Monday, January 30, 2012

A Different Kind of Authority

The Rev. Robert P. Travis

8:00 and 10:30am Church of the Ascension, Knoxville TN

RCL Year B 1/29/2012

Scripture Text: Deuteronomy 18:15-20, Psalm 111, 1 Corinthians 8:1-13, Mark 1:21-28

Sermon Text:

I hesitate to start speaking with you all this morning.

I hesitated until yesterday to prepare this sermon,

Which is not my usual pattern,

Or my preferred way of doing things.

But it gives me pause to presume to speak a word to you

In the name of God,

When we heard what Moses spoke to God’s people,

In Deuteronomy.

Any prophet. . . who presumes to speak in my name

A word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak –

That prophet shall die.”

So someone better get the Defribrillator ready in back,

Just in case…

I’m not a prophet or anything,

But what each of us does when we get up here on Sunday,

Is presume to speak in God’s name

a word we have been commanded to speak.

That is where our authority comes from,

And were it not for that authority, there would be little point

In speaking to you all anyway.

In this day and age there are enough messages out there,

Much glitzier, better funded messages,

Which compete for your attention,

And in the face of that competition,

We don’t stand a chance,

But God’s authority is different from the authority of the world, and I believe you know it when you hear it.

That’s what today’s readings are all about.

What is authority?

And how did Jesus have it in a different way,

Than other religious leaders of his time?

When he spoke in the synagogue,

The people “were astounded at his teaching,

For he taught them as one having authority,

And not as the scribes.”

The passage from Mark doesn’t tell us what he said

or even how he said it,

just that he taught with authority.

And as if that teaching were not enough,

He is confronted by a very sick man,

In the same synagogue,

And Jesus demonstrates his authority,

by healing him on the spot.

This is the first act of power that Mark records

About Jesus, and it speaks to that important question,

Which Mark asks of all his readers,

Who do you say that Jesus is?

Is he one with authority?

Will you let him have authority over you?

One of the things we hear about these days,

When we consider the differences between the 6 generations of people who are alive today,

Is the very different ways each generation

deals with authority,

Generally we hear that the older generation has more respect for authority, while the younger generations do not,

Although when you look back on where each generation has been, in the history of the last century or so,

You will find that the same critique was leveled

Against each generation when they were younger.

What is it that younger generations find problematic

About following the authority of the institutions

And individuals laid out for them by the older generations?

I think we could all agree that it is the kind of authority

Given and leveled against them,

And perhaps even more the abuses of that authority,

Which makes people question and rebel against

The Authority of their elders.

From the time we are all very young,

We all need appropriate authority to live right.

We have boundaries set for us as children,

to keep us from getting hurt too much,

to basically help us to survive.

And through much struggle,

Sometimes to the amazement of our parents,

we learn to live within the boundaries of authority,

After we get hurt too much

when we ignore that parental authority.

But that is authority based on fear,

Sometimes it is necessary, and it is usually effective,

But it is so easily used and abused,

That we get confused and think that all authority

Is based on fear of punishment.

And indeed so much of the authority in our lives

Is based on fear of punishment.

But that proves inadequate, in all but the most basic

Aspects of our lives.

So we rebel against it when it is over used,

Or abused.

It is like something in our spirits

Knows that there is a better way,

And so we have the courage to strive for a deeper authority.

That is what we have seen on a global level,

in this amazing last year,

As people have risen up from the Arab Spring onwards,

To question and rebel against authorities in their countries,

Which had abused their own people to the point of becoming truly illegitimate.

It is what is still going on in Syria,

Where the tragedy of a regime trying to hold onto authority

Which has long become illegitimate,

Is destroying its country, its people,

its very life for the sake of

preserving power.

Those kinds of authority have always been present,

But they are so different from the kind of authority

Jesus presents us in himself.

Where this worldly authority is based on

fear of physical punishment,

Jesus’ teachings are based in love

And truth.

Jesus’ authority is a deeper authority,

That our spirits can recognize and follow.

Another kind of authority,

We all confront is the authority of illness and death.

Tolstoy once asked,

what meaning has my life, that the inevitability of death does not destroy?”

And that was a good question to ask.

Now the scripture says this man had an unclean spirit,

And given that it was written thousands of years ago,

And our understanding of health and illness

Are very different now,

We might give the man a different diagnosis.

I think it is safe to say that he was very sick,

So sick, that his speech was really not his own.

Now sickness has a kind of authority

That seems to still get to us, no matter what

amazing advances we have made as human beings.

In fact, it was sickness that really made me

unable to prepare this sermon Thursday or Friday as I normally would have done.

It was nowhere near what we see in the gospel today,

and thankfully I’m 100% better as of yesterday,

but it did strike me as a little ironic that I was thinking about

kinds of authority,

and was then struck with the authority that illness has

over all of us.

