Sunday, September 30, 2012

Receiving as an act of Love

    1. The Rev. Robert P. Travis
      Pentecost 18th Sunday Sermon – 8:00am and 10:30am Church of the Ascension, Knoxville TN
      RCL Proper 21 Year B 9/30/2012

      Scripture Text: Esther 7:1-6,9-10; 9:20-22, Psalm 124, James 5:13-20, Mark 9:38-50
      Sermon Text:
I'm going to ask you to do something
a little difficult this morning,
I'm going to ask you to remember the end
of the gospel passage from last week,
so that we can have an entrance
into the Gospel passage for this week.

Do you remember it?
Ok, well, then I'll give it to you,
because honestly, when I was preparing this,
I had to look back at it myself to remember what Jesus said.

In the last verse in last week's Gospel, Jesus said
“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me, welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Now there's a subtle second meaning in that verse that we often don't get, but it's necessary to what we're reading today.
In Aramaic, the language Jesus was speaking,
The word for child and the word for servant are the same.
So while clearly, taking a child in his arms while saying this,
he was pointing to children.
He is also pointing to welcoming other servants of Jesus.

That's why John, in today's Gospel,
seems to respond immediately in a way that,
if we did not know about what Jesus just said,
we might have missed in connection.

There's a greek word in there that's also not translated,
and basically it shows that John was asking Jesus a question,
“Teacher what about that guy
who was casting out demons in your name?
He's not one of us.
Shouldn't we have stopped him, as we tried to do?”

And Jesus tells him not to stop him,
that just because he doesn't yet belong
to the group of disciples,
doesn't mean he's not serving Jesus.
Indeed, without the faith of a disciple, he couldn't
do works of power in Jesus' name.

There was a time, not too long ago,
when we would not associate with certain people,
even though they were followers of Jesus,
because they weren't in our denomination,
or even just because they did not go to our church.
My mother-in-law, when she was a little girl,
was not allowed to play with the girl her age down the street,
just because that girl was Catholic
and her parents were protestant.
So we're not even a full generation away
from that kind of exclusivity, and distrust of other Christians,
but I'm thankful we seem to be moving away from that.

Jesus goes on to say,
that whoever gives you a even just a cup of water,
because you follow Christ, will be rewarded.

Now some of us might be inclined to jump right to
how we can offer basic needs to others,
and how important it is to do that,
and who we might serve with such basic needs.
And that does connect to Jesus' message,
later when he is exhorting his disciples “whatever you have done for the least of these you have done for me.”
But that is not what he is saying here.
He's talking about it going the other way,
about receiving kindness and love
from others for the sake of Jesus.

I struggled for much of the week with that issue,
and I realized I was struggling with it,
because in the effort to serve others in Jesus' name,
we can easily miss what point there is being one who receives
because of Jesus.

A while back I was visiting someone at the hospital,
and it was lunch time, so after my visit,
I went to the cafeteria, and picked out my food.
I got to the check out line,
I had money in my pocket and was ready to pay,
and this guy in front of me,
who I had never seen before,
said hey, let me buy you lunch.
I said, “really? Why?”
I had no idea who this guy was.
He just said, “you don't do what you do to get rich.”
I accepted, and was glad for the treat of a free lunch.
Now I could have refused,
and said something like,
“I don't need your charity.”
That would have been true,
I had the money to pay,
someone else could have used it more than I could.
But he was getting some reward from this little kindness,
and if I had refused him, he might have been insulted.
Worse yet, if I had refused him,
he might not have offered the next time,
when his heart went out to someone who really needed it.
Maybe that was the only good thing he did that day.
Whatever the reward was,
I believe he got more out of the gift than I did.

Remember the story of the woman who came to annoint Jesus before he was crucified,
and Judas criticized her for wasting that costly perfume on him rather than selling it and giving to the poor?
Imagine what would have happened,
if Jesus had rejected her gift,
as Judas suggested
and told her to go and sell it instead.
She probably would have been hurt,
even angry.
Maybe she would have gone off and sinned as a result.
Jesus accepted her gift with gratitude,
and said it was a beautiful thing she had done.
In her giving to Jesus,
she probably received more benefit from it than he did,
but he did not hinder her in the giving.
Jesus did not put a stumbling block before her.
Have you ever thought that refusing someone's
loving offer, might actually cause them to stumble?
I never had before this week.
I always thought this passage referred to not causing
children to sin, or leading people away from Christ
with false teaching.
Maybe it does have to do with that,
but it also has to do
with giving and receiving loving kindness.

