Sunday, September 27, 2015

Cut it Out!

Jesus said, "If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell., And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched."  Mark 9:46-49

Yowza!  Jesus does not mince words this morning.

The narrative arc of chapter nine is one in which everybody around Jesus stumbles.  They don’t need blocks they’re tripping all over their feet.  Which probably has something to do with why he tells them to cut them off.

The chapter starts with the Transfiguration.  You all know that story.  Certain disciples get invited up the of the mountain with their teacher – where they see a manifestation of his divinity.  He transfigures before their eyes and radiates light with Moses and Elijah on either side, surely it was a life changing moment – and THEY got to see it.  Not everyone else – just them. No wonder they feel they are special – such proximity to holiness.

But they have to go back down – and when they get down there it seems despite that proximity – none of the holiness rubbed off.  They encounter a desperate father.  His son has been convulsing with demons and the father begs Jesus to heal him.  And adds – I asked your disciples to do it – but they couldn’t.

Oooooh – I bet that didn’t feel good.  No one likes that feeling – when the limits of our abilities are exposed.  I can think of several times that week where I struggled through that.  How about you?  I go from shame to embarrassment – with thoughts like – I don’t know what am doing – until finally working through to – nope, I know what I am doing – but there are simply limits to what I can do.

I don’t know if the disciples cycled through that when they were confronted by a failure?  But the father articulates it.  When he presses Jesus – and Jesus says – I’ll heal your son, to believe I can?  The father replies – Lord, I believe – help my unbelief.  The father is going to try to believe – but knows he has his limits – he has his doubts.  Jesus heals his son.  I don’t think Jesus is bothered by doubts.

Jesus does seem to be bothered however by the disciples’ egotistical behavior and actions which surely masks their insecurity at having doubts.

Jesus tells them he is to be betrayed, killed and in three days rise again.  They respond to that – not by asking him to please talk about that because it’s a pretty terrifying prediction – but by arguing which one of them is the greatest – who is going to then get the seat of power.  And Jesus says – wow guys – what I mean is whoever is first (by your standards) needs to be last.  For the most important thing you can do is with your words and actions bring people to God – whoever welcomes even a child (and as Josh talked about last week, children were not worth a lot back then) whoever welcomes someone in my name brings God that much closer.

So that was last Sunday - Now take a look at your bulletins and read the first verse – someone read it aloud – Teacher – we saw someone casting out demons IN YOUR NAME and we stopped him.

Do you think they stopped him because the disciples couldn’t do that with that Father’s son – and they’re jealous?  Do you think the disciples believe there isn’t enough God to go around – and only the people in this transfiguration club get to bring people to God?

The disciples don’t say they tried to stop him because they weren’t following Jesus – they tried to stop him because he wasn’t following “us” – the disciple club, the transfiguration club – perhaps we could even say – he wasn’t following their particular church.

So there's a guy from another church whose been getting quite a lot of press this week,  Pope’s been in town!  And who cares what team he’s on because – we all love – well, I don’t know if you love him – I love what I’ve seen of him.  A lot of people I talk to – particularly people who have fallen away from the church say – but I like this new pope..

How come?  Because he is a welcoming – in the name of Jesus presence.  

Do you remember his first Maundy Thursday – you know when we do the washing of the feet – the Pope is supposed to invite priests/bishops to the Vatican and wash their feet.  But what did he do?  In Jesus’ name he welcomed the least of these – he went into a prison – he washed the feet of prisoners – he washed the feet of Muslims– he washed the feet of women.  He went into a place of outcasts and physically welcomed them in God’s name.

We like this pope because he doesn’t want to live in a fancy palace but chooses the simpler apartment.

We like this pope because he skips lunch with the politicians to be with and eat with the homeless. We like this pope because even though he hasn’t changed any doctrine – he puts relationships with people over doctrine.  He encourages religious leaders to focus on relationships over rules.  On ways of embodying the gospel over judging those we consider unworthy of it.  Pope Francis shows – how you act in the name of Jesus is a lot more important than what you say in his name.

