Tuesday, January 27, 2015

What is Your Good News?

Epiphany 3, Year B
Mark 1:14-20

Together we prayed for God to give us what we need to answer readily the call of Jesus and proclaim the good news.

Together we just listened to two stories of God issuing a call and in one story – Jonah – we have a prophet who eventually – and with great reluctance – finally proclaims good news. And in the other story we have some fisherman – Simon, Andrew, James and John – who drop what they’re doing and immediately answer the call, to follow.

Here are the questions these stories raise – Why are we sometimes reluctant? Why are we sometimes ready? What is the good news?

Let’s work our way backwards. What is the good news? Take minute and think about that – what you would say the good news is? Would you say you proclaim it? Would you say you live it?

Gospel translates as good news. Well, we have four. Which one is it? At the top level we can say – the good news is simply Jesus. We believe that the revelation of God was made known in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus is the good news.

Which takes us down a step to the question – who is Jesus? Well, each gospel presents a different portrait. Here we are in Mark and he is pretty particular about what the good news is. We’re in chapter one this morning and Mark’s gospel begins like this – The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ. Everything that the writer of Mark is about to make known in these brief 16 chapters – is good news.

But just a few sentences later, we hear this – Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the good news of God by saying – the time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near, repent, believe.

The time is now. God is here. Turn and trust. (21st c. English) That is quite a powerful prayer. That is quite a starting place. Simon, Andrew, James and John are starting out. And guess what, they will start again and again and again.

I was once engaged in a friendly, albeit heated, debate with a family member about poverty and education. He was arguing from the position that everyone in this country had equal opportunity for education and if they didn’t do well in life, it was because they weren’t smart enough to take advantage of it. I was arguing from the position that the random fact of our birth family meant our opportunities for education are not equitable. My family origin afforded me privileges I didn’t earn, they were simply inherited. It was not a fruitful debate and finally I said, I guess you either start from the position that those who have, are called to help those who don’t – or every person for themselves. To which he replied – exactly.

For every decision, every choice we think about or make – we start from a particular vantage point – a specific value system.

This morning, Jesus offers, God offers a starting place. The time is now. God is here. Turn and trust. Simon, Andrew, James and John are starting. This act of dropping their nets and following doesn’t mean they are finished, souls are saved and they are done (cheap grace theology).

Dropping their nets demonstrates the choice is in their hands – we see the same with Jonah. A change of heart is only real if it changes our behavior.

From now on, for the rest of their journey – every circumstance they evaluate – every problem they wrestle with – starts with the good news. Starts at the truth the time is now. God is here. Turn and trust. Being born again is not a one-time event – it is simply starting from that trust again and again.

And then what does Jesus tell them to do? Is it something specific like, grow the church, feed the poor, solve all the problems in the world? No – Jesus simply says, follow me. If you believe - the time is now, God is near, turn and trust – then follow me, Jesus says. Follow me.

Mark’s gospel then goes on to describe what following looks like. They follow Jesus into the synagogue where he breaks rules that get him in trouble. Following Jesus means upsetting the apple cart to heal people and liberate them from systems that are sick, systems that oppress.

The follow Jesus into the crowds of hungry people who want to hear some good teaching where Jesus has compassion and finds a way to feed the masses. Following Jesus means going to those who are hungry and figuring out how the hungry can be filled.

They follow Jesus out onto the water in the midst of a storm and totally freak out. But Jesus is there. Following Jesus means setting out in our proverbial boats on rough seas, when things are stormy, and trusting that Jesus is right there with us too.

They follow Jesus early in the morning into the darkness to learn to pray. Following Jesus means taking time out of the busyness of our lives to be quiet before God and pray.

They follow Jesus into homes and places where he teaches them in private. He tells them weird stories we call parables to explain what the kingdom of God means. Following Jesus means the Christ-centered community takes time to be together (like we’re doing right now) to grapple with these same teachings and figure out what the kingdom of God looks like in our time.

So if you’re wanting to follow Jesus – take a look at the back of your bulletin. Our “announcements” are really invitations. If you want to follow Jesus to support a family in their grief, help us support the Palermo family.

If you want to follow Jesus to where people are hungry and waiting to be filled, help us increase the volunteer team that serves the people of Paul’s Place.

If you want to follow Jesus to be with God, then consider meditating on scripture or a story from your own life and share that story with the people of this place in our Lenten book.

