Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A Sanctified Season

The Rev. Robert P. Travis

Ash Wednesday Sermon – Noon and 7pm Church of the Ascension, Knoxville TN


Scripture: Joel 2:1-2,12-17, Psalm 103:8-14, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

Sermon Text:

Every year when I come to Ash Wednesday,

I struggle with the question of why we go around

wearing crosses of ashes on our foreheads,

when Jesus explicitly warns us not to

disfigure (your) faces so as to show others

that (you) are fasting.”

This year I decided to look up the history of Ash Wednesday,

and I was interested to learn,

that up until about one thousand years ago,

up to the eleventh century,

The church used Ash Wednesday for those individuals

whose sins had been so notorious,

that they were excommunicated from Ash Wednesday through Maundy Thursday so that they could

observe a public period of penitence for their sins.

The imposition of ashes,

happened in the service right before those penitents

were asked to leave the church, so that the rest of the people

could receive communion,

and it was in keeping with the old testament tradition,

that penitents included putting on uncomfortable sack cloth,

and ashes.

Then the church decided,

about a thousand years ago,

that we all need to observe this period of penitence

and self-denial,

so that we can all experience the joy of

the resurrection through Holy Week and Easter.

Why should you only get the benefit of penitence and forgiveness if your sins are notorious?

Maybe the church started to see,

that just because we become good at covering up our sinfulness, doesn't mean sin is not a burden

we all bear, and all need to be released from.

Time changes many things, and as we look at the

way things have changed over the past thousand years,

I also see a distinct pattern emerging that puts,

our religious values in direct conflict

with the values of times, the patterns of the year,

that people outside the church practice.

I believe it is when we observe our participation

in the cultural practices we are immersed in,

that we see where our pattern of life conforms more

to the world, than to God's Kingdom.

Lent and Advent are two times of the year where

that contrast becomes clearer than at other times.

Today is all about entering a sanctified time,

sanctifying the rhythms of our everyday life,

to prepare our hearts for that great and glorious

celebration of new life at Easter.

For most of us here, Sundays are the only sanctified time in our weeks, for most people outside the church,

even Sundays are not a sanctified time anymore.

The pattern I observe in some of my neighbors,

and certainly in the stores and ads around me,

is that these days people move from superficial holiday,

to superficial holiday,

where the time of preparation gets confused

with the celebrated day or season itself,

and one switches the day after that holiday,

to the next one.

There's a house on my street,

that started out with massive halloween decorations,

for the whole month of October,

replaced on November 1st by Thanksgiving decorations,

until Black Friday when the Christmas lights went up.

On December 26th all the Christmas decorations

were taken down,

and pink and red lights were hung on the trees,

until February 14th,

and the day after that those lights were switched

for green ones, which, I presume,

will be up until March 17th.

That is the kind of display that Jesus was criticizing

in his own time, when people would observe

the required clothing or ashes as a superficial sign

so that other people would see that they were celebrating.

But it has nothing to do with marking an internal change,

or a pattern of life founded in the heart.

Consequently, when people follow the pattern,

the world tries to sell us,

of course so that we will buy more stuff,

we pay no attention to our inner need,

to seek forgiveness, and to be restored to right relationship,

with the One we know in secret.

We are encouraged by the world around us to move

from celebration to celebration,

without a time of fasting and penitence in between.

And within all that feasting,

we find that our spirits are starving.

The world is constantly telling us to indulge ourselves,

it says, “get yourself this,”

treat yourself to that.”

You deserve it!”

But God through his prophets and his Son,

calls us to sanctify a fast,

a sanctified time of self-denial,

so that we can feed our starving spirits,

and discover real wholeness,

true fulfillment.

From the start of his ministry,

Jesus preached the coming of the Kingdom,

and told people to prepare with repentance and fasting.

We still preach what he began,

that coming of the Kingdom that he started,

and which is yet to come in its fullness,

and the way to prepare for it is still

with repentance and fasting.

