Monday, November 30, 2015

Waiting is the Hardest Part

Advent 1, Year C
Luke 21:25-36
The Rev. Joshua Rodriguez-Hobbs

The days are surely coming, says the Lord…
Jesus said, “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of heaven and earth will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud; with power and great glory.”

Welcome to the first Sunday of Advent. Is this what you were expecting? I’m going to go out on a limb and guess probably not. It’s Advent. Aren’t we supposed to be getting ready for Christmas, getting ready for Christmas pageants and “Away in a manger”? Why are our readings this morning talking about the signs of the end, rather than “Comfort, comfort ye my people”? This isn’t what we were expecting, is it?

In Advent, we prepare for Christ’s arrival. That’s what Advent means, “arrival.” It’s easier to think about this in terms of the first arrival, the one we remember each year at Christmas. But Advent is also about waiting for another arrival: Christ’s Second Coming. You know, that thing we Episcopalians tend to ignore, except for that line we recite in the Nicene Creed: “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.”

We don’t really talk about that, do we? Sure, it’s there in the Prayer Book, but it’s one of those things we’re too polite to talk about. I think it’s safe to say that most of us take the same view as the late, great pitcher for the Kansas City Royals, Dan Quisenberry, who quipped: “The future is much like the present, only longer.” But the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when that will change. How does that make you feel? Excited? Uncomfortable? Scared? All of the above?

The real problem, if you ask me, is how do you know when your redemption is drawing near? It’s much harder to read the signs of the times than Jesus makes it sound. Just think about all of the times that people have predicted the Second Coming and gotten the math wrong. That’s not just a recent problem, either. Paul had to write to the church he founded in Thessaloniki to convince them that the end might be a little less immanent than they had been lead to believe. They’d all quit their jobs, because they were sure that Jesus was coming soon. The rest of the people who were sure they’d found the signs in the sun and the moon and  the stars don’t have such a good track record, either. It’s all a bit like the movie Clue. Bear with me, I’m going somewhere. When you get to the end of the movie, once you find out who killed Mr. Body, and you’re expecting to see the credits roll, instead there’s a sign that says “That’s the way it could have happened. But what about this?” And then there’s another way that the case could have been solved, using all the same clues. And another. And another. The problem is that, even though the days are surely coming, you can put the signs of the times together many different ways. That makes it hard to raise up your head, since it’s not at all that clear that your redemption is drawing near, is it?

The days are surely coming, but what do we do in the meantime? We wait. That’s what Advent is about. We wait for Christ to arrive. Waiting is hard, but the days are surely coming. This isn’t “Waiting for Godot.” Jesus is going to come. We have a promise, and heaven and earth will pass away before Jesus’ words, Jesus’ promises, pass away. So our souls wait upon the Lord, more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning.

There’s waiting, and there’s waiting, however. Advent waiting isn’t passive waiting. We’re not in a line somewhere, with nothing to do until the clerk calls our number. Advent waiting is active waiting. We’re called to work while it is day, to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. We’re supposed to watch for the signs of the times, but not to become consumed by searching for them. It’s important to look for our redemption drawing near, but we shouldn’t look so hard for the Day of the Lord that we miss the reminders of our redemption that come when we seek and serve Christ in all persons. We’re better at this than we give ourselves credit for. We may not talk about the Second Coming, but we roll up our sleeves and bake casseroles to feed the hungry at Our Daily Bread, we collect clothing for those who need it at the Seafarer’s Center, we comfort the sick through Project Linus, we build houses with Habitat for Humanity, we are collecting gifts for the Christmas Cafe at St. Luke’s. We are practicing living and loving as Jesus lived and loved while we wait. That is infinitely better than being so concerned with the Second Coming and the life to come that we miss living the life that is already here.

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, but there is much to do in the meantime. That is what Advent waiting is all about.


Monday, November 23, 2015

Not a King Like That

The Last Sunday after Pentecost
2 Samuel 23:1-7
The Rev. Joshua Rodriguez-Hobbs

Last week, we heard the story of Hannah and how she gave birth to her son, Samuel, the last of the judges who ruled over Israel before the establishment of the monarchy. This week, we are hearing the last words of David, the great king, the man God chose to make an eternal covenant with, that a king from David’s line would always sit on Israel’s throne. Of course, there’s a lot that occurs between those two stories. There’s story of how the Israelites rejected Samuel’s leadership and called for a king. There’s the story of how Samuel chose Saul to be Israel’s first king because he literally stood head and shoulders above his fellow Israelites.  There’s the story of how Saul disobeyed God, and how David was anointed king in Saul’s place. There are the many, many stories of David. And those stories make these last words sound like the spin of a seasoned politician.

