Sunday, October 23, 2016

Sermon: Help

A Sermon preached in 
Christ Church, Grosse Pointe, Michigan
by The Reverend Vicki Hesse, Associate
The 23rd Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 25, Year C)
23 October 2015

May the words of my mouth and the meditations 
of all our hearts be always acceptable to you O Lord,
our strength and our redeemer.

A few years ago, Anne Lamott wrote this book on prayer,  “Help. Thanks. Wow.”  The little book is filled with Anne Lamott-esque descriptions of her own prayer life that makes you laugh out loud and weep in too-close-for-comfort familiarity. Take this one passage, on the chapter for Help, as her cat is dying from lymphoma:

When I pray, I pray for alot of things.  I ask for health and happiness for my friends, and for their children…I pray for our leaders to act in the common good, or at least the common slightly better.  I pray that aid and comfort be rushed to people after catastrophes…  It is also okay to ask that my cat have an easy death.  Some of my friends’ kids are broken and the kids’ parents are living in that, and other friends’ marriages are broken and every family I love has serious problems involving someone’s health or finances. But we can be big in prayer, and trust that God won’t mind if we pray about the cat and [my grandson’s] tender heart.  Is God going to say, “Sorry we don’t have enough for the cat”? I don’t think so.

I know even as I pray for help that there will be tremendous compassion, mercy, generosity, companionship, and laughter from other people in the world and from friends, doctors, nurses, hospice people.  I also know that life can be devastating and it’s still okay to be [mad at] at God: Mercy, schmercy.  

I can picture God saying, “Okay, hon. I’ll be here when you’re done with your list.” Then He goes back to knitting new forests or helping less pissy people until I hit rock bottom.  And when I finally do, there may be hope.

There is freedom in hitting bottom, in seeing that you won’t be able to save or rescue your daughter, her spouse, his parents, or your career, relief in admitting you’ve reached the place of great unknowing. This is where restoration can begin, because when you’re still in the state of trying to fix the unfixable, everything bad is engaged: the chatter of your mind, the tension of your physiology, all the trunks and wheel-ons you carry from the past.  It’s exhausting, crazy-making. 

Help.  Help us walk through this. Help us come through.  It is the first great prayer.[1]

Prayer.  The topic of the gospel text today, extending from last week’s prayer parable of the persistent widow.  One theologian characterized these complementary parables as, “the promise of persistent prayer” and the “peril of presumptuous prayer.” [2]

Jesus told the parable to “some who (1) trusted in themselves and [who] (2) regarded others with contempt.” Although it seems that Jesus speaks to the Pharisees directly, the gospel writer cleverly “vague-ified” the audience.  Why is this important? Because probably, Jesus knew then (as we know now) that disciples and believers were just as vulnerable to pride and self-righteousness as the Pharisees.  This way, people who didn’t recognize their own tendency to play the role of a Pharisee might have assumed that Jesus was talking about someone else, but at the end, the hearers on that day had to confront their inner Pharisee – the one in their own hearts. 

Jesus offered this not-so-subtle parable to crack open hearts and to teach about the oh-so-subtle paradoxical nature of Grace. Jesus left open the way for hearers to learn how grace is always available, yet can only be received by those who have learned open-handed empathy.  Just as the nature of mercy and forgiveness can only be received by those who are merciful and forgiving.  Grace, mercy, forgiveness are always available, particularly when, as Anne Lamott says, when we hit bottom and become willing to receive these gifts.

This parable itself is not subtle. But if we see the Pharisee and the Tax Collector only as the clip art characters we know from previous sermons, we miss what makes each unique and we minimize the power of the reversal.

See, in those days, Pharisees tended to hold a liberal understanding of Scripture.  The aim of their Law was to make it possible for everyone to observe Torah.  Kind of like the religious orders of today, like of monks, or nuns, who demonstrate how to be pious. Pharisees might have been like our beloved SSJE monks, who offer daily inspiring quotes for better living into Jesus’ commands to love God and to love one another as he loved us.

Tax Collectors, on the other hand, were not just commonly despised IRS agents who collected what was due. Tax Collectors collaborated with the Roman imperial government and took advantage of their role, extracting more than was due and pocketing the difference.  Tax collectors were not known for being humble in any way – they were seen to be cheaters: dishonest manipulators. 

