Sunday, September 25, 2016

19 Pentecost

September 25, 2016

Luke 16.19-31

+ I know this might reveal my bizarre side. (We all have a bizarre side, after all) But…I love the parable we heard today. I think I might be one of the very few people who do actually love it. For some, it’s just so weird and…well, bizarre. And it is. But…there’s just so much good stuff, right under the surface of it.

In it, we find Lazarus.  Now, if you notice,  it’s the only time in Jesus’ parables that we find someone given a name—and the name, nonetheless, of one of Jesus’ dearest friends. In most of Jesus’ parables, the main character is simply referred to as the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son.

But here we have Lazarus.  And the name actually carries some meaning.  It means “God has helped me.”

Now the “rich man” in this story is not given a name by Jesus, but tradition has given him the name Dives, or “Rich Man”

Between these two characters we see such a juxtaposition.  We have the worldly man who loves his possessions and is defined by what we owns.  And we have Lazarus, who seems to get sicker and is hungry all the time.  In fact, his name almost seems like a cruel joke.  It doesn’t seem like God has helped Lazarus at all.  The Rich Man sees Lazarus, is aware of Lazarus, but despite his wealth, despite all he has, despite, even his apparent happiness in his life, we can not even deign to give to poor Lazarus a scrap of food from all that he has.

Traditionally of course, we have seen them as a very fat Rich Man, in fine clothing and a haughty look and a skinny, wasted Lazarus, covered in sores, which I think must be fairly accurate to what Jesus hoped to convey. They are opposite, mirror images of each other.

But there are some subtle undercurrents to this story.  Lazarus is not without friends or mercy in his life.  In fact, is seems that maybe God is helping him.  He is not quite the destitute person we think he is.

First of all, we find him laid out by the Rich Man’s gate.  Someone must’ve put him there, in hopes that Rich Man would help him. Someone cared for Lazarus, and that’s important to remember.

Second of all, we find these dogs who came to lick his sores.  The presence of dogs is an interesting one. Are they just wild dogs that roam the streets, or are they the Rich Man’s watch dogs?  New Testament theologian Kenneth Bailey has mentioned that dog saliva was believed by people at this time to have curative powers.  So, even the dogs are not necessarily a curse upon Lazarus but a possible blessing in disguise.

Finally, when Lazarus dies, God receives him into paradise. In fact, as we hear, “angels carried him to be with Abraham.”

The Rich Man dies and goes to Hades—or the underworld.  Lazarus goes up, Dives goes down.

While in paradise, while the Rich Man, in the throes of his torment, cries out to him, Lazarus, if you notice, doesn’t ignore him or turn his back on him, despite the fact that the Rich Man did just that to Lazarus.  Lazarus does not even scold him.  It almost seems that Lazarus might almost be willing to go back and tell the Rich Man’s friends if only the gulf between them was not so wide.

There really is a beauty to this story and a lesson for us that is more than just the bad man gets punished the good man gets rewarded.  But even more so, what we find is that, by the world’s standards, by the standards of those who are defined by the material aspects of this life, Lazarus was the loser before he died and the Rich Man was the winner, even despite his callousness.

And the same could be said of us as well.  It might seem, at moments, as though we are being punished by the things that happen to us.  It is too easy to pound our chests and throw dirt and ashes in the air and to cry out in despair and curse God when bad things happen. It is much harder to recognize that while we are there, at the gate outside the Rich Man’s house, lying in the dirt, covered in sores, that there are people who care, that there are gentle, soothing signs of affection, even from dogs.  And it is hard sometimes to see that God too cares.

And for us, at St. Stephen’s, we’ve been through our share of hard times in our past, but even then, we have found glimmers of hope and joy in the midst of the darkness.  We find those glimmers in the joy we celebrate here at this altar.  We find joy in the marriages and baptism we celebrate. We find joy in welcoming new members into our midst, and the sounds of children in our building.  We find joy in each other, as we gather here.  See, we do find glimmers of light in the darkness.

To return for a moment to the beginning of our sermon and my bizarreness. Recently a person I only very slightly knew commented to me:

“I know this might sound strange, but I was visiting a cemetery north of Fargo and what did I behold? But a gravestone with your name on it.”

Yes, as many of you know, I do have my gravestone made up. It’s actually the backside of my parents’ gravestone at Maple Sheyenne Lutheran Cemetery near Harwood. And it even has a Celtic cross on it. I’m kind of proud of the fact that among all those Swedish Lutherans, there is a Celtic cross on my stone.

But what this particular person took note of was the epitaph I chose for myself.  It’s actually the final line of a poem I wrote toward the end of my “cancer experience” which felt to me very much like a Lazarus experience. The poem was written as my father and I were driving to Minot on a particularly cold night in October shortly after the first snow fall of the year.

