Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Thanksgiving Day 2012
Persistence in Faith
Bob Wadley
Good morning and happy Thanksgiving. It's good to see all of you here this early for a
holiday morning. Actually, its not really that early; the Brotherhood of St. Andrew met
at 7:00 this morning, as we do every Thursday. We enjoyed pancakes, bacon, coffee and
orange juice, and we opened the meeting with the General Thanksgiving found on page
836 in the Book of Common Prayer, which begins, “Accept, O Lord, our thanks and
praise for all that you have done for us. We thank you for the splendor of the whole
creation, for the beauty of this world, for the wonder of life, and for the mystery of love.
We thank you for the blessing of family and friends, and for the loving care which
surrounds us on every side.” Think about that. Do we ever pause and truly comprehend
all that God has done for us: the splendor of creation, the beauty of this world, the
wonder of life, the mystery of love, family, friends and loving care. A month ago, I went
to Colorado to visit my son. As I drove from Denver to Telluride, I was in awe of the
snow covered mountains framed against the brilliant blue sky, the rock formations in
Glenwood Canyon, the engineering feat of designing and building the highway and
tunnels through those mountains and canyons, the incredibly beautiful landscape and,
then, upon arriving, the warm embrace from a son I hadn't seen in over a year. How
could I not thank God for such blessings?
Our readings this morning are about appreciating our blessings and then, sharing them.
Speaking of blessings, I thought our service Sunday before last, pledge Sunday, with
almost every family in the parish coming up to place their pledge for next year on the
altar, was very moving. It seemed to me there was much more happening than just
committing to give money. The Holy Spirit was definitely present. Now, before looking
at the readings more closely, let's digress for a minute to consider some animal theology.
First, there is Dog Theology, which goes like this: “You feed me. You pet me. You
shelter me. You love me. You must be God!” Then there is Cat Theology, which says,
“You feed me. You pet me. You shelter me. You love me. I must be God.” Finally,
there is Squirrel Theology, which can be summed up in one word, NUTS, N, U, T, S,
which stands for Never Underestimate The Squirrel. You know about squirrels, how no
matter what you do, you cannot keep them from getting the seed in your bird feeder.
They use all their attributes to get what they want: they dig in with their toes, they
balance precariously, they use their tails like anchors, and they use their front paws like
a surgeon's skilled hands. They are very persistent.
So, how does being like a squirrel relate to us this morning? Well, most of us don't have
to worry about getting enough seed to eat. In fact, today, many of us will eat far too
much. We will say grace and give thanks for all that we are about to partake, but will
then partake of two to three times as much as we ought to because it tastes so good. As
we read in Deuteronomy, “You shall eat your fill and bless the Lord your God for the
good land that he has given you.” But, are we as persistent as a squirrel? While
encouraging us to appreciate our blessings, our Gospel reading also tells us to not worry.
Going back to the General Thanksgiving, it says, “We thank you for setting us at tasks
which demand our best efforts, and for leading us to accomplishments which satisfy and
delight us. We thank you also for those disappointments and failures that lead us to
acknowledge our dependence on you alone.”
However, we are only human. We get anxious and we worry. Sometimes our faith is
tested because, rather than relying on God, we strain to be in control. I can certainly
relate to that. 20 years ago I thought I was in control of my life. Then I went through an
ordeal that lasted nearly nine years, a nightmare that, at the time, seemed like an eternity.
At various times during my ordeal I would think and say to God, I thought you would
rescue me, keep me from having to endure this pain. He didn't, but, fortunately, I never
lost my faith in God's love for me. My faith sustained me, gave me strength to keep
from being totally swallowed by despair. I learned that God allows good and bad into
our lives and that we can trust Him with both. I learned that trusting God when the
miracle you have prayed for does not come, when it seems there is only darkness, that is
the kind of persistent faith that believes God loves us, hears our prayers and knows what
we need.
I am reminded of a prayer I came across during those difficult days, a prayer written in
1935 by the Rev. William Massie, Pastor of an AME church in Jacksonville, Florida. I'd
like to read it for you now.
“Lord; keep me from all bitterness, I pray. In these perplexing days of doubts and strain,
when courage fails and faith and hope grow dim, Oh, let me not complain.
Oh, save me from the ever-haunting fear that clutches my heart with wild demands, that
chills my love, that paralyzes faith, that blinds my eyes to all God's plans.
Lord; let me not feel pity for myself, but go my way with laughter and good cheer; with
head held high and eye and heart aglow, with strength to scorn each tear.
Let me not feel that I alone do suffer. I would not doubt the wisdom of God's plan; the
world has ever groaned and sought release from pain, since time began.
So let me face the future unafraid. Today is good: tomorrow taunts with fear. Tomorrow
I shall find but God's today to prove anew His presence near.”
So, let's be persistent like a squirrel. Or, as in the words of The Amplified New
Testament, “Therefore do not worry and be anxious, saying, What are we going to have
to eat? or, What are we going to have to drink? or, What are we going to have to wear?
For the heathens wish for and crave and diligently seek after these things; and your
heavenly Father well knows that you need them all. But seek for and strive after first of
all His kingdom and His righteousness, His way of doing, and then all these things taken
together will be given to you besides.” Or, as it says in the General Thanksgiving,
“Above all, we thank you for your Son Jesus Christ; for the truth of his Word and the
example of his life; for his steadfast obedience, by which he overcame temptation; for
his dying, through which he overcame death; for his rising to life again, in which we are
raised to the life of your kingdom.” So, we are called to be like a squirrel, to be
persistent in faith. Sometimes it isn't easy: when a loved one is sick or dying, when we
can't find employment, when we're struggling with some personal tragedy. But today,
especially today, we are reminded that God is with us always. And for that, especially
today, Thanksgiving Day, we are thankful.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Do Not Be Alarmed

