Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Sunday, September 17, 2017

15 Pentecost

September 17, 2017

Matthew 18.21-35

+ I am going to ask you a question this morning. Do you have any “bad” friends? Or maybe the better term is “frienemies.” I’m not saying murderers or criminals or Nazis. I mean, do you have friends who might not be very loyal or faithful or even nice to you, but whom you still consider a friend?

I think we all do.  I know I do.  And, I have to admit, sometimes they drive me crazy. I want to be loyal to them. I want to like them. But sometimes, it’s really hard.  And sometimes—sometimes!—I just don’t have to have anything to do with them. I want to distance myself from them and be done with them.  Those people who claim to be friends, but who hurt us, sometimes do so unintentionally.  Sometimes I seem to have inordinate amount of them in my life at times.

So, of course, those are the people who come to mind when I read our Gospel reading for today.  It is not my “enemies” I think of when I hear the Gospel. It’s my “bad” friends or “frienemies.”

In our Gospel reading, we find Jesus challenging us on this issue. He is telling us, once again, maybe something we don’t want to hear.  Today we find Jesus laying it very clearly on the line.

Peter has asked how many times he should forgive. “Seven times?” he wonders.

But Jesus says,

“Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”

In other words, we must forgive those who wrong us, again and again.

Yes, even those bad friends, those friends I really sometimes just want to give up on.

It has taken me a long time to learn the power of this radical kind of forgiveness. And it has not been easy for me!

But, the problem here is that, as hard it is for me with my bad friends and with this radical forgiveness, I have to remember something very important.

I have been, at times, a bad friend to someone. I have been a “frienemy.” Probably to too many people.  I am the person who sometimes has caused issues. I am the person that has caused those people distance themselves from me in turn.

And I have to own that.  I have to face the fact that what I do matters to others and to God.  Being a jerk people has consequences.  And, I realize, on top of all that, I still retain the wrongs that I felt had been done to me and I cannot  sometimes get around what had been done to me.

I harbor sometimes real anger at people—and not righteous anger, you know, like toward Nazis.  Petty, selfish anger.

And all this causes me to be in a state of almost constant war and conflict with those people, whether they are aware of it or not (most of them are not).

I am not proud to admit any of this—to myself or to anyone else. But, I am a fallible human being, like everyone else here this morning.

All this led me to another sobering thought.  A few weeks ago I preached about being a life-long pacifist.  Being a pacifist is something I am very proud of in my life.   My pacifism, at least at this point in my life, is anchored squarely in our Baptismal Covenant in which we promise, with God’s help, to “strive for justice and peace among all people.” I have tried very hard to live that out in my life—all my life.

I have been very quick to speak out and protest wars and invasions. I have no problem standing up and saying “no” to wars that happen “over there.”

But to be a true pacifist, to be a true seeker after peace, we all must cultivate peace in our midst. When we say that we will “strive for justice and peace among all people,” that means us individually as well. We must be peaceful in what we do and say. And peace begins with respect for others. Peace begins with responding to Jesus’ commandment to love others as we love ourselves.

Or, as our Baptismal Covenant asks of us, we strive to “seek and serve Christ in all persons,” loving our neighbor as ourselves.

Peace also involves with loving ourselves, with making peace with ourselves.  With forgiving ourselves 77 times or more.  And that is the first step.

I hate to admit it, but I am often at war with myself. And that war often overflows into my relationships and the world around me. If we are truly going to be seekers after peace, we must start by making peace with ourselves.

We must forgive ourselves seventy times seven, and we must forgive others.  In seeking and serving Christ in all people, in loving our neighbors as ourselves, we must forgive. In striving for justice and peace among all people, in respecting the dignity of every human being, we cannot retain the sins done against us, but must work to forgive them.

As Christians we must actually grant forgiveness to those who have wronged us in whatever way. That is what all of us, as baptized Christians, are called to do.  In a practical way, we can just simply their name and say, “I forgive you in the name of Christ.”

Sometimes, if we are fortunate, we may be able to forgive some of these people to their face.  More often than not, we never get that chance. On very rare occasions, those people will come to us in repentance asking for forgiveness.

But more often than not, they will never ask for our forgiveness.  And they probably will not change their behavior.

Which brings me to one side note: Forgiveness does not equal taking abuse from others. We can forgive what people have done, but we are not called to just go back to old ways of abuse. If someone has abused us physically or emotionally or psychologically, we must protect ourselves and not allow that behavior to continue.

