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.