Sunday, January 26, 2014

Inviting people into the Net; Fishing for People

The Rev. Robert P. Travis
Epiphany 3rd Sunday Sermon – 8:00am and 10:30am Church of the Ascension, Knoxville TN
RCL Epiphany 3 Year A 1/26/2014

Scripture Text: Isaiah 9:1-4, Psalm 27:1,5-13, 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, Matthew 4:12-23

Sermon Text:
I am not a good fisherman.
I enjoy the pleasure of standing, or sitting in nature,
on a lake or river
and have enjoyed fishing with other men and women
many times.

But my number of catches is laughable.
In fact,
when I was a teenager, I was blessed to be able to go with a group of guys from my church's youth ministry
on a sort of pilgrimage in creation trip
to the Boundary Waters In Minnesota
for a week of canoeing and fishing.

That whole week, while we ate our catches every day for lunch and dinner,
some of the best northern pike and walleye I have ever had,
I did not catch a single fish.
Nope, not even one.

So I am not a good fisherman,
though it is not for lack of trying.

And my late uncle William
tried really hard to teach me how to fish.
Here are some of the things I remember he taught me.
First, you have to know where the fish are.
So ask around, and go to a good fishing spot,
he did not believe in using a radar device on his boat.
Then you have to know what kind of fish you're going for, and what they like to eat,
so that you can choose your bait.
Then you have to go at a time of day
when the fish will be hungry.
He made it sound so simple.
But I never got it.
So I find it particularly hilarious,
that of all the clergy here,
I get to be the one to talk to you all today about fishing.
I hope you'll forgive the irony of this situation.

Now there's a difference, between net fishing,
and hook and line fishing.
And I see the primary difference in how hard it is,
for a fish to get off the hook,
once it has been set,
versus how easy it is for a fish to get out of the net,
depending on the size of the holes
how many fish are in the net, and so many other variables.

We know from our Gospel reading
that Simon,
Andrew, James and John,
were net fishermen.
Notice that Simon and Andrew, left their nets,
to follow Jesus.
and James and John were found in the boat,
mending their nets.

What must it have been like,
for these experienced fishermen,
to hear this Rabbi tell them,
Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”
Now some of us are more familiar with the older
English translation, I will make you fishers of men.
There are obvious reasons for changing the word men,
to people,
such as not leaving out half of the human race.
But our women in the lectionary group this week
helped me see that there is a connotation difference
with the use of the preposition in these two phrases as well.
On the one hand, “make you fishers of men”
uses more of the passive voice,
and the connotation of make is to create in you,
or enable you to do something,
whereas “make you fish for people,”
seems to be more active voice,
and has more of a connotation of commandment,
like “force you to” do something.

Now the Jesus that I know,
doesn't force us to do anything,
certainly he commands,
but his commandments are so grounded in love,
that rather than feeling forced,
I feel more compelled by love,
to do what he asks.
That is the great freedom in serving Him,
that we have spoken of so often in the past here.

So maybe there's good reason
beyond just comfort with an older phrase
that many people prefer to hear Jesus saying,
I will make you fishers of men.”

Now I can tell you,
that I resisted the notion of becoming a fisher of people.
As I said, I'm not a good fisherman,
but even more than that,
I was raised a good Episcopalian,
in the Northeast for that matter,
where we were taught by everyone around us,
that it's better to live and let live,
surely to let the other fish swim where they will,
is better than going after them with a net.
But I sought, and still seek,
to follow Jesus,
so I find that I am compelled to become a fisher of people,
and the amazing thing,
is how Jesus enables even a poor fisherman like me,
to do just that.

