Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Where to Stick Our Fingers

The Second Sunday of Easter - Year A
27 Apr 2014
Padre Christian Hawley

Acts 2:14a, 22-32
Psalm 16
1 Peter 1:3-9
John 20:19-31

Our Gospel reading today ends with John saying he wrote his gospel down so that we may come to believe Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through him we may have life in his name. The tomb is empty, and the Risen Christ is made manifest to us in the Holy Scriptures.

I forget that sometimes. After all the wonderful worship services last week, after all the beautiful flowers, phenomenal music, and amazing homilies, I forget just how central the scriptures are to our faith.

For all of us who were not locked in the safe house with the disciples, or lucky enough to poke the risen Christ like Thomas, all we have to go on, is the living Word of God set down by inspired writers like John.

However, just as I was about to profess my faith by liturgy alone last week as the choir wrapped up Handel's Hallelujah Chorus, a little voice, the voice of the confirmation class I'm teaching, reminded me of how important scripture is...

A couple of weeks ago the eight confirmands and I were going to town on some church history. We were talking about Justin Martyr, medieval crusades, Elizabethan settlements, the American prayer book, but then I get blindsided by a really insightful question. During our discussions about the Episcopal Church split during the American civil war, Abigail Cooper looked right at me and point blank asked, “So is the bible infallible?”

Initially I stared at her like there are lobsters crawling out of her nose, because I was so impressed with her insight. I was amazed how she recognized the link between how we interpret the Bible and how we live our faith.

After my initial dumbfounding by Abigail’s question I gathered my thoughts and attempted to answer her question on the bible’s infallibility. My first reaction was to say something witty and Anglican like, “only the parts of the bible in the book of common prayer are infallible.” However, such a good question deserved a better answer. So I said yes the Bible is infallible, but then keeping in mind the whole slavery question, I immediately added, “the bible is infallible as long as it is interpreted rightly. Which of course led to the follow up question of, “what does it mean to rightly interpret the Bible?” And that my friends, is a really, really good question.

At the time, I talked for a moment about context and hermeneutical lenses. I mentioned the need to understand historical settings, language limitations, and the complicated process of textual transmission. But those kind of interpretive tools treat the Word of God like any other piece of human literature, and there is a certain danger in stopping there with right interpretation.

Those dangers became readily apparent as I walked into Union Books a few days ago, and picked up Bart Ehrman’s new book “How Jesus Became God.” I flipped through this religious scholar’s new bestseller and read how Jesus never claimed to be God, and how the Resurrection was actually a group hallucination.

And as I stood there in that cozy little book nook, mouth agape at Ehrman’s line of thought, a little chill ran through me as I thought about today’s reading from John. If we treat the Word of God as a static text, written millennia ago for a people of a foreign culture ignorant of modern science, then Bart Ehrman makes a really compelling case. If the Bible is just another book, then Jesus is just another man, and the resurrection is just another ghost story.

However the Bible is more than just another human text. The Bible is an inspired text. A text inspired by the Holy Spirit, not just in its writing, but also in its subsequent reading and interpretation. The Bible is not a collection of dead letters frozen in time, and neither is it a tame text, comfortable text, or a predictable text. It is a living Word where the Holy Spirit is speaking to us just as clearly and unexpectedly as Christ did to Thomas.

The Resurrection was not a hallucination. I know that as surely as Thomas did when Jesus invited him to touch his wounds. John wrote his gospel so that we may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and the source of life. Our experience of the Word of God begins with written scripture, but its truth is most fully revealed as it interacts with the body of Christ with the Holy Spirit.

I believe in the Resurrection because, like Brett preached at the Easter Vigil, I have seen the risen Christ in the lives of his followers. My friend, Mark Moreland, a minister over at Central Baptist, mentioned during our sunrise Easter service, that all the proof of the Resurrection he needed was in the lives of the disciples. They went from a scattered and defeated flock, who just lost their shepherd at the end of the Gospels to these pillars of strength and confidence who then spread out across the world fearlessly proclaiming the risen Christ and the good news unto their death.