But we can still forgive even those people.  Forgiving does not mean forgetting.

But forgiving does mean that when we forgive them—they are forgiven. It is just that powerful! When we forgive, those wrongs done against us are forgiven.  What we loose of earth—what we let go of, what we forgive on earth—is truly loosed in heaven.  And when we realize that, we then must move on.

We must allow true peace—that peace that we, as baptized Christians, strive for—we must allow that peace to settle into our hearts and uproot any lingering anger or frustration that still exists there. We must allow that peace to finish the job of forgiveness.  This is what it means to forgive.  This is what it means to forgive again and again—even seventy-seven times, or a hundred and seventy-seven times, or seven hundred and seventy-seven times.

As I have said, we must forgive ourselves too! That is the forgiveness of ourselves.  We sometimes have to forgive ourselves of the wrongs we have committed against ourselves and others.

When I talked earlier about allowing the anger and the pettiness in my life to control my life, in those moments, I was wronging my own self. I failed myself in those moments. And often, when we fail ourselves, we wallow in that failure. We beat ourselves up. We torture ourselves unduly. Let me tell you, I have done it on many occasions.

But in those moments, there is no peace in my heart either.  I am allowing the war against myself to rage unabated within me.

Only when we are able to finally forgive ourselves, will we be able to allow true peace to come into our lives. And while I have forgiven others many times, the only one I have ever had to forgive seventy times and much, much more is myself.  And again, it is as easy as I saying to myself, “Jamie, I forgive you, in the Name of Christ” and to allow that absolution to do its job of absolving—of taking away the wrongs I have done.

So, let us forgive. Let us forgive others.  Let us forgive ourselves.  And in doing so, let us let the peace of Christ, with whom we are intimately involved, settle into our hearts and our lives. And let that peace transform us—once and always—into the person Christ desires us to be.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Dedication Sunday

September 10, 2017

Genesis 28.10-17; 1 Peter 2.1-5,9-11

+ I love our Dedication Sundays. I really do!! It is this one Sunday each year when we really get to celebrate St. Stephen’s and all it is and does. We get to celebrate what it has been, what it is and what it will be. And today, we get to even celebrate a special something about St. Stephen’s: its music ministry. Which is definitely something that needs celebration.

We celebrate this ministry because we are dedicating and blessing our fourth stained glass window, dedicated to St. Cecilia, the patron saint of musicians. We’ll get into her in a second.

But, first, as we look back over our 61 years of ministry, we realize that music has been a very big part of that ministry from the very beginning. I don’t know who the first organist was at St. Stephen’s. I actually don’t know many of them, actually. But they were all important to this congregation. Whether they were only organists or where choir directors as well, a lot of music has filled this nave and resounded from these walls.

A lot of voices, many of them who are now no longer with us in this world, sang those amazing Episcopal hymns over these 61 years. Please think about them this morning for a moment.

Music is this ever-flowing river.  It has been flowing long before we ever came on the scene. And it will be flowing long after we are gone.

But, this morning, as we sing these hymns, as we celebrate our long ministry of music, I want you to just think about how your voices and your talents as musicians (or, as in my case, lack of talents) joins with the voices of those have sang here over the decades.  Your singing of these hymns is a very beautiful and wonderful way to step into that ever-flowing river of music. It is your way of joining with those voices who sang here once, but who sing now in a place of unending music and beauty.

Now, I’m no musician, as you all know. But, I am a poet. And as a poet, I can say that my earliest poetic influence were hymns.  

One of my favorite poets, whom I quote regularly, is Elizabeth Bishop. Although she was agnostic, she very proudly said, “I am full of hymns,”  I am as well.  I only, in the last ten years or so realized how the hymns I grew up hearing and singing were my first—and certainly most consistent—influence in my life. 

The hymns of my childhood and youth come back to me now with an emotional and spiritual force equivalent of the sky falling upon me.  Nothing touches me and caused uncontrollably floods of tears quite like hymns. And nothing helps salve my sorrow as hymns do.

This is why music is essential to our worship of God. Our church music is not just sweet background music It is not meant to happy, clappy and sweet. It is essential to our worship.  And it is this that we celebrate today.

We also celebrate St. Cecilia today. St. Cecilia was a Roman noblewoman who converted to Christianity. As a Christian, she decided to not marry, to devote herself entirely to Christ. However, the story goes, she was forced to marry a Roman nobleman by the name of Valerian. She was, it seems, not happy to do because during the entire marriage ceremony she sat apart from everyone singing praises to God.