Now the reversal of the parable can begin to unfold in the position and prayer of each.

The Pharisee’s position is that of “standing by himself,” separated from others, to maintain his purity.   The Pharisee’s prayer, also, is “standing by himself,” totally concerning himself.  While he does thank God, the substance of the prayer is found in the repetition of “I”… I thank you that I am not like others. I fast … I tithe …  His prayer asks nothing of God; why would he? it is all about him. So it would have surprised the original hearers to imagine the beloved and respected Pharisee to pride himself with his ample piety, expressing no humility or contrition.

The Tax Collector’s position is that of “standing far off,” holding a relative safe distance from others. The Tax Collector’s prayer, also, is far different.  He does not look up to heaven, the common prayer posture of the day, but he looks down. He beat his breast, the common prayer gesture of contrition. He boasts of nothing.  He asks for help, so this would have stunned the hearers to imagine the hated Tax Collector asking for help.

Jesus unveils the powerful reversal in the final lines, describing how the one called “holy” by society walked away from the temple, “wrapped up in his grandiose self righteousness” – while the one reviled by the good church folks went home, justified in the sight of God.[3] Is it too obvious to state that the Tax Collector hit bottom and the Pharisee hit a personal high?  I think it is. 

My sisters and brothers, being a disciple is a balancing act.  While we open our hearts to love, by caring for the poor, serving at Crossroads, having civil conversations with those whom we disagree, visiting someone in hospital, teaching children to read, engaging in citizenship by supporting fair and just legislation … while we open our hearts and our hands to serve God’s beloved community, we can let go of the outcome and trust in God’s grace to get it done.

Achievements have a place – but not in the center of our relationship with the “God of the cross and the Friend of the poor.”  As we open our hearts to love, we can pray for God to Help. That is the first great prayer.

Today’s parable is not subtle, and it’s not simple.  It’s about God’s grace – the paradoxical way that it is always available, always abundant, always accessible.  And it is offered through empathy for others – and for ourselves. 

May we, this day, open our hands and hearts to receive the freedom of grace and love that is extravagantly offered through the One who died for us and rose to set us free.  May we, this day, set our hope on God, for it is God who does all this!


[1] Anne Lamott, Help Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers,  (New York, Riverhead Books, 2012) p. 13-15
[2] Peter Rhea Jones, The Teaching of the Parables (Nashville; Broadman, 1982) p. 198 as referenced in New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary: Luke 18:9-14, p. 340. note 194
[3] Laura Sugg, Feasting On The Word: Pastoral Perspective, p. 214

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Sermon: Chasm.

A Sermon preached in 
Christ Church Grosse Pointe, MI
by The Reverend Vicki Hesse, Associate

The 19th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 21, Year C)
25 September 2016

May the words of my mouth and the meditations
 of all our hearts be always acceptable 
to you O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.

Listen here on SoundCloud.

Since his 1954 debut on the cover of Mad magazine[1], Alfred E. Neuman’s face has adorned the cover of all but a handful of the Mad’s 500 issues.  Alfred E. Neuman’s face is distinct: the jug ears, the missing front tooth and one eye a bit lower than the other eye. Neuman’s face that doesn’t have a care in the world, except mischief, and the publisher routinely combines Neuman with another character, such as Darth Vader or George Washington, or even Agent Smith from The Matrix.  After the first few years of publication, Mad magazine added Neuman’s now-familiar signature phrase, “What, me worry?” written below his face.

Intellectually uncurious “What, me worry?” captures the 8th century BCE life-of-faith run amuck that Amos critiques in today’s reading.  This apathy pervades the lifestyle that Amos condemns, which accompanies the decadent feast of revelry by privileged and powerful people, enjoying indulgences they can afford without a care in the world. What, me worry? Is at the crux of Amos’s rant. 

The people, “at ease in Zion,” claim to belong to the Lord and feel secure. They don’t care about the ruin of an entire population – the people of Israel…For context, think the clich├ęd image of Nero who fiddled while Rome burned, or Marie Antoinette who said “Let them eat cake” while the rebelling people starved. These people “at ease in Zion,” instead of using their power and privilege for the welfare of God’s people used their privilege for their own good.  What, me worry?

