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.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

The Requiem Mass for Betty Spur

Betty Spur
(August 30, 1935-July 27 , 2016)

Psalm 121; John 14.1-6

+ Today, of course, is a day we all knew was coming. Betty certainly knew it was coming. She planned this service. She thought ahead and took all of this into consideration. But knowing that this day was coming, doesn’t necessarily make it easier.

I can say, in all honesty, that Betty Spur meant quite a bit to me personally.
And I’m sure many of us here today can say the same.

It struck me in these last few days that I have known Betty for at least eight years.  Eight years. Eight years is a good amount of time to get to know someone. And I can tell you, in those eight years, I got to know Betty very well.  And she knew me very well.  In those eight years, I walked with her through some major highs and some major lows together. Many of us were with her through highs and lows in her life.

We journeyed  alongside this very interesting person—Betty Spur. And she was truly interesting. There are not many people in the world quite like Betty Spur.

She had very strong convictions and opinions and a very clear sense of what she saw as right. And I respected that in her. Even if I might not have agreed with her on an issue.  But, no matter what: I cared for her. And I know that she cared for me.

Well, actually one area of my life she didn’t care for. As many of you might know, I am, in addition to being a priest, I am also a poet. I’ve published a few books of poems. And Betty always made an effort to purchase copies of those books as they were published. But she was also quick to say: “I don’t really care for your poetry.”

“That’s all right, Betty,” I would say. “There are a lot of other people who don’t either.”

“I just don’t ‘get’ them,” she would say. “And they just don’t rhyme.”

Despite that, I knew she really did care for me. And I am grateful—very grateful—that she did.

I also know that Betty’s life was not always an easy one. And knowing how hard and difficult and tragic her life was at times made one more understanding of who she was.  There were many times when I would go to her house to bring her Holy Communion when there were many tears shed. Holy Communion always seemed to bring out the tears.  It was vitally important to her.

Which is why I am very grateful we are able to celebrate it today as part of this service for her. Communion was more just a quaint church-action for her. It was her sustenance. It was in Holy Communion that she truly found her spiritual strength. And she was spiritually strong.

So, it very appropriate that we celebrate this Living Bread and Living Cup today.  We, in the Episcopal Church, call a funeral service in which the Eucharist is celebrated, a Requiem Eucharist.  Requiem comes from the Latin phrase Requiem Aeternum, “Rest eternal grant to them...”  There’s a great statement from The Anglican Service Book that I always like quote at Requiems (which you’ll find on the inside of your booklet this afternoon):

“A Requiem is a testament of triumph and hope, for those of us who remain know that we also journey toward the same eternal home…In the Holy Eucharist, which transcends all time and space, we are closest to our faithful departed loved ones, joining our prayers and praises to theirs. We pray for them, as we believe that they pray for us, so that all may be strengthened in their lives of service.”

I love that. And I believe that. And I know Betty believed that as well.

I think many of us today can feel that that separation between us here and those who have passed on is, in this moment, especially at Holy Communion, a very thin one.  And because of that belief, I take a certain comfort in the fact Betty is close to us this afternoon.   She is here, in our midst, with us. She is here, and she is full of joy and life. And she is, finally and completely, happy.

In her last days, as she repeated that one phrase, “I’m happy” over and over again, I know for a fact that she had no fear of what awaited her. She knew where she was going. And just as I know she cared for me, I can tell you, Betty knew that she was loved by God.  And because she knew she was loved, and she was happy, Betty had no fear of death. She knew where she was going.  And she knew that it was good.

At the end of this service, at the Commendation, we will hear these wonderful words:

All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

Yet even at the grave we make our song, Alleluia.

Betty’s joy and happiness in her last days were her Alleluia.  That joy, that happiness, was her last defiant act in the face of death. We all can learn a few things from Betty Spur about facing death.

On every visit I made to her, Betty always requested one thing, again and again. She always requested Psalm 121, which was just led by Jessica. Betty loved that psalm because it captured perfectly her faith in God and in herself in the face of hardship.

I lift up my eyes to the hills; *
from where is my help to come?
My help comes from the LORD, *
the maker of heaven and earth…
The LORD…watches over you; *
the LORD is your shade at your right hand,
 So that the sun shall not strike you by day, *
nor the moon by night.
The LORD shall preserve you from all evil; *
it is [God] who shall keep you safe.
The LORD shall watch over your going out and your coming in, *
from this time forth for evermore.

God has watched over Betty and kept her safe. She has been preserved from all evil and is now truly and completely safe. Her God has truly watched over going her out and her coming in “from this forth forevermore.”

I prayed this psalm with her the Sunday before she died. As I did, although she could no longer follow along, she seemed to look past me as  I prayed. Or rather I should say, she looked beyond me.  I have no doubt that, in that moment, she was looking toward those hills, toward that place to which she was headed, where her God would keep safe forever.  It was truly a holy moment.  And I will remember it always.

I am going to miss Betty Spur. I already do. There is definitely an absence in the wake of her death. But, despite all this, we also have an abiding and overpowering faith. 

