Monday, July 25, 2016

Getting to Know God Through Prayer

Readings for July 24, 2016

Click the image to listen to the sermon

The Rev. Jessica E. Sexton

In today’s Gospel reading Jesus tells his disciples how they should pray, why they should pray and the importance of prayer. Jesus himself led a life of unceasing prayer in his work and ministry, where he prayed both in community and in solitude. According to author and friend, Jenifer Gamber, "a life of unceasing prayer is more than just getting away from it all every now and then. It's acknowledging God's presence in all that we do. It's living our lives in a close relationship with God.” Therefore, prayer is acknowledging God's presence in our life and our trust in that presence. Jesus’ relationship with God through prayer is what supported him as he prepared for his impending death on the cross. His unceasing prayer life demonstrated that he acknowledged God’s presence and his trusted in God.

So, why do we pray?  We pray to have this deeper and more personal relationship with God as well to develop the same faith and trust in God as Jesus.  That when we pray in the silence of our car going down 95 or in a crowded store—we too are acknowledging that we know that God is with us, listening to our thanksgiving or petition and that we trust that God will continue to be present with us. 
Because God already knows every hair on our head, our innermost thoughts and fears because God created us in God's image. This personal relationship that we seek through prayer is not so much about God knowing us because God already knows who we are as children of God—God created us. It is about us learning to know who God is.

How do we come to know God? How is this relationship built and developed?

Jesus tells the disciples when they pray to “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you."

These directions given by Jesus facilitate the development of trust between God and us when we pray. Jesus is encouraging us and his disciples to trust that what is asked will be given and what we seek will be found and doors or opportunities will open up for us. It is through this process of letting go of control, and asking and seeking God that we become less dependent on ourselves and more dependent on the mercy and love of God. And through this trust and dependence on God we come to know and experience God in bolder ways throughout our lives.

However, what we are seeking, and asking and looking for may not be what is given or found or behind door number one. This is why trust is so important for our prayer life. Because when we pray we are not praying for God to fix the situation as much as we are praying for God to be present in it—for us to feel the presence of the Holy Spirit. There are many things that we pray for that may not turn out the way we expect or had hoped. Maybe it was for healing and recovery or for opportunities maybe professionally or romantically. And despite life not turning out the way we wanted or expected or hoped for, Jesus is still calling us to trust in God. This is not an easy task.

How do we trust when we're suffering from loss or continuous failure or grief or pain? We trust because even in our own pain and suffering through prayer God does not allow us to be alone. Through prayer we come to know a God that has experienced the same pains and suffering of losing a child and seeing all of us suffer in our own ways.

The relationship we form with God through prayer is the one relationship in our life that is always steadfast and always present. There is power in prayer not only because our prayers are answered in ways we can't imagine or understand because we are transformed.  The trust we put in God opens us up to knowing God and the love that God has for us. Mother Teresa said, “Love to pray. Prayer enlarges the heart until it is capable of containing God’s gift of himself.”

Prayer has changed my life and opened my heart to experience a God of mercy and of love. As a new clergy person here at the Church of the good Shepherd we are still getting to know one another and I would like to share with you how prayer has influence and powerful in my own life.

When I was 13 years old I was an active, healthy and vibrant middle schooler who had just landed a role of Miss Hannigan in the Perry Hall Middle School production of Annie. However for a young girl I was experiencing too many migraine headaches and my cautious pediatrician decided to send me for an MRI. I had the MRI on a Tuesday afternoon and my mother brought me back school so that I could go to play rehearsal. Halfway through the practice she had come to pick me up early because the doctor had called and he wanted to see her and my father.

After I was dropped off at home to have dinner with my grandmother and my little brother I was too caught up in a art project to realize that hours had passed before my parents finally arrived home with bloodshot eyes and pale faces--I knew something was wrong. A short time later I was sitting in Johns Hopkins pediatric emergency room staring up at a scan of my brain from earlier that afternoon and I noticed something different that the doctor pointed out was a tumor in my brain. From the location of the tumor it was initially deemed inoperable. Whether being 13 or 30, hearing news that your life is about to change or come to an end is overwhelming.

The feeling of being out of control and powerless and alone despite those around me is painful. I began to understand why my parents were so upset. It was because no doctor could heal or change my prognosis.

