Monday, June 25, 2012

Do You Remember That You Have Children?

The Rev. Amy Morehous
Year B, Proper 7
June 24, 2012

One of the participants in the Wednesday women’s Bible study told a story about her grandchildren. One morning, they were crouched outside their parents’ bedroom door. They had been given instructions not to wake their parents too early, so they were trying to be patient and wait, but it was getting harder and harder, because they were getting hungrier and hungrier. Their parents, of course, were already awake, and were lying in bed listening to them whisper to each other. One child, patience pushed to the limit, finally turned to the other and said, “Do you think they even remember that they have children?”

I am fond of this Gospel passage. I even have an icon of it propped on my desk just beside my phone, because I need to be reminded of it frequently. Sometimes hourly. But contemplating this Gospel all week, I found myself in the boat with the disciples. And this time, I didn’t particularly like it.  I hear the disciples questioning Jesus, and frankly, they were sounding a little whiny to me. Why did you bring us here? How can you sleep through this terrible storm? Look what’s happening to us, and what are you going to do about it? I finally realized that I was impatient with them, even irritated ...because I recognized a little bit too much of myself in them. I was cranky with this Gospel passage, even though it is one I love, because it pointed to things within myself that I didn’t want to examine too closely.

I hear in their honest and desperate question the same thing that we all ask when we find ourselves in the middle of a storm, when we find ourselves in a boat that’s too small, and a storm that is too large. Even in the hour of his death, Jesus Christ prays a Psalm of lament. “My God. My God. Why have you forsaken me?”

We have each turned to God, in our own way and said, “Don’t you remember that you have children? Do you not know that we are perishing?”

We are a people familiar with fear. We live in a culture that encourages us to be afraid. Look around you. Look at the messages you hear on TV, or in movies. On the interstate driving here, I passed under two signs that told me that 467 people have died this year on state highways, and told me not to be next. That manages to play to two of our fears at once: our fear of death, and our fear that we are just a number after death. Is it true that we cannot be convinced to follow traffic laws or remember to be careful of our own safety or that of others, unless we are somehow in fear of losing our own life?

I’ll bet you can sit and make a list for yourself of all the things of which you are afraid. We all have them. I have a long list myself. I don’t like to think of myself as a worrier, but I fear I am. This past weekend, my daughter came down with a high fever. Now, that’s not the end of the world. It happens to children every day. But I found myself growing more irritable and more anxious, beyond what was normal. And then I realized I was operating from a place of fear...irrational fear, fear beyond reason. What are those fears for you? Take a second, and think of the things that lurk in the shadows for you.

I’ll bet it wasn’t that difficult to come up with the top five. If you’ve watched or read the news at all, I’ll bet it was terrifically easy. We have had an economic reversal from which we are still reeling, and it’s an election year, and we are all hungry to be reassured that all the terrible things we can imagine won’t come true, won’t happen to us. If you listen to advertisements, politicians and companies are happy to play to our fears in order to sell us security. But what is that security costing us?

A few weeks ago I heard a professor of Christian ethics from the Seminary of the Southwest (** Dr. Scott Bader-Saye) discuss this very problem. He suggested that one of the contributing factors to our societal obsession with safety has come about because we can’t agree on what’s good anymore. We can’t agree on one single good - but we can all agree on what’s safe. And if safe is now the common good, how safe must we be? And how does that compare to the Gospel of Christ?

After all, Jesus doesn’t say that if we keep each other safe, we’ve done enough. He doesn’t say that if we keep our children safe, we’ve done enough. Dr. Bader-Saye calls this an ethic of security - it says that our main goal - the thing we pursue over all things - is staying safe. When you look at your life, what do you pursue over all things? What is your main goal in the here and now? Is it staying safe?

But what if living as a Gospel people - loving God and loving our neighbor - somehow puts us at risk? Then what do we choose? For instance, if accumulating material goods helps us ensure our own survival, then maybe I need to accumulate even more to feel truly safe.  After all, I’m just trying to protect myself from an uncertain future. If a little bit of safety is good, then more must be better. Right?

That’s what our culture would have us believe. But that’s not what the gospel of Christ says. It says that our primary purpose is to be, and to make, disciples. Our purpose is to get into the boat, and head out into a future that we don’t know, and be confident that Christ will be with us in it.

In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Mr. and Mrs. Beaver are describing Aslan, the King of Narnia, to Lucy and her brothers and sister. Lucy is alarmed to find out that the King is a lion. She says, “A lion! Is he...well, is he quite safe?”

