Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Word Became Flesh ~ OMG!

The Rev. Robert P. Travis
Christmas 1 - Year A RCL
Episcopal Church of the Ascension
December 26, 2010 8 and 10:30am
Isaiah 61:10-62:3 and John 1:1-18

Sermon Text:
“And the word became flesh and lived among us.”

My daughters like to cuddle,
in case you don't know them,
they are 6 and 4 and ¾.
Annalise, is 4 and ¾ and she will tell you that.
She has liked cuddling ever since she was a baby.
I remember when my dad held her
in her early months of life.
As a newborn she laid her head down on his shoulder,
and he said, “Aw, she cuddles!”

She has a bed full of cuddle toys,
but Annalise has been known to say
that she needed a special cuddle toy
or else she could not go to sleep.
So it struck me as a pure expression of love,
this week, when Annalise told me this about God.

She said, “God is a great big cuddle toy
who all the children of the world can cuddle at once.
He cuddles with us every night,
even though we can't see him.”

She said that to me with the confidence
of a biblical truth.
She knows it to be true,
and as one who really loves cuddling, it is an important truth about her experience of God.

That seems to go well with the Christmas story
we know so well, with the simple Christmas story
we heard so recently,
and today we have a very different understanding
of the birth of Jesus Christ.
The interesting thing, about having
the first Sunday  after Christmas
the very next day,
Is that we get to see  how   paradoxical
the gospel writers were
in their understanding
of  the birth of Jesus.
A paradox,
is   when two true statements
coexist, though they don’t
agree with one another.
They seem opposed to each other,
but they are both true.

John presents us not   with a little
cuddly  baby,  as he introduces
the good news about Jesus,
but with the Word of God,
The Logos   become flesh.

The Logos was understood  as a concept,
both to Jews and pagans.
Many believed that the world,
the whole universe in fact,
was spoken into existence,
and that Word, Logos in Greek,
was what caused all creation.

We know this most clearly
from the beginning of the Bible,
where it is passed down to us,
that “In the beginning, God said,
‘let there be light,’ and there was  light.”
The whole creation is a series of statements.
One translator simply translated
the Hebrew as,
In the beginning  God said, ‘Light!’”
That does a better job of conveying that Logos idea.
The Logos, The Word of God was  ‘Light!’
The Word of God was behind every work  of creation,
every Word of Creation.

So when John writes, “In the beginning was the Word,”
He wants us to remember the   Genesis account.
You could just as easily understand,
the Big Bang that ways as well.
In the beginning, God said “Bang!”
And the Big Bang Happened.
The Word spoken  by God, is the Word of God.
So when the evangelist says
the Word was with God,
that goes without saying.
When he says, the Word was God,
that’s good news.

Behind all that creation, light,
darkeness, galaxies,
stars,
worlds,
the earth,
the ocean,
mountains,
trees,
plants,
animals,
people,
tiny  living things,
behind all this is life,
and that life started as light,
and that light was a Word,
and that Word is part of God’s own self.

Here’s the paradox,
that cuddly baby,
that Cuddle toy  my daughter  and children
everywhere love,
was that  very  Word,
the creative  force behind everything,
became the very flesh  he created.

How can both of  those things  be true
at the same time?
God often shows us,
that either/or is not sufficient,
With God it is often both/and.
Jesus Christ is both a cuddly baby,
and the cosmic reality behind  all  life
in the universe.
Whoa!
I think that should give us all pause,
That  is  what Isaiah’s talking about,
“my whole being shall exult in my God;”
Not just a little warm feeling
that we get from seeing an adorable  baby,
but a great big Whoa!
From your head, to your heart,
to your toes,
to the depth of your soul and Spirit.

This would be the right time to say,
“Oh, My God!”
a phrase used way too vainly these days,
but that Oh, My God! is  what
exultation really means.

Why does  Isaiah say that,
beyond pure awe?

He writes, “my whole being shall exult
in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
...as  a   bridegroom decks  himself,
and  as a bride  adorns herself with her jewels.”

This is prophecy,
Isaiah had not met Jesus,
he is writing hundreds of Years before
that birth in Bethlehem,
but he sees what God is doing,
he feels clothed  with the garments of salvation.

That  same Word from the very beginning,
the Word light,
the Word Life,
was  also the Word,
Man, and the word Woman.

And  as  if  it was not enough,
because of our own neglect,
our  squandering  the right way,
and then forgetting what we really are,
that Word, actually
became   one     of  US.
To bring us  back, to what we were  made  to be.
That  is why Isaiah  exults,
that is why  we say,
Oh my God!
This  Sunday after the incarnation.

Because of  his  coming into the   world,
condescending from being greater  
than the whole universe,
to become a  single human being,
he gives us the power  to become
Children of God.
Isaiah  prophecied,
we will be a crown of beauty  
in the hand of the Lord,
a daughter and  son of the King.

So yes,
as Children of God,
as my own child realized,
even though we don’t see Him,
he cuddles us  every night.
But we know that,
only because  God the only Son,
the Word who spoke the everything into being,
became fleshed  and lived  among us,
because he made God known to us,
in the flesh,
incarnated,
And while in the flesh,  
he showed us Love,
strong   love,
scandalous Love,
Love that cuddles us,
no matter how prickly we have been to Him.
This is one of the great paradoxes.

And Christmas  is a season to  reflect on that.
What does that make you  think about yourself?

Our Brotherhood sent this reflection out
that helped me,
(by Br. Kevin Hackett),
a priest with the Society of St. John the Evangelist,
an Episcopal religious order says:

When the Eucharist is celebrated at the Monastery,
the Bread and the Cup are sometimes presented
to the congregation from the altar as the presider says,
"Behold what you are."  
Which is to say, look closely,
this is who and what you really and truly are,
the Body of Christ, made up of grains of wheat ground so fine that it would be impossible to separate them now.
"Behold what you are."  
To which we respond, "May we become what we receive."  
May we indeed.”

Fr. Howard and Brett preached
on Christmas eve,
that the incarnation is about how we are Christ to one another,
in community.
As we share in the flesh of Jesus,
fed by his presence in the Eucharist,
reassured of his presence in the world,
may we become  what we  are  always
made to be, what we were spoken into being.
As if we never lost that awareness.
 
“May we become willing to embrace the other,
to serve the other,
to wash the other's feet,
to suffer with the other,
to suffer in place of the other.  
That's what the Body of Christ in the incarnate Lord Jesus did.  That's what the Body of Christ
[The Word made flesh]
incarnate in us is still called to do.”

Monday, December 20, 2010

God Is With Us

The Rev. Amy Morehous
Advent 4, Year A
Church of the Ascension
December 19, 2010


Restore us, O Lord God of hosts;
show us the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.


Haul out the holly
Put up the tree before my spirit falls again
Fill up the stocking
I may be rushing things but deck the halls again now

For I've grown a little leaner, grown a little colder
Grown a little sadder, grown a little older
And I need a little angel sitting on my shoulder
Need a little Christmas now

For we need a little music, need a little laughter,
need a little singing ringing through the rafter
and we need a little snappy, happy ever after
We need a little Christmas now!


Most of us have probably heard this song - probably sung in a snappy, peppy tempo, with lots of accompanying strings and jingle bells, and a breathless chorus of voices. I have to confess that I’m normally a terrible Episcopalian. I love Christmas carols, and I sing them in my car usually from Thanksgiving, until Christmas. But I have to confess that this one is not one of my favorites. It seems a little desperate to me - a little rushed, a little manic. But, this hasn’t been our year for Christmas carols. To be perfectly honest, over the past several weeks hearing the words “happy”, “jolly” and “merry” have made me want to kick someone in the shins. (You’ll be happy to know I’ve restrained myself.)

It has been easy for me, this year, to put off Christmas, and live into the mysterious waiting that is Advent. To sit in the dark, and look for the light to come. Because there have been times in my grief these past few weeks when the valley has been so dark, I was not sure I would see the light again. But I know, as the Psalmist says, that we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. We walk through it - we don’t linger there forever. But on the dark days, the dark of that shadow can be very powerful indeed.

I’ve thought for weeks about what God would have me say to you today, on this last Sunday in Advent, the day when we look forward to God’s great promise, given to us by the prophet Isaiah. A young woman is with child, and shall bear a son, and will name him Emmanuel. “God is with us.” God is with us.

It is a mystery to us, this gift of presence. Not presents - wrapped in beautiful paper with shiny bows. Presence. God is with us. God who comes to live among us as a tiny and frail child. That mystery draws us here every year at this time, when we celebrate it without fully understanding it. But we don’t have to understand the mystery to experience it, to live into its promise.

I would like to offer you a full and complete understanding of many things this morning, but one of the things I have lived into this whole year is knowing how much I don’t fully understand. I can neither understand nor explain why our son died six weeks ago. I don’t understand why our nephew died in May at the age of two and a half, after living most of his brief, sweet life with a devastatingly progressive terminal illness. I frequently don’t understand why grief comes to the lives of people I care about. I only know that it does. Griefs come into each of our lives because we are human. Because we live in a world in which hard things happen to people every day.

“This is life’s nature: that lives and hearts get broken - those of people we love, those of people we’ll never meet.” Anne Lamott says that “the world sometimes feels like the waiting room of the emergency ward, and that we who are more or less OK for now need to take the tenderest care of the more wounded people in waiting room, until the healer comes. You sit with people,” she said, “(and) you bring them juice and graham crackers.”

Many of you have brought me juice and graham crackers when I needed it, and I thank you. And you will keep doing it, because I can tell you that I will need it for a long while. And someday in the future, we will sit together, you and I, and I will bring you juice and graham crackers when you need them. Someone gave me a terrific piece of advice last weekend, at the memorial service for our son. They said, “Be patient with God.” Together, today, we are all here being patient with God in our own way, waiting until the healer comes, because the healer is promised to us by a God who loves us all, even in the midst of our grief, and our anger, and our hard times.

Henri Nouwen said that “waiting is essential to the spiritual life.” This is terrible news for me, because I hate waiting. But he continues on to say that “waiting as a disciple of Jesus is not an empty waiting. It is a waiting with a promise in our hearts that makes already present what we are waiting for. ...We are always waiting, but it is a waiting in the conviction that we have already seen God’s footsteps.”

