Sunday, October 26, 2008

Sermon 24 Pentecost - Proper 25A Oct 26, 2008

24 Pentecost - 26 October 2008 - Proper 25 A
Deuteronomy 34:1-12; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46
James V. Stockton

"It will be a long and arduous way to the question, What is God like in times of crisis? and more particularly, Who is God, to whom we pray?” It is the claim of theologian Gerhard Sauter in his book Protestant Theology at the Crossroads. Partly in response to the atrocities of September 11, 2001, Sauter’s writing comes to us after the first great crisis of 21st century and yet before the beginning of the current one. The economy of our nation is increasingly unhealthy. The economy of the wider world around us is suffering right along with our own. People are trying to find a way to respond to the crisis; to survive not just financially, but also to preserve those things that are most important to how they live and to who they are. ‘What is God like in times of crisis?’ People are discovering that it can be a long way just to get to the question.

As faithfully as he could Moses has led the people of God through the wilderness. Finally, they have arrived at the threshold. “Take a long look, Moses,” God says to him. “See the vast expanse. Imagine the people settling in and growing up as a nation.” “Take a look, Moses,” says God, “but know that you yourself will not be going there.” Perhaps a legend, perhaps an historical account, perhaps it is a combination of both, in any case, what matters for God’s people about this story of God forbidding Moses to enter the fulfillment of the promise is what it can tell them about the kind of God they have in crisis and who is this God to whom they pray.

‘The guidance that brought them here was not yours, Moses, but mine,’ says God. ‘And so the people will go forward without you.’ ‘Their freedom was won for them not by you, Moses, but by me,’ says God. ‘And so they will go forward without you.’ ‘You have come a long way, Moses, literally and spiritually,’ God says. ‘I will now spare you the realization that the journey of my people has really only just begun. And so they will go forward without you.’ ‘Though they have not always known it, though they have not always believed it, yet I am the kind of God that has been with them all the way. And so they will go forward without you.’

The economic health of our nation is in trouble. A collusion of our government’s determination to ignore a growing disaster and corporate greed for fast and easy money with a willing disregard its consequences has inflicted upon this nation and our world a systemic financial paralysis. Businesses are closing because they cannot find the funding to pay their rent or their payroll, or to renew their inventory. People are finding that suddenly they cannot retire as soon as they had carefully planned. People with good credit are struggling to find a loan to purchase a home, an automobile, furniture, or a college education for themselves or their children. People far removed from the halls of national government and the arena of higher finance are now suffering the consequences of the marriage of official irresponsibility with professional greed. And while the consequences of their behavior continue to penalize virtually everyone, yet some of the most guilty parties themselves seem to be escaping justice.

And so, people around us are angry; perhaps we are angry, too. People around us are nervous, scared. Perhaps we are scared, as well. It is a time when perhaps we are asking, and rightly so, Where is God in this time of crisis? Who is the God to whom we may turn and pray? It is a time, perhaps, of a modern-day wandering in a modern-day wilderness. Perhaps people are seeking a modern-day Moses. Be careful.

In their own day, Jesus and the people around him are afflicted with leadership that has lost touch not only with the people but with any desire to be in touch with the people at all. Leaders of the people, both civic and religious, have largely abandoned their sense of responsibility for the people and their accountability to them. The local tetrarchs, governors of the provinces and regions, are allied with persons and agencies who hold higher political authority than do they. In this case, the higher authorities are the Roman procurators. They hold veto power and have final say over all matters social and political. Therefore, it is politically expedient for the Hebrew authorities to kowtow to their higher powers, that is, if their status and privilege are more important to them than the good of their own people.

Meanwhile, the Pharisees provide the people religious instruction in the outlying towns and cities. They focus on proper observance of minute rules that describe what is allowed and what is forbidden for the people of God. The Sadducees focus on ensuring the use of proper forms of worship at the Temple in Jerusalem: things like proper attire for the worshipping public, proper offerings and sacrifices, and having the proper people in charge. Therefore, these religious authorities of the people find it expedient for their own sake to tend to securing their own positions of privilege and status and to tend the spiritual good of the people as simply an afterthought.

