Sunday, July 27, 2014

Finding the Kingdom in the Ordinary

The Rev. Robert P. Travis
Pentecost 12A RCL Sunday Sermon – 
8 and 10:30am Service, Church of the Ascension, Knoxville TN

Sermon Text:
Here we are in the middle of the Green Season,
what we refer to as Ordinary Time.
You know my daughters state unequivocally that this
is their least favorite of the Church Seasons.
I suppose I should be glad that they even know
the Church Seasons to have a favorite and a least favorite.
This is the season where ordinary things happen,
where there is little of the cosmic drama that we see
in Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent and Easter.
So I can see why for children who are looking for the
next best experience of their lives,
the ordinariness of Ordinary time could seem dull.

N.T. Wright describes the ordinary things we do like this:
What you do in the present – by painting,
preaching, singing, sewing,
praying, teaching, building hospitals,
digging wells, campaigning for justice,
writing poems, caring for the needy,
loving your neighbor as yourself – will last into God's future.
These activities are not simply ways of making
the present life a little less beastly,
a little more bearable, until the day
when we leave it behind altogether.
They are part of what we may call
building for God's kingdom.”

In the parables today I see a ray of hope,
that Jesus describes the kingdom of heaven
in such ordinary terms.
The Kingdom of heaven is not an acorn,
that grows into a mighty oak tree,
but a mustard seed,
that grows into a bush in the garden.
The Kingdom of heaven is not a powerful additive,
that protects the food of millions of people,
but ordinary yeast, that leavens flour.
The Kingdom of heaven is not a guarded hoard of wealth,
like Fort Knox,
but a forgotten treasure hidden in an ordinary field.
The Kingdom of heaven is not a million dollar string of multiple jewels,
fetching an auction price at Sotheby's,
but a solitary pearl,
that a knowledgeable merchant seeks, finds and buys.
The kingdom of heaven,
is not a vast fleet of fishing boats,
but a single net.

All of these things are simple, ordinary things,
and yet in each of them is great power,
heavenly power,
power to change the course of the entire world,
but also power to be overlooked by many,
who don't seek the extraordinary in the ordinary things of life.

Barbara Brown Taylor writes:
why else would Jesus talk about heaven
in terms of farmers and fields and women baking bread
and merchants buying and selling things
and fishermen sorting fish,
unless he meant somehow to be telling us
that the kingdom of heaven has to do with these things,
that our treasure is buried not in some exotic far off place
that requires a special map
but that “X” marks the spot right here,
and right now, in all the ordinary people and places
and activities of our lives.”

I think in a way,
that I was looking for the treasure to be buried,
in that exotic far off place called Madagascar.
But when I was there, I found the same ordinary people,
living their lives,
and finding God in the ordinary aspects of those lives.
And when I returned, I found, to my delight,
the same treasure right here,
where I knew I had left it.
And now that my family has been away for a few weeks,
and I have missed them oh so much,
as they spend the summer with cousins out west.
I realize how much of the treasure of that Kingdom,
is found in the daily interactions with the people we love.

So it seems strange to me to say this,
as it is not directly my program,
but I felt moved to talk about the new Adult Sunday School,
in the context of this sermon today.
You see, it is in the sharing of our ordinary lives,
in the context of a small group Christian community,
that many of us will discover that pearl of great price,
that treasure hidden in a field,
that many of us will be caught up in the net
of the kingdom of God.
Your clergy leaders have known this for a long time,
and we have tried in a number of ways to
encourage more of the congregation to be a part
of such groups.

And this new way of doing Adult Sunday School
where we gather into small groups,
lead by peers,
and share weekly our lives of faith,
and our ordinary experiences with each other,
is part of that same effort.

If it weren't significant,
we wouldn't keep being moved by the Spirit,
to build small groups in this parish.
I believe the Spirit is calling us,
leading us into a place
where we can grow into deeper relationship with Jesus Christ,
by sharing our discipleship
with a small group of peers,
like the original core group of the 12 Apostles.
Notice that Jesus' teaching, was in parables,
he taught in these somewhat obscure stories,
to large groups of people,
as we have heard in this large group over the past few weeks.
But then he would explain them
in the small group,
or that would be where the small group of disciples,
would respond “Yes,”
to his question, “Have you understood all this?”
And Jesus responds to that small group,
that those who are trained for the kingdom in this way,
become like, as Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message
The student well-trained in God's kingdom
is like the owner of a general store
who can put his hands on anything you need,
old or new, exactly when you need it.”

That, I believe, is the hope we have
for these Adult Sunday School groups,
that they will form students well-trained for God's Kingdom,
that they will become a resource
of relationships for all of you,
and a way to learn how to put your hands on anything you need in the Kingdom of God,
and you do that by weekly participation
and sharing your ordinary life with others.

