Monday, October 31, 2011

Giving without Praise

The Rev. Robert P. Travis

20th Sunday After Pentecost Sermon – 8:00 and 10:30am

Church of the Ascension, Knoxville TN

RCL Proper 26 Year A 10/30/2011

Text: Micah 3:5-12, Psalm 43, 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13, Matthew 6:24-34

Sermon Text:

When I read this gospel passage,

knowing I’d have to preach on it,

I have to admit I felt apprehensive.

Not only have I never preached on this before,

but over the years I’ve received strong criticism

citing exactly these words from Jesus.

Pointing to this passage, I have, on several occasions

had devout protestants ask me

Why do people call you “father” in your church,

don’t you know Jesus said “call no one ‘father’ on earth?”

As if to point out how they are more Christian than we are.

I often thought they were somehow missing the point,

but could never quite put my finger on what they were missing.

Maybe some of you teachers and instructors,

were concerned when you heard Jesus tell us

not to be called teacher, or instructor either?

So I began this week, not sure of what to say about this myself

and feeling the weight of indictment

from brothers and sisters in Christ.

I brought uncertainty to the Women’s Bible Study on Wednesday, and while they reassured me,

thanks to the NIV Study Bible Commentary, that

obviously we are not to take this passage literally,”

I left rather unsettled.

However some of the discussion there,

followed by some other conversations did, in fact, help me

to find a message that is particularly relevant to us today.

It’s important to note that Jesus makes an indictment:

of the religious leaders his own time, who, he said,

loved to receive praise and honor for their deeds and positions, and who made sure everyone knew what they had done

so they could receive their praise.

This was not new though.

The prophet Micah, hundreds of years earlier,

was also criticizing leaders, in his case other prophets

who were practicing religion

in a similiarly false way.

They were proclaiming “peace” when they had something to eat,

in other words, as long as people filled their pockets

they would prophesy good things for them,

claiming that God would blessing them with prosperity,

as long as the cash kept coming.

It’s shocking to me how similar that sounds to me,

to the message of the mega-church pastors,

and televangelists these days who actually teach,

a gospel called, the prosperity gospel.

But Jesus is going beyond Micah’s message,

Jesus is criticizing the way leaders in his time,

did things to receive praise from others,

while hardly lifting a finger to help

those around them who were oppressed

by the way of life those leaders set up.

But people don’t do that today do they?

Do people do good deeds just to be seen by others?

Do you know anyone who does that?

One person I talked to about this passage this week,

said it reminded her of those who sit on prominent boards,

so that their name will be seen on the list of that organization,

but many of them don’t do anything significant to help.

When you think about it, charities today

are fairly well set up to offer us what Jesus is saying is wrong.

The more I thought about this, the more guilty I began to feel.

After all, just last Friday, I remember driving in the car,

listening intently to the radio,

waiting with anxious excitement,

hoping to hear them announce my name

on WOUT for the $10 pledge I made during their fund drive,

and when it came, I was fairly well beaming.

All for $10!

And they make these announcements

for as many people as possible

because so many are just like me,

loving to hear their names called,

even when their gifts alone make little difference.

Organizations all over the world

are counting on this particular flaw in human pride

year in and year out to help them grow.

For those of you who don’t know,

my wife, Jackie, spent many years as a fundraiser

and she told me a story about a particular gift

to Harvard Medical School that came in when she first got there.

A couple had given a very large sum of money to the school,

and as a result had a very prominent building named for them.

As often is the case with gifts of this magnitude,

they had a gift contract with the school

which said that should this building ever cease to exist,

a building of equal prominence and importance

would bear their name in perpetuity.

But the truly remarkable thing about all of this

was that the building they were naming was about 150 years old,

and for those of you who don’t know,

Harvard Medical School was built with the marble

rejected by the New York Public Library.

So here was a couple giving millions of dollars

to put their name on an old building made of 2nd rate materials,

but demanding that their name remain there forever!

So that is what the world offers us.

But Jesus is calling us to something very different.

He calls us to lead as servants,

to contribute from a place of humility rather than pride

to give generously and to sacrifice,

but to do so in an altogether different way.

But when the world is set up to honor us

in the ways we are told we should not seek to be honored,

how are we to live out Jesus’ teaching?

