Monday, March 31, 2014

Children of the Light

The Rev. Amy Morehous
Lent IV, Year A
Church of the Ascension
March 30, 2014

1 Samuel 16:1-13
Psalm 23
Ephesians 5:8-14
John 9:1-41

I am waiting on the light to shine,
I am waiting for the light to shine.
I have lived in the darkness for so long, I am waiting for the light to shine.
--- From “Waiting for the Light” from Big River

Darkness and light. Holy surprise. Our readings today are full of it.
If you are the man born blind, you have lived your whole life in darkness, begging for your daily bread, never fully welcomed by your community, because clearly you or your parents have committed some grievous sin, which has manifested itself in your blindness. Then one Sabbath day, without any direct conversation with you, some strange man, a man you didn't even ask for help, appears before you. This man spits in the dirt at your feet, rubs mud on your eyes, and tells you to wash yourself in the pool of Siloam. And you go as you have been told, not sure if you're furious, or desperately hopeful, or some combination of both. And you are surprised, not once, but twice by Jesus' appearance in your life. When you are tossed out of the synagogue, this man finds you again, and accepts you as one of his very own.
If you are the disciples, you have just come from the temple, where Jesus was speaking about being a true disciple, about being a true follower of Abraham. You have all nearly been stoned to death for blaspheming by the angry crowd. You are confused about this new kingdom of God, about who is in, and who is out. All the rules you think you know seem to have been upended, and you struggle to understand.
And then, if you are the Pharisees, you are already angry - furiously, murderously angry. You have already been told you are slaves to sin, and illegitimate children of Satan while standing in your own temple, no less. You took up stones to throw at the blasphemers, as is right, but they slipped out before you could take care of them. You have decreed that anyone who claims to be a follower of Jesus is to be immediately ejected from the synagogue. You will keep order with fear and trembling, if you must, and this upstart of a false prophet, who breaks the holy laws by which you order your days, your life - he will not get the better of you or disrespect the God you worship.
Blindness. Darkness. Sin. And holy surprise. Who is blind, and who is not? Who is in darkness, and who is not? Who is sinful, and who is not? And how do we tell? And why do we want to know? So many questions, with so many answers that we don't understand.
Most of have known darkness, of some kind. Illness. Death. Fear. Absence. Have you known a time when God was simply...absent? A time you have looked for God, and been unable to feel God's presence anywhere in your life? God is simply...absent. Sometimes we are aware of that profoundly deep silence, and sometimes we are truly blind to it - we only know that we are not whole. We do all sorts of things to fill that absence. We consume too much, we buy too much, take too much, we do too much to try and fill up that deep void in our lives. We work hard, and then harder, to earn our way into the light again.
Sometimes those dark nights seep into our lives when we contemplate the Bad News of the Gospel. Frederick Buechner says that before we can absorb the Good News of the Gospel, we must first face the Bad News. The Bad News of the Gospel is that we cannot earn our way to being worthy of a relationship with God. We cannot accumulate enough, or be perfect enough to drive the darkness away on our own. No matter who we are, no matter how hard we work, how much we achieve, if we trust only in our own abilities, we're all going to fall short. Not because we are inherently evil, not because we are fundamentally bad - but because we are incomplete. Children of God are complete only in relationship with God.
Many of us have resisted that relationship at some point in time. I've done it more times than I can count. We resist God. We resist seeking God's will in favor of our own. Submitting to the will of God requires not only discernment and prayer and time - it also requires one thing of us that is even harder for us to Living in relationship with God requires that we trust in Someone larger than ourselves. Trust is hard to come by, sometimes, when you are surrounded by darkness. When all you've known is darkness. The Pharisees, in the midst of the darkness of their anger and their surety of their own righteousness, cannot make that leap of trust to hear Jesus' message to them. Unable to trust, they remain blind to the light of the world standing before them.
And what about you? What about me, too, for that matter? When it comes to the most basic level, do we trust that God will keep God's promises? Do we trust that God will show up, will hold us in the light, even when we can't see it? Do we believe that God seeks us out, today and everyday?
Because that, friends, is the Good News after the bad news. Jesus Christ came to walk among us, to bring light to dark places, to speak surprising words of infinite belonging and grace and peace into each of our hearts. God seeks each of us out, everyday. Even when we cannot hear him, even when we stand in the middle of our darkest night. God seeks for us, seeks to be in relationship with us. God's grace will not fail us. Whether we are the disciples, befuddled and asking all the wrong questions; whether we are the blind man, surprised by his healing, accepted into a new fellowship of disciples; or whether we are the Pharisees, angry and confused beyond measure, Jesus never ceases to seek us out, to illuminate our darkness with the infinite surprise of His light.
Frederick Buechner says "People are prepared for everything except for the fact that beyond the darkness of their blindness there is a great light. They are prepared to go on breaking their backs plowing the same old field until the cows come home...without seeing (the precious treasure buried there.) They are prepared for a God who strikes hard bargains but not for a God who gives as much for an hour's work as for a day's."
We are all unprepared for grace. God can still surprise us every day by choosing us. Because that is truly Good News. God chooses us every day. God chooses you, and God chooses me, and God waits patiently for us to do the same.
As we close in on the darkness of Holy Week, I urge you to trust. Be willing to be surprised by the path before you. Know that Christ will be walking it with you. Choose the light, and prayerfully seek God's will for each of your lives. God will not fail you as you do.
When you are surrounded by darkness, and waiting for the light to shine, know that darkness does not have the last word. Be willing to be surprised by healing, by joy, by light. Trust in the overflowing grace of God, which will follow us all the days of our life.
Once we were in darkness, but now in the Lord we are light. Live as children of the light.


Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Must We Stay in the Wasteland? March 9, 2014
Episcopal Church of the Ascension The Reverend Dr. Howard J. Hess
I. Introduction. Jesus is in the wasteland today. Just following his exhilarating experience of being affirmed by God at his baptism, the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness, the wasteland. The plot line of Jesus’ story moved very rapidly; there was no wasted time. Have you ever asked yourself why Jesus, the Son of God, was required to undergo this experience of temptation? Let me offer up an explanation that has made sense to me. Jesus is fully divine, he is the Son of God, and as the Son of God is acquainted with, but not subject to, evil’s tempting ways, its manipulations, and its subtle distortions. But Jesus is also fully human, the Son of Man. He had free will and therefore was subject as are we to evil’s tempting ways and could have made different choices. Jesus needed to be tested in order to become better prepared for the many and diverse temptations he would face in his ministry. He had to be ready for what he would encounter both in the world around him and in his own spiritual life, just as we need to be ready in our own lives.
II. What then happens in the wilderness, according to Matthew? Jesus was alone for 40 days in a barren, harsh place where his only companion was the Devil. Today I am not going to focus upon the person of the Devil other than to say that I perceive the Devil to be the personification of evil. Further, I believe that evil forces do exist and have an investment in our making sinful choices. Such choices are often characterized by theologians as our human attempts to position ourselves in the place of God. Further, I have witnessed many times that when God’s people are engaged in activities that are holy and worthwhile, evil forces will attempt to undermine us. This dynamic was true for Jesus and it is true for us, his followers.
Therefore, it seems only natural that Jesus as fully human would be tempted by evil forces to abandon his mission even before he began. Evil would tempt Jesus in three ways: to turn stone into bread; to throw himself off of the pinnacle of the temple; and to gain all the kingdoms of the world. The purpose of all three temptations is the same: to entrap Jesus into positioning himself in God’s place. Another way to frame this is that all three temptations were variations of the invitation to commit the sin of pride. In his book Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis asserts that all other sins have their root in the sin of pride. Jesus’ powers to do miracles could have been used either to advance himself or to remain true to the tasks that God had given him. The stakes were high. Jesus truly suffered during the temptation just as he would later on the cross; but, thank God, he remained true to his mission. He was not manipulated by the Evil One’s distorted use of Scripture, by his own loneliness, or by his physical hunger and vulnerability. Embedded in the temptation story is a mirror of our own stories of repeatedly struggling throughout our lives to respond to countervailing forces of good and evil.
As a liturgical people, we use the seasons of time to help us grow in our spiritual lives. Lent is intended to remind us of the constant choices we are making between good and evil alternatives, and that none of us, truly none of us, are free from sometimes making wrong choices. In the early church, Lent was designed in fact to give Christians a distinct opportunity to enter a thorough review of their choices and to repent of and amend their errors. So our practice today reflects this early discipline.
III. Spiritual change. In my personal experience, self-examination and the reform of our lives either as individuals or communities are not easy. We are given today’s Gospel story to help us see that we can overcome evil and experience powerful redemption in our lives. C. S. Lewis wrote another book dealing with these topics entitled The Great Divorce. I would highly recommend this book to you. The story begins in a dreary, dank city, in many ways like a wasteland, in which people line up early in the morning each day to board a bus. Initially the reader is unclear who the people are or where the bus is going. While in line, the people fuss and fight with one another, and by the time the bus arrives, half of those in the line have left and gone back home. Those who remain board the bus, and it carries them to a beautiful and mysterious new place. By this point in the story, the reader realizes that the inhabitants in the city have died and that it is their spirits who are making this journey together on the bus.
The bus arrives at the edge of heaven where the travelers are met by someone they have known while they were living on earth. The role of these persons is to help teach each spirits an unique, critical lesson. Unless the travelers learn these lessons, it will be impossible for them to continue their journey, moving closer and closer to God. Lewis brilliantly tells a series of individual stories – who meets each spirit; what lesson each must learn; and how each responds.
Interestingly, most of the travelers strongly resist learning the necessary lessons and changes they require and eventually go back to the bus to return to the dark wasteland of the village. Why does C. S. Lewis tell his story in this way? I believe it is because he wants us to understand how many opportunities God gives us to face our missteps honestly, how very difficult it is to change, and how pride propels us to remain just as we are. Yet there are the few in the story who do take an enormous risk, confront their fears, and allow transformation to occur. These spirits then begin a glorious new chapter of their spiritual lives.
IV. My sisters and brothers in Christ, I invite us to enter into a holy Lent. I encourage all of us to undertake a time of serious self-reflection and repentance. The church is here to help us. Consider, for example, using the daily Lenten devotional compiled by Deacon Amy, participating in Morning and Evening Prayer, walking the Stations of the Cross on Friday evening, attending the Thursday Centering Prayer Group, joining us in the Wednesday noon healing service, or walking the Labyrinth. I also encourage you to consider adding to your Lenten discipline the Sacrament of Reconciliation offered by our priests.
Let me reiterate our understanding of Jesus’ temptation and passion. Jesus is fully divine, he is the Son of God, and as the Son of God Jesus was not subject to, evil’s tempting ways and lies. But Jesus is also fully human, the Son of Man. He had free will and therefore was subject as are we to evil’s tempting ways. He could have made different choices. As we walk with each other and with Jesus through this Lenten season, we must be aware that God has given us free will – we can make choices. We, like the spirits in C. S. Lewis’ poignant parable, can choose to remain in or return to the wasteland or we can choose to get on the bus and be open to making the choices that will bring us closer and closer to God. This Lent we will be tempted, and we will have the opportunity to choose life, over and over again.
There is a wonderful truth about Lent, about evil, about sin and making mistakes in our lives, and that is this: We are a redeemed people. When we are intentional and open in our spiritual journey, nothing, no nothing, can separate us from the love of God through Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8.38). Amen.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Is Fine Enough?

