Thursday, February 19, 2015

The First Step is Admitting that You Have a Problem

The Rev. Joshua Rodriguez-Hobbs
Ash Wednesday

I am going to be perfectly honest: part of me dreads Ash Wednesday each year. The words which we will soon hear spoken to each of us are hard words to hear: Remember that you are dust, and to dust shall you return. They are hard words because they remind me of my own mortality; they are a reminder that no matter how hard I try, I am ultimately not in complete control over my own life. I dread being told that. I don’t know about you, but I am addicted to control. I am addicted to that rush I feel when I am in control of my own life. And if I’m not in control, I at least want to project an image that will make other people think I am in control. But Ash Wednesday and its reminder that I am dust tells me that I am not ultimately in control of my own life. That is hard to hear.

But there is also a relief that comes when I hear those words. Remember that you are dust, and to dust shall you return. Remember, in other words, that there is a God, and that God is not you.

That is what Ash Wednesday is about, after all. At their roots, the many things that we have each come to repent of this day are the same. Sin, however we might define its particulars in our lives, is a denial that God is in control of my life. Pretending to have that sort of ultimate control that only belongs to God is a way of making an idol out of myself. That is what sin is: usurping the place that properly belongs to God. That is what the serpent told Adam and Eve in the Garden: Eat of the fruit of the tree of which God has commanded you not to eat, and you will be like God.

The first step is admitting that I have a problem. Paradoxically, it is only in doing so that I will ever be free, free to be the child of God that I was created to be.

God is God, and I am not. Ash Wednesday is a hard day for us, but it is also, as St. Paul says, the day of our salvation. Because today, this one day out of all 365, I am called to be honest with myself, with all of you, and with God. I need that honesty, because it is only in admitting that I am not in control, in admitting that I need a savior, that I create the space in my heart for the Holy Spirit to come in and renew in me the joy of my salvation. The first step is always admitting that you have a problem.


The Glory of God

The Rev. Joshua Rodriguez-Hobbs
The Last Sunday after the Epiphany
Mark 9:2-9

Then Peter said to Jesus, "Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 

I love Mark’s account of the transfiguration because it is so honest in portraying the disciples’ terror. Matthew omits their terror, and Luke tries to minimize it, but not Mark. Mark is honest. The transfiguration was terrifying, but not because it was miraculous. There are plenty of miracles in Mark’s Gospel, but we are never told that they’re terrifying. We’ve heard stories of Jesus healing and casting out demons these past few weeks, and people were amazed and astounded by these miracles, but not terrified. There are only three occasions in Mark where we are told the disciples are terrified. The first is in Mark 6, just after the feeding of the five thousand. The disciples are in a boat, trying to cross the Sea of Galilee to go to Bethsaida. It is night, and there is a strong wind that is frustrating their efforts to row across. Jesus had stayed behind on the other shore to pray, but suddenly they see him walking across the water, and they are terrified. We heard the second occasion of the disciples’ terror this morning: how, when Jesus took Peter and James and John up a high mountain, presumably to pray, as was his custom. Suddenly, Jesus’ clothes are bleached dazzling white, the word in Greek means to flash like lightning, and beside him are Moses and Elijah, who were promised to return to herald the messiah’s arrival. And Peter begins to babble, because the disciples are terrified. The third occasion comes after the crucifixion, when Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome went to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body with spices. When they get there, they find the stone rolled away, and a young man in a white robe tells them, “He has been raised; he is not here.” And they went out and fled from the tomb in terror.

No one is ever terrified by the many miracles in Mark’s Gospel, but these three stories (walking on water, transfiguration, and resurrection) terrify the disciples. Why is that? To us, they seem equally as miraculous as healing someone’s withered hand or casting out demons, don’t they? After all, healing, exorcism, miraculous feedings, walking on water, transfiguration, resurrection, aren’t we just giving many different names for impossible? But for the disciples, these three actions belong to a different category from mere miracle. They were all divine acts that could not be explained. They could explain healings and exorcisms and miraculous feedings. Elijah and Moses and the prophets had done those things. If you just knew the right spells, you could do them too. In fact, there are ancient depictions of miracle stories from the gospels where Jesus is shown holding a magic wand. Clearly, there was a category in the ancient world that could explain these things.

