Monday, March 16, 2015

God loves the it or not!

Lent 4:  Numbers 21:4-9, John 3:14-21

"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life."

John 3:16.  The most popular, most well-known, most quoted text in scripture:  For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.

It’s on bumper stickers on signs.  It’s worn on sports jerseys.  We’ve seen it etched into the black grease paint underneath football player’s eyes.  Advertising that verse is doing…..what?

Sharing a personal belief?  Evangelizing?  Proselytizing?  Starting an argument?  I saw it regularly in my NYC commute through Times Square subway - a sandwich sign with 3:16 painted on it next to a man yelling.  Sadly, I think that’s how many people come in contact with this scripture – and in that context I think it’s interpreted like this:

God loved the world so much that he sacrificed his son Jesus and if you don’t believe in Jesus you are going to perish in eternal damnation – while all the Christians are going to heaven.  So there.

Martin Luther said 3:16 summarized the entirety of the New Testament. I can’t believe he would think such a transaction-oriented theology was saving grace.

I was reading a Lutheran pastor’s blog this week and he talked about a sermon where he said, when we do baptism – the priest should add four words to the Trinitarian blessing.  We should say, “In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit…like it or not!”  Baptism being the outward sign of an inward reality – that no matter what – God loves us – me and you – and all those people I don’t like, too – no matter what, like it or not.  There is nothing I can do that would ever get God to take God’s love away from me. (David Lose, In The Meantime, Lent 4B, 2015)

We can’t take away God’s love – because God is the one who gives it.

Apparently there was a dad in his congregation who took the sermon to heart.  He was putting his 5 year old son to bed one night.  The child didn’t want to go to bed.  He was mad, he wanted to stay up.  Been there, done that.  And he said, “Good night, I love you.”  And his son replied angrily – “well, I hate you.”

“Well, I’m sorry you feel that way, but I love you.” His dad said.
“Don’t say that!” – which surprised his dad, who said again,  “I’m sorry, but it’s true, I love you.”
“Don’t say it again!”  his son yelled – and the dad remembering the words of his pastor’s sermon said, “I’m sorry, son but I love you – like it or not!”

Why was his son getting so mad at his dad for saying he loved him?  Because he realized he couldn’t control his dad.  Saying “I hate you” to his dad didn’t do what he wanted – he wanted his dad to say, “No!  Don’t say that – ok, ok, I’ll let you stay up and eat ice cream and go to bed whenever you want.”  The child wants to believe that he can manipulate his parent’s love – by rejecting it.  But – as I hope every parent would say – we love our kids, no matter what, right?  It’s unconditional.

We don’t have power over that kind of love.  We can choose to reject it – or run away from it – or deny it by pretending it isn’t there – but we can’t manipulate it – we can’t control it.  Nor does it want to control us.  It’s an offering, a true gift.

God loves the world in this way –  another way of translating that beginning part – God so loved the world.  You can also hear, say, read – God loves the world in this way – like it or not.

So, I read the New York Times and the Washington Post pretty regularly – and I’ve noticed a trend.  A number of op-eds lately where people are writing about their own death. Just a few weeks ago, Oliver Sacks (book, “The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat”, movie “Awakenings”) has been given a terminal diagnosis – he wrote a piece about how he will be spending his time, now that time has irrevocably changed.   And then just this week I read two pieces, one in the Post, a neurosurgeon Paul Kalanthi, he died on Monday only 37, wrote about the incredible joy he felt every minute he spent with his infant daughter – a joy he did not think he would’ve known in the same way if he wasn’t dying.  And then one in the Times written by a retired grief therapist, David Melham (don’t know him) who has ALS.  His article was entitled “Momento Mori” – Latin for “remember that you will die.”

And he wrote this – which I found particularly beautiful – “The awareness of premature or unexpected endings can motivate us to routinely demonstrate our love to those important to us. Let’s not save our affection, as if a rare wine, for special occasions. [Let us] Give and receive it as essential nourishment. (3/11/15 NY Times).”

We start Lent on Ash Wednesday with those familiar words as a sign of our mortality – remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.

I don’t believe we are to remember our mortality so that we focus on the life hereafter, that’s not all eternal life is.  I think we are to remember our mortality so that we are motivated to love the world the way God does, right now.  The way we do when we’re aware of how fleeting life is – at that time we don’t ration our love, doling it out for special occasions – it pours out, as the essential nourishment it is.  We participate in God’s eternal life, now.

