Sunday, November 27, 2011

1 Advent

November 27, 2011

1 Corinthians 1.3-9; Mark 13.24-37

+ For some reason, I want to say this morning; Happy New Year. I know that sounds crazy and strange on this last Sunday in November. But, for us, it is New Year. A whole new liturgical year begins today. We are now—on this first Sunday of Advent—in what is called Year B in the liturgical cycle. There are three years in the liturgical cycle—Year A, Year B, Year C. And through those three years we explore various scriptures and themes in our Sunday liturgies.

For us Christians, it’s kind of nice to have our own New Year. It’s nice to have a time to begin anew in a more quiet and contemplative way. It is nice to have a new beginning in a prayerful way.

And, as we begin this season of Advent, we find that it does feel like the beginning of something. Something has changed. There’s been a turning. And I’m not just saying this because the Christmas decorations are up and we hear Christmas carols in restaurants and stores.

We are—on this First Sunday in Advent—looking to the future and to all it holds for us. I think one of the things we as Christians know is that something awaits us. Now, we might not know for certain what that “something” is. We can’t articulate it. We can’t define it. We can’t quantify it.

But we know “something” good and glorious and beautiful awaits us. Call it a kind of spiritual instinct. Call it the goal toward which we are all working. It lies there ahead of it in the foggy darkness of our future.

This time of Advent is the time in which we wait for that glorious “something.” It is the time in which are watching for that wonderful “something.”

In our Gospel reading for today, we find the rallying cry of Advent—the word that captures perfectly what we should be doing during this season. It’s just a simple phrase, and we it in two different ways:

“Keep alert.”

“Keep awake.”

Jesus says it just those two ways in our reading from Mark: It seems simple enough.

“Keep alert” and “keep awake.”

But is it simple? Our job as Christians is sometimes no more than this. It is simply a matter of staying awake, of being attentive or being alert. Our lives as Christians are sometimes simply responses to being spiritually alert. For those of us who are tired, who are worn down by life, who spiritually or emotionally fatigued, our sluggishness sometimes manifests itself in our spiritual life and in our relationship with others. When we become impatient in our watching, we sometimes forget what it is we are watching for. We sometimes, in fatigue, fail to see.

For us, that “something” that we are waiting for, that we keeping alert for, is none other than that glorious day of Christ, that we hear St. Paul talk about in his epistle this morning. That glorious day of Jesus comes when, in our attentiveness, we see the rays of the light breaking through to us in our tiredness and in our fatigue. It breaks us through to us in various ways. We, who are in this sometimes foggy present moment, peering forward, sometimes have this moments of wonderful spiritual clarity. Those moments are true moments of being alert—of being spiritually awake. Sometimes we have it right here, in church, when we gather together.

I have shared with each of you at times when those moments sometimes come to me. They sometimes come to me here at this altar. One of the most common ways they happen for me is when I have broken that break and we are singing the Agnus Dei—the Lamb of God. As we sing, and I have had moments in which I look down at that broken Bread and that chalice, I realize: yes, this IS the Lamb of God. This is Jesus. This is the spiritual goal of my life. This IS the Day of Our Lord Jesus. Jesus has truly come to us this day. This is what it means to be awake.

Certainly, in a very real sense, today—this First Sunday of Advent— is a precursor of that one glorious day of the Lord Jesus that St. Paul talks about. But the rays of that glorious future day also break through to us now when, in our attentiveness, we recognize Jesus in here at the altar and in those we serve as Christians. Those rays of the Day of Christ break through when we can see Jesus in all those we meet and serve. In this beautiful Sarum blue Advent season, we are reminded that the day of Christ is truly about dawn upon us. The rays of the bright sun-lit dawn are already starting to lighten the darkness of our lives. We realize, in this moment, that, despite all that has happened, despite the disappointments, despite the losses, despite the pain each of us has had to bear, the ray of Christ’s Light breaks through to us in that darkness and somehow, makes it all better.

But this is doesn’t happen in an instant. Oftentimes that light is a gradual dawning in our lives. Oftentimes, it happens gradually so we can adjust to it, so it doesn’t blind us. Sometimes, our awakening is in stages, as though waking from a deep, slumbering sleep.

Our job as Christians is somewhat basic. I’m not saying it’s easy. But I am saying that it is basic. Our job, as Christians, especially in this Advent time, is to be alert. To be awake. Spiritually and emotionally. And, in being alert, we must see clearly. We cannot, when that Day of Christ dawns, be found sleeping.

