Monday, April 27, 2015

Practice the Ways of the Shepherd

The Fourth Sunday of Easter
Acts 4:5-12; Psalm 23
1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18

O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people: Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads; who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Do any of you know what a dharma talk is?  It’s from the Buddhist tradition – and it means teaching.  It’s basically the Buddhist version of a Christian sermon.  Not too long ago, I was listening to a dharma talk via podcast ( about knowing.  What is knowing?  What does it mean to know something?   That word appears several times in our readings and prayers this morning, so what does it mean in those contexts.  And do we assume since we’re the ones gathered in church that we are also the ones ‘in the know’ when it comes to God?  

Well here’s the story – Steve and Sally lived together in an apartment and one night Steve said to Sally, “hey, let’s invite my mom over for dinner!”

“Really?” Sally said. “Ok, that’s fine by me – let’s say Tuesday”

Steve calls his mom,  “Hey mom!  What are you doing on Tuesday?  I was wondering if you wanted to come over and have dinner with me and my roommate Sally?”

“Honey.”  Steve’s mom replied, “Don’t you mean your girlfriend? I’d love to come over for dinner I’ve been dying to meet her.”

“Mom, I’ve told you 100x!  Sally is not my girlfriend.  She’s my roommate!”

“Ok, ok, Steve – whatever you say – I’d love to accept your invitation for Tuesday and join you and your ROOMMATE for dinner.”

So – it’s Tuesday – Steve and Sally make pork chops – it’s delicious – they have a lovely time.  About a week later Sally says to Steve – have you seen the spatula lately?  Steve says, what are you talking about?  The spatula, Sally says, this is going to sound totally weird but the last time I saw the spatula was when your mom came over for dinner – could you just ask her about it?  “Are you saying you think my mom stole the spatula?”  “Just saying I haven’t seen it since then.”  “Fine, I’ll ask her.”

“Mom – hey.  This is going to sound totally crazy, but I have to ask you – any chance you took our spatula?  Take it?  Don’t be ridiculous I didn’t take it.  But I can tell you this.  If you and Sally really were just roommates you’d both know exactly where that spatula is – just like I know exactly what is going on between the two of you.   So, why don’t you and your girlfriend go into her room, look under her pillow, and get your spatula.

When you know something you know it, right?  (Mother’s possibly being even being more in the know than the rest of us)  But that’s the “truth” of the story is that knowing is intuitive, it’s in the gut.  It’s that Supreme Court justice quote from decades ago – I can’t always define it, but I know it when I see it.

This morning we hear Jesus say, “I am the good shepherd.  I know my own and my own know me.”  We hear in the epistle – supposedly written by the same person who wrote John’s gospel – “We know love by this that he laid down his life for us and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”

And together we opened our service by praying – Grant, O God, that when we hear Jesus’ voice we may know him who calls each of us by name and follow where he leads.”

So how do we know the voice of the Good Shepherd when we hear it?  My personal and shared experiences lead me to believe that most of us, most of the time – would like to know a lot more.  Most of the time we’d like to hear a much louder voice, with crystal clear directions telling us what to do, when to do it, how to do it and who to do it with.  So what is this knowing that God is asking us to follow?

John’s gospel – and John’s letter – are both so…what’s the word…nice, digestible, easily taken in.  Our images of the Good Shepherd are always with Jesus – a blonde haired, blue-eyed (yet somehow Middle Eastern) Jesus – cradling a baby sheep in his arm with some more gathered around his feet.  And John’s letter – with its – little children, beloved, let us love one another.  It sounds so easy – almost trite – as if all there is to being a Christian is simply getting along, being nice and always, above all, being in agreement.

That’s not what’s happening in the context of either scripture passage.  Both the gospel and the letter were written to communities of the world, communities deeply divided over the issues of their time.  When, I ask you, has there ever been a time when a community (especially a faith community) was all of one mind for very long?  People were fighting – viciously – over the age old question (specifics aren’t really necessary) of who was right.  Who was in the right group, who was doing the right things, who was believing the right things?  Who were the ones really in the know?