In two thousand years,

as the message of that Kingdom has spread,

the anger of the enemy has only increased,

and so the disparity between our life

and the spirit-starving life of the world

has only become greater.

I was reading in Thomas Merton's

Thoughts in Solitude”

about how holy men and women used to go into the desert,

to find a place where they had to depend on God

and where through that radical dependance they could

grow closer to him.

Jesus did that when he was lead by the Spirit into the desert,

and not only did he find his mission there,

but he was tempted by the enemy as well.

In the 1950's Merton wrote about the way the desert was becoming developed for profit,

and though he did not say it directly, I thought he was referring to Las Vegas,

when he described cities as

brilliant and sordid smiles of the devil

upon the face of the wilderness,

cities of secrecy

where each man spies on his brother,

cities through whose veins money runs like artificial blood,

and from whose womb will come the last and greatest instrument of destruction.

Can we watch the growth of these cities

and not do something to purify our own hearts?

When man and his money and machines move out into the desert, and dwell there,

not fighting the devil as Christ did,

but believing in his promises of power and wealth,

and adoring his angelic wisdom,

then the desert itself moves everywhere.

Everywhere is desert.

Everywhere is solitude in which man must do penance

and fight the adversary and purify his own heart

in the grace of God.

The desert is the home of despair.

And despair, now, is everywhere. . .

This then, is our desert: to live facing despair,

but not to consent.

To trample it down under hope in the cross.

To wage war against despair unceasingly.

That war is our wilderness.

If we wage it courageously,

we will find Christ at our side.

If we cannot face it, we will never find Him.”

What I'm trying to say,

Is that a Holy Lent is an opportunity

to set right the seasons and times of your life.

The whole world conspires against us,

but the pattern of spiritual training

has been laid out before us,

the Kingdom of God is still at hand,

This is a time for you to use,

to prepare your heart to accept the Kingdom,

Choose your spiritual discipline,

for all discipleship involves discipline,

or perhaps you find yourself in a time of life,

where your natural circumstances

are all the discipline you can handle.

If that is the case, it is not a bad thing,

simply live into that circumstance, whether it is grief,

or illness, or suffering, and allow

God to sanctify you through that experience,

But if you are in a time of life where this year feels very much like last year,

where you are going day to day,

and the repetition is enough to cause you to despair,

engaging in a Holy Lent,

by the practice of discipline,

can be just what you need to push yourself

into the next deeper phase of your spiritual life.

If you're still concerned about these ashes,

and are worried you'll seem a hypocrite to wear them

after the service, it is perfectly acceptable

to do as Jesus said, wash your face.

All of our efforts are for God, our Father

who sees in secret,

and in secret as well is our reward.

I hope you experience that secret this Lent.


Monday, February 13, 2012

If You Choose....

The Rev. Amy Morehous
Epiphany 6, Year B
February 12, 2012

I'm not sure I’ve ever told you why David and I became Episcopal. We both grew up in different Methodist churches, but we must have made our way here somehow, right? Well, we’re Episcopal because we ran out of gas. (I'd like to say that's metaphorical, but it definitely isn't.) After moving back to Knoxville, we visited every Methodist church in town, but none of them were quite right. Frustrated, we finally decided to try another denomination. We decided to come here because we lived not too far away at the time.

It was a hot summer day, and we were running a little low on gas, and a bit short on time. Rather than stop and get gas, and risk walking into a new place late, we thought we’d get gas on the way home. The service was nice, the music was beautiful and absolutely no one spoke to us. Not too unusual a first reception in the Episcopal church.

We returned to our car to head back home, but when we turned the key, nothing happened. In the heat, what little gas we had left had vaporized in the tank. We had no choice but to go back into a very new place, and ask for help. We could not have been more embarrassed and humiliated.

Thankfully, a very kind person at the desk in the office lived in our same condo complex, and came to our rescue. And we came back again, because people had been so kind to us on a day when we needed a bit of kindness.

