Sunday, May 29, 2011
May 29, 2011
+ This past week I had lunch with a long-time friend of mine. She is a novelist—she’s published five fairly well-received novels—and she is also a Quaker. And in addition to that, she is also an avowed non-believer. Yes, you CAN be a non-believer and a Quaker, I guess.
Now I know you’re thinking: that priest has so many friends who are atheists and complete non-believers. And I do! Actually, I consider them a true blessing in my life. I don’t know what I would do without my non-believing friends. Because they do help keep things in a very perspective.
For example, at lunch this week, my friend was explaining how she was dealing with a bit of in-fighting at her Quaker meeting house. I actually thought it was somewhat humorous to hear about Quakers fighting among themselves—committed as they are to peace. With a very exasperated sigh, she said to me, “I have come to believe that organized religion really does contribute to a lot of the problems in the world.”
I couldn’t argue with her. I actually agree. And I believe most of us here this morning would agree as well. Organized religion—made up as it is by so many fallible, dysfunctional human beings—is bound to fail at times. But, then, so is any other human organization. And I truly believe that it’s actually politics that have consistently contributed to our human problems again and again throughout our history. And it doesn’t help when politics and religion combine.
The point, however, that she made was a valid one. We do fail miserably when we allow organized religion—as opposed to real spiritual living—to dominate.
In our Gospel reading for today we find Jesus explaining that although he is about to depart from his followers—this coming Thursday we celebrate the feast of Jesus’ Ascension to heaven—he will not leave them alone. They will be left with the Advocate—the Spirit of Truth. The Holy Spirit. He prefaces all of this with those words that quickly get swallowed up by the comments on the Spirit, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”
And just to remind everyone, that command is, of course, “to love.” To love God. And to love our neighbors as ourselves. This is what it means to be the Church. To love. To serve. To be Christ to those who need Christ. To be a Christ of love and compassion and acceptance. Without boundaries. Without discrimination. When we forget this, when we fail to do this, we become the religious organization my novelist friend despairs against.
Of course, following these commandments of Jesus is not easy. It is hard. And because it is hard, we find ways, again and again to remind us how to practice this radical love.
We are doing so this morning. Today is Rogation Sunday. Rogation comes the Latin word “Rogare” which means “to ask.” Traditionally, on this Sunday, we heard the Gospel in which Jesus said,
"Whatever you ask the Father in my name, he will give to you".
Today, with our current lectionary of scripture readings, we actually find him saying, “”I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate…” From a very simple perspective, the thing we are asking today, on this Rogation Sunday, is to keep those commandments of Jesus.
Now for some of us, this whole idea of Rogation Sunday and the procession that we will soon be making outside at the conclusion of our Eucharist this morning might seem a bit too much. The fact is, it is something that has been done for centuries in our Anglican Tradition.
In the 1630s one of my all-time heroes (you hear me quote him and reference him often), Anglican priest and poet, George Herbert, commended these rogation processions. He said that processions should be encouraged for four reasons:
1. A Blessing of God for the fruits of the field.
2. Justice in the preservation of boundaries of those fields and properties.
3. Charity in loving, walking and neighborly accompanying one another with reconciling of differences at the time if there be any.
4. Mercie, in relieving the poor by a liberal distribution of largesse, which at the time is or ought to be used.
Now for us, as good city folk, we aren’t as concerned about the agricultural aspects of the Rogation blessing, at least not here at St. Stephen’s. But even here, in the city, we are thankful for our natural world.
It has been a long, hard winter. And this spring has left much to be desired. We have battled blizzards, snow and another particularly horrendous flood. But we are now enjoying the spring. The earth, that seemed so dead, so unforgiving, so bleak, is now alive.
What we are doing today is thanking God for this renewal. And we are asking God’s blessings on this growth. Because we are Christ to those who need Christ, we are asking that the blessings and abundance that come forth from this earth are shared with those who would not normally receive those blessings.
It’s not just a coincidence that Rogation Sunday falls within the Easter season. We are still in the Easter season. We are still celebrating that victory of Jesus’ resurrection, of how life does always win out over death. We Christians do know a few things about rebirth and renewal because we celebrate those themes every time we gather together and remember Jesus’ resurrection.
