Tuesday, September 9, 2014

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. 
Persistence in the Face of High Improbability                                  August 17, 2014
Episcopal Church of the Ascension                       The Reverend Dr. Howard J. Hess
                                                                    
Introduction. The un-named Canaanite woman in today’s Gospel reading was extraordinarily persistent. She broke through the protective circle of disciples surrounding Jesus and pleaded her case, even when Jesus’ initial reaction was not positive. Her determined persistence ~ acting on her faith ~ carried the day. The probability that she could convince Jesus to heal her daughter was very low, yet she persisted. She was a Gentile, a woman, and a person from a nation that had typically been in deep conflict with the Jews; yet she persisted.
In writing this sermon, I reflected upon times in my own life when I have persisted in the face of what seemed like overwhelming negative odds. For example, when Peg and I were first married, we had difficulty in conceiving a child. Tests indicated that the underlying problem was mine, and we were told to give up hope. But with God’s help, we persisted, sought a second medical opinion at a large teaching hospital, and received the treatment we needed. Two children and five grandchildren later, I am grateful for the gift of persistence in the face of fear and disappointment. Fear and disappointment because we knew that there were no guarantees that persistence would change the original outcome.
And I remembered the long nights in seminary; one in particular comes to mind ~ studying all the earliest Anglican theologians in the original Old English. I was studying in bed, surrounded by twenty open books, and I understood about 10% of what I read. The strongest temptation came over me ~ just quit this seminary stuff. This is next to ridiculous! I will never preach a sermon using Old English, nor did I have any desire to do so. I remember calling Peg and saying, “Come up to New Haven, because I’m pulling out and need you to help me move out of here!” As we talked, I remember beginning to re-experience the clarity of my vocational call and my faith. I went back to those books and persisted forwarded.
II. A Deep Spiritual Truth. I believe that today’s brief and in a way slightly perplexing Gospel teaches us a deep spiritual truth: that based upon our faith as believers in Jesus Christ, we have the strength and the wisdom to persist in the face of mightily powerful challenges in our lives. And that strength and wisdom enable us to do so in hope. In the Gospel, the pleading, unnamed woman addressed Jesus as “Lord.” Throughout Matthew, only believers addressed Jesus as Lord. In addition, Jesus praised this woman for her great faith. Search the Gospel of Matthew and you will find that she is the only person to receive such high praise from Jesus. Read again the conclusion of our Gospel: “’Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.”
Right now, many of us are facing or will in the future face significant and tough challenges. We do not always have the resolution to these challenges that we desire. But what we do know is that it is our persistence grounded in our faith that will allow us to seek God’s help, and, to receive in response the grace-filled assistance that God determines to provide us.
Think of the number of times Jesus lifted up the power of persistence ~ the parable of the woman who needed court intervention from a non-caring judge. Due to her persistence, he finally heard her case and justice was done. Or the man who had a need in the middle of the night and knocked on his neighborhood’s door until the neighbor finally agreed to help him. So, my sisters and brothers, we can and must rely upon our faith to persistently reach out to God for the help we need and live in the hope that God will respond because God loves us.
III. Inclusion: There is a second remarkable element to this story. Once again, Jesus broke all the rules and intervened in the life of a woman viewed by the Jews as unclean and alien. Notice how the disciples urged Jesus to send her away. Initially, he hesitated in helping her. It’s not clear why ~ perhaps he wanted this exchange to play out in the fullest way. But he did heal this Canaanite woman’s young daughter.
Jesus was inclusive; he was a rule-breaker, and he set the stage for a whole re-definition of the value of human beings. Think about it ~ the first missionary of the Christian Church was the Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus talked with her at length and broke all the religious and cultural rules about gender and race. He challenged the distinctions made by humans and brought them crashing down. He took on the power structure, and they retaliated by killing him. His response was to come back again in three days, destroying death. It is an integral part of our faith to follow Jesus’ loving, inclusive example in the ways in which we lead our own lives and in how we apply and practice our faith.
In just a few moments we will renew our baptismal covenant. We will affirm that we will honor and respect the dignity of every human being. As you know, this idea is revolutionary in our world, just as it was in the time of Jesus. I do not believe that respecting others’ dignity is a passive matter of tolerance. No, it’s a willingness to pro-actively live out that value every moment of our lives. It’s a matter of the small and the large ways we consistently communicate Christ’s love to others. It affects deeply how we greet one another this morning. It affects how we respond to other parishioners who are ill or struggling in some way. It affects how we use our resources and how we participate in our parish community. And folks, it deeply affects our willingness and ability to be tolerant and open to the ideas and perspectives of others, not assuming that we are the wisest among us.
V. Conclusion. You see, the two aspects of this Gospel upon which we are reflecting this morning ~ faith and persistence and breaking beyond existing barriers ~ are mutually re-enforcing. We cannot model ourselves after Christ unless we are willing to step out and be empowered by him. And we cannot be empowered unless we have the mind and heart of Christ.
For example, I am deeply saddened by what has been unfolding in the Middle East. Due to the hostilities there, one of the only health care resources in Gaza is the Hospital associated with the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem. Since there has been no power in Gaza, the hospital must operate on very expensive fuel to run the generators. I want to thank Yvonne Poppen for sending me the initial email I received about this. When we think about human suffering with the mind of Christ, we are moved. I intend to send a monetary donation to the hospital. If any of you are moved to augment that gift, please let me know. This is but one example ~ the key point is that the mind of Christ moves us beyond cultural, social, and political barriers, and the love of Christ allows us to have faith in how fully he will respond to us in our times of need. Thank you God for allowing us to participate in the sacred redemptive love of Jesus.


