Monday, August 22, 2011

The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A The Rev. Dr. Howard J. Hess

Who Do You Say That I Am? August 21, 2011

I. Introduction. Jesus asked, “Who do people say that I am? Who do you say that I am?” The answers to these questions required three things from Peter: Clarity, courage, and passion. For Peter, his ability to respond to Jesus in today’s Gospel came mid-point in his spiritual journey. Jesus had nurtured Peter so that he could respond in this way. The story of Jesus and Peter had started much earlier and would end much later. I have seen that same pattern in my own life.

I am a boy who grew up in the church, nurtured by the faith of my parents, the many Sunday School teachers who taught me, and Vacation Bible School leaders who didn’t yet have electronic equipment, but instead used flannel boards to bring Jesus, the disciples, and the many animals in the Bible – mostly sheep -- to life. These were the saints who nurtured me. I can remember their faces and many of the things they said to me. I didn’t always understand what they were teaching: all those prophets and kings, the giant figures of Moses, David, Mary, and Peter. But I was in a world with the Biblical story of salvation and that was where I belonged. How did I know that? This is how: those saints loved me. Through the rough times and the good times, they continued to love me. The Hebrew word for that kind of love is chesed. It is unconditional love, rooted in mutuality of affection and responsibility, and mirrored in Christian action. Jesus said to the disciples “Who do people say that I am?” Then he said to Peter “Who do you say that I am?”

II. The years came and went for me. New glittering lights and exciting experiences beckoned -- far away from that little church I grew up in. And never one to pull back from a challenge, I went on my way. But always Jesus’ questions echoed in my thoughts: “Who do others say that I am?” And, “Howard, who do you say that I am?” Where did my willingness to respond to Jesus’ questions come alive? There was no one place, and no one time. It came alive when I worked with a young man with HIV/AIDS whose trailer was set on fire in rural Indiana; it came alive when I studied Archbishop Oscar Romero and Detrich Bonhoeffer, who made decisions to take truth to power and paid with their lives. It comes alive when I visit you in times of deep trouble and see your courage, fortitude, and the realness of your faith. I believe that everyone here has her or his own variation of this story. Our stories are incredibly different. But underlying all these different stories, there are several core truths to which today’s Gospel points us.

III. The focus of our Gospel is Jesus’ interaction with Simon Peter. Many Biblical scholars view this portion of Matthew as a pivotal point in his story. Peter had been called to follow Jesus through the leading of his brother Andrew. Most likely he had previously been a follower of John the Baptist. Peter was a seeker. But Peter had character flaws that at times made him a slow learner. Jesus had had to be patient with Peter – very patient. He had great hopes for him, but Peter was a get it done, self-righteous guy. In today’s Gospel Jesus was inviting Peter to take another step in his spiritual development. “Step out of the boat, Peter; who do you think that I am? “ Peter responded, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” He got it right. Jesus was not a shadowy figure, like a reincarnated prophet or a rising political star. Jesus then responded to Peter with profound affirmation: “Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah. For flesh and blood have not revealed this to you, but my father in heaven!”

Now, listen carefully to the words of Jesus as he continued: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” There is more, but that is left for another sermon. Right now, I want to focus on what has just happened in this interaction. It’s what we call a word play. Simon Peter was given a new name, just as Abram had been given the new name of Abraham. We can easily miss it in the English, but less so in the original Greek. Jesus took Peter’s name and linked it to the word “rock” which in Greek is Petra. The first part of his name -- Simon -- is omitted. This is significant. The name “Simon” means listener. The time of listening was passing and the time for building had begun in earnest. Certainly this was not by any means the end of Peter’s learning. Many times of pain and confusion lay ahead, especially during Jesus’ Passion. But Jesus was right. Peter lived into his new name. He was to become the first leader of the young Christian church and did an inspiring job of guiding the early Christians through very treacherous waters.

IV. At this point in my sermon I believe that you would be fully justified in asking me the question, “How is this relevant to each of us?” The relevance is quite striking. The first point: A time comes in each of our lives when we must have clarity; when we truly have to stand up and assert our belief that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. In the western Christian church, I believe we are waffling on this point and losing our ability to be the light of the world. We are in danger of losing our clarity about who we believe Jesus to be.

