Thursday, May 22, 2014

I am a professional procrastinator. Though I normally push assignments and tasks off till the absolute last possible moment, I actually managed to begin writing this sermon about three weeks ago. I met with Father Christian, discussed the guidelines, and even had half of a rough draft for him two weeks ago. I was on schedule and successfully writing a sermon, till I did nothing to the sermon for the next two weeks. That’s right. I utterly ignored the impending doom of delivering this sermon for two blissful weeks, until yesterday afternoon, when reality descended upon me. I all of a sudden realized that tomorrow was the day I had to stand in front of you and deliver wisdom and insight on a gospel reading I didn’t fully understand. Honestly, the person I most related to in the gospel reading was Thomas, as he asks Jesus “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” The fact that I connected with the most confused person in the gospel wasn’t very comforting, yet I clung to that relationship desperately. As a solid cradle Episcopalian, I went through eight years of Catechesis, and I believe Sabra Martin would be over joyed to hear that I still remember that this Thomas is Doubting Thomas, who got his nickname for his inability to believe in the Risen Lord until he had seen and physically touched the Lord’s hands and pierced sides. The more I ruminated on Thomas late last night, the worse I felt for him. Thomas really got the short end of the stick in terms of nicknames. The poor guy seems to have been plagued by questions the other disciples don’t seem to have, or are not willing to ask out loud. Personally, if I were in Thomas’s sandals, I would probably ask the same questions. I believe Thomas was more curious than anything else, and that is a trait I can relate to as well. Growing up, I have spent many hours in church, staring around the sanctuary during sermons, wondering why things are the way they are. For example, I only understood the Easter window, off to my right, about a month ago. I have always wondered why there was a bird on fire for the Easter window. Wouldn’t an empty tomb or maybe an angel at the tomb be a better representation of the resurrection? It finally occurred to me that the bird on fire is most probably a phoenix, mythical birds that burst into flames and resurrect in cycles during their lifetimes. With the resurrecting bird connecting with the resurrecting Lord, one question out of a hundred was answered for me; however, many more remain. Thomas’s question of “How can we know the way” is a perfectly legitimate one, and I think the only way to know the answer to this is to know and understand our individual pasts in order to move forward.
Mr. Garvey told me on Friday that life is like a journey down a river, except we are floating backward and can only see where we have been. For me, I was born and raised in this magnificent church, spending the grand majority of services either in the Roddy family pew or up on the alter acolyting. I have been an acolyte for thirteen years, and have moved up in the ranks from banner to crucifer. As many of you read in my Lenton reflection, while I love acolyting, I actively avoid being clergy crucifer so as to avoid awkwardly holding the Gospel and not knowing where to look. Besides acolyting, I attended Catechesis and eventually graduated up to regular Sunday school. Although the location of the services has been constant throughout my entire life, the content and experiences I have gotten from Ascension has changed over the years. I think my Episcopalian experience has been slightly unique in the large number of priests I have lived through in my short eighteen years at Ascension. I first remember Ladson, the ex-military rector. Father Ladson firmly believed that church was a punctual business, with services beginning at 10 o’clock and ending right at 11 o’clock. He would even speed read the communion and sending forth prayer if it looked like we were behind schedule. My younger self loved this punctuality and dedication to predictable one-hour services. Ladson also had a select number of hymns he enjoyed singing, and so we sung them regularly. My family joking called them “Ladson’s Greatest Hits,” and when one of them is chosen, we can quite often sing them without a hymnal. After Ladson, we had the wonderful, old Father Mervin. Mervin hailed from Ireland, and had an extremely thick Irish accent to prove it. He always said, “May the peace of the Lord be always wish you.” When Father Howard arrived at Ascension when I was in Middle School, I was taken aback. My sisters and I teasing called him “Mr. Spiritual” because he didn’t have an affection for punctual one-hour services and would often stop the service and ask the congregation to simply “feel the holy spirit among us.” For me, that was a major shock to the system; however, Father Howard, I really do love your spiritual, loving ways. Though Ascension has changed as the different rectors took residence in the sanctuary, many attributes have stayed the same, most notably Christ’s presence in this blessed sanctuary.
Today, especially, is a turning point in my life. This afternoon, I graduate from High School and leave behind eighteen years of life in Knoxville, moving forward to my next adventure. I am actually formally extending an invitation to anyone who wants to join the festivities at Webb today at 3:00 pm. I have sincerely loved my childhood here at Ascension, but now I will be moving to Houston, Texas to attend Rice University next fall. Although I have done all the reading, filled out the correct forms, and visited the campus, I still do not really know what the next four years will hold for me. Similar to Thomas, I am concerned about not knowing the way, and the lack of certainty makes me nervous. Even though I solidly know where I come from, the future remains mysterious, and no amount of preparation can erase that doubt and concern. I guess the answer to my questions lies in plain sight, per usual, when it comes to the gospel readings. Jesus tells the disciples “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it." Though on his way to the Ascension, Jesus still comforts the disciples and assures them of his presence in their uncertain futures without him. No matter what, He will always be there for our time of need, just as he was for the disciples so long ago. In true Father Howard fashion, I would like to close with a group prayer. Will you please bow your head.
Lord God, thank you for today. Thank you for this gathering of the Youth to demonstrate their love of this parish and of You, Lord. Thank you for this loving and welcoming congregation and clergy that helped me through this sermon. Please guide and protect us in the coming months, making your presence be known. Please help us to feel less like Doubting Thomas and more confident in our decisions as we ask You to be more involved in our lives. And finally, Please watch over and protect us until we can come together again to worship you. In Your name I pray, Amen.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Two Worlds Have Come Together Today Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year A, 5/11/14
Episcopal Church of the Ascension The Reverend Dr. Howard J. Hess