We weren’t lepers, but we sure felt like it. David and I are Episcopalians because we made ourselves vulnerable, even though it was terrifying at the time. And someone reached out to help us.

After I was ordained, David and I visited Memphis for a friend’s wedding. It happened to be the same weekend that Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, and the city was full of people who were refugees, many of them driven out of Louisiana and Mississippi by the storm. It was one of the most surreal weekends of my life - the contrast between the happy occasion we were there to celebrate, and the people staying in the hotel who had lost everything was impossible to ignore. Sunday morning, in the midst of all the aftermath of Katrina, reeling from the pictures of New Orleans we saw on the news, we visited a lovely downtown church. The church was recruiting people to serve in the rotating meals they were offering to refugees, and I was very proud to be Episcopalian. Then we went up for communion. As he usually does, Dave went to intinct his bread in the cup. That’s a very Episcopal, very fancy word - we like fancy, obscure words in the Episcopal church. It means "dip". As he did, the Eucharistic minister hissed “No, no!, Too messy!" at him, and then yanked the cup away from him, and moved on down the line. I don’t think I’ve ever been more shocked.

This past Friday at Diocesan Convention our new Bishop gave his first Bishops’ address. I’m sure it will be available next week on the diocesan Web site, and I would encourage you to seek it out, and listen to it. The theme this year was Seek and Serve Christ in all Persons, and in his address, the Bishop reminded us to be especially mindful of our visitors. He reminded us that most people who visit for the first time are here because they are in a period of transition in their lives, sometimes even of crisis. New job, new city, new baby, new illness, new moment of need. I know that was true for Dave and I. And it can be very intimidating to come into an Episcopal church for the first time, particularly if you are not from a liturgical background. I remember that Dave was tremendously frustrated by going back and forth between the prayer book and hymnal, because we weren’t used to that. He said, shuffling from one book to another, "What’s wrong with these people that they can’t put it all together in one thing?”

In the gospel today, and in the OT, we see two men in very similar circumstances, asking the same question of someone in authority. In the Gospel, a leper humbles himself before Christ, and is honest but humble about what he needs, about his illness and his need for healing. “If you choose, you can make me clean.” “I DO choose,” Jesus says, and the man is healed. Not only is he healed, but he once again able to take his place in the community. He goes off to the priest to be declared clean, to return to a life he had lost and he tells everyone about his life-changing experience, despite Jesus’ instructions to the contrary, and crowds flock to Jesus and the disciples. People come to him from every quarter, and a community begins to grow.

I love the story of Naaman, and I’ve preached on it before. Naaman the powerful and mighty man is also humbled by this same painful and debilitating disease. It has overtaken his life, and he goes in search of what he needs to give him healing. He doesn’t much like the reception he gets at Elisha’s house - Elisha doesn’t even go out to him. He sends a servant, instead, and Naaman is furious. But his servants persuade him to do as he’s told. He makes himself vulnerable - he admits that he has an infirmity, that he needs help...he humbles himself, and he is healed.

Both stories are stories of people seeking redemption, healing and a return to community through faith. People who make themselves vulnerable in order to be made whole. The healed leper, whose name we don’t even know, spread the word about the healing to be found in Christ. We don’t get to read it, but the passage from 2nd Kings goes on to tell us how Naaman returns to Elisha after his healing and says, "I now know that your God is the true God, and I will worship him all of my days.” Now it doesn’t say that Naaman stuck around and became a pledging member...but he is transformed so that he is not just healed - he is whole - both men are more than they were before.

Here at Ascension, have we created a safe place for people to be vulnerable? Are we willing to welcome those who are in need of healing, those who have run out of gas those who are bold enough to take a chance and come to us? Are we treating everyone as we would treat Christ if he appeared on our doorstep? If a modern-day leper came to us, sat down in the pew beside you today, what would be your reaction? Are we going even further and going outside these walls, and inviting people of all walks of life to come here, and be a part of our community, to find a space to make whole their broken and wounded places?

