Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Lost and Found, or Somewhere In-Between Pentecost 17, Proper 19 9/15/13
Episcopal Church of the Ascension The Reverend Dr. Howard J. Hess
Introduction. I love what Jesus does. I really do. He often takes what on the surface is a simple idea, or story, and uses it to communicate a profound insight for those who have ears to hear and eyes to see. Is this not what he is doing in today’s Gospel reading? He tells two short stories, called parables of grace, in which he uses images quite familiar to his audience to make a rather profound point. Now, we have just had several weeks of hard Gospel lessons, lessons about hating one’s family, not burying your dead, and leaving all to follow Jesus. There have been some silver linings, such as Fr. Rob’s sermon point that he now felt justified in being able to hate his mother-in-law. But by and large, in the recent weeks, the Gospel readings have had a sharp edge. In today’s Gospel, there is a shift. Rather than talking about leaving one’s life behind to become a disciple, we are called to consider what it means to look for the lost and to bring them back home.

In today’s parables, Jesus describes a lost sheep and a lost coin. Both are found, and a dynamic cycle repeats itself in both stories – something of value is lost, an exhaustive search is undertaken, the missing object is found, and what follows is a grand celebration. Now, Luke lives up to who Luke is, and makes the two central characters of the parables – the seekers – marginalized persons on the edge of society. Generally in the time of Jesus, shepherds and women were of secondary importance. That which is lost is not only found, but found by someone who is not highly regarded by others. As Luke reports, Jesus is always turning things upside down. And later in this same 15th chapter of Luke, we have the beautiful story of the Prodigal Son – the son who was dead to his family, had been found, and thus came back to life.

II. Joy in Heaven. Now each of this morning’s parables ends with a similar statement: “Just as I tell you, there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, than over 99 persons who need no repentance” (vs. 7). In other words, this whole scenario of being lost and then being found is big for God. It is as if Jesus is putting an exclamation point in the text. The shepherd and the woman who lost the coin as well as the father of the prodigal son are all representations of God. Our God cares and loves us so much, that he goes searching for us, won’t stop until he finds us, and then celebrates our return home.

III. Modern Parables. Now there is absolutely no reason to believe that such stories/parables of grace only occurred during Christ’s ministry. Parables of grace are continuing as we speak. The question is not whether they are happening, but whether we choose to be a part of these stories. Here I’m going to make a “rhetorical jump;” I invite you to jump with me. The Church is the Body of Christ; the church as a whole and each individual church, such as Ascension, is charged to be the eyes, ears, hands, and feet of Christ. In other words, we are to be looking for the lost sheep, the lost coins, our lost sons and daughters, and others who are lost around us. I don’t want us to miss the radical, revolutionary point of today’s Gospel. This morning, Jesus is asking us to proactively seek and find the lost and welcome them home.

III. Let me share several modern lost and found stories. While in seminary, I attended a preaching conference where students from throughout the country gathered to hear mentors deliver excellent sermons. We also were given the opportunity to preach and to be critiqued. I vividly remember one faculty member’s sermon about her son, who had been lost. She was revealing, but not excessively so, and the story she told was gripping. Her son, who lived some distance from her, had been in deep trouble. He had an active drug addiction and had dropped out of numerous treatment programs. He would experience periods of remission and then relapse. His mother was desperate. Then her son called her to tell her this story. He had given up and was considering taking his own life. He was out in the evening, walking the streets of the city, and saw a church with glass doors. Beyond the glass doors there was a worship service going on. Out of desperation, her son went into the church. He was incredibly warmly greeted and over time became active in the life of that church. Our preacher concluded by saying that she thanked God that the doors to the church were transparent; that her son could look in and take a chance to join those worshipping; and that those who were gathered there welcomed him so warmly. She believed it saved his life. That which had been lost was found.

