Monday, January 31, 2011

We are a Counter-Cultural People

The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany January 30, 2011
We are a Counter-Cultural People The Reverend Dr. Howard J. Hess

I. Introduction: One Sunday morning recently, I passed by one of our ushers on my way to vest. He had a collection of bulletins in hand, ready to meet you as you entered the church. I was pleased to see him, and asked, “How are you this morning?” He replied, “I’m too blessed to be stressed.” He shared this with a broad smile. “Too blessed to be stressed.” Little did he know that today I would begin my sermon with his words. Today Jesus is also speaking about blessing in his widely known “Sermon on the Mount,” a part of which is “The Beatitudes.”

II. Christians are called to be counter-cultural: The Reverend John Stott, one of the most highly respected Anglican thinkers of the 20th century, made an extraordinary claim about the Sermon on the Mount. He wrote: “The Sermon on the Mount is the most clear delineation anywhere in the New Testament of the Christian counter-culture.” He defined what he meant: “The followers of Jesus are to be different – different from both the nominal church and the secular world, different from both the religious and the irreligious” (The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, 1978, p. 19). We are to be different. Jesus taught that when we are different, our lives, our thoughts, our values, our passions, and our actions will be, by definition, different as well. It will dramatically affect how we communicate or fail to communicate with God, how we live out our relationships, and how we use both our time and our wealth.

III. I’m going to focus upon three of the Beatitudes this morning by sharing with you a story about a series of events that occurred in Bolivia and here at Ascension. By way of introduction, we need to begin at the beginning and focus on the first Beatitude. This Beatitude forms the foundation for experiencing all the blessings described by Jesus in the eight beatitudes that follow. Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit because theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” Poverty is not a state we aspire to in any form. So why does Jesus begin by instructing us to be poor in Spirit? Here is what I think. By being poor in spirit, we allow God’s Holy Spirit to fill us with a truth and wisdom that we are absolutely incapable of discerning by ourselves. If we are filled with our own conviction of self-knowledge, correctness, and importance, there is little to no room for the Holy Spirit to fill us. And know that the Kingdom of Heaven does not consist of persons who feel that their own spirits are perfected. Rather, Heaven is filled to overflowing with sinners saved by grace.

As many of you know, I taught on the university level before becoming a priest. I began teaching with an inflated view of how much I knew. In my very first class at the University of Alabama, a young student asked me, “Please tell me, who are you?” This was my golden opportunity to share my theoretical orientation and my professional history. On and on I went. The student sat patiently until I was finished, as Alabamians are wont to do, and said, “Thank you, but I only wanted to know your name to make sure I was in the right class.” Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs in the Kingdom of Heaven.”

We all are called by Jesus to be poor in spirit so that we may be filled with and guided by God’s Holy Spirit. The other two Beatitudes I would like to lift up this morning are these: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” and “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” These two beatitudes intersected recently here at Church of the Ascension. On Christmas Eve, Father Brett and I experimented with a dialogue sermon. In that sermon I shared a story about a young man in Bolivia who is like a brother to Fr. Brett’s wife Carla, and who had recently been savagely beaten on a street of La Paz in an act of random violence. Three young men had attacked Carlos with baseball bats, beating his head, resulting in the need for extensive surgery, including the insertion of metal plates into his head. Carlos had neither medical insurance nor money to pay for his surgery. Therefore, Carlos needed his mother, who had had no money to pay for his care, to sign a promissory note so that his care could be provided. Out of desperation and necessity, she agreed to pay back the bill owed to the physicians at $300 interest per month. Carlos’ mother was in deep mourning, not only because of the tragic effects of Carlos’ injuries on future, but also because of her inability to pay this debt. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Scripture often associates mourning with a loss of one kind or another.

When I first heard about Carlos’ tragic situation, his mother, whose name is Isabel Valdivia Gonzales, was about to sell one of her kidneys in order to pay the bill that was increasing exponentially due to the huge monthly interest. I was deeply moved by her dilemma and told her story in our dialogue sermon Christmas Eve. The intent of my sharing their story was not to raise funds, but rather to show how through this story, God was directing my mind and heart away from many other distractions to Christmas present, 2010.