Secondly, each of us has to have courage and be willing to stand up alone. Others can stand beside us, before us, or behind us, but we stand before God alone. God has no grandchildren, only children. Having said that I want to assert a corollary truth that I see repeatedly played out in Scripture. Our spiritual pilgrimages do not follow the same roads or have the same timing as others. Our pilgrimages are incredibly varied. The beauty is that God works differently with each of us throughout our lifetimes.

But in order for us to have an encounter with the resurrected Christ, we must be clear, have courage, and be motivated by our passion. Although each of us learns our spiritual lessons in different ways, we don’t and won’t learn these lessons passively or remotely. Doubting Thomas had to touch Jesus’ wounds before he believed that Jesus had been resurrected. In contrast, Mary Magdalene saw the truth of the resurrection readily and became the “apostle to the apostles.”

V. Conclusion: I believe that this church is being offered the gift of discovering more fully the full spectrum of our spiritual gifts and opportunities for ministry. But in order to seize this moment, we must be willing to respond intentionally to Jesus’ second question: “Who do you say that I am?” God is guiding us, but we must be clear and passionate about what God is placing before us. And know that we are not alone in our response. We are guided by the God who created us. Listen for God’s direction in other passages from today’s reading. Listen to Isaiah and think about the new name given to Peter: “Thus says the Lord. Listen to me you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the Lord. Look to the rock from which you were hewn and from the quarry from which you were dug.” And then take to heart the promise and the prayer at the end of today’s psalm: “The Lord will make good his purpose for me; Oh Lord your love endures forever; do not abandon the works of your hand.” Amen.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

"A House of Prayer for All Peoples"

The Rev. Robert P. Travis

Pentecost 15A RCL

Sunday Sermon – 8 and 10:30am Service, Church of the Ascension, Knoxville TN


Scripture Text: Isaiah 56:1,6-8, Psalm 67, Romans 11:1-2a,29-32, Matthew 15:(10-20),21-28

Sermon Text:

When I was in New York City for college,

I attended the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

It was the closest Episcopal Church to where I lived,

little more than 2 blocks from me.

I'm sure I've told some of you this story,

but it came back to me in a strong way when I read the passage from Isaiah today,

because that church liked to proclaim itself,

a house of prayer for all peoples.”

What they meant by that, and what the Lord meant,

in Isaiah are very different things.

I found that they were trying to welcome people of diverse cultural backgrounds and even different religions.

But my experience as a young college student

had been different.

I called their office the week I arrived at college,

to volunteer as an acolyte, since at that point,

I had been serving as an acolyte at my home

Episcopal Church for 9 years,

I figured I was pretty good at it,

and that it might be a good way

to get involved in the congregation.

They didn't call me back.

I tried a few more times, undaunted.

I finally got someone on the phone who told me,

in a very arrogant sort of way

that they were not interested

in having me serve,

because really only adults do that at the Cathedral.

Of course I was insulted,

for even though I was just 18 years old,

I felt rather like an adult, being in college and all.

I quickly found out, after going there for a few Sundays,

that this church, a great Cathedral,

on the perimeter of a great university,

did not have any outreach

or ministries to the college next door,

and no one under 40 served in their worship.

Very few college students attended that church,

most Sundays, besides myself

I counted one or two others.

To me, it was not a welcoming house of prayer

for Christian college students.

Yet that same church, I learned from my workstudy boss,

who was a practitioner of the Wiccan religion,

a witch if you will,

welcomed witches to have ceremonies and perform pagan, wiccan marriages in the church,

all in the name of being

a house of prayer for all peoples.”

Back then I felt they were missing something,

Now that I look again at the Isaiah passage

they seemed to love,

I realize that they were missing something,

like the whole first part of the sentence.

That sentence indeed talks about welcoming foreigners,

but not so that they can worship some other God.

It describes “the foreigners

who join themselves to the LORD,

to minister to Him,

to love the name of the LORD,

and to be his servants. . .

these I will bring to my holy mountain,

and make them joyful in my house of prayer. . .;

for my house shall be called a house of prayer

for all peoples.”

Of course we want to make the house of the Lord,

a house of prayer for all peoples,

but let us not be misguided into thinking that He

wants us all to worship someone else besides Himself.

The people of Israel, to whom Isaiah was prophesying

were not in danger of being overly welcoming,

but in being too exclusive,

but that came from experience, and a fear,

that when they mixed with other cultures,

and other religions,

they themselves lost sight

of the one true God who chose them.

