Monday, March 26, 2012

COVENANT

(3/25/2012

by Bob Wadley




When I read the lectionary for today, I thought, what does the Jeremiah reading about God making a new covenant with Israel have to do with the reading in John in which Jesus talks about losing one's life in order to save it? Well, maybe we can make a connection. But, first, a few words about why I'm standing up here this morning. As a young boy I was active in a fundamentalist church, learned a lot of Bible verses and thought I might want to be a minister when I grew up. Then, as I moved into my late teens, through college and early adulthood, church wasn't a major part of my life. I didn't turn away from the church, I just didn't give it much thought. Occasional attendance, but no commitment. I suspect that might be true for many of us here today during that time in our lives. Then came marriage, children, career and re-involvement in church, including being Senior Warden of St. John's Episcopal Church in Tallahassee, Florida. I was involved, but I still wasn't committed. I believed, but my belief was superficial. Then I went through a life changing experience. Much like the farmer whose mule wouldn't pay attention until he picked up a stick and hit the mule on the forehead, God hit me pretty hard and He got my attention.


Let's fast forward a few years. On March 1, 2000 I came to Ascension to be the Parish Administrator. Ascension's need and my need coincided and coming here was, and is, one of the most unlikely, but greatest, blessings of my life. A couple of years ago, Fr. Howard suggested that I might want to consider entering the process leading up to ordination as a deacon. After some thought and a meeting with Bishop vonRosenberg, I said I would and began the process. Then Bishop Charlie announced his resignation and all deaconate applications were put on hold. That was another intervention by God. He obviously knew that, with my personality, I shouldn't be a deacon. If you're familiar with Myers-Briggs personality indicators, deacons need a lot of F, I. e., feeling. I'm a devout introvert, an INTJ; my F is minimal. However, I was still looking for a way to serve and through Rick Govan, the diocesan Deputy for Ministry and Congregational Development, I was introduced to the lay preaching program. This is one of several lay ministry opportunities offered by the diocese which are described in the service bulletin insert this morning. It has been a bit of work, but enjoyable, studying the Bible and learning preaching techniques. I expect to be licensed as a lay preacher in the Diocese of East Tennessee later this year, but, in the meantime, as part of the Homiletics course I'm currently taking, I'm required to do some preaching to gain sufficient experience, so, thank you all for being here this morning to help me with my homework.


Let's begin by looking at verses 25 and 26 in the Gospel of John: “Any one who loves his life loses it; anyone who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me, must follow me, and my servant will be with me wherever I am.” (The New Jerusalem Bible translation) Does this mean we must die to follow Christ? Does Jesus mean that we must actually hate, that is, detest, our present life? That really doesn't make sense, does it? I believe that, sometimes, word meanings change over time and in translation from Greek or Hebrew into English. I'm not a Biblical scholar, but as used here, the word hate means to not choose, that is, to make something else the top priority of your life. Like, making God and following Jesus the top priority.


OK, so what do I mean when I say I will follow Jesus? How do I follow Him? Certainly not literally. But, am I to admire His teaching and His life. Of course, but not just that. No, following Jesus means being a disciple, adopting His model of unselfish love for others as the orientation of your own life. And it is a choice to put others ahead of self, to be freed from our compulsion to serve ourselves first. Now, isn't that a strange idea? Demanding really, if you think about it. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “He has become like a man, so that men should be like him." I'm supposed to place someone else's interest above my own? Well, sure, if its someone I love. I mean, I would jump in front of a train to save my child's life. But, what if its someone I barely know? What if someone I don't know is drowning and if I jump into the swirling river I might be able to save them, but I might also drown myself? Or maybe less dramatically, what if I'm on my way home and have waited a while for the oncoming traffic to pass by so I could turn left onto Lyons Bend Road, but there is someone sitting there who has been waiting to turn onto Northshore and can't because of the heavy traffic? Do I allow them to turn before I do?


