Sunday, December 30, 2012

1 Christmas

Dec. 30, 2012


John 1.1-18

+ This year, for New Year’s, I sort of planned a small, sort impromptu New Year’s Eve party at the Rectory. The way the Rectory looks right now, done up as it is in the mid-Century Modern décor, one would think we’re about to be ringing in 1963, instead of 2013. Only if 1963 had flatscreen color TV, Netflicks and Internet. As I have been planning this party I have been thinking a lot about one of the films I always watch at this time of year. It’s not a good movie. I don’t recommend it to any of you. But, for me, it’s one of my guilty pleasures. It’s just pure kitsch. And you know I LOVE kitsch.

The movie is 200 Cigarettes. It came out in 1999. It stars Courtney Love (see, now you all want to see this movie don’t you?) along with Paul Rudd and a bunch of other twenty-and-thirty-something actors from the 1990s and it takes place on new year’s Eve 1981. It’s a true homage to New Wave early 1980s (which I actually love, almost as much as cool early 1960s).

My favorite character in the movie is Monica, played by the actress Martha Plimpton. She is hosting a New Year’s Party and throughout the movie, she frets over the fact that no one is coming to her party. Finally, in her anxiety and frustration, she drinks way too much and passes out. But while she’s passed out, everybody arrives and have a party. Monica wakes up on New Year’s Day to a bunch of strangers asleep on her floors and she has to piece the night together through Polaroid pictures of the evening. Even her favorite musician, Elvis Costello, shows up—and of course, she missed him.

I relate the most to Monica. I know how Monica feels. I fret like that too, whenever I host a party. I fret no one’s coming. I hate the beginning part of a party that I’m hosting. I hate waiting for people to arrive. Because in my waiting, in my anxiety, I let every bad thought come into my head. I think, No body’s coming. Or as Monica would say, “I have no friends. Everybody hates me.” And then, people show up and I’m fine.

But I what I realized, I don’t like the beginning of anything. I like the comfortableness of the middle part of anything. I like when people are at my party and we’re settled down and we’re just having fun. If I could skip from the planning to the middle of parties, I would be a happy camper. The fact is, life doesn’t work that way.

And in our Gospel reading for today, we are told in no uncertain terms that there is no getting around the beginning. The beginning we experience today is a bit different than the beginning we read about in Genesis. The beginning we encounter today even harkens back further than the creation of Adam and Eve. It goes back to before those creation stories to who and what God was initially.

“In the beginning…” we hear at the beginning of St. John’s Gospel.

And they are certainly the most appropriate words if ever there were any. Especially at this time of the year. As this year runs down and the new begins, our thoughts turn to beginnings. We think about that New Year and how important a new year is our lives. It heralds for us a sense of joy—and fear—of the future. All of a sudden we are faced with the future. It lies there before us—a mystery. Will this coming year bring us joy or will it bring us sadness? Will it be a good year or a bad year? And we step forward into the New Year without knowing what that year will hold for us.

But, the fact is, at the very beginning moment, we can’t do much more than just be here, right now. We need to just experience this beginning. And we can’t let that anxiety of someone like Monica from the 200 Cigarettes take hold. We just need to be here, right now, and take part fully in this new beginning. That’s what beginnings are all about, I guess. That one moment when we can say:

“Right now! This is it! We are live and we are here! Now!”

And we all know that just as soon as we do, it’ll be past.

In our reading from John this morning, it’s also one of those moments. In that moment, we get a glimpse of one of those “right now” moments. It seems as though, for that moment, it’s all clear. At least for John anyway.

We encounter, the “Word.” The Word, as John intends, is, of course, Jesus. Jesus as the knowledge and mind of God. Jesus as the essence of God. This is an appropriate way to begin the Gospel of John and to begin our new year as well. It is a great beginning. It sets the tone for us as followers of Jesus. He was there in the beginning. And he is here, now, in our beginning. And in him, we experience a beginning that doesn’t seem to end.

In Jesus, God comes forward and becomes present among us in a way we could never possibly imagine. God appears to us in the Gospels not as God in the Old Testament, cloaked behind pillars of fire or thunderstorms or wind. Instead, in Jesus, God appears before us, as one of us in a whole new beginning. God’s word, God’s wisdom, God’s essence became flesh. God’s voice was no longer a booming voice from the sky, demanding sacrifices.

Now, in this beginning moment, God instead speaks to us as one of us. And this voice is a familiar one. The Word spoken to us in this beginning moment, is a word of Love. The commandment this Word tells us of is a commandment to love. Love God and love one another as you love yourselves.

This might actually be one of the few times when I actually enjoy the beginning of a story. I enjoy this beginning because this is the true message of Jesus as the Word.

Maybe the true message of Jesus is that, in God’s Kingdom, that beginning keeps on and on, without end. In God’s Kingdom there is constant renewal. In God’s Kingdom it is always like New Year’s Day—always fresh, always full of hope for a future that does not end or disappoint.

As we prepare to celebrate 2013, this is a great way to live this beginning moment. In this beginning moment, let us think about beginnings and how important they are for us personally and for our spiritual lives. And let us do what we can to be the bringers of new beginnings not only in our own lives, but in the lives of others. With this encounter with the Word, we, like John, are also saying in this moment, this moment is holy. This moment is special. This moment is unique and beautiful, because God is reaching out to us.

Unlike how we might feel at the New Year—full of both hope and apprehension—or how poor Monica feels waiting for the beginning of her party, in this instance, in our grasping of it, it doesn’t wiggle away from it. It doesn’t fall through our fingers like sand. Or snow. It stays with us. Always new. Always fresh. Always being renewed. We’re here. Right now. We’re alive! It’s the future.

The Word, the Essence, of God has come to us as one of us. It’s incredible, really. This moment is a glorious and holy one. So, let us, in this holy moment, be joyful. Let us in this holy moment rejoice. And let us, in this holy moment, look forward to what awaits us with courage and confidence. Amen.





Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas

December 25, 2012

Isaiah 52.7-10; John 1.1-14


+ Last night was one of those magical nights. We had an overflow crowd here at St. Stephen’s for Christmas Eve Mass. And, of course, I LOVE that!

At that Mass last night, I shared how much I LOVE this Mass—the Christmas Day Mass. And I do. I think—though I’m not sure—I might even love it more than Christmas Eve.

We’re not overflow by any sense of the word today. And that’s just fine. I like that we’re not overflow today. I like that there’s balance.

Christmas Eve is beautiful in its way. But Christmas Day is just….so perfect in its own way. There really is something pristine and lovely about Christmas morning. If there was ever a holy moment, it is this morning.

Now, as we enter this holy day, I have to admit something. Some of you, in the midst of the craziness and hustle and bustle of these past few weeks have heard me make a confession I really didn’t want to make. In the midst of being exhausted and tired and overwhelmed by everything, I let slip my secret: Christmas is not one of my favorite seasons. I mean, the commercial Christmas.

I have tried. I have made every effort throughout the years to celebrate and enjoy this holiday. But it just has never really endeared itself to me.

Now, to be clear, I am not talking here about Jesus’ birth or Advent or anything of the spiritual things associated with this season. Rather, I have never been a big fan of all the Christmas trappings that go along with his holiday. OK, I do kind of like some of the glitz of the holiday. But only on a surface.

Still, despite my frustrations over the actual season, this morning I, like most of you, feel a little tinge of excitement on Christmas. I, like most of you, know that today is just a little more special than any other day. Something holy and beautiful is happening around us today.

This morning, at Morning Prayer, the verse we use for the Benedictus (we call this verse an antiphon) was particular beautiful and apt.

“While all things were in quiet silence, and that night was in the midst of her swift course, your almighty Word, O Lord, leaped down out of your royal throne.”

I love that! I love the image that arises in my mind when I hear. “you almighty Word, O Lord, leaped down…”

It’s so powerful and stunning. As wonderful as that image seems, it also seems to say to us that when God’s word—Jesus—leaps down in our midst, he will bring with him all the answers. When Jesus comes to us, our questions of life and death will be answered. Our enemies will be vanquished. All will be made right. And today, on this Christmas day, that prayer has been answered.

We realize that Jesus has truly leaped down among us. But what we find in his coming is that our questions about life and death have not been answered. We still don’t understand life and we still fear death. Our enemies have not been vanquished. In fact, sometimes, they seem to be triumphing all the more. And as we look around this world—at the mass murder of children, the violence, at the crime, at the war and injustice of this world, at the racism and homophobia and sexism that still exists—we realize all has not been made magically right. And what we expected in our Savior, our Redeemer our Messiah—what we thought would be the mighty warrior coming with sword in hand to shield us and vanquish the forces of evil—we instead find a Child. We find a vulnerable human baby, born of a teenage mother under mysterious and scandalous circumstances.

And still, despite all of that, somehow, on this evening, holiness shines through to us. The Word has leapt down to us and yet we know that although it has not been cataclysmic, something incredible still has happened.

As the great Archbishop of Canterbury (and probably the greatest of my personal heroes), Michael Ramsey once wrote: “Our Christmas is no less Christmas and our joy no less joyful because we are keeping Christmas with a very dark and troubled world around us…Our rejoicing at Christmas is not an escape from life’s grim realities into a fancy realm of religion and festivity. Rather is it a joy that, as we face and feel the world’s tragedy, we know that God has an answer: an answer for [hu]mankind to receive. In a word, this is a time of hope.”

This morning, on this crisp day, we celebrate that hope. While darkness still exists, we now see that in the midst of that darkness, there is a glimmer of light. It is dim at times. It doesn’t seem like much. But it is there. And as we strain into that darkness, we realize that hope comes to us as Light. We celebrate hope of that Light that has come to us in our collective and personal darknesses. We celebrate the Light that has come to us in our despair and our fear, in our sadness and in our frustration. And as it does, we hold bask in the glory of those two emotions—the two emotions Christmas is all about—hope and joy. Hope—in our belief that what has come to us—Jesus—God made flesh—is here among us,

The Word of God has leaped down among us.

