The Rev. Robert P. Travis
Epiphany 3rd Sunday Sermon – 8:00am and 10:30am Church of the Ascension, Knoxville TN
RCL Epiphany Year C 1/27/2012
Scripture Text: Nehemiah 8:1-3,5-6,8-10, Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a, Luke 4:14-21
Ten years ago this month,
I was in the process of exploring
what God was calling me to do.
I was engaged to be married to Jackie,
and I was on my way to Seminary in the fall.
I was also actively serving God
as a youth minister in an Episcopal church,
and that January
I took a group of young people to a conference,
outside Albany, New York.
At that conference some of the boys and I went to
a session and heard someone speak about
an organization called Compassion International.
She was very inspirational,
and that group of five boys were inspired.
They wanted to go to the table set up outside,
and consider sponsoring a child somewhere in the world.
They discussed it amongst themselves,
and decided that with the allowance they earned,
each one could easily give a portion into a pool
out of which the five of them could sponsor one child.
I was impressed with their courage and sacrifice,
and encouraged them to look together,
to pray about who they would be called to support.
They picked two boys out of the packages displayed.
An Ethiopian boy whose name I cannot remember,
and an Ecuadorian named Chucho.
One was 6 and one was 8 years old.
The boys prayed together,
and all but one of them were in agreement
they wanted to sponsor the boy from Ethiopia.
The one who was in the minority agreed
to go along with the group,
but he came to me as they were
filling out the sponsorship form.
What would happen to the other boy?
What would happen to Chucho, he wondered?
I told him I was sure Chucho would get sponsored,
but I could tell that his heart really went out,
in some mysterious way to Chucho.
So in a moment of grace,
I told him I would sponsor Chucho myself.
It wasn’t hard to do,
I can honestly say,
that it was never a hardship to dedicate
around $30 each month of my income,
to support this Ecuadorian boy.
Chucho was 8 when I became his Padrino,
that’s what he calls me in his letters.
At that time he liked soccer,
and was learning to play the piano.
Now he’s 18 and studying physics this year,
on his way to become an environmental engineer.
We exchange 6 or 7 letters each year,
and dedicate bible verses back and forth.
I pray for him nearly every day,
and I know he prays for me.
What started out as a sort of afterthought for me,
a small compassionate gesture to console
a kid on a youth group retreat,
in a very small event during a big time of change in my life,
became a consistent way to serve the Lord,
by making a real difference in one child’s life.
This relationship with someone I otherwise would not know,
has enriched my life.
While I watched Chucho grow up,
I was getting married,
moving to four different places,
going through graduate school,
working in four jobs,
having three children of my own.
I shared all of that with Chucho in my letters.
Knowing that he was praying for me,
and reading his letters made a difference to me.
I think I have made a difference in his life as well.
One time when I was making a tithe on a windfall I received,
I sent Compassion a check for $300 for his family.
A few months later Chucho sent me pictures of
his family and the new roof they put on their house,
the new bed he received and him in the new clothes,
all of which my donation bought.
I was blown away.
One of the most touching letters to me,
was when Chucho was 14 and confided in me some of the challenges he faced about changing
from a child to a young man.
I think, in the small amount of good I did,
for this one person,
I had a part to play,
in preaching good news to the poor.
Jesus, in his hometown visit that we read today,
looked into the prophecy about himself in Isaiah,
and laid out his agenda for his ministry.
It was like his inaugural address.
He said what he was called to do,
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.”
Those things were all about
the ushering in of the Kingdom of God.
It was a renewal, the beginning of a new world.
And it was based on what God had explained
that was in the plan a long time before.
The same thing was happening when
Ezra read the book of the law
before the exiles who had returned to Jerusalem
in our reading from Nehemiah.
And they were moved to bring about the renewal
of the people of Israel in Jerusalem.
But now, in Nazareth, the book of scripture was fulfilled
in the person of Jesus Christ.
That very statement that Jesus made
to the people who knew him,
enraged them, for they couldn’t believe that someone
they had seen grow up, could be called to such greatness.
But we’re not focussing on that today.
The point on this third Sunday of Epiphany,
now that we’ve looked at who Jesus is,
is to consider what the Messiah was called to do,
and by extension, as his followers,
what we are called to do.