Rather, when that Day of our Lord Jesus dawns, we should greet it joyfully, with bright eyes and a clear mind. We should run toward that dawn as we never have before in our lives. We should let the joy within us—the joy we have hid, we have tried to kill—the joy we have not allowed ourselves to feel—come pouring forth on that glorious day. And in that moment, all those miserable things we have been dealt—all that loss, all that failure, all that unfairness—will dissipate like a bad dream on awakening.

“Keep alert,” Jesus says to us.

“Keep awake.”

It’s almost time. Keep awake because that “something” you have been longing for all your spiritual life is about to happen. It is about to break through into your life. And it is going to be glorious.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Christ the King Sunday

Transgender Remembrance Day/Stewardship Sunday
November 20, 2011

Matthew 25.31-46

+ The other day I was doing something very uncharacteristic of me: I was complaining. I actually don’t complain much, but I did this week. I complained about the fact that we have been having a series of what I call “theme Sundays” recently here at St. Stephen’s. Last week we had United Thank Officering Sunday. A few weeks ago we had New Member Sunday. And a few weeks before that we had Jubilee Sunday. It seems like every Sunday, we are commemorating something else. Why can’t we just have a nice, quiet, regular Sunday again?

Well, this week I complained because we have a triple theme. It is, first and foremost, Christ the King Sunday—or as the more inclusively minded might call it—the Reign of Christ Sunday. I preached last year about how the Reign of Christ just doesn’t carry the same weight as Christ the King. So I’m sticking with Christ the King Sunday. We also have Stewardship Sunday today. We will gather today after the service for our Stewardship Sunday dinner, where the members of our church will receive their Pledge Cards and their Time and Talent Cards. And we have Transgender Remembrance Day, which is also very important and I also will discuss in a moment.

And just when I complain about the fact that it is another theme, I realize: “no, it really isn’t.” Each of these is important in its own right and they tie very well into what every Sunday is about. Christ the King, Stewardship and Transgender Remembrance are all about our faith journey as followers of Jesus. And we, as the Church need do need to commemorate each of them.

First, Christ the King Sunday. It is the last Sunday in that very long, green season of Pentecost. Today, for the Church, it is New Year’s Eve. The old church year of Sundays ends today. The new church year begins next Sunday, on the First Sunday of Advent. So, what seems like an ending today is renewed next week, with the coming of Advent, in that revived sense of longing and expectation that we experience in Advent.

Second, it is Stewardship Sunday. Stewardship, for us, as Episcopalians, means more than that popular Pledge Sunday. It is more than just discussing how people should give money to the Church. OK. Yes, we all should give to the Church. We should tithe—we should give our ten percent. But, more importantly, we must give of ourselves. We must give back to the Church by doing ministry, by contributing of the time we have been given and the different and varying talents each of us has been blessed with. And on this Stewardship Sunday, we hear from Jesus a sermon that makes us frown, no doubt.

Today, we hear Jesus tell us that story of the sheep and the goats. Now, I actually love this parable—not because of its threat of punishment (which everyone gets hung up on), not because of its judgment. I love this story because there is something beautiful and subtle going on just beneath the surface, if you take the moment to notice. And that subtle aspect of this story is this:

If you notice, the reward is given not to people who work for the reward. The reward is not given to people who help the least of their brethren because they know they will gain the reward. The reward is granted to those who help the least of their brethren simply because the least need help. The reward is for those who have no regard or idea that a reward awaits them for doing such a thing. The least of our brethren are the ones who are hungry, who are thirsty, who are naked, who are sick and who are in prison.

I think this ties in beautifully to our own ideas of stewardship. Why do we give, we must ask ourselves? Why do we give our ten percent.? And why do we give of our time and talent? Do we give because we think we’re going to get a reward for our giving? Or do we give because by giving we know it goes for a greater reward than anything we ourselves could get?

Finally, we realize that Jesus, in our Gospel reading today, speaks to us profoundly on this Transgender Remembrance Day. Transgender Remembrance Day is always celebrated on November 20, which is is a day to memorialize those who have been killed as a result of what is called “transphobia” or the “hatred or fear of transgender and gender non-conforming people.”

