Saturday, May 29, 2010

Hearing the Spirit

Trinity Sunday John 16:12-15
Pentecost Year C May 30, 2010
The Rev. Brett P. Backus

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.”

Today's Gospel message is about Listening. It is about our learning to truly listen to the constant movement of and guidance provided by the Holy Spirit, God, in our every day lives.

So, today is Trinity Sunday, and I am not sure how many of you know this, but because of the difficulty of the subject matter of this day, the doctrine of the Trinity, tradition in clergy circles dictates that the low person on the totem pole or the newest clergy on the block should always get assigned to preach on Trinity Sunday. So, while I am sure that it probably is, I must admit that I currently find myself wondering whether or not it was simply dumb luck or pure coincidence that brought me here before you all to preach this morning!
Now, the tradition that I just mentioned is of course a playful one. However, I want to point out that it also contains some seriousness in that such a tradition also reminds us of a simple truth. Belief is hard to explain. It is often difficult to explain our beliefs, theology in general, and the doctrines of the Church, because they are not matters of scientific fact. They are after all, beliefs and not facts. That is the true reason why so many preachers throughout the past week absolutely dreaded the idea of preaching today and found themselves desperately clamoring to find something relevant or half way decent to say to their congregations this morning about the Trinity. Actually, this difficulty factor is also the very reason why I, on the other hand, am choosing this morning to just completely avoid the subject of the Trinity altogether! No, I am just kidding. Well, in part!
The truth is that I am not going to talk about the Trinity this morning, at least in the way that most probably expected, not because it is something difficult to talk about, which it is, but because I honestly did not hear Jesus speaking to me about the Trinity in this morning's Gospel. What I heard from Jesus as I prepared for this sermon was this, “I still have many things to tell you, but you cannot bear them now.” In other words, Listen. Listen. You see, in today's Gospel, Jesus is preparing His disciples for His departure, His death, resurrection, and ascension, but He is telling them also that there is much more to the story. This is not the end. While this was easy enough for me to see in our Gospel lesson today, I must admit that in preparation for this morning I found myself wondering what exactly then do Jesus' words mean for all of us a couple of thousand years later? Listen.
You see, we are all a part of the continued story of Jesus, and of God's work in the world. Each and every one of us has played, is playing, and will continue to play a role in the unfinished and continual plan of God for this world. While Jesus' words in this morning's Gospel told His disciples that there was much more to come, much more to be told, His words in our Gospel today show us all, Jesus' present day disciples, that He is indeed speaking to us now through the Holy Spirit. Today, we are those who bear and who will continue to bear that which Jesus was not ready to give His disciples in their time. Our Brothers and Sisters who came before us continued the work of God in this world and wrote new chapters to the story, just as we are charged with doing the same now. Through today's Gospel lesson, Jesus is calling us to listen to God in our lives. Listen to God the Father, found in both the blessings and trials of our lives. Listen to God the Son, found in His recorded words in our Holy Scriptures. Listen to God the Holy Spirit, found abiding in and around us infinitely. Jesus is calling us all to Listen.
As I was reading and praying over this Gospel and wondering what I could possibly say to you all about the Trinity, I realized that Jesus' main message was, as I have already mentioned, for His followers to listen to the movement of the Spirit in their lives. So, of course, I began to think deeply about this and began to consider whether I do enough listening to the Holy Spirit in my personal life. I was thankful as I thought about certain things I have shared with you before, about various times when I am certain that God, or the Spirit was guiding me, about how I initially resisted coming to this place to serve you all, but how the sense of call, or in other words, the movement of the Spirit, was so strong that I could not deny it. I thought about this church family, and how it is evident to me that we as a community have been discerning and indeed listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit among us as we have recently stepped out in faith in several ways in order to better serve our community and God.
Then I thought about our greater Church, the Episcopal Church, the Anglican Communion, the Body of Christ as a whole, and how though we may not really be locally divided in our own denomination, we certainly are divided both nationally and internationally, and divided in all ways interdenominationally. I found myself questioning whether or not we can honestly say that we are listening to the Spirit on a corporate level? Sadly, it seems that the answer would be no. Then, in the midst of these thoughts, I had a kind of strange experience. Something clicked for me and fell into place. The Trinity. Interestingly enough, in some weird way, in attempting to both lift up and obey what I see as the central point of this morning's Gospel lesson, listening to the Holy Spirit, I was somehow brought back to the Trinity. The very doctrine and allusive belief that we celebrate and honor here today.
However, this time around, I began to see the Trinity in a different light. You see, what I realized ultimately, was that the Trinity is not simply some hard to understand highly theological church doctrine that was awkward to try and explain. Rather, at its core, its most easily understood form, the Trinity is a highly accessible and extremely helpful symbol of and example for both our denomination and the entire Christian world. You see, the Trinity is perfect Balance. It is a seamless and effortless Unity or Union of differences. It is a perfectly achieved harmony between three separate and different things or beings. It is a complex and intricate dance wherein, somehow, the three distinct forms or faces of God, are also made One.
Listening to the Spirit in this morning's Gospel lesson brought me to this point. It seems to me that the most important thing for us to hear on Trinity Sunday is not a discourse on how we can better understand the doctrine of the Trinity itself, but rather how understanding the true meaning and example of the Holy Trinity can guide, form, and indeed transform both us and the entire world. Contained within this complicated idea and belief is a huge and important lesson that we all as Christians could stand to learn. Balance, Unity. Balance between oppositions, factions, and poles. Unity in difference.
Interestingly, this is nothing new to our Anglican theology and identity. The balance and unity of the Trinity as a model is and has always been part of our core Anglican identity, and examples of this kind of intricate balance and unity are in fact woven everywhere throughout our past, though sadly it would seem that many in our particular tradition and indeed in our greater Christian religion have unfortunately had this part of our history and identity wiped from their memory. So, acknowledging what I feel was the driving point behind Jesus' words in this Gospel lesson, a plea for us to look for and listen to the Holy Spirit, and recognizing the particular doctrine that we celebrate today, I want to submit to us all the following idea. When we respond to the call of Christ this morning and attempt to listen more intently to the guidance of the Holy Spirit in our daily lives, and we reflect on the beauty and complexity of the Holy Trinity, perhaps this is precisely the message that we are to hear. A call to Christian balance and unity. A call to return to our roots. Perhaps this is what the current generation of Jesus' disciples, each and every one of us, is called to bear.
I invite all of us today to imagine whether it is possible, and what the world would actually be like if not only we at Ascension got this right, but if the entire Episcopal Church, the Anglican Communion, and the entire Body of Christ were to succeed in modeling, or even if we just committed to simply trying to model, the Holy Trinity as a way of coexisting, different, and yet in a perfectly harmonious reality. Is this not a true need in our present situation throughout Christendom, and is this not a challenge worth accepting, a burden worth bearing? Is this not how God intended us to be? The Holy Trinity, three in One. The Body of Christ, united in difference. The entire world, extremely different yet somehow the same, coexisting in peace. Perhaps the only real message we need to hear is to simply humble ourselves and to be willing to listen more often?
“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.”
Listen. Amen.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Preach The Gospel At All Times And, When Necessary, Use Words