She has taught us one very important thing: These negative things in life—no matter what they are—are ultimately temporary. The great and glorious things are eternal.  They will never end.  Betty knew that. She believed in that. And she is reminding us of that fact this afternoon.  That happiness that she has finally gained will never be taken from her again. And we can all rejoice and be thankful for that.

May the angels lead you into paradise, Betty;
May the martyrs receive you into the holy city Jerusalem.
May the choirs of angels receive you, and may you, with Lazarus once poor, have everlasting rest and a joy that never ends.  

Sunday, August 7, 2016

12 Pentecost

August 7, 2016

Luke 12:32-40

+ I don’t know about you, but I have to admit this this morning…I am kind of mourning summer already. It feels like summer is kind of winding down.
Yes, I know it’s still hot, we’re still getting bad thunderstorms and all, but it feels like summer is on the down-turn. And that makes me sad. It makes me sad because I didn’t really get to enjoy it much.

It has been a very busy summer here at St. Stephen’s, with weddings, funerals, and parishioners’ health issues and all the other issues that normally don’t seem to happen during summer.  I remember when I first came to St. Stephen’s. Summers were very quiet. Nothing much happened, it seemed.  Not so anymore.

And let’s not even get started on what this summer was on a larger scale. It was a violent summer—a summer of shootings and murders. It doesn’t seem like that is letting up as summer winds down.  And then…don’t even get me started on the political situation raging around us this summer.

As I was thinking about all of this, I found myself this past week really hearing our Gospel reading for this morning anew.   I really let the Gospel reading sink in and I realized that, in it, Jesus was telling me—and all of us—two things that strike us at our very core:

First, he tells us something that is essential. It is, by far, the most important thing we can hear.  He begins with “Do not be afraid.”  With all the violence and uncertainty going on in this nation, with our collectively uncertain future, those words never sounded sweeter in my ears, and hopefully in yours as well.  Those are the words we want Jesus to say to us and those are the words he tells us again and again in the Gospels.   And those are words I love to preach about.

If I could peach on nothing else but Jesus’ commandment of “Do not be afraid” I would be a very happy priest.  (Actually, I am a pretty happy priest anyway)

Do not be afraid.

Second, he tells us something else that is so vital. He says, “where your treasure is, there you heart will be also.”   Now, at first, we might find ourselves nodding in agreement with this.  But don’t nod too quickly here.  Let’s listen very closely to what he is saying.

“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

When we hear him talking today of where your heart is there is your treasure, he isn’t talking so much of our material treasure.  He is saying that where your heart is, that is where your passion will be.  There is where your attention and your fulfillment will be found.

So that poses a very hard question in all of our lives this morning, that really does cut through all the violence and political uncertainty in this world.

Where is your heart this morning?

Where is your treasure?

Where is your passion?

Now, for me, I will tell you where mine are. I have two passions in this life.  They are not secrets.   The first, of course, is my vocation to the Priesthood.   And, of course, my other passion is poetry.   If I was asked where my treasures are on earth, I would say it was squarely within those two areas.  Maybe that’s not too bad of places for one’s heart to be.

“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

So, where is your treasure? This might not be as easy for us to accept, because we know it is a very true statement.  And few of us can say with all honesty that our treasures are built up enough in heaven that there too is our heart.  

Our treasures, for the most part, are here on earth. But I’m not going to let you off the hook this morning. I really want you to carry this with you. I want you to truly ask yourself these questions.

Where is your treasure?  

Or maybe the questions: what is your treasure? What is your passion?   What is it that drives you and motivates you?  Is it money?  Is it fame?  Is it your job?  Or is it family or spouse?

It’s important to be honest with ourselves in regard to this question and to embrace and accept the answer.  They are hard questions to ask and they are hard questions to answer. Jesus is clear here that we shouldn’t beat ourselves up about what our treasure is.

Rather, he says, we should simply shift our attention, shift our focus, and center ourselves once again on the treasure that will never disappoint, which is, essentially, God and all that God stands for.  

Now, either that sounds really good to you or really bad to you.  But bear with me for a moment.  When we find our treasure in God, we find that that treasure is more than just  some sweet, pious, God-and-me kind of relationship.  Recognizing God as our treasure means making all that God loves and holds dear our treasure as well.

I’m going to repeat that:

Recognizing God as our treasure means making all that God loves and holds dear our treasure as well

To love God means to love what God loves as well.

And striving to see that and do that is where our real treasures lie.  It seems that when do that—when we love as God loves—it all falls into place.   I don’t mean that it falls into place in a simple, orderly way.  It definitely does not ever seem to do that. God does not work in that way.  (Sometimes I wish God did!)

More often than not, when we recognize all that God loves it only frustrates us and makes our lives more difficult. You mean, God loves that person I can’t stand? You mean God loves that person I think is vile and despicable?  God loves even those people we think God shouldn’t love? Oh, this is a lot harder than I thought.  Yup. It is a lot harder than we thought. Because that’s what it’s all about.

Loving God means loving all that God loves. And God loves fully and completely and wholly. And realizing this is truly the greatest treasure we will ever find.

“Where our treasures are , there our hearts will be also.”

