Monday, July 30, 2012

Abundant Hospitality

The Ninth Sunday After Pentecost
John 6:1-21
Abundant Hospitality

“And when He had given thanks, He distributed them to those who were seated;
as much as they wanted”

    What will we really be able to accomplish? How will we ultimately help? Will I really be useful? How can what we do actually change anything at all? Without fail, these are the very same questions that I get from potential mission trip participants year after year after year. They are questions of worth, questions of capability, questions which, in a way, reveal a true desire in the hearts of each of us to do well. They are asked by people who want to solve problems, who want to help, who want to save, but who find themselves doubtful or skeptical once they have confronted the enormous and seemingly unstoppable issues at hand. For me, these are questions that are not actually all that different from the one posed by Phillip to Jesus in this morning's Gospel: “But what are they among so many people?” In other words, Jesus, how in the world are we going to pull this one off?
    They are hard questions, and yet, they do have an answer. However, the answer to those kinds of questions often comes in various either striking or subtle, but completely unexpected ways. See the true answer is found in a heart felt hug from a squatter village child after receiving the smallest of gifts, the kind that our children might receive in a happy meal box, or birthday party gift bag. The true answer is found in an expression of gratitude from a local hospital nurse, who, while on her daily shift was so moved that she had to stop and sincerely thank our doctors for “caring enough to come and help her people.” The true answer is found in the words of a patient who just before her anesthesia takes over, musters enough strength to look into her care provider's eyes and say, “thank you, you are my blessing,” and in the words of the wife of a suffering pulmonary patient who stresses, “I know that you were called by God, to be here for us.” It is in these interactions, in these experiences, that I believe the true point for us is found, both the true point that lies behind the reason for ALL mission work, and the point that I think is sometimes missed in today's Gospel lesson. How can what we do actually change anything at all? Jesus, how in the world are we going to pull this one off?

    We see Jesus this morning in the midst of the famous feeding of the 5,000. An incredible event not only because of its miraculous achievement, but also for its historical significance. It is the first, and actually one of very few instances in the Bible where John's account of an event lines up almost perfectly with the other synoptic Gospels, which in the mind of many would seem to lend even more support to the event's authenticity and perhaps even accuracy. But is that all there is to this story? I mean, is such a miraculous event simply about Jesus alleviating the hunger of 5,000 people?

    I would like to suggest this morning, that the answer is no, and that there is indeed much more to today's Gospel. You see, in mission work, the point of the trip is never really the project at hand. It is not really just about the floor we are laying, or the play ground we are constructing, or the walkway we are destroying and rebuilding, or even the medical treatment we are providing, regardless of how tedious, challenging, and yet rewarding those projects may be. It isn't even just about the school supplies, or the shoes, or the toys that are given. At the end of the day, it is all really about the interaction, the relationship, the abundant hospitality that is present just below all the surface actions, and the immense effect that that kind of open love can have on the world. With this morning's Gospel, just like in mission work, there is a reason behind the reason to be found as well. For me, the real point is found in the idea that within this single moment, 5,000 are not only being given the bread that would fill their bellies, but they are also at the same time being offered the Bread of Life which would fill their souls.

    That is our take home message, it is about the outrageously abundant hospitality of God. It is about the giving of the Bread of Life, the Light, and lovingly welcoming all. You see, Brothers and Sisters in Christ, we are actually no different than the 5,000 in today's Gospel lesson. We are those who come to Christ, who come before God hungry, every single Sunday, every single day, and He is the One who welcomes us, each of us, without fail and unconditionally, and infinitely offers us all that we need; His presence and Love, that which nourishes us, that which sustains us, that which keeps us whole. Just as in this morning's Gospel, here at the altar rail, and every time we take time out of our busy lives to recognize, pay attention to, and reconnect with Christ, He offers us Himself, the Bread of Life.

    But today's message does not stop there. Because now that we have been given the Bread of Life, now that He lives and moves within each of us, we also carry a great responsibility. Though we often look out at the problems of the world or the issues that are in front of us and ask the same questions as Phillip and our missionaries, now it is time to realize that the job we are called to, is to do the same. To feed others. To be the Bread of Life in the world, and to not fall into the trap of inactivity, of becoming stagnant Sunday morning Christians, just because we too often concentrate and focus on those overwhelming questions.