The Transgender Day of Remembrance was founded in 1998 by Gwendolyn Ann Smith, a transgender graphic designer, columnist, and activist, to memorialize the murder of Rita Hester, a transgender African American woman who was murdered in Allston, MA on November 28, 1998. For us at St. Stephen’s this is important because we, in our dedication to Stewardship, know that be good Stewards, to be good followers of Jesus, we need to be good neighbors. And to be good neighbors is to be compassionate and loving and accepting, in just the same way our God is compassionate and loving and accepting. It means that when we see people in need or suffering, we are moved to our very core. When we see people abused and neglected and marginalized and, like Rita Hester and the hundreds of other transgender people, murdered, we must step forward and do what we can to stop it and prevent it.

In our Gospel reading today, we find that the Kingdom of God is prepared for those who have been good stewards. It is prepared for those who have been mindful of what has been given to them and have been mindful of those around them in need. For us, we need to realize that the Kingdom is prepared for us as well. It is prepared for us who have sought to be good stewards without any thought of reward. It is prepared for us who have simply done what we are called to do as followers of Jesus.

For us, in our own society, we find that these same terms found in Jesus’ parable have a wider definition. Hungry for us doesn’t just mean hungry for food. It means hungry for love, for healing, for wholeness.

Thirsty doesn’t just mean for water. Thirsty for us means thirsty for fairness or justice or peace.

Naked doesn’t just mean without clothing. It means, for us, to be stripped to our core, to be laid bare spiritually and emotionally and materially.

To be sick, doesn’t necessarily mean to be sick with a disease in our bodies. It is means to be sick in our hearts and in our relationships with others.

And we all know that the prisons of our lives sometimes don’t necessarily have walls or bars on the doors. The prisons of our lives are sometimes our fears, our prejudices, our very selves And Transgender people definitely know what prisons are. They understand that personal prisons take on deeper meaning.

To not go out and help those who need help is to be arrogant, to be selfish, to be headstrong. To not do so is to turn our backs on following where Jesus leads us. Because Jesus leads us into that place wherein we must love and love fully and give and give freely—of ourselves and of what we have been given.

This past week, there was a wonderful article in the Boston University publication, Today. The article deals with BU’s new Episcopal chaplain, Fr. Cameron Partridge. Fr. Cameron is a transgender person and he talks freely in this article about what that means as a human being, as an Episcopalian, as a priest and as a Christian. I have made copies of the article, so please take them after the service today. Fr. Cameron is quoted as saying:

“It feels like, in the Episcopal Church, there’s more a sense of resolve to just be who we are…a sense of all people being welcomed and able to become the people God created them to become…”

I like that because that is definitely what we have been striving to do here at St. Stephen’s. We practice our radical hospitality to everyone who comes through our doors. And, I think, we accept everyone who comes through those doors fully. Here, we not only welcome people, but I think we allow people to be the people God created them to be. And whoever that might, we know they are beautiful, because God finds them and all of us, beautiful. Fr. Cameron goes on to say,

“My hope is that people just sort of respond to one another and to me as just human beings.”

Again, that brings us back to Jesus’ parable. The meaning of this story is this: If you do these things—if you feed the hungry, if you give drink to the thirsty, if you welcome the stranger, if you clothe the naked, if you visit the sick and imprisoned—if you simply “respond to one another as just human beings”—if you do these things without thought of reward, but do them simply because you, as a Christian, are called to do them, the reward is yours.

As Christians, we should haven’t to think about doing any of those things. They should be like second nature to us. We should be doing them naturally, instinctively. For those of us who are hungry or thirsty, who feel like strangers, who are naked, sick and imprisoned—and at times, we have been in those situations—we find Christ in those rays of hope that break through into our lives.

It is very similar to the hope we are clinging to in this moment as we enter Advent—that time in which the light of Christ is seen breaking into the encroaching darkness of our existence. And we—in those moments when we feed the hungry, when we give drink to the thirsty, when we welcome the stranger, when we clothe the naked, when we visit the sick and imprisoned—in those moments, we become that light in the darkness, that hope in someone else’s life. We embody Christ when we become the conduits of hope.

So, as we celebrate the end of this liturgical year and set our expectant eyes on the season of Advent, let us not just be filled with hope. Let us be a true reflection of Christ’s hope to this world. Let us be the living embodiment of that hope to those who need hope. And in doing so, we too will hear those words of assurance to us: “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for….”