The second story is also about a young man who had left home to go a long distance away to college. He was rather naïve and got swept up in the temptations of a large, flashy city. Before he even knew it, he was in over his head with things that had looked alluring but actually, at best were dead-end streets, and, at worst, were lethal. This young man become frightened and confused and turned to a Christian college professor for help. She spent hours with him, listening, reflecting, praying, and offering him many different kinds of tangible support. The turn-around that resulted was not immediate, nor was the trajectory of moving from being lost to being found an easy or straightforward journey for him. But I know the story of that journey very well, because I was that young man. What is critical in both of these stories of grace is the willingness for Christians to step forward and make a commitment to the life of another struggling human being. Sometimes, we must actively see for those who are lost, but often, they come to us, hoping we will find them.

IV. Doing Church. Here is the good news. There are opportunities all around us to reach out to the lost. Because there are so many different ways of being lost, there are also multiple ways to be found. Jesus makes this clear in his ministry, doesn’t he; he heals those who are physically and mentally ill; he confronts destructive life styles and softens the harsh edges of the law while inviting the lost to repentance and reconciliation; he constantly tends to the needs of the hungry, the destitute, and especially to the folks living on the margins. And he expects the house of God to be a place of peace and healing.

As you have heard me say many times, we are profoundly blessed in this church – by the beauty of this building, the community of believers that make up Ascension, the financial resources we have been given, and living in a part of the world that allows us to worship freely, without fear of being attacked or imprisoned. But I do believe there is a danger for us. It would be easy for each of us to become self-satisfied as one of the other 99 sheep – the respectable ones who feel like things are just fine the way they are. So the question is what it always is – are we willing to go beyond our comfort zone and to join with Christ in ministering to one another and to a world where there are many and profound needs?

V. Conclusion. In conclusion, I want to reiterate that there are many ways of being lost and many avenues to being found. At times in our culture being lost is thought to be synonymous with being unsaved. I do not believe that is what our Lord meant. My prayer for us is that Ascension will continue to nourish and build upon a deep desire to love and minister to one another; to help each other find that which is lost and to celebrate together that which is found. I also pray that we will continue to be a transparent community of believers that collectively and individually is open to others to offer a warm welcome and a home to those who are struggling, have lost hope, or who are alone. This is our Lord’s request of us. Amen.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Moral Injury

September 11th 2013
Christian Hawley
Genesis 8:12-17, 20-22
Ps 51:1-17
Luke 23:32-43

I went to workshop yesterday dealing with moral injuries in veterans.
I told myself I was going because I needed to know what resources were available for veterans in the Knoxville area.
I told myself I was going because it was a wise thing for deacon to do.
And I told myself I was going because this training would help me offer better care in my ministry.

Once I got there, however, I realized I went to find help for myself. I thought I had healed pretty well from my experiences in the Middle East, and then this past April, all of those moral wounds opened up again on an idle Tuesday evening. Sometime that afternoon a Facebook newsfeed announced that an Air Force MC12 had crashed and at least four soldiers had died. I was saddened by the news, but I carried on through the day. That night the story popped up yet again and Capt Reid Nishizuka was identified as the pilot killed in the crash. The name sounded familiar and as I prepared dinner I finally made the connection.
An uncontrollable wave of horror and sadness washed over me and I began to openly weep into my spaghetti sauce. Finding it hard to stand I sat down on the floor and just kept crying. I didn’t know Capt Nishizuka, but once upon a time I knew a cadet fourth class Reid Nishizuka, a Hawaiian kid of 18 who struggled with marching formations, but who always put a smile on his fellow cadets’ faces. I was his flight commander in ROTC, and as I sat there in my kitchen all I could see was some kid in ROTC sweat pants laying the wreckage of a plane in Afghanistan. I knew Reid made his own decisions, but I couldn’t shake the feeling of guilt that I was at least partially responsible for his death. I trained him and I helped put him in harm’s way. All those feelings of guilt, anger, shame, and pain came roaring back that evening. Moral injuries are like any other wound, they can be reopened, and when they are, we need to find ways of healing anew.