For us, modern Episcopalians, Rogation might mean something slightly different than it did for George Herbert. For us, we are reminded in our Rogation celebration that we are stewards of this natural world and we need to continue to be good stewards. We can not squander this natural world we have. But we have to preserve and respect it. We are also reminded that there is an inter-connectedness to the world around us. What happens in this natural world affects us—and affects us deeply, as we who live here in this part of the country know quite well. It is also a time for us to be mindful, as we always should, of relief of the poor. There are people who are not benefiting from the fruits of this earth. There are people who starving, who drinking unclean water, who are suffering from poverty and neglect, who are prey to insects carrying disease, who are suffering from famine and drought.
And there are people who are suffering from the affects of nature gone wild. There are people, this morning, who are homeless following the tornados that have been striking across the country. And there are people who mourning this morning for the loss of people in those storms.
Today, we are mindful of those facts. As you can see, the rallying themes of this Rogation time are hope and justice. And as George Herbert reminds us there is always room for charity.
As we process out at the end of the Eucharist today, I ask that you remember Jesus’ call to us, to love him and to keep his commandment of love. It is more than just sweet, religious talk. It is a challenge and a true calling to live out this love in radical ways. As we process, as we walk together, let us pay attention to this world around us. Let us ponder the causes and the effects of what it means to be inter-related—to be dependent upon on each to some extent, as we are on this earth. We do need each other. And we do need each other’s love. We do need that radical love that Jesus commands us to have.
With that love, we will truly love our neighbors as ourselves. Our neighbors are more than just those people who live next door to us. Our neighbors are all of us, those we do in fact love and those we have difficulty loving. And our neighbors also include this earth and all the inhabitants of it.
That command of Jesus is to love—to respect—those with whom we live and share this place. Let this procession today truly be a "living walking" as George Herbert put it. But let our whole lives as Christians be also a “living walk,” a mindful walk, a walk in which we see the world around with eyes of love and respect and justice and care.
Sunday, May 22, 2011
Acts 7.55-60; John 14.1-14
+ As you were coming into church this morning I was trying to take account of who isn’t here this morning. I’m not taking attendance. I just wanted to see who was taken up in the Rapture that was predicted for yesterday.
I have to admit: these predictions of the “End Times” and conjecture about the end of the world did make me think a bit more than usual about “The End.” Now, I’m not certain about when or how the world will end. But I do know this—the world is going to end for each one of us one day. By that I mean, every one of us is going to die one day. I know that’s shocking for some of us, but it is a fact. But before we despair over such things, we should probably remind ourselves what our scriptures this morning said.
The Gospel we heard this morning is a familiar one for most of us. This is one of the Gospel readings recommended by the Book of Common Prayer for funerals. In fact, it is, by far, one of the most popular Gospel readings chosen for funerals. There’s little doubt why it is. It is wonderfully appropriate. The reason it is so popular is because it truly does give us a wonderful glimpse into what awaits us following our death.
This really is the BIG issue in our lives. We might not give it a lot of conscious thought, but no doubt most of us have pondered at some time in our lives, what awaits us following our death. The part we no doubt concentrate on in today’s Gospel are Jesus’ words “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.”
Traditionally, we have heard the word “mansions” used here, and I have never been shy in saying that I have always enjoyed the word “mansions.” I believe that these dwelling places awaiting us are truly the equivalent of mansions for us. I don’t believe that they’re actual mansion, mind you. I think Jesus is being very poetic in his description. But I think what he conveys is that God will provide something beautiful and wonderful for us.
And in our reading from Acts this morning, we get to catch an even clearer view of that beautiful and wonderful something that awaits us. In Acts we find our own dear, patron saint, St. Stephen, being dragged out by an angry mob and stoned to death. It’s certainly not pretty. But in the midst of that violence and anger, we find St. Stephen having a glorious vision. He looks up into heaven and is allowed a vision, in which he sees Jesus in the glory of God. And with his last words, he prays to Jesus,
“Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”
This is the first recorded prayer to Jesus in the scriptures. And it is the most beautiful and most honest prayer St. Stephen could’ve prayed. So this, morning, in both our Gospel reading and our reading from Acts, we are confronted with glorious visions.
Now neither of them are as stupendous as the Rapture. But there is something wonderful in being able to look ahead and see what awaits us. It is wonderful to be able to see the joys and beauty of our place with God in heaven.
Still, knowing full well what awaits us, having been given glimpses into that glorious place that lies just beyond our vision, we still find ourselves digging in our heels when we have to face the fact of our own dying.