On the wedding night, Cecilia was not happy to do her “marital duty,” shall we say. So, she, quite bluntly, told Valerian, that an Angel of the Lord was watching her and would punish him if he tried anything with her.

Poor Valerian, I imagine, regretted at that moment ever marrying this poor crazy young woman. But he played along. He asked to see the angel. Cecilia told him that he could, but only if he went to third milestone on Via Appia and was baptized there by none other than Pope Urban I.

So, what did Valerian do? He went to the third miles, was baptized by the Pope and…

…he saw the angel.

The stood beside St. Cecilia, crowning her with crown of roses and lilies.

In 230, she, along with Valerian, his brother Tiburtius and a Roman soldier by the name of Maximus, were martyred for the Christian faith. Her body lies in the catacombs of St. Callistus, but were later transferred the church of St. Cecilia in Tastevere.

St. Cecilia has been a very important saint in the long history of the church, and represents in a very real way the importance of music in liturgical worship and prayer.  And that is the important thing to remember today.

Music is essential for us liturgical Christians. For us, for whom the Book of Common Prayer and the holy Eucharist are vital, music too is important and vital.

Just imagine, for one second, what a Sunday morning would be like without music, without the richness and beauty of music.

We, at St. Stephen’s, sometimes forget how fortunate we are. We, in our worship, we get to use all our senses. We get music, we get bells, on Wednesday nights we get incense. We get to use all the gifts God has given us to return to God a beautiful offering.

These hymns we sing are not quaint little songs. These not happy little ditties we sing to make us smile and make us feel smug. The hymns we sign are offerings to God. It is prayer, set to music. It is worship with all our senses, with all our gifts.

And that is why it is important that we be grateful for James, for our cantors Michelle and William and Alice and Leo, for all our parishioners like the Sandos, the Tacklings, the Demmons and Amy (who is playing flute for us today) who are so willing to share their wonderful gifts of music with us in worship. I, for one, am so very grateful for all our musicians, all our music.

And I am very thankful for James. Although he is not one to toot his own horn (no pun intended), music for James is more than just something he does. I know for a fact that, for James, music is a true offering to God.

For him, it is a vital and essential part of the worship we do here on Sunday mornings. And that deeper commitment shows in all that does for us and for God here.

On our website, we are described as a

“growing, inclusive community of artists, poets, musicians, professionals, writers, students and searchers for God.”

I love that description of us. Because that is definitely who we are.  

This past week I wrote a small blurb for the Capital Campaign, which is about to launch today.  I wrote,

  St. Stephen’s is, to say the very least, a unique place. There are not many congregations quite like it. It is for this reason so many people are drawn to this out-of-the-way church in the far reaches of Northeast Fargo. But this spiritual powerhouse of a church means so much to a wide variety of people…this wonderful, eclectic place which has become home to so many people [as it ] continues to be what it is—a vital embodiment of the all-encompassing love and acceptance of Christ in this world.  
I very proudly boast of all that God has done here.  I have no qualms about boasting about what all of us are doing here at St. Stephen’s.

In our wonderful reading this morning from St. Peter, we find him saying,

“Once you were not a people,
but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy,
but now you have received mercy.”

When we look around us this morning, as we celebrate 61 years of this unique, spiritual powerhouse of a congregation, we realize that truly we are on the receiving end of a good amount of mercy. We realize that mercy from God has descended upon us in this moment.  And it is a glorious thing.

So, what do we do in the face of glorious things? We sing!  We make a joyful noise to God!  And, as unbelievable as it might seem at times, we cannot take it for granted.  We must use this opportunity we have been given.  We realize that it is not enough to receive mercy. We must, in turn, give mercy.

We, this morning, are being called to echo what St. Peter said to us in our reading this morning. We, God’s own people, are being called to

the mighty acts of [God] who called [us] out of
darkness into [that] marvelous light.”

We proclaim these mighty acts by our own acts.  We proclaim God’s acts through mercy, through ministry, through service to others, through the worship we give here and the outreach we do from here.

I love being the cheerleader for St. Stephen’s.  Because it’s so easy to do.  God is doing wonderful things here through each of us.  Each of us is the conduit through which God’s mercy and love is being manifested.

In our collect for this morning, we prayed to God that “all who seek you here [may] find you, and be filled with your joy and peace…”

That prayer is being answered in our very midst today.  That joy is being proclaimed in song today.  And although it may seem unbelievable at times, this is truly who God works in our midst.  God works in our midst by allowing us to be that place in which God is found, a place in which joy and peace and mercy dwell.

