Monday, November 25, 2013

King of All

Christ the King, Year C
The Rev. Amy Morehous
November 24, 2013

And Max, the king of all wild things, was lonely
and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all.”

― Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are

Jeremiah 23:1-6

Canticle 16 (Luke 1:68-79)

Colossians 1:11-20

Luke 23:33-43

I’m going to begin with a story. And some of you are going to recognize that story somewhere in the middle. It’s a story many of us have heard, or told, many times over.

The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another, his mother called him "wild thing!" and Max said, "I'll eat you up!"
So he was sent to bed without eating anything.
That very night in Max's room a forest grew.
And grew and grew until his ceiling hung with vines and the walls became the world all around.
And an ocean tumbled by with a private boat for Max.
And he sailed off through night and day and in and out of weeks
And almost over a year to where the wild things are!
And when he came to the place where the wild things are they roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws.
'Til Max said "Be Still!" And tamed them with the magic trick of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once. And they were frightened. And called him the most wild thing of all. And made him King of All Wild Things.
I know most of you know that story. The story of Max, the King of all wild things, is 50 years old this weekend. For half a century, parents and children have told Maurice Sendak's story, and pretended, and imagined, and dreamed and returned home together.
We've loved Max so, through all these years, because we know Max. We are Max. We yearn for all the same things. To be the King. The Boss. The one who makes all the rules. To imagine wild things, and voyage to amazing places. We each know, deep in our hearts, that we would make terrific kings of all wild things. And we all yearn, deeply and passionately, to know there is a home to which we can return when we need to be fed.
For a while, we all want to be The One in charge. The Man. She Who Must Be Obeyed. We like to know who's first. Who does the most. Who has the most. Who is the most.
Max becomes king of all the wild things. He revels in the wild rumpus. And for a bit, that satisfies. But it does not last.
"Now stop," Max said.
And sent the wild things off to bed without their supper.
And Max the King of all wild things was lonely, and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all.
Then all around from far away across the world, he smelled good things to eat.
So he gave up being king of where the wild things are.
Max stepped into his private boat and waved goodbye,
And sailed back over a year and in and out of weeks and through a day and into the night of his very own room, where he found his supper waiting for him. And it was still hot.
Today is Christ the King Sunday. The end of the liturgical year. Christ's kingship is hard for us to understand. Our idea of a King is shaped so much by the world around us. By thinking that we can be in charge of our own wild rumpus.
But today, the Gospel gives us a completely different picture of a King.
Today we are reminded that that same King we affirm as the King of all things is also the one who is crucified. A King who suffers. A King who dies on the cross.
Was this the King you were looking for, today, on this Christ the King Sunday? A first century Hebrew? Crucified. Suffering. Mocked.
A king whose last acts before his death were ones of forgiveness and mercy - acts we too often take as weakness, but in fact, are the most profound strength.
Here is Christ the King, living the end of his human life, giving us his last words. Words of forgiveness. Words of mercy. Forgiveness and mercy take boldness. They take bravery. Forgiving someone else makes you the bigger person, not the smaller. Christ is perfect, yes, and we are not, but in his perfection he is showing us the way in which we, too, can change, can grow.
Too often, if we stand in church, and say we want to grow, we're talking of size. But, there's other growth that Christ points us to, today. Yes, I think if we practice the things he's demonstrating, we grow stronger as a congregation. We can grow closer to God. We can grow closer to one another. We can grow in knowledge and love of Christ  As we do, we multiply the forgiveness and mercy we have to give away. In one of those amazing paradoxes, giving it away means you have more, not less. The more you forgive, the more your capacity for forgiveness.
And why on earth would we want to do that? Why would we want to swim against the cultural tide, and practice mercy and forgiveness?
Because Christ is King. Because God has come to his people and set them free.  Because the King of All Things, the firstborn of creation, in whom all things hang together, came down to walk among us and to extend love and mercy and forgiveness to us. To us. In turn, in our amazement and our thanksgiving, we extend the same mercy and forgiveness to those around us.
If Christ truly is King, then it must be true that we are not. Have you crucified Christ the King? Does he hold first place in your life? In your heart? The good news is that if you have let other things crowd him out, even when you didn't know what you were doing, you will be forgiven. We all will be. No matter what we have done, no matter where we have been, what we have done with our life, Christ offers us forgiveness. In the confession today, on this last Sunday of the year, confess those things that weigh on your heart and let them go. All the things that compete to be crowned King of your life. Turn them over, lift them up to God, and ask freely for the forgiveness for which you thirst, and the strength you need to live into this free, forgiven life.
One of our deepest, darkest fears is that there is no place for us, that we will somehow be left out. But Christ promises a place in the eternal kingdom. God has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of the beloved Son in whom we have redemption. Our place is already there, prepared for us. When we get there, the person who loves us best of all will be there, and our dinner will still be hot.
But the amazing thing is that we do not have to wait 'til we sail our boats over a year and in and out of weeks and through a day and into the night. We can participate in that kingdom here and now, in relationship with one other.  We can be in relationship with Christ right now. With each neighbor we meet, each coworker, each person in line in the grocery store. With each interaction we have with someone else, we can show them a glimpse of the kingdom of God. So much of this world pushes us to put the unimportant first. To put ourselves first. To put fear first. Or greed. Don't let the culture of fear, and anger and impatience get in the way of living free lives, lives of mercy. Lives of forgiveness.
Like the Colossians, together we, too, will be made strong with all the strength that comes from Christ. Strong in endurance. Strong in mercy. Strong in forgiveness.
Today is the end. But because we believe in the reign of Christ as King over all, we know that in the end is the beginning.  Now is that time - time to step into the boat, stretch out our hands and freely accept the strength and forgiveness and mercy which flow directly from the throne of the King. Time to take Christ's mercy and forgiveness out into a world in need. Today is the end...but something new is just around the corner, just about to dawn.