 The Rev. Robert P. Travis
Pentecost 25th Sunday Sermon – 8:00am and 10:30am Church of the Ascension, Knoxville TN
RCL Proper 28 Year B 11/18/2012
Scripture Text: 1 Samuel 1:4-20, Psalm 16, Hebrews 10:11-14, 19-25, Mark 13:1-8

Sermon Text:
After what I’ve been seeing in the news this week,
about the fighting in Gaza and Jerusalem,
I sure am glad that our pilgrims made it back safely.
It is an alarming situation over there.

And, well, we made it through another big election.
And I bet all of you are glad that it's over,
regardless of whether you felt your side won or lost.
Most of the run up to it was full of fear,
that was promoted by both sides.
That was alarming too.

There were of course, as there always are,
Christians taking all parts of the political spectrum.
There was one statement made by a Christian,
that I believe Christians on both sides agreed with.
The choice of a politician or a political party
is not where our salvation lies.

Or as one person on his business' sign nearby wrote,
what ails our country does not have a political cure.
We know, in spite of our best hopes,
for fixing the problems we have,
that ultimately nothing we can do will cure all our problems.
And yet we keep striving,
as we should, and as we must.

This is all connected to the readings we have today,
of course, the reading from the Gospel of Mark
which has been called “the little apocalypse”
not because it's less apocalyptic, or less severe than other,
but just because it is brief,
certainly in comparison to the revelation of John.

This little apocalypse has big themes though,
and deals with the biggest of issues.
It's the kind of thing that can make us all worry,
or even make us scared.
And yet, in the midst of describing what will happen,
while he's telling us to beware.
Jesus commands us not to be alarmed.

How can we do that?
How can we beware of what's going on,
for fear that we might be lead astray,
and yet not be alarmed?
Jesus, what you're saying is going to happen,
are alarming events!
It is alarming to think about wars,
and rumors of wars,
to consider how nations rise against nation.
Those things terrify us, Jesus!
How can we not be alarmed?
And then earthquakes,
and famines?
Things we don't even think we can control.

(That is unless you live in Italy. . .
where apparently a few weeks ago
some scientists were found guilty
of negligence because they did not warn the public
of the coming earthquake.
Did you hear about that?
I'm glad I'm not a scientist in Italy.)

