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