Notice that beautiful passage in 1st Corinthians,
where Paul likens us to members of a body,
each with an important function.
In our parish hall Sunday School class,
we’re considering how a new generation of Christians,
is discovering the excitement of serving Jesus
in many and varied ways.
Many of those ways are outside
the direct ministries of the church.
It is exciting to consider,
whether the calling is great,
or quite humble by human standards.
For all of our individual and corporate callings,
no matter how big or small
are participation in the work of God in the world.
What could be more exciting than that?
It could start with a small act of compassion,
and lead into a decade of relationship
and growth with someone half a world away.
Or it could be a path that takes years of preparation,
before one begins the endeavor of
reaching the local community with God’s love.
At the beginning of his adult ministry,
Jesus read before the people who knew him,
“the Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he anointed me to bring good news to the poor.”
After Jesus accomplished all those things that
he was anointed and sent to do,
he poured out his Spirit, the Holy Spirit, upon everyone
who was willing to receive him.
And they became the anointed ones,
anointed with that same Spirit,
to do those same things.
How often have we thought that all it takes to be
a follower of Jesus,
is to worship Him in his Church on Sundays,
maybe study about Him,
maybe pray to Him when we need something?
But if we are anointed with the Holy Spirit,
we are called to take our place in the work of God.
To engage in the work that Jesus started.
How are we bringing good news to the poor?
How are we proclaiming release to captives?
How are we giving recovery of sight to the blind?
How are we letting the oppressed go free?
How are we proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor?
Maybe you’re bringing good news to the poor
by feeding them in our Fish Ministry,
or housing them in Family Promise here at Ascension.
Maybe in your work, you can bring truth to a world
where deception seems so much more the norm,
because we know the truth will make us free.
Maybe through your efforts in your job,
or in the community,
people gain their health,
learn how to live a fuller life,
or come to understand that there is hope,
when so many others convey hopelessness.
Maybe you could simply write some letters,
pray some prayers,
and help one child grow into a Christian adult,
who serves and strengthens their own community.
Whether you’re a hand, or a foot,
or an ear or an eye.
Or even just the toenail of the littlest toe,
You have a significant part to play,
in the body of Christ.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon us,
because He has anointed us,
as followers of Jesus of Nazareth,
to devote ourselves to His service.
Wednesday, January 16, 2013
1st Sunday After Epiphany: Jan. 13, 2013 The Episcopal Church of the Ascension
To See the Face of God The Reverend Dr. Howard J. Hess
I. Introduction. Echoes of the past in the present and the future. The older I become, the more fully I comprehend that new learning in life often comes in repeated experiences that unfold in circles. Once I believed that life experience was linear; that life would expand until roughly the age of 30. As time passed, I changed this age to 35, then 40, then 45, and onward, with some trepidation. But as I’ve lived on, I have discovered a wonderful aspect of God’s creativity – that our lives unfold in circles; and that when we are at our God-given best, we circle back to old experiences and old insights. Each time we re-visit them, there is something new to be learned. It has become my belief that it is very likely that we will continue to learn and grow even as we enter our next resurrected lives. Thus it is with my understanding of the baptism of Jesus. I have tended to see Jesus’ baptism as a powerful expression of the Trinity, and that it is. But I also believe that Jesus’ baptism is one of the first situations in which Jesus drew others into a relationship with him and in which God’s love for and affirmation of Jesus parallels God’s love for and affirmation of us.
I have always been particularly drawn to the story in Les Miserables, but only recently have I begun to understand how theological the underpinnings of that story are. I’m aware that some of you are more familiar with the story than others, and hope to use this story as a way of better understanding the importance of God’s love and affirmation of his Son at the time of his baptism as well as the importance of God’s love and affirmation in our baptism, our redemption, and our resurrection. I remember when I first saw the story come alive on the stage approximately twenty-five years ago in London, England. It is a story of social injustice and turmoil in 19th century France. The lead character has been unfairly imprisoned and we vividly see his suffering as well as the suffering of many others. We saw the performance with our two children. The play had a powerful impact on all of us. I have a watercolor hanging in my office that my young daughter gave me with a quote from the play: “To love another person is to see the face of God.” At that time I was a therapist and teacher and had worked for years with others who had been harmed and beaten down by the personal and social forces around them. The life stories of those with whom I had worked were the same stories as those of the characters in Les Miserables. I had met many mothers struggling to care for their children, and many children who yearned to be loved. Without being able to name it, I knew that the story was a narrative of redemption. I couldn’t articulate the theology behind this work at that time, but I knew it was there. I now look back and understand that God was present in the relationships between the characters in this story just as God is present between Jesus and the bystanders among whom he is baptized.