“The Lord has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations,” we hear the Prophet Isaiah tell us today, “and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.”

We are experiencing joy at seeing this salvation of God in our midst. As we come forward today to meet with joy and hope this mystery that we remember and commemorate and make ours this day, we too should find ourselves feeling these emotions at our very core. This hope and joy we are experiencing this morning comes up from our very centers. We will never fully understand how or why Jesus—God made flesh—has come to us as this little child in a barn in the Middle East, but it has happened and, because it happened, we are a different people.

Our lives are different because of what happened that evening. This baby has taken away, by his very life and eventual death, everything we feared and dreaded. When we look at it from that perspective, suddenly we realize that yes, the Word of God has leaped down. And the salvation of God has appeared in our midst.

This is the source of true joy. We find that our hope is more tangible—more real—that anything we have ever hoped in before. And that is what we are rejoicing in this glorious day.

Our true hope and true joy is not in brightly colored lights and a pile of presents under a decorated tree. Our true hope and joy is not found in the malls or the stores. We know that our true hope and joy are not there because by Saturday, we’re going to see that what the rest of the society is celebrating in this Christmas season will be disposed of. By tomorrow, the wrapping paper and the boxes will be on the curbs and so will many of the trees.

Our true hope and joy is more powerful and more tangible than anything that is so disposable. Our true hope and joy does not come to us with things that will, a week from now, be a fading memory. Our hope and joy is in that Baby who, as he comes to us, causes us to leap up with joy at his very presence. Our hope and joy is in that almighty and incredible God who would come to us, not on some celestial cloud with a sword in his hand and armies of angels flying about.

Our hope and joy is in a God who comes to us in this innocent child, born to a humble teenager under scandalous circumstances in a dusty third world land. Our hope and joy is in a God who comes with a face like our face and flesh like our flesh—a God who is born, like we are born—of a human mother—and who dies like we all must die. Our hope and joy is in a God who comes and accepts us and loves us for who we are and what we are—a God who understands what it means to live this sometimes frightening uncertain life we live. But who, by that very birth, makes all births unique and holy and who, by that death, takes away the fear of death for all of us.

So, yes, I guess maybe all our expectations of Jesus’ coming have, in fact, been fulfilled. Slowly, but surely, he does make all things right—eventually. This is the real reason why we are joyful and hopeful on this beautiful night. This is why we are feeling within us a strange sense of happiness and excitement. This is why we are rushing toward our Savior who has come to visit us in what we once thought was our barrenness.

Let this hope we feel today as Jesus comes to us stay with us now and always. Let the joy we feel today as Jesus comes to us in love be the motivating force in how we live our lives throughout this coming year.

Jesus is here. He is in our midst today. He is so near, our very bodies and souls are rejoicing. So, let us greet him today with all that we have within us and welcome him into the shelter of our hearts. Amen.







Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas Eve

Isaiah 9.2-7; Titus 2.11-14; Luke 2.1-20


+ I have a guest at the rectory next door. My guest will staying with me through Christmas, until Thursday. I have been so excited about this guest. And she is darling… Her name is Bella. And she is a beautiful Chihuahua.

She belongs to my friends, Greg and Lisa and their daughters Sophie and Phoebe, who are in town for a few days. They couldn’t get a kennel in the cities for Bella and Lisa’s parents are not excited about having a dog around, so I get Bella.

As I said I have been so excited about Bella, despite having a few weeks of some stress and personal turmoil. In fact, knowing Bella’s coming has got me through some of that stress and turmoil. It’s been a good kind of anticipation. The fact is, throughout our lives, most of us find ourselves clinging to life’s little pleasures. Little pleasures like a little dog coming to stay with us.

Occasionally, something fills us with such joy and happiness, that we find ourselves savoring that moment, clinging to it, hoping it will never end. They don’t happen often. We can’t make those moments happen by own concentrated will. Even more often, we don’t ask for them. They just happen when they’re meant to happen and sometimes they come upon us as a wonderful surprise.

Now one of life’s pleasures for me anyway, that I actually CAN kind of control, is happening right now. One of life’s pleasures for me has always been Christmas Eve Mass. Some of my most pleasant memories are of this night and the liturgies I’ve attended on this night.

Another of life’s small pleasures is Christmas morning. I especially enjoy going to church on Christmas morning. The world seems different—so pristine, so new. And one of my greatest pleasures as a priest, is to celebrate the Eucharist with you on this evening that is, in its purest sense, holy. And tomorrow morning I am looking forward to celebrating my first Christmas Day Eucharist with you here at St. Stephen’s.

If this was what Christmas was really all about, I’d be happy. Sadly, it’s not. Still, I understand the tendency we all have of getting caught up in society’s celebration of Christmas. It’s easy to find ourselves getting a bit hypnotized by the glitz and glamour we see about us. No body like glitz and glamour more than me! I understand how easy it is to fall to the temptations of what the world tells us is Christmas.

But what I think happens to most of us who enjoy those light and airy aspects of Christmas is that we often get so caught up in them, we start finding ourselves led astray into a kind of frivolousness about Christmas. We find ourselves led off into a place where Christmas becomes fluffy and saccharine and cartoonish. Christmas becomes a kind of billboard. The glitz and the glamour of the consumer-driven Christmas can be visually stunning. It can capture our imagination with its blinking lights and its bright wrapping.

But ultimately it promises something that it can’t deliver. It promises a joy and a happiness it really doesn’t have. It has gloss. It has glitter. It has a soft, fuzzy glow. But it doesn’t have real joy.

The Christmas we celebrate here tonight, in this church, is a Christmas of real joy. But it is a joy of great seriousness as well. It is a joy that humbles us and quiets us. It is a joy filled with a Light that makes all the glittery, splashy images around us pale in comparison.

The Christmas we celebrate here is not a frivolous one. It is not a light, airy Christmas. Yes, it has a baby. Yes, it has angels and a bright shining star. But these are not bubblegum images. A birth of a baby in that time and in that place was a scary and uncertain event. Babies and mothers died all the time. There was no medical knowledge as we know it then. Angels were not chubby little cherubs rolling about in mad abandon in some cloud-filled other-place. They were terrifying creatures—messengers of a God of Might and Wonder. And stars were often seen as omens—as something that could either bring great hope or great terror to the world.

But for us, this event is a little of glitz and glamour and warm-heartedness, and some of that awesome, God-filled mystery. The event we celebrate tonight is THE event in which God breaks through to us. The event we celebrate is the Incarnation.

Now, Incarnation seems like one of those big, strange, church words. But, for us, it does not have to be. For us, Incarnation means, God breaking through to us. Christmas, for us who are followers of Jesus, is about God breaking through to us in Jesus. And whenever God beaks through, it is not some gentle nudge. It is an event that jars us, provokes us and changes us.

For people sitting in deep darkness, that glaring Light that breaks through into their lives is not the most pleasant thing in the world. It can be blinding and can be painful. And what it exposes is sobering. That is what Jesus does to us. That is REAL Incarnation. It shakes us up and changes us.

That is what we are commemorating tonight. We are commemorating a “break through” from God—an experience with God that leaves us different people than we were before that encounter. And it can happen again and again in our lives. What we experience is a Christmas that promises us something tangible. It promises us, and delivers, a real joy. The joy we feel today, the joy we feel at this Child’s birth, as the appearance of these angels, of that bright star, of that Light that breaks through into the darkness of our lives, is a joy that promises us some THING. It is a teaser of what awaits us. It is a glimpse into the life we will all have one day. It is a perfect joy that promises a perfect life.

But just because it is a joyful event, does not mean that it isn’t a serious event. What we celebrate is serious. It is an event that causes us to rise up in a joyful happiness, while, at the same time, driving us to our knees in humility. It is an event that should cause us not just to return home to our brightly wrapped presents, but it should also send us out into the world to make it, in some small way, a reflection of this life-changing joy that has come into our lives.

A few Sundays ago, I preached about how the prayer of Advent is, “Lord Jesus, come quickly.” This is the prayer all of who are followers of Jesus pray. Well, tonight, that prayer is answered.

Tonight, Jesus is that point in which God breaks through to us. Yes, God breaks through to us all the time. God breaks through to us in incarnational ways many times in our lives. And one of our jobs as followers of Jesus is to be incarnational ourselves—to be that point through which God breaks through to those around us.

But tonight, something different has happened. God has broken through in a very clear way to us. God, in this child, has become one of us. God is among us. God is with us. Not in some esoteric, symbolic way. God has come among us with flesh like our flesh, and blood like our blood. God has become a Child, like we were all once children.

By becoming this Child, our flesh is now made holy. Our blood has been made holy. Our bodies and souls are now holy. Or, as Paul writes tonight in his letter to Titus,

“The grace of God has appeared, brining salvation to all…”

This Incarnation is the grace of God in the flesh. It is something we did not ask for, nor would we even know how to ask for it. But here he is—Grace personified. Grace in the flesh. Grace we see and feel. And we now are compelled to leave the safety of this church, on this holy night, with that grace and sacredness dwelling within each of us as well.

Lord Jesus, come quickly, we have prayed all Advent. And tonight he has. Tonight, is one of those moments in which true joy and gladness have come upon us. The Light has broken through into our darkness.

Let us cling to this moment. Let us savor it. Let us hold it close. But, most importantly, let us embody it. Let it dwell within each of us.

Tonight, as the great German martyr Fr. Alfred Delp said, God has touched us. God has grasped our hands. Our hands have been laid on God’s heart. This feeling we are feeling right now is the true joy that descends upon us when we realize God has come to us in our collective darkness.

“Those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them has light has shines,” the prophet Isaiah tells us.

