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.