But I suppose if I did not talk to you about these things,
that are laid out for us in scripture,
I could be found guilty of negligence,
when it comes to pass if I did not warn you in advance.

But that's just it,
all of these calamities have happened,
and continue to happen,
and will happen,
and we want to have control over them,
or at least know when, so we can prepare ourselves.
In case it really is a sign that it's all over.

Isn't that what Peter, James, John and Andrew were asking,
when they said to Jesus,
“tells us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?”
I certainly can see myself asking Jesus the same thing.
You love us Jesus,
you see what's going to happen,
tell us in advance so we can get out of the way!

And what is Jesus' first response to that question?
“Beware that no one leads you astray.”

He knows we want to know in advance,
even though time of the end is not in our power to know,
or for the time of the new beginning,
however you look at it,
we want to know when it's going to happen,
we're not allowed to know,
and so what's the greatest danger?

That we'll be lead astray by someone
who we trust can tell us when it will be,
so we can be safe.
Here we are, less than a month away from the
Mayan apocalypse that many people believe will happen on 12/12/2012, or is it 12/21/2012?
Regardless, we've seen it before,
here we are after many predictions of the culmination of history have been lived through and found to be false.
Here we are approaching a dreaded fiscal cliff,
wondering if our politicians can save us,
and actually pretty sure they can't.

The temptation is to trust in people who tell us
what we want to hear,
but Jesus warns us that many will be lead astray,
by such false prophets.
We want to be in control,
we want it so badly,
that we're willing to believe a lie,
to put our whole trust in a lie,
just so we can hold on to that illusion of control.

I look back at the disciples
coming out of the temple of Herod the Great.
Certainly a wonder of the ancient world,
“Look, Teacher, what large stones,
and what large buildings!”
Jesus' response, “all will be thrown down.”
In other words, It's amazing to you how great
this work of human hands is,
but it is dust and rubble before the Lord of the Universe.
Don't put your trust in worldly greatness.

When I read this passage I was immediately reminded,
of that first time I went to New York City,
to Manhattan,
and like all first-time visitors,
found myself marveling at the height of the buildings,
the sheer number of skyscrapers
amazed at the incredible complexity of that great city.

And so many people are inclined
to in fact put their trust in that city,
in other great cities,
in all of our great engines of commerce and trade.

But then something like Hurricane Sandy comes through,
and in a matter of hours,
the city that never sleeps is brought to a stand still.
And those who depend on no one,
suddenly cry out for help.
The Temple is not the source of salvation,
New York City is not the source of salvation.

When we long for safety in our lives,
it will not be found, ultimately,
in the structures we build around us.
And yet, alarming though it is.
Jesus tells us not to be alarmed.
How can we not be alarmed,
if we know “this must take place,
but the end is still to come.”
If Jesus is telling us,
all of these terrible things will happen,
and the suffering is
“but the beginning of the birthpangs.”

I don't know about you,
but that's not a word of comfort to me.
I've been with my wife through many hours of labor,
and if someone had told me at hour 7 of 53,
this is but the beginning of the birthpangs,
I certainly would not have passed that on to her,
much less felt comforted or hopeful myself.

But I look to the psalm today and do find comfort there.
We read, “I keep the Lord always before me;
because he is at my right hand,
I shall not be moved.”
At the darkest time in my life,
when I felt like the world had fallen apart around me,
and I did not have much hope for a normal life ever,
much less for a fulfilling career or a healthy family,
My mother was drawn by the Spirit to this psalm,
and commended it to me.
I read it and reread it every day.
I held onto its words like the comforting blanket
or the beloved teddy bear, I did not have.

Look back at those verses preceding that,
from five through eight we have an answer.
And I am reminded that the psalms are
often regarded as prayers of the pre-incarnate Christ.
Let's interweave these verses with the gospel reading.

Jesus says, don't trust in these great buildings,
all will be thrown down.
The psalmist teaches us,
that it is important that we choose the Lord
as our portion and our cup,
important for us to put everything we have
in the Lord's hands.