But in holding to the tradition,

and keeping themselves safe from foreign influence

they lost sight of what the original intention

behind their chosen-ness was,

that God was going to make them a light to the world,

and reach the people of the world through them.

They missed the heart of the commandment,

in overly concerning themselves

with keeping the surface pure.

That's the situation that Jesus and his disciples found,

hundreds of years later when the Pharisees

were so careful about holding fast

to a rigid practice of rules

based on the Old Testament Law.

They lost sight of the love of God, and one another,

that the Law was meant to foster.

So Jesus says something that makes perfect sense to us,

but really challenged their way of thinking,

that “it is not what goes into the mouth

that defiles a person,

but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”

Of course the Pharisees were offended when Jesus

said that, and that's what his disciples reported to him,

because they were laying all the importance

on the outward practice of the religion,

with all its dietary and purity laws,

but losing sight of what came from their hearts,

and the spirit with which they taught others

to follow them.

But Jesus was a part of that same exclusive people,

he was born and raised a member of the tribe of Judah.

And his understanding of himself, was as the messiah,

Who would redeem the lost sheep of Israel.

And so what seem like two separate stories,

In our Gospel this morning,

are tied together with the way Jesus talks to

the Canaanite woman.

Now remember, the Canaanites were the people

Who were in the promised land

before God brought the Israelites out of Egypt

and gave it to them,

they were the very source of the problem with foreigners

and pagan Gods that the whole Old Testament describes.

The Canaanites were the ones who worshipped Baal,

the Golden Calf, or Ashtaroth,

or Molech, or any number of other Gods.

Generally the Jews thought of all the gentiles as dogs,

much like the Greeks called anyone

who was not Greek a barbarian.

The Jewish religion had developed to the point,

that it was part of their chosen-ness as God's people,

to think that the Canaanites especially,

were not equal to them.

But notice how this Canaanites woman

the one who approaches Jesus

In the gentile region of Tyre and Sidon is different,

right from the start,

and how she is similar to the foreigners

who Isaiah describes.

She comes out saying,

Have mercy on me Lord, Son of David...”

Isaiah talks about foreigners

who join themselves to the LORD,

to love the name of the LORD.”

She is calling Jesus Lord, recognizing who he is

as the Son of David who is the Lord God.

Jesus doesn't respond to her,

which was very normal for his culture,

but He tells his disciples

that he was “sent only to the lost sheep

of the house of Israel.”

So when she persists, he explains,

in a way that seems derogatory to us,

but was so common as to be expected from a Jewish man,

It is not fair to take the children's food,

and throw it to the dogs.”

We know that he knew the scriptures, and certainly

that he was familiar with Isaiah, for he quoted it before.

So I think this encounter opened his human eyes

a little more to what it meant to be divine.

Undaunted by his refusal,

she says “yes, Lord,”

again, there she calls him Lord.

yet even the dogs eat the crumbs

that fall from their master's table.”

She acknowledges her place outside the chosen people,

and acknowledges him as master not just of the Jews,

but of the dogs, the foreigners too.

I have to believe that at this point Jesus was reminded

of the prophecy of Isaiah,

that spoke of God broadening his blessing

to those who worshipped him outside of Israel.

And so Jesus show us how to be redeemed when our mouths seem to defile us,

for his mouth might have defiled him there,

had he continued to refuse her.

I know if I had been in his place,

and this person had challenged me,

I probably would have gotten upset, and dug my heels in,

but Jesus recognized her humility,

and her faith in him,

as the Son of God, and praised that faith,

and healed her daughter.

Some might look at this passage and say,

How could Jesus have talked to her like that?

But I believe, and was strengthened in this by

a comment made in the Women's Bible Study this week

that Jesus recognized in that moment,

in himself the same problem that he was just criticizing

in the religion of the Pharisees.

The problem was that just because they were chosen

and set apart, did not mean that the Jews were

the exclusive interest of God,

He wanted them to reach all people.

To be a light to the world, from out of their special place.

Jesus knew he was called to gather the outcasts of Israel,

but the second half of that sentence in Isaiah,

says the Lord will gather others to them,

besides those already gathered.

So in his humanness, Jesus was able to learn, grow,

and recognize the scope of what it meant to be divine.

We too are always challenged to learn and grow,

and recognize what it means to becoming like God,

as children of God.

And like the Jews we are called to reach out and be a light

To those around us who do not experience the special

Status we enjoy as children of the One True God.

We cannot remain smug in our practice

Of our beautiful religion,

Pretending that this is all that matters to God.

