Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Episcopal Church and the 'Anglican Covenant'

TEC and a Covenant
As we of TEC press on in post-Lambeth Conference processes that will give much attention to the proposal of our formal adoption of an Anglican Covenant, it may be wise for us to remember our history more accurately than romantically. Specifically, let us remember that the Church of England (not "the Anglican Church;" there is not such thing) was an accompaniment to the colonizing efforts of England around the world of the 17th and 18th centuries. There was no original intent to create a Communion of autonomous and autocephalous Churches. As a phenomenon the Anglican Communion is an accident of history; it is an adaptation of the former colonies of England.

When the United States won its independence from England, there was no Anglican Communion in existence. The Church in the United States decidedly did not seek to sustain communion with the See of Canterbury. Instead, the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America sought only to maintain apostolic succession. Most of us know that England was unwilling to cooperate, and so our Church's first bishop was consecrated not by the Church of England, but by the Episcopal Church in Scotland. Afterward, in reaction to our initiative, it was the Church of England who sought a cooperative relationship with the ECUSA, not vice-versa. Inasmuch as England had hopes of reclaiming her former North American colonies (war of 1812), preserving a British connection to them in the Church no doubt seemed prudent. The point being that the history of the inception of our Church fails to demonstrate any deep and abiding affection between ECUSA (now TEC) and the Church of England. It seems again rather an accident of subsequent history, especially through WW2, that our two Churches have been perceived, and perhaps have perceived themselves, as somehow especially allied.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas Day B - 25 December 2008

The Feast of the Nativity B - Christmas Day - 25 December 2008
Isaiah 62:6-12; Titus 3:4-7; Luke 2:1-20
James V. Stockton

“The claim that Christianity makes for Christmas,” says author Frederick Buechner, “is that at a particular time and place, God came to be with us Himself. When Quirinius was governor of Syria, in a town called Bethlehem, a child was born, who, beyond the power of anyone to account for, was the high and lofty One made low and helpless.” It is this singular birth, I think, the birth of God made not just human, God made not just man, but God made baby, that continues for most of us to reach through and touch us where we most fondly and preciously live. And it is here that we most innately understand not just the ‘what happened’ of Christmas, but the ‘why.’

I once received in the mail a complimentary copy of the December Reader’s Digest. It included a collection of short stories of Christmases Past, from a variety of folks, widely and not-so-widely known. Of the thirteen stories in the collection, most tell of the authors’ own childhood experiences of Christmas, of formative episodes in their early lives, episodes of remarkable kindness and charity, of optimism and good cheer. Almost as many of the stories tell of the Christmas time experiences of a child whom the author knows, usually the author’s own. Perhaps what we can observe from this, and from our own favorite memories of Christmases gone by, is that whatever magic there is about Christmas, it is that the story of the Christ child, renews the child within each of us.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Eve B - 24 December 2008

The Feast of the Nativity B - Christmas Eve - 24 December 2008
Isaiah 9:2-7; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)
James V. Stockton
People have waited, watched for it, and, knowing in their minds that it would, yet aching for it in their hearts, they have wondered if it would ever come. Christmas is here at last, and people of faith in God are gathering tonight, as we are, to celebrate its arrival. Along with us, I pray here with us, people of hope, that sister of faith, are turning also to this night. They all are turning to this story of that baby born in Bethlehem; to that story laid down in history that yet refuses to be defined as such.

“One must have the heart of a child and the soul of a poet if [one] would read the story of Jesus…” So declared the Rev. John Fort Newton, whose ministry in the early decades of the 20th century took him from his native Texas to St. Louis, Missouri, Dixon, Illinois, London, England, then Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and from a ministry as Southern Baptist pastor to ministry as an Episcopal priest. Newton’s comments go on to describe Jesus’ story: “[It is] the Biography of Pity, the Memoirs of Love, the Sovereign Beauty of this world.” “It is,” writes Newton, “the poet who knows,…telling in rhythmic numbers, in tales and golden histories, of the birth of God in [humankind] assuring [humanity] of [our] destiny in God.” You and I hear it tonight, in the plain language of the gospel, as we have now just heard it read. And isn’t it true that even in its simplicity, the narrative very nearly sings? Some will lament, even tonight, that the story we recall has, over time, become almost lost in sentimental prose and lilting poetry, and the scenes depicted there romanticized in painting and picture that carefully cast soft light and place halos on the heads of a beatific family resting in a happy stable.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

4 Advent B - 21 December 2008

4 Advent B - 21 December 2008
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38
James V. Stockton
Christmas Day is almost here. After three more days, people will be right here or somewhere else similar celebrating the birth of Jesus in song and worship and prayer. Shortly thereafter, they will awake to that morning that has that special hush, perhaps to that nostalgic sweetness of childhood memories, perhaps to that bittersweet recollection of loved ones now no longer here to celebrate Christmas with them, but whose memories and love still ring true on that most special day. In most every case, Christmas Day will be just that: it will be special and precious and touched with the Love of God for all.

But before people arrive at this annual taste of the intoxicating Love of God, whose intoxication, by the way, they could not experience apart from the Love of God come near enough for them to hold - before Christmas Day arrives, the Church’s season of Advent invites people to pause one moment more, long enough to consider the preparations long ago that led to what would be the first day ever to celebrate the birth of Jesus.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

2 Advent B - 7 December 2008

2 Advent B - 7 December 2008
Isaiah 40:1-11; 2Peter 3:8-15a, 18; Mark 1:1-8
James V. Stockton

The hard times are over. I know it’s difficult to believe. The daily news cycle reminds us that the jobless rate in our nation is the highest it’s been in over thirty years. The stock markets nationally and globally continue to cost millions of people millions of dollars. Major industries, major state governments, scores of large city governments, and hundred of banks and financial institutions are forming a line to the Capital Building in Washington D.C. to plead for government bail out money.

Some people will suggest that we all relax because the economy is correcting itself in ways that have been foreseeable and are unavoidable due to the effects or the failures of certain government policies. Others will suggest that this is exactly the time to bring the panic and some accountability to those who indulged regulations and loopholes for quick profit and gain with little regard for the longer-range consequences to the people of this nation and this world as a whole. Some will say that both are true. Few, though, if any, are saying that the time of hardship is coming to a close. I would like the Church to take the lead in declaring that the Good News that the hard times are ending, that amazing and wonderful things lie ahead for us all.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Rector's Study December 2008

From the Rector's Study ~

Though custom in times past has restrained the ‘Alleluia!’ at the season of Advent, nevertheless, Advent is properly bathed in the Alleluia every bit as much as the season of Easter. As a priest of the Church I follow her liturgical guidelines and include it in our worship during Advent. And more personally, I appreciate the use of this expression of the joy of God’s people and of our praise and thankfulness toward God during this time of eager anticipation. It is Christ who comes, and so great a blessing is this that all our other reasons for ever feeling joy and gratitude are enveloped in this most glorious one.

The saints of the Church, and indeed of every theistic religion, hold that within every sentient woman, man, or child there exists innately an intuition of the existence of God. Augustine described it as a ‘God-shaped whole in the soul’ that only God could satisfy. The sense of this sense of something, someone, some consciousness and will, who holds dominion over all that is, naturally gives rise to a mix of awe and dread when one goes to considering that this very One is about to arrive here fully present. No buffers, no filters, no mediator, God’s own self is coming in person. You and I can understand how it is that people in ancient times, and people in our own time too, might feel less than compelled to shout the ‘Alleluia’ and more likely want to yell, “Look out!” then run and hide.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

1 Advent B - 30 November 2008

1 Advent B - 30 November 2008
IIsaiah 64:1-9; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; Mark 13:24-37
James V. Stockton
“Change is nature’s delight.” So wrote Marcus Aurelius, 2nd century Emperor of Rome in his book of Meditations. Though the delight of nature, it cannot always be said that change is the delight of human beings. I read a story about married couple. Fred and Harriet have been together for 20 years, now. And Fred is worried that the spark in the relationship may be dimming. “Each day I come home at 5:30,” Fred thinks to himself. “I tumble in through the back door, drop my stuff onto the kitchen table, grab a snack from the refrigerator. On my way to change my clothes I mumble ‘hello’ to Harriet, and then disappear into my ‘cave’ until dinner. And though he knows it won’t be easy, Fred determines that he must make a change.