There are so many ways,
we at Ascension are fishers of people,
but one of the primary nets I have worked,
is called the Alpha Course.
Let me tell you a little about the way that net works.
First we decide which fish we're trying to catch.
In previous years we have gone out into the local waters,
searching for fish outside our church.
This year, we're fishing right here,
casting the net for people who may think they're already caught, and bringing people from outside too.
Then we share the bait,
which in Alpha is the delicious bait of friendly community,
good food, and conversation.
And as people are gathered the net is cast,
the net is the good news of Jesus Christ.
But the thing about the Alpha part of the net,
is that there are big holes.
And people are free to swim in and out as they wish.
Those who stay,
find that the bait is just as good as it looks,
and the net is a delightful place to stay.
Those who see the net coming,
and for whatever reason choose to swim away,
are free to do so, and are not injured as they swim
away through the holes.
This part of the net is only cast for 10 weeks at a time,
but it's amazing how wonderful those 10 weeks can be.
And the truly amazing thing I have found,
is that those of us who are fishers of people,
are really just other fish.
We're not the one's casting the net,
and certainly not the one pulling it in.
And all of us on the team,
speak about what a joy it is,
to see others catch and be caught.
Yes, even I, though I have a big role of helping with the net,
am just another fish in the net myself,
so I share in the fishing,
but only so that other fish,
will see what a wonderful net our Lord has cast for us.

The thing about being like fish,
is that at times we all want to get out of the net
that has been set for us,
and everything, and everyone outside the net,
wants to convince us that being in the net is not a good thing.
That it's better to be free of the net,
and swimming around in the open water.
But the deception that many fish live under,
is that they are really swimming in open water.
When actually, the whole sea,
no matter how big it seems,
and how free it feels,
is a giant pot,
and the water is getting hotter and hotter all the time.
Sometimes fish swim close to the source of the heat,
and get burned,
and swim quickly into the net,
recognizing their need to be saved.

But most of the fish swim around,
blissfully unaware of the slowly rising temperature.
The net that God is enabling us to work with him,
is eventually going to bring us all out of the hot water,
just in time to set us free into the true ocean,
that goes on forever,
the ocean of eternal life.
But we have to stay in the net,
and when we're in there,
and we know we want to stay,
some of the fishing that Jesus was talking about,
is helping our brothers and sisters stay in the net,
and some of it is about convincing others
to get into the net too.

So as fishers of people,
we hold out the bait,
we work on the holes,
we encourage other fish to hear the truth,
and not be wooed back
out of the only way to the true ocean.

And it can seem like a monumental task to do this.
And we can easily become afraid,
afraid for our brothers and sisters,
even afraid for ourselves.
But we are reminded:
The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom then shall I fear?
The Lord is the strength of my life,
of whom then shall I be afraid.”
We truly have nothing to fear,
because God is saving us,
and as much as we seem to be able to escape from the net,
he reassures us that his net is stronger,
and more complicated than we can imagine.

We need not fear,
but we are asked to, and do get
to participate in the fishing,
which is the greatest honor of all.
To help another fish on the way to appreciating
their salvation,
is truly more than we could ask or imagine.
All of have that role,
all of us can be involved in the invitation.
And when we see the light shining in other fish,
like we do on the Alpha Course,
We can only count it a gift, a blessing,
and grace, that we could play a small part,
in their being caught,
and saved.

If you haven't been on the Alpha Course,
sign up to come on Wednesday night
and see what it's like.
If you have, invite some other fish to come,
you might just help them
get to a good place in this wonderful net. Amen

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Hawley Family Ecumenical Council on Baptism

The First Sunday after Epiphany
The Baptism of Our Lord
January 12, 2014
Christian Hawley

Is 42:1-9
Ps 29
Acts 10:34-43
Mt 3:13-17

The great part of living in a blended family is that I get constant practice at working with other denominations in meaningful ways. My dad and his wife are nondenominational evangelicals, my stepsister and her husband are Southern Baptist youth ministers, my sister and her family along with my stepbrother and his wife are Methodists. My mom is a sacramental pilgrim bouncing between Methodist, Episcopal, and Roman Catholic churches, and my grandmother is so Roman Catholic that she still calls me to pray to St Anthony for her when she can find her car keys. As I was recently reminded, the holidays for me are like attending a conference on ecumenism.

