Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Praying with Humility

Readings from Sunday, October 23

Click on the image to listen to the Sermon

My parents have worked downtown for quite a while now and a couple years back there was a homeless man that sat outside the Subway restaurant near their building. He would hold the door for customers as they came in and out. When they could my parents would buy him a sandwich when they stopped into Subway for lunch. Over time, they had become friendly with the man.

A coworker of theirs approached them about what they were doing, and said that it was so nice but she doesn’t like giving to the homeless. My dad kindly replied, “Well, you never know they could be an angel.”

Well, this took their co-worker by surprise because that was definitely not what she had expected him to say. That next Monday she came into work and  went right up to my parents. She said that she no longer had any money for the commuter bus the rest of the week because she gave all her change to the homeless between her bus stop and her building in fear that one of them could be an angel.

Now I don’t share this story to encourage giving out of fear or that there should be a fear of angels lurking—because they do lurk. But that we never really know someone’s story—we don’t know what brought that man to the corner on Charles Street or that Tax Collector to the temple to pray. What we do know is that they both deserved to experience the merciful love of God through the kindness of a meal and for the Tax Collector the forgiveness of sins.

Jesus gives us two parables in Luke that focus on prayer: the parable of the widow and judge from last week and now the Pharisee and Tax Collector. For Jesus it is prayer that allows us to inwardly focus our attention on God in order to outwardly share God’s merciful love to the world. It is prayer that helps us be mindful of sharing that merciful love by opening our hearts to move us to justice as Arianne preached last week.

But as this parable shows us today…prayer is not an easy task because our purpose for prayer to invigorate us and move us toward mercy can be derailed and distracted by judgments and assumptions.

That’s what makes this parable somewhat complicated. The Pharisee thanks God that he is not like the tax collector—but he doesn’t even know his story, the Pharisee easily judges the man based on his profession. And when reading this parable, I can’t help but find myself judging the Pharisee for judging the tax collector.

Jesus creates a complex and complicated story where the judgment of the character causes the judgment of the reader. He uses this web to make think about who we are and how easily our own prayer lives are complicated and distracted by quick judgments and assumptions of others and less mindfulness of our actions.  

That is why God calls us to be in relationship with God through prayer—to constantly work on our focus being on God and not on comparing ourselves to others.

For these men in the story they go to the Temple they’re seeking a relationship with God but for different reasons and also one becomes caught up by judgmental distraction. The faithful and righteous Pharisee goes to the temple to be seen—for people can witness his piety—for his prayer to be part of religious regimen. But the tax collector goes to be heard—not by the crowd but by God. He’s part of a corrupt profession and not expected to be at the temple to pray. But for him is relationship to God through prayer is one of heartfelt desperation “be merciful to me a sinner!”

We can see how the Pharisee’s assumption that that tax collector standing in the back must be corrupt and less than him pulls him away in his prayer from God’s mercy to his self-righteousness. His judgment then leads him to set himself apart from those around him because of his faithful adherence to the law to the point that he attributes his righteousness to himself and not to God. 

HE is righteous because HE fasts twice a week, HE gives a tenth of his income to the temple, and HE prays. HE does all of this pious work but is it done for God? Or for himself? In his prayer there is no thanks to God for his pious life or his righteousness or blessings. This prayer of thanksgiving becomes distorted by his self-centeredness. And the part for this Pharisee is that he thinks that it is his righteousness and religious piety that sets him apart but it is actually his lack of humility.
Jesus shows us that judgment interferes with our relationship with God through prayer—distracting us from our own work.

But Jesus does not leave us here today with a story of false piety and arrogant judgment. He leaves us with hope that it is through our humility in prayer that brings us into even greater closeness to God and one another. Jesus says that “for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Why humility when praying? Humility is essential to our prayer life because it is through humility that we are honest with ourselves about who we are when we to come to God. That Tax Collector came to God honest that he was a sinner. He did not hide it behind excuses or false piety. And that is why God showed him mercy and made him justified. The Tax Collector knew he was dependent on God’s mercy—praying with humility allows him to rely on God’s justifying grace, not on good works. The justifying grace that forgives him of his sins and allows him to be righteous.

Therefore, this parable demonstrates how out of judgment comes humility and mercy. How the goodness of the tax collector is drawn out. And how two men trying to live good lives and to be in relationship with God through prayer each struggle with the balance of righteousness and humility when judgment is thrown at them.

In this complicated tale of judgment and redemption, who is the example we should follow? The extremely pious man or the tax collector?

Both—despite his lack of recognition of his self-righteousness, the Pharisee lives a life where he fully gives himself to God through time and money. He finds purpose and meaning in giving toward his faith. And the Tax collector shows us dependence on God’s mercy that forgives, heals and renews. These two men have interesting stories that are still unclear and always will be. But these two men teach us how God wants us to be in relationship with him through prayer—giving, honest, and faithful.