Sometimes, being a disciple of Christ can be found in the smallest details of our lives. Sometimes, loving another person is simply taking the time to focus on them and listen to them. In a recent daily meditation, Henri Nouwen has written, “Listening is much more than allowing another to talk while waiting for a chance to respond. Listening is paying full attention to others and welcoming them into our very beings.” Let me share a true story with you about how important listening can be. A man I knew named Dave owned a small business in Park City, Utah. On a very cold, early December day, Dave had an appointment with his attorney in Salt Lake City. He parked his car and walked to the corner to wait for the light to change so he could cross the street to the office building where his attorney's office was located. Dave was warmly dressed in a cashmere overcoat, with a hat and gloves. As he stood there, he saw an obviously homeless man approaching. The man's clothing and jacket were torn and dirty and not really adequate for the weather, and he was carrying a shoebox with a lid and a rubber band around it. Dave's first inclination was to ignore the man, but when the man said, “Good morning, my name is Jimmy, what's yours?”, Dave answered, “My name is Dave.” Then Jimmy told Dave about where he had spent the night and who he had seen and then asked if Dave knew where he could get a hot meal. Dave thought for a minute and then told Jimmy about a restaurant where he knew the owner. He told him to tell the owner to fix Jimmy a hot plate and send the bill to Dave. Then, Dave crossed the street, but as he did, he looked back and saw Jimmy write something on a scrap of paper and put it in his shoebox. Three weeks later, a few days before Christmas, Dave was back in Salt Lake City for another appointment with his attorney. As he approached the office building, he noticed a crowd of people just past the building where an alley met the street. He walked up to the crowd and asked, “What's going on?” Someone answered, “Some homeless guy froze to death last night.” Dave leaned in and looked at the body lying in the alley. Just then, the policeman, who was kneeling beside the body, looked up and asked, “Does anyone know this man?” Without thinking, Dave answered, “His name is Jimmy.” The policeman stood up, walked over to Dave, and as he handed him Jimmy's shoebox, he said, “Here, since you know him, take this. Maybe you can notify his next of kin,” and he turned and walked away before Dave could say, “Wait, I don't actually know him.” Dave didn't know what he should do, so he opened the box and looked inside. There were various items, including three small packets of scraps of paper, each held together with a rubber band, and with the words “Places to Stay”, “Places to Eat”, and “Friends” written on them. Dave removed the rubber band from “Friends” and on the first piece of paper under the one labeled “Friends” was written the word “Dave.” Having someone listen to him had been special for Jimmy, but it changed Dave's life.


All of us have busy lives and, in today's world, information is instantaneous and voluminous. All kinds of information. News about what's happening on the other side of the globe and gossip texted or tweeted by a friend. We are always on the go. Who has time to listen? Who has time to show love? Well, actually, we all do. As Nouwen wrote in another meditation, “We are not called to save the world, solve all problems, and help all people. But we each have our own unique call, in our families, in our work, in our world. We have to keep asking God to help us see clearly what our call is and to give us strength to live out that call with trust.”


So, maybe what this all boils down to is covenant, entering into a covenant with God. There are several synonyms for covenant, depending on whether it is being used as a noun or as a verb. As a noun, a covenant is an agreement, an understanding, a pledge, a promise, a commitment. As a verb, such as in the sentence, the landlord covenants to repair the roof, covenants means contracts or commits to do what was agreed upon. When I was going through a really tough time several years ago, I wanted to strengthen my commitment to God. My Rector at the time recommended that I look into becoming a member of the Fellowship of St. John. It is an adjunct to the Society of St. John the Evangelist, an Episcopal religious order, located next to Harvard in Cambridge, MA. The brothers of the order take the customary vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, but to become a member of the fellowship only entails a one year discernment period and then committing to a rule of life. The cross I'm wearing this morning is a symbol of my membership in the Fellowship of St. John. Let me share another quick story with you. Two summers ago, David and Ellen Lovett graciously invited Cathy and me to join them on their sailboat and sail up the coast of Massachusetts. It was a wonderful few days, and then, Cathy and I and her sister, who had met us in Salem, went to Boston for a couple of days. While there, I decided I would go to the monastery to attend the noon service. As I entered, I was met by Brother David Allen. I told him my name and that I was visiting from Knoxville. We spoke briefly, then I took a seat. Sixteen years earlier, while in the midst of my personal nightmare, I had spent a few days at the monastery in solitude and prayer, and had talked and prayed with Brother David. Following the service, he came up to me and said, “You lived in Charleston and were going through some difficulties.” I said, “Yes, how did you remember?” He said, “We've been praying for you.”