    You know you don't have to go on a mission trip to understand or experience the kind of abundant hospitality that I have tried to point to today. Actually, we have ministries right here in our own church which know this kind of reason behind the reason very well. Just take a look at our Fish Hospitality Pantries on this very important peanut butter Sunday, look at Family Promise, look at the Stephen Ministry, and there are many more. When food is given to someone at a Fish Pantry or is delivered from the doors of Ascension, so much more is happening. Yes, there are people with needs, and yes, hunger is an issue, and in part we are working to fight that, but what is really received in the experience underlying the interaction of the people at that pantry, just like in our Gospel lesson today, is a bread that will begin to alleviate a hunger that is much more profound than any physical sensation. When a family is welcomed to our church through Family Promise, and makes our building their home for a week, what is really received in the experience underlying the open armed reception, acceptance, and support of those families, just like in our Gospel lesson today, is a Light that will begin to fill the darkest and most empty of homes. It is the Bread of Life. It is the Light of Jesus Christ.

    That is the point for us all today, that is what we are to emulate and to be, having already been given the bread of life, and indeed reliving that reality every time we come to the Lord's table. Brothers and Sisters in Christ, we are to be the Bread of Life in this world, taking the Light and Love of Christ that we receive here, having been unconditionally welcomed over and over again with open arms ourselves, and going out into the world, out there, to radically welcome and nourish all with the very same. So today, I challenge you. Today I want to challenge you all, especially if you have never done so, to just once put yourself in the position to experience what I am talking about this morning, to just once try and find out what is really going on behind such actions. Just once, go out to one of our Fish Hospitality Pantries and give a few hours. Just once, sign up to bring a meal or babysit for an evening when Family Promise is next here. Just once, connect to any one of the wonderful ministries offered here at Ascension. Go and feed the hungry. Go and welcome the lonely. Go and Do, and Be the Bread of Life that you already are. In doing so, you will see, just as we see in Jesus' actions today, that feeding a hungry mouth or multitude can temporarily alleviate hunger, but welcoming with the abundant hospitality and love of God will change the world.

“And when He had given thanks, He distributed them to those who were seated;
as much as they wanted”

Monday, July 16, 2012

Pentecost Six, Year B (July 8, 2012) The Episcopal Church of the Ascension
Sending Us Out Two by Two The Reverend Dr. Howard J. Hess

The Introduction: In recent Gospel readings, the primary emphasis has been upon the actions of Jesus – how he brought a young girl back to life, healed a chronically ill woman, and calmed the sea. So far the focus in Mark has been upon Jesus the teacher, the miracle worker, and the Divine Son of God. But today’s Gospel takes a dramatic turn, shifting to Jesus’ rejection and the disciples’ call to action and risk-taking. Today’s reading clarifies for us that following Jesus Christ requires not only faith, but also action, fortitude, and resilience. In other words, genuine discipleship involves emulating Jesus, not just observing him. And, further, like Jesus, such action will cost us dearly and often will not be supported by the world around us. Instead, it will be fueled by Christ’s power to live within us and enliven our abilities to become effective, vibrant disciples. So, our questions this morning are these: Where have we been as disciples? Where are we now hearing Christ’s call? What might be interfering with that call? And what will be our response to that call?

My memories of my own call to discipleship are very vivid. I was called to ordained ministry as an adolescent, but experienced judgments of other Christians that made me question the validity of my call. However, in unanticipated ways more than twenty-five years later my call was re-ignited. The overwhelming majority of my friends and colleagues were incredulous; some were even disdainful. One of my closest relatives said, “Why are you doing this? (while shaking her head no). You are making a terrible mistake!” Another close friend said, “I cannot understand why you are doing this. It makes no sense to me!” Much to my surprise, a member of my local parish discernment committee said, “Are you sure you are not having a mid-life crisis?” Another committee member cautioned, “Don’t give up your university tenure to become a full-time priest. Stay at the university and, if you must, do your priest thing on the weekends.” And one of the members of the Diocesan Commission on Ministry proposed, “Don’t you think you will help the church more by tithing your significant income rather than becoming a priest?”

