Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Beyond the Pageant: What is the story of Jesus' birth?

The readings for this week.

Click on video to listen to the sermon.

This past week I heard some chatter down in the parish hall and I was being noisy so i made my way down. I happened upon the Preschool’s pageant rehearsal and I saw shepherds and angels and lots of sheep.  and saw that the preschoolers were practicing for their Christmas pageant. I stood there and looked down and there are Joseph and Mary standing there with me in the back of the parish hall, and they are about three feet high. Then Little Mary and Joseph proudly processed in and marched on up to the stage where Mary picked up a baby doll and Joseph knocked on the inn door. Then this adorable 4-year-old innkeeper confidently projected her line; “there is NO room in the Inn!” It is so sweet. And then you hear Mary yell, “Can we stay in your stable?” And the Innkeeper once again projects, “YES, you can!” It was so sincere and adorable as they confidently told the story of Jesus’ birth.

I found myself smiling over the joy and looking at these beautiful children taking their job of telling the story of Jesus so seriously.  

Yet, as I made my way back to my office smiling over the precious scene I had just witnessed, I got to thinking about the real story of Jesus’ birth, and Matthew tells us today that his account of the birth of Jesus, the Messiah, is what really took place. And the more I think about Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth announcement, the more that part of the story becomes less precious and cute to downright scary.

Scary? The story of Joseph hearing from an angel in a dream to take Mary as his wife and his compliancy with the command leads them to making the difficult journey to Bethlehem where Jesus is born. We can say that the birth story has a happy ending. Jesus is wrapped in swaddling clothes, asleep in a manger—healthy and alive during a time where a high mortality rate during childbirth. Joseph’s obedience leads to this positive outcome.

However, a closer look at the historical context of these eight verses we see that this was not a simple story of Joseph saying yes to the angel but a complicated, complex and ultimately dangerous tale of God calling two people to care for the most precious gift to our world, Jesus.

What makes this story complicated and somewhat scary is that in the ancient world a woman pregnant not by her husband would not only be subject to extreme public and religious shaming and alienation but stoned to death.

I use the words scary and terrifying in reference to our gospel today because Mary was living in a world where being an unmarried, pregnant woman was fatal (terrifying). And it’s scary for me to think that a young girl was given such a massive responsibility that carried a great risk for her well-being.

That is why for the longest time, I have struggled with Joseph’s contemplation over how to dismiss Mary, to technically abandon her. He plans to do so privately in order to avoid public disgrace but no matter how private the dismissal, any public knowledge of Mary’s pregnancy would have subjected her to a fatal punishment.

Matthew’s Gospel attempts to make a point that Joseph is a “righteous” man, a good guy who wants to look out for Mary by avoiding publicity over pregnancy. But I also think like any other human being, Joseph probably wanted to avoid public awareness of the pregnancy for himself as well. As Mary’s betrothed he would soon be accountable for her. And it might have made him fearful of what the public would have said about his accountability in the situation—asking how Joseph had some responsibility in all of this.

That is why the angel appears to Joseph and says, “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.” Do not be afraid—there are a lot of things weighing in on that command. 

Do not be afraid, Joseph of what people may say and think about you. Do not be afraid of the financial stress of having a child. Do not be afraid of traveling with a pregnant woman. Do not be afraid to take Mary on as your wife – – to be her husband and companion. Do not be afraid to be a father. Joseph, do not be afraid of the risks that this responsibility will hold for you. Do not be afraid.
Well, this time of year the feelings of fear (being afraid) and anxiety and sadness, they don’t feel like they fit or there is room for them in a season that we celebrate the joy and hope and peace to come on Christmas. 

We are like this birth announcement in the Gospel of Matthew, we may be invested in the season but deep down we may have our fears and anxieties or feelings of loss, that don’t go away just because it’s a season where we may feel like we have to be happy. These feelings actually become more real and vulnerable because there is a stark contrast between them and joy.

That’s why despite wanting to see the birth story as innocently as the preschoolers in the pageant, I find myself this year fortunate to find that the grace of this story for us is that God brought God’s son into a world riddled with it’s own dysfunction and turmoil, and gave him to two parents imperfect, poor and one of which was very afraid. God picked imperfection. God choose someone who did fear and was nervous and not sure. That is so reassuring that God still chooses us and loves us and wants us to be part of God’s will for the world despite the sadness and fear we bring. 

On Friday morning, I was on a flight to Durham, North Carolina because my best friend from seminary was getting ordained to the priesthood. I ended up sitting next to this young guy, who had never met a female priest before so he had a lot of questions. But we were halfway through the flight we had stopped talking and I had put my headphones on and tried to concentrate on my sermon. A little while later, I felt a tap on my shoulder and when he turned to me, I could tell that he was a little teary and said without preface, “Sometimes I just feel like as hard as I try as a Christian to pray and read scripture and go to church, as hard as try to be a good Christian, I’ll just never be good enough. I just don’t think I’ll ever get there.”

I could definitely relate to that—the harder I try sometimes the harder things get. This guy was bringing up a reality that is real for many of us, of feeling inadequate or unsure if we measure up--to our families, jobs, and to God. It can be very exhausting and very real.   
I had to think for a minute but then I told the guy that for me being a good Christian or a Christian, is knowing that I’m loved and because I am loved by a forgiving God, I just keep trying. Trying to be good is yes, praying, reading scripture and going to church, but it is also means an intentional awareness of what means to be patient and kind and loving to those around me but also to myself. Because God’s love overcomes the fears and insecurities we have, because He chooses us despite of them, just like he chose Joseph--to be the human father of a messiah. To risk his reputation as a righteous man to take mary as his wife--to protect her and help her carry out God’s call for them to care for God’s son. 