We are called to connect with others

who call God their Lord,

or even those who are exploring that,

but aren’t sure what it really means.

We must allow ourselves to be challenged by others,

even when they are different from us,

younger than we think acceptable,

or older than we are comfortable with.

Maybe the ones who will open our eyes,

are from a different kind of upbringing,

or have a different way of life.

However they do it,

however they push us out of our comfortable preconceptions,

they are important to us,

and we cannot grow without them.

One way to find such people,

And grow in your knowledge of how

God is growing you as a disciple of Jesus,

Is through The Koinonia Groups

that we are getting started, here at Ascension.

They are a potential way to meet people like this,

to connect deeply with people

we might not otherwise know meet,

so that we can grow together as disciples of the Lord.

There are other ways to do that here at Ascension too,

but all require that we become involved.

We cannot allow our religion to be a surface expression,

but to experience God's blessing in our lives,

we must go deeper and allow our hearts to be changed.

When everyone, regardless of background,

age, experience, or other difference

is open to that change,

and worships the one true Lord,

then His house will truly be called

a house of prayer for all peoples.”

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

God of hope before us, God of healing within us, God of mercy above us, Come be with us. Amen

1 Kings 19:9-18 Ps. 85:8-13 Romans 10:5-15 & Matthew 14:22-33 Pent. 8 8/7/11 Sun. Asc.

Our scripture readings today focus on the difference between fear and faith. The reading from 1st Kings tells about the prophet Elijah, who faces fear from those who are seeking to harm him. He panics and runs away and hides in a cave. Then in our Gospel reading we learn that the disciples are the ones who are afraid. They have been with Jesus as he preaches to the crowds. However, Jesus sends them away, in a boat to go the other side while he finds time to pray.. The hard part for the disciples is that they are on their own. . All is well for them, until a huge storm comes with high winds and waves that push against the boat the disciples are in. During this storm, Their fear is stronger than their faith.. In our reading from the Psalms we hear about peace for God’s people. Peace, the kind of peace that replaces fear..

In order to appreciate these readings about fear and faith, it helps to reflect on our own lives and recall the times we have faced the kind of fear that causes us to want to hide or even flee. Each of us, at some time or other face fears; such as fears about past or the future, fears about our health, or fears for those we love who are in harms way. When we come face to face with fear it usually is hard for us (I know it is for me) to call on the kind of faith that gives us peace regardless of the situation.

As I reflected on my own fears I recalled some of the times I have been afraid. I remember a time when I was five years old (that’s a long time ago). My family lived in Texas in a costal town. The news was out that a hurricane was on its way to our area. The heavy rains were already there when the news update came saying that the hurricane was going to hit our town directly. We all started preparing for the worse. My Dad nailed tables and doors over the windows in our two story house. We moved all the things we could to the 2nd floor and then waited.

Well, the winds came. They came over 130 miles an hour and stayed for over 13 hours. All electricity was out so we used lanterns. I remember the sound of the winds roaring. At first, my brother and I found this extremely exciting - (surely it was not for our parents). However, as the hurricane hit I suddenly felt fear; fear of the dark and of the wild winds and rain.

Much later, when everything calmed down, the police came in boats to each house to check on everyone.

When we were able to get out of the house we walked around. We first checked out The Baptist church (my Dad was the pastor of this church). It did have windows out and of course water damage. We did what we could to clean up. Then we walked down two or three blocks to see about the Episcopal Church whose priest and family were our close friends. It had had been flattened by the storm. Houses and churches and stores were all damaged.

One thing I clearly remember about that storm is that the excitement I had first experienced quickly turned into fear. I became aware that even though we were safe during the storm others were not. Later, our parents told us about a couple who went to our church whose home was totally destroyed. As the roof was lifted off their house and the walls were falling, this couple and two children ran out into the storm. As they ran the father grabbed two ropes. He wrapped one rope around four of them so they could not be separated. They made their way to a large tree in their yard that thankfully was still standing. He used the second rope to wrap around the tree and then around them. There they stayed through the storm, wet, scared but still alive. The

mother and father later told my parents that the only thing that kept them sane during this time was prayer and their faith. They just didn’t hope, they knew God was with them in the midst of this storm and helped lessen their fear. It was like they heard the words of Jesus, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.