In the days that followed, mercy unfolded many miles away from La Paz, here in Knoxville. Six Ascensionites felt compassion gave Isabel Gonzales a total of $1900 – the amount needed to completely pay off Carlos’ medical bill. I do not believe it was coincidence that the news of this need traveled from La Paz Bolivia to Knoxville, Tennessee, at just the time when the need was most urgent. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” This is how God responded to a mother’s mourning. I’d like to read a letter received from Senora Gonzales dated January 11, 2011. This is a letter addressed to me, but it was sent to all of us:

Fr. Hess,
With this correspondence I want to give you infinite thanks for the collaboration that you offered me in paying for the healing of my son. Thanks to you and [my daughter Carla] and “son-in-law” Brett and to your community I have finished paying for everything. People like you all, make it possible for one to really see the Divine goodness, and that you no only preach the Word of God, but that you also live in a way that demonstrated through your behavior, your goodness, and comprehension, about the pain of others.
I want to comment to you that I have never been a woman dedicated to the Church of God, but through you all I have been shown the greatest love and now I want to follow Him.
Really, I do not have the words to thank you all. I can only say that one reaps what one sows, and the Lord will repay you a thousand times for all the help that you all offered me. [emphasis added]
A thousand thanks,
blessings, Isabel Valdivia Gonzales”

God saw Senora Gonzales’ mourning and called you, the merciful here at the Church of the Ascension, to bless her in His name. One of those who was called Christmas Eve to help Senora Gonzales shared with me that she had never experienced such a call before. This parishioner had been drawn to show mercy just as were others, at least one of whom I believe gave from a place of substantial sacrifice. How in this series of events have the merciful been blessed? It is here in this letter: “I have never been a woman dedicated to the Church of God, but through you all I have been shown the great love and now I want to follow him.” As she said clearly in her letter of thanks, we reap what we sow. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” God’s mercy is unlimited, and I am thankful that God has allowed us to see his mercy in action.

IV. Conclusion: God is speaking to us today. In the counter-cultural words of Jesus, blessings are being offered through us and to us. But first, as John Stott wrote, “We must be different.” We must, as Deacon Amy said last week, lay down whatever is holding us back, and follow God’s call with passion; we must, as Fr. Brett said the week before, not allow our church to die, but keep it alive with our willingness to act on our faith. We are called to set our own fears, prejudices, judgments, and self-absorption aside. When it comes right down to it, we are called, above all, to follow Jesus. Thank you, Senora Isabel Valdivia Gonzales, for reminding us of that today. Amen.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Drop Your Nets

The Rev. Amy Hodges Morehous
Epiphany 3, Year A
January 23, 2011
Church of the Ascension

It was an ordinary day for the fishermen beside the sea of Galilee. They were doing the same thing they had done hundreds, probably thousands of times. They were working. Fishing then was hard work - not something done for leisure, not lazily casting a line into the water and contemplating it for an afternoon. Imagine casting your net over and over, and hoping you would find something, then dragging it in over the side of the boat, wriggling and uncooperative, and onto the shore. As we know from the other gospels, sometimes it was an unfruitful day - the fishermen would cast their nets all day long, and become weary with failure. But in today’s gospel from Matthew, it was an ordinary day, no different from many others. Just Peter, Andrew, James, John and their father Zebedee, all occupied with their work.

Then Jesus approaches them, and in the blink of eye, this day which had been so unremarkable suddenly became amazing, remarkable - exceptional. Jesus walks up to them, and offers them something precious. He doesn’t seem to mind that they are lowly fishermen - not a lot of status, or money. No political power, to speak of. He doesn’t even seem to mind that they must be badly in need of a shower - wet, slimy with fish, and grimy with sand.

On the face of it, Jesus is a terrible interviewer. Here he is, filling new positions with a start-up organization, and he doesn’t ask about their education, or their abilities. He doesn’t ask them up front if they’re available for a three-year commitment with a lot of travel. He doesn’t even ask them to clean up before they show up for the first day on the job. He calls the four just as they are, from where they are. Christ looks at them with love, looks past their bedraggled and fishy exterior, and sees something greater in them than they think they are. He does not say to them, “You’re doing the wrong thing.” He looks to Peter and Andrew and James and John and says, “Come, I am doing a new thing. Come, and see.”

