Sunday, January 27, 2008

Sermon 3 Epiphany A - January 27, 2008

3 Epiphany A - 27 January 2008
Isaiah 9:1-4; 1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23
James V. Stockton

In his book, Crossing Myself, author Greg Garrett writes, “When I was sunk in depression and racked with insomnia,” I was also sunk in myself, to the exclusion of everybody else’s pain and suffering.” In his book, Garrett is describing his experiences of sin, his struggles with depression, and his discovery and embrace of redemption. “Sometimes,” he continues, “it seemed impossible [for me] to do anything but bad things.” When people are having this experience of feeling sunk, as Garrett puts it, they have, then, a sense that it is impossible for them to change things, that it’s impossible to alter things for the better. And so the feeling of sinking just goes deeper.

In ancient days, the people of God believed that they were incapable of doing anything but bad things, anything but wrong things, anything but those things that were least meaningful to God, least faithful to their call as God’s people. In the days of the prophet Isaiah the nation of Judah is increasingly vulnerable to hostile nations all around it. The northern kingdom of Israel is falling to invasion by Assyria, and now Judah to the south no longer has its ally to turn to for help and support.

Isaiah and his people are experiencing the utter collapse of their world. For too many generations before them, God’s people have taken for granted and grown accustomed to the blessings that God has brought them to enjoy. For too long, too many people, too many of their leaders, have forgotten or grown callous toward the blessing of God’s presence always available to them, always abiding among them. For too long the people and their leaders have veered from the course that God laid out for them, the course most beneficial, safest, and most joyful.

The people have lived in a land of deep darkness. And they know that they are heading there again. They are struggling to find their way back, but it seems that they do only bad, only wrong, only acts of empty meaninglessness faithless and impotent. They are sinking, and they know it. And knowing it, they are ready at last for a real word from God.

‘A light has shone,’ the prophet says. The people may not yet see it,; they may not yet feel its warmth; but it is there, and it is shining. ‘Hey, people! Listen!’ calls the prophet. ‘God, and God alone is bringing you your freedom.’ It is God’s reckoning upon the oppressor whose rod and yoke have for too long weighted down the rightful j joy of all God’s people. It is God’s beckoning to those suffering of the nation and to the lost of the world. To people sinking, it is a word of hope. To people wondering either if another day is even possible, or if they care to meet it, it is a call to a whole new future.

“[My] story is a confession of sorts,” writes the author Garrett, “[a confession] that I have sinned in thought, word, and deed, that I have not loved me neighbor as myself.” “At [my church] we confess our sins at every Eucharist,” he goes on - not in mind numbing detail, but still - and when we’re done, we sit there for a moment, lost in ourselves, lost in our sins, as [our priest] gets up from his knees.”

‘Repent,” says Jesus. ‘For the kingdom of heaven is near.’ The ministry of Jesus begins. The light dawns. As the history of God’s people make clear, the experience of the blessing of God begins with repentance. The kingdom of heaven itself is as near as the heartfelt confession: “I have fouled up; and I want you, O God, to help me to do better.” It’s a confession of one’s shortcomings, to be sure. It is a confession of one’s errors, failings, wrong-doings. But what this means is that it is a confession of the inescapable fact that one is incapable of getting it right all the time, in every way. Which means that it is, if truly a confession, a confession also of one’s need and one’s desire for divine assistance, for divine guidance, for God help to turn to the way that is better; to the way that God is calling one to follow.

Without the second piece, the confession is, as Garrett describes, an exercise of simply sinking more deeply into self, me into myself, you into yourself, h into himself, she into herself. And in every case, each person or each group is distanced further from one another. Just as important, each is distanced further from God. It is this second piece, that is the complementary way out for people, for you and me, from that forest of sins into which the first piece leads, and so which keeps us all from sinking ever more deeply into our selves.

‘Come follow me,’ says Jesus to the fishermen. It is a way of saying, ‘Turn to me.’ It is Jesus’ way of saying, ‘Stop following the path that you have chosen, or the path that someone else has assigned you, or that random chance has out in place before you. Turn to this new direction,’ he is saying, ‘and come, follow me.’ It is Jesus’ way of calling them to true repentance. Not to wallow in their fallen-ness, not to root themselves to their broken-ness, Jesus invites them, he invites us, to turn to a new, and even unfamiliar, direction in order truly to follow him.