I don’t really like Amos. He’s speaking to me. To us. He makes me wonder about my / our privilege: In what ways do my choices numb me from worry? How do I, too, participate in systems that ignore the oppression of people? 

When I turn on the lights, do I care about the connection of that electric usage to mountain top removal[2] happening in West Virginia? 

When I buy cheap mangoes from S America, do I understand the connection between my exotic tastes to the destruction of small farms at the heart of community life, whose downfall now forces those farmers to find work on farms in North America?

When I speak up in a meeting, do I notice the connection that some people will (sometimes) listen to a priest and silence their own important perspectives from a conversation – do I notice my power and privilege?

These choices that I make – that we make – around how we use our wealth and privilege have connections, have effects. Amos calls me – us – out with his prophetic voice to choose life.

This choice the core of the now familiar “This is Water” talk by David Foster Wallace, to which both Rev. Areeta and Fr. Drew referred in in previous sermons.  This is the core of awareness that is so real and essential but hidden in plain sight, like water in which fish swim: my wealth & privilege can numb me from worry. I don’t like Amos because it means I need to stay awake and aware.  Do you see what I mean?

The gospel offers warning about the cruel world of inequality.[3]  Jesus’ talk portrays a rich man who might have wondered, “What, me worry?” during his life on earth. 

His wealth & privilege prevented him from even seeing Lazarus or relating to Lazarus as a fellow child of God.  (Just for clarification, this was not the same Lazarus heard in other stories with Jesus.  Lazarus was a common name derived from the Hebrew, Eleazar, “God is my help.”)

In death, the rich man spoke to Lazarus without concern and assumed Lazarus would do his bidding even in the hereafter. The rich man was lost. His riches had stunted his compassion and created a chasm in his heart from the needs of others.  And so it may be for us – when we become complacent, without concern of how systems in which we participate affect others and especially those who are oppressed or marginalized already.  Luke and Amos call us, today, to stay alert – to choose to care – so that wealth and privilege does not insulate those around us.

Both these prophets’ message warn of a chasm forming around our heart.

To help remind us to take seriously Jesus’ point, we already have a handy device that most of us carry around in our wallet.  Could you please take out a bill from your wallet – any bill will do.  Or a coin, if you have no bills.  If you look closely on each bill or coin, there inscribed you can read four simple words of that reminder, “In God We Trust.”  Look at those words, imprinted in our currency during the civil war, inspired by the Star Spangled Banner during the war of 1812. 

If we do actually trust God, then we will take seriously God’s command to have compassion on those around us, to be vulnerable to each other, to see the face of Christ in our neighbor’s need. This week, I invite you to spend the bill you hold in your hand. Spend it with awareness, with choice, with concern, with compassion.

How does it reflect your trust in God?  Maybe this tangible sign can be less a “transaction” in your head and more a “transformation” of your heart.[4] Later this week, post on the Christ Church face book page or write me an email or note about how this spending opened you up to the needs of others.  How was your heart transformed by God as you entered into that need?

What is at stake today is the connection of our whole lives – our own wellbeing to that of others.  Jesus is calling us today: take care that our wealth, our privilege, our power, does not numb us to the need of our neighbors. 

We cannot say we have no need of you. 
We are not sufficient unto ourselves. 

Here’s a warning: As we become more responsive to the hurts, hopes and needs of others, we will become more aware of our own humanity- our own longings, vulnerabilities and insufficiencies.  At that point, we may also recognize God’s offer of manifest grace in Jesus Christ, the one who took on our human longings, human vulnerabilities, human insufficiencies in order to show us God’s profound love.

We, too, have Moses’ law and the prophets to teach us to care for our neighbor’s needs. And, we are confronted and become known by Jesus Christ each week at this table.  In that meal, when we see and know the One who died and rose for us, may we be shook awake from our numbness. 

And once awake, may we know how again and again God chooses to draw us back into relationship. God chooses for us life everlasting.



[1] Cited in Wikipedia, at  on Sep. 22, 2016

[2] See tool at this website:

[3] Ched Meyers, “The Rich Man and Lazarus: Warning Tale and Interpretive Key to Luke”

[4] Inspired by a personal conversation with Rev. Areeta Bridgemohan on September 23, 2016