We never know who may be an angel in one’s life and maybe for us today, it was tax collector.

The Rev. Jessica Sexton

Monday, October 17, 2016

Strength and Struggle of Prayer

Sunday's Readings

To listen to the sermon click the image below.

A few weeks ago I got a text late on a Friday night from a friend.  She said – Sorry to bother you with this but my sister is asking me how to pray for healing when all evidence says that healing is not going to happen.  Her friends from church are telling her to pray harder.  Any idea for what I can say?

That is a perineal and hard question. Do we believe that the outcome of a situation dependent upon the effort we put into our prayers?  But wouldn’t that mean that prayer is a way in which God judges us? Assessing what we deserve – if we are worthy?  What exactly does praying harder mean – is it this (focused face)?

Both the story from Genesis and the parable from Luke describe hard prayer – prayer of struggle and dogged insistence. So are they step-by-step instructions for the faithful to get what we want out of our prayers?

First place to start with the question is to name something that is as close to faith fact that we have – we are saved by grace.  God’s relationship to us doesn’t hinge on our efforts – we’re God’s creation, God’s children, God’s beloved – and through Christ that grace was poured out once and for all.

However just as God has a relationship with us of God’s making – we have a relationship with God of our making.  And as with any important relationship in our lives we have a choice, maybe some would say a responsibility to cultivate it.  And prayer – and there are so many kinds – is one way we do that.  Prayer is how we open the eyes of our hearts – see the possibilities in the world around us – Prayer replenishes our strength and hope for the future.  Prayer is what moves our feet to paths of justice, working to make real God’s dream a reality for all people.

Glory to God whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.  Prayer is the channel of that power.

In this first story we happen upon Jacob who is at yet another point of struggle in his life.  We read that Jacob struggled with his brother in the womb (25:22).  And then they struggled children because he believed he deserved his brother’s birthright and father’s blessing (25 and 27).  After 20 years of living well – he struggles with his neighbor over whether or not he belongs – which is why he leaves.

So having sent all his possessions – people and things – to go ahead of him – we find him here – alone.  That wonderful time of night let’s say between 2am-4am that I’ll bet most if not all of us are familiar with.  When all the stuff in here (head) and here (heart) is spinning around and around in a loop of mental anguish.  Wrestling with the question – what should I do?

God’s wrestling with Jacob is a sign of God’s presence.  And despite the dislocated hip – (because of it?) – Jacob comes away strengthened. Of course God could beat him up and “win” – but God holds back divine power, allowing Jacob to hold on– until he gets what he wants.  And it isn’t an answer – it’s blessing – a way of being assured that something good will come of what is hard right now.  And his name – and his limp will be an ongoing reminder that God is with him.  That's what God provides.  And Jacob goes on in his journey to meet God again and again.  Never receiving easy answers or living an easy life – but always knowing God is with him.

Have you heard someone share a story – have you experienced yourself – it was the hardest struggle of my life – but I wouldn’t change it if I had to do it again – because of the blessing that came from that struggle?

So that story tells us something about the struggle of prayer in our lives – encouraging us to remember that God is in that struggle with us.  Jesus’ parable tells us something else.

Parables aren’t like the story of Jacob - historical narrative.  There is nothing literal about them – and they are intended to upset us in away – because they don’t describe our world – they describe the world God intends for us.

In the bible study I’m leading right now – we talked about how parables point to the reality that is the kingdom of God – and as we described what that reality is – we shared words that are positive – loving, forgiving, feeling goodness, freedom – and all those things are true of course – but parables also describe a kingdom where the last are first – where those who aren’t deserving get the greatest rewards – where seeds are scattered on the ground in ways that seem foolish and wasteful – and yet it is the inefficient extravagance that leads to the most incredible harvest.

And this parable is like that.  This parable isn’t about our relationship with God – as much as it’s about our relationship to justice – a paramount characteristic of God’s kingdom: blessed are the poor, blessed are the hungry, blessed are those who thirst for righteousness.  The widow – who would be the lowest of the low in terms of social status and respect – refuses to accept that position – insisting she is worthy.

She is the Rosa Parks who sits at the back of the bus.  She is Ghandi and all who walked with him in nonviolent protest called the Salt March – which lasted 24 days – and launched India’s Civil Disobedience Movement.  And inspired the likes of Martin Luther King.

Jesus shares this parable when his disciples ask him – when is the kingdom coming? The parable answers the question by suggesting when all of you hear the cry of those who want to be heard.  And recognize your power in making this world a better place.

We hear this unrelenting cry – here in Baltimore – and many other cities – insisting that we wrestle with issues we want to get over or ignore or scapegoat.  The unjust judge in this parable gives in – not because he’s had a change of heart and is all of a sudden a good guy – but like a 24 day march – righteousness wears him down.  Justice as the saying goes – will prevail.

