Sunday, September 28, 2008

Sermon 20 Pentecost - Proper 21A Sept 28, 2008

20 Pentecost - 28 September 2008 - Proper 21 A
Exodus 17:1-7; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32
James V. Stockton

“I don't reject your Christ; I love your Christ. It's just that so many of you Christians are so unlike your Christ.” It’s a quote from one of the world’s greatest advocates for the dignity of every human being. Who is good enough to be loved by God? Who deserves God’s Love? To whom does God owe grace and mercy? While it’s hardly ever in exactly these terms, yet, if we think about it, I believe we realize that, in substance, many people are trying to address these questions, some afraid to answer them about themselves, and some too eager to answer them about someone else.

I read about a young man from India, back when India was still under the colonial control of England. Educated in England this man, I’ll call him Kamrachand, becomes an attorney. He migrates to South Africa, where he continues to practices law. There, Kamrachand witnesses the evils of apartheid, the official discrimination against certain people simply because they are different from those who rule. Though Hindu by birth and tradition, Kamrachand becomes interested in Christianity. He studies the Bible, particularly the teachings of Jesus. Is it occurring to Kamrachand to ask ‘Am I good enough for God’s Love?’ ‘Am I deserving of God’s Love?’ ‘Am I someone to whom God owes mercy and grace?’

Wandering in the wilderness, the people of Israel do not seem to pause for even a moment to wonder about their relationship with God. “We’re thirsty out here!” they cry to their leader Moses. “What did you do? Bring us out here to die of thirst?” And before we criticize them for a lack of faith in God, let’s remember that they are in fact in the desert. They are desperate, and understandably so. And so their story serves well, I suggest, to demonstrate the human struggle in which all people participate, you and I included: the struggle to come to faith, and the struggle to hold onto it. And perhaps it demonstrates also, God’s own struggle to bring people to God’s own faith in them.

Here in the wilderness, the people’s fear and anger are making Moses himself afraid and maybe angry, too. And if he doesn’t know exactly what to do, yet he does know what not to do. He does not abandon the people even though they are turning on him. He does not try to argue with them to assert his authority. He does not try to remind them of all that he’s done for them so they feel guilty about their ingratitude and maybe come around to support him. And he does not try to fix the problem on his own. Worried though he may be, Moses does know that he can and should turn to God. And as he does, it never crosses his mind that his fears and concerns for his own safety and for the safety of his people will disqualify him as someone undeserving of God’s attention, as someone not good enough for God to Love. Moses knows that somehow his passionate honesty with God is equal to trust in God. For Moses, faith in God is passionate or it isn’t faith at all.

As Kamrachand continues his exploration of Christ and Christianity he decides to attend a church service. One Sunday he approaches the steps of a large church. That’s when a South African official of the church stops him at the door. "Where do you think you're going, kaffir?" the man asks. ‘Kaffir’ is a derogatory label used at the time for people of near-eastern decent. Being an Anglo-European man, the South African is a member of the ruling class. "I want to attend worship here," Kamrachand replies. The other man stares at him coldly. "There's no room for you kaffirs in this church,” he says. “Get out of here, now, or I'll have my assistants throw you down the steps."

The other man seems to have asked the questions about Kamrachand and answered them, too. So, if not before, Kamrachand is likely now asking them himself: ‘Who is good enough for God’s Love? Am I?’ If not before, he is desperately asking now: ‘Who is deserving of God’s Love? Am I?’ If not before, he is passionately asking now: ‘To whom does God owe grace and mercy? Perhaps not to me?’ These questions arise for people, don’t they, about themselves, about others? They arise for you and me, and so what to do with them?

“Let each of you look not to your own interests,” writes the Apostle Paul; “but to the interests of others.” And so, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” Paul says, “You pay attention to his needs, you pay attention to hers, someone else will pay attention to yours, and soon each of you will be able to quit asking who is good enough, and you will all enter more deeply into the struggles that you all share.” “All of you together,” he says, “notice the cares and worries of the people all around you, and you will quit wondering about who is deserving or not, and you’ll be caring more widely for people who, in the ways that matter, are really just like you.” “Fearfully, tremblingly, passionately,” Paul says, “turn to your relationship with God, and find the questions and the answers that really matter.”

