Tuesday, May 22, 2012

"The Passion Story" The Reverend Dr. Howard J. Hess


Easter VI, Year B (May 13, 2012) The Episcopal Church of the Ascension
The Passion Story” The Reverend Dr. Howard J. Hess

I. The Passion Story: Jesus spent his last night as a free man with his closest disciples in community with them. He washed their feet, and he shared a meal with them. He talked gently with them about what was going to happen in the next few hours and days, and he comforted them in his final words about abiding with him and loving one another. He told them that God the Father loved him unconditionally, and that he, in turn, has loved them as deeply and as freely as the Father loved him. Then he gave them a mandate, a mandatum, that they love one another as completely as he loved them. In his final words to the twelve together as a group, Jesus wove together two distinct themes: love and obedience.

II. Now, I wouldn’t dare speak for any of you, but I am often much more comfortable with the love part of all of this than I am with this commandment to be obedient. Love is good – all by itself – no commandment needed. Love is meaning you never have to say you’re sorry; love is a universal virtue; love liberates; love fulfills; love completes. We love to “be in love” and we are sad when we “fall out of love.” Makes sense doesn’t it – because doesn’t “love make the world go around?”

But here’s the problem with primarily thinking about love in these ways. In our culture, love is often trivialized and excessively romanticized. In our culture, love is often less about genuine sacrifice of self and more about feeling good. Such love can be shallow, and it can be short-lived. Such love can whither under the duress of physical illness or marital problems or some other family crisis. In many instances, such love can have at its core self-love.

In contrast, the kind of love that Jesus was talking in this morning’s Gospel is more enduring and selfless. First of all, it is a love with God as its source. Imagine the love that flows between God the Father, Jesus Christ, the Son, and Holy Spirit as a giant gentle river. Imagine that the love that we have for one another originates in that river, and this source of love is inexhaustible and unlimited. This love is filled with passion and is completely trustworthy.

However, there is one thing we should clearly understand if we choose to come and tap into this river. There are warning signs on the river’s banks. One clearly states, “When you drink from this water you will be changed.” Another states “When you drink from this water, you are required, in fact you will want to, take God’s love to others.” God’s love needs to be allowed to change us so completely that we are not only required, but we will desire to express love to others. We will need to love others, even if we are not drawn to them or perhaps don’t ever like them. We are even required to love others who have hurt us when every fiber of our being wants to hurt them in return. Some of you may remember Sister Rosina, from the Order of St. Helena. Her son was murdered in California, and one of her sadnesses in this life is that the murderer has never been identified. She would like to forgive him or her face-to-face.

Let me share a true story included recently in a sermon by Sister Miriam Brasher at St. Mary’s Convent in Sewanee, TN:

The scene is a courtroom trial in South Africa. A frail black woman, over 70 years old, gets slowly to her feet. Facing her are several white security police officers. One of them, a Mr. van der Broek, has just been tried and found guilty in the murders of the woman’s son and husband. He had come to the woman’s home, taken her son, and killed him. Then he and his officers partied nearby.

Several years later, van der Broek and his cohorts returned for her husband as well. For months she heard nothing of her whereabouts. Then, almost two years after her husband’s disappearance, van der Broek came back to fetch her. How vividly she remembered that night. They took her to a riverbank where she saw her husband, bound and beaten, but still strong in spirit. The last words she heard from his lips as van der Broek and his fellow officers then murdered him were “Father, forgive them . . . “

When the woman stood in the courtroom and listened to the confessions of van der Broek, a member of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission turned to her and said, “So what do you want? How should justice be done to this man who has destroyed your family?”

I want three things,” said the old woman calmly and confidently. “I want first to be taken to the place where my husband’s body can be found and give him a decent burial.” She paused, then continued, “My husband and son were my only family. So I want Mr. van der Broek to become my son. I want him to come twice a month to my house and spend the day with me so I can pour out on him whatever love I have remaining in me.”

Finally,” she said, “I would like Mr. van der Broek to know that I offer him my forgiveness because Jesus Christ died to forgive. This was also the wish of my husband. So I would kindly ask someone to come to my side and lead me across the courtroom so that I can take Mr. Van der Broek in my arms, embrace him, and let him know that he is truly forgiven.”

As the court assistant came to lead the woman across the room, van der Broek fainted, overwhelmed by what he had heard. As he struggled for consciousness, those in the courtroom – family, friends, neighbors -- all victims of decades of oppression and injustice – began to sing softly and assuredly, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.”