So, let us continue to receive God’s mercy and, in turn, give God’s mercy to others.  Let us be a place in which mercy dwells.  Because when we do we will find ourselves, along with those who come to us, echoing the words of Jacob from our reading in the Hebrew Bible this morning,

“How awesome is this place! This is none
other than the house of God, and this is the gate of

Sunday, September 3, 2017

13 Pentecost

September 3, 2017

Matthew 16.21-28

+ Our very own Annette Morrow and I had a very interesting discussion this past week. Annette is getting ready to give a presentation on the early Christian martyr St. Perpetua. Annette is kind of an expert on St. Perpetua. In fact, you might have been lucky enough to have heard her sermon during our Wednesday night Lenten Masses on St. Perpetua and her martyred companions. It’s fascinating! She’s become quite the expert on St. Perpetua. And you should hear her talk about St. Catherine of Siena!

But our discussions of early Church martyrs are always fun for me. After all, the martyrs of the early Church were definitely the rock stars of their age. They were loved. They were emulated. They were, in some cases, often disturbingly, imitated.

To be murdered for Jesus at that time was a great honor at that time. And some Christians almost too willingly sought out a violent death for Jesus, believing that such a death would guarantee them a place in heaven.

In fact (and this was the point of the discussion Annette and me this past week), some essentially committed suicide for Jesus. Like St. Pelagia who jumped from a roof while being pursued by Roman soldiers or St. Dominia who jumped into a river with her daughters rather than sacrifice to the Roman gods.

Such behavior now is, of course, universally condemned by the Church.  As it should be!

And such behavior is most definitely seen as strange and bizarre by our own standards.  As it should be!

But this discussion of martyrs does cause us to ask some questions of our selves.  

The big question is: if worse came to worst, would we be willing to die for Jesus?  Would we be able to take to heart the words of today’s Gospel, when Jesus says,

“those who lose their life for my sake will gain it.”

Now, for those of us who were raised in the Roman Catholic faith, some of us heard about the differences between “blood martyrdom” and something called “dry martyrdom.” A “wet” or “blood” martyr is someone like St. Pelagia.  A dry martyr is one has suffered indignity and cruelty for Jesus but has not died violently in the process.

Suffering for Christ then doesn’t just mean dying for Christ either.  There are many people who are living with persecution and other forms of abuse for their faith.  And it is a perfectly valid form of martyrdom (martyr of course means “witness”)

The point of all this martyr talk is that we need to be reminded that as wonderful as it is being Christian, as spiritually fulfilling as it is to follow Jesus and to have a deeply amazing personal relationship with God, nowhere in scripture or anywhere else are we promised that everything is going to be without struggle.  We all must bear crosses in our lives, as Jesus says in today’s Gospel.

“If any want to become my followers, let them take up their cross and follow me.”

We all still have our own burdens to bear as followers of Jesus And those burdens are, of course, our crosses. While we might understand losing our lives for Jesus’ sake might be easier for us to grasp, picking up our cross might seem like a vague idea for us.

Bearing our crosses for Jesus means essentially that, as wonderful as it is being a Christian, life for us isn’t always a rose garden.  Being a Christian means, bearing our cross and following Jesus, means facing bravely the ugly things that life sometimes throws at us.  Facing bravely!

I don’t think I have to tell anyone here what those ugly things in life are.  Each of us has had to deal with our own personal forms of the world’s ugliness.

As we look around at those who are with us this morning, most of us here this morning have carried our share of crosses in this life.  Most of us have shouldered the difficult and ugly things of this life—whether it be illness, death, loss, despair, disappointment, frustration—you name it.

The fact is: these things are going to happen to us whether we are Christians or not. It’s simply our lot as human beings that life is going to be difficult at times.  It is a simple fact of life that we are going to have feasts in this life, as well as famines.  There will be gloriously wonderful days and horribly, nightmarish days.  We, as human beings, cannot escape this fact.

 But, we, as Christians, are being told this morning by Jesus that we cannot deal with those things like everyone else does.  When the bad things of this life happen, our first reaction is often to run away from them.  

Our instinct is fight or flight—and more likely it’s usually flight.  Our first reaction is numb our emotions, to curl up into a defensive ball and protect ourselves and our emotions.

