Sunday, April 13, 2008

Sermon 4 Easter A - April 13, 2008

4 Easter A - 13 April 2008
Acts 2:42-47; 1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10
James V. Stockton

Conventional wisdom: I wonder if it isn’t almost a contradiction in terms. There is a wisdom, I suggest, in people gathering today to celebrate Jesus and his resurrection. But it is a wisdom that is, I suggest, more extraordinary than conventional. Conventional wisdom may have some people sleeping late this morning. After all, conventional wisdom tells them that they’ve endured a long busy week and another long busy week lies ahead of them; so, they should rest up in preparation for it. Conventional wisdom may have some folks out on the lake this morning, enjoying some leisure time. Conventional wisdom tells them they’ve earned, so they’d be fools not to take it. Conventional wisdom also tells people sometimes when it’s time to give up, or why it’s senseless to continue trying, or to try at all in the first place. There’s a saying that holds that the person who says it can’t be done should move out of the way of the person doing it. Maybe people should wonder: ‘Is conventional wisdom’ almost a contradiction in terms?’

There is a story of the Rt. Rev. Milton Wright. He was a bishop of the United Brethren Church which was shortly to join a similar denomination to form the Untied Methodists. In 1890, Bishop Wright is speaking at the Church’s annual convention. The convention is held at a local college. At one point in the meeting, the president of the college rises to speak. “I think,” says he, “that we are living in a very exciting age.” “What do you see?” asks the presiding bishop. The college president replies, “I believe we are coming into a time of great inventions. I believe for example,” he says, “that [one day soon, people] will fly through the air like birds.” “What!” exclaims the bishop. Shocked, he cries out, “This is heresy! The bible says that flight is reserved for the angels.” His was the conventional wisdom of the day.

Conventional wisdom: it may be a contradiction in terms. Conventional wisdom certainly contradicts the wisdom that gathers people, Episcopalian and otherwise, to celebrate Jesus and his resurrection. Conventional wisdom is, by definition, so very conventional that it hardly ever celebrates at all.

When, if ever, has conventional wisdom not held in some form or another, that people do best to take care of themselves, and their own interests, and to protect their things from others who might use them or even take them? When, if ever, has conventional wisdom not held that one ought not try to rise too far above one’s station in society? When, if ever, has conventional wisdom not held that one should go along to get along, to go along with things as they are in order to avoid trouble for oneself. When, if ever, has conventional wisdom not held that one should take for oneself the most that one can get away with taking: in ancient times, that one should take as much as possible of the food gathered for the day; or more recently, as much as possible of the money in the budget, before someone else makes off with it, and you’re left hungry and tired?

And with conventional wisdom offering such wonderful and encouraging advice, when, if ever, has conventional wisdom been the cause for real celebration? It isn’t conventional wisdom that gathers Christians today to celebrate Jesus and his resurrection.

‘The believers devoted themselves to the things that the apostles taught and to the fellowship that they created.’ They devoted themselves to breaking bread together and to praying together. As the first reading for today tells us, there is nothing at all conventional in the way the first Christians gather, either. The first Christians don’t gather up their private stuff and money, which is exactly what most people would do. Instead, they sell what they have in order to make sure that each has what he or she might need. It’s completely unconventional, and maybe this is part of the reason why these early Christians enjoy the good will of everyone else around them. It’s unconventional, and it’s a celebration. And there’s nothing really conventionally wise about people like you and me gathering today to carry on with the celebration that they began.

Ours is a traditional Church, the Episcopal Church. It’s long history traces back, yes, to the England of the Renaissance. But out history goes back even further, all the way to the apostles of Jesus and to all the way back to this very celebration described for us in the book of Acts, the book of the Acts of the Apostles. Conventional? In the sense that we hold our traditions respectfully, sure. For they are not ours alone; they belong also to those generations of Christians in whose path we follow, and to those generations of Christians who will follow us, celebrating the wisdom of Jesus, always unconventional.

When, if ever, would conventional wisdom have chosen fishermen to carry on the movement that Jesus began? When, if ever, would conventional wisdom have chosen a couple of spinster sisters and a ‘professional woman,’ shall we say, to be at the center of Jesus’ circle of followers and friends? When, if ever, would conventional wisdom encourage people to embrace their identity as sheep, and as part of the flock? But Jesus does it, and thanks be to God, our good shepherd is anything but conventional. Jesus says, ‘I am the entryway into life and life everlasting.’ Jesus says, ‘You follow me, and I’ll lead the way.’ Jesus says, ‘You go out when I go out, and you come in when I come in, and I’ll be watching over you every moment and every step of the way.’ The conventional wisdom of Jesus’ day was telling him to gather his own, to keep the others out. But in Jesus, God shows us that conventional wisdom never leads to the extraordinary.