Yesterday’s workshop helped me find new ways to heal old wounds. As I sat down to write today’s sermon I knew that those methods intended for veterans could speak equally well to all of us here. Today is Sept 11th, and I suspect for many of us, the wound we sustained a dozen years ago, is a little more tender today, and perhaps that injury is even torn asunder as our country contemplates military action in Syria. Wartime events and tragedies aside, I think we all suffer from moral injuries of one kind or another, so I hope the following five points I picked up yesterday will help us all to heal old and new wounds alike.
  1. Point number one of moral repair is find a safe environment and connect with others. The government chaplains and social workers actually reached out to us church folks on this one. One in four veterans goes to a religious friend or leader to begin healing, and they do so because of our commitment to unconditional love, and at least for the clergy, our respect for confidentiality. Humans were not meant to suffer alone, and healing happens best when God and others share our pain. We must seek out sanctuary.
  2. Point number two: we gotta go all the way through the tragedy, we can’t take the bypass. Lots of moral injuries reopen because only part of the wound was addressed. The whole event needs to be acknowledged and all the emotions need to be felt. I think Reid’s death hit me so hard, because lots of my prior healing focused on dealing with anger and guilt. By asking grief to take a backseat in the past, I just sewed up a wound that had never been properly cleaned...and so it festered.
  3. Point three (and I found this one really powerful): we need a reminder that goodness exists in both ourselves and in the world. Lots of energy is spent in healing and reconciliation talking about sin and brokenness, but the folks yesterday pointed out that we also need to remember that goodness is the substance of our creation and a saint dwells alongside with the sinner within us. Every human is made in the image of God, and we do well to acknowledge our inner light as we wrestle with our darkness. We need to hear that the flood ends, the dove finds a place to nest, and a rainbow promises us hope.
  4. Point four: we need a process for forgiveness and amendment of life. Again the government agencies looked to us spiritual communities for help with this one. Sometimes forgiveness is outside the power of human control. How do I forgive a murderer who was never caught? Or how do I ask for the forgiveness of a blip on a targeting display? Sometimes, the ability to forgive others or to forgive ourselves can only come from a Savior who died for all transgressions. As an innocent victim Christ forgave his attackers, just like he granted mercy to the criminal next to him – through Christ we receive the grace to forgive and be forgiven. That’s why we in the Episcopal church hold on to the sacraments of reconciliation and healing. We have rites that let us confess our pain, anger, guilt, or shame. We have mechanisms to help us let go, to hear absolution, and to know that we are not alone. We have sacraments that allows us to declare a change of heart and guide us in amending our lives. I may not be able to undo the war I waged or witnessed ten years ago, but I can amend my life to work for peace in the Kingdom of God.
  5. And the fifth point is planning for the long haul. As devastating as Reid’s death was this year. I got through it a lot better than I have with other deaths in the past. This instance was better because after the last time things fell apart I realized healing was a process and not a singular event. I’ll carry my war wounds, or at least the scars, with me for the rest of my earthly pilgrimage. There will be other deaths or tragedies that reopen or irritate those wounds, but the secret to long term healing is having a support structure in place. In the last five years, I’ve shared my wounds with a spiritual director, a couple of fellow veterans, a writing group, and selected family, friends, and clergy. When Reid died, I had people to call, who had a frame of reference of my suffering, and whose shoulders I could literally cry on.

I am lucky to stand here today and add you folks to that support group. Thank you for being a safe place for me to be vulnerable, and may we continue to offer one another support, love, and healing for many more Sept 11ths to come.    

Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi, Lex Vivendi

8 Sept 2013 - 16th Sunday After Pentecost
Christian Hawley
Jeremiah 18:1-11
Philemon 1-21
Luke 14:25-33

The word moral is getting thrown around quite a bit these days. One minute we hear how we have a moral responsibility to the innocent children of Syria, and in the next minute we hear how we have a moral responsibility to the overtasked men and women of our military.

Many of these moral claims are coming from the government, the media, the university, and the consumer-industrial complex, but what does our faith tell us about making moral decisions?

As Episcopalians, I think our faith tells us at least two things about morals, the first is wonderfully Anglican, that how we worship is how we should live, and the second is perfectly Pauline, that we should practice our faith in every aspect of our life, large and small.