The Rev. Robert P. Travis
Lent 2A Sermon  – 8am and 10:30am  Church of the Ascension, Knoxville TN
RCL  3/16/2014

Scripture Text: Genesis 12:1-4a, Psalm 121, Romans 4:1-5, 13-17, John 3:1-17

Sermon Text:
Don’t you just love the psalm we read today?
“I lift my eyes up to the mountains,
where does my help come from?”
Many people come to our mountains looking for help,
solace, peace, or at least beauty.
And how blessed we are to live near them,
and to be able to go into them seeking, and finding.
But the psalmist continues, my help comes  from the Lord,
the maker of heaven and earth.
He looks higher than the mountains, for a greater help.

Last night I thanks to the generosity of some of our friends in the parish, Jackie and I got to go to a concert,
and hear a band that I really liked in the 1990’s,
called the Indigo Girls.
Have you heard of them?
One of my favorite songs of theirs from back then,
is called Closer to Fine.
I liked it so much, I would sing it constantly,
and I think I believed in it.

The refrain goes:
I went to the doctor,
I went to the mountain,
I looked to the children,
I drank from the fountain,
There’s more than one answer to these questions
pointing me in a crooked line,
and the less I seek my source for some definitives
closer I am to fine.

As I thought about that song that I loved so much,
I realized they were wrong,
it’s not the Less we seek the better,
but the more we seek.

Nicodemus was seeking,
with Jesus in our gospel,
seeking even though he should have known better,
after all, he was a religious leader.
seeking so much he was willing to go at night,
probably because he was afraid of what others would think,
if they saw him going to this controversial teacher
by light of day.
He went because he saw the deeds of power that Jesus did,
and he was unsatisfied with simply dismissing Jesus
as many of the other pharisees did,
as they quickly judged his actions
to be different from their interpretation of the law,
but something in Nicodemus tugged at him,
made him realize
“that no one can do what you do . . . apart from the presence of God.”
And so in his willingness to seek Jesus,
Jesus meets him and reveals the depths of his mission
and the importance of the Holy Spirit in that mission.

