Monday, August 31, 2015

It's Not Really About the Traditions

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Proper 17, Year B
The Rev. Joshua Rodriguez-Hobbs

Why are you here this morning? I really mean that.  Why are you here this morning? Coming to church is not a default assumption in our culture today. Most Americans won’t be in church this morning. So why are you here? While we’re at it, why an Episcopal church? Why Good Shepherd?

I’m here because of The Book of Common Prayer. The first time I walked into an Episcopal church, I fell in love with its stately, measured language. I like the order and predictability it provides. I like knowing that I can walk into any parish, anywhere in the country, and know basically what I will be doing and saying before the service even begins. I like the fact that, no matter how I feel, the Prayer Book is always there, and so worship doesn’t depend on a certain emotional state. I’ll bet that at least some of you feel similarly. This book of ours is comforting. Our patterns of worship are familiar. We Episcopalians are a people of tradition.

Did today’s Gospel reading make you nervous? Jesus doesn’t sound like he’d approve of the BCP, does he?

Now, I don’t know if you noticed this, but there are two fairly large gaps in our Gospel reading this morning. Whenever you notice that any of our readings has a gap in it, you should wonder why. Honestly, it’s hard to explain why the people who put the Lectionary together cut out some of these portions. Sometimes, they’re really boring and technical bits: the lists of who begat whom or the precise dimensions of Solomon’s temple. Sometimes, they’re the juicy bits, the parts that if they were in a movie today would get an R-rating or are otherwise “inappropriate” for church. I’m pretty sure that’s why our reading skips verses 17-20. Jesus has a discussion with his disciples about bathroom activities there, and really, who wants to hear about that in church? And sometimes, the parts that get skipped are really important, and it makes no sense that we skip them, like Mark 7:9-13. In these verses, Jesus actually discusses what laws the Pharisees actually disregard. He’s not actually mad about hand washing. (Sorry kids, this isn’t the proof-text you hoped you were getting.)

These skipped verses say:
Then he said to them, ‘You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, “Honor your father and your mother”; and, “Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.” But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, “Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban” (that is, an offering to God)— then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.’ (Mark 7:9-13)
Now, perhaps the reason why we were supposed to skip these verses this morning is because we’re not actually sure what Jesus and the Pharisees are arguing about. We never hear about this practice of Corban anywhere else. It’s unclear why someone would want to take money that was going to go to their parents and turn around and give it to the Temple as an offering. It doesn’t seem like you’re getting anything out of it. It doesn’t help you keep your money. The only possible motivation I can think of is spite. But the point seems to be that the Pharisees have found a way to game the system. And by upholding this tradition, they’ve managed to nullify the fifth commandment: “Honor your father and mother.”

This would be the point where it would be really easy to make this a sermon about how awful the Pharisees were. But that isn’t good news. The truth is, the Pharisees were fairly well-liked and respected in Jesus’ day. They were a populist movement, whose emphasis was finding ways for the average person to practice holiness in their daily life. That’s the desire that stands behind all their traditions and washings and gifts to God. All of these traditions were supposed to draw people into the love of God, and, through doing that, also draw them into the love of their neighbor. The truth is, when you take away “I am the Son of God parts” from the Gospels, what’s left of Jesus’ teachings sound a lot like what we know of the Pharisees’ teachings. Besides all that, this is the one morning where we Episcopalians should feel sympathetic to the Pharisees, because we also like tradition. Sometimes we value it too much. Like this: 
How many Episcopalians does it take to change a light bulb? Ten. One to change the light bulb and nine to form a Society for the Preservation of the 1928 Light Bulb. That’s a little too close to home, isn’t it? But it’s true. How many of you still refer to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer as “the new prayer book?”

At their best, our traditions are vehicles that help us live into the commandment of God. And what is that commandment? What Jesus says to his disciples: Love one another as I have loved you. But we can misuse traditions, can’t we? We can get focused on the means, rather than the end. That’s, I think, why Jesus is arguing with the Pharisees. It isn’t about hand washing. It’s about that all-too-human desire to look for loopholes and ways to game the system. Love is hard. Love makes us vulnerable. It would be so much easier if there was a shortcut, wouldn’t it?