A mentor of mine says – the human experience is one of delay…and do our prayers shape, mold, hammer us into the vessels that will be able to hold God’s answers?  We don’t know.  All we know in the life of prayer is asking, seeking, knocking, getting angry, frustrated – and waiting.  He had been to a gathering of civil rights leaders and an elderly black minister read this parable and gave a one-sentence interpretation:

"Until you have stood for years knocking at a locked door, your knuckles bleeding, you do not really know what prayer is." (Crossmarks, Craddock)

Is prayer a struggle? Yes. Even Jesus lived that truth.  On the night before he died struggled in prayer in that garden saying – not my will, but yours God.  God’s will is for God’s dream to be a reality – in here (point) and out here – where wholeness doesn’t always mean the healing of our bodies – where freedom sometimes means letting go – and where justice rolls down like water and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

May all of us pray hard – and open ourselves to being shaped and molded by the blessings of God that will come of it.  Amen.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Who helps you say thank you?

Readings for Sunday, October 9th

Click on video to listen to the sermon

A little over a week ago I was standing right here taking vows for my ordination to the priesthood. During the announcements, Bishop Sutton gave me the opportunity to share my gratitude to everyone who has been part of my process to become ordained. It was during this part of the service that I noticed a man sitting in the back of the church. It was my middle school drama teacher. It has been quite awhile since I have seen him. I usually run into him and his wife at Costco over the holidays.

Back in July I preached on having to undergo brain surgery and the power of prayer. I talked about how I was diagnosed with an arachnoid cyst at the base of my brain stem. I was truly blessed to have a successful surgery and smooth recovery.

But it was during this time of being in and out of the hospital and having to undergo surgery that I missed out on my fall theater production of Annie. Where I was to star as Ms. Hannigan, the mean caretaker of an orphanage where Annie lived. Looking back now it was only a school play, but for my 13 year old self it was a big deal. 

I was really devastated—I was more upset about missing the play than I was having brain surgery. You would have thought I lost my opportunity to star on Broadway.

About three months after my surgery I slowly made myself back to school with half days. My drama teacher approached my parents and I one day with a proposal for me to have the opportunity to star as Ms. Hannigan in one additional production of Annie. I was ecstatic! 

It would only be one production of the show on a Friday night but all the money that we raised for the production would be donated to the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center.  My teacher wanted to teach us how to give back. That it was not just about me being able to star as Ms. Hannigan—see I have already been given the greatest gift, a second chance at life. He wanted me to share that second chance with others.

As much as I was excited that I would have my off Broadway moment of stardom, my teacher wanted my classmates and I to learn that we need to give back. That to be grateful is not something you just feel—but something you enact.

It was about teaching a group of middle schoolers that the world is bigger than their small bubble of school, friends and video games. That there are children out there hurting and a whole world in need of blessing.

My drama teacher recognized this as a teachable moment for all of us and especially for me to learn about what it means to embody gratitude. See I was thankful for my second chance but I didn’t know how to share it or to express it as a young kid. He showed me how--he showed all of us how to say thank you.

For Jesus, those nine lepers who were healed and did not return they were not bad people. They didn’t do anything wrong. It’s just that they missed out on giving thanks for what they had been given. They forgot to say thank you. They saw their good fortune but they were so caught up in it like anyone else would be that they forgot to show thanks. Who hasn’t done that? Once in our lives we can be guilty of forgetting to say thank you.

I am thankful for those people who remind us and show us how to enact our gratitude. In the Gospel it was the one man that returned to Jesus and for me it was my teacher.

The president of Lutheran Theological Seminary said that “Gratitude draws us out of ourselves into something larger, bigger, and grander than we could imagine and joins us to the font of blessing itself. But maybe, just maybe, gratitude is also the most powerful emotion, as it frees us from fear, releases us from anxiety, and emboldens us to do more and dare more than we'd ever imagined. Even to return to a Jewish rabbi to pay homage when you are a Samaritan because you've realized that you are more than a Samaritan, or a leper, or even a healed leper; you are a child of God, whole and accepted and beautiful just as you are.”*

What are we grateful for? We live in a life of both blessings and challenges. But what blessings do we feel grateful for in our lives that draws us out of ourselves into something bigger?

For that man, he was so grateful that he prostrated himself—laid down on the dirty grown after being healed from his painful wounds. His humility is drawn out and his gratefulness leads him into relationship with Christ.

Where do you feel drawn to give back? To your families, communities, churches? Giving back does not always have to be about money—it can be forgiveness, love, and time.

Giving back and giving a part of ourselves with grateful hearts not only pulls us into a greater relationship with those around us but also with Christ. We are living out his message to love one another. We all need people like the one leper in our lives to be a reminder to give back and to be thankful for what we have been given and to grateful for it. Who is that person in your life that enacting and embodying a grateful heart?