God loves the world in this way – like it or not.  Jesus did not advertise this verse to evangelize, proselytize or start arguments.  He was having a conversation with one man, late at night who came to see him.  And it was a religious man, someone who had already given thought to God, and God’s relationship with him.

Perhaps Nicodemus is seeking something deeper than a religion built on a “if you believe this, if you do this, than you get some reward.”  Maybe that childish theology isn’t working for him anymore – just as it stops working for most of us at some point. Is Nicodemus more aware of his mortality than most?  Could that be why he sneaks out late at night to secretly talk to this guy who has stirred something in him? We’ll never know.  But he is searching for the eternal.  Nicodemus seeks Jesus out.  He is knocking on doors – asking to receive.  Isn’t there something Jesus encourages us to do when we want answers from God?

And in the conversation, Jesus references this passage from Numbers to show God’s healing power isn’t easy, it isn’t the love of greeting cards and cheap sentiment.  The Israelites had to look up and gaze upon the very thing that hurt them to be healed.  Now, all the people (not just the Israelites) will have to do the same thing, in a deeper and more profound way.  They will have to look up and gaze upon the pain of love – the love that can dash expectations and disappoints, the love that foolishly proclaims strength in weakness, the kind of love we have no power over because it is more powerful than us.  We need to see that “no matter what love” in order to be healed.

For God loves the world in this way.  And we may – Jesus tells us its a choice – look up and see – or look away.  Like that child who says – don’t say that – don’t show me that you love me no matter what.

And if we chose not to see, are we punished for that? Would the dad punish his petulant child? No.  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn, but to save.  Our judgement is our decision. God loves us all no matter what.  And, I think most of us in our own way know that when we choose the darkness – and all of us have at various times, right – that in and of itself is its own punishment.

John 3:16 is a very important verse and I think the way we understand it - is the way we understand God.  And the way we understand God, determines the way we are in the world.  Is your God one who doles out rewards and punishments based on actions?  With the cross being a symbol to invoke guilt for sacrifice?  Or is it a symbol of God’s power in love, lifted high to show all the world the kind of love that saves us whether we like it or not?

And which God do you think would return, resurrected without one word of condemnation towards those who rejected and killed him - but instead sharing the same, familiar words he always had – remember I love you, I forgive you and I am with you always.  Amen.

The Rev. Arianne R. Weeks

Monday, March 9, 2015

The Foolishness of Holy Wisdom

Third Sunday in Lent: Exodus 20:1-17; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-22

For God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength.

Have you heard the saying – if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.  It’s a Buddhist (obviously) koan.  A koan is teaching tool kind of like what we call a parable.  The intention of both is to “shake-up” rational thinking – to turn conventional wisdom on its head.

For instance – one of Jesus’ parables in Matthew is – the kingdom of God is like a man who finds a pearl of great price and sells everything he has to acquire that pearl (Matt 13:45) On the surface that sounds ok – but if you apply reason – it doesn’t make sense.  You sell everything you have for a pearl?  What are you going to do with just a pearl – you can’t eat it or live in it or wear it.  To sell everything you have for one pearl is foolish.  That’s the point of parables.  Jesus uses foolishness to upend our thinking – because the kingdom of God – the kingdom of radical grace, love and acceptance is indeed pure foolishness, and giving up everything to acquire it is anything but rational.

A koan serves a similar purpose.  And this one – if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him – doesn’t sound reasonable does it?  Why would a Buddhist kill the one they follow? The Buddha is the Enlightened One – we might say, what Jesus is for us, the Buddha is for Buddhists.  Your life is the road, it’s a fairly straightforward metaphor.  So the teaching is - if you meet what you think is Enlightenment – in yourself, in another teacher, in a concept you learn or devise – kill it.   Because if you think you know it all, if you think you’ve finally got it – that’s an idol.  Destroy the image, let go of the concept and focus back on the road, the journey, the practice.

Jesus is killing idols and concepts in our gospel.  In fact in all the lessons this morning I pick-up on a theme of God wanting God’s people to understand our relationship with God is ever-evolving, just like our understanding of who/what God “is”.  And when we think we have finally got “it” – when we think we have it all figured out – that is its own stumbling block.  That can be the downfall of the religious.