We were driving up there for my final interview with the Commission on Ministry before I was ordained to the Diaconate.  As we neared the city and came up over a hill, I could see the city laid out below us.  Above us, the sky had cleared after a particularly gray and gloomy day.  When the clouds had cleared, we could see the stars, which, on that cold night, looked especially crisp and clear.  And in that moment, after all that I had went through with my cancer, I suddenly knew for the first time, that, somehow, everything was going to be fine.

At the end of that poem, I wrote what would become the epitaph on my stone: I wrote in that poem, “Dusk” (I’m not going to inflict the whole poem on you, but it’s in my book, Just Once, which I’m giving away for free):

“…I look up into the sky
and see it—a transformation
so subtle I almost didn’t notice it
as I sit there trembling
behind the tinted windshield.
I say to myself
‘Look! Just look!

Look how the dusk—
full of clouds and gloom—
has dissolved into
multitudes of stars!’”

To some extent, that’s what it’s like to be a Christian. To some extent, that’s what its like: when we think the darkness and the gloom has encroached and has won out, we can look up and see those bright sparks of light and know, somehow, that it’s all going to be all right.

Paradise awaits us.  It is there, just beyond those stars.  That place to which Lazarus was taken by angels awaits us and, for those of us striving and struggling through this life, we can truly cling to that hope. For those of us still struggling, we can set our eyes on the prize, so to speak and move forward.  We can work toward that place, rather than “diving” like Dives himself, into the pit of destruction he essentially created for himself.

In a real sense, the Rich Man was weighed down by his wealth, especially when he refused to share it, and he ended up wallowing in the mire of his own close-mindedness and self-centeredness.  

But for those of us who, in the midst of our struggles, can still find those glimmers of light in the midst of the gloom, we are not weighed down. We are freed in ways we never knew we could be.  We are lifted up and given true freedom.

We are Lazarus.

God truly has helped us.  And we see it most when we recognize those multitudes of light shining brightly in the occasional gloom of our lives.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

18 Pentecost

September 18, 2016

Amos 8.4-7;1 Timothy 2.1-7; Luke 16.1-13

+ I’m going to share a story this morning that I don’t normally share. I’m not in the habit of sharing kind of horrible stories in my sermons. But this is one of those horrible stories.

Several years ago, when I was a board member for the Episcopal newspaper, Episcopal Life, I was in Atlanta for a board meeting. During a break in the meeting, I happened to wander around the very large church at which we were meeting in downtown Atlanta, and I noticed, as I wandered, a large number of brass memorial plates around the church for people who had died in 1962. Now, by this, I mean not just one or two. But memorials to Mr and Mrs So-and-So both of whom died in 1962

Well, you know me. I’m fascinated by a mystery. And when I am, I try to get to the bottom of it. So, I started asking around. And it didn’t take me long to get an answer.

One of the assisting priests at that church said, “Oh, yes. That was the Orly crash.”

The Orly Crash! When I got home I did some research into this so-called Orly crash. And here it is:

In late May 1962, a group of wealthy art-lovers in Atlanta decided to take a tour of Europe, visiting all the great art galleries.  These 106 art-lovers from Atlanta decided to charter a plane. In this case, their chartered plane was an Air France 707. That’s a jet plane. Passenger jet travel in 1962 was VERY new.   

They flew to Paris and began their tour of Europe.  However, in Italy, many of the group ended up becoming ill with a cold and decided to cut the trip short, so they made their way back to Paris.

On June 4, 1962, the plane began to take off from Orly International Airport. It had reached its maximum speed, but because of a mechanical failure, the plane didn’t lift off  The flight crew, with only 3,000 feet of runway left, decided to abort the flight, and using air breaks and reverse thrust attempted to stop the plane. The plane ended up going over the end of the runway and crashed and exploded with its tanks full of fuel for the flight to Atlanta. All 106 people from Atlanta, plus most of the flight crew were killed in the crash. Two stewardesses at the rear of the plane survived.

On a side note, one of Andy Warhol’s most famous early paintings was of the New York 
Daily Mirror cover story, entitled “129 Die in Jet”

Now, that alone is pretty horrible. But there was one more interesting aspect to the story that fascinated me.  The plane crashed during much of the unrest in the Civil Rights movements.  And the priest who told me this story in Atlanta said that it was famous for another reason.  He told the story about how Malcom X, on hearing of the crash, was quoted as saying “Well, the chickens come home to roost.”

I had never heard that phrase before. And, in this context, it was jarring.  Later, I found out, that Malcolm X never said that about the Orly Crash. He actually said about John F. Kennedy’s assassination the next year.