When you get sick, you don’t get to decide what you do,

or really how anything will go in your life,

Until you are healed.

You can make the best of it, surely,

and that is admirable, but the sickness still dictates

that you are even having

to make the choice to make the best of it.

That is a kind of authority,

and one we all succumb to at some point or another.

And here Jesus shows that his authority,

Based in love and truth, even has dominion

Over those illnesses which threaten to destroy us.

He is not willing to let the man suffer that unclean spirit,

And he drives the illness out of him.

We continue to see the power that the person of Jesus

Has over illness, physical and mental,

When people come for prayers for healing

And report that they are healed in the name of Jesus.

There are charlatans who abuse that power,

Much like there are people who abuse all kinds of authority,

But the abuse does not negate the fact that the true authority

Has real power, power to heal,

Power to release from bondage of all kinds,

Power to restore to life what was hidden in the fear of death.

In the face of this kind of authority,

We are all required to respond.

The amazing thing is that this kind of authority which Jesus has,

Gives us the freedom to respond.

Maybe it is not such a bad thing after all,

That the last century has brought up 6 generations of people

Who learn by questioning authority.

Maybe we are changing the nature

of how authority works in our world.

Hopefully we are changing our view of authority

away from that based on fear of punishment,

and towards authority based in love and truth.

But if that is going to happen,

each of us here needs to consider

Whether we accept the authority Jesus

would have over our lives,

Is he truly the Lord to us, the one who speaks for God,

Will we let him have authority over every aspect of our lives?

The more authority you let him have in your life,

The more wonderful things he can do with you.

Trust his authority, and see what Jesus will do!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Second Sunday of Epiphany, Year B January 15, 2012

Come and See for Yourself The Rev. Dr. Howard J. Hess

Can Anything Good Come Out of Nazareth?

I. Introduction. In years past, I was sitting where Nathaniel is sitting in today’s gospel. I was searching for a Jesus in whom I could truly believe and for a community where I could be with others of like-mind. I yearned to know Jesus with the simplicity I had known him as a child without all the baggage of condemnation and judgment. Nathaniel was seeking as well – you see, the reference to being under a fig tree in the Hebrew Scriptures refers to one who is studying God’s word to find answers. The very name Nathaniel means “seeker.” Both Nathaniel and I had a grace-filled experience. We both had someone encourage us to “Come and See” the Christ, the Son of the living God. In spite of Nathaniel’s dismissal of anyone who might come from Nazareth, he went to look. In spite of my doubt that I would encounter the Christ I hoped to find, I went to look.

This worn and dilapidated prayer book helped me meet the Christ I sought. Not only the book itself – the book that contains all my marginal notes of when to stand, when to sit, with all the names of believers whom I have baptized, married, and buried written lightly in pencil in the pages of the liturgies. This book was a gift of invitation from an Episcopal priest: “Come and see. In the Episcopal church you may meet a Christ filled with mystery, acceptance, and substance. Come and see for yourself.” And in spite of my skepticism and the many demands on my time, I went to look. For at least a year, I sat on the very back pew of the Episcopal Church I visited. I never filled out a pew card or went to a coffee hour. But I returned again and again to seek and find the living Christ. And he met me there!

Today it is my intent to help us look more deeply and more broadly for the Christ who meets us each in our own needs and personalities.

II. Now I want to be absolutely clear; the source of transforming energy in our encounters with Christ flows from God, not from us. It is God’s grace that illuminates and inspires us to seek him. God’s effort to seek and pursue us is called prevenient grace. Prevenient grace is the nudge, the call to action, the invitation of Phillip in today’s gospel, or the invitation of the giver of this prayer book. Then we must decide. Do we take the risk? Do we step out just to take a look? No long-term commitment yet, just a look. We make a choice. But I must warn you. When we step out to meet Christ, he will invite us in a compelling way to believe in him, to love him, and to follow him. We may respond quickly as John describes Nathaniel’s encounter with Jesus, or we may respond more slowly as I did, but meeting Christ is always just the beginning.

III. This was clear to me in this week’s Wednesday lectionary study with a faithful group of mentors in this parish. I hope those of you in this group know how much we clergy appreciate your counsel and witness. You help the preachers of Ascension see life in the Word. This past Wednesday, the members of this group described many different encounters with Christ, some dramatic and others more subtle, but there was one profound commonality among us. Encountering Christ always surprised us, changed us, and led us into our own ministries. (Jesus said to Nathaniel “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these” . . . “Very truly I tell you that you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” Of course, Jesus is referring to Jacob’s dream while sleeping in the desert and struggling with God.) Our encounters with God and his Son Jesus Christ changed Nathaniel, changed me, and changed the women in this study group.