But Jesus is telling us that, as Christians, what we must do in those moments is to embrace those things—to embrace the crosses of this life—to shoulder them and to continue on in our following of Jesus.  By facing our crosses, by bearing them, by taking them and following Jesus, we was able to realize that what wins out in the end is Jesus, not the cross we are bearing.  

What triumphs in the end is not any of the other ugly things this life throws at us. Rather, what triumphs is the integrity and the strength we gain from being a Christian.  What triumphs is Jesus’ promise that a life unending awaits us.  What triumphs is Jesus’ triumph over death and the ugly things of this life.

What we judge to be the way we think it should be is sometimes judged differently by God.  We don’t see this world from the same perspective God does.  And as a result, we are often disappointed.

Yes, our burdens are just another form of martyrdom—another albeit bloodless form of witnessing to Christ.  And, like a martyr, in the midst of our toil, in the midst of shouldering our burden and plodding along toward Jesus, we are able to say, “Blessed be the name of God!”

That is what it means to be a martyr.  That is what it means to deny one’s self, to take up one’s cross and to follow Jesus. That is what it means to find one’s life, even when everyone else in the world thinks you’ve lost your life.

So, let us take up whatever cross we’re bearing and carry it with strength and purpose.  Let us take our cross up and follow Jesus.  And, in doing so, we will gain for ourselves the glory of God that Jesus promises to those who do so.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

12 Pentecost

August 27, 2017

Matthew 16.13-20

+ At times, I occasionally mention someone during my sermons that I think you should know about. And what I love is that you actually follow up on occasion. I see you writing down those names on occasion. And you sometimes even engage me later.

Well, I have a new one for you today. Some of you might have heard of him.

His name is Matisyahu. Matisyahu is an American reggae singer. But, about ten years ago, when he first became popular, he was unique because he was a Hasidic Reggae singer. Yes, I did get that right.

I remember the first time I ever saw him. It was quite an experience. He appeared, in yarmulke, payot (the earlocks) and beard. And he sang like you wouldn’t believe.

I followed his career pretty closely over the years. And I am still a huge fan. Some of his songs about God are some of the most beautiful songs you will ever hear.  Matisyahu does
not look not like he did ten years ago, however. He doesn’t because he actually shaved his beard and separated himself from Hasidic practice.  Which was very controversial. Shaving his beard was looked down upon by many people. 

I just recently read a fascinating article about Matisyahu’s decision. He said he found himself separating himself from the more strict aspects of Judaism because all the rules actually got in the way of his relationship with God.  
 Religion, he said, got in the way of his relationship with God.  He’s still Jewish, mind you. And an Orthodox Jew too.

As I read the article, I had to relate.  At times, I realize, that being a priest often feels like I’m married. Married to the Church—capital C.  And like any marriage, there are good days, and there are not such good days. Well, that’s definitely the way it is with the Church—capital C.

I often wonder why God even called me to the Priesthood. I am not the typical person called. Now, I know this is a shock to all of you, but I do not like authority. I do not like being told what to do. I never have. And I probably never will. I respect authority. I will follow the rules. But, let me tell you, I don’t always like it.

There are days when I don’t like the Church—capital C, or the authority of the Church or the hypocrisy of the Church.  There are days when I really don’t like some bishops, or some fellow clergy, especially when Bishops act pompous and full of themselves and when clergy act like weasels.  There are days when I don’t like Church leaders—not just ordained ones—who coerce and manipulate the Church.

Probably most of us here would say we have felt the somewhat same way about the Church at times.  In fact, I know you have. Because that is why you are here at St. Stephen’s.

There are days when we all groan when we see or hear other Christians get up and speak on behalf of the rest of us.  There are days when we are embarrassed by what some Christians say or do on behalf of Christianity.  There are days when we get frustrated when we hear clergy or other authorities pronounce decrees that, in no way, reflect our own particular views or beliefs.  And there are times when we get downright mad at the hypocrisy, the homophobia, the misogyny, the ambivalence, the silence in the face of oppression and evil and war, the downright meanness we sometimes experience from the Church.

Most of us—idealistically, naively maybe—wonder:  wait a minute.  The Church isn’t supposed to be like this.  The Church is supposed to be a place of Love and Compassion and Acceptance.   It is supposed to be a place where everyone is welcomed and loved.

Knowing that and comparing the ideal view of the Church with its shortcomings only make us feel more helpless, listless, angry, and disgruntled.  And that’s all right.