But not walking on water, or wearing clothing that flashed like lightning, or being resurrected. These were things that gods did. In Greek and Jewish literature alike, these acts were reserved to the Gods. Only Hermes or the Spirit of God could move across the waters, as God’s Spirit did in creation. You knew when you saw a god or the Most High God because of their clothing, which was like nothing that human beings could make. And for the Greeks and Romans, resurrection was a sign of being exalted to godhood. These moments in Mark’s Gospel are moments when the disciples are allowed to clearly see Jesus’ divinity, and it terrifies them.

And that is why Peter wants to make three dwellings. He is terrified, and he wants to find a way to accommodate the divine into his categories. He wants God to fit into the way that he understands the world to work. But that is not what God does. Instead of changing to fit our categories, God changes us to fit God’s categories. That is why we began our worship this morning with a prayer that God might changed into Christ’s likeness from glory to glory. From glory to glory. From the transfiguration to the resurrection.

It’s no mistake that we are hearing this Gospel reading today, the last Sunday after Epiphany. On Wednesday, we will begin our Lenten fasts, seeking to allow God to work in us through the individual disciplines we each will choose, so that we might be made more like Christ. I don’t know about you, but I have tended to think about Lent as a journey to the cross, to Good Friday. But that is too small an understanding, like Peter’s attempt to make dwellings on the Mountain of Transfiguration. Our collect this morning gives us the clue that this is the wrong idea: we are journeying from glory to glory, because the Lenten road is a journey to Easter and the resurrection. It’s a journey that leads us beyond our theology and our categories, all of which are ultimately too small to contain God.

As we heard this morning, our God is a transcendent mystery, infinitely above all our attempts at understanding. At the same time, in Jesus Christ, our Lord and Creator became our brother, like us in every way. I don’t understand this, any more than I understand the transfiguration. But I do know this, and I believe it, even as I do not understand it: God breaks into our world in incarnation, in walking on water, in transfiguration, in resurrection, in bread and wine, so that we might become like God.


Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Be Lifted Up - Demons et al

Mark 1:29-39

There are three major events that take place in the excerpt we heard from Mark this morning – our 3rd Sunday in the first chapter of the gospel – and I’d like to draw out each one, then draw some conclusions on how these very first century, ancient world stories – like exorcisms – still have meaning in our 21st century lives.

So – we’re on the same day as we were last Sunday.  In the morning on that Sabbath – Jesus went into the synagogue and wowed everyone with his teaching – teaching not as a scribe but having authority.  Jesus knows who he is and whose he is – and the people can see that.

And it was that authority – that sense of self-knowledge – that compels him to break the rules.  In the midst of that Sabbath worship he healed a man of an unclean spirit.  We can assign all sorts of modern day maladies to what that might mean – unclean spirit – but Jesus sets the person free – releases him – unbinds him.  Jesus casts out whatever it is that it keeping that person from being the child of God he is meant to be.

And – that gets noticed.  It’s noticed by the people in authority – they don’t have authority, they are just in the right position – because Jesus broke the rules.  It gets noticed by the people – who are amazed at his teaching and healing.  And, as we see again this morning, it gets noticed by the demon.  A recurring theme of Mark’s gospel is that until the very end – until the crucifixion – the only ones who recognize Jesus as the Holy One of God are the demons!  We’ll get to that.

So – Jesus then leaves worship – I’m sure he stayed for coffee hour, though…and goes with his disciple to visit Simon’s mother-in-law.  And it’s annoying she doesn’t have a name – so let’s just call her Esther.  Women weren’t important enough when the scriptures were written to always be given a name – BUT – amazingly – they are important enough for Jesus to talk to, eat with and to heal.  Jesus and Simon go into the house – Simon says, Esther is really sick – can you help?

Another important point of context. In the time of this gospel – when you’re sick there are major societal ramifications.  Just like a person who is considered “unclean” because they have a demon – a person who is sick is shameful, a disgrace.  Remember in John’s gospel, the blind man – and everyone around him is arguing over who sinned so badly that this man went blind?  Was it his fault?  His parents?  To be sick was to be at fault – to be deserving of your illness.  This reflected badly on you – and your family.  We still have that, with some illnesses, don’t we?

Being sick also kept you from being able to fulfill your role in the family.  Look – it’s old fashioned to us now – but the role of the woman in the household was to serve – and we can’t take that in a pejorative sense.  Esther being sick meant she not only brought shame onto her family from the outside – but inside the family, she couldn’t do her job.  None of us like it when we are in that state do we?  Work gives us purpose – makes us feel like a contributing member of the world. None of us want to be a burden, right?
So what does Jesus do?  Don’t forget it’s still the Sabbath – not supposed to do any healing – but just like that man bound because of a demon – Esther is bound by her fever – and Jesus wants to set people free. 