I’ll tell you, there is one place in this world

where you can live out both Jesus’ call to serve others

with gifts of time and money

without having to worry about violating this teaching.

Where you can lead and therefore give

in a way that humbles yourself,

and lifts others up.

There is one place in which all who give

of what they have are completely equal,

no matter how much they have to give.

That place is right here, in the Church.

It seems many haven’t learned,

though we have had these lessons for thousands of years.

They think that leadership is about standing out

as an individual above other people,

and having influence with prestige attached.

Jesus tells us that serving others is the way to greatness,

and that can be done best,

by putting our best efforts,

our time, our talents, and our treasure,

into a group effort where no one person gets the credit,

but many see the results.

The good news is we have a way

to do good things, very good things,

to make a difference, without worrying about

receiving your own glory or praise for your contribution.

We pledge to make a difference,

we give to make a difference,

in the lives of those around us,

to make difference in our community.

But the key is,

when we pledge and give to this church,

then we are a part of the difference being made,

without falling into the trap of receiving credit

or needing to receive credit

for the amount of good that our gift has done.

When we give together as a community of faith,

not only can our gifts together make a bigger difference,

than they could do separately,

but we help our hearts be in the right place,

we can be proud that we are a part of a great church.

But by being humble and giving our gifts

as part of one another,

in community we give glory to the body of Christ,

and avoid exalting ourselves in the process.

The greatest among you will be your servant,

You don’t support the church to be praised,

But so the name of the Lord will be praised

by those whom you have served.

Ascension is a place of leadership in this community.

Let’s make it a place where Christ is exalted

for our servant leadership.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

What do you know about Jesus?

The Rev. Amy Morehous
Church of the Ascension
Proper 25, Year A
October 23, 2011

You come along. . . tearing your shirt. . . yelling about
Where do you get that stuff?
What do you know about Jesus?

--- Carl Sandburg, “To a Contemporary Bunkshooter”

That deceptively simple and angry beginning sounds like something we might read online, doesn’t it? Has anyone here heard it before? It’s actually the beginning of a poem first published in 1916 by Nobel laureate, Carl Sandburg. It’s a sometimes angry, sometimes sarcastic screed of a poem against false preachers - people preaching a false Gospel, and putting words in the mouth of Christ. Someone who is the exact opposite of Paul’s description of a minister of the Gospel.

I can’t quote the whole poem here. There’s definitely not any love in it, and it uses several words that I can’t use at the dinner table. It is a fast gallop of a poem, full of slashing words and images. It makes of itself an interesting paraphrase of the question Jesus asks the Pharisees in today’s gospel. “What do you know about the Messiah?”

We are dropped into the end of a long wrangling discussion between Jesus and the religious authorities of the time. Jesus listens to their final question, and answers it with familiar words. (Jesus’ answer is one they would have known - a portion of the Shema, the twice-daily Hebrew prayer acknowledging God as the center of life.) “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your mind.” (Then Jesus adds something from Leviticus, from the priestly Code of Holiness.) “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your mind and all your soul, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Well, that about sums it up, doesn’t it? Go do that, and I’ll see you later, everyone.....

That would be the shortest sermon in history, wouldn’t it? After all, Jesus’ answer is pretty clear - not a lot of mystery about it. Difficult to do, maybe even almost impossible.

The two great commandments are simple, but they have teeth: not only are they almost impossible, they’re costly. And mostly, we don’t comply. I don’t know about you, but I don’t live out those commandments, and most of the time, I’m really trying. Perhaps we can’t. God’s call is like that; it always stretches us, pulls us from wherever we are, so that we will strive to be more. It is like the horizon - we can always see it but never reach it.

They are commandments - not suggestions. Jesus doesn’t say love God - if you feel like it. Love God - when you have time. Love your neighbor - when it’s convenient. Love your neighbor - when it’s politically expedient. Love your neighbor - as long as they believe the same things you do, look the same way you do, value the same things you do. And worse, we are to love our neighbor as we love ourselves - you mean, we’re supposed to not only love our neighbor, we’re supposed to love and care for ourselves as well? Who has time for that, in this one lifetime??