I personally think that’s a somewhat healthy way of looking at the Church.  Because we have to remind ourselves of one thing: What we find ourselves turning away from and what we are often tempted to run away from is not God.  What we are running away from is a human-run, human-led organization.  We are running away from a celestially planned treasure that has been run (and very often mis-run) throughout two thousand years of history by fallible human beings.

In today’s Gospel, we find this wonderful interchange between Jesus and Peter.  Peter, when asked who he thinks Jesus is, replies,

“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!”

Yes! That’s definitely the right answer!  
But, Jesus responds to this confession of faith with surprise.

He responds by saying,

“I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

Of course, as you might know, Jesus is playing a little word game here with the words “Peter” and “rock.” In Jesus’ own language of Aramaic he would have said, “You are Kepha (Peter is also called Cephas at times in the Gospels) and on this kepha (or rock) I will build my church.”

Now, depending on who you are, depending on your own personal spiritual leanings, this reading could take on many meanings.  If you’re more Catholic minded—and especially if you’re more Roman Catholic minded—it certainly does seem that Jesus is establishing the Church on the Rock of Peter—and of course in that tradition Peter at this moment becomes essentially the first Pope.

I don’t hold to that view, personally.  On this one, I’m a bit more Protestant or Reformed minded. For people like me, it could be said that the Church is being established not on Peter himself, but on the rock of Peter’s confession of faith.

Either way, Jesus is commending the Church to Peter and to his other followers.  And this is important, especially when we examine who Peter is.

Jesus commends his Church to one of the most impetuous, impulsive, stubborn, cowardly human beings he could find.  Peter, as we all know, is not, on first glance, a wonderful example for us of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.  He is the one who walks on water and then loses heart, grows frightened and ends up sinking into that water.  He’s the one who, when Jesus needs him the most, runs off and denies him not just once, not twice, but three times, and even then cannot bring himself to come near Jesus as he hangs dying on the cross.

But…you know, Peter is maybe a better example of what followers of Jesus truly are than we maybe care to admit.  Yes, he is a weak, impetuous, cowardly, impulsive human.  

But who among us isn’t?

Who among us isn’t finding someone very much like Peter staring back at us from our own mirrors?  

And the thing we always have to remember is that, for all the bad things the Church has been blamed for—and there are a lot of them—there are also so many wonderful and beautiful things about the Church that always, always, always outweigh the bad.

Obviously most everyone here this morning must feel that same way as well to some extent.  If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be here this morning.  Most of us are able to recognize that the Church is not perfect.  And I think that, when Jesus commended his Church to people like Peter, he knew that, as long as we are here, struggling on this “side of the veil,” so to speak, it would never be perfect.

But that, even despite its imperfection, we still all struggle on. Together.

I love the Church and I love the people who are in the Church with me, sometimes even the ones who drive me crazy.  And I sometimes even love the ones with whom I do not agree or who lash out at me for their own personal issues.  Why? Because that’s what it means to be a follower of Jesus.  That is what it means to be the Church.

I am here in the Church because I really want to be in the Church.  I am here because the Church is my home.  It is my family.  It is made up of my friends and Jesus’ friends.

I am here because I—imperfect, impetuous human being that I am—am part of the Church because I love my fellow Christians, and I don’t just mean that I love Desmond Tutu and all those Christians who are easy to love.  I love those who are hard to love too.  I love them because, let’s face it, sometimes we are those same people too.

Sometimes we are the ones who drive people from the Church as well.  And sometimes we ourselves drive our own selves away from the Church.

But as long as we’re here, as long as we believe in the renewal that comes again and again in recognizing and confessing our shortcomings and in professing and believing in and what it means to be a baptized Christian, then we know it’s not all a loss.  As long as I struggle to not be the person who drives people from the Church, but works again and again in my life to be the person who welcomes everyone—no matter who they are and where they stand on the issues—into this Church, then I’m doing all right.

Because the Church Jesus founded was a Church founded solidly on the rock of love.  The Church’s foundation is the fact that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God and the message to us as followers of this Son of the Living God, the Messiah—the bringer of freedom and peace—is that we must love God and love each other as we love ourselves.

But the Church that is firmly founded on the Messiah, the Son of the Living God—when it founded deeply on that balanced love of God, of each other and of ourselves—then it truly becomes the Church Jesus founded and left to us.  If we are the Church truly built on a love like that then, without doubt, the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.  And as long as I’m here, and you’re here, we are going to make the Church a better place.  We need to be the Church from which no one wants to leave.

