Monday, June 30, 2008

Sermon 7 Pentecost - Proper 8A June 30, 2008

7 Pentecost - 30 June 2008 - Proper 8A
Genesis 22:1-14; Romans 6:12-23; Matthew 10:40-42
James V. Stockton

Does God dream? It’s a different question from asking, ‘Does God sleep?’ People have dreams of their futures, dreams of their legacies, dreams for the happiness of their loved ones, dreams for the society of which they are a part, and dreams for the world in which they live. Do people wonder if God had dreams? Do they wonder, ‘What dreams does God dream for people?’ Do they ever wonder, ‘What dreams does God dream for me?’

I read a story about a priest and his sermon one Sunday. “In the ancient times” he begins, “the people believed that God spoke to them in dreams and visions. If they wondered where God wanted them to go, or what God wanted them to do when they got there, they would seek a direct word from God in their dreams.” What do God’s people dream for themselves? And what about people beyond the border of the fellowship of God’s people? What dreams do people dream outside the Church looking in? And what does God dream for us and for all?

Long, long ago, Abraham had a dream. His own dream has been to have a son who will carry forward his lineage. And with the birth of his son, Isaac, his dream, his vision, his fondest hope has been fulfilled. But one day Abraham has a dream of another sort. It is a vision, and it originates far beyond Abraham’s aspirations. Neither comforting not inspiring, it is a dream, a vision, by which God tests Abraham. “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love,….” God knows of Abraham’s deep attachment to the boy. God knows the test that this is for Abraham.

In Hebrew it is the aqedah, the binding. It means Abraham’s binding of his son Isaac in preparation for his killing him and offering him up as burnt sacrifice to God. In the entire story of God’s people, this is a unique episode. I’ve seen people brought to tears when reading it aloud. So disturbing is this bit of Abraham’s story that virtually nothing is said of it, no attempt to make sense of it, in all the rest of the books of the Old Testament. Scholar Jon Levenson, in his book The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son, notes that there is an “utter absence of direct references” to the aqedah “anywhere else in the Hebrew Bible.” It isn’t until the Hebrew people are invaded, defeated, and taken captive that the rabbis and scholars of their day in their commentary or midrash begin to give the story more attention. As Levenson notes, it “becomes a theme of enormous import in Judaism of the Roman period, including the forms of Judaism that served as the matrix of Christianity.”

And thus the question remains alive through generations down to our own: the question being, as Levenson puts it, “the righteous father’s willingness to sacrifice his beloved son… together with the son’s glad and unqualified acceptance of his own divinely mandated death.” Question indeed! For the unspeakable command of God to Abraham causes the question to become far more urgent, “What truly does God dream for God’s people? What is God’s truly dream for me?”

Back in church, the priest continues explaining: “If the people weren’t getting any messages from God while dreaming in bed at home, they would build an altar of stone and sleep beside it, or go sleep in the Temple, where they believed all this would work better.” From beginning to end, the story of Abraham is rich with dreams that bring him messages through an angel from heaven. At the last possible moment, the angel calls out again, and Abraham answers. It is an important dynamic that I believe we do well to notice. From the start of this strange episode, through the three days of Abraham’s pondering of the message, to the climactic rescue of the child, a crucial element is Abraham’s attentiveness to God.

The angel calls out, Abraham answers, and God shows him a ram nearby which substitutes for Isaac as sacrifice to God. Then the angel speaks to Abraham again. In the verses that immediately follow our Old Testament reading for this morning we read: “The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, ‘I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.’”

In trying to find meaning in this story, then, some of the early rabbis went on to suggest, as some people suggest still today, that God grants favor to Abraham not when God first calls him to special blessing and responsibility, but when Abraham offers the sacrifice of his own son. For some of us, this will recall Jesus’ words in the Gospel for last week: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me;…” “All nations on earth will be blessed,” says God through the angel, “because you have obeyed me,” obeyed even to the point of be willing to kill his own child.

If this is true, then it raises the stakes immeasurably when we ask the question about what God might dream. We can put the question socially and anthropologically, so that we ask collectively: What is God’s dream for us or for humanity? What does God require of us or of humanity? We can put the question personally and individually, so that a person asks himself, herself, you ask yourself, I ask myself: What does God dream for me? What does God require of me to make God’s dream real? However we ask it, though, if the question really is not just what am I willing to sacrifice, but whom, then the proportions of the question become huge. More important, the question becomes dark, ominous, even, dare I say, unholy.

