Sunday, December 27, 2015

Lighten Our Darkness

The First Sunday after Christmas, Year C
The Rev. Joshua Rodriguez-Hobbs

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Over the past few months, our world has slowly grown darker and darker. Night has fallen earlier and earlier each successive night. For the past four weeks, the darkest four weeks of the year, we have lit our Advent wreaths, kindling small sparks of light in the midst of the darkness. Each night for four weeks now, we have engaged in this ritual of human defiance, a way of struggling to exert our mastery over the world around us. And now, the days are slowly growing brighter. The nights are shorter. The light has come!

Of course, we know that our world is not just physically dark. We bore witness to wars and rumors of wars this past year. We bore witness to the violence of terrorists and the Islamic State. We bore witness to Christians martyred around the world. We bore witness to violence in our churches, schools, and streets. It has been a dark year. And we have gathered together what small sparks of light we could to stave off the darkness.

But now, Light has come! Unto us a child is born, God from God, Light from Light, True God from true God, begotten, not made, of one being with the Father. And that Light shines in the midst of our dark world, a world that we know is both literally and metaphorically dark, and we are promised that the darkness will not, cannot, overcome it. God has heard our prayers: Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord; and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night; for the love of thy only Son, our Savior Jesus Christ. God has stooped low and heard our cry. And the Son of God, who was with God from the beginning, from before creation itself, the Son of God has become flesh, born of the Virgin Mary, born in a stable, born a peasant, but a king, born to die. And with his birth, the true Light has come among us, and this Light promises us that the darkness that surrounds us will never overcome it.

Some of you, I am sure, are more familiar with this passage in the lyric translation of the King James Version: And the light shineth in the darkness; and the darkness comprehend it not. That is, at first glance, a very different promise. But the Greek word that John uses in this sentence is one of those words with multiple meanings that are hard to pin down. It can mean “to over power by force,” as the New Revised Standard Version translates it. It can mean “to grasp intellectually,” as the King James translates it. Or, it can mean “to suddenly come upon,” just as night suddenly falls in the winter months. So, for hundreds of years, translators have debated which of these meanings John intended.

Personally, I think that he meant all three. Our dark world will never overpower and snuff out the Light, just as Christ promised us that the Gates of Hell would not overthrow his Church. Our dark world will never fully grasp what God has done for us in Christ Jesus, for it seems inconceivable that our Lord and our Maker should become so powerless, so willing to sacrifice, so willing to die on our behalf. This is a love too deep, too broad, too high for us to grasp. And our dark world will never overshadow this light. It will always burn, just as the sanctuary light above the aumbry always burns, a symbol of the fact that Jesus Christ, the Sun of Righteousness has dawned upon us, and will never set.

The Light of Christ, which comes to us each Christmas, is a beacon in our dark world. William Temple, an English theologian and former Archbishop of Canterbury, compared John’s description of the true Light in this passage to a lighthouse, whose light cuts a clear path through the darkness. This is the Light of Christ, through which we are shown the way to the Father. This is our beacon in our dark world, where things are so uncertain, where our path is so often dim, where it can be difficult to discern the glory of God around us. And this Light will always burn, like a lighthouse’s beam on a dark, storm-tossed sea, guiding us home.

For this is what Christ came to do. Christ became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, Christ was born, lived, and died so that he might, on the hard wood of the cross, bring us all into his saving embrace, reconciling us before God the Father, and giving us the power to become God’s children. Christ is the Light of the World, revealed to us in the words of Scripture, revealed to us in the waters of baptism, revealed to us in bread and wine. Christ is our beacon, our guide upon our earthly pilgrimage. So let us rejoice, for on this holy day, we are assured that God has answered our prayer: Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord; and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this dark world; for the love of thy only Son, our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Angels We Have Heard

Christmas Eve, 2015
The Church of the Good Shepherd, Baltimore
Luke 2:1-14

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.

Terror is not an emotion or state we tend to associate with Christmas Eve, is it?  Joy, hope, gladness, peace – those are far more in line with the spirit of the season.  But – there it is in the story.  Shepherds quaking in their proverbial boots at the sight of the heavenly host.  Can you blame them?  We sing – Angels we have heard on high, singing sweetly through the night – but somehow I doubt there was a sweet, sweet Spirit in that place, on that night.

I imagine it was a whirlwind powerful Spirit, rivaling any Star Wars-like effects.  Angels swirling and breaking through the heavens with a glorious, blinding light so those shaking shepherds could behold that heaven and earth are one – and even night laborers are counted as worthy of the dominion of God.

Angels have an interesting place in the Judeo-Christian tradition.  And they occupy an interesting place in contemporary culture.  We think of guardian angels – watching over us, watching over the people we love.  We think of angels in our midst – maybe in events of a certain synchronicity that are too meaningful to simply be coincidences.  Angels tend to be represented as children – cherub-like with wings and chubby rosy cheeks.  We do this a lot in our religious life.  We take figures and stories – and sweeten them – domesticate them – making their life-altering truth, less terrifying, easier to take in.  We even, for example, do that with the world-altering reality of the birth of God – it’s called a Christmas pageant.

But angels announce the presence of God which, can be, terrifying. Hundreds of years before Jesus, angels appear to Abraham and Sarah to announce unexpected news of a child – and tell them they have to move.  Pick-up and leave everything behind to follow God towards something new.

Angels appear to Jacob in a dream – ascending and descending on what we all know as Jacob’s ladder – and terrifying him into really believing – that no matter where he runs to – God will always be there.  And later – in another dream an angel wrestles him, knocking his hip out of its socket – ouch – before pronouncing God’s blessing.

Angels appear again and again in the stories leading up to tonight’s story.  Angels always appear to people on the run – angels always bring messages that challenges assumptions and upend previously held ideas about God and God’s plan for us and the world.  And when they act as guardians like Michael and Gabriel – angels always protect the weak – the ones whose lives are burdened by kings and governments who derive their power through fear and oppression.

But angels use their divine power to empower others.  Not with force but with messages meant to lift people up – and set people free.

Surely that must be one reason that churches around the world see the biggest attendance over these 24 hours than on any other day of the year.  So many of us long for that message of freedom.  A message of burdens being lifted as hope, joy and peace shine through.  A night to help us let go of fear and worry - since there really is so much, in our world, to be terrified of.

I imagine some of you heard the real-life nativity story that happened this past Thanksgiving.  A custodian, Jose Moran, spent a Tuesday morning setting up the nativity scene in his church – Holy Child of Jesus – in Queens, New York.  After he put up the manger, he went to lunch.  When he came back the manger held a crying baby – swaddled in blue towels – and only weeks old – the umbilical cord still sprouted from his belly.

The custodian – ran to tell the priest – who had only been ordained 5 months – and I’m sure was quite terrified to hear there was a live baby in the manger.  The baby – a boy – was brought to the hospital – and at just 5 lbs – was found to be healthy.

New York – like Maryland – has what’s called the safe haven law.  It allows parents to do something most of us would find hard to understand.  To leave our child in a place we think is safe – a hospital, a firehouse, a church – without being charged with abandonment.  It’s hard for most of us to imagine being in that state of mind – doing something like that, giving up a child in that way.

And yet, a safe haven indeed was found.  Members of the church immediately came forward asking to adopt the baby.  Angels in our midst – who ensured that an infant, a child of God would be loved and cared for.

Tonight’s story tells us something about God that can be really hard for us to fully understand – and take in.  God’s belief in humanity that God’s son would find safe haven with us.

That we – a people overwhelmed and burdened by the challenges in our lives – would make a home in our hearts for love –mercy – forgiveness.  Trusting that we would be that message to others – so that all might know the good news of Emmanuel – God with us.

The angels in the story of Jesus’ birth – don’t appear with Jesus.  The heavens do not open above the manger where the holy family – refugees from their homeland, have found their safe haven.  The angels do not appear to them.

Angels appear to the custodians of that time – shepherds, night-laborers, who are really of no account.  And not only do the angels show them the magnificence of God’s glory in the heavenly realms – but the angels tell them what all of us long to hear – do not be afraid, God is with you.

Do not be afraid - for on this day – joy has come into the world.
All you need to do is go and see – go and find God in your midst.  Go and see what the Lord makes known – among the peoples of the world.

On a night when many of us are blessed to know safe haven – may we count the blessings we have because of the family of our birth.

On a night when we hear the story of Mary and Joseph, forced to flee their homeland while Quirinias was governor of Syria – may we pray for those who are forced to flee that place today – with infants and children in tow.

On a night when we come together to give thanks for the goodness, mercy and loving-kindness born into the world through Christ – may we practice goodness, mercy and loving-kindness in our lives.