That’s the costly part of Christianity. The part that asks us to love God enough, to love ourselves enough to turn around and give ourselves up, to give up all that is superficial and false in order to take on the life in Christ. To love those who are other than us. If it doesn’t make us fidget in our seats, we’re probably not paying attention, because it asks us to take a risk, to do something that might make us look foolish, might make us stick out from everyone else. I don’t know about you, but I’m happy to be a Christian - as long as it doesn’t actually ask me to change, or make me feel too uncomfortable, or expect me to make any actual sacrifices. Much like the Pharisees, who feel pretty secure in the way they’ve already structured their lives, and their beliefs.

Continuing in the discussion, Jesus turns the tables on the Pharisees, and asks them questions. The Pharisees are confused by Jesus’ response to them, and they fall silent, and question him no further. His answer confuses us too, if we’re honest. It doesn’t seem to make sense. How can the Messiah be both David’s ancestor and heir at the same time? Jesus is not debunking his Davidic ancestry here - he is pointing out one of the Divine paradoxes - he is both in time and beyond it. He IS the son of David, the son of man - love incarnate in this world, fully human. Touching, speaking, loving, dying. But the Pharisees don’t understand that he is also the Son of God, and his love is not bound by time, is not confined to our linear sense of past, and present, and future.

When I first read these few sentences, I thought this part of the reading should have been left out, that it was part of a different lesson. But that would be wrong. That second part is vital, because in it, Jesus links the coming of the Messiah to the commandment he’s just given. In his own person, Jesus is linking law...and love. Jesus is aware that loving God, and loving each other isn’t an easy task for us. He knows that we are going to fail, more often than we succeed.

Even knowing that we will fall short of God’s commandment of love, Jesus is giving us hope and promise. He points out that he is the place where love and law intersect: he IS the way, and the truth and the life. That intersection changes the way we relate to law, to each other.

Today, we come together to do the same thing the Hebrew people gathered to do long ago: to come together as a community to worship an almighty God with prayers, and with sacrifice. We wrestle with how to live in community - how to bring people in, how to reunite when we have been divided, how to be God’s people in a hard and harsh world. In a few minutes, we will welcome three very loved children into our community in baptism. We are lucky enough, here, to be given the responsibility of loving them, and their family. They are powerful reminders that we are here to teach each other how to love - how to be the people of God.

And, I would argue, we’re all together, not only to learn to love each other, but to learn to be loved. Another of my favorite poets, W.H. Auden, once wrote, “We are all here on earth to help others; what on earth the others are here for, I don’t know.” Well, I’ll tell you a hard learning for me. The others are here to love us, even when we aren’t very lovable. God sends people into our lives to love us, even when we don’t feel as if we deserve it. That’s the beauty of grace - we always receive more than we deserve. That love we receive from others is a small token of the love offered to us in Christ, who loves us completely and wholly, even though we are imperfect. God brought us each here to this place seeking something in each other, seeking something in God. What we seek is a glimpse of that divine love - that attracting love in Christ that draws us closer to each other, and to God.

The good news Jesus brings, along with his gracious commandment, is that the Messiah we were waiting for - came. Came to fulfill the law, to show us how to live out that Divine love. Came as a descendant of David. Came and walked on this earth, and spoke to the people. Loved them with everything in him, even in the face of their humanity and their cruelty, ate and drank with them, wept with them. Loved them so much, that he gave himself for them. He gave his very self for us. For each of us.

So, “What do you know about Jesus?” And if you do know something about him, if you’ve met him here, or elsewhere - then what? Does it matter? Does it matter that Jesus loves us? If it does matter, then what kind of people would Jesus have us go forth and be, as we fumble our way through this life? Christ challenges us all today to be more than we are, pushes us to the very horizons of our love. There’s a verse near the end of Sandburg’s poem: “I ask you to come through and show me where you're pouring out the blood of your life.”

Where are we pouring out our love, as if it were the very blood of our life? We are here to love each other - and that love is a choice. We can choose to treat one another as brothers and sisters in Christ - no matter what. No matter that we disagree, no matter that we disappoint one another, no matter than we are a fallible people. No matter that our lives are short, and our troubles long. We are here to love, to be loved, to learn through the course of our lives how to live into that relationship with God, in Christ. If we do that, if we pour out our lives, in offering and sacrifice, we will live fully, as the people of God we were meant to be.

