Sunday, March 20, 2011

Sailing with the Spirit

The Rev. Robert P. Travis

Lent 2A Sermon – 8am and 10:30am

Text: Genesis 12:1-4a, Psalm 121, Romans 4:1-5, 13-17, John 3:1-17

Sermon Text:

My mother was a sailor from her college years in Wisconsin. And while she took me out on her boat, when I was little,

I really didn't learn to sail on my own until I was in scouts. How many of you here have ever been on a sail boat?

Well, I learned to sail on very small dinghies

on a small lake in the Adirondack Mountains of New York.

On that little pond really,

the wind shifted very often.

On larger boats sailors often use devices called tell-tales,

little strings or pieces of yarn on the rigging

to tell where the wind is coming from, and where it is going.

We had no tell tales on these little dinghies,

and sometimes it would get frustrating,

because we would be sailing in one direction,

and suddenly the wind would leave our sail,

and we would struggle to figure out where it had gone.

All of a sudden it would blow from a different direction.

If the wind shifted, and we found ourselves

traveling with the wind, but with our sails too close,

we could do what they call an involuntary Jibe,

where the wind whips the boat around,

and before you know it, if you don't let go

you've capsized and have to flip the boat back over.

The hardest part about learning to sail,

was trying to discern where the wind was,

so that we could set our sails correctly and move,

and not get caught unawares and be flipped!

Later on when I was sailing on Lake Ontario,

or in the Atlantic Ocean, on much larger boats,

the danger of capsizing was minimized,

and I found the wind to be

much more constant, but it was still essential

to know where it was coming from,

and to set the sails correctly.

In trying to explain the Holy Spirit

to Nicodemus, in our gospel reading today,

Jesus uses the metaphor of the wind.

This proved frustrating for Nicodemus,

because he was a Pharisee,

and they were known for taking God's words very literally.

But as my seminary professor Don Armentrout said

Jesus had to use metaphors,

because things of the Spirit are invisible.

We feel them,

but we can't see them or pin them down.

Our only way to grasp them is through analogies

to things we do know.

This is why symbols are such an integral part

of the Christian Faith.

We depend upon them to represent,

in a simple and visual way,

a whole dimension of reality that is not visible.”

Many around us in the world,

would prefer to ignore that the dimension of reality

that is not visible,

as if it does not exist.

But we have enough connection to invisible things,

that have tremendous power, here with Oak Ridge on our doorstep, and the news from Japan on our minds,

that we know it is not wise to ignore the invisible.

Long before the advent of atomic energy,

Jesus tried to convey the importance to his followers

of paying attention to invisible power.

He is telling us not that our salvation

is based on a religious ritual,

important though baptism in water is to our common life.

He “is saying that in order to enter the Kingdom of God

(which is here and now, and within)

one must be aware of spiritual realities,

and cleansed of worldly concerns.

The more we are aware of God,

the more of God's Kingdom [God's Power]

we can claim

in terms of refuge, comfort,

encouragement and peace of mind.” (Armentrout)

I know that I want to know the Power of God,

the Kingdom of God in my life,

and I imagine you do as well.

Ever since I got here to Ascension,

I've been trying to discern how the Spirit is moving,

for this is a big boat,

with a lot of people,

and at first I did not know what tell tales to look to.

Recently though,

as Fr. Howard, Fr. Brett and I

have been meeting more regularly to pray together,

we have discussed where we noticed the Spirit's wind,

and it is exciting to me that it seems

we are beginning to experience a sort of rebirth

of the Spirit's Power among us.

One of the ways that this wind has been picking up speed

has been noticeable in the Stephen Ministry.

We know, of course,

that God is Love,

and Stephen Ministry is all about our own members,

reaching out in love to others in the body here,

who need a little more love to cope with different situations.

Today we commission two new Stephen Leaders,

who have served faithfully as Stephen Ministers,

and are now taking on a new role in that ministry.

But I remember when their first group was getting started,

and we wondered whether enough people

would be identified who desire the compassionate care

of a Stephen Minister.

Now, just a couple of years later,

we have #? people receiving love and care

from a Stephen Minister.

That tells me the wind has gradually been picking up here.

Other signs come from increases in participation

of our various bible studies,

and prayer groups,

the intentionality with which people

are praying together and lifting their voices to God,

and the seriousness with which the congregation

took this year's Ash Wednesday observance

shown at least in part by the largest attendance we can remember across the three services on that day.

The wind is picking up and people are catching it.

The challenge we face is that we don't want

to lose the wind, while we've got it,

and we don't want to set the sails in the wrong direction,

and be blown over.

We want to sail into the Kingdom of God,

with exactly the pace that God desires us to find.

That requires all of our participation.