And in the gospel and letter – the writer tries to get the listeners to rise above the immediate conflict – encourages the group, and individuals, to see a bigger picture, take a longer view, particularly one that sees past their own needs towards the needs of the wider group.  The writers don’t specifically describe the problems (although the wolf and hired hands of the gospel imply not everyone in the current flock is really in it for the long haul) – the writers direct our gaze away from the problem towards the answer.  Towards the one who says I AM the Good Shepherd.  Just like he said, I AM the Bread of Life.  I AM the Light of the World.  I AM the Vine.

I AM the way, the truth and the life.  Both readings point, not to the problem, not telling them what to do so much as how – look to the way, look to the truth, look to Jesus to know what to do.

Josh quipped, not too long ago, in a sermon about when you don’t know the answer to something in church – just say, Jesus.  If we don’t “know” the voice of God in our lives – if we’re struggling to hear the call, the direction, the answer to a problem we face – if we are struggling to know what to do – the Good Shepherd really does provide some concrete direction.

I AM the light of the world – which choice shines light on the issues, the reality of a situation?  Which path is about letting light in – versus keeping myself or others in the dark?

I AM the Bread of Life – I AM the Resurrection – which action leads to new life?  What words, lead to restoration and reconciliation – what feeds literally and what feeds healthy relationships between people?

I think the knowing that we hear about today – is partly intuitive – but it is also something we chose to strengthen through practice.  That’s why scripture is a living text.  For the human stories – including Christ’s – tell the story again and again – of broken relationships, broken people, broken communities being restored – being reconciled – being brought to new life – through the words and actions – of ordinary people trying to follow the voice that leads to life.

But sometimes our personal situations are too much.  Presently our city’s situation, as we join the long list of cities struggling with systemic issues in our stratified society seem so overwhelming we might believe there is nothing we can do.   But one other scripture this morning points to practical knowledge for us.  Psalm 23 – that well-known psalm – written by someone on a journey – who describes complete trust in God’s presence – complete trust that no matter what – God walks with us through the worst we could ever know.

God is there when we feel surrounded by those who don’t like us.  And God wants us to know – that God will find a way to lead us to restoration, to rest and healing.  God wants us to know – that goodness and mercy are before and behind us always.  God wants us to know that we abide in God and God abides in us – forever and forever and forever.

If we practice that knowing, if we pray that knowing – as often and as faithfully as we can – we will know the voice of the Good Shepherd wherever we may go.  Amen.

The Rev. Arianne R. Weeks

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Heart of the Gospel

The Second Sunday after Easter, Year B
1 John 1:1-2:2
The Rev. Joshua Rodriguez-Hobbs

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. 

This is the heart of the Gospel. If you asked someone to pick one verse of the Bible to sum the whole thing up, most people would probably pick John 3:16: 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. If you asked me, though, I’d pick 1 John 2:1, the verse I just quoted from our epistle this morning.

The author of 1 John wrote this book, which isn’t, technically, a letter, sometime between the end of the first century and the beginning of the second.He’s writing as the first generation of Christians—the apostles and others who had actually seen Jesus—were dying, and this book is addressed to people who had never met Jesus Christ, people like us. He’s eager to assure them that Jesus was a real person, and more than just a person, but God Incarnate, the Word of Life. He wants this new generation of Christians to know that he met Jesus, saw him, heard him, touched him. But more than that, he wants them to know what it means to be a Christian. And so he says, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. 

The Christian life is lived between those two poles: between pursuing holiness and receiving forgiveness when we fall short. It may seem strange to talk of sin during Eastertide, after all, in our worship services, we don’t include a confession of sin during the Great Fifty Days of Easter because during this season we are celebrating that, by his death, Christ has destroyed death and broken sin’s power over us. Christ has put away all our sins, so to help us remember this, we take fifty days to omit confession. But Eastertide is the time when we dwell on the deep truths of the Christian faith, and the author of 1 John is talking about what it means to be saved.

For John, being saved is not something that happens at one instant in time—at baptism or when we accept Christ as our Lord and savior. Salvation is a process, a way of life. It means walking in the light of God, just as Jesus walked in the light. John gives us three clues as to what this looks like. First, we cannot claim to follow Jesus while walking in darkness. We have to walk the walk as well as talk the talk. We actually have to be pursuing holiness, attempting as best we can to live as Jesus lived. Second, we are lying to ourselves if we claim to be sinless. Pursuing holiness does not mean that we have to be perfect, but it does mean that we have to be honest with ourselves. Third, if we claim to be sinless, we make God a liar. The Gospel, the Good News of God in Christ, is the story of how God saved us from slavery to sin. If we claim to be sinless, we’re essentially saying that we don’t need saving, which God says we do.