But the phrase stuck with me.  Although it’s terrible in the context of that plane crash, it is a phrase that has much weight. It works on many other levels.

Now, for those of you who have known me for any period time, you have heard me use this phrase many, many times. One of the things so many of us have had to deal with in our lives are people who have not treated us well, who have been horrible to us, who have betrayed us and turned against us.  It’s happened to me, and I know it’s happened to many of you. It is one of the hardest things to have to deal with, especially when it is someone we cared for or loved or respected.

In those instances, let’s face it, sometimes it’s very true.

“The chickens do come home to roost.” 

Or at least, we hope they do. Essentially what this means is that what goes around, comes around. We reap what we sow. There are consequences to our actions. And I believe that to be very true.

And not just for others, who do those things to us. But for us, as well. When we do something bad, when we treat others badly, when gossip about people, or trash people behind their backs, who disrespect people in any way, we think those things don’t hurt them. And maybe that’s true. Maybe it will never hurt them. Maybe it will never get back to them.  But, we realize, it always, always hurts us. And when we throw negative things out there, we often have to deal with the unpleasant consequences of those actions. I know because I’ve been there. I’ve done it.

But there is also a flip side to that. And there is a kind of weird, cosmic justice at work.  Now, for us followers of Jesus, such concepts of “karma” might not make as much sense.

But today, we get a sense, in our scriptures readings, of a kind of, dare I say, Christian karma.  Jesus’ comments in today’s Gospel are very difficult for us to wrap our minds around.  But probably the words that speak most clearly to us are those words,

“Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful in much.”

Essentially, Jesus is telling us this simple fact: what you do matters.  There are consequences to our actions. There are consequences in this world. And there are consequences in our relation to God.

It often surprises me that Christians think they can “get by” with dishonest things.  We read in the news about clergy doing bad things all the time.  But not just clergy.  We hear about church treasurers doing bad things.  We hear about people who claim to be good Christians doing very unchristian-like things.

But Jesus message to us is very clear.  For us, our faithfulness involves how we deal with others.  It’s not just the big stuff, like sexual impropriety and financial misdealings.  It is also about how we treat each other.  How we treat each other as followers of Jesus and how we treat others who might not be followers of Jesus.

We have few options, as followers of Jesus, when it comes to being faithful.  We must be faithful. Faithful yes in a little way that brings about great faithfulness.  So, logic would tell us, any increase of faithfulness will bring about even greater faithfulness. Faithfulness in this sense means being righteous.  

Jesus is saying to us that the consequences are the same if we choose the right path or the wrong path.  A little bit of right, will reap much right.  But  a little bit of wrong, reaps much wrong.

I think most of us have found these to be true in our own lives.  Doing wrong is a slippery slope. Once we step foot on it, we find ourselves sliding farther and farther into more wrongness.   And it’s hard to stop. Often times, it’s because it feels so good. Doing good is often hard. But doing bad, oh, it’s often soooo easy.

However, as easy as it might be, that wrong path is not the path intended for us as followers of Jesus.  Jesus is not walking that path, and if we are his followers, then we are not following when we step onto that path.   Wrongfulness is not our purpose as followers of Jesus.  

We cannot follow Jesus and willfully—mindfully—practice wrongness.  If we do, let me tell you, the chickens come home to roost.  We must strive—again and again—in being faithful. Faithful to God.  Faithful to one another.  Faithful to those who need us.  Faithful to those who need someone. Being faithful takes work.

When we see wrong—and we all do see wrong—we see it around us all the time—our job in cultivating faithfulness means counteracting wrongfulness.  If there are actions and reactions to things, our reaction to wrongfulness should faithfulness. Now that seems hard.  And it is.  But it is not impossible.   We can do something in the face of wrongfulness. We can, when we step foot on that slippery slope of wrongfulness, make a concentrated effort to not slip, to turn around and do the faithful action.   We can cultivate faithfulness in the face of wrongfulness.

We can remind ourselves that doing wrong does no good for us or for anyone else, ultimately. And what we do, does matter. It matters to us. And it matters to God. We do good.  We must strive to be good.  

Those good actions are actions each of us as followers of Jesus are also called to cultivate and live into.

As Christians, we are called to not only to ignore or avoid wrongfulness.  We are called to confront it and to counter it. We are called to offer faithfulness in the face of wrongness.

So, let us do just that in all aspects of our lives.   Let us offer kindness and generosity and hope and truth and forgiveness and  joy and love and goodness, again and again and again whenever we are confronted with all those forces of wrongfulness.  Let us offer light in the face of darkness.   Let us strive, again and again, to do good, even in small ways.

