Sunday, September 23, 2018

18 Pentecost


September 23, 2018 

Jeremiah 11.18-20; Psalm 54; James 3.13-4,7-8a;

+ I’ve shared this before with you. And I want to preface what I am going to say with a hope that you will not see me as a kind of progressive, Episcopal priest version of  Richard Nixon.

But…I have enemies. There’s just no getting around that fact. There are people in this world who just do not like me. I know that’s hard to believe. Lol.  There are people who point-blank dislike me. Or maybe even hate me.

Sometimes…when one makes stands, who stand firm, or makes comments or takes positions that differ from others, you’re gonna have enemies. Sometimes, just for standing up and saying “no” to people, you are going to have people dislike you. Or sometimes, you just are not able to do for others what they need you to do for them.  And, as a result, they despise you for not being who they need you to be for them.

It’s hard. It’s painful. It’s extremely painful. And sometimes, when those people are people you care for or who were close friends or family, it is even more painful.

But, let me tell you this: we don’t make it through this life without a few enemies, without a few people who just not going to like us.

Now, like Richard Nixon, I actually write their names down. But unlike Nixon I do so not to keep up on them and persecute. I keep a list of my “enemies” so I can pray for them on a regular basis.

Now when I say “pray for them” I sometimes honestly can’t do more than that. Sometimes those people have hurt me enough that I can’t say I pray for really great things to happen to them.

But, I also don’t pray for bad things to happen to those people who I view as my enemy. Do I kind of secretly wish that bad things would happen to them?

Well…


…ok…

…maybe…

…secretly…

 But…more than anything, I just wish they would see the error of their ways, as I perceive it. Which is arrogant of me, I know.   But it’s honest.

Ok, yes, for one or two, maybe I did kind of wish bad things for them. You know, like a canker sore or a stubbed toe or something like that. I don’t wish for illness or death or really bad things to happen to them.  

Enemies in the Bible were dealt with differently, as we no doubt have discovered.  And often times, some harsh language was directed at those people who were considered enemies.

On those occasions, we do sometimes come across language in the Bible that we might find a bit—how shall we say—uncomfortable.  The language is often violent.  It is not the language good Christian people normally use. We get a peek at this language in our scriptures readings for today.

Our reading from the Prophet Jeremiah is a bit harsh, shall we say?

“Let us destroy the tree with its fruit,
let us cut him off from the land of the living,
so that his name will no longer be remembered.”

For many us, as we hear it, it might give us pause. This is not the kind of behavior we have been taught as followers of Jesus.  After all, as followers of Jesus, we’re taught to love and love fully and completely.  We certainly weren’t taught to pray for God to destroy our enemies, to “cut them off from the land of the living.” And not just destroy our enemies, but our enemy’s children (that whole reference to the fruit of the tree).

We have been taught to pray for our enemies, not pray against them.  None of us would ever even think of praying to God to destroy anyone. I hope!

But the fact is, although we find it hard to admit at times, we do actually think and feel this way.  Even if we might not actually say it, we sometimes secretly wish the worse for those people who have wronged us in whatever way. I like to think that, rather than this being completely negative or wrong, that we should, in fact, be honest about it.  

We sometimes get angry at people.  We sometimes don’t like people.  And sometimes WE are the enemy to other people.

And let’s truly be honest, there are sometimes when we might actually just hate people.  It’s a fact of life—not one we want to readily admit to, but it is there.

Sometimes it is very, very hard to love our enemies.  Sometimes it is probably the hardest thing in the world to pray for people who have hurt us or wronged us.

So, what do we do in those moments when we can’t pray for our enemies—when we can’t forgive?  Well, most of us just simply close up.  We turn that anger inward. We put up a wall and we swallow that anger and we let it fester inside us.  Especially those of us who come from good Scandinavian stock.

We simply aren’t the kind of people who wail and complain about our anger or our losses.  We aren’t ones usually who say, like Jeremiah, “let us cut [that person] off from the land of the living!”

I think we may tend to deny it. And I think we even avoid and deny where the cause of that anger comes from.

Certainly, St. James, in his letter this morning, tries to touch on this when talks about these violent “cravings” which are “at war within us.” It’s not pleasant to think that there is warfare within us. For me, as a somewhat reluctant pacifist sometimes, I do not like admitting that there is often warfare raging within me. But it is sometimes.