Compare the Peter in the Gospels, who is denying Jesus three times before the cock crows to the Peter we hear in the Acts today, explain the fulfillment of the scriptures by Christ to the Israelites. The Resurrection of Christ can be clearly seen in the transformation of Peter. And it can be clearly seen as the scriptures transform our community today.

I saw the Risen Christ speaking through members of our vestry during Good Friday’s seven last words. I looked upon Leslie Beale and Ellen Jenny and all those other inspired members of our parish as if they were Peter and I was an Israelite witnessing the Holy Spirit come into our midsts.

And I heard the Risen Lord clearly say, “Peace be with you,” in so many of the reflections from our Lenten Devotional.

How many of you read our daily Lenten devotionals that Deacon Amy put together? And how many of you saw the scriptures come alive in your own life? I got at least half a dozen emails attesting to this fact, and for those of you who came to the Holy Tuesday service know just how concretely the scripture came alive for me on a trail outside of Cade's Cove. The scriptures are the dynamic and living Word of God, they are not tame, they are not predictable, but they are life giving and life changing. We need to interact with them as often as we can.

I know I might send Amy into a conniption fit by saying this, but I wish we had a season of Easter Devotional, where we could continue with daily scripture readings and reflections by people in this community. Barring that miracle though, I urge us all to take on an Easter discipline of celebration, by continuing a daily scripture practice. Forward Day by Day is a great resource. Our own daily office, 7am here every weekday morning is an even better resource. But if neither of those work for you, I highly recommend reading through the Book of Acts this fifty days of Easter. Those particular scripture are life giving for the Body of Christ as we and the risen Christ working in and through our church.