II. Fifteen years later, Les Miserables came back into my life as a spiritual experience. This occurred while I was listening to a sermon in All Saints Episcopal Church in Leonia, NJ – the church that sponsored me for the priesthood. That sermon was about the priest in Les Mis. In the story, JeanValJean, the central character, had been imprisoned for fifteen years for stealing a loaf of bread for his starving family. He has just been released from prison, but is unable to find work and therefore becoming desperate. He seeks refuge in the home of a priest. But hardened by his suffering, he steals the priest’s silver. Caught, he is brought back for certain re-imprisonment. However, the priest refuses to accuse him, and instead says to the police: “I gave this silver to him.” The priest then says to JeanValJean, “Oh, my brother, you forgot these two silver candlesticks. Now go and begin a new life.” The priest I met in that sermon knew that JeanValJean’s soul was of greater value than all the silver he possessed; so he forgave JeanValJean and urged him to start anew. In spite of all of our flaws, when we see, as this priest did, the deep way that God loves us and values our souls, then we too can become part of the redemption story. And we see that this redemption story is at heart a story of affirmation. This is clear in Luke’s report of Jesus’ baptism. Just after Jesus was baptized he prayed, and the dove, the gentle dove, descended upon him. God said, “You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Love and affirmation are always part of our redemption narrative.
III. Fast Forward to New Years 2012. On New Years Eve we went with friends to see the film version of Les Miserables. Of course I saw again all that I had seen before, but I also saw something new. As JeanValJean comes close to the end of his life it is clear that his redemption story has been lifelong. In each of our lives there are continuous new opportunities to choose redemption and resurrection. We will not always know what these choice points will involve or when they will come, but they will keep coming. And as we decide how to respond, we are creating the mosaic of our lives. In the Finale of Les Miserables JeanValJean is confessing his life story to Cosette, the young girl he has raised as his own. He is preparing to die and to return home to God. His life story includes challenge, regret, heroism, and at the end, resurrection. In the final moments of the play, JeanValJean dies and is ushered into his next life by others who have died before him. The work of redemption has moved into resurrection. As I saw the story of JeanValJean’s life, I saw the presence of Christ, Christ who came to the people and began his ministry in baptism. I see Christ standing there among the people, hearing his Father say to him, “You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” But I now see beyond this exchange. I hear God saying to us, to you and to me, “You are my son, you are my daughter, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”
IV. Conclusion. My brothers and sisters, the narrative of our culture is changing right in front of us. Many, many are seeking a path of redemption, but don’t really believe they can find it among us in the Christian Church. Our culture has developed fears, skepticisms, uncertainties, and divisions that at times seem to be capable of engulfing us. But as we’ve recently heard so clearly in the Prologue to the Gospel of John, the light has come to dwell among us and the darkness cannot extinguish it. We understand that, you and I. We know that the darkness cannot overcome the light. Thomas Merton once wrote about a spiritual epiphany he had on the streets of Louisville, Kentucky. He was on a street corner in an area where many people were passing him. Then in a moment he saw a light emanating from each of these persons. He described his awareness that the light of Christ filled them, and he yearned to tell them what he saw. He felt deep, deep love for them. But he struggled with the question, “How can I tell them? How?” Today, I would like to share that I see that light in you. And I would like to encourage all of us to reach out and take the gifts of love, affirmation, redemption, and resurrection that God has for us. Today, God is saying to each of us: “You are my son; you are my daughter, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Tuesday, January 8, 2013
The Rev. Amy Morehous
Feast of the Epiphany
January 6, 2013
When I was young, my mother, sister and I only had one nativity scene, and we loved it. It had many, many figures, and each one had been poured, fired, hand-painted and hand-glazed by my grandmother, my father’s mother, who died the month before I was born. On the bottom of each piece, they were even individually signed. We always set it up in the living room, on the hearth of the fireplace. My sister and I would very carefully act out scenes with them every year. That nativity set had many adventures.
