, people who the Romans fed to lions, but even today, people find themselves losing their own lives for the sake of Jesus. One of the martyrs honored in that chapel in Canterbury Cathedral is Jonathan Daniels, an Episcopal seminarian who was martyred in Alabama in 1965. Daniels was participating in a Civil Rights protest, and he gave his own life to shield a young, unarmed African American girl from a gunman. Daniels found himself called to confront injustice in the name of Jesus Christ, in whom there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, but in whose kingdom we are all children of one Father.

Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

We’re called to live our lives with our eyes fixed upon Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith. The point isn’t to seek martyrdom, or alienate our parents, as if those things would somehow make us more lovable to God. The point is to call us to walk as Jesus walked. We know where that path ends. Jesus wants us to know that it will be difficult, but God will be with us. God whose eye is on the sparrow also watches over us. We are called to live lives that are not ruled by fear. We are called to call the powers and principalities of this present age to account, proclaiming that in Jesus Christ, the Kingdom of God has drawn near. And, in losing our lives, we find life in Jesus. It’s a paradox. I can’t explain it. But we’ve all experienced it. We experience it in bread and wine that draw us together as one body in Jesus Christ. We experience it in water that proclaims that we are part of God’s family. We experience it in the work of this community, when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and comfort the sorrowful. In all of these things we are reminded that we do not live for ourselves. We live for one another, and for God. And once God leads us beyond concern for ourselves alone, concern for what we will eat or what we will wear, we find true freedom, true life in Jesus Christ. Amen.

Monday, June 9, 2014

God Would Like to Buy the World a Coke

The Rev. Joshua Rodriguez
Acts 2:1-21

I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but there’s a new Coca-Cola commercial. It’s advertising Coke’s new “Friendly Twist” bottle. Coke debuted this bottle at a college in Colombia, and the commercial begins by showing freshmen on the first day of college. They’re sitting by themselves, not talking to each other. You remember how the first day of college was, don’t you? How you’re excited to be there, possibly away from home for the first time, and yet you’re also scared, because you’re so far away from all the people you know. That’s where this new Coke bottle comes in. It’s designed so that it can’t be opened on its own. Each bottle cap has two prongs that fit into another bottle cap. When you put two bottles together, you can twist off both caps. Once the college students figure it out, they are laughing, smiling, talking to one another, and drinking Coke. The commercial ends with the words, “Open a Coke, open a new friendship.” It is genius marketing. I also think it’s a pretty good analogy for Pentecost.

The typical metaphor for Pentecost that get used these days is the “Church’s Birthday.” And that’s not untrue, but our reading from the Acts of the Apostles doesn’t really sound like a birthday party to me. Does it to you? At the very least, it doesn’t sound like a good birthday party. It starts off well enough, with a small group of friends gathered in someone’s home. But then there’s this violent wind, and the next thing you know, all of the apostles and their companions are somehow out in the street in front of a huge crowd. This crowd is so big that we’re told later in chapter two of Acts, after our reading this morning ends, that three thousand people believed Peter’s preaching and were baptized. So there’s no way that it could have fit in someone’s house. But there’s no explanation of how the apostles got out into the street. There’s just the mention of the wind, with the implication that it was so powerful that it literally forced everyone out of the house.

That violent wind, which forced the apostles out of their comfortable home is, I think, the key to understanding Pentecost. There’s this understandable tendency to focus on the tongues of fire. They’re captivating and odd, and, even though it can at times be destructive, there is something comfortable about fire. Fire brings memories of summer camp bonfires, of chestnuts roasting on Christmas Eve, of birthday cakes. But wind, well, wind can’t be contained. Wind is a force beyond our control. “The wind,” Jesus says in John’s Gospel, speaking of the Holy Spirit, “blows where it chooses.” (John 3:8) And that’s certainly true in West Texas, where I’m from. Every once in a while, we’ll get a wind advisory here in Maryland, and I’ll laugh a little to myself, because where I grew up, thirty or forty mile an hour gusts are normal. In West Texas, where there are no trees or hills to stop it, the wind routinely gets up to sixty or seventy miles an hour. I can remember a day where I was driving down a country road with my steering wheel turned almost all the way to the left, because if I didn’t, the wind was blowing so strong from the right that I would have ended up being blown off the road. Wind, when it is powerful, like a West Texas wind or the Wind of Pentecost, is really uncomfortable. It picks up dust and grit that pepper your skin. It can literally force you to go where it is blowing, rather than where you want to go, just like it blew the apostles out of their home.

And that discomfort brings us back to the first day of college, that uncomfortable time before we knew anyone. The genius of the new Coke bottle, the reason why the new commercial is so appealing, is because it forces us to get over the discomfort of meeting new people. It draws us into community. “Open a Coke, open a new friendship.” That is so appealing, isn’t it? And that’s what the Spirit did on Pentecost. It blew the apostles out of their comfort zone, ushering in a new thing in the history of the relationship between God and God’s people. That long list of hard to pronounce nationalities represents that new thing. Before Pentecost, the way to join God’s people was to become an Israelite. It involved a transition of nationality. You had to immigrate. But on Pentecost, as Peter proclaims, God pours the Holy Spirit out upon all people, all nations. The Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs all hear the Gospel, the story of God’s love for them, preached in their own language. They respond, and are baptized, becoming part of God’s family while still retaining their own nationality.

