Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Advent 1 Mark 13:24-37

Watching For God


And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”


Not long ago, while sitting with one of our beloved members who had fallen ill, God gave me a life changing experience, an experience that I am deeply grateful for, and an experience that I will not soon forget. You see, I went to see this parishioner as other members had conveyed concerns to our clergy, and though the medical staff at her facility explained to me that they had no reason to be concerned for her health, during that visit I had a very strange but clear feeling that something was wrong. As I sat with our Sister in Christ, something told me to say goodbye. Something told me that it was time. So, I sat down, I grabbed her hand, and I began to pray silently.

Then something completely unexpected happened. As I sat praying with our beloved Sister, my concentration was suddenly broken. It was broken by the presence of two or three people who had just entered the room. Automatically assuming that they were nurses coming for a routine check or task, and opening my eyes turned toward the door to request just a moment longer, I found myself absolutely shocked when I realized that there was no one there at all. There was no team of nurses, no voices in the corridor, no door left ajar. Yet as I returned to my prayer, a prayer for peace, a prayer for confidence, a prayer for the strength to verbally say good bye to a dear person and friend, I still felt them there, someone, something, silently standing close by, accompanying us there in that very special and bitter sweet moment.

At that point I found myself smiling. I prayed for my friend, I opened my eyes, and I told her with complete and pure confidence that she was going to be ok. She was not alone. She would be taken care of, and that it was ok for her to go. I told her how much she was loved by all of us here, and I stood up and left. Later that evening Fr. Rob visited her as well, anointed her with holy oil, felt moved to read her some selections from the Psalms, and later that night, she died.

I thank God for that event, because for me it was a very special and revealing gift, a wonderful sign of encouragement and guidance for me on this spiritual path, and I believe, an experience of Christ's constant presence among us, of God's working within and around us, right here and now. Though I was pretty hesitant to try and confine such an intangible experience to the written words of a sermon, I decided to share it on this first Sunday of Advent because for me it illustrates Jesus's message for us this morning. Keep Awake. Pay Attention. Prepare yourselves for Him.

In this morning's Gospel, Jesus is speaking to his disciples about the end, about the second coming. He is speaking to them about the events leading up to end times, and more importantly about His expectations of all of us until then. Quite unfortunately though, it often seems to me that this last and most important part of Jesus' message is easily forgotten or ends up somehow just simply not being heard from today's Gospel. Perhaps it is because the prospect of the Apocalypse is so deeply frightening, or perhaps because the sheer magnitude of such an idea is overwhelming to us altogether? Regardless though, focusing on and looking for the end and second coming is not, I believe, the point that Jesus wishes for us to take from His words today. Rather, today Jesus is calling each of us to be awake. To be aware. To be prepared for His coming, not just into this world at the end of time, but into each of our hearts, and into our individual lives, daily.

This is of course a fitting message for us on this first Sunday of Advent; a time when we begin preparing ourselves in another more symbolic, liturgical, and commemorative way for the Incarnation and the coming of Christ into this world which we celebrate at Christmas. However, what I hear in Jesus' words for us this morning is a message that is in some ways much more practical and even more applicable to our own spiritual lives. It is a message that delves deeper into each of our own personal relationships with Christ. It is a message that urges us to take notice and to pay attention to the already Incarnate Christ that is present here and now with you and me. In this morning's Gospel lesson, Jesus calls His disciples and us today into a state of constant preparation; He calls us to prepare ourselves, to prepare our very beings, to both see and receive the God who stands before each of us, who works around us, and who lives within us, now. Jesus is explaining to us today that these apocalyptic events will indeed come to pass, and that there will be signs for us to read, but that what is truly important is what we decide to do with our souls and our lives in the mean time. He is pushing us to be vigilant in the way, to live life as he has directed, and to live a life aware of and constantly seeking communion with Him and one another. Keep awake.

But, of course, the big question is: how do we actually do that? How do we prepare ourselves, keep awake, stay aware of what God is doing in our lives? How do we get ourselves to the point where we can recognize the presence of God when we feel it, and the guidance of God when we see it? The answer, I warn you, is not a very attractive one. The answer is: we practice. As Christians and even as children of God, the truth is that we must continually practice seeking God, and we must practice perceiving God in all things in order to actually increase our awareness of Christ's presence in this world. In other words, we must seek in order to find. We will not see if we are not consciously looking. We can only recognize and acknowledge when we truly believe.