Unlike most conferences though we actually have to make concrete decisions based on our varying backgrounds, and one of those decisions revolves around baptism. My sister is set to have her third child this June, a little girl this time, which means there will be another convening of the Hawley Family Ecumenical Council, to discuss exactly what baptism means and what Kelley should do with her child. Using today's readings from the Baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ, I'd like to outline for you how this council might go this year:

My dad and the delegates from the more reformed churches will start the discussion with the concept of believer's baptism. In a believer's baptism the candidate is thoroughly informed about what it means to be a Christian and then she is asked to careful consider her life. Upon acknowledging a sinful nature and the need for Christ, the candidate then, of her own free will, offers her life to Christ and is baptized for the forgiveness of their sins.

For the delegates from the evangelical churches, baptism is a singular event about a personal relationship with Christ and the forgiveness of sins. From today's readings the delegates would draw from the last line of our Acts passage, “Everyone who believes in Christ receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

Therefore the recommendation from this part of the family would be for the child to be presented in the church akin to Hannah taking Samuel to the Temple, or Mary and Joseph presenting Jesus on the eighth day,1 and later, when the child is old enough to make a commitment to a personal relationship with Christ, she can submit for baptism.

Once my dad sits back down on the love seat in my sister's living room, the sacramental delegates led by my grandmother, Nonni, will rise from the large couch and offer their understanding of baptism and their recommendation for the child. Nonni will agree that baptism is for the forgiveness of sins, but she will go on to say that baptism encompasses so much more too.

Drawing from our Matthew reading today, Nonni would point out that John the Baptist also thought baptism was only for the cleansing of sins, hence his protest with Jesus. If Jesus truly was the Son of God and the Messiah, then he was without sin, and therefore would not need to be baptized by John. And yet Jesus is adamant about being baptized. Nonni would interpret Jesus' actions as confirming that baptism was more than just the cleansing of sins, and she would go on to offer that baptism is also about being incorporated into a community.

Baptism from her understanding is a communal event between a child, a family, a church, the communion of saints, and the whole body of Christ.2 It is a sacrament that initiates a person into the corporate mysteries of salvation, and is therefore beyond comprehension, for no one could ever be old enough to fully understand what they becoming a part of.

Therefore, it would be the recommendation of these family members to baptize the child as soon as possible and then seal her faith in the sacrament of confirmation when she was old enough to commit to the essentials of the faith.

Once Nonni sits down then all eyes will inevitably turn to me, the family priest sitting in the kitchen chair, and the lone representative from that unusual tradition that called itself the middle way. In the past, I have stood up and acknowledge the validity of all doctrines presented and I’d usually add some historical or scriptural piece of knowledge that showed respect for all of their interpretations. In the end though I would recommend the child be baptized and then confirmed thus embracing both the communal and the personal aspects of baptism. But my understanding of baptism has changed since Kelley's last child, so I think I'll recommend something different this year.

I agree that baptism is indeed an event that initiates a person into a community. I also believe it is an event where one freely commits herself to Christ in a personal relationship and her sins are washed clean, however I also think, after noticing some patterns in today's scriptures and talking with the lectionary ladies, that baptism is also about inaugurating a ministry. Baptism propels a person to take his or her faith out into the world. In Isaiah we hear that the spirit is poured out so that the righteous one might bring justice to the nations. In Acts we hear about Jesus' baptism as an event that announces God's giving of the Spirit and power to Jesus so that he could go out to do good and heal the oppressed. The Gospel of Mark doesn't even bother with an infant narrative it just begins with Jesus' baptism, further enforcing the idea that baptism is about equipping a person to go out and serve the Kingdom of God.

According to this understanding, baptism is not a singular event of commitment, nor is it even an event begun in a community promise and finished in personal commitment, it is a process that continually nourishes and equips a Christian throughout her life. Every time a Christian moves into a deeper understanding and relationship with God, she should revisit her baptism, and this is precisely why we have reception and reaffirmation services in our prayer book that take place simultaneously with baptism.3 If you turn to pg 420 of the BCP you’ll also see something called “A Form of Commitment to Christian Service” where a person reaffirms his/her baptismal vows and then makes a public commitment to a cause for the Body of Christ. Our baptism is not a one and done thing, it is a sacrament draws us continually closer to God and strengthens us to reach farther out into the word. For we Episcopalians the Baptismal Covenant is as close as we get to a statement of faith, and it is central to our spiritual formation.