At the end of our conversation, he had another question for me, “What are your spiritual gifts?” I had to think about that question too. And these were all great questions  he had for me. But I think it is really important as we enter advent and we light each candle each week--hope, peace, joy and now love. What spiritual gifts do we have that will overcome the fear and anxiety of this season and this year?

The story of Jesus birth does may not have begun under the safest or easiest of circumstances for Mary and Joseph. The risks for Mary to be pregnant and unmarried, the risks for Joseph to be associated with her along with his concerns for her well-being—this is a scary and overwhelming situations. A time that would normally be joyful at the expectation of a child, is blurred by fear and uncertainty. And that uncertainty along with all the other factors of this complicated birth announcement in Matthew is what makes this story scary and unnerving until the angel reassure Joseph and us to not be afraid. 

The Regional Canon for the Diocese of North Carolina, The Rev. Dr. Rhonda Lee preached at my friend’s ordination to the priesthood yesterday that for clergy if we never risk controversy, we risk never preaching the gospel. And I think this is true for all of us as Christians.  If we never risk getting passed ourselves (fear/impatience) we risk not experiencing the opportunity to experience God’s love and God’s love through others. 

This week as we gear up for Christmas and our pageant here on Saturday, may we think about the story in a different way. May we think about Mary and Joseph and what they risked for God. And let us think about our spiritual gifts that will help us with our own risks. Amen.

The Rev. Jessica E. Sexton

Monday, December 12, 2016

Joy Can Hold Our Doubts

Gospel for Sunday

To listen to the sermon, click the image.

Do remember what airport security was like before 9/11?  It was there – but it was lax – not like now.  When I was a kid my dad traveled a lot and I was very accustomed to going with my mom to the airport to pick him up.  She always wanted to meet him at the gate.  That’s unheard of now of course, unless you have a ticket or are meeting a child.  Back then it was also “not allowed” officially.  I would always point this out to my mother as I really do not like breaking clearly posted rules – and she would look at me at say – Arianne, here’s a life lesson, if you look like you know what you’re doing and are supposed to be doing what you’re doing –people will leave you alone.  Embody confidence. Walk through security like you’re supposed to be there!

And – she was right – 9 times out of 10 we met my dad at the gate no problem.

What do you think about that attitude – that life lesson?  I will say – it has served me well – and it has also gotten me in over my head – making me think there was something wrong with not knowing.
Last Sunday we heard a very confident John the Baptist proclaiming the Messiah was coming – and the kingdom was near.  We heard a prophet charge the people to repent and turn their lives towards the way of God.  Last Sunday we heard an unwavering proclamation that Jesus would soon be here!
This Sunday – it’s a 180.  Our confident, locust-eating, baptizing messenger of God – is no longer so sure.  As he sits in a prison cell – doubt seeps in.  Could you blame him?  Can you think of a time you were so sure of something – so sure of someone – and then the events of a day – or a week – or decades – have you doing a 180?  Statements of rock-solid belief – giving way to hesitation and worry?

Through the bars of his prison John the Baptist tells his followers – you know what, I’m not so sure anymore…go and ask Jesus if he really is the One, the Messiah – or is there someone else we’re preparing for?

Incidentally – this wasn’t the first moment of doubt for our fiery prophet – John.  Back at the Jordan River – after his diatribe – Jesus arrives and says – John, you have to baptize me.  And John says, no – that’s not what I planned for – that’s not how I think this is supposed to go.
And Jesus says – well God has plans too different from your expectations, so let’s do it this way. John baptizes Jesus – and I imagine it was reluctantly.

You all may remember that when John the Baptist was in utero – and his mother Elizabeth met up with her cousin Mary – who was pregnant with you know who – John lept for joy in his mother’s womb.  In there, there wasn’t a shadow of a doubt about who Jesus was.  But as an adult the first time John encounters Jesus – face to face - doubt was very much a part of the experience. I’ll bet that John thought when the Messiah got here – everything was going to be put right – the rough places plain, the crooked, straight.  That jail cell was probably not something he had expected either.

Here’s what his questioning makes me think about though – I wonder is John the Baptist doubting Jesus – or is he doubting himself?  Is he thinking to himself – what was all that locust-eating and living in the desert for – maybe I’m not a prophet?

In a season of preparing for God to break in – we too should name and pay attention to our doubts and our expectations of God in our lives.  The opposite of faith isn’t doubt – the opposite of faith is certainty.  Doubt is what leads us to question – to dig – to explore.  Doubt makes room for saying one of the most important professions of our faith – I don’t know.

Almost every Sunday of the year – we are invited to proclaim the mystery of faith – Christ has died – Christ is risen – Christ will come again – how, where, when?  I don’t know.  It is a mystery.
It’s one thing though – to say, I don’t know when it comes to the mysteries at the heart of our faith – the inexplicable ways God’s thoughts are not our thoughts.  The mystery of ourselves though, the doubts in our own lives – they are harder to sit with and get through.  I’ll bet John the Baptist felt very alone in that prison cell.