For us here at St. Stephen’s, we know how to build up that treasure in heaven.  We do it by following Jesus, and in following Jesus, we love God and strive—honestly—to love all that God loves.  We try to make that our goal. Sometimes we fail, but we always keep on trying.  We build up our treasures by doing what we do best.  We do it by being a radical presence of love and peace and hospitality in a violent world or in an uncertain political environment or in a Church that sometimes truly does ostracize. We do it even when it’s really hard. We do it even when we don’t feel like it. We do it even when we would rather be doing our own thing, sitting by ourselves over here, all by ourselves.

For us a St. Stephen’s we are a place of radical love and acceptance, because Jesus, the One we follow, was the personification of radical love and acceptance.   And because the God he represents and loved and stood for is our treasure, we know we are heading in the right direction in what we do. God and God’s radical, all-encompassing love is where we should find our treasure—our heart.

 But even if we are not there yet, spiritually, it’s all right.  We should simply cling to that command that God continues to make to us again and again, when the world around us rages and our futures seem uncertain and frightening:

“Do not be afraid.”

Do not be afraid.  Do not be afraid of where our passions lead us and where our treasures lie.   Do not get all caught up in the things of this earth.  

Instead, just love as God loves.  Love your neighbor as you would love yourself. And love your God who loves you in return.

 So, let us build up our treasure.  Let us embrace our passions.  Let us move forward so we can build up our treasures, even when we’re tired, even when we are weary and beaten by this world.

Jesus tells us in no uncertain terms,  “It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

The Kingdom is here, in our midst.  Right here. Right now.  We are bringing it forth, increment by increment.  Step by step.  Loving act after loving act.  Truly, the Kingdom is just that close. And within it, all our real treasures lie.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

11 Pentecost

July 31, 2016

Luke 12:13-21

+ Not long ago, I did something I didn’t really want to do. In fact, I dragged my heels  about it and tried to get out of it as much as I could. But I knew it had to be done. I revised my Will.


I had come to the point in my life at which much of what was in my original Will (which was drafted in 2003, following my diagnosis with cancer) was no longer relevant.  In fact, in that original Will, I had planned made a designation for a particular institution that I once held in high esteem. However, by the time I revised my Will, I no longer held that particular institution in such high esteem anymore. In fact, I really didn’t hold it in any esteem any longer. As often happens in life.

So, I had to revise my Will. At first, it thought it would be simple. Just a simple addendum, I thought. But, oh no.  Not in this day. The whole Will was rewritten to conform to changes in the law since my last Will. It took a lot longer than I thought to get it done. But when it was, I felt a real relief. I felt as though things were in good order.

Which the whole reason we make Wills.   We make Wills to give us a sense of security about what we have. We like to know where these things we worked hard to get will go.

Still, having said all that, I have never been comfortable talking about Wills and money.  It’s such a personal thing.  Maybe it’s because I kind of fret over these things.  I fret over my possessions and what is going to happen to them when I’m gone.  Which, I know, is pointless. But, still…I do it. I fret.

In this morning’s Gospel reading we find this “someone” in the crowd who is also fretting, it seems.   And this “someone” just hasn’t quite understood what Jesus is saying when he says “do not be afraid,” which is what he was telling them right before this particular incident. But as easy as it is to judge this poor person quarreling with his brother—as much as we want to say—“look at that fool, bringing his financial concerns before Jesus,” the fact is, more often than we probably care to admit, this is the person we no doubt find ourselves relating to.  I certainly do.

In this society that we live in, in this country in which we live in, we naturally think a lot about money and finances.  We spend a lot of time storing our money, investing our money, making more money and depending on money. None of which, in and of its self, is bad.

But, we also worry about money quite a bit.  And that is bad.  For those who don’t have much, they worry about how to survive, how to live, how to make more.  For those with money, they worry about keeping the money they have, making sure their money isn’t stolen or misused or how the stock market is doing.

And we don’t just worry about the money in our lives.  We worry about all our material “treasures.” We worry about protecting our possessions from robbers, or fire or natural disaster. We insure them and store them and we spend time planning how to pass our treasures on after we die. We are concerned about what we have and we might even find ourselves looking for and seeking those things we don’t have.

And there is nothing inherently wrong with any of this either.  It’s good stewardship to take care of that with which God has blessed us and take care of those things.

What Jesus is talking about in today’s Gospel is not so much these issues—it’s not money per se, or the “things” in our lives. What Jesus is talking is something worse. He is talking about greed, or as older translations used, covetousness.  Greed and covetousness are not the same thing.  They are actually two different things.  Greed involves us—it involves us wanting more than we need.  Covetousness is wanting what others have.  Covetousness involves envy and jealousy. (And envy and jealousy are two different things as well, but we won’t get into that today). Covetousness involves looking at others and wanting what they have desperately.  And at times, we’ve all been guilty of both of these things.

In our society, we are primed to be a bit greedy and we are primed to covet.  Look at some of the ads we see on TV.  We are shown products in such a way that we actually come to desire them.  And they are shown in the context of some other person enjoying them so much that we should want them too. And, in this society, we are primed to want more than we need.

We’re all guilty of it.  And we should be aware of this fact in our lives.  And in being aware of this, we need to keep Jesus’ words close to heart. Because Jesus is clear here. There are two kinds of treasures.  There are those treasures we have here on earth—the ones we actually own, the ones we might need and the ones others have that we want— and the ones we store up for ourselves in heaven.