In the tender compassion of our God *
    the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the
                   shadow of death,*
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever.  Amen.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Be Not Afraid

The 25th Sunday after Pentecost - 10 Nov 2013
Christian Hawley
Haggai 1:15b-2:9
2Thes 2:1-5, 13-17
Luke 20:27-38

Every good Christian needs a brilliant atheist friend, to keep asking them, “Why do you go to church?”
My friend's name is Junior and he's now a vice president with Citicorp living in London. Every time Junior and I get together, “he inevitably asks me, why did you go back to the church again?” I think Junior might come to my ordination, and after reading this week's scripture I think I have a new answer for him this time:

I came back to the church because I was tired of being afraid.

We are a part of a culture whose mantra is “be afraid, be very afraid.” We hear it every day from all corners:
    • The Chinese are poised to take over our economic system – be afraid.
    • The ice caps are all going to melt in seven years – be very afraid.
    • Terrorists are going to bomb our malls – be afraid.
    • Militias are going to take over our government – be very afraid.
    • And the list goes on from the extinction of honeybees to advent of the Rapture.
We are constantly told, “It's the end of the world as we know it.” The Thessalonians from today's readings faced similar circumstances. Instead of militias and terrorists they had to contend with Imperial zealots and Sectarian gangs threatening their way of life. St Paul was literally beaten and left to die outside the gates of the next town over. The church at Thessalonika was being persecuted from all sides, and to make matters worse they were under the impression Jesus was coming back during their lifetime (a reasonable expectation if you read the gospels closely).

Fortunately for them they had Paul to say, “do not be quickly shaken or alarmed...stand firm and hold fast in the in hope that Christ's love triumphs in the end.” They had a voice of authority and compassion tell them, “Be not afraid.” We don't hear that near enough in our daily lives, and so the screams of “be afraid, be very afraid” leave us with the reactions of either despair or anger.

These reactions became very real to me during my time in the middle east. The end of the world as I knew it happened very concretely in 2003. I remember the reaction of despair vividly as I sat in a bunker in the middle of the night sucking wind through a gas mask that made every breath taste like rubber. I have never felt so afraid and helpless in my life. I had no real hope for that evening beyond survival, and even that seemed tainted if living meant another day subject to fear and trembling before powers that seemed random and absurd.
A month later the reaction of anger overwhelmed me as I watched a live feed from one of our F-15 weapons systems officers. I can still see the greyscale video of a missile detonating over a target and all those little white blobs that had previously been moving around now laying motionless. I remembered how afraid I had been every time I ran to a bunker, and I can still hear myself saying “Good, kill'em all and let God sort'em out.”