Mr. Beaver responds: “Safe? Haven’t you been listening....? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King....”

So, how do we orient ourselves toward the good we seek in Christ, and not the evil we fear? If you are anything like me, it’s not ‘believing’ that trips you up. It’s in the living out of the day to day. How do we continue to get into the boat with Christ - every day - to sail to other side. How do we not hold back simply because we fear the journey?

Ask yourself what drives you forward each day. Are we being drawn toward something we love, or are we running away from something we fear? Are you being drawn toward a relationship with a God that loves you beyond all reason? Or are you fleeing the thing of which you are most afraid?

I’m not knocking safety, and I’m not advocating being reckless. When I speak of living in fear, I don’t mean average, everyday fear. I’m talking about disordered fear: Fearing the wrong things, or fearing the right things too much. Disordered fear deforms us, it warps the way we make decisions, the way we live our lives. It keeps us from climbing into the boat with Christ each morning, confident in the other shore, because we become afraid of what might possibly happen to us in the process. Traveling with Christ might possibly make us uncomfortable, and we shun being uncomfortable. If we’re uncomfortable, it must mean that we’re being threatened in some way, and how can we live with a threat like that, when what we seek is to be safe above all else? It’s a circle of thought that leads only to more fear.

Staying on the shore and securing our own boundaries is not what we are called to do as children of God. We are called to love God, and love our neighbor with hope and courage. As Aristotle wrote, and Thomas Aquinas repeated, the mean of recklessness and cowardice is courage.

Christ did not call us to live our lives in fear. Christ came to set us free from the bondage of fear to be a people of hope and courage. Contemplate what your life would be like today if you acknowledged your fear of the future, your fear of uncertain times, but did not let it shape the way you live your life. What if we let our relationship with God and each other be our highest aim, our chief goal, our greatest good?

Yes - there will be storms. Sometimes those storms will come up without warning, and threaten to overtop us. Sometimes, it may even feel as if the boat has flipped over, and dumped us into the ocean. The world around us pulls us toward a life full of fear and uncertainty, until we are enslaved by chains that we can’t even see. But we are called to hope, and to courage in the face of those storms. When we doubt, when we ask questions, Christ is with us in those. When we struggle, when we fail, Christ is with us each time. Even in the most overwhelming of circumstances, Christ is with us.

We hope not because it is easy, not because it is simple, but because we are called to do so by a living God. Be courageous enough to be honest about your fears before God. Know that God’s love is larger than any fear, God’s justice is stronger than any human condition, and God’s grace is wider than our imagination. God always remembers that we are His children, and He will never forsake us.


** I am greatly indebted to the ideas and work of Dr. Scott Bader-Saye. His book is Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear, and I recommend it for further reading.

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Mustard Seed and A Young Boy’s Story

Pentecost III, Year B (June 17, 2012)   The Episcopal Church of the Ascension 
The Mustard Seed and A Young Boy’s Story          The Reverend Dr. Howard J. Hess
The Introduction: Those of us who live and thrive in the culture of East Tennessee understand well the power of a story. Skillful story-tellers paint images that capture not only our intellect, but also our imagination. Our culture is filed with stories – about hardy Scotch-Irish settlers who crossed the mountains to settle here, football players, those who served in the armed forces, and, as I first learned in Kingsport, moonshine. When we gather, you can see how much we love to tell our stories to one another.

As a Christian community, we also have a story that deeply helps define who we are. It’s a story about creation, sin, covenant, freedom from slavery, and prophetic voices. At the center of our Christian story is Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who came to be one of us – to teach us, to redeem us, and to constantly re-create us. As today’s Gospel illustrates, one of the most effective teaching methods that Jesus employed was telling stories – typically short, succinct stories called parables, which frequently used the natural world to exemplify important truths. Many parables, including the story of the mustard seed in today’s reading, teach us about the nature of the Kingdom of God.