So, what about that anger in our relationship to God?  What about that anger when it comes to following Jesus?

Well, again, we probably don’t recognize our anger before God nor do we bring it before God.  We, I think, look at our anger as something outside our following of Jesus. And that is where scriptures of this sort come in.  It is in those moments when we don’t bring our anger and our frustrations before God, that we need those verses like the ones we encounter in today’s readings.

When we look at those poets and writers who wrote these scriptures—when we recognize her or him as a Jew in a time of war or famine—we realize that for them, it was natural to bring everything before God.  

Everything.

Not just the good stuff.  Not just the nice stuff.

But that bad stuff too.

And I think this is the best lesson we can learn from these readings than anything else.

We all have a “shadow side,” shall we say.  I preach about this all the time.  We all have a dark side.  We have a war raging within us at times.  And we need to remember that we cannot hide that “shadow side” of ourselves from God.  Let me tell you, if you have war raging inside you, you definitely cannot hide that from God.

Sometimes this dark self, this war, is something no else has ever seen—not even our spouse or partner.  Maybe it is a side of ourselves we might have not even acknowledged to ourselves.  

It is this part of ourselves that fosters anger and pride and lust.  It is this side of ourselves that may be secretly violent or mean or unduly confrontational and  gossipy.  Sometimes it will never make an appearance.  It stays in the shadows and lingers there.

But sometimes it actually does make itself known.  Sometimes it comes plowing into our lives when we neither expect it nor want it.  And with it comes chaos

As much we try to deny it or ignore it or hide it, the fact is; we can’t hide this dark side from God. It’s incredible really when you think about it: that God, who knows even that shadow side of us—that side of us we might not even fully know ourselves—God who knows us even that completely still loves us and is with us.

Few of us lay that shadow self before God.  But the authors and poets of our scriptures this morning do, in fact bring it ALL out before God.  These poets wail and complain to God and lay bare that shadow side of him or herself.  The poet is blatantly honest before God. Or as St. James advises,

“submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and [God] will draw near to you.”

When these ugly things crop up in our lives, bring them before God. Let us deal with them in humility before God.

The fact is: sometimes we do secretly wish bad things on our enemies.  Sometimes we do wish God would render evil on those who are evil to us.  Sometimes we do hope that God will completely wipe away those people who hurt us from our lives.

It is in those moments, that it is all right to pray to God in such a way.  Because the fact is—as I hope we’ve all learned by now—just because we pray for it doesn’t mean God is going to grant it.  I say this over and over again: God grants all prayer, correct?

But there are three possible answers to prayer.

Yes.

No.

And not yet.

And if you pray for bad things to happen to your enemies, God is probably gonna answer with a big fat “NO.”

But that doesn’t invalidate the prayer.  God knows what to grant in prayer.  And why.

The important thing here is not what we are praying for.  It is not important that in this Psalm we are praying for God to destroy our enemies.

What is important is that, even in our anger, even in our frustration and our pain, we have submitted to God.  We have come before God as this imperfect person.  We have come to God with a long dark shadow trailing us.

I have heard people say that we shouldn’t read these difficult on Sunday morning because they are “bad theology” or “bad psychology.”  They are neither.  They are actually very good and honest theology and very good and honest psychology.  Take what it is hurting you and bothering you and release it.  Let it out before God.  Be honest with God about these bad things.  Even if your anger is directed at God for whatever reason, be honest with God.  Rail and rant and rave at God in your anger if you have to.  Trust me, God can take it.

But, these scriptures teach us as well that once we have done that—once we have opened ourselves completely to God—once we have revealed our shadows to God—then we must turn to God and turn away from that shadow self.

We must, as St. James says, “resist the Devil.”

This past week, I came across this incredible quote:

“Forgive anyone who has caused you pain or harm. Keep in mind that forgiving is not for others. It is for you. Forgiveness is not forgetting. It is remembering without anger. It frees up your power, heals your body, mind and spirit. Forgiveness opens up a pathway to a new place of peace where you can persist despite what has happened to you.”

The key for me in that quote was, “Forgiveness is not forgetting. It is remembering without anger.”

Hatred and anger and pain are things that, in the long run, hurt us and destroy us.  They make us bitter.  And they hinder our relationship with God and with others.

At some point, as we all know, we must grow beyond whatever anger we might have.  We must not get caught in that self-destructive cycle anger can cause.  We must not allow those negative feelings to make us bitter.