Iv. Let me share with you how we were changed. One group member was called and began to teach and lead in the Education for Ministry Program, or EFM, although she felt she had no skills to do so. Another was called to be a Eucharistic Visitor which at first was intimidating to her; another took leadership in founding a Florence Crittenden Home here in Knoxville, and still another taught Sunday School for years and years. Another was challenged in a sermon to be less judging, and another is discerning where God is calling her to serve. Still another described the meaning it has had for a family member to be called and to serve as a Stephen Minister. The commonality in all these stories is that we initially felt unworthy or unable to be effective in these ministries. To some of us, myself included, our calls were surprising and challenging. But for all of us, Jesus’ call was compelling. Those calls may sound routine, but for those of us who responded, they were dynamite!

We found that taking the risk to step forward and follow Christ has opened new experiences for us that we had not imagined. As the writer of today’s Psalm tells us, God knows us all so much more fully than we know ourselves. (As Frederick Beuchner wrote, God calls us to ministries where our greatest joy meets the world’s greatest need. We are all created for wonderful ministries. And of course – how could it not be? We are members of the Body of Christ.

IV. Conclusion. As you have just heard, yesterday we had our annual vestry retreat. We considered that in 2011 over 100 new members have joined us or reactivated their membership. They are excited about God’s call to ministry here at Ascension. God has said “Come and see. Come and see if you can find Christ at Church of the Ascension.” To those of you who have come, we are grateful and humbled by your presence. You are a gift to us. To those of us who have been here for some time, I believe God is also urging us to “Come and see.” Come and see what new things Christ has in mind for us here at Ascension – new friends, new ministries, expanding fellowship, and deeper faithfulness. In recognition of the freshness of God's call to us, please join me in the prayer found on p. 528 of the BCP from the Liturgy of the Ordination of a priest:

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Mighty God, God of Peace, God With Us

The Rev. Robert P. Travis

1st Sunday of Epiphany Sermon – 8:00 and 10:30am

Church of the Ascension, Knoxville TN

RCL Epiphany 1 Year B 1/8/2012

Scripture Text: Genesis 1:1-5, Psalm 29, Acts 19:1-7, Mark 1:4-22

Sermon Text:

Today is the first Sunday of Epiphany,

Christmas is over,

and we get to consider

what kind of God is Immanuel

what kind of God is “God with us.”

Our readings help us learn about the nature of God,

and Jesus becoming who He always was going to be,

and hopefully in that we will learn

something about ourselves,

so that we too can live into who

we were always meant to become.

In the beginning we heard about the very beginning,

God creating the heavens and earth,

where all three persons of the Trinity were involved,

The father creating,

the Son being the Word bringing things into being,

and the Spirit sweeping over all of it in blessing like wind.

God creates the great dichotomy of light and dark,

of day and night,

and in that we see something of Gods self,

for God, as any creator, creates out of Gods self,

God's nature is a paradox, totally true,

but grounded in opposites like day and night.

We saw that as we read the psalm together,

this psalm, which is consistent on this Sunday,

across all three years of the lectionary,

though all the other readings change.

The psalm expresses a great paradox of God's nature.

God is glory and strength.

His voice is thunder,

His voice is powerful and of splendor.

His voice breaks cedar trees,

like a tornado or a microburst,

His voice makes a mountain shake like a young ox.

His voice splits flames of fire,

and make the wilderness shake.

These images are mighty and terrible,

and they are images from God's creation,

which show how even the mightiest parts of our planet,

tremble at the voice of the Lord.

So where does that place us?

We feel meek and vulnerable,

and so we are.

If He can make an earthquake, and a tornado,

and make mighty oaks writhe with mere speech,

who are we to stand before Him.

But the paradox shows up at the end of the psalm,

this same “Lord gives strength to his people;

the Lord shall give his people the blessing of peace.”

The same one who is terrifying in might,

brings us the blessing of peace.

So often in our culture we want our God

to be one way or the other.

So we have some churches that focus

on the wrath of God,

God's judgement and our need for repentance in fear,

while others speak almost exclusively

of his peace and love,

and sometimes it seems to me that in each place

one would like to deny that the other exists.

They want to hold onto whatever aspect of God

is most appealing to them.

But we get to consider them both together,

because the testimony of scriptures presents us with both,

and refuses to allow us to hold onto one image of God

without the other.

God is with us in all of God's glory,

and that understanding is at the heart of what it means

to “worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.”

John the baptizer is an image of the wildness of God,

he appeared in the wilderness,

that same wilderness that the voice of the Lord shakes,

proclaiming a baptism of repentance

for the forgiveness of sins.