II. William Barclay, a well-known Christian author, believes that the Kingdom of God is always in the process of becoming, moving toward the day when God’s will will be done as perfectly in earth as it is in heaven. With this understanding in mind, listen again to what Jesus taught: “With what can we compare the kingdom of God . . . It is like a mustard seed, which when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” Barclay believes that the story of the mustard seed teaches us that, in the spiritual world, much can grow from a small and ordinary beginning, the tiny seed of a plant that is actually a huge weed. Barclay adds another piece of interpretation: the mustard plant is like the church. It grows in unlikely places, from unlikely sources, to shelter and care for us -- you and me -- as we rest in her branches. We are like the birds of the air.
III. Parable Within a Parable. For me, the meaning of the Markan parable came alive this week in the form of a parable-like story written by a six year old boy who has attended church here from time to time and Vacation Bible School last summer. The story is not long, so I’d like to share it with you. I invite you to enter into this story with the mind of a young child:

The Doggie Church for Everybody Except People
The Doggies’ Church of Christ

Once there was a doggie church.
Minister Brown Johnson prays on stuff 
and blesses the doggies that help the church.
The doggies sing when there is a storm to make the storm stop. 
They sing Woof-alulia, Woof-alulia until the storm stops.
Sometimes the dogs woof a lot and make Minister Johnson mad. 
Then he throws water balloons at them.
He gets so tired of that!
They stop woofing because they know he is mad.
Then he preaches a sermon to the doggies.
He says, “Thank you so much for helping this church.
Be good doggies. Preach a good church. Amen.”
They sing the Bible, Woof! Woof! Woof! – 
which means “God is awesome!”
At the end of the year they have communion – 
hot dogs and wine, and bread, and chips and salsa, and hamburgers.
And then they are done for that year of church-ness (as the doggies say).
AAAA-men. They give each other hugs and kisses, 
and they bark to their homes.

This parable illustrates something very powerful in the heart and mind of this young child, who has a great love for dogs -- that church is a place where a community gathers to be blessed, to help the church and one another, to worship and pray together, and to challenge the scary storms around them. Sometimes the community gets rowdy and needs direction. This boy loves water balloons, which he throws with others on his birthday, and they slide easily into the story. Sermons are preached, challenges are given, and appreciation shared: “Thank you so much for helping this church. Be good doggies. Preach a good church. Amen.” The Bible is sung, something Jim Garvey would understand and appreciate; the congregation affirms that God is awesome (something the child learned in our Vacation Bible School), and then comes together to share a communion meal of hot dogs, wine, bread, chips, salsa, and hamburgers. The communion meal is an interesting combination of our Eucharist and the Bible School closing family dinner. The doggies say “Amen,” give one other hugs and kisses, and bark home. 

In so many ways, this parable speaks for itself.  God has planted a seed in this young boy’s heart and mind that has great potential to continue to grow. And as it grows, it has the potential to protect and safeguard him through the storms in his life. 

IV. I’d like to share two applications of the parable of the mustard seed and the young boy’s story. But first, I’d like to thank those who helped me frame this part of this sermon. The first application is for all of us. It has to do with how we are being called to respond to a challenge in our common life together at Ascension. The second is more personal. 

First, this church has been planted by God to support the work of God’s kingdom, including the planting and nurturing of seeds in the hearts and minds of those who come to worship with us – young boys and girls, their parents and grandparents, and other adults who make their spiritual home here. The parish leadership is responsible to wisely administer the church’s resources that contribute to the growing of the seeds. As of the end of May, we are $65,000.00 below our anticipated pledge income, the resources upon which our budget is based. The challenge before us is multi-faceted – when our income falls below our budgeted expenses for staff and other program costs, it is difficult to wisely administer the church. In addition, the amount of time and energy required of the parish’s leaders to address this financial issue detracts from our ability to focus on the church’s mission. 

The clergy, staff, and Vestry members responsible for church leadership are well aware that the timing of the pledge payments made by individuals and families in the parish may vary depending on the timing of the receipt of their income and their own financial management. However, I ask us to consider the following: If you have not yet made payments toward your 2012 pledge, please consider beginning to do so. Secondly, if you have been making payments toward your pledge, I would ask you to consider accelerating the timing of your pledge payments; and finally, as God has blessed you, I would ask you to consider giving beyond the amount you initially pledged. With these proposed adjustments, a potentially more serious financial issue can be averted, and our energies re-directed to the church’s mission.
Secondly, the application of the parable of the mustard seed and the child’s story has affected me personally on two levels. As your Rector and spiritual leader, I have felt called to remind all of us of how important it is to appreciate and nurture the gift that God has given us here at church of the Ascension in the growth of the seeds that he has planted, and to do so joyfully from our first fruits. 