Others counseled caution. “Remember,” said the psychologist who administered a battery of tests required in my formation process, “the church is one of the most political institutions on the face of the earth. If you think you are leaving the politics of the university, know that you are jumping from the frying pan into the fire.” Perhaps the wisest counsel was from one of my seminary professors: “Be sure that you are fully called to the priesthood because your life will become harder and lonelier than it has even been before.”

II. Although I didn’t then understand it, in those early stages of responding to God’s call to become a priest, God was teaching me about discipleship through the disparate views and questions of others. As I would learn, the call to Christian discipleship should not be sugarcoated, simplified, or romanticized. There is a high cost to actively following Jesus Christ as his disciple; this cost is very evident in today’s lectionary readings. To illustrate, look at Jesus’ reception when he returned to his hometown of Nazareth. He preached in the synagogue and must have done a good job because the listeners marveled at his words. But the outcome of his preaching was not positive – they essentially ran him out of town. Scholars believe it was not the quality of Jesus’ teaching that offended his former neighbors; rather, it was that Jesus was not fitting into their preconceived definition of the hoped-for Messiah.

Look next at what Jesus did with the disciples after his rejection. He sent them out two by two to minister in his name. They were to preach repentance, cast out demons, and heal the sick. No small tasks there! Not only that, but they were to take no bread, no money, and no extra clothing. They were to be fully reliant upon the grace of God and the kindness of strangers. Further, they were to reject their natural impulses to succumb to discouragement if they were not welcomed; instead, Jesus taught them to dust themselves off and move on.

III. You see, after Nazareth, Jesus changed his model of discipleship. After being rejected in Nazareth, Jesus never again taught in a synagogue. He traveled throughout the countryside and then he directed his disciples to do the same. The application of today’s Gospel is much more radical than we might first imagine. First, Jesus moved outside organized religious institutions to proclaim the Gospel. I believe that Christ is teaching us that even today a higher priority must be given to teaching and enacting the Gospel than to organized religion, political affiliation, and cultural accommodation. You see, as Christians in the western world, we are tempted to retreat comfortably into our beautiful buildings, vestments, and liturgies. But in doing so, we risk losing contact with Christ’s commandment to be active apostles in his name. In fact, the mandate for the Christian disciple is to go beyond the comfort of the known and to venture into new territory with passion and resolve. This often requires that we take considerable risks in Christ’s name and go far beyond what our resources would dictate. It is our passion for Christ that will propel us.

But second, it is essential in the midst of our collective discipleship and discernment that we remember that Jesus sent out his disciples two by two. Each individual disciple was to be supported and challenged by another. Within our Ascension community, Christ not only calls us as a community, a body of believers, Christ also calls each one of us to become his disciple and to enter into partnerships with one another. We must always be aware that we and other disciples with whom we minister will struggle with the clarity and the nature of our calls as well as with the judgments of our friends and neighbors, even family members, who do not understand our commitment to Christ and to those whom he calls us to serve. We must be open to share our struggles with one other; to pray for and support each other; and to share the disappointments and joys we experience as Christ’s disciples. We are to lift one another up as we face the challenges of discipleship.

IV. Conclusion. Any ministry is possible at Ascension if we have the passion to follow Christ together. This morning I urge us not to limit our Christian faith to these or any other set of four walls. I urge us not to give in to the temptation of believing that clergy and parish staff can handle the bulk of parish discipleship and ministry. Our clergy and staff do our best to serve you, but we too are human and will disappoint you at times. The church will do its best to care for you and speak for you, but at one time or another the church will fall short and disappointment you as well. But one thing that will never fail us is the love and guidance of Jesus Christ. He is rock solid and filled with passionate love for us; he calls each one of us by name to minister to others in his name and to do so together. And so, I would urge us today to hang on to the passion of our first love for Christ, minister closely with one another, wipe the dust off when we need to, and venture forth as his empowered disciples. Amen.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Finding God in the Margins