So, let us be the Church we want the Church to be—because that is the Church that Jesus founded.  Let us be the Church that Jesus commended to that imperfect human being, Peter.  In those moments when we find ourselves hating the Church, let’s not let hatred win out. Let love—that perfect, flawless love that Jesus preached and practiced—eventually win out.

We are the Church.  We are the Church to those people in our lives.  We are the Church to everyone we encounter.  We are the reflection of the Church to the people we serve alongside.

So let us be the Church, and if we are, we will find ourselves in the midst of that wonderful vision Jesus imagined for his Church.  And it will truly be an incredible place.  It will truly be the Kingdom of God in our midst.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

11 Pentecost

August 20, 2017

Matthew 15.10-28

+ Now I know this might come as a surprise to most of you, but I have, at times, gotten myself into a bit of trouble with my mouth. I sometimes say things I maybe shouldn’t say. I do not have much of a filter. I sometimes find myself speaking out on things and then, maybe, possibly, regretting something I have said.  And, in those moments, there’s no one to blame but myself.  

I know I’m not alone here. We are a congregation of people who speak out, who use words well to convey convictions and beliefs.  Which is why many of you are here at St. Stephen’s. We are definitely NOT a cookie cutter congregation.

Sadly, though, for me anyway, as I look back in my life at those times when I’ve been “in trouble” it was almost always because of something I said.  There have been times when, even as the words are coming out of my mouth, I wish I could just grab them in the air and swallow them before they get too far. I have no filter, sometimes.  And it’s been a long-time “growing edge” for me to work on.

We realize very clearly that the words spoken really do have ripple effects. If we think, when we say something either on the offense or defense, that those words will not have consequences in the long-run, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.

Jesus tells his followers—and us—in this morning in our Gospel reading—

“it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles; it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles. ”

(As a vegan, I may have to disagree with that a bit)  But yes, these are words that hit home for me, and no doubt, for many of us. We were all raised reciting that little verse:

Sticks and stone may break my bones
But words will never hurt me.

Guess what? Words actually DO hurt.  In fact words do more than hurt. They do more than just create a ripple effect.

Words can destroy.

Words can tear down.

And sometimes the words don’t even have to be directed at someone or something. Words spoken behind people’s backs, that we think won’t hurt them if they never hear them, hurt and destroy too.  

Words are oftentimes much more painful and hurtful than sticks and stones.  

And when it comes to our relationship with God, the words we say carry much weight.

In today’s Gospel we find Jesus making very clear statements:

“…what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart and this is what defiles. For out of the mouth comes” all kind of evil intentions.

These are what defile a person…” he says.

Jesus is clear here about what makes one unclean.  The words that come out of our mouth are really only the end result of what’s in our hearts.  The words that come out of our mouths are really only little mirrors of what is dwelling within us.

When we say dumb things, we are harboring dumb things in our hearts.  When we say hurtful, mean things, we are carrying hurt and meanness in our hearts. And what’s in our hearts truly does make all the difference.

If our hearts are dark—if our hearts are over-run with negative things—then our words are going to reflect that.  When we talk about something like “sin,” we find ourselves thinking instantly of the things we do.  We think immediately of all those uncharitable, unsavory things we’ve done in our lives.  And when we realize that sin, essentially, is anything we chose to do that separates us from God and from each other, it is always easy to instantly take stock of all the bad things we’ve done.

But it’s not always what we “do.” Sometimes, we can truly “sin” by what we say as well.  The words that come out of our mouths can separate us from God and from each other because they are really coming from our hearts—from that place in which there should really only be love for God and for each other.

We have all known Christians who are quick to profess their faith with their mouths, but who certainly do not believe that faith in their hearts.  And, I think, we have also known people who have kept quiet about their faith, who have not professed much with their mouths, but who have quietly been consistent in their faith. If we profess our faith with our mouths, but not in our hearts, we really are guilty to some extent.

Probably few things drive us away faster from church than those self-righteous people who shake their fingers at us and spout their faith at us, but who, in turn, don’t show love, compassion and acceptance to others.

The name we encounter in the Gospels for those people who do not practice what they preach is “hypocrite.”  And throughout the Gospels, we find that Jesus isn’t ever condemning the ones we think he should condemn.

He doesn’t condemn the prostitute, the tax collector, any of those people who have been ostracized and condemned by society and the religious organizations of their times.  The ones Jesus, over and over again, condemns, are the hypocrites—those supposedly “religious” people who are quick to speak their faith with words, who are quick to strut around and act religiously, but who do not hold any real faith in their hearts.