The God of Israel has spoken, the Rock of Israel has said to me: One who rules over people justly, ruling in the fear of God, is like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land. Is not my house like this with God? For he has made with me an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things and secure. Will he not cause to prosper all my help and my desire?

The stories that the lectionary skips call David’s words here into question. We tend not to remember them. We remember the good ones, David and Goliath, David and Jonathan, how David spared Saul’s grandson after Saul’s death. We usually remember the story of David and Bathsheba and Uriah. We usually tell it as a tragedy, when we tell it at all, how David was tempted and gave in to temptation. It might be better to tell it this way: how a powerful king took what he wanted without thought for consequences, how David saw Bathsheba as a thing to possess, and not as a person, how David saw Uriah as an obstacle to be overcome, and not a person. That’s how the prophet Nathan tells it, when he confronts David about it. But the story of David and Bathsheba is not the darkest story about David. Just before these last words, we read the story of David’s daughter, Tamar, whose story we rarely tell. Tamar is beautiful, and her half-brother Amnon, David’s heir, desires her. So he takes her, just as their father took Bathsheba. No one does anything about the rape. David looks the other way. Amnon goes unpunished. So Absalom, Tamar’s brother, takes matters into his own hands. Absalom kills Amnon, and he declares himself king. David is forced to leave Jerusalem and wage war against his son. To maintain his own rule, David has Absalom killed. He weeps for Absalom, as he never wept for Tamar. And this man claims to rule over the people justly.

The idea of God’s eternal covenant with David stands in tension within the Bible. After the Babylonians destroyed the Davidic monarchy, the people of Judah had to find a new way to make sense of their relationship with God. The Hebrew Bible is ambivalent about David. For every good thing it says about him, it also says something negative. David is the man after God’s own heart, who ruled Israel wisely, but who simultaneously could not rule his own family. Christians have tended to be more positive about David, because we have interpreted God’s promise of an eternal kingship as a prophecy about Jesus. So we’ve read David’s story selectively, ignoring the less savory portions.

But David’s last words, which we heard this morning, remind us that even this great king was also a petty politician, a mixture of saint and sinner, just as all of us are. David provides us with one lens through which to understand what it means to proclaim that Jesus is king, but that lens is as much a contrast as it is anything else. Christ is the King of David’s line, but he is not a king like David. Christ came not to be served, but to serve, and this makes all the difference. In Christ’s story we do not see the power politics which are so troubling in David’s. Christ is a king, but not a king like David.

You see, in the end, David presents us with a model of kingship with which we are familiar. It is still the same way that our leaders maintain power today: through spin, through innuendo, through the raw exercise of power. We may not use the title “king,” but David’s story is continually played out in our government, at every level, regardless of whether Republicans or Democrats are in the majority. Jesus gives us a different story, a story in which a king is born in a manger, not a palace. Jesus’ story is one where the newborn king is a refugee,  powerless and vulnerable, forced to flee to Egypt to escape Herod’s murderous wrath. Jesus’ story is a story of a kingdom where there is more than enough for everyone, where somehow, five loaves and two small fish feed thousands, a story where the other cheek is turned, instead of repaying evil for evil.

Jesus’ story is the story of the Kingdom of God, a story in which we are a part. Jesus’ story calls us to live by faith, not by fear. There are so many reasons to be afraid, it’s true. But David’s story goes wrong because David allows himself to be ruled by fear: the fear of losing power, the fear of not founding a dynasty, the fear of not having enough. Jesus invites us to live differently, to put our trust in God’s abundance, even when we are surrounded by the world’s scarcity.

Next Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent, when we will begin our preparations for this King, this Refugee, to be born once again in our hearts. May we who follow the Prince of Peace learn to trust in his love, which casts out all our fears. Amen.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Pouring More Than a Portion

As Hannah continued praying before the LORD, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk. So Eli said to her, "How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine." But Hannah answered, "No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the LORD. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time." Then Eli answered, "Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him." And she said, "Let your servant find favor in your sight." Then the woman went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer. (1 Samuel: 12-18)

We come to a church to stand, sit, kneel before God. We come before our altar possibly to switch from one level of thinking – to a deeper awareness.  We hear about attacks in our world every day.  For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom – Jesus says.  There are wars and rumors of wars all the time.

I want to take a moment and open our hearts towards the people of Paris – people who are scared and in shock because something so horrible happened.  The people who are in shock and overwhelming grief because someone they loved have died.  I want us along with God to remember them in our hearts.

It is a witness to our faith – to come together and lift up as much love and compassion as we possibly can in prayer to the one who holds it all in the palm of holy hands.

