Sunday, December 23, 2012

O, Come Quickly Emmanuel!

The Rev. Robert P. Travis
Advent 4th Sunday Sermon – 8:00am and 10:30am Church of the Ascension, Knoxville TN
RCL Advent 4 Year C 12/23/2012
Scripture Text: Micah 5:2-5a, Canticle 15 (Magnificat), Hebrews 10:5-10, Luke 1:39-45

Sermon Text:
O Come, O Come Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here,
until the Son of God appear.”

We sang that hymn at the healing service on Wednesday,
and it struck me then,
that we are more like captive Israel
in this country, this week,
than we have been at any time in my memory,
that we are mourning in lonely exile here.

Three years ago, I preached on this Sunday,
and at that time Jackie and I were expecting the birth of
our third child, and first son.
It was a very different fourth Sunday of Advent for us,
full of expectation and hope,
in which I shared the joy of Mary and Elizabeth
in the same gospel reading we just heard.

Would I have been so joyful and expectant,
if I knew how dangerous a world I was bringing
this son into that I am so aware of today?
Would the parents in Newtown have chosen
to have their children,
if they knew the depths of grief
they were going to experience this week
as they lost them so early in life?

Would Mary and Elizabeth have been rejoicing,
if they knew the horrible and violent ends
to which their sons would come,
as young men in the prime of life?
These are some of the questions
that have been troubling my mind this week.
In between times that I was thinking of the families
up in Newtown,
and crying in grief over a loss that is too close,
to my own young children's ages.

It is so close that when I think of my precious daughters,
and the way they act now at 6 and 8 years old,
the funny things they say,
the way they are full of life and questions.
I can't help but tear up immediately
as thoughts of those other precious children
come into my mind.

And at other times,
when I hear the various news stories,
of people trying to solve the problem,
as we all seem to want to do,
most of the solutions offered make me angry,
because it is not hard to see how easily those ideas
can and will fail in the future.
And it bothers me how quick
people are to assess blame in one way or the other,
and to further divide over trying to solve a problem,
that if anything should bring us more together.
So I would rather be silent in the face of all this,
and not speak at all.
But here it comes to be my turn to preach to you all,
and to share something about the faith we share.
I would rather be silent,
but I know I have a responsibility to say something,
so I will honor that calling,
and pray that God will not be offended
by what comes out of my mouth in his name.
It's so hard in the flood of thoughts that come to my mind,
to even think about everything much less preach,
that I am going to stay close to the scripture
that we have for this Sunday, as a way to focus.

Mary and Elizabeth rejoice at the company of each other,
at their kinship, divided by age though it was
and at their shared experience of miraculous child bearing.
And while it is truly wonderful what they have experienced,
and what they can look forward to
in raising these blessed children,
We know that there is great anguish ahead as well.
We see in our passage from Hebrews,
the great sacrifice that will replace all the religious
offerings of Jesus, the sacrifice that God himself makes,
but that Mary will make also,
that we people of God will be sanctified
through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
That is a wonderfully religious way of making holy
the fact that Jesus, son of Mary,
would be murdered,
executed unjustly by a group of men,
who were afraid of losing power.
So Elizabeth was right that Mary was blessed,
to believe that the Lord would fulfill what
he spoke to her in choosing her to bear Jesus,
but along with the blessing would come great suffering.

And John, Elizabeth's son in her old age,
was also a source of tremendous blessing to her.
Though he would become great, faithful,
and with many followers,
leading many to true belief in God,
would be beheaded by a petty and boastful King,
at the behest of a jealous wife.
I imagine, if Elizabeth lived that long,
on hearing of her son's demise,
she wondered how God would allow that to happen,
much as many of us, and certainly parents in Newtown,
wonder the same thing this week.
But through it all, while they might not get answers to that perennial question, Mary and Elizabeth do have each other,
and they do have their community of faith,
and they do have their God supporting them
suffering with them all along.

That is what we have as well,
what we must have,
what we can invite others into,
and what we must never give up,
a community of faithful people,
who rejoice with one another,
and suffer with each other,
recognizing that God is with us in all of this.