I grew up in a family that valued prayer especially around the dinner table and my brother and I recited the Lord's prayer before bed each night. And it was my exposure of prayer from my parents growing up and how much it mean to them, that I realized in the hospital room that prayer and God were the only things that would be help me get through this difficult time.

The next day I with sent for an MRI that lasted for over an hour and as I laid there in that suffocating tube, I had plenty of time to talk to God—and I told God I scared, frustrated and disappointed, and how much I wanted to be Miss Hannigan in the school play. God heard it all for a good solid hour.

Afterward I went back to my hospital room and a little while later I was greeted by the top neurosurgeon at Hopkins and his entourage of doctors. After such a grim night the day before I wasn't sure what to expect. The doctor came into my room and walked over to me grabbing my hands, and then looking at my mom he asking “have you been praying, Mrs. Sexton?” My mom said every minute. He smiled at her and said, “well, it worked.”

Less then 24 hours later I went from having an inoperable brain tumor to an arachnoid cyst at the base of my brain stem that was treated a month later.

How could things shift and change so quickly? The scans were clear for both of them. Once the doctor and his team left, my mom quickly rushed out of the room to ask a nurse what had happened. We couldn’t understand the sudden change in prognosis. She said “a miracle just happened, Ms. Sexton.”

What I learned and came to know about God through that experience was that by seeking God out through prayer and asking for help—made me realize how much I opened myself up to allow the Holy Spirit to work and move in my life. After all these years it's not about the miracle of having the scans change. The hope I found through prayer in God was the miracle. The miracle was how those prayers in the hospital made me realize the importance of having a relationship with God--to trust that God always is present in my life and that no matter what happens I'm not alone. The other miracle is that we can have the ultimate hope of new life in Christ Jesus because of his death and resurrection. And the prayers that we pray are held up by his hope that whatever happens we are surrounded and loved by God.

The trust that we develop in our relationship with God through prayer is what transforms our hearts and our minds because the more we trust God in our lives the more trust ourselves and love ourselves. I am blessed everyday to take a minute and talk to my creator for always being by my side and for giving me a second chance.

Have you been praying?


Gamber, Jenifer. My Faith, My Life: A Teen's Guide to the Episcopal Church. Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2006.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Harder Part

Readings for 7/17/16

Click the image to listen to the sermon

When I was in 8th grade I had a memorable English teacher – Mr. MacCullough.  That year we studied Shakespeare – and he insisted we read the plays, aloud in class.  And while 13 year olds aren’t keen on reading lines from Romeo & Juliet aloud… it was some smart pedagogy in my opinion – it’s not the same trying to read a play in your head.

So it came time for Julius Caesar – which was a revelation for me.  You’ll recall….Caesar isn’t really the main character – it’s Brutus.  Brutus is Caesar’s friend, good friend, and colleague.  And Brutus struggles in the play to reconcile his beliefs about Caesar as Emperor and the fact that they are friends.  For Brutus fears what Caesar will do as leader – so he decides he has no choice but to join with the group planning Caesar’s assassination.  Which inevitably comes to pass – each member of the group taking a turn stabbing Caesar – Brutus being the final one provoking Caesar with his dying breath to utter the infamous line – you too Brutus?

Brutus rocked my conceptual world at age 13.  Up until that point – everyone – certainly storybook characters – were classified as either good guy – or bad guy, right or wrong.  So I remember raising my hand for our post-play discussion. I was confused, frustrated, a little angry – and asking MacCullough about Brutus – how could Brutus, who seemed like a good guy, with honorable intentions, trying to do the right thing - who defended this horrifying act in a way that made sense to me, but in point of fact he betrayed a friend – gone so far as to end his life - yet believed he was saving a country.  I couldn’t understand what category Brutus fit into – was he good?  Or was he bad?

Oh I remember MacCullough smiling (Cheshire Cat), “That’s the genius and beauty of Shakespeare!” he said.  Shakespeare portrayed life, people as it really is – the good and the bad – always wrestling inside.  It’s not black and white – it is so very gray. Context – circumstances – emotions – leading us to our actions and choices – that can’t always easily be put into categories – because people are far too complicated for that.

