Monday, October 27, 2014

We Give Because of What We Have Been Given                 Year A; October 26, 2014
Episcopal Church of the Ascension                       The Reverend Dr. Howard J. Hess

I. Introduction. Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” These words are part of a prayer called “the SHEMA” found in Dt 6:4-9, which is prayed twice daily by all pious Jews. To the Shema Jesus added a passage from Lev (19.18): “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In the context of Hebrew understanding, “love” is an action verb. No only does one “feel” love, but one acts vigorously out of love. This kind of active love was described by Dr. Miroslov Volf here at Ascension two weeks ago as all about the giving and receiving of gifts. Such gift giving has been initiated by God in creation, personified in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ who became one of us, and exemplified by God’s sending the Holy Spirit to enliven us. As Miraslov Volf so eloquently writes, we give because God has given so generously to us and because God invites us to participate in that giving with him. We give, argues Volf, because God continues to give constantly to us. It is really that simple – all that we have, all that we are, and all that we will ever become has resulted from God’s gifts to us. God’s gifts are more exquisite, consistent, deeper, and broader than we can ever imagine. This is the power of one Holy, loving, triune God at work right here among us.
II. One of the greatest of God’s gifts to us is the church, the Body of Christ. It is where and with whom we gather to experience God’s presence in particularly powerful ways. The Church also provides us with a vital opportunity to respond to God with the reciprocal gift-giving of our own resources and talents. This Sunday each of us is being invited to place a pledge of our financial gift to the church on this altar. Our pledge is an opportunity to give back part of what we have received and take a step of active love, to express our gratitude for all we are given, and to share in the work of the Body of Christ, without which most, if not all of us as Jesus’ disciples, would flounder. As members of Christ’s body, we have opportunities to study, pray, and have fellowship together, and to minister to one another and to others. The talents and resources that we each give to the Body of Christ are multiplied many times over through our shared faith, service, and love. So today, please be generous.
One of the gifts that the church is receiving this week is an excellent letter written for the Parish Paper by our Associate Rector Brett Backus. I have asked Fr. Brett to share his letter with us this morning because I believe it to be a powerful articulation of the grace-filled presence of God in our parish and in the Episcopal Church. As Fr. Brett comes to join me, I also want to thank God publicly for the gift of Fr. Brett Backus to this parish. Those of us who have ministered with him as well as those of us to whom he has ministered know of the gifts he has brought to this parish – his wisdom, his compassion, and his commitment to helping lead us in the building of God’s Kingdom here at Ascension. Fr. Brett . . .

The 13th Sunday after Pentecost September 7, 2014 Episcopal Church of the Ascension The Reverend Dr. Howard J. Hess For the Ministry of the Church
Introduction. Today is Rally Day ~ the day we celebrate the re-gathering of our community as we enter into a new program year and leave summer vacations behind. We worship in two different places this morning ~ here at 8, and at Grace Point, our Diocesan Camp, at 10:30. In observance of this day, our lectionary readings come from the Book of Common Prayer in a section entitled “For Special Occasions.” These readings celebrate who we are, why we exist, and what we are to be about.
II. So who are we ~ this community that calls itself The Episcopal Church of the Ascension? My basic response is that we are a thriving community of believers situated here on the top of a hill, committed to be a place in which the Gospel of Jesus Christ is proclaimed and enacted. We are Christ-followers, and as Paul tells us in Ephesians, Christ Jesus is our cornerstone. Listen to the final portion of the Epistle: “In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.” I believe very strongly that we are thriving because God loves us and is blessing us. And I believe that we are blessed at Ascension because Christ is the head of this church. And it is Christ who has taught us how to love one another as well as how to love those who come into our community. This week our August statistical report was published. Thus far in 2014, we have welcomed 84 new members into our parish. Our total membership is approaching 1400. All the indications of a healthy church are present here at Ascension ~ healthy programs, healthy giving, and healthy attendance. This will continue as long as we recognize that the glue that holds us together is our faith in Jesus Christ.
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You see, part of what happens to us and through us as Christ-followers is that we become more and more deeply a people who love peace. Referring to believers in Yahweh, Isaiah wrote “they shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” The effort and energy that goes into hurting one another will be transformed into efforts to feed and care for each other. This is echoed in Ephesians: “So (Christ) came and proclaimed peace to those who were far off and peace to those who were near . . . “ As a people of peace, we understand the vital importance of openness to a variety of viewpoints and range of goals that individuals in our community might bring. We thrive both through our shared core belief in Christ and our openness to difference. We are free through Christ at Ascension to be who we are in unity, constancy, and peace.
III. So then, why do we exist? Psalm 96 answers this question beautifully. We exist to worship God and to both love and proclaim God the Father, Jesus Christ the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We exist so that we can “Sing to the Lord a new song; . . . sing to the Lord and bless his Name; (to) proclaim the good news of salvation from day to day and to declare his glory among the nations and his wonders among all peoples.” We exist to praise God and to proclaim Him.
We are to proclaim God here within our own community as well as outwardly to the world. Isaiah wrote: “Come let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” As you know, we have a new Sunday School format this year – we have had over 200 adults who have signed up to attend on of the adult classes; we have moved the time of Sunday School to make it more accessible; and we have just hired a new dynamic youth director. I strongly encourage all of us to participate in our parish’s educational program and I encourage our youth to engage in our youth program. We have a window of opportunity right now as begin many new initiatives.
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IV. Lastly, what are we to be about? Luke’s Gospel spells out the answer to this question so clearly. We are to go out into the world to proclaim the Gospel of Christ. We are to go out together. and we are to go out to proclaim that, “The Kingdom of God has come near to you.” Notice the Gospel reading does not tell us exactly what to do. What is emphasizes is that “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” What we will do depends on what God calls us to do and what gifts God gives us. We can be called to a ministry of reaching out to others who desire to know Christ, but don’t know how to find him; we can reach out to those who are homeless, such as helping with Family Promise, or we can serve in a food ministry such as Fish. The opportunities are unlimited and the more we do the more the Lord will ask us to do. While Peg and I were in Nova Scotia this summer, we were surrounded by the symbol of the Celtic Knot. This symbol conveys visually how all of the pieces of our life here at Ascension fit together ~ knowing and celebrating who are; being clear about our purpose; and living out our mission. These pieces flow together in a unity that knows no end. Thanks be to God. Amen.