This couples time in the storm was something like the disciples experienced. You see for them, like the disciple, God was not in the winds, not in the rains and not in their fear. Instead God was in their hearts and souls; in their silence and in their prayers for help. Their faith kept them clinging to each other and to life.

It seems to me that sometimes when we experience fear, our minds become filled with fearful thoughts and we become anxious. At those times some of our thoughts are scary. For example thoughts like, “What if I don’t get well? What if I don’t find a job? What if I fail my test and so on? We can let fear overcome us so much that we become so busy worrying, planning for the worse that we have trouble opening ourselves for God’s gift to us – the gift of faith that leads us to peace.

Peace like Elijah found when he suddenly realized that the Lord was talking with him – Only with faith could he let go of fear and receive guidance to move out of the dark cave into the light.

Or peace like the disciples had when they were being tossed around. At that time they, with faith listened to Jesus words and accepted his help. And faith like Peter had when he started walking on the water toward Jesus. .

Fred Craddock says, that “Peter is the voice and heart of the group, he is thus between fear and faith. He walks and he sinks; he trusts and he fears.” Jesus did ask Peter why he doubted, yet he saved him and continued to love him. Craddock also says that Jesus followers have faith, but not enough, and so Jesus nourishes that little faith to the point of confession and praise.

I asked all of us earlier to get in touch with our fears this day, this week. We like the disciples are human and do have fears. Yet there are times that Jesus will ask us to do something extraordinary, like, get out of the boat or get out of our normal daily patterns to take a chance on someone or some situation. Perhaps Jesus might ask us to get out of daily ruts, even change the things in our lives that hold us back from wholeness. When that happens, we all hope and pray that we will respond to Jesus by following his guidance.

Just as Jesus was there for Peter, He is here for you and me. to call us to do things that we think are just beyond us- too hard even impossible – sometimes things we fear..

The knowledge that makes things possible for us to listen to Jesus is to know that Jesus has faith in us. Having our own faith is difficult at times, especially times of storms in our lives, times of rough sailing. Yet our joy today is to know even faith the size of a mustard seed is enough to assure us that Jesus is with us, is reaching out his had to pull or push us and most of all to offer us peace.

Just think, the words Jesus said to the disciples, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid are the same words Jesus says to us when we have fears.” When Peter answers, Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water, and Jesus says, “Come, we can hear that word, Come, to also be for us.

The joy of faith is that we know that Jesus is with us in the storms and in the quiet and when we are afraid. Jesus reaches out to each of us, calling our name and saying “Come” Frederick Buechner says, “Faith is responding to that call.

When we have fears, may we have the courage, to be like Peter and with faith reach out for help. May that be so.


Monday, August 1, 2011

The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Year A The Rev. Dr. Howard J. Hess

Was There Enough? Is There Enough? Will There Be Enough? July 31, 2011

I. Introduction. Today is my birthday. I am pleased and grateful to be sharing this day with you. One of the customs in our family and often in our staff birthday celebrations is to ask the question, “What have you learned in the past year?” My answer to that question in 2011 is rooted in today’s Gospel. I have continued to learn anew an old lesson; I call it the lesson of abundance and sufficiency. During this past year, I have had opportunities to re-learn that, as a disciple of Jesus Christ, I am challenged to live out the truth of abundance in the way I use my time, my money, and the gifts that God has given me. But there is a caveat to this truth. Over and over again, left to my own devices, I will move, particularly under pressure, to my default position of scarcity and worry. It is humbling that the lesson of abundance is one that I re-visit in new situations and new life stages. The questions about abundance are often found in changing circumstances of our lives. Will there be enough if I can’t find a job or advance in the one I have? If we decide to tithe? If one of us works less to be home with our young children? If our home loses value? Or if our retirement savings decrease and there are changes in Social Security benefits? Will there be enough?

II. There is Very Good News About Having Enough in Today’s Gospel. Enter the disciples: Oh no, Jesus, we can’t feed all these people! Are you out of your mind? We promised them an afternoon of teaching and healing, but not a meal. We are not prepared. This project is not sufficiently funded for a meal! There is simply not enough food here to do what you are asking us to do. We are your disciples, but sometimes you’re just not realistic. You ask us to do the impossible – even the ridiculous. Please, let us send these people away. The disciples’ responses to Jesus were based upon the model of scarcity, which often masquerades as reality! But Jesus broke right through what we might call conventional thinking. The miracle of the loaves and the fish that follows is a core story of our faith. It is reported in all four Gospels. With what begins as a very small amount of food, the entire crowd was fed. And not only were they fed, but twelve baskets of food were left over. Despite the disciples’ fears, there was abundance, not scarcity.