So, I had entered into a covenant with God, but really I was only responding to God who had already made a covenant with me. In our Old Testament reading for today, we read, “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant... this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel... I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people... they shall know me from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” And, hasn't God kept His covenant? Two Sundays from now, won't we be celebrating exactly that? Easter. The Risen Christ. God's covenant with us. Calling us to keep our covenant with God.









Sunday, March 18, 2012

He became sin. . .

The Rev. Robert P. Travis

Lent 4B Sermon – 8am and 10:30am Church of the Ascension, Knoxville TN

RCL 3/18/2012

Scripture Text: Numbers 21:4-9, Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22, Ephesians 2:1-10, John 3:14-21

Sermon Text:

I love it when I have the chance to preach

on the third chapter of John.

I mean, actually it's kind of daunting,

because this is the place where possibly the most famous

bible verse takes center stage.

I guess it would be like a music teacher,

trying to find something new to say about Beethoven's 5th,

or an art teacher trying to find something interesting

to say about the Mona Lisa.

I mean, John 3:16 is made famous,

at just about every televised football game,

by someone dressed to attract the cameras.

However could I improve on a guy with a rainbow wig,

with John 3:16 painted in blue on his naked belly?


The good news is, God's word is a living word,

and I have found that there is always some different

way that a passage strikes believers,

when we're open to hearing what God wants to draw out of it,

even in looking at the third chapter of John,

God comes to us in a fresh way in our relationship with Him.


One might say God is able to enlighten us about Himself,

just as Jesus enlightened Nicodemus about Himself,

when Nicodemus came to him in the night.


First let me draw the connection for you

that Jesus made,

to Nicodemus.

Nicodemus would have been very familiar with the story

of the Israelites in the desert.

But many of us are not, which is why we

have the reading from Numbers

as our Old Testament passage today.


Remember, when God spoke to them from the mountain,

shortly after rescuing them from slavery in Egypt,

the Israelites were too afraid of God's presence,

and asked God to speak to them through Moses

from then onwards.

Later in the desert, when things weren't moving

quickly enough, and they got impatient,

they began to complain to Moses and God,

essentially forgetting what God had already done for them,

and rejecting both Moses and God.

So when poisonous snakes came among them,

they recognized their error,

and asked Moses to resume his place for them

and ask God to remove the penalty.

The Lord tells Moses to make a serpent on a pole,

and promises that people who look on it will live.

People who were bitten by the snakes,

by looking at the serpent on the pole,

would not die of the poison.


So Jesus tells Nicodemus,

Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,

so must the Son of Man be lifted up,

That whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”


Many of the early church fathers, and many since then,

see the story of moses lifting up the snake

as a sort of prophetic act

as well as a merciful act of God.

Because the serpent reminded people of sin, of their sin,

and the first sin in the garden.

And on the cross Jesus took our sin upon himself,

essentially, and as the scripture says,

he became sin, he became like the serpent,

he took on the penalty of a criminal,

so that looking to him, we might be freed from our sin.

So this old, old story, of the people of Israel,

takes on new meaning,

the deeper meaning it was always supposed to have,

when Jesus enlightens it with the connection to

his being lifted up on the cross.


God's people in the desert were not saved because the snake on the pole was some sort of magic wand or idol.