Personally, I feel that at least in part, I have learned a bit about this lesson. The neat thing is that I recognize that I have learned it right here at Ascension and through all of you, and frankly it is one of the lessons in my spiritual life for which I am most grateful. You see one of the greatest parts of being a clergy person, at least in my opinion, is having the absolute honor and privilege to hear and witness God working in people's lives all the time. It's the being allowed to hear your stories of God, and how you perceive God in your lives. It's the seeing God work in and through each of you, and how you change and are shaped by God before my very eyes. It's having the constant opportunity to practice seeking God together. What you all really taught me, is how to practice. We practice by accompanying, sharing, and abiding with each other in community.

If I did not have that, if I did not have all of you to walk with and to help me practice seeing God in my daily life, well I can very easily see how such a life changing experience like the one I shared with you today could have gone a completely different way; how I could have just as easily missed it. For example, I can just imagine, how if I didn't have my small but faithful weekly Other Brothers bible study or the women's lectionary study/sermon prep. to lift before me the innumerable examples in Scripture of people encountering God throughout History, well I could have just as easily dismissed my experience that day in the hospital as either a fluke or coincidence. I can just imagine, how if I didn't have my young families group, koinonia group, Sunday School class, and many others to provide me with meaningful relationships, shared stories, and encouragement in and through which God is encountered, well I could have been more prone to say that I was just hearing things that day in the hospital. I can just imagine, how if I didn't have my clergy peers and Christian friends to constantly encourage me in setting time aside to intentionally encounter God on my own and in prayer, well I could have just brushed off what I felt and experienced and I could have left the hospital that day pretty much exactly the same as I was when I entered. You all help me to practice seeing God in my daily life, and for that I am ever grateful. That is what we all do for each other when we are really doing Church right, we help each other to be aware.

That, Brothers and Sisters in Christ, is what I hear Jesus calling us to in this morning's Gospel, and that is what I hope to lift up to you all today. It is the need and the responsibility that we each have to help one another stay aware of God's presence in each of our lives. Because if we don't strive to see God in the here and now, if we don't faithfully seek Him out, if we don't constantly practice, then what often happens to us is that we basically end up walking around in this world with spiritual blinders on. We can very easily end up living out our lives, even as good Christian people, in a state of deep spiritual sleep. That's not the life that Jesus calls us to. That's not a life which allows us to change and to grow in Him. So what I say to you this morning my friends, is let's not allow each other to continue down such a path. Let's not allow each other to continue to sleep. Instead, let us walk together and learn. Instead, let us share with one another and grow. Instead, let us together abide in Christ's constant presence and keep awake.

And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

Amen.


Monday, November 14, 2011

All We Have to Decide. . .

The Rev. Robert P. Travis

22nd Sunday After Pentecost Sermon – 8:00 and 10:30am

Church of the Ascension, Knoxville TN

RCL Proper 28 Year A 11/13/201

Text: Zephaniah 1:7,12-18, Psalm 90:1-8,12, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, Matthew 25:14-30

Sermon Text:

I’m starting today with the assumption,

that since we’re going to come up and present

our pledges for the support of this community in 2012,

in just a few minutes,

you’ve already done your praying

and have already carefully prepared your pledge,

and filled out your pledge card.

So while this gospel passage lends itself very well

to financial stewardship,

given that it’s all about money,

you might be pleased to know

that I am not going to talk about money today.

But just in case one of you is sitting out there thinking

You know, I wish Fr. Rob would just tell me

what to do with this card,”

here’s a little help,

for every hundred thousand dollars you earn in a year,

put $10,000 on the card.

For example, Let’s say you think you might earn $200,000 next year,

take your card,

write $20,000 for next year’s pledge,

and you’re done.

It’s that easy to tithe.


Now I’m not going to talk about money any more,

relieved?

well, I’d really like to say it’s all easy now

but really it’s not.

This gospel passage does not let me say it’s easy

Talents in this passage are units of money,

but they have come to mean abilities and gifts

in our language, because of this passage,

and that’s what I want to talk about.

But while pleasing God with our talents is not easy,

it is not something to be afraid of,

and that is what is at the heart of this Gospel.


One of the things that stood out to me first here,

that I think I missed before,

was that the master entrusted his property,

to his slaves, “to each according to his ability.”

He was not expecting that the one he gave the

one Talent would give him back 10.

But while the expectations were proportionate to ability,

the attitude of the servant was expected to be the same.


Notice that the master does not deny

what the last servant accuses him of,

except for the judgment that he is a “harsh man.”

perhaps the other servants knew as well,

that their master was a shrewd business man,

and got unexpected gains from his wealth,

taking profit that was above what others expected.

SO the main difference between the three servants,

was not the amount they were entrusted with,

but the attitude they had about their task.

The first two servants tried to be like their master,

and were successful in following his lead,

the final one, on the other hand, was afraid

of his master’s example,

and gave up before he started.

He did not trust himself, his own ability,

and he did not trust his master’s example.