These three clues about salvation boil down to what John says in 1 John 2:1: I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin.  But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. That’s also, for the record, what we say in our Baptismal Covenant. We’re asked: Will you persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? And we say: I will, with God’s help.

That’s refreshingly honest to me. Our promise isn’t that we are going to do this on our own. It presumes that we’re going to need God’s help even to repent. But it also presumes that God will always give us that help. That presumption is based on 1 John’s promise.  The sense of the Greek that the author actually wrote is when someone sins, not if. When we fall short, because we will, Christ will intercede for us, and not for us alone, but for the whole world. In fact, Christ is already interceding for us, because in Christ sin has been done away with. My sins, your sins, the sins we haven’t even committed yet. It’s all gone, done away with by Christ once for all upon the hard wood of the cross.

A few weeks ago, I was talking to an atheist acquaintance about Christianity. It was right after Ash Wednesday, and he remarked that he couldn’t understand why Christians loved groveling in our sin, our sense of being unworthy. He saw it as perversely neurotic. I told him that I didn’t see it that way. I still done. I find Christianity refreshingly honest, because it makes it okay for me to admit that I am not perfect. There aren’t that many places in our culture today where you can say that. We’re driven by performance. We’re told that you have to get things right. We judge one another harshly. In Jesus Christ, I find the courage I need to admit that I fall short. I find grace as Jesus picks me up when I stumble. I find the strength I need to admit that I am not perfect, and that is okay.

The Gospel is the opposite of moralism. The reason we can’t claim to be sinless is because that is another form of walking in  darkness. When we claim to be perfect, we are claiming to be God, because only God is perfect. There is freedom in admitting that we are not God. There is freedom in admitting our imperfection. That is what the Gospel is about. This is why Jesus calls it a message of release to the captives. We are held captive by our own need to be perfect.

Pursue holiness. Strive to be like Jesus. Receive forgiveness when you inevitably fall short. Begin anew. Practice resurrection, preparing for the day when everything shall be made new by God, including us. That is the Gospel.

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.


Tuesday, April 7, 2015

No Way to Run a Resurrection

Easter Day, Year B
The Rev. Joshua Rodriguez-Hobbs

Let’s be honest: Who here thought that our Gospel reading this morning ended strangely? Dare I say inappropriately? You came here this morning to hear about the Risen Christ, and Mark offers you… nothing. That’s the central feature of Mark’s resurrection story: an empty tomb. Nothing. That’s also what Mary Magdalene, and the other Mary and Salome say—nothing. They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. Isn’t that a bit unsatisfying? Anti-climactic?

You’re not alone if you’re thinking that. Our earliest and best copies of Mark’s Gospel end where our reading did this morning, but two other people—known to us as Matthew and Luke—found this ending so inappropriate that they wrote their own gospels. Later, people added stories taken from Matthew and Luke to the end of their copies of Mark, so that the Risen Jesus meets with the disciples in Galilee. But Mark never wrote those stories. He just ends his gospel with an empty tomb and terrified women.

In a way, I think that’s true to life. Mark doesn’t end things neatly for us because life doesn’t end neatly. There’s no fairy-tale ending for us this morning because that would ring false. None of us were there that first Easter morning. None of us saw the Risen Christ or put our fingers in his nail-scarred hands. Mark, and Mark alone of all the Gospels, places us in the same position as the first witnesses of the resurrection. They don’t see Jesus, either. All any of us have to go on is an empty tomb and a promise.

That’s no way to run a resurrection. If I’d have been in charge that day, I would have paraded Jesus around Jerusalem. I’d have shown him off to the crowds gathered there to celebrate the Passover. I’d have taken him to the Chief Priests and to Pilate, just to rub their noses in their failure. I’d have made sure that as many people as possible saw Jesus, so there could be no doubt that he had risen. But I wasn’t in charge, and that’s the point of Mark’s Gospel.

Christ’s resurrection is not about God overwhelming all our doubts with unassailable proof of God’s existence. No, Christ’s resurrection is instead the ultimate sign of God’s faithfulness in the face of our unfaithfulness.