And, let’s be honest, those treasures we are expected to store up for ourselves in heaven are not the easiest ones to gain for ourselves.  They are not the ones we probably think about too often in our lives. Jesus isn’t too clear in today’s Gospel exactly what those treasures are, but it won’t take much guessing on our part to figure them out. The treasures we store up for ourselves in the next world are those that come out of loving God and loving each other. But we have to be careful when considering what it is we are storing up for ourselves.  It is not necessarily the idea that good deeds will get us into heaven.

We need to be very clear here.  Jesus is not at any point saying to us that what we do here on earth is going to guarantee us a place in heaven.  But what he is saying is that we don’t get to take any of our possessions with us when we leave this world.  All of it will be left behind. Every last thing we have right now in our lives—every previous thing—will be left behind when we die.

However, Jesus says, if you do these good things in your life, you will be closer to heaven.  You will not “win” heaven by doing them. But…by doing good things for one another, you will be bringing heaven closer into our lives.

I can’t stress enough how important it is to take care of the treasures we have on earth.  We should always be thankful for them.  And we should be willing to share them as are needed.

Our job as Christians is to take care of our possessions here on earth—with whatever God granted to us in our lives.  Even our Book of Common Prayer encourages us to look after our earthly treasures and to share them in a spirit of goodness and forbearance.  I’d like you to take a look at a section of the Prayer Book you probably have never even explored.  On page 445, you will find something very interesting. It says this,

The Minister of the Congregation is directed to instruct the people, from time to time, about the duty of Christian parents to make prudent provision for the well-being of their families, and of all persons to make wills, while they are in health, arranging for the disposal of their temporal goods, not neglecting, if they are able, to leave bequests for religious and charitable uses.

I always encourage people—no matter where they are financially in their lives—to make out a Will.  Wills are more than just a means of giving away our earthly possessions when we die. They truly can be a practical expression of one’s faith and a positive acknowledgement of our own mortalness and dependence upon God.

 I was inspired by this suggestion from the Prayer Book and had my original Will done thirteen years ago, and then revising it a few years ago.   For me, there was a sense of accomplishment in knowing that what I had will be distributed to those people and those organizations that I know would appreciate them and benefit from them.  It’s also, for that very reason, that I revised my will when one of those organizations became something other than it was originally. And it was also a relief to be able to put in that Will such practical instructions as my funeral arrangements (which again I highly encourage everyone to consider and write down in some way or form).

By arranging for our Wills to be made, by being generous with our gifts and with the instructions we give our loved ones who survive us, we are truly responding to today’s Gospel.  By being generous with our gifts , and by being generous to those who share this earth with us, we are building up treasures in heaven. We are not “buying” our way into heaven. We are just striving to do good on this earth, as faithful followers of Jesus and as beloved children of a loving God. And striving to do good does build up those treasures in heaven.

In all of this, listen in a way the anonymous person in today’s Gospel did not.  Listen to Jesus’ words of “do not be afraid.”

Do not be afraid.

Do not be afraid of what will happen to the possessions you have on earth.  Do not let fear reign in your life by letting greed and covetousness rule your lives.  Do not get all caught up in the things you have, or the things your neighbors have.

Instead, let us love our neighbor as we would love ourselves.  And let us love our God who provides for us everything we can possibly need.  And let us know that that same God whom we love and who loves us in return has a special place prepared for us which is full of riches beyond our comprehension.

For, as Jesus makes clear in pointing out, our lives do “not consist in the abundance of our possessions.”   We are more than our possessions.  We are more than what we have. In that place to which are going, we will go empty-handed.  We will go shed of all attachments and possessions.  We will go there shed even of our very bodies.  But we will go there, unafraid. And we will go there gloriously and radiantly clothed with hope and joy and love.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

10 Pentecost

July 24, 2016

Luke 11.1-13

+ Tomorrow, July 25—the feast of St. James the Greater—I will be observing the 13th anniversary of my ordination as a Deacon. When I think about such a thing—13 years—it is very humbling. The other day, I was sharing the fact I would be observing this day with a friend of mine, and she said to me: “So, I’m really curious, as an ordained person, do you really pray when people ask you for prayers, or do you just say you’ll pray and forget?” It was one of the best questions I’ve ever been asked. And it’s an important question. I said this to her:

“I used to say I would and then would often forget and feel guilty for forgetting. So, now, what I do is when anyone asks for prayer from me, I immediately pray for them. Even if it’s a short, interior prayer, I will pray for them, ‘please, Lord, I pray for so-and-so’ and whatever issue they have. And when I do, I usually find that when I pray more fully, usually at Evening Prayer, and in a more focused way, that request is still there.”

And I can say this, prayer is as essential of a part of my ministry at St. Stephen’s as anything I do. And I know it is for many of you as well. 

For me, as an ordained person, I can tell you, I took very seriously the vow I first made 13 years ago tomorrow night, when the Bishop asked me,

Will you be faithful in prayer…?