Sometimes in the midst of all our waiting, in the middle of hard times or great grief, it’s easy to wonder if God is present at all in the midst of it. After all, God’s footsteps can be hard to see in the dark. But, one thing I have come to believe above all is that our pain matters to the One who made us. God did not promise to make my life pain-free, to give me a charmed life where nothing terrible ever happens. He didn’t even promise to take all the pain and suffering away when those hard things happen. I have days where I sure wish he would. But God did promise to be present with me in the midst of it, to fill that pain and sorrow with his presence so that I might bear it. He has blessed me with friends and family, so that I am not bearing up under the weight of my grief alone. He sent the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, to be with each of us - in sorrow and in joy. And he sends his own son among us - a tiny boy, born of a young woman, cradled in a manger. Emmanuel. God is with us.

We are here together, today, on this fourth Sunday in Advent because we yearn toward that presence in our lives. Toward that moment when God breaks into our lives, the light in our darkness. Toward transformation. Peter Gomes says that “the promise of Christmas...is nothing less than transformation. That is why we can never get enough of George Bailey and Ebenezer Scrooge at this time of year. Even as they were, we too can be changed. What we yearn for is what Saint Paul once called the peace which passes understanding, a peace, first inward and then outward, which this world can neither give nor take away.”

Most of us, as we are caught in our own pain, and our own lives, have a hard time letting go, and opening ourselves to that radical inbreaking of God. I know I wrestle with that every day. We all have an idea of where we thought our lives would be today, that “snappy happy ever after” of the song. Our reality frequently doesn’t match those expectations. I can say with all honesty that I anticipated a completely different Christmas this year than the one I will have. I can hang on to those old expectations, which were very sweet indeed. Or I can embrace the Christmas my family and I will actually have, in all its imperfection, its ups and its downs, its tears and its laughter. I can hold on to the fantasy of my expectations, or I can live into the place where Christ meets me - the place where I actually am.

Where are you, today? Are you weighed down by the thoughts of the Christmas that won’t be? Are you wrestling with a reality that doesn’t meet your expectations? With disappointments? With grief? Most of us are, if we’re honest. One of the gifts of Advent is time - time to work toward letting go - even a little, of all of our “should be’s”. “I should be giving my children more. I should be more successful. I should be sharing this with someone I love. I should be happier. I should....I should...I should.”

Here we are together, all of us, in the midst of our messy and imperfect lives. The promise of the incarnated Christ is that he comes into each of our lives just the way they are - despite darkness, and insecurity, and difficulty. Today, I ask you to join with me as we cast off some of our “shoulds” and embrace the messy and the imperfect, with all of our hurts, and all of our joys . God will be there, as we do. Emmanuel. God is with us.

Together, we walk through the dark of Advent, knowing that the light is promised to us. To each of us. The light is promised to us, not because we believe, but because we belong. Sometimes the wild improbability of God’s love for us is too difficult for the wan intellectual exercise we think of as belief - particularly when we are walking in the dark. Even on the days when we cannot see the light of God’s presence, when we cannot even hope for it for ourselves, it will be there. Others around us will carry that hope for us, when we cannot, will sing the words of it, when we’ve lost the tune.

This is the last Sunday of Advent. We have spent the last few weeks waiting, listening, watching as people in darkness who yearn for a sign of the light. And the Light of the World is on the horizon now: his name is Jesus, for he will save people from their sins. I wish for myself, for my family, and for all of us a transformative Christmas, when the light of Christ seeps into all the dark places in our lives. Emmanuel. God IS with us.

Amen.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Advent 2, Year A December 5, 2010
Twists and Turns The Reverend Dr. Howard J. Hess

I. Introduction: The season of Advent twists and turns. These twists and turns produce a certain tension in our spiritual lives. At one moment in time we are moved by the wonder and great mystery of Advent, while at other times we are beset by distractions, disruptions, and delays. Which is it going to be – the disturbances or the divine presence of God in the Incarnation? The lectionary designers seem to be communicating the same kind of tension in the readings selected for today. For example, Isaiah wrote: “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse, and a branch will grow out of his roots . . . The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” This is the warm, loving picture we see on many of our Christmas cards – scenes of stillness and peacefulness frozen in place.

Yet at the same time we have today’s Gospel reading from Matthew. John the Baptist is making his annual advent voice heard: “Repent!” says this wild and wooly man . . . for the kingdom of Heaven is near.” He calls the Pharisees and Sadducees who are coming for baptism a “brood of vipers” and describes Jesus as a Messiah of judgment. He warns harshly that “Jesus’ winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary but the chaff will burn with unquenchable fire.” As one of the participants in our Wednesday Women’s Bible Study (which meets at 10:45 in room 101 and welcomes new members) said this week: “I sure hope I’m not one of the chaff that is thrown into the unquenchable fire.” I share her sentiment!

II. What then are we to do with this tension in our lives and in our worship? As I have struggled to answer that question for myself this week, I will share what I have come to understand about this tension. First, I would say that to a lesser or greater degree, this tension is always going to be an element of our spiritual experience in this life. We are all works in process; we are redeemed through Christ, but not yet perfected. Secondly, although we know that this tension between peace and challenge will continue throughout our lives, it is often at the point of that tension where the Holy Spirit can do the Spirit’s best work in us, helping our faith to grow stronger and stronger over time.

III. First the tension. We are a people saved by grace, but we also are a people who live in a world where “stuff happens.” Although we aspire to transcend “the stuff” there are instances where we struggle. At times our tensions come from sadness and grief, the loss of a marriage, the loss of a job, the death of someone we love very much, or giving up of some of our treasured life dreams. Many of us in this sanctuary have or are facing the reality of living lives that aren’t like those in the Christmas card pictures. As is typically the case, for many of our brothers and sisters, grief is very powerful during Advent.

For others, our tensions result from much more mundane events. We begin our busy days with optimism and end them with frustration. It’s like my experience in the past week of having my car brakes go out twice and also ending almost every day not having completed what I had hoped or had promised to do. Each of us this morning can insert our own particular experiences of tension during the past week.

IV. In the midst of our tensions, however, Isaiah points us to a peaceful promise. Some have viewed that promise primarily as a prediction about the future. But others see the promise of peace as timeless. For example, Margaret Wenig, a Jewish author writes:

You see, to Jews, Isaiah’s promise of redemption speaks not only of the advent of the messiah at the end of time, but also of our recurring experience of redemption through time. We believe that Isaiah’s promise has already been fulfilled time and again whenever our people have been felled and new shoots have miraculously appeared.

V. This recurring experience of redemption, I believe, is possible for us when we understand the dynamic nature of our spiritual lives. We each have a core center of spiritual gravity. In this core center we are unified with Christ through the Holy Spirit. Remember the central truth of the Incarnation: “Christ become one of us so that we could become more like him.” This core is supported by connections. First, we are supported by our connection with God, a God who is willing to help us grow, examine ourselves more fully, and keep us anchored in faith. Several of the fruits of this spiritual core are gentleness, forgiveness, humility, and patience. It’s through our spiritual core that we can see ourselves more clearly, love others more fully, and heal from the pains we have suffered. Second, we are supported by our connections with each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. Although we do so imperfectly, we pray for one another, listen to one another, encourage one another, advise one another, and love one another through God’s grace.

At times, however, we can be pulled away from the core, the center of spiritual gravity, into an energy field of distractions. When these distractions become compelling and demanding, we may be pulled away from our spiritual power source. I believe that there is a constant process of spiritual recalibration going on in all of us. Some forces are working to pull us out into the force field of distraction, while other forces are bringing us back to the core.

VI. Conclusion. It is very important not to be frightened by this process of twisting and turning. We see particularly in Advent that our spiritual journeys have peaks and valleys and that the movement between them creates a tension within us. Joy McDonald Coltvert writes in Currents in Theology and Mission (2007) that today’s lectionary readings may provide us with “an opportunity to not force everything to fit together, but just [to] allow the tensions.”

We are blessed here because God has given us this community within which to live out our twists and our turns together. It’s my prayer that we seek to be increasingly open about the realities of our spiritual journeys with one another, to love each other actively, to pray for each other fervently, and to walk humbly with God and with one another as we do so. Amen.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Uniqueness of our Advent Hope

The Rev. Robert P. Travis
1st Sunday of Advent Sermon – 8:00 and 10:30am
Church of the Ascension, Knoxville TN
RCL Advent 1 Year A 11/28/2010
Text: Isaiah 2:1-5, Psalm 122, Romans 13:11-14, Matthew 24:36-44

The welcome we look forward to
In the prophecy of Isaiah is fantastic!
People of all nations will stream
to the mountain of the Lord
like a river in the Smokey Mountains
Pouring over and around the rocks and other obstacles
Streaming into that holy city
Where all will be made new.

Some would find it scandalous,
That people of such diversity would all be welcomed,
Into the city of God.

And many who come shall say
“come let us go up to the mountain
of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths."
They’re not inviting us to go up there
So that we can be judged by human standards
Or where we will discover that we had it right all along
It is a place where we can learn to walk in his paths.
But wait!
I thought that was what we are supposed to be doing here,
In this life, right now, learning to walk in his paths?
Well this is a message of hope,
And it stands there as a way of understanding
The message in the gospel,
Which so often is used in a rather hopeless way
Of dividing the worthy from the unworthy.

You know,
That message from Jesus, describing the time
Of his return, is often interpreted these days
As a biblical proof that there will be a rapture,
Where the worthy will be whisked away,
While the unworthy will remain in torment
While a great tribulation occurs on the earth.
This view is made popular in the Left Behind books,
And movies, and is commonly taught in many
Evangelical churches around the world.
If one were new to the Christian faith,
One might believe that the rapture theology
was the only traditional way to understand
our view of the end times.
But in reality this view has only been around
for about a hundred and fifty years.
It was a nineteenth century invention by some scholars,
Who wanted to synthesize the variety of end-times
Prophecy that is found in the Bible.
For the history of Christianity,
150 years is a pretty new idea.