One Christmas, when my sister and I were older - I think I was 10 or 11- my sister and decided it would be a good idea to roll a basketball around in the living room. (What could possibly go wrong with that?) Of course, someone missed a pass - I really don’t remember who. It would be convenient to blame my sister, since she’s in South Carolina, but it was probably me. The basketball rolled into the nativity scene with a crash. My mother was in the basement, but was alert to such things, as all mothers are. She called upstairs, “What was that noise?” My sister and I were sure that Christmas would be spoiled if we were dead, so we said, in unison, “Nothing, Mom!”
My mother went back downstairs, and we crawled over to inspect the nativity scene, and sure enough, Joseph had taken a direct hit, and had fallen into several pieces. With instincts born of terror, we propped him back together with great care, so that from a distance, he still looked pretty normal. Then, we lived in the abject state of anticipation known only to children who know they’re going to get caught - eventually.
Several days later, my mother walked through the living room, and as she walked by the nativity, Joseph fell apart before her very eyes. Knowing there were only three people living there, she didn’t have a hard time putting the events together, and finding the very sorry, very miserable, and very terrified culprits, and bringing them to swift justice.
We never were able to repair Joseph. For years after, my sister and I continued to insist that we put the manger scene up, and we would make up stories about where Joseph had gone. (Since we had a single-parent family, my sister and I reasoned there wasn’t anything wrong with Jesus having one, too.)
I still have that nativity scene, carefully packed into its boxes. I haven't brought it out in years - I think as I became an adult, I became more worried that there was something incomplete and broken about that set, and it bothered me, even though it’s such a part of my family history. I don’t know if it's my sense of guilt, or if it’s my perfectionist tendency to want everything to be ‘just right’.
We each do that, in our own way. As we move into Epiphany, and we pack up Christmas, and put it all away until the next year, we forget pretty quickly. We have a tendency to look at what isn’t perfect - at what got chipped and broken. Instead of looking at what was done with love, we look with critical eyes at what is not exactly the way we want it to be. We become worried about appearances, and how things appear and heavens, how WE might appear, and we can fall into the habit of propping the pieces back together very cautiously, and hoping that no one looks too carefully. Of course, in the process, we make ourselves even more broken.
Even as a Christmas people, we can have a hard time remembering that God sent Christ to live with us, in all the broken places, and love us all the more. At Epiphany, we celebrate that we, most of us Gentiles, searching for Christ in improbable places, are part of that Christmas story - even as imperfect as we are. We travel long distances to arrive at Christ, some of us, and we are marked by that journey. We ourselves might be a little chipped, a little uncertain, a little broken, but even so, we are recipients of the ‘boundless riches of Christ’. Those riches have nothing to do with gold, and everything to do with love.
So, as Epiphany people, how will you return home tonight? Will you return the same way you came? Or will we all, just as the wise men did, return by another road? If you find yourself unexpectedly in a relationship with Christ, can you look at your life, at the lives of others, with eyes of love? With a sense of ‘rightness’ even in the midst of imperfection? Will you leave and return home tonight, accepting that you are loved, even in the midst of all your flaws? Because God does love us mightily, even when we have broken something irreplaceable, even when we have been unable to mend the unmendable.
God knows us and loves us, and sends us out into the world this Epiphany night, to return home by another road, different than the way we came. Broken, but loved, dented and scratched but fully renewed, changed by the journey we have taken. God sends us out tonight to take that love to others, especially to those who don’t yet know how much they are loved.
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among (God's) people,**
And to shine the light of Christ's love to all the world.
** from The Work of Christmas
by Howard Thurman
The Rev. Robert P. Travis
Epiphany Sunday Sermon – 8:00am and 10:30am Church of the Ascension, Knoxville TN
RCL Epiphany Year C 1/6/2012
Scripture Text: Isaiah 60:1-6, Psalm 72:1-7,10-14, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12
The Epiphany that we celebrate every year on January 6th
is one of the high feasts of the church year.