With that in mind, I can also say that one of the most common questions I have been asked in my 13 years of ordained ministry has been: “how should I pray?” Or “Am I praying correctly?” And I think that is one of the most important questions anyone can ask me.  And I love to answer that question. It is essential. Prayer is essential to us as Christians.  It is in praying, that we not only seek God, but come to know God.

As I’ve shared with you many times, I was, for a period of time in my twenties, a very committed Buddhist. And, I have to say, I still kind of am.  I really am of the opinion that Buddhism is less a religion than a philosophy—a way of perception. I learned an interesting concept in Buddhist about being spiritually imbalanced. If we center ourselves in our brains—if we become intellectual for the sake of anything else—we become spiritually top-heavy. If we center ourselves in our hearts—in our emotions, which I often tend to do—then we are also off balance. But if we center ourselves in the very core of our bodies—in our souls, where intellect and emotions balance out—then we become truly centered. And it is from here that true prayer comes.  And that we get to feel God and know God.

For those of us seeking God and striving after God, and God, in return, coming to us and revealing God’s self to us, we do find the need to respond in some way. That response is, of course, prayer.

In our Gospel for today, we find Jesus talking about this response.  We find him talking about prayer. The disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray.   Jesus responds by teaching them the prayer we know as the Lord’s Prayer, or the Our Father.  Then he goes on to share a parable about a friend asking another friend for a loan.  In the midst of this discourse on prayer, Jesus says those words we find quite familiar:

“For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knows, the door will be opened.”

Now, pay attention to some key words there:




I can’t tell you how many times I have heard the complaint from people about unanswered prayers.

“I prayed and I prayed and nothing happened,” I will hear. And I am definitely not going to tell you how many times I have complained about so-called “unanswered” prayer in my own life. But when we talk of such things as unanswered prayers, no doubt we are zeroing in on the first part of what Jesus is saying today:

“For everyone who asks receives.”

And before we move on from this, I just want to make clear—there is no such thing  as unanswered prayer. All prayers are answered, as you’ve heard me say many times. The answer however is just not always what we might want to hear. Our God is not Santa Claus in heaven, granting gifts to good children, nor is our God the god of Sigmund Freud’s Moses and Monotheism—a projection of our own parental expectations (to which many of us act like spoiled children).  

God grants our prayers, but sometimes the answer is “Yes,” sometimes is “not yet,” and, sadly—and we have to face this fact as mature people in our lives—sometimes the answer is “No.” And I can tell you from my own experience, the greatest moment of spiritual maturity is accepting that “no” from God.

But, that is, of course, the petitionary aspect of prayer, and very rarely do most of us move beyond asking God for “things,” as though God is some giant gift-dispenser in the sky.   (I am telling you this morning, in no uncertain terms, that God is not a giant gift-dispenser in the sky. Sorry!)

Jesus shows us that prayer also involves seeking and knocking—searching and knowing.  Oftentimes in those moments when a prayer is not answered in the way we think it should, we just give up. We shake our fists at God and say, “God does not exists because my prayers weren’t answered.” And that’s all right. That’s an honest and valid response to God.  I’ve done it in my past.  And I understand people who do it.

But if we seek out the reasons our prayers are not answered in the way we want them to, we may truly find another answer—an answer we might not want to find, but an answer nonetheless.   And if we keep on knocking, if we keep on pushing ourselves in prayer, we will find more than we can even possibly imagine.

The point of all of this, of course, is that when God breaks through to us, sometimes we also have to reach out to God as well.  And somewhere in the middle is where we will find the meeting point in which we find the asking, the seeking and knocking presented before us in a unique and amazing way.  In that place of meeting, we will find that prayer is truly our response to God “by thought and deed, with or without words.” And in that place of meeting, we come to know God.

Jesus is clear that prayer needs to be regular and consistent and heart-felt.  I have found that prayer is essential for all of us as Christians.  If we do not have prayer to sustain us and hold us up and carry us forward, then it is so easy to become aimless and lost.

As some of you know, I lead a very disciplined prayer life.  I’m not saying that to brag or to pat myself on the back. I lead a disciplined prayer because I can be lazy person. I pray the Daily Office every day—the services of Morning and Evening Prayer found in the Book of Common Prayer—because I need to. For myself.  See, kind of selfish.  But I do need it.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who also prays the Daily Office every day, says that when he doesn’t pray the Office, he feels off, like he hasn’t brushed his teeth. That’s what it’s like for me as well.  And I pray it because it is a way for me to pray for everyone at St. Stephen’s by name through the course of the week.   And, in addition to the Offices, I take regular times during the day to just stop and be quiet and simply “be” in the Presence of God, to just consciously open myself to God’s Presence and just “be” there with God.  No petitions. No asking for anything. No fist-shaking or complaints.  Just being there.  That’s essentially what prayer is. It is us opening ourselves to God, responding to God, seeking God and trying to know God.

