Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Call to Love                     Third Sunday after Epiphany, Year B, January 25, 2015 Episcopal Church of the Ascension                         The Reverend Dr. Howard J. Hess

I. Introduction. Approximately eight years ago, I received a call to become the priest-in-charge of The Episcopal Church of the Ascension. The story of that call is known by many of you here this morning. The abridged version goes something like this. I had been asked by several members of the church I served in Aiken, South Carolina, to apply to become their priest-in-charge. I decided to meet with Bishop Charles von Rosenberg to seek his advice. The Bishop advised me wisely, and I decided not to apply. But in the course of our conversation, the topic turned to Ascension, and looking at the Bishop I remarked, “Perhaps at some point I can help you there.” I had no idea where that response came from, and I was aware it was unsolicited and could sound arrogant. “Yes,” he said, and noted that he had recently been praying and had had that same thought while in prayer. He went on to say that he paid close attention to such experiences as well as the “co-incidence” of our exchange that morning. This, I believe, was the genesis of an on-going process that led me here. In hindsight, I can see that God had a plan and that it was unfolding – parenthetically before we knew anything about what that plan would entail. Just as a plan for Ascension’s next spiritual leader is unfolding now.

II. But there is a back-story that I would like to share with you, and it involves Jonah. Several years prior to coming to Ascension, I accepted God’s call to another parish in this diocese. I was excited at the opportunity to serve as the church’s rector and to work with them toward the new programs and growth that they envisioned. This church had many wonderful qualities ~ a beautifully renovated sanctuary, a strong music program, and lay leadership with deep roots in the church and in the community. But over time, as we attempted to introduce modest changes in liturgy and consider programs to meet the needs of new members, it became clear that another of the church’s qualities was a deep reluctance to make the changes necessary to support the growth that had been envisioned. I should note that this is not at all unusual – the Episcopal website is filled with church profiles that emphasize a parish’s hopes and intentions to grow; but when it becomes clear that church growth, and even more importantly, maintaining church growth, involves change, ambivalence typically arises.
As their rector, I begin to become frustrated and downhearted. I must admit my love for the people of the parish began to suffer. One weekend my spiritual director, Sr. Rosina, whom many of you have met, came to lead a retreat and to preach. She stayed in our home, and she and I had many conversations over that weekend. The lectionary readings included today’s passage from Jonah. You remember that the full account of Jonah’s story opens with God commanding Jonah to preach repentance to the city of Nineveh. Jonah found this order unbearable and did just the opposite of what he was told. He went to the seaport of Joppa and boarded a ship heading directly away from Nineveh. God caused a great storm that threatened to swallow the ship; Jonah understood what was happening and told the crew to throw him overboard. The sailors finally tossed Jonah into the sea, and the waters grew calm. Instead of drowning, however, Jonah was swallowed by a great whale, which God provided. In the belly of the fish, Jonah repented and cried out to God. When the whale threw Jonah up on the land, Jonah obeyed God and went to Nineveh. 
I reflected with Sr. Rosina on the theological meaning of this passage, emphasizing Jonah’s disobedience to God. Then, Sr. Rosina asserted her interpretation that Jonah’s shortcoming was that he didn’t love the people of Nineveh. He carried the Jewish antagonism toward the Assyrians who had overrun the Northern Kingdom of Israel and taken most of its inhabitants into exile. Jonah did not want to see Nineveh, their capital city, preserved. As far as Jonah was concerned, the destruction of the city and all within it would have been well deserved. He had no desire to participate in their redemption. Imagine, then his dismay, when a lackluster, two sentence, poorly crafted sermon resulted in the entire city’s repentance, with even the animals moving about in sack cloth and ashes. Again Jonah questioned God, because Jonah was angry that Israel's enemies had been spared. God was doing two things in the story of Jonah, Sr. Rosina asserted: saving a city of thousands of people and teaching Jonah how to love others in the way that God loved them, even “different others.” God was teaching Jonah “chesed” -- the Hebrew word for God’s deep love, which is used repeatedly throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.