For in doing so, we will be faithful in much. “For surely I will not forget any of their deeds,” God says in our reading from Amos today.

What we do matters.  God does not forget the good we do in this world. We should rejoice in that fact. God does not forget the good we do.   What we do makes a difference in our lives and in the lives of those around us.  So let us, as faithful followers of Jesus, strive, always to truly “lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.”

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

On the 6th Anniversary of my Father's Death

My father always jokingly confessed that he never understood me or the decisions I made in my life. While he was a meat-and-potatoes, crude-oil-under-his-fingernails, devout Lutheran, Nixon-supporter kind of guy, I was a vegetarian, a poet, a High Church Episcopal priest, a committed pacifist, an unapologetic liberal. Although he never once said a word against my lifestyle, he was often perplexed by almost every aspect of my life. And still, despite it all, he showed me nothing but unconditional, unwavering love and support. Throughout my life, even despite our differences, I was consistently amazed at how he always seemed to have it all together. Nothing seemed to faze him or upset him. He walked through life with an inner strength and an outward calm and kindness that I both admired and envied. Everyone who knew him said the same thing about him: he was, quite simply, a good man.

I miss him almost every day and often find myself wishing I could ask his advice for some “thing” in my life. His death six years ago today transformed me in ways I still can’t quite fully process. But I sure am grateful he was my father. I just wish I had had a chance to tell him that.

Here is one of the poems about his death. It was included in my collection, That Word, published in 2014 by North Star Press.


Take from him
whatever stains
even Communion

and devotion
can’t undo.
And let him

rise up—
if not today
one day soon—

from the ashes
we placed
so carefully into

the dark recess
of the earth
and left there

where the rain’s soaking
and the snow’s run-off
and the heat of high noon

cannot reach him
Let him rise up

from here
more beautiful
than he is

in those dreams
from which I myself
rise and stumble

toward a
slightly overcast

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Dedication Sunday/ St. Stephen's 60th anniversary

11, 2016

1 Peter 2.1-5,9-11

+ I am going to do something this morning that is a bit hypocritical of me. I once knew a preacher who loved to preach with a Bible in his hand. He would walk around as he preached, holding that Bible, maybe occasionally raising it up, or waving it at people. But…never once during his sermon did he ever actually  open it. At one event at which this preacher was preaching, Mark Strobel, the current Dean at Gethsemane Cathedral, leaned over and motioned to the unopened Bible this preacher waved at us, and whispered, “Prop! That Bible's a prop!”

Well, I hate to admit this but…I am going to use a prop this morning in my sermon. And I apologize in advance for my hypocrisy in doing so. But, this is a photo of the dedication of St. Stephen’s way back, 60 years ago, on September 9, 1956. This was the day congregation first gathered to break ground. They would go from here to celebrate Holy Communion at the El Zagel Clubhouse earlier in the year, before the building was built. The church building that we are in would be completed by Christmas Eve, 1956.

But, it’s a great photo. After Mass today, I am going to invite you to look closely at
this photo. I want to look in the faces of those people who are gathered there.  And when you do, I would like to see-truly see—the hope. See that hope they had in their eyes on that day. It’s really wonderful.

Now, the names of these people are on the back on the photo and I looked them all up the other day. It seems, from the information I was able to find, everyone in this photo, except for the little boy in front, is no longer with us. They have all passed on to the nearer presence of God. In the case of Bishop Emery, some of them died in particularly unpleasant circumstances (his vehicle was struck by a train in Grand Forks in February 1964).

But in this photo, in this one instance, in this one frozen moment in time, as they stood there in an open field north of Fargo, with the VA Hospital in the background, all that was to come, all that was to be, this moment we are gathered here today right now, is all in their hopeful future.  

In many ways, those people in that photo were kind of like prophets. They trusted in God enough to know that what they were doing that day would gain fruition. God would somehow work through their actions, even if they would never live to see that fruit.

And we, today, 60 years later, are thankful for those people who gathered together to look into the future, and to hope. The future that was laid out before those people in 1956 would be very different than anything they could have imagined.

Now, I’ve done this before, but I’ll do it again. Let’s go back to that first Sunday in September 1956.  Let’s go back to Sunday morning, September 9, 1956.  On this particular Sunday in 1956, it was truly a different America. The number one song in the country that Sunday morning was “Don’t Be Cruel” by Elvis Presley.  In fact, that very night Elvis would appear on the Ed Sullivan Show—“coast to coast with your favorite host.” The number one book in the country that morning was Peyton Place by Grace Metalious. 1956 was an election year—a very different election year than this one, let me tell you.  The current president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, would be going up against the Democratic hopeful, Adlai Stevenson, who would lose that November. What I wouldn’t do to have an election like that one!

