Sunday, August 18, 2013

Is it worth it, to follow Jesus?


The Rev. Robert P. Travis
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost Sermon  – 8 and 10:30am Eucharist Services, Church of the Ascension, Knoxville TN
RCL  Proper 15 Year C 8/18/2013

  1. Scripture Text: Isaiah 5:1-7, Psalm 80:1-2,8-18, Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56

Sermon Text:
So the first thing that came to mind,
when I read that Gospel this week,
was a feeling of relief,
I kind of thought, “So Jesus prophesied,
that it would be OK not to get along with my mother-in-law!”

I don't think the division I've experienced there,
is what he was talking about,
but maybe in some ways it is.

Now I just want to tell you,
what Jesus says here is one of the harder sayings for me,
in the Gospel of Luke.
This time Jesus is not showing us joy
and happiness.
He doesn’t act like the Buddy Christ (thumb’s up).
He tells us that he’s stressed, and impatient for
his mission to be accomplished,
and he criticizes those following him who just don’t get it.
Some preachers reading these passages,
will avoid dealing with the hard sayings
of Jesus entirely.
But much as I would rather talk about
some nicer things, it seems to me,
that I must talk about division.

It's hard to avoid division in our world today.

This week, the issue of division
weighs on me for many reasons.
My next door neighbor is from Egypt,
and refers to himself as a Muslim.
So I hear of the heartache that he and his wife,
are suffering, on behalf of his family
still there, with all the news about
fighting and killing, between those who
as muslims should consider themselves brothers.
One frustration he told me,
is that the news keeps referring to The Muslim Brotherhood,
behind so much of the violence.
And he feels just using the word “Muslim” in that organization's name is no longer accurate,
since their actions are not peaceful,
as muslims should be.
According to him, the word “muslim”
translates into “peaceful surrender.”
Which of course does not have
anything to do with violence.

So I see what is going on with my neighbor,
and even though I am not directly involved,
it strikes me that our own violent divisions as Christians,
are not too far back in our own history.
In fact my own grandfather's dad, was a child
when our family was run out of Tennessee in “the
affair at Travisville,”
one of the first conflicts here in the Civil War,
or the War of Northern Aggression.
(depending on how you look at it)

One person I talked to about this passage,
said this statement of Jesus about the divisions between
family members that he would bring,
reminded her of that great and tragic
period of our common history.
I remember that too,
as some of the most moving aspects
in my reading about that war,
were the stories of brother fighting against brother.
And of course, at that time,
most of those fighting,
would have called themselves Christian,
and some on both sides even invoked the name of Jesus,
as a reason for their fighting.

But the divisions Jesus is talking about,
which he says he came to bring
were not those violent, political divisions like war.
Even though some have used this passage,
and the parallel one in Matthew about the sword,
to justify war in Jesus’ name.
But really how would it be possible,
to see Jesus teaching us to fight or kill each other
when he taught us so many ethical values,
which challenge us to ever greater peace,
like loving our enemies,
and turning the other cheek when attacked?

What he is teaching us,
is that there is something greater at play here,
than we can reconcile,
or pacify,
with our own human desires for stability.
There is a truth,
that Jesus embodies,
that will not be tamed,
that is so true, and so compelling
it causes division between generations
with even the closest family ties that we form.

My neighbor has seen that too,
because we talk to him about Jesus,
and he recognizes at least what it would mean
to become a follower of Jesus.
His family would turn against him,
he fears, even disown him.
And when he told Jackie that,
she said she understood,
and that Jesus did too,
and she referenced this very passage.

Jackie knows of that division as well,
since her mother, (my mother-in-law)
is not a Christian,
and her religion,
open-minded though the Ba’hai Faith professes to be,
requires that when Jackie became a Christian,
her mother had no choice but to disinherit her completely.

Now, really, it is hard to be cut off from your family.
And Jesus recognizes,
that what he is preaching and asking of people,
is going to cause division
between parents and their children.
This is something we learned more about recently
from the women at The Next Door,
when we brought our Alpha Course to them.
Most of them are recovering from addictions of various
sorts, and many told us how hard it is,
to live a new life, free from addiction,
when their families and their closest friends,
were a part of the system that enabled their addiction.
For many of them, living a new life
means separating from those very people they love,
or risking relapse.
Anyone familiar with addiction
knows that this family division,
and separation from friends
is a necessary part of recovery.
And it is one of the hardest things to accomplish
on the road to sobriety.
But when a person has discovered that truth,
she must decide, whether following the truth,
is worth the division that it will necessarily cause.

What Jesus said, is a radical change,
from what Jewish people
thought their messiah would say,
one commentary I read,
stated that “The prevailing Jewish opinion
of that time, was that when the Messiah came
the Jewish nation would immediately be led to victory
over all their enemies, and that after this they would enter
into an untroubled Elysian life.”
If you saw the movie Elysium,
as I did last week, you have a good visual,
of that idea of an untroubled existence
for a people who set themselves apart from others.

But Jesus corrected that notion,
and recalled for his people the fact,
that God had called Israel to be a light to the nations,
to bring his salvation to all,
not to be unified within their own nation
saved politically and militarily,
and then rest in security from those they conquered.

In the first three readings,
we heard over and over,
God's displeasure with his people,
with the way they just didn't get it.
And how even those who were righteous,
were not allowed to see more than a glimpse of what God had in mind, until Jesus came.
And even when Jesus came,
the true messiah,
so many faithful Jews were disappointed,
that his message and his life
were not to bring the messianic peace they hoped for,
but more division,
until the second-coming
when he will finally bring about God's justice
and peace on the earth.
Some refused to see him as the messiah for that reason,
and some of God’s people continue to refuse him.
“For many he will be a stumbling-block.
While some will choose His side,
others again will choose against Him;
and those who choose him will be hated and persecuted by the others even in the most intimate home circles.”

