God’s Christmas Wish List (Part Two)

Sermon Reflection for Sunday, December 9, 2018 | respectfully submitted by Mal Underwood 

On the Second Sunday of Advent, Mo. Mary continued her series on God’s Christmas wish list for his children. Our great gift from God on the First Sunday of Advent was Redemption, the wondrous gift of cleansing us from all that separates us from God.  In today’s message, the second gift on God’s list is Repentance.  In the Gospel for the day from Luke, the story is told of John the Baptist proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, whereby we can gain redemption and reconciliation with our Heavenly Father.

The gift of repentance is offered to us at another time other than Advent during the year – the season of Lent.  Mo. Mary said it must be a very important gift indeed if God offers it during two very important seasons of our liturgical year.  She offered some concern that we may not fully understand the depth of meaning of this great gift.  First on her list of concerns is that the word our Bible uses in translation from the original is way too small to fully explain its meaning.  Late in the 19th century, the Revised Standard Version of the Bible was translated from Hebrew and Greek into English.  Episcopal priest Treadwell Walden wrote a series of essays critical of the limited scope of the translation, claiming it did not go far enough to capture the enormity of the concepts of the original.  Specifically, repentance is much more than the common understanding of feeling guilty and sorry for the sins we commit.  That feeling encourages fear and foreboding,  creating a state of mind of sorrow and failure.  Walden said sorrow and fear do not engage us to embrace Christian ethics or manifest the goodness to which God calls us.  It is God’s spirit in us that moves us to embrace what is right and true, not a set of rules to which we can never successfully meet.  The original Greek word that better describes God’s living, growing spirit that calls us to goodness is metanoia.

Walden describes metanoia as the spirit growing within and around a mind that is gradually educated up to the divine standard.  What is that divine standard?  It is the nature wide open in front – every faculty enlightened, every feeling inspired, the entire being engaged.  Metanoia is conviction, not excitement; earnestness, not impulse; habitude, not paroxysm.  It is the heart tempered by the understanding and warmth of the guidance of the Holy Spirit, available to all who seek it.

Mo. Mary said metanoia is a gift she doesn’t want to miss.  Neither does she want any of us to miss it, so she urged us to put it on our Christmas list and live into God’s gift of metanoia.  Maybe it will look like a robe of righteousness; maybe the confidence of God-esteem as opposed to self-esteem; maybe God’s forgiveness and mercy flowing through us to others before they ask for it; maybe bringing God’s love to the face of hatred, evil, and injustice.  In any case, Mo. Mary said it will definitely look like a life of freedom from shame and a life of wholeness and integrity, free to become the people God created us to be.  It’s an astoundingly beautiful Christmas package, a gift that eternally keeps on giving.

In this beautiful season of Advent, are you preparing to receive it?

 

The Motley Crew

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Christ the Pantocrator; mosaic in the Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey

Sermon Reflection for Sunday, November 25 | Respectfully Submitted by Mal Underwood

On this last Sunday after Pentecost, Christ the King Sunday, Mo. Mary told us a Thanksgiving family story whereby her son Andy told each of his nephews that each of their Pokémon cards were the BEST card ever.  The second nephew called Uncle Andy on his attempt at diplomacy, unhappy that both were told they had the best while knowing that wasn’t possible.  Mo. Mary told Andy that he had been judged and discovered inadequate.  The Gospel lesson from John tells of Pilate’s attempt at judging Jesus.  When attempting to trap Jesus into calling himself a king, which he would not do, Pilate was found lacking the fortitude to go against the Jewish religious establishment and declare Jesus innocent of the charges brought against him.  Pilate himself has since been judged endlessly across the centuries.