So, when we are faced with these difficult scriptures and we come across those verses that might take by alarm, let us recognize in them what they truly are—honest prayers before God Let these scriptures—these lamenting and angry, as well as the joyful, exultant scriptures—be our voice expressing itself before God.  And in the echo of those words, let us hear God speaking to us in turn.

When we do, we will find ourselves in a holy conversation with God.  And, in that holy conversation, we will find that, even despite that shadow side of ourselves, God, who is Light, who is love, accepts us fully and completely for just who we are.




Sunday, September 9, 2018

Dedication Sunday

September 9, 2018

1 Peter 2.1-5,Matthew 21.12-16

+ Ten years ago next Friday—September 14, 2008—I sat down with the congregation of St. Stephen’s to be interviewed to be their new Priest-in-Charge.

Ten years!

It’s hard to believe.

For a moment, let’s go back 10 years. Let’s go back to 2008. On that Sunday back then, St. Stephen’s looked a bit different. This was the days before our stained glass windows, before our current altar rail, before there were frontals on the altar, before there was a Peace Pole or a Memorial Garden.

On that Sunday, for that congregational meeting, we had 25 people in church, which was just above the Average Sunday Attendance of 24. Our church membership on that Sunday was 55 members.  We actually have well over the total membership number then this morning here in church.

At that meeting, I sat down to answer questions about what I would do as Priest-in-Charge of St. Stephen’s. I remember one of the questions I was asked was:

“Do you call before you make a visit or do you just show up?”

I said, “I always call and make an appointment first.” Which seemed to be the right answer.

At the end of the meeting, I then asked the congregation a question. I asked,

“If you agree to have me, what do you want as a congregation? What are your goals?”

There was some very serious thought before someone offered, “We want to grow.”

And someone else added, “We want families.”

And someone else, “And children.”

And I said, “We all can do those things together.”

I must’ve answered correctly because on September 17, 2008, I was called to be the Priest at St. Stephen’s.  I officially began my duties on October 1, 2008.

Well, here I am, ten years later. It has been an incredible ten years for me.

When I think about where we were and compare it to where we are right now—it’s stunning. We have done some great things together in these ten years!  And, let me tell you, it is against the odds—well, depending on whose odds you might be listening to.

As we hear people go on and on about the demise of the Church, about how churches are dying—and some of them are—we have bucked the odds. 

We have grown.

We have flourished.

And we can continue to do so.

We are this strange, quirky, spiritual lightning bolt of a church that continues to draw people.

And for that we are thankful on this Dedication Sunday.

For us, on this Sunday, we take stock of where we have been and where we are going. And we take stock of what it means to be this congregation. And what it means to love God, to love others and to follow Jesus.

In fact, that following Jesus part of it came up this past week.  

Earlier this past week, our very own Annette Morrow, commenting on a little of weird injustice in the larger Church, asked me, in response to this particular injustice:

WWJD?

Which we all know means, What would Jesus do?

Even though it has become a kind of tired slogan, which we find on bracelets and necklaces, it still is an important question to ask ourselves. What WOULD Jesus do in the face of blatant hypocrisy in the Church and the world?  And most people seem to think they know that answer.

For many people, WWJD means turning the other cheek.

It means being compliant (which, I most certainly do not believe, Jesus would be or do).

For some it means, don’t stir the waters.

For some it means respecting those in authority and sitting quietly in our place.

For some it simply means being a peaceful, loving person. Which is very true. That is what J would D.

And before you think that means he was compliant,  I would like to share this. My cousin David shared this with me this past week:



I want to stress emphatically this morning:

WWJD does not mean being compliant. Not at all.

But, my response to Annette was a bit different. My response to Annette was to reference our Gospel reading for today. Because that also is something J would D.

Sometimes, yes, we turn our cheek. And in doing so we are defiant.

Sometimes we take the shirt off our back and give it the one who asks.

But sometimes…sometimes…we turn over tables and drive moneychangers from the Temple. Sometimes we cry out and name the hypocrites and we call them for what they are. We call them “vipers” and we say “no more!” That also is what J would D. And that is what we are called to do sometimes as well.

And that certainly is what have been called to do sometimes here at St. Stephen’s throughout our history. And that is what we will do again and again. Especially when we see injustice and inequality and hypocrisy.