I have also been led to an even more personal understanding. The modern parable was written by my 6-year-old grandson, who is a young boy experiencing the illness of his father. As his story illustrates, in the midst of what he is facing, he has the seed of understanding where to find God when a storm strikes. I have been humbled to see this through his eyes and challenged to have a fuller appreciation of what is going on in his life. As his grandfather, I need to more intentionally nurture the seed that has been planted by God; I pray that God will help me to do so. I appreciate your prayers as well. 

V. Conclusion. Here it is my brothers and sisters in Christ: God has given us Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ tells us parables. Parables are meant to teach us about spiritual matters – to challenge us both as individuals and as a community. For example, challenges have taken place with me this week, both as your Rector and as a grandfather. The Holy Spirit stands ready to help us apply what we learn from these parables. Each one of us must decide when and how to listen, what to make of the stories we hear, and how to respond. 

I have not forgotten that today is Father’s Day. I am mindful that sharing with you the insights that God has given me personally may resonate with some of the fathers and grandfathers here this morning. I pray that God will give us as men the opportunities to guide our children and grandchildren through the complicated challenges of their lives. I also pray that God will continue to bless our parish as we intentionally open ourselves to God’s guidance and direction. Amen.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Who are my mother and brothers and sisters?

The Rev. Robert P. Travis
Pentecost 2nd Sunday Sermon – 8am and 10:30am Church of the Ascension, Knoxville TN
RCL Proper 5 Year B 6/10/2012
Scripture Text: 1 Samuel 8:4-11, (12-15), 16-20, Psalm 138, 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1, Mark 3:20-35

Sermon Text:
How well do you know your brothers and sisters?
In the scene that we have in today's Gospel,
from the early part of Jesus' public ministry,
His siblings and mother don't seem to know him that well.
They come to restrain him,
to take him out from what he's doing,
because people think he has lost his mind.
From the things he is saying,
the things people can see
and hear immediately,
he is acting crazy,
and it is a reasonable argument that he is
demon-possessed and a shame to his family.
So they come to try and take him away,
and people around him tell him,
“your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside,
asking for you.”
They don't have the courage,
or maybe they don't have the ability to come inside,
and that gives Jesus the chance he needs,
to make a powerful point,
about the difference that following him makes,
in the relationships of those who follow.

I might as well say something at this point,
about that anxiety producing statement Jesus makes,
about the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit,
the unforgiveable sin.
Just so no one sits there worrying about it
and misses the rest of the message.
There is pretty good agreement among biblical scholars,
that the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit,
comes from knowing God in his fullness,
and the deep love that God has for all of us,
and rejecting that love with full understanding
of what that means,
It is a sign of our great freedom
that we can condemn ourselves to seperation from God,
by rejecting his Holy Spirit
after we have come to know Him fully.
But most people agree that the perfect knowledge of God
is not possible in this life,
and that this is only something that one who
dwells in the perfect presence of God can know.
Basically the devil and his angels have committed
that blasphemy, have rejected God
after dwelling in his love and perfect presence,
and therefore condemned themselves to eternal seperation,
You and I cannot in this life.
My seminary professor put it like this,
If you're worried that you have committed
the unforgiveable sin,
then just by being concerned about it, you have not,
so don't worry about it.
Now back to the main subject this morning.

How well do you know your brothers and sisters?
Do you just know what is on the surface,
what is seen, and can be known by anyone?
Do you know their hopes and dreams?
Do you know how they handle crisis?
how they come to terms with their faith?
how they deal with loss?
Does anyone in your life know that about you?
How much of how we are known, is just what can be seen,
what is obvious to everyone,
and is temporary?

This morning we are lifting up our Stephen Ministry
and celebrating what our Stephen Ministers,
and Stephen Leaders have done,
to transform the care we offer to one another in this parish. There is a lot of training that goes into being a Stephen Minister,
50 hours of training on the front end,
plus monthly continuing education sessions,
and a big commitment of time and energy
to share in the distinctly Christian caring
that Stephen Ministers offer, confidentially,
to members of our parish and others.
But what it all comes down to,
when you distill it to it's core,
Stephen Ministry is about the belief,
that being known deeply,
beyond what the surface shows,
brings healing and life, to people who need it.
And who doesn't need healing at some point in life?

Stephen Ministry is about being a brother or sister,
to Christ,
by being a brother or sister,
to another person of faith,
and offering to them
the opportunity to share themselves,
to one who is trained to listen carefully,
so the person may share as deeply as they can,
with the trust that the relationship is confidential,
and based in true love for them,
grounded in the love of Christ.
That kind of sharing,
that goes way beyond what is seen,
brings healing,
because it brings us in touch
with what cannot be seen,
as we heard in the Epistle this morning,
what cannot be seen is eternal.