When our own mortality is our highest good, being afraid can make us ugly people. When we believe death gets the last word, our conversations can become short-sided, selfish, unforgiving and terribly unimagninative. This was one of Jesus' points with the Sadducees in today's gospel reading. The only way the Sadducees marriage laws make sense, is if there is no resurrection - no ongoing relationship between the living and the dead. But what Jesus is saying here is that relationships don't end with death. The Resurrection means our relationships are transformed in glorious ways we can hardly comprehend.

The lectionary ladies and I spent a lot of time this week talking about what resurrected relationships looked like. I don't think what Jesus is getting at here is that the Resurrection is all halos, harps, and hugs. That somehow familial or marital bonds are done away with in favor of a universal bond, after all, Abraham and Isaac and Jacob were all family and those relationships seem very intact in Jesus' example. What I think Jesus is trying to say is that relationships realize their fullest potential in the Resurrection. In becoming like angels and children of God, we will know perfect reconciliation with our fellow humans and we will love others for their unique expression of divinity.

The Resurrection perfects relationships, and in doing so it opens up hope for those of us still here on earth. The Resurrection allows for forgiveness, for reconciliation, and for homecoming, because our God is not a God of the dead, but a God of the living.

To really believe that relationships continue on beyond death is wonderfully healing for me as a veteran. The only way I knew to get past despair and anger was through the Resurrection. Many of the people I needed to forgive or be forgiven by had died. As long as death had the last word, I had to carry all those wounds and demons around with me. I had to let them haunt my dreams, and second guess my every relationship with the living. The only way I could move forward with my life was to seek reconciliation with the materially dead through a God of the eternally living. I am here to say, it is possible to heal the past and have hope in the future in a world where Resurrection exists.

It was a powerful experience for me to hear someone say out loud, “Be not afraid, for our God is a God of the living,” and so I'd like to share that gift with you all today.

If you served in World War II and are willing and able, I’d like to ask you to stand. Thank you for your service. As you remember the Battle of the Bulge, Normandy, Guadalcanal, and Okinawa, be not afraid, for ours is a God of the living.

If you served in the Korean War and are willing and able, I’d like to ask you to stand. Thank you for your service. As you remember Bloody Ridge and Heartbreak Ridge, Chosin Reservoir and Hill 282, be not afraid, for ours is a God of the living.
If you served in Vietnam War and are willing and able, I’d like to ask you to stand. Thank you for your service. As you remember the Tet Offensive, Khe Sanh, Ong Thanh and Hue be not afraid, for our God is a God of the living.
If you served during Cold War and are willing and able, I’d like to ask you to stand. Thank you for your service. As you remember all those operations we leave unnamed and all those times we almost ended the world, be not afraid, for our God is a God of the living.
If you served in Desert Storm and are willing and able, I’d like to ask you to stand. Thank you for your service. As you remember the battle for Jalibah Airfield, Khafji, Medina Ridge, and the Highway of Death, be not afraid, for our God is a God of the living.
If you served in the Balkans and are willing and able, I’d like to ask you to stand. Thank you for your service. As you remember Tuzla, Sarajevo, and all those other war torn towns of Bosnia Herzegovina, be not afraid, for our God is a God of the living.

If you served in Iraq or Afghanistan and are willing and able, I’d like to ask you to stand. Thank you for your service. As you remember Fallujah and Abu Ghraib, Kandahar and Tora Bora, be not afraid, for our God is a God of the living.

If you have served in uniform, for the United States or any other nation, in times of war or in times of peace, if you are willing and able I'd like to ask you to stand. Thank you for putting service before self. As you remember walking through your own valleys of the shadow death, be not afraid, for our God is a God of the living.

If you are a loved one of a veteran and are willing and able, I'd like to ask you to stand. Thank your for your service and your support. As you remember all those nights of loneliness, all of those days of overwhelming demands, and all of those difficult changes and silences in the ones who came back, be not afraid, for our God is a God of the living.

And now I'll ask that everyone stand as they are willing and able. We all deal with the end of the world at some point in our life. Sometimes its strained family relationships, sometimes its employment crises, and sometimes its an unexplainable evil visited upon us from powers unknown. As we remember loves lost, opportunities missed, words spoken in anger, and wounds left unhealed, be not afraid, for our God is a God of the living, and we, we are a people of the Resurrection. Thanks be to God for that.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

God Transforming Us Through The Saints

The Rev. Robert P. Travis
All Saint's Sunday Sermon – 8 and 10:30am Eucharist Services, 
Church of the Ascension, Knoxville TN
RCL Propers for All Saint's Day Year C 11/3/2013

Scripture Text: Daniel 7: 1-3, 15-18, Psalm 149, Ephesians 1:11-23 Luke 6:20-31

Sermon Text
If any of you have been to the healing service on Wednesdays in the past few years,
you know how much I love the Saints,
So I take it as a big honor to get to preach on the day we celebrate all of them!
I am grateful for the Saints that we remember.
Almost as much as I am grateful for the gift of God‘s son, Jesus Christ.