With all the voices arguing about how we can make sure,
that the tragedy of Newtown Connecticut,
never happens again,
what I have not heard addressed is the
huge problem of isolation and individualism
in our society.
One might think that a random act,
by an isolated individual, in a small community,
790 miles away, would not affect us so much.
But we're all connected to it,
there are even physical connections that struck me.
The rector of St. Elizabeth's in Farragut served as a priest
at Trinity in Newtown before she came here,
and obviously knows many of the people personally.
And my sister here in Fountain City,
has a friend from college who lost a child in the shooting.
But we're all connected to these people
through our shared values of life and love,
and our shared sense of horror and grief over what happened,
and that connection to one another can become a source
of our healing and redemption.

Look back at the prophecy of Micah,
You know we have this reading this Sunday
because of the mention of Bethlehem,
and the birth there that Micah foretells
of the one who is to rule Israel.
But notice the end of that prophecy describes something that has not yet come to pass.
The prophet says that they,
shall live secure, for now he shall be great
to the ends of the earth;
and he shall be the one of peace.”
Jesus was not great to the ends of the earth in his lifetime,
and though he came in peace,
there has not been peace over the earth in his name since then.
And we certainly know this week that we do not live secure.

We long for security,
we all want to keep ourselves safe,
and even more importantly we want to keep our children safe.
But you and I both know,
that no matter what we change in society,
or what laws we enact,
no matter what security we try to enforce,
we cannot be totally safe in this life.
Much as my feelings as a parent make me consider
keeping my children at home,
out of places where they could get hurt
I know that can't ultimately work.
The solution is definitely not withdrawal
into some seemingly secure place,
where our individual weapons protect us,
or walls keep us from people
we are prone to dehumanize in our fear.

Mary knew the danger of the world
she was bringing her son into,
but she did not hold back her consent.
God knew the danger
he was bringing his own son into,
with even greater certainty,
but he did not withhold his own child from
doing what we needed him to do for us,
God let his own son come and die for us.
And two thousand years later,
we still haven't figured out a way to ensure
our own security, though we have tried and tried,
again and again.

The only one who can ensure our security,
is the one who will come again,
and our hope is that at his second coming,
at his glorious second Advent,
he will usher in the full and perfect peace of God's Kingdom,
his reign over all of us which will never end.
That's why we sing, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,”
and ransom us, captives to our own sinfulness,
that mourn in lonely exile here,
we exile ourselves away from God and one another.
Until you come back,
and the son of God appear,
and bring us into reconciliation with each other,
and with God forever.
Advent is much more than waiting
for the celebration of Christmas,
it is about waiting with hope and expectation for the second coming of our Lord.
We know that this year, more than ever before.
O Come, Quickly Lord Jesus!

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Third Sunday of Advent
Luke 3:7-18
Repentance and the Good News of Change

Let us pray:
Heavenly Father, Quiet our minds, quiet our hearts, in this Advent season, and create in us a true desire for you, that we might prepare with right intention and real effort for the indwelling of your Christ in our world, in our lives, and in our souls.