Jesus reveals to him that it is the Spirit,
giving new birth to our spirit that really matters,
that lets us see the kingdom of God,
That even lets us enter the kingdom of God.
Now that is a meaty bit of teaching,
and its very clear, not vague and enticing
as when Jesus talked to the woman at the well.
not the kind of stuff that Jesus shares with just anyone.
And Jesus seems a little surprised,
when Nicodemus says, exasperated
“How can these things be?”
and Jesus responds
“are you a teacher of Israel
and you do not understand these things?”
So Jesus explains more clearly,
that it’s not just the outward signs that we see,
even if those draw us, entice us to seek God,
it’s being reborn in the spirit that gives us a new sense,
a spiritual sense of what is really going on.

Now I think we all have the capacity for this spiritual sense,
Even Children, though they’re not fully developed,
and couldn’t explain it if you asked them,
have a good sense of what grownups are really following.
And in their seeking they look much deeper than the rules,
we try to teach them, or even than the lessons.
Children learn more by looking at what we do, than by listening to what we teach.
We all know that.

I’m starting to see that Children,
at least the ones I know most closely,
seem to follow more what the grownups they respect desire,
they learn from and follow what we’re seeking.

Given that, I was thrilled when these three young girls,
who are being commissioned today as our first
Junior Daughters of the King,
asked to be a part of that ministry.
They’ve seen these women in our parish,
seeking a more prayerful life, a deeper life of service
to this God who is also the King of Kings.
And they want to seek Him too.
Being a guy, I don’t know what women seek after,
so I asked some of our women this week,
in our Lectionary Bible Study
“what is compelling you to seek after this faith?”
And, not surprisingly they each had different answers,
but all pointed to a glimpse of a hidden Kingdom

One learned from nuns who said “if you learn this knowledge it will be allright.”
But she found that their actions taught her more,
and lead her to find that Jesus
was with her whether she wanted him or not.
One loved what she saw in church,
and wanted the life she experienced there.
One described the pull as something in her personality,
and she wanted to come so much as a child,
that she would go by herself.
One said it was very satisfying, and she was always wondering, how could you not believe?
One said truthfully it was so long and boring when she was young, but with age she has developed a thirst for it.
And one said that she felt a powerful urge,
for a place to express her gratitude.
All of these things speak to a deeper longing,
than just physical needs and hopes for something nice,
something that’s just fine.

And Jesus tells us in another place,
seek first the Kingdom of God,
and this is the same phrase he uses in his conversation
with Nicodemus.
Want to see the Kingdom of God?
Let the spirit give your spirit new life.
Want to enter the Kingdom of God?
Be born from above.
Many Christians are understanding the Kingdom of God these days deeper than just the hope
of eternal life when we die.
Sure ultimately that is important,
But Jesus came to bring us life,
abundant life now,
and the Kingdom of God is what he was talking about.
I have surely seen Christians who have actually seen
the Kingdom of God,
even just a glimpse of it.
Some have even entered the Kingdom of God,
and seem driven by it’s love in all they do.
But all of those people, and myself,
are constantly seeking, constantly reaching for this Kingdom.
It is that Kingdom which we will see
through our spirits when the holy spirit fills us.
This Kingdom we will enter and not just when we die.
That is so much more than just being ok.
Much more than just being fine.

So maybe the Indigo Girls were correct after all,
if we want to be fine,
then maybe we should stop seeking.
For the less we seek our source, our God,
for this Kingdom,
the closer we are to fine.

But fine is not enough for me.
Jesus says we’ll see the Kingdom of God,
and that’s what I’m after.
I want so much more than fine.
Our children want so much more than fine.
These girls becoming Junior Daughters of the King
want so much more than fine.
They want the Kingdom.
We all want so much more than fine.
We all want the Kingdom,
to enter the Kingdom of God in this life!
We will be unsatisfied in our longing,
until we experience even just
a small glimpse of the Kingdom.
And the good news is, it is available to each of us.

That's a deeper sense of what it means to believe.
It is so much more than the passive sense of,
well I believe in Jesus so I’ll be fine.
It’s about ever seeking God and God’s kingdom.
So seek that kingdom here with your whole hearts and in that way believe
accompany others in that seeking.
And especially look forward to how children will follow you in that seeking.
For they know who we really are,
or at least, who we really want to be.