So this year my recommendation to the Hawley Ecumenical Council will be for all parties involved in the baptism: parents, grandparent, and godparents to spend some time working on their own understanding and relationships with Christ. Maybe they could take an inquirers class at their own church, or commit to a new ministry, so that when they stand up there with this newest child, they can reaffirm their own vows and equip themselves to raise the child faithfully and to go out into the world to do good and to heal the oppressed.

I would make that same recommendation to all of us in the pews today. If you were baptized but never confirmed and you want to move deeper into your faith, talk to one of the clergy about going through the confirmation. If you're a high schooler, I'm putting a confirmation course together right now, so please let me know if you want to be included in our meetings.

If you are coming from another church or tradition where you were already baptized and confirmed, I encourage you to attend our Inquirer's class and perhaps consider being received into the Episcopal Church at a future baptism here at Ascension. I would also encourage the Inquirer's Class if you are going to be a godparent to any child.

And finally if you're looking to explore your faith in even deeper ways or considering taking your faith out into the world in a new and intentional way, I'd encourage you to speak to a clergy member about our upcoming Alpha course and see if a reaffirmation of baptismal vows or a service of Christian commitment might be right for you.

Baptism is a wonderful mystery that effects our entire lives, so let us continually take nourishment from these living waters of our Savior. And like Christ before us let us seek to fulfill all righteousness, to do good, and to heal the oppressed.
1 Curiously enough this idea is finding traction in the Episcopal Church with the revival of the catechumenate. I have a priest friend from the diocese of Chicago who chose to have his son made a catechumen until he was old enough to better understand baptism.
2 This community focus is why the Episcopal Church moved baptism into Sunday services with a Eucharist in the 1979 BCP.

3 BCP 310

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Christmas 2, Year A, January 5, 2014 The Episcopal Church of the Ascension
Danger and Deliverance The Reverend Dr. Howard J. Hess

I. Introduction. Today is the Last of the Twelve Days of Christmas. As is readily apparent, there is a dramatic change in the plotline of the story of the infant Jesus. Once we had heard the prophetic words of John the Baptist, the Christmas story became incredibly tender and gentle. Granted, the housing accommodations in Bethlehem were sketchy, but Mary and Joseph coped well, and the discomfort of the stable was quickly overshadowed by the reassurance of the star overhead, the angelic choir, and a group of dazed but highly impressed shepherds. And later, there is the visit of the three magi or kings arriving after a long journey from the east, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense. and myrrh. Overall the story is peaceful and harmonic and has formed the core plot for many a pageant. But lest we think that the story of Jesus will be all goodness and light, in the second chapter of Matthew we receive an incredibly abrupt reminder that there are forces for good and forces for evil. In the life of Christ, these forces will vie for the upper hand over and over again.

II. One of the takeaways for today is that Jesus’ birth, his life, and his message should not be sentimentalized. Neither should we underestimate the harshness of the trials that both Jesus and Jesus’ followers would encounter. The beauty of gift giving, decorated homes, Christmas trees, and Christmas greetings are only a part of the story – and a fairly modern one at that. Let’s look more closely at how the details of the wise men’s visit foreshadow the challenges that lie ahead for Jesus. The three Magi each brought a gift – one, gold, which is thought to symbolize the Kingship of Christ; frankincense, his priestly divinity; and myrrh, his suffering and passion. There is speculation that the Holy Family might well have used the gold to support their lengthy journey to Egypt in order to escape from Herod. The third gift, myrrh, was used to anoint bodies after death, such as following the crucifixion. Even Jesus’ very early life had significant hardships and dangers. Based upon greed and fear, Herod became obsessed with the desire to kill Jesus.