If at this point, I have been thoroughly depressing, and you’re wondering if I’m about to suggest that we get rid of the BCP and form up a praise band, here’s the good news. God doesn’t care about our traditions. We’re each called as individuals and as a community to guard against making our traditions into idols. But when that happens, when we give into this temptation, we can always update or replace them. And that’s okay. What matters, what Jesus cares about, is whether we are growing day by day in the love of God and love of neighbor. And, thank God, we don’t have to do that alone. We were never asked to do that. We were asked to do it, with God’s help. And thank God, God does help, even when we’re too busy focusing on tradition.


Sunday, August 23, 2015

Following Jesus Through Disappointment

Proper 16, Year B
John 6:56-69
The Rev. Joshua Rodriguez-Hobbs

Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.

Typically, Simon Peter’s words in this morning’s Gospel reading are taken as a triumphant confession of faith. In my seminary chapel, we’d sing them in a cheerful, major key as the Gospel Acclamation during Eastertide. But honestly, I’m not convinced that that’s how they sounded when Peter first spoke them.

Peter says these words in the immediate aftermath of the first great disappointment Jesus’ disciples experience in John’s Gospel. Ever since Jesus fed the five thousand men (and who knows how many more women and children there were) with five loaves of bread and two small fish—an amount of food roughly equal to two and a half Filet-O-Fish sandwiches—the crowd has been following Jesus around. Overnight, he went from twelve disciples to being the rabbi of a megasynagogue. And just as easily has he gained all these followers, he lost them.

Simon Peter and the others had all expected Jesus to fulfill the popular messianic expectations: to raise an army, defeat the Romans, and restore the Kingdom of Israel on earth. Jesus just raised an army and proved that God had given him the supernatural ability to feed it. Now it’s gone. Now what are the remaining disciples supposed to do? This is their first great disappointment, and it looks toward the second: the crucifixion. Jesus begins predicting his death at this point in John’s Gospel, because he has promised that the bread he will give for the life of the world is his flesh.

In Peter’s words this morning, I hear desperation, not triumph. Peter doesn’t say, “Why would we go anywhere else, Jesus?” He says, “This is the only place we have left.” In Jesus, the disciple’s despair and joy meet. And that paradox rings true in my own life. What about yours? It’s like Arianne said last week: for many people, the most powerful experience of God’s presence comes at some of the lowest points in their life, when they are caring for a dying loved one or trying to make sense of a tragic loss. The Book of Common Prayer puts it this way: “Yet even at the grave we make our song. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”

In the September issue of GQ magazine, there is an amazing interview with Stephen Colbert, the soon-to-be host of The Late Show. In this most unexpected of places, Colbert talks candidly about his faith, and especially how he made sense of his father's death in a plane crash when he was ten. Toward the end of the interview, there’s this wonderful passage:
[Colbert] said, “Boy, did I have a bomb when I was 10. That was quite an explosion. And I learned to love it. So that's why. Maybe, I don't know. That might be why you don't see me as someone angry and working out my demons onstage. It's that I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.” [. . .] I asked him if he could help me understand that better, and he described a letter from [J. R. R.] Tolkien in response to a priest who had questioned whether Tolkien's mythos was sufficiently doctrinaire, since it treated death not as a punishment for the sin of the fall but as a gift. “Tolkien says, in a letter back: ‘What punishments of God are not gifts?’ ” Colbert knocked his knuckles on the table. “‘What punishments of God are not gifts?’ ” he said again. His eyes were filled with tears.  “So it would be ungrateful not to take everything with gratitude. It doesn't mean you want it. I can hold both of those ideas in my head.”
What punishments of God are not gifts? I find that quote both compelling and disturbing. I’m hesitant to attribute the vagaries of life to either God’s punishment or God’s favor, but I have learned, and am continually learning, that God is present in times of disappointment and loss.

Just as Jesus abides with the twelve as they decide to abide with him in the face of their disappointment. In John’s Gospel, the word “abide” occurs repeatedly, and it’s at the heart of John’s concept of what it means to be a disciple. Jesus’ disciples are the ones who abide with Jesus, the ones who remain with him in the face of disappointment.

Jesus promises us that he will abide with us, too. This first disappointment points to the second. This promise of death points to the crucifixion.  But that, as we know, is not the end of the story. Jesus abides with the twelve, and with us, even after death. Jesus abides with us in disappointment, in despair. Jesus abides with us as we learn to sense God’s presence in the midst of the things we most wish had not happened.

Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. Amen.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Jesus Gets Messy!

Proper 15, Year B
John 6:51-58

Do you know the movie Groundhog Day?  Bill Murray plays a guy who wakes up each day only to find himself reliving the same day over and over again?  Well Sundays are starting to feel a little like Groundhog Day to me – because here we are again!  Fourth Sunday in a row of Jesus saying - I am the bread of life, I am the bread of life, I am the bread of life – and I think – what more can I say?

But – surprise – the Spirit has led me to find more to say.

We are once again finding Jesus arguing with the faithful – the Jews – i.e. the churchgoers – about what he means when he says he is the living bread come down from heaven.  But this time is the most explicit.

A colleague shared a story of being at church – and the priest was doing the Eucharist – the words of institution – take eat, this is my body given for you – and drink this my blood shed for you.  And one of the younger members of the congregation – said in a voice louder than his parents probably wanted him too – ewww, gross.*

And yeah – that is a right on theological assessment and reaction to what Jesus is talking about.

Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me.

I’m hammering it home because I want it to really hit you for a minute.  Because we hear these words at every Eucharist – which unfortunately dulls their edge.  But imagine you have invited a good friend to church, someone who does not have a Christian background or frame of reference – and you hear those words through their ears.  It’s cannibalistic – it’s weird, it’s gross.

I am telling you the truth – Jesus says – unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you will not have life in yourself.  For my flesh is the real food – and my blood is the real drink.

And when I really sit with those words, it hits me in that same way – it’s very off-putting.  And I think what am I supposed to do with this?  What does this Eucharistic language coming straight out of the mouth of Jesus have to do with my day to day?  However deeply I dig into the scholarship and theology – what does the intellectual knowledge or symbolic understanding have to do with my life, and yours?  How do I turn the metaphor into spiritual sustenance?

Well, what if it’s not intended to be a metaphor?  In the beginning was God, and the word was with God and the word was God…and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  The Word became Flesh.

That’s the beginning of this morning’s shock value.  The literal truth of the incarnation.  The reality of God choosing to become a fleshy, vulnerable human being.

For the churchgoers of Jesus’ time – this explanation was just as outlandish and scandalous then as
Gen 9:4 – But you must never eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood
Lev 3:17 – This is a perpetual law for you and your descendants, you must never eat fat or blood
Deut 12:23 – The only restriction is to never eat the blood, because the blood is the life and you must not eat the life with the meat.

I have a feeling everyone is going to be eating fish for dinner.

Jesus surely knows this.  Jesus knows this goes against the law.  He knows how uncomfortable this visceral description makes us.  It’s not a neat moral teaching or faith of a mustard seed reminder – or homily like the beatitudes on blessings.

I hear it as Jesus describing in very powerful language that he is all in – all human.  And if we want to be all in, if we want to experience the fullness of living – living as if everything matters – we have to take Jesus all in, mind, heart, body.

A good friend of mine, who is a priest, has been in Florida for the last month helping his mother care for his dying father.  We had a long conversation this week, I hadn’t caught up with him since he went down – and he is in that liminal place that we get to sometimes, if we’re lucky, where we know what it means to live.  He talked about this paradox of being with someone who is dying, a messy thing on a lot of levels, and knowing such profound joy.

In June, I led a one-night workshop at Well for the Journey, in Towson.  One of the exercises we did was around naming your values – taking this long list – peace, love, joy, understanding, etc. – and whittling it down to two or three.  And everyone, there were like 13 people – went and did the exercise on their own – and the only question we had time to discuss in the group was – name a time when you felt you were truly living into those values.  And 4 out of that small group shared stories of being with a loved one as they died.  This was totally unexpected to me.  Yet, I know that paradox of being in the midst of the last thing you ever want to be in the midst of because it’s the hardest thing – yet, in the midst of it is the fullness of the most wonderful things.

Before those words of institution that echo this gospel – we say that God took on our human nature – became incarnate.  God started as a baby, just like us.  Which means entering so many hard things and so much messiness.  And we’re having a baptism today – and I don’t want to be Debbie Downer preacher.  So – how about the hard stuff and messiness babies bring! Literally – there’s the birth process, c’mon – then dirty diapers – there is messy food – there is incessant hand washing and purrelling to keep it clean, clean, clean.