God’s love is radical and it radicalizes our love as well. It creates community and connections when we ourselves would fail to be able to do so.

IV. Conclusion. Today is Mother’s Day, a holiday initiated by a young man who wanted to honor his aunt who had raised him as her son. In my life there are two relationships where I have most closely experienced the love that Jesus Christ is telling us about today – in my relationship with my wife, Peggy, and watching her care for our children and grandchildren with a devotion that I can only begin to understand. And my relationship with my own mother, who never ever stopped loving me, praying for me, and welcoming me home, no matter what was going on in my life. And believe me, I wasn’t the easiest child to rear. Without the influence of these two women in my life, I’d find it much more difficult to comprehend Christ’s words in today’s Gospel.

I’d like to make two requests of you today. First, accept the love that Christ offers you, open up your heart as fully as you can to receive that love, then turn right around and give it away. Secondly, extend yourself today to others with intentional generosity. For example, before you leave church today you might connect warmly with someone you don’t already know. Or, you might decide that before the end of the day, you will reach out to at least one person who might find Mother’s Day a lonely time.

The Christian Gospel is very clear: Love is at the center ~ God’s love for us, and our love for one another. And love and action are always connected, and love must be at the center of our community life together here at Ascension ~ enacted love. For was it not Jesus who said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Amen.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Finding Joy in the In-between Time


The Rev. Robert P. Travis
Sunday after the Ascension Sermon – 8:00 and 10:30am Church of the Ascension, Knoxville TN
RCL Year B 5/20/2012

Scripture Text: Acts 1:1-11, Psalm 47, Ephesians 1:15-23, Luke 24:44-53
Sermon Text:
Our music, readings, and even this message
all celebrate our patronal feast today.
Actually Ascension Day was Thursday,
but we don't celebrate it on that day,
and I really don't know why we don't.
We're celebrating it today, but you know,
it's kind of a struggle to celebrate,
because what is Ascension really?
It is not a patron saint, the Ascension can't pray for us.
If you've thought about it,
you come to see it's an ambiguous time,
an event in the life of Christ,
that is sandwiched between two much bigger events,
the Resurrection on the one side,
and the Pentecost on the other.
Or maybe you've never really thought about it at all.

Some of you might wonder what we
as Church of the Ascension are,
in a similar light,
where have we been,
and where are we headed.
or some might have never really thought about it.

I've given it a good deal of thought,
and want to share those thoughts with you today,
in the hope that you will reconsider who we are together,
and what we are called to become.
The Ascension of Jesus takes place in an in between time,
a sociologist might call it a liminal time,
Jesus rose from the grave,
and spent forty days with his disciples,
and as we see the scene in Acts,
he tells them that they are to stay in Jerusalem,
because they will be baptized by the Holy Spirit,
not many days from now.
Come next Sunday to hear and see what that was all about.

The disciples ask him if this is the time,
when he will restore the Kingdom of Israel,
which is something they had been thinking about,
at least since Palm Sunday
and Jesus' triumphal entrance into Jerusalem.
He answers that question by saying,
that time for that is not for you to know,
look to what is happening next,
that I already told you,
you will receive the Holy Spirit,
and be my witnesses . . . but not yet.
Then he is lifted up into heaven in bodily form.
It's an event that happens between other events,
a grey area in which there is expectation,
and memory,
a time of unfulfillment.
And we would expect that living in a moment
like that, would fill those present with anxiety.
Because isn't it more comfortable to be
in one place or the other, and not to be in between?

But the witness of the disciples in our text,
is that this experience filled them with joy,
and lead them to worship the one who had just left them.
Maybe the joy comes from the promises
that Jesus gave them before he left.
He promised them that he would send the Holy Spirit
to baptize them and empower them,
and they were promised that Jesus would return
in the same way he left them.
Without these promises,
it might have seemed like the story of Jesus was over,
once and for all,
and that certainly would have been more
an occasion for panic and despair than for joy.

And of course, for us,
in this time, having already witnessed that the promise
of Pentecost was fulfilled, and continues to be fulfilled,
by the filling of the Holy Spirit,
and the development of the Church all around the world.
All of that fulfillment
gives us much greater hope in the second coming,
since both of those promises were given at the same time,
and one is already fulfilled,
we can trust that the other will indeed come to pass.
But still we find ourselves living in an in between time,
in the time of the already, and the not yet.
How do we live in that time with Joy?