According to the records, there were 51 people at that service.  By the end of that year, there would be 51 communicants (39 of whom came from Gethsemane Cathedral) and a total of 94 baptized members listed. By 1958, there were 144 baptized members and 45 families and by Jan. 1, 1960, there were a whopping 214 members with 60 families. Over the years, those numbers just kept going up.  Within ten years, in 1968, the membership reached its number of 243 members.

Those are things those people in 1956 no doubt expected and hoped for. But there were things in the future they could never have expected. Now, if you look closely at the photo, you’ll see that almost half of the people were women. Women who, in 1956, were not allowed to hold any official governing position in the Church. But women were instrumental in making sure this congregation was formed.

Within 15 years, life and society would change drastically. And within twenty years, St. Stephen’s would be the first congregation in this diocese to have a woman lay reader, a woman Senior Warden and a woman acolyte.

That lay reader and Senior Warden were the same person, Elthea Thacker, who died on November 29, 2002 (I actually assisted at her Requiem Mass at the Cathedral when I was there—her ashes actually showed up “fashionably late” for that service). That first female acolyte was Susan Frear, who is here with us this morning, along with her mother, Clotine, who also was a very instrumental parishioner in this congregation.   And by 1985, St. Stephen’s would be the first congregation in this diocese to call a woman priest as their rector. And she is here as well this morning, Sandi Holmberg.

Now for us, here and now, in this time, it seems amazing that these were issues at all. For me, as a priest who has only known an Episcopal Church in which women always had equal leadership with men, it still baffles me to think of a time when this was not the case.

In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever shared this tory with Sandi, but the first time I ever attended any Episcopal church was way back in January 1995.  And it was here in this congregation of St. Stephen’s. And one of the reasons I was so drawn to the Episcopal Church that morning was because Sandi was the priest. A woman was celebrating Holy Eucharist. It was amazing and wonderful to me, as former Roman Catholic.  A woman could be a priest in the Church and no one seemed, at least to me on that cold morning in 1995, to even think otherwise about it.

But as Sandi, and Susan and Elthea would tell you, what they did was a BIG deal. And it wasn’t easy, at times. To be the first to do anything is hard. It involves breaking ground that has never been broken before.

We are grateful this morning for them and for their vision, for their foresight, for prophetic witness and for the fact that each heeded that call from God to move forward and to do what needed to be done. Even if it meant facing the unfairness and the inequality that existed (and, sadly, still exists in some places). It meant exposing themselves to criticism and scrutiny that was, no doubt, extremely difficult.

15 years ago today, on September 11, 2001, among the many brave and amazing people who died that day, one very great man died in the attacks on the Twin Towers. He too was a pioneer and prophet in the Church. Father Mychal Judge, a Roman Catholic Franciscan priest and Fire Department Chaplain, also was a maverick to some extent, as an openly gay (though celibate) priest in the Roman Catholic Church.

The day before the attacks, he preached a sermon in the Bronx.  In that sermon, he said this (and it’s really amazing when you think about it):

“You do what God has called you to do. You show up, you put one foot in front of the other, and you do your job, which is a mystery and surprise. You have no idea…what God is calling you to. But [God] needs you…so keep going.”

This sounds so very much like the quote from St. Catherine of Siena that we find on our newly dedicated window this morning:

“Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire!”

Those first women who bravely did what they were called to do did just that. And we too are called in just that way.

We, this congregation of St. Stephen’s, we too are prophets. We too are mavericks. We too are looking forward into our future with bright and hopeful eyes, just like those people back in 1956.  We do what God calls us to do, even when it is not popular, even when it is difficult, even when people and the organized Church and society opposes us and snubs us and turns their backs on us and tells us, “You can’t do that.”

We know God has called us.  We know that because God has called us, we have to show up, we have to put one foot in front of another, and we have to do our job as Christians, as lovers of God and followers of Jesus. And it all is a mystery and a surprise. But, on wonderfully good days, it is also a joy.

God needs us.  So we must keep going.

Those who have gone before—those who stood in that open field on that day in 1956 and heeded God’s call, who knew God was planning something wonderful for that space of ground in the middle of that field—they are still with us. They are here today with us as we gather to celebrate God’s mystery, to share this Body and Blood of Jesus. They are here, just on other side of that very thin veil that separates us from them. We are thankful this morning for them and for their vision. And we are thankful for those who are on this side of the veil who also led the way. We are thankful to Susan and Sandi and all those people who listened to God as God called them.

This morning, we are God’s own people who, according to our reading from First Peter this morning, are being called to “proclaim
the mighty acts of [God] who called [us] out of
darkness into [that] marvelous light.”