It’s one of the biggest events we celebrate.
For many Christians around the world January 6th
is much more important than December 25th.
But because of our cultural customs,
many of you here will not have experienced annually
the feast we have on this day,
and that we will have tonight.
But this year it happens that the Epiphany falls on a Sunday,
so we all get a chance to ponder these amazing events.
You all know the story, of the wise men who came
to bring gifts to Jesus?
We see it every year in Christmas Creche scenes,
those three men dressed like kings standing with Mary and Joseph in the stable presenting gifts
of Frankincense, Myrrh and Gold.
But if that is all we know about the story,
then we’re missing the significance of it.
These men are not just important
because they round out the story of Christmas,
or because they complete the scene,
or because they make the first birthday party for Jesus complete with gifts.
That is like knowing the Christmas story only in soundbytes.
These men are important because of
how they received the truth,
and what that shows us about how we might receive it.
The scriptures where we learn about the wise men
do not say there were three. Three gifts yes, but how many carrying them is unknown. It doesn’t even say that this group of foreigners were there on the night Jesus was born.
Angels were there, shepherds were there,
but the wise men come later.
I certainly hope Joseph did not make Mary and Jesus
stay in the stable, with the manger as a crib
for the year or two until the wise men showed up.
(for remember, when Herod is angry that the visitors did not come back, he remembered that he asked when the star
had appeared, and had all the young boys in Bethlehem born in the past two years killed.)
But even if it was not a stable,
we know from the rest of the story that Joseph and Mary
lived in a very modest house.
The wise men probably were already surprised
when they found that the king of the region, Herod,
did not know that a child born to be king
and not just any king, but one important enough
that the stars would announce his birth
was in fact born in his kingdom.
The second surprise for these wise men,
was to find when they went to Bethlehem,
that the star was over this modest house,
the house of a carpenter and his young wife.
Wise men of the world would have taken this
not as a sign of God’s glory,
the wise of the world would have taken this
as a sign that they were mistaken.
They were bearing gifts fit for a king,
and would they present them to an infant
in a backwater town,
in the house of a poor carpenter from another place?
Other wise men of the world,
would find such a presentation foolish.
The world praises wealth, and beauty,
education and stature,
majesty and material glory.
Faced with the discovery that the child born to be king,
that they had sought for so long,
was actually a poor boy
unknown to the royalty of this kingdom,
these wise men would have to become fools
by the standard of the world, to continue
and present their gifts.
But the wisdom of these men suddenly became
much deeper than the wisdom of the world.
And they were changed.
These foreign men, who were not even Jewish,
recognized the truth that was laid before them,
and they were changed.
I submit to you that anyone who encounters the true Christ,
foolish though the revelation may seem to all those around
anyone who has such an epiphany finds themselves changed.
We see the physical manifestation of this change,
in the statement that these wise men
“left for their own country by another road.”
Sure they went that way, the story says,
because they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod.
But even that indicates the change,
which could seem so subtle to some,
but probably seemed huge to them.
They listened to the wisdom given to them in a dream,
this same foolish wisdom that
prompted them them not to turn back
when their discovery was so unusual,
but replaced that doubt with joy in their hearts.
This new wisdom,
given the circumstances of this young child,
probably made a good deal of sense,
when they realized how this birth,
and this glory challenged everything their world
was based on,
everything on which their own
self-achieved wisdom depended.
Their hearts were changed
and they went from those who were seeking,
to those who had been found.
From those who were wise,
to those who possessed a wisdom not their own.
They were the same wise men they had been before,
as He met them exactly as they came to him,
and yet they were changed not by force,
but by the degree to which they
allowed themselves to be open to the truth.
I saw a sign recently, that said,
“Wise men still seek him.”
And maybe some wise men still do,
but it seems to me that many of those
who the world considers wise,
have rejected him in favor of more rational means of salvation,
and many of those who the world considers wise,
consider it foolish to believe
that this child born in Bethlehem could be
the king of all creation.