I've wondered about that in between time with this place,
this Church of the Ascension.
On a personal level,
I already told you last time I preached,
something of the low place I was in before I got here,
and how this has been a place of healing for me,
a place of coming to know what it means to be
one of God's beloved children.

But I also wondered if there was a significance to coming
to a place called The Ascension.
At first, when I realized that things
were on the up and up here,
that maybe this would be a place of Ascension,
in a literal sense, for me as well.
A place where I would be prepared
for whatever would come next in my life as a priest.
In a way that's what I came looking for.
I had already been an assistant rector,
and certainly there were opportunities for becoming
a rector of another church.
But I did not feel ready for that.
And I came here looking for what I needed
to develop further into who God was calling me to be.
Though that was partly true,
it was not completely correct to see this place
as just an in between.
I have come to understand over the past few years,
that there is real value in the present moment,
and that being truly present here,
and witnessing the great things Christ is doing here,
has a greater value than simply moving
from one place to another.
There is joy to be found, in the present moment,
even if it is between moments that seem greater,
and in finding that joy,
because it has to be found,
it seldom just happens,
we discover the value of living, and are inclined to worship the one who gives it.

And isn't that what we find so annoying about
people who are just climbing from place to place anyway?
That they don't seem to appreciate where they are
in the current moment,
or the people they are presently with?
You all know people like that, right?
Well, I certainly do not want to be like that.
So I learned that The Church of the Ascension,
was much more to me than a place in between
places of greater significance,
This place, all of you,
have come to mean so much to me,
and my family.
And in many ways because of that,
I would like to stay,
exactly where I am.

Perhaps some of you feel that way about this place as well.

We're in a good place now,
why can't things stay exactly how they are right now?
Well, we all know that is not the way the world works.
That is certainly the story of God and his people,
that we read in scripture.
It is good to be in the present moment,
to enjoy it and be grateful for what it is,
but we cannot hold onto it as if there
was nothing else to come.

The story of this Church has been like that.
At first we were just a vision at St. John's downtown.
They wanted to have a chapel in West Knoxville.
We were named for the mosaic over the altar at St. John's,
a mosaic showing Jesus ascending into heaven.
We started out as a little worshipping community,
a Chapel of the Ascension.
But much as that was probably very enjoyable,
and Christ was present with us then,
we couldn't stay there.
We had to become more than just a mosaic on another church's ceiling,
to become our own church in this place,
to become Church of The Ascension.

There was an in between time there as well,
and we were called from being a small church,
to building this magnificent building,
and becoming the large church of the Ascension.
But even that had its in between times,
as we struggled with whether we would be a community that worshipped primarily in a contemporary way,
or with the traditional patterns we inherited.
And for a while there was the in between time of worshipping in two different places at the same time.
And then the struggles over identity,
and whether we could include great diversity of beliefs
strongly held,
and the great split over those differing beliefs.
There was an in between time when we wondered,
whether we could make it without those dear friends
who left to form their own community.
Whether we could still be Church of the Ascension
without them.
Or whether we would be something different.
We found healing, and that we could indeed continue
as Church of the Ascension,
but there is a sense that we
are heading into something different.
And so we come into another in-between time right now.
When we wonder if we will grow into the next level
of large church,
and stay connected to one another,
growing deeper in faith through vital smaller groups of people supporting one another
in the midst of a large worshipping congregation.

It seems like as a church we have spent more time
in the in-between times,
than in one big event or the other.

Perhaps your own life has been much like that.
We think there is a destination we are headed,
and we set our sights on that destination,
whether it is graduation from high school,
or college,
or a career track with a definite goal in mind.
Or maybe it's having a family with three kids.
Whatever it is, when we set our sights on the goal,
there is danger in missing out on the blessing
of the in-between time,
which is really the time in which we live most of our lives.

Look at the time we're living in theologically.
The Resurrection happened,
and the Pentecost happened,
but Jesus has not yet returned.
So we have been living in the in-between times,
living in the already and the not yet,
for the last two thousand years.
And yet there is so much life to celebrate in that time.
It may seem like a gray area,
like a time that is not defined,
but it is the place in which we live,
and it is a place in which joy can be found
Life can be celebrated,
and the source of life, God, can be worshipped.

The challenge we all face,
is to live in the present moment,
cherishing the memory of the great things
in life that have past,
our lives,
and even more importanly,
the lives of the people we belong to,
looking with hope to the future that we know will come.
But also we must seek the joy of the moment,
that would not be joy without the past and the future.
When we're detached from the bigger story,
and the story yet to come,
what we find in the moment may be mere happiness,
and that is elusive at least,
and dangerously addictive at worst.