To embrace the need for change is a hopeful but it is also a dreadful thing. Change involves opening up to something new and therefore unfamiliar, and to the possibility that the change will be harder than the status quo. The recent political season was, as many will recall, full on all sides of promises of change. I think it is important, then, for the Church, for God’s people everywhere, to reclaim for God and the gospel the promise of change. Weaving its way through the intricacies of the universe God’s will is the creating and guiding energy of all that is. Through the ins and outs and ups and downs of people’s lives, change that is lasting and good is change that is begun and ended in God.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

26 Pentecost - 9 November 2008

26 Pentecost - 9 November 2008 - Proper 27 A
Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-25; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13
James V. Stockton

The presidential election is over. And whatever comes next, we all must watch and wait together. As we do, it’s important for us all to remember that the election of any president leaves some of us very happy and some of us very disappointed. It’s all the more important, then, that we all remember that all of us are praying for God’s blessing upon our country. We can be rightly proud of our nation that Barack Obama’s election is a crossing of a racial divide that has been a constant affliction to our history. And it’s up to all of us to work and pray to ensure that all such divisions continue to recede from the front page until they reside only on the pages of our ancient history.

With some people hailing him as the new messiah of the world, I hope we can all pray that the world, this country, and the president-elect himself, will allow Barack Obama to be simply a human being; a good servant of the people, yes, but not a messiah. Christ is coming, of this we can be sure. But it’s unkind and unrealistic to require any new president to meet the expectations of the coming of the messiah.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Rector's Study November 2008

From the Rector's Study ~

“While Paul was waiting…in Athens,…he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Some said, "What does this babbler want to say?" Others said, "He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities." This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, "May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting?

It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means." Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new. Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, "Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, "To an unknown god.' What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” (Act 17:16-23).

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Sermon 24 Pentecost - Proper 25A Oct 26, 2008

24 Pentecost - 26 October 2008 - Proper 25 A
Deuteronomy 34:1-12; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46
James V. Stockton

"It will be a long and arduous way to the question, What is God like in times of crisis? and more particularly, Who is God, to whom we pray?” It is the claim of theologian Gerhard Sauter in his book Protestant Theology at the Crossroads. Partly in response to the atrocities of September 11, 2001, Sauter’s writing comes to us after the first great crisis of 21st century and yet before the beginning of the current one. The economy of our nation is increasingly unhealthy. The economy of the wider world around us is suffering right along with our own. People are trying to find a way to respond to the crisis; to survive not just financially, but also to preserve those things that are most important to how they live and to who they are. ‘What is God like in times of crisis?’ People are discovering that it can be a long way just to get to the question.

As faithfully as he could Moses has led the people of God through the wilderness. Finally, they have arrived at the threshold. “Take a long look, Moses,” God says to him. “See the vast expanse. Imagine the people settling in and growing up as a nation.” “Take a look, Moses,” says God, “but know that you yourself will not be going there.” Perhaps a legend, perhaps an historical account, perhaps it is a combination of both, in any case, what matters for God’s people about this story of God forbidding Moses to enter the fulfillment of the promise is what it can tell them about the kind of God they have in crisis and who is this God to whom they pray.

‘The guidance that brought them here was not yours, Moses, but mine,’ says God. ‘And so the people will go forward without you.’ ‘Their freedom was won for them not by you, Moses, but by me,’ says God. ‘And so they will go forward without you.’ ‘You have come a long way, Moses, literally and spiritually,’ God says. ‘I will now spare you the realization that the journey of my people has really only just begun. And so they will go forward without you.’ ‘Though they have not always known it, though they have not always believed it, yet I am the kind of God that has been with them all the way. And so they will go forward without you.’

The economic health of our nation is in trouble. A collusion of our government’s determination to ignore a growing disaster and corporate greed for fast and easy money with a willing disregard its consequences has inflicted upon this nation and our world a systemic financial paralysis. Businesses are closing because they cannot find the funding to pay their rent or their payroll, or to renew their inventory. People are finding that suddenly they cannot retire as soon as they had carefully planned. People with good credit are struggling to find a loan to purchase a home, an automobile, furniture, or a college education for themselves or their children. People far removed from the halls of national government and the arena of higher finance are now suffering the consequences of the marriage of official irresponsibility with professional greed. And while the consequences of their behavior continue to penalize virtually everyone, yet some of the most guilty parties themselves seem to be escaping justice.

And so, people around us are angry; perhaps we are angry, too. People around us are nervous, scared. Perhaps we are scared, as well. It is a time when perhaps we are asking, and rightly so, Where is God in this time of crisis? Who is the God to whom we may turn and pray? It is a time, perhaps, of a modern-day wandering in a modern-day wilderness. Perhaps people are seeking a modern-day Moses. Be careful.

In their own day, Jesus and the people around him are afflicted with leadership that has lost touch not only with the people but with any desire to be in touch with the people at all. Leaders of the people, both civic and religious, have largely abandoned their sense of responsibility for the people and their accountability to them. The local tetrarchs, governors of the provinces and regions, are allied with persons and agencies who hold higher political authority than do they. In this case, the higher authorities are the Roman procurators. They hold veto power and have final say over all matters social and political. Therefore, it is politically expedient for the Hebrew authorities to kowtow to their higher powers, that is, if their status and privilege are more important to them than the good of their own people.

Meanwhile, the Pharisees provide the people religious instruction in the outlying towns and cities. They focus on proper observance of minute rules that describe what is allowed and what is forbidden for the people of God. The Sadducees focus on ensuring the use of proper forms of worship at the Temple in Jerusalem: things like proper attire for the worshipping public, proper offerings and sacrifices, and having the proper people in charge. Therefore, these religious authorities of the people find it expedient for their own sake to tend to securing their own positions of privilege and status and to tend the spiritual good of the people as simply an afterthought.

Into this environment comes Jesus. Into this environment, Jesus will send out his followers. He in his day, they in theirs, are, as the Apostle Paul puts it, ‘shamefully mistreated,’ declaring the Good News of Christ Jesus in spite of ‘great opposition.’ Yet if, as Paul puts it, they speak not ‘from deceit, or impure motives or trickery;’ if they speak not with ‘words of flattery, or ‘with a pretext for greed,’ or to ‘seek praise from mortals;’ if instead they are, as Paul describes it, caring dearly for the people with a nurse-like tenderness, why then do they all meet with determined opposition?

Isn’t it precisely because of the way that they come speaking? Isn’t it precisely because they seek ‘not to please mortals, ’not to gain popularity and influence and status and power? Isn’t it precisely because they come instead seeking to please God in the only way that there is to do it: celebrating together and sharing with others the experience and knowledge of the Love of God for all?

The apostles in their day and Jesus in his, perhaps we in ours, can well understand, that a government that has given itself over to political prostitution and a financial system that has given itself over to unaccountable greed will always work hard to hide the truth and to confuse those who are seeking it. What will they do, the apostles of Jesus? What will he do, Jesus himself? And what will we do, you and I, as we journey through this crisis to the questions: ‘How will we find God to be in this crisis?’ and ‘Who is this God to whom we pray?’

The theologian Gerhard Sauter goes on to write, “…only retrospectively…[can] we perceive… God’s…surprising providential activity and care.” “And so,” he continues, “we call on God to preserve our sense of time and to provide [us] spiritual experiences of ending and [of] new beginning.”