Sometimes wise men and women today,
come to recognize that they must embrace a degree of foolishness, to come to faith in this God,
because believing in this story seems so foolish.
One of the early church fathers, Tertullian,
confronted by his contemporaries demanding a reason for his faith in a fully human being who is also God incarnate,
wrote, “because it is absurd, I believe.”
But in order to come to terms with something,
that may seem like foolishness to some,
and to realize the magnitude for our own lives,
of believing that the same God
who created the whole universe,
actually became one of us,
in the flesh of a child born to a poor man,
and a young mother
in a tiny backwater town,
one must be presented with the truth,
in its fullest form.
In today’s world so many people don’t allow themselves
the space to do that.
So many of us are content to get our truth,
in soundbytes, in snippets of information.
Not even responding to ideas with our thoughts,
or our own struggle;
we’re content to respond
just by clicking or ignoring the “like” button.
rather than exploring the whole story
and responding with our own.
Many assume that they’re Christian,
because they live in a supposedly Christian country,
and they feel they’re just like everyone else.
i.e. they’re Christian because they’re not Muslim,
or Jewish or Atheist.
They believe in a higher power,
and think they know that Jesus
is an important religious teacher.
But they haven’t explored it enough to allow themselves
to be confronted with a truth that is transformative,
they haven’t give the truth enough consideration,
to have their lives changed.
So they go on living,
assuming that this is all there is,
that there is nothing more to life.
And certainly thinking it’s kind of foolish,
when other people who are so caught up
in a relationship with someone they can’t see,
that they’re willing to say and even do things,
to make it clear that this Jesus is the most important thing
in their whole lives.
I think most of my friends from college
probably think of me that way.
After all, I went to an Ivy League school,
and many of my friends make millions of dollars each year,
and have all sorts of important titles and jobs,
and houses and families,
Actually I called one of my fraternity brothers
a couple of years ago to congratulate him on a new job,
he’s in San Francisco now.
And he got my call in a bar with another fraternity brother,
when they heard I was in Tennessee and working for a church,
they had to laugh, and had a good deal of fun at my expense,
probably wondering why a person like them,
would do something so foolish as work
for a seemingly dying institution,
in what to them seems like such an
unsophisticated part of the country,
and throw away such earning potential.
But I don’t see it like that, of course,
I think serving the Lord is the most wonderful thing I could imagine, and Knoxville Tennessee is a glorious place to do it,
though I would serve him in a truly desolate place
if that’s what He wanted.
My heart has been changed,
God gave me my own Epiphany.
I have confronted the truth
and embraced this truth with my whole life.
Maybe you know some people
who might call themselves Christian,
but everything about them shows that they
haven’t given Christ real consideration.
They seem wise by the wisdom of the world,
but they’re missing out on that deeper wisdom.
They’re seeking the truth, but haven’t found it.
We have a course starting up,
At Chick-fil-A of all places,
a week from this Wednesday,
and Alpha Course, which is a good way
to explore the full truth of the Christian message,
to consider who Jesus really is,
and how He can have such significance to so many.
The way Alpha does this is by presenting the message
in a simple, non-pressuring way,
and then giving people a chance to respond,
again without pressure,
but rather with genuine interest on the part of the team,
in what these guests think,
where they have developed their beliefs
and respecting who they are in their individual lives.
God does that for us as well,
he cares for us and takes us right where we are.
And his loving acceptance becomes the ground
of the transformation only God can accomplish in us.
Many have come through Alpha here already,
and some have found it to be
that very transformative experience.
Without their permission I will not share their individual stories with you.
But I can tell you that,
Our new Archbishop of Canterbury is one of those people.
He was a successful businessman in the English oil industry.
But he had lost a child, that rocked his world
and he did not know where to turn,
when he went on an Alpha Course
at Holy Trinity Brompton in London.
He found the truth he was seeking,
and the transformative relationship with
God incarnate in Jesus Christ.
Now he is about to lead the third largest communion of Christians in the world.
You have the ability to invite people you know,
to consider the truth in a deeper way
than by mere soundbytes.
To explore this truth for themselves,
and see how their own lives might be changed.
If you don’t invite them, how will they ever know?