Now some are made uncomfortable by that.

Good!

We should be uncomfortable about that. We should be uncomfortable about our Gospel reading today. It should make us uncomfortable to see someone—Jesus himself—turning over tables and driving people from the Temple.  That is what it means to follow Jesus.

But, at no point, in our following of Jesus, are we mean to simply lie down and take it. At no point in the gospels are we told to do that. And we at St. Stephen’s will not ever do that. Not while I’m here. And not while many of you are here either.

What matters here is what we do and how we do it and why we do it. What matters here is what are we doing to make this world better to make the Kingdom of God more and more of a reality in this world.

It’s important for us on this Dedication Sunday to be reminded of those things that make us a bit different than other congregations.  I don’t mean that in a smug, self-congratulatory way.  Celebrating our growth and all the things God has granted to us does not allow us to be arrogant or full of ourselves. It is a time to be humble and to humbly thank God for these many, wonderful things.      And it is important to examine ourselves in a humble way, a way in which we all find ourselves grateful to God and to each other for bringing us here, to this place, in this time and in this wonderful, holy moment.

As followers of Jesus, we have found something in this congregation that we haven’t necessarily found elsewhere—at least in this particular way.  For us, who call ourselves members of St. Stephen’s, we know that something unique and wonderful is happening here and has been happening for some time—sixty-two years, in fact.  And all we can do in the face of that happening is give thanks God and to continue to do what we are called to do as followers of Jesus. And we do those things well.

For example, our radical hospitality to those who come to us.

Our amazing sense of welcoming all people as beloved and accepted children of God within this congregation—no matter who they are or what they are.

Our commitment to service beyond these walls.

Our commitment to the sacraments and to the Word.

Our strong sense that our collective lives as followers of Jesus are centered on the celebration each week of the Holy Eucharist and the hearing of the Word of God in scripture.

These are all things that make us who we are as a congregation here at St. Stephen’s.  And they are things that, together, are, sadly, rare in many churches.  This is why people are finding us.  This is why people seek us out.

God’s Holy Spirit dwells here. I have heard so many people who come in those doors say to me, “Yes, we feel it! We feel that Spirit dwelling here.” That Spirit of God is here, permeating these pews, these walls, these windows, this altar, but most of all, permeating us.

You and me.

Each one of us.

That Spirit is here dwelling within us.

As we all know—as we all strive and continue to work to make the Kingdom of God a reality in our midst—it is not easy to do anything we have done together as a congregation.   It has not been easy to get to this point in our collective lives here at St. Stephen’s.  There have been set-backs.  There have been trip-ups.  There have been frustrations.  But, that’s all part of the journey.

We, as followers of Jesus and more specifically, as members of St. Stephen’s, are called here to be, in the words of St. Peter from our epistle this morning, “living stones.” We are called to be living stones—living stones that can be built into a true spiritual home, a royal priesthood of not just believers but do-ers.  We are called here at St. Stephen’s to proclaim all that God has done for us here and in our lives.  We, as living stones, are called to be building up a new church.  We are, by our very existence, showing that something is about to change.

The Church—capital C—the larger Church—is changing.  That Church that was a close-minded ivory tower of repressive views regarding such issues as misogyny and homophobia and special privilege, is dying rapidly.  And we all know it.  We are all sensing it.  God is letting us know that a Church built on anything other than love and acceptance is not the Church of God.

Essentially that dying Church turned away from the Gospel of Jesus.  That Church turned away from Jesus, who commanded his followers to love and love radically and to accept and accept radically.

We are the prophets to the larger Church.  We are the ones who are saying, THIS is the future of the Church.  We are the living stones building up that new Church.  We are called to be the Church—a Church in which love and acceptance prevail.  We are called to embody God’s love and acceptance. We are called to follow Jesus, even if that means we turn over tables and call out hypocrites.

This is the Church in which Jesus’ message of love and acceptance is held up and lived out.  This is the Church that is striving pave the way for that Kingdom of God in which radical love and full-acceptance reigns, to break through into our midst

It is not easy to do.  It is daunting.  And it is frightening at times.

But those words of St. Peter are ringing in our ears.

We are God’s people.

We are receiving mercy. And we are in turn are sharing that mercy with others.

So, let us be those living stones building up a  new and powerful church.   Let us, on this Dedication Sunday, do what we have been doing for 62 years.  Let us embody that God whom we love.  Let us continue to spread that Gospel of all-encompassing, all-embracing love and acceptance in all we do here.