There will come and end to this crisis, of this we must be sure, and we will know a new beginning. Until that time, God wants us to know what the ancient people of God learned: that, more than anything else, it is our relationship with God that brings us along on our journey through our wilderness. Like the people of Jesus’ day, God want us and the people around us, those seeking truth and those seeking to deny it, to hear Jesus’ words and to experience the power of his example: no religious or political authority, and no position as one; but only God’s relationship with us brings us forward from where we have been, and only God’s relationship with us will take us beyond whatever lies ahead.

In the days and weeks and months ahead, God will continue helping us to see beyond the long and arduous way of this crisis. God will continue helping to gaze upon that vast expanse of the goodness being done all around us, and which we ourselves are doing; and calling us to help others lay claim to it with us, a promise to us all from God. God will continue helping us to hear the truth within us, and calling us to help others hear the truth within themselves, to speak the truth that God is raising through all of us together. And God will continue helping and calling us to love. For there within the love that you or I receive from those around us; there within the love that you or I give away to others; there, together, we find God, loving us all, and showing us the way.

And so may Almighty God, who has taught us that in returning to God we shall find quiet confidence and strength, grant that by our prayers and labors and those of all the Church, the world may come to know the revelation of God in our Lord Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, One God, now and for ever. Amen.
© 2008, James V. Stockton

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Sermon 21 Pentecost - Proper 22A Oct 5, 2008

21 Pentecost - 5 October 2008 - Proper 22A
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46

James V. Stockton

Here’s a story: New to town, Kathy is walking through the countryside around the small village to which she has only recently moved. Kathy comes across a wizened old man sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch of his farmhouse. “Howdy,” she says to the farmer. “How’s the cotton coming along?” “Didn’t plant no cotton,” says the farmer. “Oh,” says Kathy. “Uh, why not, I wonder?” The farmer stops rocking. “’Fraid of the boll weevil.” he replies. And he goes back to rocking his chair. “Ah, yes,” Kathy says. “Well, then,” she continues, “how’s the corn?” “Didn’t plant no corn,” says the farmer. “Oh?” Kathy responds, “Um, why not?” The farmer stops again. “’Fraid of the drought.” He relaxes to rocking in his chair again. “Yes,” Kathy says, as she glances around at the tall green grass and the green leafy trees. Kathy tries again. “Well, then, neighbor, uh, how are the potatoes doing?” The farmer eyes her. “Ain’t got no taters,” he says. Kathy just looks at him, speechless. Motionless, the farmer replies, “Scairt of the tater bug.” And he goes to back to rocking. Kathy’s curiosity is piqued, now. What crop is the farmer growing? What seed is he planting? She must know.

In a sense, what the ancient people of God experience a curiosity similar to Kathy’s though with far greater consequence to its answer. On their way out from slavery to freedom, the people witness the Sea parting itself into to walls of water, and dry ground opening up for them to escape the Egyptians trying to capture them again. When they are desperately hungry, they witness a huge flock of quails appearing from nowhere so that they have food. They discover an unknown substance on the ground every morning that turns out to be a miracle food, and shows up to feed them wherever they go. When they’re dying of thirst they witness water gushing out of solid rock to supply them with drink.

It’s true that the people are in awe. But it’s also true that for many generations, the people have been slaves. Occupied simply with staying alive, the people have lost touch with their sense of themselves as a people. And they’ve lost touch with the God of their fathers and mothers. Apart now from the strict regimen of slavery, from the routine of having someone constantly telling them what to do and when to do it, the people are unaccustomed to not knowing exactly what the next day holds; with not knowing exactly what lies around the next bend; with not knowing exactly and literally where their next meal is coming from. It is not an excuse for their persistent panic. But it is a reason for it, and, I think, a good one. But, for all their fears and desperation, the people are nonetheless glad to be free. They wish to be God’s people. And now, the problem is: they don’t know how to do that. And this is what the Ten Commandments are for. ‘God, guide us. God, help us know what to do. God, help us learn to live.’

I read a story about a couple of friends. Bert and Harold are talking at dinner one night. “I visited a small chapel last week,” says Bert, “that had the Ten Commandments painted on two boards and mounted up front where the congregation could read them.” “When I see that kind of thing,” says Harold, “I always think there should be a third board mounted beneath the other two.” “What do you mean?” asks Bert. “The third board,” Harold explains, “should read: ‘it is recommended that members not attempt more than six of these.’”

Meant to hold up an ideal, yes, but to indicate an ideal that is achievable only to the degree that humanity persistently turns and returns to God. The first commandment is the key. “I am the Lord your God.” Without the first, the other nine commandments become vulnerable to abusive interpretation and clever violation. The irony, I suppose, is that without the first commandment, the other nine become poison to both collective human freedom and personal human integrity. It will take the Israelites a long time to learn, and maybe we’re all still learning it today, but these are not the Ten Condemnations; these are not God’s seeds of human failing. These are the Ten Commandments: God’s seeds of human faith and faithfulness, seeds of the knowledge and love of the Lord.

“Listen to another parable,” says Jesus. And he tells of an owner of a vineyard and of some tenant farmers who work the land for him. The owner is a long way away. And here, distance does not make the heart grow fonder. To the contrary, his absence leaves the tenants with a sense that they are no longer accountable to him. Jesus’ parable assumes that the owner’s claims to a share of the harvest are right and fair. For the vineyard is God’s Kingdom and its owner is God.

It’s no wonder, then, that the religious authorities, “the chief priests and Pharisees” as the scripture reads, want to arrest Jesus and stop him from saying these things. From their perspective God indeed is not around. From their perspective, God has indeed put them in charge. In their view, they own the religion of the people of God.

Jesus’ words are threatening to take all that away from them. And they resent it. And as the disciples of Jesus now recall this parable from the vantage of their own leadership of the Church in its infancy, they know that their emerging ministry is going to be regarded in exactly the same way. And you and I, of course, can do the same. We may look at our collective ministry as the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection; we may each of us consider his or her own ministry, either here in the parish or simply as a Christian person at large in the world. As we do so, we will be well to recognize that anyone with a sense of ownership of the Kingdom, of their ownership of and authority over the mission and ministry of the Church may well feel challenged by your custodianship, by mine, of the harvest of God’s Kingdom.

And the parable tells us why. The owner of the vineyard sends slaves or servants to collect some of the harvest. And rather than give to them what they come for, the tenants abuse them, punish them, and even kill them. When finally the owner’s son himself comes, the tenants are so far gone in their zeal to enforce their right by might, that they have no thankfulness left. They have no sense of what it once was like for them, when they had no place in which to settle, where they could live and work, and rest and play, and even pray. They have no recollection of what it once was like, or of what it might have been for them, to have no share at all in the abundance of the harvest. And so it means nothing to them that those who come are sent to them by God.

Anyone with a sense that God’s Kingdom somehow belongs not God, but to him, to her, to them, will be challenged, by those who come to them saying ‘we’re here for a share of it.’ Anyone with a sense that the Kingdom of God somehow belongs not God, but to themselves, will be threatened by your ministry, my ministry, by our ministry together, of welcoming in those whom God sends to us, welcoming them in the same way that we welcome the Son of God himself.

Trying to be good neighbor, Kathy is also very curious about the farmer. What crop is he growing? What seed is he planting? “No cotton, for fear of the boll weevil, no corn for fear of drought, no potatoes for fear of ‘tater bug,’” Kathy says. “Yep.” says the farmer. “So, what did you plant?” asks Kathy. “I didn’t plant nothin’,” the farmer answers. “I’m just playing it safe.”

You and I, I’m convinced of this, know that God did not send us to play it safe. We know that God sent us to risk the inconvenience of it, and plant the seed of God’s mercy. We know that God sends us, today, tomorrow, to trust that we have already all we’ll need to grow the seed of God’s grace. We know that God sends us, now, next month, next year, to meet the challenge with outstretched hand, and warm smile, and gentle words, and welcome embrace, and to plant and to grow in the hearts and lives of family, friend, and stranger alike, that seed whose blessed harvest we already know: the harvest of God’s Love for each of us and for us all.