As you know, I teach a class called Suffering and Christian Healing at the University of Mary. One night, we were discussing the issue of dying. And I realized, as we talked, that there are a lot of books out there about the process of dying—there are books on what we will experience if we receive a terminal diagnosis, there are books on how to manage pain, there are books on facing psychologically and emotionally the process of dying. But there are few books that teach us actually about dying itself, from a spiritual point of view.
I remember once reading a book by the Roman Catholic saint, Alphonsus de Liguori, about how to die what he called a “happy death.” A happy death was not a death free of pain or suffering necessarily. A happy death was dying in the Presence of God. A happy death is a holy death.
This past week, we here at St. Stephen’s, had our first Film Night. It was arousing success, I have to say. We celebrated a very well attended Eucharist, then had a wonderful supper at Spicy Pie and then went to the film, Of Gods and Men, at the Fargo Theatre. This film was the perfect choice for our first film night. It was, to say the least, a powerful film—one that I still find myself pondering even this many days after.
The story is based on the actual event of the murder of seven Trappist monks n Algeria in May, 1996. In fact, yesterday was the fifteen anniversary of their murders. The final scene (I hope I don’t give too much away to any of you who go and see—and I do recommend you see it) shows the extremist Muslim guerrillas who kidnapped them from their monastery, leading the monks up the mountain through the snow, to the place where they would be murdered. On each face, we know the monks are fully aware of what awaits them. The film, in fact, deals with this issue. They each chose to stay in Algeria, in their monastery, serving those whom they were called to serve, knowing full-well that their staying in Algeria under those uncertain conditions might actually mean death.
In that final scene, there is no dialogue as they walk to the deaths. The camera captures close ups of each monk’s face before it closes with a long shot of the monks and their murderers disappearing into the snow. Each monk appears to be collected. Some are praying. Some are not. But each face is focused on what lies ahead. And although there is sadness, there is shock, there is fear, there is also certainty. There is also resolution. And there are no regrets on any one of those faces.
Certainly, from the perspective of those monks, this was truly a “happy death.” Again, I stress that a happy death does not mean a death without suffering and pain. It simply means a death in which one is collected and is centered on God’s Presence at that moment.
This kind of thinking might seem a bit strange to us non Roman Catholics. We just aren’t used to thinking about such a thing as a “happy death” or a “good death.” The whole idea seems like some kind of oxymoron. “Happy” and “death” just don’t go together in way of our thinking. But it is a good thing to think about occasionally.
Certainly there are few books to teach us non-Roman Catholics about how
to die a happy and holy death. As a priest, I can say that I have known many people who, when faced with their deaths, simply don’t know how to die and don’t know how to look at their dying as a way of moving into God’s presence. And even fewer know how to prepare themselves spiritually for dying.
In our Book of Common Prayer, we have a beautiful prayer that is prayed for someone near death. It can be found on page 462. There we find this prayer,
“Almighty God, look your servant, lying in great weakness, and comfort ‘this person’, with the promise of life everlasting, given in the resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.”
“Comfort ‘this person’ with the promise of life everlasting”
This promise of eternal life, as we have seen in the Resurrection, should truly be a comfort to us, especially in those moments when we fear death. Thinking about our own deaths is isn’t necessarily morbid or unpleasant. It simply reminds us that we are mortal. We will all die one day.
But rather than despairing over that fact, we should use it as an opportunity to draw closer to God. We should use it as an opportunity to live a more holy life. And hopefully, living a more holy life, we can pray at that last moment—that holy moment—with true conviction, that wonderful prayer of St. Stephen, the first martyr:
“Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”
Although it’s probably not the most pleasant thought to have that we are going to die, I think it is important to think about occasionally. The reason we should think about it—and the reason we shouldn’t despair in thinking about it—is because, for a Christian, dying is not a horrible thought.
Dying is not a reason to fear. Because, by dying, we do come to life everlasting—life with end. And although we, at this moment, can’t imagine it as being a “happy” or “holy” moment, the fact is, it will be. It will be the holiest moment of our life and it will be the happiest moment of our life.
For Stephen, who died abused, in pain, bleeding from those sharp stones that fell upon him, it was a happy and holy moment when he looked up and saw Jesus waiting for him. He was happy because he knew he would soon be received by Jesus and it was holy because, at that moment, his faith was fulfilled. That place toward which we are headed—that place in God’s house—we will find our true home. Heaven—is truly our happy home, the place toward which we are wandering around, searching. And we will not find our rest until we rest there, and we will not be fully and completely happy until we are surrounded by the happiness there.