All of our stories and lessons this morning – are around church – which is pretty unique.  People bringing stuff before God.  The disciples have just left church and are carrying around something they have a hard time giving up – anxiety.  When, when, when – they want to know.  Answers, answers, answers – they want to know.

Jesus shrugs and tries as usual to reorient their thinking.  Don’t focus on the illusion of security within the walls of these giant buildings – these huge institutions.  He goes on to say – it’s what’s inside you that matters – it’s your actions and your speech that matters.  Trust that God is with you in that.

We walk by faith and not by sight.  Jesus tries to get the disciples to see that – to see beyond what is finite to what is infinite.  That’s hard – which is why it’s a practice.

And then we have this rich story from the book of Samuel.  It kicks off what is going to be this phenomenal narrative around the time of Kings in Israel – the stories of Samuel, Saul and David. But there’d be no boys – without the girls.  Hannah starts it all.  And it gets started because she brings all of her – into the church to be before God.

I can only imagine that she has given up – she is at the end of her rope.  She is tired of being humiliated by her husband’s other wife, Penninah.  Tired of feeling less than in front of her and everyone else.

On one level this is something woman in the 21st century can still relate to.  While procreation is not the sole way in which we define our worthiness as women – when you want a baby and you can’t have one – you think, what is wrong with me?  And in Hannah’s time – she certainly had a double portion of that because it was the primary way you had any value as a wife.

And while her husband may think that giving Hannah a double portion of the sacrifice (whatever that means by the way) is going to make her feel better – it doesn’t.  How could it?  He can’t fix her problem – and she isn’t asking him to.  Hannah stands there weeping – not eating – and her husband’s response is – aren’t I enough for you?

I want the text to say – Hannah gazes and Elkanah and says – this isn’t about you, honey.  Can you just empathize with my sadness?

So – Hannah has given up.  And she gives all of her to God at the altar.  The anger, the sorrow, the frustration, the disappointment – all of it.  You know, it many ways Hannah is a lot like Job.  Job was surrounded by people who couldn’t bear his suffering along with him – and so he hurled it at God.

Hannah is in the same boat – God is the only one she can pour her heart out to.

So she does – but Eli, the priest who sees her – he thinks she’s simply been pouring one glass of wine too many!

You know – there are two stories in the bible where people who are praying are mistaken for being drunk – Hannah in this story – and what’s the other?  Pentecost – remember the whoosh! of the Holy Spirit comes into the room and people let it all hang out – speaking in tongues and filled with the spirt – and someone says – its 9 o’clock in the morning and these people are already drunk!

What would that be like for you and me?  To pray in our joy and in our sorrow where we really pour it all out?  I’ll bet it would make most of us very uncomfortable.  Which is why someone makes a snide judgmental comment in the upper room – and I’m sure – why Eli goes over and tells Hannah to stop making a spectacle of herself.

Hannah isn’t embarrassed though – how could she be, she’s given up.  No – that’s not it – please pray with me that the Lord will remember me.  Please pray that God will remember – who I’ve been, who I could be – who I am created to be.

I wonder if Hannah’s authenticity embarrassed Eli – or – if he still just wanted her out of his church – which is why he says quickly – Go, your petition is granted.  It doesn’t matter because it isn’t Eli’s doing that Hannah has a son – it’s God’s.  The Lord remembers her.

There is something slightly vexing to me that Hannah’s prayers are answered – is that weird for me to say that?  It’s just that sometimes it seems like we read this holy text where all the people get their prayers answered – and where does that leave us?  Since Friday – there are so many people crying out for the Lord to remember them – how will God answer their prayers?  I don’t know.

But that’s not the only way to take in the story.  We can allow it to reorient our vision.  Hannah gets her son – Samuel is born – but then what does she do?  She gives him up.  The one thing she wanted more than anything in the whole, whole, world – she gives him up.  She gives him back, perhaps?

It’s like that parable in Matthew – where Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like a man who finds a pearl of great price and sells everything he has for the pearl.  But that doesn’t make any sense – what do you do with a pearl?  Jesus is trying to get us to see – it’s not the “what” that has value – it’s a way of living, a way of being in the world – where we give all that we love to God.

It’s not just the sadness and heartache we pour out to God – we pour out the joy and the love and that which brings us our greatest happiness.  We freely give that up – or give that back to God because we know that God is the source of all of it.

Hannah brings her whole heart and gives her whole heart to God.  How much of your heart will you give to God this morning – a portion?  A double portion?  Or the whole thing?

That is what we practice – growing our hearts ever wider (love has no measure) – by remembering the hearts of people we’ve never known from ages ago – along with the hearts of people who are far off and those who are near. Hearts that are breaking in grief – and hearts that are bursting with joy for what life has brought on this particular day.  God asks us to remember too.

Remember that we are God’s field, God’s building (1 Cor).  Remember the heart and body that was broken for us.  As we ask God to remember us in our prayers –may we bring our whole selves to God.

May we give our whole selves as gifts to one another – reorienting visions and opening hearts to God’s infinite love – pouring out - here and now.  Amen.

The Rev. Arianne R. Weeks
Proper 28 Year B

Monday, November 9, 2015

Our Whole Lives

Proper 27 B
Mark 12:38-44
The Rev. Joshua Rodriguez-Hobbs

Raise your hand if you’ve ever heard a sermon on this morning’s Gospel reading about how we should be like the unnamed widow and give sacrificially to the church. Raise your hand if you want to hear a sermon like that this morning. That’s what I thought.

That’s the tried and true interpretation of this story. It sounds perfectly straightforward. The widow gives, and Jesus holds her up as an example of true faith, a foil to those hypocritical scribes he’s just talked about. Except that he doesn’t. Jesus never says that this woman should serve as an example to us. He says nothing about imitating her. We add that to this story, because we have heard so many times that this is what it is about, so it must be in there. All Jesus says is this: Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything that she had, all that she had to live on. Jesus is simply stating the facts. It’s up to us to draw our own conclusions from them.

There’s plenty of evidence in Mark that the conclusion we draw from this story shouldn’t be to imitate this widow. Earlier, Jesus condemned the practice of giving money that should have gone to support a person’s parents to the Temple instead. Our Gospel reading this morning began by denouncing the scribes, the experts in the Law of Moses, for devouring widow’s houses. Immediately after the story of the widow and her two small coins, Jesus tells his disciples that the Temple will be destroyed, and one stone will not be left upon another. When we look at this story in context, the obvious conclusion is that this story is an example of how the scribes devour widow’s houses. This is not a story about how we should give. Though it may be counter-intuitive, maybe that’s why we need to hear it now, in the middle of our God the Giver stewardship campaign.

When we make this story about stewardship, we’re missing the point. We package it up nicely, tie a bow on top, and make it a moral lesson to put into practice in our lives.We assume that, however much we give, we’re being more generous than our neighbors. After all, we can say, I pledge, I give. In psychology, this is known as the Lake Woebegone effect. It turns out that every parent thinks their children are above average. In study after study, people have rated themselves as more generous, more attractive, more kind than they actually are. This story can play right into that, if we let it. Or it can point us toward the less palatable truth of the Gospel.

The widow in our story gives her whole life. That’s what the Greek literally says, not the softer version we heard today, “all that she had to live on.” There are only two people whom Mark says gave their whole lives: this widow and Jesus. At this point in Mark’s story, Jesus’ passion is about to begin. Jesus is about to give his life, just like this woman does. We talk about how this woman gives sacrificially, but she is literally giving herself as a sacrifice.

Is that how you think of your life? As something that should, in its entirety, be given to God? I’m not talking about proportional giving, here. This isn’t about the tithe as a biblical standard of giving. This is much harder and more difficult. Even in stewardship season, when your pledge card is sitting at home on the kitchen table, it might be easier to hear the traditional interpretation of this story as a challenge to give more. Because in stewardship campaigns, you’re only asked to give a little bit more. But the Gospel asks us to give everything.

St. Paul says in his Letter to the Romans, I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. The unnamed widow in our story this morning makes the same appeal to us. So does Jesus. God is not interested in a percentage of your income; God is interested in you, all of you. It’s easy to preach the Gospel when it’s about abundant life, when it’s about receiving grace and forgiveness and acceptance. But the Gospel is also about picking up our own crosses and following Jesus. Not ten percent of the time or even twenty, but every day, offering our selves, our souls and bodies, upon the altar, just as we offer bread and wine each week.

Part of that is making a pledge of your time, talent, and treasure, but there is so much more. Michael Curry, our new Presiding Bishop, has called for a new “Jesus Movement” in the Episcopal Church. Bishop Curry believes that God is calling us to be crazy Christians, holding nothing back. It’s scary, I know. But he’s right. This is what God is calling us to do.

The widow’s sacrifice is an example for us, if not the one we thought. This unnamed, unknown widow shows us how to follow Jesus. We’re called to sacrifice ourselves, so that Jesus can make us sacred. That’s what sacrifice means: to make sacred. We’re called to risk much, follow Jesus, carrying our own crosses. The paradox is, of course, that we will find ourselves in losing ourselves. We will find our deepest pleasure in meeting the world’s greatest need when we cease chasing our own happiness alone. For it is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life.


