Sunday, August 28, 2016

Religion is a Verb

Readings for Sunday 8/28

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Church of the Good Shepherd:
Compassionate Community Making a Difference

Monday, August 22, 2016

To See or Not to See

Sunday's Scripture

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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

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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

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Leaving the Disciples with Words of Encouragement

The Readings for August 7, 2016

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On my first Sunday here back in June, the children, youth, and families committee gifted me with a jar of encouraging quotes and Bible verses for when I needed a pick me up during a difficult day. It is this jar filled with words of encouragement from Scripture and famous theologians and philosophers that remind me that hopefulness can be found especially during the difficultness of any day.
Jesus did not have a jar of sayings to give the disciples but he did want to leave them with words they would remember—words that would inspire, impress, uphold, and matter when things got tough for them. He wanted to leave the disciples with words that would encourage them even when things got difficult, when the world would not believe them, or even attempt to crucify them. Jesus knew the hardships of being a follower of Christ and what that would mean for his disciples in the future—isolation, imprisonment, persecution. He knew that one day when things got dicey they might not remember his teachings from his Sermon on the Mount, but they would remember words of encouragement that fostered hope. Hope in something to look forward to; hope in a Messiah that would return to them; and hope in the kingdom of God that would bring boundless love and peace to a broken world. It is hope that would be one of the greatest gifts that Jesus could give his disciples and us.
When we hope we have confidence that what we are expecting and anticipating will work out for the good. I’d like to think we don't hope for things to be dysfunctional or disappointing. When we hope in something we want to trust that what we are working for, praying for, and living for will be for positive outcomes; and most importantly that all that we do will glorify Jesus Christ. What do we have hope in? What brings us hope? We find hope in a new beginning, in a leader, in education, in therapy, in rehabilitation, in our faith, in our children… we even have hope in the ministries of this church that they will spiritually feed us and as a church we make an impact on the Baltimore community. We have hope in things that will make us, and those around us healthy, happy and safe. We must stay hopeful and faithful in the love of Christ that assures us that the hope that we have in God really is the only hope that will never fail us.
But Jesus knew that the disciples would be confronted by a world that would impart fear and doubt to distort the teachings of Jesus, and making them lose their trust in Jesus’ promises—and their hope in the Kingdom. That is why Jesus tells them to not be afraid—to not let fear instill doubt in the hope that Christ gives us. When fear creeps into our lives it makes us put value in other things to comfort and compensate for the dysfunction that we feel. For example, Jesus did not want the disciples to put more value in material possessions that would provide temporary comfort and support, rather than focusing on their own spiritual and emotional wellbeing. The same goes for us, when we become anxious and doubtful we tend to avoid the issue at hand or place blame. A minor example, is when I am so nervous about something I tend to buy organizers and organize my desk about ten times. We distract ourselves from what we fear and unfortunately that also make us lose focus on what we should hope for in our lives and in our relationship with God.
And it hard to combat fear and doubt when we are living in a world where fear is commonplace—Fear of hunger, violence, homelessness, loneliness, and separation, and even fear of the other or of the unknown. There has been a lot of language of fear in the media lately around specific groups’ of people based on their ethnicity and religious affiliation, and it inhibits us from seeing them as human beings and children of God but instead as the other. That is NOT what Christ is calling us to in this gospel today. Hate, fear, doubt—they separate us from God because these things do not allow us to fully love and trust God.
That is why Christ does not want us to fear those around us or become distracted my material things that we will not see the treasure in our lives.  Jesus says, "For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." The treasure is every single one of us—it is the faithful Muslim, the refugee, the cop, the teacher, the children at Camp Imagination, it is families of those who recently lost loved ones in our congregation, it is our children and youth here, it you and me—we are treasured and loved by God. When we value and respect ourselves, and those around us our hearts our transformed and we begin to prepare ourselves for the kingdom of God—we become the hope in the world.
That is what Christ wants for us to remember when we are surrounded by a world that wants us to distract us from the good and joy of God that WE can be the hopeful light in the world. And we have been gifted with examples of Christ’s call to be afraid and treasure one another.
We have an Olympic team for the first time made up of refugees from around the world. It is inspiring that a team of young men and women escaped violence and persecution to compete and live out their dreams of being Olympians. My favorite part of the Olympics is the opening ceremony where all the athletes walk together representing their countries. This Friday it was powerful image of these 10 athletes displaced from their homeland and not able to represent their country but represented something even greater—they represented hope for all refugees and symbolized the magnitude of the refugee crisis throughout the world. They showed that violence and war would not win.
We have Camp Imagination at St. Luke’s Carey Street that provides a nurturing, educational and creative environment for the young children in the neighborhood. They had an art reception this year to display all the artwork and crafts the kids did throughout the week long camp. I found myself sitting next to a 5th grader who seemed quite down and I came to find out that his mom wasn’t able to come because she had to take his siblings to the doctors. One of the counselors asked him to show me all the exhibits and at the last exhibit which was called “Neighborhood Imagine” the kids had created their dream houses and what they envisioned their neighborhood to look like.
My tour guide pointed to his house, I said “that looks like a castle” it had the ramparts and he had used white paper for the stone look. He said it is a castle…I want to live in a castle someday. In a neighborhood where many houses are boarded up, it is amazing to have a camp and partnership with a church that is providing opportunities for kids to dream and imagine a life where they can live in a castle and that they deserve that—what hope and love is nurtured in a neighborhood suffering with its own fears.