And when Pope Francis does speak – as did to congress this week.  He doesn’t criticize or judge or demonize ideologies or parties.  He builds people up – encouraging everyone to remember we strive for goodness – we want to work together – we have more in common among us than we do opinions that divide us.  He  doesn’t put stumbling blocks in people’s way – and he doesn’t act as if there are any stumbling blocks in his.  He goes and does what Jesus call us to do.

What if instead of going over to cut someone off from acting in Jesus’ name – because he wasn’t doing it their way – John the disciple went over to that guy casting out demons and said, “Hey – Hi – I’m John, this is Simon Peter and we’ve been trying to do what you’re doing – but we don’t seem to have the hang of it yet – could you help us?”  What if instead of acting out when they realized the limits of their abilities – when they were caught by their fear and doubt – what if they had asked for help?  What if they had reached out – and said – maybe there are other ways – other people that we could learn from – that we could invite into our Jesus movement.

Jesus told the disciples part of you will have to die to follow me.  You will have to deny parts of yourself in order to act in love.  I don’t think Jesus wants us to cut off parts of our bodies – I think Jesus is trying to get us to understand something really important about life in God – we humans tend to react in our fear or doubts or anxieties – by acting out.  We go straight to blame when we’re hurt – we get defensive when we’re scared.  Jesus says to those acting out disciples – those parts of you – you don’t need them – they don’t help you – they are stumbling blocks – get rid of them.

The chapter ends with this saying about salt.  Salt was a preservative back then that kept food from going bad.  In our day – salt is really used to bring out the good in a dish.  To enhance flavors that are already there.  To be used so that when someone eats they exclaim, "Thank you, that was divine!" Focus on the divinity within you and pay attention to what keeps you from it.  There are people all around us – some as famous as a Pope Francis – others, known just to you and me – who enhance our goodness. Let your hearts be caught by their spirit.  So that  we too can bring out the goodness in  others – we too can see the stumbling blocks in ourselves and decide to get rid of them.  We too can catch people’s hearts by the way we live our lives – the way we invite people into remembering what is good.  And frankly – it just feels a lot better to lift people up than to cut people down.  It feels good when we see our leaders to do it – and it feels good when we benefit from it.  So why wouldn’t we focus on feeling good?  I mean – its’ called the good news for a reason.  Amen.

The Rev. Arianne R. Weeks

Sunday, September 20, 2015

God's Simple Wisdom

Proper 20, Year B
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
Mark 9:30-37
The Rev. Joshua Rodriguez-Hobbs

Our epistle and Gospel readings this morning confront us with the difference between God’s wisdom and human wisdom. In James, we see the contrast between the covetous wisdom of the world, which results in boastfulness, conflicts, and disputes. and God’s simple wisdom, which results in nearness to God. In Mark, we hear how Jesus’ disciples are so busy arguing among themselves about which of them is the greatest, that they fail to understand Jesus’ prediction of his betrayal, death, and resurrection. Both readings are a bit of an adventure in missing the point. That brings us to the question: which form of wisdom is more predominant in your life? God’s wisdom or human wisdom?

We can’t escape from having human wisdom exercise some influence in our lives. We are human, after all. We hear it loud and clear from the culture around us. From an early age, our culture teaches us to envy. We’re bombarded for advertisements that claim, usually falsely, that the latest thing that we don’t have is exactly the thing we need. Of course, things never quite bring us the happiness that they promised, do they? Our whole society operates around envy. We need that new car. We need that new house. We need that promotion, and the next one, and the next one. It’s not called the rat race for nothing. There’s always something else we need. We’re like the eponymous protagonist of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, always chasing after something that we can never have.

In contrast, God’s wisdom is deceptively simple. Draw near to God, and God will draw near to you. It can’t be that simple, can it? We’re used to things being more complicated. Perhaps that’s because we make them more needlessly complicated. All that is necessary, James tells us, is to draw near to God. Whoever wants to be first, Jesus tells us, must be last and servant of all, like a little child. Don’t be confused by Jesus’ analogy though. We dote on children today. People in Jesus’ time didn’t, at least not in the ways that we do. Children were property, not people. At best, they were potential-people. You didn’t welcome a child, because a child had nothing to give in return. Instead, you wanted to welcome the child’s father, especially if he was rich and powerful, because showing hospitality to him meant that he would in turn show hospitality to you. God’s wisdom turns all of that on its head, though. God’s wisdom doesn’t have time for questions about who is the greatest. God’s wisdom is about drawing near to God.