Which may be why the Old Testament is completely silent on the aqedah, and the New Testament mention Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac only twice, and only as evidence of the faith of one who has already received the promise of God. Which is why, I think, that if the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac is a call to God’s people to sacrifice anything, it is God’s call to sacrifice the notion that a dream of God is sadistically to test the faith of God’s people to the point of absurdity and obscenity. It is God’s call to us, and through us, to all whose lives we share, to reject with all our heart and soul and mind and being the idea that God would call Abraham or anyone else to kill their dreams.

The question is, then, very important: What does God dream for God’s people? In church, the priest is concluding his explanation to the parish. “So, the people would seek from God a message in their dreams. Thus began,” he says, tongue in cheek, “the time-honored tradition of sleeping in Church. I want to point this out,” he continues: “though I’m fairly certain that they will not actually hear it who would appreciate it most of all.”

You and I know that we need not be asleep in church to dream. So, don’t sleep in church, but by all means, dream. Let’s receive from God dreams for our future, for the legacies that we’ll leave behind, for the happiness of our loved ones; for the society of which we are a part, and for the world in which we live. We know that dreams that can be gifts of God. So dream this week, by all means, dream.

We know also that beyond the border of ECR people have dreams as well. Beyond the boundaries of the Episcopal Church, beyond the wider fellowship of all God’s people, people outside looking in have dreams. And as you and I do, they also in their own way, wonder, ‘What does God dream for people?’ ‘What dreams does God dream for me?’ After confronting our nightmares about the cost of obeying and following Jesus being more than we can bear, Jesus hints, I think, at the real dream of God. ‘Be welcomed,’ he says ‘by those who welcome you. And in you, let them welcome me.’ ‘Welcome those who come to you.’ he says. ‘And in them, you will welcome me.’ ‘Welcome one another. That’s all the sacrifice I really ask; just welcome one another.’ It’s as though God says, ‘Let my welcome live in you; let my Love live in you; let my dream be alive in you, and together, let us see our dreams come true.’

And so may Almighty God, who has poured into our hearts the greatest gift, grant us faithfulness in our witness to the power of that Love, which burns in the heart of God’s own Son 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, June 22, 2008

Sermon 6 Penteocost - Proper 7A June 22, 2008

6 Pentecost - 22 June 2008 - Proper 7A
Genesis 21:8-21; Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10:24-39
James V. Stockton

How did your last week go for you? I hope it was blissfully calm, but maybe it wasn’t. I hope your relationships with the people and world around you were refreshingly honest; but maybe they weren’t. I hope you experienced wonderfully your faith in God and God’s faith in you; but maybe you didn’t. And if it wasn’t, if they weren’t, and if you didn’t, maybe it goes to demonstrate what Jesus told his disciples long ago: Peace isn’t natural. Truth isn’t cheap. Trust in God isn’t easy.

Is it surprising for people to hear this? In a world suffering from war, is this a hard word from Jesus to hear? Jesus did not come to make peace with the world. He does not come to affirm the way things are. Instead, he brings a sword. Jesus’ manner of life, his witness is here to cut away the immorality of injustice; his words are here to pierce the heart of falsehood and pretense. In a time of fears that conflict may spread more widely, is it surprising to learn that Jesus comes to call his followers to fight when need be, to struggle when need be, to suffer and die, when need be?

I have to wonder, is it hard for Jesus apostles to remember what Jesus says to them in the gospel for today? He has risen and ascended, and as they live into their own ministry, they recall Jesus’ words and example to guide them on their way. “My critics and enemies call me evil and crazy,” says Jesus. “And if this is what they tell people about me, you can imagine what they’ll say about you.” “So,” Jesus tells them, “don’t be surprised. Don’t be surprised that people oppose the truth that you bring, the values that you represent.” “So, know this: God has you. Ultimately, your clear conscience will calm your mind. Your integrity will settle your fearful heart. Ultimately, your love for God, your commitment to truth, your pursuit of justice and mercy, will keep you in the knowledge and love of God.”