I love that hymn we sang when I was very little,
“I sing a song of the Saints of God,
patient and brave and true,
who toiled and fought and lived and died
for the Lord they loved and knew.”
When I was little, my favorite verse went,
“They loved their lord so dear, so dear,
and his love made them strong;
and they followed the right,
for Jesus’ sake the whole of their good lives long.
And one was a soldier and one was a priest,
and one was slain by a fierce wild beast,
and there’s not any reason no,
not the least, why I shouldn’t be one too.”
Somebody told me a funnier version of that verse
is to switch the words beast and priest,
so that one was slain by a fierce wild priest.

I never found that that funny either.

But I loved that song,
and particularly that verse.
Because as a young boy, I wanted to know,
as most little boys do, how to become a big strong man.
For my part, until I was about 15,
I thought being a soldier was a more likely way to be a big strong man than being a priest.
Because soldiers are accorded such great honor
in our country,
and they certainly have to be strong to do what they do.
I loved war stories
and stories of knights in battle,
I loved playing violent video games
that allowed me to be a virtual soldier,
killing all the bad guys.

But one of the saints in my life as a little boy,
was my grandmother.
Perhaps some of you have a grandmother that you think of,
as sort of a saint.
My grandmother was a strong woman,
of viking blood she would say,
She was strong, and sometimes fierce,
but she loved Jesus,
and served Him in her methodist church until she died.
She taught me to pray the Lord’s Prayer,
and she used to read me bible stories.
I being a war-loving boy, always wanted her to read to me some Old Testament Stories,
particularly the story of Samson and Delilah
was my favorite.
And she would say to me, when I was about 7,
“Now Robert, that story is quite violent, couldn’t we read another story?” But I said no, that was the story I wanted to hear, and she loved me so much that she would read that story to me over and over again.
And by the time I was 15, I had a dream,
that one day I would go to the Airforce Academy,
and become a fighter pilot.
Today I want to tell you how God
transformed that vision for me,
and changed me into pursuing a different kind of strength.
Now what Jesus is describing for us in the beatitudes we heard from the Gospel of Luke
could easily be described as ways to become a saint.
Focus on the blessed things and avoid the woes,
and you will head on the path to sanctification.
Many saints in the past have done that,
and decided that, for example, that taking a vow of poverty will lead to greater sanctification.
I’m not sure I’m ready to be that kind of saint,
and actually I relate more,
and am a little more scared by the woe to you passages.
But what Jesus does after setting out the blessings and woes,
is give some pretty strong commandments,
which I think we can all agree, lead to saintly living,
if we could but follow them.
“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,
bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.
If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also;
and from anyone who takes away your coat
do not withhold even your shirt.
Give to everyone who begs from you;
and if anyone takes away your goods,
do not ask for them again.
Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
These are the ethical commands that Jesus is asking us to follow, if we want to be his disciples.
But to follow any of them, much less all of them,
I think we all know that transformation has to take place.
Let me tell you a story about a time in which Jesus directly taught me the meaning of one of these commands.

I liked playing sports as a child,
and as a young teenager, I was fencing,
swimming, playing tennis, horseback riding, skiing and cycling among other things. As you can imagine,
with all of those sports I wasn’t very good at any of them,
but they were fun.
And I played on the men’s tennis team in my school.
I was not cool, and for plenty of reasons I had had bullies pick on me in the past.
But this one day during tennis practice,
a boy named Greg started making fun of me,
and even hitting balls directly at me,
really trying to pick a fight.
I wasn’t having it, and so I returned insult for insult.
And naturally that just made him madder.
When we were heading into the locker room after practice he threatened me.
He said “Rob, if you step one foot in that locker room,
I’ll deck you.”
I decided I was not going to kow tow to this bully,
and so I boldly strode into the locker room,
and deftly stepped aside as he tried to run me down.
I dodged him and he slammed himself against the wall.
The fight, as you can imagine, only heated up
because of my move,
and I quickly found myself face to face with a furious, red-faced knucklehead.
I knew I did not want to fight,
because we had strict anti-fighting rules in school
and if I fought him, he and I both would be suspended.
But I also did not want to back down and be labelled a wimp.
My back was to the wall of lockers.
He began punching me in the chest
as his friends and mine circled around to watch.
I just folded my arms and did not hit back.