I. Introduction. Two worlds have come together today, and we are all the richer for it. In the world of the church, this is Good Shepherd Sunday in which the lectionary readings lead us to a focus upon Jesus as the Good Shepherd. In the world of our culture, this Sunday is Mother’s Day, a time set aside to honor and remember our mothers, grandmothers, and others who have mothered and cared for us in life-giving ways. Now all too often, what is happening in the church is seen as being detached and disconnected from all that is transpiring in the culture around us. I believe that the tendency to dichotomize church and culture is false and in fact damaging. You see the church, as the Body of Christ is to be leavening the culture; lifting up and re-enforcing what is sacred, while at the same time standing up against what is destructive and damaging to God’s creation.
II. This week an event took place in our culture that caught the attention of many of us. I want to lift up this event this morning. A basketball player for the Oklahoma City Thunder ~ Kevin Durant ~ was given the NBA Most Valuable Player of the Year Award (MVP). In his acceptance speech he began by thanking his coach and teammates. But it was the last three minutes of his speech in which he honored his mother that has attracted attention. Kevin was filled with emotion as he spoke. Please listen now to Kevin words in his own voice and take note of the specific things he thanks his mother for. You will hear some applause in the middle of this recording that gave Kevin an opportunity to collect himself as well as know that the audience was with him.
(Tape) "And last, [I want to thank] my Mom. I don't think you know what you did. You had my brother when you were 18 years old. Three years later I came out. The odds were stacked against us. [You were a] Single parent with two boys by the time you were 21 years old.
"Everybody told us we weren't supposed to be here. We moved from apartment to apartment by ourselves. One of the best memories I have is when we moved into our first apartment. No bed, no furniture, and we just all sat in the living room and just hugged each other because we thought we made it.
"When something good happens to you, I don't know about you guys, but I tend to look back to what brought me here. You woke me up in the middle of the night in the summer times. Making me run up a hill. Making me do push-ups. Screaming at me from the sidelines at my games at eight or nine years old.
"We weren't supposed to be here. You made us believe. You kept us off the street; put clothes on our backs, food on the table. When you didn't eat, you made sure we ate. You went to sleep hungry. You sacrificed for us. You're the real MVP."
Last, I’d like to thank God again. He is the first and the last. Alpha and Omega. I thank you for saving my life.”
III. With all that is negative, judgmental, and harsh in our daily news, I for one am grateful for the positive punctuation this news story provided to me in the middle of my week. But more than that, I see a strong parallel between the gifts Kevin’s mother has given him and the extraordinary gifts Jesus Christ, The Good Shepherd, gives us. I don’t know how many of you might be aware, but the image of the Good Shepherd was the most frequently used symbol in the early church. In the catacombs and on archeological sites there is early and very frequent use of the picture of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. It had great significance to the early Christians. I believe that is so because of the incredible, deep love depicted in this image of Jesus. One of the women in the Wednesday Lectionary Study pointed out that this Gospel image is really a very intimate metaphor.
Jesus Christ is not a distant, detached historical figure. He is alive, and he is passionate about loving and caring for us. In John, Jesus is both the shepherd and the gate. He is the way for us to enter into safe, protected space, and he is the way for us to leave that space when it is time to venture forth into the larger world. And is this not exactly what good parenting is all about ~ to provide safety while we are vulnerable and not yet able to recognize danger for ourselves? And then to open the way for us to venture forth to be fed by our growing understanding, our dreams, our discoveries, and by the love of others?
Interestingly, Jesus is both the gate and the shepherd in this reading. Now I must admit I don’t know much about the profession of shepherding. But this is what I am told. Shepherding is very hard work. The shepherd must be constantly vigilant in caring for the sheep. There are predators and there are ravines and thickets where sheep can get trapped. And then there are the “special sheep” ~ the special sheep often just don’t listen. They are more stubborn than the rest; they wander off over and over again and repeatedly require disaster prevention and, when that fails, rescue efforts on the part of the shepherd. Does this sound familiar to any of us here? Could it have been that some of us were the “special sheep” in our families? And could it have been our mothers, grandmothers, and those who cared for us whose faith in us and their interventions on our behalf ultimately kept us from falling off a cliff? If you are here with your mother, grandmother, or someone else who has cared for you in this way, just look at them now and quietly say “Thank you.”
IV. There are abundant other parallels between the Good Shepherd and good mothers. One such parallel is the willingness to sacrifice. Kevin thanked his mother for going to bed hungry so that he and his brother could go to sleep with their stomachs filled. Jesus Christ was willing to sacrifice and die on the cross for us. Another powerful parallel is the experience of “being known.” The Hebrew term for “knowing” is not primarily cognitive. It is a knowing of the heart and often used to refer to the relationship between a husband and a wife. One of the great yearnings of the human heart is to be truly and fully known ~ to be known so well that in all our originality and quirkiness we are understood. This is the way Jesus the Good Shepherd knows each of us ~ heart to heart. When affection is expressed in the Middle East, often this is the gesture ~ heart to heart.
V. Conclusion. In the deepest way, what I hope you remember about this Mothers’ Day is that you took another step in “knowing” how much God loves you. One of my professors in seminary taught us that every created being reflects, exemplifies, some aspect of who God is. Each plant, each animal, and each human being reflects God in singular profound ways. I believe that our mothers, grandmothers, and others who love us like mothers reflect the unconditional love that God has for us. This is not an abstract, theologically defined love, but a gritty day-in and day-out love that sustains us.
You know, one of the things that most moved me about Kevin’s remarks is that he made them so publicly and brought such honor to his mother for sacrifice the world often does not know or reward. Recall his words to the audience: "When something good happens to you, I don't know about you guys, but I tend to look back to what brought me here.” Today I would ask you to ponder upon who has brought you to this Mother’s Day 2014; and before the day is ended, I would ask you to write or speak a paragraph of thank you to those who have loved you into life. If that person or persons is still living, share these words of thanks with them. If they have died, tell them by saying the words out loud and reflecting upon them as you do so. We all have known God’s unconditional love for us ~ and one of the ways we know that love has been and still is, in the relationships with those who have loved us into life. Thanks be to God.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Telling Our Resurrection Stories