If you want to connect with others who are seeking Christ, then meet your fellow parishioners at our coffee hour this morning. Get to know the people of this Christ-centered community.

Delving into new “things” can be a little scary, but in Mark’s good news pretty much every time the disciples follow Jesus they are – amazed and terrified. When God’s reign breaks into our world – it is incredible and it is scary. There isn’t always a clear plan. Following Jesus is accepting the unknown and repeating to yourself – it’s ok, because the time is now. God is here – so I’m going to turn and trust.

God helps us with the following. But the starting place, the change of heart – is up to us.

Someone said something really interesting to me this week – she said, there is a difference between something being finished and something being complete. What do you think about that? For me, it really resonated. I can have a finished sermon – but that’s really different from having a complete sermon. I can finish my dinner – but that’s different then eating a complete meal. And in the more profound sense – I have been with people who feel they are finished – and I have been with people who feel they are complete. Personally, that’s what I crave in my life of trying to following Jesus. And I think our starting place has a lot do with our sense of completeness.

What is your starting place? Can you proclaim it? Is it good news? Do you believe the time is now – God is here – turn and trust? And if so, do you hear Jesus’ invitation to follow? This morning do you want to? Or are you feeling more like Jonah – reluctant to accept the good news of God’s love and forgiveness for everyone?

One last thing – the good news of Mark’s gospel doesn’t finish – the original ending – chapter 16 has the woman following Jesus to an empty tomb where an angel says – hey! Get going. Jesus is ahead of you, he has gone to Galilee (i.e. he has gone back to where this whole thing started). And it says they left terrified and amazed. But they must’ve done what was told them because this good news got told and has been catching people in God’s net for thousands of years.

God is here. The time is now. Turn and trust.  Amen.

- The Rev. Arianne R. Weeks

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Scandal of Baptism

The Baptism of Our Lord
The Rev. Joshua Rodriguez-Hobbs

You know, I find it funny how much we like baptisms, how we make them into a party, because the four evangelists all seem a little embarrassed by Jesus’ baptism. Mark, writing first, puts words into John the Baptizer’s mouth, letting us know in uncertain terms that Jesus is more important than John. Matthew has John refuse to baptize Jesus at first. In fact, in Matthew’s story, John asks Jesus to baptize him! Jesus has to insist that John baptize him, not because he himself needs it, but so that they might “fulfill all righteousness,” whatever that means (Matthew doesn’t explain). Luke conveniently forgets to tell us who baptized Jesus, saying simply, “Jesus was baptized.” And in the sequel to his gospel, the Acts of the Apostles, Luke includes that strange story we heard read this morning, where we learn that John’s baptism really didn’t count after all. And, finally, John just skips over Jesus’ baptism entirely. In fact, in John’s Gospel, John the Baptizer doesn’t actually baptize anyone and he isn’t called “the Baptizer;” he’s just “John,” and he just talks about baptism without ever actually doing it.

So why were the evangelists embarrassed by Jesus’ baptism? It’s right there in Mark’s original account, which we just heard this morning: “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” We don’t typically think of Jesus as needing forgiveness of sins, do we? The evangelists don’t seem to want to tell this story, but it appears that it was a well-known one, so well-known that three of the four felt like they couldn’t just omit it. So they tell us that Jesus didn’t really need John’s baptism, or that the baptism of John was different from the baptism that Jesus’ disciples practiced. They shift the emphasis from John’s baptism of repentance to the vision Jesus has afterward, where he sees the Holy Spirit descending upon him like a dove, strengthening him with God’s grace at the beginning of his public ministry.

I wonder if, deep down, we don’t all feel similarly today. Arianne mentioned in her sermon last week that the church’s original practice was to baptize adults, people who could actually repent for sins they’d committed. For a variety of reasons, a lot of which had to do with Christianity becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire, the church changed this practice and began baptized children. Even though, since 1979, our Prayer Book in the Episcopal Church has actually promoted adult baptism as normative, most people baptized in an Episcopal Church today are children. Infants, in fact. Last week, when we baptized Jack and Jamey, that was the first time I’ve ever baptized someone old enough to speak for themselves!

I think we like baptizing children, because they are cute and adorable. It’s easy to baptize infants, because they won’t object to putting on that heirloom baptismal gown, and they photograph so nicely, and we can get right on to the party, without thinking too much about sin and our own need for forgiveness.