We Episcopalians have this fantastic saying lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi, which roughly translates to “How we worship, so we believe, so we live.” I use this clever little phrase all the time when talking with other denominations. Methodists have the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, and Presbyterians have their Westminster Catechism, but we Episcopalians basically have the Book of Common Prayer. Our theology, our doctrine, and yes, our morals grow out of our liturgy. How we worship indicates what we believe and how we live our lives. So let's take a look again at our bulletins and see what moral insights we can mine from our liturgy.

We begin with singing and blessing God. This opening habit of praise helps us recognize that God's will is at the center of our lives and that personal or national or even human concerns are all secondary to the needs of the kingdom of God. The alpha and omega of our moral system resides with the Holy Trinity.

Moving on, we spend time with the Word of God. As Karl Barth pointed out, the word of God is not some leather bound collection of scriptures. The scriptures only become the Word of God when they are read in the presence of prayer, the Holy Spirit, and Christ's gathered community. In making any moral decision we engage the Bible, the Spirit, and our Christian brothers and sisters.

The Prayers of the People follow the scriptures, and they remind of us that our faith directs our ethics. Yes we have a responsibility to participate in God's Kingdom, but the world does not hinge our actions alone. As the ladies of the lectionary group reminded me, when I put the Syria issue before them, our first and best response is to find our knees, bow our heads, and pray for all those involved - victims and aggressors alike. Which brings us to confession and absolution.

Confession keeps us humble. Every week we recognize our own sins and our own complicity in evil. By acknowledging the log in our own eye on a regular basis, we condition ourselves to be more compassionate in dealing with spec in our neighbor's eye.

And then there's absolution, where we practice forgiveness. While love is the most important virtue in our moral formation, I think forgiveness is the most crucial and the most challenging part of our Christian morality. Our faith asks us to forgive others and to forgive ourselves, both of which are hard moral mandates that would be impossible without grace. If it wasn't for Christ, I don't think I could have forgiven myself for decisions I made as a wartime military officer. Likewise, if it wasn't for Christ, I wouldn't be headed back up to a maximum security prison next month. On my last trip to the Northeast Correctional Complex, I prayed for forgiveness with a white supremacist, a murderer, and a pedophile. I couldn't have even thought about doing that on my own, but through Christ and with the help of the Spirit, we are able to practice a reconciliation and peace beyond our own limits.

Finally, we come to the Eucharist and our moral foundation of love. During Holy Communion we remember the love of Christ, how he didn't sit idly by as the evils of the world assaulted the marginalized and innocent, how he resisted evil by speaking truth to power and offering up his own body in nonlethal resistance, how he asked for forgiveness for his executioners and the criminals surrounding him, and how his love was not defeated by death. In the Eucharist, we participate in that life, death, and resurrection; we join ourselves to Christ, and we practice the virtue of love.

Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi, Lex Vivendi. How we worship, so we believe, so we live.

So if Christ and our worship of God give us the substance of our morality, then Paul gives us our method, and it's pretty straight forward – practice, practice, practice. If we want to make good decisions in the big parts of our life then we prepare by making good decisions in lots of our little situations.1 Take another look at Paul's ethical appeal to Philemon.

The letter of Philemon has been controversial in generations past, because it deals with the big moral problem of slavery. Confederate clergy once appealed to Philemon as a Biblical example condoning the slave trade because Paul sent a runaway slave, Onesimus, back to his owner, Philemon. But Paul does not conduct his ethical discussion with Philemon around the huge issues of institutional slavery or Christian freedom. Instead Paul appeals to Philemon's Christian character as ingrained by all the little moral decisions he made in the past. Listen to verses 4-9 again,

“4 When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God 5because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith towards the Lord Jesus. 6I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ. 7I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother. 8 For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, 9yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love”
Notice how Paul reminds Philemon of his pattern of Christ-like decisions involving the saints, and notice how he encourages Philemon to continue to make decisions in accordance with these habits of love. Since Philemon has been formed in the virtue of love in these other circumstances, Paul appeals to this character trait to make the right decision in the tough situation of treating Onesimus as a Christian brother and not as a slave.