The future for us is bright.  It is unlimited.  But we have to make it a reality.  We have to strive forward.  We have to labor on.  We have to break down those barriers of hatred, and fear and isolation and marginalization so that God’s Kingdom can bloom in our midst.

We see it happening, here at St. Stephen’s.  We see what the future of St. Stephen’s and the larger Church really is.  We see it when we live into that calling of Jesus.

So, let us be living, breathing, strong stones. That is the future.  And, let me tell you, it is a glorious one!




Sunday, September 2, 2018

15 Pentecost

September 2, 2018

James 1.17-27; Mark 7.1-8, 14-15, 21-23


+ As most of you know, I have been slowly moving into the twin home in which my mother lived. In the process, I have been making it slowly my own place. Which means, of course, making it a bit…midcentury.

This past week my brand new bar was delivered. Yes, I know. It’s weird that your teetotaling priest—a person who does not drink alcohol—is getting a bar.

But, I love this bar. It looks so cool! And hip!

But this past week I did not love this bar. If any of you are my Facebook friends, you saw this FB update on Tuesday night:

IF ANYONE WANTS TO SEE ME AT MY WORST, COME OVER AND WATCH ME TRY TO ASSEMBLE THIS BAR!

I was at my worst that night. I may have said a few things that night that I may be a bit ashamed by now. I may even have said some words that I didn’t even know I knew.  I may have thrown a few things.

We’ve all done this in our lives. We’ve lost it. We’ve been our worst. We’ve shown our shadow side, shall we say. And we all have one—a shadow side, a dark side of our very selves.    

In today’s Gospel reading, we get a list from Jesus of some things the shadow sides of people do.  This list that Jesus lays out is a pretty strong and straightforward one.  And an uncomfortable one.  And most of us can feel pretty confident we’re free and clear for the most of the ones he lists.  

After all, most of us don’t steal, don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, aren’t purposely wicked, are deceitful, don’t slander A few we might not really understand: avarice (which is just another word for greed)? licentiousness (which just means immorality, being immoral)? Yes, we’re not guilty of these!

Then there’s folly? Folly? What’s so horrible about folly? Folly could be seen as being frivolous or ridiculous.

But then, there are a few we find might actually hit home a bit, such as Envy and Pride.

For me, these two are the two that stumble me up the most.  These are the two of this whole list that I struggle with and fight against and try to overcome in my life. Yes, I have been envious of others. And, on occasion, I have been prideful.

What is especially apt about this morning’s Gospel reading is that Jesus takes these ugly things—these things from our shadow side—and uses them to engage fully the Pharisees and the scribes.

Now again, Pharisees and scribes were the righteous religious ones of Jesus’ Jewish world.  The Pharisees followed very strictly the Law. And the Scribes were the ones who meticulous copied out the scrolls of the Law.  These were the experts of the Law of their age.

Jesus takes their condemnation of him about cleanliness and keeps the conversation going regarding cleanliness.  He simply takes their conversation up a notch. He says, You are worried about what defiles the hands.  I am concerned with what defiles the heart.

The heart, for Jewish people of Jesus’ day, was truly the center of one’s being.  From the heart everything emanated.  The heart directed the mind.  It directed one’s thoughts.  

If your heart was pure, then you were pure.  

If your heart was evil, then you did evil.

Because where your heart leads, your actions follow.

Hence, his list of things that revealed the shadow side. If our heart is full of pride, or envy, or lust or frivolous folly, then are hearts are not filled with God and love.   

But one that I am surprised Jesus did not list here is “anger.”  And if we did that to the list, then this would win the prize with me.

Certainly last Tuesday night when I was trying to set up that bar!

Now most of you know me as a pretty laid-back kind of person for the most part.  I don’t seem to fly off the handle very often.  I don’t think there have been too many people who have actually seen me completely lose it with anger. OK. Some of the wardens may have seen it.

But recently I have been finding myself dealing with a strange anger that I have had within me since my mother died.  I’m told this kind of grief-induced anger is normal. 

Maybe.   And to be fair, it doesn’t always explode to the surface (which can either be a good thing or a really bad thing).

But it’s there and everyone so often I am forced to confront it. When I do, I find myself experiencing this terrible anger in all its force.  And I don’t like it.  And I don’t like me when I am the throes of that kind of anger.

