Monday, July 26, 2010

The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C July 25, 2010
Relying Upon the Kindness of Strangers The Reverend Dr. Howard J. Hess

I. Introduction: Today in our Gospel reading, Luke writes about our Lord’s effort to teach his disciples to pray. He begins, “When you pray say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your Kingdom come . . . ” Then to make his teaching crystal clear, he told his disciples a story about a man whose friend from out of town arrived unexpectedly in the middle of the night. He had insufficient food for his guest and thus he went out into the night to find fresh bead. A critical Middle Eastern value was at stake here -- hospitality. The honor of the host and even of the whole village was on the line. How would they respond to the sojourner who had come among them? The guest in this story was in part reliant upon the kindness of strangers. Out of desperation, the host goes out into the night to find the food he needed and knocked on a neighbor’s door. The neighbor tried to shoo him off, but either on principle or out of pragmatism relented and gave him bread. So said Jesus, Ask and it will be given you; search and you shall find; knock and the door shall be opened. Jesus had made a conceptual leap, and I ask you to make that leap with me as well. The giver of the gift, the one who opens the closed door, is ABBA, our Father, our “papa” in Heaven. The “strangers” upon whom we rely are the vehicles, the conduits, through whom God gives us protection and meets our needs.

II. I’d like to share several examples of the intervention of strangers sent, I believe, from God. In the late 1980s I spent a summer studying in Cali, Columbia, as a part of doctoral studies at the University of Alabama. While there, I met a family of missionaries who were very hospitable to me. One night while riding a public bus to their home for dinner, I felt the sharp point of a knife in my back. Nothing was said, but I could feel my wallet and my passport being taken from my back pocket. My traveler’s checks and my traveler’s check receipts were all in my wallet. Bad planning; never again. I was angry and thought I saw who had robbed me. He got off the bus and I started to follow him. But another passenger pointed secretively for me to get back on the bus. Then I became convinced that I knew who the thief was. I rode with him to the last stop and went down along a very dark street to confront him. While all this was happening I was praying constantly. Then as clearly as I can hear my own voice now, I heard a voice say “You are in danger, turn around and go back to the main road.” So I turned around and went to a small comida and told my tale of woe – I had no money, no ID, no passport, nada. A man who was listening said, “I will help you.” At his own expense, he took me by cab to the police station, then by cab back to my hotel. He would take no money for reimbursement nor would he leave his name and address. He had been to the states, he said, and some Americans had helped him. He was returning the favor. Two things were happening here, I am convinced of this. This unknown man – a stranger -- was helping me out of his deep kindness, and it was God who had sent this man in answer to my frantic prayers.

III. The second example of God’s intervention was shared by the Reverend Michael Breen 5 years ago in a sermon given at a conference at Kanuga. Fr. Breen is an Anglican priest from London, England, who had traveled on a mission trip to Africa. I don’t remember which country in which the following incident occurred. Perhaps it was the Congo. Fr. Breen traveled with several others extensively through the countryside. At that time there was a very intense conflict between two different rebel groups. On a stretch of isolated roadway his Land Rover was surrounded by a band of rebels who were very menacing and began to move toward them with weapons ready for action. Fr. Breen feared for his life and was praying with great passion. Then, as suddenly as they came, the rebels ran back into the bush. The priest and others in his party had no idea why that had happened. Later in some odd co-incidence they met up with one of the rebels and asked him why they had run away. The man said, “ Did you not see the bright white figures surrounding you and holding one another’s hands?” Fr. Breen and the others were reliant upon the kindness of holy strangers in this very dangerous situation, but actually they were most reliant upon the kindness of God who loved them and sent these strangers to protect them.

IV. There is a third example of how God watches over all of us through the kindness of strangers and this example has been happening right here in our midst. We have been having a series of events to raise funds to bring running and electricity to the Gathering Place, a center for worship and teaching in Toliara, Madagascar. Bishop Todd McGregor and his wife, The Reverend Patsy McGregor will also live in this center. We will be journeying to be with them for two months of my three-month sabbatical. During last Friday’s night’s event we surpassed the $10,000.00 mark, half way to the total cost of the water and electrical system. We, you and I, are in a powerful way strangers to our Malagasy Christian brothers and sisters almost half a world away. Imagine the joy they will experience to be loved so greatly by so many people they have never met. They and we are reliant upon the kindness of strangers. And in its deepest form God’s kindness always works in a reciprocal way. You know what I’ve seen in all of our events? The gift of hospitality being extended to one another; the same gift that Jesus is speaking about in today’s Gospel. Our gift to others has resulted in our receiving the gift of fellowship with one another. Our gift to others – to strangers half way around the world -- has resulted in a gift being given to us.