We are those who lived in deep darkness. And it is upon us, this holy night, that light—a Light that will not flicker or fade and die—shines.







Thursday, December 20, 2012

Weird introspection at the year's end

So, being weirdly introspective today, I am looking back over 2012, and I have to say it has certainly been a roller coaster year. What I thought would be a year of some major healing didn’t quite turn out that way. The poem “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop (a poet whose influence on me has been the longest-lasting outside of George Herbert and Gerard Manley Hopkins) might be the most apt summation for the year: loss is a diffuclt lessons to learn, but the fact is, loss is not always a bad thing, nor does it always a disaster. Ulcers, a concussion, a car accident, set-backs and frustrations and various other kinds of loss both professionally and personally certainly were in abundance. And yet, in the midst of it all, the good things were exceptionally good: my congregation flourished in incredible and amazing ways, my 10th book continued to be somewhat successful, my 11th book was published, etc. Strangely, it all balances out. So, I guess EB is right: none of it was disaster. But certainly, after all is said and done, the art of losing really is not hard to master.


ONE ART

By Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

3 Advent

Gaudete Sunday
December 16, 2012

Philippians 4.4-7; Luke 3.7-18


+ I know you all so well. I sometimes think I may be able to read your collective mind. As I stand before you this morning, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Is he wearing pink?” Already, I can tell I am going to get some questions—and comments—after the Mass today.

Yes, I am wearing pink today. Actually, it’s rose. And yes, this IS an option for us Episcopalians on this Sunday. It’s right there on our liturgical calendar that the color rose may be used today. And so it is.

It is Gaudete Sunday. It’s called Gaudete because in our reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, we hear “Rejoice in the Lord always; I will say rejoice” or in Latin: Gaudete in Domino simperinterum dico, gaudete.

Gaudete means Rejoice. Rejoice is our word for the day today. I don’t think we think about what that word really means.

Rejoice.

As we draw closer and closer to commemorating Jesus’ birth, we find ourselves with that strange, wonderful emotion in our hearts—joy. It is a time to rejoice. It is a time to be anxious (in a positive way) and excited over the fact that, in just a little over a week, we will celebrating God’s coming among, God’s being with us.

Or as Paul says today, ”the Lord is near” Or, in Latin (since we’re on kind of a Latin bent this Gaudete Sunday) Dominus propus est.

Actually, preaching about joy today—on this day—is not easy to do. From where we stand—here and now—it might not be so easy to find joy in our hearts. I think most of us have been deeply affected by the events on Friday of the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. Yes, there have been worse mass shootings. Yes, there are terrible things happening all the time—murders, and bombings, and general destruction. But this one resonates and will continue to resonate with us for a long time to come. For me, it didn’t really hit home until I saw some of the photos of the children. That’s when it hit me hard.

But, yet, today might be the day when we need something different. We need a break from our Sarum Blue. What I many people don’t realize is that Advent, with all its hopefulness, is actually, like Lent, a penitential time. It is a time for us to slow down, to ponder, to think. And to wait. It is a time to be introspective, as well—to think about who are and where we are in our lives.

So, in the midst of pondering and waiting and introspection, we also find ourselves pondering the effects of this mass murder, Yes, maybe it is time for a little joy in the midst of all this pain.

It is important, as followers of Jesus, that, in the wake of these things, we do not despair. We do not lose heart. Even in the midst of a penitential time such as Advent, it is important that we also find joy.

That is why we are decorated in rose this morning. That is why, in our pondering, we are pondering joy—even joy in the midst of suffering and pain. That is why, even despite all that happened and will happen, we can still rejoice.

Gaudete.

In our pondering and in our moment of rejoicing, we are also given a dose of sobering finger-shaking. We find, in our Gospel reading, that formidable figure of John the Baptist, saying to us,

“Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

These words speak loud and clear to us even now—in this moment of joy. We can hear those words and know, even now, in whatever pains we have at this moment, what the source of our joy is John is essentially saying to us, Jesus is near. And because Jesus is near, let’s keep doing good. Let us bear fruit.

We—Christians—bear fruit when we are joyful in our God. We bear fruit when we are joyful and rejoicing, even in the midst of darkness and pain. How can’t we? That joy that we carry within us fertilizes the good things we do. It motivates us. It compels us. It gives us purpose and meaning in our lives.

This is what Gaudete Sunday is all about—rejoicing. Living in joy. Letting joy reign supreme in us. Letting joy win out over the pain.

There is a personal reason why I introduced rose-colored vestments here at St. Stephen’s. This Sunday—Gaudete Sunday—has always been a meaningful Sunday to me. And the reason it has been so meaningful is because of a book I read several years ago. The book was about Fr. Alfred Delp. If you do not know about Fr. Delp, I encourage you to. He was truly one of the world’s heroes. I can never let Gaudete Sunday pass without referencing Fr. Delp in some way.

Delp was a German Jesuit priest who, in February, 1945, was killed by the Nazis. On Gaudete Sunday, 1944, while he was in prison awaiting his uncertain future, Fr. Delp wrote these words about a Christian full of joy (and remember as you hear these words—they were written by a priest in prison who is about the executed for standing up to the evil he saw in his world):

"Only a person like this will be capable of breathing deeply, and life and the world will not refuse him. They will give all that they rightly have to give, because it is demanded with the sovereign goods of divine jurisdiction, which have been put at his disposal. He will feel the eternal brilliance of creation again, regarding it reverently and protectively…. his mind and heart, his hands and works, have the creative gift and strength to pass the test. And such a person becomes one of great joy—the great joy that he lives and experiences, as well as gives and enkindles in others. Gaudete!”

Fr. Delp is telling us essentially that what our job as followers of Jesus, one of our many jobs, is not just to rejoice with our lips today. Rather, he is saying to us that we must embody rejoicing. We must embody joy. We must live joy in all we do and say and are. Even when life throws horrible things at us, we must still embody joy. Even in the pain we feel over these shootings, even in whatever difficulties we’re facing in our own lives, at this time of the year, we too can still, in all honesty, proclaim:

“Gaudete!”

Rejoice.

And live that Gaudete out in our very existence.

So, let Gaudete be more than just what we say or we do one Sunday a year. Let it be our way of life as we await Jesus’ presence coming to us. St. Paul are both right:

The Lord is near!

The Lord is near even in this darkness we might be in at this time. The Lord is near even as we reel from violence and death around us. The Lord is near!

Let our joy flow up from within us and burn in our lives with a radiant flame. And when we do we will find that we too have “the creative gift and strength to past the test.” We too, as embodied joy, will be bearing good fruits







Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The One We Hardly Knew

The One We Hardly Knew 


after Óscar Romero

No one can celebrate
this birth genuinely.
Certainly not those who rely on no one,

those who rely only on themselves,
those who, having it all,
look with sneered disgust

at those who have none,
those who have no need
even of you.

For them, there will be
no real celebration,
no true realization of this birth.

Only those who want,
who hunger with a gnawing pang at their very depths,
who ache for that someone

to come to them on their behalf
will finally—
after all of this—

have that Some One.
That Some One—
you—

who comes to us now—
you have also been with us.
You, the One who came to us sometime long ago,

you are with us even now, in this crushing
lonely poverty that causes us to cry out
without a sound in our throats.

Without that wringing-out of our very souls
there could be no moment such as this
in which abundance rained down on us, unasked-for.

—Jamie Parsley

Óscar Romero (1917-1980) was Archbishop of San Salvador, El Salvador. He was assassinated on March 24, 1980 by a paid death squad assassin as he elevated the chalice while celebrating a funeral Mass in the chapel of La Divina Providencia Hospital in San Salvador.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

2 Advent

December 9, 2012

Luke 3.1-6


+ So, it seems there are two phrases that sort of define my life. For any of you who know me for any period of time, you will have heard me say, at some point, one of these statements. And sometimes, on a rare occasion, you may hear me say both phrases.

The first phrase I say often is “The chickens always come home to roost.”

I love that statement. I think it should be the epitaph on my gravestone. In many ways, it summarizes my ethic/moral view of the world. Essentially what is says is that there are consequences to all of our actions. There may be such thing as Karma in the world.

The chicken always come home to roost.

The other phrase I use often—more often than not tongue-in-cheek—is “I am the prophet in your midst.”

By that, I mean I sometimes have a weird perception of things. I can take one look at a situation, assess it and make an educated guess on how it is going to turn out. The prophet in your midst.

The problem is, sometimes the prophecy doesn’t always turn out as planned. That, of course, is also prophecy. Sometimes the prophecy changes because those to whom the prophecy is made, change, and God grants them grace.

Today, in our Gospel reading, we encounter another prophet—one of the great and one of the last official prophets. In this morning’s Gospel, we are faced with the formidable figure of John the Baptist. The impression we get from Luke is of someone we probably wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley. He comes across to us through the ages as a man crazed. Certainly it would be difficult for any of us to take the words of a man like this seriously. Especially when he’s saying things like, “prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. How could WE do any such thing? Somehow, in the way John the Baptist proclaims it, this is not so much hopeful as frightening. It is a message that startles us and jolts us at our very core.

But this—whether we like it or not—is the true message of Advent. Like John the Baptist and those who eagerly awaited the Messiah, this time of waiting was almost painful. When we look at it from that perspective, we see that maybe John isn’t being quite as difficult and windy as we initially thought. Rather his message is one of almost excruciating expectation.