As I reflected upon Sr. Rosina’s teaching, I realized that I, too, had a lesson to learn. God had called me to that church to love God’s people there. Everything else was secondary. Without love, I was not equipped to minister to them as they struggled with their different visions of what their parish was to become. I had to learn that the outcome of my ministry in that parish was in God’s hands; my responsibility was to stay focused upon loving God’s people. I can now see that God was not going to call me to any other parish until I had personally struggled with and learned in a new way the lesson of unconditional love for God’s people. It was only after I had spent considerable time learning this lesson that the opportunity to come here, to Ascension, unfolded.

III. God is so good. As I came to know the people of Ascension, I have reflected often on this lesson. God created us with both the need for unconditional love and the capacity to love unconditionally. We, God’s people, experience that God loves us, but to heal and thrive as a community of believers, we need to experience our clergy’s love and our love for one another. God was preparing me to minister with you by teaching me more deeply and fully the meaning of “chesed” – God’s love. I had to learn that disagreement and differences among Christian sisters and brothers should not lead to the lessening of our love for one another. This lesson is one that God invites us to re-learn again and again.

Did you know that The Book of Jonah is always read on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, because of its emphasis upon repentance, forgiveness, mercy, and “chesed” – God’s love? So today Jonah comes up again for me and for you. As I prepared this sermon, I asked God what Jonah has to teach all of us this morning. I believe the lessons are multiple. First, that I need to affirm to you that I have a great deal of love for you. It’s not really that I’m such a naturally loving guy – you can check that out with Peg! It is because you are a lovable people who are committed to one another and to your spiritual growth and ministry in deep ways. Thanks a lot – that also makes you a hard community to leave! Secondly, Jonah also has something to teach us today about loving one another. Each one of us here has different gifts and sometimes different opinions. Like a family, we are called upon to love one another in spite of these differences and as we change over time. And just like a family, our tension fault lines begin to show up when we experience transitions and major change. So please bear with each another through our upcoming conversations and changes. Seek to know others who may have perspectives different from your own, be slow to react, and be open to how God uses all of us to reach unity, constancy, and peace.