It still seems like it should be more complicated, doesn’t it? Important things always are, aren’t they? When I was in seminary, I remember having a conversation with my spiritual director about how frustrating I found contemplative prayer. Whenever I tried to simply focus on God, I would always find my mind wandering. I just couldn’t do it. I was frustrated because, in my mind, I’d create a hierarchy of prayer, and contemplative prayer was at the top. It was what the truly spiritual, the “real Christians” did. And I couldn’t do it. My spiritual director looked me straight in the eye and said, “Josh, that’s nonsense.” (He was Scottish, so he actually used a stronger word for “nonsense.”) “The whole point of the spiritual life is to talk to God and then listen for what God says back. It doesn’t matter how you do it. Draw near to God, and God will draw near to you.”

I think most of us, like Jesus’ disciples,  miss the point of the spiritual life most of the time. It’s deceptively simple. All you have to do is draw near to God. That’s it. It doesn’t matter if your prayers or eloquent or not. It doesn’t matter if your prayers are “spiritual” or not. What matters is that you’re praying. Do you have some hierarchy of the spiritual life in your head? Do you have list of types of prayer that get progressively more spiritual as they get more “difficult?” Or do you think that the clergy are the “real Christians,” while everyone else just muddles along and isn’t nearly as spiritual? In our Gospel, Jesus says to that sort of thinking, upend it! Make the last first and the first last! James says, stop that! That’s what creates disputes and quarrels among you.

Draw near to God, and God will draw near to you. You don’t have to wait until you’re sufficiently good or spiritual. You don’t have to wait until your prayers are eloquent. You don’t have to wait until you can pray for other people before you pray for yourself. All you have to do is pray, and God shows up. All you have to do is invite God into your life. This is the Good News that James and Mark give us this morning: it is not about us; it is about God, and how much God loves us. How much does God love us, you ask? Too much to stay away. Amen.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Episcopalians and the "E" word

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that I am?" And they answered him, "John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets." He asked them, "But who do you say that I am?" Peter answered him, "You are the Messiah. (Mark 8:27ff)

Who do you say that I am?  That my friends is the $64k question.

What might you say if Jesus was sitting next to you this morning?  How would you answer?  Some of us might respond just like Peter – with a title – Messiah – Son of Man – the “right” answer.  But what if Jesus pushed back, pressed us – as he does with Peter.

Ok, Messiah – that’s the proper title but what I’m really asking Peter is – what does that title mean to you?

Do you know what a 360 degree evaluation is?  I’m sure many of you have participated in them.  It’s an evaluation tool used primarily in workplaces.  If you are the one being evaluated, you do a self-assessment – and your colleagues, subordinates and managers complete their versions of that same assessment of you.  Hence the full circle 360 title.

Because obviously, we may say and think and perceive ourselves to be one way – but our manager may perceive us in one way – and our subordinates and colleagues – in different ways.  Because the answer to the question – who do you say that I am – well, its relational.  And if we are interested in really knowing who we are – we need to get a full circle picture. How we answer Jesus, says something about us.

Which is helpful but hard.  Because you will be confronted with aspects of who you are, how others perceive you that are not ideal.  Having done a 360 review as a lay person in corporate America and as an ordained person in churchy America – surprisingly the “not ideal” parts of who I am – they didn’t change.  They are, and very might always be - my growing edges.

I think that pressing Jesus does is towards those growing edges. The places where we know who Jesus is to us – but we have a hard time incorporating that truth into ourselves and who we are.  This question pushes us to think about how do we allow our answer to shape, mold, influence, direct us in our relationship with God and with one another?

It’s easy to gloss over the question because we know the answer and move straight to the hard part, when Jesus says– “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” So off-putting.  That is the opposite of the messages that surround us!  Messages like – go on, your worth it!  You so deserve it – work hard, play hard.  We are not encouraged to deny our wants and desires – we are encouraged to go out and get – to fulfill all our hearts’ desires.