I was confronted with all this when I went to a recent
Gathering of some local Episcopal clergy,
And we heard one of our brother priests give a
Talk about a new book called,
“The Rapture Exposed.”
The author of that book argues that rapture discussions,
Where people commonly interpret Jesus’
Message of “two will be in the field,
One will be taken and the other left,”
as meaning that the faithful one will be taken away,
and the other left to suffer,
the author argues that this misses
the point in translation,
she argues that based on the historical context
“In Jesus’ day, people who were “taken” by the Romans
were usually taken to be
interrogated, imprisoned, judged, and/or executed

Plus, the context of this passage is in reference
to it being like the flood, where people were swept away,
or taken, by the flood.
Thus, Jesus’ hearers would have seen the one left standing
as the more preferable of the two.”
When I heard that I thought
Wow, that makes sense!
I wonder why so many are being mislead
By others who say
Faithful Christians will just vanish,
And the unfaithful will be left behind?

So I thought I was going to preach about that today,
And talk about the hope of the return of Christ,
As part of Advent,
And how we will all be left,
to enjoy His full return,
And welcome the remaking of the created order.
But then I decided to check some other sources,
As I usually do,
And I went to my German Bible,
The translation that Martin Luther made during the reformation,
And I found that the words translated from the Greek,
That we read as “taken,”
And “left,”
Have very different and very clear connotations.
The word for “taken” is aufgenommen,
Which means “gathered in”, or “received,”
That certainly doesn’t seem like the way
One would describe what would happen to those
Being swept away as unworthy.
And then the word for “left” is verworfen,
Which means discarded, or rejected.
That certainly is not the place I want to be in
When Christ returns, I’d rather be gathered in,
Received into the arms of the Lord.
So rather than being confirmed,
The new message I heard, was left unsettled,
And I struggled with what to preach about
This gospel message.

But it occurs to me, that this is in fact,
The blessing of being in the Episcopal Church,
In being a part of the Anglican tradition.
Because we are welcome in this Church to
Have discussions, and even controversy,
To disagree, even on the meaning of scripture,
And even to preach about things being not entirely
Decided in the Church.

We are a Church that invites every member to inquire,
And discern the truth of the gospel
Within their own hearts.
In fact we pray for every baptized Christian,
To be given an inquiring and discerning heart,
Not a heart that will simply receive teaching
As given, or believe because that’s what the
Church’s position on something is,
But to think about it, and work it through.
We understand what Paul means when he challenges
Believers to work out their own salvation
In fear and trembling, because there is a degree
Of anxiety in having to take responsibility
For your faith on your own.
And that is what freedom we have in this church,
And it is a wonderful thing!

The hope I see in recognizing that the debate
On the idea of the rapture is far from over,
Is that we are free to work this out in this church.
And I believe that is a valuable contribution,
That we make to the body of Christ in the world,
By representing the thoughtful church,
Where lay people are expected to come to their
Own understanding of their faith.
I think that is a brand of the faith worth spreading,
And it should not be drowned out,
just because ones with the stricter,
doctrinaire approach speak louder, or publish more.

This is the message of hope,
That I hear this morning in the prophecy of Isaiah,
Which goes against the notion that the rapture,
Ends the whole thing for those who have been faithful.

Those who are invited to the mountain of the Lord,
To the new Jerusalem,
To the holy city rising up above all the cities of humanity,
Are invited to go and learn from the Lord,
To learn to walk in his paths.
That means it’s not over then,
That we don’t finish learning
And growing just because we die,
Or just because Jesus returns and sets things right,
It becomes more wonderful, yes,
But we continue to learn and grow,
And become more and more what God made us to be.
That is an Episcopal version of heaven if I ever heard one.

Maybe Isaiah was an Episcopalian,
Ok I’m kidding,
But what I’m mainly trying to say here,
Is that this message of hope is a great way to begin this Advent season.
We are called to be different,
And we can rejoice in that difference,
When many of our Christian brothers and sisters,
Are going around this Advent, listening to Christmas
Music, and pretending like the season of Christmas
Starts on Thanksgiving, and ends on Christmas day,
We light our candles, week by week, one by one,
And sing “Oh Come, O Come, Emmanuel,”
And hold off on greening our church until Christmas Eve.

When they talk about the rapture as the end of the story,
We know that whatever happens,
and what exactly that will be isn’t even All that certain,
The journey of faith will continue, and the excitement
Of growing and learning will go on into eternity.

Our season of Advent is about the anticipation of Christmas, sure,
But it is also about looking forward
to the second coming of Christ,
and that is much more mysterious.
We like mystery in this Church,
and we like discussion,
We’re open to various interpretations,
And yet we can worship as one with all that diversity,
Rather than seeing a scandal,
We get excited about the idea
That all nations with all their diversity,
Will stream into the city of God in the end.
And that is a story worth sharing.

The Alpha Course is coming up,
Just two months from now.
Who do you know that would like to experience,
A different way of being Christian?
Who do you know,
who would like to discuss their doubts and misgivings,
In an atmosphere of acceptance and love?
Start thinking about who you would like to invite.
Because our faith is worth sharing,
And there are those who would not find Christ
Any other way.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

I Want to See Jesus

The Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost October 31, 2010
I Want to See Jesus The Reverend Dr. Howard J. Hess

I. Introduction: First of all, I want to share with you how wonderful it is to be home at Ascension. We have missed you and have looked forward to telling you the story of our trip to Madagascar. Installment one begins this morning.

Many of you grew up with Zacchaeus, just as I did. Week after week in Sunday School, we sang about this little man who climbed up into a tree in order to see Jesus and wound up hosting him for dinner. In the Middle East, there is great importance placed upon sharing a meal together; therefore Jesus’ decision to invite himself to Zacchaeus’ home to share a meal had a great deal of positive meaning. Even the initial step that Jesus took to recognize Zacchaeus prompted Zacchaeus to make sweeping changes in his lifestyle. These changes were radical, but they began with the intention as small as it might be, to find a way to see Jesus.

II. Our Sabbatical. It was with this very intention to meet Jesus in some new way that I set off for the other side of the world in Madagascar in mid-August. And meet Jesus I did. But that is not really where the story begins. Several years ago, the Right Reverend Todd McGregor, a bishop in Madagascar, and his wife, the Reverend Patsy McGregor, visited Ascension. The McGregors have served for more than 20 years in Africa with the support of the Episcopal Diocese of Southeast Florida. They have spent the bulk of that time ministering in the island nation of Madagascar. When Bishop Todd was first with us he preached about a priest by the name of Donne. Prior to becoming a Christian, Donne had been addicted to alcohol and lived a life centered around his addiction. Following his conversion, Donne’s life had changed dramatically. He stopped drinking, was trained as a evangelist, which is a very specific lay leadership role in many African churches, and then later was ordained as a priest. During that time he married, had three sons, and served several churches. A year ago he began a new church in the city of Fort Dauphin.

After arriving in Madagascar in August, I continued to hear of Donne’s ministry. During the third week of our stay in Madagascar, I felt led by the Holy Spirit to go and visit him in Fort Dauphin, which was a one-hour flight from where we were staying. Donne invited me to stay with his family and to preach and celebrate with him in his two churches that coming weekend. On the way to the airport Patsy McGregor said to me, “I hope you find what you are looking for on your pilgrimage to Fort Dauphin.” Her words were prophetic although I wasn’t aware of it at the time. I went to the see the ministry of Donne and to meet the people in his church. But the most important experience on that trip was that I met Jesus.

III. If there would be just one thing that I would want to share with you about our time away, it is that the three of us who went, Emily, Peg, and I, each in our own way encountered Jesus. This is what we prayed for and this is what we received. There are many examples of how this occurred, which we will share in the months to come.

But for today, I want to tell you about the ways I encountered Jesus in Fort Dauphin. Shortly after I got off the plane I discovered that my suitcase, with all my medications for fighting off allergies and an upper respiratory infection, was never taken off the plane. It had been mis-tagged and while I watched the plane took off for the capital with my luggage on board. When I discovered this, the airline representative assured me that my luggage would come the next day. This would have been true had not the national Madagascar Civil Aviation Authority refused to release my bag because they believed my Harper-Collins Study Bible was the Koran and that I was potentially a terrorist.

With only one clerical shirt, one pair of pants, and the collar that I had on, we returned to Donne’s home – a very modest two room thatched home set inside a community of Christian families. These families live together in a small fenced off area for security reasons. I stayed in one of the one-room homes in the compound. Donne and his 14-year old son invited me to walk with them through the large outdoor market of Fort Dauphin. As we walked most people smiled at me, but one man came up from behind and tried to rob me. Donne’s son quickly ushered me on, and Donne placed himself between the robber and me. He was roughed up, but able to prevent the man from attacking me further. I had not even seen the danger, and therefore was initially unable to protect myself.

The gift from God in this experience was two-fold: I had been physically protected, and I had seen a glimpse of Jesus in this brother priest who was willing to take the hit so that your rector could be safe. Throughout my four-day visit, I kept bumping up time and time again against my own limitations. I had only the clothes on my back, no medications, and no cell phone. I was living in a community of people whose language I didn’t understand and felt very far away from my support base, including Patsy and Peg. That first night I knew I was heading into rough territory without my medication and in particular my rescue inhaler. Southern Madagascar is very dusty. My allergies had been aggravated and led to an upper respiratory infection. There were no all-night pharmacies; in fact, people didn’t leave their homes after dark for safety reasons. So I prayed – God you have brought me here, I need your help. I looked up after praying and there on a shelf in the room was a rescue inhaler left by a previous guest. I stood there in the middle of that room marveling at how God can respond to our prayers in such immediate and creative ways. I knew this was not a co-incidence. It was an answer to prayer. Many times during my experience in Madagascar I came up against my own limitations and through prayer experienced God’s protection and direction.

The second way in which I encountered Jesus during those four days was in meeting and worshipping with the Christian community. The church there is only a year old, but has already established a second church 7 or 8 miles away in a small, incredibly poor village in the mountains. The Christians are for the most part grindingly poor, incredibly generous, and deeply joyful. On Saturday night Donne and I went to the church in the village. Over 100 people worshiped under a large tree. They have no prayer books, knew the liturgy and the songs by memory, and they communicated a joy about being together that made me weep. This was one of the many moments when I thought of all of you and wished you could have been there with me so that you could experience what I experienced – the joy I saw as they worshipped. Yet in our world here they would be described as people who have nothing. The next morning we worshipped with more than 125 people crowded into a tiny classroom. There are pictures of this worship service on the Ascension web site. During the service worshippers filled every space and could only come a few at a time to receive communion. The room was crowded and yet I experienced the same joy and gratefulness within this congregation that I had experienced the night before in the village. Some of the people in the Sunday morning service had left home at 5:00 am to walk to church. The Christians I met in Fort Dauphin were very poor materially, but very rich spiritually. When I left Ft. Dauphin, I knew I had been in the presence of Jesus many times. And I hadn’t just seen him, I’d eaten with him, had communion with him, been blessed by him, and been transformed by these encounters.