IV. Conclusion. My prayer for you is that as a community of believers, you will continue to reflect the open, loved-filled parish that I have known this past eight years – that you will continue to see one another through the eyes of Christ and actively love one another as Christ loves us. Amen.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Second Sunday After Epiphany
John 1:43-51
“The In-Breaking”
Perhaps it does sound childish to some, spiritually immature maybe, or theologically incorrect.  I even catch myself trying to explain it away sometimes, but in the end I know, at my gut, in my heart, at my core, that I have experienced God.  I have experienced God, in a dream that disturbed me, in a storm that showed me a sign, in a mountain that moved me, in a smile that soothed, a hand that healed, in a silence that spoke.  I have felt God in the darkness of death, and heard God in the miracle of life.  For me, this is ultimately undeniable.
So I wonder, how do You hear the voice of God?  What are those moments in your life when the veil has been pierced, when you’ve seen clearly even if only for a moment?  When have you experienced an In-Breaking of the Spirit?  What is Your Epiphany story?  These are the things that the season of Epiphany is about.  Not just the revealing of Christ to the world back then, but the idea, the crazy belief that God continues to be revealed all the time to us today as well.  Yet, strangely, it seems to me that these are the very things, the very experiences that we find so hard to believe are possible or hard to allow ourselves to have, that we so easily let fade from our memory, and that we especially find so terribly difficult to share with others.
How often have I heard the question: “If God was so vocal and present in the Old Testament, why is God so silent in our time?”  That sure says a lot about us and where we are spiritually doesn’t it?  Or maybe we are just like Samuel in this morning’s Old Testament reading.  There’s God, constantly yelling out to us, calling us by name, reaching out, and yet we fail to even acknowledge a sound.  As if we are walking around with our fingers in our ears, our hands over our eyes, a shield over our hearts.  Yet, there’s that same message, throughout scripture and throughout our lives, and it is seen so clearly in a consistent thread in all of today’s readings.  God does not give up on us.  Even more profound, God doesn’t really even need to call or reach out, because our connection to God through Christ is already so intimate, so seamless, so unified.  
In Samuel, God chooses to speak to a mere boy training to be a servant of the Lord, in a time when it was said that the voice of God was seldom heard.  From our Psalm, “Lord, you have searched me out and known me; you know my sitting down and my rising up.  For you yourself created my inmost parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.”  In much the same way, Jesus, in today’s Gospel reveals that He knew Nathanael already before they ever met.  Paul drives home the point in the Epistle that our bodies are members of Christ, that we are indeed One Spirit with Him, and that the Holy Spirit, God, dwells within us.  
That sure makes things pretty clear doesn’t it?  Today, we hear the same message that God has been consistently giving to the world for thousands of years and arguably since the beginning.  The same message that lies at the center of all that we preach, teach, and believe.  That message hasn’t changed.  That voice of God hasn’t really ever fallen silent, or suddenly piped up again.  It has always been and will always be.  So why does this remain such a challenging message for us to grasp?  Why can we not either love ourselves enough to realize and accept this immense gift of God, or get ourselves out of our own way long enough to come to grips with our incredible need for God’s gift?  
Of course, in light of our holiday tomorrow, I can’t help but to think about Martin Luther King Jr.  During this time that we remember and honor that great man, I can’t help but to think that perhaps it’s because of our deep fear of where listening to such a voice and realizing such a connection might end up taking us.  How might it change us?  Might allowing ourselves to be loved so much by something end up forcing us to truly love others?  Are we ready to be like King and the many others who have gone before us who had really been to the mountain, who had truly heard the message?  Are we ready to be concerned for and seek out the other, the outcast, the rejected the oppressed, the voiceless in our world, in our community, in this very church?  Are we ready to love those who are different from us?
Of course, I don’t pretend to have answers to these questions.  Nor do I feel I need them.  I do believe though, that somehow in each of us, it is either our excessive self love, or our inability to love ourselves, or maybe some combination of the two, that keeps us from realizing our true life in God.  It is because of that belief that this morning, for what it’s worth, I just want you all to know that my favorite place I’ve experienced God by far, the place that I have seen God more clearly than ever, more than in a dream, a storm, a mountain, a smile, believe it or not, is in you.  I see Jesus in each of you.  My hope and prayer today and always is that one day, if not already, you will each experience that same beautiful Truth as well.  


The Rev. Brett P. Backus
Associate Rector
The Episcopal Church
of the Ascension

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Incarnation - God Identifies Even with Adolescence

The Rev. Robert P. Travis
Second Sunday of Christmas Sermon  – 7:45 (exclude parenthetical sections), 9 and 11:15am Service, Church of the Ascension, Knoxville TN - RCL  1/4/2015
Text: Jeremiah 31:7-14, Psalm 84:1-8, Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a, Luke 2:41-52

Sermon Text:
The great miracle of the incarnation,
which we focus on and celebrate for such a short time
during these 12 days of the Christmas Season,
is that the Word of God,
the second person of the eternal Trinity
Humbled himself to become one of us,
Human in every way.
And by humbling himself,
He gave us the greatest glory,
By giving us the gift of connecting his divine nature,
To our humanity.
In today’s gospel we see His incarnation
in one of the most humble ways.
That of the adolescent.

(I love this Gospel story,
and have meditated on it
over and over for many years,
especially since it was central to the
Journey to Adulthood program I used to run
In the beginning of my ministry.
So I’m excited to get to share it with you today.)

How many of us look back on the time
when we were 12,
In Junior High or Middle School,
And think, “that was the best time of my life!”
Or “I was really at my best when I was 12?”

I certainly don’t.
I found it to be a trying time,
A time of beginning to question who I am,
An uncertain time,
of wondering almost constantly what others thought of me, and feeling insecure,
A time when I began challenging my parents,
And started to see the ways
that they were less than ideal.

