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