Here is a quote of someone you know –
Where is my faith? – even deep down, right in, there is nothing but emptiness & darkness. – My God – how painful is this unknown pain… I have no faith. – I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart…So many unanswered questions live within me – I am afraid to uncover them – because of the blasphemy – If there be God, - please forgive me.” - Mother Teresa (

That’s from the journal of Mother Teresa – one of the most revered saints of our time – writing if there be a God.  The book Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta – published after her death – contains her prayers and pleadings for some divine intervention into her doubt – a doubt that lasted for half a century -  50 years of her life.  As she held the dying – as she ministered to the poor – with those small, powerful and wrinkled and wizened – hands that that for millions pointed to Christ – but inside – feeling the question – where is God?

And yet paradoxically– the reason we know about her internal struggle is because – she never stopped writing and praying.  Apparently the mystical experiences of Jesus – the ones that called her to leave her happy religious life – to go and found the Missionaries of Charity – they ceased almost as soon as she had answered the call.  The whole time she lived her faith – she was living those words we hear a grieving parent cry out to Jesus – Lord I believe, help my unbelief.

What are the doubts stirring in your heart on this day?  What are the expectations you have for Christ in your life?

Notice how Jesus addresses John’s doubts.  He doesn’t talk about himself.  Instead he points to the ways the rough places are being made plain – the people for whom healing has taken place – there are the signs – they may be signs the size of a mustard seed when placed in the context of the whole world – but God is breaking in.

And then he turns to the crowds who are just as curious and doubtful perhaps as John the Baptist – and he says – what about you?  What is it you hope to see?  A king dressed in the finest clothes – who will look like what you expect?  Do you now doubt the prophet John because he is in prison?  He is a great prophet – Jesus says - however the least in the kingdom – the ones you expect the least from – the poor, the helpless, the unworthy – even they are greater than he.

Jesus’ answer is another mystery – and calls us to be people who look for ways of God that don’t meet our expectations.  Jesus calls us to be signs – in some ways – to live what we believe, sometimes when we are struggling to believe it.

God comes to us as Emmanuel – God with us.  With us no matter what our struggles are.  We needn’t ignore our doubts – or feel guilty for having them.  As one of Mother Teresa’s fellow sisters said – she was a saint, she wasn’t perfect. She served the poorest of the poor and gave voice to those who had none.  Whether she had doubts or not her faith was evident.

Next Sunday at 5pm is our annual Blue Christmas service.  Sometimes we need a break from the manufactured cheer of the season – to be real about our questions and doubts.  There may be someone in our lives – we need to risk inviting to bring their questions and doubts and pain into a sacred space.  There is something healing and life-giving in giving ourselves permission to be where we are – no matter the season.  In creating space to ask the question – are you the one we are waiting for?

Today is joy Sunday – pink candle Sunday – and you may wonder – why do we have to remember joy in Advent?  Why do we need a pink candle when this a season that is all about joy to the world?  Because – God knows – there are stirrings in every single heart present that are not joy-filled.
The thread of joy that runs through all the readings this Sunday is one of expectation – it is the joy that comes from deep longing for the hope of God’s promise.  The hope that we are given signs – the size of mustard seeds – but evident, nonetheless.  The hope that patience is more than a virtue – it is a strength derived from the heart.

We prayed that God would stir up power in our hearts this morning.  We hear Jesus saying to us – what are you hoping to see? Stir up your questions.  Stir up your doubts.  For only in doing so do we invite God’s bountiful grace and mercy into our lives.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Sleepless in Advent

Matthew's Gospel for Sunday, 12/4/16

To listen to the sermon click the image

So every three years when this gospel comes around – it is hard for me not to chuckle when I’m reverently proclaiming it.  Because what I want to say at the end of John’s diatribe telling us – the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire – so Merry Christmas!

One of the big themes of advent time – this season of preparation is – Keep Awake!  Keep Awake – for you never know when God will break in – keep awake – you never know when the end will come – stay alert, be watchful – make sure your lamps are lit – keep awake!

And I was mulling over this keep awake mantra – a voice in my head said – well, Arianne that’s funny you’d need to focus on keeping awake – when it always seems so hard to fall asleep.  I feel like technically – keeping awake isn’t so much of a problem.  Sometimes it is around 3 o’clock in the afternoon – but other than that – keep asleep, get some rest, seems like some liturgical advice that would be more useful.

I’m well aware from a myriad of conversations – that I’m not the only one who struggles with sleep – and just to confirm that – I went to our 21st century Oracle – Google.

And Google validated I’m not alone.  I found many articles on this topic – and one from Forbes said that a little less than 50% of Americans say they get a solid night’s sleep.  According to a Consumer Reports article from this year we spend $41 billion dollars on sleep aids.  So – keeping awake – does not seem to be a problem for most of us.

So what does keep awake really mean – what is it that the prophets – in particular today the prophet John the Baptist – is trying to help us see?

Matthew’s gospel – and we’re now in Matthew because we just started a new church year last week – Year A – such a fancy name – is the harshest.  It’s the one that has gnashing of teeth – and all the fire and brimstone stuff.  And that’s because – it’s the gospel written to the “chosen” of God’s people.  Not the ones who show up on Christmas and Easter – but the ones who are here – Sunday by Sunday – people of faith who consider themselves religious already – which is why – for me anyway – it can be hard on the ears.