Pentecost, Year C May 23, 2010
Preach The Gospel At All Times And, When Necessary, Use Words
The Reverend Dr. Howard J. Hess

I. Introduction. When I graduated from Yale Divinity School, a close friend gave me a framed quotation that read: “Preach the Gospel at all times and, when necessary, use words.” It is attributed to St. Francis, although there is no reliable record indicating that he actually spoke these words. It would appear that Francis valued both living and preaching the Gospel and was an extraordinarily powerful preacher. All indications are that Francis relied upon the spoken word to build upon and interpret the actions of a life lived according to the Gospel.

II. This model of using words to clarify what it means to live as disciples of Jesus Christ is at the heart of what happened on the first day of Pentecost. The disciples were gathered together and experienced the powerful coming of The Holy Spirit. It was just as Jesus had promised.

As your Rector, one of my responsibilities is to point out where God is at work among us. Today on The Feast of Pentecost at The Church of The Ascension in 2010 God continues to send the Holy Spirit to inspire us to new vigor and enthusiasm as followers of Christ. Our service this morning is filled with the evidence of the Spirit’s presence here at Ascension. For example, today we will baptize a new baby, Edward Richards Brabham; we have a rose on the altar celebrating the birth of Ashlyn Grace Burge, from a new family here at Church of the Ascension. God is sending more and more children to us for spiritual nurturance and direction. And God has sent us a new Director of Christian Formation, Deacon Amy Morehous, and a colleague to work with her, Amy Avery. They will continue the fine work begun by Jacqueline Soltys, who is moving to the Chicago area and leaving this position at the end of May.