V. I want to get personal with you for a moment. Peg and I want to thank you for making this possible. Through your approval of my sabbatical, your gifts, and your encouragement to follow a dream that I’ve had for many years we are able to make this trip. Thank you. I want to assure you however, that at the end of the three months I will be back. You can count on that.

I have several requests of you this morning. We have a Holy Spirit momentum underway in this parish. We are blessed with wonderful clergy and staff who will manage well in my absence. Support them, let them know when you need something, let them know when someone else is in need, and if anything is on your mind and heart, please talk with them about it.

I also want to ask you to support this year’s stewardship campaign as you have supported the campaigns each year that I have been here with you. We have two dedicated creative stewardship co-chairs, Tracy Edmundson and Kay Ray. We have a stewardship team working with them and much of this drive will take place while I’m away. Please continue to be generous and faithful in your giving, not only for the rest of this year but also in your pledge for the year to come.

Lastly, I want to remind everyone about what faithful and dynamic Senior and Junior Wardens. Julie Hembree will be overlooking the whole program of Ascension while I’m gone. Bert Ackermann will back her up, as will the Vestry, the clergy, and the lay staff. Look around – these are the folks God has given us to lead is to do the things that God is calling us to do. I’d like to close by quoting one of the most well-known English saints, Julian of Norwich. I know that here at Ascension between now and the end of October, “All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” Amen and Amen.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Living Life Now, not just Inheriting in the End

The Rev. Robert P. Travis
Seventh Sunday after the Pentecost – 8:00 and 10:30am
Church of the Ascension, Knoxville TN
RCL Proper 10 Year C
Amos 7:7-17,
Psalm 82,
Colossians 1:1-14,
Luke 10:25-37

Sermon Text:
The story of the Good Samaritan seems so familiar
because we use the term Good Samaritan
all the time.
We think we all know this story by heart,
and so it can seem difficult
to find the good news in it.
But as I was looking at the text
to prepare for this morning
I found that it is much deeper than I expected,
and offers much to those
who are willing to listen to it.

If we're honest with ourselves,
it is much easier for most of us
to identify with the priest
and the Levite in the story.

In fact, being a priest standing before you today
it is pretty embarrassing to see how Jesus portrays
the two religious characters in the story.
If we want to take their side we could say
“hey, maybe the priest was on his way to the temple
to perform some righteous acts,
or maybe the Levite was coming from a place
where he already provided aid to someone
and he just couldn't handle anymore.”

While we identify with the priest and levite,
and probably have been in that situation ourselves
as we encounter people who need help sometimes,
that is not what this parable is about.
It is not about how people avoid helping others.

Take a look at the lawyer
Who is asking the question of Jesus.
The gospel says he asks the question
“who is my neighbor” to justify himself.
He wants to show that he has already fulfilled
The requirements of the law.
But his motives are self-centered and goal oriented.
“What shall I do? How can I inherit eternal life?”

Jesus turns the question right back to him,
And as one familiar with the Law,
the Lawyer is quickly able to answer about
Loving God completely
and Loving your neighbor as yourself.

That reminds me of that saying
“A friend in need is a friend indeed.”
And we might change that in the context of this parable
to say “a stranger in need is a neighbor indeed.”

But again, that is not how Jesus puts it.
As Jesus often does in his answers,
he looks deeply into the motives
of the one asking, and turns the question on its head.
Now listen to this, because this twist
is very significant.
Jesus asks at the end of the story
Who “proved neighbor to the man,”
who proved neighbor to the man who needed help?
The lawyer was asking who his neighbor was,
probably not assuming that he was the one who needed help.
Jesus comes from completely the other direction,
And says that the person offering the mercy
Proves himself to be the neighbor of the man
Who needed the help.
The man who needed the help
Didn’t need to do anything to be an neighbor.
It is as if the needy man is in a privileged position
Because of his great need.
And Jesus sees the situation of the beaten man
As an opportunity for mercy, rather than as a duty,
An opportunity to prove one’s neighbor love,
And therefore take part in the life prepared for us.

That’s just the way God wants us to see our
Call to love our neighbors as ourselves.
It’s not so much a duty or an obligation,
But more of an opportunity which God
Presents us with from time to time.

Your neighbor is anyone God places in your path
Who needs the love that you can offer.
The question of whether you prove to be their neighbor
Is whether you offer that help to the best of your ability.
And love them with your actions.