And then – pick up your cross.  Does that mean Jesus is encouraging us to find ways to suffer?  Find ways to endure pain for the sake of God?

Well for Jesus and the people standing there its’ important to remember this - to pick up a cross was intended to be a public display.  You were paraded through the streets as an object of ridicule and scorn.  That’s why it’s an instrument of shame.  That’s what Peter is afraid of – being associated with rejection and shame.

With that understanding you could paraphrase Jesus to say, those who want to follow me – are you willing to publicly display your faith, are you willing to make your faith visible in ways that might be hard, challenging for you?

Friday night and pretty much all of Saturday the leaders of this church gathered – myself, Josh and the officers and vestry for our annual retreat – to pray together, to get to know one another, and talk about what we are doing as followers of Jesus Christ – because that’s why we’re here – not a building – but as a Body of Christ in the world.

How are we actively inviting people to this church?
How are we intentionally welcoming people one they walk through our doors?
How are we connecting people with each other so we are deepening and expanding our relationships with one another?
These are our growing edges as a community of followers.

This program – Invite, Welcome, Connect – the woman who developed it – Mary Parmer – she shares two statics – the first – 3 out of 4 people say they would go to a friend’s church, if their friend would ask – 3 out of 4.

And the follow-up statistic is – the average Episcopalian invites someone to church once every 37 years.  Yes there are exceptions – but I definitely belief that stat.

Forget about the shame in a public display of picking up a cross – what about the fear of shame in asking someone to church?   Episcopalians have a major growing edge when it comes to evangelism!

What will they think of me if I invite them?  It’s a risk, they could say no – they will learn something about you.  What if they make certain assumptions about my church and my neighborhood, and then assumptions about me? What if they say yes but that Sunday stinks – the sermon falls flat, not a lot of people, they don’t like the music?  What if they go – and don’t like it.

What if they say – the Episcopal church?  Isn’t that the church with that bishop – and the accident – that took a life of a father and husband?  Maybe we think to ourselves - I don’t want to talk about the Episcopal church right now – because I’m struggling with being associated with that label myself.

The thing about all those reasons – all those stumbling blocks that our rational selves can keep us from publicly sharing and inviting someone into our faith – those reasons are all about me.  My fear, my anxiety, my church – and maybe my shame about the human frailty of people who are trying to follow, struggling in faith, and seeking hope.  But if it’s all about me and my fear – well, where’s room for God?

All those stumbling blocks – all those reasons that get in the way of publicly sharing our faith – all those reasons are about me.  My anxiety, my fear, my worry – my association with the human failings of the people in my church!  But the pronoun at the center is “me.”  And Jesus is saying, “Its not all about you.”  That “self” – the one focused on fear, shame and rejection – that is the “get behind me Satan” self.  Focused on human fear – and not on God.

BTW – this summer I had to have my car towed – from my driveway, no clutch – couldn’t drive it.  And we got to talking and it came up – I don’t always share it – that I’m the rector of this church.  And you know what he said – the Episcopal church – isn’t that where that woman bishop….and that nice warm wash of embarrassment flooded over me – because there is nothing I can do to excuse or deny – all there is to do is say – yes.  But the conversation didn’t end there – in the time it took to drive to Cockeysville each of us shared a story about how addiction has touched our lives.  And I didn’t leave that car feeling ashamed or embarrassed – but uplifted by yet another experience of God bringing people together to connect in a holy conversation.

God is doing all the work.  Everyone – even Satan in this passage – is behind Jesus.  God knows who is out in front.  And if you answer Jesus’ question by saying – you are love, forgiveness, peace, strength and hope – then you are called to share that good news with another person.  You are not inviting someone to your church – you are inviting them into a relationship with love, forgiveness, peace and strength that you have come to know through the gift of this community.  Trust in extending the invitation and getting out of the way.  Amen.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Sometimes You Have to Argue with God

Proper 18, Year B
Mark 7:24-37
The Rev. Joshua Rodriguez-Hobbs

This is not the Gospel reading that I would have picked for this week in Baltimore.