The scriptures were written so that we may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, the source of eternal life. Thanks be to God for that gift, and may the Spirit guide our fingers to believe more fully by sticking them into the pages of our Bibles.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Redemption Throughout a Lifetime Easter Sunday, Year A: April 20, 2014
Episcopal Church of the Ascension The Reverend Dr. Howard J. Hess
I. Introduction. Today we welcome the Resurrected Lord Jesus Christ into our midst ~ not as an abstraction or as a memory from the past or even as an ideal figure, but as a real person present among us as our honored Lord and Savior. This is the Easter message. All the rest is commentary. We want to thank Jesus today for the gift of new life and the consistent opportunities he provides us to learn more about how to love him and how to love one another. I personally want to thank him for all the second chances he has offered me in my life. I also want to thank him not only for redeeming us, but also for redeeming time so that we could have the option of following Christ at our own pace. You see, it is my deep belief that Jesus works through time to graciously offer us new spiritual insights. The profound offer of joining Jesus or of going deeper in our relationship with him in a resurrection community is on the table for us this morning. I urge you to give this offer serious consideration.
II. Redeeming Time. When I was a child, there was a daytime serial opera on television entitled “Days of Our Lives.” On occasion when home sick from school, I would watch this show. I soon learned that the plot moved so slowly that you might tune in after several months of absence and absolutely nothing important seemed to have changed. Real life moves at a very different pace. The dynamics of my life and of others I have known have always been changing ~ some triumphs and some defeats. But constantly there has been Easter. When I take a retrospective view, although I might not have realized it at the time, Jesus has always been there by my side. The beauty of Christ’s presence is that it has been gentle and peaceful, not judging or harsh. Again, without my always knowing, Jesus and I were in partnership in all things and at all places. In spite of periods of heavy-duty uncertainty, Easter has always renewed my faith. Let is be true for all of us this morning. At Easter, Jesus seems and is alive, vibrant, and fully present.
III. Spiritual Autobiographies: If each of us were to plot our spiritual journeys on a trajectory, I believe that we would find that our own stories are similar to the stories of the early disciples. In our initial years of Christian experience, our faith can sometimes be shallow and only partly formed. Just like the disciples, we know stories about Jesus, but often we have not fully “known” Jesus. We wondered, but didn’t ask him many questions. We followed the paths where our families and communities led us.
Then some of us left home and encountered competing philosophies and moral standards and the infamous calls to achievement. Jesus was still there with us, but we may have not noticed that very much. Just like the disciples during Holy Week, for us Jesus seemed remote and disappointing. During the years after I left home I experienced my most pronounced times of darkness. I had discovered Chicago and didn’t see too much of Jesus there. But not so, in retrospect Jesus was very much still present ~ right next to me. I specifically remember an instance when Jesus had my back. I was in a very dangerous situation late at night and a man came literally out of nowhere and said to me: “Go away now. This is not a safe place for you. You are just a kid – leave.” I left. Often I wonder if perhaps this man was an angel. Many of us have had dark periods in our spiritual lives when we are preoccupied with a distant land, just like the Prodigal Son. The two Mary’s, consumed with grief, came to the tomb on Easter morning in darkness; the apostles before and after coming to the empty tomb were no doubt filled with fear and doubt. But for them and for us, always out of the darkness comes the bright light of Easter.
IV. Our Spiritual Journeys Progress. Easters come and go. Through the grace of God and the presence of Jesus Christ, we have new resurrection encounters interspersed with periods of darkness and despair. But it is the constancy of Jesus Christ that carries us through such times. And every time we experience a new Easter, Christ offers to reveal himself to us more fully if we are open to see and receive him. This was so for Mary Magdalene, for Peter and John, and all the others. Easter Day became the 50 days of Easter, led to Pentecost, and all the days and years that followed. And as these disciples lived out their vocations, they became increasingly conscious of Christ’s presence and become more and more one with him. It is into this process of belief and sanctification I urge you to enter or recommit yourself to today. Easter is not just a day; Easter is also a lifelong process of redemption that unfolds progressively over a lifetime. And here are some of the wisdom lessons that emerge during this process:
  1. Be reassured. Although Christ is with you right now, your free choice will never be violated, only sustained.
  2. Be comforted that the process of coming to an Easter faith unfolds throughout our lives and is supported by our many life transitions, be they peaceful or painful.
  3. Be joyful to know that the expression of your love to others is often a significant sign of Christ’s love for them.
  4. And, lastly, be uplifted to know that you are never alone in this process. The church as the Body of Christ is present to walk this path with you, as are God the Father, Jesus Christ his Son, and God’s Holy Spirit.