There is the messiness of sleep deprivation and the upheaval of a household.  And – as they grow there is the messiness of anxiety – and concern over where they are and who they’re with and what they’re doing – there is the messiness of being embarrassed by their behavior – what will people think of me as a mother if they see that?

Life and death – being human – it’s all messy – the hopes, dreams, concerns, anxieties, successes, failures, abandonment, loneliness, joy, sorrow, - it all gets messy – and sometimes ew, gross.  So often it gets to the place – and I just don’t want to go there. Think about Baltimore, and other cities, it’s not at all uncommon for people to say and feel – it’s too messy, I just don’t want to go there.

I can get messy – Jesus says.  Eww, gross – doesn’t scare me away – Jesus says.  Its in his words – but mostly in his life and death – where we see just how literally Jesus delves – heart, mind and body – into redeeming the messiness of life.

This morning we hear Solomon ask – God, I don’t know my going out or my coming in.  And we know from Psalm 121 that God responds – The Lord watches over your going out and your coming in, from this time forth forevermore.  I think for the most part we have faith that God is with us in those times – in the beginnings and the endings.

But Jesus powerfully reminds us that inbetween – there is a body of life to live – and he is all in.  And he wants us to be all in to.  Which is why week by week we bring our bodies to the altar – or the church brings the body of Christ to our homes – to remind us – that whatever messiness your body is living through right now – Jesus is right there with you.

The promise Jesus gives this morning – and always – isn’t “and that’s how you get to heaven” – it’s “and that’s how you live your life.”  A wholehearted life – unafraid of the joys, the sorrows and all the messy parts.

Come to the table – take God in – invite God into all the messiness.  Amen.

* With thanks to Rev. David Lose.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Make Your Amen True

Proper 14, Year B

Jesus said to the people, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty." (John 6:35)

“Make your AMEN true.” – St. Augustine, sermon, 4th c.

Augustine was referring to what we call – the great Amen – at the end of the Eucharist.  If you notice in your bulletin, as in the prayer book it’s ALL CAPS and italicized.  Because it’s different than any other Amen we say.  It is the great AMEN because it gathers into one all that has come before: the scripture stories, which hopefully the preacher has illuminated; the prayers we say on behalf of ourselves and others, the ways in which we thank and acknowledge God in our lives; the confession we make, the things we’re sorry we’ve done or wish we could do again; and finally, our acknowledgement of the saving act of God through Christ’s life, death and resurrection all for our forgivness and knowledge of God’s grace.  When we give our assent to that – Augustine reminds us – make it true!

So be it.  That’s the literal translation of Amen – So be it.  Augustine’s reminds us that as we are about literally integrate Christ into our bodies – so we should take seriously what could be a rote call and response.  Every time we say that AMEN together – we are new, we are different.  And our sacred action deepens our knowledge of God.     

Jesus tells us – I AM the Bread of Life – but it is our agreement our “so be it” that makes that statement real for us.  It is our AMEN that turns a symbol into sustenance.

This spring and into the summer a group of us reread and discussed the book, The Shack.  I’m sure many of you are familiar – hope we can have a field trip when the movie comes out in the spring.  At its essence the book explores a central perennial problem – why is there suffering?  Why if God is good is suffering allowed in the world?  Why if God loves us in the way Jesus says do bad, sometimes horrible, often times completely unfair things happen to us and to those we love?

The way it deals with these questions I think is incredibly creative and inviting – and very much in the tradition of the sacred stories we call scripture. Because it is a story of how someone grows in a relationship, in their knowledge of God. There is a central character – Mack whose child dies, 6 years old – in one of the worst ways a parent can imagine – her life is taken from her.

In the book – Mack has a vision – or maybe a dream – or maybe a literal experience of meeting God about 5 years after this event.  While he was religious, he went to seminary as a young man – we aren’t surprised to learn that after he lost his child – he lost interest in religion and God.  God – for that matter – could stuff it.  Mack is angry, furious at God. I don’t think it would be too far to say, he hates God.  He hates what happened and he hates the God he believes allowed it to happen.  And his anger is destroying him inside and out.