Mo. Mary reminded us that now is a good time to evaluate what Christ the King means to us.  This is the time that we stand before our King and strive to move from a place of spiritual emptiness to fullness so that we experience a more meaningful life of spiritual growth.  Our life in the liturgical year is about setting aside worship of self and growing more and more into the Christ-like life of spiritual maturity.  It is not easy – many tend to stumble on who Jesus is, especially as our ultimate judge.  Many may feel unworthy to worship in the house of God.  A monk once told Kathleen Norris that Jesus is the hardest part of Christianity to grasp as both redeemer and judge. Norris responded by saying she felt Jesus at work most in the worship service – just look at the motley crew assembled in his name, in which she included herself.

We all feel a little broken, in decline, and imperfect at times.  But still we all gather together somehow, imperfections and all, to worship the King of Kings.  Our whole motley crew is joined together in Jesus Christ who draws us in through his spiritual, life-sustaining power.  We should always remember we are all part of the Christian family, imperfect but redeemed and saved through the healing power of the Lamb of God.  We are all called to participate in the incarnation of our Savior Christ.

Mo. Mary concluded her message with these questions:

Who do you say is the one who is called King?

Where is his kingdom?

How do you pay him homage throughout the year?

Have you had a dry year spiritually?  If so, what will you do about it?

To what and to whom are you really committed?

As we ponder these questions we are to remember and worship the one who has the power to draw us closer to him and in doing so, draws us closer to one another in love.

Kirkin' O' the Tartans : When all is amuck

Sermon Summary for Sunday, November 18, 2018 | Respectfully submitted by Brenda Worley

On this day we celebrated our Scottish roots with the Kirkin’ o’ the Tartans.  The story of how Bishop Seabury was ordained by the Scottish Episcopal Church to be the first American Bishop was read.  The congregation was piped in and out of the service and the atmosphere was very festive.

The focus of Mother Mary’s sermon was on the gospel reading from Mark.  This passage, Mark 13: 1 – 8, is referred to as Mark’s little apocalypse and is intended to give us hope and keep us focused when everything around us is amuck.  We are to keep our eyes and hearts on Jesus instead of following false messiahs.   

In this gospel reading the disciples are distracted by the “large stones” and “large buildings” around the temple.  Jesus tells them that “all will be thrown down.”  Later, on the Mount of Olives, he instructs them that they will be tempted by false messiahs and that there will be great unrest…nation will rise up against nation, kingdom against kingdom…there will be earthquakes and famines…before the coming of his kingdom.  Though he has told them he must suffer, die, and be raised on the third day, they are still convinced that there will be an earthly kingdom in which they can participate.  They just don’t get it.      

Jesus wants them and us to recognize what is truly important.  He wants us to understand about sacrifice, justice, and faith.  He wants us to stay focused on him and assist in the coming of the real kingdom.  You know, the kingdom “on Earth as in Heaven.”  He wants us to not be distracted by all of the excesses of our lives and all of the turmoil in our world.  This does not mean we have to deny these things.  It means that we cannot allow them to draw our hearts and minds away from the love and compassion that Jesus wants us to show towards all of our fellow travelers.

What distracts you?  False messiahs come in many forms.  Some of them are of Satan.  Sometimes we realize it too late.  Stay focused on welcoming, giving, helping, working, worshiping, loving, and fulfilling.  Fulfilling the plan that God has set for us.  Heed his voice, not the voice of the distractions around you.  Give thanks that we are loved even in our imperfections…warts and all!

Love, Life, and Light

Sermon Reflection respectfully submitted by Mal Underwood | Sunday, November 4, 2018

As we celebrated the Feast Day of All Saints on Sunday, Mo. Mary reminded us that in one respect it has been a difficult year for our family of Ascension with six of our family members being called home to our heavenly Father. The celebration of All Saints brings all things together in our lives as members of the church universal through our baptism to a new life in Christ, our nourishment and growth as disciples through the Word and sacraments, and ultimately our death in the faith and resurrection to eternal life in glory. But as we all experience, not all in the world are saints of God’s love, light, and life. In the background of our life on earth darkness and unexplainable death lurk, as the Tree of Life Synagogue tragedy demonstrated, causing grief and suffering we cannot comprehend.