Anger can be all-consuming.  When it boils up from within, all other senses seem to shut off—or it shuts them off.  It rages and roils and knocks me—and anyone else around me—around, and in the midst of it, I find I am not only angry, but almost scared by the intensity of my anger.

Which only, of course, leads us to our reading from James for this morning.  Now, I LOVE the Epistle of James. And I have never understood why people like Martin Luther felt that it should be excluded from the Canon of Scripture (along with Hebrews, Jude and Revelation).  His reasons for doing so were because they were against Luther’s doctrines of sola gratia (or grace alone) and sola fide (faith alone).

Luckily, we’re Episcopalians and we are not bound by Luther’s doctrines.  Grace alone and faith alone are not doctrines of Anglicanism.  

Luther very famously called the epistle of James an “epistle of straw.” But, what a waste if James was not a part of our scriptures!  And let me tell you, with all due respect to Luther (who most you know I actually really do love and respect)  it is no “epistle of straw.” It is a beautiful book. And I am especially grateful for the scripture we get from James this morning:

“…be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.”

What a wonderful world this would be if we all did just that. Anger is something that needs to be confronted and dealt with.  It needs to be systematically phased out, because it is like poisoning in our systems.  It destroyed us and those around us.

And, as James says, “anger does not produce God’s righteousness.”

If we think about our heart being the center of our being—as the center of ourselves— we find that anger truly does poison the heart and therefore the whole system.  When we harbor anger in our hearts, we are a slave to anger.  And if we are a slave to anger, we cannot let love flourish. And if we cannot let love flourish, God cannot come and dwell within us.  

We block out God and we block out the Kingdom of God. Anger does not help the Kingdom break through into our midst.  We are not helping build up the Kingdom when anger rules us. In fact, we hinder the Kingdom of God when we are angry.

So, these words of James speak strongly to us this morning.

“Be quick to listen, be slow to speak, slow to anger.”

We know how speaking sows the seeds of anger.  And if we’re speaking, we are not listening.  And sometimes, when we listen, we find that anger can be defused.

“Be slow to anger”.

I have come to conclusion that, like despair (as you heard me say again and again), anger is simply not an acceptable Christian response.  Like despair, which squeezes out all hope, anger squeezes out hope and love.  It is simply impossible to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves when we are filled with anger, when the storms of anger are raging within us.  

Anger prevents love.  It stifles love.  It kills love. And yet, it is such a human response. The fact is,  we will feel anger. And sometimes, the anger we feel is a righteous anger—an anger at things like injustice and racism and homophobia and sexism. We should feel a righteous anger about those things. It’s just that we should not let anger consume us.

But let us be clear about what James is saying to us. He isn’t saying that we shouldn’t get angry on occasion. He is simply saying we should be slow to anger. We don’t need to fly off the handle.  We should not react in anger. There are times when we may simply need to walk away from something that makes us angry.

Like a cool midcentury bar. Which I did. After not getting anything done in
that overwhelming anger on Tuesday night, I just walked away from it.  And then tackled it again a few days later. And guess what? I finished it! And it looks great!

This is how being slow to anger sometimes works. Sometimes we just need to recognize anger and what it is in our lives. But we don’t always have to engage it. And we should never let it be the driving force of our lives.

So, let us listen to James.  

Let us use his words as our own personal motto.  

Let his words speak in us.  Let love squeeze out all anger from our lives.

Let us banish from our hearts—the center of our very being—anything that prevents love from reigning there.

Let us banish from it those vices—both easy to banish and difficult to banish—so that pureness can exist within us.

And if we do that, God’s love will settle upon the very center of our being. And in that moment, God’s love will give us an everlasting peace that no anger can destroy.



Sunday, August 26, 2018

14 Pentecost

August 26, 2018


Ephesians 6.10-20; John 6.56-69

+ Do you ever notice how certain words get hijacked? Words we once thought were nice, quaint words get hijacked by some not-so-nice people and all of a sudden the word becomes—and means—something else.

Certainly, we Christians have experienced this often in our life time. To some people Christians are seen as close-minded, bigoted and judgmental. We are viewed as people who fold our arms and sneer at anything we don’t like. We all are seen as terrible people because of a few very loud and vocal ones.  Which is a shame. People who think way that have obviously never been to St. Stephen’s!