Which then is easier? To say ‘Yes, I’ll do it,’ and then not do it? Or to say, ‘No, I’ll not do it,’ and then do it anyway?’ It a question that Jesus puts to his critics; to those who have no passion, none for God and none for God’s people. And it’s a question that Jesus leaves to the memory of his disciples and the generations of his Church to ask again in their own way.

It’s important to his critics that Jesus knows who holds the authority around here. “So then,” they say to him, “who authorized you?” But rather than answer their demand, Jesus asks them a question. And if their concern is with something more noble and holy than their own prestige, they will answer it. But they do not. And their cowardice reveals that they have no passion for truth, no passion for God, no passion for people all around them who need God’s Love. Jesus knows that it takes only cowardice to pretend to comply with hypocrisy, and sadly, that there are plenty of the merely outwardly faithful cowering nearby.

Jesus knows also that it is the passionate among the people who reject the hypocrisy of those who now try to challenge Jesus. Jesus knows that it takes passion to reject corrupt authority, passion to reject hollow shows of religion, passion to demand to know ‘is God among us or not?’ And Jesus knows that it is exactly this passion that brings people rushing to the Good News of God’s Love for them, to the Good News that sets them free to love one another, free to care about the people around them.

Turned away from the church, Mohandes Karamchand Ghandi decides that he will never again consider becoming a Christian. Yet, often quoting from the sermon on the mount, Ghandi, called Mahatma, or ‘great soul,’ works and prays the rest of his life seeking the freedom and their dignity of every human being. And so a Christian missionary asks him, “Mr. Ghandi, though you quote the words of Christ often, yet you appear adamantly to reject becoming his follower; why is that?” “Oh, I don't reject your Christ,” Ghandi replies. “…It's just that so many of you Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Perhaps, in his own way, Ghandi asked himself the questions that many before him many and since have asked, and understandably so. Thanks be to God, he and others before him and since, did find in Jesus the freedom to cease asking who is good enough for God to love, who is deserving of the Love of God, to whom does God owe God’s mercy and grace.

These are questions that will arise within us about ourselves or about others, and understandably so. Jesus is passionately asking us to listen for them at work, at home, at school, and always here at church; and Jesus is calling us to claim our freedom from them, passionately; and to help the people around us passionately claim their freedom, too. Said the Hindu lawyer to the Christian missionary, “I don't reject your Christ… I love your Christ.” As it has ever done, God’s Love in Christ moves to passion people seeking rescue from their own wilderness, people just like you and me. It moves to passion people seeking unity with others in the mind and heart of God, people just like you and me. It moves to passion people seeking the presence of Jesus in his people, in people just like you and me.

And so may Almighty God, in whom is sanctified our vocation and ministry grant that we may truly and devoutly serve God, and bring those who are far from them, to the knowledge and love of our Savior 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, September 14, 2008

Sermon 18 Pentecost - Proper 19A Sept 14, 2008

18 Pentecost - 14 September 2008 - Proper 19A
Exodus 14:19-31; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35
James V. Stockton

‘What goes around comes around.’ It’s a phrase familiar to many. The theory holds that whatever a person puts out there into the general conversation, perhaps a rumor, a bit of gossip, whatever someone puts out there starts going around, passing from person to person, people to people, changing, growing, and eventually it comes back around and perhaps penalizes whoever put it out there in the first place. People who have lived long enough to learn some lessons from the school of experience will generally agree that this bit of common wisdom is remarkably true. Better watch out: What goes around, comes around.

Here’s a true story: a young man, Charlie, about 12 years old, is at home with his sister Carol and their mother. Mom has asked Carol to baby sit for a friend of hers. Four year old Buddy has been over to the house before, and Charlie always finds the little boy annoying. So, Charlie tries just to stay away from Buddy whenever he comes over. And just a little, not much, Charlie wonders if he should behave differently toward Buddy.

Better be careful: ‘What goes around comes around.’ It’s one of those sayings that sounds like it comes from Scripture. And in a sense it does. In an important sense, we hear this common wisdom spoken between the lines in the story that we hear today from the book of the Exodus. ‘Exodus’ literally means the ‘way out,’ and the Israelites are taking God’s way out from their slavery in Egypt. God has led the people into the wilderness. The Egyptians are in hot pursuit, and at the shore of the Red Sea, the Israelites are trapped with no more way out. Then God parts the waters of the Sea which allows the people to escape to the other side. When the Egyptians follow, God allows the waters to tumble back into place, costing many Egyptian lives and securing for God’s people their way out of slavery.