The Gospel story of Lazarus speaks very well of the ways of death, darkness, and division. In this familiar episode, Jesus comes to mourn four days after Lazarus dies. Mary complains to him that if he had come earlier he could have saved her brother. Martha does as well but confirms her belief in Jesus as Messiah. In the background, some of the religious elite plot Jesus’ demise. All of these elements clearly show our lives in Christ as good, holy, and yet vulnerable to darkness and death. How are the children of love, light, and life to survive and prosper in the face of these circumstances? Is there a character in this story to guide us to the light? Is it Mary, whose grief mirrors ours in a time of loss? Is it Martha, whose faith in Jesus as the Son of God serves as an example of resilience and encouragement for us? Is it Lazarus, whose resurrection from the dead reminds us of Jesus’ power over death? The most likely is Jesus, who demonstrates his power over death and reminds us that he is the embodiment of love, life, and light. He is the resurrection and the life. And He invites us to participate in God’s life-giving, loving world where our eternal life begins on earth as we also participate in the sharing of love, life, and light to those in need around us.

Mo. Mary shared three stories to demonstrate:

·         Mr. Rogers of television fame was a Presbyterian minister from Pittsburgh whose mother told him as a youngster that in times of difficulty and strife, there were always caring helpers in the world and to look for them when needed. He would repeat that often to the young audience of his show.

·         A Muslim organization in Pittsburgh raised over $200,000 for relief and assistance to the families of the slain in the Tree of Life synagogue. They put their religious and political differences aside in the belief that the core of all of us is a shared humanity.

·         In a recent story a man and woman, one Republican and one Democrat, campaign in their community for a state office. In a debate setting they respectfully state their positions on the issues and at the end ask the moderator for some additional time. They take out a guitar and cello and play a song together for the audience. Some stated afterward that it didn’t matter to them who won because regardless, the constituents had already won due to the dignity and respect of the candidates.

Mo. Mary closed with a quote from an Episcopalian Nashville musician who said, “I can play all the right notes but what does it matter if I’m not engaged in the music of living?”  What do we choose? Do we choose to set loose the power of death and darkness, or do we set loose the power of love, life, and light?

Gifts from God

Sermon Reflection Respectfully Submitted by Brenda Worley| Sunday, October 28, 2018

This Sunday was a glorious day…the beautiful fall weather, the great music, the wonderful sermon, the gratefulness expressed in the presentation of our commitment to this holy place, the good “soul” food and the warm fellowship.  Thank you to everyone who made it happen.

Mother Mary opened her sermon by asking the congregation to read in unison a prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi.  The prayer is quoted below and is all about GIVING!

Lord, make us instruments of your peace;

Where there is hatred, let us sow love;

Where there is injury, pardon;

Where there is discord, union;

Where there is doubt, faith;

where there is despair, hope;

where there is darkness, light;

where there is sadness, joy.

Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;

to be understood as to understand;

to be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive;

it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;

and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.  AMEN

It is astounding that we have the power through Christ to give love, to give pardon, to give union, to give faith, to give hope, to give light, to give joy!  Obviously, having Christ on our side is our superpower!  The line that says it all is “For it is in giving that we receive.”  Realizing that every gift we have comes from God and participating in the cycle of gratitude leads us to the wholeness of life.