He kept yelling at me to hit back,
calling me every name in the book.
And I told him I was not going to give him
the fight he wanted.
My adrenaline was pumping,
and I knew I could hit him really hard if I wanted to,
but I just stood there and took his blows,
and wondered how it would end.
All of a sudden, he slapped me on the cheek.

And at that moment everything slowed down for me,
I was reminded,
and I have to believe it was the Holy Spirit reminding me,
of Jesus’ commandment to turn the other cheek.

So I smiled, and turned the other cheek to him.

He looked shocked, but just got angrier.
He proceded to slap me back and forth on each cheek,
as I continued to stand my ground and tell him I was not going to give him the fight that he wanted.
Finally he backed down,
and threatened to kill me the next time he saw me.
I told him that even if he killed me,
he would not win,
because I was not going to fight him.

He knew the street rules of fighting,
as someone must have told him it’s cowardly to beat up someone who won’t fight you.
And I knew the rules of the school
and that they were there for student’s protection.

Later he got suspended, and I did not, because witnesses, both my friends and his convinced the baffled vice-principal that I actually did not fight.

As I left the locker room I heard people saying things like “he was like Martin Luther King, he was like Gandhi,
and I think even one person said, he was like Jesus.”
That just blew me away,
and humbled me because I knew
I was not like those great men,
and certainly not like God in the flesh,
but I realized that my actions
had become a witness for peace.

I made it to the car where my dad was waiting to pick me up, shaking still from the adrenaline that had not been released,
and broke down in tears only after the car door closed.
My dad, also one of the living saints in my book,
asked me what happened, and I told him the whole story. When I said,
“Dad, I did what I learned in church. I did what Jesus said to do, I turned the other cheek, but it just made him angrier,” My dad said “Rob, I’m so proud of you. But remember St. Paul says, that when you turn the other cheek you will be heaping hot coals on their heads.”
I said, “Dad, nobody taught me that part!”

The thing is, that experience changed me,
it started to change me then,
and it has been transforming me ever since then.
And that is what happens,
when we really try to live Jesus’ commands.
Much like Fr. Brett was talking about last week. Transformation is part of the deal when it comes to becoming a follower of Jesus.
I thought about the implications of my actions,
and started studying The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King,
and Gandhi.
I realized in my own little way a little of the great power that non-violent resistance can offer.
And I started to become a lover of peace.
Becoming a lover of peace,
meant that I had to give up some of the plans I had been holding on to.
Just a few months later I gave up my dream
of going to the Air Force Academy
and becoming a fighter pilot,
because I knew I could not pursue peace and non-violence, and be in a profession in which my job was to kill people.

Now some might say that God killed that dream,
but I don’t look at it that way.
I look at it that God had a better dream in store for me.
And he has been teaching me more and more what it means to turn the other cheek since then.
I can’t wait to see what God’s dream of peace
will mean for me as I continue to follow him.
One of the best things that resulted from my new commitment to follow Jesus in peace,
was that at Columbia College I got to volunteer with an organization called Peace Games that taught elementary school kids in the New York City public schools how to de-escalate fights and use non-violence to resist bullies.
And this whole experience has made me have a deep appreciation in my Christian faith,
no a reverence
for those saints who advocate peace,
like St. Francis of Assisi,
and The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
And I can hear my grandmother warning me that the story of Samson and Delilah was too violent,
and I realize God was working through the saints in my life, to bring about that transformation long before that fight which would drive home the teaching
he wanted me to learn.

So who are some of your favorite Saints?
Which of these commands of Jesus
or virtues do they exemplify for you?
And what kind of transformation do you think
that means God is calling you to make in your life?
The answers are right there in our hearts,
and in our experiences,
and we all know saints who can show us the way
to that holy transformation.
For, “they lived not only in ages past, there are hundreds of thousands still, the world is bright with the joyous saints who love to do Jesus’ will. . . for the saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too.”