Into this environment comes Jesus. Into this environment, Jesus will send out his followers. He in his day, they in theirs, are, as the Apostle Paul puts it, ‘shamefully mistreated,’ declaring the Good News of Christ Jesus in spite of ‘great opposition.’ Yet if, as Paul puts it, they speak not ‘from deceit, or impure motives or trickery;’ if they speak not with ‘words of flattery, or ‘with a pretext for greed,’ or to ‘seek praise from mortals;’ if instead they are, as Paul describes it, caring dearly for the people with a nurse-like tenderness, why then do they all meet with determined opposition?

Isn’t it precisely because of the way that they come speaking? Isn’t it precisely because they seek ‘not to please mortals, ’not to gain popularity and influence and status and power? Isn’t it precisely because they come instead seeking to please God in the only way that there is to do it: celebrating together and sharing with others the experience and knowledge of the Love of God for all?

The apostles in their day and Jesus in his, perhaps we in ours, can well understand, that a government that has given itself over to political prostitution and a financial system that has given itself over to unaccountable greed will always work hard to hide the truth and to confuse those who are seeking it. What will they do, the apostles of Jesus? What will he do, Jesus himself? And what will we do, you and I, as we journey through this crisis to the questions: ‘How will we find God to be in this crisis?’ and ‘Who is this God to whom we pray?’

The theologian Gerhard Sauter goes on to write, “…only retrospectively…[can] we perceive… God’s…surprising providential activity and care.” “And so,” he continues, “we call on God to preserve our sense of time and to provide [us] spiritual experiences of ending and [of] new beginning.”

There will come and end to this crisis, of this we must be sure, and we will know a new beginning. Until that time, God wants us to know what the ancient people of God learned: that, more than anything else, it is our relationship with God that brings us along on our journey through our wilderness. Like the people of Jesus’ day, God want us and the people around us, those seeking truth and those seeking to deny it, to hear Jesus’ words and to experience the power of his example: no religious or political authority, and no position as one; but only God’s relationship with us brings us forward from where we have been, and only God’s relationship with us will take us beyond whatever lies ahead.

In the days and weeks and months ahead, God will continue helping us to see beyond the long and arduous way of this crisis. God will continue helping to gaze upon that vast expanse of the goodness being done all around us, and which we ourselves are doing; and calling us to help others lay claim to it with us, a promise to us all from God. God will continue helping us to hear the truth within us, and calling us to help others hear the truth within themselves, to speak the truth that God is raising through all of us together. And God will continue helping and calling us to love. For there within the love that you or I receive from those around us; there within the love that you or I give away to others; there, together, we find God, loving us all, and showing us the way.

And so may Almighty God, who has taught us that in returning to God we shall find quiet confidence and strength, grant that by our prayers and labors and those of all the Church, the world may come to know the revelation of God in our Lord 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, October 5, 2008

Sermon 21 Pentecost - Proper 22A Oct 5, 2008

21 Pentecost - 5 October 2008 - Proper 22A
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46

James V. Stockton

Here’s a story: New to town, Kathy is walking through the countryside around the small village to which she has only recently moved. Kathy comes across a wizened old man sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch of his farmhouse. “Howdy,” she says to the farmer. “How’s the cotton coming along?” “Didn’t plant no cotton,” says the farmer. “Oh,” says Kathy. “Uh, why not, I wonder?” The farmer stops rocking. “’Fraid of the boll weevil.” he replies. And he goes back to rocking his chair. “Ah, yes,” Kathy says. “Well, then,” she continues, “how’s the corn?” “Didn’t plant no corn,” says the farmer. “Oh?” Kathy responds, “Um, why not?” The farmer stops again. “’Fraid of the drought.” He relaxes to rocking in his chair again. “Yes,” Kathy says, as she glances around at the tall green grass and the green leafy trees. Kathy tries again. “Well, then, neighbor, uh, how are the potatoes doing?” The farmer eyes her. “Ain’t got no taters,” he says. Kathy just looks at him, speechless. Motionless, the farmer replies, “Scairt of the tater bug.” And he goes to back to rocking. Kathy’s curiosity is piqued, now. What crop is the farmer growing? What seed is he planting? She must know.