And so may Almighty God, who manifests the presence of God in the servants of God, grant that by the grace abounding among us, all may, with us, look to Christ the Son of God, and be saved; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

© 2008, James V. Stockton

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Rector's Study October 2008

From the Rector’s Study ~

ECR held its annual Mid-Year meeting on Sunday September 28, and I’m thankful to and for the officers of the election we held to elect ECR’s delegates to next year’s Diocesan Council. Mike Paulsen, Joe Garrison, and Shelly Page were Scrutineer, Parliamentarian, and Recording Secretary. I’m thankful also for the tellers at the election, Don Helmers, Helen Paulsen, and Ann Harrington. Finally, and not at all least, I’m thankful for all our fine nominees, Nadine Gordon, Andy Lyon, Linda Bryant, Jennifer Williams, Mary Morrison, Granville Ott, Gerald Cantor, Larry Clifton, Lana Beyer, and Brian McElligott. Their nominations are inspiration to us all in serving the Gospel of Jesus Christ through service to his Church. Andy, Jennifer, Brian and Larry were elected to serve as our delegates. Elected to serve as alternates were Linda, Nadine, Lana, and Gerald. Our congratulations belong with each of these. I look forward to attending Council with in our excellent delegation.

We had a tremendous feast, thanks to all who shared food and to all who helped to eat and enjoy it. I appreciated the joy of the fellowship of this meeting. And I found it especially nice to welcome also our new seminarian Marie Butterbaugh and her husband Tim here to ECR. As I pointed out at the Annual Meeting in January the challenge of the previous year was for the ECR leadership, i.e., the Vestry, the Ministry Leaders, and me, to face the reality that ECR must commit to the construction of new parking lots and ministries building in order for our parish to realize our potential. To refresh our memory of this, we’ll recall that our church building has a seating capacity of approximately 190 people at 100% full, not counting the choir. At 80% full, which is what people typically will tolerate on a regular basis, ECR can accommodate 152 people.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Sermon 20 Pentecost - Proper 21A Sept 28, 2008

20 Pentecost - 28 September 2008 - Proper 21 A
Exodus 17:1-7; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32
James V. Stockton

“I don't reject your Christ; I love your Christ. It's just that so many of you Christians are so unlike your Christ.” It’s a quote from one of the world’s greatest advocates for the dignity of every human being. Who is good enough to be loved by God? Who deserves God’s Love? To whom does God owe grace and mercy? While it’s hardly ever in exactly these terms, yet, if we think about it, I believe we realize that, in substance, many people are trying to address these questions, some afraid to answer them about themselves, and some too eager to answer them about someone else.

I read about a young man from India, back when India was still under the colonial control of England. Educated in England this man, I’ll call him Kamrachand, becomes an attorney. He migrates to South Africa, where he continues to practices law. There, Kamrachand witnesses the evils of apartheid, the official discrimination against certain people simply because they are different from those who rule. Though Hindu by birth and tradition, Kamrachand becomes interested in Christianity. He studies the Bible, particularly the teachings of Jesus. Is it occurring to Kamrachand to ask ‘Am I good enough for God’s Love?’ ‘Am I deserving of God’s Love?’ ‘Am I someone to whom God owes mercy and grace?’

Wandering in the wilderness, the people of Israel do not seem to pause for even a moment to wonder about their relationship with God. “We’re thirsty out here!” they cry to their leader Moses. “What did you do? Bring us out here to die of thirst?” And before we criticize them for a lack of faith in God, let’s remember that they are in fact in the desert. They are desperate, and understandably so. And so their story serves well, I suggest, to demonstrate the human struggle in which all people participate, you and I included: the struggle to come to faith, and the struggle to hold onto it. And perhaps it demonstrates also, God’s own struggle to bring people to God’s own faith in them.

Here in the wilderness, the people’s fear and anger are making Moses himself afraid and maybe angry, too. And if he doesn’t know exactly what to do, yet he does know what not to do. He does not abandon the people even though they are turning on him. He does not try to argue with them to assert his authority. He does not try to remind them of all that he’s done for them so they feel guilty about their ingratitude and maybe come around to support him. And he does not try to fix the problem on his own. Worried though he may be, Moses does know that he can and should turn to God. And as he does, it never crosses his mind that his fears and concerns for his own safety and for the safety of his people will disqualify him as someone undeserving of God’s attention, as someone not good enough for God to Love. Moses knows that somehow his passionate honesty with God is equal to trust in God. For Moses, faith in God is passionate or it isn’t faith at all.

As Kamrachand continues his exploration of Christ and Christianity he decides to attend a church service. One Sunday he approaches the steps of a large church. That’s when a South African official of the church stops him at the door. "Where do you think you're going, kaffir?" the man asks. ‘Kaffir’ is a derogatory label used at the time for people of near-eastern decent. Being an Anglo-European man, the South African is a member of the ruling class. "I want to attend worship here," Kamrachand replies. The other man stares at him coldly. "There's no room for you kaffirs in this church,” he says. “Get out of here, now, or I'll have my assistants throw you down the steps."

The other man seems to have asked the questions about Kamrachand and answered them, too. So, if not before, Kamrachand is likely now asking them himself: ‘Who is good enough for God’s Love? Am I?’ If not before, he is desperately asking now: ‘Who is deserving of God’s Love? Am I?’ If not before, he is passionately asking now: ‘To whom does God owe grace and mercy? Perhaps not to me?’ These questions arise for people, don’t they, about themselves, about others? They arise for you and me, and so what to do with them?

“Let each of you look not to your own interests,” writes the Apostle Paul; “but to the interests of others.” And so, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” Paul says, “You pay attention to his needs, you pay attention to hers, someone else will pay attention to yours, and soon each of you will be able to quit asking who is good enough, and you will all enter more deeply into the struggles that you all share.” “All of you together,” he says, “notice the cares and worries of the people all around you, and you will quit wondering about who is deserving or not, and you’ll be caring more widely for people who, in the ways that matter, are really just like you.” “Fearfully, tremblingly, passionately,” Paul says, “turn to your relationship with God, and find the questions and the answers that really matter.”

Which then is easier? To say ‘Yes, I’ll do it,’ and then not do it? Or to say, ‘No, I’ll not do it,’ and then do it anyway?’ It a question that Jesus puts to his critics; to those who have no passion, none for God and none for God’s people. And it’s a question that Jesus leaves to the memory of his disciples and the generations of his Church to ask again in their own way.

It’s important to his critics that Jesus knows who holds the authority around here. “So then,” they say to him, “who authorized you?” But rather than answer their demand, Jesus asks them a question. And if their concern is with something more noble and holy than their own prestige, they will answer it. But they do not. And their cowardice reveals that they have no passion for truth, no passion for God, no passion for people all around them who need God’s Love. Jesus knows that it takes only cowardice to pretend to comply with hypocrisy, and sadly, that there are plenty of the merely outwardly faithful cowering nearby.

Jesus knows also that it is the passionate among the people who reject the hypocrisy of those who now try to challenge Jesus. Jesus knows that it takes passion to reject corrupt authority, passion to reject hollow shows of religion, passion to demand to know ‘is God among us or not?’ And Jesus knows that it is exactly this passion that brings people rushing to the Good News of God’s Love for them, to the Good News that sets them free to love one another, free to care about the people around them.

Turned away from the church, Mohandes Karamchand Ghandi decides that he will never again consider becoming a Christian. Yet, often quoting from the sermon on the mount, Ghandi, called Mahatma, or ‘great soul,’ works and prays the rest of his life seeking the freedom and their dignity of every human being. And so a Christian missionary asks him, “Mr. Ghandi, though you quote the words of Christ often, yet you appear adamantly to reject becoming his follower; why is that?” “Oh, I don't reject your Christ,” Ghandi replies. “…It's just that so many of you Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Perhaps, in his own way, Ghandi asked himself the questions that many before him many and since have asked, and understandably so. Thanks be to God, he and others before him and since, did find in Jesus the freedom to cease asking who is good enough for God to love, who is deserving of the Love of God, to whom does God owe God’s mercy and grace.