We American Christians are a lot like Philemon. We wield a great amount of power, and how we use our power is determined by our moral formation. In order for us to make the right decisions in large issues like Syria, we must first practice making good decisions in all the daily parts of our lives.

We can practice putting God first by literally putting God first and starting our days with Morning Prayer. It is a blessing of unmeasured value to be in a church that offers the daily office, and one that I am truly thankful for.

Or we can spend time in community with God's word by joining a Bible study, the Daughters of the King, the Brotherhood of St Andrew, or drinking beer with Fr Brett.

We can practice prayer on Monday mornings in the Pilates and Prayer class, although I must admit my prayer is mostly limited to “Please God make Cathy stop.” Or we can practice some centering prayer on Thursday afternoons with Fr Rob, where my prayer is more like, “Please God keep the peaceful silence coming.”

And finally we can practice forgiveness and love in just about every activity we undertake here at the church of the Ascension, from the healing Eucharist on Wednesdays, to an afternoon with FISH, to an evening with Family Promise.

That's my plug for Rally Day. So let's get on with the creed and a little lex credendi, before we check out some ministries and practice some lex vivendi. And if you want to talk more about Syria, please come and see me, as it is my honor to walk with you and with Christ through all the joys and the struggles of this earthly life.

1The field of Virtue Ethics underpins this Pauline part of the sermon. Especially influential to this section is the work of Alasdair MacIntyre and Stanley Hauerwas.     

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Divine Invitation

The Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Luke 14:1, 7-14
The Divine Invitation
The Rev. Brett P. Backus

