Monday, April 25, 2016

Choosing Acts of Glory

Readings for the Fifth Sunday in Easter

To listen to the sermon click the image below.

Do you have a favorite line of scripture?  There are a lot - 1 Peter – above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins.

Have you ever attended worship in the Orthodox Church?  Greek, Russian, Romanian – it doesn’t matter.  While our sacramental theology is basically the same – the worship is very, very different. It’s more ethereal than our style of worship – less straightforward.  The whole liturgy is sung or chanted – incense fills the air.  For us, it’s certainly different enough for the sacred to be experienced anew.

When I lived in New York I made several visits to an Orthodox monastery upstate, called New Skete.  The community was actually featured on 60 Minutes once because the brothers are well-known for how they raise dogs – The Art of Raising a Puppy, is one of their best-selling books.  But that wasn’t how I learned about them.

One Saturday afternoon, I was in a bookstore on the upper west side of New York – a small, narrow bookstore.  And to browse, you climbed up one of these ladders that rolled against the tall cases – because the books which were stacked very high.  I was probably in the religion section and I pulled out a book for its inviting title – In the Spirit of Happiness – which was by the monks of New Skete.

The title summarizes the book well.  An encouraging and explanatory take on cultivating daily and small practices to bring fulfillment and meaning.  The power of daily prayer, acts of mercy, choices of compassion and devotion to God.  For how we spend our lives is really how we spend our days.

I devoured the book.  Who doesn’t want happiness?  And immediately made a plan to visit the monastery.  Which is a little northeast Albany, NY.  The sisters of the community by the way – make cheesecake – and that was bound to make me happy.

If you’ve ever worshiped in monastic community – or even if you’ve been to a worship service that is different than what you’re used to – you know it can be intimidating.  You want to do everything right.  You want to be respectful – you see yourself through the eyes of everyone there who knows what they’re doing and your fear is that they are all looking at you and thinking you don’t belong.  You feel – I felt very self-conscious.

The liturgy of New Skete is, thankfully all in in English – but it is still all sung.  So, for the first daily offices I attended – I didn’t try to participate. I just decided to let what was happening wash over me – by being fully and respectfully present – which truly is sometimes enough.

The first evening vespers I went to – the monks chanted the last three psalms in the psalter, beginning with Psalm 148, which we heard this morning.  Scholars believe these three psalms intentionally conclude the psalter as a culmination of our awareness of God’s glory.  How everything, all of creation is constantly giving thanks to God - let everything that breathes praise the Lord.
When the brothers chanted Psalm 148 – they stood around a circular, wooden, lecturn – it had multiple sides, and rotated – so that standing in a circle the brothers could read their book.  They started chanting Praise the Lord from the heavens, praise the Lord from the heights.  And then kind of like a round, but not exactly, other brothers would start the next line, and so on and so on – until you had this cacophony of harmonies – with discernible words popping out here and there – but blending into this growing and expansive wall of sound that filled – the heights of that space.

The music covered you in a representation of our belief that that there is a constant choir of creation praising the Creator at all times and in all places – that is good and right and joyful always and everywhere to give thanks to God - joining our voices with angels and archangels who forever sing God’s praise.  Those are the words we use in our worship to invoke the same. We are reminded, obviously, because we forget – or stop trusting – that this praise really is happening all the time.  This never-ending song of creation reflecting the ongoing glory of God that covers the world.  

Jesus connects with this glory in a pretty interesting way.  Jesus says, at the last supper, now the Son of Man, Now God is glorified.  Weird to go back, don’t you think? We’re in the He is risen phase – so why is our gospel from the night before he dies?

Well, just as we give greater importance to the last words of a dying person – or we replay conversations we’ve had with someone who is gone, and then recognize a deeper significance of what was said between us – we are doing that with Jesus in liturgical time.
And so we hear – At the last supper, when Judas had gone out – Jesus said, now the Son of Man has been glorified and God has been glorified in him.  That one stage direction is pretty incredible – when, Judas, the person who will betray Jesus – leaves the room to get started, get started on lying, get started on selfishness – look how Jesus responds?

He doesn’t respond by badmouthing Judas to all the other disciples.  He doesn’t start devising a way to subvert him.  He doesn’t speak of vengeance or punishment upon his return.  Instead, he turns to the first followers and models the new commandment he shares – love one another.  People will know the depth of your relationship with me – he says – by the way you imitate my love.

Jesus’ love covered Judas’ sin.  When someone he thought was close acts out of selfishness, Jesus chooses love.  His response – praises God – glorifies God – is an immediate connection to that choir of love and creation.