So, let us look forward to that place in which Jesus has prepared a place for us. It awaits us. It there, right at this moment, just beyond our vision. Let us look to it with joy and let us live in joy until we are there together. Amen.
Sunday, May 15, 2011
May 15, 2011
+ Twenty-seven years ago this month, I was called to the Priesthood. It wasn’t a dramatic event—I wasn’t blinded by a light. I didn’t hear any voices. Just one day when I was thirteen years old, I KNEW I wanted to be a priest. Now, when I tell people about that they think it was just a kind of smooth, clean transition. They think that this calling was there with me, all those years, through all that schooling, until the day I was finally ordained. The fact is, it wasn’t that smooth. In fact, for the better part of ten years—during all my twenties—I tried to avoid this calling. I ran from the calling. Yes, I worked in churches—four years in a United Methodist Church. Yes, I studied and prayed.
But I also struggled. And I resisted. But despite the fact that I did so, I found that the calling was more persistent than I initially thought. Toward the end of that struggle I came across a poem. It was a poem I knew well before then, but only toward the end of my decade-long struggle, did this poem really speak to me where I was.
The poem is a kind of classic. It’s called “The Hound of Heaven.” It was written by a drug-addicted, tortured young man that we would no doubt today call a slacker. Francis Thompson, who died in 1907, wrote the poem during one of those difficult times in his life. The poem begins like this:
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the midst of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmed fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbed pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat - and a Voice beat
More instant than the Feet -
'All things betray thee, who betrayest Me'.
I won’t read the whole poem to you, but the gist of the poem is this: In it, a person is trying to avoid Christ. But Christ, like a hound, does not let the poet off. In fact, as much as the person tires to avoid Christ, Christ keeps on, doggedly chasing after him, on “strong Feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbed pace,
It was when I read this poem with eyes wide open that I realized that this is how God sometimes works. God sometimes, like that Hound, does chase us. God does nip at us and chase us wherever we think we might go to avoid God. God is unrelenting in the chase, I came to realize. Certainly this was so in my life and in my calling to the priesthood.
Now, I shared this poem once not long after I made the connection in my own life and the person I shared it with was somewhat offended:
“Jesus, as a Hound—as a Dog!” she said.
For her, it was sacrilegious to make the comparison. And for some time I did avoid sharing the poem. Then, I read, not too long, this very interesting comment from the Anglican theologian John Stott.
“Is it appropriate…to liken God to a hound?” Stott asks. He then went on to say that R.M. Gautry concedes that “there are good hounds as well as bad hounds, and that especially admirable are collies, which range the Scottish Highlands in search of lost sheep.”
Stott further shares “the theme of searching sheepdogs (or, more accurately, of searching shepherds)” occurs often in scripture.
Today, of course, we experience one of those themes in our Gospel readings. Today is Good Shepherd Sunday—the Sunday in which we encounter this wonderful reading about Jesus being the Good Shepherd. Jesus describes himself in today’s Gospel as the Good Shepherd. This is probably one of the most perfect images Jesus could have used for the people listening to him. They would have understood what a good shepherd was and what a bad shepherd was. The good shepherd was the shepherd who actually cared for his flock. He looked out for them, he watched them. The Good Shepherd guided the flock and led the flock. He guided and led the flock to a place to eat.
This is an important aspect of the role of the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd didn’t feed the flock. Rather the good shepherd led the flock to the choicest green pastures and helped them to feed themselves. In this way, the Good Shepherd is more than just a coddling shepherd. He is not the co-dependent shepherd. The Good Shepherd doesn’t take each sheep individually, pick them up, and hand-feed the sheep. Rather, he guides and prods and leads the sheep to green pastures and allows them feed themselves. The Good Shepherd also protects the flock against the many dangers out there.
If we follow the Good Shepherd, if we allow ourselves to be led by him to the Gate, we find that incredible reward of green pastures awaiting us. And even if we don’t follow, if we stray, we will find him prodding us. We will find him nipping at us like the sheep hound.
But, with our eyes on the Shepherd, with Hound nipping at us from behind, we know that the bad things that happen to us will not destroy us, because the Shepherd is there, close by, watching out for us. We know that in those bad times—those times of darkness when predators close in, when storms rage—he will be there for us.