This is a world-changing thing. This is an uncomfortable thing. This is the Spirit ushering in new relationships, new ways of being with each other. And it is really hard for the apostles. The rest of the book of Acts is the story of these first disciples wrestling with the fact that God’s love is for everyone. God’s love is larger than any of our human divisions. God’s love transcends the four walls of this building, this beautiful space in which we gather to worship each week. And, let’s face it, that can be really uncomfortable. It would be so much easier if God’s love stopped at the door sometimes. But it doesn’t.

Pentecost can and should and must make us uncomfortable. God, through the Holy Spirit, is still calling us into new relationships, new ways of being the people of God. It is messy, and hard, and sometimes I need to be pushed out of the door by a violent wind. But thank God, each time the Spirit gives me that push that I need, God welcomes me into a greater, more inclusive way of experiencing God through the people around me. Pentecost, to borrow a phrase from another Coca-Cola ad, is a story that reminds us that God would like to buy the world a Coke. The whole world. And we’re invited to join God in this task, creating new relationships, extending the reach of our love, until the whole world is filled with the knowledge and love of God. Amen.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Grace in the Midst of a Trying Time

The Rev. Joshua Rodriguez

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ's sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you.

At first, it might seem as if these words from 1 Peter have little to do with us gathered here today. They were written to early Christians who were being persecuted by Rome. They were written to people who were practicing an illegal religion, who faced the threat of beating, imprisonment, torture and death. We face no such threats. We are not persecuted. We enjoy a great many privileges because we are Christians in a predominantly Christian nation. We can rest secure in the fact that whenever religion is invoked in public discourse, it will almost certainly be our religion. But, while we may not be persecuted, we do know something about suffering. Perhaps we don’t know as much as others might, but suffering is a universal fact of life. We all suffer.

And, this community has suffered in the past few months. We have had nine funerals at Good Shepherd already this year. That’s almost more funerals than we had during the entirety of last year. And that count doesn’t include the loved ones that members of this community have lost who were buried elsewhere. Our brothers and sisters in this parish are suffering and mourning. I don’t know about you, but I find it hard to take Peter’s advice to rejoice in the midst of suffering.

This past week, I hit a point where I just had to come into the church to pray. Honestly, I thought that perhaps I might be coming in here to yell at God. I need to do that sometimes, and I believe that God is as able to hear my honest anger as my praise. But instead of shouting, as I knelt before the altar, I found myself singing: “Abide with me: fast falls the eventide; the darkness deepens; Lord with me abide: when other helpers fail and comforts flee, help of the helpless, O abide with me.”[1] St. Augustine once said, “Singing is praying twice.” That was true for me last Thursday. Somehow those words expressed a pray I could not find the words to pray. And that prayer was an acting out of Peter’s words from our Epistle: “Cast all your anxiety on [God], because he cares for you.”

God cares for you. That’s an echo of Our Lord’s words from the Sermon on the Mount, isn’t it? “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? . . . Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin,yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.” That is the important thing for us to remember at times like this: we are precious to God. Our suffering matters to God, no matter how little or much we may seem to suffer from some neutral, objective  perspective. It doesn’t matter if our suffering is from grief or from persecution. It is still suffering, and Christ is still suffering with us.

And that, perhaps, is why we should rejoice in suffering. Not because our suffering somehow makes us more pleasing to God, but because our suffering is Christ’s suffering, and Christ’s suffering is our suffering. We never suffer alone. Christ is with us in the midst of grief and pain, and our suffering is with Christ upon the cross. That is why Christ had to go to the hard wood of the cross, not to satisfy a blood-thirsty God, but to destroy the power that suffering and the grave have over us. Christ suffers to set us free from suffering, and Christ still suffers with us.

And we never suffer alone, because we share in the Body of Christ, the Church universal, across all time and space. The sufferings of our sisters and brothers in Christ are our sufferings. And even those of us here this morning who have not lost a loved one recently grieve for and with those who have.

As John Donne so eloquently wrote:
The church is catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does, belongs to all.  When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me; for that child is thereby connected to that head which is my head too, and ingraffed into that body, whereof I am a member.  And when she buries a man, that action concerns me; all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God's hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again, for that library where every book shall lie open to one another…
But we will not suffer forever. One day, with St. Paul, we shall cry: “O Death, where is your victory? Death, where is your sting?” We shall see God face to face, and know that life is changed, not ended, at death. Peter promises us at, after a little while, God will restore, support, strengthen, and establish us. Our brothers and sisters in Christ will help us to bear our burdens, day by day, until we arrive one bright morning on that other shore, our earthly pilgrimage ended. Thank God for them. Thank God for the people of the Church of the Good Shepherd, in whom, in our grief, we see God and know the healing touch of God’s hand. Amen.

[1] Henry Francis Lyte, “Abide with Me.”
[2] Matt 6:26, 28b-29
[3] John Donne, “Devotions upon Emergent Occasions: Meditation XVII”