In one of the chapters of the book – In the Spirit of Happiness – the question is posed– how in the world do all of you (the monks in community) love each other all the time?  Surely you get on each other’s nerves.  And the monk replies – oh you better believe we do!  So then, how do you do it?  How do you love people you don’t even like?

You pour the water, the monk replies.  You pay attention to your gestures – your words – and choose to act in love. It’s not a feeling, it’s a choice.  You remind your heart of the singular and overwhelming love God has for you – and you choose to let that direct your actions.  It doesn’t matter whether or not you feel love for that person – you trust in the words of Jesus on the night he died – choose to follow an example and act out of the love.

And it is in the practice of the small gestures – the less important conversations – the pouring the water – again and again – something happens. We grow our compassion.  Our eyes are opened to the challenges all of us are facing.  Our ears are opened to simple gifts to be grateful for.  And your heart is continuously shaped to reflect the source of love that is always with us, unto the ages of ages.

We have no idea what Jesus was feeling when he said these words – angry, disappointed, heartbroken.  The gospel doesn’t share how he was feeling – because what mattered was what he said – and how he acted.  His response was a choice.

Which is why – this week – the Spirit led me to the ever-present encouragement for us found in First Peter -

Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaining.  Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.

Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ. To him belong the glory and the power forever and ever. Amen. (1 Peter 4:8-11)

The Rev. Arianne R. Weeks

Monday, April 18, 2016

He's Risen! Now what?

Readings for Easter 4 - Good Shepherd Sunday

To listen to the sermon, click the image.

Get out.  Please leave.  Time to go.

I wonder how Peter said it.  Did he yell it?  There were a lot of people, a lot of commotion in that upstairs room.  Did he overpower their voices with his, or quietly usher them all outside?

We don’t know how – but Peter put all of them out – before he brought resurrection in.  He made some space – he prayed – and then he lived into belief – saying, “Tabitha, get up.”  And she did it!  Opened her eyes, sat up, took his hand.  And then – surely in a strong voice – he called all the saints and widows back into the room for she was alive!

Peter didn’t know Tabitha.  But Peter trusted.  He accepted the invitation of two strangers who came to him and said – please come with us.  There is something you have to see.  Peter didn’t know if what he would do would work.  But he trusted in the possibility.

How often are we presented with the invitation – would you come and see?  How often do we accept?  How often do we – for whatever reason – say, sorry I don’t know you and I can’t add anything to my plate?  How often do we stop ourselves before we even try?  Thinking we don’t have the power God says we do?

Peter went – without knowing what he was getting into to.  But it would’ve been all too familiar when he got there. Death, mourning – a wake.  But the women who greeted him at the door wanted him to know – this wasn’t just any wake – because this wasn’t just any woman.  Tabitha was a saint – she was their saint.

She was a widow – which means she had no money – she had no power – and she wasn’t known to the people who did.  Just like the people of her community.  But they knew her and they loved her.  And they were beside themselves because she would no longer be in their lives.

And as they wept they showed him who Tabitha was– the tunics, the afghans, their blankets, their clothes, their prayer shawls.  All of these beautiful and basic things that – Tabitha made with her hands, with her gifts.

This is who Tabitha was.  Widowed like us.  Poor like us – but she gave anyway.  And we loved her – and we need her – please bring her back.

A question for me in these gospel accounts – why are certain people – like Lazarus – like Tabitha – brought back to life.

The resurrection of Jesus is to show God’s power over death.  God cannot be overpowered by the finitude of time – and so gives us the good news of a meaningful life here to be followed by an eternity of meaning – at one – with God.  That’s Jesus resurrection – a category of its own.

The resurrection of Lazarus – of Tabitha is different.  Neither will ascend to be seated at the right hand (or wherever exactly) – both will die again.  So why? What is the message for us in this story?

Number 1 – Peter accepts an invitation of strangers.  He doesn’t know the two men who come – but he is willing to be a witness – to just go and see – something that is hard.  He believes he is needed – because they say he is needed.  In a variety of ways – all of hear that same invitation.  It may be hard to go and see some of the people – some of the places we are invited to – but trust – you’re witness is needed.  Someone once said to me – I don’t know if I have faith all the time – but I act like I do.  Bingo.  Peter trusts, he lives into faith – and it took him awhile to get there didn’t it?

Number 2 – The widows and the saints in that room are grieving what they had lost, the person and their gifts.  Sometimes we need to be reminded of what we have.  There is so much we take for granted every day – it can’t be helped, I know that.  We all do it.  But when something changes – when someone is gone – then we realize.  Then we realize how the small gestures – the mundane comforts – the assumed presence – when it’s gone – then we feel the gratitude.  In this story – we, the onlookers, are reminded – show your love – show your gratitude – now.