John the Baptist’s take on the “keep awake” theme – is repent.  Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near.  Repent – for I baptize with water – but one is coming who will baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit.  And in this gospel he encouragement is accompanied by a stern warning - don’t assume – that because you are of Abraham’s line – i.e. one of the chosen – that it’s a done deal.  It’s not the religion you ascribe to – it’s the fruits that you bear.  Bear fruit worthy of repentance.

Repent.  Repentance.  What do those words mean to you?  I find that most of us take that to mean – “I’m sorry” – or more like – I’m really, really sorry and I will never do that or it again – whatever it is. *

That may be a part of repentance for some of us – but that’s not the whole of it.  The fullest sense of the word – draws out of the faith of Abraham – who made a radical turn in his life – giving himself fully to trusting God’s ways.
The emphasis of “to repent” is less on what we did – and more on – so now what?  The focus – as this is a theme of all the prophets, Jesus at the top of the list – is on future action.  Now that we see our ways are not God’s ways – how do we change and move forward – how do we incorporate our new understanding into ways of being, ways of walking – in a new direction that we believe is the direction God is calling us – God is calling me into.

And – this isn’t something that is one and done.  It’s the journey – we do it all our lives.  For most of us – our internal compass – our road map – our GPS – its going to get off track – again and again – that’s why we need God.  And in order to be rerouted – in order to figure out which way to go – we have to make space in here (head) and here (heart) to listen – not to our own conscience – but listen for God.  And there are so many ways to listen – so many ways we “hear.”

Yesterday – through the gift of this community – I had the joy of being in the undercroft – fancy church word for basement – of St. Luke’s down on Carey Street downtown – along with about 35 people from this church – where we brought 300 gifts – for children and for adults – and where we shared delicious food cafĂ© style.

Standing there - you would think that our two churches get together all the time – busyness at craft tables with kids – adults all easily chatting – at various times standing with Good Shepherd parishioners – simply gazing – watching humanity – people – of very different worlds and backgrounds being together.  Aware – or at least I was – of the randomness of our own circumstances – and the amazing ways – God – God – brings us into relationship with one another – so that we can continuously remind ourselves of our common humanity, our gifts, and how we need each other.

you hear children anywhere – but especially children that frankly you know do not have the same advantages as your children – lift up prayers of thanksgiving for God – for the world – for all the people – for getting out of bed that morning – when you listen to God’s wisdom through their mouths – your heart get aligned – your compass gets reset – it opens our eyes – to what God intends, why Jesus was born for us.

Every offering we have this month of Advent is offered to make space for your own personal reflection and listening.  Tonight – an hour of meditation and quiet.  Next weekend – a quiet day to reflect on your story and the Christmas story – for this year is unlike any other and it will never be the same again.  Or next Sunday – a concert – sacred music – which for some of us sparks reflection and inner quiet.

Or the weekend after that – go to the blessing of a new house through Habitat on McCabe Avenue and be a witness to transformation – of neighborhoods, of people’s lives.  And that same weekend – consider attending a contemplative service on Sunday night – Blue Christmas – to acknowledge and lift up the truth – that not everyone has the joy, joy, joy down in their heart this time of year – and there are plenty of prayers to say on behalf of our world – for all those who really need a little Christmas right this very minute – but don’t.

Repentance means taking a turn – walking down a new road – because we can get stuck on the same path sometimes.  It can be good to step out in a new direction – and experiment with the ways we listen and try to see God at work in our lives, in our world here and now.

As a few people reminded me yesterday – it’s is surely not a coincidence that two streets over from North Carey – is North Carrollton.  God’s working his purpose out – as we’ll sing at the end of our 10am this morning – and when I combine that street sign in the wilderness with the amazing Spirit that is growing and so evident how could we not see that God is calling us into relationship with that faith community.  Perhaps so that a church of God can thrive in a neighborhood that needs it.

Fruit that is worthy of repentance can be a feeling – it can be tears – it can be joy – it can be a house – it can be a gift – it’s anything that grows your faith that we are a part of something bigger than ourselves – and our unique and precious time on earth has a purpose.

I think when we’re awake to what God intends for us – we don’t have a problem falling asleep.  Because we can name our gratitude, we can let go of those things we can't control, we are aligned and it is as the song goes – well, it is well, with my soul.  The fruit worthy of repentance are ways of being in the world that fill us with all joy and peace so that we can trust and hope.  In God’s dream for each of us – and for all our sisters and brothers, because Christ came to save the world.  Amen.
- The Rev. Arianne R. Weeks (12/4/16)

*Thanks to Rev. David Lose

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Waking Up in Advent

Readings for the First Sunday in Advent

Click on video to listen to the sermon

At the age of 25 I had earned a BA in Biology with a concentration in Pre-medicine and a Master of Divinity degree from Yale Divinity School. I had traveled, studied and worked hard. Yet I humbly found myself sitting on the couch my first day home after graduation with a type A personality, and nowhere to go and not a clue what I wanted to do. I was advised to just start making phone calls.

One of those calls lead to a conversation about potentially becoming a priest which I of course responded with “maybe but not now.” I was so unsure of what I wanted to do and the prospect of going back to school again right after graduating seemed daunting.