And their response is incredible - amazing, even. They drop their nets, leave their boat and their father in the water, and leave with Jesus. They let go of what they had known, of the tools they were familiar with, and they step out into the unknown. We usually hold them up as examples we should all follow. Those bold and courageous disciples. But didn’t you ever wonder if they weren’t being a little impulsive? Even irresponsible?

For these men to leave everything and follow someone they didn't fully know - imagine the repercussions for their families-for their community. All four gospels present it as a sudden, radical change. Mark uses the adverb "immediately," many times in his gospel to indicate the urgency of people's actions. But in this chapter Matthew borrows Mark's favorite word and uses it twice. "Immediately they (Simon Peter and Andrew) left their nets and followed him. . . . Immediately they (James and John, sons of Zebedee) left the boat and their father, and followed him" (Mt. 4:20, 22). In the blink of an eye, their lives are changed forever.

What else can we call this but a snap decision? Snap decisions aren’t always the best. Goodness knows I’ve made several that didn’t work out at all. But sometimes … sometimes snap decisions are powerful things. When you've been praying and seeking guidance, when it's time for a decision, it can feel sudden and spontaneous. But in reality, it has taken your whole life, the whole of your deepest intuition to get to that crucial decision point.

One of the hard truths of being a Christian is that there are decisions to be made. I don’t mean in the old-timey, Southern church sense. I’m not going to make us all supremely uncomfortable by presenting us all with an altar call, so that we may “Decide to Follow Christ” once and for all. To be perfectly honest, I feel as if I have an altar call every morning when I get out of bed. Every morning, I can decide whether or not I want to follow, can decide that I will try to trust God, and meet Christ in the places he calls me. I have days when I don’t want to do that. Because the other hard truth is that when Jesus calls us, something has to be given up. To follow Jesus, the disciples have to drop their nets and give up their livelihoods. Now, I’m not up here asking you to give up your livelihoods. But I am asking you to think, this morning, about what you need to drop in order to follow your calling.

If nothing comes to mind at first, I would suggest that we could all begin by giving up some of our “buts”. You know what I mean - our usual response to being called to something. Since a call asks us to move outside our comfort zone, it usually appears as something that will make us … uncomfortable. Uneasy. Our response frequently begins with, “But....” “But I smell like fish. But I’m not smart enough. But I don’t have a lot of time. But I am weak. But I have to finish mending this net. But I have sinned. But I’m not good enough. But I am broken.”

When you come to those times of decision, what will be your choice? Will you follow Christ, or will you stay where you are - will you cling to the comfortable and grasp tightly to your net? We frequently sing and say the time-honored words, “Here I Am, Lord, Send Me.” But some days, if we’re honest, we’d like to sing that less familiar, but but more honest hymn, ‘Here’s My Check, Lord...Please Send Someone Else’.

If we are looking, each day we will see Christ before us, presenting us with opportunities for ministry. I know you think that’s easy for me to say. I’m standing up here in this white robe and collar, and I think about ministry all the time. One of the questions that I have asked repeatedly over these past months is what I could possibly have to offer as a servant of the people of God - how I could serve each of you - knowing how broken and saddened and at a loss for answers that I sometimes feel. But you have all shown me that being ministered to is a ministry of its own. We are not ministers by what we do, but by who we are. Someone ministering to me said, “Remember that God called you into ministry. Not the ideal you, not the perfect you, but you. With all your faults and all your heartbreaks, and all your imperfections.” The same is true for everyone here. Christ calls you - each of you - just where you are, just as you are. God is not interested in the perfect you, the you that has it all together, but in the real you, brokenness and imperfection and uncertainty and all.