I read this story about John Lewis,

who became a hero of the civil rights movement,

and a U.S. Congressman,

that he told about his childhood.

He was playing with his 14 cousins

in his Aunt Seneva's dirt yard,

when suddenly the sky began clouding over,

the wind started picking up,

and lightning flashed in the distance.

John and his cousins were terrified,

as his aunt herded them inside her house

to protect them from the storm.

John said, 'her house was not the biggest place around,

and it seemed even smaller

with so many children squeezed inside,

Small and surprisingly quiet.

All of the laughter that had been going on earlier,

outside, had stopped.

The wind was howling now,

and the house started to shake.

We were scared, even Aunt Seneva was scared.

And then it got worse.

Now the house began to sway.

The wood plank flooring beneath us began to bend.

And then, a corner of the room started lifting up.

I couldn't believe what I was seeing.

None of us could.

The storm was actually pulling the house toward the sky

with us inside it!

That was when Aunt Seneva told us to clasp hands.

Line up and hold hands, she said,

and we did as we were told.

Then she had us walk as a group

toward the corner of the room that was rising.

From the kitchen to the front of the house we walked,

the wind screaming outside,

sheets of rain beating on the tin roof.

Then we walked back in the other direction,

as another end of the house began to lift.

And so it went, back and forth,

15 children walking with the wind,

holding that trembling house down with the weight

of our small bodies.'

Walking with the wind became a metaphor for Lewis' life,

and is precisely what Jesus meant when he was talking

to Nicodemus.

We must not try to resist the wind,

or let it sweep us away,

but must walk with it,

trusting that God's Spirit will breathe new life into us

even when we do not know where the wind will take us.”

(Patricia Templeton)

There are things going on in our church,

and the world around us today, that seem like a storm.

And for some people, the dialogue

we are engaging in, can seem scary,

for we are confronting the controversies,

rather than pretending like they don't exist.

With our past that can be scary.

The Home Eucharists that are about to begin,

should be seen as a shelter from the storm,

where we can hold on to one another in prayer,

discuss issues of concern which we may differ on,

and celebrate our unity in diversity

in the shared experience of Holy Communion,

in a comforting, smaller, home setting.

Don't be afraid to participate in them.

Some of them will lead into Koinonia Groups

which I've talked about before.

In Koinonia Groups we will learn to discern

the movement of the Spirit in our lives together,

and we will enter into more intentional discipleship,

as we walk with the Spirit together,

holding each other in prayer.

This can seem like a scary time,

or an exciting time,

it can seem like a storm,

or the wind picking up as we sail together.

Some of us may find ourselves these days

feeling like children in a house in the midst of a storm.

And we wonder whether the changes around us,

will blow us away,

But if we hold hands, and walk with the wind,

if we find our unity in the midst of diversity.

We will be empowered by the Spirit,

rather than blown away.

We will hold onto one another,

we will walk with the Spirit together,

but we need everyone to participate,

to commit to deepening their awareness of God,

to make being renewed by the Spirit,

and discipled by our Lord Jesus

the singular focus of our lives.

We need all of that from each of you,

to truly find the places the Spirit is leading.

And we will sail together into all the places

in the Kingdom,

where the Holy Spirit leads us.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

We are dust...holy dust.

The Rev. Amy Hodges Morehous
March 9, 2011
Church of the Ascension

Ash Wednesday

8 The Lord is full of compassion and mercy, *
slow to anger and of great kindness.
9 He will not always accuse, us, *
Nor will he keep his anger for ever.
10 He has not dealt with us according to our sins, *
Nor rewarded us according to our wickedness.
11 For as the heavens are high above the earth, *
so is his mercy great upon those who fear him.
12 As far as the east is from the west, *
so far has he removed our sins from us.
13 As a father cares for his children, *
so does the Lord care for those who fear him.
14 For he himself knows whereof we are made; *
he remembers that we are but dust.

I was not with you last year on Ash Wednesday. Instead, I was helping to bury and memorialize the father of one of my best friends. I had known Jerry by knowing his daughter for almost 20 years. I knew him as a quiet guy, with a dry wit. He had a re-occurence of melanoma - swift, sudden, and unexpected. The time between his diagnosis and death was brief - only a few weeks. So I spent last Ash Wednesday hugging his family, and offering them love and support in a time when that was what was needed.

That’s one of the things we do, here in community. We offer support when we can. Tears when we should. And love always. Together, tonight, as a community, we are here to remember, and to repent. We are here to acknowledge that we, too, will go as all those who have gone before us. We are sobered by that knowledge. We remember together that we are but dust.