So, I continued to do my due diligence exploring my options. I taught for a few years and did some hostess work at a restaurant. I was a career specialist helping people find work while behind close doors I was the one fighting to figure out and really accept my own calling. Eventually I couldn’t fight it any longer and through many ups and downs I stand before you today an Episcopal Priest.

I share this with you today to show that sometimes we have to be patient in figuring things out and it’s not always easy or perfect or compliant with societal expectations to have this done at this time, to be at a particular stage in your career by specific age or to be married or to own a home or to retire or to move into an assisted living facility. The list goes on and on.

But what I realized was while we are being patient we have to continue to work and progress until our calling is revealed at any stage of life. The disciples weren’t given the time of the second coming. They were left in the dark but continued the path that Jesus had set them on to do the Lord's work.

While the patience and effort that I put forth during my path to the priesthood and many others have put towards their careers isn’t anywhere near as inspiring as the disciples, it does show that even now, everyone has the capability of diligence and patience to keep moving forward while in the middle of the not knowing.

And that is the advice Jesus is giving his disciples today--to keep moving forward by keeping awake and being ready. We will never know when he will return, even Jesus says he doesn’t know the exact day or time he will come again--only God is privy to that information.

But Jesus encourages us to take advantage of this time of waiting. To use this time to be patient with ourselves to figure out where God is calling us to when it comes to jobs, relationships, purpose, travel, retiring, finances, moving, etc. The waiting period is really the listening time--the time we attempt to listen in our lives where God is calling and saying, “hey, over here time to go or time for change.” It took me quite of few years to listen but it is interesting where we end up when we do.

It is in this time of waiting that we have to stay patient with ourselves and with God. Jesus even gives us the story today of the people knowing the flood was about to come but still they didn’t listen by not using the waiting period as a time of preparation for safety and survival. Knowing that the Lord is coming, how do we make sure we listen?

Well, it falls under this call for preparation, where we move forward each day by “keeping awake” as Jesus commands of us in Matthew. What does this look like to keep awake and be ready? We are now in the season of Advent, a time dedicate to wait for the birth of Christ, and to be ready in this waiting for Jesus is by inviting God into the preparation. By reflecting on the ways we are spiritually alert and awake.

To be awake and to see on our journey of life, we need light, and that is why Paul tells the Romans to put on the armor of light. The armor of light is our call to live lives that honor and glorify God through the hope, peace, love and joy that we have in Jesus Christ. The hope we have in Christ’s coming again is the light that we are blessed to have in our lives. That is what we need to keep awake for in this time of waiting.

Staying awake and waiting when we are tired is not easy. We live in an age where waiting is not really acceptable and avoided. There are even apps on our phones to alleviate it. I’m an avid Starbucks customer. When I say avid I mean that the drive thru Starbucks near my house knows my name and order--grande non-fat, flat white with two Splenda. But now they have a feature where you can order your coffee without waiting in line.

But as frustrating as waiting can be, some of the lines I have waited in at Starbucks have been when I’ve met the most interesting people and have had the most beautiful experiences.

While waiting one day, a man saw my theology reading and asked what I was studying. I told him I was in seminary and he looked at me and said, “don’t let the intellect get in the way of the spirit.” When I turned away and then immediately looked back he was gone. I like to think he was a little angel reminding me to not get caught up in having to be this perfect biblical scholar and allowing the spirit to move in me.

Finally, I was waiting in the line at Starbucks once again and ran into a girl I went to college with who was in my chemistry classes freshman year.  One Saturday night I saw her in the library and she was telling me about how she was hiding out from her abusive boyfriend. It had been raining horribly and she was soaked to the bone. While she was hiding out in the common room of our dorm I remember giving her one of my favorite t-shirts to wear. When I saw her Starbucks 10 years later and I got to see how well she was doing, and she asked if I would be there for a little while. Since I make every Starbucks my personal office space I reassured her I would be there. So, about 30 minutes later she reappears with a gift bag and in it was the t-shirt that I let her borrow all those years ago. She kept it just in case she ever saw me again.

It’s not about the t-shirt or the coffee but that in the waiting we are awaken to the beauty and love of God. When we are patient and watchful we get to see the Kingdom here on earth through the light of others. This advent season as we light the Advent Wreath each week may we be reminded to embody the hope, love, peace and joy that each candle represents as we keep moving forward as we wait and bring light to our world. Amen.

The Rev. Jessica E. Sexton

Food is Full of Memories

Readings for Thanksgiving, November 24th

Click on video to listen to sermon

Recently I watched the film the Hundred-Foot Journey, and the main character Hassan talks about cooking with his mother who passed away and  how the smells of certain foods remind him of her. He said that “food is memories.” Food is full of memories, especially on this Thanksgiving Holiday; some are good and some are not as wonderful. But food is full of memories for each of us.

One of my favorite memories of food was a thanksgiving about 15 years ago now. I have been going to my Aunt Beth’s house for Thanksgiving for the last thirty years. And my Aunt is an excellent cook and takes pride in her thanksgiving meal—getting a fresh thirty pound bird, making homemade stuffing and my favorite, sauerkraut and Kielbasa—so good.

Now, there have been many thanksgivings but the most memorable year was when my aunt was busy preparing the stuffing and was chopping away and in the midst of her preparation she accidentally cut the tip of her finger off.  We don’t know how but she lost it in the stuffing.