May we remember to not be afraid – but to boldly carry the message of God with us - the message of the angels into our hearts and homes – and into our world.  Amen.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

There's Something about Mary

Advent 4, Year C
Luke 1:39-55
The Rev. Joshua Rodriguez-Hobbs

I don’t know if any of you have been watching “Supergirl,” but it’s been one of my favorite new TV shows this year. In the second episode, Kara Danvers, Supergirl’s alter ego, has a confrontation with her boss, media mogul Cat Grant, because Cat has branded the new hero, “Supergirl” instead of “Superwoman.” Grant quips back: “What do you think is so bad about ‘girl’? I’m a girl. And your boss, and powerful, and rich, and hot, and smart. So if you perceive ‘Supergirl’ as anything less than excellent, isn’t the real problem you?” It’s a great speech, but I think I side with Kara Danvers on this. Supergirl sounds so much less powerful than Superwoman. It’s a way of diminishing her, of reminding us that she is less than Superman, who has a new multibillion dollar budget movie coming out, coincidentally, not just a TV show. If I’m right, and we shouldn’t call “Supergirl” a girl, why do we insist on calling Mary one?

We do that a lot. Almost everything I read this week as I prepared for this sermon referred to Mary as a girl. Everything pointed out that she was probably about thirteen or so when the angel Gabriel came to her—something that happens before our reading from Luke begins this morning. And yes, Mary’s reaction to the angel is disbelief, but can you blame her? Moses responded to the burning bush with disbelief, Isaiah and Jeremiah responded to their prophetic calls with disbelief, Gideon asked for multiple signs that God was calling him to be judge over Israel, and yet we never use these men’s disbelief as signs of their youth and naivetĂ©. Mary doesn’t sound like a girl in our reading this morning, which takes places just after the familiar account of the Annunciation.  That shouldn’t surprise us. Mary might have been around thirteen years old, but that made her a woman in her time and place. It’s not a coincidence that that’s the age at which Jewish girls and boys have Bat or Bar Mitzvahs, ceremonies which recognize them as women and men.

The first thing Mary does after Gabriel appears to her is not meek or mild, the usual adjectives we give her. She sets out to visit her cousin Elizabeth in a Judean town in the hill country, a journey of eighty miles that would have taken her at least four days. She makes this journey alone, Luke tells us, confident that God will protect her. That’s not meekness. That’s bravery. When she reaches Elizabeth and Zechariah’s home, she bursts out into song: My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior. We read those words, the words of the Magnificat, together this morning. Did they sound like the words of a meek, helpless girl to you when you read them a few minutes ago? Or did they sound like the words of a mature, confident, politically astute woman?

Mary’s words are a prophecy, and she is willing to accept the prophetic role that God has offered her, partnering with God to remake the world according to God’s vision. Mary declares that God is going to make the world anew, that she stands at a turning point in human history. God is going to scatter the proud and to cast down the powerful. God will lift up the lowly and feed the hungry, but God, Mary tells us, will send the rich away empty. God will remember the promise made to Israel, even though that promise feel so remote and so hard to fulfill.

Two thousand years later, does it seem hard for you to believe those prophetic words? It does for me, sometimes, I’ll be honest. There is so much violence, so much fear in our world. But there was also much violence and much fear in the world when the angel Gabriel came to Mary. There was more violence and more fear when Luke sat down to write his Gospel, because he wrote following a war between Israel and Rome that left the Temple in Jerusalem, the sign of God’s presence on earth, destroyed. Luke wrote following a bitter civil war in Rome in which four men claimed to be Caesar, and three of them were assassinated within months of claiming the Imperial throne.Luke and Mary know that it is like to live in a world that is as violent and as dangerous as our own, and yet they proclaim their trust that God is going to turn the world toward justice.

Martin Luther King, Jr. remarked in 1964,
 “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” This is the vision that Luke and Mary give us today, on this, the Fourth Sunday of Advent, days before Christmas. We live perpetually on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, in that moment between the promise and its fulfillment. We trust and we have faith that God will act, that God will bend the arc of the universe toward justice, that God is bending that arc as we speak. God bent that arc on Christmas and on Easter. We proclaim that God has been victorious over sin and death, over violence and evil and oppression in every form, but we still live with their effects. There is still work to be done. There universe still needs to be bent. And this is a hard place to live. Mary and Luke knew this, too, just as we know this. To again quote Martin Luther King, Jr., this time from his Letter from a Birmingham Jail: “We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.”

This is what Mary does in our reading today. She proclaims that she is a coworker with God through the life growing within her. Mary claims the work that God has given her to do, the way in which she will do her part to bend the universe toward justice. For this reason, one of the traditional titles given to Mary is the Theotokos, a Greek word which means, “God-bearer.” This is not something a girl does. This is the work of a mature, confident, powerful woman. This is the example that Mary gives us, one which all of us, men and women, boys and girls, should strive to meet. Mary shows us what it looks like when we accept God’s call in our lives, when we respond with hope and faith, maturely taking our place in God’s work of salvation.

Doing so will make us God-bearers, too. As the thirteenth century German mystic Meister Eckhart said, “We are all called to be mothers of God—for God is always waiting to be born.” Where is God waiting to be born in Baltimore? Where is God waiting to be born in your life? How are you called to be a God-bearer, partnering with God in bending the universe toward justice? How will Mary become your example in this? Amen.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Fullness of Joy

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.  Philippians 4:4-5

Click the image to listen to an audio recording, or read the transcript below.

Today – gospel reading to the contrary – is Joy Sunday, Gaudete Sunday, pink candle Sunday – the third Sunday in Advent –  the day to remember joy.  Interesting that we have to remember joy, at all.  I mean it’s the Christmas season – isn’t that how we’re supposed to feel all season long?  Or is that maybe why the anxiety and the stress of the season feel stronger than they do at other times of the year – happiness becomes another thing we are “to do” on the list.

In our opening prayer we asked God to stir up God’s power and come among us.  Can you imagine if that actually happened?  What would that look like?  I’ll bet all of us could imagine that happening in the world in big ways – if God stirred up God’s power – there would be no more war – no more hunger – no more injustice.  Children would be cared for – people would be valued.   The evil forces in this world that lead human beings to acts of violence and degradation would be wiped out, conquered.  If God’s power was stirred up and came among us – well – the whole world would be set right.

In some ways – it’s easier for us to imagine God’s power being stirred up on that stage.  But – Advent prepares us for a much more particular truth.  God choose to come among us in a very individual way.  God’s power was stirred up in the form of an infant – a particular person born to a particular family in a particular time and place.  What if God came among you – among me – like that?  What would God’s power being stirred up in your life today mean for you?  Would it bring joy, sadness, both?

If something from today makes me long for God’s presence – it is the words from the prophet Zephaniah.  Sing aloud and rejoice!  There is nothing more joyful than being in a room filled with people who are signing their hearts out is there (Christmas carols are loved for a reason).  Do not fear – this reading reminds us – God has taken away the judgments against you.

Just think of that – we who are so good at judging each other – judging ourselves.  How wonderful it would be if that burden was lifted from our heads and hearts.  It reads – that God will change our shame into praise.  Those things done and left undone.  Maybe things done years ago – maybe things left undone from just last week – God would take all of that.  What are the particular burdens in your life you would bring to God this morning?

The picture the prophet paints is one of hope.  In the Christian faith – hope is a belief in something we cannot see. A belief that all will be renewed – all will be restored – all will be reconciled and brought to fruition in complete wholeness.   All will be well and all will be well.  Hope is what allows us to know joy even in the midst of struggle and sadness.

When I preach at a funeral – sometimes I will point out that – when we lose someone we love – we experience hope in a most profound way.  We find ourselves often laughing and crying at the same time – laughing at the memories of joy a person gave us – while tears stream down our face because our hearts hurt.  Hope is what gives us faith that our hearts will know joy again.  Hope is knowing that God will indeed restore all our fortunes before our eyes – not the fortunes we earn and save – but the fortunes that are priceless, intangible – the fill our hearts with joy.
Paul encourages us to know joy by being kind.  Be gentle – with yourselves – with others.  For that is joy-filled living.  And then he casually adds – don’t worry about anything.  Oh – that’s easy for you to say – St. Paul.  But I don’t think he pens it casually or that it comes easy.

Paul wrote these words from a prison cell.   As Saul he had gone around casting stones and judgments with the best of them.  But after the tears were wiped from his eyes, after he gave his burdens over to God so that he might be renewed.  Paul left condemning people behind.  And through the struggle, the sadness of practicing gospel living – he embraced the joy that comes from building people up. It was the life’s work of that practice – which I imagine in his particular context brought a peace that allowed him to give the anxieties of his particular moment over to God.