Last Sunday we learned about the cycle of giving from Father Spencer when he shared the stories of his grandmother, Lily.  During the past few Sundays we have heard testimonies of gratitude shared by our speakers and writers sponsored by the Stewardship Ministry.  Dan Bennett started it all with a wonderful message about how grateful he is and how this gratitude can only be expressed in giving back part of the gifts he has received.  In her article Maribeth Zane shared her story of healing and how Jesus showed up every time she needed him.  This made her very grateful and led her to choose Ascension as her home where she can give back.  Lindy Agan, in her writing and speaking, shared her gratefulness for the life of her daughter, Caroline, and for this parish who showed up through the Pastoral Care Ministry to provide for her needs.  This presence reminded her that Jesus is love and that he is with her and her family all the time.  John Youd felt safe here with us to share how his life has been shaped by the choices he has made and how the gift of his faith helped make the changes that have sustained his life.  These wonderful speakers and writers laid themselves open and gave us the inspiration of their gratitude.

The gospel of the day was the story of the blind man, Bartimaeus, who was healed of his blindness because of his faithfulness. Upon receiving this gift of healing, Bartimaeus followed Jesus.  In following he was willing to give back the love that had been given to him.   

Mother Mary shared the gist of an unsolicited testimony she received in the form of a letter from a choir member.  This person shared that on a recent Sunday as Lindy Agan spoke to the congregation and Caroline, her daughter, cooed her baby sounds, he was struck by the realization of the gift of prayer.  He shared that this life altering gift, the view of God as love, began during his confirmation class and has ended a lifelong view through a lens of guilt and shame.  He announced that the gifts he gives of voice and money “are like a grain of sand compared to the beach of sand I’ve been given.”  He felt that his ability to give was itself the gift. 

How do you view your gifts from God?  Are you willing to share those gifts with others to begin the work of doing His will on Earth as in Heaven?  Are you willing to empty yourself for the sake of others?

Grandmother Lily’s Wisdom

Sermon Reflection Respectfully Submitted by Mal Underwood | Sunday, October 21, 2018

We were blessed on Sunday to have Fr. Spenser Simrill as our guest preacher. He was invited to offer a stewardship message as part of our Growing Hearts for Giving commitment campaign for 2018. When Fr. Spenser first visited Ascension on June 3, 2018 as our supply priest, he delivered a inspirational message about all of God’s children belonging to the family of Christ regardless of race, creed, or color and as Christians we are to love each other as God loves us.

In Sunday’s message, Fr. Spenser opened by noting the main theme of the Gospel lesson – that service to others, and not our own importance, is most valued in the kingdom of God. He then began the application of that theme to the stewardship of our lives through the lessons he learned from his beloved Grandmother Lily. Among Lily’s life lessons were:

● Gratitude – Fr. Spenser’s great grandfather, Lily’s father for whom Fr. Spenser was named, was a professor at Washington & Lee. One of the enduring lessons he shared was that there was always someone behind us whose job was to “carry your parachute”. He urged Lily, his grandmother, to always remember the importance of that person and to thank them for carrying that parachute. Without them the mission could not be fulfilled. Great grandfather Spenser told Lily to always remember those who “carry your parachute”, that is, we are never alone in fulfilling the work we have been given to do. Always be grateful to those who support you and help you succeed.

● Hospitality – Lily was a giver who could turn a simple meal into a banquet. Their Sunday dinners routinely included six to eight guests with whom they shared the meal and grew their hearts through fellowship and discourse.

● Generosity – Lily understood life was a gift from the greatest giver of all. She was committed to living on 90% of what God gave the family and tithed her financial resources to the kingdom. Just as in the Episcopal wedding liturgy, she routinely practiced that “with all that I am, and with all that I have, I honor you”. It is that devotion to honoring God that Fr. Spenser remembers and practices himself. In

Finally, as Grandmother Lily was fond of saying, let’s review the bidding:

1.    Acknowledge and thank those who love and support you

2.    Model the love of God in the world

3.    When we’re called home we can’t take our money with us – we only take the love we experience like that we share in our Ascension family.

Fr. Spenser closed by asking all to read together the General Thanksgiving found on page 836 of the Book of Common Prayer. I invite you to read it as well. It gives us an inspirational foundation for gratitude in our lives.