My poor aunt was in so much pain from the cut and the whole family was in pain over not having edible stuffing at Thanksgiving. Years later we still laugh about how no one was brave enough to eat the stuffing that year just in case it was contaminated since my aunt did not have enough time that day to prepare a new batch plus go to patient first.

Yes, that was a memorable thanksgiving but what I love about that year is that even though the stuffing perished (literally); the love and work that went into making that meal and the love of our family and friends that gathered to eat it--that is what is remembered.

That might not have been the best thanksgiving meal but it is full of memories that still endure. Food gathers us into a community--on this holiday it might be with a community friends or family or maybe alone but celebrating the holiday as a country unites into a greater community. Food gathers us.  

Food is what gathers the crowd in the gospel today.  This crowd is familiar. This crowd of about 5,000 men that were previously fed by Jesus with five loaves of bread and two fish traveled together across the sea to find Jesus for more food. 

It is not the miracle of feeding so many with so little that captivates these men but the potential of being fed to their fill once again. Jesus knows that they are physically hungry but he senses their desperation for something else too—they are seeking something they are even unsure of or don’t know how to describe.

That is why Jesus does not shame them or reprimand them for traveling to see him for more to eat. Because he knows that they did not just cross an entire sea for more bread and fish. That what they are seeking is beyond physical hunger and Jesus would be able to recognize this because he knew what it meant to be hungry—he spent 40 days in the desert with nothing to eat. He knows that earthly food will not be enough to sustain these men or subside their hunger for something greater.

So Jesus says to them, “Do not work for food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”

This is not about shaming or reprimanding or dismissing their physical hunger—on the contrary. He meets these men where they are— both physically and spiritually. Jesus knows the desperation it took for them to work to get there. “Do not work for food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life.”

Jesus is pushing the crowd to expect more—not more bread or more physical food but to expect more and to seek more out of their relationship with God and also out of themselves so that they will experience peace for eternity. He’s challenging them yet guiding them on how to live a life filled with food that endures. What does this look like for this crowd and also for us? Piety? Faithfulness? Trust? Belief? All of the above?

Jesus us tells the crowd to Work for this food— to work is to believe in Jesus Christ and to believe is to trust that God—who sent his son to die on the cross for our sins because of a wonderous love for us, to trust that God is ever present in our lives and in the moments of desperate hunger. The work of believing and trusting in Jesus involves us filling our lives with food that supports and feeds that belief and trust in Christ.

Jesus says work for the food that endures for eternal life—work for healthy relationships that support and encourages our relationship with God and our faith life, work for time in prayer that can provide calm and self-reflection, work for food that gives us confidence and peace to share the Good News of Christ in the world.

Work for food that feeds our relationship with God that allows us to trust, believe, to hope and to remember. Because that is the relationship that endures forever.

Food is memories and Food is what gathers us together. It is what gathers us today—to partake in the holy meal at God’s table. It is how we remember the love and sacrifice given and made by Christ. It is through our participation in the Eucharist that signifies our work of trusting and believing in Jesus. Jesus says today, “I am the Bread of Life.”  I will fulfill all your hunger. “The body of Christ, the bread of heaven.”  That is the food we believe and trust in because the bread of life sustains and never perishes.

Food is filled with our memories but it also filled with hope and love for our continual relationship with one another and with God. And as we gather around many tables today and eat meals prepared by those we love let us give thanks for the hope we have been given in the bread of life by Christ and the opportunity to work for food that does endure and sustain and gives meaning to this life. Amen.

 The Rev. Jessica E. Sexton

Sunday, November 20, 2016

We Can't All Get Along

Sunday's Gospel, Luke 23:33-43

So this morning is what we call the last Sunday in Ordinary Time.  We are now out of the ordinary – onto something new – and never before (in my time of saying that) has that liturgical delineation so paralleled our secular reality.

We remember the death of Christ, as we turn to prepare for the birth of Jesus.  The waiting and watching time of Advent. And perhaps the church’s wisdom in this is to remind us of just how incredible it is that God would choose to be born, knowing how that would be received.  

This day is also known as Christ the King.  And we hear that title confessed by several characters in the gospel – but they do so mockingly.  There is no reverence of Jesus when calling him king – only derision.  Like the devil at the beginning of Jesus ministry – who says, if you are God’s son, throw yourself from the pinnacle so the angels will catch you – the people echo that temptation this morning – if you are the King of King and Lord of Lords – prove it.

Jesus will prove it of course, but not in the way any would expect.  But in a way that is always – a most astounding mystery.  The hymn we just sang points to it – what wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss to lay aside his crown for my soul, for my soul.

We believe the entire redemption of the world – the cosmos – happens through Christ on the cross.  But sometimes what is even more incredible – and harder to take in – is that my redemption, my liberation, my forgiveness – was part of that too.  What wondrous love – for me?

How does Jesus not hate on that cross?  How does he not judge and condemn his persecutors?  It’s not as if Jesus was a nice guy his whole life – floating through the towns and villages like some sort of stereotypical hippie type saying can’t we all just get along.  Jesus got mad at the Pharisees and all the ways they thought they were better than. Jesus got frustrated with disciples who argued over who was the greatest more than seeking the least and the lost.  Jesus got so angry at the economic practices of the temple that he stormed in and overturned the tables.

So what better time for Jesus to get angry than on that cross.  Adoring crowds long gone - abandoned by his followers – having to listen to obnoxious hecklers jeer while he’s being tortured to death.  Think about that, think about what you’d do, what you’d consider reasonable in this extreme situation.  Jesus was a human being – how does he not lose it? Most of us lose it over far less.