I hope you won’t mind if I go from the theology of Paul to a storyline from an animated movie…but I wonder if any of you say Pixar’s movie “Inside Out” last summer?  It’s the story of a girl 11 years old – who has to move – the way kids do, dependent as they are on their parents.  But it’s not so much the story of the move - in that typical format of challenge presented and overcome – it’s the story of what is going on inside her head, and heart.  How her emotions anger, disgust and fear and joy – all fight and struggle to protect her from the emotion they think is the worst of all – sadness.  Joy in particular does everything she can to keep every memory and every moment – free from even a tinge of sorrow.  Because that is what makes everything better right?  If we’re happy all the time then how could we ever be sad – or scared – or angry?

But as joy comes to realize (and it’s a great movie) – there is no joy without sadness.  That’s what I try and honor in my remarks at a funeral – the joy, the love – wouldn’t be as powerful, as meaningful – as joyful – if we didn’t allow ourselves feel the sadness too.  There is full-throated singing more powerful and hopeful - than a room full of people sharing joy and sorrow through the singing of Amazing Grace, is there?

If there is one line from the John the Baptist story that I think connects with today’s theme, it’s not what he says – it’s what the people do.  The crowds – always looking for “the answer” ask John – well what should we do to prepare for this good news?  John answers pretty straightforwardly – share your stuff, be honest in your work and don’t get greedy.  Stirring up God’s power within and amongst ourselves is really that simple at times.  And upon hearing this – the crowds are not filled with hope in their own abilities – instead it says – they are filled with expectations.  Expectations that maybe John is the one they’ve been waiting for – the one who will fix it all.

But expectations are precisely what the people will have to let go of.  Our expectations of others – the writer Anne Lamott says – are resentments waiting to happen.  And these people will be disappointed that John isn’t the Messiah.  And they will be even more disappointed and resentful when Jesus fails at being the Messiah they expected.  Which happens – I know has happened – with each of us in various ways – as our expectations of God in our particular lives are challenged – through the sadness that living brings.

The wisdom of the church is that we really do need to be reminded of joy in this season.  A season where so many expectations are placed on us and everyone else.  A season frought with “if only” – “I wish” and “should haves and could’ve’s”  Because – the good news we prepare for isn’t some store bought Christmas-spirit.  It is the life-saving joy offered to us each of us in our particular circumstances through Christ.  A joy that holds us when we weep – a joy that is never ashamed of who we are – a joy that seeks only to gather us in – renew our spirits in hope – and lead us into the heart of God – which is our true home.  Amen.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Who Controls the Eight Ball?

The Second Sunday in Advent

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,

"The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'"  (Luke 3:1-2)

Click the image to listen to an audio recording of the sermon, or, read the transcript below.

Prepare, prepare, prepare.  Work, work, work

Preparing is something we are very accustomed to, isn’t it?  We prepare our homes when we have guests. Sometimes we prepare meals – like all of you who worked your tails off barely two weeks ago – preparing the feast of expectations also known as Thanksgiving.

We prepare and study for tests and exams.  We prepare and practice for big games and tennis matches.  Individually and with teams we prepare sales pitches and big presentations.   Preparing, generally speaking, is work – heavy-lifting work – for each of us.

Which I’m pretty sure influences how we hear our gospel this morning.  Last week at our Outreach meeting we read this gospel as our opening reflection.  After listening to it a few times - prepare the way, make paths straight, fill all the valleys, make the rough places smooth - we talked about – probably with the agenda of our many outreach projects hovering in the air – oy vey, even with all of us doing our small part – who can do all this?

Benjamin Franklin – progenitor of our classic busy-bee culture – said – by failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.

In the 15th year of reign of Emperor Tiberius – do you think they thought the same?  Is John the Baptist telling us if we fail to prepare we will fail – at Christmas?  God with us is dependent on our preparations?

I would suggest not all preparation is of the same type.  Sure there are times – at home – at school – at work – when we have to prepare for something.  But there is another type of preparation that is equally important and perhaps more valuable.  It’s a preparation we invite.  Not in order to achieve something but to orient ourselves towards living into something.  Living in the fullness of time – living as though we really have seen the salvation that has already come.

The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams has a beautiful book called “Where God Happens.”  It is an introduction and exploration of the wisdom of the desert mothers and fathers.  Very early on in the Christian movement there were people who thought if they left behind all the work of preparing they would be found by God.  And so following the example of prophets like John the Baptist and Jesus – they went into the desert.  To be alone to prepare to meet Christ.

And alone they lived in little caves – and surprise – they took preparing with them.  They wanted “to do” all the time.  Their writings reveal that the hardest part about being in the cave was being in the cave.  They wanted to keep preparing, keep doing. 

Remember the story of Martha and Mary?  They invite Jesus over – and Mary sits at his feet.  Martha on the other hand – is busy preparing – and asks Jesus to tell her sister to come and help her.  But Jesus says why would I do that? I’m here – can’t you stop – and enjoy it?

Williams’ writes that the wisdom of desert spirituality asks us to question - do we believe our religion is about the fullness of life or about controlling our lives?   Is religion what imbues us with the authority to impose our judgements and expectations on ourselves and everyone else?   Is God segregated into the portion of our life we call religious?  Or are we in a process of integration?  Are we using the eyes of faith to see all the ways in which God’s hand is at work shaping us – in every sphere, every relationship, every moment?

If you go back and read that excerpt from Malachi - it seems that the busyness of preparing doesn’t have much to do with us, it’s all God’s work.  Will we open ourselves to the refiner’s fire – subject ourselves to be scrubbed with that purifying soap?  Neither of which sound very pleasant to me, by the way, but that isn’t surprising.  It’s called growing pains for a reason.  Growing our awareness of what Williams calls “the peaceful worthwhileness” of myself and everyone else.  The awareness that being in and of itself is worthy, can be the refining work of a lifetime.

The way St. Paul writes this – is easier to take in – I am confident that the good work begun in you by God will be brought to completion.  Again – God is the one at work. Our part is being receptive, open. And probably doing some pruning – looking at our lives to ask – what is bringing me fullness? What self-imposed busyness keeps me from it?

In our culture –  we seem to wear our busyness is like a badge of honor.  Oh – its so busy – I’m so busy – this time of year is so busy.  Ok.  I know.  But – really – do you think it is an objective truth that this time of year is busier than any other?  And if so, what makes it so busy?  Who makes it so busy?  Don’t we, in large part, create the world we inhabit?

At the moment I was typing that very sentence while eating lunch at a cafĂ© this week – a woman walking by my table said in utter exasperation to her friend – no matter what I do – I am always behind the 8-ball.  Who puts the 8-ball there in the first place?

The perfect Christmas for God – King of King and Lord of Lord – Almighty God – was a birth among refugees – people who had no time to prepare but were on the move.  People who were barely adults – who had no time to prepare a bed, let alone a home – but had to walk into unknown territory, trusting there would be people who would help them.

God prepared the perfect Christmas by silencing the father of John the Baptist – Zechariah – for 9 months. Perhaps the busyness of his religious life (he was a priest), needed to be stopped so that God could complete the good work God had begun.  

And then John the Baptist prepared by going alone into the desert to do….(shrug shoulders) – perhaps simply to live with God, within God – until in the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was Governor and Herod was King – and I’m sure it was a very, very busy time for all who were alive – John the Baptist declared the time had come for forgiveness and love to be incarnate in the world.  If people would simply take a moment and stop – and allow that truth to wash over them with water.  God was about to be and bring fullness of life – fully prepared for us.

Because, in the fifteenth year of the twenty-first century, when Barack Obama was President of the United States, and Larry Hogan was governor of Maryland, and Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was mayor of Baltimore, and Michael Curry was presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, the word of the Lord will come to Ruxton, Towson, Riderwood, Stoneleigh, Sparks, Perry Hall and Baltimore – whether we believe we are prepared or not.  You and I don’t make Christmas happen – God does.  

And a most priceless gift we can give ourselves is to allow a way in our busy lives for the tender compassion of our God to break upon us – to shine in our darkness – and guide our feet into the way of peace.  Amen.

The Rev. Arianne R. Weeks (12/6/15)

Monday, November 30, 2015

Waiting is the Hardest Part

Advent 1, Year C
Luke 21:25-36
The Rev. Joshua Rodriguez-Hobbs

The days are surely coming, says the Lord…
Jesus said, “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of heaven and earth will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud; with power and great glory.”