And notice how he does so…Jesus came, he took her by the hand and lifted her up.  Picture that for a minute.  Picture the tender action of Jesus gently taking her hand and lifting her up.  I doubt that was how he cast out demons – but Esther was a different person with different needs. 

Jesus takes her by the hand, lifts her up – and THEN the fever leaves her.  Jesus isn’t one of those charismatic preachers who needs an audience to put on a show of healing.  He meets individual people and relates to their particular needs – always with the purpose of restoring them to wholeness in themselves – AND – within their community.  Jesus lifts people up.  Jesus sets people free.

Which allows her to turn and follow.  Someone cared for her – so she turns and cares for Jesus.

And then, forget about it – its been a busy day and word has gotten out!  So S’maltimore.  And droves of people surround poor Esther’s house wanting to be lifted up and set free – and who could blame them? 

But – notice what it says – all who were sick and possessed came – the whole city – but – not all were healed.  Many were.  Many demons cast out – many healed with various diseases – but not all. 

Why?  I don’t know.  Just like today – I don’t know why some are healed and some are not.  Go back and reread what we heard from Isaiah – another reminder about the mystery, the incomprehensibility of the Holy One.  But it’s important for us to remember – Jesus did not heal every person he met in the way that they wanted.  And even those he did – they had the same mortal life that we do.

Moving on – as Jesus did.  The next morning – he gets up goes and prays.  Look I don’t do it every day either – but I do it, fairly regularly – and it makes a difference in my life – and I know I’m not the only one here who has that same awareness.  To start our day connecting with the Holy One – matters.  It certainly mattered to Jesus.

But check out this phrase – Simon and his companions go “hunting” for Jesus.  Hunting?  Yep – that is a direct translation – they aren’t just looking, they aren’t eagerly seeking – they are on the hunt.  Because Esther’s house is still surrounded by people clamoring to be set free, to be lifted up.  Which makes Simon and his companions anxious and nervous.  Just like the disciples surrounded by all those hungry masses in the feeding of the 5,000 story who turn to Jesus saying – what are we supposed to do about this?

We get anxious when there is a crisis of some kind and we don’t know how to solve it or fix it, immediately.  So we hunt for someone to give our anxiety to – because we have this not always true notion – that there is always something “to do” – sometimes there isn’t.

Anyway – probably because Jesus connects daily with God, probably because Jesus knows who he is and whose he is - Jesus doesn’t react, doesn’t give in to their anxiety.  He did what he could do in Capernaum – and it’s time to move on.  Some were healed, some weren’t – he can’t do everything.  He doesn’t do what they want – he lives into his calling - let us go on to the neighboring towns to proclaim the good news – because that is what I came to do – Jesus tells them.

And – if I may be so bold as to reference my sermon of two weeks ago – the good news is this – the time is now.  God is here.  Turn and trust.  Jesus knows that when some people hear that message they will be set free – they will be lifted up.

Wait – the demons.  I believe in demons that want to thwart the power of God in us and in the world.  As individuals – the demons are those things that keep us bound – they are the addictions – not just to vices – but to anxiety and fear, to basing our sense of who we are on what other people think.  Those critical demonic voices in our head that cut us down.  The demons are also the voices of our own pride and maybe even guilt – that keeps us from going into the neighboring towns and cities – to help lift people up.  Keep us from going into our own hearts to ask Jesus to turn and lift us up.

That’s why they always know Jesus – darkness never wants to let in the light, because anxiety and shame are the fears that keep demons alive. 

The good news is the same then, now and always – we hear it again and again because it doesn’t always get through, it doesn’t always lift us up, it doesn’t always encourage us to turn and serve in grateful response.  But many times it does.  Be grateful for the good news today – God is here, the time is now, turn and trust – for maybe just in the hearing you will be lifted up – and you in turn will go and lift up another.  Amen.

 The Rev. Arianne R. Weeks

Monday, February 2, 2015

When Paul Isn't Really Talking about Idols

The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
The Rev. Joshua Rodriguez-Hobbs

Taken at face value, this morning’s epistle hardly sounds like the basis for a relevant sermon, much less an interesting one. After all, when was the last time someone offered you food that had been sacrificed to an idol? This is not a pressing issue in the church today. At the same time, though, it is. Paul is talking about specific issues within a specific community at a specific time, but the conclusions he draws are still things that we should pay attention to today.