That was the same call made to Elthea and Susan and Sandi and Bishop Emery and those people who smile back at us from that black and white photo from 1956.  We are each being called to continue to their vision, to continue to do what God calls us to do.

So, let us show up. Let us put one foot in front of the other. Let us do the job God has called each of us to do.  What we are doing is a mystery. And every day is certainly a surprise. But God needs us. So…let’s keep going.  And if we do, if we keep going, if we keep being who God meant us to be, we—all of us—will set the world on fire.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

15 Pentecost

August 28, 2016

Hebrews 13.1-8; Luke 14:1, 7-14

+ Last Sunday, of course, I was in Southern Minnesota. While there, I ended spraining an ankle. So, for the better part of last week, I was off my feet. Which means that when I wasn’t working from the couch, I was reading. And one of the books I read this past was actually a book I re-read. It was an influential book in my life, called Zen Effects, the Life of Alan Watts.

Now, you might not have heard of Alan Watts. Unless, of course, you were part of the so-called “counter-culture” of the 1960s and early 1970s. He was a pretty major force during that time. Watts, who died 1972, was a Zen Buddhist and Taoist, he advocated such things as drug experimentation, especially LSD, and multiple other psychedelic things.

Now, I know. You’re wondering what about Alan Watts would be so influential for me. Well, what very few people know about Watts was that he was actually an Episcopal priest for about 7 years in 1940s. Not a conventional Episcopal priest, by any sense of the word. But he was one nonetheless.

I loved Watts because of his unconventionality.  He was an inspiration to me , especially when I was applying to graduate schools in my 20s, because we both had very unconvenential, non-traditional educations.  But this past week, as I re-read the introduction to the Watts biography, paragraph really stuck me to my core. Monica Furlong, the author of the biography, writes:

“Among clergy in the Christian churches…some of them,
often less remarkable than Watts, had almost all his characteristics.
Though so splendidly and individually himself, Watts was at the
same time a type, a type that nobody talked about much in the
churches or in other religious communities because representatives
of the type were something of an embarrassment, they were very
often the subject of scandal. Certain sorts of disgrace tended to
follow them, yet of the ones I had known well, there often seemed
to be a special sort of grace as well, as if they were people who
helped to break up rigid social patterns, forcing us to ask questions
about them. We seemed to need them.

I love that description because I think there is a truth to it. Certainly, we all know them—those clergy who are viewed as kind of an embarrassment, behind whom “scandal” follows.

In this sense we are not talking about scandals like we often think. Scandal in the sense Furlong is talking is meaning clergy or other leaders who stepped outside the norm and were somewhat punished for it, at least socially.   Leaders who, no doubt, attempted to live out the spirit of our scripture reading from Hebrews this morning “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” Doing good and sharing what we have—not just our riches, but what we have learned, what we have been gifted with—is hard. Shaking the “rigid social patterns” of the church and other organizations is not easy. In fact doing so is dangerous.  People in authority, and those who sort of “belly up” to those in authority—those who cowtail, shall we say—do not like their social patterns shaken.  And for those doing the shaking, they are often snubbed and ostrasized and shunned as scandalous and an embarrassment. And, let me tell you from my own experience, when you stand up for what you feel is right, when you do not neglect to do good and share what you have been given from God, and when others see that as against the norm—counter-cultural, shall we say—yes, it does seem like scandal and embarrassment. And when it is viewed that way, let me just say, few things are more humbling. But again, being humbled, especially for  the sake doing right, for doing right for God, can be a very good thing.  

Today, we get to hear in our Gospel reading this morning about humility.   For those of us who were listening closely to this morning’s Gospel—and I hope you were—we might find ourselves struggling a bit with Jesus’ words.   I know I was.   And if we aren’t struggling—if those words don’t make us uncomfortable—then maybe we should be.   They are uncomfortable words, after all.

Jesus—a person whose message was also seen as embarrassment and a scandal to those around him at times—is making clear to us that, if we neglect the least among us, if we consistently put ourselves first—if we let our egos win out—we are truly putting ourselves in jeopardy. What we do here on earth—in this life—does make a difference.  It makes a difference here, and it makes a difference in the next world. It makes a difference with those we neglect. And it makes a difference—a big difference—with God. And we should take heed.   We shouldn’t neglect those who are least among us.

But probably the most difficult aspect of our Gospel today is when Jesus summarized everything in that all-too-familiar maxim:

“For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Jesus is not pulling any punches here.  He is as clear as day.  Humble yourselves. It is not all about YOU. (It is not all about ME) If we do humble ourselves, we will be exalted. If we are arrogant and full of ourselves, we will be humbled.