Carrying the Cross Together

The Rev. Amy Morehous
Proper 17
August 31, 2014

Last week Fr. Brett reminded us that we are the keeper of the keys, we
ARE Peter - we are equally imperfect, equally called by God. We are fully
known by Jesus - and we have the chance to come to know him and to
proclaim him as the Christ. The Messiah. We all have the chance to stand
before Jesus and answer the question "who do you say that I am?"

So the question Jesus asks us in the Gospel today is if Jesus is the Christ
- the Messiah, then so what? What are we going to do about it? So what?
Has it made any difference in how you live your life? Today Jesus asks the
disciples - asks us - what have we done to follow him?

As Fr. Brett admitted last week, he didn’t want to preach on “who do you
say I am?” because he has trouble answering that question for himself.
Well, I’m here to tell you that I wrestle with that "so what?" - with my own
stubborn will - far more than I wrestle with knowing Jesus as Christ. The
three things most frequently standing between me and a life of
discipleship are me, myself and I. What I found in my journey toward
Christ is that I want to give him parts of my life, but still hang on and
control everything else. Here, Jesus - here's the time I spent here at
church. Is that enough? Here are all the good "holy" parts of my day. How
about that - is that enough? But Jesus isn't interested in my life being
more holy - what Jesus wants to know is if my life is his. My whole life -
not just the parts I want to hand over. Perhaps that's just my cross to
bear.

How often have you said, "Well, that is just my cross to bear.” Or heard it
from others? Not Jesus' cross. My cross. As if we were all, each of us, Jesus
on the road to Golgotha. My cross. Mine. We worry about all the things
that are ours. Our money, our time, our health, our family - as if any of
that truly belonged to us. As if it were not all a gift from a loving, giving,
grace-filled God.

All the time that is given to us is given as a gift from God. And we have no
control over how much of it is left to us in this life. None. And no matter
how tightly I hang on to my life with a white-knuckled grip, that will never
change. If I am a follower of Christ, my time is not my own. My very life is
not my own. It is God’s. It came from God, and it will return to God.

This world we have helped construct around us would like us to believe
that we are so important that we can control it all. That our time is only
ours, that we can all do it all by ourselves, we have earned it all
ourselves, and that we are in charge of our own lives. This world would
have us believe that the most important thing is only what’s good for me,
regardless of the consequences for anyone else.

But if all we can see is what's best for us, and not what's best for our neighbor, we are not seeing with the eyes of a disciple. If we are worried only about being "holy enough," we will miss being the living, growing, giving real self God made me to be. If we are not giving of our real, whole selves, we are not following Christ - we are not loving with a Self-sacrificial, Christ-like love. We are blinded by our freedom, and by the kingdoms of this world. So, like Jeremiah, we are free to choose. We can choose what is precious, or we can choose what is worthless. We can choose to hang on to this gift of a life tightly, and live only for ourselves, keep it all to ourselves. Or we can open our hands and give it away. We can hand our lives to God, our whole lives and let God make what God will, and know that it will be infinitely richer than anything we could imagine alone. If we hand our lives to God, if we follow Jesus, we will not be taking up our own crosses.

To choose a life in Christ is not to take up our individual crosses. Jesus
isn't asking me to carry my cross alone. “If any want to become my
followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow
me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose
their life for my sake will find it.” The cross is singular, but the people are
plural. Will we let go of our one life and join with all the faithful disciples?
Will we carry the one cross of Christ together? There are many disciples,
but only one cross. We’re not meant to carry that one Cross alone, nor
could we. That cross is too large for anyone except Jesus.

Today Jesus asks us to take up the cross together - to fling our whole
selves with abandon into relationship with him AND with one another. The
Rev. Mike Kinman says that "following Jesus is not a solo act. Exactly the
opposite. Following Jesus binds us to one another in ways wonderful and
terrifying, joyful and difficult.” And Jesus knows that in order to take up
the cross together, we're each going to have to let go of the things we're
holding individually. And that letting go is terrifying. We can't hold a little
bit back, just to be safe. We can’t hedge our bets and build up our
kingdoms in this world on the side, just in case this whole “Jesus thing”
doesn’t work out. It doesn’t work that way.

Letting go of what you have always known, and grabbing on to that cross
is a hard thing to do. But to be a follower of Christ, we have to do it
despite our fear. What are afraid of? We're afraid that we will let go of
what we think we know, and reach for the cross, only to find air. We fear
that we will reach and we will fail. We will fail others. We will fail God.
That God will fail us.

Giving yourself wholeheartedly into relationship with Jesus will strip you of your sense of self-determination, any sense of pride, your calm feeling of being in control, and it will fling you out on the other side, stunned and grateful and joyful, sure of God’s presence in your life, and completely unsure of how you got there.

So, are you giving your life over to God, or are you not? Are you going to follow Jesus, or are you not? Some of us do that wholeheartedly, all at once. We let go, and we grab on to the cross, exhilarated and bold. Some of us have to do it grudgingly, inch by hard-fought inch. It’s as if we are hanging on tightly to the ledge of our lives, and having to peel off one finger at a time.  Because letting go means that we are giving up control. It means we have to  trust. We have to trust that other people will be there to hold that cross  alongside us. We have to trust that Jesus will meet us there when we do.

If we really believe that Jesus is who we have proclaimed him to be - if we
give ourselves to him, deeply and profoundly - we allow ourselves to enter
into relationship with him and with others. We give our whole life to him,
and to those around us, and we trust that who we are in Christ will be
enough. We trust that even when our life together is difficult that God will
be in it.

God will give you strength. God will save you and deliver you. God will
redeem you. So let go, friends. Let go of the life you had planned, and
choose that which is most precious - the cross of Christ.

Amen