People up and down the shore of Lake Galilee fishermen and their families, are sinking quietly within the same old pattern day to day, finding little hope for freedom from the Roman oppressors, little hope for freedom from the drudgery that defines their futures. Many are finding little reason, then, to seek freedom from their self-concerned despair. Yet, there are those few, those few who hear a call to rise to the unfamiliar, to enter into even the uncomfortable, and find a new way of being who they are, a renewed way of doing what they are meant to do.

Andrew and Peter, James and John hear the call of Jesus. It is his call to them not to enter an endless cycle of self-recrimination, but to turn to a new path upon which he will lead them. It is Jesus’ call to them not to wail a mournful dirge about the hardness of the world around them, but to learn to a new tune that Jesus will teach them, a new harmony already ringing quietly in the hearts and souls of those all around them.

“…lost in the moment, lost in our sin, …the priest gets up from his knees.” Garret writes. “Then he stands, raises his right hand, and blesses us.” “‘Almighty God have mercy on you, forgive you all your sins, strengthen you in all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, keep in eternal life.’” “I have to say,” Garret continues, “that I am thankful that I can think about other people again; that I can think about somebody else’s pain before my own, again.” “Every Sunday, now,” he goes on, “I confess [to God] that I’ve put myself first and that I want to do better. And every Sunday I hear the voice of God saying that whatever I’ve done, I’m still loved. I’m still valuable. There’s still a plan for me.”

They leave their nets and follow Jesus. What net do we hold onto, what nets still hold onto you, to me: old habits, old grudges, old grief, even old lost joy that Jesus is calling us today to leave behind that we may find greater freedom as we follow him? What old regrets have you still in your heart, have I still in mine? What old wrongs, committed by you or against you, by me or against me, still wrap their mesh around our souls and drag us down from our higher calling to follow Jesus? What shall we drop today, tomorrow, in order that each of us may turn to himself, to herself, and find that person whom Christ knows him, knows her, to be? What shall we let go this week, this year, so that we may turn and love one another, that together we may help God to help ourselves to be the best that God has given us to be?

Finally, with whom shall we turn to the people around us, still living in darkness, still trapped in anger, grief or fear? To whom, but Jesus? That in you and me, they with us may find heaven come near, and may add their voices to our own to ring out with Jesus his call to each and all, ‘Come, follow me.’

And so may Almighty God, who unites us in the holy bonds of truth and peace, of joy and charity, grant to us that faith that was born in the heart of Christ our Savior, that it may overflow our own, and bless the world around us in his name; through 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, January 13, 2008

Sermon 1 Epiphany A - January 13, 2008

1 Epiphany A - The Baptism of our Lord - 13 January 2008
Isaiah 42:1-9; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17
James V. Stockton

“I must speak to you, newborn infants, little children in Christ, new offspring of the Church, the gift of the Father, the fruitfulness of the Mother, God-fearing offshoots, the new colony, flower of our parenthood, fruit of our labor, my joy and my crown, all who stand fast in the Lord.” So, spoke the great fourth-century priest and bishop Augustine of Hippo. It is from a sermon he preached at the baptism of a group of new Christians. Quoting the Apostle Paul, Augustine tells them to ‘put on the Lord Jesus Christ,’ and then says, “Thus may you be clothed with the Life put on by you in the sacrament.” ‘For you are all one in Christ Jesus,’ he says, again quoting Paul. Then he tells them, “Such is the power of the sacrament....”

The rite and ceremony of baptism is undoubtedly familiar enough to many people in the Episcopal Church and other Churches as well. And when they are as familiar with in its inward and invisible reality as they are with its outward and visible form, people are all the more aware of the grace that the sacrament conveys, and thus are all the more able to know the incomparable blessing it brings. Baptism is a rite and ceremony of initiation. Part of its blessing, then, is that baptism is full admission into the fellowship of the wider Church. This fellowship is manifested locally in the parish or congregation. It is manifested regionally in the diocese. It is manifested provincially or nationally in the autonomous national Church. It is manifested globally through the fellowship of the autonomous national Churches of other countries in what is known as the Anglican Communion. And finally, it is manifested both temporally and eternally in the fellowship of all who know Christ as their Lord, and all whom Christ knows as his own. Part of he mystery of this fellowship then, is that it is both massive and yet intimate; it is timeless and yet existing always in the moment.