Roberta Bondi is one of the best contemporary theologians alive today. She is an expert in the so-called Desert Spirituality of the early Christian Church. In her excellent spiritual autobiography, Memories of God, she writes this abut prayer:

“I abandoned the notion that prayer is basically verbal, petition and praise, and came to see that prayer is sharing of the whole self and an entire life with God. With a great wrench I set aside the conviction that the process of moving closer to God in prayer should also be a process by which we discard the damaged parts of ourselves of which we are most ashamed. I learned instead that just the opposite is true, that prayer is a process of gathering in and reclaiming the lost and despised and wounded parts of ourselves…”

So, essentially, prayer is not something formal and precise. It does not have to perfect or “formulaic.” We do not do it only when we are pure and holy and in that right spiritual mind. We pray honestly and openly and when the last thing in the world we feel like is praying.  We pray when life is falling apart and it seems like God is not listening. And we pray when we are angry at God or bitter at life and all the unfair things that have come upon us.

I actually have no problem praying in those situations. You know when I do have a problem praying? When things are going well.  When all is well.  In those moments, I sometimes forget to open myself to God. I sometimes forget just to say “thank you” for those good things.  I forget sometimes just to be grateful for the good things. But even then we need to pray as well.

We pray to know God and to seek God. And if we do so, if we stick with it, there will be a breakthrough. I know, because I’ve experienced it. And many of you know it too because you’ve experienced it.

There will be a breakthrough. Of course, we can’t control when or how it will happen.  All we can do is recognize that it is God breaking through to us, again and again.  We see the breaking through fully in Jesus.  He shows us how God continues to break through into this world.  We see it in our own lives when, after struggling and worrying and despairing over something, suddenly it just “lifts” and we are filled with a strange peace we never thought would ever exists again.

In those moments, God does break through. In response to that breaking through, we can each find a way of meeting God, whenever and however God comes to us, in prayer.  In that place of meeting, we will receive whatever we need, we will find what we’re searching for, and knocking, we will find a door opened to us.  That is how God responds to us.

So, let us go out. Let us go to meet God.  Let us seek God. Let us know God.  God is breaking through to us, wherever we might be in our lives.  Let us go out to meet the God who asks of us first, who seeks us out first, who knocks first for us to open the door.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

8 Pentecost

July 10, 2016

Luke 7.36-8.3

+ It has been a long, difficult violent week in the world. But, to lighten things a bit, this past week, our Senior Warden, Cathy McMullen, posted a wonderful little photo on Facebook.

Under the heading “This busy priest doesn’t have time for your long-winded confessions” was a photo of a sign that read:

“Confessions today…will be until exactly 5:30 pm. There is only one priest available for confession today. Make your confession direct to the point and confess only your sins and offenses. No need to explain why you did it. Thank you very much.”

I loved it!  But it did seem a bit legalistic, shall we say. And there was an interesting conversation that ensued, in which people said they were glad we were “Protestant” and didn’t need to make confession.  I won’t get into all that “Protestant” talk this morning, though some of you know where I stand on that.

But, actually, we as Episcopalians do have an opportunity for confession. And, I guess, according to the responses in that Facebook posting, so do Lutherans, though I never ever heard of it in the years I was a Lutheran, nor have any of my immediate Lutheran relatives.

But, for us, yes, we Episcopalians do have confession. And some of you have taken advantage of it over the years. On a regular basis.  If you doubt this fact that Confession is a valid aspect of being Episcopalian—and no doubt some of you are this morning—I invite you to take a quick perusal of your Book of Common Prayer. It’s right there on page 447.  The service for “The Reconciliation of a Penitent” is a service very few of us here this morning has probably ever taken advantage of. And that’s all right. It’s not all that big of a deal.  But it is an important service and it is one that certainly deserves our attention, even if we have no desire to take advantage of that service.  

Confession in the Episcopal Church is often described in this way:

“All can, some should, no one must.”

And it’s nice to take a look at it at a time other than Lent, when we are almost overwhelmed with talk of sin and forgiveness.  The service of Reconciliation is a service in which a person seeking to ask forgiveness of whatever shortcomings they have goes to a priest (and in the Episcopal Church only a priest can grant absolution) and having prayerfully and thoughtfully shared these sins, received words of comfort and counsel and then is given absolution by the priest.  It really is just like Confession is in the Roman Catholic Church, though for us we don’t go into a little cubicle and whisper our sins through a screen to a priest.  So, on those occasions when we describe the Episcopal Church as “Catholic lite,” and we get the inevitable question of whether or not we have “Confession,” we can say yes, we do, but then quickly add that it’s not a requirement.

I think few of us want to take advantage of this service, but, occasionally, we sometimes do find the need. And, as I said, it is not a requirement for any of us, though it is a very vital and, at times, helpful service

Not a lot of people know that I take advantage of it on a fairly regular basis. Actually, I hadn’t for a couple of years, because the clergy person I regularly confessed to had made themselves unavailable.  And then, a few weeks ago, I had a situation arise in which I desperately needed to partake of confession.

Before you start letting your minds race with unsavory thoughts about why I needed confession, it was nothing scandalous. It was simply an unpleasant situation with some members of my family in which I lost my cool and allowed myself to get a bit angry and say a few things I later regretted. This was not to my mother, I also want to make clear as well.  But I ended up finding a new clergy person who is actually a wonderful confessor.  And after the rite, I really felt so much better. There really is something very positive and good about being open and honest about one’s shortcomings, about sharing those shortcomings with someone else, about getting some practical and helpful council and advice and then hearing from that person that I am forgiven for the wrongs I have done.