In John’s gospel this story of Jesus overturning the temples takes place right at the beginning of his ministry.  We’re only in the second chapter when Jesus has this outburst in the temple.  And if you don’t find my mixing of religious metaphors too blasphemous – than I submit that the Temple is the proverbial Buddha on the road and Jesus knows to destroy it.

You see, Jesus isn’t mad about the fees the priests are charging.  Jesus is not angry about temple mismanagement – he does not call them a “den of robbers” as he does in the other gospels.  His actions are a literal overturning of a fixed concept of God.  The temple system had its run, but it’s finished.  It’s become to constricting, access to God controlled by the religious authorities.  But God does not need the temple system and God wants people to worship the living God to be met on the road.  The relationship with God is evolving.  It’s been evolving since the beginning, and at this point, God is incarnate right there in front of them – in the person – the living breathing power of humanity – that is Jesus Christ.

Remember later in John’s gospel, just a few chapters later actually – when Jesus meets the woman at the well?  Remember that story?  He asks the woman for some water from the well and they get to talking.  She says to Jesus – I can tell you are a prophet, and our ancestors said we are to worship on this mountain, but you say we are to worship in Jerusalem.  And Jesus replies – believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem – but you will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him (4:20-23).  That is who God wants to be in relationship with.

Not a people who have made a religious system their God.  Jesus is smashing that concept.  Jesus is enacting a new reality. Because God is doing a new thing in and through Jesus.

Do any of you remember back in 2003 when the then Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court Roy Moore, was ordered by the federal appeals court to remove his 5,000+ pound monument of the 10 commandments that he had erected in the middle of the Alabama State Judicial building?  It got a lot of press.  And later when he was campaigning for another office, he took the monument on tour.

I remember reading an article from The Atlantic at the time that described how the monument was transported.  (

Apparently it traveled on the flatbed of a large truck and would be hoisted aloft by a 5-ton crane that audibly groaned and visibly buckled with the weight of Chief Justice Moore’s concretized interpretation of God’s granite rules of law.

That is not a helpful visual for Christianity.  We follow a savior who says, my yoke is easy and my burden is light.  Not a god who imposes written-in-stone restrictions that feel like a soul crushing 5-ton weight around our neck.  And when one person tries to impose their vision of God’s law…well, doesn’t that make them a god?  Doesn’t that create a stumbling block for people who want to be in a mutual, life-giving and loving relationship built on hope?  If that’s how people see organized religion, are we really surprised that more people these days prefer to be spiritual over being religious?

And what’s ironic to me (and it doesn’t take a Masters of Divinity or a degree of any kind), to see that the words God speaks, and God calls them words, not commandments – are intended to help us live and live well.  God’s words encourage rest. God’s words encourage respect for ourselves and for one another.  God’s words were given to God’s people – AFTER – God had granted them freedom and release – not before, as some sort of conditional contract.

And isn’t Jesus the Word of God?  The living, breathing, incarnate Word sent to release us from the burdens history shows we impose on ourselves when we let our time-based and culture-bound concepts become idols.  Our systems become gods.  When we think we completely understand God and God’s ways, we prevent God from overturning the tables and doing something new.  

So, this gets us to Paul.  This is what he is frustrated about.  Paul writes – the Jews demand signs and the Greeks desire wisdom – but we proclaim Christ crucified.  And the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us – it is the power of God.

We proclaim Christ crucified.  Does that make sense to you?  Is that rational?  How is a person, dying on a cross, naked, abandoned, and ashamed – a symbol of Almighty power?

It is the ultimate table-turning, idol-smashing divine act meant to upend any and all rigid concepts of God and God’s power.  And it is only that death of what we think God is, what we think power is – that leads to resurrection.

It is not reasoned – love never is.  It is not rational – forgiveness rarely is.  It is not an intellectual exercise.  For we believe God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

What is the foolish act of love in your life that you keep reasoning yourself out of?

Where is the weakness in your life that you keep covering up because it is impossible and probably terrifying to believe that in proclaiming your weakness – God’s power will pull you through?

What rigid way of thinking on your road do you need to kill, let go of, break free from, so that you might know the liberating and foolish freedom of good news?  Because that – whatever that is – is something worth giving up for Lent.  Amen.