And so, Augustine reminds people in his sermon that the very nature of the fellowship itself is evidence of its own godly origin. In the reading we hear this morning from the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, the Apostle Peter is discovering this very thing. Peter is at the home of a Roman soldier and his family. They want to become followers of Jesus, Peter is trying to explain that Jesus came to the Hebrew people, and so they may well be required to convert to Judaism in order to follow Jesus. And in the midst of his sermon, God pours out the Holy Spirit on this Gentile family just the way God poured out the Spirit on the Apostles themselves. “I get it now,” Peter says. ‘God really doesn’t show any partiality. God really makes no distinction like the rest of us do. God doesn’t ask about race, age, gender, culture, job, status, income, education, lineage, family, friends, loved ones…’ Can anyone finish the list? “Instead,” Peter says, “anyone who fears God, anyone who is rightly humbled by God, who is duly in awe of God, anyone affected in heart and soul by their realization of God: God welcomes them.”

So he says, “Anyone who does what is right is acceptable to God.” And this seems a reasonable assumption, does it not? Surely, there is a basic standard of behavior whose measure people need to meet in order to be acceptable to God, and so to the fellowship of the Church? What can the Church expect of those seeking to be those “newborn infants” as Augustine refers to them; people wanting become “little children in Christ,” the “new offspring of the Church”? What can you and I require of those “gift[s] of the Father of those who are “the fruitfulness of the Mother,” those “God-fearing offshoots”? Is there not some requirement for good and kind behavior in people’s relationships toward others, and for holy and pious behavior in people’s behavior toward God? Since God shows no partiality, what then is the measure that someone must meet in order to join “all who stand fast in the Lord”? Then, maybe Peter thinks back to the stories he’s heard about the time when Jesus came to be baptized. Maybe we do well to do the same.

John has been preaching to the people. In the Gospel readings for the season of Advent just a few weeks ago you and I heard some of what he’s been saying. John tells the people to turn away from error and bad behavior; and he says, as a sign of their desire to be cleansed of these sins, they should be immersed in the waters of the river. Then, Jesus comes. And being a prophet and more, John recognizes in Jesus someone uniquely not lost in error, uniquely not indulging in bad behavior, someone uniquely without sin. And so John wonders, “Why do you come to me?” “I am the one who needs to be baptized,” he says, “and you are the one who should be baptizing me.” For John, Jesus measures up. For John, Jesus is the one from God who will come and will not so much as raise his voice in the streets for attention; who will be so gentle as not to break even a flimsy bruised reed or snuff out a smoldering candle wick. And yet, as John perceives, this is the one from God who will bring about justice, who will set free the prisoners, who will open hearts and minds to that inward Light of God. For John, Jesus measures up. And from our vantage from these nearly 2000 years later, you and I and all the Church, around the world and throughout time and eternity, would agree.

‘I get what you mean,’ says Jesus to John, “but it’s the right thing for us to do this.” John baptizes Jesus, and the Holy Spirit appears and lights upon Jesus, and the Father in heaven declares Jesus as the Son of God. And, as Jesus puts it, “all righteousness is fulfilled.”

And this is the clue that there is one more essential characteristic of baptism that makes it the unparalleled blessing that it is. Our formulary for baptism reads that one is “baptized in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” In one sense, it means what it sounds like to our modern ear. One is baptized, you and I were and are baptized, on behalf of the same Holy Trinity that is present at Jesus’ own baptism. At the same time, the more ancient and original meaning is also at work. To ‘baptized in the Name of…’ is to be baptized into that which is named. In Christ Jesus, God enters into the massive life of the world, and intimately into your life, my life, into our life together as the parish of ECR, and into the lives of the people around us. And in Christ, God brings to us each and all the invitation to be welcomed into the life of God. This is the mystery of the sacrament of baptism.

This is the mystery that binds together into one, people far and near, people wealthy and poor, people Left, and Right, and somewhere in the center, people of the past with people in the present with people of futures yet to come. This is the power that enables you and me and all God’s Church to strive for justice against the odds, to offer gentle mercy in the face of opposing might, to nurture the light of Christ especially where it is but a burning ember, and to bring into the freedom that we know in Christ those imprisoned by ignorance, hatred, and fear. This is the grace and the blessing that enables us to meet that standard that requires nothing more than that we do the best we can to trust Jesus. By no greater standard than the gift of our life in God, and by no lesser gift than our life together, you and I are, in this world today, ‘the fruitfulness of the Church our Mother, and the joy and crown of God.’