V. Conclusion. Each one of our faith journeys is different. Some of have certainty early in life about our faith and do not lose that certitude; others of us are prone to doubt and repeatedly feel a need for reassurance, signs, and proof. Some of us have always known life in the church and find it easy to be here. Others have been hurt by experiences in the church and resist trying again. One of the reasons I love the Episcopal Church is because it has room for all of us. It has provided me with the freedom to be who I am and where I am at any given moment in my life. This freedom to pursue your own spiritual journey authentically is offered to you as well.
I also love the Episcopal Church because it has helped me to integrate my faith with my whole life. I have learned that everything in one’s life can be redeemed and reconfigured. Transformation is the outcome of these redemptive experiences; and transformation leads to new life and better life. I have no question that because of Christ’s redemption I am alive today and with you in this church. I know that some of you are facing very difficult challenges right now and the idea of redemption may seem remote. We want you to know that especially at times of uncertainty and pain, Jesus remains close, and Jesus listens. Signs are always being given of Easters to come. You see, there are really three Easters ~ the Easter that first took place 2000 years ago; the future Easter that will happen when Christ comes again; and the Easter of the present moment. And in all ways through time we are a redeemed people, a resurrection people, and an Easter people
My brothers and sisters, Jesus Christ is trustworthy; Jesus Christ loves us without conditions, and, if allowed to do so, will redeem our lives beyond our wildest imagination! Alleluia, Christ is risen. And the people respond . . .
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Palm Sunday Reflection April 13, 2014
Episcopal Church of the Ascension The Reverend Dr. Howard J. Hess
The Crowd. And so the Passion of Jesus, the Christ, begins. And we have front row seats as the drama unfolds. Actually, I am mistaken ~ we are not in the audience this morning ~ we have a leading role in how the drama plays out. We are the crowd. Initially, we are part of the cheering throngs that welcome Jesus, joyfully shouting “Hosanna, Hosanna” and waving our palms in the air. Some of us have seen Jesus heal others, even bring Lazarus back from the dead. Some of us, or members of our own family, may have experienced Jesus’ healing touch. And if we have not seen or experienced the miracles ourselves, we have heard eyewitnesses describe them. We welcome Jesus like a king, because we know that he is a king. After all, hasn’t he descended from the line of King David?
But the plot of this Palm Sunday drama twists and turns. Jesus has missed a moment when he might have seized control of the capital from the Romans. He does not “seize the day,” but instead goes silently, and in the days that follow he provides precious time to his adversaries to plan his demise. We are still part of the crowd, and we are waiting for something to happen. But our attention span is short. The next thing we hear is that Jesus is arrested late Thursday night in the Garden of Gethsemane. He could have fled into the wild hills beyond Jerusalem, but he stayed in the garden. We learn that Jesus’ disciples have deserted him and that the High Priests and the Sanhedrin have accused him of blasphemy.
News spread like wildfire in the incredibly packed city of Jerusalem. When the crowd learns that Pilate has examined Jesus and is about to make a public pronouncement of his judgment against Jesus, we, the crowd, rush to see what will happen. Except now we, the welcoming crowd of Palm Sunday has metamorphosed into a lynch mob. When Pilate offers to release Jesus, we shout, we shout angrily, “Let him be crucified! Let him be crucified!” What has he done, this gentle Jesus? Now the Passion drama will play out – although with a surprise ending. But we get ahead of ourselves.
We ~ you and I ~ we are the Crowd! Why are our loyalties so shallow? Why is our memory so short? Why do we defer so readily to those in power, rather than have the courage to stand up for what is true? We are so fickle, this crowd of ours. And yet in spite of all that, Jesus dies for us. Ponder anew the power of this story.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Dem Bones Are Moving at Ascension April 6, 2014
Episcopal Church of the Ascension The Reverend Dr. Howard J. Hess
I. Introduction. What a gift today’s lectionary readings are to the preacher ~ lifeless bones that reassemble into whole living bodies and a man who had been dead for four days brought back to life by Jesus. The “ruach,” Hebrew for the breath or spirit of God, is everywhere in our readings. It was the ruach that breathed life into human beings in Genesis; it was the ruach that breathed new life into the nation of Israel while it was in captivity in Babylon; and it is the ruach that brought Lazarus back from the dead at Jesus’ command. In fact it was also the ruach that inspired African-American spirituals like “Dem Bones” to help a people keep their faith and hope alive in the face of the horrors of slavery. You see, during slavery, Bible verses about rescue from oppression could be sung, even if not preached about. The ruach is alive in all times, just as it continues to breathe new life into Ascension.
II. Redemption and Resurrection. The way the ruach works is to bring or preserve life where it might have withered or died. We call such this process redemption and its outcome Resurrection. Redemption and Resurrection are, and must always be, at the core of our Christian faith. And so, just two weeks before Easter, we have the story of Lazarus told as a foreshadowing of Jesus’ Resurrection. John tells us that the raising of Lazarus was Jesus’ most extraordinary and last miracle. This miracle was one of the reasons Jesus was received with such enthusiasm into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, and one of the key reasons Jesus was crucified. This event carries major importance in the life of Christ. As we consider all the instances of Redemption and Resurrection throughout Scripture, we see two central truths: 1) in the course of Redemption that which is old is re-made, and becomes new; and 2) Resurrection results in new life both now and in eternity.