These are questions that will arise within us about ourselves or about others, and understandably so. Jesus is passionately asking us to listen for them at work, at home, at school, and always here at church; and Jesus is calling us to claim our freedom from them, passionately; and to help the people around us passionately claim their freedom, too. Said the Hindu lawyer to the Christian missionary, “I don't reject your Christ… I love your Christ.” As it has ever done, God’s Love in Christ moves to passion people seeking rescue from their own wilderness, people just like you and me. It moves to passion people seeking unity with others in the mind and heart of God, people just like you and me. It moves to passion people seeking the presence of Jesus in his people, in people just like you and me.

And so may Almighty God, in whom is sanctified our vocation and ministry grant that we may truly and devoutly serve God, and bring those who are far from them, to the knowledge and love of our Savior Jesus Christ; who with the Father and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, One God, now and for ever. Amen.

© 2008, James V. Stockton

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Sermon 18 Pentecost - Proper 19A Sept 14, 2008

18 Pentecost - 14 September 2008 - Proper 19A
Exodus 14:19-31; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35
James V. Stockton

‘What goes around comes around.’ It’s a phrase familiar to many. The theory holds that whatever a person puts out there into the general conversation, perhaps a rumor, a bit of gossip, whatever someone puts out there starts going around, passing from person to person, people to people, changing, growing, and eventually it comes back around and perhaps penalizes whoever put it out there in the first place. People who have lived long enough to learn some lessons from the school of experience will generally agree that this bit of common wisdom is remarkably true. Better watch out: What goes around, comes around.

Here’s a true story: a young man, Charlie, about 12 years old, is at home with his sister Carol and their mother. Mom has asked Carol to baby sit for a friend of hers. Four year old Buddy has been over to the house before, and Charlie always finds the little boy annoying. So, Charlie tries just to stay away from Buddy whenever he comes over. And just a little, not much, Charlie wonders if he should behave differently toward Buddy.

Better be careful: ‘What goes around comes around.’ It’s one of those sayings that sounds like it comes from Scripture. And in a sense it does. In an important sense, we hear this common wisdom spoken between the lines in the story that we hear today from the book of the Exodus. ‘Exodus’ literally means the ‘way out,’ and the Israelites are taking God’s way out from their slavery in Egypt. God has led the people into the wilderness. The Egyptians are in hot pursuit, and at the shore of the Red Sea, the Israelites are trapped with no more way out. Then God parts the waters of the Sea which allows the people to escape to the other side. When the Egyptians follow, God allows the waters to tumble back into place, costing many Egyptian lives and securing for God’s people their way out of slavery.

It’s a miracle, by the way. People may try to find an explanation for it, and that’s a fine exercise of the gift of curiosity. But it’s good also to recognize that the parting of the Red Sea is intentionally presented as a miracle. I heard of a professor teaching about this one day. He describes a very credible theory that holds that the Red Sea was, at the time of the Exodus, actually just a swamp. Thus the Israelites needed only to wade through two or three inches of water and so there was really no miracle involved. After his lecture, a student raises his hand. “If the Red Sea was only two inches deep,” he observes, “wouldn’t it have to be a miracle that the whole Egyptian army drowned in it?” I like what a rabbi once said about miracles. “The Jewish perspective,” he says, “is that a miracle is a coincidence.” “But,” he goes on, “the question is: why did that coincidence happen then?”

ometimes a miracle is just a miracle. Whatever. The Israelites are free. And in a sense, they are free because the abuse that the Egyptians have inflicted upon the Israelites, and have allowed to be inflicted, now comes back around. By their action and by their word the Egyptians have spread the false belief that the Israelites somehow deserve their abuse, because, after all, ‘they aren’t like the rest of us, they are merely Hebrews.’ It’s such lies as this that they have told themselves that enable the Egyptian to sleep at night, knowing full well that tomorrow he will rise again to take advantage of the suffering of the slaves. It’s lies like this that enable the Egyptian to go untroubled through her day knowing full well that her comfort and leisure are paid for by the suffering of the slaves. It’s lies like this that move people, generation after generation, further and further away from that necessarily gentle sensitivity to the grace and Love of God; until one day they find that there is nothing left to come back around but the consequences of the hardness of their lies. In effect, the story tell us, ‘Better be careful: What goes around comes around.’

Charlie is doing his best to avoid Buddy.
Charlie’s mom calls to him, “Do you want to go with me to the store?” Great! A chance to get out of the house. “Yeah, let’s go,” Charlie calls. Outside, they are getting into the car and Buddy appears. He is smiling broadly through the chain link fence of the backyard gate. “Do you want to take Buddy?” Mom asks Charlie. Charlie doesn’t think about it for even a second. “No way!” he shouts. Instantly, Buddy bursts into tears.

Better watch out. ‘What goes around comes around.’
It’s Jesus’ message to his disciples. “I know that I should be forgiving of other people” says Peter; “so, since I want to be really, really righteous just how forgiving do I have to be?” “If I forgive somebody as many as seven times,” he says, ”that’s got to be really good, right?” And Jesus as much as tells him, “Peter, you can’t count high enough to reach the number of times you would need to forgive others in order to make yourself righteous.” To be sure, wanting to be righteous is a good goal. But forgiveness is not forgiveness until it is offered from the heart. I didn’t make it up; Jesus says it within our hearing today. The desire to be forgiven is too fragile and precious a thing for someone to use simply as a tool. The hope for forgiveness is too personal, too vulnerable a thing for someone to abuse it, and then think that they could lie about it to themselves or to God.

Buddy is crying on the other side of the gate.
“Are you sure you don’t want to let Buddy come with us?” ask Mom trying to give Charlie a chance to change his mind, to change his heart. Charlie glances again at Buddy, his sister Carol is trying now to comfort him. “I’m sure,” says Charlie. At the store, Charlie thinks that maybe when they return home he can make it up to Buddy. But, when they get home Buddy’s mom has retrieved him. Over the next several weeks Buddy comes over for babysitting again. But the time never seems right. Charlie never takes the chance to see if he could change the hurt that he caused Buddy. He never takes the chance to know the gift of somehow asking for and then receiving Buddy’s forgiveness.

And I know this because the story is mine. I don’t tell you this because I toss and turn about it every night, because I don’t. I tell you this because, while as a twelve year old I never humbled myself enough to apologize to Buddy, I did learn from him the wisdom in the saying: ‘What goes around comes around.’ I learned the wisdom of seeking forgiveness from others as soon as I possibly can whenever I wrong them. I learned the wisdom of Jesus’ teaching that God does hold us accountable. And I learned that God does this largely by laying bare what we already know to be the good we could have done, and should have done, but didn’t; the wrong that we’ve done, and could have changed, the wrong that we’ve ignored around us, and should have changed, but didn’t. I’ve learned that God does see to it that ‘What goes around comes around.’

And so now, please rise and let’s each of us take just a moment to think about it in our hearts, and then go to those nearby and tell them from our heart: “You are forgiven by God. Please forgive me, too" I've learned that God does see to it that ‘What goes around comes around.’ And I’ve learned that this is not only a warning, it is a also a promise from God. Jesus says that God will hold us accountable, and so, yes, he says, ‘Be careful.’ But in between the lines he also says, “Be encouraged.”