For us, as followers of Jesus, we too are living with this excruciating expectation. But our expectation is not something we do complacently. We don’t just sit here and twiddle our thumbs in our patient waiting. Rather, in our expectation we do what John the Baptist and other prophets did. We prophesy. We proclaim. We asses the situation, and strengthened by what we know is coming to us, we make a guess at how it will all turn out. And we profess and proclaim that message. Our job as prophets is to echo the cry of the Baptist:

“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”

We should find ways to prepare for the Incarnate God’s coming to us. We do it in many ways during Advent. We light the candles of the Advent wreath. We listen to the message of the prophets from the Hebrew Bible. We slow down and we ponder who it is we are longing for. And we wait…

As prophets, as fellow seers of the future, of that moment when the Messiah will come to us, the most common prayer we seem to pray during this Advent season is:

Lord Jesus, come quickly.

But it is also the perfect summation of this Advent season.

Lord Jesus, quickly come.

It is the prayer we should all be praying as we prepare the way of the Lord. It should be the prayer that is on our lips constantly in these days before Christmas. We know he is coming. We know is imminent. But sometimes it seems so agonizingly slow in coming. In our impatience and our expectation, we cry out:

“Lord Jesus, come quickly.”

A few years ago, Joanne Droppers, a former member of this congregation, gave me one of the most beautiful books I’ve read in some time. The book is Exiles by Ron Hansen. I have long been a fan of Hansen, every since I read his exceptionally beautiful novel Mariette in Ecstasy.

In Exiles, Hansen examines, in his fiction, the story of the great poet and Jesuit priest, Gerard Manley Hopkins. Now for those of you who know me, you know that Hopkins has been a major poetic influence on me. I recently came across my journal from 1987, when I was seventeen years old. I was amazed how much Hopkins I read at the time and how many times I referenced him.

Hopkin’s most famous poem is “The Wreck of the Deutschland.” And, in Hansen’s novel, he examines the actual disaster that inspired the poem.

On December 6, 1875, a German passenger steamer, The Deutschland, on its way from Bremerhaven to New York, ran aground in a blizzard on a sandy shoal in the Thames estuary near Harwich, England. After several hours of being trapped there, early on the morning of December 7 the ship began to take on water and the captain ordered the ship to be abandoned. The passengers panicked and people began falling into the freezing water. Among the several hundred who died were five Franciscan nuns who were fleeing the anti-Catholic sentiments that were sweeping Germany at the time under Otto von Bismarck. All five nuns died in those waters. But as they floundered in the water, they were heard crying out one prayer.

As Hopkins puts it in his poem:

“And they the prey of the gales;
She the black-about air, to the breaker, the thickly
Falling flakes, to the throng that catches and quails
Was calling ‘O Christ, Christ, come quickly’:
The cross to her she calls Christ to her, christens her wild-worst Best.”

To some extent, our Advent is much like the freezing waters that rise about this poor nun in Hopkin’s poem.

In this season, overwhelmed by all that is happening around us, we too might find ourselves crying out as that sister did in those freezing waters. Both places are frightening. Those freezing waters are frightening. And our own lives can be frightening. And at times, these moments of expectation are frightening.

But, still, even in these frightening moments, we are prophets. We can assess the situation—as ugly and bitter as it is—and see that there is a positive outcome. Always.

Jesus is coming. Yes, not at the speed we want him to come. But he is coming. And in that moment, prophets that we are, seeing into the dark of the future, we too can say,

“Even so, Lord, Jesus, come quickly.”

In it, we find our hope and our longing articulated. We, the prophets, find that we can now see the goal for which we are working. We can look into the gloom, into the frightening future and see that all is not lost.

He is coming. He is coming to us. He is coming to us in this place in which we seem sometimes to flounder. He comes to us in these moments when we feel overwhelmed. He comes to us in those moments when it seems we have lost. He comes to us in our defeat. And when he does, even in those moments, we know.

Truly the summation of our prophecies is upon us. And that summation? It is the fact that, in his coming “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” in our midst. And with that realization, with that actualization, we are listed from those waters and from mire and muck of our lives, and we restored.

Even so, Lord Jesus, come quickly!

Amen.





Sunday, November 25, 2012

Christ the King Sunday

November 25, 2012

Daniel 7.9-10, 13-14; Revelation 1.4b-8; John 18.33-37


+ I hope you all survived the Thanksgiving holiday. Obviously you did. I am not planning any funerals for this coming week. I did, even though I had a pretty rotten cold. But, if you’re like me, you might find such times a bit hectic, especially when it comes to family. In these last few days, I had some family members around. Last night a few of us went out for supper. As we were talking at a local restaurant, I was getting a bit annoyed because the food was very slow in coming. Finally, I made some comment, like, “This is ridiculous!”

One of my family members turned to another and said, “Yup. There’s Jamie and his infamous impatience.”

Infamous impatience! I was not happy to hear that!

I said, “Excuse me, what exactly do you mean, ‘infamous impatience?’”

They then proceeded to share instances throughout my life when my impatience at certain things became a sort of family joke. After my initial frustration over being fodder for their stupid jokes, I realized, finally, that they might be right. I think I might be a bit impatient at times.

But is impatience as bad thing? Well, impatience—and more correctly—longing, are the theme words for the Church season that we are about to enter.

Today, of course, is Christ the King Sunday. It is the End of one Church Year—Year B. Next Sunday will be the First Sunday of Advent and Church Year C begins. And Advent is the season of anticipation—of longing. And dare I say, maybe a fair share of healthy impatience.

For us, as followers of Jesus, we might get a bit impatience about that for which we are longing. Certainly, our journey as followers of Jesus, is filled with anticipation and longing. We know, as we make this journey, that there is an end result to our journey. We know there is a goal. But we might not always be aware of what that goal is or even why we’re journeying toward it.

But today, Christ the King Sunday, get a glimpse of what we are anticipating. Today, we commemorate Christ as King. We are invited to see this King coming to us on clouds, and on wheels of burning fire. I, for one, love the drama and the splendor of such an image. In our readings today—especially our readings from the Prophet Daniel and Revelation, we too, with Daniel and the Apostle John, get a glimpse of what it is we are hoping for, what we are striving for. We also see clearly who it is who has ultimate control of our lives. We see a glimpse of the One we, as Christians, recognize as Christ—that Alpha and Omega—that Beginning and End—that One coming to us on the clouds.

But the Christ we see in our own collective vision this morning is not the humble carpenter, the amazing miracle worker, or the innocent newborn baby we are anticipating in a month’s time. The Christ we encounter this morning is coming to us on clouds, yes, but he also comes to us while standing in the shadow of the Cross—an about-to-be condemned criminal—engaging in a conversation with Pontius Pilate about who he is. The Christ we encounter today is crowned, yes—but he is crowned with thorns.

It seems a long way from the King we find in our readings from the Hebrew Bible and from Revelation—this defeated, beaten young man. But it is the same Christ—the One who will come to us in our anticipation, who guides us and guards us and who, in the end, awaits us as well.. The Christ we encounter today is Christ our King, Christ our Priest, Christ our ultimate Ideal.

We, on this Sunday and in the coming days of Advent, are faced with eschatological reality. Uh oh. There’s a word for us on this Christ the King Sunday—eschatological. It’s a strange word that always trips us up, whether we understand what it means or not. Eschatology is just a fancy Greek word for the “end things.” It is a word that invites us to think about THE END.

As we enter Advent, which, although a beginning, we realize it is also a time of preparation for the End. And there is an End waiting for all of us. There is an End waiting us all collectively as the Church. And there is an End waiting each of individually. And eschatology, Christ the King Sunday and Advent are all about both that collective End and our own personal End.

The King we encounter on this Sunday, the King that awaits us at the end of our days, is not a despotic king. The King that we encounter today is not a King who rules with an iron fist and makes life under his reign oppressive. This King not some stern Judge, waiting to condemn us to hell for what we’ve done or who we are.

But at the same time the King we honor today is not a figurehead or a soft and ineffective ruler. Rather, the King we encounter today is truly Jesus, the one we are following, the one who leads us and guides us and guards us. The King we encounter today is brother, and friend and King and Savior all wrapped up in one.

And his Kingdom, that we anticipate is our ultimate home. We are citizens, at this moment, of that Kingdom. That Kingdom is the place wherein each of belongs, ultimately.

You have heard me say in many, many sermons that our job as Christians, as followers of Jesus, is to make that Kingdom a reality. You hear me often talking about the Kingdom breaking through into our midst. That’s not just fancy, poetic, homeletical talk from the pulpit. It is something I believe in deeply.

The Kingdom—that place toward which we are all headed—is not only some far-off Land in some far-away sky we will eventually get to when we die. It is a reality—right here, right now. That Kingdom is the place which breaks into this world whenever we live out that command of Jesus to love God and to love one another. When we act in love toward one another, the Kingdom of God is present among us.

Again, this is not some difficult theological concept to grasp. It is simply something we do as followers of Jesus. When we love, Christ’s true home is made here, with us, in the midst of our love. A kingdom of harmony and peace and love become a reality, when we sow seeds of harmony and peace and love. . And, in that moment when the Kingdom breaks through to us, here and now, we get to see what awaits us in our personal and collective End.

As we prepare for this END—and we should always be preparing for the END—we should rejoice in this King, who is the ruler of our true home. And we should rejoice in the fact that, in the end, all of us will be received by that King into that Kingdom he promises to us, that we catch glimpses of, here in this place, when we act and serve each other out of love for one another.

The Kingdom is here, with us, right now. It is here, in the love we share and in the ministries we do.

So, on this Christ the King Sunday, let us ponder the End, but let us remember that the End is not a terrible thing. The End is, in fact, that very Kingdom that we have seen in our midst already. For us the End is that Kingdom—a Kingdome where there is a King who rules out of love and concern for us.

“I am the Alpha—the beginning—and the Omega—the End,” he says to us.

But in our End, we truly do find our beginning. What a glorious King we have!

“To him be glory and dominion forever and ever.” Amen.





Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Thanksgiving Eve

November 21, 2012
St. Mark's Lutheran Church
Fargo

Matthew 6.25-33


+ For those of you who know me, it’s probably not hard for you to guess I was not your typical little boy when I was eight or nine or ten years. For various reasons, I was not your typical little boy. We won’t get into too many of those various reasons.