The Rev. Arianne R. Weeks

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Hope When Things Seem Hopeless

The Second Sunday of Lent
Romans 4:13-25
The Rev. Joshua Rodriguez-Hobbs

Have you ever hoped against hope? That’s what Paul says that Abraham did. Our lesson from the Hebrew Bible this morning tells us that Abraham was ninety-nine years old when God promised a son to him and Sarah. Having a baby when you’re ninety-nine, that’s probably the definition of hoping against hope, isn’t it? Abraham hoped against hope because the God in whom he believed gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. What kind of faith does it take to hope like that? Who since Abraham has ever believed that strongly in the promises of God, never wavering, but growing stronger in faith day by day? Not me, if I’m honest. How about you?

Sometimes, I wonder if we’re not in the business of hoping against hope as a church. That’s not something I want to write on my business cards: “hoper against hope,” but there are days when it feels like that’s what I do professionally. I was meeting with my spiritual director a few weeks ago, and as we’ve tended to do during our meetings for the past year, the topic of the number of funerals we’ve had at Good Shepherd lately came up. My spiritual director shared with me that the only other church she knew of that had had as many funerals as we have lately was the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen. I want you to let that sink in. We shouldn’t be in the same ballpark as Mary Our Queen on anything, but yet we are. It sure feels like I’m hoping against hope. I don’t know about you, but that’s what it feels like for me.

We had another funeral this past week. Afterward, Arianne and I were talking, and we realized that in the past year, we’ve both memorized the majority of the burial service. Neither one of us set out to do it, that’s not one of the parts of the Book of Common Prayer that they tell you to memorize when you’re training to become a priest, but that’s where we both are. When Irealized this, my first reaction was sadness. How sad it is that we’ve lost so many members of this community. And it is sad. But as I’ve thought about it more, I think memorizing the burial service has been a large part of what’s kept me going this past year. When I go to pray, the words that come to my lips are those great hoping against hope words that we say at funerals:

As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives and that at the last he will stand upon the earth. After my awaking, he shall raise me up; and in my body I shall see God. I myself shall see, and my eyes behold him, who is my friend and not a stranger.

For to your faithful people, O Lord, life is changed, not ended, and when our mortal body lies in death, there is prepared for us a dwelling place eternal in the heavens.

In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ…

This is what Paul is talking about. This is the faith we, like Abraham, have in the God who gives new life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. It’s right there at every funeral, when we, the people of God, gather together in the midst of our tears to celebrate the resurrection. When we pull out white vestments and flowers and alleluias—even in Lent!—and we proclaim that Christ is risen, and we will rise too. This is hoping against all hope. This is being the church.

I don’t just see this at funerals, for the record. If you look around, God is still calling into existence things that do not exist. Things are happening right here, at Good Shepherd. Go and talk to someone one the Outreach Committee about 1K Churches, a new ministry that is being piloted here at Good Shepherd to use our endowment to make micro loans so that people living in Baltimore can break the cycle of poverty. A year ago, this ministry didn’t exist. Not at Good Shepherd, not anywhere. But Bob Locke heard someone talking about this idea, and it made a spark in his heart, and he began to share this spark with other people, and God is calling a new thing into being at Good Shepherd. I could name many other examples of things like this: this Lent our Spiritual Enrichment Committee is partnering with other parishes to do Christian Formation together for the first time! We had more funerals in 2014 than any year in recent memory, but we also had more baptisms! God is still in the business of breathing new life into us and calling new things into existence! We are still here, and we still hope!

For the record, as much as I love the passage we heard this morning from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, Paul gets Abraham’s story wrong.Yes, Abraham hoped against hope, but his trust in God wavered, too. It wavered a lot in fact. If you read Genesis, Abraham spends as much time doubting as he does believing, if not more. Just like me. Just like you, I’d imagine. There are times when it’s hard for me to hope, but when they come, I catch just enough of a glimpse of God still at work in this world to keep me holding out hope just a bit longer. That’s what the Kingdom of God is like. Paul Tillich, a famous theologian, once said: “[t]he Kingdom of God does not come in one dramatic event sometime in the future. It is coming here and now in every act of love, in every manifestation of truth, in every moment of joy, in every experience of the holy.”

Our job, as the church, is to partner with one another in pointing out these glimpses we catch of God’s Kingdom, helping one another to hope against hope, sure that the God in whom we have believed is still in the business of giving life to the dead and calling into existence the things that do not exist.