For, whenever we grab that chance today, tomorrow, whenever we put it out there into the world around us, whenever we give it to a heart near us, whenever we offer it someone who maybe too afraid to ask, then we find God’s goodness, God’s Love, God’s forgiveness and our own, going around; and then today, tomorrow, someday, we find them coming back around, and then one day, we find that they have come around to stay forever. And now, please rise again. Think about it in your heart, as I do in mine, and let’s go to those around us and tell them from our heart: “God is glad you’re here, and so am I."

od is glad you’re here, and so am I.” And so may Almighty God, by whose grace alone we are redeemed, ignite within us that same love which burned in the heart of Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, One God, now and for ever. Amen.

© 2008, James V. Stockton

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Sermon 17 Pentecost - Proper 18A Sept 7, 2008

17 Pentecost - 7 September 2008 - Proper 18A
Exodus 12: 1-14; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20
James V. Stockton

“Goodness is the judge of religion; not religion the judge of goodness.” So writes Michael Benedikt, professor here at U.T. Austin and author of the recent book, God Is the Good We Do. “There are many people,” he writes, “…who want to feel connected to religion’s long struggle with promulgating goodness, if only to see the drama continue and perhaps be a part of it.” From this, he concludes that, “it is essential that ‘God’ the word be reclaimed for goodness and reason, and be freed from exploitation, politics, and superstition.” It is more than merely interesting, I think, that there exists in our day a need to set free God, if only the word or the concept, while a foundation of our faith and religion is the belief that God is intent on freeing us. I suggest that this irony may indicate that, even with regard to God, the purpose of true religion is always to help us all transcend ourselves.

“I will execute judgments,” God says; “and this…will be a day of remembrance for you.” The Passover event is recalled in the book of Exodus to remind God’s people that God does judge humanity. What people do to one another, and what people fail to do, is subject to inevitable divine judgment: this is the message of the Passover. God will right the wrongs. God bring justice where injustice has prevailed. God will rescue the defenseless from the bullies, and God will bring Peace to troubled lives. To a people enslaved, now huddled inside their simple shelters, this is a profoundly encouraging message.

More than we might first expect, people in the world today, maybe you or someone you know, experience some sort of oppression. It may be the bullying of a boss or a teacher, on a larger scale a dictator, or despot, someone or some people who took advantage of their power to coerce, belittle, or harass. Oppression may come in the form of an illness, physical condition, or circumstance of nature that deprived them without warning of their usual abilities to go where they wish to go and to do what they wish to do. Oppression may be self-imposed; a derivative of a conscience made guilty by an old error or former wrong-doing of which a person or a people are unable to forgive themselves or to accept God’s forgiveness for it, either.

God’s intention is to set free the captives to oppression. At the same time, the Passover event is a reminder that when people set free do come into positions of power and authority still God judges, and God alone is judge. Thus, it reminds all God’s people that in whatever ways God sets us free, this new freedom is a privilege that comes with a responsibility. This freedom is God’s call to us to transcend ourselves in order to tend first to God’s agenda, then to my agenda or to yours. Our freedom under God’s mercy is a responsibility to seek the will of God, to do it to the best of our ability, and humbly to recognize that we’ll never completely get it right, and so that we’ll always need to rely on God to forgive us the sins of our best efforts and to correct our course along the way.

God’s people in the time of the Passover are, to say the least, grateful for the freedom that God brings. They are thankful that God’s intention is to make things right; that God’s intention is to set free people who are held back, pressed down, kept apart from God’s Love for all by other people, by circumstances, or even by themselves. And because captivities happen still today, you and I can well be grateful to God for those Passover events in our own lives as God continues finding ways to set us free.

“What you set loose on earth will be loosed in heaven,” says Jesus. We don’t use that word much, so it’s helpful today to remember that what Jesus says is, “What you set free on earth will be set free in heaven.” If anyone has wondered about it, it should be clear now that theme for the day is the gift of freedom that God brings to you and me and to the world around us. And I pray that it is clear from the words of Jesus that humanity itself is called to participate in God’s work of setting free. The ‘God-agenda’ of bringing freedom to all who are captive to any sort of oppression is, by Jesus’ words, also your agenda and mine. To set free the captive of any description: this is now our own ministry of true religion to one another and to the world in God’s Name.

And how we accept the responsibilities of our own liberty: this is the shape, if you will, of the ministry that we exercise. “If someone has wronged you,” says Jesus, “hold them accountable.” “Tell the person or the people of the wrong that they have done.” After all, if no one tells them, they may never know. “And if that person or those people don’t accept their own responsibility, keep working at it with people who will hold you accountable, too.” After all, if you’re wrong and no one tells you, you may never know. “If the person or people who have done wrong refuse to help correct it, then, move on and don’t allow them to make you captive either to their sin or to your own anger or despair."

Isn’t that amazing advice? Sure, it may be that when the disciples first hear this brief instruction they look at it as a code to follow step by step, so that when they exercise their privilege of authority they can tell themselves and others that they have obeyed Jesus. And people may look at it the same way still today. But as the disciples of Jesus recall his words after he has left them to return to heaven, I think they are amazed. Isn’t it amazing how much more is here than merely rules for us to obey? There is wisdom here to illumine the mind and move us beyond ourselves.

“Your decision on earth,” says Jesus, “to make it captive will be honored by God in heaven; and if you decide to set it free, then God will honor this decision, too.” Isn’t is amazing how much responsibility God entrusts to us? “Where two or three of you agree,” says Jesus, God in heaven will do it for you.” Sure, people may hear this promise as a magical formula to follow in their prayers as though it will guarantee that all their wishes will come true. But isn’t it amazing how much more is here than merely superstition? There is responsibility here to inspire the heart and move us all beyond ourselves.

What then shall we set loose in our lives? What shall we set loose upon the world around us? It may be that we don’t quite believe it, maybe we don’t want to believe it, but God wants us to know, I think God hopes that we want to know, that we really do make choices, that God really does entrust us with the power to choose what we set loose in this world, and what we make captive.

“Love your neighbor as yourself,” says the Apostle Paul. He didn’t invent it; Jesus says it in his teaching. But even Jesus didn’t invent it; it was buried back in long tradition of the Old Covenant and in many other traditions as well. Religiously speaking, people want to do what God considers righteous and so not commit a sin. Morally speaking, people want to do what is right, and so not have a guilty conscience to deal with. Today, this week, this month, what will you set loose in your life, and me in mine? What will you, what will I, what we together, set loose upon the world around us?

Love your neighbor and soon you will love yourself; love yourself and soon you will love God; love God and soon you will love your neighbor. It seems to be a mystery of true religion that the choice to love one is ultimately the choice to love all. In this does God set you free, set me free, so that we are no longer captive to the illusion that our freedom in God is based in someone else’s captivity away from it. In this is true religion judged by its inherent goodness. In this, is God reclaimed, the word, the concept, the very Self of God set free. Better than a code to follow step by step; better than a superstition to lean upon, this is true religion that helps us to move beyond our captivities and answer its call to set loose within ourselves and within the world around us the Love of God for all.

And so may Almighty God, who has formed us together in a common life, so guide us in our search for God’s good will that where we are bound by sin we may be freed and the gracious rule of Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with the Father and Holy Spirit, one God now and forever. Amen.

© 2008, James V. Stockton

Monday, September 1, 2008

Rector's Study September 2008

In his book, The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What’s so Good About the Good News?, the Rev. Peter Gomes writes about an incident that occurred when he was serving as guest minister at a particular church.

…just as the rector and I were about to proceed to our prayers before the service, a wildly disoriented young man burst into the room. He spoke loudly but nonsensically, seemingly either “on” or “off” something. Whatever it was, though, his erratic behavior was familiar to the rector, who treated him with enormous but firm courtesy and let the little tantrum run its course. The intruder left as abruptly as he had arrived, and while I was shaken the rector was not, and was clearly used to such interruptions. As we pulled ourselves back together, his thoughtful comment was, “I keep hoping it isn’t Jesus.”

Friday, August 1, 2008

Rector's Study August 2008

With Fr. Jim away on vacation, this edition of the Radiant Cross provides a good opportunity to help our members and friends know a little more about our rector. Here is an updated biography of Fr. Jim.