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be the kind of congregation that pulls the chalice away from someone who’s reaching for it, saying "No, no, way too messy!" In my experience life IS messy. It’s joyful, and it’s painful, and it’s frightening, and it’s rewarding and it’s heartbreaking, and it’s amazing. It is full of change, and disorder, and more than a bit of chaos.

“Change” can be a disturbing word for us here. We don’t always like it. Change can be frightening. Change can create disorder, and we don’t always appreciate a little creative disorder here. One of the most common fears of people who are new to our community is that they will create disorder of some kind. Their children will make some noise, or they will do the wrong thing, or do the right thing at the wrong time. Sometimes our desire to do the right thing all the time - the right gestures, the right behaviour - our desire for order and stability - can create unspoken barriers that push people away, can keep them from finding a comfortable place with us. Our form might be perfectly correct. We might be doing everything right, but we will have pushed away the very people who need us the most.

We’ve made a great strides in welcoming the guests who come through our doors - and we are a growing and vibrant place because of it. So let’s go further, and think of ways to provide a safe place not only for each of us, but for all the seeking and vulnerable people who walk through our doors. Or let’s be really bold, and think outside of this actual box, and go beyond the doors to invite people to join into the community of faith with us.

If that sounds too intimidating, if it sounds suspiciously like evangelism, then I would ask you to think back to the person or people who welcomed you here for the first time. Who were you, then? Perhaps you have been here since you were a child - even an infant. What are you doing to welcome the smallest of people among us? Perhaps you came as a youth...or a new family, with a small child of your own. Perhaps you were invited by someone else. In all those cases, wonderful! To whom have you extended the same grace? Perhaps you yourself were in a vulnerable and hurting place. I hope you have found healing in those places, and I hope you feel encouraged to reach out and do the same for someone else.

We know what that means, right? Well, first it means if you go out to your car on this cold morning, and it doesn’t start...congratulations, I’m your ride home! But it also means that we are all called to make ourselves vulnerable - to step out of our comfort zones, and do something just little different.

Let us be willing to welcome a healthy amount of change and disorder, to be a bit uncomfortable in order to grow. And by grow, I don’t mean numbers or size. I mean grow individually and as a group to be more like Christ. If we are willing to do that, we will grow into a larger community, because we will be the people Christ calls us to be - in here, and out there. We will be hands of healing and hope in a world in need of both - we will be Seeking and Serving Christ in All People.

If you choose, you can make me clean.

I DO choose.


Monday, February 6, 2012

The Fifth Sunday After Epiphany February 5, 2012

Be Silent The Reverend Dr. Howard J. Hess

I. Introduction: An Early Memory. Tucked deep in the back of a closet in a little used room of the house I grew up in was an old, forbidden object. My sister and I had been told not to go into this closet, but we often looked there to see if we could find early Christmas presents. Because it was forbidden, the closet held a special interest for us. One day buried in that closet we found a game box with a fortune teller’s picture and a strange word, Ouija, on the lid. The board inside had an arrow that would point to one or another symbol or a letter of the alphabet. We couldn’t figure out how to make it work, so we took it to our mother. When she saw it, she frowned, and with a very determined voice said that the game was evil and we shouldn’t play it. She took the game box, and although we thought she had hidden it in a new place, we could never find it again. I remember wondering why my mother had kept this game since it almost seemed to frighten her. I have since learned that we human beings have what would seem to be contradictory reactions to the forces of evil: we are fascinated yet fearful at the same time.

Early in my ministry, I was told of demon attacks upon one of the priests who had been involved in the exorcism upon which the movie “The Exorcist” was based. Missionaries whom I met in the Dominican Republic and Madagascar believed and claimed to be able to identify the work of demonic spirits. And, in my first parish, a young woman requested that I perform an exorcism of the demonic spirit she believed possessed her. What are we to make of our modern culture’s fascination with demonic forces and of their prominent place in today’s gospel reading? Demons are mentioned five times in our passage from Mark; and in last week’s Gospel, Jesus healed a demon-possessed man in the synagogue in Capernaum. Often in sermons we avoid the topic of demons altogether and focus upon other features of the readings. But avoiding this topic causes us to miss important teachings in the text.