In your hand, you should have a little bit of dust - a rock, given to you as you entered. If you didn’t pick one up, the ushers can provide you with one. I will admit that handing out rocks when you know you’re preaching is a little bit of a dicey proposition. If you are visiting, you should know that isn’t exactly one of our common practices. And I am not up here tonight to advocate stoning as a Lenten discipline.

When we think of Lenten discipline, we frequently think of giving things up. People give up all kinds of things. Soda. Chocolate. Desserts. Meat. facebook. One year for Lent I gave up being self-critical, which was surprisingly difficult. Of course, I took it up again immediately, as soon as Easter came, so make of that what you will.

But the giving up of ‘things’ is not all there is to Lent. Sometimes, it is good for our spirits to take things on. To try out a new kind of prayer. To resolve to do a good deed for others. To read Scripture daily. Those are all good things.

Tonight what I’m going to ask you to do is a bit of both. We’ll all have the opportunity to give something up...and to take something up. Tonight, what I want us to contemplate giving up is a small share of our burdens. We all have them. Some of us have more than our fair share. Some of us might have trouble thinking of one - if so, we’ll all try not to envy you your good fortune. I want you to think of one of yours.

Is it a grief or loss? A worry about the future? A relationship broken and unmended? An anxiety for your children or your partner? An unrelistic expectation? A regret you can’t shake? Something you cannot forgive in yourself, or in others? Tonight I’m going to ask you to remember your many burdens, those things that wear us down, that keep us up in the middle of the night. These rocks in our hands - they represent our burdens. Now, I will warn you that they are in no way proportional. The weight of your burdens may feel crushing in comparison to this tiny pebble. You may be bearing up under so many burdens that you feel you need a whole garden of rock. Nor are we to compare one person’s burden to another. You may look at your neighbor’s rock, and think, “Mine is far larger than hers.” And indeed, it may be. But here, tonight...for a moment....we’re going to hold our own rock, and we’re going to think of one burden. Choose one that you have carried in your heart for too long, one that has worn you down, or divided you from God. Close your eyes, if that helps you. But here...for a small space...we’re going to be quiet, and hold our small bit of dust, and remember.


Now that we’ve all had time to think, I will confess to you one of the many sins that I confess to God every Ash Wednesday - the sin of self-sufficiency. I find that I want to hold on to my burdens, to keep them close to my heart, and make an idol out of them. If I do that long enough, they weigh down my spirit, and they impede my relationship with God, and with you. That is not God’s will for me, or for you.

For while we all remember here tonight that we are but dust, I tell you that we are holy dust. We are formed and shaped from dust to dust, from first breath to last, by a God who loves us enough to send his son to live among us, to love us, and to give his life up for us. We are the children of a loving God, whose wish for us is not suffering, is not grief, is not separation, nor the weight of a heavy burden.

12 As far as the east is from the west, *
so far has he removed our sins from us.
13 As a father cares for his children, *
so does the Lord care for those who fear him.
14 For he himself knows whereof we are made; *
he remembers that we are but dust.

So, tonight, on this Ash Wednesday, to begin this holy Lent, I’m going to lay down my burden, my bit of dust. Here --- in this basket. I do not do this lightly, but with reverence, and prayer, knowing that God does not wish me to be bowed down by the weight of it.

When you have thought it through, I invite you to come forward, and place your stone in the basket. With it, we are beginning Lent by doing a holy thing - letting go of a burden. I hope you surrender that burden to God, and to this place.

So, too are invited to bring your stone forward, to leave it here in this holy space, if the Spirit moves you to do so.


I said that Lent was about giving up, and we have each given up something dear to us, something costly. But Lent is also about taking on something new. This is a visual representation of our burdens - this mounded pile of stones. Together, they are too much for one person to hold.

But that is why we are here - we have laid our burdens down tonight in the community of Christ. We have shared them with one another. If you have laid a stone here, you have surrendered your burden to God, and to this community. Now I ask each of you who laid down a take another burden up. But not one of your own. When you come forward for the imposition of ashes, I would ask you to pick up a stone to take home. It will not be your stone. It will not be your burden, but your joy.

This stone is someone else’s deep burden, given over to God. I will take it home with me, in joy and thanksgiving for God’s great love, even in the midst of our sin and our brokenness. I will take it to pray over it during Lent, to hold it before God, so that someone else no longer has to do it alone.

Together, as a community in Christ, may we bear one another’s burdens this Lent with thanksgiving, gratitude and joy. May you know that your burden has been blessed, that someone else will bear it for you now, with love and hopefulness. May you go from here remembering that we are but dust, but we are holy dust. We are children of the living, redeeming and sustaining God, and we are never alone.


Holy and loving God, you have before you here the burdens of your people. Long have you seen your people weighed down with burdens that they do not need to carry alone. Bless these stones, and bless those who carry them forth from here, mindful of their weight in our lives. Amen.