Sunday, October 30, 2016

Struggling with our Conscience

Gospel for Sunday, 10/30/16

"Today salvation has come to this house."

Jesus says that salvation has come to Zacchaeus’ house – because Zacchaeus is also a son of Abraham.  I don’t know about you – but that cause and effect doesn’t make much sense to me right off the bat.  And as someone who would really like hear the voice of God whisper in my ear – today salvation has come to this house – the lack of a clear connection irks me.

Maybe that is selfish – wanting such divine acknowledgment that everything is good.  But I’ve been reading this week that assurance is something a whole lot of us are longing for.  Perhaps you too have come across the news item somewhere in your perusing that our collective anxiety this election season is at an all-time high.  The American Psychological Association reports that upwards of 52% of all Americans are coping with high levels of stress brought on by this election.  Therapists report that the issues that have emerged of late – national security, secrecy, terrorism, hacking threats, gun rights and sexual assault – trigger our deepest fears and anxieties.  We’re all worried.

I imagine that my being in this pulpit and even referencing the election has some of you worried – uh oh – I do not want to hear a political sermon this morning.

Guess what – I don’t want to preach one.  I want to know that today salvation has come to this house.

We need to see and know salvation in the midst of our own and our collective anxieties around the fast approaching date of November eighth – because this is where you and I live.  We live in a real world – with real challenges and problems – and real possibilities, real hope.  And there is something we are supposed to see in our time and place that points us to the reality of God here and now.  And points us to the reality of God on November 9th and beyond.

Our story begins with the phrase – Jesus entered Jericho.  Just a few sentences prior to that – Luke’s gospel reads – As Jesus approached Jericho.  And as he did a blind beggar was sitting by the road, begging.  The beggar hears the crowd – senses the commotion and asks what’s going on.  Someone tells him – Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.  So he shouts out – Jesus, Son of David – have mercy on me.  The crowd tells him to be quiet – but he gets louder and shouts again.  Jesus stops – it reads he stood still – and then orders the man be brought to him.

Jesus asks the beggar – what do you want me to do for you? Lord, let me see again.  Done. Receive your sight, your faith has saved you.  And all the people – when they saw it – praised God. (Lk 18:35ff)

The beggar is blind.  Yet he already possesses the ability to perceive the power of God’s mercy in his life.  All the people around him who can see – are unaware of God’s immediate presence until Jesus proves it – with this miraculous healing.  The beggar trusts before he can see.  The people don’t trust until they’ve seen some proof.  Where is your faith – where is our faith – on that spectrum?

Then – Jesus enters Jericho – and again we meet someone who cannot see.  Well, Zacchaeus can see – he’s just a little vertically challenged.  But just like the shouting beggar – he isn’t going to let a challenge stop him.  And like the shouting beggar – he isn’t bothered, nor does he seem to care, what others think of him.  Zacchaeus isn’t just a tax collector – he is a chief tax collector – he is a wealthy man, a feared man.  He is not the sort of man who would scamper up a tree like a child, just to see a wandering Jewish prophet.

All we can do is imagine the backstory that propels him.  Perhaps he stood at the banks of the Jordan way back in chapter 3 – when John the Baptist was declaring repent, repent and prepare the way of the Lord. Because the tax collectors are one of the first in line to get baptized and ask – what are we supposed to do?   How do we prepare? And John replies – don’t collect more than you are owed – stop exhorting people.

Perhaps Zacchaeus was there and heard that – and it aligned with something inside him.  Perhaps his conscious was already struggling with the accepted practices of his colleagues and friends that just didn’t sit right with him.  And this invitation was what he needed to hear.  To be told that he could turn that struggle into a practice to make a way for God in his life.  Then he saw what he could do.

In point of fact our English is a poor translation in this passage – we mess up the tense of the verb.  When Zacchaeus meets Jesus he tells him something he is already doing – it is not future tense as in "I will" but present in the sense of "I do and I will continue."  Lord, half my possessions I give to the poor, Zacchaeus says.  Like the beggar he already saw Jesus as the Son of David – why else would he climb up that tree?  He was living his belief and bearing fruit – as John the Baptist had suggested – giving some of his wealth to those who needed it. Maybe that too is why the people grumble. The people grumble that Jesus would acknowledge – let alone go to the house – of a tax collector because they don’t see Zacchaeus.  They see the label – a tax collector.

I think the people would rather hate Zacchaeus – then actually see him. It's easier sometimes to hold onto blind assumptions and put people in a categories – then to see a person, the person of Zacchaeus and how he is trying in his way to prepare a way for God in his life.

Do you all remember when Pope Francis visited DC last year?  He gave an incredible address to Congress – that I would suggest is worth rereading this week.  In it he reminded us of a promise we make or renew at every baptism – “All political activity must serve and promote the good of the human person and be based on respect for human dignity.”  He goes on to define politics as an “expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the greatest common good: that of a community which sacrifices particular interests in order to share, in justice and peace, its goods, its interests, its social life.”

And in his remarks – the pope directly addressed many of the same issues that are causing such anxiety just a year later – however – he encouraged and reminded that the remedy is to “reject a mindset of hostility” and recognize our need to “constantly relate to others.”

When speaking of those who we categorize as refugees or immigrants – people who flee their homes in search of a better life for themselves and their families – the pope said, “we must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories…We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays, to discard whatever proves troublesome.”

That is what we see Jesus do this morning – and over the course of his short time on earth.  He sees people as people – and not problems or lost causes.   And then invites other people to see in that same way.  And when that happens – that moment of seeing and being seen – salvation is there.

A colleague of mine was quoted in an article this week saying – I don’t preach political sermons – I preach the gospel of Jesus Christ – which happens to be very political.

This election will come and go – but all the challenges will still be here.  It’s good to remember that all the outreach we do as a church is as much about helping others as it is for giving us opportunities to recognize our need to see others, to hear their stories.  That is one way in which we see that salvation has come to this house.  It is one way we confront the anxieties and challenges of our time.  It is how we practice allowing God to transform our hearts – through the human family, as Jesus did – to have our sight renewed.

And do you remember what Pope Francis did after that address?  Instead of attending the luncheon with all the politicians and important people – he went to an outreach center – a place much like Our Daily Bread or Paul’s Place – to eat and hear and see.

We hear Jesus say this morning that the Son of Man - Jesus aligns himself with humanity – came to seek and save the lost.  We are encouraged in the midst of our anxieties to seek the one who prayed daily, broke bread with strangers and continuously put one foot in front of the other – making his way through Jericho and the next place – seeing and talking to fellow human beings, sharing a meal together and getting to know their story.

And then naming the presence of God that is always there, if only we will see it – that is all it takes for salvation to come to a house – because we too, are children of Abraham and Sarah.  We too can choose our words – our works – and our lives to reflect those things that we see as the very real ways of God’s saving grace and abundant love.  Amen.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Praying with Humility

Readings from Sunday, October 23

Click on the image to listen to the Sermon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rev. Jessica Sexton

Monday, October 17, 2016

Strength and Struggle of Prayer

Sunday's Readings

To listen to the sermon click the image below.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Who helps you say thank you?

Readings for Sunday, October 9th

Click on video to listen to the sermon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rev. Jessica E. Sexton