Humility and pride are too often huge issues for all of us Christians, whether we are laypeople or clergy.   I have seen it again and again. For those of us who have spent a good part of lives in church, we have known too many arrogant, self-centered, conceited Christians in our lives.  And they have, in many ways, destroyed the Church!  They sometimes are on the Vestry, in the pews, in the kitchen, in the Bishop’s chair, or in the pulpit.

Pride is an ugly thing.   It doesn’t do anyone any good, especially the prideful one.   But to be fair, it’s easy enough to do.   It’s easy enough to fall in that ugly trap of pride.  I’ve done it.  We all have.   When we encounter those prideful Christians we need to be careful how we deal with them.   Because we need to remind ourselves: “there but for the grace of God, go we.”

Pride is an easy trap to fall into as Christians.   We know we are loved by God.   We know we, as followers of Jesus, through our Baptisms, have a special place in relationship to God.   It’s easy sometimes to feel smug and self-assured.  And when we are fully immersed in Church work, when we are patted on the backs for the work we do, when we are told how invaluable our work is to the Church, it’s easy for us to think that the success or failure of the ministry of the Church depends on us as individuals.

Earlier this summer I preached about lone wolf ministry.  Lone wolf ministry doesn’t work. And Jesus certainly never intended his followers to be lone wolves.  Discipleship means community.  

Still, even knowing that, we do it. I do it more often than I care to admit.   It is a dangerous road to take when we start thinking everything revolves around us. And for clergy, they are in an even more vulnerable place.

As often as I fall into the pride trap in my life, I am lucky because I have a very clearly defined circle of friends and colleagues who put me in my place very quickly whenever I find my head getting a little too big for its own good.   As clergy, we occasionally find ourselves being praised and treated with a sometimes undeserved respect.  And although I have found my vocation to the priesthood to be a very humbling experience, there are times when we might find ourselves feeling very smug over a job well done.  That’s true with all of us, as Christians.   It’s easy to fall into that ugly trap of believing everything is about us as individuals.  It’s easy to convince ourselves that the world revolves around us and only us.  

Life, after all, is a matter of perspective.   And from our perspective, everything else does in fact revolve around us.

But our job as followers and disciples of Jesus is to change that perspective.   Our job as Christians is to, always and everywhere, put God first.  It is not all about us.  We are just a breath.  We are just a blink of the eye in the larger scheme of everything.  We are born, we live, we die.  And then we are gone.  And, without God, that is all we would be.  There would be no hope, there would be no future, there would be no us, without God. God gives us our definition.  God gives us our identity.  God gives us our purpose.  And this is what Jesus is getting at today, when he talks about the humbled being exalted.  

Even the writer in our reading from Hebrews gives us some very practical advice on how not to let pride win out:

“Let mutual love continue,” we heard. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

What beautiful poetry! When we are full of pride, we are unable to show hospitality—real hospitality. But when we are humble and we love each other humbly, when we serve each other humbly, without thought of reward, without thought of our own exaltation, then we realize, yes, we are entertaining angels without knowing it.

So, when we find ourselves falling into the pride trap, we need to stop and remind ourselves to put God first. When we find ourselves seeing the world as revolving around the all-mighty ME, we do need to stop and remind ourselves that God is at the center of our lives and, as such, our world revolves around God.  After all, as we hear in that beautiful reading from Hebrews, God says to us,

“I will never leave you or forsake you.”

As long as God is with us—as long as God’s light is shining through us—we can simply be who we are without trying to be something we are not. When we find ourselves shining with the glow of self-pride and self-contentment, let us remember that the light shining through us is not my light or your light, but Holy Spirit’s light and that any of our works is accomplished only through that light. When we find ourselves becoming prideful, let us stop and listen to the voice of Jesus as he says to you, “those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

God wants us to be exalted.  God wants to exalt us.   But we will be exalted as God wants us to be exalted, not as we want ourselves to be exalted, as frustrating as that might be.  This can only happen when we come before God as humble servants, as humble disciples of Jesus, as humble friends of one another, serving God in those poor and needy people around us—those angels we are entertaining without knowing it.  This can only happen when we place God at the forefront of our lives

So, let us put God first. Let us humble ourselves before our God.   And let the light of God shine within us and through us in all that we do.   Amen.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

13 Pentecost

August 14, 2016

Jeremiah 23.23-29; Hebrews 11:29-12.2; Luke 12.49-56

+ I know this might come as a shock to some of you. And I apologize in advance. But…I have, more than once, been very tempted to leave the Church. The Church here being the Capital “C” Church—the larger Church—the BIG church organization. There are times, we all have to admit, in which the Church—Capital C—is just not a great place to be. (Not St. Stephen’s)

There are people running it, after all. Fallible human beings. And, because there are,  there will be divisions in the Church.