That black and white, easy categorization is always a temptation when reading (or remembering) stories from the bible – and we have a great example of that today in this brief exchange between Martha, Jesus and Mary.  Martha is the “Martha, Martha, Martha!” (Brady Brunch) – the anxiety-filled, busy bee who can’t be bothered being with Jesus because she’s too concerned doing for Jesus.  And this lack of understanding makes Martha “bad” – especially if we hear Jesus comparing her with Mary – who filled with the love of God – adoringly sits at the feet of Christ while he speaks pearls of wisdom.  We can hear Jesus sounding like he is criticizing Martha’s passive-aggressive question, “don’t you think she should help me” with a “tsk-tsk, Martha – unlike you, Mary is doing the better part.”

But is that what is happening?  Is Jesus really saying Mary is better than Martha? My 8th grade self would want to – want to put each of them in a box, to tell me what I’m supposed to do.  Scripture though, I think, is even richer than Shakespeare.  And as we just heard Paul say – wisdom is from maturing in Christ – so what is the wisdom in this story?

First of all, this moment isn’t out of the blue – there is context.  This home visit concludes a significant travel narrative – ch. 10 – built around the verse – love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and soul – and love your neighbor as yourself.  That’s the central teaching of the section.  A section that opens with Jesus encouraging plenty of doing.  He sends the 70 disciples out to share the good news of God – and they go – then he has that memorable exchange with the lawyer that prompts the memorable Good Samaritan story – which is a story all about doing for others.  So obviously Jesus doesn’t think doing for others is wrong.  We know, Jesus teaches, we grow in loving God, when we love neighbors.  And that love that is more than just a feeling – it is enacted in – taking risks, caring for, crossing streets and being God’s hands and feet in the world.

But, loving action grows out of something.

I think there are two reasons this story comes at the end of the section.  Martha is doing exactly what would be expected of her.  As a woman of her time – she is tending to the host duties in the appropriate way.  And it is natural she’d expect Mary to live into her role of what a woman “should” be doing in that context.  Jesus invites her to see herself as more than the role she has been assigned.  Mary is doing something radical – she is acting as a disciple.  She is sitting at the feet of the teacher.

Her love of God is what gives her permission to consider herself worthy enough to simply be in Christ’s presence.  I hear Jesus saying – Martha, Martha – not as a putdown – but as an invitation – Martha, you too are worthy to sit here and listen.  Martha, Martha – stop proving yourself.  God loves you more for who you are than for what you do.

Do we believe we are worthy of taking the time to simply be and listen for God?  Do we think of a million reasons why we don’t have the time for that?  Or that’s not what we should be doing?  Busyness tends to be in the productive category, hence the “good” category.”   We hear Jesus this morning say – let go of the “shoulds”, let go of the busyness – be still and know that I am God.

Secondly, if this chapter is built around the commandment – love your neighbor as you love yourself – loving your self has to include taking time for the one relationship that only you have – yourself and God.  And that is definitely the harder part – because to sit and listen to God is to be with yourself.  With all that stuff – that you and I are wrestling with all the time.   There are a million ways we can distract and avoiding dealing with what’s going on “in here” – some of those distractions include putting all our attention on “doing” for others.    The chapter starts with disciples going out to neighbors to share God’s love.  And it concludes with a disciple replenishing that well – being with God to listen for the Word that her heart needs to hear.

So – how about you?  Are you worthy of simply being with God (and I don’t mean church – way too much taking and busyness here).  There are a myriad of ways we can make time to listen for that Word which is so very near to us – on our lips and in our heart for us to observe.  Are we avoiding being with God because of all there for us to wrestle with?  Can we let go of what we “should” be doing with our time – and make time for the most important relationship in our lives?

All of us are worried and distracted by many things – God knows that.   But the word which is very near us – reminds us that loving our self is as important as loving neighbor.  God knows we too need to hear that we are worthy – that we are loved – by the one who is love – be still and know God – who knows all that you wrestle with – and longs to tell us what we need to hear. Amen.

The Rev. Arianne R. Weeks

Monday, July 11, 2016

To Be A Neighbor

Click the image to listen to the sermon.

The Rev. Jessica E. Sexton

How do we inherit eternal life? Well according to the gospel, we must love God and love our neighbor to have eternal life. But who is our neighbor?

A lawyer who is trying to determine Jesus credentials attempts to test his knowledge of the Law of Moses with this very question. He has already proven that he knows the law but he wants to see if Jesus will answer the question correctly. And by correctly that would mean that Jesus’ understanding of a neighbor would have been a fellow Israelite.

