Sunday, May 25, 2008

Sermon 2 Pentecost - Proper 3 A May 25, 2008

2 Pentecost - 25 May 2008 - Proper 3 A
Isaiah 49:8-16a; 1 Corinthians 4:1-5; Matthew 6:24-34
James V. Stockton

God provides. Beneath all the theology and mystery that enrich the message of the gospel, the simple truth that God provides lies very near the heart of the Good News of God’s Love for all.

There’s a story about a woman, living alone in her simple home, and her landlord, the man from whom she rents it. Bertie is an elderly woman; no spouse, no children, with very little by way of fixed income. Bertie contents herself to live with only her most basic needs met. She is pleasant, though. Poverty has taught her the simple beauty of God’s creation that many others around her pass by and ignore in their hurry to their next appointment or obligation. Mitch is Bertie’s landlord. He is not a bad sort, but he does find Bertie a curiosity and a pity.

One day Mitch stops by to collect from Bertie her rent money, ten days past due. “I’m sorry,” says Bertie as she hands Mitch her rent. “I was hoping I’d be able set aside a bit more before I had to pay my rent. It didn’t work out like I’d hoped, but God will provide.” Mitch looks around her bare bones abode. “What’s your God providing, Bertie?” he asks. “You don’t have anything as it is. You’re giving me your last dime, and I’m guessing that you don’t even have anything left to eat.” Bertie smiles at Mitch. “God will provide.” “Good grief!” Mitch shakes his head. “‘God will provide!’” mimicking Bertie. He shakes his head, and leave.

God’s provision. The idea can seem to be that Jesus is calling his followers to suspend their concerns, their concerns about anything, really; about everything. ‘‘Don’t worry about your food. Don’t worry about your clothing. Don’t worry about tomorrow.’ It’s as if Jesus is inviting people to cast their cares aside as though completely insignificant. And the implication, then, is that the people who have a care or a concern, the people who are worrying about something, are not just people of ‘little faith,’ but are people of no faith at all.

That said, it might be interesting to find out: Are you worrying about anything? If so, don’t be afraid to raise your hand. Don’t be afraid, you of little faith. So, just raise that hand.’ And of course, few people are going accept such an invitation. It isn’t an invitation to bring one’s ‘troubles and woes’ to Jesus. It’s rather more of an invitation to open oneself to criticism and judgment from others for the so-called ‘sin’ of worry and concern. It is an invitation, then, to denial; denial of one’s true feelings, denial of one’s true thoughts, and thus a denial of one’s true self. As such, it is an invitation to a dangerous and unfaithful exercise in false religion. For it is an invitation to deny to God the offering of the fullness of one’s being, in body, mind, and spirit. This is not the invitation that Jesus makes to his followers.

I read about a couple tourists visiting Israel. Kavanagh and McDuff have come over from Scotland to see the Holy Lands. Arriving at the Sea of Galilee, they learn that a boat ride across the lake will cost them fifty dollars apiece, and they are aghast. “Why, back home, we have some of the most beautiful lochs in the world,” cries McDuff. “And a fellow can cross them for but a few shillings.” “Ah, but sirs,” says the guide, “this is the lake that Jesus walked on.” “Small wonder, that,” says Kavangh. “With what you’re charging to take a boat across, I can see why he went on foot.”

With Jesus having ascended to heaven the disciples now know the presence of God by the power of the Holy Spirit among them, within them, and around them uniting them to God in body, mind, and spirit. They do in their own day what people like us do today; they recall his teaching and seek its fullest meaning for the worries and concerns of their lives and of the lives of those around them. And because people worry, Jesus is clear: ‘No one can serve both money and God,’ he says. And while the meaning may be apparent, yet we will do well to ask why Jesus would tell his followers, of all people, this bit of wisdom. ‘Don’t worry about your life,’ Jesus says. And again, the meaning and its application are broadly relevant. But there are insights available to us when we question why Jesus is telling this specifically to his followers.

His disciples now are right where he knew they would be. They have become the leaders of a movement that is beginning to catch fire. Jesus knew when he was among them that some day the disciples would gather the attention that accompanies offering to people the love of God and the dignity of being a child of God. And Jesus knew that this attention would bring with it temptations to capture and use this attention for purposes that would be less than godly, gracious, and true.

The rulers of the Temple, who governed the religious worship and practice of the people, would one day order the apostles of Jesus to cease their spreading of the good news of God’s Love for all. They would threaten the disciples with punishment. They would offer to leave them in peace if only the apostles will agree to ‘behave.’ People would offer the disciples money and rewards to share with them the privileges of leadership and the more spectacular gifts of God’s Holy Spirit. The disciples would face the temptation to restrict the sharing of the Gospel to none but their own people, to none but those whom they themselves deemed worthy, and none but those who could pay for it in return.

And so it is important to Jesus that his disciples remember, that all his people remember, that you and I remember, that God provides.