Mark is the Gospel where the disciples always get it wrong. They are always misunderstanding the parables Jesus tells, or missing the point of what he’s talking about. One time, Jesus tells his disciples to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees—by which he meant their teaching. Mark tells us that the disciples thought he said this because they’d forgotten to buy bread. Another time Jesus predicts that he will die and be raised on the third day. Right after he says that, James and John raise their hands and ask, “When you become king, can we be number two and number three in your kingdom?”

The disciples don’t understand Jesus’ message. It’s no surprise that by the end of Good Friday, Peter and the other disciples have fled. Only the women are left. Only Mary Magdalene and the other Mary and Salome. We might hope that they’ll do better, but they don’t expect to find the Risen Christ on Sunday morning. They’re bringing spices to a tomb to anoint a dead body. They don’t get it, either. They flee, too.

But Christ is in Galilee, waiting all the same. That’s what the young man at the tomb promises. That’s what Jesus himself promised, before he went to Jerusalem, “After I am raised, you will see me in Galilee.” The disciples didn’t understand, but Jesus is faithful and goes to Galilee all the same.

The miracle of Easter is that in the face of all of these human failings, Jesus is still faithful. Jesus still wants to be in relationship the disciples, even Peter, and with all of us. Who could blame Jesus if he’d come back angry and ready to punish the people who’d crucified him or the disciples who deserted him?  But he didn’t. He doesn’t. The relationship holds. Jesus proves that he is faithful, even when we are not.

By human standards, this is no way to run a resurrection. The fact is, however, that the message of the cross and the empty tomb is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those of us who are being saved it is the power of God. God’s ways are not our ways. That is the good news of Easter. The good news of Jesus Christ is that it doesn’t depend on us. It doesn’t depend on us getting it right or being faithful or even, honestly, believing. It all depends on Jesus, who is faithful for us.

This is no way to run a resurrection. This is the only way to run a resurrection. We don’t have proof, but we have a promise. Christ is going before us. Christ will meet us on the way. If you want to find Christ today, don’t come to church (even though I’m happy that you are here today, and hope that you’ll come back). If you want to find Jesus, go out those doors and meet the Risen Christ in the world. He’s there, waiting faithfully. So, let us go forth from this place today proclaiming: Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Friday, April 3, 2015

Good Friday Meditation: Here I am

Good Friday
Genesis 22:1-14; Hebrews 10:16-25
Psalm 22; John 18:1-19:42

Here we are, again.  As we read this gospel year in and year out – as we move through these liturgical seasons, these always the same but always different services in holy week, I find myself wondering what are we supposed to be feeling?

On Palm Sunday we do much of what we do on Good Friday.  We read the passion gospel (today John, last Sunday Mark).  But we do the liturgy of the palms first.  We hear that story of triumphal entry, we wave our palm branches, and we walk inside singing one of the most royal sounding processionals we have – all glory, laud and honor to thee redeemer king!  We settle into our pews – or chairs – and do what we do – the readings, the psalms.  And finally – the gospel as drama – (as we just did) with all of us taking part in the proclamation of Jesus being betrayed – condemned – denied.

And, following that, naturally, the mood of the service shifts.  We are talking about death, and a brutal one at that.  And on Palm Sunday we end our service not with our usual joy-filled processional that leads us out into the world, but quietly we sing – O sacred head sore wounded (at 9am) – or Were you there when they crucified my Lord.  And, with that one especially, a fair number of people cry.  And many people come up to me later to share that it was a meaningful service.  A very moving service.

So I wonder – what is it that we are being moved by or towards?  On days like today, days like Palm Sunday?  We are a resurrected people, are we not – what is the point of feeling sorrowful on this day we call good?

Let’s back up and take a look at our earlier story of sacrifice – the one God was moved to stop.  Abraham doesn’t seem to be feeling anything in this infamous story about his son from Genesis. Another pretty horrific story – God’s testing Abraham in this way.  But we don’t hear him protest or weep or even question what’s being asked of him.  He sounds almost robotic in his replies.

Here I am.  Stay here.  The Lord will provide.  Does he even feel anything?

Well, let’s cut him some slack.  I’m guessing Abraham is exhausted.  If we take Genesis at its word – then at this point – Abraham is 100 years old!  Whatever the exact age, he’s at the end of his life.  And by the time this “test” comes – life, as it tends to do – has already tested Abraham many times over.