Let me tell you another story to bring this up to date.

There is a woman in our congregation

who lives in a nursing home.

She is very frail,

and often suffers from a physically debilitating condition.

One might say that she does not have much ability,

to do something for God.

And most would say God doesn’t require

anything of her.

But she doesn’t see it that way.

She feels she has something to offer,

even within her limited community.

She knows the Lord, knows He loves her,

and knows that He has given her love for others,

and a passion for knowledge and study.

So this woman, from her wheel chair,

between serious bouts of illness,

went about organizing a lending library

for her nursing home,

setting up a women’s bible study,

and a poetry group,

and not least of all,

arranged for us to bring the Eucharist to the home,

and constantly invites people

to join her when we share the sacrament there.

People are blessed by her presence,

and she is returning to God,

through the praises of others,

an increased measure of the love she feels from God.


When I asked her how she did it all,

for she has faced some stiff opposition,

from people who don’t want change,

and especially from people

who believe we’re theologically wrong,

she responded that she just loves her fellow residents,

and everything she does with them,

helps her see Christ in each of them.

That love keeps her going in spite of the opposition.

One might say, she doesn’t have a lot to work with,

but she has taken the talent she has been given,

seen what Christ does in people,

and out of that love,

made her talent reap much greater benefit for the master

than one might expect.

She trusts her own limited time and ability,

and she trusts her God to accomplish the rest.


In the readings today we’re presented

with a stark contrast, what is displeasing to God,

versus what is pleasing.

Now don’t get me wrong,

this is not about earning our salvation,

it’s about what we do,

once we know we’re servants of the King,

with the talents we’ve been given so freely,

how we return praise to him,

in the hopes of “entering into the joy” of our master.


But the rather dark and scary passage from Zephaniah,

tells us clearly what is not pleasing to God.

God is not pleased with people “who rest complacently

on their dregs,

those who say in their hearts,

The Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm.’”

It is a grave misunderstanding of God,

to believe as so many do in our society,

that God is not active in the world,

and that God just wants us to be happy and pursue our own happiness.

They do not trust God, or themselves, and become complacent,

That complacency about God leads us,

as the Psalm says, to

consume away in (God’s) displeasure.”

These passages are about the request at the end of the psalms,

So teach us to number our days,

that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.”

That we may apply ourselves to pleasing God with what we’ve been given.


If we know God, we know that he wants everyone

to know him, to know his love, and love him in return.

That is the overwhelming testimony of scripture.

And if we’re really reinvesting the gifts

we have been given,

the best way to follow his example,

the best way to trust God,

rather than burying our gifts in the ground,

is to seek to make more disciples.

That is what Jesus commanded us,

as the core of our mission.

But how we each go about that mission varies

according to our ability, and according to the situation

we find ourselves in.


That reminds me of the story of Albert McMakin,

you all know him right?

Well, maybe a few of you do,

because we hear about him in Alpha,

but he’s not that well known.

Yet he did something,

that brought much more reward to God,

in terms of disciples, than he could possibly have thought.


See, as a young man Albert knew Jesus,

and wanted to please God by sharing Jesus

with his friends,

by inviting them to come with him to a church meeting.

He had gathered a group to go and hear an evangelist

speak, and one of his friends resisted.

This friend was good looking,

and was much more interested in girls than in church.

He said no, he wasn’t interested,

But Albert McMakin persisted,

he said to his friend.

you don’t have to come into the event,

but could you just drive the van?

His friend agreed to drive the van,

and after all his friends were in the meeting,

Albert’s friend sat in the van,

eventually his curiosity got the best of him,

and he left the van and snuck in the back

to see what was going on.

He listened to the evangelist,

and was very moved,

he decided to give his life to Christ,

and went on to become an evangelist himself.

He eventually spoke directly about Jesus

to hundreds of thousands,

through television reached millions with the gospel,

and served as a spiritual advisor

to generations of American Presidents.

His name was Billy Graham.


Now, when we’re faced with that kind of legacy,

we can easily say,

we can’t all be Billy Grahams.

But we can all be Albert McMakins.


You never know what God will do through the people

you reach with the talents you have been given,

If you only make one other disciple in your life,

That person may go on to make ten,

or a million!

You just have to be faithful with what you’ve been given,

and not bury your talents,

or your friends and acquaintances in the ground.

I love that time in the Lord of the Rings:

when Gandalf says to Frodo,

All we have to decide

is what to do with the time given to us.”

It is so much like the psalm.

So teach us to number our days,

that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.”


The heart of the gospel to day,

is a slight modification,

all we have to decide,

is what to do with the talents given to us.

Don’t be afraid to invest your talents for God’s pleasure.

God will take care of the rest.