It’s the same with priests. Let me tell you! Because of a few bad priests, all of a sudden we’re all seen as…well…you can guess.  And most of those people have never met me!

But one word that has been hijacked is one that what we often hear in relation to a bashing of the word “Christian.”  It is the term “Evangelical Christians.”

Evangelical Christians, even among other Christians, have been demonized. I have done it myself.

Being Evangelical in this day and age is equivalent to being a “Pharisee” in Jesus’ day. It is synonymous with hypocrisy and close-mindedness. And in most cases, you know what: that’s correct. Have you listened to some of those so-called self-professed Evangelical Christians? Many are just that, hypocritical and close-minded.  Many of them have a sense of righteous entitlement.

Many of them carry around a sense of rightness in being able to judge others.

A sense of we’re right and you’re wrong.

A sense of God is on OUR side.

A sense of: we’re saved and going to heaven and everyone who doesn’t believe the way we do or act the way we do are going straight to hell.

A sense of: I know what the real interpretation of scripture is.

These pharisaical evangelicals have actually done just that. They have hijacked Christianity. They have hijacked the Bible. And they have hijacked the very term “evangelical.”

And those things make me very angry.

They feel they are the standard bearers, the guardians of biblical purity. And very rarely do they see that what they are really doing is in fact embodying the very people Jesus preaches against again and again.

And we’ve all been on the receiving end of evangelical ire. Sadly.

But…my anger about evangelicals isn’t even about their puritanical stance, their sense of rightness. As I said, my anger has to do with their hijacking of both the Bible and the name “evangelical.”

Now, in the Anglican tradition, evangelical means something else. And for those of us who were Lutheran, it means pretty much the same thing as it does for Anglicans.  For us, evangelicals are simply people who strive to make sure scripture continues to be the basis for our Christian faith.

There is a long and fruitful Evangelical history in Anglicanism and the Episcopal Church. In fact, one of my personal heroes in the Episcopal Church was the great Evangelical writer, William Stringfellow, who along with his long-time partner, poet Anthony Towne, wrote several amazing books on scripture. I talk about Stringfellow a lot! Because he deserves to be quoted and remembered.

Now, personally, I have always been a bit wary of identifying myself as an Evangelical. Probably my reason for doing so has to do with the fact that we all know: being an Evangelical in our recent history means something I don’t want to be associated with.

But I am Evangelical in the sense that scripture is vital to my faith and my understanding of God, Christ and the Church.  I am Evangelical because I do believe in the authority of scripture. And I am Evangelical in the sense that scripture is the basis for my faith life, every sermon that I preach, how I see the world around me and how I view my own place in this world.

I love the Bible! And I say that without fear. I say it proudly. Because I do love the Bible! I have spent my entire faith life so-far, studying, pondering and wrestling with scripture.

In fact, when I was ordained a priest, the bishop asked me,

Will you be diligent in the reading and study of the Holy Scriptures, and in seeking the knowledge of such things as may make you a stronger and more  able minister of Christ?

And my answer was: I will.

I took that “I will” very seriously!

For me, that means reading and studying and wrestling with scripture on a daily basis. Which I have done almost every day since I was ordained. There were a few days when I was sick or in the depths of grief or pain when I simply couldn’t. But even on those days when I didn’t read it or study it, I can say in all honesty that scripture was still there, still guiding my life and sustaining me in illness or grief.  And I hope that, just as that vow promised, such daily study of scripture has made me a stronger and more able minister of Christ.

I am an Evangelical because I believe in Scripture. Now, I know that is loaded statement.

Do I believe literally in everything in the Bible?  That is not what I said.  But I do believe that God speaks to me through scripture. And because God does, I believe scripture to be the Word of God.

To go back to my ordination day, both as a deacon and priest, I knelt before the bishop, and said before God, the Bishop and the Church, this promise:

“…I solemnly declare that I do believe the holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation…”

Now, that vow is good for all of us who are ministers, not just ordained ministers. And, if you really listen, it’s a statement packed with meaning. I believe the scriptures to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary for salvation.

All of it? You may wonder. We may interpret that in statement, in what we are really professing here that through the scriptures God does speak to us.

God’s very Word comes to us through these scriptures. Which makes these scriptures incredibly powerful.  