Come and See... Come and Give Back

Sermon Reflection Respectfully Submitted by Kelley A. Dial | Sunday, October 14, 2018

Sunday proved to be a day filled with powerful visual images.  For visual learners, such times often provide "aha" moments.   The reading from Mark's Gospel pertains to Jesus' opinion of wealth.  He says "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God ".  The visual image of such an impossible task paints a dim future for the affluent.  However, reading further shows the all is not lost for those who are successful in this life.  Jesus says that with God all things are possible, even a large humped animal making its way through a hole in a sewing instrument. When God is included in the equation and our material goods are used for the good or our Maker, the eye of that needle opens up and the camel saunters through easily.

Sunday's sermon contained an equally powerful image to bring stewardship into focus.  We all traded wallets, jewelry, or some other possession with a neighbor in the congregation then were asked to see how easy it would be to give someone else's belonging to God in the offering plate.  Perceiving ourselves as the middlemen between another's money and God makes the cheerful giving stress free.  But......wait........our possessions do not really belong to us.  They belong to God and have been gifted to us to make use of this side of heaven.  We are not giving away, we are giving back.  The object lesson of the sermon helps loosen the ties that bind us to our "stuff" and, hopefully, cause us to be more intentional about what we give back to God and how we use the resources that remain in our care.  

May these lessons help inform your thoughtful consideration of how to best use your time, treasure, and talents.

Thanks be to God.  — Respectfully Submitted by Kelley A. Dial

The Conqueror’s Vulnerability

The Conqueror’s Vulnerability

Mark writes that they [the disciples] were afraid to ask their conquering hero what he meant, obviously feeling extremely vulnerable at being left behind to deal with the misery of Roman rule if he were to die. After all, Jesus was seen as their earthly King of Kings who would free them from slavery and rule with power and equity. Instead, unknown to his closest earthly friends, Jesus himself was experiencing the human pain of a most extreme form of betrayal; being turned over to hostile authorities by a member of his inner circle to be put to death. In spite of his clear message, the disciples did not understand the gravity of the situation and the truth of his Kingship of the universe. They were trapped by their own vulnerable circumstances and found relief from believing the earthly version of their conqueror of the world. Little did they know that their king was suffering vulnerability himself as he journeyed to the cross. Instead, they argued among themselves as to who was the greatest.

 

He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?”  Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” Mark 8: 29

He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?”  Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.”  Mark 8: 29

The Gospel reading from Mark chronicled an effort by Jesus to help his disciples understand what being the Messiah meant.  He describes the suffering, persecution, and death to come.  Most importantly, he lets his disciples know that he will rise in glory (Thanks be to God!).  He is rebuked by Peter and Jesus sets him straight by saying “Get the behind me, Satan!” 

Trust......transporting us from the concrete to the eternal.

Sermon Summary for Sunday, August 12th, 2018 | Respectfully Submitted by Kelley Dial

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The Gospel readings for the past few weeks have been focused on nourishment. Jesus fed the multitude, literally.  From five loaves and two fish came more than enough to satisfy five thousand.  The crowd was astounded by Jesus' actions that they could see and taste.  It was similar to Moses providing the Jews with manna from heaven.  The crowd could wrap their mind around God sending something down to them through a prophetic messenger.  

The masses, however, had a more difficult time processing Jesus' message when he talked about food on a spiritual level. Jesus explained that he was not serving them bread from heaven; he was the bread from heaven.  The people had difficulty processing this revelation about someone who grew up among them. It required an extra step beyond just witnessing miraculous events. It required trust; trust in something they could not see.

Jesus explained further the unbreakable bond he has to God.  God draws people to Jesus much as a fisherman draws in a fish-filled net.  We are free to resist and turn away but, if we trust and allow ourselves to be drawn in, we will find forgiveness, peace, and eternal life.  God's job is not an easy one, by trusting in Jesus and allowing him to draw us to the Father, we make that job a little easier and we receive eternal nourishment. 

Thanks be to God.