This morning we also will commission 16 new Stephen Ministers who are committed to bringing the love of Jesus Christ to this parish as your servants. They join 21 other ministers who have been trained. This is an outpouring of the movement of the Spirit in this place. It is through the Spirit's help that we can reach out in deep love for one another. Ascension’s capacity to provide such a ministry is a sea change in the life of this parish.

Today we will bless and anoint Kathleen Ambrose at the 10:30 service as she begins a year of dedicated spiritual reflection and retreat. She has been model of Christian discipleship among us. We will also bless a beautiful communion kit crafted by Al Hudson to allow us to transport Communion vessels for large Eucharists away from the church. Over 60 hours of loving dedication have created this box.

Also, as a real testament to your willingness to respond to the urging of the Holy Spirit in our midst we have parts of a new roof that your generosity has made possible and a new air conditioner that arrived THE VERY DAY THAT THE OLD UNIT DIED! We can also report that due to your faithfulness we have had to borrow no money thus far to meet budget expenses at Church of The Ascension in 2010. And, today we are preparing for the visit next Wednesday of our first candidate for the Youth Minister position, also made possible by the generosity of God's people in this place.

III. Thanks be to God that the winds of The Holy Spirit are moving through Ascension. But remember -- the Holy Spirit moves us and the Holy Spirit strengthens us, but will not do our work for us. Let us invite the Spirit to continue to lead us into a time of renewal and revival of our mission as a community of believers.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Significance of the Ascension

Sunday after the Ascension Sermon – 8:00 and 10:30am Church of the Ascension, Knoxville TN
RCL Year C 5/16/2010
Text: Acts 1:1-11, Psalm 47, Ephesians 1:15-23, Luke 24:44-53
The Rev. Robert P. Travis

Our music, readings, and even this message
all celebrate our patronal feast today.
Actually Ascension Day was Thursday,
but we figured more of you would celebrate with us
if we celebrated it on Sunday.
Many churches have a patron, like St. John,
or St. Luke and they celebrate their patron on the Saint's Day.
Our patron is an event in the life of Christ.
So it's kind of different.
And the question has always nagged me,
what is the big deal about the Ascension?

I thought, as I studied our Gospel passage,
“How awesome must that have been?”
I mean, to have the resurrected Jesus
open your mind to understand the scriptures!
How much harder then,
after that experience,
that all of a sudden he was taken away from you.
Like Good Friday, it takes a bit of thinking,
to figure out how the Ascension was a good thing.

The significance of the Ascension though,
is basically about God's trusting us to carry his message.
I mean, why not just have the Resurrected Christ,
go all over the world proclaiming his own message?

Well in one way, it has to do with a basic
understanding of human limitation,
and the amount an individual can do.
Jesus, even as the Only Son of God,
was indeed limited by his humanity,
limited to only reaching those people directly around him.
And as He tells us in the Gospel of John,
if he did not go away,
he could not send his Spirit, the Holy Spirit,
to dwell within us.
So on the one hand, it is simply more feasible,
to accomplish the mission, by empowering
many others to be his witnesses.

And there's this basic understanding,
that people will trust the experience of other fallible people more than they trust
the perfect Son of God.
It's really amazing, knowing all of our weaknesses,
that God trusted us enough, to go away,
and let us carry the light of Christ to the world around us.

In the book “What Difference do it make?”
a person who understood brokenness put it like this,
“what people needs is people.
And needy people
don't need no perfect people neither.
When Jesus sent his disciples out,
He sent Peter right along,
knowin' Peter had a bad temper and a potty mouth
and was gon' deny Him three times. . .
Even though Jesus knowed all a' their sin and weakness,
He sent 'em anyway. . .
If you is waitin to clean up your own life
before you get out and help somebody else,
you may as well take off your shoes and crawl back in the bed
'cause it ain't never gon' happen.
Jesus don't need no help from no perfect saints.
If He did, He wouldn't a' gone up yonder
and left us down here in charge.”1

The thing is though,
He didn't leave us in charge by himself,
nor did he ever intend to leave us alone.
That would have been folly.
And we have shown the weakness of that idea,
in all of the ways the church has messed up in the past.
We are left, in the hope of receiving the Holy Spirit,
being empowered by Jesus' Spirit,
to do the work He wants us to do.
Today He can still open our minds
to understand the scriptures,
and he does,
through the Holy Spirit dwelling in us.