May it be always be so.


Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost: Proper 24 Year A

Matthew 22:15-22

Christ's Own Forever

“And to God the things that are God's.”

So, I am going to start today's sermon off by doing something that is a little bit unconventional, at least by Episcopalian standards. I am going ask for you all, the congregation, to do something participatory this morning. So what I would like you all to do right now is to reach out in front of you and grab that nice little red book we call the Book of Common Prayer which is in front of you, and I would like each of you to turn to page 308. Now this is a section of our prayer book that most of us are pretty familiar with. The page you are looking at contains the words and prayers which are said towards the end of a Holy Baptism.

They are the very words that were prayed over each of us at the time of our own baptisms, both in the Episcopal Church and in many others. What I want to ask of each of you this morning, is for you to read aloud, together, the words that are normally said as the priest is marking the recently baptized person with holy oil, which can be found right in the middle of that page. So let's try that now. Thank you, you may put your prayer books away. You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ's own for ever. WE are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and WE each are marked as Christ's own forever.

In today's Gospel lesson, Jesus also speaks about markings and ownership, though not in those exact words. When we encounter Jesus this morning, He is facing yet another tricky and challenging question from the Pharisees and this time the Herodians about tax payment. Their question is, of course, intended to force Jesus into offending or upsetting either the general public or the Herodians. However, in His typical fashion, Jesus transcends this challenge by referring to the markings on a Roman coin and basically saying that things should be given to whom they belong. If something carries the mark of someone else, then it certainly must belong to that person, right? It seems to me though, that Jesus' statement to the Pharisees begs a certain question, a question that Jesus, the Pharisees, and each of us, already know the answer to. Is there anything in this world, including Caesar's coins, that are not in all actuality God's? The answer, of course, is no. All things are God's. All that there is, all that we have, and all that we are is God's. We are God's, and we are marked as His forever.

I had to begin this sermon with our re-reading that piece from our baptismal liturgy, because as I began to prepare this week, it was the very first thing that came to my mind when I read this morning's Gospel and I felt that it drove home the point that I believe Jesus is making to each of us today. We are all marked as Christ's own forever. You see, though this Scripture is typically used as a way to speak about money and the responsibility of Christian's to give monetarily to the church, and though it is almost in perfect timing with stewardship campaigns everywhere, I am not really so sure that Jesus is actually talking about money in this morning's Gospel. Not that the idea of giving money for the glory of God is bad, of course. Actually, it is one of the most clear and tangible ways that we can give to God what is God's, and we can support and further the work of Christ in the world. But what Jesus is saying in today's Scripture just seems to go so much deeper than money to me. It seems less about material things or sacrifice, and more about awakening ourselves to an understanding our true identity or purpose in Christ.

I assume that most of us have probably heard many call stories in our lives; stories of pastors, priests, and monastics being called into their ministries. In those stories, regardless of the details of their callings, what we typically encounter at the center is a profound need or urge to give over one's self to God. To let go. To give back. To truly dedicate one's self, and one's life to God as a result of the eternal Love and infinite Mercy shown to us in Jesus Christ.

This is an attempt to truly and fully give to God what belongs to God. It is a deeply challenging and incredibly beautiful effort, one which began for me in a way I will personally never forget, and yet, the question I think we have to ask ourselves today based on Christ's words this morning puts such stories in a different light. Is such a deep level of commitment really only to be reserved for those intending to enter into Holy Orders? In other words, are each of us not to seek God and focus ourselves on God in this same way? Are we not each to strive to live in such a way that places God at the center of our lives as well, at the very core of our beings, in our very hearts? I believe so, and I believe that this is the very message and reminder that Jesus has for each of us this morning. That is what is meant by Jesus urging us to give God what is God's, and that is what we are reminded of in the words of our Baptismal blessing, you are marked as Christ's own forever. We are God's, and we must return ourselves to Him.