Number 3 – Look at what Peter does when he gets there.  He models something he saw Jesus do – all the time.  Shut the door – go in there by yourself – and pray.  We are the only ones who can build sacred space and time in our own lives.  We hear Jesus, the Good Shepherd say – my sheep know my voice.  That implies we are listening for God’s voice.  Listening is not passive – it requires our attention, our practice, our whole selves.  Peter cannot let God in – until he puts the noise, the people out.  We all need to create the quiet to listen for God’s voice.

Finally – and I think this is the most important point for a faith community.  Resurrection is never about just one person.  It is always God working through one person for the sake of the community – the common good.  When I’ve preached on the raising of Lazarus – and I would imagine the same hold true for Tabitha – isn’t there the chance that when she’s brought back she says – “Well what did ya go and do that for?”

Of course, I’m sure she was grateful – but just think of her community’s gratitude. How weeping was turned into shouts of joy!  Imagine how they felt – these poor, powerless, forgotten saints and widows – seeing just how much someone cared for them.  They show Peter Tabitha’s love through what she created.  Peter shows them God’s love for all of them – who God created.

I don’t know if it’s still there – but if you’re driving on Bosley off of Towsontowne in Towson – for me that’s the route to Target – you cross York – and a little ways on your left there’s a Lutheran church and the have a church sign.  So the week after Easter I drove by and it read – Alleluia.  Jesus is risen.  Now what?

That’s a great sign!  Alleluia. Christ is risen. Now what?  For Peter – scared Peter, doubting Peter – now, he’s going to start acting his faith.  Accepting invitations – modeling Jesus’ practice of prayer – going into places and communities that ask for a witness, that ask for help.  Now Peter is going to believe that God really has equipped him with everything he needs.

Now what?  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.

Are you listening for the voice of God in your life - now?  Are you listening for God’s invitations - now?  What do you hear?  Where is God calling you?  Where are being led?  Do you trust God has given you the power to be a sign of God’s love for all of God’s people?

Someone shared a wonderful article in the Wall Street Journal by James Martin, Jesuit priest and author.  Titled “The Challenge of Easter”  maybe you read it?  Martin writes –

“If you believe that Jesus rose from the dead…everything changes. In that case, you cannot set aside any of his teachings. Because a person who rises from the grave, who demonstrates his power over death and who has definitively proven his divine authority needs to be listened to. What that person says demands a response.

In short, the resurrection makes a claim on you.”

Jesus’ resurrection made a claim on Peter – a claim that changed everything about the way he acted in the world.  A claim that changed the way he listened and the way he followed.  A claim that forever impacted the lives of the people God led him to.

What is the claim the central truth of our faith makes on you?  It’s different this Easter season than it was last – and will be again – because the Good Shepherd is calling your name right now – so – now what?  Amen.

The Rev. Arianne R. Weeks

Monday, April 11, 2016

Letting the Scales Fall

The Third Sunday in Easter

To listen to the sermon click the image

A sermon by the Rev. Dr. Angela Shepherd, Canon for Mission, Diocese of Maryland
Church of the Good Shepherd

Acts 9:1-20
Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" He asked, "Who are you, Lord?" The reply came, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do." [The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, "Ananias." He answered, "Here I am, Lord." The Lord said to him, "Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight." But Ananias answered, "Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name." But the Lord said to him, "Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name." So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, "Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit." And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.

For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, "He is the Son of God."]

Sunday, April 3, 2016

And God Said: Ha!

Readings for the 2nd Sunday of Easter

Click on the image to listen to the sermon

A few weeks before Easter I was having lunch with some of my colleagues – and I said – ok guys, I need a good joke for Easter. And one friend said – on Sunday? Easter Sunday? You read the gospel of the resurrection of our Lord and tell a joke?

Yes, I defended myself. Of course I sometimes tell a joke – it’s a joyful day – a return to Alleluia day - and I want all of to feel that joy. What better way to start a sermon then with a laugh?

So then my other friend says – actually this is an ancient tradition. Risus paschalis – which means “The Easter Laugh.” This was a custom to come out the early church tradition. In the earliest days of Christianity the first week of Easter was one continuous feast…a week meant to inspire intense spiritual joy! Easter Monday was called the Day of Joy and Laughter. And scholars think the tradition it came out of a midnight sermon preached on Easter Vigil in the 4th century by St. John Chrysostom. The highpoint of his sermon described a vision of the resurrected Christ confronting the devil and laughing at him. Leaving the devil powerless and speechless. God has the last laugh on Easter – trampling down death forever![i]

A man was found alive after years of living alone on a deserted island. The head of the rescue party asked him, I see you built 3 buildings – what are they? And the man replied – that’s my house and that’s my church. So what’s this third one? Oh, that’s the church I used to go to.