The joy we seek is in finding the connections between
our story and the greater story,
how we fit our lives into the ancient story of
the children of God,
and set our hopes on participating in that great story
in the future.
I pray that you will find your place in that story,
and live in this in-between time with joy,
memory and hope.
If we can do that, each individually,
and as a community of faith,
then I am certain we will be faithful,
to the next place the Lord wants to lead us.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Abiding in the Vine of Life


The Rev. Robert P. Travis
Easter 5th Sunday Sermon – 8am and 10:30am Church of the Ascension, Knoxville TN
RCL Year B 5/06/2012
Scripture Text: Acts 8:26-40, Psalm 22:24-30, 1 John 4:7-21, John 15:1-8

Sermon Text:
Have you ever seen a vine grow?
How can you live in East Tennessee
and not see vines grow?
They're all over the place.
A vine is such a wonderful metaphor for Jesus Christ,
but not just because of the connection to the Eucharistic Wine
we immediately go to.

Vines are interesting compared to trees,
because they seem to be so much more active.
They don't just stay put.
If you have a vine that you're trying to control,
you know it is hard to keep it growing the way you want it to,
you constantly have to prune,
or it will go off in all sorts of directions.
There is so much life in a vine,
it seems like if you look at it
from one day to another, it has grown so much!
And if a vine has a healthy, old root and stalk,
you know it can endure just about anything.
But vines also need something to grow on,
and to do well, to produce fruit, they need to be tended.

An interesting thing about Jesus' “I am” statement here,
compared to all the other “I am” statements,
is that this one includes the role of the father.
He says “I am the true vine,
and my Father is the vinegrower.”
The Father doesn't just let Jesus grow wherever,
He is the one who gives him the support,
to grow and thrive wherever he is planted,
and he tends to Jesus, as a careful gardener,
pruning those places that need to be pruned,
so that the best fruit is produced.

This is a wonderful image and the best part of it,
is that we are included in it.
When we are in Christ, abiding in Jesus,
we are branches of the vine, whether we're grafted in
after a time of being a part of another vine,
or whether we grew in this vine from the beginning.
But there is something to our place on the vine as well,
something to how we need to abide in the vine,
for our lives to bear fruit.

I have had a powerful experience that started this winter,
about abiding in the vine.
That I would like to share with you this morning.

It started at the beginning of Lent.
The day after Ash Wednesday I was sitting,
and doing Lectio Divina,
with our Centering Prayer Group on a Thursday afternoon.
As we usually do, we listened for a word we were drawn to
in the Gospel reading for Sunday.
I felt drawn to the word “beloved.”
So I meditated on that word,
and as I sometimes change the word
I use in my practice of Centering Prayer,
to fit with the season,
I felt lead to use “beloved” as my sacred word,
in my daily prayer practice throughout lent.
Well, of course, I just thought for the longest time,
that the word “beloved” just had to do
with Jesus being beloved of God,
with Jesus being God's beloved son.
And that idea was enough for quite a while.
I didn't think too much about it,
but continued to abide in the practice of Centering Prayer,
using “beloved” as my sacred word.
When I went on my first Cursillo Weekend,
this March I had been meditating on “beloved”
for about 5 weeks, almost everyday.
Then God changed my thought and began to show me,
that there was more to this than the way he loved his son.
An early talk on Cursillo made a point,
that we are God's “beloved.”
The connection to my sacred word was not lost on me,
actually it hit me like a beam of light into my heart,
and I felt my heart being healed,
in a way I did not know I needed.
Later that weekend we had a healing service,
and I went up to one of the spiritual directors,
with a heavy heart.
I still had not told anyone of the importance of the word
“beloved” to me.
As he prayed for me, this priest reminded me,
that I am God's “beloved,” and I started to cry.
God was getting through to me,
even though I thought I was open to him,
there was something deep inside me that had needed to be pruned, for me to accept and realize,
this state of being “beloved” of God.
I left that weekend with a greatly lifted spirit,
and was starting to experience what being “beloved” means.
That would have been enough for me,
I did not think I needed any more.
I prayed for help to continue to experience what I was
coming to know.
I continued to abide in Jesus,
through my practice of Centering Prayer.
It was as if I had been cleansed by the word
that Jesus spoke to me.
Just one word, without explanation,
was enough to be a pruning, a cleansing of my spirit.
But I had to abide in the vine,
keep to my regular prayer practice,
and make space for Him in my life,
to be able to experience that.