You know, this just very well may be one of the most important messages that we can hear today. I mean it seems to me to be one of the most important messages that we can hear as Christians living in a 21st century America. A place and a time where in just a few short years church and the worship/study of God has lost its place of importance in our lives and our society. A place where Wed. evenings are no longer for family gatherings and meals in fellowship at church. A place where Sunday evenings are no longer set aside in our schedules for youth events and service. A place where even Sunday morning itself has fallen drastically in importance in comparison to our sporting events, our jobs, and even our plans, even right here in the good old Bible belt. Jesus' message today, is a wake up call. It's a reminder, a warning to our world that no matter how much we fight it, try to deny it, or attempt to convince ourselves otherwise, WE ARE HIS always.

On one hand, that is our good news this morning. That is part of what I hope we take home with us today: We are His, no matter what, and as the Apostle Paul says, absolutely nothing can ever change that, and that is joyous news. However, on the other hand, I think that we must also take the other side of Jesus' message to heart today as well, and truly begin to reteach ourselves how to give ourselves to God. How do we give God what belongs to God? How do we give ourselves to God?

I venture to guess that we all know the tried and true answers to those questions. We give of our time, talents, and treasure. This is correct, and there are many incredible individuals right here sitting among us now who I am blessed to witness and who have inspired me day in and day out by the incredible amount of joyful service and dedication that they constantly demonstrate here at Ascension. Attending bible studies, volunteering, teaching, greeting, preparing for services, serving in worship, singing, caring for the grounds, or just simply cleaning up the messes that others leave behind. Such individuals are an inspiration to us all. Yet, I dare say that such honorable actions in and of themselves are not exactly what Jesus is talking about in today's Gospel either. Simply striving to give of our time, talent, and treasure, misses Jesus' point for us this morning, because at the end of the day Jesus is not really interested in our actions, or our gold coins for that matter. He is interested in our hearts, for they are His, and it is only from a right heart, a person centered on God, a person overflowing with the joy that comes from realizing the truth of their redemption in Christ, that such actions can truly and authentically spring forth.

I want to encourage us all during this year's stewardship drive, and really always, to seriously think about our hearts. Where do they lie? How have we failed to place God at the center of our lives? Consider whether our offerings of time, talent, and treasure actually come from a place of obligation, or one of joy and celebration. Let us use this time as an opportunity, an opportunity to take stock of our lifestyles and our relationship with God, not simply seeking to find favor in God's sight, but in an attempt to once again live out of the truth of Christ's redeeming Love for each of us, and to let that truth be the sole motivation for the giving of our time, talent, and treasure. Let us work together to reteach ourselves that we really are God's, We are marked as Christ's forever, and it is in celebration of that beautiful truth that we gladly give to God all that belongs to Him, ourselves, our souls, our bodies.

“And to God the things that are God's.”


Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost October 2, 2011

The Truth of the Matter Is, There Are Consequences

The Reverend Dr. Howard J. Hess

I. Introduction. The Truth of the Matter Is, There Are Consequences When we turn away from God and God’s Son. This week I met with the Wednesday Women’s Bible Study to consider today’s lectionary readings. As always, the discussion was lively and thought provoking. Shortly into the study, one of the participants asked, “Where is the good news or the joy in all of this?” She was astute – today’s parable demonstrates greed, stubbornness, murder, and ultimate retribution. The answer I gave was this: “The good news is in the truth of today’s readings, because knowing the truth, particularly God’s truth, will always ultimately set us free.” Were I in the study now, I would add to my answer that one aspect of God’s truth is God’s persistent, constant offer of grace.

II. What then is the truth of God found in today’s parable from Matthew? God has created us; God has placed us in a beautiful vineyard that is his, not ours; God has blessed us beyond measure; and God has called us to respond faithfully in return. If we reject God’s claim upon us, God will try repeatedly, in many different ways, to break through our excessive focus upon ourselves. God will give us multiple chances to change; grace will flow.

I am afraid that we are pushing uphill in our culture when we try to communicate these truths. Many of us have been taught that what we think, what we want, and what we need forms the basis of reality. The rather stark truth is that often we have been led to believe that we are at the center of our own universes and therefore entitled to what we desire.