We want to know, when will this happen,
how can we be safe when calamity comes?
But in the psalm we're asked to look back,
at our lives in the Lord's hands.
When we do that,
we see how our boundaries have fallen in pleasant places;
how we do have a goodly heritage.

We are warned to beware that no one leads us astray.
Not to listen to false teaching
even though it might be exactly
what we want to hear.
All we can do, in the face of uncertainty,
with the knowledge that everything in this world
will pass away,
that there is no safe place that we can make for ourselves,
is put everything in God's hands.

But the act of doing that does something to our souls.
It changes our hearts
so that rather than despairing
we become open to thanking the Lord.
The psalmist says,
I bless the Lord who gives me counsel;

I know there will be wars and rumors of wars,
Yet “in the night also my heart instructs me.”
Because I have set him before me at all times,
even at night when I’m not paying attention,
my heart instructs me.
I will not be alarmed, because
The comfort of the Lord, the way he upholds us,
in times of terror and alarm,
comes from within.

I hear of nation rising against nation,
I hear of earthquakes and famines.
Yet the Lord instructs us from the depths of our beings,
in the darkest night his light shines from within us.

How does all this happen?
it is because we keep the Lord before us,
even though this is but the beginning of the birthpangs,
of the birth of a coming kingdom that is already
being born for thousands of years,
but because we keep the Lord as close as our right hand,
that we know that we shall not be moved.

In the face of the alarming events that are happening around the world keep the Lord always before you.
Howard Wallace wrote,
“Every sense of self-security, every human plan for salvation of one kind or another, is not life giving.
Only the Lord, who judges all the earth, can grant life,
and he does so in suprising ways and unlikely places.” (Howard Wallace, quoted in Synthesis)

Look for him, and do not be alarmed.
You will be surprised what peace is to be found in Him.