How could this be? There are varying points of view about how this miracle took place. In our Wednesday morning Bible study, several different explanations were expressed. One view would claim that Jesus’ miracle was creating food that didn’t previously exist. A second view is that Jesus’ miracle was to move the hearts of those in the multitude to share the food that they had brought. Scholars and theologians debate these points vehemently and look to find the exact truth behind the narrative. I think frankly that they are missing the key point. What I am saying is this: too heavy a focus upon the mechanism of the miracle (how it happens) overcomes our comprehension and application of the miracle itself.

In our Wednesday Bible Study on the Lectionary, although there was difference of opinion about the method of this miracle, there was unanimity that Jesus was enacting a miracle of abundance. He was first and foremost making sure that those who came to be healed, taught, or even to satisfy their curiosity were cared for. You see Jesus loved those people. Secondly, Jesus was teaching his disciples an extraordinarily important lesson – when you follow me, do not focus upon limitations, but focus instead upon the unlimited potential of what I can do, and what you can do when you are doing it in my name!

III. Let me fast forward to the here and now. First, please indulge me while I ponder out loud about why the lesson of abundance is one that I’m still learning at this stage of my life. I learned the lesson of scarcity very young. My parents and grandparents had been adversely affected by the depression and lived with many images of scarcity. They worried about not having enough, even though they always did. I was taught to live expecting trouble and to intermix fear with prudence. Prudence is clearly a virtue, but as the wisest have taught us, even virtues in excess can undermine our relationship with Christ.

And for a moment, let’s consider the dynamics of fear and a lifeview of scarcity. A scarcity-based world view inevitably pulls us in the direction of seeing limitations and deficits rather than possibilities and gifts. A deficit model therefore naturally can cause us to hold back and limit our risk-taking rather than follow the teachings of Christ. Christ taught and lived his life with an expectation of abundance. Again and again, Jesus tells us “ “ask whatever you need and it shall be given to you.”

Here at Ascension there are endless examples of God’s abundance at work. Today, on Peanut Butter Sunday, we are focusing upon one of God’s great gifts to thousands of hungry people in this city, which is also one of God’s great gifts to this parish. For those of you visiting this Sunday, as the bulletin explains, each year we take up a special offering to help the Fish Program bring peanut butter and other food to the hungry. Many of you know the story of Fish. Those who come for food are fed without being questioned about their “worthiness for help.” No one spends energy filling out long Department of Agriculture forms and more hours compiling statistics to submit to a government agency. Fish is a story of constant, amazing miracles – food that has come out of nowhere, funds for new food pantries that have come time after time as miracles out of left field. And the gift to us? We are blessed by being able to witness, participate, and be spiritually moved and instructed by what we see. We are privileged, and I mean truly privileged, to see God at work in FISH and other ministries that take place here at Ascension.

IV. Conclusion. God is at work through us and in us. Here’s what I hope is your take-away from this sermon. When God is at work in us, we become a new people. It is impossible to remain untouched. We become more generous, we think in terms of what might happen, rather than what hasn’t happened, and we involve ourselves as action agents in miracles. I have recently read a book by Tom Gunnels titled Keep Your Lights On. His wife Frankie graciously gave me a copy. Tom was a pillar of this church. I regret that he left us before I came to Ascension. In the Foreward to his book (p. 13), Tom wrote that early in his life he observed three things that those who were successful had in common: “1) they focus on what they are doing; 2) they keep encouraging themselves; and 3) they maintain their enthusiasm.” To quote Tom, “I made a conscious decision to emulate those attitudes and began a quest that has led me to this book.”

I would like to lift up Tom’s voice this morning, the voice of one of our own. In whatever God calls us to do, let’s stay focused, encouraged, and enthused about our spiritual mission. This is critical to fully comprehend and accept the gifts that God is giving us and plans to give us in the future. Today we have both an opportunity and a gift. The opportunity is to generously support FISH; the gift is that we are able to come to this communion rail and give Christ our fears and our reservations -- whatever holds us back from fully living out our joyful abundant lives in the Kingdom of God. When your birthday comes and someone asks you, “What have you learned in this past year?” I hope you can answer enthusiastically, “God is good, I am blessed, and new miracles continue to happen in my life.” Amen.