But I was not typical for one big reason. From about the age of seven or eight, I was a chronic worrier. I worried about everything. You name it, I worried about it. Every rational and irrational thing you can think of, I worried about it.

Around the time of my eighth birthday, there was a huge hotel fire during a blizzard in Breckenridge, Minnesota. About twenty or so people died in that fire. For years afterward, that fire worried me. Every time my family and I went on a trip and stayed at a hotel, I couldn’t sleep, afraid that a fire was going to break out. Whenever my father was gone on a trip, I worried that the hotel he was staying in was going to catch on fire.

That was just one of many things I worried about at the time in my life. I worried about getting on the school bus (I worried it was going to crash—there were no seat belts on the stupid thing!), or swimming in the swimming pool, or whatever.

Well, eventually, all that worrying began to wreak havoc on my body and I started developing very severe stomach problems. At first, it was thought that I was having some kind of problem with my appendix. Then the doctors and my parents starting being concerned it was something more serious. Finally, one very insightful doctor figured it out. He realized I had an ulcer. There I was, nine years old, and I had an ulcer. And it was believed at that time that it was a result of all that stupid worrying.

And worrying is a stupid, stupid thing. In tonight’s Gospel, we find Jesus addressing the issue of worrying. Obviously, there were some in his immediate circle of followers and friends who were worried. And he addresses their worries. But he addresses their worries in a way that leaves little doubt. There’s no sugar-coating here. There are no parables about worrying here. He’s quite blunt. He’s to-the-point.

“Therefore I tell you,” he says, “do not worry about what you will eat, or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear.”

And then, as though to drive it all home, we repeats that command, “Do not worry” two more times in this passage.

For us, as followers of Jesus, he is essentially telling us that there is no room in our lives as Christians for worrying. Worrying is not an option for us, who believe, as followers of Jesus, that God is ultimately in control.

For me, as a child, my worrying became almost a kind of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Worrying was my way of controlling what seemed to me to be uncontrollable in my life. Bad things happened, and I didn’t understand why. Bad things happened and I couldn’t control those bad things from happening. Worrying about my fears was a way for me to control my fears in some way. If I worried enough, I rationalized, maybe what I feared would not happen.

But the fact is, by worrying about our fears, we give our fears ultimate control. When we worry about our fears, we make idols of our fears. When we worry, we have not put God in that place God deserves in our lives. Worrying goes hand-in-hand with fear. And fear is not an option for us as followers of Jesus.

This presidential election earlier this month was a prime example for me of how fear is still an issue in many adult’s lives. A very dear friend on mine—a man who is very intelligent and a faithful church-goer—became almost irrational in the days leading up the election. He was certain by the day the election rolled around that if one particular candidate won (or was re-elected), every terrible, horrible fear that could be imagined would be brought on this nation. And, he further feared, he would eventually lose his job, his benefits, essentially his future. I don’t think the two presidential candidates went into the election worrying as much as my friend did. He’s over it for the most part now, but it was shocking for me to see how much fear a person can live under in their lives.

For us as Christians, the fact we don’t need to worry about our fears is that we know—no matter what life may throw at us, no matter what bad things happen to us in this life (and they WILL happen to us)—ultimately God is in control and it will all, somehow, work out in the end. Don’t ask me now how, or in what way. But it will all somehow work out in the end.

When we take a good, long, hard look at the things that are worrying us on this Thanksgiving Eve, we simply need to change our perspective. We need to look at the big picture. The things we are worrying about tonight will probably not be worries for us a year from now. Or five years from now. Or ten years from now. And, let me assure you, fifty or seventy-five years from now, they will definitely not be worrying you.

But a year from now, or five years from now, or ten years from now, or fifty or seventy-five years from now, God will still be in control. And good will always triumph. That is the consolation we have. That is why Jesus is saying to us, again and again, do not worry.

Do not worry.

Let us, on this Thanksgiving Eve, not only hear, but heed those all-powerful words of Jesus to us.

“Do not worry.”

As we gather to consider all that we are thankful for, all the gifts we have been given in this life, all the love that has been given to us and those whom we have been fortunate to love—when we think about all that God has granted to us in this life—why would we worry? See, how God has truly provided for us. See how God has provided for us exactly what we have needed at this time and in this place. See how God has provided us with all the goods we didn’t even have the frame of mind to ask for.

Or to put it in the words of Jesus, “strive first for the kingdom of God, and [God’s] righteousness, and all these things will be given to you…”

God knows our needs before we ask. Our job, as followers of Jesus and lovers of God, is to trust in that goodness of God in our lives. And when we do, we will see that goodness in our midst. That goodness will be evident all around us in all that we have. And when we recognition it as such, we will know what true thankfulness is.



Sunday, November 18, 2012

25 Pentecost

Stewardship Sunday
November 18, 2012

Mark 13:1-8


+ Today, of course, is Stewardship Sunday. I personally sometimes get a little tense about this time of the year. I am a priest who does not like asking people for anything if I don’t have to. I think that’s a good thing to have in your priest.

And luckily, here at St. Stephen’s, we only make appeals like this once a year. And what’s doubly great about St. Stephen’s is that this appeal to consider giving, not only from our financial gifts but also of our time-and-talent, is truly heeded. We don’t have to make appeals throughout the year.

But what I’ve come to enjoy about Stewardship time is the fact that it is a time to celebrate St. Stephen’s. Now, one of my duties as Priest-in-Charge of St. Stephen’s is to be a kind of cheerleader for the congregation. And I love doing it. So, as most of you know, I sent out a letter a few weeks ago doing just that. Most of your received that letter.

For those of you who didn’t get the letter, I simply mentioned this fact that five years ago, the membership of St. Stephen’s was 55 members. The Average Sunday Attendance at that time was 24. Our current membership is 121. Our ASA is now about 45.

As I was writing the letter, I happened to post a Facebook update with those same statistics. Between the Facebook update and the letter (which I should mention, I sent to a few people who are not members of St. Stephen’s), I received many responses. Most were overwhelmingly positive. Numbers like these are very good, and people know the good numbers mean healthy congregation.

But…there were a few grumbling responses, mostly from clergy, who wanted to stress to me that the church is more than just numbers and that unless we are stepping outside the walls of the actual church building, we’re not really doing any ministry at all. And one response was from a person who felt that “bragging” about St. Stephen’s accomplishments while other churches struggle and decline is not being very gracious or Christian.

The fact is, these numbers reflect more than just growth. These numbers reflect life and vitality. And anyone who thinks we don’t do ministry outside these walls, just doesn’t know anything about St. Stephen’s.

I don’t think any of us—myself included—can fully appreciate what is happening here at St. Stephen’s. In a world in which we hear stories of churches losing membership, losing direction, in a world in which we hear of churches alienating people, of ostracizing people, of churches that deny Holy Communion and other sacraments (like Confirmation) to people for their stances on social or political or personal issues, we are a church who is, this morning, celebrating.

We are celebrating our growth. We are celebrating a bright future. We are celebrating who we are as a fully-inclusive, fully-welcoming church. And we are celebrating what God is doing through us.

As I wrote in my letter, when anyone asks me what the “secret” of our success is, I say, two things. First, the Holy Spirit. We do need to give credit where credit is due. And second, it is that we welcome radically and we love radically.

Now, people—people in the CHURCH—are shocked by that. And I, in turn, am shocked that people in the Church are shocked be that. This is not rocket science. This is not quantum physics. This is basic Christianity.

Basic Christianity, as we live it out here at St. Stephen’s, is nothing more than following Jesus in his commandment to love God and love one another as we love ourselves. It’s just that. And what shocks me even more is the Church—the larger Church—just doesn’t get that.

I recently overheard, first hand, at a church gathering, some parishioners at another church sharing with me an almost-snobby attitude about some people who had visited their church recently. What shocked me was the attitude that these church people felt those visitors weren’t good enough for that church. They weren’t liberal enough or conservative enough, they weren’t members of the right political party, they weren’t dressed the right way, or talked the right way or acted the right way. And not long after these responses, they actually wondered aloud why their church wasn’t growing.

I said nothing, and, I’ll be honest with you, I’m happy I didn’t. Because I know that if I had, it wouldn’t have made any difference. They aren’t ready to do at that congregation what Jesus is asking of all of us who follow him.

To love—fully and completely. To love—radically and inclusively.

Here, at the St. Stephen’s it is not a matter of politics (we don’t care what party you belong to), or how you dress (the only one who is expected to dress up here is me—and that’s my own expectation more than anything), or the way you talk (or don’t talk), or what your sexual orientation is, or whatever. Here, it’s just a matter of coming here. Of being here. And of being with us here. And being here as one of us. I don’t see that as all that radical. I see that as fairly basic.

In today’s Gospel, we hear Jesus saying, “you will hear of wars and rumors of wars.” These words of Jesus are especially poignant for us on Stewardship Sunday as we look at our own future as a congregation in a larger Church that is often at war—at war with its own parishioners and at war with itself to some extent. But Jesus uses a very interesting description of these fears and pains—images of war and their rumors. He calls them “birth pangs.”

And I think “Pang” is the right word to be using here, for us and for the larger Church. Those of us who are here—who have experienced pain inflicted on us by the Church, who have been on the receiving end of those church people who believe we don’t belong, we who have a love-hate relationship with this human organization called the Church, we know what pangs are.

So…what is a pang? Well, a pang is more than an ache. It is a pain. It a deep down, excruciating pang.

When else do we hear that word, “pang” used? It is used to describe hunger. When we’re hungry we have hunger pangs. But Jesus uses it appropriately here. He talks of birth pangs.