So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people”
You know, I think it's funny the way that we change. The way that we change our likes and our habits as we get older or move into different phases of our life. The way we can even change very deep parts of who we are. Of course, I don't know how it works with you all, but if I ever even think about saying, “oh I'll never do that, or I'll never eat that, or I'll never like that,” well, it is pretty much guaranteed that I will, eventually. I mean I was never ever going to just sit down and snack on sliced tomatoes, enjoy anything with avocados, or most especially get anywhere near any type of olive much less enjoy them, and then I got married. Now I enjoy all of those things, and I watch shows that I'd never before heard of, enjoy movies I used to make fun of, and sometimes even secretly listen to music that is completely embarrassing. I still dare to say though that I will never enjoy ketchup! Yuck!
I have experienced this kind of changing on a spiritual level as well. See I was raised and have always leaned towards a fairly low church attitude liturgically and otherwise (snake belly low actually if you ask Fr. Rob). Somehow, in recent years, I have inexplicably gone from somewhat of a distant and critical view of the Saints, to now daily wearing and contemplating a bracelet which is covered by them. Whereas before I stayed away from spiritual images and objects, I now have what I would call a tiny obsession and pray daily with Anglican rosaries.
In both my broader call to ordained ministry and in my being called to serve here at Ascension in particular there is a similar theme. I clearly remember laughing at and adamantly refusing to take seriously the various people who approached me about the priesthood throughout the course of my life, and many of you have heard me share the story of how I tried very very hard not to end up here, in this wonderful place and with you wonderful people. Boy that sure worked out didn't it? Good thing I'm not a gambling man!
Very recently though, actually within the past week or two, there's another change has taken place within me. A change that I was highly resistant to. A change that I feel connects to our Gospel lesson today. You see, until last week's Sunday service, I had actually never once before dipped my fingers into the waters of a Baptismal font and crossed myself upon entering a church or a service. Strangely, for the past few weeks something had been moving me to do so, regardless of how hard my ridiculously rebellious personality resisted it. So eventually, I cracked. I did it, and I almost instantly realized and experienced the reality of why such an action is so important. In reading this morning's Gospel, I realized that this idea of change, and the experience I recently had were in some way deeply connected to the words that John the Baptist speaks to us today.
You see, John the Baptist really was proclaiming the Good News to those who followed him as is stated in our Scripture this morning, and he does the same for us now. I just think we too often might get distracted by the words, and miss just how Good the news of John was and continues to be. Though perhaps it does not seem fitting, other than the brief mention of the word, because of all the harsh language and almost violent imagery encountered in this passage, I have to admit that I still found myself really hoping that we would have a Baptism today. I found myself hoping that we would have the chance to witness together and the opportunity to engage in the very thing that John the Baptist calls us to this morning. Because really, that is what today's Gospel is all about. The Good News, re-pentance, re-birth, re-creation, re-newal, Baptism; the chance to change and start again.
My friends, today, along with the Israelites, we are each being called back to our beginning. We are each being called back to change. Just as John called Israel back to the desert, back to the place where they entered into a covenant relationship with God, so too are we being called back today by the words of John to the very waters of our Baptism and to the very place where we entered into our own covenant with God. We are being called back to our beginnings both as a reminder of our very real commitment and promise to constantly work to change, and as a reminder of the very precious and incredible gift of repentance that we were once and are continually offered by our loving God. That is what I now realize was moving me to the font, to engage in that important and powerful liturgical action and tradition described earlier. It was the gift of repentance, the gift of change, the gift of Advent preparation. That is what was so important about John the Baptist's words then, and what continues to make them so important now. John calls us back!
That is the true meaning of repentance. It is the turning back. Back from our busy and important lives towards the quiet and unknown desert. Back from our all consuming selves towards God. It isn't a hard or scary or harsh thing, it's a gift. It's simply the failure to do so which John warns us of today.
You know part of me thinks that maybe we've forgotten just how important Baptism is. Perhaps because we see it all the time? Perhaps because most of us were Baptized as infants and don't remember? Perhaps because we sprinkle? The truth is that Holy Baptism marks our commitment to repentance and that it should continue to be a reminder to us of that commitment always. Whereas John was calling people to repent by returning to their covenant with God. Baptism reminds us of our own place with God, of our own covenant and promise to live a life that is constantly turning back, constantly re-pentant.
So this is why our font is placed where it is, and why such traditions are developed around it, which I always knew and understood but never until very recently allowed myself to experience. For when we walk in to this or any other sacred space, and even just pass the font, it is meant to remind us of our passing through the waters of Baptism. It is meant to remind us of the waters that cleansed us and the promises taken which then allowed and prepared us for approaching God, just as we relive or re-enact, or re-celebrate the gift of Christ every Sunday in the Eucharist. The font prepares us for the Altar Table, just as the repentance and commitment to change lying at the core of Baptism prepares us for the salvation and promise of forgiveness lying at the core of Christ.
Brothers and Sisters in Christ we are currently in a season of preparation and change, the season of Advent. Because in this season, like at the font, we prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ into our hearts and our lives in a new way, I thought it would be fitting, in lieu of a Baptism, to ask us to do something different today. So today, I want to ask us to renew together our baptismal covenant.