Tuesday, November 13, 2012

We Are All in This Together The Reverend Dr. Howard J. Hess
24th Sunday After Pentecost 11/11/12. The Episcopal Church of the Ascension
I. Introduction. There are no coincidences. This morning’s Gospel reading from Mark presents us with a very clear teaching by Jesus about giving, pride, and humility. This passage about the widow’s mite, through no design of our own, has coincided with the ingathering of our pledges for 2013. Our God is a God of immediacy – speaking to us in the here and now about our stewardship campaign and about our giving decisions. Jesus attached great importance to the topic of giving, and I believe that it is safe to assume that God is desiring to talk with us this morning, not only about what amount we give, but also about the attitudes and motivations associated with our giving.
II. The Widow’s Faithfulness. The most immediately apparent part of Christ’s message in today’s Gospel is his lifting up of the widow’s faithfulness. Jesus was sitting in the Temple after having condemned the Scribes for their lust for prominence and power. He observed that many of the rich were giving large sums of money that landed noisily into the offering box. Among the givers was a poor widow who placed two copper coins into the offering box. These were the least valuable coins in circulation, and each represented approximately 20 minutes of labor. Yet Jesus commended her for giving all that she had. The widow hasclearly being held up by Jesus as an example of sacrificial giving. In the eyes of Jesus, the value of the widow’s gift was not determined by its amount, but rather by what it reflected about her relationship with God. This story suggests that God sees the heart of the giver and knows whether our gifts come from what is leftover – the extra or surplus -- or _________________ from a place of deep gratitude.
III. I believe that we can also dig more deeply into this Scripture to find another level of meaning – a meaning that has to do with “journey.” Jesus wass on a journey that was nearing its final chapter. He had entered Jerusalem and courageously spoken truth to power. What he had done will cost him his life. Thus it would stand to reason that Jesus was choosing his teaching lessons carefully. Jesus himself was about to sacrifice his own life, and he knew that his disciples still had much to learn about sacrificial giving and commitment. What Jesus Christ wanted his disciples and what Christ wants us to comprehend is how very blessed we are and how the choices we make about our giving reflect our recognition of what God has given us. This, in fact, is what our Stewardship Campaign has been about this year –recognizing God’s many blessings that are evident at Ascension, celebrating those blessings, and responding in kind.
IV. Our Journeys. Two Sundays ago here at Ascension, we focused upon the last of five themes in the Celebration Stewardship Campaign – the theme of “journey.” Many wonderful stories about our spiritual journeys were shared in a written booklet and on a videotape. The stories are compelling. I would like to mention one of them this morning – the reflection shared by Venice Peek. Venice wrote and spoke so eloquently about how over time God revealed new insights to her about giving, how she learned from other saints along the way, and yet her deeper understanding about giving came directly out of herr faith journeys. We listen, we learn, we take risks, and we rely upon God’s safety net. There is no question in my mind that through the voices of Venice, David, Mary, and so many others, God is clearly trying to get our attention. Thank you, God, for being so persistent with us.
At the same time that Ascension was focusing upon “journey,” a group of 27 of us were celebrating a journey of our own – our pilgrimage through the Holy Land. Each of has many journey stories to tell. Today my story is about our ascent up Mt. Sinai in Egypt. During the exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land, Moses climbed Mt. Sinai and was given the Ten Commandments. I had anticipated climbing Mt. Sinai with great excitement; and, it was on Mt. Sinai that I was to meet God in a new way for the first time on this pilgrimage.
Our journey up Mt. Sinai began at 2:00 am in the darkness. As most pilgrims do, I rode the first 75% of the trip up the 4,000 plus foot high mountain on a camel. It was then necessary to climb to the peak by foot because the path became too steep for the camels. Since there is no light pollution in the Sinai, the stars were magnificent. In the light of the stars, I could see the shadows of pilgrims from all parts of the world ascending the mountain. Some were singing hymns; some were calling back and forth to one another; others were moving forward silently. The goal for all of us was to reach the summit in time to see the sun rise from the top of the mountain. We reached the summit just before the rays of the sun began to appear. The crowd fell silent. Then a group of Orthodox Christians began to sing the morning liturgy acapella. My eyes filled with tears that ran down my face as I felt myself moved by standing in that sacred place with other pilgrims from Ascension and remembering that those who had decided not to climb with us were at the base of the mountain praying for us.
As I stood on the summit, I was reminded again and again that I was not standing there alone. Of course God was there with me. But there was an aspect of this journey that impressed upon me how reliant we are upon one another in the Body of Christ. As I had made this challenging climb, I became fatigued. Many of you know that I have a history of respiratory problems. When I would begin to falter along the way, to start to fall or to feel that it was hard to get my breath, other Ascension pilgrims came up beside me to catch and steady me and to help me take my next step. You see, not only was I experiencing God’s presence on the journey to the summit, but also the grace-filled presence of others who helped me when I needed them. At the top of the mountain, our joy was shared with one another in that sacred space. This is a beautiful metaphor for the Church.
V. Conclusion. You see, although we have been thousands of miles apart during these recent weeks, God has been teaching all of us what a gift it is to be with one another on this journey. We -- you and I -- are the church, the Body of Christ, here to hold one another up, to share our resources in gratitude, and to do the work that Christ has given us to do. Yes, we are flawed and have unfinished business in our lives, but we are on this journey together here at Ascension with Jesus Christ leading us forward. In this morning’s gospel, Jesus knew that his disciples would soon have to establish the church; that they would have to give up their own needs for recognition; and let go of their own pride. And I believe he wanted them to really understand and teach others that their possessions and resources were given to them by God and were never really theirs to begin with. God wants us to learn this as well. This morning God is giving us another opportunity in our journey to step forward in faithful and grateful giving. I’d like to conclude with a quotation used by Venice in her reflection by the Rt. Reverend Gregory H. Rickel, Bishop of The Episcopal Diocese of Olympia:
All we have been given in this life is on loan, at best. It is not ours; we will never truly own it. We have it, for whatever reason, in order to care for it as best we can. This is true of everything we, or the bank, says we own, and it is just as true for every relationship we have. We are stewards of all of it, called by God to leave the land, our material possessions, our money, and our relationships better than we found them, or than they found us. All we now see, hold, and know is God’s vineyard, and we are called to tend it, for the One who truly owns it all. Thanks be to God, Amen.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