But that was not all God was offering me.
Let me go back and tell you a little
about what convinced me that I was not beloved.
(This portion of the sermon is available in audio but not in written form on the internet, to protect the people described. See Father Rob personally if you need the text.)

I left church work,
and went to work for a hospital for a year,
in a chaplain resident program.
I told the people I worked with,
that I went to help people in the hospital,
but really I needed to “go to the hospital” myself,
to seek healing from the wounds I had endured,
right out of seminary.
I look back on that time as a time of pruning as well,
we all have them in our lives don't we?
Times when we don't know how we'll make it through,
and how life could really get any worse.
I know there have been times like that here at Ascension,
and I imagine there have been times like that,
for each of you here.
But I was constantly told by people who love me,
to stay connected to Jesus throughout my suffering,
not to abandon him,
to abide in the vine.
So I continued to seek to be rooted in Him.
By God's grace I was brought here to Ascension,
to work with you all.
This was a place that needed healing,
and was experiencing it.
It was and has been a place
where I experienced my own healing,
while praying with others for healing as part of my work here.

Last week I got to go on a once-in-a-career conference
called Credo.
You may remember hearing about it from Fr. Howard,
who went on one a few years ago.
My conference was at Lake Logan,
it started the day after the Brotherhood
finished their annual retreat out there.
I'll let you know they left the conference center
in good condition.
I gathered with an intentional community of clergy
under the age of 39 from around the Episcopal Church.
It was a phenomenal week,
and I thank all of you for allowing me to have the time,
to pursue this kind of conference
as a form of my continuing education as a priest.
Through a week of study, large group plenary sessions,
small group talks, worship,
prayer and reflection,
I experienced a sort of completion of the healing
that began back in Florida,
continued here at Ascension,
and has intensified these past few months.
Why did it take so many years,
for God to heal these wounds?
Well, I kind of think, when it is love itself,
that needs to be healed,
when what is broken is the sense,
of being beloved of God,
it doesn't come fast,
but in a loving and gentle way.
Once again, at Credo I was struck,
by the fact that in one of the first lectures of this week,
the word “beloved” was used as a focus of the idea.
It seemed that God wanted me to know,
and I hadn't gotten it quite deeply enough,
that I am his “beloved.”
That he loves me, and is in love with me.
And that belovedness is not just reserved for Jesus,
but is central to everyone who abides in him.
The word beloved was all over the place at Lake Logan,
it popped up in prayers,
and in readings,
and in lectures.
And it clearly was getting through to me,
that God wanted me to know from all sorts of angles,
to make this belovedness abide deeply in me.
Deeper and more strongly than I had ever experienced before.

If Jesus is the vine,
and we are the branches,
than God's love is what flows through us,
binding us into the vine,
and helping us grow and flourish.
You know,
in some ancient images of the Tree of Life from the Garden,
The tree is represented as a vine.
Jesus has life in himself,
and is for us the Tree of Life,
that tree we were separated from in the Garden,
has come to us in the risen Lord Christ,
and we are invited not just to eat from the true vine,
which will make us live forever,
but to be grafted into his very trunk,
as branches of the true vine,
so that we will not just have life in ourselves,
but through sharing our fruit, can give life to others.
I do not think that God has been healing me,
and making me understand my belovedness
just so I will feel good.
The fact is, I thought I felt pretty good before
all this started happening.
He is clearly doing this, from pruning,
to caringly feeding, so that I will bear fruit as well,
so that I will spread his life and love to others.

Do you want to have this kind of experience,
to abide in the vine so that you are healed, and renewed?
That requires some discipline on your part.
Maybe you can't take a retreat right now.
Though you could go on
the next Cursillo Weekend this fall.
But we can all be more intentional
about making space for God in our lives.
We can turn off the devices from time to time
and spend time becoming aware of God's presence,
we can look at our schedule and dedicate a weekend,
or even a whole week, to prayer and study,
seeking what the Lord wants to heal in us.
There are so many ways to do this,
and here at Church of the Ascension,
your clergy, staff, and fellow ministers,
want to help you grow more and more
into your place in the vine.
That is the very reason we are here.

Avail yourself of the opportunity,
to become more rooted in the vine of life.
Abide in Him,
and you will find him Abiding in You.
You will bear much fruit and
become Jesus' disciples.

Amen