II. Where did the belief in demons come from? The Christian belief in Satan and his fallen angels, called demons, grew out of our Hebrew roots. The common beliefs about demons are most fully described in the Apocrypha. Early Christians saw demons as fallen angels who were spiritual, immortal, and invisible creatures that engaged in ongoing efforts to induce people to sin. Some current Christians still hold this view, while others believe that demonic spirits do not exist.

A view that has always resonated with me is the theology of evil held by C.S. Lewis. He considers this topic in both Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters. Lewis argued that it would be foolish to deny the existence and influence of evil. He saw the primary purpose of demons as distancing us from God. Lewis believed that we all have and struggle with our own demons. He believed it was therefore critical for us to be vigilant in our Christian practices. We should not be na├»ve about the nature of our own demons, and with God’s help we can name and oppose them. Lewis emphasized that we can make two serious mistakes in understanding evil forces. On one hand we can ignore them and do so at our own peril, or we can over-inflate their importance and thus take our attention off of the genuine source of power in our lives – God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

III. I’d now like us to focus on the references to silence in today’s Gospel. In the first, Jesus has the power to silence demonic spirits.. But there is a second silence. Jesus goes alone, early in the morning while it is still dark to a place of solitude to pray. He sought communion with his father to be revived and replenished. The Gospels tell us that Jesus prayed constantly. He praised God for who God is; he thanked God for guiding him; and he prayed for strength during times of temptation or distress. He prayed when he raised Lazarus from the dead, he prayed in Gethsemane, and he prayed on the cross. He also prayed for his disciples with great fervor as he demonstrated in John 17, and he taught his disciples how to pray, both in the Lord’s Prayer, and at the Last Supper. Jesus prayed because he needed to be empowered to undertake and complete his mission. His prayers were intense, intimate, and constant. He prayed with the knowledge that God could and would carry him on the wings of eagles. He knew that he could not do what he needed to do without his Father’s help. And neither can we.

As followers of Christ, we know the importance of prayer. We know that we cannot face our challenges and temptations alone. But how faithful are we in living lives of prayer? It know it is hard. I really do know, because it’s hard for me, too. Most mornings I get up and begin my day with prayer. On those days I am calmer and more peaceful; more open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit; less likely to give in to the temptation to judge others; and more easily see God at work in my own and in others’ lives. And there are those other days – the days when my actions fall short of my intentions. Those are the days I’m rushing to get here or there, and my prayers are what I can squeeze into the car ride from home to the church or the hospital, or wherever my first stop for the day is. On those days, something is missing, and Christ often seems further away. Those are the days when I try to do it all myself. I am more vulnerable to temptation, less aware of the presence of the Holy Spirit, more likely to be impatient, and at my worst, even unkind, to others.

IV. Some of us have found ways to ensure that our days begin with prayer. I invite the rest of us to join me in committing ourselves to begin each day of the coming week in prayer. This invitation is not intended to encourage anyone to give up his or her current prayer practice to do this instead. It is meant to unite us as a community in prayer. This invitation has some specifics:

I ask that each one of us will make an appointment to pray with God beginning tomorrow morning and to commit to keep this appointment with God no matter what tempts us to do otherwise.

Next, I invite each one of us to write down reflections about our prayers in a private journal or notebook. Nothing elaborate, just notes about our awareness of God’s presence; our thanksgivings; our confessions; and our requests.

Next, I invite each of us to put one of our prayer realizations into action – those ideas that come to us as we are in God’s presence – such as to call someone who comes to mind, or to keep a forgotten promise.

IV. Conclusion: You see, we do not need to fear or run away from evil.
Nor do we need to conclude that our demons will have the upper hand. Jesus has taught us that through prayer, all things are possible because the light of Christ, the love of Christ, and the presence of Christ in our lives is greater than any darkness that we might encounter. You can count on that. Amen.