For one show on a Friday night, a middle school production of Annie raised a little under 3,000 for the Johns Hopkins Children's Center. As a young thirteen-year-old kid, that play meant more to me than just having the chance to star as Ms. Hannigan. It was realizing that I had a responsibility to give back. I already saw where it was going.

My roommate in the hospital was traveling back and forth from Chicago for surgeries and treatments. She had been born premature but at the time she was my roommate she undergone her 21st surgery. She has been one of the most positive and strongest people I have ever met in my life. Never complained and was always upbeat during the week we spent together. The play was for kids like her. Three thousand dollars may not sound a lot to some but for a bunch of middle schoolers that was a lot. And it meant a lot because the play and the money were for kids like my roommate who spent lots of their childhood at Hopkins.

Gratitude draws us out of ourselves (our single-mindedness, our everyday lives, our bubbles) into something greater—into actively engaging our world where we see the sadness and need that God wants us to help and repair. Jesus would still have healed those nine men even if they had not thanked God for their healing. Where are your blessings calling you to serve and say thank you?

The Rev. Jessica E. Sexton


Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Let Us Be Lazarus

Readings for Sunday, September 25th

Click on the image to listen to the sermon

Today, Jesus introduces us to two men: Lazarus and a rich man. One is named and the other is nameless. One is economically poor and the other rich. One is rich in faith and the other not so much. One is covered in sores and the other in fine linen. One eats the leftovers that fall off the table that others have been eating on and the other has a full stomach. But both die, yet angels carry Lazarus away to be with Abraham and the rich man is buried and sent to Hades; a place filled with fire and torment. 

Ultimately, Lazarus receives reprieve from his earthly suffering and is in the care of Abraham, it's a beautiful image of physical contact where he is wrapped in the arms of Abraham after suffering with sores that probably left him without physical contact. Despite being able to receive peace and contentment for the first time, Lazarus does not gloat or become haughty. The wealth of heaven does not change Lazarus’ character.  

The rich man finds himself in a fiery torment and in desperate need of water; but he is denied water, he is denied joining Lazarus and Abraham, and he denied warning his family members to follow the Law of Moses so that they do not end up like him. Jesus gives us a distinct dichotomy between the lives that these two men lived and the afterlife they are given. So, is the rich man being punished just because he has the privilege of wealth? Is this parable really about being rich or poor? 

Jesus lived during a time where prosperity was a true mark of faithfulness. Where the common idea was that the rich man is seen as the one who was blessed by God with wealth and prosperity, and the poor man must have done something wrong to be suffering. Therefore, the followers of Jesus would have viewed the rich man in a more favorable light-based on his economic standing compared to the good but poor man in the story. But as we read in the Gospel today, Jesus does not deem wealth as an indicator that someone will be given entrance into the kingdom of God. Wealth and prosperity are not markers for Jesus of faithfulness but of responsibility and accountability. 

The saying much is given much is expected—but in the case of this rich man it is not so much about him giving Lazarus money or making him wealthy—it is about the rich man looking out at his gate, looking down on the floor and looking, up at Lazarus and seeing a man, a human being, a child of God. And the rich man fails at this over and over again.  He never acknowledges Lazarus’ presence or cares for him on earth. But his dogs have more sense than he does. To ease the pain of his sores, they lick wounds but the man does nothing to aid Lazarus. It reminds me of a story in the news this past month about a house fire where a child was stuck inside and the dog laid on top of her to protect the child from the flames. The child survived because of that loving dog who unfortunately died. The dogs care for Lazarus in the same way, attempting to save him from his discomfort and the man does not notice. 

In the afterlife the rich man also requests that not Abraham but Lazarus give him water. He makes Lazarus the servant despite being the one who is being punished. He also requests that Abraham not Lazarus warn his family about living faithful lives to not end up in Hades. He still sees Lazarus beneath him even though Lazarus is being rewarded with being with Abraham. He does not see him as an equal, a human being. He does not understand why he is there instead of Lazarus. How the wealth and privilege of his earthly life does not transfer to his afterlife. He is blinded by his focus on the differences that separate him from Lazarus, socially and economically instead of their similarities and what they share as people, God’s people. And the rich man, does not want to see the similarities between him and Lazarus because then that would mean having to admit that they are on equal footing and he would lose his authority. He would also have to face a part of himself that he might not want to acknowledge. 

This parable is challenging (no matter what two men are experience suffering) because it forces us to think about the ways in which we can be the rich man (at times). The rich man is nameless because we could all be the rich man. My name could be there. I am challenged to think about what it is that I am blind to see in this world and about myself.What are we blind to see in our lives? What differences are we focusing on too much instead of our similarities? What is it that we don’t want to put into focus about ourselves?

I surprisingly feel for the rich man because how easy is for all of us to get caught up in the business and stress of our own lives. And when we do sometimes it's hard to relate or take the time to see what is going on around us. Along with our personal struggles we are living in a country where there are strong racial tensions, where there are divides between the public and law enforcement officers, where there are mass shootings in neighborhoods and shopping malls…where there is just so much sadness. It is difficult to process and make sense of the struggles we as a community are enduring, and it's hard to not look away from the TV screen or the newspaper when we see and hear so much sadness. There is so much to see in our lives sometimes. 