Another difficult image Jesus presents us with today,
is his bringing fire to the earth.
This fire Jesus mentions does two things,
it destroys those who are combustible,
and it purifies those who are not.
That means for some Jesus' message and life
is painful to bear,
even seeming to destroy their lives,
and for others it is purifying,
helping them become purely what they are meant to be,
and for many,
including myself,
it is experienced as both,
sometimes destructive,
and sometimes purifying.

I find that how I experience Jesus’ message and life depends entirely on my own perspective.
When I want to do things my own way,
it seems that God is destroying those hopes.
When I want to follow him,
I see the excess and distraction being burned away from me as a blessing.
It is exciting to follow Jesus,
and there is no lack of important and wonderful work to do,
whenever one seeks to follow Him.

The writer of Hebrews helps us see
how awesome and exciting
were the lives of those people who have sought to follow
God with their whole selves
in past generations.
What they endured for the sake of their faith,
when they encountered the truth,
they gave up so much,
but not in vain.
They sacrificed because on seeing the truth,
they knew it was worth it.
Like those recovering from addiction,
faced with division in their families,
know that sobriety is worth it,
the new life is worth it.
And we see that the people who have made
these difficult choices,
for the sake of faith,
are too many to number,
they gather like a great cloud of witnesses,
urging us onward,
cheering as we run with perseverance the race
that is set before us,
telling us to lay aside every weight,
and the sin that clings so closely.
Sometimes the weight and sin,
are as close as our own family members.

What Jesus' message is not,
is comfortable, and pacifying.
The peace that he brings is not easy,
it is compelling, and demanding.
It causes a burning in the heart,
a purifying of our lives.
But when you find the truth,
the truth that will set you free,
even when you know what sacrifice it will take
to stand up against what is wrong,
and to walk forward it faith.
Is it not worth it to follow Jesus?

Tuesday, August 13, 2013


12th Sunday after Pentecost III, August 11, 2013 Episcopal Church of the Ascension Building the Kingdom of God The Reverend Dr. Howard J. Hess

I. Introduction. As Ann (LuAnn, and Jeremiah) has (have) so beautifully reminded us, this is Family Promise Sunday here at Church of the Ascension and in multiple congregations throughout our city. We are celebrating one of the core ministries of our parish, and rightfully so. Our outreach into the world around us should strengthen the focus of our worship, just as our worship together should re-enforce our commitment to ministry. When we consider today’s Gospel, the message could not be clearer: “Don’t be afraid, little flock, because your Father delights in giving you the Kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to those in need. Make for yourself wallets that don’t wear out – a treasure in heaven that never runs out . . . where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Although we often focus on the mandate about giving, there is a broader message here. This passage begins with an injunction not to be afraid and a reassurance that God will give us the kingdom. And the kingdom is about much more than giving away one’s wealth.

II. What then is Luke trying to tell us about the Kingdom of God and how does Family Promise provide us with an opportunity to envision and be a part of that Kingdom? This week I have been reading a book recommended by one of our parishioners, entitled Unfinished. It is written by Richard Stearns, the President of World Vision, US. Stearns takes his Christianity very seriously. In 1998 he gave up his enviable position as CEO of Parker Brothers and Lenox, Inc., to lead World Vision US. His thesis in Unfinished is that Christ left a mandate for us to complete the unfinished work he had begun, and that every single one of us, and every church, has a part in that task.

Stearns writes: “The central mission of Christ and the purpose he gave to his church was to proclaim, establish, and build God’s kingdom on earth” (2013, p. 57). Stearns emphasizes that, “If we are not personally engaged in God’s great mission in the world, then we have missed the very thing he has created us to do.”

Make no mistake about it – helping build God’s kingdom is tough and sometimes complicated. Acting alone, any one of us is highly likely to become overwhelmed by this task. In fact, by focusing too exclusively on individual responsibility, we run the risk of missing one of the characteristics of God’s kingdom. It is relationship-driven and thrives on collective ministry. The Kingdom of God crosses human boundaries in all directions and sets up a network of mutually re-enforcing connections.

Family Promise is in my mind a prime example of how the kingdom of God is built. Simply described, a family that is homeless is provided shelter in one of a number of churches, where the family also receives breakfast and dinner. The family is thus allowed to stay together and be sustained, while the family and others make attempts to establish a permanent family home. What I find compelling is that, in the process of providing shelter, opportunities are created for literally hundreds of relationships to be formed among parishioners, staff, and clergy across a large number of faith communities (look at the list in your bulletin). Similarly, relationships are being formed within churches, such as Ascension, that are participating in the program, not only with the families living here, but also between parishioners.

The families who live here at Ascension are all the while giving us a gift – the opportunity to use more of the space that God has graciously provided to Ascension for a sacred purpose. God has a deep affection for those who live – even for a short time – on the margin and for those endeavoring to keep their families together. I believe it pleases God to see Ascension make its space available for use by people God deeply loves. There is an organic unity in the kingdom of God. In God’s kingdom we are bound together so closely that the distinction between givers and receivers is blurred, and all are mutually benefiting from their active participation.

III. Conclusion. We are blessed to have the opportunity to be a part of the Family Promise Program. This morning each of us can contribute further to the expansion of this ministry. I encourage you to be generous in your giving in the envelopes that are provided; and I encourage you to purchase tickets after church for the Pasta Cook-off. In conclusion, I quote again from Stearn’s book Unfinished:
  • God has invited us to join him in changing the world!
  • God has a dream for this world that Jesus called the Kingdom of God.
  • God created us to play an important role in his kingdom vision, and
  • We will never find your deepest purpose in life until we find our place in building God’s Kingdom. (p. xxii)
Amen.