November 4, 2012, The Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost
The Rev. Nancy P. Acree
It has been almost twelve years since I stood in this place and my heart is full to be standing here today.  Even tho I was quite relieved to find God lives in Ga as well as Tn.,, this still feels like home to me and I’m mighty glad to have come home.  I don’t remember much about that last day except that I told you about the time my slip fell off while I was serving communion.  If that had anything to do with the gospel I surely don’t know what at this point.  But, I do remember so much, grieving together, laughing together, all with such love.  I thank you for those memories.
Memory plays such an important part in all our lives.  The good thief said to Jesus on the cross Remember me when you come into your kingdom.  Jesus says to us REMEMBER ME.  And we do through the stories we tell about him, our experiences of him, our prayers to him, and a myriad of other ways unique to each of us.
I have a story to tell that is uniquely mine but I hope will speak to you all.  When I was a chaplain at the hospital I received a call one night to come to the neo natal intensive care unit to baptize a baby.  Only after I arrived there did I get all the details.  This baby boy was one of twins who had been born prematurely at St. Mary’s.  This child had been the weaker of the two and transferred while the other baby and the parents stayed at St. Mary’s.  This baby had died and the parents felt strongly that they wanted him to be baptized.  I was very clear that God didn’t need him to be baptized but the family did and so I went ahead and baptized him with the nurse standing with me.  Afterwards, I continued to stand beside the baby’s bed, to marvel at how beautifully he was formed and how peaceful his face  was.  I just stood there in quiet and prayer that became deeper and deeper and in a way that is impossible to describe or explain in words became aware of and convinced of the reality of the communion of saints as I had never been convinced before.   I have no idea how long I stood there—it could have been a few short minutes or an hour but I was forever changed by the experience.  I remember that experience with awe and gratitude and hope that somehow my experience can have meaning for you.
Lazarus story is unique but has great meaning for each of us.  Mary and Martha remembered the great love there was between them, Lazarus and Jesus and because of that sent a message to Jesus to tell him Lazarus was ill.  By the time Jesus arrived Lazarus had been in his tomb for four days. Mary, Martha, the crowd and Jesus all wept with sorrow because of his death, just as we mourn those we love who die.  This is Jesus greatest miracle and he was very clear as to why he did it.  He brought Lazarus from death to life to show the glory of “God and to convince the people he was who he said he was.  We aren’t told what happened after Lazarus appeared but it isn’t hard to imagine.  There must have been speechless wonder, such awe that it was almost impossible to believe and most of all great joy and rejoicing.
Just as we have when we see when we experience what seems to be a hopeless situation made right by God’s power.   If someone were to ask me if I had ever raised a person from the dead my quick instinctive answer would be no.  But, upon reflection I would give a qualified yes and I’m willing to  bet you have, too.
Every time you bring joy that shatters despair, every time you forgive others and give them back dignity and affirm them and their life, every time you speak the truth in public—yes, you bring people back from the dead.
We are resurrection people.  There are ways we can practice resurrection in our every day lives:
Leave the past to God’s mercy and the future to God’s discretion.  Living in the present moment, the only moment when God brings forth new life, is a way of affirming your belief in resurrection.
Every time you accept God’s grace inyour life and see it in the world around you, your own resurrection is  in the making.
Practice gratitude and you and doing away with the death dealing forces of boredom, despair, and taking things for granted.
Whenever you open your heart with compassion you help bring someone suffering back into the land of the living.
The list could go  on and on.  Make your own list.  We can’t literally do what Jesus did but in  our own way we can bring life, can bring light into darkness, hope into situations of despair.  I’ve been dead, in the darkness, feeling all alone, and people came to me with the light of Jesus and I found new life.  Do we dare do any less? 
Remember, we do none of these things on our own.  God will do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.  We must remember to pray as Jesus prayed having confidence that our Father will hear us and give us courage and strength to walk in the ways he would have us go.  Amen