The awesome thing about the story
of Jesus in the temple,
Is that we see the word of God,
Identifying with us in that very time of adolescence,
That so many of us found difficult.

(First off, let’s set aside the notion that
Mary and Joseph did anything wrong by
Not keeping track of Jesus this time
when they went up to the festival in Jerusalem.
The story carefully tells us
that they went up to the festival every year,
so by the time Jesus was 12,
they had done this a number of times,
and it was becoming the kind of routine experience,
where as a family people
tend to rest on their assumptions,
and everyone knows what they are
supposed to be doing.
It was customary to travel with a group of people,
and to rely on the group to watch out
for each others children
And it was also customary that
around the age of 12 or 13
An adolescent boy would take on
new responsibility as a
Young adult in the synagogue and temple worship,
Much like the Jewish tradition we know about today
in the celebration of a bar mitzvah.
So Jesus would have naturally been given a greater amount of independence
on this journey to the festival,
And since the group of travelers watched out for each other’s children, it was normal for Mary and Joseph to assume that Jesus was in the group of travelers when they all left Jerusalem together.
So can’t you just imagine Joseph or Mary saying,
“what do you mean he’s not with our friends and relatives? He should have known we’d be leaving together!”
and their search for him became more frantic.)

After Joseph and Mary discovered Jesus missing,
They went back to Jerusalem
and searched for their son
For three days!
And you can imagine, if you’ve ever lost a child, even for a few minutes, that at the end of three days they were at their wits end
and emotionally as well as physically exhausted,
and maybe had very little hope left
of finding their son.
So what else was there but
to go to the temple to pray,
As they had given up on their efforts
to find him on their own.

So can you imagine, as they walked in the temple,
And heard what sounded like that familiar voice,
And then turned a corner and saw their boy sitting with the teachers, how shocked they must have been?
At that point they were most probably not impressed,
Or even paying attention to the amazement
That the teachers were showing at their child’s understanding and his answers.
No, they were shocked, astonished,
and his mother says to him,
Something that in my experience would not have been nearly so calm and polite
as we sometimes read it.
“Child, why have you treated us like this?”
(there might even have been some expletives in there, that the early scribes edited out of Mary’s account)

The way Jesus responds is to me
nothing less than awesome,
because it sounds so much like any young teenager,
who has that new-found confidence of being right.
“Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
(there is so much in that one statement,
that Jesus makes,
that shows us how much he lived
in our very condition.)

And of course, much like we as parents are,
Or as our parents were to us,
We know how in their anxiety and exhaustion,
His wise statement did not sound so wise,
Or even make much sense.
And we read, “they did not understand
what he said to them.”
But Jesus knew that all he could
do was go with them,
And do his best to be obedient to them.
And the good news is, that Jesus grew in wisdom,
And grew physically, and grew in favor with God and other people, which describes how we all must grow from our adolescence onward into adulthood.

It gives me great comfort to know that our Lord was a sassy, albeit precocious adolescent,
That he upset his parents,
and caused them great anxiety.
That even though he was the Son of God,
He also went through life just like we have to,
And that sometimes those things He was so sure of about himself, didn’t make sense to anyone else,
Even his own mom and dad.

(today as we celebrate the new lives
of these children in our community,
as we baptize them into the name of this same Jesus.
I can say that we are giving them a great gift,
That of being able to identify with a God who is not
Just out there and transcending everything,
But a God who was and is just like they are,
That the struggles they will have growing up,
He had as well, and the challenges
Joys and sorrows of being in the families they are in,
He shares with them in his own experience.)

Jesus incarnation is a great gift to all of us.
He shows us that he knows
all the ups and downs of our lives,
even the awkwardness of adolescence.
By knowing our lives,
Jesus also glorifies them,
And takes the very ordinary aspects of life,
from how we relate to our parents,
to what it takes to grow up
he takes each of those
and makes them holy and good.
Thanks be to God,
For the wonder of his love in becoming one of us.