C.S. Lewis puts the whole offer of Christianity into this.
In Mere Christianity He wrote,
“we can, if we let God have His way,
come to share in the life of Christ. . .
If we share in this kind of life,
we shall also be sons of God.
We shall love the Father as He does
and the Holy Ghost will arise in us.
He came to this world and became a man
in order to spread to other men
the kind of life He has – by what I call
“good infection.”
Every Christian is to become a little Christ.
The whole purpose of becoming a Christian
is simply nothing else.”2

So if the significance of the Ascension is
that God trusts us to carry His message,
the point of the Ascension
is that we can become Christ as He lives in us.
Ascension points to Pentecost,
as we anticipate the coming of the Holy Spirit,
and Christ living in us,
but also, by his ascending to the Father,
he took his human nature with him,
and therefore took our human nature with him,
allowing us the possibility of being
received into the presence of the most Holy God.
That fact allows us to receive the Spirit of God
in our human selves, because our humanity
was received by God in Jesus.

The goal the Ascension points to,
is our being clothed with power from on high,
as indeed Jesus promised his disciples
after he asked them to wait in Jerusalem.
That clothing in power,
in the power of the Holy Spirit,
enables us to be Christ's witnesses to the world around us,
and reach out to others,
not out of obligation,
or duty,
or guilt,
but out of his love poured into our hearts.

I was reading a blog post from Jen Seger,
Bettie Corey's daughter,
about the floods in Nashville,
and this example of the difference that love makes,
in evangelism,
was clarified for me.

She writes: “The kindness of strangers has been rampant.
At River Plantation,
I watched as food and drinks were offered
to workers at various homes.
At least half the people declined,
not because they weren't hungry or thirsty,
but rather, because someone else
had gotten to them first.
Isn't that the way evangelism should be?
Instead of assuming someone else will do it,
we should be scouring the people we encounter daily,
looking for ways to serve them in the name of Jesus.”3

When we decide not to share our love of Jesus
with those we encounter,
is it because we assume they have already heard the message,
or that they have already received the love of Christ,
or do we assume that if we don't
then someone else will tell them?

What if someone else does tell them?
Will they share the same things that we love,
how could they?
They are not us.

The Spirit living in us makes each believer's testimony
unique in value as well as substance.
Your sharing your message of hope
in love with those around you,
is of unique value in spreading the Kingdom.
The worst someone can do,
is decline the love offered by us,
and as I was reading Jen Seger's message,
I didn't get the impression that those declining
her aid in Nashville hurt her in any way.
On the contrary, they seemed to encourage her,
as she realized the part she was playing in a much
larger effort to help.

Being witnesses of Christ to the few people
we encounter in our lives is like that.
It's like we have a cup full of love that we carry around,
and when the opportunity arises,
we simply pour what we have been given
into someone else's cup.
It is a small act.
But it is part of a great outpouring of love,
that the Holy Spirit rains down on those Jesus loves.
And it is awesome to behold,
and to take part in.

So when you think about those in your life,
those few people you encounter,
think, why else would God place those people
in your path, unless it was so you
could be Christ's witnesses and share his love with them?

And if you do not yet have the Holy Spirit
empowering you to be Christ's witness,
pray for the Holy Spirit to fill your cup with love,
so that you can pour it out into those you know.
That way the Ascension will become
as significant here, today,
as it was for those disciples of the Lord
who first witnessed Jesus' Ascension.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Easter VI, Year C May 9, 2010
My Peace I Give to You The Reverend Dr. Howard J. Hess

I. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” Jesus’ words are part of his High Priestly Prayer in which he both asked God to sustain his closest followers and invited these same followers to venture more deeply into the gift of reconciliation and peace that he yearned for them to have. Part of why I love Jesus Christ so much is because at a time when it might have been more natural for him to focus on his own needs, he instead prayed for his followers. In fact, he had every reason to be annoyed with them the night before he was to die. They were going to bail on him big time. He knew that, but instead of being angry with them, he actively demonstrated his love by washing their feet. Jesus was and continues to be a lover of souls. I have never found him to be untrustworthy, even when I have made a royal mess of my promises to him.

II. When I try to comprehend and tap into the love of Christ and the peace Christ gives to me, my insights are often transitory and hard to hang onto. But one way that I can grasp a tiny part of this love is by pondering the notion of constancy. Constancy is the characteristic of Christ that makes him the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Constancy casts out fear and allows us to experience peace even in challenging situations. It frees us to have the peace that passes all understanding. Psychologists have written extensively about object constancy and its importance in developing inner balance and ensuring healthy development. Our parent or caregiver is there consistently to soothe us, feed us, teach us, and limit us. As time passes we learn through repeated interactions that we can rely upon another to respond to us in a way that is not predominantly self-serving or unpredictable. We learn that our caregiver will hear our specific voice, will be able to tell the difference between a hungry cry, a wet diaper cry, and a cry when we become frightened. Jesus as the Good Shepherd is the model of constancy who allows us to live without fear.