Baptism is scandalous, because the church believes that we are reborn through our encounter with those waters. Everything about us before baptism is washed away in God’s eyes. Babies bring so little baggage with them to the font. Adults would bring full matching luggage sets with us, wouldn’t we?

That forgiveness of past sins, freely given, is not the most scandalous thing about baptism, though. The church has always proclaimed that the mark of baptism is indelible. It can’t be redone. When I baptize a person, after I have poured water on them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, I dip my finger into special oil and make the sign of the cross on their forehead and make a promise: You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever. No matter what happens from that point on in that person’s life, they are Christ’s own. In other words, they are forgiven, not just of whatever they have done, but also of whatever they will do.

In our collect this morning, we prayed: “Grant that all who are baptized into his Name may keep the covenant they have made…” The fact is that none of us will. None of us can. We enter into baptism, knowing none of us can keep the promises that we make. And God bestows grace upon us anyway. God loves us anyway. God speaks the same words to each of us that Jesus heard: “You are my son, you are my daughter, the beloved; with you I am well pleased." The forgiveness we find in baptism is the forgiveness that we will need when we fall short. We all constantly need that forgiveness. It’s easy to forget that when we baptize adorable children, but it’s still true.

Baptism illustrates the central truth of the Christian life: we are saved entirely by God’s grace. There is nothing that we can to do earn or deserve forgiveness. It is always freely given, offered before we can ever ask. We don’t earn forgiveness. We don’t merit grace. We don’t save ourselves. We can’t. God saves us, just as God upholds our end of the covenant we make with God at baptism. God’s faithfulness always covers our unfaithfulness, no matter how egregious that unfaithfulness is.

As Jack and Jamey and I were preparing for our baptism, I told them that there was one thing that they should remember about their baptism, even if they forgot everything else I had said: Baptism is forever. Whatever you do, God will always love you. Nothing can ever make you unlovable, because Christ has already claimed you as his own. This is the scandalous, life-changing truth of baptism. This is the scandalous, life-changing truth of grace. This is the scandalous, life-changing truth of the Gospel: we don’t deserve forgiveness, but God gives forgives anyway. Amen.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Christmastide: Humanity Restored

Jeremiah 31:7-14 
Luke 2:41-52 

Periodically we’re given a choice in the lectionary over the gospel.  This Sunday, is one of those.

So three weeks ago, Jen, our parish admin, came into my office and said, you’re preaching on the 4th – which gospel do you want?  Because of the holidays, and office being closed, we needed to get this bulletin done before Christmas.  I looked at the choices:

First choice was the story of an angel appearing to Joseph in a dream, warning him to take Mary and Jesus and get to Egypt quick – because Herod was out to get them.  I didn’t want that scripture – mostly because it’s one I’ve preached on a few times.  I didn’t foresee wanting to talk about dreams at the start of the New Year.

The second choice was also from Matthew – the story of the magi telling Herod about seeing the star.  We start Epiphany next Sunday, and while it’s not a season, but an event – there will be six weeks of hearing stories of Christ revealing himself – so I didn’t foresee wanting to preach on that either.

I picked, obviously, this story that we only get in Luke and is one of the few stories about Jesus as a boy – not a baby or a man – but a tween.  And look, I said to Jen in my office that day – the passage has one of my favorite topics to preach on – when Mary says to Jesus, “Your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” 

Jen looked puzzled – and I laughed – it’s rare, I explained that we get words in the bible that have such an immediate resonance to our time and place.  And anxiety is certainly one of those words. 

What I didn’t foresee, three weeks ago, was how much anxiety I would be feeling in the week leading up to this sermon. A week that included a very sad and public event for our church.   I’m sure you know what I refer to – last Saturday our Bishop Heather Cook struck and killed Thomas Palermo as he rode his bike on Roland Avenue.

That is heartbreaking enough – but then we learned she left the scene of the accident, only later to return. We can’t understand how someone, especially a clergy person, let alone a bishop, could do that.

And the subsequent news that has been most prominent this week is the release of that she was charged in 2010 for a DUI; which has led to speculation and assumptions about this tragedy and public debate about what qualifies a person to be an ordained, religious leader. 

This stirs up a lot of anxiety.  It is all deeply troubling.  Which was clear to me from the calls and emails I received and the myriad of reactions I read on Facebook.  My anxiety is mostly about my desire, standing here, to preach the sermon that makes all of you feel really good about being Episcopalians and renews faith in your church and our pastoral leaders.