One of the distinctive themes in Jesus’ life was the way in which danger and the evil intentions of others followed him incessantly. Before he began his ministry, he was tempted for 40 days in the desert; his former neighbors attempted to throw him over a cliff in his hometown; and the Pharisees and other religious leaders constantly tried to trap and discredit him. Yet what we see over and over again is the determination of Jesus to neither shrink away from his mission by trying to escape or avoid danger nor to allow that danger to transform him into a fearful, vindictive, or violent person. One aspect of the beauty of who Jesus was and is, is that his desire to redeem us has never been compromised by the evil forces around him.

III. Our Challenge. This is exactly the challenge faced by all of us who follow Christ – to live in a way that is true to our vocation as Christians rather than being derailed by our fears or our anger. As many of us know, and some may be facing now, this can be very difficult. As I prepared this sermon, I was reminded of a period in my own life that was supremely difficult. I was a faithful and practicing Christian, enjoying many of the advantages of a successful professional career, never imagining that a sharp curve lay ahead. The actual content of the challenge is not particularly germane, but suffice it to say that within a matter of weeks I faced a crisis for which I did not believe there was a solution and became increasingly overwhelmed. I do not think that I am unique; often at the very times when everything seems to be at its best, we experience a curve ball. Many Christians have had this kind of experience. The specifics differ, but the dynamics of the experience are similar. In fact I know that many of you here this morning have confronted such crises. In such situation, the question we all ask is “How do we survive this, let alone, rebound and restore our lives?”

IV. Back now to Jesus’ story. Although danger is a constant in Jesus’ life, there is a second experience of equal significance – that is deliverance. If we follow Jesus’ life carefully, we see that danger and evil may prevail for a time, but deliverance is always at the end of each challenge. In today’s gospel, an angel warned Joseph in a dream to escape to Egypt. Later the angel again spoke to Joseph, reassuring him that it was safe to return home to Israel: Danger and deliverance. In this trip to Egypt the Holy Family replicated the steps of the nation of Israel. As described in Exodus, the Israelites fled to Egypt to escape a famine and later were led by Moses out of slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land: Danger and deliverance.

In my own personal situation, God sent both a spiritual director and a Christian therapist who helped me put the broken pieces back together again over time. For anyone who might be facing such dangers and challenges right now, I would share two things: first, during a time of “not knowing” how a dilemma will be resolved, we must cultivate the practice of patience, waiting upon the Lord. I have struggled with this virtue, in part I believe, because the prevalent belief in my generation is that the best way to resolve a problem is to tackle it and wrestle it to the ground. Such an approach presupposes that we will be able to rely upon our own strength and wits to deal with all challenges. There are times when this assumption is just not accurate. Just as Joseph had to wait for the angel to tell him when it was safe to come home and Moses had to encounter God in the burning bush, we often have to wait for God to give us clarity and guidance.

I would also like to share that during that time of waiting on the Lord, the good grace and generosity of others sustain us. As some of you know, one of my most treasured books is The Interior Castle by Theresa of Avila. She likens the spiritual life to a castle with many levels, each deeper than the level before. Her primary thesis is that the deeper one goes into one’s spiritual life, the more likely one is to encounter challenges that are increasingly complicated and demanding. We may come face to face with aspects of ourselves that are troubling, and need the guidance and steady hand of others journeying through the castle with us. But the journey is critical because it is only by deepening self-awareness and the willingness and courage to change that one becomes more like Christ.

V. Conclusion. Even in the Incarnation of Christ as a baby born in a manager, Scripture tells us unequivocally that for Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and the three magi, there were dangers and even evils to be faced. Did God protect and deliver each of them during this period? Absolutely yes! The Holy Family and the three magi had faith and relied upon the messages that God sent them. Like them, we as followers of Christ need to have faith that, as potent as any danger might be, our God is able to help us overcome and will deliver us.

Tonight we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany – this feast demonstrates to us that light always ultimately overcomes darkness. Always. Just as resurrection always prevails over death and destruction. Always. Thanks be to God. Amen.