(Speaking of which) This coming week is Thanksgiving.  You know what’s great about Thanksgiving – spending quality time with family.  You know what’s not-so-great about Thanksgiving – spending quality time with family.  This past week – I talked to some people who had changed their plans – to avoid arguments.  Because in this extra-ordinary time - the ways in which people disagree with one another is really intense.

There are many voices encouraging us right now – in our families, as neighbors with each other – to get better at listening and speaking.  Speaking in ways that name our truth – without mocking or negating the truth of another.  Listening in ways that let us acknowledge someone else’s perspective without an argument – or worse - violence.  How do we get better at that kind of listening and speaking? Instead of getting baited – instead of getting angry?

When Jesus gets angry – it’s always true righteous anger.  Like the prophets before him – he loses it over issues of justice.  The poor who are exploited, the marginalized who are mocked and excluded, the people who profess belief with their lips – but don’t live those beliefs.  He doesn’t get angry here – because that’s not what’s happening.

This is God putting Godself right at the crossing of where all our brokenness meets God’s wondrous love.  On the cross we see compassion subsume all our sin.

So if we want God’s ways to be our ways – I think an important question is - Do you believe you and I – and everyone else – has the capacity to tap into that kind of love, that compassion ourselves?  Yes.  The answer is yes – even if you don’t believe it – God says yes.  We are children of God – made in the image of God – in whom we live and move and have our being – so all the goodness of God we ever need is available to us right in here. But we have to get at it – sometimes we really have to dig for it – and we certainly need to practice and nurture that goodness.

A few weeks ago I led a class on self-compassion.  Compassion is something we all get.  Although sometimes we confuse sympathy or pity with compassion.  Compassion is when Jesus gets to the tomb of Lazarus and weeps.  Jesus feels the depth of loss that Martha and Mary feel.  He doesn’t pat them on the shoulder and say, “There, there – at least he went quickly.”  He feels with them.

I hear Jesus feel with when he says – Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.  I hear Christ bearing the pain of the hatred in the peoples’ hearts.  The pain of his disciples’ disappointment.  The pain God feels with us when our hopes have been dashed.

To feel with others in this way is hard – and requires us to practice “feeling with” with ourselves. Self-compassion has a simple definition – in your moment of suffering, whatever it is, are you treating yourself as you would treat someone you really care about.  Think about the last time you did something wrong, or forgot something, made a mistake, big or small – was the first thing you said to yourself something like – wow Arianne that was really hard, but it’s ok, mistakes happen, part of the human experience.  Or was it more along the lines of – I am such an idiot!  Having taught this concept in a variety of groups I can tell you the majority – teacher included – are familiar with the latter.

It’s easy and acceptable – and for some of us it’s how we were raised – to go straight to the seat of judgment when it comes to our own failings.  So it makes sense – we’d do the same with others, especially people we don’t agree with.  Self-compassion isn’t feeling sorry for yourself – or wallowing in self-pity.  It’s choosing self-kindness over self-judgment.  It’s choosing to remember we’re human and broken, just like everyone else.  So we don’t need to isolate ourselves – thinking we’re the problem we’re trying to solve.  And it’s staying mindful – acknowledging our painful feelings, knowing they too shall pass.  Feelings aren’t facts – they’re feelings.

Self-kindness, common humanity and mindfulness.  I see Jesus practice all three in his life before this moment.  Through a life of connection and prayer. In the way in which he lets himself be human, in grief, in frustration, in joy – and in his ability to be present, mindful in anxiety-provoking, argumentative and painful situations.
So much so that he isn’t baited by the hecklers and he can turn in his dying to an unrepentant thief – who asks to be remembered – and speak love - truly I tell you today you will be with me in paradise.

The wondrous love God shares for us through Christ – God gives to us through Christ.  If we want to live in a world where we respect the dignity of every human being – which requires deep compassion made visible in our listening and speaking – then we have to be that compassion.  Sometimes it’s about doing – often the better part Jesus reminds us – is to pay attention and practice how we be.

Be still and know God – the nugget of wisdom in our psalm surrounded by versus of calamity and destruction.  That compassionate way of being – like most of our God-given innate abilities – have to be relearned, nurtured and practiced.  And practice is what lived faith is all about.

So as we leave ordinary time – let us pray the words of Paul – may all of us be made strong with all the strength that comes from God’s wondrous love – knowing we are prepared to endure everything with patience – while joyfully giving thanks to God – who through the cross of compassion forgives all of us – equipping us to share in the inheritance of all the saints in the light.  Amen.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Will you testify?

The readings for this week.

Click on video to listen to the sermon

One afternoon last spring I found myself outside the National Cathedral in D.C. I needed a change of liturgical scenery while in seminary, and decided to make the trip. I stood there gazing upward—minutes passed by and I could not look away despite some of the construction taking place on the one side of the building.  I don’t know if it was the beautiful stained glass that peaked out from the curves and gothic design of the massive structure…or that I was overwhelmed by it’s sheer size. I just stood there in awe of it’s beauty but also it’s power—the power of it’s size, the manpower it took to build it and the power it represented as a beacon of faithful light in the midst of a bustling city.

