Monday, March 23, 2015

The In-Between Times                                           Lent V, Year B; March 22, 2015
Episcopal Church of the Ascension                      The Reverend Dr. Howard J. Hess

I. Introduction: The In-Between Times. Just this week we have seen our first glimpses of the arrival of spring in East Tennessee. Forsythia and daffodils, the first spring flowers to make their appearance, are blooming, and we have actually had several days of near balmy temperatures. But, of course, we remember that we live in beautiful East Tennessee, and therefore our weather is subject to constant and dramatic change. We are living in a time in-between the seasons.

II. And it is an in-between time at Ascension as well. There is much transition in our midst. Most of you know the details. Fr. Rob leaves Ascension on April 12th to become Rector and Priest in Charge of two parishes in Rhode Island, while Bettie Corey and I both retire on April 30th. Suffice it to say that our equilibrium has been challenged! Transitions often unfold in stages, don’t they, and each stage typically consists of a set of opportunities and challenges. Right now we are in the dual process of saying good-bye and anticipating welcoming a new spiritual leader. In just a few minutes you will hear from our Sr. Warden about Ascension’s progress in recruiting a new Priest in Charge. The news is good. God is good!

But before we jump to the happy new beginning that we hope for let’s ponder the spiritual opportunities and challenges of the in-between time we are in. We are in the process of saying farewell to one another. Good-byes are hard. They are particularly hard when the persons saying the goodbye deeply love one another. I have shared with you on numerous occasions how very much you have meant to me and the gift that Ascension has given me of being such a beautiful and loving place to conclude my full-time vocational career. In all seriousness, a Rector could not ask for more. And as time passes, I am continuing to hear from many of you about how much you have valued our relationship. Thank you for your affirmation and your kindness.

III. But we come back to the question as we always do of what is the spiritual essence of the in-between time? Jesus is entering such an in-between time with his apostles in today’s Gospel lesson from John. As John tells the story, Jesus has already brought Lazarus back from the dead, had his feet washed by Mary, and made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Events are quickening for Jesus and he knows it. In today’s Gospel he is trying to prepare his followers for the events of his Passion – his trial, his crucifixion, and his Resurrection. Jesus is teaching about the Great Reversal that captures the core of Christian belief – “those who love their life will lose it and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” These are startling words; what does Jesus mean? He used a familiar image to explain that “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” In other words, out of death will come new life; out of endings, new beginnings; out of the crucifixion will come the Resurrection; and out of this in-between time at Ascension will come a new chapter of life for this community of believers. Right now this new life is more specifically clear in the mind of God, but have no doubt, a new and glorious chapter is in store, and God is at the center of how events will unfold to bring this new life at Ascension into being. What I believe Jesus asks us to do this morning is to have faith in the process, hold firm in that faith, and not to allow fear or grief to undermine our steadiness and participation in living through this in-between time.

III. Spring makes the point. Several years ago we hosted the popular and engaging author Anne Lamott. Listen to how she describes transition and transformation into new life: She writes:
“Amazingly, the very first bulbs we planted began to bloom. Within a week, there were dozens of daffodils in the yard. When this finally happens in late winter every year, I am astonished. Because I have always given up. In November and December when I plant them, I get swept up in the fantasy that the earth, after so much rain, will be rich and loamy.

At that point, planting bulbs sounds like a romantic and fun thing to do, but it never is. The earth is rocky and full of roots; it’s clay, and it seems doomed and polluted, yet you dig little holes for the ugly shriveled bulbs, throw in a handful of poppy seeds, and cover everything over with dirt, and you just know you’ll never see them again – it’s all death and clay and shrivel. Your hands are nicked from the rocks, your nails are black with soil . . . Yet here we are in the last days of March, with daffodils everywhere, and poppies waiting in the wings.” 

And here we are in the last days of Lent, anticipating with all our being what lies waiting for us in the wings.

III. So what is waiting in the wings for us? Well, we know there will be change. We are about to end Lent and enter into Holy Week. Together we will live out the Easter story with its sometimes dark in-between time and its glorious crescendo of the new life of the Resurrection. I hope, as I have hoped each year since I arrived here, that you will all participate in the full story of the Passion, all of Holy Week as well as Easter Sunday. And together we will enjoy many farewell celebrations together, such as the Memories and Music Program this coming Tuesday evening. Through these events we will remember together and share our gratitude for the our experiences. I would like to offer some wisdom that I learned from Peg, who learned it from her Dad, who at 92 continues to be active as a retired United Methodist Church minister. Throughout Peg’s childhood her parents served a number of churches in East Tennessee, including the church on the hill in Gatlinburg and one here in Knoxville while Peg finished high school at Fulton. Peg’s Dad observed that some ministers believe that a sign that their ministry in a particular church has been successful, is the degree to which they are missed when they leave. In fact, he taught his children, one of the signs of a successful ministry is the loving way a church welcomes its next spiritual leader and joins with their new minister in moving forward together. I anticipate that the ministry that you and Peg and I have shared together will be followed by a deeply loving and thriving ministry with the Priest in Charge that you and God have called to Ascension.

V. Conclusion. Leaving is hard; saying good-bye is hard. Truly it’s not my strongest suit. So you may need at times to help me say good-bye as well. In the meantime, we are here at Ascension together. We are claiming God’s promises of new life together, we are preparing to re-experience Christ’s passion, crucifixion, and Resurrection together, and we are never forgetting that it is God who is at the center of all we do and all we are. And my friends, God is faithful and will give us exactly what we need. Thanks be to God.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Jesus Cleansing the Temple of our Bodies

The Rev. Robert P. Travis
Lent 3 Sermon  – 7:45am, 9am and 11:15am Church of the Ascension, Knoxville TN
RCL year b 3/8/2015
Text: Exodus 20:1-17, 1 Corinthians 1:18-25, John 2:13-22

Sermon Text:
The message about the cross is foolishness
To those who are perishing.
That is one of the most clear and shocking
Passages of scripture for those of us with modern ears
I mean, we know the gospel to be Good News.
So how can the cross we love so much
And even parade around, be a symbol of foolishness?
But if we think about it for just a moment,
We can see that the cross looks like utter failure,
In a world that values success more than anything else.

It’s not just the cross though, that is foolishness,
As a part of the gospel,
Jesus shows us in the gospel passage,
That an equally foolish notion to those who are perishing
And close to as powerful to those being saved,
Is the notion of the temple of God
Being in a human body, in the person of Jesus,
And through the power of the Holy Spirit,
The temple in our bodies as well.

See when Jesus went into the temple in Jerusalem,
The only temple for the Jews,
And was full of zeal, even anger
at the way it had become a market place,
Where people were taking advantage of the religious
Duties of the common people for personal profit,
He was expressing a love of the temple
That would have been common for any faithful jewish man.
The temple of the Lord was the very presence of God,
Among God’s people,
So of course it was offensive that it had become
Cheapened as a place to make a buck off of a neighbor.
But it had been allowed to become that,
By the very religious leaders who were supposed
To guard its holiness.
The market for sacrificial items and money,
Had become as much a part of the status quo,
As the building itself.
So of course when Jesus clears the temple,
And casts out the animals and the money changers,
The jewish leaders present demand to know,
By what authority Jesus is changing the status quo,
In the same way that Paul tells us they would,
They demand a sign (“Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom.”)
The sign that Jesus offers, or foretells,
Shows them utter foolishness.
He tells them “destroy this temple,
And in three days I will raise it up.”

And I wonder what his body language was like,
When he said that,
Was it (pointing outward) “destroy this temple.”
Or was it (pointing at own body) “destroy this temple.”
But even if he pointed to himself, they didn’t get it.
Even his disciples didn’t get it, until after
He was raised from the dead.

Jesus was pointing to a truth about himself,
That would become true for his followers,
That was radically different from the faith up to then.
That God’s presence is within him,
Alive in him,
And even when that temple is destroyed,
God’s life within him will not be destroyed,
But will cause him to be raised from death.
When we follow him, that same divine life
Is alive within us as well.
And likewise when our bodies are destroyed,
God’s life within us will not be destroyed,
But will cause us to be raised from death.
So if Jesus is the temple,
then we are the temple as well.

Today that begs the question from our gospel,
How do we allow our temple, our bodies, ourselves,
To become a marketplace?
To be bought and sold so that others can make a buck?
And how can we make it holy instead?
I imagine the answer to the first question is obvious.
Since my family is away,
I have been watching a lot more Television than I’m used to
So I have seen the constant ads for pleasures,
Products that promise to fulfill our desires,
or make us happy.
No matter what they’re selling,
The message seems to be
“serve yourself, serve your own desires.”

And of course that is the exact opposite of the gospel.
Unfortunately sometimes it gets confused,
Where those same people selling the “serve yourself”
Products, have caught on to the attractiveness
Of knowing that God lives within us,
So sometimes these products or services even seem
To create a transcendent experience.
But the message is still self-centered, and therefore wrong.
(So we engage in the season of Lent,
where it is in humility, rather than self-centeredness,
that we regard our bodies.
Look at how we began, just a couple of weeks ago,
By putting ashes on our bodies,
As a sign of their holiness, and service to God.)

The way to serve the temple of the Lord in our bodies,
Is to serve others.
Think about this beautiful worship space here,
And all the devotion and work it takes from so many of our members, to make it seem holy,
To give this space the feeling of a just-right place to worship.
(Some of the people I was talking to about this passage this week, were women from the altar guild,
And they shared how sometimes doing that work,
They can feel in their bodies a reassuring presence,
A tingle or some other confirmation,
That serving God this way is holy.
Other times they do not feel that way physically,
And it can seem like drudgery,
And they have to remind themselves,
Of the service this is to others,
And the way their work will lift others
Closer to an experience of God’s presence.
But whether they feel it in their bodies or not,
They are using their bodies for God’s service,
And this makes the temple of their bodies holy,
In the same way it makes this place holy.)

Today we are starting a new ministry,
Or rather adding a new structure to our existing ministries,
Because we regard every member of this church,
As an important temple of the Lord,
Who needs to be cared for as much as Jesus cared for
the temple of the Lord.
We are commissioning pastoral care shepherds,
Whose main task will be to keep track of each member
In the parish, and help make sure their pastoral care needs
Are met, either by the clergy,
or our many pastoral care lay ministries.
The program is named Ascension Cares,
And the mission is simply, “No one walks alone”
As we prayed in our collect,
“we have no power in ourselves, to help ourselves,”
From time to time we need the help of others,
In our congregation.
And these shepherds are willingly putting themselves,
Their temples, into this service,
To help find those people, those temples in our midst,
Who may not know how much Ascension Cares for them.
That program is a way that we intend to help regard
our temple as holy.
I hope you will support them in that effort.

As we continue to walk through this Lent together,
I ask you to consider deeply, the ways that you may
Have allowed your bodies, yourselves,
to become a marketplace,
How you may have sold-out God’s temple in you,
To those ever present forces in the world,
Who tell you it’s all about serving yourself
and your happiness.
(Those forces are the ones that tell you that you can party all the time, and that there is no time or place for penance,
or humility, and of course that is a lie,
that Lent is meant to help correct.)
Let this be a time when you invite Jesus to cleanse
Your temple as well, and make you holy once again.
So that when we walk with him to the cross,
Which those forces regard as foolish,
We may each find in the cross the power of God,
To bring us to resurrection and true life in Christ.