More importantly the Good Shepherd knows his flock. He knows each of the sheep. If one is lost, he knows it is lost and will not rest until it is brought back into the fold. He will go after that lost sheep, like the Hound. In our collect for today [from the Book of Common Prayer], there is this wonderful reference,
“Grant that when we hear his voice, we may know him who calls us each by name…’
This is the kind of relationship we have with Jesus as the Good Shepherd. We are know him because he knows us. He knows us and calls us each by our name. In Jesus, we don’t have some vague, distant God. We don’t have a God who lets us fend for ourselves. We instead have a God who leads us and guides us, a God who knows us each by name, a God who despairs over the loss of even one of the flock and goes after us, chasing us down.
John Stott, in talking of the poem “The Hound of Heaven,” writes.
"Francis Thompson was expressing what is true of every Christian…If we love Christ, it is because he loved us first. If we are Christians at all, it is not because we have decided for Christ, but because Christ has decided for us. It is because of the pursuit of ‘this tremendous lover.’”
We have a God who, in loving us, leads us and guides us and follows us from behind, then allows us to pass through him into a place wherein we will feast. This image of the Good Shepherd is more than some sweet, gentle image we apply to Jesus. As Christians, as followers of Jesus the Good Shepherd, we are also called to be good shepherds to those around us. All of us who are called to ministry—and we all, as Christians, are ministers and we have each been called, in our own ways—know that to be truly effective ministers we have to be good shepherds. We should be helping others toward the Gate, and through the Gate into that green pasture. We should be nudging an prodding each other along. And we should be concerned about those who have fallen away, who have been led astray. This is what it means to do ministry.
So, on this day in which we celebrate the Shepherd who leads and guides, on this Sunday in which also commemorate the Hound of Heaven, who follows behind, prodding us and nudging us forward toward the gate, let us allow ourselves to be led. On this day that we look to the Shepherd who guides, let us be guided. Let us allow ourselves to be led by that Great Good Shepherd, who brings us to himself, to the very Gate. Let us listen for those “strong Feet that followed, followed after
… with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbed pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,”
And there, either led or prodded, let us go through the Gate, that goal of our spiritual lives, into that glorious place we have longed for all our existence. And when we are there, in that glorious place, let us rejoice in our God and in each other. Let us know that the joy we will experience there will be a joy that is never taken from us. Amen.
Sunday, May 8, 2011
May 8, 2011
+ These last couple of weeks I have mastered the art of playing the “host with the most.” Of course, I hosted my mother for about three weeks during the flood while she was a misplaced person. And I have also had couple of friends on mine stay at the rectory on their way through Fargo. People like it when I host them. I am, if I say so myself, a good host. I go out of my way for my guests and I try to make them as comfortable as possible when they stay with me.
This, of course, is simply because I am a good Benedictine. By that I mean, I, as an Oblate of St. Benedict, have learned well what it means to welcome people. In the Rule of St. Benedict, the rule that Benedictine monastics all around the world, for many , many centuries have followed, there is a wonderful chapter on greeting visitors to the monastery.
St. Benedict commands that “All should be received as Christ.”
Everyone who comes to the door of a Benedictine monastery or convent, should be welcomed and received as Christ for, St Benedict says, “he himself will say: I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matt. 25.35).”
Benedict goes on to say, “Proper honor must be shown to all…”
And to this day, Benedictines all over the world do just that when anyone comes to a monastery or convent. They are known for their hospitability.
And so are we, here at St. Stephen’s We, at St. Stephen’s, whether we are truly conscious of Benedict’s Rule, are also very good hosts. We do practice this radical hospitality.
One of the things I have heard again and again form people who visit us is how friendly and welcoming we are. And we ARE. Whether it’s on our website or here in person or in the many ministries we do, we welcome literally ANYONE through those doors, without judgment, without a second thought. And the secret to this radical hospitality is found in the belief that everyone who comes through that door is truly treated as Christ. Because, as we learn from our Gospel reading today, that Jesus does walk among us, even if we are unable to recognize him.
In today’s Gospel, we find this beautiful story of Cleopas and the other unnamed disciple encountering Jesus on the road to Emmaus. Cleopas and the other disciple are, essentially, already in a strange time in their life in following Jesus. The long week of Jesus’ betrayal, torture and murder are behind them. The resurrection has happened, although, it’s clear from their words, they don’t quite comprehend what’s happened. Of course, who could? We still, two thousand years later, are grappling with the events of Jesus’ resurrection.