Anyone who gives generously knows,
that when we give, we receive more reward than
we think we have offered.
Now what would happen, if when we offer love,
no one would receive?

We don't seem to have a problem
in this parish,
with being the ones to offer a cup of water,
with being the ones to offer to serve others,
both inside and outside our parish.
We feed people,
we offer them a place to stay,
we offer a listening ear,
and a heartfelt prayer.
All of those and more that we do at Ascension
are wonderful things.

But sometimes we seem to be reluctant to accept
that cup of water when it is offered to us.
Perhaps that has to do with our serving hearts,
or perhaps it has something to do with
this ingrained American notion,
that as rugged individuals we should never
accept other's charity.

This message from Jesus gives us a different perspective.
When someone offers to care for us,
because we are connected to Christ,
either as members of their church,
or as Christians known to them,
and we refuse,
in a way, we prevent them from receiving the reward,
that they get from offering that ministry.

Now if you're rejecting someone's charity,
because they're offering it in a patronizing way,
or in some other way it is apparent
that their heart is not
in the right place,
that's one thing,
and maybe you're doing them a service,
by rejecting that misguided offer of help.
But I sense that in most cases people really want to help,
and so accepting their help is not only a benefit to you,
but gives them a rewarding experience as well.

This goes to another level when we consider the harmful
effects that our refusal of help can have.
When we isolate ourselves from each other,
so that we don't appear weak or needy,
we find ourselves all alone,
we can get into a dangerous pattern of negative self-talk,
that can lead us into deep depression or worse.
I've seen this happen personally,
and in a few cases within our church
just within the past few months.

In the Christian community
we should be known by our love,
by the love we offer to one another,
and by the vulnerability we have,
our willingness to receive love from each other as well.

That is the kind of community we are trying to encourage,
here at Church of the Ascension.
We have so many people who want to serve,
as Stephen Ministers,
as Eucharistic Visitors,
as Hospital and Home Visitors,
among many other ministries.
Can we out of respect and love for our brothers and sisters, accept their loving service as well?

When we welcome them and their love,
these children of God,
we welcome Jesus' love,
and when we welcome Jesus love,
we welcome God's love,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit.


Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The 15th Sunday After Pentecost September 16, 2012
Will you pick up your cross and follow me? The Reverend Dr. Howard J. Hess

I. Introduction. Today’s gospel reading is considered by many to be the very center, the heart, of the Book of Mark. This section summarizes all that has come before and foreshadows that which will follow. At the center of this passage are two pivotal questions posed by Jesus to his disciples: “Who do people say that I am?” and then, “But who do you say that I am?” People in general were still confused about Jesus’ identity. But not Peter. He responded quickly and definitively: “You are the Messiah.” This affirmation clearly demonstrated that Peter was getting it – Jesus was not just a prolific teacher or another in a long line of prophets. Jesus was “The Messiah – the Christ.” Both of the terms -- Messiah and Christ -- are titles used to refer to Jesus and are translated as “the Anointed One.” How good it was and is to be followers of “the Messiah,” “the Christ.” We are traveling in good company!

II. But as we follow the gospel story for today, things head downhill. A brief synopsis: Jesus then tells his disciples that he was going to suffer, die, and rise again. This was the first time he had shared this news. Peter strongly objected, and Jesus quickly rebuked him, saying emphatically “get thee behind me, Satan!” Then Jesus went on to tell his disciples that they would have to pick up their own crosses in order to follow him. He tops it off by saying “for those who want to save their life will lose it and those who lose their life for my sake . . . will save it.” The appeal of following Jesus plummeted in a big way. Peter had just encountered one of the core dynamics of the Christian faith. It is paradoxical. To live we must be willing to die; to gain our lives, we must be willing to lose them – The Great Reversal of Christianity.

III. I believe that we all tend to labor under multiple illusions about our faith, our lives, and our futures. We seek to be, and sometimes imagine that we are, in control of our own lives and that Jesus has made deals with us. We think can count on him to help create and sustain the realities we desire. Peter thought that Jesus, “the Anointed One,” was going to free Israel by becoming the political leader who would drive out the Romans. A suffering and dying Jesus did not fit Peter’s reality. I understand our human need to create realities onto which we can project truth and predictability. But Jesus had come for a higher, more profound purpose than to lead a revolutionary political movement. Jesus had come to act as a bridge to God – a human being who in all ways would be one of us, yet also God, the essence of all that is beautiful, perfect, and love-filled. To comprehend that, Peter had to change. Like Peter, to truly comprehend the fullness of who Christ is, we have to change as well. Call it perhaps conversion.

