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

Click on the Image to Listen

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

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Religion is a Verb

Readings for Sunday 8/28

Click the image to listen to the sermon

Church of the Good Shepherd:
Compassionate Community Making a Difference

Monday, August 22, 2016

To See or Not to See

Sunday's Scripture

Click the image to listen to the sermon

Our gospel this morning – is one of six times in Luke’s account of Jesus’ life that Jesus “does” something on the Sabbath – something classified by the rigidly religious as “work.”  So a natural question is – why does Jesus go out of his way to break rules – to stir up conflict – on a holy day – in the middle of a worshipping community?  Important question since that’s exactly who we are, right now, yes?

One reason may be an encouragement for us to see with the eyes of God.   You can probably recall the gospel story when Jesus goes to the house of some religious leaders and a woman is at his feet – crying and bathing his feet with her tears.  Everyone is made anxious and uncomfortable and judgmental at this display so Jesus calls over his disciple Simon Peter and asks a simple yet profound question.  Jesus looks at Peter and asks – Do you see this woman?

This morning Jesus embodies that question not just for one disciple – but for the worshipping community.  This morning’s nameless woman is someone no one sees.  For almost two decades she has been hunched over in her pain.  For 18 years I imagine she has probably bent closer and closer to the ground.  Not only because of the nature of debilitating diseases but because no one wants to see her.    This woman is accustomed to not being spoken to – not being seen – and staying on the outskirts of the community’s life.

But, we read – Jesus saw her.  And he doesn’t glance at her – and look away and continue with his teaching.  Jesus sees her – makes eye contact with her – and calls out to her “Woman!”  Ensuring everyone in the crowd has no choice but to turn their heads and look at this human being they’ve grown accustomed to ignoring.

In stories like this I spend a lot of time picturing them – and this week as I’ve tried to imagine this scene – the image of the woman keeps being replaced with an image of a 5 year old Syrian boy.  I’m sure many of you saw this picture in the news this week too.  A boy, 5 year old boy – sitting on a chair at the back of an ambulance while there is a flurry of active adults around him.  He is completely covered in dust and ashes – it fills his hair.  There is blood and dirt on his face – his arm.  You don’t need to read the story to know he’s a victim of a bomb strike that destroyed his home – and many others.

And it is heartbreaking to take in that image of an adorable child whose small legs jut out of the adult-size chair because they are far too small too small to touch the ground.

The first time that still image popped onto my screen – I clicked away.  Too much to take in.  I saw the boy and the words – Aleppo – Syria – war – pass – I don’t want to see it.  It’s too much – there is nothing I can do.   Eventually – I hear Jesus say – do you see this child?  So I go back to the image though and click through to watch the video.  His name is Omran - shell-shocked – dazed – not crying – he wipes at his face and I listen to the details of the violence this child endured.

I can’t fix it.  But I can choose to see it.  (Dinner w/Syrian refugees, members of our church)

The only way we are moved towards what we prayed in our opening collect – to show forth God’s power among all peoples – like Jesus is about to show forth in this temple - is to open the eyes of our hearts to see.  Surely that is what hoping to do in his congregation.  Jesus doesn’t heal this woman privately in her home – or after worship in the synagogue is done.  No – he insists everyone turn and see the daughter of Abraham – the child of God that is in their midst.

And after he ensures that everyone has seen her - with a word he sets her free!  It’s interesting.  Jesus doesn’t say – you are healed, your faith has made you well.   Jesus says – Woman, you are set free!  Released!  Empowered to stand up straight and claim your God-given identity as beloved – welcomed – a part of this community of faith.  Jesus honors her – values her – and shows everyone who is present that in God’s eyes she is worthy.

(Archbishop Desmond Tutu story from “On Being.”)

Of course Jesus would do this on the Sabbath – isn’t that what Sabbath is all about?  Life in God – life with God – is freedom from all that binds us – freedom to be wholly who God intends us to be.  We hear the prophet Isaiah remind God’s people – that if you delight in the Sabbath – if you call the day of the Lord holy – then remove the yoke from among you.