The Rev. Amy Morehous
Easter III, Year C
Church of the Ascension
May 4, 2014

Acts 2:14a, 36-41
Psalm 116:1-3, 10-17
1 Peter 1:17-23
Luke 24:13-35

Two dusty travelers leave behind a tense, unstable situation on a quest for something. Along the way their lives are interrupted, they have unexpected adventures, and when they come to the end of their journey, they find they are changed forever by what has happened along the way.

Now from that description, I could be speaking of a new movie trailer, coming your way soon. I could be describing a classic book, or any number of classic movies about travelers on a journey. Was I describing the plot of the first Star Wars movie? It is Star Wars Sunday, after, celebrated unofficially by nerds everywhere. Why is it Star Wars Sunday? Well, May the fourth be with you. (As good Episcopalians, you're supposed to reply, "And also with you.")

We love a story about a journey. We always have. You can reach as far back to Odysseus' long journey back home, or as recently as the installments of The Hobbit, the recent films based on Tolkien's classic book. We are hungry for an epic journey through which we can live vicariously. We don't want to take a harrowing journey ourselves - we want to read about them, or watch them. We want to imagine them from the safety of our own couches. We hope maybe they tell us something about the longer arc of our own, lifelong journeys. About the decisions we make in it. About the difficulties along the way.

Today's Gospel is takes us on a journey.

As I began reading, thinking and praying over the Gospel today, over these two travelers on this particular journey, as I put myself on that road with these followers of Jesus, what I found myself wondering was "Why?"