Welcome to the first Sunday of Advent. Is this what you were expecting? I’m going to go out on a limb and guess probably not. It’s Advent. Aren’t we supposed to be getting ready for Christmas, getting ready for Christmas pageants and “Away in a manger”? Why are our readings this morning talking about the signs of the end, rather than “Comfort, comfort ye my people”? This isn’t what we were expecting, is it?

In Advent, we prepare for Christ’s arrival. That’s what Advent means, “arrival.” It’s easier to think about this in terms of the first arrival, the one we remember each year at Christmas. But Advent is also about waiting for another arrival: Christ’s Second Coming. You know, that thing we Episcopalians tend to ignore, except for that line we recite in the Nicene Creed: “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.”

We don’t really talk about that, do we? Sure, it’s there in the Prayer Book, but it’s one of those things we’re too polite to talk about. I think it’s safe to say that most of us take the same view as the late, great pitcher for the Kansas City Royals, Dan Quisenberry, who quipped: “The future is much like the present, only longer.” But the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when that will change. How does that make you feel? Excited? Uncomfortable? Scared? All of the above?

The real problem, if you ask me, is how do you know when your redemption is drawing near? It’s much harder to read the signs of the times than Jesus makes it sound. Just think about all of the times that people have predicted the Second Coming and gotten the math wrong. That’s not just a recent problem, either. Paul had to write to the church he founded in Thessaloniki to convince them that the end might be a little less immanent than they had been lead to believe. They’d all quit their jobs, because they were sure that Jesus was coming soon. The rest of the people who were sure they’d found the signs in the sun and the moon and  the stars don’t have such a good track record, either. It’s all a bit like the movie Clue. Bear with me, I’m going somewhere. When you get to the end of the movie, once you find out who killed Mr. Body, and you’re expecting to see the credits roll, instead there’s a sign that says “That’s the way it could have happened. But what about this?” And then there’s another way that the case could have been solved, using all the same clues. And another. And another. The problem is that, even though the days are surely coming, you can put the signs of the times together many different ways. That makes it hard to raise up your head, since it’s not at all that clear that your redemption is drawing near, is it?

The days are surely coming, but what do we do in the meantime? We wait. That’s what Advent is about. We wait for Christ to arrive. Waiting is hard, but the days are surely coming. This isn’t “Waiting for Godot.” Jesus is going to come. We have a promise, and heaven and earth will pass away before Jesus’ words, Jesus’ promises, pass away. So our souls wait upon the Lord, more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning.

There’s waiting, and there’s waiting, however. Advent waiting isn’t passive waiting. We’re not in a line somewhere, with nothing to do until the clerk calls our number. Advent waiting is active waiting. We’re called to work while it is day, to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. We’re supposed to watch for the signs of the times, but not to become consumed by searching for them. It’s important to look for our redemption drawing near, but we shouldn’t look so hard for the Day of the Lord that we miss the reminders of our redemption that come when we seek and serve Christ in all persons. We’re better at this than we give ourselves credit for. We may not talk about the Second Coming, but we roll up our sleeves and bake casseroles to feed the hungry at Our Daily Bread, we collect clothing for those who need it at the Seafarer’s Center, we comfort the sick through Project Linus, we build houses with Habitat for Humanity, we are collecting gifts for the Christmas Cafe at St. Luke’s. We are practicing living and loving as Jesus lived and loved while we wait. That is infinitely better than being so concerned with the Second Coming and the life to come that we miss living the life that is already here.

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, but there is much to do in the meantime. That is what Advent waiting is all about.


Monday, November 23, 2015

Not a King Like That

The Last Sunday after Pentecost
2 Samuel 23:1-7
The Rev. Joshua Rodriguez-Hobbs

Last week, we heard the story of Hannah and how she gave birth to her son, Samuel, the last of the judges who ruled over Israel before the establishment of the monarchy. This week, we are hearing the last words of David, the great king, the man God chose to make an eternal covenant with, that a king from David’s line would always sit on Israel’s throne. Of course, there’s a lot that occurs between those two stories. There’s story of how the Israelites rejected Samuel’s leadership and called for a king. There’s the story of how Samuel chose Saul to be Israel’s first king because he literally stood head and shoulders above his fellow Israelites.  There’s the story of how Saul disobeyed God, and how David was anointed king in Saul’s place. There are the many, many stories of David. And those stories make these last words sound like the spin of a seasoned politician.

The God of Israel has spoken, the Rock of Israel has said to me: One who rules over people justly, ruling in the fear of God, is like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land. Is not my house like this with God? For he has made with me an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things and secure. Will he not cause to prosper all my help and my desire?

The stories that the lectionary skips call David’s words here into question. We tend not to remember them. We remember the good ones, David and Goliath, David and Jonathan, how David spared Saul’s grandson after Saul’s death. We usually remember the story of David and Bathsheba and Uriah. We usually tell it as a tragedy, when we tell it at all, how David was tempted and gave in to temptation. It might be better to tell it this way: how a powerful king took what he wanted without thought for consequences, how David saw Bathsheba as a thing to possess, and not as a person, how David saw Uriah as an obstacle to be overcome, and not a person. That’s how the prophet Nathan tells it, when he confronts David about it. But the story of David and Bathsheba is not the darkest story about David. Just before these last words, we read the story of David’s daughter, Tamar, whose story we rarely tell. Tamar is beautiful, and her half-brother Amnon, David’s heir, desires her. So he takes her, just as their father took Bathsheba. No one does anything about the rape. David looks the other way. Amnon goes unpunished. So Absalom, Tamar’s brother, takes matters into his own hands. Absalom kills Amnon, and he declares himself king. David is forced to leave Jerusalem and wage war against his son. To maintain his own rule, David has Absalom killed. He weeps for Absalom, as he never wept for Tamar. And this man claims to rule over the people justly.

The idea of God’s eternal covenant with David stands in tension within the Bible. After the Babylonians destroyed the Davidic monarchy, the people of Judah had to find a new way to make sense of their relationship with God. The Hebrew Bible is ambivalent about David. For every good thing it says about him, it also says something negative. David is the man after God’s own heart, who ruled Israel wisely, but who simultaneously could not rule his own family. Christians have tended to be more positive about David, because we have interpreted God’s promise of an eternal kingship as a prophecy about Jesus. So we’ve read David’s story selectively, ignoring the less savory portions.

But David’s last words, which we heard this morning, remind us that even this great king was also a petty politician, a mixture of saint and sinner, just as all of us are. David provides us with one lens through which to understand what it means to proclaim that Jesus is king, but that lens is as much a contrast as it is anything else. Christ is the King of David’s line, but he is not a king like David. Christ came not to be served, but to serve, and this makes all the difference. In Christ’s story we do not see the power politics which are so troubling in David’s. Christ is a king, but not a king like David.

You see, in the end, David presents us with a model of kingship with which we are familiar. It is still the same way that our leaders maintain power today: through spin, through innuendo, through the raw exercise of power. We may not use the title “king,” but David’s story is continually played out in our government, at every level, regardless of whether Republicans or Democrats are in the majority. Jesus gives us a different story, a story in which a king is born in a manger, not a palace. Jesus’ story is one where the newborn king is a refugee,  powerless and vulnerable, forced to flee to Egypt to escape Herod’s murderous wrath. Jesus’ story is a story of a kingdom where there is more than enough for everyone, where somehow, five loaves and two small fish feed thousands, a story where the other cheek is turned, instead of repaying evil for evil.

Jesus’ story is the story of the Kingdom of God, a story in which we are a part. Jesus’ story calls us to live by faith, not by fear. There are so many reasons to be afraid, it’s true. But David’s story goes wrong because David allows himself to be ruled by fear: the fear of losing power, the fear of not founding a dynasty, the fear of not having enough. Jesus invites us to live differently, to put our trust in God’s abundance, even when we are surrounded by the world’s scarcity.

Next Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent, when we will begin our preparations for this King, this Refugee, to be born once again in our hearts. May we who follow the Prince of Peace learn to trust in his love, which casts out all our fears. Amen.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Pouring More Than a Portion

As Hannah continued praying before the LORD, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk. So Eli said to her, "How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine." But Hannah answered, "No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the LORD. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time." Then Eli answered, "Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him." And she said, "Let your servant find favor in your sight." Then the woman went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer. (1 Samuel: 12-18)

We come to a church to stand, sit, kneel before God. We come before our altar possibly to switch from one level of thinking – to a deeper awareness.  We hear about attacks in our world every day.  For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom – Jesus says.  There are wars and rumors of wars all the time.

I want to take a moment and open our hearts towards the people of Paris – people who are scared and in shock because something so horrible happened.  The people who are in shock and overwhelming grief because someone they loved have died.  I want us along with God to remember them in our hearts.