So we can watch for these opportunities
That God will place before us,
And when they pop up,
Jump at the chance to love our neighbor as ourselves.
The good news is, that God gives us
these opportunities sometimes,
And we come across them in our lives.
The requirement is not that you go out
and try to save the world,
or help everyone in need.
For that would be too much for any of us.
We’re just called to respond with love
To those we encounter in our daily lives.
Remember it doesn’t have to do with how religious we are,
Or even how Good or worthy.
It’s just about how ready we are to help
when help is called for,
to love when love is required.

And on the other hand,
when we find ourselves
In a position where we need help from others,
There is no shame in that,
On the contrary, we can see ourselves
As giving other Christians an opportunity
To practice their neighbor love on us.
So if you for example, think you could benefit
From having a Stephen Minister,
You need not feel ashamed of that need,
But rather look at your need
as if you are giving a gift to the
Stephen Minister who will be assigned to you,
Because you’re giving them a chance to
Show their neighbor love,
and thereby prove to be your neighbor.

Jesus also said,
It is more blessed to give than to receive,
And I don’t think he was talking only about money.
There is a joy in giving care and love to others,
That is unmatched in receiving it.
That I think is what Jesus talks about in the end,
When he challenges the lawyer’s question to the core.
The Lawyer asked how can I inherit eternal life?
He is goal oriented,
as if the destination of eternal life
is all that counts, not this life except as a test to pass.

Yesterday I went caving with some friends,
really my first time going in a non-commercial cave...

It's more about the journey than the destination.

But Jesus says to the lawyer,
“do likewise and you will live.”
Not just you will go to heaven,
or inherit eternal life,
When you die,
But you will live right now.
With Jesus, It is more about the process than the goal,
More about the blessed journey
and experiencing abundant life now
than focussing on the eternal destination.

Now look at the way this Samaritan offers his aid
to the beaten man.
When he saw the man, he had compassion,
And he didn’t just offer token help.
He provided first aid,
He bound up his wounds, and treated them,
As was common in that day
With oil and wine,
But he didn’t stop there.
He doesn’t leave the man, hoping that he will get better
And then go on his way.
But he puts the man on his own beast
And he brings him to an inn,
There he continues to take care of the man,
And when the time comes and the Samaritan knows
He must depart,
He continues to aid the man by paying the innkeeper
To take care of him, until he returns,
And offers to cover any more expenses then.
This Samaritan, though not a religious man,
Or part of the law of Moses,
Thoroughly cares for the man in need of care.
He offers all that he can, and truly loves the man,
As he or any of us would want to be loved.
Were we found in a similar circumstance.
This is much more personal care
than simply giving a little money
Or paying someone else to take care of the needs of the poor.
This is getting in there, getting your hands dirty,
and living through the recovery with the one you try to help.
And it is a pretty strong challenge to you and me.
Can we live up to this high calling
of loving our neighbors as ourselves?
Jesus thinks we can,
And he challenges us,
with the lawyer
to go and do likewise.

But remember, the point of doing likewise,
Is not to earn a final reward, or reach a destination,
But because then we will live…

I hope you can go forth today
Looking for those opportunities
to love those God puts in your path.
And when the opportunity crosses your path,
Provide that love to the fullest extent possible,
And then you will truly live,
And experience the blessing of the journey right now,
In this life we travel together.
And if you find yourself in need,
See it not as shameful,
But as a gift to those who will love you as themselves,
For you are then giving them the opportunity
To live abundantly as Jesus promises
To those who follow him.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Rev. Amy Hodges Morehous
Proper 9, Year C
July 4, 2010
Church of the Ascension

2 Kings :1-14
Psalm 30
Galatians 6:1-16
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

“Oh, say can you see….”

How odd, today, of all days, to begin with the reading about Naaman – that conquering general, and famous leper. On this day, the day when we celebrate our freedoms – at least, our political ones – our unalienable rights in this country, rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – we hear a story about a famous, successful, wealthy and powerful man, a man who had everything one might think would make him happy in life, but who was on a desperate quest to find the one thing that would make him whole.

Naaman is a general in the Syrian army, and an enemy of Israel – a man who commanded armies, who defeated his enemies…and a man who was defeated by his own body. If you’ve ever had any sort of chronic illness, you know exactly how frustrating it is to be at the mercy of your own immune system. Such was Naaman’s life. And such was his desperation in his search for a cure, that when he heard a perfectly ludicrous suggestion from the most unlikely of places…well, he took it.

And what was the key to Naaman’s healing? A young slave girl. A girl with no home, no status, no money, and no freedom of her own. She doesn’t even rate a name in the story, but she is the one to point Naaman in the right direction.