III. When I search for the images and experiences that most closely approximate the constancy that Christ offers, I find that I focus on the key women God has sent into my life. Many have told me that the women in their lives – their grandmothers, mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters -- have provided them with deep constancy. Men, please give me a break – your contributions are significant, and I would never want to suggest that you and I are unimportant in our relationships with others. But it was the women who stayed with Jesus at the cross; the women who went to anoint Jesus’ body on Easter morning; the woman at the well who is thought to be the first Christian missionary when she went and called her village to meet Jesus; and it was Mary Magdalene who is known as the Apostle to the Apostles.

IV. So this morning, this Mother’s Day, I want to share some specific ways that God has demonstrated constancy to me through women in my life. My paternal grandmother, Mariah, came from a family with considerable wealth, all of which was lost during the depression. She died as a result of caring for my aunt who had tuberculosis. I was only four at the time. My clearest memory of her is one visit when I was running throughout her house, turning the lights off and on. My parents tried to stop me and she said, “No, leave him alone.” She looked at me with great affection – how that is etched in my mind. Random? No, she had connected with my explorative, energetic nature and for a brief time made her home a safe place for me. She was a good Methodist whose favorite hymn was “The Old Rugged Cross.”

My other grandmother, Trella May, came from a small town in the interior of Southern New Jersey, a town that no longer exists. She was the oldest of seven children whose mother died at an early age. In third grade, she had to drop out of school to raise her siblings and as a result, she could barely read or write. She suffered for some years because my grandfather was an alcoholic and worked seven day a week as a hotel chambermaid. But every year at Easter she made sure I had a pair of new shoes. Some days after grammar school I would go to visit her and we would talk for hours. When I want away to college, each Tuesday a painstakingly written four-page letter was in my mailbox. Enclosed were two one-dollar bills, which I quickly used to buy a cheeseburger. How long it had taken to write those letters I will never know. I do knew she loved me. She was also a Methodist too, and her favorite hymn was “In the Garden.”

I met Peg’s maternal grandmother, Mrs. Taylor, when Peg and I married in 1970. She lived in Morristown and had traced her ancestry to before the Mayflower. I’d never known anyone whose family had a coat of arms hanging in her home. But it’s not the coat of arms that I remember about Mrs. Taylor. It was that she sized up pretty quickly that as a young couple we were struggling financially; she gave us a generous check to buy a washer and dryer. She warmly welcomed me into the family and wrote to us frequently. We gave our daughter her middle name, Louise.

There are so many other women to mention – my mother who used my father’s life insurance money to put my sister and me through school; my sister, who in the last six months of her life taught me about forgiveness and reconciliation and from whom I learned much about healing as one dies; Peg’s mother, who remembers and makes my favorite cake for me and always sends me Christmas and birthday gifts that convey that she has given thought to what I might want or need. From my daughter I have learned that the next generation can reflect back to us what we taught them and hold us accountable to be who we asked them to be. Then, there’s Peg herself, who has taught me how a marriage is sacred, like the relationship between Christ and his church. She is to be commended for marrying me.

IV. Conclusion. Our faith is based upon the Incarnation. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. Our faith is not an abstract, difficult to grasp philosophical system; it is not only a compilation of profound teachings by a prophet and a wise man. Our faith is dynamically rooted in relationships, which at their core should mirror our relationship with Jesus Christ. We are told in today’s Gospel that Jesus and the Father are one and that we are invited to participate actively in that relationship. We are also told that Jesus will send the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, to help us enter into the relationship between the Father and the Son. This is not abstract, far away stuff. This is not pie in the sky. This is the Incarnation lived out in our life-long relationships. My grandmothers and mother taught me about Christ, prayed for me, and kept the lights on when I wandered away from home. They lived their faith in their actions, and I experienced Christ in their unconditional love for me. Their courage to face many challenges, to find peace in spite of adversity helped me see that peace comes not from worldly achievement, but rather from constancy in my relationship with Christ. Memories of the past have blended with experiences of the present and help me understand the way in which Christ’s constancy has passed from one generation to the next. Thank you mothers, thank you grandmothers, thank you sisters, wives, and daughters for being Christ to us, for giving us images of Christ’s constancy that have sustained us. Amen.