To appreciate those conclusions, though, it’s helpful to know a bit about the specifics Paul was addressing. In Paul’s day, whenever you went to a temple to present an animal as a sacrifice, you didn’t sacrifice the whole animal to the god whose temple it was. And this was true whether the temple was the Temple of the Lord in Jerusalem, or the temple of Zeus in Corinth. You’d give the animal to the priest, who would slaughter it and cook it on the altar. Some parts would be given to the god, wholly consumed by fire. But the priest would take a few cuts of meat for himself, as well. And you’d get some of the meat for yourself, too. And in cosmopolitan Greek cities—like Corinth—the civic guilds would sponsor these sacrifices, and would have a huge feast for their members. This would be like the Maryland Club or the Engineers Club sponsoring a sacrifice today. To be a member of those civic guilds, to enjoy the prestige that went along with that membership, you had to participate in the feast. Paul is asking all of the Corinthian Christians to resign from the L’Hirondelle Club.

But Paul, the well-connected in the church at Corinth said, you’ve told us that there are no such things as idols. When you came and converted us, you made it clear that there was no Zeus or Artemis or Hera. So since the idol doesn’t actually represent anything, what’s the harm in participating in the Hopkins Club’s sacrifice next Tuesday?

We heard Paul’s response this morning. Knowledge puffs up, put love builds up. It doesn’t matter what I told you, he says, it doesn’t matter that you’re right. What matters is that there are other people in your church, the Johnsons in the pew in front of yours, and these people don’t understand that. They’re not as sophisticated as you, Paul says, and you are causing them to sin by participating in idol feasts. It’s not a sin for you, because you know an idol is nothing, but Johnny over there is afraid that Zeus is real, so it’s a sin for him.

You know, I think we could substitute any number of issues in the space of “food sacrificed to idols,” couldn’t we? What would you substitute? What isn’t a sin for you, but could be an occasion to stumble for your neighbor? Or turn it around: what isn’t a sin for your neighbor, but would be for you? The fact is, Paul isn’t really talking about food sacrificed to idols. That’s merely the example that is closest to hand in Corinth when he wrote this letter. Paul’s really talking about how do you live in Christian community. We still need help figuring that out today, don’t we?

Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. That’s Paul’s advice for us today. You’re not saved by what you know, in other words. Do you notice what Paul doesn’t do? He doesn’t try to correct the person with the weak conscience. He doesn’t really attempt any explanation at why eating food sacrificed to idols isn’t a sin, not really. What he does do is say, if this thing that I am doing is something that destroys my sister or brother in Christ’s faith, then I will never do it again.

And oh, but that’s hard to preach to all of you today, because I really want to be right, and Paul says that that doesn’t matter. Paul says that concern with being right, the one that we all have, the one that is displayed every second of every day by the talking heads on the 24-hour cable news channels, that concern with being right that our society is sick with, that doesn’t matter at all. Being right doesn’t save us. Love saves us.

And love is really what Paul is talking about all the time in First Corinthians. It’s easy to get distracted by all the bits about fornication and prostitutes that we’ve heard in the Lectionary for the past few weeks, but if you sit down and read First Corinthians through, Paul is talking about love. Remember, this is the epistle of Paul that has that most beloved of wedding passages: Love is patient, love is kind. That’s the climax of the letter. That’s what Paul builds to. That’s what Paul wants us to remember this morning, and every morning. That’s how he ends the letter, in fact: Let everything that you do be done in love. (1 Cor 16:14)

How do we focus on loving one another, instead of being right? God only knows. God only knows. That’s what Paul would tell us if he were here today. None of us have this love thing figured out, but God does. God, who in Jesus Christ, loved us to the end. Who showed us how to walk in love, and gave himself for us, an offering and sacrifice to God. A better sacrifice than what was available in the temple of Zeus. Probably still a better sacrifice than what’s down at the club of your choice today. And I don’t have this walking in love thing figured out, but I do know how it starts for me this morning: right up those steps to that altar. To stand there and to receive the bread and the wine, to hold Love Himself in the palm of my hand, to receive strength to let go of the need to be right, to receive grace to love my neighbor as myself.