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 .