It’s a miracle, by the way. People may try to find an explanation for it, and that’s a fine exercise of the gift of curiosity. But it’s good also to recognize that the parting of the Red Sea is intentionally presented as a miracle. I heard of a professor teaching about this one day. He describes a very credible theory that holds that the Red Sea was, at the time of the Exodus, actually just a swamp. Thus the Israelites needed only to wade through two or three inches of water and so there was really no miracle involved. After his lecture, a student raises his hand. “If the Red Sea was only two inches deep,” he observes, “wouldn’t it have to be a miracle that the whole Egyptian army drowned in it?” I like what a rabbi once said about miracles. “The Jewish perspective,” he says, “is that a miracle is a coincidence.” “But,” he goes on, “the question is: why did that coincidence happen then?”

ometimes a miracle is just a miracle. Whatever. The Israelites are free. And in a sense, they are free because the abuse that the Egyptians have inflicted upon the Israelites, and have allowed to be inflicted, now comes back around. By their action and by their word the Egyptians have spread the false belief that the Israelites somehow deserve their abuse, because, after all, ‘they aren’t like the rest of us, they are merely Hebrews.’ It’s such lies as this that they have told themselves that enable the Egyptian to sleep at night, knowing full well that tomorrow he will rise again to take advantage of the suffering of the slaves. It’s lies like this that enable the Egyptian to go untroubled through her day knowing full well that her comfort and leisure are paid for by the suffering of the slaves. It’s lies like this that move people, generation after generation, further and further away from that necessarily gentle sensitivity to the grace and Love of God; until one day they find that there is nothing left to come back around but the consequences of the hardness of their lies. In effect, the story tell us, ‘Better be careful: What goes around comes around.’

Charlie is doing his best to avoid Buddy.
Charlie’s mom calls to him, “Do you want to go with me to the store?” Great! A chance to get out of the house. “Yeah, let’s go,” Charlie calls. Outside, they are getting into the car and Buddy appears. He is smiling broadly through the chain link fence of the backyard gate. “Do you want to take Buddy?” Mom asks Charlie. Charlie doesn’t think about it for even a second. “No way!” he shouts. Instantly, Buddy bursts into tears.

Better watch out. ‘What goes around comes around.’
It’s Jesus’ message to his disciples. “I know that I should be forgiving of other people” says Peter; “so, since I want to be really, really righteous just how forgiving do I have to be?” “If I forgive somebody as many as seven times,” he says, ”that’s got to be really good, right?” And Jesus as much as tells him, “Peter, you can’t count high enough to reach the number of times you would need to forgive others in order to make yourself righteous.” To be sure, wanting to be righteous is a good goal. But forgiveness is not forgiveness until it is offered from the heart. I didn’t make it up; Jesus says it within our hearing today. The desire to be forgiven is too fragile and precious a thing for someone to use simply as a tool. The hope for forgiveness is too personal, too vulnerable a thing for someone to abuse it, and then think that they could lie about it to themselves or to God.

Buddy is crying on the other side of the gate.
“Are you sure you don’t want to let Buddy come with us?” ask Mom trying to give Charlie a chance to change his mind, to change his heart. Charlie glances again at Buddy, his sister Carol is trying now to comfort him. “I’m sure,” says Charlie. At the store, Charlie thinks that maybe when they return home he can make it up to Buddy. But, when they get home Buddy’s mom has retrieved him. Over the next several weeks Buddy comes over for babysitting again. But the time never seems right. Charlie never takes the chance to see if he could change the hurt that he caused Buddy. He never takes the chance to know the gift of somehow asking for and then receiving Buddy’s forgiveness.

And I know this because the story is mine. I don’t tell you this because I toss and turn about it every night, because I don’t. I tell you this because, while as a twelve year old I never humbled myself enough to apologize to Buddy, I did learn from him the wisdom in the saying: ‘What goes around comes around.’ I learned the wisdom of seeking forgiveness from others as soon as I possibly can whenever I wrong them. I learned the wisdom of Jesus’ teaching that God does hold us accountable. And I learned that God does this largely by laying bare what we already know to be the good we could have done, and should have done, but didn’t; the wrong that we’ve done, and could have changed, the wrong that we’ve ignored around us, and should have changed, but didn’t. I’ve learned that God does see to it that ‘What goes around comes around.’