This morning, I want you to know that there is a ministry in the kingdom of God that only you can do. There’s no one else in the whole fellowship of God’s people who is just like you, who has had your life experiences, and your griefs and your joys. There is a place for your ministry in the world, and here in this church that is yours alone. As you change and grow in your life in Christ, as the story of life itself changes, so will your call to ministry. Part of following Christ is discerning when to step out into the new, and to leave the old and comfortable behind. In a few minutes we will install new vestry members - people who accepted a call to serve you. Jesus does not call us to be comfortable or complacent. If you do what you do only because you are comfortable, I would ask you to consider it carefully - prayerfully. If you are currently involved in a ministry which has become a job to you, or worse, has become an obligation, or a chore - I’m here this morning to tell you to drop it. Let go of it just as the fishermen let go of their nets and left them behind. Because if you continue doing the ministry to which you are not called, then that means that your true ministry - the ministry that will fill your soul, challenge your mind, and lead you into a closer relationship with Christ - is out there somewhere, unfilled.

I do believe, passionately, that we each are chosen and called to the ministry of our own lives. It’s very hard to be very excited about doing a job. It’s very easy to be excited about living into the ministry to which we are called, and gifted and chosen. Frederich Buechner says that “An average church is filled with people doing jobs. A great church is filled with people involved in ministry.” We’re not asking you to show up here and do your job. We are asking you to find the ministry of your life...the thing that gladdens your heart, and the heart of God. When we are living into the place where God has called us to be, the joy of that will be nearly irresistible.

We may have come here this day searching for Christ. May we leave here today knowing that Christ is always there, standing before us. We may seek him in all the wrong places, looking with imperfect eyes, amidst crowded and sometimes broken lives, but may you believe that in countless ways and times, Christ reaches out for each of us. His boundless love will seek us wherever we are...and he will not be content to leave us by the shore, where he found us. Christ comes to each of us, to say “Come and see the new thing before you this day.” We only have to drop our nets, and see it.