I have heard many women tell me that there is nothing quite as painful as the pangs of giving birth. I remember my mother saying that, when she went through it for the first time at age eighteen, with little or no preparation for what she was going through, she said, she thought she was going to die. She said that the words that went through her mind as she experienced those birth pangs were, “I will walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” But the question I used to always have for her was this: “If it was so terrible, why did you go through it three more times?” She said to me, “Well, when the baby arrives and you’re holding this little precious being in your arms, you just sort of forget it. You forget the pain you went through…until the next time.”

Jesus uses the right image here to describe what we are going through now and in the future. Yes, there will be wars and rumors of wars. Yes, there will be moments when church leaders and church attendees will say and do hurtful, war-like things.

But the words we cling to—that we hold on to and find our strength in to bear those pangs—is in the words “do not be alarmed.” Jesus is being honest with us. We will suffer pangs. But there is a calmness to his words.

“Do not be alarmed,” he says. This is all part of our birth into new life.

As you have heard me say many, many times from this pulpit: The Church is changing. This Church is just going through major birth pangs. But that is not something to despair over. Rather, be assured. Take comfort. Yes, we are going through the pangs, but once we have weathered these pains, once we have gone through them, we will have something precious in our midst.

We will have a Church more along the lines of what Jesus intended the Church to be—a place in which everyone, no matter who they or what they are is not only welcomed, but loved. Loved, fully and completely. And this is why we do not have to be alarmed.

If we allow these fears to reign in our lives, if we allow the pain to triumph, then we all lose. If we live with our pangs and do not outlive them, then the words of Jesus to us—those words of “do not be alarmed”—are in vain.

In the face of these things, do not be alarmed, he is saying to us. Why? Because in the end, God will triumph. If we place our trust—our confidence—in God, we will be all right.

Yes, we will suffer birth pangs, but look what comes after them. It is a loving and gracious God who calms our fears amidst calamity and rumors of calamity. Our job is simply to live as fully as we can. Our job is to simply do what we’ve always been doing here at St. Stephen’s. To welcome, to accept, to love.

We have this moment. This moment was given to us by our loving and gracious God. We must live it without fear or malice. We must live it fully and completely.

So, let us do just that. Let us live this moment fully. Let us LOVE boldly. People are going to say: St. Stephen’s is just that rebellious church that keeps pushing the boundaries. So be it. We are. We ARE pushing the boundaries. We are pushing the boundaries of love and acceptance. We are pushing the boundaries of what the Church should be and could be. And we are all doing it together—not just here in church on Sundays or Wednesdays, but in the very lives we are living in the world throughout the rest of our week.

So, let us, on this Stewardship Sunday, continue to do what we’ve been doing. Let us welcome radically and love radically. Let us, in our following of Jesus, continue to strive to be a powerful and visible conduit of the Kingdom of God in our midst.

It’s already happening. Right now. Right here. In our midst. It is truly a time in which to be grateful and joyous.



Sunday, November 11, 2012

Stewardship Letter

November 8, 2012
St. Wilibrord

Dear St. Stephen’s family,

Five years ago, the membership of St. Stephen’s was 55 members. The Average Sunday Attendance at that time was 24.

How things have changed! Our current membership is 121. This past Sunday, as we celebrated the Baptism of our own Leah Elliott, there were over 50 people in church. At no point during this past year (even during the summer) did our attendance slip below 30. And almost every Sunday brings new visitors.

This not just good news; this is incredible news! Whenever I share information like this with colleagues and others in the wider Church, they are as shocked and amazed as I am often am. In the wider Church, numbers reflect growth and vitality.

But, for us, it is more than a matter of numbers. It is a matter of a congregation that has come together and is doing wonderful and transformative things in the name of God. As we look around us, we see a congregation of changing faces, of a church building that is being updated, of ministry that is reaching beyond these walls to the farthest stretches of the world.

Of course, a common question I am asked is: what’s the secret of our success? My first answer is always, of course, the Holy Spirit. This Spirit is most definitely at work in our congregation. God’s Spirit, as we all know, is a Spirit of renewal and life. And it is this Spirit feel in our midst when we gather together and it is this Spirit that empowers us when we go out and do ministry in the world.

My second answer is this: we are simply living out the Gospel. This is a congregation that has been committed to following Jesus’ message of loving God and loving one another, and, in doing so, being radically welcoming to every single person that comes through our doors. This is what makes the difference, and this is what makes us who we are.

We have so much to be thankful for at St. Stephen’s. It is an exciting time for us. New people are finding a home and a family at St. Stephen’s. Those of us who have been here for years are finding ourselves renewed and recharged, as well as confronted with all the changes and challenges of a growing congregation. And all of us, together, are doing ministry in whatever ways we can.

All that is happening here at St. Stephen’s is something to celebrate. This is a time in which we should be giving thanks to God for this church home, this church family and these opportunities to do the ministry of loving God and one another in worship and service.

On Sunday, November 18, we will all have an opportunity to celebrate these blessings God has granted to us. On November 18, we celebrate Pledge Sunday. Pledge time is the time in which we take a good, long look at our selves as a congregation and what we are doing in our own lives to help St. Stephen’s live even further into this growth and life we are celebrating.

That Sunday, the Vestry of St. Stephen’s will host a dinner after the 11:00 am celebration of Holy Eucharist. That dinner is a way for your Priest-in-Charge and your Vestry to thank you for all you have done for St. Stephen’s this year. At that meal, you will be given a packet that will contain your pledge card and your Time and Talent sheet. Your pledge card is an opportunity for your consider what kind of monetary pledge you would like to make to St. Stephen’s. As you know, ministry and the practical upkeep of our physical building is not done without finances.

The Time and Talent sheet is a way for you to consider pledging from your time and talent. What ways can you pledge from the gifts God has granted you in areas such as personal expertise? Are you an artist? Are you good at social care? Are you mechanically inclined? These are ways in which you have been blessed by God and, recognizing them as blessings, they are ways in which you can give back.

More than anything, know how grateful and humbled I am to be serving you. I am truly blessed by God to be serving a congregation that is excited about what it is doing, that is renewed by its energy and committed to its following of Jesus. Thank you for all you have given to me.

-peace,
Fr. Jamie+



Sunday, November 4, 2012

All Saints Sunday

The Baptism of Leah Elliott

November 4, 2012

Revelation 7.9-17


+ As some of you know—and some of you might be shocked to hear—but I am “off the hooch.” Due to some intestinal issues I’ve been experiencing, I am not drinking alcohol (except for the wine at Holy Communion). And haven’t for about two weeks. It’s been a very good thing, of course. It’s good to take a break and sort of purify one’s system.

I have a fairly active social life, so I of course still go out on a regular basis to some of the finer drinking establishments around town. I have an active social life and, let’s face it, I do a lot of ministry at those places. And I have been exploring the wonderful world of “mocktails.” Lord!

But I realized that one thing I have an issue with now is some of the behavior in those drinking establishments. I’m not saying that from a judgmental perspective. I’m simply saying it from the perspective of a kind of tired frustration. Or maybe it’s envy.

This past week, I went out with a good friend of mine and at the next table there were a group of young men who were being a bit loud, shall we say. Nothing obnoxious or ridiculous. Just loud. But for some reason, it just of grated on me and I kind of grumbled about it.

My friend, who is not a regular church-goer, said to me: “I hope now that you’re sober, you don’t start getting all judgmental.”

It was a good wake-up call for me. As we sat there, and I realized we were a nearing the Feast of All Saints, I looked at these young men and saw, in our midst, saints. These are what the saints are, in our midst sometimes. And I quickly got over my grumpiness.

Today, of course, we are celebrating All Saints Sunday. This is Sunday in which we celebrate the saints. By saints, I don’t mean only our loved ones and others who have passed on to the “nearer presence of God.” I am talking about all the saints—past, present and future.

First of all, lets’ talk a bit about the saints. As most of you know, we do a very good job of commemorating the saints here at St. Stephen’s. Every Wednesday night, at our Mass, we celebrate and commemorate a different saint. And I have found that, oftentimes at the supper afterward, or the days after the mass, the discussion about these saints continues.

Most of us probably think veneration of saints is almost an exclusively Roman Catholic practice. Certainly, Romans Catholics seem, in some ways, to have the market cornered when it comes to saints. But we Episcopalians do have our saints too, which we often commemorate on Wednesday nights. We name many of our churches after saints—like our own, after St. Stephen the Martyr. We commemorate their feast days. And we recognize our contemporaries as saints.

We find most of our saints in the supplemental book we called Holy Women, Holy Men. I have issues with some of the people who are included in this particular book (I don’t understand why we commemorate some of these people—but that’s my issue) For the most part thought, it’s helpful book and one I always encourage Episcopalians to purchase a copy for themselves and read through it daily. Here we find a wide variety of saints, reflecting in many ways the wide variety of people in the Episcopal Church.

Now, unlike the Roman Catholics, we don’t invoke our saints—we don’t pray to them. We do, however, look to them as examples of how to live out our Christian lives. Saints like St. Stephen of the German Abbess and newly minted Doctor of the Church, Hildegard of Bingen or the newly canonized Kateri Takakwitha or the Episcopal priest and missionary James Lloyd Breck, or the first woman ordained in the Anglican Communion, Florence Li-Tim Oi help us to see that even ordinary Christians can sometimes do extraordinary things.

We do, though, have to ask ourselves: Why? Why commemorate saints? And are there still saints? If so, who are these saints who live and work beside us?

More often than not, you’ll think of some exceptional person you knew who truly lived a “Christian life.” Some of us might think of our mothers, or our fathers or some priest or a missionary we knew at some time or some social worker. Certainly, I think is many of my paternal grandmother or even my own father as down-to-earth examples of regular people who just quietly lived their faith.