Jesus says, ‘I want anyone and everyone to come to me. I don’t care if they look like I look. I don’t care if they speak like I speak. I don’t care if they come from my people or someone else’s. I don’t care if they know my name. I only care that they recognize my voice. I only care that they care that, in what I say, in how I say it, and in what I refuse to say, at last they hear the good news that God loves them, and is calling them to know this Love.’ Thanks be to God for the wisdom of our good shepherd.

In Jesus’ day and in our own, conventional wisdom says ‘Hey, it’s easier to look the other way while the thief or the bandit come in.’ Conventional wisdom tells us always to ask, ‘What’s in it for me?’ But Jesus says, ‘I will give my life before I’ll allow another to make off with a sheep that rightfully belongs to God, with a soul that God is trying to love.’ Thanks be to God that Jesus’ wisdom is wiser than convention.

The bishop at the convention asks the college president to speak, and the president speaks of things most unconventional. “We are coming to a time,” says he, “of great inventions. I believe that [people] will fly through the air like birds.” “What!” exclaims the bishop. “This is heresy! The bible says that flight is reserved for the angels.” The bishop looks around at the meeting. “We’ll have no more of such talk here!” Having set things right, the bishop returns home from the convention. There he passes out to his children some gifts that he brought for them. The two younger boys get a little wooden spinner. Powered by a rubber band, when the boys wind it up, it flies through the air. Content and comfortable, he thanks God, this Bishop Milton Wright, as his two sons, Wilbur and Orville, set to playing with their new flying toy.

It is a wisdom that gathers us today, a wisdom far beyond convention and comfort. It’s a wisdom of God’s own granting that moves us to celebrate Jesus and his resurrection, and our own. It’s a wisdom that gathers us today, a wisdom beyond all convention and mediocrity, bringing us to one another to see, to hear, and to feel God’s own joy in celebrating us, God’s own people, to know God’s own Love for you and me. It’s a wisdom that gathers us today, a wisdom beyond all convention and complacency, calling us to gather with us all those in the world around us who are straining to hear that voice that their heart will recognize: that voice that speaks without contradiction of the unconventional love of God; the extraordinary love of God for all.

And so may Almighty God, by whose mercy we find both rest and confidence, inspire our witness to him who gave himself on our behalf, and for the whole world; that all might come within the reach of his saving embrace; through the same our Lord 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, April 6, 2008

Sermon 3 Easter A - April 6, 2008

3 Easter A - 6 April 2008
Acts 2:14a, 36-41; 1 Peter 1:17-23; Luke 24:13-35
James V. Stockton

“Madame,” I said; “if our God were a pagan god, or the god of the intellectuals – and form it comes to much the same – He might fly to His remotest heaven and our grief would force Him down again.” So reads The Diary of a Country Priest by Georges Bernanos. It’s not a real diary, but a work of fiction. A lonely parish priest is ministering faithfully to his congregation and the town around them.

He is speaking at this point to Mme. la Comtesse, trying to comfort her; she is mourning the death of her young son. She believes herself angry at God, and certainly she has the right to characterize her feelings in the way she chooses. But the priest suggests an alternative. Her feelings are strong, yes. But “You [don’t] hate Him,” says the priest of Madame’s feelings toward God. Hate is indifference and contempt. Now at last you’re face to face with Him.” Whatever she feels toward God, she is hardly indifferent. She is passionate about it. And in this, so the priest believes, is sign of a hope that she has hope, a passionate hope, for something greater than the death that has claimed her son and claimed, as well, her faith in God.

If it’s difficult to remember, that’s all right; it is, after all, the third Sunday of Easter. We’ve been celebrating now for two weeks now God’s raising up of Jesus from the dead. But today the gospel reminds us of those first days before the first disciples ever know that there is something to celebrate. These travelers from Jerusalem on the road to a small town called Emmaus are mourning the death of a loved one. And maybe they know it, maybe they don’t, but either way: they also mourn the near-death of their ability to trust in God. It’s been three days since Jesus was crucified, and yet here are these two still talking about it.

‘He was a prophet mighty in what he did and in what he said,’ they tell each other. ‘We were hoping he was the one sent from God to set everything right again,’ they tell each other. ‘But somehow we must have been wrong. Our leaders didn’t see what we thought we saw. They didn’t hear what we thought we heard. They didn’t believe for a minute that Jesus was the one; of did they?!.’ They must have repeated it over and over in their minds by now; they must have repeated the story to one another many times over by now; but here they are still still trying to process it, trying to understand it, trying to make some sense of how they could have been so very wrong about Jesus. Hour after hour, day after day, these two, and probably every one of Jesus’ followers, are going over it. ‘What really happened? How did we get it this wrong? What did we miss?’

And literally what they miss is Jesus. I don’t mean that they miss him in the sense that he is gone and they are nostalgic for him and are feeling acutely the loss of his presence among them. Surely, this is true. But quite literally, the disciples miss Jesus. Right here, right now, he is with them. The irony is almost too much; even to these two disciples of Jesus, Jesus remains a stranger.

There are theories about how this is possible; people speculate. Perhaps there is something inherent to the resurrected body that causes Jesus’ appearance to be dramatically different from what he looked like before being raised. Maybe now that the resurrection has taken place, Jesus is using heavenly powers to cloud their senses. God has already won the victory, so, to do so now does not compromise the gift or the efficacy of the incarnation. But surely at least part of the reason that they don’t recognize Jesus standing beside them is that they do not expect to. The faith that tomorrow shall be better for the presence of God with them today has lain still for three endless days now. Their hope has died on the cross with Jesus. Their trust in God’s hand at work in the world around them has been buried with their Lord.

And so they miss him. And this is their problem. It’s the problem, I suggest, that remains from their age into our own. Too many people still are missing out: still missing out on the presence of God, still missing out on the celebration, still missing out on their own recognition of God, and missing out on God’s recognition of them.

‘[God] might fly [away] to His remotest heaven,’ says the priest to the grieving countess. ‘But you know,’ he goes on, ‘that our God came to be among us.’ [‘So,’] he tells her, ‘shake your fist at him, spit in His face, scourge Him, finally crucify him: what does it matter?’ ‘My daughter,’ says the priest, ‘it’s already been done to Him.’

Her son has died and no matter her disappointment, no matter her anger, no matter her grief, her passion for what might have been, for what should have been, remains. And in this, I suggest, God provides her the solution. As they walk with him, the disciples of Jesus do not recognize him. Yet as they walk along, something is happening. They will say it later this way: ‘our hearts were burning within us.’ Jesus has died, and yet no matter their disappointment, no matter their anger, no matter their grief, their passion for what might have been, for what should have been, remains. And in this, I suggest, God provides them the solution. For while their passion remains for what might have been, then God can stir it to a passion within them for what might yet be. If their passion remains for what should have been, God will stir it to become a passion within that will what shall yet be.

‘My daughter,’ says the priest to Madame la Comtesse; ‘you must be at peace. “And then,” reads his diary, “I blessed her. ….We exchanged no words. The peace I had invoked for her had descended also upon me. And it was so ordinary, so simple, that no outsider could ever have shaken it. For indeed we had returned so quietly to everyday life, that not [even] the most attentive onlooker could have gauged the mystery of this secret, which already was no longer ours.”

As in every age, so also still in our own, people continue along their way many in various forms of inward pain. Perhaps evident in their faces, maybe hinted at in their posture or their gait, people move along with their confusion over what they’d expected versus what happened instead. People grieve unfathomable loss, they rail against inexcusable injustice, and they are passionately afraid that their faith in the inevitability that goodness, truth, and love will one day make things right again is dead or dying. Plodding along to their own Emmaus, they cannot not look for Jesus; they don’t know where to search, anymore; and maybe they never did. Pressing on from what they try to leave behind to whatever by chance might lie ahead, they cannot come to Jesus; they do not know where to find him, anymore; and maybe they never did. But confounded, sad, or angry, indifferent they are not. Somewhere beneath the surface or somewhere deep within passion remains. And it is these toward whom Jesus still draws alongside today.

Christ is risen, and Christ still comes to us today. Wherever we are, in place or location, Christ still comes to us today. The stranger beside you, the stranger next to me, can be Christ in someway drawing near to ask us how we’re doing today. Wherever we are in mind or heart, Christ still comes to us today. The next unexpected interruption, the next distracted thought or daydream, may be Christ somehow speaking to you, to me, to explain for us a larger godly plan. And so we celebrate this third week of Easter, giving God thanks in word and deed for raising Christ to life and raising us to new life in him.

This third week of Easter let us give thanks by recognizing today or tomorrow, that person next to you or me who, confused and lonely, needs your smile or mine to keep them company along their way. This third week of Easter let us come alongside that person, sad and hurt, or broken and angry, or howsoever they choose to characterize what they’re feeling, let us come alongside that person who needs to recognize in us that passion of God’s own heart, burning for them through you and me.

Now may Almighty God, who by the glorious resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ brought life and immortality to us all, grant that we, being raised to newness of life, may live always in the presence of Christ Jesus and rejoice in glory everlasting; 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

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Rector's Study April 2008

From the Rector's Study ~

A season of new and renewed life is upon us, here at ECR and for Christians all around us and around the world. We’re energized, looking forward to a horizon drawing nearer. ECR’s leadership is well engaged in the renewal of our campus in order to manifest the Lord’s own welcome to those passing by and pulling in. New energy is coming in. When more people are able to park here and join in the worship and fellowship of our community, new energy will add itself to ECR all the more. It will be sure sign that our witness is growing, our effect upon the world around us for good and for God is growing.

New life is renewing us here, and we are renewing ECR for the present and for the future good of our families, friends, neighbors, and for those whom we don’t even know, but who someday will feel the faith and the love that we are growing here today. I am personally committed to seeing that ECR becomes a major Episcopalian witness at the center of Austin, in the heart of some of the most thriving neighborhoods of the city. I know that ECR’s leadership is committed, as well. I am committed to realizing this vision.