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.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Sermon 8 Pentecost - Proper 10A July 13, 2008

8 Pentecost - 13 July 2008 - Proper 10A
Genesis 25: 19-34; Romans 8:1-11; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
James V. Stockton

‘Patience is a virtue,’ so goes the saying. Do people believe this? Do people practice it? Do we? Fast-food restaurants may stretch the definition of food, but at least they’re fast. Why take the time and trouble to go out to a video-store and rent a DVD, when the same movie is available online as a download that can be viewed immediately or at one’s convenience? The importance to modern life of faster boot-up times on computers, and faster connections to the internet, demonstrate that speed is a modern virtue more popular than patience by a long shot.

Contemporary society is often identified, and probably rightly so, with a culture of instant gratification. If the pay-off isn’t immediately available, then one is hard-put to persuade people that the effort is worth it. Those of you who are teachers, and those of us who are students also, are likely quite familiar with the phrase, “Will this be on the test?” And the answer, of course, is ‘yes.’ It may not show up in a question on a quiz or on a final exam. But whatever it is, one likely to be tested over it some day, in some way. And it’s the ‘some day’ that makes it a hard sell. It’s the waiting, the waiting, the waiting.

Patience is a virtue. ‘God, grant me patience,’ so goes the prayer. ‘God, grant me patience, and please, do it right now!’ As one with a reputation for driving with a quickened pace, I identify with that prayer. And lest there be any skeptics present who doubt that God listens, please notice in response to our prayer for patience, God has sent us Windows Vista® and the new Apple iPhone®.

‘Patience is a virtue;’ so goes the saying. And as a thing that is good, one may assume, rightly, I suggest, that patience is also a thing that is godly. The question becomes, then, how do people of God find their access to the virtue of patience? Where do they go to download patience? Where’s the drive-through where they can place their order?

Someone has said, “The secret of patience is doing something else in the meanwhile.” And the Apostle Paul just might agree. Paul writes to the Christians in Rome that, the way he sees it, there is on one hand the life of the flesh, of carnality, in terms of today, the life of immediate gratification. On the other hand, there is the life of the Spirit. But if it seems that Paul is suggesting that one is important to God and the other is not, then this is a great example of why it is important to avoid taking texts of scripture out of the larger context. Paul’s point is that through life in the Spirit of God, people find the patience to tend, in a way that is proper, virtuous, and even godly, to the concerns of their lives, and of the lives of those around them. It is exactly because they are waiting for those blessings of life in the Spirit that come to them in God’s good time, that what they do in the meanwhile matters all the more.

I read a story about a driver at an intersection. It is rush hour, traffic is heavy, and his car stalls. The light turns green, and for all his efforts, he cannot get his car started again. A symphony of honking horns rises up around him. He tries and tries to get his car running, but he is unable. Finally, he gets out his car, goes to the driver immediately behind him, and says, “I’m sorry, I can’t get my car started. If you’ll go up there and give it a try, I’ll stay here and honk your horn for you.”

“The secret of patience is doing something else in the meanwhile.” The parable of sower that Jesus tells in the gospel for today offers insight into what people can do in the meanwhile. First, it is probably instructive that the first thing Jesus does is sit down. ‘Jesus went out and sat beside the sea.’ He doesn’t rush to the people, the people come to him. He just goes out and takes a seat at the seashore. In itself, it s a scene of serenity, of watching the waves, of listening to the water, of allowing things to happen as they will, while one simply observes. It is a picture of patience. As the crowds gather, Jesus gets into a boat; and we can just allow ourselves here to infer personally what we will about any sort of divine imprimatur upon the act of sitting in a boat out on a lake somewhere, perhaps with a line in the water.

From here, Jesus begins to speak to the people. And again, his example offers yet another insight and invitation. “Listen,” he says. Simply, ‘Listen.’ It’s no exaggeration to say, I think, that listening, like patience, is an increasingly rare expression of the art of being human. “Listen,” says Jesus. And it is almost enough to stop the reading there. In his book Go and Do Likewise, author William C. Spohn writes, “…the practices of Christian spirituality form the bridge between the texts of the New Testament and the virtues needed to live out a Christian way of life.” He goes on, “A single dramatic insight into a biblical story or image may impress us for a lifetime.” “However,” he notes, “regular disciplines are the usual way that these [stories or images] become habits of the heart.”

That ‘single dramatic insight’ is something that a culture of instant gratification can relate to well. But instant enlightenment, instantaneous illumination, immediate gratification of the desire to meet and to know God is hard to achieve. A meaningful experience of worship can offer hints of the transport and bliss of that union with God that is to come, but the singular dramatic experience is never meant to substitute for the regular relationship with God or with God’s people.