Bertie is alone in her simple home. Her rent is paid for the month. Now she must content herself with a glass of water and some salt-crackers from her pantry. “God, she says aloud, “I know that you provide. “I’ll be careful not to worry about myself too much,” she continues. “And I’ll just rely on you not to worry about me too little.” Worry wouldn’t be quite the word to tell what Bertie feels. But whatever concern there is, underneath it lies a simple trust that God provides.

Choosing to serve God above all else is first a choice to serve something other than oneself. It is a choice well represented by those whom we remember on this holiday weekend, who chose to serve their country and the defense of others rather than serve themselves alone. It is the choice that transformed the first followers of Jesus into leaders of the Church and servants of the Gospel of God. It’s the choice that is set before every follower of Jesus since then, set before many times over, every day, set before you and me still today.

Inside her home, Bertie is eating when she hears a sound, a thump as something lands in her fireplace. Bertie investigates and finds pound sack of potatoes! Instantly she hears a thud at her back door. She rushes to see. Opening her back door, Bertie finds a grocery bag with two frozen chickens inside. She is speechless. Suddenly there is another thump at her front door. Rushing to open the door, Bertie finds several sacks this time, with bread and milk and eggs and canned goods. Berite is filled with awe and amazement. “Thank you, God!” she cries.

“Good grief, Bertie!” Mitch is laughing, as he comes out from around the corner of the house. “I brought you all that. And here you’re thinking God just dropped it out of the sky!” “Thank you, Mitch,” says Berite. “Thank you. And thank you, God!” cries Bertie again. “I couldn’t imagine that you could use this man, but I always knew that you would provide.”

Today, tomorrow, the next day and every day, the choice set before us is to trust that God provides. It is a choice to trust the simple truth that lies near the heart of God’s Love for us, and of God’s Love for all. It is the choice to raise your hand before family, friend, and neighbor and say, “Yes, I’m worried; so, help me to remember, please, that God provides.” It is the choice to fold my hands, and to tell God, “Yes, I’m worried; and yet, I remember, and help me to remember, Oh God, that you do provide.” It is the choice to stretch out our hand that those around us, that they may discover that God provides through you and me. God’s Love provides.

And so may Almighty God remember not what we deserve but that which God has entrusted to us; and as we have been summoned to the service of the Gospel, may God make us worthy of our call; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with the Father and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns One God, now and for ever. Amen.

© 2008, James V. Stockton

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Sermon 7 Easter - Ascension Sunday May 4, 2008

7 Easter A - Sunday after Ascension Day - 4 May 2008
Acts 1:6-14; 1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11; John 17:1-11
James V. Stockton

Of the geometry with which God has blessed us it may be that the circle is the most pleasing of shapes that people see and most satisfying of concepts that people encounter. This proposition may be one worth keeping mind as we reflect upon one of the complexities of our faith. “The church that forgets the absence [of Christ] inevitably misunderstands and misconstrues [Christ’s] presence.” So writes theologian and historian Douglas Farrow in his book Ascension and Ecclesia. Farrow’s point is that Christ’s ascension is, and must be, far more than “only a lesson designed to put an end to the disciples’ expectation of further ‘visitations’ from heaven.”

Christ’s Ascension is a core and basic tenet of Christianity. The orthodox doctrines of the Church, as represented in both the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed, describe Jesus’ ascension into heaven as something on a par with those other aspects of his life and ministry that are definitive of Christianity itself. Along with his conception by the power of the Holy Spirit, his birth by the Virgin Mary, his passion and death under Pontius Pilate, and his mighty resurrection from the dead, Jesus’ ascension into heaven is right in there with the rest.

Here, then, is where the geometry of the thing might be helpful. The point of the Ascension of Jesus is that what was begun is now complete. Certainly what was begun in Jesus, in the incarnation of the Christ, this is completed. Yet, there is more than this that God has begun. And this means that there is a greater circle, if you will, that is represented in Jesus’ ascension, encompassing a wider meaning than people might first perceive.

“I have made your name known,” prays Jesus, “to those whom you gave me from the world.” It is a prayer that Jesus offers to God on his final night with them before his arrest and execution. And perhaps as we do today, perhaps as our fellow Episcopalians and many other Christians around the world do today, perhaps the disciples also remember this prayer that Jesus once offered on their behalf, as they turn from the mystery of his ascension into heaven. “Holy Father,” Jesus prays, “protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one as we are one.” Jesus prays for them because, even though they do not realize it on the sad night on which he prays, nor do they realize it yet as he blesses them atop Mount Olivet before disappearing from view, yet Jesus knows. Jesus knows that he is leaving them in the midst of a world to which they no longer really belong.

And Jesus knows that, soon, the disciples will realize it themselves. “Lord, is this the time?” they ask Jesus. It’s a very reasonable question; it’s a very linear question. ‘You have been raised from the dead; you have shown yourself to us repeatedly, you have confirmed for us that you are the Christ of God.’ “Now,” they ask him, “is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” It’s a linear question. And so, it is a worldly question. And for this reason, Jesus must tell them, “It’s not for you to know.”