But as these two walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus, they are kept from recognizing their friend, the person they saw as the Messiah, until finally he breaks the bread with them. Only then—only when he breaks that bread open to share with them—do they recognize him.
It’s a wonderful story and one that has many, many layers of meaning for each of us individually, no doubt. But for us Episcopalians, for us who gather together every Sunday to break bread together, this story takes on special meaning. In a sense. we are the disciples in this reading. We are Cleopas and the unnamed disciple, walking on the road—walking, as they are, in that place on the other side of the cross. They are walking away from Jerusalem, where all these events happened—the betrayal, the torture the murder and the eventual resurrection of Jesus from the tomb—back to Emmaus, to their homes. Like them, we go around in our lives on the other side of the cross, trying to understand what it means to be followers of Jesus on this side of the cross.
What this story teaches us is that, even when we don’t recognize Jesus in our midst, we should always be cautious. He might not make himself known to us as he did to Cleopas and the other disciple. Rather, he might remain cloaked in that stranger who comes to us. And as a result, it’s just so much better to realize that everyone we encounter, everyone we greet, everyone we welcome, truly is Jesus disguised.
What an incredible world this would be if everyone could do this—if everyone could practice radical hospitality like this. What an amazing Christian Church we would have if we could do the same, if we could welcome every stranger—and every regular parishioner as well—as Christ. I think many Christians forget this.
I was recently at another church and I was shocked by how distant and cool people were there when I came through the door. Yes, I had someone give me a bulletin. But, no one really greeted me—even though I knew some of them. And even some other people I knew who were there—strangers to the people in that church—also shared with me how coolly they were greeted.
The fact is, we as Christians ARE called to this radical form of hospitality. By the very fact that we are baptized we are called to do this. In our Baptismal Covenant—that Covenant we have made with God through our baptism—we are called to serve Christ in each other. In our Book of Common Prayer, in the Baptismal Covenant on page 305, each time there is baptism in this church, we are asked,
“Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself.”
To which, we respond, “I will, with God’s help.
Now, of course, that’s not easy. In fact, sometimes it’s downright impossible. Without God’s help, we can’t do it. Without God’s help, we first of all can’t even begin to recognize Christ in our midst. And without God’s help, we can’t seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves. And, let’s face, it’s just easier to choose not to. It’s easy not to see Christ in those people who drive us crazy, who irritate us, who say things to us we don’t want to hear. It’s easy for us to see the devil in people, rather than Christ.
But for us who gather together every Sunday at this table—at this altar—we can’t use that excuse of being unable to recognize Jesus in our midst. In our liturgy, we find Jesus in a multitude of ways. Jesus speaks to us in the scripture readings we hear in the Liturgy of the Word. The voice we hear in these sacred words is truly Jesus’ voice, speaking to each of us in our own particular circumstances, and to all of us as whole. Jesus is present with us—in ALL of us—as we gather here. We—the assembly of the people—we, all of us together, are the presence of Jesus here as well. And when we break this bread at the altar, we find whatever spiritual blindness we come here with, lifted at that time. We see Christ truly present with us—in the brad and the wine and in one another.
Today, on this New Member Sunday, we are celebrating the fruits of radical hospitality. These people who are joining us today are here because they were greeted—each and every one of them—without judgment. Each one was greeted with true joy at the fact that they are here with us.
We have a lot of to celebrate today. It’s not a secret that not that too long ago, St. Stephen’s was viewed as a church that was somewhat stuck. People thought it could not grow—that there was no potential for it to grow. At our last Vestry meeting, I actually brought out the membership numbers over the years, culled from our parochial reports.
Our congregation was formed in 1956. The earliest parochial report I could find was 1961, when there 183 members at St. Stephen’s. The highest number of members was in 1968, when there was a whopping 243 members at this church. Beginning in the late 1970s and early 1980s, those number dropped radically—for various reasons.
When I started here at St. Stephen’s in 2008, we had 55 members here. By the end of this year, we could have as many as 100 members here. The last time we had a membership in the triple digits was in 1979.