I am grateful for two discoveries that God allowed me to experience in Fort Dauphin. First, I was re-awakened in my understanding of how God answers our prayers, especially when we become aware of our own limitations and genuinely cry out to God for help. Secondly, I saw in the Malagasy Christians a love of neighbor and a joy of sharing Christ’s love with one another in spite of poverty and daily challenges to survival. On my flight home from Fort Dauphin I pondered upon these discoveries and knew that I would be sharing them with you upon my return. I knew was beginning to encounter Jesus in new and in fresh ways.

I share this experience with you this morning in order to bridge the experience gap that has built over the last three months. My thoughts by nature of the short time I have been home are not yet fully formed. However, two things are important for us – first that we become more intentional about the way we look for Jesus’ and recognize his presence when we pray. And secondly there can be a joy and vitality in Christianity when there is little material resource. In fact, it may be possible that the burdens of wealth sometimes make it more difficult for us to see Jesus.

This morning’s email meditation from Henri Nouwen’s writings is timely and instructive:

“Like every human organization the Church is constantly in danger of corruption. As soon as power and wealth come to the Church, manipulation, exploitation, misuse of influence, and outright corruption are not far away.

How do we prevent corruption in the Church? The answer is clear: by focusing on the poor. The poor make the Church faithful to its vocation. When the Church is no longer a church for the poor, it loses its spiritual identity. It gets caught up in disagreements, jealousy, power games, and pettiness. Paul says, "God has composed the body so that greater dignity is given to the parts which were without it, and so that there may not be disagreements inside the body but each part may be equally concerned for all the others" (1 Corinthians 12:24-25). This is the true vision. The poor are given to the Church so that the Church as the body of Christ can be and remain a place of mutual concern, love, and peace.” Amen.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Hold On

The Twenty-First Sunday After Pentecost
Proper 24 Year C Luke Luke 18:1-8
The Rev. Brett P. Backus
(The following is transcribed from a sermon given without a script and is not an exact copy.)

"And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth?"

So in seminary there was this joke or play on words that students would say in times of high stress, when it was exam time or time to turn in a lot of papers. Instead of saying "it's time to go to the seminary," they would say, "it's time to go to the cemetery." What a great way to view your theological education! And I think that they had this joke because seminary is an intense place and in a way this saying held a lot of truth for them. Ironically, and surprisingly, this joke or play on words ended up ringing much more true for me than I ever would have expected. This is because I can honestly say that I have never felt so lost, in such a dark place spiritually, or so far away from God as I did during my three years in seminary.
As you can imagine, this was a difficult experience to deal with. My expectations were that I would go to seminary and I would be spiritually fulfilled, and enlightened by professors, and I would finally experience what it would be like to live in true Christian community with people who also felt called to live for serving the Lord. Needless to say, I didn't really know what to do in a situation like this. Of course, I had the love and support of my wife Carla, but I eventually ended up turning to a priest friend of mine who had impacted my life greatly in the past. I will never forget what he told me. It truly got me through. He said, "this is normal, we as human beings and Christians do suffer, and we will have times of spiritual darkness." And here is how we get though these times: "Think about any time in your life that you experienced God's presence, a time when the presence of God was almost palpable and where you felt God guiding, protecting, or walking with you. Remember those times and treat them kind of like precious stones or gems, and put them in your pocket. And then, when you do enter into a time of spiritual darkness, reach into your pocket and pull out those little 'God sightings' and hold on, and that will get you through." That is exactly what I did, and that is what got me through this difficult time.
I share this experience with you this morning because this is what I hear Jesus saying in this morning's Gospel. Hold On. See, when we encounter Jesus in today's Gospel He is giving a parable to His disciples, a quite funny parable actually, at least in my opinion. Jesus in a sense is telling His disciples that in their relationship with God they need to be like this nagging widow! They need to be good naggers. I cannot help to think that if all it takes for us to have a good relationship with God is to be good naggers, then I know at least a hand full of people who should really be tight with God already! No one here of course! People at Ascension do not nag! But what I think people usually get out of this Gospel lesson is a message about constant prayer. People usually hear Jesus calling us to a life of constant prayer, and I think this is right. However, I think a kind of misunderstanding happens sometimes here as well. See, I think a lot of times people see the nagging widow getting what she wants or needs from the unjust judge because she was persistent and they begin to think that what Jesus is saying is that if we want to get what we need from God, then we need to be in constant prayer. So, the emphasis gets taken off of the constant prayer and placed on the desire to get what we want from God. This of course, is not what I think Jesus is getting at in today's gospel.
You see what I hear in this morning's Gospel, what I think the key is, is found in that last line, that question that Jesus raises. "And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth?" You see what I hear in this morning's Gospel is a call to seek out God's presence in our lives, a call to constantly look for God in our lives and to hold on. And I think this is an important message for us to hear today, it is an important message to be reminded of, because regardless of that pop culture Christianity tells us, we still experience suffering as Christians in this world. Regardless of the fact that we are extremely blessed to live in this country, regardless of the fact that we are the wealthiest people in the world, regardless of the fact that we do not have to suffer in the same ways that most of the people in this world have to suffer, we still do suffer. I would say especially, we encounter spiritual suffering. So, that is the message that I want us to hear today. Seek out God constantly in our daily lives and hold on to that presence.
And I learned something actually about that dark period that I had. See, what I was saying was that I felt that God had turned His back on me, that somehow God had abandoned me. What I realize now though is that that was not the case at all. Somehow in the confusion and stress I was experiencing, it was I who somehow managed to loosen my grip on God, to let go of God, to distance myself from God. This is why my friend's advice worked, because only when I began once again to reach out and actively look for God in my life was I able to finally be pulled from the darkness. So maybe some of you all are in a dark place spiritually now. If not, you probably have been, and you will be again. Maybe you are in a dark place spiritually because you lost a loved one, or maybe you are dealing with a broken home. Maybe you are dealing with a dark time spiritually because you have seen horrific things, maybe you are a victim of abuse or maybe you have seen war. Or maybe you are going through a dark time just because you feel like God has simply abandoned you. Hear Jesus' message for us this morning. Actively search out God in your daily lives and when you find Him hold on. Actively search Him out day to day and in your moment to moment lives. Search Him out in the big experiences, the big things of this world, and search out His presence in the smallest of things in this world, and you will find His presence. When you do find Him, hold on. Only when you actively seek God's presence in your life will you find Him, and only then will you be pulled from the darkness. Hold on. Amen.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Other Nine - Where are They?

Eighteenth Sunday after the Pentecost Sermon – 8:00 & 10:30
Text: Jeremiah 29:1,4-7, Psalm 66:1-11, 2 Timothy 8:8-15, Luke 17:11-19
Fr. Robert P. Travis

Well it's 10/10/10 today
a fact of which many of you are aware.
What is the significance?
Well, not much, as far as I'm concerned,
though it is neat that this only happens every hundred years.
I read somewhere that many churches have noticed,
that this happening on a Sunday will not happen
for another 400 years,
so they took that as a sign to preach
on the Ten Commandments.

We are bound, thankfully,
to a lectionary, so the odd date having spiritual significance
is not present in our readings today.
Or is it. . .

More significant to me,
in preparing to preach to you all today
was the fact that we are thinking about Stewardship now,
in fact,
some people have already turned in pledge cards
for 2011, though we're not asking you to do that,
until November 7th,
when we will present our pledges on the altar.

That fact made me question the guidance
I thought the Holy Spirit was giving me about our
scripture today, so much so,
that I had to go to Fr. Brett and ask him
if I was crazy to see a connection between stewardship
and today's gospel.
He saw it too, and that reassured me.
You see, we often have to do that,
when we're looking at scripture,
check our opinions or thoughts with
brothers and sisters in Christ whom we respect.
That is part of why we need to be an active part
of the Christian church to grow in our faith.

What struck me about the gospel today,
and the more I read it, the more it became clear,
is that the leper who returns to Jesus,
is doing what we all should do when we are thinking
about our giving to the church.
He returned and gave thanks and praise to God,
for all that he had received.

That thanksgiving is what we hear in the Psalm,
when the people of Israel remember
all that the Lord had done for them.
It's what we hear in a different way in 2nd Timothy,
when Paul is telling about why
he endures such suffering on behalf of those
he wants to share the Gospel of Christ with.

Allow me to recap what happened in the Gospel,
in case you were distracted.
Jesus is on the road,
and a group of lepers call out to him,
from a distance.
They were required to keep their distance,
because it was not permitted for a faithful Jew
to come in contact with someone like a leper.
The lepers call Him “Master,”
and ask Jesus to have mercy on them.
It sounds to me like a prayer I often utter,
especially when I feel badly about something.
“Jesus, Lord, Have Mercy on me!”
He does have mercy on them,
he tells them to go and show themselves to the priests,
which is what one was required to do in the Old Testament
when one had been healed of a skin disease,
as they were doing what he said, they found
that they were healed of their disease.

One of them, when he notices that he was healed,
turns back, and shouts praises to God,
He falls at Jesus' feet and thanks Him.
Jesus notices that only one of the group returns,
and he seems justifiably indignant.
He asks the man, “were not ten made clean?
But the other nine, where are they?
Was none of them found to return and give praise to God
except this foreigner.”
God in the person of Jesus noticed
who was thankful enough to return thanks and praise,
he noticed that the others didn't
even though they had been blessed with the same healing,
he also noticed the the person who did return was a foreigner,
not one of the chosen people of God.

There are so many things one can draw from this
but this time, I want to focus our attention on just
a little thing, one that perhaps you didn't notice.

There were ten lepers who all asked for mercy,
ten people who all called Jesus master,
ten who stood at a distance out of respect for him,
ten who followed his command, and headed for the priests,
ten who were healed from their leprosy.

But only one returned thanks.

That act of returning thanks to God,
before going and doing anything else,
as soon as he noticed the blessing,
that is exactly what we do
when we give our first fruits to God.
Even when we make a pledge anticipating the blessings
we are going to receive in the next year.
We are turning back and giving thanks to God,
before going and doing the rest of what he commands.