Why are Cleopas and his companion taking the 7-mile trek to Emmaus that morning? They have spent the week with Jesus and his disciples. They recount their deep disappointment and grief in Jesus' death, and are very clear that Jesus was not the Messiah they had hoped for. They even know that the women have returned from the tomb to say that it was empty. It's almost ludicrous, the women's story, and they either don't attach a lot of importance to it, or they just don't believe it. But rather than stick around to see what comes of it all...they leave.  Why?

Were they afraid? With the disappearance of Jesus' body, there might  be questions from the authorities. Were they afraid they'd be accused of complicity? Did they fear for their own lives? Worried they too would be caught up in a continuing purge of Jesus' associates, and rounded up to face trials of their own?

Or were they simply dejected, and on the way home, trying to put the whole grief-filled episode behind them? Their loss of hope is obvious in their words. "We had hoped that he was the one to redeem us." We had hoped, but no more. Were they hoping to put as much distance as possible between themselves, and the events that have crushed their hopes?

Or are they simply on an errand? Sent to Emmaus to meet someone, or to bring something from the big city? If they are traveling with a particular purpose, then they never accomplish it. Whatever they think they're going to do, whatever they think they've set out to do - that doesn't happen. They are interrupted by God's larger purpose.

Any or all of these are possible. In the Gospel, it just doesn't say. We have no idea why Cleopas and his companion are on the road.

Many of us have great affection for the two travelers on the way to Emmaus because we, too, have the same hopes, the same fears. We hope Christ will see us, will come alongside us, will redeem us as he has promised. But we are not sure. We fear that he won't live up to his promises - that he won't be present in the hour when we feel most disappointed by life. When we are most grief-stricken, most afraid. Most alone. In our heart of hearts, we, too, have trouble understanding this resurrection moment. We are afraid we will not be seen, that we do not matter, that there is no one present there for us, after all.

Frederick Buechner wrote, "I believe that the reason why the resurrection is more than just an extraordinary event that took place some two thousand years ago and then was over and done with is that, even as I speak these words and you listen to them, (Jesus Christ) also sees each of us.... In this dark world where you and I see so little because of our unrecognizing eyes, he, whose eye is on the sparrow, sees each one of us.... And I believe that because (Jesus) sees us, not even in the darkness of death are we lost to him or lost to each other. I believe that whether we recognize him or not, or believe in him or not, or even know his name, again and again he comes and walks a little way with us along whatever road we're following."**

I have been on the road toward a purpose I thought I understood, only to have my journey interrupted. I would bet the same is true for you, too. More than once in my life, I have been on the road, walking quickly to put something behind me. Furious grief. Bitter disappointment. Sweet hopes that did not come to fruition. Each time, Christ has come alongside, even when I didn't know he was there. I believe in the resurrection, even when I do not understand it. I believe in the resurrection because I have seen it, in my own heart, and my own life. In the lives of those I love. In the life of God's people.

Why are you on the road today, at this moment? What was it that brought you here today? Are you, too, running away? Are you distancing yourself from something painful in your past? Are you seeking a new place, or are you returning home? Are you moving toward a sure purpose, only to find yourself wondering if that's the right destination, after all? What's the story of your journey?

I'm not sure the "why" will end up being so important after all, other than it is what sets us along the path. In the end, I think what will be important is not why we left, or where we thought we were going, but that we will be found along the way. As a resurrection people, we affirm that no matter how many roads we travel, Jesus Christ sees us, walks alongside us at unexpected moments, waits patiently to become known to us. We may not see the why, we may not understand it, we will only know that it has happened, and that it has set us along a different path than the one we were walking before.

Jesus Christ will meet you on your way, in the presence of another, In the breaking of the bread, in the words of Scripture, in the experience of your own heart. Not just once, but over and over and over.

If you have sensed the risen Christ working in your life, to whom have you told your resurrection story? We aren’t meant to keep it all to ourselves, this risen Christ. He is meant to be shared. These two traveling companions, when they realize who has been walking with them, when they finally understand how their lives have radically changed, they rush back to Jerusalem to tell those who haven't seen him yet.

When those times come, when the resurrected Christ breaks into our journey, may we each see him, and know him as he is, just as he sees and knows each of us. May we have the strength and courage to testify to his presence in our lives to those who most need to hear it.

No matter the road, no matter the journey, Jesus Christ sees you, walks with you, today, tomorrow, when you least expect it. You, too, are a traveller on that journey, and you are a part of that resurrection story. To whom will you tell your story, today?

** first published in The Longing for Home (1996) and again in Secrets in the Dark:A Life in Sermons (2007)