For those in Jerusalem the temple held the same physical power and faithful refuge. Those standing with Jesus gazed up at the Temple’s massive structure in awe—amazed by the beautiful stones and the gifts that it held to honor God. The temple was so big in Jerusalem that it is said to have held 400,000 people in the outer court during the festival times of the year. The overwhelming size and beauty of the temple was to reflect their honoring of the one and only God.

And Jesus does not refute its magnificence. However, for Jesus, he warns that the beauty of these stones would not withhold the dysfunction and pain of the world.  That the weight of the world’s problems would one day push them down but would leave only the people to make sense of the ruin. The people, the body of Christ, are what remain when all the buildings fall.  The beauty of those stones will never surpass the beauty of God’s people and the beauty that Christ sees in all of us—even when we don’t.

That is why Jesus’ warning about the aftermath of the Temple’s destruction is not about immediate devastation but what the Body of Christ would face throughout time. Jesus’ warning of division, instability, war, natural disasters is to name what we as followers of Christ would encounter—that we would not be exempt from experiencing these things because of the greatness of a temple or building. And today, we are living in the warnings of Jesus where there is division over race, gender, religion, economics, etc.

We are in the aftermath of a divisive campaign year that left many angry and hurt on many sides. What do we do? As the body of Christ where do we go from here? As God’s people, how do we live in this divide and encounter the divisions?

The gospel answers this question by not just focusing on destruction this week but what we are to do when we are in the ruins. When we are surrounded by the beautiful stones and need to pick them up. Jesus says, “do not be terrified…this will give you the opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”

What do we do now as Christians? Christ says…that the destruction, the difficult times that we are challenged with, either individually or as a community, are the opportunities to testify—to share and show the love of God. No matter what political affiliation-- we have the responsibility as Christians first and foremost to be an example of God’s love and kindness in the world.

How do we share the love of God during a time of division? Professor and Liturgist, James Farwell states that we are to “Feed the poor. Speak the truth. Protect the vulnerable. Proclaim grace. Keep working.”

We are to keep working on living out our baptismal promises that we repeated again last week when Jeffrey and Emily were baptized. We promised to continue to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves. We promised to love those who are our neighbor, who may be different from us.

Showing the love of God may not be easy when we are up against unkind words, or just plain disagree on anything, but love through kindness is what truly brings about positive change. And that is what I hope for in this world and that is what Christ called us to when he says to testify.  

And as we keep working, we also promised to continue to strive for justice and peace among all people, and continue to respect the dignity of every human being. We are to strive for justice by standing up against racism, sexism, homophobia, and the disregard of humanity. We are challenged with this responsibility. 

A priest from Connecticut was so disturbed by the increase of hate crimes this week that she wrote a letter to LGBTQ teens and young adults who fear being victim of one of these crimes based on their sexual orientation. But her letter to them of their value is a reminder to every one of our responsibility we have as Christians to live into the call to love and respect the dignity of all of God’s people, but it also a reminder of our love by God as well.

She wrote: God loves you. I love you. There are many of us who love you. And we love you regardless of who you love, what color your skin is, what part of the world you come from, what name you use for God, what gender you are, or who you want to be when you grow up. We love you if you or your parents are undocumented — whether you can dance, or cook, or sing — or not. We love you if you are funny, or serious, a Trekkie, or a jock. There is a place for you in this world, and in this country, if you are nerdy, goth-y, shy, college educated — or not. God loves you — and made you just the way that you are.

To testify, is to show love like this. To make all God’s children—the body of Christ—know they are loved like this even when the world—neighbors, family, media challenge us with judgment, hate and intolerance. Which is why our baptismal promises guide us on how to love one another.

However, I must say that showing love through feeding the poor, speaking the truth, protecting the vulnerable, and proclaiming grace—this work of testifying it does not come without fear, discouragement, uncertainty and anxiety. For many right now, the fear and anxiety is very real for what may come. But Jesus promises us that despite the division and messiness of the world, that we are surrounded by god with this promise “not a hair of your head will perish.” We as Christians have a great responsibility to live into our baptismal promises but also a call to trust that God will be with us in our testifying. God will be with us in doing the work Christ has called us to do.

And we are doing that work here at Good Shepherd. Loaves and Fishes yesterday made hundreds sandwiches to hand out in this cold weather. The micro-loan program is giving hope and chance to people with dreams of doing good work in the world. Our Daily Bread team serves our Baltimore Community by making food once a month and the Paul’s Place team that delivers food from Graul’s. Our partnership with St. Luke’s on Carey Street with Camp Imagination that gives kids a safe and creative place to dream and have fun. To Cherubs music that teaches love through the joy of learning music. There are many more things that we as a church are working on and if I forgot one I apologize. This is the good work, the testifying that Christ calls us to in today’s gospel---feed the poor, speak the truth, protect the vulnerable, and proclaim grace.

Because when we testify, we bring the hope of the good news of our Lord Jesus Christ—who died on the cross and rose again—we have hope in the resurrection and hope in eternal life with Christ. And with all the divides we exist in on this earth may we be comforted that we have good news to share in the love and redemption that we find through the resurrection.

Where there is hatred and misunderstanding we will be the love and light in the world. Let us keep working on living out Christ’s call for hope, love and faith especially amongst the rubble of division. Because as it says in the second letter to the Thessalonians, “Brothers and Sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.” Amen.

The Rev. Jessica E. Sexton