In a sense, what the ancient people of God experience a curiosity similar to Kathy’s though with far greater consequence to its answer. On their way out from slavery to freedom, the people witness the Sea parting itself into to walls of water, and dry ground opening up for them to escape the Egyptians trying to capture them again. When they are desperately hungry, they witness a huge flock of quails appearing from nowhere so that they have food. They discover an unknown substance on the ground every morning that turns out to be a miracle food, and shows up to feed them wherever they go. When they’re dying of thirst they witness water gushing out of solid rock to supply them with drink.

It’s true that the people are in awe. But it’s also true that for many generations, the people have been slaves. Occupied simply with staying alive, the people have lost touch with their sense of themselves as a people. And they’ve lost touch with the God of their fathers and mothers. Apart now from the strict regimen of slavery, from the routine of having someone constantly telling them what to do and when to do it, the people are unaccustomed to not knowing exactly what the next day holds; with not knowing exactly what lies around the next bend; with not knowing exactly and literally where their next meal is coming from. It is not an excuse for their persistent panic. But it is a reason for it, and, I think, a good one. But, for all their fears and desperation, the people are nonetheless glad to be free. They wish to be God’s people. And now, the problem is: they don’t know how to do that. And this is what the Ten Commandments are for. ‘God, guide us. God, help us know what to do. God, help us learn to live.’

I read a story about a couple of friends. Bert and Harold are talking at dinner one night. “I visited a small chapel last week,” says Bert, “that had the Ten Commandments painted on two boards and mounted up front where the congregation could read them.” “When I see that kind of thing,” says Harold, “I always think there should be a third board mounted beneath the other two.” “What do you mean?” asks Bert. “The third board,” Harold explains, “should read: ‘it is recommended that members not attempt more than six of these.’”

Meant to hold up an ideal, yes, but to indicate an ideal that is achievable only to the degree that humanity persistently turns and returns to God. The first commandment is the key. “I am the Lord your God.” Without the first, the other nine commandments become vulnerable to abusive interpretation and clever violation. The irony, I suppose, is that without the first commandment, the other nine become poison to both collective human freedom and personal human integrity. It will take the Israelites a long time to learn, and maybe we’re all still learning it today, but these are not the Ten Condemnations; these are not God’s seeds of human failing. These are the Ten Commandments: God’s seeds of human faith and faithfulness, seeds of the knowledge and love of the Lord.

“Listen to another parable,” says Jesus. And he tells of an owner of a vineyard and of some tenant farmers who work the land for him. The owner is a long way away. And here, distance does not make the heart grow fonder. To the contrary, his absence leaves the tenants with a sense that they are no longer accountable to him. Jesus’ parable assumes that the owner’s claims to a share of the harvest are right and fair. For the vineyard is God’s Kingdom and its owner is God.

It’s no wonder, then, that the religious authorities, “the chief priests and Pharisees” as the scripture reads, want to arrest Jesus and stop him from saying these things. From their perspective God indeed is not around. From their perspective, God has indeed put them in charge. In their view, they own the religion of the people of God.

Jesus’ words are threatening to take all that away from them. And they resent it. And as the disciples of Jesus now recall this parable from the vantage of their own leadership of the Church in its infancy, they know that their emerging ministry is going to be regarded in exactly the same way. And you and I, of course, can do the same. We may look at our collective ministry as the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection; we may each of us consider his or her own ministry, either here in the parish or simply as a Christian person at large in the world. As we do so, we will be well to recognize that anyone with a sense of ownership of the Kingdom, of their ownership of and authority over the mission and ministry of the Church may well feel challenged by your custodianship, by mine, of the harvest of God’s Kingdom.