The challenges of God’s call can be surprising. It can be hard sometimes to trust the promise of God. Yet if these struggles betray how woefully human are those who seek to follow Christ Jesus, how thoroughly human is our own the Episcopal Church, along with the wider fellowship of all who seek the knowledge and Love of God, it bears recognizing that it is precisely to these thoroughly human struggles that God gives custody of the divine treasures of Peace, and Truth, and Trust in God.

As we heard last week, Abraham and Sarah are impatient to experience God’s promise to them the unlikely promise of an heir born to them in their extreme old age. Having arranged with her maid and slave, Hagar, to serve as surrogate mother, Sarah now resents the son that Abraham has fathered with Hagar. She wants the child and his mother banished and Abraham agrees. Abraham sends the woman and child off into the wilderness to fend for themselves. These actions of Abraham and Sarah demonstrate the fact that God calls and moves through people not because they are perfect, but because they are willing to try; and when they get it wrong, are willing to try again.

There is, then, no need to soften the fact: what Abraham and Sarah do here is cruel. The closest we can come, I suppose, to defending their actions is to recall that that God somehow assures Abraham that God will tend to the child. It is a promise that God makes to Abraham, and later also to the boy’s own mother. And, of course, it is a promise that God keeps. God does rescue both Ishmael and his mother Hagar from the harshness of the desert. And the Ishmaelites do become a nation great in their own right.

On a side note, in some circles, it’s a popular notion, to equate Ishmael and his descendents with the followers of Mohammed and with Islam. I would suggest caution here, if only to note that the original animosity is between Sarah and Hagar, not between Isaac and Ishmael, who actually grow up for awhile playing nicely together. In addition, it’s important, I think, to note that the birth of Islam brought it into conflict not first with the Jewish descendents of Abraham, but with the Christian believers in the divinity of Jesus. And of course, more recent conflicts are rooted in 20th century politics, with any sense of ancient discord merely supplying secondary and specious justification for modern hostilities. In short, let’s not blame this stuff on God. Instead, let’s be willing to try to trust the promise of God. And when we get it wrong, let’s not force the promise in our own way. But let’s be willing to try again to trust the promise of God.

Trust in God is hard. Truth can be costly. Peace must be intentional. Jesus knows all this. And it’s important to him that his followers know it, too. Certainly, his disciples remember that Jesus was no conquering warrior. They remember also, though, that Jesus was no diplomat come to negotiate, compromise, and placate the self-interest of as many people as possible. As is said elsewhere in the gospel, Jesus is no ‘respecter of persons.’ He is no mincer-of-words. He does not alter his manner or his speech based upon the status of the person or the people to whom he speaks. And so he cannot, he will not, tell his closest followers anything less than the truth. And the truth is, the apostles are in for trouble. God has not sent Jesus to call them from their fishing nets and tax-collector’s booths, to a life of ease and effortless success. Just as Jesus does, so also will the apostles now confront all that keeps people from God’s Love for them and for all.

Trust in God can be difficult. Truth is costly. Peace must be on purpose. “One’s foes will be member of one’s own household,” says Jesus. Maybe Peter thinks back and recalls his father’s response to him dropping the fishing nets, leaving the boat, leaving behind the family business, and going off with this itinerant preacher, Jesus. Maybe Matthew remembers how his friends and relatives told him what a fool he was to leave his lucrative position as tax-collector and take off after this upstart, Jesus. Maybe someone you or I know has known similar skepticism among people close to him or to her when she or he decided to follow the course that was, for her, for him, the nobler, higher, more godly way. Maybe you or I have experienced it ourselves.

Peace is a prize to be pursued and earned. Truth is a challenge to be met and embraced. Trust in God is a spiritual gift to be exercised and strengthened. One wonders if it’s hard for the disciples to hear this. One wonders if it’s hard for people now to hear this. Is it hard for you and me to hear it again today? And one wonders if maybe the disciples follow Jesus anyway because they hear from him the same promise of God that gathers us here today: “You are of value to God,” says Jesus. “You matter to God. God cares for you. God is always with you.”

How was last week for you? I pray it was good and joyful, exciting and energizing, and all that you hoped it would be. And I pray that this week will be all that and more. I pray that this week will be, for you and me, for us together, and through each of us, also for those around us, a week that is unsettling, disturbing, challenging, tiring, and in this, a week that is rich with the promise of God.