Monday, November 2, 2015

Saints Who Shine

"See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away." (Revelation 21:4ff)

Who doesn’t love that passage from Revelation?  A book usually known for its crazy tales of horseman sounding their trumpets – and even crazier interpretations that lead to some claiming that this book contains all the divine secrets for knowing when it will come to an end – the Rapture, as it is more commonly known.  As if the creation that God calls good – the creation that God breathes into existence – God would wipe away in fiery destruction.  As if the God – who gave his only son so that all might be forgiven and know eternal life – would smite all of us – or some of us – in some very unloving way.

That’s not what this revelation reveals.  You see – the home of God is among mortals.  God wants to dwell with us – right here – right now.  The Revelation to St. John the Divine when taken in its entirety – when heard as the dream it was intended to be – as opposed to being heard akin to a literal movie treatment – is a vision of the life God is calling us to see now.

Can we see a new heaven – and a new earth?  One where we know that God is with us – because we are caring for one another – really caring for one another – so there is no more mourning or crying or pain?  That sounds crazy – I know.  A crazy dream – that is too much for us to live into reality.

But is it possible that there are glimpses?  Glimpses of God with us – with you – in your life today?

Many of you know the famous trivia question – what’s the shortest phrase in the bible?  The answer is – Jesus wept.  That’s from the King James Version of this morning’s gospel – which is no longer one in standard usage.  But there is another great phrase from this story – which is even better – and I’m sure known to some of you.

When Jesus says to Martha “Take ye away the stone – Martha saith unto him – Lord, by this time surely he stinketh!” (11:39)  What an accurate rendering of what is going on for Mary and Martha – and Lazarus.  This whole situation stinks!  Their brother is dead – the guy who could’ve saved him took his time getting back there – you may remember he doesn’t rush to Bethany when he hears that Lazarus has fallen asleep.  And now everyone is upset – including Jesus himself – yes indeed – there is no better theological assessment of this situation – it just plain stinks.

Maybe that is what keeps us from seeing glimpses of God sometimes, you know?   Everything isn’t always coming up roses.  Sometimes there is no one wiping away our tears – or bearing our burdens – and we feel stuck in a dark place – wishing it would all pass away.

Today is one of the holiest days in our church year.  The Feast of All Saints.  The day we name the saints in our own lives – those who have passed away – who have gone before us – and maybe they led what we would call saintly lives.  Maybe they were examples of virtuous and godly living – but – since they were human – they probably weren’t always virtuous or godly.  But that doesn’t matter – because even if they were – even if we are – we can’t earn our holiness.

We – you and I – and all who have gone before – we are saints because that’s what God calls us.  God at our baptism – claims us as holy ones.  As Thomas Merton famously said after an epiphany on a street corner in Kentucky….

“If only [people] could all see themselves as they really are.  If only we could see each other that way all the time.  But it cannot be explained.  There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.” (New Seeds of Contemplation)

You know who we don’t get to hear from in this story?  Lazarus – which I think kinda stinks.  I mean, what if he didn’t want to come back?  Because he had seen more than a glimpse of God?  Surely you and I have heard the same stories from people who claim near death experiences.  A common theme is that they feel pulled, dragged, almost against their will – back into this life.  What if Lazarus came out of that cave – and was like – “hey – what did you have to do that for?  I saw my parents and my friends – all those who had gone before – and there was no pain, or crying – or death – just shining brighter than the sun and it was most complete feeling of wholeness I have ever, ever known.”

But the home of God is with us.  God needs us to get the message out – here and now.  Through you and me and people like Lazarus – God helps us see the way things could be.  A world where people aren’t afraid to go into the dark places, the hard places – the places that sometimes stink – and work together to help set people free.  Notice that about the story.  Jesus calls Lazarus out – but he turns to Mary and Marth and everyone standing there and says – “Unbind him and let him go.”

Jesus makes a way – but then looks at you and me and all the saints and says – get in there and help me – lend your hands to uncover the good – release what binds people up.  Use your hands to wipe away the tears and take away the pains.  For God makes his dwelling among mortals – so that our hands – in all the holy ways you and I can – will call forth a new heaven and a new earth – here and now.

On this day when we give thanks for the eternal life made known to us in Christ – may we give forth our thanks by living – and seeing – and being – the holy people God has created us to be.  May we spend at least some time today – walking around saints that we are – shining -  like the sun.  Amen

With thanks to the Working Preacher Podcast for All Saints, 2015 (
- The Rev. Arianne R. Weeks