Sunday, September 30, 2012
+ Unless you’re living under a rock, you know that we are living in a very politically charged season at this moment. The elections are upon us and people are being very vocal about their political stances. And it has actually gotten quite ugly on both sides of the political spectrum, if Facebook is any kind of microcosm of the larger arguments. But, for me, my issue, more than anything else—I’m a priest after all—has been how the Church has been involved in some of these political issues.
One of our new members at St. Stephen’s, Sandy Krenz (who is not here this morning), shared this little tidbit on her Facebook page a few days ago:
“The [Roman Catholic] Archbishop of Newark just sent a pastoral letter, addressed to over 1 million Catholics in his archdiocese, demanding that Catholics who support marriage equality refrain from receiving Holy Communion."
I don’t even know here to begin to express my frustration and anger over this kind of thinking. People who support marriage equality should refrain from Holy Communion…l. Essentially what is being said in a comment like this is that, if you support something like marriage equality, you should refrain from receiving Christ’s loving Presence in the Eucharist.
To even begin to unpack and disassemble this thinking is more than I am capable of at this time. I just can’t do it.
But I can say this: there are moments, in my life as a Christian and a priest, when behavior such as this hits me like a ton of bricks.
In this morning’s Gospel, we find the followers of Jesus coming to him and complaining about someone—an outsider, not one of the inner circle of Jesus’ followers—who is casting out demons in Jesus’ name. We don’t know who this person was—we never hear anything more about him. Possibly it was one of those many multitudes of people who were simply following Jesus around, observing all that he had done. It was probably a genuine follower of Jesus who simply had not—for whatever reasons—made it into the inner circle of Jesus’ followers.
However, the disciples do not like it. They are threatened by this person—this outsider. And because he is an outsider, they want it stopped. So, thinking he will put an end to it, they go to Jesus. You can almost hear them as they whine and complain to him about this supposedly pretentious person.
But Jesus—once again—does not do what they—or we, in that same situation—think he will do. Jesus tells them:
“Whoever is not against us is for us.”
You would think that we—the Church—would have learned from this story. You think we would have been able to hear this story and realize that, if we are all working together for the same goal—for the welcoming of all people into the Church, into that holy meal in which Jesus feeds us with his very self—then, we are all working together in Jesus’ name. But the fact is, we have not quite “got it.” When the Church acts like the Archbishop of Newark, we have seen it acting like the disciples in today’s Gospel. And we do not see it acting as Jesus wishes it to be acting.
Now, again, I need to stress that I’m talking about the Church—capital C—and I am talking the capital-C Church, I am talking about the human-run organization of the Church. As such, let’s face it, it is an imperfect structure. It has the same faults and failings of all human-run organizations—no matter how blessed it claims to be by God.
As I’ve shared with you on many occasions, I have always had this weird love-hate relationship with the organized Church. On one hand, I truly love the Church. I love serving God’s people within the structure of the Episcopal Church, in the Anglican Communion, and I love serving here at St. Stephen’s (I’ve been priest in charge here four years tomorrow). I love the Church’s traditions. I love its liturgy. My greatest love in the Church, as you all know, is the Holy Eucharist As I’ve mentioned many times here before you, I love being a priest.
And, on really good days, I am so keenly aware that the Church truly is a family. We are a family that might not always get along with each other, but when it comes right down to it, we do love each other in the end.
But I will be just as honest that, when I hear things like this news report of the Catholic Archdiocese of New Jersey, I find being a member of the Church a burden. The Church—as most of us know—can be a fickle place to be at times. It can be a place where people are more interested in rules and dogmas—in ostracizing and alienating—than a place of acceptance and love that furthers that radical Kingdom of God in our very midst. It can be a place where people are so caught up in doing what they feel is right, that they run rough-shod over people who truly need the Church and who truly long for God—for a people who crave Jesus in the food of the altar.
When I was ordained, I remember a colleague of mine—someone who knew about my love-hate relationship with the Church—saying to me that they found it amazing that I—of all people—was putting on the “uniform” of the organized Church. I remember being shocked by that statement.
For some reason I hadn’t even considered the fact that I would now be a representative of something that I wasn’t certain I wanted to represent. In the years since my ordinations, I have found that, yes, I am a representative of the Church in ways others might not be. The collar I wear instantly identifies me, and there have been many people who have come up to me, because of the collar I wear, and have made assumptions about where I must stand on certain issues in the Church. Sometimes, they are shocked to find that I don’t hold the opinions they think I should. And sometimes, people are downright offended that I don’t. Sometimes people are especially shocked to hear that I—an ordained priest—would even dare profess the hate side of my love-hate relationship with the Church.