It is a witness to our faith – to come together and lift up as much love and compassion as we possibly can in prayer to the one who holds it all in the palm of holy hands.

All of our stories and lessons this morning – are around church – which is pretty unique.  People bringing stuff before God.  The disciples have just left church and are carrying around something they have a hard time giving up – anxiety.  When, when, when – they want to know.  Answers, answers, answers – they want to know.

Jesus shrugs and tries as usual to reorient their thinking.  Don’t focus on the illusion of security within the walls of these giant buildings – these huge institutions.  He goes on to say – it’s what’s inside you that matters – it’s your actions and your speech that matters.  Trust that God is with you in that.

We walk by faith and not by sight.  Jesus tries to get the disciples to see that – to see beyond what is finite to what is infinite.  That’s hard – which is why it’s a practice.

And then we have this rich story from the book of Samuel.  It kicks off what is going to be this phenomenal narrative around the time of Kings in Israel – the stories of Samuel, Saul and David. But there’d be no boys – without the girls.  Hannah starts it all.  And it gets started because she brings all of her – into the church to be before God.

I can only imagine that she has given up – she is at the end of her rope.  She is tired of being humiliated by her husband’s other wife, Penninah.  Tired of feeling less than in front of her and everyone else.

On one level this is something woman in the 21st century can still relate to.  While procreation is not the sole way in which we define our worthiness as women – when you want a baby and you can’t have one – you think, what is wrong with me?  And in Hannah’s time – she certainly had a double portion of that because it was the primary way you had any value as a wife.

And while her husband may think that giving Hannah a double portion of the sacrifice (whatever that means by the way) is going to make her feel better – it doesn’t.  How could it?  He can’t fix her problem – and she isn’t asking him to.  Hannah stands there weeping – not eating – and her husband’s response is – aren’t I enough for you?

I want the text to say – Hannah gazes and Elkanah and says – this isn’t about you, honey.  Can you just empathize with my sadness?

So – Hannah has given up.  And she gives all of her to God at the altar.  The anger, the sorrow, the frustration, the disappointment – all of it.  You know, it many ways Hannah is a lot like Job.  Job was surrounded by people who couldn’t bear his suffering along with him – and so he hurled it at God.

Hannah is in the same boat – God is the only one she can pour her heart out to.

So she does – but Eli, the priest who sees her – he thinks she’s simply been pouring one glass of wine too many!

You know – there are two stories in the bible where people who are praying are mistaken for being drunk – Hannah in this story – and what’s the other?  Pentecost – remember the whoosh! of the Holy Spirit comes into the room and people let it all hang out – speaking in tongues and filled with the spirt – and someone says – its 9 o’clock in the morning and these people are already drunk!

What would that be like for you and me?  To pray in our joy and in our sorrow where we really pour it all out?  I’ll bet it would make most of us very uncomfortable.  Which is why someone makes a snide judgmental comment in the upper room – and I’m sure – why Eli goes over and tells Hannah to stop making a spectacle of herself.

Hannah isn’t embarrassed though – how could she be, she’s given up.  No – that’s not it – please pray with me that the Lord will remember me.  Please pray that God will remember – who I’ve been, who I could be – who I am created to be.

I wonder if Hannah’s authenticity embarrassed Eli – or – if he still just wanted her out of his church – which is why he says quickly – Go, your petition is granted.  It doesn’t matter because it isn’t Eli’s doing that Hannah has a son – it’s God’s.  The Lord remembers her.

There is something slightly vexing to me that Hannah’s prayers are answered – is that weird for me to say that?  It’s just that sometimes it seems like we read this holy text where all the people get their prayers answered – and where does that leave us?  Since Friday – there are so many people crying out for the Lord to remember them – how will God answer their prayers?  I don’t know.

But that’s not the only way to take in the story.  We can allow it to reorient our vision.  Hannah gets her son – Samuel is born – but then what does she do?  She gives him up.  The one thing she wanted more than anything in the whole, whole, world – she gives him up.  She gives him back, perhaps?

It’s like that parable in Matthew – where Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like a man who finds a pearl of great price and sells everything he has for the pearl.  But that doesn’t make any sense – what do you do with a pearl?  Jesus is trying to get us to see – it’s not the “what” that has value – it’s a way of living, a way of being in the world – where we give all that we love to God.

It’s not just the sadness and heartache we pour out to God – we pour out the joy and the love and that which brings us our greatest happiness.  We freely give that up – or give that back to God because we know that God is the source of all of it.

Hannah brings her whole heart and gives her whole heart to God.  How much of your heart will you give to God this morning – a portion?  A double portion?  Or the whole thing?

That is what we practice – growing our hearts ever wider (love has no measure) – by remembering the hearts of people we’ve never known from ages ago – along with the hearts of people who are far off and those who are near. Hearts that are breaking in grief – and hearts that are bursting with joy for what life has brought on this particular day.  God asks us to remember too.

Remember that we are God’s field, God’s building (1 Cor).  Remember the heart and body that was broken for us.  As we ask God to remember us in our prayers –may we bring our whole selves to God.

May we give our whole selves as gifts to one another – reorienting visions and opening hearts to God’s infinite love – pouring out - here and now.  Amen.

The Rev. Arianne R. Weeks
Proper 28 Year B

Monday, November 9, 2015

Our Whole Lives

Proper 27 B
Mark 12:38-44
The Rev. Joshua Rodriguez-Hobbs

Raise your hand if you’ve ever heard a sermon on this morning’s Gospel reading about how we should be like the unnamed widow and give sacrificially to the church. Raise your hand if you want to hear a sermon like that this morning. That’s what I thought.

That’s the tried and true interpretation of this story. It sounds perfectly straightforward. The widow gives, and Jesus holds her up as an example of true faith, a foil to those hypocritical scribes he’s just talked about. Except that he doesn’t. Jesus never says that this woman should serve as an example to us. He says nothing about imitating her. We add that to this story, because we have heard so many times that this is what it is about, so it must be in there. All Jesus says is this: Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything that she had, all that she had to live on. Jesus is simply stating the facts. It’s up to us to draw our own conclusions from them.

There’s plenty of evidence in Mark that the conclusion we draw from this story shouldn’t be to imitate this widow. Earlier, Jesus condemned the practice of giving money that should have gone to support a person’s parents to the Temple instead. Our Gospel reading this morning began by denouncing the scribes, the experts in the Law of Moses, for devouring widow’s houses. Immediately after the story of the widow and her two small coins, Jesus tells his disciples that the Temple will be destroyed, and one stone will not be left upon another. When we look at this story in context, the obvious conclusion is that this story is an example of how the scribes devour widow’s houses. This is not a story about how we should give. Though it may be counter-intuitive, maybe that’s why we need to hear it now, in the middle of our God the Giver stewardship campaign.

When we make this story about stewardship, we’re missing the point. We package it up nicely, tie a bow on top, and make it a moral lesson to put into practice in our lives.We assume that, however much we give, we’re being more generous than our neighbors. After all, we can say, I pledge, I give. In psychology, this is known as the Lake Woebegone effect. It turns out that every parent thinks their children are above average. In study after study, people have rated themselves as more generous, more attractive, more kind than they actually are. This story can play right into that, if we let it. Or it can point us toward the less palatable truth of the Gospel.

The widow in our story gives her whole life. That’s what the Greek literally says, not the softer version we heard today, “all that she had to live on.” There are only two people whom Mark says gave their whole lives: this widow and Jesus. At this point in Mark’s story, Jesus’ passion is about to begin. Jesus is about to give his life, just like this woman does. We talk about how this woman gives sacrificially, but she is literally giving herself as a sacrifice.

Is that how you think of your life? As something that should, in its entirety, be given to God? I’m not talking about proportional giving, here. This isn’t about the tithe as a biblical standard of giving. This is much harder and more difficult. Even in stewardship season, when your pledge card is sitting at home on the kitchen table, it might be easier to hear the traditional interpretation of this story as a challenge to give more. Because in stewardship campaigns, you’re only asked to give a little bit more. But the Gospel asks us to give everything.

St. Paul says in his Letter to the Romans, I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. The unnamed widow in our story this morning makes the same appeal to us. So does Jesus. God is not interested in a percentage of your income; God is interested in you, all of you. It’s easy to preach the Gospel when it’s about abundant life, when it’s about receiving grace and forgiveness and acceptance. But the Gospel is also about picking up our own crosses and following Jesus. Not ten percent of the time or even twenty, but every day, offering our selves, our souls and bodies, upon the altar, just as we offer bread and wine each week.