There are divisions among us, even in this congregation.  Those divisions, at least here at St. Stephen’s, are, for the most part, little ones.  Minor ones.

In the larger Church, they are much bigger ones.  Issues of interpretation and personal convictions continue to divine the Church.

I get pretty firm about such things, as many of you know.  Although I am patient when it comes to people telling me there are certain things about the Church they might not like personally—trust me there are many things I too personally don’t like about the Church and the way things are—even then, you have no doubt heard me say, “this is not an issue of any one of us.” We, as the Church, are a collective.  And when one of us stiffens and crosses our arms and stands aloof off to the side, the divisions begin, and the breeches within the Church widen, and…and…the love of God is not proclaimed.  When those moments happen, the rest of us, in those moments, must simply go on.  WE must go on.  And we do.

We must proclaim what needs to be proclaimed.  We love what needs to be loved.  We must move forward.  And when it happens to me—and it happens to me quite a lot—I will occasionally speak out. But for the most part, I realize: this is the Church (Capital C).

 And we must plow forward together because that is what Jesus intends us to do as his followers.  He makes this quite  clear. Jesus tells us today that he did not come to bring peace, but rather he came to bring division.  

What? Did he just say that? The Price of Peace just said he did not come to bring peace? He came to bring what? Division? You mean, Jesus isn’t all peace and love and compassion? We want Jesus to bring peace, right? He’s the Prince of Peace, after all! We want Jesus to reflect all we want him to reflect.

Well, his message, of loving God and loving one another, is a message that does divide.  We, who rebel against it, who inwardly stiffen at it, we rebel.  We say, “no.”  We freeze up.

But, Jesus makes this very clear to us.  It is not our job, as his followers, to freeze up.  It not an option for us to let our blood harden into ice.  For, he came to bring fire to the earth.  To us, his followers. When we were baptized, we were baptized with water, yes. But we are also baptized with fire!  With the fire of the Holy Spirit that came to us as we came out of those waters.  And that fire burned away the ice within us that slows us down, that hardens us, that prevents us from loving fully. That fire that Jesus tells  us he is bringing to this earth, is the fire of his love.  And it will burn.

Now, for most of us, when we think of fire in relation to God, think of the fires of hell.  Ah, but not so.  (I actually think that is there is an eternal hell, it is a place of ice and cold—a place so far removed from God’s love) Again and again in scripture, certainly for our scriptures for today,  fire in relation to God is seen as a purifying fire, a fire that burns away the chaff of our complacent selves.  Fire from God is ultimately a good thing, although maybe not always a pleasant thing.  The fire of God burns away our peripheral nature and presents us pure and spiritually naked before God.  And that is how we are to go before God.

But this fire, as we’ve made clear, is not a fire of anger or wrath.  It is a fire of God’s love. It is the fire that burns within God’s heart for each of us.  And that fire is an all-consuming fire.  

When that consuming fire burns away our flimsy exteriors, when we stand pure and spiritually exposed before God, it is then we realize who we are. The fact remains, we are not, for the most part, completely at that point yet.  That fire has not yet done its complete job in us.  While we still have divisions, while we allow ourselves to stiffen in rebellion, when we allow our own personal tastes and beliefs to get in the way of the larger beliefs of the Church, we realize the fire has not completely done its job in us.  The divisions will continue.  The Church remains divided.

For us, as followers of Jesus, we are not to be fire retardant, at least to the fire of love that blazes from our God.  As unpleasant and uncomfortable it    might seem at times, we need to let that fire burn away the chaff from us.  And when we do, when we allow ourselves to be humbled by that fire of God’s love, then, we will see those divisions dying.  We will see them slowly dying off.  And we will see that the Church is more than just us, who struggle on, here on this side of the veil.  We will see that we are only a part of a much larger Church.  We will see that we are a part of a Church that also makes up that “great cloud of witnesses” Paul speaks of in today’s Epistle.  We will see, once our divisions are gone and we have been purified in that fire of God’s love, that that cloud of witnesses truly does surround us.  And we will see that we truly are running a race as the Church.

Paul is clear here too: that the only way to win the race is with perseverance.  And perseverance of this sort is only tried and perfected in the fire of God’s love.  

Yes, this is the Church.  This is what we are called to be here, and now, as followers of Jesus.  This is what we, baptized in the fire of God’s love, are compelled to be in this world.

So, let us be just that.   Let us be the Church, on fire with the love of God, fighting to erase the divisions that separate us.  Let us be the prophets in whom God’s Word is like a fire, or a hammer that breaks a rock—or ice—in pieces.  And when we are, finally and completely, those divisions will end, and we will be what the Church is on the other side of the veil. We will truly be the home of God among God’s people.