But not being honest about it only helps perpetuate the hypocrisy the Church so often is accused of. So many people share with me how they have been hurt by the Church. No wonder, when Bishops and Archbishops and priests and lay people of many denominations say that Holy Communion should be denied to certain people for their convictions, their political beliefs, or simply for being who they are.
But, as that uniform-representative representative of the Church, I am proud to say I serve a congregation that does not do that. Here at St. Stephen’s, Holy Communion is what Holy Communion should be—a radical meal in which Jesus gives himself to us fully and completely to EVERYONE.
Now, I DO love the Church. I see the Church, at times, as making a real solid effort to be what Jesus wanted it to be. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t be here in the Church.
One aspect of the Church that I have always loved is the belief—and the fact— that there is room here for everyone in the Church—no matter who they are. I feel there is room for people who have differing views in the Church. Not everyone has to agree. But we all do have to make room for each other here. We cannot ignore Jesus’ words, “Whoever is not against us is for us.”
All of us—no matter who we are and what we are—as long as we are struggling together for the same goal—as long as we are casting out the demons of this world from our midst in Jesus’ name, have the right to be called disciples of Jesus and have the right to feed on Jesus in Holy Communion. .
This Church that I love is a wonderful place. And I think it is a place from which everyone can benefit. Like those disciples, none of us are perfect. All of us are fractured, stupid people at times. I am a fractured, stupid person sometimes! Because we are fractured stupid people, isn’t it wonderful that we have a place to come to even when we’re fractured and stupid, a place where we are not judged, a place where we are welcomed for who and what we are.
Isn’t it incredible that, in our fractured, imperfect state, we are able to come to this altar, to feed on the Body of Jesus and to drink his Blood and to be renewed. Isn’t it great that Jesus is able to embody himself in us—us, these imperfect vessels we are?
This is the ideal of the Church. This is the place Jesus intended it be. The Jesus we encounter in Holy Communion puts all of us on common ground. The Jesus we encounter in Holy Communion makes us all equal. The Jesus we encounter in Holy Communion eliminates those fringes of society, those marginalized places and makes us all part of the inner circle.
We—all of us—are the inner circle of Jesus’ followers, no matter who we are. So let us remember, the Church is not exclusive club. The Eucharist is not an $5,000-a-plate political dinner that is meant only for those with certain views.
Following Jesus means making room for the person we might not agree with. Following Jesus means walking alongside someone whom no one else loves or cares for. Following Jesus means, as he tells us this morning, being at peace with each other. Following Jesus means loving each other—no matter who or what we are. Following Jesus means embodying his love and acceptance in all we do.
When we do that, we are the Church. When we do that, we are doing more good, than all the harm bishops and archbishops and priests and lay people can ever do. When we do that, we are embodying Jesus to those around us. And we are bearing the very Name of Christ by our very presence.
So, let us bear that holy Name. Let us embody Jesus. Let us welcome all—no matter who they are or what they are. Let us reach out in love and acceptance to all those who need, and even to those who defy us. And when we do, the Kingdom of God will come crashing into our lives and into the lives of those around us like an overwhelming flood.
Sunday, September 23, 2012
+ A few weeks ago I preached about my being an Oblate of St. Benedict. An oblate, just to refresh ourselves, is a person who promises to follow the Rule of St. Benedict in their daily lives and to pray the Daily Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer every day. For twenty years last August, I was an Oblate of Blue Cloud Abbey in Marvin, South Dakota—a Roman Catholic Benedictine Monastery. But, of course, they closed in August and I lamented the fact a couple of weeks ago in my sermon that I felt a bit aimless—I was an Oblate without a monastery.
Well, not so anymore. This past week I officially transferred my Oblation to St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, just outside St. Cloud. I feel very good about transferring my oblation there. It has been an important place to me for over twenty-five years of my life. So, life is feeling a little more like normal for me today.
As I have mentioned many times, my life as on Oblate is very important to me—both as a Christian and as a priest. And so a move like this is a momentous one in my personal life—it wasn’t an easy decision to make. Probably the hallmark of my life as an Oblate and a priest, as I mentioned last week, is my praying every day of the Daily Office—the services of Morning and Evening Prayer from the Book of Common Prayer.
Which led me last week to preach about the psalms. Now, I was a little apprehensive about preaching about the psalms. Poetry—which of course the psalms are, they’re poems—is such a fickle thing. I can say that: I’m a poet. And poetry is one of those things that people either get or don’t get. I know: I’ve heard some of your comments about my own poems, when you’ve read my books. But, I actually heard some really nice comments about last week’s sermon, and about poetry in general.
See what happens when you do things like that? You get another sermon on the psalms.