Tuesday, January 18, 2011


The Second Sunday After Epiphany
John 1:29-42
“And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”
He was not doing anything in particular when the small band of men began to approach. He was just simply walking, on his way to somewhere, a destination that he would unfortunately never reach. And as the men got closer, he knew that there was definitely going to be trouble. After pushing, insulting, and provoking him, the young men began to ask him questions including whether or not he was a Christian, and after bravely saying yes, they grabbed him and held him captive as they hurriedly built a fire. Finally, when the fire was raging, they once again asked the young man whether or not he was a Christian, and there, gazing into the wild flames, he mustered only a whisper, yes. Then, after severely burning him, the small band of men left him for dead on the edge of a desert in the Sudan.
He never did meet death though. In fact, it was just a few weeks later that a clergy colleague of mine encountered this incredible and nameless young man, this Christian, in a far off refugee camp after he had dragged himself, alone and on the edge of death, across the Sudanese wasteland. It was there that my colleague heard this man's horrific story. It was there that this man, this Christian, became an example, a guide, an inspiration, a symbol of hope for many people who had nothing of the sort for far too long. It was there that this nameless man, that scarred body, extremely broken, mutilated, burnt, became a true testament, a walking testament which continues to transform the lives of many.
I could not get this incredible story out of my head as I was preparing for today's sermon. As I struggled with it, I believe that this story brought me to a message that I had not ever really heard from this morning's Gospel lesson. You see, after a while that story and this morning's Gospel began to serve as kind of reminders for me, and collectively, I began to hear in the words of these two accounts a serious call for all of us today. Today's Gospel calls us to testify. Now, keep in mind that I am a cradle Episcopalian, and so even as that particular choice of words comes out of my mouth, I do confess that I feel a slight cringe go through my body. Also, because I have grown up in both this religious and geographic setting, I feel comfortable saying that I know most of you probably began to cringe and squirm in your pews as I said it also! I urge you though, to just hang in there with me this morning, because that very thing, our reaction, is precisely the point.
You see this morning's Gospel lesson is a bit different from our usual lessons in that the focus is not totally on Jesus. I mean, of course, ultimately the point of any Gospel is Jesus, but at least in this morning's reading, Jesus is not the one doing the teaching or even much of the talking. It is John the Baptist who gets all the attention today. As I contemplated John I began to see in this most appropriate symbol of Baptism, an interesting call for each of us. I began to see a call for us to refocus on the fulfillment of our own Baptismal vows, and in particular to testify. Have you ever noticed how John the Baptist, especially in this morning's Gospel, but almost always as well, is constantly pointing to Jesus? He is pointing the way to Jesus. He is pointing others to Jesus. He is constantly testifying. And, so, that is the message that I heard for all of us in this morning's Gospel as well. The message that we receive when we focus on the example of John the Baptist. Testify.
It occurred to me that this is a very timely and important calling for us today, especially for us as Episcopalians. I do not know how many of you are aware of this, but for years now research has shown that we are steadily decreasing in numbers year after year, and not only the Episcopal Church, but Christianity as a whole, at least here in the U.S. The truth is, that the church we love so much, our way, our home, is dying, and I cannot help but to think that that is due at least in some part to our general lack of willingness or our open resistance to actively leading others to Christ. In part, we are dying because we are too uncomfortable with sharing our own spiritual stories with others, and telling who God is and what God has done in our lives. Whether it is because we are reacting against the aggressive evangelical attempts of other denominations, our well intentioned desire to be welcoming and accommodating has back fired, or it just simply is not a part of our culture, the fact is that we are going to have to change our ways, if not for the self serving yet extremely important reason that we are losing our church, then for the sheer reality that we as disciples of Christ are indeed called to and have in reality vowed to spread the word, message, and truth of Jesus Christ our Savior.
Now, I realize that all of this is probably coming off pretty hard this morning, but try not to hear this message in the wrong way. Because the message that today's Gospel spoke to me this week and the message that I give to you today is not calling us to go out and become extremists or religious fanatics. Though I started this sermon out with a story about a kind of modern day martyr, this message is not necessarily calling us to go out and die for our beliefs. Actually, the message for today is really pretty simple. Today's Gospel calls us to share who we are. It calls us to be open.
Some of you may remember that a while back, when Fr. Howard named me as one of your Associate Rectors, he presented me with a framed quote that is attributed to St. Francis, which is very special to me. It is very special to me, because, unbeknownst to Fr. Howard at the time, that quote was one that I had strongly identified with and used for guidance throughout my life. So it was quite fitting then as a gift, but I also find it quite fitting to share with you today for another reason. The quote says, “Preach the Gospel at all times, use words if necessary.” I thought about that quote while I was preparing for this morning, and I realized for the first time that, though I am very fond of it, I think, if I might be so bold, that I would add something to this famous quote. I would like it to say, “Preach the Gospel at all times, do not be afraid to use words when necessary,” because all in all I think most of us do a pretty good job of trying to live out the Gospel by example, but the reality is that we certainly are very uncomfortable when it comes to using our words.
You see, the truth is that John the Baptist and our anonymous Sudanese Brother were able to point to God only because they were able to humble themselves before the Lord. They were able to take themselves out of the way so that God could be above all things in their lives. In doing this, in pointing to Christ, in testifying, they were able to successfully bring and lead others to God. This too is our calling today, to point others toward God. To step aside, let God take the lead, and gently help others to find the way. Perhaps our stories are not as dramatic as theirs, but at the end of the day we are not so different. The truth is that we are all here in this place, at Ascension, our home, because our relationship with God is central to our lives. It is a part of us. We are here because we have already placed, or perhaps it is better said, we are constantly trying to place God before ourselves, to place Him above all else. The difference, however, may just be our willingness to open up and share that special piece of ourselves with others, with the people we meet, with our loved ones, with those that cross our path. The difference is our inclination to hesitate when we are called or are presented with the opportunity to share about who we are. Christians. So, what I would like for you all to hear today is that this Gospel calls us to change that. It calls us to share. Where have we, and where do we continually miss the opportunities to point to God in our daily lives? Where do we miss the chance to share? When confronted with the chance to proclaim Christ as our Savior, do we boldly say, yes, we do believe, or are we much more comfortable with just simply letting that opportunity pass us by?
As we continue to worship together today, and as we go out into the world charged with the responsibility of sharing the Good News and love of God, I want to suggest that we consider those questions. And, as we do so, let us also remember and hold the two persons that I have spoken of today as personal examples, as guides for us along the way, so that we too, one day might be able to stand as firmly as they did, gazing into the fire, wading in the water, and to testify to the awesome truth and love of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord and Savior.
“And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Good Lord, Show me the Way!