The Rev. Robert P. Travis
Pentecost 5th Sunday Sermon – 8am and 10:30am Church of the Ascension, Knoxville TN
RCL Proper 8 Year B 7/1/2012

Scripture Text: 2 Samuel 1:1,17-24, Psalm 130, 2 Corinthians 8:7-15, Mark 5:21-43
Sermon Text:

Do you know why books and other printed materials
have margins?
I had never really thought about it
before I went to the Credo conference this spring,
and a presenter talked about it.
Maybe you thought like I did, that it just was so that you
could have a place to write notes.
But it has more to do with how our eyes need margins,
to make sense of what is on the page.
It gives a sense of peace when the margins are clear,
that allows us to process what we see,
and even to enjoy it.
If you've ever tried to read a document with no margins,
you know how confusing and frustrating it can be.
Our lives are like that as well,
we need margins in our lives in order to make sense of
the activities, in order to process what has happened,
and to enjoy the present moment.
In an earlier sermon I talked about living
in the in-between times,
since those take up most of the time of our lives,
The margins are where we gain the spiritual energy,
and strength to enjoy the ups and downs of all the activity, where we gain the perspective to see what is happening,
and to understand our place in it.

I'm not good at making and protecting good margins
in my life.
When I started high school I was so excited about
all the different clubs they offered,
that I signed up for 9 of them on the club fair day.
When I was in college I struggled to put all of my interests
into my daily schedule.
I figured out a way to do it,
and got kind of burned out.
I figured out how much time it took me to get to each class,
and between all of my other activities, and to eat,
and decided I could fit everything in if I
scheduled every fifteen minute period of my waking day.

I remember calling my parents towards the end of the first semester, in tears, because I couldn't manage it all.
They wisely instructed me that it was a better plan,
to just schedule the hours,
and let the minutes fill themselves in.
That way I would have time in case I had a friend who wanted to talk, or something came up,
or some aspect of my day did not fit into the plan.
I learned from them, but I still struggle to fit
all the important things in life in,
I am tempted to try to make productive use,
of the precious time.
But when I do that something important is missing.
As good as planning is,
when we don't put margins into the plan, I'm learning,
we miss out on some very important parts of life.

Maybe some of you learned that lesson long ago,
and maybe some of you are still learning it as I am.
But you're probably wondering,

What do margins have to do with the scriptures for today?

While our attention is immediately drawn to the powerful
acts of healing that Jesus performed in the gospel,
and certainly those are worthy of consideration,
more striking to me,
was what happens in the margins,
in the situation where Jesus found himself,
and the contrast between Jesus and the others around him.

I know if I had been in Jesus' situation,
and a leader of the church had come to me,
and asked me to come to pray for healing for his daughter,
I would have headed in that direction,
without much concern for what is going on around me.
To make matters worse,
Jesus has a big crowd gathered around him.

If you know anything about how to get through a crowd,
like trying to walk in a big city during rush hour,
you know it requires a great deal of focus,
to find the way through all the people.
There's lots of jostling,
and it can be easy to start to see the people around you
as obstacles rather than as people.

But Jesus doesn't do that,
a woman touches his cloak,
and he has the presence of self,
to notice that something has happened,
that power has gone out from him.
He asks his disciples who touched him,
and they seem incredulous,
“how can you say who touched me,
don't you see all these people bumping into you?”
But Jesus doesn't let their ridicule
take him out of the margin he has created.
He finds the woman,
and takes the time to connect with her
over what just happened,
recognizing that it was very significant for her.

While he is still in that margin,
the people come from the original goal,
from the leader's house,
to give the disappointing news that the girl
is already dead,
they add, “So why bother the teacher any more.”
Jesus takes time to reassure Jairus, her father,
and then he goes from the crowd where he was,
to another crowd, gathered in mourning at Jairus' house.

Notice all the crowds in these two scenes,
and the way there is no space to do his work.