Part of that is making a pledge of your time, talent, and treasure, but there is so much more. Michael Curry, our new Presiding Bishop, has called for a new “Jesus Movement” in the Episcopal Church. Bishop Curry believes that God is calling us to be crazy Christians, holding nothing back. It’s scary, I know. But he’s right. This is what God is calling us to do.

The widow’s sacrifice is an example for us, if not the one we thought. This unnamed, unknown widow shows us how to follow Jesus. We’re called to sacrifice ourselves, so that Jesus can make us sacred. That’s what sacrifice means: to make sacred. We’re called to risk much, follow Jesus, carrying our own crosses. The paradox is, of course, that we will find ourselves in losing ourselves. We will find our deepest pleasure in meeting the world’s greatest need when we cease chasing our own happiness alone. For it is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life.


Monday, November 2, 2015

Saints Who Shine

"See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away." (Revelation 21:4ff)

Who doesn’t love that passage from Revelation?  A book usually known for its crazy tales of horseman sounding their trumpets – and even crazier interpretations that lead to some claiming that this book contains all the divine secrets for knowing when it will come to an end – the Rapture, as it is more commonly known.  As if the creation that God calls good – the creation that God breathes into existence – God would wipe away in fiery destruction.  As if the God – who gave his only son so that all might be forgiven and know eternal life – would smite all of us – or some of us – in some very unloving way.

That’s not what this revelation reveals.  You see – the home of God is among mortals.  God wants to dwell with us – right here – right now.  The Revelation to St. John the Divine when taken in its entirety – when heard as the dream it was intended to be – as opposed to being heard akin to a literal movie treatment – is a vision of the life God is calling us to see now.

Can we see a new heaven – and a new earth?  One where we know that God is with us – because we are caring for one another – really caring for one another – so there is no more mourning or crying or pain?  That sounds crazy – I know.  A crazy dream – that is too much for us to live into reality.

But is it possible that there are glimpses?  Glimpses of God with us – with you – in your life today?

Many of you know the famous trivia question – what’s the shortest phrase in the bible?  The answer is – Jesus wept.  That’s from the King James Version of this morning’s gospel – which is no longer one in standard usage.  But there is another great phrase from this story – which is even better – and I’m sure known to some of you.

When Jesus says to Martha “Take ye away the stone – Martha saith unto him – Lord, by this time surely he stinketh!” (11:39)  What an accurate rendering of what is going on for Mary and Martha – and Lazarus.  This whole situation stinks!  Their brother is dead – the guy who could’ve saved him took his time getting back there – you may remember he doesn’t rush to Bethany when he hears that Lazarus has fallen asleep.  And now everyone is upset – including Jesus himself – yes indeed – there is no better theological assessment of this situation – it just plain stinks.

Maybe that is what keeps us from seeing glimpses of God sometimes, you know?   Everything isn’t always coming up roses.  Sometimes there is no one wiping away our tears – or bearing our burdens – and we feel stuck in a dark place – wishing it would all pass away.

Today is one of the holiest days in our church year.  The Feast of All Saints.  The day we name the saints in our own lives – those who have passed away – who have gone before us – and maybe they led what we would call saintly lives.  Maybe they were examples of virtuous and godly living – but – since they were human – they probably weren’t always virtuous or godly.  But that doesn’t matter – because even if they were – even if we are – we can’t earn our holiness.

We – you and I – and all who have gone before – we are saints because that’s what God calls us.  God at our baptism – claims us as holy ones.  As Thomas Merton famously said after an epiphany on a street corner in Kentucky….

“If only [people] could all see themselves as they really are.  If only we could see each other that way all the time.  But it cannot be explained.  There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.” (New Seeds of Contemplation)

You know who we don’t get to hear from in this story?  Lazarus – which I think kinda stinks.  I mean, what if he didn’t want to come back?  Because he had seen more than a glimpse of God?  Surely you and I have heard the same stories from people who claim near death experiences.  A common theme is that they feel pulled, dragged, almost against their will – back into this life.  What if Lazarus came out of that cave – and was like – “hey – what did you have to do that for?  I saw my parents and my friends – all those who had gone before – and there was no pain, or crying – or death – just shining brighter than the sun and it was most complete feeling of wholeness I have ever, ever known.”

But the home of God is with us.  God needs us to get the message out – here and now.  Through you and me and people like Lazarus – God helps us see the way things could be.  A world where people aren’t afraid to go into the dark places, the hard places – the places that sometimes stink – and work together to help set people free.  Notice that about the story.  Jesus calls Lazarus out – but he turns to Mary and Marth and everyone standing there and says – “Unbind him and let him go.”

Jesus makes a way – but then looks at you and me and all the saints and says – get in there and help me – lend your hands to uncover the good – release what binds people up.  Use your hands to wipe away the tears and take away the pains.  For God makes his dwelling among mortals – so that our hands – in all the holy ways you and I can – will call forth a new heaven and a new earth – here and now.

On this day when we give thanks for the eternal life made known to us in Christ – may we give forth our thanks by living – and seeing – and being – the holy people God has created us to be.  May we spend at least some time today – walking around saints that we are – shining -  like the sun.  Amen

With thanks to the Working Preacher Podcast for All Saints, 2015 (
- The Rev. Arianne R. Weeks

Monday, October 26, 2015

To See with the Eye of the Heart

Then Job answered the LORD:  "I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted...I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. (Job 42:1)

While I don’t feel like it’s the “right” answer, whenever I’m asked – what is your favorite book in the Bible – the first one that pops into my head is the Book of Job.

Do you know someone in your life who is going through something – or has just had something happen – and you think – that’s not fair?  Why would that happen to someone like this?  Or – you, yourself?  Are you in a period of your life where you think – why is this happening?  This is not what I expected?  This does not seem fair?  Why God is this happening to me?

If that resonates with you then I would encourage you to spend this week reading or rereading the book of Job  It’s not a long book – you could read a couple chapters each morning or night and be done in a few days.  And it’s easy to follow – it written like a play – and not too many characters – God, Satan, Job – his wife – and three friends.

And it’s an exploration of a question – all of us will ask multiple times in the course of our lives – why, God, why?  And since we just heard the end of the book – an ending which might have sounded tacked on and trite – like a fairy tale – I thought we’d explore Job – which is a book of questions.  Questions that prompt God to say open your eyes – to new ways of seeing.  Risk seeing with the eyes of faith.

You know that Christmas carol – Do you see what I see?  That starts to play in my head when I get to the part of the book where God answers Job – because that’s how God answers Job – by listing – and it’s a very long list – all the things God sees – that Job doesn’t. "Do you see what I see - NO!" Who could see what God sees? Things like –
Do you know the expanse of the earth?
Where is the dwelling of light?  How about darkness?
Has the rain a father – who has begotten the drops of dew?
Who has wisdom to number the clouds – or can tilt the waterskins of the heavens?

And for many years – I used to hear that list as if God was yelling at Job.  Poor Job – who had simply demanded God hear his prayers.  Job – who isn’t at all patient, I don’t know he has that nickname – demanding to understand why – when he was such a good person, faithful and law-abiding – why everything his family, his fortune, his honor, his health – was brutally taken from him?  Why, God, why?

You’ll remember he first asks his wife – who says, just curse God and die.  That’s one way people respond to tragedy.  Holding on to anger can feel safer, make us feel righteous and in control.  It can feel safer than falling into the hurt.

Then he asks his friends – which is the bulk of the book.  And at first they support Job – they come to weep with him, to comfort him.  But the tragedy doesn’t go away – so they start to try and make sense of it.  Then they try and fix it – but they can’t do either.  And because they can’t fix it or solve it – they find fault.  And ultimately – they blame Job. It must be his fault – certainly he did something to deserve what happened.

That’s another way people sometimes respond to tragedy – look for someone to blame.  Our section this morning skips over God’s response to Job’s friends.  God says to them – you have not spoken what is right – but Job did.

Job protests.  His friends rationalize.
Job prays.  His friends blame.
Job weeps.  His friends argue.

Job stays in relationships with God the whole time – even though he is angry.  And God tells Job to pray for his friends.  And we can wonder if Job’s prayer might have begun – Father, forgive them…

I think that’s something really helpful for us about Job.  The whole book is a prayer – and it isn’t that his prayers aren’t answered – God responds.  It’s just not the response he wanted – or expected.

When God responds with that long list of all the wonders of the world – it’s like a soliloquy of God’s awesomeness.  And as I said I’d always heard it in my head with this tone of – Who do you think you are, Job?  I made EVERYTHING – so just who do you think you are demanding to talk to me?  And used to think – that’s why Job recants in dust and ashes – because he realizes how insignificant he is.