The Rev. Robert P. Travis
Church of the Ascension, Knoxville TN
1st Sunday of Epiphany
January 9, 2011 - 8:00 and 10:30am
RCL Year A Isaiah 42:1-9, Psalm 29, Acts 10:34-43, Matthew 3:13-17

Sermon Text:
Some of you may remember
that last year a few of us gathered to perform the song
“Down in the River to Pray”
for our Sunday Worship.

That was a powerful moment for me here,
because it united my calling to be here as a priest,
to my calling to be a father.
You see, the last time I had performed that song in church,
was for the baptism of my first child,
my daughter Evangeline loved that song as an infant,
and so Jackie and I and two of our friends
sang it in four parts for her baptism service.
In case you don't remember,
it goes...
“As I went down in the River to Pray,
studyin' about that good old way,
and who shall wear the robe and crown,
good Lord show me the way.”

I was talking to Mary Lee this week about this gospel passage,
and she started right into that song,
and I knew I had to mention it in this sermon.
This week, in fact,
I heard the Spirit move in a number of different ways,
all gentle, which lead into this message as well.
Father Brett was telling me how wonderful it was,
to take part in the women's Bible Study on Wednesday,
because of the way they discussed this passage,
and how that helped him see what the Spirit was saying
in our church.
And then our Thursday Centering Prayer group,
focussed on the gentleness of the Holy Spirit
in our meditation on this gospel passage.
It seems that God wants us to consider
His gentleness this week,
and that's what I'm here to help you do.

The interesting thing to me,
that stands out in my memory of Eva Jane's baptism,
six years ago, besides singing that song,
was that my advisor, who announced his retirement
this week from Sewanee,
came up to me shortly after the baptism
and asked me if it took.
I said “what did you say?”
and He said, “I asked you did it take,
the baptism, did it take?”
I had never thought about a baptism like that before,
and so I said I guess it did.
Now that I know her and have seen her grow for 6 years,
I can say surely it did take.
Eva Jane has the Lord in her heart, that's clear.

But we often don't think of a baptism
as having any real effect, beyond a ritual
we observe.
But if we pay attention, it does have
dramatic impact on our lives.

That reminds me of what Fr. Brett said
at the beginning of Advent.
He challenged each of us to get up each morning,
and ask God to show us something of Himself
in each day.
I find that God is faithful to us,
but as Brett said, we can miss his evidence in our lives,
if we're not paying attention.

And I think that has something to do
with the Gentleness of the Holy Spirit.
The list of the fruit of the Spirit from Galatians
includes Gentleness right at the end.
We often miss it, because we focus on
Love, Joy, Peace, kindness.
All good things,
but Gentleness is in there too, and for a reason.

The passage we had this morning from Isaiah
prophecies about Jesus...
“a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.”

When we know that description is for Jesus,
who is the Word of God,
it can stand in stark contrast to the psalm we read.
“The voice of the Lord is a powerful voice...
the voice of the Lord breaks the cedar trees...
the voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness...
the voice of the Lord makes the oak trees writhe,
and strips the forest bare.”

We don't want to be in the presence of the voice of the Lord,
when God speaks.
That is what the Israelites experienced with Moses
at the mountain of God,
and they were so afraid, they asked God
to stop, and to let Moses listen to God for them.

But the Word of the Lord is different.
And it seems that as God got to know us,
his beloved creation, made in his image,
he came to see what we can handle,
and began to express himself with gentleness.
He sent his Word among us,
“the Word became flesh and lived with us,
full of grace and truth.”
He gave us his word, without his voice speaking it.
His voice spoke the universe into begin,
caused the big bang,
but his Word is what was contained in that voice.
“The message he sent to the people,”
as Peter says in Acts,
was “preaching peace by Jesus Christ.”