For us, we find Confession best summarized on page 446 in our Prayer Book:

“The ministry of reconciliation, which has been committed by Christ to his Church, is exercised through the care each Christian has for others, through the common prayer of Christians assembled for public worship, and through the priesthood of Christ and his ministers declaring absolution.”

So, as we’ve just heard, we realize that Confession is not something the Church and bunch of male priests invented.  It was something commended to us by Jesus, who knew full well how important it was for us to confess and to hear –actually hear—the words of forgiveness.

As a priest, one of the most important responsibilities I have has always been to be a confessor. On that night that I was ordained, as part of the ordination service, the Bishop declared to me that among my responsibilities as a priest was “to declare God’s forgiveness to penitent sinners…” Now, that may sound like some “special” power we priests have.  

But, more than anything, what a priest does when she or he declare God’s forgiveness is just that:

We declare God’s forgiveness.

Nothing magical.  We just state a fact.  But, it IS an important fact.  It is important to hear. It is important to hear that we are forgiven. It is important to hear, when we fall short in any way in our lives, to hear those words, “You are forgiven.”

Hearing those words, I can say, is a truly powerful experience.  There is a sense of a weight being lifted.  There is a sense that something which was bound up has been loosened and released. To hear those words of pardon and forgiveness are important to us because we sometimes do need to hear that we are forgiven.  

Without those words of forgiveness, we may continue on in our self-pitying and our self-loathing.  Guilt can weigh heavily on us.  Those words of pardon and absolution restore us.  They help us rise above the wrongs we have done so we can live fully and completely.

When we hear Jesus say to that penitent woman in today’s Gospel, “Your sins are forgiven…Your faith has saved you. Go in peace,” we can almost feel the  weight being lifted from her.  Whatever shortcomings that woman brought with her into that place, we know are gone from her as she leaves.  This is the power of confession.

At the end of “Form Two” of Confession in the Prayer Book, the service is concluded when the priest, echoing this very Gospel reading, says,

“Now there is rejoicing in heaven; for you were lost, and are found; you were dead, and are now alive in Christ Jesus our Lord. Go in peace. The Lord has put away all your sins.”

To which the penitent replies, “Thanks be to God.”

Those are words that cause us to continue on, despite whatever we have done.  The forgiveness of our sins transforms us and changes us.  It frees us from whatever might hold us down.

So, let us together strive, when we have done wrong, to seek those words of forgiveness. Some of us might actually wish to seek out the Sacrament of Reconciliation as found in the Book of Common Prayer.  I encourage you to do so.  It is good to have a regular confessor—to take time to confess your faults and failings to some one.  It is good psychologically and it is good spiritually.  Certainly, as your priest, I am always available for this service, but any priest will do. Any priest can grant absolution.

But you do not have to be a priest to remind people of  God’s forgiveness and love.   All of us can  carry those words of forgiveness from Jesus close to our hearts when we do fail and we do fall short in our relationships, and when others wrong us.

Let us humble ourselves, but let’s not despair in those moments.  Let us come before God and seek that forgiveness that lifts us up from our tears.  Let us unloose from within us whatever is holding us captive so that we may be truly free to love God and love others with no regrets, no recriminations, no undue guilt.

Jesus’ words to each of us are “go in peace.”  That peace we find in this forgiveness is truly a liberating peace.  It is a peace that destroys not only what others do to us, but we do to ourselves and to others, which sometimes can be much worse.  That peace we find in reconciliation truly does liberate. So, let us take the peace offered to us by Jesus and go forth in that peace of God.  And doing so, let us rejoice in the freedom that peace gives us. Amen.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

7 Pentecost

July 3, 2016

Luke 10.1-11, 16-20

+ As most of you know, we are currently in the process, here at St. Stephen’s, of helping three of our members discern a call to be ordained ministry, two to the ministry of Deacons and one to the ministry of Priest. Jessica Zdenek, John Anderson, and  William Weightman have been praying and struggling and discerning and wrestling with this auspicious calling. And it’s, at times, a difficult one.

Luckily, each of them has already been doing ministry up to this point. Ministry is not a stranger to any of them. They know many of the hardships and pitfalls involved in ministry, which will help them as they proceed to ordained ministry, if God so wills. One of the areas of ministry all of us—and we are all doing ministry here at St. Stephen’s—might find ourselves susceptible to, is what some might call “lone wolf” ministry.

Lone wolf ministry can be very dangerous behavior.  You really can’t do ministry and be a lone wolf. Doing ministry means doing it together.

But…I’m afraid I might sound kinda like a hypocrite here.  For any of you who know me and worked with me for any period of time, you know I’m a bit of a lone wolf about some things. You may call it lone wolf.  I call it being independent.  Or maybe, sometimes, just impatient. Things have to get done after all.  And, when they do, you know, I’ll just do it.

But, being a lone wolf is not a good thing.  In the Church it is never a good thing to be a lone wolf. None of us can do ministry alone.  We all need to admit that we need each other to do effective ministry. And sometimes even the lone wolf admits that simple fact: I can’t do this alone.  The lone wolf sometimes has to seek help from others.