Abraham left his homeland.  Made a covenant with God and set out into unknown territory.  He argued with God.  For the sake of saving the city of Sodom he set himself between them and the Almighty.  I won’t take us through all that Abraham endured – but Isaac wasn’t Abraham’s first son.  First there was Ishmael.  His mother, Hagar, a slave in Abraham’s household bore him a son.  And Sarah his wife, who then bore Isaac, wanted Ishmael out of the picture. Sarah tells Abraham to sacrifice Hagar and Ishmael by sending them into the desert where it is assumed by all, they would die.

That event takes place just prior to this one – and there we read – Abraham was greatly distressed.  No, this story with Isaac is not the first time Abraham has been tested, not by any means.  He has already been through this and it was agonizing.  But the example Abraham gives us time and time again in the story of his life – is faith, trust.  Abraham never stops walking.  He never stops believing in that promise God made at the beginning.  And indeed an angel appears to Hagar and God does provide.  Although it isn’t made clear in the text if Abraham knows what becomes of Ishmael.

So maybe at this point, with Isaac Abraham is spent.  It’s not that he doesn’t feel – it’s that he’s moved beyond the emotional level.  It is not that he isn’t terrified of what is being asked of him.  He does ask the men with him to stay back and wait with the donkey.  Doesn’t that indicate he can’t bear the thought of what those men are about to see?

And it doesn’t matter what they would see, anyway.  God sees.  God knows what surrounds Abraham’s heart. Take your son, God says, your only son, whom you love.  Love.  Love is the sacrifice God requires.  Burnt offerings mean nothing to you – says the psalmist, long before this story of Abraham was written.  A broken and contrite heart O Lord, you will not despise (51:17).

It is Love that God is asking Abraham to give.  And it seems to me – when people get to that self-giving love – people like Abraham, like Jesus, like Nelson Mandela, like Mother Teresa, like Martin Luther King, like all those who have gone before us, known and unknown, who gave themselves for the sake of others – when people get to that level of love – they have their eyes so firmly set on the prize that power radiates from them.  For they are abiding in the power of love, the power of God.

And Abraham’s simple response exhibits the fearless strength of the only thing any of us actually have to give God – Here I am.

When God calls Moses from the burning bush – he replies simply – Here I am.
When God asks Isaiah, who shall I send to the people – Isaiah replies, Here I am, Lord
When the angel appears before Mary to ask if she will bear the child of God – she replies – Here I am Lord.

(Perhaps if Peter had started – with Here I am – instead of jumping to false bravado – that would have given him the strength he needed to stand with Jesus.  But – at least he gets there, eventually.)

We do Palm Sundays and Good Fridays in this way so that we put ourselves in the story.  To ask ourselves – where am I right now turning away from God, from the suffering I do not want to see in my life, in my world?  Where do I need to say, Here I am, Lord.  Where do I need to embrace my humanity – the humanity Jesus shared – to connect all humanity?   Because to say – Here I am – is to bear witness and to partner, like all those prophets, in the power of God.

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

We are not here to bemoan the sacrifice of Jesus – because Jesus is still alive!  If the sacrifice is just a one-time act – there is no meaning to it – it is finite – it has no power.  The Love holds the power.  The Love that propels Jesus to nonviolent resistance.  The Love that allows Abraham to withhold nothing from the God he trusts could never wound him.

It is the crazy, foolish and irrational wisdom of Love that is lasting and infinite and eternal.  Therein lies the power to move mountains, and peoples, and change societies and histories.

God knows Abraham bears that Love.  God knows Jesus is that Love.  God sees all of us – struggle with the many tests life brings. Sometimes, with God’s help we are able to faithfully say, Here I am, Lord.  And sometimes we find we don’t have the power.

So – to get back to my own question – I wrestle with liturgy that has us feeling to maudlin on Palm Sunday or Good Friday.  It is not the intention of the church to create a funeral for Jesus.  It is the intention of the church to re-create the power of this story in our lives right now.  We are a resurrected people – who in Christ’s example see the power we all have of saying – Here I am.

Where are you?  And does the emotion we feel on this day – move you, me, us – to try and faithfully utter these words in our lives right now?  For the one who is calling you is faithful.  The one who is calling you is alive.  The one who is calling you is Love.

The Rev. Arianne R. Weeks