But of the ten in this story,
there was only one who did that.
Maybe there's something to do with 10/10/10.
But I see this has something to do with the tithe.
You see, all the Church that I am aware of
acknowledges the tithe as the minimum standard
for Christian Giving.

Much of the time, when we talk about it,
it sounds like we're encouraging people
to strive for the tithe,
as if it were some goal that only the saints reach.

But that's not it, it's the starting point.
Here in this story Jesus did not say,
Wow, One of the Ten people I healed came back!
That's fantastic!
He was gratified about the one who did return thanks,
but he noticed that only one tenth did.
I think that's what our tithing is like.
It's really a starting place,
the minimum standard.
Let me tell you a story to put this in perspective for you.

There was a man living in the 18th century in England.
He wanted to be a faithful Christian,
went to Oxford to study,
and when he started his first job out of University,
he made 30 Pounds a year.
That was a pretty decent wage back then.

His living expenses were 28 pounds -
so he gave 2 pounds away.
A little less than a tithe, 7% of his income.

The next year his income doubled -
but he knew he could live on 28 pounds -
so he gave away 32 pounds.
The third year he earned 90 pounds -
lived on 28 -
and gave away 62.
The fourth year he earned 120 pounds -
lived on 28 - and gave away 92.
One year his income was a little over 1,400 pounds -
he lived on 30,
that was probably after he married.
When I discussed this with some people,
they all asked me, was he married?
So I guess when you have a family,
your living expenses need to rise some,
but he was married,
and still he gave away nearly all of the 1,400 pounds.
When he was earning 1,400 pounds
he was giving 98% of his income away,
to the church of course,
and to the charity that he felt called to support.

He became a very wealthy man in terms of his income,
and yet he felt that with increasing income,
what should rise is not the Christian's standard of living
but the standard of giving.

That man's name was John Wesley,
you may know him, as one of the founders
of the Methodist movement.
But he was an Anglican for his whole life.

He was a person who lead his life,
in a way that was distinctly different from
what the values of our cultures espouse.
You may think,
“well he's practically a saint,
I could never do something like that.”

But the fact is, there are many Christians
who you would never notice per se,
who do just that,
who live as we would think of it,
well below their means,
so that their lives can have a greater impact
on the Church of Jesus,
and of all those around them.
Remember how I talked about that community
I used to live in, where there was so much affluence?
There were a couple families in that church,
who lived very humbly,
and I didn't think they were wealthy because their houses
were simple, and their cars old,
The rector of the church pointed out to me, one day,
that they were quietly living below their means,
to make a difference in the church,
and the community,
giving away a large proportion of their income.

That is what we need to strive for.
The tithe is a beginning point,
the minimum standard of Christian giving.

But why do this,
why give to that extent?
Certainly it should not be a competition,
to see if we can give more than those around us.
And it's not that we're trying to give away a lot
to earn our way into heaven,
No it's something different than that.

For that, I look back to the 2nd letter to Timothy,
which we read today.
There Paul writes what he calls a saying,
that may have been an early Christian hymn,
“If we have died with him, we will also live with him.”
If we have died with Jesus,
we will also live with Jesus.
The point of this is life,
as it always is.
The point of this is living right now,
but not living as the world lives,
and not putting value in what the world values.

I am reading a book by a professor, pastor, and bishop
named Todd Hunter.
It's called “Christianity Beyond Belief.”
One of the main points he makes,
is that we are asked to live now,
to make our lives holy right now.
Not in anticipation of some future heaven.
He turns the message that you have probably heard
on it's head.
Have you ever seen written,
or encountered someone who confronted you,
with the question,
“What would you do if you knew
you were going to die tomorrow?”
The follow up question, is always, would you go to heaven?
Bishop Hunter asks instead, in his book
“What would you do if you knew
you were going to live tomorrow?”

The point is life, but in order to live
with Christ right now, we must die to ourselves.
One of the clearest ways we can do that,
is to die to our self-serving goals of bigger houses,
better cars, fabulous trips, huge TV's.
You know, I was looking at this website
for a hotel where my friend is getting married next year.
And just to be curious I looked at their full range of rooms.
At that hotel you can get a room, if you could call it that,
which is 11,000 square feet, and costs $10,000 a night.
Can you imagine someone staying in a place like that?
And what money spent on that could instead
do for the Church to spread the gospel,
or for someone who struggles on just $1 each day.
That is not life for a Christian.
That is actually the way of death.
Life for a Christian, involves dying to all of that,
to all of the ways that money tempts us away from God.

So to die to that sort of consumption,
we can follow the example of those before us,
and decide what we really need to live on,
and then give all of the rest away.

Of course this is easier if you're starting out,
you could decide,
this is all I need to live on,
and then when you are successful in making money,
continue to live on what you made originally,
and give the rest away,
increasing your standard of giving each year,
rather than your standard of living.
And you would find that your richness of life,
would increase with each increase of giving.

But if you haven't started out that way,
if you have applied all of your increases in wealth,
to increasing your standard of living,
the more you get used to a standard of living
the harder it is, the more like death,
to change that, and live for Christ.
But that is what Paul is talking about.
“If we have died with him, we will also live with him.”

So as you are considering your pledge
to Ascension for 2011.
Remember a few things.

We as a parish have taken some steps in faith this year.
We made an extra pledge campaign,
when our vestry decided we needed
to make major building repairs,
and call a full-time youth minister.
Next year there will not be an extra campaign,
but those costs of the programs
we felt called to support, continue.
So at a very minimum, our pledges this year,
need to include both last year's pledge and the
supplemental pledge,
to continue what we started this year.
If you haven't reached 10% of your income yet,
strive to get there,
because that's where it really begins.
If you already are giving a tithe,
look at what John Wesley and others do,
and strive for that kind of giving,

Increase your standard of giving
rather than your standard of living,
and you will find that you are living with Christ,
and not just holding out for the hope of heaven.

Really we are all lepers,
standing by the road calling out to Jesus,
“Master have mercy on us!”
If we really think of him as master,
then we will notice the blessing He has provided.
What ever you do,
make sure you start by recognizing
what God has done for you,
and return by giving thanks and praise to Him.

Then maybe we can have 4 or 5 out of 10 people,
return appropriate thanks to God,
rather than just 1 in 10.
“Jesus, Master, Have mercy on us!”

Suffering - October 3rd Sermon

Copies of Amy Morehouses' sermon from 10/3 are available from her on request. Email requests to deaconamy@knoxvilleascension.org .

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Loving Unchosen Neighbors

The Rev. Robert P. Travis
Eighteenth Sunday after the Pentecost – 8:00 & 10:30
RCL Proper 21 Year C 9/26/2010

1.Text: Jeremiah 32:1-3a,6-15, Psalm 91:1-6,14-16, 1 Timothy 6:6-19, Luke 16:19-31

I was going through my old sermons
and I discovered that the very first
sermon I wrote in Seminary,
was on this same Gospel pericope
we heard today.
I read through that sermon and found some good parts
for today.
But a great deal of the text was disappointing
to me, because it showed me
how immature I was then,
and especially that I had a sort of chip
on my shoulder about wealthy people.
I was fresh out of my experience as a youth minister
at an Episcopal Church on the Northshore of Long Island,
commonly called the Gold Coast of Long Island.
Some of the wealthiest people in the world
live in that town.
You couldn't buy a house, not even a shack,
for less than $600,000.
Parents would commonly buy $80,000 Lexuses
for their children when they turned 16.
And yet, at the Episcopal Church where I worshipped
and served, my $3,500 pledge was one of the largest
pledges in the parish.
So I was angry at the injustice that wealth causes,
as I wrote that sermon with them in mind,
and concerned for their spiritual well being,
as well as for my own.

(selections from text of old Sermon in quotes)
“Actually there's a lot of hope
in this story.
There may not be hope for the rich man in the story,
but there's a lot of hope for the rest of us.
I believe that is why Jesus told it.
You see, this was a really familiar
story back then,
the kind of story where everyone
in the crowd would be mumbling to themselves,
“Oh I've heard this one before,
this is the one about
the rich man and Lazarus.”
But Jesus, as he often does,
puts an interesting twist in the story...

talk about the Name of Lazarus, meaning God has Blessed

“After the rich man begs him to send Lazarus
to his family to warn them,
Abraham says, “they have Moses and the Prophets;
let them listen to them.”
Now where have we heard this before?
Lots of times in the Bible we hear someone
say the phrase, “Moses and the Prophets.”
Or sometimes, “The Law and the Prophets,”
since the tradition held that the Torah,
the books of the Law were written by Moses.
As I see it, Abraham is saying to the rich man
and through Jesus, to us:
“they should look at the Law and the Prophets!
In there God tells you everything
you need to live a good life
and come to be with me after you die.”

Also those scriptures talk about blessing . . .
and tradition held that the wealthy were blessed
and the poor cursed.
Talk about the idea of blessings vs. abomination.

You see, the Rich man knew the Biblical story.
He knew that in the Torah, God commands us
“Love your neighbor as yourself!”
From just what we know about this man in the story
we can see that he wasn't doing this.
Who was his neighbor in the story?

The story said Lazarus “was laid” at the rich man's gate.
Now I don't know about you,
but if someone makes their home right next to mine,
no matter how they do it,
I would say that is about as literal a definition of neighbor
as you can get.
What did the rich man do for Lazarus, who was his neighbor?
NOTHING!
Lazarus, longed to eat what fell from the rich man's table.
The rich man wasn't even giving him the scraps!
Maybe he didn't feel like Lazarus was his neighbor
because he just showed up uninvited
and the rich man had no choice in the matter.
Maybe he didn't have his own house
in the nice section of town.
Maybe he thought Lazarus was an “illegal”
if he did not enjoy the citizenship that the rich man did.

But the fact of the matter is,
Lazarus became the rich man's neighbor.
Sound familiar?
Do you have any neighbors right here in town like Lazarus?

In Europe this week the news was about the Roma -
unwanted neighbors for many countries in Europe. . .