But – a few weeks ago – I heard another take that made a lot more sense to me.  Do you all know Margaret Meade – the famous anthropologist?  I heard an interview with her daughter – Mary Catherine Bateson – and she talked about how her mother and father loved the Book of Job – because you know as anthropologists – nature, creation was God’s answer.

But her take was different – “I think the point about the Book of Job is that Job is a virtuous member of an institution. He’s respectable, he obeys all the rules, he’s complacent, he goes through the appropriate rituals that were required in his community at that time. But he’s lost his sense of wonder. And then God says, “Look. Just look. Realize how beautiful it is. How complicated it is.” *

And I wonder if God whispers his response in Job’s heart – You are a part of this awesomeness Job – you are woven into it.

The poem “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver – concludes with this –
"Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, / the world offers itself to your imagination, / calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting— / over and over announcing your place / in the family of things."

God isn’t lording his majesty over Job - God is curing his blindness.  As Paul says – I pray that you may see with the eyes of your heart enlightened.  God is opening Job’s eyes to his place in the family of things.  Opening his eyes to the wonder and beauty – and awesomeness taking place in every moment.

When we open our eyes to the wonder of things – we are far more likely to be able to empathize with another person, especially when they are struggling with an event that doesn’t make sense.  When we open our eyes I think we are far more likely to see something in our own lives that we can be grateful for.

What’s really amazing – the incredible faith Job models – is that he wants to take his place in the family of things again.  I don’t think it’s a fairy tale ending.  His family was destroyed – children were lost.  Do we think that God simply replaces Job’s children?  Or – that Job chooses life?  Chooses to live again – to love again?  And he loves lavishly.  It reads he gives an inheritance to his daughters – that didn’t happen then.  But maybe that’s part of the gratitude?  Living and loving with more freedom.  There is something that can happens when we move through loss.  We can’t replace what is gone – but we can choose to live more fully with what we are given.**

All our readings this morning are God speaking to us on this day, at this particular moment in our lives.  All of the “lessons” are encouragements to us to see God on this day, at this particular moment in our lives.  Our as our psalmist prays –

Look upon God and be radiant – taste and see that God is good. Open your hearts friends, that your pain and loneliness be turned to Love; and then we shall rejoice in the Beloved together.+   Amen.

  * From interview On Being (
  ** Inspired by…
  + Psalms for Praying: An Invitation to Wholeness Nan C. Merrill

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Calling All Servants

Proper 24 B
Mark 10:35-45
The Rev. Joshua Rodriguez-Hobbs

“I want to just tell you one thing.” I hear these words frequently in our preschool chapel services on Tuesdays. It’s never just one thing. It’s usually three or four, and none of them really make sense. For some reason, I can’t seem to convince the three and four year olds that we’re on a tight schedule. I’ve gotten pretty good, over the years, at deflecting their attention from whatever it is they want to tell me—and that, for the record, is something they don’t teach you in seminary.

I bring this up because I wonder if Jesus felt like this when James and John came up and asked him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Whatever comes after this, you already know that it can’t be good. I can’t imagine Jesus not sighing as he replies. What is it now? Don’t you know we’re on a tight schedule? We have to get to Jerusalem. Just before our reading begins this morning, Jesus has predicted his death and resurrection for the third time. He has just told the disciples—again—that he will be handed over to the chief priest and  put to death and will rise again on the third day. And all James and John can think about is whether Jesus will let them sit on his right and left hands—be his number two and number three guy—when he goes to Jerusalem to become king. Haven’t they been listening?

Of course, the other disciples haven’t been listening, either. Mark tells us that they’re upset with James and John—not because James’ and John’s request is inappropriate—because they want to be first in the kingdom themselves. The way Mark tells the story, the disciples never get it right. Clearly they don’t today. So Jesus tells them: “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” It’s the culmination of what we’ve been hearing for the last month: the first shall be last, and the last shall be first. So, let’s be honest, where are you in line? Who have you served lately?

Today is the first day of our God the Giver stewardship campaign. We’ll spend the next six weeks acknowledging that God is the source of the many gifts we enjoy as a community. And we’ll respond to those many gifts by offering our time, talent, and treasure in gratitude. For the next six Sundays, we’ll be highlighting some of our ministries, some of those good gifts God has given us. Today, we begin by highlighting our Outreach ministry, the ways in which we seek to serve the community around us. That’s appropriate, given today’s Gospel. The fact is, it isn’t really a question of whether we will serve. The question is who we will serve. Will we serve others or will we serve ourselves? Will we reach out in generosity and bless others with the blessings we have received or will we hoard them all for ourselves?

You can only do one of those and follow Jesus. Remember, he’s just told us that he came not to be served, but to serve. The author of Hebrews describes Jesus’ entire life as a form of service. In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. What prayers and intercessions did Jesus offer up? Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing. The Son of Man came not to serve, but to be served, even on the cross. For that is what Jesus did on the cross: he interceded with God for the whole world. In everything he did, Jesus sought to serve others, to give his life in service to others.

Now, I’m sure all of you know this by now, but I’m not Jesus. None of you are Jesus, either. We are human. We are fallible. We are not going to live lives of perfect service. But we can serve. We aren’t called to be Jesus, but we are called to be like him, because the first will be last, and the last will be first. Because you can’t take it with you. You can’t hoard blessings, God’s good gifts, for yourself, at least not if you want to be blessed by them. You have to give them away. You have to serve others.

We can’t always put other’s needs before our own. We’re human. We have legitimate needs. But we can practice a habit of service. We can pick up a hammer one weekend a month with Sandtown Habitat for Humanity. We can sew one quilt for Project Linus. We can bake one casserole for Our Daily Bread. We can put together one Thanksgiving basket for the Assistance Center of Towson Churches. We can spend one morning serving lunches at Paul’s Place. We can help one person learn about making a budget with Neighbor to Neighbor. We can reach out to one person who needs a little boost through our Micro Lending Program. And then, next week, we can do it again.

Being like Jesus means interceding with him for the whole world. Being like Jesus means serving instead of being served. God has given us all so many gifts. How are you being called today to give back?


Monday, October 12, 2015

A Little Guilt. A lot of Promise.

Click the picture to listen to the sermon.

As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: 'You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.'" He said to him, "Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth." Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.  (Mark 10:17ff)

October 11, 2015
Proper 23 Year B

I heard a Hindu saying this week:  The people who are closest to the gods are the youngest among us and the oldest among us.  The people farthest from the gods are the ones in the middle with mortgages.

This story – often referred to as Jesus and the Rich Man – is a familiar one.  And it can be hard to take in anything from it except a feeling of guilt.  One more biblical mandate that I’m not – that we’re not as a church even – living into who God wants us to be.  Who among us is going to sell everything we have to follow Jesus?  Don’t be ridiculous – that’s for the saints – and crazy people – often times one and the same – until they die of course and then we laud them.  Anyway – it’s too much, too much to ask – sorry Jesus – we let you down – again.

And so we set up the two characters of this story over and against each other – the rich man who says no to Jesus and is bad.  And Peter the disciple who said yes to Jesus and is good.

But the central question of both the man and Peter isn’t about wealth or how we solve the problem of poverty.  The question each asks is – what must I do to inherit eternal life?  And I think what each of them is really asking is – Jesus, what must I do to inherit eternal security, certainty.

I wonder if any of you here know what anxiety feels like?  Yes.  I thought so.  Anxiety can run our body through a ringer of physical responses.  At the extreme end – we can suffer panic attacks – which can be so terrifyingly severe that we could think we’re having a heart attack.  Thankfully – I’ve never had one – but I have had moments of intense anxiety.  And there are three that come instantly to mind in my adult life and every single one was around money and financial security.

First, there was the day – at my first job after college – when I quit.  I quit my job before the job I was interviewing for was secured.  I remember walking in downtown Boston seeing almost for the first time – all the homeless people – and thinking – I don’t have a job, soon that will be me.  My mom actually came to Boston to be with me that weekend – I was so unhinged.

Second there was the day – the last day – of my job corporate America before I started seminary.  That day was not filled with joy and excitement as I left a lucrative career to answer my call.  That day I remember the a pit in my stomach as I thought about my 8 month old daughter and the fact that a paycheck would no longer be directly deposited into my checking account every two weeks.

And finally the day, as a priest, when I signed my first mortgage.  And indeed I can attest to that Hindu saying – I was one of those people in the middle with a mortgage – and the anxiety that filled my head and my heart (my whole body really) meant the voice of God was the furthest possible thing from my mind.

For many of us, our identity, how we see ourselves, and how we believe others see us, is directly tied to what we do – and what we earn.  That’s what Jesus is asking this man to let go of.