*****Here lead the people in saying the Baptismal covenant from the Book of Common Prayer ******
Page 304 of the BCP

Brothers and Sisters in Christ, today and always, and together, let us ever celebrate the gift of, and ever live into our promise of repentance. Together let us prepare. Together let us change. Together let us turn back to the desert. Let us turn back to the waters. Together, let us forever turn back to Christ.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Not Broken... But Not Mended Yet

Advent 1, Year C
Church of the Ascension
December 2, 2012
The Rev. Amy Morehous

I will walk out of the darkness
And I'll walk into the light
And I'll sing the song of ages
And the dawn will end the night.

I'm a dweller on the threshold
And I'm waiting at the door
And I'm standing in the darkness
I don't want to wait no more.

--”Dweller on the Threshold”, lyrics by Van Morrison

So, here we are at the beginning again, you and I. Advent. That song by Van Morrison has been stuck in my head for weeks, as Advent drew closer. Even though it isn’t actually about Advent at all, it held a lot of my feelings about this holy time. A time when we wrestle with the now...and anticipate what has not yet come.

Our readings today acknowledge that now, and point us toward that not yet. They arise out of times of darkness: Jeremiah wrote for the exiled Hebrew people, people held captive far from home. Early Christians would have heard the book of Luke after the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple. All that they had known had crumbled about their ears, and they knew the brokenness in the world, in their lives and in ours.

Joanna M. Adams said: "This Advent I feel an urgent need for the light that comes from God, and I do not think I am the only one….The clouds of anxiety about the future are hovering so low and close that you can barely see your hand in front of your face."  She finds herself, like all of us, "holding on for dear life to the reassurance that God intends to make the world right again." ("Living by the Word" The Christian Century, November 28, 2006)

I spent two long months away from you, while I was at home recuperating from surgery. I chose some great books, made a stack at the foot of the bed. I had hopes of working through some of those. I had one complete knee reconstruction ten years ago, so I knew that after surgery I would have nothing but time. Of course, things don’t work out according to our plans. I spent so much of that time addled by the aftereffects of the surgery and the anesthesia and medication that most of my appreciation of words was lost to me. I didn't have the attention span to read a magazine, much less concentrate on a book. I would like to tell you that I handled it with grace. (I’d like to tell you that, but I know my husband is here, and he’d know I was lying.) 

For weeks, I even found it difficult to pray, because I, who have always relied on my ability with words, found that I honestly couldn't string together the sentences to do it. I could read along with morning prayer or compine, but the only prayer some days that I could produce myself was one of Anne Lamott's favorites: "Help." All of you who have gone through something similar know that on the worst of days, you begin to wonder if you will ever be back together again. Even today, I have times when I'm sure I've not got all the bits up here stuck back together again, or if I have, that I’ve somehow reassembled them in the wrong order.

One day, about a month after surgery, Dave said, "How was your day?" I said, "My day was frustrating. I have to keep reminding myself that I'm not permanently broken, but I'm not mended yet."

Not broken, but not mended yet. There is much in the world today, in each of our lives, that lands squarely in those uncomfortable place in-between. Not permanently broken, but not mended yet. To our modern ears, this mini apocalypse of a Gospel we hear today can seem like a harsh comfort for this in-between time, a time when we tire of darkness and yearn so much towards joy and light.

After the year we’ve all had, it’s easy to see how much in our world seems irreparably broken. A divisive election, destructive storms, earthquakes, war. It's not hard for us to find the evidence of disaster and darkness. And it's understandable that we would look at them and despair. After all, how is it possible for us alone to remedy what seems so irreparably broken?

It isn't. It isn't possible for us alone to overcome the darkness. But our readings remind us we aren't alone, and we as a people, individually or collectively, are not irreversibly broken. I am not broken, and you are not broken. We and our world are not yet mended. We hope for the One who is to come, who will be the great healer. The One who comes as a child, and the One who has promised to come again, in power and great glory. We are promised that one day, we and all that we know will be mended when we are whole in the kingdom of God. As Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, "Unconditional love will have the last word." So we have a choice - do we believe that someday the broken places will be mended? Do we believe that our wounds will be healed? Do we believe that God will fulfill all of God’s great promises?

I believe that in our own imperfect way, we are here to lift up our desire to do just that. We are here to push back against fear, and to affirm the eternal dawning of our hope in Christ. We are here to affirm the Christ who has been with us, who still dwells among us, who will return to us. Each Sunday, we come together and kneel before the table of God, to affirm that we believe in a God who has promised redemption and hope to the world, not brokenness and destruction.

So - how do we live as if we believe? How do we live today, if we believe that love will overcome all evil tomorrow?  If we believe in a God who keeps those promises, that loves us beyond all reason, then that same God calls us to love each other along the way, and asks us to choose hope over fear. Our love for each other can be that taste of God's kingdom even in imperfect and difficult times. We ourselves can be the now in the midst of the not yet. You sent me meals and cards and e-mails and jokes. You prayed for me by name when I could not. You had words when I had none. You were the now in the middle of my messy and frustrating not yet.

The birth of Christ which we await is the in-breaking of the kingdom of God into this hurting world. God at work then, God with us here today, here even now. We are invited to be a part of that work, to lift up hope, to refuse to give in to fear, until Christ returns to fulfill the kingdom of God, in God's own good time. We are invited to be works in progress, in all the mess and the imperfection that implies. We are invited to follow Christ - that implies a life lived in motion. Where we are at this moment is not where we will end up. Not broken, but not yet mended.

This Advent may you walk out of darkness, and walk into the light. “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all.” May you move forward to this new year, and may the inbreaking of God’s hope bring the dawn that ends the night.   And may we be bold enough to live lives of Advent hope. Now...and always.


The Last Sunday After Pentecost: Christ the King
John 18:33-37
Listening to The Voice

Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

    So, in case you don't really know me all that well, I will go ahead and openly confess that I am a stubborn man. Recently I had a pretty important learning as a result of my being stubborn, that I'd like to share with you today. You see, many ordained people, priests and deacons, even before they are ordained, usually in seminary, are typically encouraged ( and of course that really means they are told and expected ) to find and meet regularly with a spiritual director. A person who is trained to be kind of a spirituality coach. A person who can provide some sort of spiritual accountability, and who can function as a kind of advisor for all things spiritual. So, a few years ago, I, just like all of my colleagues in seminary heard this message, received this command, and because at the time I really didn't like being told what to do much, well, I ended up just never doing it. I never sought a spiritual director. For years, I was certain that that was ok, and that I truly did not need any direction or help in this matter. I knew how to pray, I actually had a good prayer life, and I felt in relationship with God. There was no need for help in my spiritual life, that is, until I actually became a priest. Go figure!
     So, about 3 or 4 years after becoming a priest, in a very wonderful, but very very busy church, I began to feel as if something was wrong. As if something was missing from my life. As if God was far away, even though God was indeed the very subject of virtually all that I did every single day. It was then that I understood why I was encouraged to seek out a spiritual director all those years back. So I did, and what that process showed me, in the midst of the spiritual darkness that I perceived at the time, was that the only thing that had really changed was that I had stopped doing my part in my relationship with God. I knew God, I truly loved God, but I had stopped doing the work of seeking for, and stopped doing the work of listening to God's constantly present voice in my life.
     Now, if I hadn't been so stubborn, would I have still had this experience? Maybe not. But that isn't my point. My point, and the reason I share this experience with you all this morning is because, as I read over our Gospel lesson this past week, to be honest, I couldn't help but to see a little bit of myself and maybe all of us in Pilate. I couldn't help but to see a little bit of myself and maybe all of us in the disciples. I couldn't help but to think about the fact that I, and maybe we, still might not get it, the very reason we gather to celebrate on this special day, Christ the King. That, even though we know Christ, even though we grasp and understand who we are as Christians and what our relationship is with God as a result of Christ the King, we somehow have still not quite managed to truly live into our call to listen to His voice.
     We encounter Jesus this morning on the brink of judgment. In the final moments before His destiny is realized and put into motion, and in a unique interaction with Pontius Pilate, where Pilate is given the chance to hear Christ's voice, to see Jesus for who He really is. Pilot, of course misses this opportunity, but not before he ironically proclaims Christ as King in the very sign that he has attached to Jesus' cross. This Scripture is unique for us today as well in a liturgical sense, not only because it is a break from the Gospel of Mark which we have been working our way through for some time now, but because this Sunday also marks for us the end of the church year. Next Sunday is the first Sunday in Advent and therefore the first Sunday of the Church calendar, and so essentially this morning we find ourselves in what could liturgically be called the Church's New Year's Eve. Though I am quite positive that my liturgy professor would not have signed off on my calling Christ the King Sunday by such a name, for me, the analogy still holds.
     You see, today, Brothers and Sisters in Christ, we have the chance to reevaluate our relationship with Christ Jesus. Just like on New Year's Eve when we look into the year to come, thinking of all that we hope to accomplish and hope it to be, and look back on the year that has passed thinking of what could have been done differently, today, we have the chance, as we stand on the brink of Advent, to ask ourselves what we will do differently as Christians. We have a an opportunity to reevaluate the reality of our own personal relationship with Christ the King. Who is it really that we will begin to await? Who is it really that we will begin to prepare for?
For me, that's where the rub comes, and that's the hard part of this message. For me, at the same time, that is also the take home for today. You see, we're Easter people. We're post-resurrection people. Whereas Pilate stood in front of Jesus having the opportunity to see the Christ before him and didn't, and the disciples walked with Jesus and had the opportunity to hear the voice of God but didn't, in all fairness we have to admit that they really didn't know the whole story yet, did they?
     They couldn't have really known yet regardless of how hard Jesus tried to tell them. Because, after all, why in the world would they even imagine for a moment that the Messiah, the King, the one they had all been waiting for ages for finally arrived in all His glory only to humble Himself, bow His head, and be sacrificed? What's probably even a little harder to swallow than that, is the fact that, unlike them, we do know. We do already know Him. We do already know what happened in the resurrection, that Jesus is the Christ, the King, and just as we shall witness and participate in through a Holy Baptism in just a few moments, we even go so far as professing our faith and belief in this King. Yet, just like with the story I have shared with you this morning, I suspect that we can all question whether or not we actually listen to His voice. So for me, that is our question today, are we of the Truth, as Jesus says? Even if our lives are so filled with speaking about and thinking about God, church activities and social service, are we listening to His voice?
     Brothers and Sisters in Christ, traditionally today is the Sunday on which we boldly proclaim what it is that we believe as Christians, that Christ Jesus is King of all, and that our faith in and proclamation of the Truth through Him can and will radically change this world. Yet today I wish to make us aware also of the very real possibility of our doing so in our daily lives, from Sunday to Sunday, with empty words and empty hearts. Because just as I experienced in the story I shared today, I believe we are all vulnerable to the very real temptation of walking through our day to day lives wearing our cross maybe, but perhaps never truly bearing it. So, on this Liturgical New Year's Eve, as we gaze out and hover on the edge of a season of expectation in Advent, I want to challenge us to take advantage of this moment, of this day, of this sanctified space, and to use it to truly reevaluate what and who it is we believe in, and what and who those beliefs make each of us, so that we might openly and honestly prepare ourselves in this coming season for a new incarnation of Christ in each of our hearts. So, let us stand together today around this font in this service of Holy Baptism, earnestly proclaiming the core of our faith. Let us gather together around this altar table in this and every service of Holy Eucharist, whole heartedly handing over our selves and truly submitting our souls and bodies to the One in whom we live and move and have our being, Jesus Christ our Lord, Christ the King, so that all here present today and all of Creation might ever be desirous of and truly able to listen to His voice.

Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”