The concept of a neighbor meant someone or a group of people that shared a similar purpose or interest that focused on feelings of the camaraderie, community and solidarity. For the Israelites they all shared a covenant with the God of Israel and this was characterized by them sharing land, language, blood, a common way of life, and worship. For the lawyer, a neighbor was someone who shared the same ethnicity, race, religious beliefs, land and language. A neighbor with someone who was the same; therefore, a neighbor was an Israelite.

Yet the lawyer's understanding of what it means to be a neighbor does not allow him to love God or love his neighbor. The lawyer’s perspective of neighbor is someone who is like him and this limits him from loving all people especially those who are different. And by not showing love to all people, the lawyer then does not fully love God. To love God is to show God's children love—by loving your neighbor, you love God.

Jesus tells him a parable to make him think about his own definition of a neighbor. Jesus tells the lawyer a story of a man who was returning from Jerusalem, who is most likely Jewish and worshipped at the Temple. This man is traveling a dangerous road between Jerusalem and Jericho and finds himself being robbed, stripped of his clothes, brutally beaten and left for dead. This image in the gospel reading is a horrifying picture of a man bloodied, beaten and left on the side of the road to die alone.  Jesus asks the lawyer who was a neighbor to the dying man?

 Was it the priest?

Jesus describes a priest traveling down the same road who was most likely coming from Jerusalem as well. And he passes by the man on the other side because if he touched the man who was bloody from the attack he would become ritually unclean. Also to touch a dead body that had not been ritually prepared was something that the priests knew he couldn't do.

Was it the Levite?

Another religious official, a Levite who works at the temple also passes by the man and most likely for the same reasons as the priest.

Jesus then tells the lawyer of a third person who comes upon the dying man and it’s a Samaritan. A Samaritan was a foreigner (who does not live in the same area as the Israelites), they don't share the same beliefs and they were known to not get along. Yet despite all the differences and negative history between Samaritans and Israelites, this Samaritan shows the dying man the greatest kindness and mercy.

The mercy that the Samaritan shows the dying man was not just bandaging his wounds or finding him shelter, but his acknowledgment of the man’s pain and honoring the sanctity of his life. What makes someone your neighbor is not just similar geographies or heritage but recognizing who is our neighbor by acknowledging their humanity. In the case of this parable, the Samaritan is a neighbor because he does not ignore the man's pain of near being death, or his rejection and neglect by those who pass by him. The Samaritan is a neighbor because he acknowledges human suffering.

We are not told much about the him but we do know that Samaritans were looked down upon, therefore we can suspect that he has his own story and experiences of neglect and rejection. The Samaritan and the dying man may come from different races, different lands, and different religious traditions but pain and hurt is universal.

Who is our neighbor?

This week has been painful, especially for the black community and the law enforcement community in our country. The loss of life has been horrific and has caused much divide. The killings of Alton sterling, Philando Castille, Lorne Ahrens, Michael Smith, Michael Krol, Patrick Zamarripa and Brent Thompson has left us hurt and grieving over the loss of innocent lives.

As neighbors, black and white, law enforcement and civilian, we grieve for the world we are living in, and wrestle together with how to confront our violent world with God’s commandment to love.  But in the midst of our sadness, grief and fear, the blessing is that we are not alone. We have one another and most importantly we have God.

I came across a post shared by a black woman named Natasha Howell.

She had gone into a convenient store to get a protein bar when she noted that there were two white police officers, one about her age and another several years older, and they were talking to a woman behind the counter about the shootings over the last few days. When they had noticed her they fell silent. She went about her business and when she came up to the register to pay  the oldest officer asked her how she was doing. And she replied "okay, and you?" She said that he gave her a strange look and then said “how are you really doing?” Natasha looked at the officer and said “I'm tired!” To which he replies, “me too. I guess it's not easy being either of us right now is it?" Natasha said, “no, it’s not.” It was then that they hugged each other and she began to cry. In her post she says “I had never seen that man before in my life. I have no idea why he was moved to talk to me. What I do know is that he and I shared a moment this morning that was absolutely beautiful. No judgments, no justifications, just two people sharing a moment."