I pray that this week we won’t be surprised when God gives us occasion to do battle with the impulse to do battle; to refuse to tolerate the instinct for intolerance; to surrender a natural contentment in pursuit of a true and supernatural peace from God. I pray that this week we won’t be surprised that God gives us occasion to pay the price for speaking the truth; to confront those comfortable falsehoods that separate people from God and from one another; and to proclaim loudly, in deed and in word, that truth alone will set us free in the knowledge and Love of God. I pray that this week we will not be surprised to find that God gives us occasion to welcome and receive again the gift of trust in God; and occasion to use it, to exercise it, to strengthen it, so that our witness in the world may be ever faithful, ever peaceful, and ever true to the Love of God for all.

And so may Almighty God, who draws our hearts to Jesus, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so direct our wills that, wholly belonging to God, we may be dedicated to the welfare of God’s people, and to the glory of God’s Name; through 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, June 8, 2008

Sermon 4 Pentecost - Proper 5 A June 8, 2008

4 Pentecost – Proper 5A – 8 June 2008
Genesis 12:1-9; Romans 4:13-25; Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26
James V. Stockton

This month, this week, daughters and sons, granddaughters and grandsons, nieces, nephews, cousins and friends, and maybe some of us right here, are graduating. From a school, a college, a seminary, some institution of learning, they will take their experiences and growth and bring them to bear on the question: ‘What now will they do with their lives?’

What will you want you life to be? What kind of person will you strive to be? What will you to do with your life? What are you doing with your life today? They’re all variations on a theme. And most people know that it’s a huge question. Because most people know, on some level, that of all that life brings to us, that life itself is the greatest gift and the greatest responsibility.

What do you want to do with your life? What do I want to do with mine? We have a sense that the answer to this question has somehow to do with God, which is at least part of why we are here in Church on this fine morning.

Recently I was reminded of one of my favorite stories. At a theological conference, someone once asked a prominent rabbi a question. ‘Rabbi,’ he begins, ‘what do you think will happen when we die?’ And the rabbi says, “I think God will ask each of us, ‘why didn’t you enjoy life more?’” How might people respond if God were to ask them, ‘What have you today that you brings joy into your life?’ How might you or I respond?

In the scriptures of the Old Testament, Abraham and Sarah are great figures who respond to God’s call, and who have much in their life that brings them joy. Today we hear a small portion of their amazing story. Before he was Abraham, he was Abram. Before she was Sarah, she was Sarai. Before they hear God’s call and respond to it, they live on land that Abram has inherited from his father in the midst of a people that they know, within a culture in which they prosper. They are people who have much in life to bring them joy. Then God calls them to graduate to a higher knowledge of God’s grace and Love for all.

"Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house,” God says; “to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation,” says God; “and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing." It sounds as though the cause for their joy is that God will make of Abraham and Sarah ‘a great nation.’ God will cause this great nation to exalt Abraham’s name in its history and mythology. And it may even be that Abraham and Sarah take God’s message in exactly this way.

But they will learn. They will experience more of God’s love. And they will graduate. They will graduate to the greater knowledge and understanding that God is making of them a divine joy and blessing in the lives of those who will follow, those who, in their own way, will graduate, and so in their own will ask “What now will I do with my life?”

The Church represents and re-presents this question in its sacramental life. Virtually every one of the Church’s seven sacraments involves a question or questions that aim ultimately at asking us, “What really do we intend to do with our lives.” In addition, beyond the rites and ceremonies themselves, when we are candidates for baptism or confirmation, or when we are seeking the blessing of Holy Matrimony, or are asking for unction or reconciliation, or, like our own seminarian Sue Wilimot, are preparing for ordination, there is a period of examination, to ensure that we are prepared to address the questions that are particular to each sacrament. “Into what and into whom are you to about to be baptized in order to become a Christian?” “In the Church that is confirming you, what does the word ‘episcopal’ mean?” “What is the affliction of which you wish to be healed in body, mind, or spirit?” “Are you prepared to amend your sin against God and your neighbor?” Each question alludes to that one question that lies at the heart of every sacrament: “What shall I do with my life?”