And Jesus Christ,
the Word made flesh,
went to John the baptizer at the Jordan
to be baptized by Him.
Can you imagine how shocked John must have been,
to see the sinless one coming to Him?
For baptism was then,
and is still, about washing away sins,
repenting of sins and vowing a changed life.
But Jesus showed up,
and showed us that there is more to it than that.

Good Lord Show me the way!

John would have prevented him,
it says in the passage from Matthew,
by asking, “do you come to me?”
That's not a strong rebuke.
That's a very gentle question, by which John,
would have prevented Jesus.
But Jesus told him,
“let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way
to fulfill all righteousness.”
That is one of the most baffling statements I have ever read
in scripture.
And I confess to you now, that I still don't have
a complete understanding of what Jesus meant by it.
I only know, that he said,
no John, we need to do this, because by doing it
we will complete what is right with God.

Perhaps He could not explain to John,
“do this so that people will know that my Father is with me,
do this so that the Holy Spirit will anoint me.”
Maybe he was just gently turning
John's preventing hand aside,
so John could do what he was created to do.

And in fact, that was all that was necessary,
for John consented to baptize Jesus,
and when “Jesus came up from the water,
the heavens were opened to him,
and he saw the Spirit of God
descending like a dove and alighting on him.”
The Spirit descended “like a Dove,”
not like a lightning bolt,
or a tornado,
or a tsunami,
or any of those other ways that we call Acts of God,
the Spirit descended full of gentleness, “like a dove.”

You can see it in our church even,
well, you all can over here,
and you can if you turn your heads.
The smallest window in our church,
is given a place of particular importance,
it's the Holy Spirit window,
and if you weren't paying attention to it,
you may miss the way the Holy Spirit,
is depicted like a dove.
There's power displayed there,
but it's power expressed in gentleness.
And that is part of God's revelation of himself,
in a new way to all of us.
Even today, people are afraid of
the outpouring of the Holy Spirit,
they're afraid that the Holy Spirit will make them
do something they would be embarrassed to do.
But the Holy Spirit does not possess people,
that's another spirit,
the Holy Spirit, as a friend of mine put it,
is a Gentleman.

But do not confuse this gentleness with weakness,
or ineffectiveness.
later on in Isaiah we hear that
the word of God will not return to him empty
but will accomplish that which he purposes.
This Jesus, the word revealed in gentleness,
annointed by the gentle alighting of the Holy Spirit,
is still the creative word,
and still has the power to accomplish what God will.
He has the power to fulfill all righteousness.
Even if we don't understand what that means.
And he will accomplish it in our midst,
through our lives, or someone else's.
That's why we have to pay attention,
That's why we need to be singing,
Good Lord, show me the way!

He showed us the importance of baptism,
for Jesus, not much for rituals of his time,
showed up and participated in this one,
even though it wasn't clear that he needed to do so.
And we have adopted baptism as
the crucial part of our calling,
it is what marks us as Christ's own forever.
But will it accomplish what it purposes to do?
That requires our participation.

Are we fulfilling our baptismal covenant?
Are we allowing Christ who dwells within us now,
to fulfill all righteousness through us?
If we don't someone else will.
For God's purposes will be accomplished.
I heard a great preacher once say,
that the question is not whether God's Will will be done,
for that is certain,
the question is will we be a part of that will being done.
God in his gentleness, is not going to force us
to do anything.
He invites, and invites and invites,
and if we accept that invitation to work with him,
if we make space in our busy lives for Him,
He will do things through us that will fill us with awe.

One such opportunity is coming up
in just three and a half weeks.
We will be introducing our Alpha Course,
to a new group of people.
Like his revelation to us in Jesus,
and his Holy Spirit,
we believe in sharing the message gently
and not pressurizing anyone,
and that is what makes this different from other
kinds of evangelism we see around us.
See David Johnson downstairs after church
if you have any questions, or want to sign up.

In the meantime, listen to what Fr. Howard has written,
and what Fr. Brett has said,
and what I'm reiterating now,
in this new year,
make space in your busy life for God,
and listen for his gentle Spirit.
We want to follow you Jesus,
as you went down in the river to pray,
Good Lord show us the way!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Journey

Feast of the Epiphany January 5, 2011
The Journey The Reverend Dr. Howard J. Hess

I. Introduction: The journey of the Three Kings is a familiar part of the Christmas story. It is told only in Matthew, which was originally written to a largely Jewish Christian audience. It is thought that the story makes it very clear that Jesus was not only a Jewish Messiah, but had come to save the entire world. We are not told who they were, where they came from, or what became of them after they saw and worshipped Jesus. Their cameo appearance emphasizes the journey they took, their gifts, Herod’s attempt to obstruct them, and their singular commitment to find and worship Jesus. Their journey was spiritual as well as physical.

II. The journey is one of the motifs, or repeated themes, used in Scripture to describe how human beings encounter and respond to God. Abraham took a long faith-based journey, as did Jacob, Moses, and later Paul and his missionary companions. Jesus’ ministry occurred while he journeyed from one town to another, and Christians throughout the ages have referred to their spiritual lives as journeys.

When I think of more contemporary faith journeys I am reminded of Deitrich Bonhoeffer, my favorite 20th century theologian. Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran minister who was studying at Union Theological Seminary in New York City as the Nazis were consolidating their power in Germany. I took at a course at Union on the life and works of Bonhoeffer in the very room where he paced all night, trying to decide whether to return home to help the church fight the Nazis or stay in the safety of New York City. His friends and advisors urged him not to return to Germany. But he did return, and felt called to support a failed plot to assassinate Hitler; he was eventually caught and executed. He went, he wrote, because he did not believe that someone could really be a part of the solution to a problem without making every effort to solve it. Bonhoeffer’s journey, like that of the Three Kings, was spiritual as well as physical.

IV. Many of us have or are undertaking significant spiritual journeys in our Christian lives. By meditating upon the experiences of those who have journeyed before us, we can be enlightened and encouraged. There are several principles that we see repeatedly in Christian journey stories; these all have to do with our willingness to act. First, the Christian pilgrim must be willing to look for signs and directions about when to begin a particular journey; when to change course; and how to avoid danger. For the Three Kings, the morning star and their own dreams provided signs and directions. For me, signs often occur in the form of a “co-incidence.” I may have told you about when I went to see Bishop vonRosenburg about an inquiry from a parish in South Carolina. Toward the end of our time together, our conversation shifted to Ascension. I said, “Perhaps someday I could be of use there.” That was the beginning of a spiritual and physical journey that has resulted in my being here tonight. Listen, watch, and follow the signs.

Secondly, in our spiritual journeys we must be willing to enter into unknown territories. I have repeatedly seen that our willingness to act on God’s call, in and of itself, addresses much of the fear we have of the unknown. A wonderful example of this has been provided to us by Caroline Vogel. While ministering with us here at Ascension, Caroline shared in her sermons many of the obstacles in her journey to ordained ministry. Following God’s call into unknown space has required faithfulness and a willingness to continue to act on God’s call despite those obstacles. Caroline will be ordained to the transitional deaconate on January 15th. We must be willing to enter into the unknown, even when we can perceive clear risk.

And lastly, we must maintain our focus upon seeing and following Jesus. This is perhaps the most significant of these three principles. Seeking Jesus Christ leads us to Epiphanies in which we meet God. When we are willing to seek and follow Jesus, God never fails to be present in our spiritual journeys.

V. Conclusion: Our spiritual journeys are complex and inevitably intertwined with the journeys of others. One rarely, if ever, hears someone reflect upon his or her spiritual journey without acknowledging the important role of others as guides, teachers, and companions on the way. The Three Kings traveled together. Each shared the signs he saw and experienced; we can imagine they provided each other encouragement, support, and companionship. Bonhoeffer was a part of the Lutheran Confessing Church after he returned to Germany. Not only was God with him on his journey, he also had the companionship of other Christians. And we have one another here at the Church of the Ascension. Thanks be to God for the guidance he gives us and the encouragement and companionship we can give to one another as we seek to see and follow Jesus. Amen.