The other verse I want to talk about is the phrase
“they will not listen even if someone is raised from the dead.”
In someways this can sound quite cynical,
because Abraham, and through the story, Jesus,
is clearly saying that those who aren't following
the great gifts of Torah and Prophecy
that God gave his people will not be convinced
even if someone rises from the dead.
But let's look behind the cynicism at the interesting twist
that I mentioned earlier.
Jesus was referring to his own eventual resurrection!
Jesus did rise from the dead!
That's what our whole faith is based upon,
and it is a message of great hope.
While the story says, they won't even listen IF
someone comes back from the dead to warn them,
Jesus is saying He IS going to come back from the dead!
And you and I know it happened...

God is not saying that wealth is a terrible thing,
or evil in and of itself.
Every gift comes from God, and is intended for good.
Maybe it's prophetic that people who didn't listen before
won't listen now,
but WE WILL!
God has given us great wealth,
but he gave it to us so that we would use it
for the building up of the Kingdom!
His Kingdom...not ours.

Every time we use our wealth to act with love
towards our neighbors,
to nourish the Body of Christ,
even those who just showed up,
whom we did not choose,
we acknowledge that we have listened,
and we still are listening to Jesus.
Jesus gives us everything we need to know
in his life and teachings,
and not because we deserve it.
NO, and we don't deserve these riches either,
but God loves us so much that he let his only son die,
in part so that we could have someone
who had been to the dead and back
tell us from experience what waits for us after death,
and how to join Him in heaven. . .

What an amazing gift that he tells us what we need to know!
That's what the rich man hoped for.

There are unwanted neighbors in Knoxville,
I have read recently that people,
some of whom claim to be Christian,
are fighting against having housing for the poor
built or allocated in their neighborhoods,
saying it will affect their property values.

The people we choose in our lives are one thing,
but Jesus is asking us to love the neighbors
whom we did not choose.

So what do we have to do?
For those of us who are wealthy,
Jesus tells us it's going to be hard, really hard,
for us to keep from being weighed down by our wealth.

It's hard because you can't love someone you don't pay
attention to, and so to love God and love our neighbor
we have to pay attention to them.
We can't try to keep them out of our neighborhoods
so we can pretend they aren't there.
But with our wealth we have so many things
to distract us from God and our neighbors.
Because money is so distracting.
I don't need to tell you how much more complicated
life gets when you have money.
Frankly we become so distracted with our wealth
that we miss the opportunities which abound
for us to use it for God!

So take a look at the great chance you've been given!
There are neighbors who get dropped at the very gate
of our precious community. . .
Think about the homeless on our doorstep,
and the formerly homeless
in Knoxville's permanent supportive housing.
Do you know them?
We have opportunities to get to know them here.
Family Promise, Circles of Support...

You know that Jesus Christ came back from the dead
to show you the way to God.
You know that God gave you wealth in this world.
What are you going to do with that knowledge?
If we love Jesus we will keep his commandments,
we will love these neighbors,
regardless of how they got there.
Don't let your money distract you from your neighbor!”
And seek contentment rather than wealth
as we heard in Timothy
and use your wealth to nourish the Body of Christ,
in this community of faith.
That is one way to grasp eternal live now,
you don't have to wait to get to heaven.

Giving Ourselves to God

Proper 20 Year C Luke 16:1-13
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 19th, 2010
Written by Fr. Brett Backus
Delivered at 8am by Fr. Brett, at 10:30am by Fr. Rob

Giving Ourselves to God

“For the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation
than are the children of light.”

Today's message is about Christian living.
It is about our very real need as Christians
to struggle constantly
with the giving over of ourselves to Christ
in order to make room for God in our hearts.

You know, one of my favorite things
about taking people on mission trips
is being provided with the opportunity
to witness the people we have taken
grow before our very eyes.
Being able to provide people with life altering experiences and having the chance to see
how each individual responds to challenges and changes
as a result of the various challenges that come along
with mission work is both a blessing and a privilege.
One of my favorite challenges,
which presented itself on both the trips to Bolivia Ascension has supported and taken in the past two years,
is the challenge that comes from the realization
that there is a lack of resources.
So, there you are,
working on some type of construction project,
trying to hammer two pieces of wood together
or saw something in half,
or maybe you are just trying to paint a wall.
Regardless, the inevitable reality is,
you do not have the proper tools to accomplish this task.
Not only do you not have what you need,
but you also do not have the foggiest idea
as to where to begin looking for what you need.
What you do have though,
what you do know without a doubt,
is that you have an important task in front of you.
Something that is important to someone else.
Something that means quite a bit to the people
you are trying to serve,
and something that you must accomplish.
So, what happens? Action.
You deal with it.
See, the thing that I love to witness
in this type of situation while doing mission work,
the amazing thing that happens every time
as a result of this type of challenge
is that people make it happen.
They just do it.
Despite the challenge,
and regardless of whether a somewhat better tool
can be searched out and purchased or not,
the people somehow recognize the seriousness
and importance of their current situation
and the meaning of their service to others,
and they do what they must
and in the best way they can
in order to accomplish their task.
They act, and to witness this is amazing.
To watch a group of normal everyday people
band together and care so much about something
that they take such an energetic initiative
and act with such persistence in order to succeed
is astonishing.
It truly is a sight to behold,
and it is a perfect example
of a kind of authentic Christian living,
where individuals successfully give themselves
over to God in order to serve others in His name,
and it is a shame that it is not something
we have the chance to see, experience,
or participate in everyday.
That is what I believe Jesus is talking to us about
in this morning's Gospel;
the way we choose to act as Christians.
Now, if you were paying attention
while Deacon Amy was reading this morning's Gospel lesson to us, then the appropriate response
that you should be having right about now is,
this is absolutely insane!
This is crazy, it does not make sense,
I do not get it, what in the world is Jesus talking about?
Boy, I sure feel sorry for the person who
has to write a sermon on this one!
You are right.
Actually, even to this day, scholars debate
about what in the world the actual point is
that Jesus is trying to get across in this Gospel lesson.
Of course, I cannot pretend to have the answer
to that question or the solution to this age old debate today. However, what I can do,
is speak to you all about what I heard this Gospel saying to me as I prepared to preach to you this morning.
I hear Jesus calling us to Christian action,
to Christian living.
See, the dishonest manager in today's Gospel
is commended for acting shrewdly,
and while I somewhat agree with the many
who believe that this passage is intended to teach us
about how to deal with or use our money and possessions,
I also think that Jesus is pointing us to a lesson
that lies just a little deeper than that.
As I see it, the dishonest manager
is not being praised for the way he handled money,
or for how he treated his boss's debtors.
He is being praised because he acted.
He took care of it.
The reason that the dishonest manager in this morning's Gospel is lifted up is because he fully appreciates
the importance and urgency of his situation
and he takes an energetic initiative and acts prudently.
This is what I believe Jesus wants us to see
in today's Gospel.
“For the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”
You see, Christian living, a commitment to living
for Christ as His disciples,
seems to have lost its prominence or importance
in the lives of present day Christians.
Granted, we find ourselves in a very different situation
than the disciples of Christ's day.
We do not fear persecution
and we do not typically hold the belief
that Jesus is going to come back any minute now.
But we do struggle
with giving Christ the prominence in our lives
that He should have.
In other words, we place many things of this world
and in our lives before God.
This, I believe, is why we,
the children of light,
are being compared with the shrewdness
of the children of this generation. In a way,
we are being told to take notes
and apply what we learn to our Christian living.
To begin to give more importance to Christ in our lives
than other things,
and to be as resourceful and prudent
in our Christian dealings or actions
as the dishonest manager was in his dealings with money. Today, Jesus calls us each back
to being Christ-centered people.
People who place the utmost importance
on obeying the teachings
and spreading the message of Christ.
People who commit to living in a way
that becomes an example for others.
People who actually care about ushering in
the reality of Christ,
even enough to put Him before all other things in their lives.
But how is it possible to actually do this?
Sacrifice.
Oh yes, that dirty little word
that makes us all cringe to hear.
Sacrifice.
Now, I promise that I did not originally intend
on this being a stewardship sermon,
and it really is not at it's heart,
but it is almost impossible not to see how closely
the two subjects are related in today's Gospel.
Plus, I didn't think that our Stewardship committee
would really mind my mentioning the subject!
The reality is, and just as our Gospel today points out,
all of us try to serve two masters
(and that might be putting it mildly),
and this is precisely what creates one of the main problems for us as disciples of Christ
trying to live Christ centered lives.
Our love of material and worldly things
divides our hearts between Christ and our possessions.
The truth is, that this is why pledging and tithing
are so deeply important for all of us.
They help us avoid the pitfalls
which lead to serving two masters,
the main thing which prevents us from truly adopting Christian action, Christian living.
They are the blessings which, when used,
help us to lessen and even defeat the false masters
which we unfortunately have come to serve
at the very core of our hearts.
They help us to clear out the formerly crowded space
in our hearts and enable us to make room
to be filled with the presence of God.
Unfortunately, in our day,
stewardship has come to be viewed as a burden.
People think that they should give
of their time, talents, and money
because it is needed for the church to run,
because it is commanded,
because it is just the right thing to do,
or because they view it as a form of repayment
for the services that the church has provided them.
But this misses the entire point of such powerful
and necessary spiritual practices.
When we give, we give for none of these reasons.
When we give, we give of our time, talents, and money,
the things that are most precious to us,
in effect, we give of our very selves
in order to successfully reorient the core of our hearts
around Christ.
We give in order to put Christ before all things in our lives,
in order to be able to live Christ centered lives.
With truly sacrificial giving,
the kind that makes you wince
when you look at how much you give,
you experience the true connection to Christ,
that action for Christ I was talking about earlier.
You see, in the end, this is what today's Gospel
is really all about, at least for me it is.
It is about reaching true Christian living,
Christian action, through the sacrifice of ourselves.
Only by giving up those things
which we are most attached to,
the things that hurt to give away,
can we finally make the space necessary
for God to take first place in our hearts.
Only then can we really place the highest importance
on Christ and the real focus on Christian living
that Jesus as Lord deserves.
Only then can we truly adopt Christian action.
Only through such intentional sacrifice can we,
the children of light,
finally be as wise and prudent in our dealings with God
and God's creation as we currently are
with our material things.
We cannot step into the light
until we let go of all that is holding us back,
of all that is weighing us down,
of all that we are holding onto with all of our strength.
When we finally figure out how to do this,
then we will be able to begin
trying to reorder our lives around the only One
that deserves all our efforts,
all our focus, all that we are.
Christ.
“For the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation
than are the children of light.” Amen.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Joy of Repentance

Given at 8am Service
Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Proper 19C
September 12, 2010 (Rally Day)
Luke 15:1-10
Fr. Rob Travis

How many of you have ever lost a sheep?