And so, ‘Listen.’ Jesus calls the people to the regular discipline of the patience to listen for a living word spoken to their heart from the heart of God. The parable of the sower of the seeds describes for the followers of Jesus the reality that he encounters, and that they in their turn will encounter, too. You and I can only imagine how this parable takes on growing significance for the disciples after Jesus has ascended and they begin to lead and serve the emerging fellowship of the infant Church. And the point of the parable is not so much the sower, though that is how it has come to be identified. The point is the soils, the inevitably different soils, upon which falls the seed.

In Jesus’ day, in the days of the apostles, and in our own, the Word of God falls across the ears and the hearts of persons of all sorts and conditions. Persons who hear but do not understand fall prey to losing what might have sprung up in their lives. People who welcome the Good News of God’s Love for them may lose what they gain when they discover that though God is near, they’re not yet in heaven, and troubles will continue to arise. Persons who hear, who understand the concepts, who even appreciate the theory, may miss out on what God is hoping to grow up in their lives, when they succumb to the lure of the world around them. Be it, as for Esau, a simple bowl of stew on a hungry afternoon, or as for his brother Jacob, access to the power and wealth around them, the lure of immediate gratification can threaten to leave them deaf and numb to Jesus’ call to ‘listen and be patient in the meanwhile.’

And so, for Jesus in his day, for the apostles in theirs, and now for you and me, this means that sharing the Word of God must always be more than sharing a text, a book, or a recorded reading. It means that the Word of God that lively lives is found less printed on paper pages, flashed across monitor screens, or encoded on digital media, and more often found composed upon human hearts upon yours and mine. It means that the Word is annotated, if you will, by we and all those whose lives, are already fertile with a lived relationship with its author. For all those into whose lives God plants its seed, the Word is given meaning that is personal, immediate, and lasting in your actions done for them, and in mine, in your words spoken to them, and in mine, and in the time we take just to listen; to practice our belief that patience is a virtue, and to sit with them beside the sea of God’s blessing: God’s Love for each of us and for us all.

So may Almighty God, source of life and lover of souls, bring us to the fullness of grace for which God, through Christ our Savior, has prepared both us and all whom God has made; through the same 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 6, 2008

8 Pentecost - 6 July 2008

8 Pentecost - 6 July 2008 - Proper 9A
Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
James V. Stockton

I hope and pray that all of us had a happy and meaningful 4th of July holiday. Though ours is not a perfect land, it is indeed a good one. And part of the hard-won freedom that we enjoy is the very freedom to say that our nation is not perfect. So, I pray that we had a good holiday not dwelling on the criticisms but appreciating the good.

It has been said that when one’s only talent in life is criticism, that talent is best treated scripturally; i.e. it is best to bury it until the day the master returns. In their day, the disciples of Jesus remember that even for Jesus there is no pleasing the critics. I think it’s helpful for people to see how they can identify with this. Jesus’ critics find fault with everything that he does. If he heals someone of a terrible affliction, they argue that he does this on a day on which no such be doing such labor. If he feeds the hungry, his critics argue that he failed to tell them to wash their hands first. If he points to the good in a Gentile or a Samaritan, they argue that he’s speaking up for an outsider and ignoring his own kind. If he comforts the outcasts, his critics argue that he spends his time with people clearly forsaken by God. The disciples realize, as did Jesus before them, that there is no pleasing those determined to find something to criticize.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Rector's Study July 2008

From the Rector’s Study ~

Some very material urgencies are imposing themselves upon us these days. The rising costs of fuel and the consequent increases in costs of other tangible goods are affecting some of our most basic decisions. Travel plans come into question, major purchases may need to be put on hold. Simply buying a gallon of milk or a half-gallon is a new and unfamiliar choice that more people are having to make. In addition, the arrival of summer reminds us that the dog days are but a pleasant myth. Chores around the house keep us busy: changing HVAC filters, hanging new curtains, replacing light bulbs, putting in new trim molding, cleaning out the attic, straightening the garage. Chores around the church keep us busy, too: straightening pew racks, fixing steps, catching mice, repairing air-conditioners, replacing bulbs, to name some finite examples from the infinite list.

In this environment of urgency and busyness we can easily lose our sense of what matters most, both to God and to ourselves. Anthropologist and theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin once wrote that, "We are not physical beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a physical experience." That about ourselves which is less tangible, less quantifiable, less obvious, and thus even less accomplishable, is, in Teilhards’s view, that which is most distinctively human. For Teilhard, what makes us human is our connection with God and eternity, not our connection with our immediate circumstance in time and space.