It is the question that the Apostle Paul wants to help the early Church answer through the story of Abraham and Sarah. By the time Paul writes his letter to the Christians in Rome, the story of is an icon of faith in God. Teachers and preachers hold him up as the example to follow the personification of ready obedience, the ideal to which the rest of us ought to aspire.

‘What shall I do with my life?’ It’s the question for which the evangelist Matthew tries to provide an answer through his own story in the Gospel. Matthew instantly rises to Jesus’ call, who immediately leaves his old life, to venture onward with Jesus into an unfamiliar new life is, to a less spectacular degree, also an example for Christians to imitate, an ideal of ready faith in Jesus to which all of us may rightly aspire.

The truth is, though, Paul is using the story of Abraham another way. The truth is the story of Matthew is set into a larger context that makes it a story not so much of profound faith, but of a man’s knowledge of himself as a sinner, and of God’s grace reaching into lives around him that no one but Jesus would deem worthy. As a revered figure at the core of the identity of God’s people, Abraham and his covenant with God provide a template for the New Covenant that God makes with people in Jesus. Paul’s point is that the original covenant that God made so long ago with Abraham is not founded upon Abraham’s actions. It is founded upon the trust that Abraham placed in God; trust that preceded and shaped Abraham’s faithfulness in response. The former covenant is the agreement of a promise made between God and Abraham which Abraham’s lineage ratifies throughout their generations primarily through the sign of circumcision, and in other rites and ceremonies.

Paul wants the early Christians to understand that the New Covenant is similarly based in trust. As the Old Covenant is rooted in Abraham’s trust in God, so is the New Covenant rooted in Jesus’ trust in God. This is the agreement of the promise fulfilled, a covenant between God the Father and God the Son, Jesus Christ, a covenant that Christ’s followers then ratify in their own lives, primarily through the sign of baptism and also in the rites and ceremonies of the other sacraments. And above all, it’s important for them to know, it’s important for you and me to know, that, as Paul says, this promise rests on grace. The story of Abraham and Sarah, the story of Matthew, Paul’s own story, and yours and mine, as well, all are first about God; and only then about our response in faithfulness to God.

What will we do with our life? It’s the covenant question. Biblical scholars have discerned in scripture over 600 specific prohibitions for human behavior, and twice as many prescriptions. And while never God’s intention, people came to understand these as the Covenant they were to keep.

And so, it’s our graduation question: What will you do with your life? What will I do with my life? We may choose to spend this precious gift of life trying to observe what seem to be God’s rules for us. And sooner or later, when we finally realize that there’s no human way for us to keep these laws perfectly, that we are creatures with a flawed sense of good and bad, of right and wrong, that we are inherently unable to be perfect in our faithfulness to God, then do we bring our experience and growth to bear on the question: What will we to do with our life?

Will we follow the advice of a Rabbi and scholar, and enjoy life more today, tomorrow, and the next day? Will we answer God’s call to each of us to be set free from our role in life as sinner, and instead to become a blessing from God in the lives of many? Will we graduate to God’s call to us to desire mercy; mercy for ourselves, in understanding our need for it? and mercy for those around us, those beyond help, those beyond welcome, but those never beyond our knowledge of the Love of God for all.

And now may Almighty God, who has lifted us from what we were due into the richness of grace, equip us to be worthy of our call, that by all our works, begun, continued, and ended in faith, we may glorify God’s holy 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, June 1, 2008

Rector's Study June 2008

From the Rector’s Study ~

From here on, our task is all about living out the New Covenant. We are charged both with being God’s people toward one another and with doing God’s will in the world around us. What we are given to do and to be is very likely just the same as was given to the first disciples of Jesus as they went out from the upper room. The wind of the Spirit of God had blown over them and freshly empowered them, literally inspired them, to proclaim in deed and in word the Good News of God’s Love for all. Their call is our call; our vocation is the vocation of the apostles of Christ our Lord.

Our diocese has elected a new bishop whose task it will be to remind all the rest of us our call, and to empower God’s Church for the carrying out of our mission. Our new bishop will need our prayers; indeed he needs them now, even before he becomes officially our bishop. Pray for the Rev. Andy Doyle, and know that he is praying for all of us. Give thanks that, in some important ways, our diocese, the congregation of all the people, has chosen to end business as usual in order to chart a new path toward our future. And let us commit ourselves now to continue to do our part to ensure that our diocese stays true to this new course.