Would you believe, an ordinary motorcycle trip can be a part of building God's Kingdom?
I'm going to share a story from a man who is a member of a church I used to worship at in Florida, that he shared with a small group in his church.
While motorcycling down twisty mountain roads near Franklin, North Carolina, my transmission started slipping. I nursed it for a few miles until I got to a main road. After pulling into a church parking lot, I got out my plethora of tools and opened the primary chain access cover. I could tell something was seriously wrong. When I tried to restart the bike, the engine would not connect to the transmission.
Practicing my spiritual principals, I said the SERENITY PRAYER:
Then I asked GOD for guidance.

Looking around I noticed a gentleman mowing the grounds of the churchyard. I also noticed there was a trailer for his mower attached to his new pickup truck. I walked over to him and explained my problem. He introduced himself as Landy and offered to "trailer" me into Franklin. He even called a local motorcycle shop to advise them we were “coming in.”

During the 10 mile ride into town, Landy, a fit and alert 78 year old man, explained that he was helping his church with the grounds maintenance, because the grounds keeper had cancer. We continued our conversation talking about life: how short it can be and how God is in our lives.
Once we arrived at the motorcycle repair shop, I quickly unloaded my bike, thanked Landy, and offered to pay him for his efforts. Smiling, he refused my offer and wished me good luck before driving off.
I explained to Justin, the owner of the repair shop, the problems I was having with my bike. Justin said, "It sounds like the compensator bolt came loose." He moved my bike into his shop and put it up on the lift. He quickly removed the cover and confirmed the compensator bolt had backed out. Repairs were made in 45 minutes and only cost $100.00. I was ready to RIDE once again!

Just before I left Justin asked me if Landy took any money for the tow. I explained that I tried, but Landy refused. Justin laughed and said, "He is a multi-millionaire!"

This whole problem had only taken two hours out of my day. And I was so thankful for the people that God put into my life. However, I decided not to chance any further problems and headed straight back to Florida cutting my trip short by two days.

My whole excursion covered more than 3,000 miles through Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee. I was really glad to be within 20 miles of home. Suddenly as I was getting off the Florida Turnpike, I saw a Harley-Davidson motorcycle crashed into the guard rail. I stopped and looked for the riders. About three hundred feet away I saw a female sitting alone in the grass. I ran as fast as I could to check on her condition. She had some road rash and complained of her wrist hurting. I asked her if she was riding with anyone. She said, "Yes!" Then I spied a man about 50 feet away. He was lying face down under the guard rail. I went to check on the downed rider. Being the first person to arrive at the scene, I checked the man’s condition. Another person arrived to assist. He called 911 while I checked the victim's pulse. He was alive. JUST BARELY. His body was broken and bleeding beyond description. I held his hand letting him know that his passenger was OK. Then I said a prayer. I let him know that he is not alone; GOD was here with us! Some time passed and then the First Responders started to arrive. I cleared out of the way and made my way back to the female passenger. I let her know that the paramedics were here and that her male riding friend knew she was OK. I slowly walked back to my bike.

My life was forever changed! I knew that God had been with me in the mountains and had sent me to be with this dying man. I experienced His care and witnessed His provision.

That man, Gordon, found his part of God's kingdom
in the ordinary experiences of his life,
a broken transmission,
leading to a helpful hand in a traffic accident.

I know each of you have stories to share,
such experiences of God's provision,
of the Kingdom of God in the ordinary aspects of our lives.
The small groups forming in our new Adult Sunday School,
need you to show up for them,
and be regular in attendence,
so that others may be lifted up by your sharing
how God is present in the ordinary parts of your lives,
That way we all may become better disciples
who truly understand all that Jesus teaches.


Sunday, July 6, 2014

Experiencing the Blessing of being Yoked to Jesus

The Rev. Robert P. Travis
Proper 9A Sermon – 8am and 10:30am Church of the Ascension, Knoxville TN
RCL 7/6/2014
 Scripture Text: Zechariah 9:9-12, Psalm 45:11-18, Romans 7:15-25a, Matthew 11:16-19,25-30

 Sermon Text:
When I sat down to prepare what I was going to say today,
I was reminded of that song, from Porgy and Bess,
“Summertime, and the living is easy.”
No, this time I'm not going to sing it for you.
It's not that I want to disappoint you,
I just don't know it that well.
But that line stood out to me.
Partly, I guess, because for many
Summertime does not mean the living is easy.
But this week we hear from Jesus,
another challenging statement
“my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Last week I was struck to the heart by Jesus statement,
“if anyone loves wife or children more than me,
he is not worthy of me.”
And I wondered for real,
am I not worthy of you Jesus?
because I love my wife and kids an awful lot,
and I feel down since they've been gone
to their cousins in Colorado so much this summer,
and since I was away from them for a month in Madagascar.
Does that feeling down mean I don't love you as much, Jesus?

That is not what he was talking about,
but it speaks to the core of Jesus message
at the beginning of the Gospel reading today.
When he compares this generation
(a term he often uses to criticize
the religious community around him)
to children calling to one another,
unsatisfied with the responses of the others,
he's basically saying,
no matter how God gave them people to teach them,
to show them the way to follow God
whether it's John and his ascetic, self-denying ways,
or Jesus and his loving life and being with
everyone in festivity, sinners as well as saints,
We don't receive them well,
they don't live up to our capricious expectations,
and so we are quick to criticize rather than embrace
God's messengers to us.

That speaks directly to the struggle I had last week,
because it was my own response
my own feelings
that I was finding lacking,
not Jesus himself,
not my faith in how he cares for me.
When it is all about our feelings,
how happy we are or pleased we are,
we will often be disappointed,
and feel like life is too much of a burden,
and that God is not providing for us.

But when we are looking to Him,
for what He is doing,
and how we can participate in that gracious will,
Less for our own fulfillment,
than the fulfillment of something more,
then we find the things Jesus talks about,
that are hidden from the wise and intelligent,
and revealed to infants.

This summer is full of uncertainty for many of us,
here at Church of the Ascension.
There are transitions coming up in our worship.
Our beloved Christian is heading into his new life
and marriage soon.
I'm about to go on sabbatical,
and we don't know how those changes will be received.
Last week as well,
I was praying about those things,
and I got a little worried,
a little anxious about what was to come for this place.
I prayed out loud, “God,
you're not going to remove the blessing from this place,
are you?”
And I did not hear an answer.
I was worried, because as you know,
we have been tremendously blessed in this place,
these past few years.
We have experienced resurrection,
and even been sent all around this community,
and even to the ends of the earth
to share the good news.
So it was natural for me to worry,
in the face of some uncertainty,
whether that blessing was coming to an end.

And then a very interesting thing happened.
On Sunday, after those baptisms,
and that beautiful service,
we came to the end of the Eucharist,
and I was the celebrant.
And a most unusual thing happened to me,
and I don't know if any of you experienced it differently
or not,
But I knew that my prayer had been answered.
As I raised my hand to pronounce God's blessing,
as I always do, and started to say the words,
I felt something that I rarely feel physically,
though I know in faith that the blessing is being given.
I felt this energy surge through my body,
like a pleasing kind of electricity flowing through me.
I had to turn to Howard and say, “that was great!”
And I realized, God had answered my prayer,
in a physical, non-verbal way.
He showed me, that the blessing is here,
and that His blessing will remain here,
through all of the changes that are to come.

Sometimes our experience of faith is non-verbal like that,
like when we come to the communion rail,
hungry in our spirits and we feel feed,
filled up, by the bite of spiritual body,
and the sip of spiritual blood
that we receive in our own bodies.
Sometimes it is not the words of a song that we hear,
but the way the melody touches our soul,
and gives us that comfort that only inspired music can offer.
And sometimes it's a peace from God
that we receive in prayer, when there are no words,
that gives us the strength to carry the burdens,
or face the challenges of our life.

Oftentimes that is the kind of rest,
that Jesus offers us
who are weary and carrying heavy burdens.
A kind of sacramental rest.
And it is so much more full of rest,
than the rest that summertime in its nature gives.
Charles Spurgeon wrote:
“The heart is by nature as restless as old ocean's waves; it seeks an object for its affection; and when it finds one beneath the stars, it is doomed to sorrow. Either the beloved changes, and there is disappointment; or death comes in, and there is bereavement. The more tender the heart, the greater its unrest. Those in whom the heart is simply one of the largest valves are undisturbed, because they are calloused; but the sensitive, the generous, the unselfish, are often found seeking rest and finding none. To such, the Lord Jesus says, “come unto Me, and I will give you rest.” (Synthesis)

He invites us to take his yoke upon us,
for, he says, his yoke is easy, and his burden is light.
That is to say, if we take the yoke of Jesus,
he is carrying it with us, and that makes it easy,
his partnership in life is what makes it light and bearable.

That is the true freedom we enjoy,
much greater than the independence that we celebrate in our Country this weekend,
the freedom to participate with Jesus as much,
or as little as we will.
His will is gracious,
gracious to allow us that freedom.
And the place that puts those of us who hope in him,
is one of being prisoners of a better kind.
As we heard from the prophet Zechariah,
who calls us “O prisoners of hope!”
“Return to your stronghold,
O prisoners of hope;
today I declare that I will restore to you double.”

To be a prisoner of hope,
is to trust in God's presence with us,
through non-verbal blessings, the sacraments
as well as words
in scripture and prayer.
To be a prisoner of hope is to rely
on the hope that Jesus is carrying the yoke with us,
and making the burden light by his presence.
To be a prisoner of hope is to give up our judgement of others
and of God, not expecting them or Him to be
the way we desire or what we feel we want,
but to hope that who he is
is better than we could ask for.

So today the lesson I draw from all of this,
is that it is not about us,
but about God's gracious will.
And the question is, will we participate in that will?
Will we welcome Jesus to carry our burdens with us,
and to share in his?
If we do, we will find that his yoke is easy
and his burden is light.
Again Spurgeon writes:
“Love will not be wasted,
however much it may be lavished upon Jesus.
He deserves it all,
and He requites it all.
In loving Him, the heart finds a delicious content.”
He is not removing the blessing so long as we walk with Him.