Ultimately, the lone wolf can be a bad thing for the church for another reason though.  Lone wolves can easily be led down that ugly, slippery slope of believing, at some point, that  it’s all about them.

Now, I want to make clear: I never have believed that anything is about just me. Yech.  I despise that kind of thinking in myself.  For all my lone wolf tendencies, I have a pretty good support system around me—people who will very quickly tell me when they think I might be heading down that slippery egocentric slope.

There is, after all, a difference, I have discovered between “lone wolf” behavior and ego-centric, it’s-all-about-me, I-don’t-need-anyone’s-help behavior.  And as you all know, I have no problem asking your advice and your opinions on anything before some of the things I’ve done as a priest.  I might not necessarily heed those suggestions. But I appreciate them, and they are, for the most part, helpful.

But, I have known too many church leaders who have not had a support system like mine.  I have known too many church leaders who have  made it clear to me that it was because of them—because their winning personality, or their knowledge of church growth, or their years of expertise—that a particular parish flourished. It’s an unfortunate trap leaders in the Church fall into when they believe that a parish’s success depends on them as individuals and their own abilities of ministry—and, mind you, I am not just talking about priests here. Lay leaders in the Church have fallen into this trap as well. I have known some of those lay leaders as well, trust me. 

Maybe to some extent it’s true.  Maybe some people do have the personality and the winning combination in themselves to do it.   I can tell you, I don’t.  Nor do I want to.  But for those who may have that kind of natural personality, I still have to admit: it all  makes me wary. It’s just too slippery of a slope for me.

We are dealing with similar personalities in today’s Gospel.  In our reading for today, those seventy that Jesus chose and sent out come back amazed by the gift of blessing God had granted to them and their personality.  They exclaim,

“Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!”

In and of its self, that’s certainly not a bad thing to say.  It’s a simple expression of amazement.    But Jesus—in that way that Jesus does—puts them very quickly in their place.   He tells them,

“do not rejoice in these gifts, but rejoice rather that your names are written in heaven.”

Or to be more blunt, he is saying rejoice not in yourselves and the things you can do with God’s help, but rejoice rather in God.  The burden of bringing about the Kingdom of God shouldn’t be solely the individual responsibly of any one of us.   Even Jesus made that clear for himself. Just imagine that stress in having to bring that about. 

Bringing the Kingdom of God into our midst is the responsibility of all of us together.  It is the responsibility of those who have the personality to bring people on board and it is the responsibility of those of us who do not have that winning personality. For those of us who do not have that kind of personality, it is our responsibility to bring the Kingdom about in our own ways.  We do so simply by living out our Christian commitment.

As baptized followers of Jesus, we bring the Kingdom into our midst simply: By Love.  We do it by loving God and loving each other as God loves us in whatever ways we can in our lives.  Bringing the Kingdom of God about in our midst involves more than just preaching from a pulpit or attending church on Sunday.  Spreading the Kingdom of God is more than just preaching on street corners or knocking on the doors.   

It means living it out in our actions as well.  It means living out our faith in our everyday life.  It means loving God and each other as completely as we can. But it does not mean loving ourselves to the exclusion of everything of else.

It means using whatever gifts we have received from God to bring the Kingdom a bit closer.   These gifts—of our personality, of our vision of the world around us, of our convictions and beliefs on certain issues—are what we can use.  It means not letting our personalities—no matter how magnetic and appealing they might be—to get in the way of following Jesus.

Our eyes need to be on God.  We can’t be doing that when we’re busy preening in the mirror, praising ourselves for all God does to us and through us.   

The Church does not exist for own our personal use.   If we think the Church is there so we can get some nice little pat on the back for all  the good we’re doing, or as an easy way to get us into heaven when we die, then we’re in the wrong place.  And we’re doing good for the wrong intention.

The Church exists for God, and for us, collectively.   The Church is ideally the conduit through which the Kingdom of God comes into our midst.  And it will come into our midst, with or without me as individual.

But it will comes into our midst through as us. All of us.  Together.   The Church is our way of coming alongside Jesus in his ministry to the world.  In a very real sense, the Church is our way to be the hands, the feet, the voice, the compassion, the love of God to this world and to each other.  But it’s all of us.  Not just me.  Not just you as an individual.  It’s all of us.  Together. Working together. Loving together. Serving together. And giving God the ultimate credit again and again.

Hopefully, in doing that, we do receive some consolation ourselves.   Hopefully in doing that, we in turn receive the compassion and love of God in our own lives as well.  But if we are here purely for our own well-being and not for the well-being of others, than it is does become only about us and not about God.   And in those moments, we are sounding very much like those 70 who come back to Jesus exclaiming, “look at what we have done!”

The message of today’s Gospel is that it must always be about God.  It must always be about helping that Kingdom of God break through into this selfish world of huge egos. It means realizing that when we are not doing it for God, we have lost track of what we’re doing. We have lost sight of who we are following.

So, let us—together—be the hands, the feet, the voice, the compassion and the love of God in the world around us. Like those 70, let us be amazed at what we can do in Jesus’ name.  But more importantly let us rejoice! Rejoice! Rejoice this morning! Rejoice in the fact that your name, that my name—that our names are written at this moment in heaven.