Remove those burdens that weigh you down and tie you up.  Stand up straight – for Jesus’ yoke is easy and his burden light.

 The “you” in Isaiah’s text is not singular – it is plural.  That’s a message for the community of God – the people who are to repair – restore – and remove those “spirits” those yokes that keep us and others down.  

Jesus releases her from the weight of that yoke – and standing up straight she knows the truth that she too – is a child of God.

And for each one of us – for those things that have us bound up and bent over – inside – in those ways that only God can see – what keeps you, me – from that same freedom?

Finally – notice how the leader of the synagogue reacts.  He’s clearly threatened and defensive – doesn’t talk or yell – at Jesus, the source of his anger.  Instead – he ignores the miracle and talks to the crowd.  Trying to shame the crowd into shaming Jesus.   By insinuating if they support Jesus the people aren’t religious enough – obedient to the letter of the law.  Because for the leader, that’s what the Sabbath is all about – another aspect of a burdensome religion consumed with rules of behavior and codes of conduct – where he himself the arbiter and judge. So many believe this is what religion is all about.

I don’t think that religious leader is at a point where he could see himself – let alone anyone else – as created in the image of God.  He sees people who will never measure up.   That yoke of internal judgment and criticism is very heavy indeed.

So – where are the people this community needs to see – needs to see with the eyes of our hearts?

Where are places where we need to live out our belief of what we say on the Sabbath - that God has walked among us so that we might set people free – make the rough places plain and the crooked to stand up straight?

Where in your life do you need to let go of judgment – of yourself – of someone else - so that God can make a way in?  So that God can lift the burden you carry?

The Lord is full of compassion and mercy – slow to anger and of great kindness. (Psalm 103)

When the hubbub is over on that Sabbath in that temple – the people leave rejoicing.  Bless the Lord oh my soul and all that is within me bless God’s holy name.  And to feel that – is to be released from what binds – to feel that is to be whole – to feel that is to see and know the good news of God – the truth that sets us free.  Amen.

The Rev. Arianne R. Weeks

Monday, August 15, 2016

Stressful Division

Readings for August 14, 2016

Click on the video for sound

What an ominous message from Jesus today? Fire, division, and hypocrisy. It is obvious that the weight of Jesus’ ministry is beginning to affect him that he shifts from a message of hope to one of warning. Because he is making his way to Jerusalem where he becomes closer to the grim prophetic reality of his impending death.

From those who have rejected his teachings and attempted to publicly humiliate him—Jesus knows that his followers will also be subjected to the same treatment. Being a Christian—a follower of Christ—would not exempt them from difficulty but actually make it harder on them. It would cause division in families and communities to believe in a man—a carpenter from Nazareth—that professes to be our savior and redeemer. To believe in this new community that Jesus calls the “kingdom of God” a place where all people our equal, cared for, forgiven, and loved whether they are rich or poor, weak or strong. This kingdom contradicted the world of religious hierarchy and privilege that Jesus’ followers lived in. It is understandable that Jesus would warn them of the risks and costs of their discipleship.

Overall the warning is that ultimately just because we have faith in Jesus Christ does not mean we will have an easy life. This is difficult to reconcile when we are suffering--praying and hoping and things don't work out as planned.

In the letter to the Hebrews, it says that there will be people who will be believe and live out their faith and they will be blessed. Naming prophets that through their faith conquered kingdoms and administered justice. But he also names that there have been people who were faithful followers that instead of blessing underwent torture and death.

The author says “yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.”

What they are saying is whether blessed or condemned, he wanted to make clear that our faith journey is not meant to be one of perfection or ease but that the kingdom was for both the blessed and suffering.

Jesus knew the risks of discipleship and what it would mean for his followers then and even now. Being a follower of Jesus would not be easy or safe.

I went to a conference on Christian missions called Urbana where 14,000 college and graduate students go to learn how to become a missionary and there were days of fun events and people sharing powerful experiences of faith conversions, but at the end of the day the main message was that being a Christian Missionary is still dangerous in parts of the world. Jesus was warning his disciples that fully living and sharing the love of God would cost them their safety, possibly relationships with family members and how they are looked at in their communities.