So this conversation reminded me that somewhere I’d read about a priest who maintains this tradition in his church. Not on Easter Monday – when let’s face it – we’re not together – but on this day, the second Sunday of Easter. When surely we can imagine Jesus chuckling at Thomas’ need for more proof.

Holy Humor Sundays they are frequently called. And are a tradition in a variety of churches. Every year – in some way – they do something – like having people in the congregation tell jokes – a bulletin filled with cartoons - skits instead of readings – the choir singing something a little different than usual.

One church in Florida the pastor simply got up and said in honor of the day – he’d give his shortest sermon ever – the focus of his talk would be sin – Don’t do it. Amen. And he sat down.

Don’t you think Jesus laughed? Always at those parties and dinner gatherings? Certainly people told stories? Surely the Pharisees and the disciples were the punchline in more than a few jokes. Of course there are times when church is solemn and somber – yes. But – we are also called to make a joyful noise unto the Lord!

We read stories that seem as far away from our lives as they are from our time and place. We move through the words of liturgy which can be comforting – but can also sometimes feel very rote – so we stop paying attention. We stare through stained glass windows – which can sometimes reinforce a religious ideal that a perfectly clean esthetic is better than the messy faith of feelings and doubt.

Speaking of stained glass…a priest was giving a children’s message one Sunday instead of a sermon. So she invited all the kids to come up front and she talked about how each of them had gifts to share. And as she looked up she saw the light the light streaming through the stained glass window – like ours – where all the different panes of glass made for the most beautiful image. Inspired with this vision she told the children – See God’s vision of us is like that stained glass window – and each of us are a part. Colin – you’re a pane. And Robbie – you’re a pane. And Julie – even you are a little pane. Until the laughter of the congregation cut her off.[ii]

The scripture we read this morning reminds us that doubt is a part of a full faith. Jesus certainly doesn’t seem to mind hearing about Thomas’ doubts or ours. It seems that Jesus wants us to dig into our doubts – quite literally – sharing them with each other – sharing them with God. Because resurrection is a hard thing to wrap our minds around – a hard thing for us to trust in.

Scott Weems is a cognitive neuroscientist and the author of Ha! The Science of When We Laugh and Why. And one of his findings in researching humor is that – the most important function of laughter is how it helps us handle what we can’t understand. It helps us process. It keeps us moving forward.[iii]

When something happens that fills us with doubt or uncertainty – it can be unsettling – it can be terrifying. The God-given ways we are brought back to the awareness that we’re not in it alone – God is with us, people we love are with us – that’s one way we process the impossible.

Two years ago my sister, Christianna, died. I was raised – Roman Catholic so of course we had the funeral in a Roman Catholic Church. The priest was great, smashing my preconceptions. Not only did he not have a problem with my wearing my clericals to the service – but he invited me to participate – which hasn’t been my experience in that denomination.

It was – as you can imagine – a very, very sad day. And at the end of a funeral service the priests say prayers commending the body to God’s everlasting care. Often times praying with incense as they make their way around. The priest handed the thurible to me – you know it’s a metal box hanging on a chain and you swing it.

Now we don’t use incense here – and the last time I had was seminary – and it takes practice. You have to hold the chain in the right place – high enough so when you swing it – it doesn’t swing back on itself, and dump out. But guess what I did – yep, held it in the wrong place – and so with great solemnity I swung it up only to have it swing backwards, hit the chain, and all the ashes come pouring out. To which my other sister immediately exclaimed – “Ha! Christianna, did it! She was never big on church.” Which did spark a welcome and supporting laugh from all of us there. All of us trying to wrap our heads around this tragic loss and trust in resurrection. I’m sure you have your own experiences you point to. They say it’s the best medicine for a reason.

Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, the psalmist sings (PS 100). Sarah says to Abraham – God has brought laughter for me! (Gen 21:6) In Job even we read – God will fill your mouth with laughter and your lips with shouts of joy! (8:21) And the wisdom of Ecclesiastes shares – Feasts are made for laughter (10:19).

And today is indeed a feast no matter where we are on the doubt spectrum. This is our feast to celebrate that God has conquered death forever. Our feast to celebrate that love always wins! May all of us find the laughter we need – share our laughter with another - and join God in the feast of life we have been given.

So in that prayerful spirit - A priest walks into a bar. Apparently he didn’t see it! Amen.

The Rev. Arianne R. Weeks

[i] With thanks to -
[ii] With thanks to -
[iii] From interview -