Jesus does not want us to be afraid in the world (cautious maybe but not fearful), because when get past what we are scared of and value what God has created we are able to prepare ourselves through our earthly ministries for the Kingdom of God. We can bring hope to the world not by grand gestures but by simple kindness, by not allowing the bias of others and our own assumptions to inhibit us from being welcoming and understanding to those who are different. May our ministries here at Good Shepherd continue to reflect a fearlessness to engage our struggling world by sharing the hope we find in Christ. And may we live each day empowered with the knowledge of a God who sent His Son to bring us a message of encouragement and strength for a rough day. Amen.

The Rev. Jessica E. Sexton

Be A Blessing

The Rev. C. Allen Spicer, Chaplain 
The Corporation for the Relief of Widows and Children of the Clergy 
of the Protestant Episcopal Church in Maryland
July 31, 2016

Good Morning to you good people of the Church of the Good Shepherd.

What a pleasure it is for me to share the leadership of worship this morning with your new Deacon, Jessica.  As the Chaplain of the Clergy and their families, I always rejoice in opportunities to get to know our clergy in this wonderful Diocese of Maryland.

Today we have a Gospel lesson, which can raise some interesting challenges for our lives.
The questions are particularly relevant for our lives right now!  One of the questions that comes up constantly is: What is security?  How can I feel secure in a world that is seemingly so insecure?  For Americans, we were used to wars and hostilities taking place in other places.  NOW terrorism is an everlasting presence in our midst.  People begin to feel insecure and untrusting – some are afraid and become overprotective.

One lesson today challenges us to realize that no earthly thing will ultimately protect us – that God alone is our protector.  We are vulnerable people and no barrier that we can erect will ultimately save us.  (on a personal note, when I was preparing this sermon I received an email telling of vandalism in my neighborhood the night before.)  Then, on this past Friday, our neighbor church, Trinity Church in Towson, was the recipient of vandalism during the day, we are grateful no one was injured.When negative events occur in our midst we are challenged to respond and we are tested in the way that we do respond.

A few years back, I was the associate Rector of the Church of the Holy Comforter, Lutherville.  I was delighted to be involved with the youth work of the parish (despite my age) and each year we had a Youth Conference at the Bishop Claggett Center, which included many of the Episcopal Parishes in the area, including Good Shepherd.  At one of the most memorable conferences, during the recession in 2009, the theme was ‘What is enough?’.  As the small group adult leader for the young people 16-18 years old, the discussion centered on the highest priorities in their life and what they could most easily sacrifice if that became necessary.  As Christian young people, what did they most need in their lives – what was most essential?  THEIR FRIENDS ranked high above even some of the costliest items in their family budgets.  The point is we need community; we need the community of love that we share together – the community gathered by the Holy Spirit.

My life has been blessed by being around young people - I have received more from them than I have given them.  We have spent time struggling together to contribute to the world what God call us to do.  They have taught me that it is more blessed to give that it is to receive, but it is also blessed to receive in a gracious manner.  We often forget the second part and thereby miss out on so much.

When I was in the Diocese of Easton and Director of Camp Wright, a companion relationship formed with the Diocese of Antigua.  As the discussion moved along – they sought some funds from us to do several projects, but they asked, what possibly could we do for you – we have so little?  My reply was, you could send a seminarian to work at Camp Wright for the summer.  It turned out the blessings we received from this over those many summers were far greater than what we gave to them.  In fact, one of those seminarians is a Priest in our Diocese and Rector of St. Katharine of Alexandria, a church in Baltimore City; and, I will be supplying there in a few weeks.

I see the demand of young minds and hearts and while reading an article recently about the new face of church in the 21st century.  Evangelism begins by being God’s hands and feet – showing the Good News before telling the story.  Joining the Mission and come to know the Lord in the midst of fellowship.  So, what you have is 1. Do service, 2. Build relationships and while doing this 3. Receive The Grace of God leading to 4. Worshipping in Thanksgiving.

I admire wealthy people who sponsor great works which contribute to the spread of the Kingdom of God.  The Gospel lesson speaks of greed and selfishness – I like to dwell on this subject in a more positive way by speaking of the great people who take generosity to the center of their life.  When our earthly lives come to an end, what would we like to be known for?  What is our legacy?
So, we are wealthy in various kinds of ways –when we are wealthy and a sharer – the blessings we give multiply all around in the lives of untold people and ourselves.

Share the wealth, share the love – be a blessing to every life you touch!