But I have to ask: do any of us think of ourselves as saints? Can any of us look in the mirror and, with all honesty, see a saint looking back at us? The fact is this: you should. Because, we too are the saints of God. We don’t necessarily have to do extraordinary things. We don’t need to perform miracles, or die for our faith, or be nice and sweet all the time.

To be a saint, we simply need to live out our faith as followers of Jesus to its fullest. And we need to hope in the fact that this life is not all there is. Yes, we need to live this life to the fullest and make the most of it—that’s what the saints teach us again and again. This life is an opportunity to do good, to serve God and one another, and to bring about goodness. It is an opportunity to work toward holiness in our lives and to participate in the mystery of God. But, in this life, we also hope for the life that comes after this—the life of absolute wholeness. The life that will never end.

That’s the wonderful thing about All Saints Day. Today is a day we get to reflect on where we’re going as Christian saints. We are a part of a much larger Church than we can even imagine. The Church is so much more than this church on earth. It extends far beyond our imaginations and our conceptions. The larger church exists in that place we, as Christians, strive toward. The larger Church is the one that dwells in that so-called “nearer presence of God.” I think we very rarely ever give heaven a real serious consideration.

In today’s collect, we prayed to God to “give us grace to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you…”

In the original version of this collect the word “unspeakable” was used instead of Ineffable.

“May we come to those unspeakable joys”

Either way, that, I think, is the key to what we are longing for in our lives as followers of Jesus. We have no clear picture of where we are going as we follow him. Scripture does not paint any crystal clear pictures for us of what heaven will be like. Yes, there’s a good amount of poetic language, written by people who imagined only the most beautiful place for heaven—with streets paved in gold and crystal buildings all about.

In today’s reading from Revelation, for example, we find some gorgeous images of heaven—of multitudes of saints standing before the throne of the Lamb of God with palm branches in their hands and their robes washed white by the blood of the Lamb. It’s a beautiful image and one we can cherish and hold close when we think about heaven. But ultimately these are vague symbol-heavy images for most of us and ones that are hard to wrap our minds around.

But in our collect today, we hear words given to our hopes. That idea of ineffable joys—of joys that leave us speechless, joys that are beyond our understanding, awaiting us—that is what we are hoping in. And that is the place to which Jesus I leading us who follow him. That is where the larger church is participating at this very moment in its unending worship of God.

We know that this goal—that place of heaven—is the place to which we are headed. To some extent—and I am not talking about predestination here—we, in a very real sense, as followers of Jesus, as people who profess, and in professing, believe, know the end of our story. We know that heaven awaits us, with its unspeakable joys, and we know that if we keep our eyes on that goal, then that goal will be our reward. Certainly, we also know the beginning of own individual stories. We know what we have done up to this point in our lives as saints. We are fully aware of the joys and the hardships we have experienced up to this point in our lives. It’s the middle part of the story—the part of our lives that we are living now, as we speak—that is for the most part unwritten. And this is where the mystery of our lives lie.

The mystery doesn’t lie in our ultimate goal. We know it’s there. We know we are slowly—day by day, moment by moment—headed toward that place. The mystery of our lives is in the right here and now.

It is in that foggy, gray area between this moment and that moment we arrive in our True Home. It’s sometimes a very difficult story. We have no idea what awaits us tomorrow. We have no idea of the hardships that lie ahead for us around the next corner. But we do know that beyond those unseen hardships, lie joys beyond words for us. And with that goal in sight, we know one other thing: we know that we are taken care of. Through it all, God is here with us, taking care of us. This journey we are on is a journey, following Jesus, toward that place. And Jesus, as we follow him, lifts the “veil” to give us a glimpse of that place. This is our heritage. This is where our stories will find their completion. We know this because we have been promised this in our baptism. By our baptism, we have been told that this heritage of saints is our heritage as well.

Today, Leah is going to be reminded to reminded of that heritage as she is washed in those waters of life. This is what it means to be a saint—to be washed in those waters of a life that will not end.

So, who are the saints in our lives? They are the ones who know that they are “taken care of.” Or to use the language we hear today in the book of Revelation:

“the one who is seated on
the throne will shelter them.
They will hunger no more, and
thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
for the Lamb at the center of the
throne will be their
shepherd,
and he will guide them to
springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every
tear from their eyes.”

They are the ones who know that both the beginning and the end of the story are already finished. They know how their story is going to end. And that the ending will be glorious and beautiful. It’s what they do with the middle of the story that makes all the difference.

But there’s one more hitch to the story. The message of All Saints Day is that the end isn’t really the end of the story at all, but actually a whole new beginning. Our journey doesn’t end simply because we die. Our journey goes on, but now on a whole different level. We continue to grow.

In the Book of Common Prayer, there is a wonderful prayer from the Burial Service that describes death as growing from “strength to strength.” With it comes a sense that our growth in that place will continue. This is our story and it really is a wonderful one, isn’t it?

Who are the saints among us? We are the saints among us. Today—All Saints Sunday—is a celebration of ourselves just as much as it is a celebration of those who have gone on before us.

So, let us celebrate our loved ones who are no longer with us. Let us celebrate those saints who have paved the way for us on our path toward that goal of heaven. They are celebrating today, in that place of joy and light and beauty, before the throne of the Lamb.

But also, let us celebrate ourselves today, because those ineffable joys—those unspeakable joys—await each and every one of us as well.





Sunday, October 28, 2012

22 Pentecost

October 28, 2012

Mark 10.46-52

+ A long time ago, when I was ordained first a deacon, then a priest, I made this promise, which can be found in the Book of Common Prayer on page 538. I promised at my ordinations,

“…I solemnly declare that I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New testaments to the be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation, and I do solemnly engage to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church.”

That last part especially—the part about promising to conform to the doctrine, discipline and worship of the Episcopal Church”—has very important to me.

As most of you know, as far as loyalty is concerned, my first loyalty is always to the Episcopal Church, as far as churches are concerned. Now I shouldn’t continue to tease them about this, but I have to. I think that the majority of the Vestry at St. Stephen’s thinks I am a secret Roman Catholic.

At our last vestry meeting, I heard a near-unanimous outcry from them expressing their dislike of the use of the term “Smells and Bells” in our Wednesday night Mass. Now, I understand where they’re coming from. And no, they don’t really think I’m a secret Roman Catholic. At least, I hope not.

Despite the fact that some of you might think I am a secret Roman Catholic, all I am is a former Roman Catholic.

But if I was to say I was anything other than Episcopalian, I don’t think I would be able to say that the Roman Catholic Church would be the place I would lean toward. I would say that much of my deepest interest, as you have heard me say many times, outside of the Episcopal Church, is actually with the Eastern Orthodox Church. I love the Orthodox Church. Well, I’m not all that fond of some of their social and political views. But I do love the majority of their theological and spiritual outlook on life. I love their liturgy. I love their down-to-earth, balanced approach everything. And I love the tradition they strive to uphold. And I really love their views of prayer.

I have been reading a wonderful book by a contemporary American Orthodox writer by the name of Frederica Mathewes Green. If you do not know Mathewes-Green, I would recommend you read her. She is a good spiritual writer. The book of hers that I’ve read and love is called, very simply, The Jesus Prayer. And I love it.

The Jesus Prayer, for those of you who might not know, is a prayer very popular in the Eastern Orthodox Chrurch. In fact, it is kind of the “Gem” of the Eastern Church. We’ll talk about the actual Jesus prayer in just a moment. First, let’s take a look at where the Jesus Prayer came from.

This morning, in our Gospel, we find the kernel from which the Jesus Prayer arises. And I really enjoy our Gospel reading this morning. It is a story that at first seems to be leading us in one direction.

We find Jesus at Jericho, which reminds us, of course, of the story from Joshua and the crumbling walls. We then find this strangely detailed story of Barthemaeus. It’s detailed in the sense that we not only have his name, but also the fact that he was the son of Timaeus. That’s an interesting little tidbit. And we find that he is blind.

Now, it’s not a big mystery what’s going to happen. We know where this story is going. We know Bartemaeus is going to be healed. We know he is going to see.

But the real gem of this story doesn’t have to do with Jericho, or the fact that we will never again hear about Bartimeus son of Timaeus. The real gem of this story is that little prayer Bartimaeus prays. There it is, huddled down within the Gospel like a wonderful little treasure.

“Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!”

This prayer is essentially the basis for the popular Jesus Prayer of the Orthodox Church. At first, it doesn’t seem like much. It’s so deceptively simple. But, obviously, according to the story, the prayer is important. Jesus does what he is asked. He has mercy on this man and heals him.

So why is this prayer so important? Well, for one thing, we get a glimpse of how to pray in this wonderfully simple little prayer.

Jesus occasionally gives us advice in the gospels on how we should pray. The first one that probably comes to mind probably is the Lord’s prayer. But here we find a prayer very different than the Lord’s prayer. The Lord’s prayer is very structured. It covers all the bases. We acknowledge and adore God, we acknowledge and ask forgiveness not only for our sins, but for the sins committed against us by others. And so on. You know the prayer.

The prayer we hear this morning cuts right to very heart not only of the Lord’s prayer but to every prayer we pray. It is a prayer that rises from within—from our very core. From our heart of hearts. It is truly the Prayer of the Heart.

The words of this prayer are the words of all those nameless, formless prayers we pray all the time—those prayers that we find ourselves longing to pray. Here it is, summed up for us. Here are the words we long to use in those prayers without words.

“Jesus, have mercy on me!”

Now the actual Jesus Prayer is a only slightly more expanded. The Jesus Prayer is:

“Lord Jesus Christ, son of God [or Son of the living God], have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Or slight variations of those words. The prayer we heard this morning is essentially the same.