We get an echo of this importance of the Word of God in our Gospel reading for today. In it, we find Simon Peter answering that question of Jesus, “Do you wish to go away?” with strangely poetic and vibrant words.

Peter asks,

Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

For all of us as followers of Jesus, who is the incarnate Word of God (which we find contained in scripture), the Word of God made flesh—this is essential.  And powerful.  

This Word not only directs our lives, it sustains us, and feeds us and keeps us buoyant in the floods and tempests that rage about us.  The Word is the place to which we go when we need direction, when we need comfort, when we need to be reminded that we are deeply loved children of out God, when we need hope as followers of Jesus.  The Word is essential to us because, through it, God speaks to us.  The Word is essential to us because it is there that we hear God’s Spirit directing us and leading us forward.

The irony for me, however, is most poignant when I listen to those Evangelicals (and others) who use the Word in cutting ways.  We of course hear them all the time.  People who use scripture to support their homophobia or their racism or their blatantly anti-Christian political beliefs or their condemnation of others.

Because scripture is so powerful, people who do so are playing with fire. Or maybe dynamite might be the better image.

Now, any of you who have heard me preach for any period of time have heard me say this same thing over and over again.  And I will continue to say it over and over again.  I said it again and again:  be careful of using Scripture as a sword, because, I say: remember.  It is a two-edged sword.  If you use the Word to cut others, trust me: it will come back and it cut you as well.  It is just that powerful. And frightening.  It can destroy, not in just the way the one who wields it wants to destroy, but it can also destroy the one who wields it.

However—and this is a big however—if we use the Word to affirm, to build up the Kingdom of God, if we allow the Word to be, in our lives, the voice of God, the mind of God, the  then we in turn are affirmed. As Paul says in his letter to the Ephesians that we heard this morning:

“take…the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”

That sword of the Spirit is an amazing weapon.  That sword of the Spirit is essential for all of us who are ministers.  It is a powerful device that carries more strength and influence than any of us probably fully realize.  And because it is so powerful, we need to use very, very carefully. It  needs to be handled like a loaded, very sensitive machine gun.

We need to use it not in anger, not in hatred, not in oppression, but in love.  When we wield this sword of the Spirit in love, we find love being sown.  When we wield this sword of the Spirit of God in compassion, we spread compassion.  When we wield this sword to shatter injustice and oppression and homophobia and hatred and fascism, we find justice and freedom.  When we wield this sword as a way to clear the way for the Kingdom of God, we find that we too become a part of that building up of the Kingdom.

We too are able to clearly hear Jesus’ voice in our lives.  Those words of eternal life that Jesus speaks to us again and again in scripture truly do break down barriers, build up those marginalized and shunned and, in doing so, we find the Kingdom of God in our very midst.

When a Benedictine monk or nun makes a profession of vows they pray a wonderful prayer.  Their prayer is:

“Accept me, Lord, according to your word, and I shall live. Do not disappoint me in my expectation.”

I love that.

“Do not disappoint me in my expectation.”

This is our prayer as well as loved children of God and followers of Jesus. This is the prayer of all of who are called to be ministers—whether as lay people or as clergy.

“Accept me, Lord, according to your word, and I shall live. Do not disappoint me in my expectation.” 

We too have prayed to be accepted according to God’s Word.  The sword of the Spirit has swiped the veil of separation from us and has made us one.  And none of us, in this oneness, in this kingdom of God in our midst, is disappointed in our expectation. When all are seen as one, when all are accepted, when we see each other as loved and fully accepted children of a loving and merciful God, then our expectation will be fulfilled.

But we need to keep listening, to keep straining our ears for God’s words to us.  We need to keep listening so God can speak to us—so the Word can speak to us. And that Word needs to be spoken just as importantly, through us.

When God speaks to us, we respond.  When the Word comes to us, we then need to engage it.

This is what prayer is—holy conversation.

And as the Word is spoken to us, as we hear it and feel it, our response is the same as those who heard the Word spoken to them by Jesus.

“Yes, Lord, you have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

So let us hear those words of eternal life.  Let us embody that Word in our lives.  Let us share that Word through the good we do in this world.  Let us take back that word “Evangelical” and make it our own again!  Let us be good and accepting and inclusive and radical Evangelicals! (Those are not oxymoronic words)

And when we do, people will know.  People will know we are children of God. People will know who we follow.  People will know that the Word we embody in our very lives is the Word of that Holy One of God.