There is nothing “bad” about this man who comes to Jesus.  In fact he models some really important behaviors for us.  First of all – he runs to Jesus.  He is eager to talk to God.  Don’t we hear – ask and ye shall receive?  And when he stops Jesus – he is respectful.  He kneels before him and says – Good teacher.  No reason for us to think he is trying to trick Jesus – or that he has any other motive but to listen for instruction.

We don’t know why or how he is wealthy.  Perhaps he inherited his family’s wealth.  Perhaps he worked very hard, did all the right things – as he did in following the commandments – and from the outside appears to have it all.  And he just wants that divine stamp of approval – that guarantee that his status and wealth are signs of God’s blessing and favor – in this life and the next.

Why does Jesus answer this good man’s eagerness with such a hard request?  On one hand, there is no getting around the challenge of following Jesus with this one. When the man leaves Jesus turns and uses him as mandate for all Christians – our wealth and the kingdom of God are inherently in conflict.  The kingdom of God is a place of economic justice, where the first are last and the last are first.  A place where inheritance is shared, inheritance is equal.  For those of us who pray – thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven – we have to wrestle individually and as a community with what part we play in the economy of God’s kingdom.

At the same time, Jesus’s directive is to one particular person and while he may put forward a challenging request he does so in love.  It doesn’t say – Jesus looked at the man, and judged him to be unworthy and then spoke.  Jesus, looking at the man, loved him.  And why we would think the journey for this man ended here?  Jesus plants seeds and Jesus believes in a journey.  Who knows how this seed grew in this man’s heart?  He may have gone away sad that day – but who knows how that moment changed him?  Maybe eventually he did – give it all away.  Maybe he gave more to those in need after that day – than ever before.  We don’t know what transpired over the course of the rest of his life – but we know, I know from my own experiences, that sometimes in sorrow and anxiety – seeds are planted – and – under the loving gaze of God – we change and grow.

I officiated at a wedding last night.  A young couple from our church got married at the Baltimore Museum of Art.  It was a beautiful wedding – out in the sculpture garden – just before sunset – everyone looking gorgeous – everyone knowing exactly what to do – a picture perfect wedding.  And in my remarks I reminded them – as I do at most – that we don’t say – I DO when we give our consent to be married – we say I WILL.  Because I will signifies that today is only the beginning.  And while there may be perfect weddings – there are no perfect marriages.  And what a couple is doing is giving their consent to a future promise.  The promise that they will practice growing in love allowing their identity to be shaped by one another and God as they try to live into those promises.

Ultimately, the root of this passage is about our inability TO DO anything to earn eternal life now – or in the age to come.  God is the one who does everything.  And Jesus invites us to say I WILL to the promises we make to God and God makes with us.  How do we hear these words this morning and let a seed be planted.  How are we allowing Jesus to gaze upon us in love?  In order to receive an inheritance something, someone must die.  What does Christ invite us to let go of this morning so that we might nurture and grow the grace of God in our hearts – allowing ourselves to be transformed?  Amen.

The Rev. Arianne R. Weeks

Monday, October 5, 2015

People, Not Problems

Proper 22, Year B
Mark 10:2-16
The Rev. Joshua Rodriguez-Hobbs

This morning, we’re hearing one of Jesus’ hardest teachings: Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record this saying of Jesus, but only Mark leaves us without any loopholes. This is an absolute prohibition, and the church has not used it well. Because it seems so simple, so straightforward, with no room for ifs, ands, or buts, the church has misused it to shame, condemn, and ostracize people. I know that many of you find it painful to hear this passage read aloud in church. So I think we need to begin this morning by acknowledging that the church has misused this teaching of Jesus to wound people, rather than to build up the body of Christ. We have, as Christians, as the church, been so eager to rush to judgment that we’ve misread this passage.

To begin with, we just can’t assume that Jesus thought about marriage and divorce the way that we do today. To confess that Jesus is fully human and fully divine means that, in his human nature, Jesus was the product of the culture into which he was born, a culture where marriage functioned differently than it does for us today. Raise your hand if your parents arranged your marriage. Of course they didn’t! You met your spouse, and the two of you chose to get married. But that wasn’t the way it worked in Jesus’ day. Parents picked out their children’s spouses, and the children had no say in it. Marriage was an exchange of property between two families. The two families would exchange wealth in the form of a dowry and a bride gift, and then the bride’s father would transfer ownership of her to her new husband. Marriage has changed significantly in the two thousand years since Jesus had this conversation with the Pharisees. Might we ask if divorce has too?

Jesus and the Pharisees all know that the Law of Moses permits divorce. Deuteronomy says:
            Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because
he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house; she then leaves his house.
The debate was over what counted as “something objectionable” enough for a man to ask for a divorce. Did you notice, by the way, that only the man is allowed to initiate a divorce? Some of the Pharisees said that “something objectionable” meant sexual immorality—a view that Matthew’s Gospel says Jesus took, in a softening of the words we heard Jesus speak this morning. Others said that “something objectionable” meant anything objectionable: burning dinner, being barren, getting old and less attractive than a younger woman. But their attention was solely on the man. They don’t ask what happens to the ex-wife, who is put out of the household. Where does she go? As a single woman, she couldn’t own property. Her own father or brothers might take her back in, or they might not, because she would have shamed them by getting divorced. If that happened, the only two ways she could support herself were begging or prostitution. The absolute prohibition against divorce Jesus makes this morning would be a safeguard against this. It would protect the vulnerable.

But there’s another layer here, too. The Pharisees aren’t really interested in Jesus’ answer. Mark tells us that they ask this to test him, to trip him up and to find something they can use against him. And it’s odd that Mark has Jesus talk to his disciples about a woman divorcing a husband. In first-century Palestine, women couldn’t initiative divorce. Mark has Jesus reference a Roman custom, because Roman women could divorce their husbands. Something more is going on here, something that should make us think about something that happened way back in Mark 6. I know, we haven’t been in Mark 6 since July, so it’s unfair to ask you to remember it. Mark 6 is where we hear about how Herod imprisoned and killed John the Baptist, because John told him that it was not lawful for him to be married to his brother’s ex-wife, Herodias. Herod and Herodias had both divorced their previous spouses to marry one another, using Roman, rather than Jewish, law. Are Jesus and the Pharisees talking about any divorce, or are they talking about a specific divorce? Are the Pharisees hoping that they can find something to make Herod arrest Jesus, too?

I don’t think it’s an either/or situation. Immediately after this discussion about divorce, we again hear Jesus talk about welcoming children. Remember, children were also vulnerable people in Jesus’ day, very similar in social status to a divorced woman. Jesus is telling us that what matters is not disputes about theology or politics. What matters is welcoming and caring for the vulnerable. This passage isn’t primarily about divorce, at least not the way we know divorce today, but about the way we welcome and care for the least of these.

When I wrote this sermon on Thursday, I had a nice, generic ending that I can’t preach this morning. You see, in between writing this sermon and preaching it, I heard about the shooting that happened at the community college in Rosebud, Oregon. One of my first thoughts was, well, that has nothing to do with Sunday’s readings, so I don’t need to mention that in my sermon. But that set off a red flag for me, because if I’m going to stand up here and say that what Jesus is really talking about is paying attention to those people whom we would rather ignore, that Jesus is calling us to see people instead of issues, then my desire to ignore this tragedy is a sign that I need to confront it.

On Friday, I read a pastoral letter from Scott Mayer, the bishop of Northwest Texas, who many of you met when he came here to ordain me to the priesthood on December 13, 2012. Bishop Mayer’s letter started by noting that this is the 142 school shooting since December 14, 2012, the date of the Sandy Hook Shooting. He went on to note that it is the forty-fifth school shooting in 2015. We have a problem, and although I’m afraid to confront it, if Bishop Mayer can call on Texans to work to end gun violence, I feel like I don’t have an excuse in Baltimore. I don’t think legislation can solve this problem, even if it might be a piece of the solution. I think that as people of faith, we can, and probably do, disagree on what legislative solutions should look like, but legislation will never get us to the place where we need to be. What we need is changed hearts and minds. What we are called to be is peacemakers.

Today is the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, and I don’t think it’s an accident that I am preaching this sermon today. We mostly remember Francis with pet blessings, but Francis was truly a radical Christian, who risked much to preach Christ’s Gospel of Peace. During the Crusades, Francis traveled to Egypt to preach to the sultan, seeking to bring an end to the wars. Francis was bold and not afraid to risk. What are you called to risk to preach peace to those who are near and to those who are far off? How can you be a peace-maker in your small corner of the world? What do you need to see that you would rather ignore?

Let us conclude this morning with a prayer attributed to St. Francis: Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.