Today as Christians in the U.S. we have the privilege to practice our faith freely; again there are places in the world today where Christians are still persecuted or restricted from practicing their faith. Just this week in China, Christians have been rejected social security benefits for being open about their faith in Christ.

I was one of 10 students from Yale University/Yale Divinity School chosen to accompany my professor, Dr. Lamin Sanneh on a Cultural Tour of Saudi Arabia. It was sponsored by the King Faisal Center of Islamic Studies in Riyadh. We were blessed with being about to tour the city go to many historical and athletic sites in Riyadh.

When I visited Saudi Arabia back in 2010, since it is the birthplace of Islam, Saudi does not permit other religious faith traditions to proselytize or bring religious materials into the country.

So, I was unable to bring my bible, wear my cross necklace or openly discuss my faith. This was one of the best experiences of my life. Being in a place where I was unable to openly and outwardly share/express my faith in Jesus, made me realize how I cannot take for granted the opportunity to share my love for Jesus and that it is not just a Sunday morning thing but a daily embodiment.

It also gave a slight idea of how the disciples must have felt being in a place where their beliefs were a minority and not shared. My time in Saudi Arabia was life changing and especially, faith changing.

Even though we can freely practice Christianity, that does not mean our faith lives are not subject to encountering division or conflict or experience things that would challenge us living into Christ’s model of discipleship. Unlike the dangers that some Christians experience, Jesus knew that one of the things that would distract, conflict and impact how all of us live out our faith would be stress.

The stress we experience, as parents, kids, spouses, clergy, etc.—would affect the ways in which we live the kind of life modeled by Christ.

What are you stressed out about?

There is probably a list of things we are all worried and concerned about--some can be shared and others are unique to each of us. Life can be stressful and hard at times to balance.

Stress can change how we react to and interact with people, it can make all of us choose between our relationship with God and the million other things we have going on--it's hard to focus and remember to pray and wanting to get up in the morning for church sometimes when we have so much on our mind.

We are busy people who care about our families, who are responsible for business and organizations, who have interests that give us meaning and energy like fitness, gardening, music or our faith.

We are blessed with many different responsibilities and passions, but the stresses of these things are real.

And it is not the stresses themselves that are problematic, it is that within all that we do in our lives it can be hard to find time or even remember to live our lives for Christ and in the model that he taught us—loving our neighbor and putting God first.

Jesus doesn’t condemn stress or belittle it—he takes it very seriously because he knows that it is not easy to live into the Christian way of life when we are being pulled in many directions and have important responsibilities in this world. Even Jesus admits that he is stressed out too. He told his disciples, “I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!” Jesus is referring to his crucifixion. He is overwhelmed by his own future. He gets our struggle to balance and the divide that we feel from our world and the stresses of it.

When Jesus talks about the division we experience, in our context today it refers to how living our lives for Christ—loving our neighbor, putting Christ first—is divided by the way in which our stress and concerns at times don't allow us to be centered on our relationship with God.   

The good news is that we are blessed to have a savior in Christ that understands the stresses we experience “and that promises that the baptism of fire that Jesus underwent in his crucifixion he endured so that we might have the promise that wherever we are, Jesus has already been, and where Jesus is now, we shall someday be.”

Jesus gets our human condition to worry and stress out—not that it is good because to trust in God. Ultimately, that Christ understands what we are holding in our lives and how we are being pulled—from illness of loved ones to the soccer field for practices and ballet rehearsals. What a gift to have a God that understands, that doesn't judge or condemn us in our challenge to live balanced and faith driven lives, but rather loves us unconditionally and forgives us when we falter.

Whether we are in place where we can share our faith or not, Jesus knew the struggles that we would go through to be followers of Christ—the struggle of balance, and openness and trust and kindness. Jesus knew we all would be divided by the challenges of this life.

That doesn't mean we don't actively work on living our lives more Christ centered but that in the midst of the imbalance we know how much we are loved, forgiven and cheered on by God.

Let us pray to God to bless us with calm hearts and that whatever life throws our way may we have peace in knowing that Christ understands our chaos. Amen.

The Rev. Jessica E. Sexton