A story tells of Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw and young man whom he meets at a dinner party. The young man launches into a monologue describing his observations and opinions concerning innumerable topics. He drones on and on, with on one else nearly as fascinated as he himself. Unwilling to restrain his wit any longer, Shaw interrupts. “I do believe,” he says to the young man, “that between the two of us, we know everything in the world that there is to know.” “Really?” asks the young man. “And how, pray tell, would that be?” “Well,” says Shaw, “you seem to know everything except that you are an incomparable bore. And I know that!”

What is humanity’s to know, and what is it that is not ours to know? Within our venerable Anglican tradition, there is an approach to faith that is described as a three-legged stool. It originates with 17th century Church of England theologian Richard Hooker, and, in my humble opinion, we have yet to plumb the depths of his insight. Hooker proposes that Christian faith is well supported by a godly triad whose first leg is Scripture, whose second leg is Reason, and whose third is Tradition. And despite the tendency of some ideologies to make appeals to tradition in order to support practices that are rooted in unchallenged prejudices, nevertheless, thanks be to God, Anglicanism still ranks Reason ahead of tradition. It is Anglican, it is Episcopalian, thus, I think we may rightly argue, that it is simply inherently Christian to appreciate this fantastic capacity to think, to question, to wonder, to theorize, to test, and to think it through again. It may be given to us to know, or it may be given to us not to know. But it is always given to us to want to know.

The disciples want to know is this the time. Jesus wants them to know something far more important. And Jesus wants them to want to know that it is something not ‘out there’ in front of them somewhere; but something closer, something nearer to the point where they began. When the disciples start out with Jesus, they do not know him. They think they know him; they think that he is a wise man, they wonder if he is a prophet, and they hope that he is the one anointed and appointed by God to put their people back at the top of the hierarchy of world order. From our own perspective of nearly 2000 years afterward, we know that Jesus was not literally any of these; we know that the followers of Jesus did not, in the beginning, know Jesus.

Now, as he prepares to leave them in death, Jesus he prays for his disciples in a particular way. His disciples have come to know him at least well enough that though they remain are in the world, yet they, like he, are now no longer of it. That life that is of the world and the life of Christ in the world do not communicate long with one another before one begins to give way to the other. <>Two people uniting as a couple, have no absolute need to do in the context of a life of faith in God, a life in but not of the world. People celebrating the life of a love one who has recently died, have no absolute need to do in the context of a life of faith in God, a life in but not of the world. But sometimes, in times of joy, people do seek God’s blessing in a context of a life of faith. Sometimes, people do seek God’s consolation in times of grief in the context of a life in but not of the world. This indicates, I suggest, Christ’s call to his followers to create such intersections of cooperation and distinction, where people may bring their experiences of the linear progression of their lives into contacts with eternity and with the life of God.

“In the Bible,” writes the scholar Farrrow, “the doctrine of the resurrection slowly emerges as a central feature of the Judeo-Christian hope. But if it can stand for that hope, that hope itself is obviously something more.” “…it is not too bold to say,” he continues, “that the greater corporate journey documented by the scriptures continually presses…toward the impossible feat of the ascension.” <>At his ascension, Jesus promises his followers that soon they will be blessed with the Holy Spirit of God, as he himself was blessed. For he knows that they, like he, that we like he, are now be in the world, as a symbol of life begun, ended, and perpetually residing in God. Today, you and I have completed a circle. We have returned to find Christ Jesus where our journey with him began. He is absent, distant again; and we find ourselves, and sometimes people in the world around us, again expectant of his coming. And yet, we find him still uniquely present to us in word, in sacrament and in the sacramental fellowship of we his people.

And so, by his absence and through our expectation, we discover Jesus again among us, in the only way that we can find him, in the way that only he can be found. As he and the Father are one, we find Jesus again, he within us and we in him; in the world but not of it, we living the life of the faith that we have in Jesus, and Jesus living the life of the faith that he has in you and me.

And so may Almighty God, who unites us in the holy bond of truth and peace, of joy and charity, so grant to us the gift of faith that it may overflow our own, and bless the hearts and lives around us; 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

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Rector'sStudy May 2008

From the Rector's Study ~
Once his followers experience Christ Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, the movement of the Holy Spirit of God defines and determines the Church thereafter. With infectious passion the good news of God’s Love is broadcast farther and wider by growing numbers of Christians. They gather regularly to give thanks and praise to God, the very purpose of our own Sunday worship. In this community practice, God renews the vitality of the Holy Spirit within the Church, God’s people. From there, we move back out into the world around us, to infect it further with God’s Love for all. Thus, even as the Church celebrates cyclically the life and ministry of Jesus through the seasons of the Church year, yet the Church exists always and perpetually in the season of Pentecost, the season of the movement of the Holy Spirit.

As you likely know, this month our diocese will hold an election for our next diocesan bishop. Again as you may know, I am a nominee in this election. As the community whom I serve and lead, I want to share with you my sense of call, of the movement of the Spirit, regarding this election: