Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Easter III, Year C; April 19, 2015                  The Episcopal Church of the Ascension
The Real Presence of Christ                                The Reverend Dr. Howard J. Hess

I. Introduction: The Real Presence. Anglican tradition emphasizes the “real presence of Jesus Christ” in the Eucharist. Through the Eucharistic Prayer, we invoke Christ’s presence in the bread and wine. We are not just remembering; in the Eucharistic meal, we are re-experiencing together Jesus’ last supper with his disciples. In this re-experiencing, Christ is present, really present. When we come to this rail today, we will be meeting the real Christ who is alive in this world just as fully as he was with his disciples shortly after his Resurrection.

II. First, The Real Presence of Jesus in Palestine. As many of you know, Peg and I returned late Friday night from a ten-day trip to Palestine. We were guests of the American Federation of Ramallah, Palestine, a group of American Palestinians who have family connections with Ramallah, one of the major Palestian cities on the West Bank. These American Palestinians include several members of our parish. The purpose of this trip was to provide Christian clergy from the US an opportunity to hear and to see first hand what daily life is like for the people of Palestine. Time and time again, I encountered the real presence of Christ as we visited the cities and small towns of the West Bank. We visited two refugee camps. In one, we met with the mother of a young man had who had become what is considered a “martyr” six months ago.. There we were, listening to the reality of people’s suffering and having the opportunity to ask questions as we sought to understand. And in the middle of these conversations, my friends, the real Jesus Christ was present with us.  

“How could we tell that Jesus was present?” I could tell through the opening of my heart and mind to comprehending the losses and the resilience of the people with whom we met; through the emotions that both we and they experienced as they shared their stories; through their hospitality and openness; and through their willingness and desire that their stories be told to you, the people of our home congregations. You see, I believe from the bottom of my heart that the real presence of Christ is communicated through authentic human connection. In setting after setting, the real Christ was into our midst.

III. Stories. While we visited Ramallah, all the Christian churches celebrated Easter. So this year, thanks be to God, Peg and I celebrated two Easters. We walked with several hundred others in a parade to the city center where the light of Christ was brought from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem and distributed to Christian churches in Ramallah and the surrounding towns. And at the invitation of Fr. Fadi at the Episcopal Church of St. Andrews, I stood with him at the altar to help celebrate on Easter morning. This priest, now a friend, knows well our own Bishop and Kammy Young from their work together. In fact he spoke recently at St. Paul’s in Chattanooga. Easter morning, I shared your greetings and particularly the greetings of the Ascension pilgrims to the Holy Land who several years ago attempted in vain to travel from Jerusalem to Ramallah to visit St. Andrews. As the Easter service ended and the final hymn began, Fr. Fadi turned to me and said, “This is the people’s favorite hymn.” It was “Up From the Grave He Arose.” There we were, half a world away, singing the hymn we had sung on Easter morning with you. No co-incidences, just an awareness of Christ’s presence, an awareness that continued throughout the days that followed.

There is one experience that I would like to briefly describe. We visited a small village where the connecting road made it possible to travel to the nearest town in five minutes. Several years ago, the Israeli army closed this road. Following its closure, people were required to take an hour-long detour. Each Friday, villagers meet where the road is blocked to peacefully demonstrate. On numerous occasions they have been fired upon and physically assaulted by nearby settlers; five of the young people who met us showed us their injuries. As we talked, a drone from the nearby settlement repeatedly circled us, pausing often to take our pictures. The next day we learned that three of those with whom we met had been briefly arrested by the Israeli army for questioning. There is more to that story -- and there are many more stories – but this is what I want to emphasize this morning. I, your priest, felt many things that day, but chief among them, was that Christ was there with us and that Christ loves those villagers even as he loved the marginalized and the oppressed people he met as he journeyed from village to village in Palestine, the land of his birth. I reflected upon how Christ had borne the agony of death on the cross so that he could come again as the Resurrected Christ. As we talked with the people of that village, Sister Cheryl, one of our group and a member of the Dominican Order of the Roman Catholic Church, said this: “The word Resurrection means ‘to stand up again.’” That is how the real presence of Christ transforms us, by helping us to stand up again and again and again.

One of the reasons Christ was killed was the desire of those in power to stay in power. His loving fellowship with those on the margins threatened their power base. I was also reminded how Christ told the truth again and again: “let any one among you who has not sinned cast the first stone;” and “you have made my father’s house into a den of thieves.” Jesus’ real presence is always communicated through truth telling, risk-taking, and loving.

IV. The Real Presence of Christ in Our Story at Ascension. How beautifully and fully Christ has been present in our journey together these last eight years! We have been more blessed and more cared for than we would have. We began these eight years as a sad and partly broken church, and we are concluding our years of shared ministry as a strong and joy-filled parish. It is only through the real presence of Christ that this could have taken place. And now, as we move through many transitions, God continues to bless us. We have a strong new spiritual leader whom God has called to this parish. Such a smooth transition is rare, and in fact unlikely, if left solely in human hands.

But there are two requests -- no two expectations -- that the Risen Christ brings with him when is he present. Luke is clear about this. First, when the resurrected Christ became present with his apostles, he said “Peace be with you.” This was much more than a friendly greeting. This peace is built upon our humility and our willingness to love and care for one another as Christ loves and cares for us, no matter what the similarities and/or differences there might be among us. Please, my sisters and brothers, let the peace among us continue. In this peace we experience the real presence of Christ. 

Secondly, the Risen Christ asks us to be witnesses to his love, as demonstrated in his life, death, and Resurrection. In doing so, we may be called to witness the suffering of others and to respond to this suffering with the love of Christ. This love requires seeing and acting.  I pray that the walls of this place never separate us from the world, but rather that Ascension continues to be a launching pad to propel us wherever we are called to go. As witnesses we will face challenges, but let us remember no drone devised in this world is a match for the real presence of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Peace Be With You

The Rev. Robert P. Travis
Easter 2 Sermon  – 7:45am, 9am and 11:15am Church of the Ascension, Knoxville TN
RCL year b 4/12/2015 Final Sermon at Ascension

Sermon Text:
If you’ve ever received an email from me
These past seven years,
You notice that I almost always sign off with the word “Peace.”
It is a reminder of that peace we share here with each other, but it is more than that.
I think the message of peace is at the heart of the gospel,
And I see it today in Jesus’ resurrection appearances.
He greets the disciples “Peace be with you.”
One could look at it as a response to the fear
That we hear the disciples were under just a few days
After Jesus’ crucifixion, and it is that,
But it is more than that as well.
For even the next week, this week,
after his first appearance to them,
Jesus still says “Peace be with you.”

Whenever we come to a period of uncertainty,
Or what we think is uncertainty,
because really, if we think about it,
each day we do not really know what is going to happen,
but we can’t go around with no idea all the time,
So we build constructs of certainty in our minds
that let us believe we know what will happen.
But whenever we come to a period where those constructs reach their limit, and we really don’t know what will happen, it seems that the natural human response is fear and anxiety.

And Jesus coming and saying “Peace be with you,”
Is more than just a suggestion, it is a blessing that accomplishes what it asks.
I have noticed that need for Peace here at Ascension
For a while, as we struggled together
Uncertain about what the changes would bring,
After a long period of what we perceive as stability.

There has been a lot of anxiety, at times so thick
You could cut it with a knife.
There has been a lot of anxiety for me and my family as well, as we wondered what would be next.
But all the time, I have been reassured that Jesus is among us,
Saying “peace be with you.”
And His peace has been present, powerfully here,
As important decisions were made,
And life continued, and we celebrated the sacraments
And the seasons of the church year as we always have.
His Peace has guided the processes that we were all under.

And it was his Peace, that I noticed most clearly,
When I was discerning whether this call to Rhode Island
Was what God wanted for me and my family.
It was as if Jesus said to me,
“Peace be with you.
As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
Interestingly, this second Sunday after Easter,
Was my first Sunday being sent to Madagascar last year,
and now it is my departure Sunday,
Being sent from you this year.
So clearly this message today spoke to me,
As I prepared to speak on my last Sunday with you.

I hope Jesus speaks to you in it as well.

Of course we all think of this story,
As the story of Doubting Thomas,
Which has become sort of a pejorative name.
But I think Thomas has gotten a bad rap over the years, because if anything,
He represents us better as a follower of Jesus,
Than if he had said in those unlikely circumstances,
Something that might have seemed more faithful.
I mean, who wouldn’t say to friends “I don’t believe you
Unless I experience it for myself.”
And isn’t that what we have been telling friends
ever since then?
Come experience the risen Jesus for yourself!
I don’t think I’ve ever met someone who said,
“I’m so glad they told me Jesus is risen,
I have not experienced Him myself, but it’s enough
To know that others have.”

The hopeful message about this story is less about Thomas’
Doubt, and more about Jesus’ willingness
to meet Thomas’ faith needs.
Notice that Thomas tells his friends what he needs to see
In order to believe that Jesus has appeared to his friends.
But he doesn’t need to say it again
When Jesus returns.
Jesus knows Thomas’ need,
And he responds by immediately inviting Thomas
To see and touch his wounds.
His loving response to Thomas, exactly what Thomas needs,
Moves Thomas to make that huge statement of faith
That Jesus is his Lord and God.

We all need to experience Jesus,
In a way that we can understand, which may be different
From the way others need to see Him.
A story in my family about this kind of faith,
That I heard a lot as a child,
Was that my mom’s best friend,
Who we called Aunt Joanna,
When she was struggling to believe in a risen Jesus.
Went out into the smoky mountains,
And prayed “Jesus, if you’re really alive,
Show yourself to me in a way that I can understand.”
I don’t know how He showed himself to her,
But she did experience Him in a way that she could understand, and it lead to a life of deep faith even
Through tremendous struggles.

Like Thomas, many of us have our doubts about the transitions we are experiencing.
We want to see how God will show up in the new clergy
Coming to be with us.
And the good news is, He will show up,
In exactly the way we need Him to show up.
You all will see the risen Lord Jesus in the good things
That God has in store for the future of this church.
I will not be there to see it, but I believe it will be good.

It has been a huge honor and privilege to serve Jesus
Among you these past seven years.
He has shown up among us over and over again,
And will continue to do so.
I hope you know that I will miss you all so much,
That you have been a blessing in my life,
and the life of my family.
I will hold you in my heart,
and pray for you whenever you come to mind.
I hope you will do the same for me, and my family.
For I know in the prayers of the faithful,
Jesus is present, and we will need your prayers,
And His living presence for the rest of our lives.
“Peace be with you.”