But Jesus makes the space he needs,
in order to attend to the needs of those who really need him.
He sends the mourners outside,
not even bothering to comment on their ridicule,
when they laugh at him.
Then he goes to the girl, with her parents,
and his few disciples, and to their amazement,
tells her to get up, which she does.
Now, if I had been in the parents' position,
I would have been tempted to run out of there
telling everyone what just happened.
But Jesus remains in the margin,
where the girl is,
and tells them not to tell anyone,
but to give the girl something to eat.

Do you see how Jesus works with the margins,
even when there are many forces crowding him out?

There are two aspects of the margins
that I see as really significant.
The first is who does Jesus meet in the margins?
And what does God through circumstance
do with the margins that Jesus creates?

The people healed in these stories are both women.
Well, one is a woman, and one is a girl.
I can well imagine that if someone in Jesus' time
were sharing this story,
it might sound a bit like a stand up comedian.

So Jesus is going through this crowd,
and this woman comes up to him,
can you believe it, a woman comes up and touches him?
And not just that, she was unclean!
That woman had a hemorrage for 12 years!
She had been unclean for 12 years,
and she went up and touched him, a teacher!
She must have been terrified!
Any other teacher would have punished her,
for making him unclean.
But Jesus didn't, he was actually kind to her.
Then he went to this girl,
He took time out of his busy schedule,
to heal a girl who was only 12 years old!
She wasn't even a woman yet!
And worse yet, she was already dead!
(well that's what the people with her said)
But he took time out anyway to go and touch her,
and heal her! Amazing!
The reason a person would talk like this about
these people, is because they were marginalized.
A woman who was unclean,
and a young girl, with even less status than a woman.
But Jesus made space for them, made margins
in his ministry to reach out to them.
Jesus meets the marginalized in the margins of his ministry.

We can meet the marginalized here at Ascension as well,
and we often do.
During the summers we have taken to raising support,
for those marginalized in our world.
This July we are finding time, within a month that is often
marginal in terms of our church activities,
to help rebuild the cathedral
for our brothers and sisters in Haiti,
that was destroyed in the horrible earthquake
a couple of years ago.
We are making space in the life of our church,
to touch people's lives who are otherwise not
in the center of our plans,
but who are our brothers and sisters in Christ,
and important in God's plan.
You will hear about more activities in coming weeks.

On a more individual level
Jesus is guided by the movement of God within him,
to be aware of the needs of both woman and girl,
because of the margin he has in his life,
in his self, which allows him to see what God
is directing.
That margin allows him to experience the healing
of the woman with the hemorrage,
and to witness to the fact that the girl is not dead,
but sleeping.
The margins Jesus creates allow him to pay attention to the people who need his attention,
and to not worry about those who don't.
Paying attention is in itself an act of love.
Jesus is teaching us something here by his actions,
that is more powerful than words could convey.

Our society is terrible these days
about crowding out the margins.
The demands of life these days are simply great,
and the more time-saving devices that are invented,
don't seem to really help us find the space and peace
we all desire.
There are pressures all around us,
like the crowd that pressed around Jesus,
for so much of his ministry.
And he shows us, that we need to make our own space,
make our own margins in the midst of the
hectic pace of life.
When we do that, we become more aware of the action
of God, through the Holy Spirit
dwelling within us,
and we can both find that peace of God,
which passes all understanding,
as well as see opportunities to participate
in God's great plans for the world,
in ways we could never plan or schedule.

There may be someone who comes to us
needing our attention,
whether it is someone in our family,
or a friend.
And if we have space in our lives,
a margin that we have created,
we can be there for them in a way we could not,
if we were moving from task to task.

There may be someone who opens the door
to a conversation about faith,
longing for someone to guide them into
a relationship with Christ.
But we would miss that, if we have not made
a margin in our lives in which we can see
opportunities like that coming up.

There may be an entirely new calling,
that God is preparing us for,
which we can only come to understand,
when we create a margin in the midst of
all the other things we need to do.

Or there may be a lesson that we need to learn,
from some event that has happened to us
which can only be reflected on,
when we have made a margin in which to learn it.

The margins in our lives are important,
and God is willing to work with us,
to teach us, and to guide us,
into being a part of his great work of love,
but we must open up the margins of our lives,
To allow for God room to work.
And to allow us to see that work
to understand it
and participate in it.