I know I haven't, so it's kind of hard
for me to appreciate the joy
that a shepherd would have,
if he went in search of a lost sheep
and found it.

But the losing money thing,
and finding it,
that makes sense to me,
as long as I realize that a silver coin,
back then, was worth a lot more
than a simple quarter today.
The most common silver coin
was the denarius,
which was what was typically
paid for a day's wage.

So let's say you lost a $100 bill.
I would certainly spend a while
searching for that,
and be pretty thrilled if I found it.

Or let’s take a more recent example,
say you lost a whole lot of money
in the stock market
your retirement savings,

wouldn’t you go about
doing everything you could,
to try to get that money back?
You might even neglect some things
that need your attention
in order to get back what you lost.

That’s the way God sees us,
or at least the way God sees sinners.
I don’t know what your feelings are on this,
but if I’m honest with myself,
I often think I’m more like one of the Pharisees or scribes.
I tend to think I’m doing pretty good.
And it usually ticks me off when people
point out how I’m not as good as I think I am.

Take a trivial example;
yesterday I was making
a tuna salad sandwich,
and I offered to make
some tuna for Jackie too.
When I sliced the few tomatoes I had,
I figured I should leave some for her sandwich as well,
even though there was so little
I could easily have
eaten the whole thing.
So I left her some pieces,
and probably subconsciously
put the middle pieces
on my sandwich.
When she came to make hers,
she said why did you leave
just the end pieces for me?
That made me angry, because I figured I was doing a good thing by even sharing the tomato I could have eaten entirely myself.
But she was right, I wasn’t thinking of her,
or what she would prefer.
And for me, ends are just as good as middles.
So I got all upset, because
I thought I was righteous.
That’s sort of how I see the Pharisees
who are complaining
that Jesus is welcoming
tax collectors and sinners.

And I hear sarcasm in Jesus’ voice,
when he says,
“there is more joy in heaven
over one sinner who repents
than over ninety-nine who need no repentance.”

There really aren’t any
who need no repentance.
But we already knew that.
Because we have the benefit of hindsight,
but if we were there
when it was first said,
we might have felt complimented
by the thought
that maybe we are included
among the ninety-nine
who need no repentance,
because we’re doing
all the religious things right.

And we get hung up on the idea,
that repentance is only for “bad” people,
or for people who are notorious.
That leads to our tying repentance with feelings of guilt,
and shame,
so repentance doesn’t look like a good thing
and who would want to do that?
Certainly, in today’s world, it’s better to
just feel good about yourself,
and not be a downer or even
be near others we think of as downers.

But as usual,
if we look at what Jesus is saying,
we will see that he is turning the tables,
on that sort of thinking.
Repentance is not about guilt and shame,
It is about being found by God,
prized by him,
and it is characterized by joy, and rejoicing!

(talk about Bishop Stanton’s essay on the Cross
from "The Living Church" volume 241 number 11
September 12, 2010)
(Holy Cross Day is Tuesday.)


While repentance has come to have
a negative connotation in today’s world,
what Jesus is telling us today,
is that it’s really all about joy.
It’s joyful for God,
and all the angels,
whenever we repent,
and it’s joyful for us,
to be picked up in the arms of our savior,
and carried back into the fold,
to where we are supposed to be.
So look for opportunities to repent,
rather than running from them.
You’ll be glad you did.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Cost of Discipleship

Proper 18 Year C Luke 14:25-33
The Cost of Discipleship
The Rev. Brett P. Backus

“So therefore, none of you can become my disciple
if you do not give up all your possessions.”

Today's message is about the cost of discipleship. It is about learning to let go of all we love
in order to truly grasp Christ.

So, I had a very hard time preparing today's sermon, a harder time than normal actually. I spent the majority of this week racking my brains as to how to begin this sermon, torturing my poor pregnant wife by using her as a sounding board for my ideas, staring at my computer until my brain went numb, and roaming the halls of the church desperately trying to trick someone else into thinking it was their Sunday to preach (it almost worked on Deacon Amy, by the way). Then, in desperation, and because I could no longer stand the site of my office, I somehow found my way up to our labyrinth sometime late Thursday afternoon. It was there, walking the labyrinth, that I unexpectedly realized that I actually had the perfect anecdote with me for beginning this sermon all along. It is my own sermon process.
Now, I have never shared this with anybody, but you see, I go through virtually the very same learning process every time I begin trying to come up with a sermon for you all. I struggle to find a good idea, to figure out a good delivery, and then God teaches me the same lesson in humility that I must relearn almost every time I write a sermon. You think I would learn by now, but every time I am preparing to preach, God teaches me that I have to let go, and that none of this, no matter how much it feeds my ego to think so, is actually about me. Patiently, over and over, God shows me that it is about letting go and placing God's interests above my own.
Basically, the main issue is that I forget to pray and to ask for guidance. Whether I have already started my sermon preparation and have a very clear idea of what the Gospel is saying and what I think am going to speak about, or, like this week, I struggle until almost the very end with finding a direction, the sermon that I actually bring before you all on Sunday is really never given to me until I am finally somehow humbled and hit my knees in prayer. You see, God has to teach me, over and over again, to give up control and to get out of the way. Only after approaching God, thanking Him for calling me to His service and for the honor of delivering His word to His people, and after requesting to be given only the words which He wishes me to speak and for preparation of the hearts that will be receiving them, do I ever really begin to write a sermon. Only when I let go of everything, do I ever produce anything. God is constantly teaching me to give everything I am over to Him, and this, I believe, is what Jesus is teaching all of us this morning as well. To let go, detach ourselves from all that binds us in order to bind ourselves to Christ.
Now, I know that on the surface, today's Gospel lesson seems altogether harsh. Jesus is telling His audience to hate their loved ones, requiring them to sacrifice their lives, warning them of failed discipleship, and requiring the forking over of all one's possessions. However, I think the true danger for us today is the very real possibility of missing Christ's actual intended message for us all this morning as a result of getting too hung up on His seemingly extreme words. Certainly it is quite jarring to hear our compassionate, peaceful, and loving Christ, all of a sudden requiring us to hate our family and loved ones, and requesting of us both our possessions and our lives. But what I would like us all to see today, is that Jesus' words in this Gospel lesson actually point us to a greater and more important learning than what we might originally perceive.
You see, in this morning's Gospel, Jesus is speaking to those who wish to follow Him, those who wish to be His disciples. Through two parables and some pretty intense illustrations, Jesus is telling his audience that they must seriously consider the cost of discipleship before committing. In fewer words, Jesus is telling them that in order to follow Him, they must be prepared and willing to put Christ before all else, if necessary. He is telling them that they must be prepared and willing to let go, and today, He is reminding us, His present day disciples, of the same.
Now, perhaps this will seem like some sort of a cop out to some of you, but I do not believe that Jesus is saying that those who wish to follow Him must actually and literally by all means turn away from their loved ones, or that they must in fact lose their lives and give up all possessions. What I hear Jesus saying through these expressions, the point that is underlying all of this, is that in order to be disciples of Christ we must give Him ourselves. All that we are, and all that we have. To place Christ before and above all things, including ourselves, and to recognize that all that we have and all whom we love in reality belong to Him, not us. This, brothers and sisters in Christ, is the cost and requirement of true Christian discipleship and this is what Jesus is speaking to us all about today. Jesus' requirements for discipleship are not harsh. On the contrary, they are what make us complete.
However, even with this new understanding of Christ's words we still encounter a fairly large difficulty in this morning's Gospel when we realize that Jesus' message goes even deeper for us than his original audience. Unlike the people who Jesus is talking to in today's Gospel, those considering discipleship, you and I have already accepted. We have already supposedly weighed these great costs and committed, through baptism, confirmation, affirmation, membership. Therefore, we are disciples of Christ, and Jesus' message for each of us today serves more as a calling to return to our true roles as disciples, rather than an introduction to the costs of Christian discipleship. Jesus' very personal message for us today is to call us back into what we probably whole heartedly intend to become, but have more often than not, failed to be. Disciples; a body of people whose lives are fully and whole heartedly given to God, bowed and humbled before Him in all that we do and with all that we are.
I would say that this message is quite timely for us in today's world, this beckoning back to a selfless living for God. I mean, it is not very hard to see that we currently find ourselves in a world and in a particular society that more than anything encourages individualism and egocentrism. With all the constant noise which bombards us and indoctrinates us into a seemingly permanent mentality of “I,” or “me,” and with our religion, regardless of denomination, seeming to be shaped more often than not by the world around it instead of the other way around, it is frankly a surprise to me that we can ever hear Jesus' calls to us at all. No wonder I forget to pray before a sermon! And no wonder the Church and discipleship have become the second class citizens that they currently are, always trumped by the interests and desires of our selves.
If we are honest, then I think we have to admit the reality that, for the majority of us, myself included, our commitment to Christian discipleship is usually not really much more than an afterthought. It is something that seems, well, nice. Our responsibilities to God are what we think about only when we have either hit a crisis point in our lives and therefore need God, or when things are just going so swell for once that we actually find that we have some time to sit down and acknowledge God. This is why Jesus' message for us today is so important for us to hear. This is why it is necessary for us to be reminded of the promises we have taken and what they mean.
As always though, there is also good news and a healthy measure of hope in Jesus' message for us today. Though Jesus' words at first seem so harsh and seem to be cautioning us about our questionable decisions, the heart of His message for each of us today is actually much more like a gift. It is a gift which, if used correctly, will lead us to real happiness and peace in this life. You see, part of the problem that the Church overall is facing today is that somehow its teachings have become burdensome to our world. Whereas church worship was intended to be a celebration and a joy, for many it is now a burden and obligation. Whereas spreading Christ's message was intended to be excitingly Good News, it is now an embarrassment. Now, whereas Discipleship was intended to show us all how to finally encounter true life, it is now seen only as a harsh regiment of highly set standards.
But this is not how Jesus intended His words to be heard. Jesus' call to a return to our lives as Christian disciples today is not a call to some boring, restricted, and regulated life. He is not calling us to suffering. Rather, Jesus' call to us today, as Christian disciples, is a call to freedom, to true life. Yes, it is ironic, and yes it does defy our logic, but this is what Jesus is truly calling us all to when he beckons us to lose our lives, to lose our possessions, to lose our attachments. Jesus is calling us to life. You see, the truth which Jesus knows and is trying to share with us is, that only through loosening up the tight grip we have on our things and our loved ones, only through consciously giving up our possessions, only by giving over our lives and our selves to Christ, recognizing that nothing is truly ours but in fact all is of Him, will we ever experience true Life. This Brothers and Sisters in Christ is what Jesus is saying to us in today's Gospel. This is what we as Christians are actually called to. This, my friends, is Discipleship. To give up all that we have and all that we are to Christ, to let go, and in doing so gain Him, the Christ, God, Everything.