And so now, please rise and let’s each of us take just a moment to think about it in our hearts, and then go to those nearby and tell them from our heart: “You are forgiven by God. Please forgive me, too" I've learned that God does see to it that ‘What goes around comes around.’ And I’ve learned that this is not only a warning, it is a also a promise from God. Jesus says that God will hold us accountable, and so, yes, he says, ‘Be careful.’ But in between the lines he also says, “Be encouraged.”

For, whenever we grab that chance today, tomorrow, whenever we put it out there into the world around us, whenever we give it to a heart near us, whenever we offer it someone who maybe too afraid to ask, then we find God’s goodness, God’s Love, God’s forgiveness and our own, going around; and then today, tomorrow, someday, we find them coming back around, and then one day, we find that they have come around to stay forever. And now, please rise again. Think about it in your heart, as I do in mine, and let’s go to those around us and tell them from our heart: “God is glad you’re here, and so am I."

od is glad you’re here, and so am I.” And so may Almighty God, by whose grace alone we are redeemed, ignite within us that same love which burned in the heart of 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, September 7, 2008

Sermon 17 Pentecost - Proper 18A Sept 7, 2008

17 Pentecost - 7 September 2008 - Proper 18A
Exodus 12: 1-14; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20
James V. Stockton

“Goodness is the judge of religion; not religion the judge of goodness.” So writes Michael Benedikt, professor here at U.T. Austin and author of the recent book, God Is the Good We Do. “There are many people,” he writes, “…who want to feel connected to religion’s long struggle with promulgating goodness, if only to see the drama continue and perhaps be a part of it.” From this, he concludes that, “it is essential that ‘God’ the word be reclaimed for goodness and reason, and be freed from exploitation, politics, and superstition.” It is more than merely interesting, I think, that there exists in our day a need to set free God, if only the word or the concept, while a foundation of our faith and religion is the belief that God is intent on freeing us. I suggest that this irony may indicate that, even with regard to God, the purpose of true religion is always to help us all transcend ourselves.

“I will execute judgments,” God says; “and this…will be a day of remembrance for you.” The Passover event is recalled in the book of Exodus to remind God’s people that God does judge humanity. What people do to one another, and what people fail to do, is subject to inevitable divine judgment: this is the message of the Passover. God will right the wrongs. God bring justice where injustice has prevailed. God will rescue the defenseless from the bullies, and God will bring Peace to troubled lives. To a people enslaved, now huddled inside their simple shelters, this is a profoundly encouraging message.

More than we might first expect, people in the world today, maybe you or someone you know, experience some sort of oppression. It may be the bullying of a boss or a teacher, on a larger scale a dictator, or despot, someone or some people who took advantage of their power to coerce, belittle, or harass. Oppression may come in the form of an illness, physical condition, or circumstance of nature that deprived them without warning of their usual abilities to go where they wish to go and to do what they wish to do. Oppression may be self-imposed; a derivative of a conscience made guilty by an old error or former wrong-doing of which a person or a people are unable to forgive themselves or to accept God’s forgiveness for it, either.

God’s intention is to set free the captives to oppression. At the same time, the Passover event is a reminder that when people set free do come into positions of power and authority still God judges, and God alone is judge. Thus, it reminds all God’s people that in whatever ways God sets us free, this new freedom is a privilege that comes with a responsibility. This freedom is God’s call to us to transcend ourselves in order to tend first to God’s agenda, then to my agenda or to yours. Our freedom under God’s mercy is a responsibility to seek the will of God, to do it to the best of our ability, and humbly to recognize that we’ll never completely get it right, and so that we’ll always need to rely on God to forgive us the sins of our best efforts and to correct our course along the way.

God’s people in the time of the Passover are, to say the least, grateful for the freedom that God brings. They are thankful that God’s intention is to make things right; that God’s intention is to set free people who are held back, pressed down, kept apart from God’s Love for all by other people, by circumstances, or even by themselves. And because captivities happen still today, you and I can well be grateful to God for those Passover events in our own lives as God continues finding ways to set us free.