So, it's not only that there are things in life that hard to focus on but most importantly it's the people that help us see. Like the rich man who had Lazarus, we have one another and we have Christ. We are here on this earth for one another--to love God and to love neighbor. Yale Muslim Chaplain, Omar Bajwa posted this week to “cherish the people who enlighten your path to God for they are His secret blessing to you.”  Who is the Lazarus in your life? Who is opening your eyes to see your neighbor, to see yourself and to the world? Who is a reminder of God’s love in the world? 

Back in July there was a story I saw posted of a homeless man who went up to a college student who was on her way to the bus stop and asked her for change. She was rummaging through her purse and told him she had some money but quickly realized that she could not find her bus pass. The homeless man realized what was going on and asked her how much the bus fare was that he had $4 and would happy to give it to her. She found her bus pass but was so overwhelmed by his generosity. For someone in need to not care about themselves to help out another. She said, “I asked if I could take a picture with him to tell everyone about the size of his heart.”

The man walked toward her and tried to make his appearance look nicer before they took the picture. She gave him $2 and wished him goodnight. As she walked away he yelled, “mention in the picture that my name is cesar.” Cesar, Lazaurus, our names, we can be the ones in the world with our eyes and hearts open--to see the beauty and needs of those around us and ourselves.  Let us be Lazarus. Let us Cesar.


BibleWorks Commentary

The Rev. Jessica E. Sexton

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Our Accounts in God

Readings for Sunday, 9/18/16

To listen to the sermon click the image

If you were here last week – that was quite a Sunday.  Not only because we came together as one family – for worship.  Not only because we shared in renewing our commitment to work together for the glory of God through this church.  And not only because we lived into Jesus’ call to evangelize – yes evangelize – right here in our neighborhood in the biggest way I’ve seen to date….but, what I found truly beautiful was that we literally enacted the gospel story we heard proclaimed.

In remembering the events of 9/11 – and joining that memorial with our own prayers – we acknowledged how God finds us when we are lost – we prayed for ourselves and others who need amazing grace right now – and then we had a big party – just like Jesus said to do – inviting all our neighbors and friends to celebrate.

That kind of scriptural alignment doesn’t happen all that often on Sunday mornings.  Imagine if we were trying to embody this gospel story with our neighbors today? This gospel is a difficult one to make sense of – let alone – find assurances of God’s love.  Because the subject is a hard one.  One we don’t like to talk about – especially in church – our relationship with money.

The thing of it is though, it does immediately follow on the heels of those amazing grace parables – Jesus telling stories about getting lost and being found – and for all we know he told them all at the same table – on the same day.  So I’d like spend a little time on that scripture to help us understand this dishonest manager – who Jesus commends him – and strangely, encourages us to imitate in how we make use of our dishonest wealth.

We’re a table with Pharisees, sinners, tax collectors and his disciples, i.e. we have a rep for all of us.  And he tells three parables before this one – a shepherd searches for one sheep, leaving the 99 behind.  A woman searches for 1 coin even though she has 9.  And a father runs to meet his youngest son, who squandered his inheritance and now wants to work, so he can eat, on his dad’s estate.  The father doesn’t see a debt to be paid – he is too overjoyed that his son has come home, so he throws a big party – which really ticks off his big brother.

While culminate in amazing grace – that only happens because of the way each character prioritizes their wealth.  For a shepherd to leave 99 sheep for 1 – is foolish.  That flock is his property – his livelihood.  One sheep has no value – let it go – and protect the treasure you have in the 99.

Same with the woman – she spends all that time for 1 coin.  Sure 10 is better than 9 – but that one really is not going to break the bank when it comes to her checking account.

And the prodigal son parable is the kicker.  The father doesn’t care about his property or the wealth that was squandered.  He cares about his relationship with his son.  He runs with joy to meet him – and he invites the eldest to let go of his resentment (material and otherwise) to celebrate with them.

So in the lead up to today’s gospel – we have three stories where Jesus is clearly saying – in God’s eyes - wealth is never as important as people.  Maybe that seems obvious – like, well of course God cares more about people than money or property – that’s God.  But isn’t Jesus telling us that – just like the people in those stories - our relationship to wealth is something we are to pay attention to?  Wouldn’t we all admit that there are many times we put wealth first in our lives?  I have – and I do.

Then Jesus turns to the disciples at the table – the ones who say they believe – and tells this story of a wealthy high level executive – who has squandered property.  Which puts him on par with the prodigal son who ate with the pigs.  Both have done the same wrong.  The prodigal son realizes his predicament when he has to resort to eating the food of the pigs. So he decides to go home to see if his dad will let him work.