This is what it means to be a neighbor. A neighbor is someone that shares in your pain—who grieves with you and hopes for better with you. There does not need to be any judgments or justifications, just two people being present and recognizing each other's pain, hurt and grief.

That's why God called us to love our neighbor because it is love and mercy that brings healing. Natasha and the officer show us that being a neighbor is not ignoring one's experiences or hurt but acknowledging it. That acknowledgment is mercy and it is love because when we acknowledge someone’s suffering we are saying that we see them as people, God’s people—human beings who hurt over the loss of life and fear violence.

That's why the Samaritans act of mercy changes the definition of the lawyer’s understanding of what it means to be a neighbor. A Neighbor became defined in this parable as someone who does not look at you based on a checklist of similarities but as a human being who in our differences loves, grieves, and hurts the same. The Samaritan did not look at the man and say well he’s an Israelite and we don’t get along so I can’t help him. No, the Samaritan sees a dying man. It did not matter who he was—it only mattered that he was hurting.

Let us be the Samaritan, let us look at one another during this time of violence and pain as human beings who are hurting together—that is what matters. Pain is universal. May we not walk past one another but with one another, side by side to bring peace and healing to this world. Amen.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Cold Call Conversion

Readings for Sunday July 3, 2016

Click the image to listen to the sermon

The Rev. Arianne R. Weeks

The sermon was preached extemporaneously, but here are some notes - 

Cold-calling – have any of you ever done it?  College – Telemarketing – Cambridge – orientation – 3 calls – headsets off, walked out the door. Sounds like Jesus is asking these 70 followers – notice it’s a lot more than just the 12 – to go out – door to door – as some denominations do – and do some in person cold-calling for Christ.

And yet – is it? I’d like to look at the differences between what Jesus says – and what you and I would generally call – proselytizing – be it on the phone or door to door.

1) First – he says – Go on YOUR way.  There is not a prescribed direction each one of us are to go.  No one but you – can have the interactions with others that are part of your journey.  There is quite a bit of faith Jesus has in us then isn’t there.  Not telling us a specific path – but to choose the path that is meant for us.  Now in plenty of other places in the gospels Jesus does give us some ways to help us figure out our way – the way – is the way of truth, it aligns with our values it aligns with the values of God – the way of life and light.  It is the way of loving neighbor as yourself.  And it’s a narrow way – like a camel going through the eye of a needle.  It is not the way of the world – it is the way of the God.

Jesus doesn’t tell us specifically who or where to go – Jesus trusts that we can find our way.

2) Jesus says – I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.  Jesus doesn’t say – armor up, protect yourself, grab your weapons and prepare for battle.  Jesus says – take nothing – no purse, bag or sandals.   Let go of what we typically use to cover and protect ourselves.  Jesus is asking his followers to be vulnerable – open.  Which of course is risky.  But that’s part of the way – the way of forgiveness, risky.  The way of love, risky.  Depending on God and one another (or neighbors) – it’s all risky.  Which is why that’s not the way of wolves.

Wolves fend for themselves.  Lambs – on the other hand – are dependent on one person aren’t they?   Their shepherd.  Jesus is telling us when we go on our way – when we chose our path – risk vulnerability.  Opening ourselves – and putting all our trust – our dependence – on God alone.

3) And finally – there is the focus on accepting, as opposed to performing. Which again, is the more vulnerable position to be in.  When you come to a house – pray for peace – anticipate an environment that will be open and welcoming.  Have that mindset – that expectation from the beginning.  And if – if – you are welcomed into conversation – then accept what is given to you.  In the form of food and drink – but also in what is shared with you.  Listen – do not think about what you will say in response.  Hospitality is more than just the food and drink to be offered to a guest.  Hospitality it is an attitude Jesus models – an attitude that trusts – I have more to receive in this interaction than to give – because everyone I meet is a teacher.

That is very, very different then a cold-call – where you are scripted and tied to an outcome.  An outcome that is usually tied to the monetary value of a bottom line.  The path we choose to share the good news of God’s forgiveness – worth and love – is certainly never scripted.  And I imagine it is why those 70 followers returned filled with joy.  Because maybe at the outset they thought Jesus was sending them out to convert – God was actually sending them forth to be transformed.  Because that is really the only way true conversation happens.  When people see someone who radiates the love of God – the acceptance of God – the hospitality of God – then they too, want to know that deep and everlasting joy.