         Every once in a while I find myself looking out, scanning the congregation, and hoping to catch a glimpse of his face. Hoping to see Michael, someone who's last name I never even knew, and yet someone who I strongly doubt I will ever forget, sitting among you all in the pews. Every once in a awhile I find myself hoping that he has finally accepted the invitation. Every once in awhile I find myself hoping that he finally felt able to join in this celebration around the altar, and find a home in this foretaste of the divine banquet. However the truth is that I not only search the pews for his face because I hope for his homecoming into the Body of Christ and Kingdom of God that exists here and now, but I search also because I deeply desire to thank him for the enormous lesson that I doubt he even realizes he taught me. A valued lesson in true humility and hospitality.
          It was a typical day for me, practicing the usual balancing act that we all engage in and on the run from one place to the other. Though I'm not proud of it, I admit that as I came walking quickly into the church office area and saw him standing near our little clergy enclave, I assumed he was looking for a hand out and thought to myself, “man I really don't have time for this right now.” My read of Michael couldn't have been more off. As we sat down in my office and began to talk, I realized fairly quickly that this conversation was nothing of the sort. In fact, it ended up being a conversation that brought me to my knees spiritually and that has changed my life in some interesting ways.
          You see, Michael had seen and done some horrific things. A draft dodger initially, caught at the Canadian border when he was 17 and given the option of either serving or going to jail. He chose to serve, and because of his exceptional gifts, he was placed in a covert intelligence unit and served during the Vietnam War in places that our government still denies American presence to this day. As Michael began to tell me his story of horror, helplessness, and guilt; his experiences of having dealt innumerable deaths with his bare hands to all forms and walks of life, of being faced with the dilemma of either killing innocent people or endangering his brothers in combat and himself; in the midst of all of this he admitted to me that that moment, in my office, was the very first time in his whole life that he had uttered a single word of his experiences to anyone, even to the detriment of his own marriage, his own family, and his career. Michael, a cradle Episcopalian who hadn't darkened the doors of a church in over some 40 years, a man just passing through Tennessee trying to complete his bucket list and dealing with terminal liver cancer, somehow found his way to our church doors and into my office. So, having no words in reaction to the tear filled story I heard, I did the only thing I knew to do. Michael and I headed down to the church columbarium where we shared in a service of reconciliation and Eucharist. At the end, after a hug and a hand shake, I watched Michael walk out to his car, never to be seen again. That, for me, was one of the biggest lessons in humility and hospitality that I have ever experienced.
          This morning, Jesus speaks to us about humility and hospitality as well. He speaks to us and to the recent converts of Christ that make up Luke's audience through two parables set around a dinner gathering. While this morning's lectionary is wonderful because all the readings today have something to say related to this theme, the Gospel lesson itself leaves something to be desired and was honestly a source of frustration for me as I prepared this week because it actually fails to give us the whole story.         
          In reality, today's Gospel is basically only two parts separated out from a larger four part section in Luke, and essentially we end up missing out on the beginning and end of this grouping. We miss out on Jesus making a move to establish authority by healing on the Sabbath, and following His parables about the treatment and inclusion of others with a third and final banquet parable, ultimately dealing with the invitation of all and those who reject it. As far as I can tell, beside the fact that I probably just bored you all to death......hahahaha!, this is very important, because without it our understanding of Jesus' message to us this morning is skewed.
            You see, while Jesus' call to good table manners and general moral behavior towards others is alone a worthy message, when placed in the proper context, we begin to see that Jesus was really talking about so much more. Not just turning social norms on their heads and seeking social justice, which by the way can still be self serving, but actually an entire take over of one's heart, of one's motivations, of one's intentions, and the love that grows out of and is manifested in one's life as a result. When we understand and remember that Luke was written to converts, and we include the banquet parable that was originally missing this morning, we begin to see. Today's lessons, Jesus' parables, are concerned with true conversion, or submission to Christ and the way that that effects us. Luke's Jesus is concerned with how those who confess Christ experience the power of the Resurrection in their own lives. He is concerned with whether or not our relationship with Christ has actually changed the very core of who we are so that it can even be seen in all we do.
          So, once we dig in to this Scripture enough and begin to shift our view of it, the message becomes something pretty relevant for us. It becomes a healthy reminder. Today Jesus reminds us through His parables that indeed we are all invited to His divine banquet. We the imperfect, we the untouchables, we the sinners, we the misfits, we who were seen as unfit in God's eyes. Yes, all are invited. No strings attached. At the same time, Christ's words for us today remind us that we are only able to truly love others because we have already accepted the invitation. We have already experienced through humility the all encompassing and infinite love of God through Christ.
          So, when we sing, “and they'll know we are Christians by our love,” it isn't because Jesus taught us how to be cordial and treat others with kindness, but because as Christians we are to be so radically changed by Christ's love for us that it defines us and radiates through all we do. So, when we engage in acts of charity, outreach, or mission, it isn't just because Jesus taught us that those things are good, but because as Christians we are to be so filled with Christ's love that any excuse to share that love with others is fully embraced. So, when we say that we are to love others as Christ has loved us, it isn't only because Jesus taught us through His actions to forgive and care for all people, but because as Christians we are to actually put those who we don't like, those who annoy us, those who we can't stand, those who we dare not touch, those who we judge, before ourselves. We are to truly love them. Not just hand them a couple of dollars, or give them a smile, or a nice gesture, but to be their friend, to be their family, to be their home. Those are the kinds of gifts that one can ever repay, just like the gift that God gave each of us in Christ.
        That, is what I saw in my interaction with Michael. On the one side, I saw a man who, because of the horrible things he had seen and done, could not allow himself to be loved by God. He could not bring himself to accept the banquet invitation and therefore, he was unable to truly or wholly love others who had come into his life or crossed his path. On the other side, I saw a man who, because of the constant internal struggles we all go through, had forgotten about humility. He had not been brought to his knees in a long enough time that he initially failed to see the opportunity for true hospitality and therefore, he too was unable wholly love the person waiting outside his door.
       Friends, our call as Christians is a radical one. It is a call to give up, a call to give over, a call to sacrifice ourselves to God. But that requires humility. It requires our coming to grips with the idea that we need help and that we can't do it alone, but in doing so, in losing, we gain everything. In accepting the invitation, in dying to ourselves, we gain the fullness of joy and love of Christ which then radiates through all that we do and are. That is true radical hospitality. That is the call to which we are all invited to respond. To come, to be humbled, and to be filled with a Love that will in turn become the motivation and driving force behind all that we do. Brothers and Sisters in Christ, all of us are invited to this banquet.
                                                     But will we truly accept the invitation?