IV. I found part of a deeper understanding about what Jesus asks of us in this week’s Wednesday morning Lectionary Study. There the questions were asked,“What does it really mean to pick up our crosses and Follow Christ? How can we know whether or not we are truly doing that?” I’ve pondered those questions a great deal this week. It’s tempting to call to mind the saints in our tradition, those who have been and still are being martyred for their faith. But as much as these persons provide us with models to live, thinking only of them can be too easy. I believe we need to look for our crosses and our resurrection experiences closer to home.

For example, during the last several weeks we have been experiencing an unusually high number of deaths, illnesses, and crises among our congregation. Some of these events have been sudden, while others have been building for some time. However, what I have found is that even when we are partially prepared for the challenges in our lives, they often bring an element of surprise – even shock and disbelief – each crosses in their own way.

Many of us subscribe to an email daily devotion excerpted from the writings of Henri Nouwen. This summer one of the daily excerpts was about “Taking Up Our Crosses.” Nouwen writes:
Jesus says, “If anyone wants to be follower of mine, let him . . . take up his cross and follow me. He does not say “Make a cross” or “Look for a cross.” Each of us has a cross to carry. There is no need to make one or look for one. The cross we have is hard enough for us! But are willing to take it up, to accept it as our cross?

Maybe we can’t study, maybe we are handicapped, maybe we suffer from depression, maybe we experience conflict in our families, maybe we are victims of violence or abuse. We didn’t choose any of it, but these things are our crosses. We can ignore them, reject them, refuse them, or hate them. But we can also take up these crosses and follow Jesus with them.”

In the gospel, Jesus says, “For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?” The Greek word used for life in these verses is “psyche.” It is translated more accurately as “the true self.” Jesus is calling his disciples to find their true selves through following, learning from, and emulating him. This true self is always to be found exactly where each of us is in this very moment of our lives.

V. Conclusion. In other words, our crosses and our resurrection experiences are found in the particularity of each of our lives. As Nouwen said, we don’t have to look elsewhere. In fact, looking elsewhere could be really a way to avoid the call of Jesus Christ to become new people right here and now. Call it perhaps conversion. I once had a gifted and tough spiritual director. He taught me an important lesson. “When you preach,” he said, “don’t only just talk about people who lived thousands of years ago. Have the courage to talk about yourself so that people can see the influence of Christ in your life more clearly.”
Here’s what I’d like to share about myself this morning. I’ve spoken to multiple audiences, hundreds, maybe thousands of times, in my professional life. But every time I get up to preach, I am fearful, and after I finish I often think, “That was just downright disappointing.” From years of work on coming to understand myself, I know, or at least I think I know, where that comes from. In part, a loving, but perfectionistic father who communicated high, unreal expectations and constant comparison with an older sister who had died before I was born and somehow became an angel. I’m not sharing this so you will tell me my sermons are not disappointing; I’m sharing this because it is something I struggle with – day after day, week after week, year after year. I’m sharing this because I have to face these feelings in order to respond to God’s call to preach the Gospel. I have to remind myself that God loves me and that if I respond to his call, each day, he will use even me.

But this sermon is not about my story. It’s about the call for each of us to step out with Christ’s help to become new people. This is why it is so important to worship each week, to pray, to read Scripture each day, and to associate in close ways with other Christians who know us, hold us accountable, and pray for us. We need God’s help to let go of our ego’s voice and listen to the voice of God’s Holy Spirit. The Spirit will acquaint us with our crosses and help us to carry them. Then not only will we carry our crosses with grace, but we will come to live more fully into a life of risk taking and redemption.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

He Sighed

The Rev. Robert P. Travis
Pentecost 15th Sunday Sermon – 8:00am (Rally Day) Church of the Ascension, Knoxville TN
Scripture Text: Proverbs 22:1-2,8-9,22,-23, Psalm 125, James 2:1-10,14-17, Mark 7:24-37
RCL Proper 18 Year B 9/9/2012

Sermon Text:
There are a lot of justice issues in our readings today,
a number of passages that immediately remind me,
of the great political debates
we are hearing in this election year
and especially in the wake of two big conventions.
Even though it's all over our scripture readings,
You will be pleased to know that this sermon
is not going to be a political speech.
No, while I am interested in the various wisdom we
read in Proverbs, and the challenges we get
in the letter of James,
what really caught my attention this week,
is just two words in the gospel.