Baptism means to be overwhelmed,

the word comes from the greek word Baptizo

in ancient Greece that word would be used

when a ship sunk; it was baptized in water,

If an island were to tremble and fall into the sea,

it would be baptized.

John is talking about an overwhelming of water,

to mark a radical change of life

that the person would decide.

And sometimes that's all we think about baptism,

a chance for a new start,

our own taking responsibility for a total reversal of life,

and accepting forgiveness for what we have done before.

But Jesus' baptism was something more,

and it was less about what we can do,

in relation to God,

and more about what God does in us.

Jesus comes to be baptized by John,

not to reverse from where he was headed,

but to head fully in the right direction,

and to receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit.

Some have asked, was Jesus God before his baptism?

And did he only become the messiah

when the Holy Spirit descended upon him.

The ancients argued about that for centuries,

and left us with a yes and a yes.

Yes he was already God and man,

that is what we celebrate in the incarnation,

yes he was becoming the messiah,

the Holy Spirit did something to Him that day,

and he became more fully what he already was.

Here again we witness with Jesus,

the heavens torn apart with great force,

and the paradox of the Spirit descending

ever so gently on him,

like a dove.

And again the contrast goes from God the mighty,

being preached in the wilderness,

to the gentleness of a dove,

and a blessing from a loving Father,

this same voice which creates the world,

and rocks it's foundations,

speaks ever so gently,

You are my Son, the Beloved;

with you I am well pleased.”

Here's the crux of the paradox,

Jesus is participating in a baptism which has to do

with turning away from what happened before,

preparing himself for the mission ahead of him.

His baptism preceded his earthly ministry.

But the blessing he receives from his father,

acknowledges that God the father is

already pleased with him.

Anyone whose father says to them,

son, I'm proud of you,

daughter, I'm pleased with what you've done,

would feel a sense of peace.

But how often do we get those atta boy, or atta girl

before we've even done anything noticeable?

This is a different peace,

a peace that passes all understanding,

and it's based in the love that God has for all of us,

here we were believing that we had to do something great

or at least do nothing wrong, to be pleasing to God

but at his Baptism God's own Son had to show us,

that the pleasure of God comes before we've even begun.

Jesus the man, is blessed,

with the same blessing that

the Lord shall give his people,

the blessing of peace.”

And Jesus is strengthened with the same strengthening,

as we heard, “the Lord shall give strength to his people.”

Following his baptism,

Jesus embarks on the mission of his life,

which leads to the greatest accomplishment

of his accepting death on our behalf,

and destroying death with the power only God has.

And there he began something

which continues to this day,

that disciples who follow him,

have the opportunity to receive the Holy Spirit,

and be strengthened for the purpose for which

they were created.

We see that in the passage from Acts,

where Paul, an apostle,

meets early disciples

who had been baptized with John's baptism,

but had not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.

So Paul, like our bishops of today, who descend in succession from him and the other apostles,

laid his hands on them,

and they received the Holy Spirit.

This same Holy Spirit is available to each of us,

and will create in us that which we already are,

but need to be more fully.

Yet we remain afraid of it.

A friend gave me a book in which I found this passage from Marsha Sinetar

To find in ourselves

what makes life worth living is risky business,

for it means that once we know we must seek it.

It also means that without it life will be valueless.

More than just a few find their most valued selves

despite the risk,

although the majority seem to be . . .people

who don't wish to make any trouble – not even the kind that's expected.

The majority shrewdly stay dull to what in them is life and has meaning.

A few brave souls, however,

do look within and are so moved by what they find

that they sacrifice,

from then on,

whatever is necessary to bring that self into being.”1

Many of us here today have looked within and been moved by what we found, moved to seek,

and become what God is calling us to be,

in spite of the sacrifice required.

Everyone who has done that,

who has been filled with the Holy Spirit,

will testify that it was worth it,

that life with meaning is indescribably

better than life hiding from it.

That there really was nothing to fear,

for while our God is an awesome,

and sometimes terrifying God,

He gives us the blessing of peace,

and strengthens us for his purpose.

He is pleased with us, like his Son,

even before we get started.

Above all, our God is always Immanuel,

He is always with us, every step of the way,

from the terrifying creation,

to the guidance along the way,

to the blessing of the Holy Spirit,

and empowering us to become what we were meant to be.

Today the Holy Spirit invites you,

to let him in, to look within and see

that God is well pleased with you as well,

and in his pleasure,

God is calling each of you to be something more.

He will be with you throughout,

for in the midst of his greatness, and might,

he comes with gentleness and peace.


1From Ordinary People as Monks and Mystics by Marsha Sinetar. Found in A Guide to Prayer for all who Seek God, Upper Room Books, Nashville TN, 2006, p.71.