Now, I don’t want us to get all caught up in numbers. We’re not about numbers. But what we should be rejoicing about the ministry each of us is doing here at St. Stephens. We should be rejoicing at the sound of children in our church. We should be rejoicing that people feel as though they are welcomed here by all of us. We should be rejoicing that this congregation of St. Stephen’s that people once saw as having no real future, no real potential, has been a refuge for people—a place where people have been welcomed and accepted and loved simply for who they are. And all of us here are doing that ministry of radical hospitality to those people coming in our doors.
And that radical hospitality DOES make a difference. Greeting people as though Jesus were present in each person who comes through that door has incredible results—not in only in our collective life here at St. Stephen’s, but in the lives of each of those people coming among us.
We are showing them that, despite the occasionally somewhat ugly reputation the Church has at times—and sometimes deservedly so—we, as the Body of Christ in this world, can do much good as well. We can truly love. We can truly be accepting. We can truly see clearly that Jesus does still walk beside us. We can see that he is with us here as we listen to the scriptures and he is here with us that this table in the breaking of the bread.
So, today, as we celebrate our ministry here at St. Stephen’s, as celebrate and welcome our new members, let us all truly see Jesus present here. Let us hear his words in the scriptures we have just shared and in the scriptures we will read this week. Let us allow Jesus to speak to us with words that are familiar, with a voice that is familiar. Let us allow him to take away whatever spiritual blindness we might have so that we can truly and completely see him in those people who share our life with us. Let us allow him to take away that spiritual blindness that causes so much harm in the world so that we can fully experience him and show love and respect to everyone we come in contact with. And when we break this bread this morning, let our hearts sing, as it no doubt did for Cleopas and the other disciple,
“Be known to me, Lord Jesus, in the breaking of bread.”
And recognizing him here, as we come forward to be nourished in body and spirit by his Body, Blood and Spirit. may we also go out into the world, able to recognize Jesus as he walks alongside us on our journey.
We are living, in this moment, on the other of the cross. We are living here, with Jesus in our very midst. It is a glorious place to be.
Sunday, May 1, 2011
+ Some of you received an email from me last night asking your support. I asked your support to stand up and protest the increasingly rampant anti-Muslim sentiments going in our country, especially over these last several weeks, which have included the burning of the Muslim holy book, the Koran. I sent off the email with a petition that, since Jesus called us to love our neighbor as ourselves, we too, as Christians, need to stand up and say that it is not all right that people, calling themselves Christians and claiming to speak for us as Christians, are committing such acts.
I am shocked and amazed—not to mention appalled, as I said—when I hear such things. The fact is, faith in God is difficult. We all know how difficult it can be. We all struggle with it. We all struggle with doubt. We all struggle in our attempt to do right.
Which is why, I guess, it bugs me so much to hear about anti-Muslim sentiments. I am not, at any point, saying we need to accept Islam. But we do need to respect it, just as we respect any other religion that is not our own.
We should respect other religions because we should be able to recognize that they, just like us, are struggling as well. They, just like us, are dealing with issues of doubt and uncertainly and, the majority of these others religions, just like us, are striving to do right in the way they see right.
To be burning Korans and calling anyone who happens to be a Muslim a terrorist is appalling. And, it is un-Christian. This is not what Jesus called us to do. This is not what a follower of Jesus should be doing.
Whatever Muslims have done to Christians elsewhere—and yes, I am fully aware of what they have done—our job as Christians is not fight to deny them their rights as Americans. And I can tell you that is definitely not our job as followers of Jesus to be burning their sacred books, whether we believe in what those books say or not.
Our job, as Christians, as fellow seekers after God, is to love them. That’s all. That’s Jesus has ever told us to do. And that’s all we should be doing.
Yes, we struggle with these issues of belief in our lives. Let’s face it, we don’t get the opportunities that Thomas had in this morning’s Gospel.
Doubting Thomas, as we’ve come to know him, refused to believe that Jesus was resurrected until he had put his fingers in the wounds of Jesus. It wasn’t enough that Jesus actually appeared to him in the flesh—Jesus, was no ghost after all. He stood there in the flesh—wounds and all. Only when he had placed his finger in the wounds, would he believe.
In Rome, you can actually go and see what is believed to be Thomas’ incorrupt finger. This finger that touched Jesus in such a way is now supposedly perfectly preserved, in a glass case in the basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme. It’s interesting to see and it’s interesting to hear this story of Doubting Thomas.