Same here – the high level executive realizes the CFO is on to him.  Perhaps he’s been adding even more interest to the company’s loan – and skimming that off the top.  It’s unclear.  But something caught an accountant’s eye – because the CFO wants an audit.  The exec realizes he’s caught – he’s going to lose his job. He certainly can’t be a day laborer – and he knows he can’t beg.  He realizes he needs people – he needs relationships.  Friends who will welcome him into their homes because he’s about to lose his.

So – thinking of his own best interest – there’s no altruism here – he creates relationships that can save him. Cutting down everyone’s debts some by as much as half – which halves the money owed to his boss as well.  Which is when Jesus’ story gets most puzzling – The CFO commends the dishonest employee for acting shrewdly on his own behalf.  Even the wealth of the company takes a backseat to the relationships the employee was able to save.

Jesus goes on to say – and I tell you, make friends for yourself of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes…If you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust you to the true riches?  You cannot serve God and wealth.

So given all these parables (and the consistency with which Jesus talks about what we’re to do with our treasure) I have to believe Jesus is saying – if you want to love God with all your heart and soul – if you want to put God first – examine your relationship with wealth.  Not how much you have – but your relationship with it.  In your life – our common life – what comes first?

Isn’t this why talking about money and faith – is the hardest thing to do?  We want that part of our life – which is generally filled with anxiety and incredibly burdensome – we want to let go of that stuff when we come to church – when we think about God.  But that means the wealth has power over us, doesn’t it?  If we feel angered, or ashamed or conflicted when it comes to God and money – isn’t that something we’re supposed to bring to God in prayer?

(Martin Luther, 1529, aid clergymen in their teaching) He who has money and possessions feels secure, and is joyful and undismayed as though he were sitting in the midst of Paradise. On the other hand, he who has none doubts and is despondent, as though he knew of no God. For very few are to be found who are of good cheer, and who neither mourn nor complain if they have not Mammon. This [care and desire for money] sticks and clings to our nature, even to the grave….Therefore I repeat that the chief explanation of this point is that to have a god is to have something in which the heart entirely trusts.

In what does your heart entirely trust?  As a church – in what do we entirely trust?  Our endowments – our security?  Or our belief that there is an abundance here right now – and our relationships with one another will secure our present and our future?  In our own lives – are our relationships as reconciled as our checking accounts?  In our lives do we use our wealth to build up relationships with God with others?

Living a life following Christ is one of amazing grace and good news – and it is also living an examined life.  The teachings and parables are tools – not condemnations – because Jesus wants our joy to be complete.  God knows where our anxieties are – and God wants our burdens to be light.  For where our treasure is there our hearts will be also.

Grant us Lord not to be anxious about earthly things but to love things heavenly; and even now; while we are placed among things that are passing away, help us hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ – who put his relationship with us above everything else – your Son and our Savior.  Amen.

the Rev. Arianne R. Weeks

Monday, September 12, 2016

Shared Grief, Shared Joy

Readings from Sunday, 9/11/16

Click on the image to listen to the sermon.

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now I’m found, was blind but now – I see.

15 years ago on Tuesday on September 11, 2001 I got to my desk around 8:30 in the morning.  My office was on the corner of Canal and Hudson Street – right at the entrance to the Holland Tunnel if you’re familiar with getting into Manhattan from 95.  Like most offices in hip and trendy Tribeca it was an open floor plan with desks, tables spread around, no cubes or walls.  And the walls on the west and south sides where floor to ceiling windows. Spectacular views across the Hudson to Jersey and straight down past the end of the island through to Brooklyn.

Turned on my computer – started checking email – when someone walked very swiftly by my desk while saying – a plane just crashed into the World Trade Center.  I got up and followed him to that south wall– and stared at what looked like a movie.  That first building – where my parents had worked on the 98th floor when I was in Middle School.  It was impossible to process as reality the gaping hole – and smoke – and debris of I-couldn’t-comprehend-what - falling and fluttering through the air.

Next thing I remember - one of my coworkers standing next to me asking – what’s going on?  A plane flew into the towers.  What?  I don’t know – that’s what they said – I didn’t see it.  We were now maybe 15 of us standing in a line at those windows.  And someone said - what’s that – and pointed right?  Why is there another plane?  Why isn’t it turning? Oh no – we all gasped when it happened.  And there it was again – gaping hole – debris – smoke.  What is happening?

I ran to my desk – tried to pull up the NYTimes on my computer – wouldn’t work.  Then back at that window and watching the towers sway.  Could they fall, someone asked?  No that’s the World Trade Center – but then that’s what happened, we watched that tower collapse in on itself. 

I remember our CEO shouting – I want everyone out of the building now.  He pointed at some people saying, you, you, you get your cameras and get to the roof – everyone else out.