In the book of Wisdom we have a midrash (a teaching)

about this episode in the desert.1

It says “the one who turned towards it was saved,

not by the thing that was beheld,

but by you, the savior of all.” (Wisdom 16:7)

Likewise, when we see a crucifix we are not saved

by the symbol, but are reminded of God's saving work for us,

and those who turn to it, who turn their lives to Him,

recognize the significance of that work and are freed,

from the penalty of our own rebellion.


But there's another new connection, that a member of our women's bible study taught me this week,

maybe it's not new, but it was new to me.

She said, that if the serpent in the desert symbolized sin,

then the salvation from the poison also came

through the action of lifting up their sins before God.

And that is what we do during this penitential season,

we lift up our sins before God,

recognizing both the penalty we deserve,

and even more giving thanks for his mercy,

in freeing us from that penalty.


The important thing for the Israelites was that those

who looked at the serpent that Moses had made,

knew what they were looking at.
It was a representation that Moses was there for them,

that he indeed went to God,

and received a promise in a symbol,

that the people would be spared.

The important thing for those looking to Jesus as well,

is to know what they are looking at.

Jesus, lifted up on the cross,

is not just some great teacher,

not just another religious leader,

is not just some miracle worker,

who was killed when things did not work out.

He is the only son of God,

become one of us,

living and dying as one of us,

taking our sins upon himself,

to bring us back to right relationship with God.

He became sin,

who knew no sin,

that we might become His righteousness.”

So we too need to know what we're looking at,

when we look to Jesus lifted up on the cross.

It's like Jesus is saying,

remember what Moses did to save the people

in the desert? I'm here to offer my self in an even greater way.


But we also need to know who we're looking at,

in a deeper sense.

I would say that we need to know him

in a Biblical sense,

but that has a connotation I do not want to make.

I mean we need to know him in a relationship with him.

The belief that Jesus is talking about,

the saving belief,

is not just believing that he is the son of God,

for we hear in other passages that even the demons,

those very much opposed to Jesus, believed in him

in that way.

This saving belief, is about putting our trust in Him,

leading our lives for His sake rather than for our own.

And finding the freedom that gives us.

And yet, this is a very challenging balance to make,

one that Catholics and Protestants

have argued over for hundreds of years.

This faith in him is not our own work,

or because of our action,

but it's accepting the relationship that he freely offers us.


That's what Paul means when he tells the Ephesians,

for by grace you have been saved, through faith,

and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”

Our knowledge and understanding of God,

our relationship with him

grows and evolves throughout

our lives, that is, it will, if we but turn to him.

Just as the understanding of God has evolved,

among the people of God

as described in the progression

through the Old and New Testaments of the Bible.

Jesus wants to bring us more and more out of the darkness

and into the light,

and to reveal more and more of himself to us

in that relationship.

Remember, God wanted to be in relationship with His people,

directly after he rescued them from Egypt.

But they were too terrified

and asked God to relate to them through Moses.

Later God relates to his people through Judges,

Kings and Prophets,

but always desiring that personal relationship.

And then he came among us as one of us,

it seems God was hoping that if he became one of us,

we wouldn't be too terrified

to be in direct relationship with Him.


But while Jesus came into the world to bring light

to God's desire for us,

and to reveal to us what God really wants,

people were still afraid,

maybe they were afraid that their wrong-doing,

and wrong-thinking would betray them,

if they were brought into the bright light of God's truth.


Jesus says “people loved darkness rather than light

because their deeds were evil.”

So maybe this fear of relationship with God is not just because of his greatness over us,

but because of his holiness,

and his intolerance of evil,

and our awareness that we are not quite right.


Jesus, in his desire for relationship with us,

frees us from that fear,

for we are reassured

that he comes for our sake,

and that the light will only reveal that we have been adopted as sons and daughters of God.

We don't need to shirk around in the darkness,

afraid that if our true selves our revealed,

then we would not be acceptable,

but trust in Jesus, have faith,

that he intends to right all that is wrong with us.