But, the fact is, for the rest of us, we don’t get it so easy. Jesus is probably not going to appear before us—in the flesh. At least, not on this side of the Veil—not while we are still alive. And we are not going to have the opportunity to touch the wounds of Jesus.
Let’s face it, to believe without seeing, is not easy. It takes work and discipline. Look at us this morning. More likely than not, we can all think of at least one or two things we’d rather be doing this Sunday morning than being in church. We could sleep in. We could have a nice long breakfast with out families. We could be reading the newspaper. We could watch TV while lounging on the couch, or we could be sitting at the computer.
But instead, we made the choice to come to church. We made a choice to come here this morning, and worship a God we cannot see, not touch. A strong relationship to God takes work—just as any other relationship in our life takes work. It takes discipline. It takes concentrated effort.
And I am sure that our Muslim sisters and brothers—and yes, they are our brothers and sister, as fellow human beings and as children of the patriarch Abraham—would tell us as well, faith of God is hard. It does take discipline and it does take concentrated effort.
Being a believer in God does not just involve being nice on occasion and smiling. It means living one’s life fully and completely as a believer. And being a Christian is even more refined. As Christians we are committed to follow Jesus. And more than just that, we are also called essentially to be the Presence of Christ in this world. It means being a reflection of Christ’s love and goodness in the world. The key words here are “love” and “goodness.”
More often than not, especially in the theology classes I teach, I will be asked: So what does one have to do to be a Christian? And I always say: “Jesus said, Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” And the response to that is usually, “Well, that sounds easy enough.”
The fact is, it isn’t that easy. It isn’t easy at all. Loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves isn’t easy at all. Loving a God who is not visible—who is not standing before us, in flesh and blood, is not easy.
And I’m sure I don’t have to tell anyone here this morning: loving our neighbors—those people who share our world with us—as ourselves, is not easy by any means.
At no point does out “neighbor” mean just our Christian neighbor. Our neighbor is everyone we share this life with . And to love these people is hard. It is REALLY hard. It takes constant work to love. It takes constant discipline to love as Jesus loved. It takes constant work to love ourselves—and most of us don’t love ourselves—and it takes constant work to love others.
But look at the benefits. Look at what our world would be like if we loved God, if we loved ourselves and loved others as ourselves. It was be ideal. It would truly be the Kingdom of God, here on earth. It would be exactly what Jesus told us it would be like.
But to do this—to bring this about—to love God, to love ourselves, to love each other, is hard work. Some would say it’s impossible work. Certainly, it seems overwhelming. It seems too much for us to even consider in times when the world seems out of control, when hatred and violence seem to reign supreme.
It is difficult to be the conduit of the Light and Presence—the love and goodness—of Christ when others are shouting in hatred in the same name of Jesus. It seems impossible when we realize that what we are asked to do is love and serve even those other Christians who are acting so un-Christian.
This morning, in Rome, Pope John Paul II was beatified, the final step—and a big one—before he is canonized and made a saint. A lot of more progressively minded people condemned Bl. John Paul the Great in his life—and sometimes for good reason. But despite his views on some areas, he did say this in regard to Islam:
"For all the times that Muslims and Christians have offended one another, we need to seek forgiveness from the Almighty and to offer each other forgiveness.”
On a visit to Syria, he even kissed the Koran.
I think this is what we are called to do as the Presence of Christ in this world. Not necessarily kiss the Koran,. but to respect the worth and dignity of all people and their religions and to recognize in them that they too are strivers after God, they too are strugglers in their relationship with God and that the God we are all striving after is the same God who, for us, remains cloaked and invisible.
Now, for Thomas, he saw. He touched. It was all clear to him. But we don’t get that chance.
“Blessed are those who believe but don’t see,” Jesus says this morning.
We are those blessed ones. All of us. Christians. Muslims. Jews. And people who don’t fit into any of those religions but who are still seeking and striving after God. We are the ones Jesus is speaking of in this morning’s Gospel. Blessed are you all. You believe, but don’t see.
Seen or unseen, we know God is there. And our faith is not based on seeing God here. Because we have faith that one day, yes, we will see God. Because Jesus was resurrected, we too will die and be resurrected. We too will live a life of unending perfect sight in God’s presence. We will, on that glorious day, run to God and see God face to face. And in that moment, our faith will be fulfilled.
Blessed are we who believe but don’t see now. The Kingdom of Heaven is truly ours.