My friend Eliot looked at me and said – let’s go.  We all took the stairs – 9th floor – not too bad.  We got outside – we joined a river of people all moving north.  This was like nothing I had ever seen – it was a beautiful clear day.  We walked past people sitting in a cafe eating croissants – and I remember thinking – do they know what’s happening?  It got more crowded – more people.

We had made it to the corner of 14th Street/Broadway, Union Square – and were about to cross the intersection.  It felt like there were more people around us and moving – there was a feeling of anxiety that was growing – the sounds of people were getting louder – it started to feel stranger and scarier. 

At that time, my friend, Eliot – was engaged – and I was married. And as we’re about to step off the curb  he looks at me and says - Arianne, I don’t mean anything by it but could we just hold hands til we get where we’re going so we don’t lose each other?  Huge smile of gratitude – grabbed his hand - we ran across that street.  Speaking for myself - I wasn’t worried about losing each other – but I was terrified and scared and very grateful for someone’s hand to hold – grateful to be connected.

There are so many stories from that day 15 years ago and its important to remember then.  Stories that are small – and stories that are big.  Stories of tremendous courage – whereby ordinary people filled with something they didn’t know they had – reach out their hands to help others – reach out to sacrifice their lives by saving the hand of another.  Those stories are worth remembering because they remind us of something we can forget– just how connected we always are.

Rebecca Solnit is a writer who documents the stories of people after the disasters.  She writes, “when all the ordinary divides and patterns are shattered, people step up to become their brother’s keepers. And that purposefulness and connectedness brings joy even amidst death, chaos, fear and loss.”

Jesus is trying to break the ordinary divides and patterns sitting at a table with the Pharisees and the tax collectors and sinners.  That represents the far ends of the human spectrum and everyone inbetween.  And Jesus teaches – everyone is found by God.  Think about it – Sheep and coins, they can’t sin – and they can’t be religious.  Jesus isn’t saying – “if” you do this “then” God will love you.  “Then” God will find and forgive you.  Jesus is redefining what it means to repent.  Repentance is to let yourself be found. It’s not about what you've done – because everyone is going to get lost  – its about letting ourselves be found.
And the joy of those moments – that connection – that joy propels the shepherd and the woman to run out and call all their neighbors and have a party to celebrate.  For in doing so we reflect the joy of God with all the angels. 

Jesus is telling us – there are no lost causes – God doesn’t see us or the world that way – so we can’t see the world or people that way either.  And once we know, once we experience that amazing grace in our lives –  our joy grows stronger – when we got out and grab the hands of others to share in that connection.

The event we remember this day isn’t only reason I would up here – but the moments that I watched and lived through because of that experience moved me past the fear of leaving that career towards the faith that I was called to this vocation.

Church is not a building.  It is a community of people who come together to hear, remember and give thanks for story of God’s love for us  – and then make that love real in any and every way we can.

I am a Christian and I don’t believe it is my job to convert people to Christ.  I am a Christian because I have been found by God through Christ, again and again – and it is my deepest joy (more powerful than a job) to connect with other people in the big and small ways we all know amazing grace in our lives.

So let’s remember the stories – give thanks for the stories – and invite our neighbors to celebrate the joy of this story - this community.  The good news of compassion and making a difference – through all the ways we connect with God – with ourselves – and with others. 

And may we always give thanks to God – whose glory working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.  Glory to God from generation to generation in the church – and in Christ Jesus – the good shepherd – forever and ever.  Amen.

The Rev. Arianne R. Weeks

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

To Carry the Cross

Readings for Sunday, September 4th

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When I was traveling home from a school trip to Saudi Arabia a few years ago I was sitting next to a businessman and after about 4 hours into our 10 hour flight, when boredom struck for both of us, we found passing the time through conversation to be quite pleasant. We had a lot in common and I enjoyed his company learning about the country and culture I had a just visited. It was within the 5th hour that he asked if I was a Christian and if so, why did I believe in three gods. Three gods? Then I realized he was referring to the Trinity--the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. What an easy misinterpretation and misunderstanding--one I had not even considered.

There have been many misinterpretations or misunderstandings of the teachings in the Bible. There are also quite a few different interpretations of scripture in general, which is why we have so many denominations.

Today’s scripture is one that cannot be misinterpreted because it is painfully clear. Jesus says that ”whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” Hate. there is no getting around the word. Why would Jesus use such a strong and painful word like hate in reference to our families and even this life that we have been gifted with? It is such a contradiction to his command to love God and love neighbor. But it grabs our attention. It's inescapable and something that we cannot ignore. And that is Christ’s intention.

He wanted the crowd to understand the magnitude and seriousness of what it means to embody a life of discipleship. Discipleship is where we become like Christ and by working on being like Jesus we develop a more intimate personal relationship with Christ. And this personal relationship with Jesus also lead us into having relationships with one another that are grounded in the love of Christ and allow us to share the gospel to the world--”make disciples of all nations.”

But attempting to be Christ like is so difficult and messy when we are up against people and things every day that challenge us to not live into our call of discipleship. Just watching the news can stir up angst and frustration.