In the Eastern Church, the “Jesus Prayer” it is also called “the prayer of the heart.” That’s a perfect description of the prayer we heard in today’s Gospel. It is, as I said before, a prayer of the heart. If our lips could no longer pray, our heart would go on and this prayer would be the words of our heart. The fact that it is so simple is what makes the Jesus prayer so popular. Anyone can memorize it and anyone pray it with true meaning. It is a prayer we can repeat to ourselves over and over again. In fact, it is a prayer that demands to be repeated. It’s almost impossible not to repeat it.

What I find so interesting about that statement is that, limitless as this prayer might be, infinite in its use as it might be, it comes from and addresses our very own limitations. It is the prayer of absolute humility.

“Have mercy on me.”

We are humans, with all the limitations and shortcomings that entails. But rather than groaning about it and bewailing our misfortune, in this prayer we are able to acknowledge it and to simply offer it up. Like Bartimeaus, we can simply bring it before Jesus, release it, and then walk away healed.

There is no room for haughtiness when praying this prayer. The person we are when we pray it is who we really are. When all our masks and all our defenses are gone, that is when this prayer comes in and takes over for us. This is the prayer we pray when, echoing Thomas Merton, we “present ourselves naked before our God.” That’s what makes the prayer of the heart—the Jesus prayer—such a popular prayer for so many.

And this prayer does not even have to be about us. We can use this prayer when praying for others. How easy it is to simply pray:

Jesus, have mercy on her, or him, or them.

It’s wonderful isn’t it? how those simple words can pack such a wallop. We don’t have to be profound or eloquent in the words we address to God. We don’t need to go on and on beseeching and petitioning God. We simply need to open our hearts to God and the words will come. No doubt those words will be very similar to the words of the Jesus prayer.

“Lord Jesus, have mercy on me.”

So, like Bartemeaus, let us pray what is in our heart. Let us open ourselves completely and humbly to Jesus, whom follow and serve. And when we do we will find the blindness’s of our own lives healed. We will find taken from us that spiritual blindness that causes us to grope about aimlessly, to ignore those in need around us, to not see the beauty of this world that God shows us all the time.

Like Bartemaeus, we too will be healed of whatever blinds us to the Light of God breaking through into our lives. And when that blindness is taken from us, with a clear spiritual vision granted to us, we too will focus our eyes, square our shoulders and follow him on the way.





Sunday, October 21, 2012

21 Pentecost

October 21, 2012
Baptism of Julia Lisbeth Gelinske

Isaiah 53:4-12; Mark 10:35-45


+ Yesterday, our St. Stephen’s delegation to Diocesan Convention returned home. I do have to say, it was a good Convention. Maybe I should definite “good” It was good in the sense that it was not a contentious convention. No one seemed to be jockeying for position, as we often seen at such gatherings. And, trust me, I have seen jockeying at these conventions. And so have many of you.

In our Gospel reading for today, we also see some jockeying for position. I think we can all somewhat relate to this story. We have all had our own Jameses and Johns. We’ve all had them as co-workers, or fellow students, or simply fellow parishioners. They are the ones who—while we quietly labor, quietly do our duties—they sort of weasel their way up the ladder. They jockey for position.

They are the ones who try to get a better place in line by butting in from of everyone else. They are the ones who drive us—who work and sacrifice and try to do the good thing—they drive us crazy. Or maybe…and maybe none of us want to admit it …maybe, they are the ones that we relate to the most in this morning’s Gospel.

Maybe we are ourselves at times are the James and the Johns. Maybe we ourselves are the Sons or Daughters of Thunder.

Whatever the case may be, the fact is James and John are really missing out. Like some of the other apostles, they just don’t get it. They don’t quite understand what Jesus is getting at when he is talking about the last being first. They don’t understand him when he says that we are called to serve and not be served. They just don’t understand that simple virtue of humility. Their view of Christianity—their view of where they stand in relation to Jesus—is a constant jockeying for position. And many of us to this day feel the same way in our own lives, in our work and in our faith lives.

One of my dear friends this past week (not a parishioner here), admitted to me and a group of other friends how much he loves the Ayn Rand novel, The Fountainhead—a book that has now become somewhat popular again due to our current political debate sin this country. Now, to be clear. He never actually read it. But his view of it—as it’s been summarized for him—is that it is not our duty to help anyone, unless we help ourselves first. And even then, it is not our duty to help anyone who refuses to help themselves.

Now this friend of mine is a faithful Christian and a faithful Church-goer. But when I tried to explain that Jesus is very clear on this issue and that Jesus and Ayn Rand hold completely different views about things, he said sort of rolled his eyes and poo-pooed me for being too soft.

What today’s Gospel shows us is that Jesus is calling us to something much bigger than we—or my friend, or Ayn Rand for that matter—probably fully understand. I think a lot of us—even those of us who come to church every Sunday—sometimes look at Christianity as a somewhat quaint, peace-loving religion. We dress up, we come to church on Sunday, we sing hymns, we hear about God’s love, we receive Jesus in the Bread and Wine, and then we go home and…and we don’t think about it again until the next week.

But the Christianity of Jesus is not soft. It is not just a whitewashed, quaint religion. The Christianity of Jesus, as we hopefully have all figured out here at St. Stephen’s, is a radical faith. It is a faith that challenges—that makes us uncomfortable when we get comfortable, that riles us when we have become complacent. It is a faith that works well here in church, on Sunday morning, but also should motivate us to get up from these pews and go out into the world and live out the faith we have learned here by serving others. And it is this fact that many of us might find a bit frightening.

Like James and John, we all want to gain heaven. We want a nice place beside Jesus in that world-to-come. But few of us want to live out our faith in all that do and say right now. And even fewer of us are ready to be servants—to be slaves for others.

We don’t always want to serve the lowliest among us. We don’t want to suffer like Jesus suffered. We don’t want to taste from the same cup of anguish that Jesus drank from on the night before he was murdered. And we sure don’t want to be humble sometimes.

I will admit, I am in that boat sometimes. I sometimes don’t want to be a servant or slave to others. I don’t want to suffer like Jesus suffered. And although I might try—and not always that hard—I am not so good at being humble sometimes.

But we all, I think, at least here at St. Stephen’s, are trying. We all making the effort in some way. As followers of Jesus, we are reminded that we are called truly to be servants to each other and especially to those who need to be served. We are asked as followers to do something uncomfortable. We are to asked to take a long, hard look at the world around us and to recognize the fact that there are people living in need in our midst. And we are called to serve them.

What we cannot do is ignore them. When I ignore those in need, when I don’t serve, when I don’t stand up against injustice—I am made very aware that in that moment, I am not following Jesus. If I don’t do those things, but I still stand up here and call myself a Christian, then I have truly become a “Son of Thunder.”

And, for most of us, that is exactly what it sounds like when we want the benefits of our faith, without making the sacrifices of our faith. In those instances, we truly do sound like a low, distant thunder. We cannot bulldoze our way into heaven by riding roughshod over those we should be serving along the way.

For us, as followers of Jesus, our job is simply to love God and love our neighbor as yourselves—and when we do, in our lives, in our work, in the way we perceive the world around us, then a natural humility will come over us. In those moments, we will recognize that God is in control. Not us. What is more humbling than that realization in our lives?

Again, here is another example of this radical Christianity. It carries through in how we serve each other. Christians are not expected to bring anyone to Jesus through an arrogant attitude. We are not expected to come charging into people’s lives, making them tremble before us in fear. We are not expected to thump our Bibles and wave the Words of Jesus before people in a desperate attempt to win souls for Jesus. We aren’t forcing Jesus on anyone, nor should we. In doing so, we dominate people. We coerce them into believing. But if we simply serve those Jesus calls us to serve, with love and charity and humility, sometimes that says more than any Sunday sermon or curbside rant.

Think of the words Jesus could use. He could use, “power” to mean “dominance,” or “oppression” or “force.” But he doesn’t. Rather, Jesus uses the words “serve” and “servant”

Certainly we are given plenty of “power” as Christians. In our baptism, in which baby Julia will soon participate, we are given power—but this power we are given is the power to die in Christ and to be raised into a new life with Christ. That is what we celebrate every time we celebrate a Baptism and renew our baptismal vows. That is what we celebrate when we think back to what happened at our own baptisms. We celebrate and we live out in our lives this power—this power that we are dead to our former selves and alive—alive in a powerful and amazing way—with Christ.

Baptism empowers us—it makes us something more than we were before—but not in the way we think of as empowering. It empowers us by making us true servants to each other. It not a strength that overpowers others. It is rather a strength rather that empowers us to serve each other and God. It strengthens us to bear the anguish and despair of this life. It strengthens us to persevere and to live our lives fully in Christ.

In all of this, Jesus is telling us that we are to be servants—servants not only to God, but to each other as well. I, as a priest, who stands here at this altar at each celebration of the Eucharist —I am not the only one called to be a minister of God. We are all called to be ministers of God. By our very baptism, by the Eucharist we share at this altar each Sunday, we are called by God to serve each other.

We are not here on Sunday morning to be served—to be waited upon, to be lavished with gifts. We are here to serve. And it is this sense of service that we must take with us out of here into the world.

James and John eventually figured this out. They went on from that day and served Jesus in the world. Eventually , they would both die for Jesus as martyrs—as very witnesses to Christ by their deaths.

So, for those of us who get angry at the sons of thunder in our lives—be patient. For those of who recognize ourselves as a son or daughter of thunder—relax. Jesus always finds a way to break through our barriers—if we let him. It is this breaking through, after all, that makes our Christianity so radical. So, let us serve God. Let us serve each other in whatever ways God leads us to serve.

In a few very short moments, we will be reminded again what it means to serve when we renew our baptismal vows. In doing so, remember that we are empowered in ways in which we might not even have been fully aware. By the very fact that we are baptized and fed with Jesus’ Body and Blood, we live out our service in the world. And when we do, we just may find that the thunder we hear is the thunder not of arrogance or pride, but rather the thunder of the kingdom of God breaking through into our midst.