The Pharisees that Jesus is having trouble with in today’s Gospel, are not at all concerned about what is in their hearts.  Their faith has nothing to do with their hearts.  They are more concerned about purification rites.  They are more concerned about making sure that the food one eats is clean and pure—that it hasn’t been touched by those who are unclean. They are concerned that they are the clean ones and they are concerned that there is a separation from those that are unclean.  They are more concerned with the words of the Law, rather than the heart of the Law.  They are more concerned with the letter of the Law, rather than the spirit of the Law.

We, as followers of Jesus, must avoid being those hypocrites.  With everything in us, we must avoid being those people.

Yes, I know: it’s just easier to stick the letter of the Law. It’s easy to follow the religious rules without bothering to think about why we are following them.  It’s just so much easier to go through the motions without having to feel anything.  Because to feel means to actually make one’s self vulnerable.  To feel means one has to love—and, as we know—as we see in the world right now—love is dangerous. Love makes us step out into uncomfortable areas and do uncomfortable things.

But the message of Jesus is all about the fact that to be a follower of Jesus means not being a hypocrite.  That is ESSENTIAL. The message of Jesus is that to be a follower of Jesus means believing fully with one’s heart.

We at St. Stephen’s are saying, again and again, not just by our words, but by our actions, that we are a people of a God who is love—we are a people here at St. Stephen’s who believe all people are loved and accepted, fully and completely by that God. And how do we do that? How do we show that and preach that?  We do that by loving and accepting all people. Even when that is hard!  We do that by knowing in our hearts that God loves and accepts us all, no matter who or what we are.

To proclaim the Good News, we need to do so by both word and example.  It is to truly practice what we preach. It is to go out into the world beyond these walls and say, “this is a place—and we are a people—wherein love dwells. We are a people who strive to embody that radical, all-encompassing love of a God of love.

So, let us take to heart what Jesus is saying to us in today’s Gospel.  Let us take his words and plant them deeply in our hearts. Let the words of his mouth be the words of our mouth.  Let the Word—capital W—be our word.  And let that Word find its home, its source, its basis in our hearts.

When it does, our words will truly speak the Word that is in our hearts.  

Let us allow no darkness, no negativity to exist within our hearts. Let us not be hypocritical Pharisees to those around us. But let us be true followers of Jesus, with love burning within and overflowing us.

As followers of Jesus, let love be the word that speaks to others.  Let our hearts be so filled with love that nothing else can exist in it but love.  Let us strive to live out our Baptismal Promises with God by proclaiming “by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.”  And if we do—if we do just that—we will find that Good News pouring forth from our mouth and bringing joy and gladness and love and full acceptance to others—and even to ourselves.

Monday, August 14, 2017

The Feast of Blessed Jonathan Myrick Daniels

The Feast of Blessed Jonathan Myrick Daniels

The mirror sees us
It reflects our colors
and glorifies
our differences.
It blurs the imperfections
and accentuates
our fake smiles

We ask instead
for fire. A burning
from above. Burn
these cataracts of ignorance
and prejudice.
Turn to ashes
our adolescent minds
we delight in.
Consume our inbred instincts.
These human eyes, after all
will soon enough
go blind with death
and turn to ash.

But true vision—
true sight
will survive us.

Calm the violence that grows within us
when we are frightened
and challenged. Instill
within us peacefulness
and a love
that helps us to embrace color—
to see, in our various tints,
the holiness of flesh.

Love us
in the colors of our skin—
in our reds,
in our blackness,
in our yellows
in our browns
and in our whiteness.

Love us for
the fire
that burns in us—
that inferno of
of compassion
and truth—
that flames
stronger than all flesh.

Love us for the life
within us—
for the frail breath
here, with us, in this moment
and gone,
in an instant later.

Love us for
the blood
in our veins—
the same blood
drained from your veins.

Make us, truly,
as you are

Jonathan Myrick Daniels (1939-1965) was an Episcopal seminarian who was shot and killed in August 20, 1965 in Selma, Alabama while defending a young girl during the Civil Rights demonstrations in the city.  His feast in the Episcopal Church is celebrated on August 14. 

Originally published in the anthology, Race and Prayer: Collected Voices, Many Dreams, edited by Malcolm Boyd and Bishop Chester L. Talton. Published in 2003 by Morehouse Publishing.