Thou art Rocky...
A Sermon preached by the Rev. Nils Chittenden
Sunday, January 15th, 2017
This past week has seen some important anniversaries. No, I’m not talking about the Feast Day of St Paul the Hermit, whose grave was apparently dug by two lions. (How did they hold the spades?). Nor am I talking about the anniversary of Henry VIII declaring himself the head of the English Church. I’m not even (can you believe, bearing in mind I used to be the Episcopal Chaplain at Duke) talking about the invention of basketball by James Naismith in 1892. No, the momentous anniversary I am talking about is none other than the 16th anniversary of Wikipedia.
I remember the early days of Wikipedia. When the most reliable thing about it was that you knew it was probably wrong. All that has changed now. I think it is a testament to a little theory I have that when we place trust in people, they generally pay it back with trust. The folks at Wikipedia had faith that the essential altruism and truthfulness which is inherent in the human spirit would shine if it was given a chance to. We live in such a cynical world, generally, that we so often assume that people are either incapable or untrustworthy, and I think the Wikipedia story demonstrates that there are far more people out there (and in here) who want to do the right thing than those who simply want to denigrate people or spoil our lovely world. I don’t want to overstate the case, nor get starry-eyed, but I find that rather heart-warming.
Anyway, in celebration of Wikipedia’s 16th anniversary, I would like to read you the following opening paragraph from a particular entry. You may wish to hazard a guess as to what it is referring to.
[It’s a] “1976 American sports drama film directed by John G. Avildsen, and written by and starring Sylvester Stallone. It tells the rags to riches American Dream story of.... an uneducated but kind-hearted debt collector for a loan shark in the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. [He] starts out as a club fighter who then gets a shot at the world heavyweight championship.
The film, made on a budget of less than $1 million and shot in 28 days, was a sleeper hit; it made over $225 million the highest grossing film of 1976, and won three Oscars, including Best Picture. The film received many positive reviews and turned Stallone into a major star.”
Now, you may wonder what the movie, Rocky, has to do with the second Sunday after the Epiphany in the Church’s calendar. A number of things strike me about that Gospel reading we just heard from St John.
First among them is this.
“One of the two”, says the reading, who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas”
Cephas. Jesus gives Simon a nickname. He calls him ‘Rocky’. Rocky. And on that rock the Church was built. We know him as Peter, but Peter is simply our translation of the Latin Petrus, which simply means ‘rock’. When we think of St Peter, and the foundation of the Church, we think of extraordinarily complex and lavish buildings, we think of the Vatican, we think of piety, hagiography and beatification. Yet, what we often fail to register, despite the fact that it is stated time and again in the gospels, is that Jesus was calling a bunch of ordinary, poor subsistence laborers to inaugurate the Kingdom of God here on earth. There are implications to being nicknamed Rocky – implications that make the gospels – and the Church – much less fusty and much more accessible than it has often been throughout the ages. ‘Rocky’ tells us how at ease Jesus was with his followers, how he had a ready accessibility to them, and readily accepted them. Jesus meets Simon, and at once makes him feel special, included and of importance. Jesus, I believe, places a trust in us, men, women and children, to work with him. He calls us with a ready acceptance and an easy and friendly familiarity which we ought to find compelling.
A minute ago, I alluded to somewhere like the Vatican being synonymous with grandeur, lavishness, and the splendor of status and hierarchy. But just think how even in four short years, one person can almost single-handedly have begun the process of turning around that perception. I’m hugely impressed with Pope Francis. That’s not to say that there isn’t a heap of stuff about his denomination I disagree with, but at least he has had the courage to admit that there’s plenty of work to be done. We have got so used to churches of all denominations being self-serving, self-interested and bloated that it seems kind of extraordinary when they aren’t. In fact, perhaps the most extraordinary thing about Pope Francis is that we think that his behavior is extraordinary. When in fact all he’s doing is being Christian. Shock horror, Christian leader is nice to people and treats them with respect.
I actually do believe that for all of the challenges that the Church faces and in the face of its alleged decline, we may actually be on the cusp of a new Great Awakening. A new era of life and vitality for the Church. But it’s going to look very different from before, and I believe it will be much more like the Church that Jesus would actually dream for us to be.
This Episcopal Church of ours does has a vision for being a place where all are welcome – a church for others. As I often say from this pulpit, we come to church primarily for others, rather than for ourselves. It’s going to take a lot of patience, commitment and self-examination to make that reality, but a great way for us to truly be a church where all are welcome is less about governance, less about church politics and status and more about reflecting a theology that demonstrates that we can indeed make people feel special, included and of importance, with the generous friendliness and acceptance that Jesus shows us. The kind that Jesus showed to Rocky.