Naaman cleans out his bank account, gathers together 10 of his finest outfits, and sets out on his journey of hope. He goes immediately to the king of Israel – if it’s healing you need, obviously you go to the place of the most power. In Israel, of course, that must be the king. Only the king can’t help him. The king’s kind of earthly power is useless in the face of Naaman’s disease. The king even suspects that the whole thing is a plot to return the two countries to war, and has what my grandmother used to call “a conniption”. But Elisha hears of Naaman’s disastrous audience with the king, and offers to help. So the grand procession goes in turn to Elisha’s house, horses and chariots and servants all in procession.

When Naaman reaches the house of Elisha, a servant comes out with a note for him, telling him to wash in the Jordan seven times, and he will be cured. Naaman, perhaps inspired by the king’s example, throws his own fit, a blistering temper tantrum worthy of any two-year-old.

I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! Are not the rivers of Damascus better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” He turned and went away in a rage.

Naaman clearly wanted the full-on show. He wanted to be coddled, and shown respect according to his status, and when he didn’t get it, he did what most of us would do. He took his toys and stalked off, muttering. But once again, the people with the least amount of status save the day. His servants, more of those nameless, powerless people, approach him, and persuade him to do as Elisha suggested.

Naaman strips and wades into the Jordan River, exposing all the parts of his leprous self that he would probably rather no one see, and does as he is told. And, miraculously, he is healed. “His flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy.”

What we don’t hear today, unfortunately, is the continuation of the reading in 2nd Kings. Naaman returns to Elisha, in gratitude and thanksgiving, and acknowledges the power of a sovereign God. “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel!” Then Naaman wants to pay him for the healing, wants to give a gift to Elisha, but he is refused. This healing, this miracle of grace, was given freely by God, and no payment is required, even from the man who has everything.

As Barbara Brown Taylor says, “All (Naaman) had to do was empty himself out, abandoning the pretense that who he was or what he was worth could get him what he needed. God did for him what military victories and kings and bags of money could never do. God restored his flesh. God created him all over again, and he was made new.”

On this 4th of July, maybe there is a reason to remember this odd but profound political story of the Old Testament, a story full of human divisions, and complicated national relationships. The story of Naaman, who was great and powerful man, but broken. Of the slave girl, who was an instrument of healing, even while a captive. Naaman was the enemy of everything Israel stood for, was, in fact, a man who had killed Israelites, had sacked their cities, and taken them into captivity in Syria. Naaman’s wealth, power and prestige were gained through his oppression of the people of Israel. Despite that, God turns our predisposed notions on their heads, and makes him whole anyway, extends to him grace upon grace, so that he is healed in a way that exceeds his wildest expectations.

On this day of joyful national celebration, we remember that our God is no respecter of tidy political boundaries. God’s grace is for all of God’s people, in this country, and around the world. God is the God of the powerful, and of the weak. Would that we had a day of celebration that tied us all together, one common humanity, under one God. Some day, we are promised that healing vision, when God will be all in all, when our very human tendency toward division and strife will be overcome.

When I was a little girl, my mother would take us to see the fireworks. One evening, full of food, warm from the heat of the day, and tired from all the excitement, I turned to her, and said, "Mom, do you think this is what heaven is like?" You can understand my confusion there - there's great food, and your family is there...and fireworks! What could be better than that? Everyone is one motley family, immigrants all, joined only by our belief in a profound hope. On Independence Day, for a few hours, we are all given the chance to celebrate a common good, one that surpasses class, wealth, gender, and all those other divisions we are good at observing the other 364 days of the year.

Today as a country we celebrate our shared hope, the one that the founding fathers articulated so profoundly; “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” When the founding fathers concluded the Declaration of Independence, they wrote: “For the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.” Today we celebrate those vows, and we hold to that mutuality.

We celebrate every fourth day of July that we are not alone, that we are interconnected in our hope of something larger than ourselves, in our wish that our country would live up to the highest of ideals, and the greatest of hopes. When we stumble, and we do, would that we could remember these moments of national unity, when we together are greater than the sum of our parts.

So it is in the kingdom of God. We are reminded by the story of Naaman that neither our country nor the world can be divided into one big game of ‘us vs. them’. Today, we are assured that God responds to profound human need, regardless of class or station...or nation. There is no one people God favors over another. As Paul reminds us earlier in Galatians, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

We affirm today that wealth, status, earthly power, and pageantry are nothing in comparison to God’s freely given gift of grace. We celebrate that boundless grace is given to the wealthy, and the penniless. To the general, and the slave. To the free, and the captive. There is no person, not one, beyond the reach of God’s healing grace. God reaches out to heal each of us, and make us new, today and every day, and we are a new creation. In celebration, we take off our sackcloth, and we clothe ourselves with joy. On this Independence Day, and on all days.

Thanks be to God.