III. The Ruach at Ascension. There is no better example of the movement of God’s spirit to bring new life than what God has done during the last several years at Ascension. One month ago, we celebrated our seventh anniversary together. Peg and I arrived at Ascension on March 1, 2007. First some history: I came here as a “priest in charge,” which is in the Episcopal Church essentially means “rent a priest with an option to buy.” Perhaps the prelude to my arrival can put flesh upon the bones of this story. Before even knowing you at Ascension, two processes related to prayer and discernment led me here. First, one day I was meeting with Bishop von Rosenberg and the topic of Ascension came up. I said, “Perhaps some day I can help there.” His response was “I have been thinking the same thing.” We agreed to pray about what that convergence meant. Secondly I had attended a week-long retreat and remember sitting under a cross asking God to help me know what would come next in my ministry. In my conversation with God, I asked if I might become a Rector near the ocean. God’s reply came quickly: “I am not in the geographic relocation business!” At the same time, I heard God tell me that, “When your work is done where you are, I will take care of where you go next.”
Out of this history I want to share several insights. The redemptive process through which Resurrection takes place is always saturated in prayer and in a willingness to allow God to be in charge. This is not easy. As human beings, we desire to control the timing and nature of our redemption. Martha and Mary wanted Jesus to come right away. Jesus came days later, but it was at God’s time. Be encouraged, my brothers and sisters who might be trying to wrestle a challenge to the ground or who are feeling discouraged. God hears our prayers and does answer them ~ in God’s time.
IV. That was the beginning of our shared – and it has been shared – ministry together. But the preparation for what was to transpire was not only occurring on my end. It was simultaneously unfolding here at Ascension. You were praying for a leader who could love and help rejuvenate this parish with God’s help. I discerned the spiritual foundation of your process when I talked with your two wardens, Tom Ladd and Mary Lemense, and when Peg and I met with your search committee members, who fielded more than 60 well designed questions. And I have continued to feel your leaders’ commitment to following God’s will, year after year.
This leads me to my second insight. When I reflect on our history together, it is very clear that God does not work only in individual lives. God works in and through communities to create a synergy out of out of which comes the clarity of purpose and the energy to become the Body of Christ. The community of Ascension is an incredible sign of God’s presence in the world. At a time when many churches are shrinking, with God’s guidance, we are consistently growing; at a time when many churches are struggling financially, with God’s grace, our pledge base has more than doubled in seven years. God has helped us welcome hundreds of new members and create many new programs. Now we face the new and exciting developmental challenge of becoming a church where lay leadership increasingly shares in Ascension’s future. It is clear: God has and continues to redeem Ascension, building upon our faith and providing us with gifted and talented staff and lay and clergy leaders. God has brought hope out of discouragement. Dem bones are alive and dancing at Ascension.
V. There is a third, and I believe, most critical influence that has energized us through these past seven years. We have continually invited and responded to the presence of God’s spirit. I hope to be unequivocal here: there are many of us who are gifted in this parish and for that we are very grateful. But the energy for our life together is the spirit of God. Last year on the third Sunday of Lent, I preached a sermon about Moses and the burning bush. I’d like to do what I did that Sunday and quote a few words from my first sermon here seven years ago. I believe these words are as true today as they were then:
I can sense the excitement we have about our future together. I believe our excitement is warranted. There is no limiting the potential for ministry and mutual love for one another so long as we draw our clarity and our motivation directly from God’s endless energy. We continue to be called into a new time of Ascension’s life. We need to remember that God is always carrying us forward. I AM WHO I AM is the name of our God of the present moment. Let us continue to reach for that moment and step forward joyfully into the future that God has prepared for us.”
The spirit of God, the ruach, is here among us. The degree to which we can receive the spirit is based upon our willingness to pray and to act. In seventh grade I learned the difference between potential and active energy. I believe our challenge is to continue to turn one into the other. We have many new possibilities before us, creating one, perhaps two new services, one on Saturday night and the other on Sunday morning; recruiting a new top-notch youth minister; expanding our ministries to children, youth, and adults in robust ways; re-initiating our Ascension Speakers’ Series when we host Dr. Miroslav Volf, one of the country’s leading theologians this coming October; and re-vitalizing our young family, young couples, and pastoral ministries. Dem dry bones are continuing to move at Ascension. We need only remember that the spirit of God, the ruach, fuels it all; that our prayers for continued guidance are essential; and that God works through community – through you, through me, and through all of us together. Thanks be to God. Amen.