“So therefore, none of you can become my disciple
if you do not give up all your possessions.”

Amen.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Who is More Distinguished?

Proper 17 Year C
Hebrews 13:1-8,15-16, Luke 14:1,7-14
Fr. Robert P. Travis
Sermon Text:
How many of you know the name Karl Barth?
You may have heard of him, or you may not have,
as he is one of the most famous theologians of the 20th
Century.
He was a pastor, preacher and teacher from
Switzerland, who also taught at
the most highly regarded German Universities.
He lectured in this country at Princeton,
and the University of Chicago.

The majority of Barth’s life
was spent teaching and writing,
with some public lecturing and preaching.
His major writings include the commentary on Romans,
[and] Church Dogmatics (a multi–volume systematic theology of nearly seventy–five hundred pages...”
(Douglas, J. D., Comfort, P. W., & Mitchell, D. (1997, c1992). Who's who in Christian history. Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House.)

But in the last decade before he retired,
he also spent time preaching in his local prison.
I guess you could say he wanted a captive audience.

I'm going to tell you a story about Barth,
that was created for a blog post by Ben Myers.
But first I want to point out why
today's scriptures made me think of this story.

The parable Jesus tells at the dinner party
he attends, is not like the other parables.
It strikes me that he is levying a pretty direct criticism,
of his hosts.
The practice he describes was very common in his time.
People had assigned seats at social functions.
We have vestiges of this today, with the head table
at banquets and such,
but in those days, every seat was supposed to be occupied
in proper order.
Those who were more distinguished,
of greater wealth, more power, or prominence
in the community
sat in the more important seats
while those less distinguished, sat down
at the lower places.
People would regularly come into a place,
and sit as high up as they could,
so they would be more highly regarded by others.
But it was the responsibility of the host,
to order his guests appropriately before the occasion could begin, so if someone more important came in late,
then someone would be asked to move.
This was common practice,
and so Jesus' advice seems to be good etiquette advice,
for social behavior.
But of course, Jesus is talking about more than just
party politics.
And Luke highlights that, by putting this saying together with one about who to invite to the party.
For me, the focus is on the word
“more distinguished,”
I discovered that while doing Lectio Divina
on this passage at our Thursday afternoon
Centering Prayer Group.
Others were drawn to the words,
“those who humble themselves,”
and “Invite the poor.”
Those also helped me to see what the Spirit,
was pointing out to us in this Gospel.

For God, those who are more distinguished
are not like the ones we would think of
as more distinguished.
We know this to be the case from all the other sayings,
where Jesus highlights the great reversal
of the Kingdom of Heaven,
where the last shall be first and the first last.
Some say that is even the scandal of the gospel.
That we will be shocked when we get to heaven,
and those we thought the least of have a higher place.
But as usual, I think Jesus is talking about the
'distinguishedness' of certain people right now.
(I know that's not a word, but it fit here.)

So here's the story about Karl Barth:
“Beneath the blue skies of Switzerland,
in the cheerful bustling town of Basel,
there once lived a great theologian.
Each week he taught a seminar at the university,
ruminating and chewing his pipe happily,
while students crowded the floor,
pressed hard against those ancient walls,
laughing at his jokes
and responding to his questions with nervous sincerity.
He spent his evenings drinking wine and going to concerts and entertaining visitors from faraway places
who asked him questions shyly in halting German.
On weekends he tossed bread to the ducks at the river
or rode horses or went to see the animals at the zoo.
On Sunday mornings he went to prison
and preached in the dimly lit whitewashed chapel;
he spoke like a young man (though he was old,
with a heart full of old men’s stories)
and after the service
he exchanged cigars and jokes with the inmates,
assuring them that God was, after all, a very jolly God.

But more than anything,
the theologian loved to return each day to his study
and to sit writing at his desk. . .”

“Volume upon volume tumbled brick-like from his pen, solemn great tomes
as big and hard and sturdy
as workmen’s boots.

And so, while he sat thus writing...,
the fame of those books spread far and wide.
Throughout Europe and in remote exotic places—
South Africa, Scotland, America—
people mentioned his books at dinner parties,
taught them in seminaries,
wrote books and then entire libraries about them.
The Holy Father sought an audience with him.
Martin Luther King asked him questions
and leaned close to listen.
The Japanese formed a school around his name.
The Catholics held a council and invited him.
The Americans splashed his frowning face
across the cover of Time magazine. . .
His followers proclaimed his heavy tomes
to be the dawning of a new era. . .”

“The theologian was bemused by these attentions,
but he enjoyed all this in his own self-deprecating way.
And though he travelled and shook hands
and talked solemnly and accepted honorary degrees,
always he returned before long
to that stark little desk with its pipe and pen
and tantalisingly clean sheets of paper—
empty slates shimmering with promise,
like that formless materia prima in the beginning
beneath those vast and brooding wings.

Then one December night,
while the snow slept on the ground
and all the city’s children lay dreaming of Christmas,
the theologian died.

Quite suddenly he awoke
and found himself standing at the gates of heaven.
An angel took him by the elbow and led him in,
explaining in hushed tones that everyone was waiting.
Inside the gate, the city was bustling with sound and colour, like Basel’s Market Square in the summertime.
The theologian looked around.
He tried to take it all in.
Then somewhere in the crowd a voice announced his name, and there followed a tumultuous cheer.
Women and men pressed in close,
clasping his hands and shoulders
and pounding his back warmly.
Children laughed and clapped their hands.
Angels blushed and fluttered their wings in the sunlight.

The theologian felt quite overwhelmed by the crush of bodies, the vigorous handshakes,
the beaming faces.
He tried to smile and nod politely,
as he had always done when receiving a foreign dignitary
or an honorary doctorate.
He was relieved when again the angel took him by the elbow and steered him through the crowd,
out to a side-street off the busy square.

They walked on a little way,
and the theologian,
still trying to regain his composure,
confessed that he hadn’t expected quite so warm a reception. The angel seemed surprised,
and assured him that indeed everyone in the city
knew his name.
They had all been expecting him.

“For are you not Karl Barth?” the angel declaimed
with a theatrical flourish.
“Of course we have heard of the great Karl Barth!”
The theologian nodded modestly,
and the angel continued:
“Aren’t you the one
who visited the prisoners on Sunday mornings?
Didn’t you eat and drink with them?
Didn’t you tell them jokes to make their hearts glad?
Didn’t you put fat cigars in their mouths,
and strike a match for them?
Didn’t you go to see them
when even their own families had forgotten them?
Why my dear fellow,
there is not a person in this city
who doesn’t know your name!”

The theologian had stopped in the street.
He looked at the angel.
“The prison?
Well yes, I suppose...
But I thought perhaps…
my theology.
My books…”

“Ah!” the smiling angel said,
and touched his arm reassuringly.
“There’s no need to worry about all that!
That’s all forgiven now.”

“F—forgiven?”

“But of course!
All those books are forgiven—every last word of it!”
The angel took his hand fondly.
“No need to dwell on all that now—
everything is forgiven here.
Come now, my dear,
there are still so many people waiting to meet you.
And the prisoners you visited—
they live down there by the river, in the best part of town—they’ve prepared a feast to welcome you.
Come, come along now…”

And so, hand in hand beneath a summer sky,
the angel and the theologian
made their way together down the city street.”
Posted by Ben Myers at 8:00 PM
http://faith-theology.blogspot.com/2009/05/great-theologian-parable-based-on-true.html


What are we to do with this story?
What do we do with the understanding that Jesus gives us,
that those more distinguished than we are,
are not those people we would expect?

You see, those we think of in this world
as more distinguished, are those who have
earned, or otherwise deserve more honor than we do.
In spite of thousands of years of following Christ,
those same people are still more distinguished
than the ones Jesus thought deserved greater attention.
Those who are more distinguished
in the Kingdom of God,
are the poor, the sick, the suffering,
the meek, the imprisoned.
It doesn't have to do with whether they were good or bad,
but how much they suffered in this life.
That suffering distinguishes them from the rest of us,
and as I mentioned previously,
makes them opportunities for us to participate
in God's love for them,
by reaching out and loving them as ourselves.

The reading from Hebrews gives us some pretty
clear guidance on that question.
“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers,
for by doing it some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison,
as though you were in prison with them;
those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves
were being tortured.”

We have many opportunities to show hospitality to strangers here, especially strangers
who are distinguished in the Kingdom,
such as when we welcome homeless families,
into our church with Family Promise.
We even have opportunities to minister to prisoners,
through a ministry that Bob Wadley can tell you more about.
These prisoners are probably in different situations,
than those mentioned in Hebrews,
because they are not being persecuted for their faith.
But they are distinguished in the way
that love and faith can transform their lives
in a much more dramatic way than for others.
You can mentor formerly homeless men and women,
through the Circles of Support Program
Ascension takes part in.
Or regularly feed the hungry through Fish.

You could teach Sunday School to children,
or minister to the youth.
You know, one of the people who received
the highest distinction in our world,
still teaches Sunday School at his home church,
in Plains GA.
President Carter, who was in the news this week,
for going to North Korea to help free an American
imprisoned there, may have done a lot of great
deeds in his life, but imagine when he meets
those children in Heaven, who he has taught
the Gospel too all these years.

There are myriad ways you can do these things,
but first you have to make time for them,
in the midst of demands that seem so much more worthy.
You will probably be paid for those worthy endeavors,
or at least receive esteem for them.
But Jesus challenges us to work for those who cannot pay us
back, because those efforts will be rewarded for eternity.

There are all kinds of ways
that you can “be blessed, by those who cannot repay you.”
Remember as Jesus says,
“you will be repaid, at the resurrection of the righteous.”