Let’s be honest and start by owning this morning that our community is on edge because of the pre-trial hearings that went on last week and are scheduled for this Thursday for the six police officers accused of homicide and criminal negligence in the death of Freddie Gray. We don’t know what will happen, whether more riots will break out. Although I am confident that the entire Baltimore community is praying for justice, I know that we have different ideas of what that might mean. 

In the middle of all of this tension, so much of which centers around race, a topic that we were all taught to be profoundly uncomfortable about if we ever discussed it—if we weren’t just taught never to discuss it—we hear a Gospel reading where Jesus uses an ethnic slur. That’s what “dog” is in this story. No one, Jewish or Gentile, who lived in the Roman territory of Palestine kept dogs as pets. The only experience they had of dogs was of packs of wild dogs, who lived on the edges of cities as scavengers. Jews routinely used the term “dog” as a slur against Gentiles, whom they saw as wild, dissolute, and irrational, just like wild animals. In our reading, we heard Jesus use the first-century equivalent of the n-word, and this makes me deeply uncomfortable.

When we proclaim our belief that Jesus of Nazareth was both fully human and fully divine each Sunday in the words of the Nicene Creed, which part do you find harder to believe? I typically answer “fully divine” when I’m asked questions like this. I don’t understand how that happened, how a human body could contain God. But that, at its root, is an intellectual problem for me; I find it confusing, but comforting. I don’t understand divinity, what being God means, but I am comforted by the thought that God, through Jesus, understands my humanity.

The real problem I have is with Jesus’ humanity, and I have this problem because I understand what it means to be human. I am deeply uncomfortable with thinking about Jesus exhibiting any of my all-too-human frailties. I am okay with Jesus being fully God; I do not like Jesus being fully human. That’s what our Gospel confronts us with today: Jesus’ humanity. His all-too-human prejudices, which are exactly what we should expect from a person who lived in the place and at the time that he lived. But this is Jesus. But if Jesus was truly human, then he, like all of us, made mistakes (which are not the same as sins) and had to learn and grow.

So, where’s the good news? I don’t want this to be remembered as the time Josh preached a sermon about how Jesus was racist. That’s not the point. That can’t be why Mark recorded this story and why we read it in church every three years.

I think our good news this morning comes from the unnamed Syrophoenician woman, who argues with Jesus, who pleads with him on behalf of her daughter. This woman, in the face of a pretty rude dismissal, argues with God, pleading with Jesus to be more just. That sounds odd, I’m sure. We don’t really talk about arguing with God in the Christian tradition. However, it’s an essential part of Judaism. I was told this by a Reform rabbi in seminary. Rabbi Herb Brockman was the leader of a synagogue in New Haven, and he was a lecturer in preaching and the practice of ministry at Yale Divinity School. Once, as part of a class discussion, he reflected that Christians had forgotten how to argue with God, but that this was at the heart of what it meant to be Jewish. Rabbi Brockman pointed out that Israel literally means “He struggles with God.” He reminded us of stories from the Hebrew Bible where Moses, Jeremiah, Elijah, Elisha, Ezekiel, and so many others argued with God, and God’s mind was changed and evil averted as a result. This unnamed, unknown woman stands in this tradition, reminding us that arguing with God for justice can be a sign of faith.

I think that’s part of why we are hearing this challenging story today, at this challenging time. We are called to argue with God that Baltimore, this one small corner of our world, might be made more just. I’ll admit, that doesn’t sound exactly Episcopalian. It sounds a little too radical, doesn’t it? But the funny thing is that it’s very Episcopalian. The Syrophoenician woman’s words form part of the Prayer of Humble Access, a part of the Prayer Book’s communion liturgy that isn’t widely used today, but which I’m sure many of you are familiar with:
We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy. Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.
These words, which have been in every Book of Common Prayer since the very first in 1549, reflect the story we just heard. They reflect the faith of that Syrophoenician woman, sure that if we claim the blessings that we do not deserve, God will give them to us.

May God grant us the courage of that nameless woman, that we might pray and work for God’s justice here in Baltimore. May God grant us the grace to accept when God’s justice differs from our own desires.