The story is basically a conversation with God.  Not just God as one being – but God, of course, as three.  Mack meets and talks with God – Jesus – and the Holy Spirit.  They talk about lots of stuff – how God can be three in one – how God created the universe – all sorts of stuff – but again and again Mack returns to wanting to understand why his child had to die and why God hasn’t “made it right” (in the way Mack wants it to be made right – which is basically, retribution).

In one chapter as Mack speaks with a personification of Wisdom – or the Judge – she asks him, Mack which of your children do you love most (he has 5).  And he replies, I don’t love any one of them any more than they others.  I love each of them differently.

The Judge asks him to explain.

Well, each child is unique.  And that uniqueness and special personhood calls out a unique response from me.  And when I think of them individually – I realize how I’m especially fond of each of them.

Well what about when they mess up – the Judge asks.  What about when they don’t behave, or make choices you completely disagree with, or even worse – when they act in ways that embarrass you.  Doesn’t’ that affect, even diminish your love for them?

No, it doesn’t.  I’ll admit it affects me – I may get embarrassed, my pride may be hurt – I may even get angry or furious – but they are still my son or daughter – so I still love them, fully.

The Judge responds – You are wise in the ways of real love.  So many believe it is the love that grows, but it is the knowing that grows and love simply expands to contain it.  Love is just the skin of knowing. (The Shack, Wm. Paul Young, 2007)

What do you think of that?  It isn’t the love that grows it’s the knowing – Love is the skin of knowing.  Love is the container.  As we grow in a relationship – as the relationship deepens that is what causes the love to deepen and grow - or not. 

Jesus knows who he is talking to in this section of chapter 6 – and they know him.  What was once referred to as the crowd – is now called – the Jews.  How come?  Because that sets apart the people who know Jesus from those who don’t.  Jesus was Jewish.  He was one of them in community. 

The people who know Jesus – know him from his origins.  This isn’t JESUS.  It’s – hey, isn’t this just Jesus, the son of Joseph?  Whose father and mother we know?  Who does he think he is saying he comes down from heaven?

It would have been easier for him to only go to people who were meeting him for the first time.  It’s riskier for him to share the truest part of who he is with the people who know him – because sometimes when we share the truest part of who we are – the skin of love is tested.  When we share the truest part of who we are in a relationship, sometimes that love needs to stretch – and that hurts.  Sometimes – it can break.

But Jesus in John’s gospel is the revelation of who Jesus is.  It’s not focused on the story of Jesus’ life like Matthew, Mark, Luke.  John’s gospel gets right at the heart, the truest part of what we know in Christ – which is to say – God.  And in John these revelations are definitively and succinctly articulated in the I AM sayings:

I AM the bread of life
I AM the way, the truth, the life
I AM the good shepherd
I AM the gate
I AM the vine
I AM the resurrection and the life

Those are be truths to be explored in relationship. They are invitations to anyone who wants to get to know God through Jesus.

If you met yourself as you were five years ago, or maybe 10 years, 20 years – gosh, maybe just last week – would there be things you know now that you’d like to tell yourself?  Or maybe the opposite, maybe you wish there were things you didn’t know.  When we explore who we were – we understand better who we are.  Knowing ourselves helps us grow.

Because we are constantly becoming.  We are not complete.  Which means our relationship with God is constantly becoming – our relationship with God is not complete. 

How have you grown in your knowledge of Jesus, of God?  Do you view it – experience it – as you do the other loving relationships in your life?  

As Mack, the character in The Shack – lets go of his limited ideas of love to embrace this all-encompassing love of God – as he embraces these I AM statements that are the sustenance for living – God shares with him what the author says is the essence of what he was trying to express in the story -

“If anything matters, then everything matters.  Because you are important, everything you do is important.” 

That’s how deeply God knows us.  That everything you are and everything you do matters to God.  - When we connect our AMEN to that truth – when we here God say I AM and we respond SO BE IT we strengthen the skin, the love that holds that knowledge.

And hopefully it strengthens in us a desire to connect God to all that we do.  So that we might grow in our awareness that every day – God provides our daily bread.  Every day there is hope.  Every day - everything about who we are matters to God.  So be it.

- The Rev. Arianne R. Weeks