Sunday, November 6, 2011

All Saints Sunday

November 6, 2011

1 John 3.1-3

+ In case you might have noticed it, today is a special Sunday. All Sundays are special. But today is even a bit more special, if you haven’t noticed. Out in the Narthex, we have the All Saints altar. We have the photos and mementoes and the Book of Remembrance, with the names written in it of all our departed loved ones. In here, we have the white paraments on the altar, and of course I’m all decked out in white as well. And we are celebrating even a bit more than we usually do. Which, as you all know, I LOVE to do. I love to celebrate. I will look for any little opportunity to celebrate.

Well, today we have plenty to celebrate.

First, we are celebrating the saints. We are celebrating all those saints that we know of, like the Virgin Mary and our own St. Stephen. We celebrate those saints because they are held up to us as examples of how to live this sometimes difficult life we live as Christians. And it is hard to be a Christian sometimes. It is hard, as we all know, to follow Jesus, and to do what Jesus tells us to do—to love. It is hard to be, as John says in our first reading for today, the children of God, as Jesus himself is a Child of God. The saints have showed this fact to us. They have showed us how to be these very children of God. We are also celebrating the saints we have personally known.

We are celebrating the saints we have known who have come into our own lives—those people who have taught us about God and shown us that love does win out, again and again. The saints in our own lives are those who have done it, who have shown us that we can be successful in following Jesus, even if they weren’t always successful at time sin their own lives. My favorite saints—both those celebrated by the larger church and those I have known in my own personal life—are the ones who were not, by any means, perfect, who failed, who messed up occasionally. I like them because I’m like them. I too have messed up. I too have failed. I too have failed in following Jesus and loving others. But what those saints show us is that it’s all right. When we fail, we just get up again, brush ourselves off and keep going. And what they show us more than anything else is that when we fail to love, we need to live even more and somehow, it is made right.

The other part of this morning that we are celebrating is the future saints in our midst. The future saints? Who could those possibly be? We are the future saints. Today, we are welcoming four new members into our midst. Together, with them, we will strive to follow Jesus, to love God and each other and to serve those we encounter. And these four will be future saints. That’s how we should look at them. And ourselves.

And we are celebrating another future saint, Braxton Haugen, who is being baptized today. As we gather in a few moments around the font and celebrate the Sacrament of New Birth, we realize that what we are celebrating at that moment is the birth of yet another future saint in our midst. I’m sure there will be moments in his life when these words will haunt Whitney and Barney. There will no doubt be moments when Braxton might not seem like much a saint. But, again, that’s the ways saints sometimes work. Saints often are hidden from us. Saints often are the ones we least expect to be saints.

And that, is truly, why we celebrate the saints. That is why we celebrate the saints with the different commemorations we have of them at our Wednesday night Eucharists throughout the year. And that is why we celebrate them especially on Sundays like today.

We celebrate the saints because they lead the way for us. They show us how to live this sometimes difficult life as Christians. They show us in their successes and they show us in their failures. And we celebrate the saints as well because we too are the saints. We are the future saints, who will one day be gathered around the altar of the Lamb, where we will partake of that glory without end.

This past Wednesday, at our All Souls Requiem Mass here at St. Stephen’s, I mentioned sometimes I mention in many of the sermons I preach at funerals. I mention that “veil” that separates us from those who have gone on before us. I mentioned that that veil is actually a very thin one, even though it often seems like a very thick curtain at times. But there are moments when that veil is sort of lifted and we can see that very little actually separates us from those saints who have gone on.

This morning, we are actually able to see that veil lifted. We will see it lifted in a few short moments when we baptize Braxton into the fellowship of all the saints. And we will see it again lifted when we gather at the altar to celebrate the Eucharist.

Both of these acts are not isolated acts we do, here in St. Stephen’s Church in north Fargo on a cold, wet morning in November of 2011. Every time we do them, we do them with every Christian on this earth who also celebrate them. And when we celebrate the Eucharist, all we are doing is joining, for this limited time, the worship that is going on in heaven for all eternity.

So, let us—the future saints of God—truly celebrate today. Let us celebrate the saints who have gone on and who are still with us in various ways. Let us celebrate the saints who are joining us here at St. Stephen’s as fellow members and fellow ministers and fellow followers of Jesus. And let us celebrate our newest saint-to-be, Braxton Haugen, as he is washed in the waters of life, as he is sealed by the Holy Spirit and he is marked as Christ’s own…forever.

And, so, I will now asked the parents and godparents of Braxton to bring him forward…