“What you set loose on earth will be loosed in heaven,” says Jesus. We don’t use that word much, so it’s helpful today to remember that what Jesus says is, “What you set free on earth will be set free in heaven.” If anyone has wondered about it, it should be clear now that theme for the day is the gift of freedom that God brings to you and me and to the world around us. And I pray that it is clear from the words of Jesus that humanity itself is called to participate in God’s work of setting free. The ‘God-agenda’ of bringing freedom to all who are captive to any sort of oppression is, by Jesus’ words, also your agenda and mine. To set free the captive of any description: this is now our own ministry of true religion to one another and to the world in God’s Name.

And how we accept the responsibilities of our own liberty: this is the shape, if you will, of the ministry that we exercise. “If someone has wronged you,” says Jesus, “hold them accountable.” “Tell the person or the people of the wrong that they have done.” After all, if no one tells them, they may never know. “And if that person or those people don’t accept their own responsibility, keep working at it with people who will hold you accountable, too.” After all, if you’re wrong and no one tells you, you may never know. “If the person or people who have done wrong refuse to help correct it, then, move on and don’t allow them to make you captive either to their sin or to your own anger or despair."

Isn’t that amazing advice? Sure, it may be that when the disciples first hear this brief instruction they look at it as a code to follow step by step, so that when they exercise their privilege of authority they can tell themselves and others that they have obeyed Jesus. And people may look at it the same way still today. But as the disciples of Jesus recall his words after he has left them to return to heaven, I think they are amazed. Isn’t it amazing how much more is here than merely rules for us to obey? There is wisdom here to illumine the mind and move us beyond ourselves.

“Your decision on earth,” says Jesus, “to make it captive will be honored by God in heaven; and if you decide to set it free, then God will honor this decision, too.” Isn’t is amazing how much responsibility God entrusts to us? “Where two or three of you agree,” says Jesus, God in heaven will do it for you.” Sure, people may hear this promise as a magical formula to follow in their prayers as though it will guarantee that all their wishes will come true. But isn’t it amazing how much more is here than merely superstition? There is responsibility here to inspire the heart and move us all beyond ourselves.

What then shall we set loose in our lives? What shall we set loose upon the world around us? It may be that we don’t quite believe it, maybe we don’t want to believe it, but God wants us to know, I think God hopes that we want to know, that we really do make choices, that God really does entrust us with the power to choose what we set loose in this world, and what we make captive.

“Love your neighbor as yourself,” says the Apostle Paul. He didn’t invent it; Jesus says it in his teaching. But even Jesus didn’t invent it; it was buried back in long tradition of the Old Covenant and in many other traditions as well. Religiously speaking, people want to do what God considers righteous and so not commit a sin. Morally speaking, people want to do what is right, and so not have a guilty conscience to deal with. Today, this week, this month, what will you set loose in your life, and me in mine? What will you, what will I, what we together, set loose upon the world around us?

Love your neighbor and soon you will love yourself; love yourself and soon you will love God; love God and soon you will love your neighbor. It seems to be a mystery of true religion that the choice to love one is ultimately the choice to love all. In this does God set you free, set me free, so that we are no longer captive to the illusion that our freedom in God is based in someone else’s captivity away from it. In this is true religion judged by its inherent goodness. In this, is God reclaimed, the word, the concept, the very Self of God set free. Better than a code to follow step by step; better than a superstition to lean upon, this is true religion that helps us to move beyond our captivities and answer its call to set loose within ourselves and within the world around us the Love of God for all.

And so may Almighty God, who has formed us together in a common life, so guide us in our search for God’s good will that where we are bound by sin we may be freed and the gracious rule of Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with the Father and Holy Spirit, one God now and forever. Amen.

© 2008, James V. Stockton

Monday, September 1, 2008

Rector's Study September 2008

In his book, The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What’s so Good About the Good News?, the Rev. Peter Gomes writes about an incident that occurred when he was serving as guest minister at a particular church.

…just as the rector and I were about to proceed to our prayers before the service, a wildly disoriented young man burst into the room. He spoke loudly but nonsensically, seemingly either “on” or “off” something. Whatever it was, though, his erratic behavior was familiar to the rector, who treated him with enormous but firm courtesy and let the little tantrum run its course. The intruder left as abruptly as he had arrived, and while I was shaken the rector was not, and was clearly used to such interruptions. As we pulled ourselves back together, his thoughtful comment was, “I keep hoping it isn’t Jesus.”