The enemy is still at work,

trying to make us afraid,

for the enemy is one who has seen the light,

and rejected it.

He is the one who is condemned,

and we do not need to be,

in “Christ there is no condemnation”

so we don't need to be afraid of condemnation.


Take a look at it this way,

look what people do in the darkness,

all kinds of bad things,

these days the internet with its perceived anonymity

is a place of darkness for some people,

and they go around on there engaging in all kinds of

hateful or perverted behavior.

We hear in the news occasionally about people

whose hidden lives are discovered

by people online.

Yet there are people there as well

who are walking in the light

as well, using the internet for good,

for spreading goodness and love among people,

for sharing the truth, and bringing understanding to others.

Usually they are out there with who they are,

and their intention is good.

People can see, that their deeds are done

in the source of truth, and love, in God.

We don't do the good works we do to somehow achieve

our rightness,

to make ourselves pure.

That has been done for us by Christ.

We do them because that is what we were created to do,

and it is right to live live the way God

prepared for us to live it.


In this gospel passage Jesus ever so subtly criticizes

the pharisee who came to him with questions,

because Nicodemus came to him at night,

so that his seeking guidance from Jesus would

not be discovered by his friends who were suspicious

of Jesus.

And Jesus warns him about doing his deeds

in the dark, because actions like that,

are so often ways of hiding our evil.

Jesus calls him out,

and he calls out you and me.

Live in the light.

Let your good deeds testify to your faith in Jesus Christ,

and beware of those times

when you want to hide from God.

Let the light of Christ reveal, that you are saved.

Amen

1Brown, The Anchor Bible John page 133.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Second Sunday of Lent, Year B March 4, 2012

I Come Expecting Jesus The Reverend Dr. Howard J. Hess


Introduction: Many of us here this morning, including myself, have been taught to win and to aspire to become movers and shakers. By no means have we agreed to be limited by our circumstances; in fact, we have been taught to rise above them. Many of us have read self-help books, attended development seminars, and often built our lives upon the strong values of prosperity and professional success. One of the books I read earlier in my adult life was Dale Carnegie’s How to win friends and influence people (1937). This book, like many others of this genre, such as Stephen Covey’s The 7 habits of highly effective people (1989), attempted to provide formulas for success. Consequently, many of us have become wise about the ways of the world, but I might add not equally wise about the workings of the Holy Spirit.


I can still hear my father’s well-intentioned voice: “You must succeed and go further than your mother and I were able to go. No one else will take care of you. You must learn to do it for yourself.” My father’s belief in me and his persistent urging have had a huge influence upon my life. Others of you might have experienced the same expectation from your parents to surpass their achievements. At times in my earlier life, my father’s voice had the sound of a mandate, and it predisposed me to strive “to succeed” rather than to “live and savor life’s richest experiences.” Perhaps this is one of the lessons that God knew I needed to learn before entering the priesthood: that God had called me to serve Him, not to win for him and not to count on the world for my security. In fact, as Peg can attest, one of the most powerful challenges to my sense of call to ordained parish ministry came from several folks at various points in the process toward ordination, who strongly cautioned me not to give up my university tenure to answer God’s call. Over time I discerned that the power of that challenge was the way in which it resonated with what my parents had taught me – to work hard to achieve success and financial security. What I have learned is that there is a profound difference between God’s eternal values and the values of this world. It is paradoxical that when one is willing to relinquish the desire to succeed and instead follow one’s vocation, the need for success remarkably takes care of itself. In today’s gospel, Jesus was trying to teach his disciples about the Great Reversal -- that one has to be willing to give up one’s life in order to save it, and that concern about one’s security and success can lead to spiritual blindness.


II. Blindness. For Jesus’ disciples, their blind spots had to do with their pre-existing Jewish views and yearning for a political Messiah. They saw in Jesus that figure – a man who could “win friends and influence people.” The crowds had followed him. He knew how to heal, how to feed, how to defy political traps, and he was a persuasive teacher. And here was their chance – the journey from Galilee to Jerusalem that would culminate in a triumphant entry into the capital city during Passover. The stage was set.