Fr. Jim and his wife Lee Elena recently celebrated their twentieth year together. They met in St. Louis, Missouri where Jim was born and raised, and near Lee Elena’s hometown of Monticello, Illinois. Lee Elena is a Registered Nurse working at St. David’s Hospital in the Emergency Department. She graduated from Texas Tech this month with her MSN and will soon begin working as a Nurse Practitioner. Their three children are Valerie, 17, Emily, 15, and Melanie, 12. Fr. Jim attended a Lutheran elementary school and credits his early education in a Christian environment as formative of his faith in God. It was there and then that he began to sense a vocation from God to Holy Orders.

Before attending college, Jim worked variously as a self-defense instructor (earning a black belt in Chinese Kenpo), as a carpenter building custom homes, then as a laborer and/or department supervisor at a variety of manufacturing companies. Responding to a re-emerging sense of call, Fr. Jim returned to church life in his mid-twenties. Having drifted away from the Church of his childhood, the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod, he simply looked up ‘”Church” in the white pages of the phone book. There he found a local Church of Christ listed and began attending worship services. It was at this congregation that he was blessed to meet Lee Elena Mathis, his wife-to-be. The two were married in 1988, and headed off to Abilene, Texas were Jim attended Abilene Christian University. Jim earned Bachelor of Arts degree in Biblical Studies.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Sermon 10 Pentecost - Proper 12A July 27, 2008

10 Pentecost - 27 July 2008 - Proper 12A
Genesis 29:15-28; Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-33,44-52
James V. Stockton

A mustard seed, a bit of yeast, a hidden treasure, a fine and expensive pearl, and a net that captures a great catch of fish: the Kingdom of God is comparable to many things. And it is so, I think, because it is many things to many people. It is a single tiny thought, a quiet feeling, a gentle but persistent inspiration, that grows in meaning and power to become a spiritual, emotional, and physical home for peoples of all sorts and conditions. Almost as a secret, it spreads its influence helping a person, a family, a society, a nation, a race to become more than they’d started out to be, and end up having more to share with others than anyone but God could foresee. It is a net big enough, wide enough, strong enough to hold far more in number and variety than anyone but God alone might suppose.

It is a Kingdom whose citizenship is determined not by those fishing, or as we heard last week, not by those planting its seed; but by God and by those whom God alone, at a time of God’s own choosing, will grant the frightful burden of responsibility of determining who stays in and who does not belong. The Kingdom of God is a way of being and of doing that is valuable to the health and progress of a person, a family, a community, valuable enough that the labors to hold onto it and the sacrifices to attain it are almost nothing in comparison to its benefits. By Jesus’ parables, people see that the Kingdom of God is many things to many people.

There’s a more modern parable that can be helpful. It was first told in 1991. It is a movie titled City Slickers. Mitch, Phil, and Ed are urbanites, city-dwellers to the core. They decide to vacation together by joining a cattle-drive as a stark alternative to their everyday lives. Curly Washburn is the lead cowboy on the cattle drive. He is a surly, old cuss who intimidates just about everybody around him. As part of his job back in the city, Mitch is accustomed to being able to communicate with just about anyone. In Curly Washburn, Mitch meets his biggest challenge.

Curly and Mitch spar with one another for awhile, until one day, Curly decides to share with Mitch a piece of wisdom that he has gained over his long and challenging existence. “You know what the secret of life is?” Curly asks. “No,” Mitch responds. “What [is it]?” Curly holds up his hand, with one finger extended. “[It’s] this.” he says. “[It’s] your finger?” asks Mitch. “One thing,” Curly says, pushing Mitch to pay attention. “Just one thing. You stick to that,” he continues; “and everything else don't mean [spit]”.

One thing. Our reading from the Old Testament today finds Jacob focused on one thing. Jacob is in a land foreign to him, and he takes refuge with Laban and his family. He works for Laban for a month, and, because they are distantly related, Laban offers to reward Jacob’s labor. Jacob loves Rachel, the younger of Laban’s two daughters. So Laban and Jacob strike a deal. In the custom of the day, it is an arrangement that will honor both Jacob’s labor and Rachel’s dignity. For seven year’s labor Jacob may have Rachel‘s hand in marriage. But Laban cheats on the deal. And though Laban has essentially violated the terms of the arrangement, there is no indication that Jacob wishes to do the same. Instead, Jacob puts in seven additional years in order to arrive at the relationship for which he has longed these many, many years.

And if so, it falls upon us to ask, “In what way might this relationship with Rachel be that ‘one thing’ in life to which Jacob clings, after which everything else means nothing?” Perhaps, for Jacob, the treasure is found in the compassion that he has toward Laban, setting aside his right to scold the man, in favor of mercy toward a father’s efforts to care for his older daughter. Perhaps it is in the patience that Jacob exercises in laboring seven years and then accepting the labor of seven years more? Perhaps it is in the affection between the Rachel and Jacob, that hints at the love of God for all, which forms and sustains the Kingdom.

The Kingdom of God is rightly many things to many people. So, rightly enough, it could be any of these. Yet, I would suggest that for Jacob the Kingdom of God is something very specific, specific to Jacob himself. If Jacob knows now what it is to have been cheated, Jacob knows also what it is to have cheated someone else. As we have heard in previous weeks, Jacob has cheated his brother, tricking him to give away his inheritance. Jacob has cheated his father, tricking him to bequeath the larger inheritance that his father intended for the older brother to Jacob, instead. Jacob knows what it is to cheat, and what it is to know that what one thinks one wanted is hard to have and hard to enjoy when one cheated to get it in the first place.

More than mercy, more than patience, more now even his feelings for his beloved, or hers for him, Jacob finds the Kingdom of God, and his place within it, in the restoration of his integrity. In the chapters of life to come, Jacob will indeed trick his father-in-law to prevent him from successfully cheating Jacob again. But never again will he take advantage of the right and good will of another. Jacob has realized that the integrity of his relationship with Rachel, with God, with himself, is treasure enough for him to surrender all else in order to achieve.

The Kingdom of God is many things to many people. What might it be to people, today? What might it be to the people around us? What might it be to you? to me? What might be that one thing that is worth sticking to, so that nothing else even compares?

City Slicker Mitch is talking to Curly, the gritty old cowboy. “You know what the secret of life is?” Curly asks. “[It’s] this.” he says. “Just one thing. You stick to that,” he continues; “and everything else don't mean [a thing.]” Mitch waits for more, but Curly says nothing. “That's great,” says Mitch finally. “But what's the one thing?” he asks. Curly looks at Mitch and slowly nods his head. With a glimmer of satisfaction in his eye, he answers: “That's what you've got to figure out.”

The Kingdom of God is many things to many people. And this means that as many things, if not more, are, for many people, quite the opposite. What is it that keeps a person from finding the treasure of the Kingdom of God? What keeps someone from making their home in the branches of the Kingdom, in the arms of God’s Love for all? The kingdom opposite to that of God is many things to many people.

The Apostle Paul reminds the early Christians in his letter to them at Rome, that for some the kingdom opposite God’s is the kingdom of hardship and struggle, the kingdom of worry and distress, or the kingdom of ridicule, persecution, hunger, poverty, or war. And so in many places where futility reigns over the dignity of labor, the Kingdom of God can remain buried and hidden from view. In many times in which despair reigns against the comfort of companionship, the influence of the Kingdom of God can remain stale and fail to spread. In many people’s lives for whom alienation, starvation, and death itself reign in place of life and truly living, the net of the Kingdom of God can seem to miss them entirely, or simply allow them to fall through.