Jesus doesn't sugarcoat or simplify these challenges of discipleship.

We could say that this strong statement to hate and to carry one’s cross, is not meant to discourage us but to prepare us of the hardships of living out true Christian discipleship in our lives.

It Christ’s love for us and that crowd that leaves us with those powerful words of preparation and warning.

So, is Jesus really telling us that to be in relationship with Him and living a life of discipleship that we must hate our family?

No, Jesus is calling us to love those around us and the things we put value in--less than God. Jesus is not saying to not love our family or have values but that all of those things come second to our relationship with God. God has to be first for us to be capable of being disciples--to be able to face the world we must be grounded in our faith and love of CHrist. We do this through prayer, scripture, worshiping in community and our relationships with one another.

Because if we are not grounded in that love of God, then we can become distracted and compromised by other relationships that can cause us to not put God first, and then we cannot fully live into our call of discipleship.

God has to come first. On social media I see people put “God, family, country or God, family, football.” God is the first priority.

That can be easier said than done when we have a sick family member or upset in the home. It can be difficult to put God first or pray or make time for worship when what we see in front us might seem more urgent or necessary to tend to. Yet God is there as well and God puts us first.

When we put God first and fully love God and as Jesus says in the gospel-- become disciples and carry the cross--when we do this everything else can fall into place. Being disciples for Christ allows us to be better people for those around us. It puts our hearts set on Christ.

Famous 20th century evangelist and teacher, Oswald Chambers, wrote that “when a man’s heart is right with God the mysterious utterances of the Bible are spirit and life in him. Spiritual truth is discernible only to a pure heart, not to a keen intellect. It is not a question of profundity of intellect, but of purity of heart.”

Thus, when our hearts are focused on God and our passionate devotion of God--we experience the scriptures, those around us, and life with more love and compassion.

It is this love that we will need to pick up the cross. We need the love of Jesus and to embody that love to be disciples and to carry the cross--that holds the hope, peace and promise of the love our savior Jesus Christ. The cross is heavy. Being a witness and example of the love of Jesus can be an arduous endeavor and discipleship can come with a cost.

Jesus says that to carry the cross (putting God first) can threaten relationships especially familial ones causing there to conflict and unrest. If we are loving God first, our priorities change and shift in a way that can be difficult to those who demand our attention and time.

The cost of discipleship is also what Jesus wants us to be aware of because again it can be these relationships that distract us from doing God’s work in the world.

Yet not all costs of discipleship are negative. We can lose pride and ego and deceit. Carrying the cross gives us the opportunity to realize the other burdens that we are carrying in life.

It could be painful relationships that don’t spiritually feed us or it can be our own guilt and shame. We could be carrying the struggle to forgive someone.

Discipleship as Jesus describes us forces us to lose our possessions even things we emotionally and spiritually possess that are weighing us down and making it difficult to carry the cross.

What has been weighing you down? What has been your cost? To live a faithful life have the decisions you’ve made cost you friends or family or careers or education?

What has been weighing our world down?

When I think about examples of discipleship today I think about Georgetown University. A Jesuit institution with a painful past of selling slaves in 1838 from Maryland to Louisiana to pay off the university's debt. The university’s association and involvement in the slave trade called for the formation of a working group to figure out how the university should respond to their history. 

The group decided that Georgetown University would provide the descendants of 272 slaves in the school’s past with the same privileges as any legacy applicants in the admissions process, meaning that they will be given preferential status when applying just like those who have made generous monetary donations. 

A cost of discipleship is acknowledging our own past mistakes in order to truly love God and neighbor now. This is also a gift of discipleship.  To carry the cross one must know what else they are carrying to make sure that the cross is lifted high.

Georgetown University’s acknowledgement of it’s painful past allows the school to continue the needed conversation of racial reconciliation and provide educational opportunities for the ancestors of the 272 slaves.  To live out the commandment to love God and love neighbor. 

Just like Paul in the epistle for today--his discipleship was through acknowledging Onesimus as a human being--a brother in Christ and no longer a slave.

Discipleship is transformational. We are transformed by the love of God. We are not to hate. We are called to be disciples of the love of Christ even when it is so impossible and we are faced with all the costs and their weight.

But the costs are worth the love and transformation. 

Georgetown is transforming how it embraces its past to have a more reconciliatory future. Paul puts the love of God first to embrace his call to discipleship and breaks the cultural norm of slavery and accepts Onesimus. Showing us how putting God first--puts our hearts and the hearts of our neighbors in order. Our discipleship is transformational as we carry the cross of justice, love and peace in this world.

It can be a struggle everyday but I am reminded of one our famous hymns: 

Here I am Lord, Is it I Lord?
I have heard You calling in the night.
I will go Lord, if You lead me.
I will hold Your people in my heart.


The Rev. Jessica E. Sexton