I saw this very clearly in my university teaching. Many students felt absolutely entitled to an A grade. In fact, anything less than an A was often unfair and due to the professor’s dislike of the student. Universities have developed methods of appropriate review to examine such complaints. And, when I became an Associate Dean of Academic Affairs, I somewhat less than joyfully became a major step in the review process within my school. I will never forget one incident in which a student had actually received quite a low grade and became rageful. She came to me, the first step in the appeal process, and demanded that I reverse the professor’s final grade. I arranged for a panel of faculty in the same academic area to review her work carefully. They unanimously substantiated the original grade. She subsequently exhausted all levels of appeal and the grade stood.

The student then made a threat to murder her professor and to murder me for not overturning the professor’s grade. The university security concluded that there was every reason to believe that the student intended to execute her threat. She had become entrapped in a false understanding of what was true. Avenues that might well have been available to help her – re-taking the course or receiving special tutoring, for example – were blocked by her determination to get what she wanted. In some ways she was not unlike the tenants in Jesus’ parable.

For close to a week the university required Peg and me to move into a hotel and refrain from going home. Three different police forces were involved in handling this case (the university, New York City, and the New Jersey borough where we lived). Eventually the university had information that led them to confidently conclude that the threat level was lessened. They determined that we could check out of the Empire Hotel at Lincoln Center and return home. The student never followed up on her threat, but for several weeks we continued to wake up at night with some fear. We had an apple tree next to our bedroom windows and when the apples dropped, they would explode on the driveway, sounding much like hand grenades reaching their targets. Although there were humorous moments in this experience, the story was on a whole deeply tragic. The grace available to this student had been squeezed out of this situation by her rageful focus upon herself, what she believed she was entitled to, and her determination to utterly control the outcome. Ultimately, the outcome was her own undoing.

III. Father Brett was absolutely correct last week – there is always the opportunity to take a different road, to repent, to turn around, and to accept God’s grace in our lives. That’s why the landowner in the parable, representing God, kept sending more messengers to the tenants, and eventually even his own son, Jesus Christ. Surely they would listen to him. But instead, they kill him. Here the story becomes tragic because the tenants reject God’s legitimate claim. The outcome of rejecting God is always ultimately painful. It would be easier to hear that God is exclusively a God of love -- that it doesn’t really matter how we respond or act.

This form of easy love or cheap grace is very dangerous, writes Deitrich Bonhoeffer. We studied him in this morning’s parish hall class as an example of a leader in a sacramental community. Bonhoeffer is the theologian who has most influenced me in my own formation as a priest. He was executed the year after I was born. We are of two different generations, but his soul speaks to mine. Bonhoeffer had grown up and received his theological training in Germany, a country that has had a rich tradition of theological thinkers and writers. After all, this was the country of Martin Luther! Yet it was here that Bonhoeffer discovered a stark truth about modern religion in the 20th and I daresay the 21st centuries. He had encountered Christian churches that were so obsessed with their own survival and comfort that they were unwilling to follow Jesus Christ. Many Christians refused to see the suffering of the Jews, the homosexuals, and many other groups. Bonhoeffer came to believe that a religion that refused to see the truth was false and hollow. He wrote that it must be replaced by communities of faith that are willing to place Christ in the center, rather than self.

IV. Conclusion. Sometimes I worry deeply about our church in the West -- the church that has nurtured me, introduced me to Christ, trained me, and ordained me. I worry that many of us in North America and Western Europe have moved toward wanting our religion on our own terms -- comfortable, climate controlled, and safe. I’m worried that little by little we have begun to worship the form of our religion rather than its substance, which is Christ the Son of God. I worry that in many of our churches we have become attached to organizational management and maintenance rather than organizational faithfulness. I worry that churches and denominations are suing one another and debating with one another while many of our Christian brothers and sisters in Haiti, the Horn of Africa, and so many other places are literally dying of starvation.

So as my sister-in-Christ asked me, “Where’s the good news in all of this?” It is God’s grace. God keeps giving us new opportunities, new messengers, new days, and more chances. And there is good news here at Church of the Ascension. We are studying God’s word, we are praying together, we are serving many others locally and throughout the world. I sense an ever-deepening desire to be a community in which Christ is at the center of our being. But still, we at Ascension must be vigilant in our Christian commitments. It is the preacher’s job today to plead: “Please, let’s not waste any of the grace-filled time that we have!” Amen.