And so, as he said to his followers long ago, Jesus says still today to you and me, and through to those whose lives we share: “The Kingdom of heaven is many things to many people, so that it can be that one thing specific for you.” “It may be for you,” says Jesus the courage welling up within you that you need to set you free from the tyranny of fear.” “It may be for you,” says Jesus, “that peace that is hidden deep within you while all around you storms and fury rage.” “It may be for you,” says Jesus, “that unique and precious hope in tomorrow that you need to lift you from today’s despair.” “Each of you,” says Jesus, “is a treasure of God, unique and precious.” Perhaps once hidden,” says Jesus, “God has found you.” “Perhaps once lost,” says Jesus, “God has claimed you.” “Against this,” says Jesus, “the rest of it doesn’t matter. For you are the Kingdom of God. You are God’s one thing,” says Jesus. “God is sticking with you now and always, and will never let you go.”

And now may Almighty God, in whose grace and mercy we are held, ever give us peace, refreshment, awe and joy, that we may know and share the blessed reign of Jesus Christ our Lord, who with the Father and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, One God for ever and ever. Amen.

© 2008, James V. Stockton

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Sermon 10 Pentecost - Proper 11A July 20, 2008

10 Pentecost - 20 July 2008 - Proper 11A
Genesis 28:10-19a; Romans 8:12-25; Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
James V. Stockton

‘It is better to give than to receive,’ so taught the Apostle Paul quoting Christ Jesus. And we might suggest, along similar lines, that it is better to create than to destroy. This is not so simplistic as it might first sound. Abandoned failing buildings need to be demolished. Social systems that have outlived their usefulness to humanity need to be brought down. All that said, it is still better to create than to destroy. And if this, too, sounds simple, consider the effort required to create something, compared to the effort it takes to destroy it. How much easier it can be to plant such seeds of destruction as ‘You are evil;’ ‘You don’t belong;’ ‘No one cares about you;’ than to plant the seeds of Gospel of God’s Love for all.

Some of you have heard me tell the story of a farmer named Peer, and of a terrible tragedy that enters his family life. His story is found in the novel titled The Great Hunger, by Johan Bojer. Peer and his wife and daughter live in a small Norwegian farming village. Theirs is a spartan but pleasant way of life, raising enough grain to feed themselves and have also some to sell for to earn a bit of money. One day, a new neighbor moves in at the small farm bordering his. Besides trying to farm a bit, the neighbor also works with tin and solder repairing cookware. He is identified in the novel only as ‘the brazier.’

The brazier is unpleasant and suspicious of everyone. When he sees Peer leaning over the fence to sniff the aroma of the apple blossoms on the tree in the brazier’s yard, the brazier sends his large dog out to chase Peer away. One day, Peer is working in the field, when he hears his wife Merle screaming and calling for help. Peer comes running and finds to his horror, the great hulking menace of the brazier’s dog attacking Peer’s little daughter, Asta. Peer wrestles the dog off of Asta and rushes her inside. But it’s too late; Asta cannot survive her injuries.

With his daughter gone, Peer finds himself as he puts it, ‘at the promontory of existence, with the sun and the stars gone out, and ice-cold emptiness above…, about…, and within…, on every side.’ At the same time, all the town knows what has happened, and the brazier is now hated by everyone. No one brings him pots and pans to repair. No one will sell him or lend him seed to plant. Bojer’s story of Peer and his situation describe a person who suffers the affects of destruction. Having experienced it, Peer begins to realize that he, too, has the power to destroy.

And so it is, that deep in the middle of the night, Peer rises from his bed. His wife watches silently as Peer gathers some things, then quietly goes outside. Peer stands looking across the yard toward his neighbor’s home next door. The lights are out there; the brazier and his wife are asleep. Peer starts moving in their direction.

Passionate circumstances such as leave people ‘ice cold and empty,’ or as fill them with white-hot rage, may well leave them wondering, ‘Is it more blessed to create, or to destroy?’ Even in the days of the apostles, when their ministry is emerging in the early Church, find such passions at work among the Christian community as threaten to destroy it. Who truly comprises this community? The Gospel came first to the Hebrew people of whom Jesus himself was one. Are they then the true community of Gospel? Jesus sent his apostles into all the world, to create a community of disciples of every nation. Are these then the true community of Christ? How is one to know? And what is one to do about those who’ve been allowed in, but don’t belong, and ought not be here?

It’s a problem for the Church that arises as soon as the Apostle Peter baptizes a Roman soldier named Cornelius and his family. It’s a problem for the Church that arises as soon as the Apostle Philip baptizes a man who is an Ethiopian and a eunuch. It’s a problem for the Church that arises as soon as an increasing number of Gentiles are admitted to the fellowship of the Church first by Peter, then by Paul. And as this becomes more and more of a problem, the disciples look back into their time with Jesus and they remember that Jesus once told them this parable.

When the owner of the field tells his servants that their job is to sow the seeds not pull the weeds, Jesus is telling his disciples that it’s not their job to purify a fields that belongs to God; or to purify the membership of a community formed by God’s Holy Spirit. It’s not the job of a disciple, it’s not our job, to try to figure out who is of God, and who is an imposter. Sometimes this can be a job that is hard to set aside. Because the honest truth is that it’s often easier for people, to decide what needs to be torn down than to propose a constructive alternative to build up instead. Sometimes, it will even cross a person’s mind what other Christians, other parishes, other churches ought to do and how they ought to be.

There are, I think, a wealth of unappreciated consultants in our world waiting to tell us exactly what needs to be removed, trashed, wasted, destroyed. This is not to say that we are called to surrender our responsibility to avoid preserving or perpetuating that which is better off ended. While the distinction between destructive and constructive often can be in the eye the beholder, nevertheless, the destructive consequences of such phenomena as illness, poverty, denial of basic rights, terrorism, and war are largely inarguable. These destroyers of the individual human soul and of the collective spirit of humanity, are examples of phenomena that are best destroyed themselves.

But it is to say that, in a world that can be for some, ice-cold and empty and for others, inflamed with angry rage, our job is not to police someone else’s piety; not the current-day equivalent of the Gentile, that lowly outsider who dares to pray to God, and whose prayers God dares to hear; not the stranger from a stranger’s land, to whom God in fact might send us to meet them where they are, and offer them God’s own welcome. It cannot be our vocation to tell God who does and who does not belong to the fellowship that is God’s own creation. Which is why Jesus tells us that this task belongs to another order of God’s Kingdom and to another time, to angels and messengers of God in a season of God’s own choosing. Ours is simply to live and move in what Paul calls ‘the glorious liberty of the children of God,’ to sow the seed of the Gospel where we are, and to care for those that grow there.

In the cold clear and quiet night, the farmer, Peer, climbs the fence into the bare fields of his hostile neighbor. His daughter is gone, and now the brazier himself is condemned by all the village to starve until he moves away. “As for me,” Peer says to the reader, “[What I did,] I did not do…for the sake of Christ, or because I loved my enemy; but because, [while] standing upon the ruins of my [own] life, I felt a vast responsibility. [I came to realize that] humanity must arise, and be better than the blind powers that order its ways; [that] in the midst of its sorrows it must take care that godliness does not die. The spark of eternity was once more aglow in me, and it said: ‘Let there be light.’” And quietly, secretly, in the middle of the night, so that no one will know it is he, Peer reaches into a bushel of seed that he has carried with him, and begins to sow the brazier’s field. “…I went out,” he says, “and sowed the corn in my enemy's field, [in order] that [for him and for me] God might exist.”

Today, tomorrow, sometime soon, you, I, or someone near us, will meet the ‘ice cold and empty’ in the world, or its ‘white-hot rage.’ In the face of destruction, ours is a call to build a community comprised of people of all sorts and conditions. In the presence of destruction ours is a call to plant and to grow in the broad field of humanity around us, and in the intimate garden of our own hearts, such seeds of the gospel as ‘You really are forgiven;’ ‘You really are loved;’ ‘You really are welcome here.’

And so may Almighty God who, has called all people to live in God’s eternal Love, so unite us in one truth, in one peace, in faith and in charity, that with one heart and soul, we may glorify God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.