And now at the bottom of page 304 in the Prayer Book: “Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers? I will, with God’s help. Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? I will, with God’s help. Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ? I will, with God’s help. Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? I will, with God’s help. Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being? I will, with God’s help.”

And now may we dare to listen with our heart, to look with our soul, to sense the heavens opened around us and to hear God’s voice from above and within: “You are my people, you are my beloved, you are my Life in the world today; and with you I am well pleased.” Amen.

© 2008, James V. Stockton

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Rector's Study January 2008

From the Rector's Study ~

It’s been said that God calls each generation of Christians to interpret the Gospel to the world around it in its own day. Given the pace of our 21st century world, perhaps it is now better said that Christians are called to interpret the Gospel afresh every year. May this Happy New Year find God calling and equipping the people of God for a fresh new start in bringing to neighbor, friend, and stranger the Good News of the Love of God for all in Jesus Christ. May this be especially true for all of us here at ECR. Amen.

This is a year that ECR will begin acting to realize its long-dormant full potential. Over the past several years, the Vestry, the Ministry Leaders, and I have addressed ways to set ECR free to shine more brightly as a beacon of God’s light here in North Central Austin. We’ve shared with everyone at ECR the progress of this study of our needs, limitations, and options. All of us have read and heard of the demonstrable need here at ECR for additional classroom/meeting space, and for additional parking. After several years of working steadily through a process of learning and discernment, the urgency of the need has made clear that the time is upon us now to act. We have come to realize that there really is no practical way to bring more people into the life and ministry of ECR until we create more parking space visible from Justin Lane.

This demonstrates that 2008 is also a year rich with challenge. More parking spaces means more cars bringing more people here to ECR. On the surface of it, it sounds only good. But the reality is that ‘new’ people bring ‘new’ ways, and ‘new’ ways means change. Simply seeing unfamiliar faces, hearing unfamiliar voices, and finding that we don’t know the names of everyone here at church anymore – these are changes that can disturb and even distress us.

Yet, we know that these changes are positive, because they mean that more people will be experiencing the blessings that you and I already know. More people will be meeting God and growing in relationship with God. They’ll be discovering the joys and beauties, the liberties and responsibilities of being Episcopalian. And as they are blessed, so also will we be blessed, as well. Additional challenge lies in the real costs of creating the parking lots necessary to increase our ability to make the Gospel accessible to more people. You and I will need to find, raise, contribute, and/or borrow all the money required to accomplish it. It’s likely that we will find some grant money available from either the diocesan center in Houston and/or from the national headquarters at the Church Center in New York. But the bulk of the responsibility will be ours.

So, there are two things that I wish us all to know: First, while these changes are absolutely necessary, they are necessary not in order for ECR to survive, but for ECR to thrive. They are necessary in order for ECR to honor the mission to which God is calling us. The potential for ECR is enormous, but remains hindered by a campus that projects an insular community. Yet, you and know we are in fact not at all disinterested in the world around us. We care about people who need to know that God’s Love is available to them, that God is reaching to them, and that we here at ECR have found God’s Love for us and we celebrate it every week, and we share it every day.

Second, while the financial aspects of meeting ECR’s needs both immediately with the parking lots and over the next few years with the construction of an additional building, are initially imposing, nevertheless, they are within our ability. Throughout the fifty-plus year history of ECR, it is clear that God has always helped this parish find a way forward. Whenever we are acting from our faithfulness to God, God proves faithful to us. God will provide.

ECR has a history of responding to God’s call, and this year finds ECR responding again, to move our witness and ministry forward in ways that will guarantee growth in ECR’s ability to offer God’s love, growth in ECR’s ability to share the knowledge and love of God with one another and others around us, growth in the numbers of people worshipping God here and serving others in God’s Name. The happy new year of 2008 will find us here at ECR interpreting the Gospel to one another and to the world around us through our renewed invitation to come here, really come here, and share with us God’s Love for all.

God’s Peace - Jim +