“He sighed,”
I know you might remember from your youth that the shortest verse in the bible is “Jesus wept.”
Some of you may have learned that when
your Sunday School teachers challenged you to
memorize a verse of the bible.
That “Jesus wept” line, from the tomb of Lazarus,
gets a lot of attention.
“He sighed,” is not a whole verse,
and it doesn't get as much attention,
in fact it would be easy to miss it in the
context of the great acts of healing that Jesus does
in the passage we have from Mark.
But it shows me a similar aspect of our Lord,
an important aspect indeed when we consider God and us.
What I see in Jesus' sigh,
is his true connection with us,
both his humanity and his divinity together.
Some commentators say that he sighs,
because of the sinfulness of the world,
that he sees manifest in the sicknesses he is
constantly confronting.
That would be God sighing,
and maybe that is why.
But there are other things as well.

These two words made me think,
“Why do I sigh?”
With three little kids,
I often find myself sighing when frustrated
with how they hurt themselves,
or each other,
or when they seem to be unable to keep
from fighting with each other
over truly meaningless things.

As a busy priest,
I sigh when I'm struggling to write a sermon,
and get call after call from someone
who can't make their utility bill payment.
I sigh when I'm awakened at 3am to hear
a family member tell me that a parishioner I loved,
has died long before I expected him to.
That's what happened with Hank this week,
a man I know many of you knew and loved.
It made me sigh, and it made me cry,
in spite of the knowledge
I have that his prayers were answered.

I sigh when I get in a fight with someone I love,
and just can't figure out how to make amends.
I sigh when I hear the partisan battles that
our political leaders have, especially in this election year.
I sigh when they seem to think they need to lie,
in order to win our votes.
I sigh when it is obvious that personal interests,
of the few and the powerful,
so often supersede the interests of the people.

Sighs are complicated and very expressive,
even when they express very different things.
Why would Jesus sigh?
Notice that in the beginning of the passage we hear,
that Jesus went away,
to the region of Tyre.
He went to a place away from his people,
to a gentile region.
“He entered a house
and did not want anyone to know he was there.”
Jesus needed a break.
But “he could not escape notice.”
The gentile woman comes to him,
and surprises him, not just with her
knowledge that he was there,
or who he was,
but with her quick wit,
and especially her faith that he could heal her daughter,
even from far away.

Then he leaves there,
and we can feel the sigh building up already.
Having been unable to get away,
and goes to another area,
probably to find somewhere else
to take a much needed break, to renew his spirit.
Again Jesus is confronted by a group of people,
who bring to him a man who needs healing.
He takes the man aside,
and heals him,
But in the midst of the healing he sighs.
Is he sighing because he just can't get a break?
Because he needs rest?
Because the needs of those around him are so great?
Or is it, as the bible commentators suggest,
because of the sinfulness of the world,
and the illnesses we struggle with?

Maybe it's all of that.

Maybe here we see the unity of Jesus as fully human,
and fully divine.
Jesus is just like us, needing rest,
finding the burdens of this life great at times,
sighing at the never ending needs of others around him.

But he is also aware of the bigger picture,
the deeper meaning,
in a way no one before or since has been.
He is fully divine,
sighing at the way we who were made in God's image,
corrupt that image so often,
and tear ourselves and each other apart.
That sigh is ancient, and ongoing,
and expresses God's deep concern for us.

One of my favorite songs
is by an artist named J.J. Heller,
she seems to express our participation
in this divine sigh.
In her song, “Your Hands,” she sings.

When my world is shaking,
heaven stands,
when my heart is breaking,
I never leave your hands.
One day you will set all things right.

I take comfort in that knowledge,
when I find myself sighing,
over the struggles in my life,
sighing over the griefs others experience,
over the pain and brokenness in our world.

I know God in Jesus is sighing right along with us.
He's in the process of working it out,
working with us,
in spite of our weakness and sinfulness,
and until he does set all things right,
he sighs with love for us,
and sadness that we suffer in the meantime.
I trust him because he sighed.
I love him because he loved all those around him,
even when he needed a break.

I hope that this understanding brings you some peace as well,
and that in Jesus' sigh,
you can know that he is with you in all your struggles,
and is working to set things right.