And the parable tells us why. The owner of the vineyard sends slaves or servants to collect some of the harvest. And rather than give to them what they come for, the tenants abuse them, punish them, and even kill them. When finally the owner’s son himself comes, the tenants are so far gone in their zeal to enforce their right by might, that they have no thankfulness left. They have no sense of what it once was like for them, when they had no place in which to settle, where they could live and work, and rest and play, and even pray. They have no recollection of what it once was like, or of what it might have been for them, to have no share at all in the abundance of the harvest. And so it means nothing to them that those who come are sent to them by God.

Anyone with a sense that God’s Kingdom somehow belongs not God, but to him, to her, to them, will be challenged, by those who come to them saying ‘we’re here for a share of it.’ Anyone with a sense that the Kingdom of God somehow belongs not God, but to themselves, will be threatened by your ministry, my ministry, by our ministry together, of welcoming in those whom God sends to us, welcoming them in the same way that we welcome the Son of God himself.

Trying to be good neighbor, Kathy is also very curious about the farmer. What crop is he growing? What seed is he planting? “No cotton, for fear of the boll weevil, no corn for fear of drought, no potatoes for fear of ‘tater bug,’” Kathy says. “Yep.” says the farmer. “So, what did you plant?” asks Kathy. “I didn’t plant nothin’,” the farmer answers. “I’m just playing it safe.”

You and I, I’m convinced of this, know that God did not send us to play it safe. We know that God sent us to risk the inconvenience of it, and plant the seed of God’s mercy. We know that God sends us, today, tomorrow, to trust that we have already all we’ll need to grow the seed of God’s grace. We know that God sends us, now, next month, next year, to meet the challenge with outstretched hand, and warm smile, and gentle words, and welcome embrace, and to plant and to grow in the hearts and lives of family, friend, and stranger alike, that seed whose blessed harvest we already know: the harvest of God’s Love for each of us and for us all.

And so may Almighty God, who manifests the presence of God in the servants of God, grant that by the grace abounding among us, all may, with us, look to Christ the Son of God, and be saved; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

© 2008, James V. Stockton

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Rector's Study October 2008

From the Rector’s Study ~

ECR held its annual Mid-Year meeting on Sunday September 28, and I’m thankful to and for the officers of the election we held to elect ECR’s delegates to next year’s Diocesan Council. Mike Paulsen, Joe Garrison, and Shelly Page were Scrutineer, Parliamentarian, and Recording Secretary. I’m thankful also for the tellers at the election, Don Helmers, Helen Paulsen, and Ann Harrington. Finally, and not at all least, I’m thankful for all our fine nominees, Nadine Gordon, Andy Lyon, Linda Bryant, Jennifer Williams, Mary Morrison, Granville Ott, Gerald Cantor, Larry Clifton, Lana Beyer, and Brian McElligott. Their nominations are inspiration to us all in serving the Gospel of Jesus Christ through service to his Church. Andy, Jennifer, Brian and Larry were elected to serve as our delegates. Elected to serve as alternates were Linda, Nadine, Lana, and Gerald. Our congratulations belong with each of these. I look forward to attending Council with in our excellent delegation.

We had a tremendous feast, thanks to all who shared food and to all who helped to eat and enjoy it. I appreciated the joy of the fellowship of this meeting. And I found it especially nice to welcome also our new seminarian Marie Butterbaugh and her husband Tim here to ECR. As I pointed out at the Annual Meeting in January the challenge of the previous year was for the ECR leadership, i.e., the Vestry, the Ministry Leaders, and me, to face the reality that ECR must commit to the construction of new parking lots and ministries building in order for our parish to realize our potential. To refresh our memory of this, we’ll recall that our church building has a seating capacity of approximately 190 people at 100% full, not counting the choir. At 80% full, which is what people typically will tolerate on a regular basis, ECR can accommodate 152 people.