Let me share with you one Stephen Ministry story,
one among many that come from the 5 years
we have been a Stephen Ministry parish.
There is an older couple in our parish,
well, the husband died a few years ago,
and the wife lives by herself,
but they had been active here for many years,
and through disability had been unable to come anymore.
When Stephen Ministers first got involved with them,
they were living in fear of outsiders.
Their children all live far away,
and they have no relatives in the area.
The Stephen Minister came to their door,
to visit the wife,
and the husband would not let her in,
because he did not know what she wanted,
and was afraid that she wanted to take advantage of them.
You can imagine how nefarious sales people,
or others who pray on the isolated people in our society had lead the husband to that belief.
The Stephen Minister persisted in love,
reassuring them through a few personal visits to the door,
that she was from our church,
and just wanted to talk, and listen to his wife.
Finally, after a couple of weeks,
and a plate of home baked cookies,
he let her in.
A Stephen Minister was assigned to the husband as well,
and over time that man and woman,
opened up their lives to these ministers,
and began to find healing from the isolation
that had settled in over the years.
The Stephen Ministers walked with this man and woman,
through her illnesses and his,
through the changing nature of their relationship,
and through his dying process,
and through her grieving as well.
On the outside, it appears that this woman,
is still living an isolated life,
and one might think that nothing much has changed,
but knowing the fearful place they were in together,
and how the visits with her are now characterized by joy
and singing,
-did I mention that she loves to sing hymns?-
We who know her, know that her life
has been tremendously healed,
and a great deal of that healing has come through
the faithfulness of Stephen Ministers,
who came just wanting to listen,
to know deeper than the surface,
and who were patient in waiting
for the healing to take place.

The Stephen Ministry, more than
any other ministry I have been involved with,
has helped me to see the truth in what Paul wrote
to the Corinthians.
Even though our outer nature is wasting away,
our inner nature is being renewed day by day.
The renewal of that inner nature,
the growth and healing that God accomplishes in us,
even as we grow older,
and the trials of life in this world wear us down,
that renewal is not able to be seen
unless we really get to know
someone deeply,
unless we care enough to listen way beyond pleasantries,
until we connect with each other at a level
more like family
at the level of being brothers and sisters in Christ.

I have come to see that there is no greater honor in life,
than getting to participate in others' lives,
to share with them the inner renewal
that is experienced through sharing a loving relationship.
The ministries that our church offers and shares,
are all about extending that grace to more and more people,
so that our thanksgiving to God increases.
Stephen Ministry is the primary way,
that our deepest level of pastoral care,
is extended to many people,
because there is no way that even a full clergy staff,
could reach the number of people
that our Stephen Ministers can reach,
with the level of depth of relationship they offer.

Jesus made an important distinction,
that day, when his mother and siblings came to restrain him.
He created the idea that what unites us as family,
is deeper than bonds of blood,
it is bonds of love, love for God,
and love for one another that flows from the love of God.
It is what cannot be seen that unites us
to one another.
Look around you today,
they may not look like it,
but these are your brothers
and your sisters,
your mothers and your fathers and your children.
The rest of the world,
that looks only at the outward and visible things,
might think it is crazy to think that way,
and even crazier to waste time and energy,
getting to know and caring for these people.

But we know that
Jesus' mother and brothers and sisters,
did not wait outside for long.
Eventually they came inside his family again,
and no longer thought he was crazy,
for what he was saying.
They followed him after his death and resurrection,
and after his Ascension and Pentecost,
they built the family that he mentioned early on,
the family that is now the Christian Church.
The family that we enjoy at Church of the Ascension.
I think that was because they came to know his deeds of love,
and the way he embodied the love of God to all those
he encountered.

You have an opportunity to experience that love,
and to know that great honor that comes
from listening deeply to a brother or sister in Christ,
and caring for them as no one else will,
through times of crisis,
through times of transition,
through times when your brother or sister is
struggling to comprehend how
their inner nature is being renewed
as their outer body wastes away.

If you feel called to engage in this ministry
by becoming a Stephen Minister,
fill out an application form for our next training
which will begin in just a couple of months.
If you are not called to that ministry,
know that you are called,
to be a brother or sister in Christ,
to those you see gathered here.
I pray that you may come to know
how there is nothing greater than being
united in the family of Christ.