Let’s start with that word: faith.  Faith – in the letter to the Hebrews – is defined as the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen (11:1).  What is it we hope for?  The Christian hope is that all people, individually and collectively along with all creation, will one day be reconciled to God.  An image painted by our prophet Jeremiah in the first reading.  Our primary image, though, is Jesus.  We believe Jesus always knew oneness with God.  That’s why he gives his smart aleck response to his parents – basically saying – where else would I be but in my Father’s house?  How could you not know to look for me here?

But this oneness with God is not ultimately about being in a temple or a church – it’s about a completeness.  An intellectual, emotional and spiritual awareness of the connection to the divine within.  That’s what Jesus gave up to be human.  That’s the sacrifice God made for us (Philippians 2:1ff) In a famous quote from a bishop in the 2nd century – God became human, so that we might become divine. The person of Jesus, the life of Jesus shows what is available and possible for us.

We hope for that completeness, that reconciliation – and we claim conviction in it – because we so rarely see it, in ourselves or others.  Do you look in the mirror each morning and enthusiastically exclaim – there I am, made in the image of God!  Or are you like me, when I look in the mirror – I see flaws.  I see my humanity, my aging, my flaws, and remember my mistakes and struggles.  I can clearly see all the ways I do not even come close to measuring up to what I think an image of God should look like.

But there is what we prayed together to collect our thoughts for this worship service.  A prayer which describes the Incarnation we celebrate at Christmas. The radical, almost incomprehensible truth of what God, in the person of Jesus did for us – O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored the dignity of human nature, grant that we may share in that divine life.  (BCP 214)

For five centuries the normative practice in the church was to baptize adults, who could make promises for themselves after a period of study.  For reasons that had more to do with church expansion than anything else that changed to the practice of infant baptism.  And it is that tradition that has remained normative, despite the theology of our current prayer book.  Personally, I have yet to do an adult baptism.  And I think, one of the reasons the tradition holds is because when we look on infants and children, it is easier to see the dignity of human nature.  We see innocence and goodness.  We see possibility and hope.  We see the image of God in the children of God.  We see what we were.

God says – you still are.  You are still a child of God, and always will be.  You, in your humanness with all your failings and struggles and doubts – you have been restored – free to live without shame and fear – made worthy to stand before God.  It is accepting this truth which sets us free.  It is only in accepting this truth that we are able to cultivate compassion towards others.

When I returned to church as an adult – after that phase almost all of us go through, and some of us stay in – where we leave church because of the people and the problems that disappoint or anger us, or the inevitably hypocrisy between what we say we are and what we do – when I found the Episcopal church – it was a phrase in one of our post-communion prayers that got me every time.

Eternal God, heavenly Father – you have graciously accepted us (BCP 365).  Still to this day, there are times when I say that phrase – and I’m done.  I can’t keep speaking because it is too overwhelming for me to believe that God accepts me as I am – with all of my failings, my mistakes, my sins, my doubts and my fears.  It is too overwhelming to believe I am worthy of this love – this forgiveness and compassion.  It is too overwhelming to believe that in the act of bringing my brokenness to that altar to receive the body of Christ (which as it says in the psalms is the only sacrifice God wants (Ps 51:17) – my human nature is once again restored.

New Year’s resolutions – commendable as they may be – are not what will make us whole.  They are not what will make us feel worthy.  We are worthy with and through the brokenness.  For something to be reconciled and restored means it had to be broken first.  There could not have been a resurrection without that broken, vulnerable body on the cross.

In 1912, a German theologian named Ernst Troeltsch wrote, “There is no absolute Christian ethic that awaits discovery…There is no absolute transformation of [who we are]…all that exists is a constant wrestling with the problems that arise.”

We are all Christians.  We are all human and we are all holy.  We are, in the words of Martin Luther, to remember we are simultaneously sinner and saint.  That is the body of Christ.  That is what we call the Church.

At 9am we have a baptism and it’s the start of a new year.  It is a good day for all of us to say the Nicene Creed through the renewal of our baptismal covenant.  It is a good day to remember what we promise as a community that stands with people in their joys and their sorrows, that wrestles with the problems of our time in love and with compassion.  It is a good day to remind ourselves of our promises to strive to make known in words and deeds what the reconciliation of God looks like.

Let us pray.  O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquility the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their restoration by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (BCP 280)

The Rev. Arianne R. Weeks