In the publication Synthesis, dealing with this week’s lectionary readings, we are asked to think of Jesus as a military leader and to envision Peter as his Chief Lt. One day, Jesus called his primary supporters together and told them that he was going to be betrayed by the Jewish leaders, undergo great suffering, and die. Further, he told them that if they wanted to follow him, they would have to accept the same fate. They were incredulous. This was not their game plan. This is not why they left their boats and fishing businesses and their families to follow him. You see their fathers had most likely given them the same kind of mandate to succeed that my father gave me. In their case that meant casting out the oppressive Romans. Consequently, their blind spots had prevented them from truly comprehending who Jesus was and what he was trying to tell them. So Peter objected – “we won’t let that happen.” Jesus rebuked him, “Get thee behind me Satan” or “Do not strengthen my own temptation to turn away from Jerusalem and what awaits me there.”


Blindness is the key -- their blindness, our blindness, and the blindness of all the generations in between. In the gospel of Mark, the journey from Galilee to Jerusalem is framed, began and ended with two healings of the blind. As the journey started, Jesus healed the blind man from Bethesda. As the journey ended, Jesus healed blind Bartimaeus. Hebrew texts often used parallelism to communicate a key theme. The message of Jesus was enacted as well as proclaimed: Be healed from the blindness that prevents you from seeing who Jesus Christ truly is.


III. What is our blindness now? I believe that we are often so busy and preoccupied in our lives that we are at risk for losing our spiritual grounding. Current research indicates that only 11% of our young people and 32% of all adults regularly attending church have developed a mature sense of their own spirituality (White 1997). There are many competing voices in our world at the present time. I hear echoes of my own father’s voice in the stories of those around me. Even in the church, by concentrating on positive goals and accomplishments, we can wear ourselves out and lose focus upon our spiritual mission.


Fr. Robert Rohr, Director of the Center for Action and Contemplation, recently wrote a column on his blog entitled “Lent is about transformation” (2012). Rohr stresses that when we commit ourselves to making particular behavioral changes, even though these changes are positive, we can lose sight of the transformation offered in an encounter with Jesus Christ. He writes, “We can try harder, do better, and think more, but not really change in any substantial way.” Rohr continues: [the] “ultimate irony is that [transformation or conversion] is not about trying at all but [is] an ultimate surrendering, dying, and foundational letting go.”


In other words, letting go is built upon the spiritual wisdom that Christ will do perfect and wonderful things within us if we don’t fill our inner and outer space with too much “stuff.” We will see Jesus in those moments when we are willing to set aside our strivings and our worries to give him the space we need to comprehend what he is trying to teach us. This is well captured for me in a scene from “The Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Harrison Ford’s character needs to save his life by crossing a deep cavern over which there is no apparent bridge. The lesson he is being asked to learn is trust: to walk out into the empty space and rely upon a bridge that he cannot see until he places his feet upon it. Jesus is that bridge for us; the distractions and desire to succeed can hold us back; but the promise of ultimate redemption and resurrection call us forward.


IV. Conclusion. Therefore, on this Second Sunday of Lent, I’d like to offer you a simple invitation – to come to this rail today to meet Jesus Christ and to be transformed by that encounter; to offer up whatever is weighing you down or distracting you from seeing Jesus more clearly. There is a beautiful song I first heard while serving as a spiritual director at a Cursillo weekend in South Carolina, entitled “I Come Expecting Jesus.” I’d like to share the lyrics (by John Chisum) with you in the hope that they will echo in your prayers during the Eucharist this morning:

“I come expecting Jesus

To meet me in this place

I come expecting to receive

His mercy and His grace

When I eat the bread and drink the wine

It will be a holy moment in time

I come expecting Jesus

To meet me in this place.”

Amen.


May it be so for us this morning.