Now, today, I am going to preach on our psalm. But this isn’t one of those nice psalms we had like last week. The psalm we encounter today is one of those psalms that makes us stop and take notice. There’s a line in it that makes us stop short.
Occasionally, in the Psalms, we do come across language that we might find a bit—how shall we say—uncomfortable. Often in the Lectionary of the Church—the assigned readings from the Bible that we share each Sunday morning—some of those phrases that some people might find offensive are found bracketed. In those cases, we have the option to not use such language. The language, after all, is violent often. It is not the language good Christian people should use.
We get a peek at this language in today’s Psalm This verse is not bracketed—it’s actually fairly minor in tone compared to some of the bracketed verses in other Psalms. But for many us, as we sing it, it might give us pause.
The verse I’m speaking of is this one,
render evil to those who spy on me;
in your faithfulness destroy them.
This is not the kind of prayer we have been taught to pray as followers of Jesus. After all, as followers of Jesus, we’re taught to love and love fully and completely. We certainly weren’t taught to pray for God to destroy our enemies. We have been taught to pray for our enemies, not pray against them. None of us would ever even think of praying to God to destroy anyone.
But the fact is, although we find it hard to admit at times, we do actually think and feel this way. Even if we might not actually say it, we sometimes secretly wish the worse for those people who have wronged us in whatever way.
I like to think that, rather than this being negative or wrong, that we should, in fact, be honest about it. We sometimes get angry at people. We sometimes don’t like people. And sometimes we might just hate people. It’s a fact of life—not one we want to readily admit to, but it is there. Sometimes it is very, very hard to love our enemies. Sometimes it is probably the hardest thing in the world to pray for people who have hurt us or wronged us.
So, what do we do in those moments when we can’t pray for our enemies—when we can’t forgive? Well, most of us just simply close up. We put up a wall and we swallow that anger and we let it fester inside us. Especially those of us who come from good Scandinavian stock.
We simply aren’t the kind of people who wail and complain about our anger or our losses. I think we may tend to deny it.
But what about that anger in our relationship to God? What about that anger when it comes to following Jesus? Well, again, we probably don’t recognize our anger before God nor do we bring it before God. We, I think, look at our anger as something outside our following of Jesus.
And that is where Psalms of this sort come in. It is in those moments when we don’t bring our anger and our frustration before God, that we need those verses like the one we encounter in today’s Psalm. When we look at those poets who wrote this Psalm—when we recognize her or him as a Jew in a time of war or famine—we realize that for the poet—for the Psalmist—it was natural to bring everything before God. Everything. Not just the good stuff. Not just the nice stuff. But that bad stuff too.
And I think this is the best lesson we can learn from the Psalmist than anything else. We all have a “shadow side,” shall we say. We all have a dark side. And we need to remember that we can not hide that “shadow side” of ourselves from God. This is the self maybe no one else has ever seen—not even our spouse or partner. Maybe it is a side of ourselves we might have not even acknowledged to ourselves. It is this part of ourselves that fosters anger and pride and lust. It is this side of ourselves that may be secretly violent or mean or gossipy. Sometimes it will never make an appearance. It stays in the shadows and lingers there. Sometimes it actually does make itself known. Sometimes it comes plowing into our lives when we neither expect it nor want it. But as much we try to deny it or ignore it or hide it, the fact is; we can’t hide this dark side from God.
It’s incredible really when you think about it: that God, who knows even that shadow side of us—that side of us we might not even fully know ourselves—God who knows us even that completely still loves us and is with us. Few of us lay that shadow self before God. But the Psalmist does, in fact bring it out before God. The Psalmist wails and complains to God and lays bare that shadow side of him or herself. The Psalmist is blatantly honest before God.
The fact is: sometimes we do secretly wish bad things on our enemies. Sometimes we do wish God would render evil on those who are evil to us. Sometimes we do hope that God will completely wipe away those people who hurt us from our lives.
It is in those moments, that it is all right to pray to God in such a way. Because the fact is—as I hope we’ve all learned by now—just because we pray for it doesn’t mean God is going to grant it. God knows what to grant in prayer. And why. The important thing here is not what we are praying for. It is not important that in this Psalm we are praying for God to destroy our enemies.
It is important that, even in our anger, even in our frustration and our pain, we have come to God. We have come before God as this imperfect person. We have come to God with a long dark shadow trailing us.
I have heard people say that we shouldn’t pray these difficult passages of the Psalms because they are “bad theology” or “bad psychology.” They are neither. They are actually good theology and good psychology. Take what it is hurting you and bothering you and release it. Let it out before God. Be honest with God about these bad things. Even if your anger is directed at God for whatever reason, be honest with God. Rail and rant and rave at God in your anger. Trust me, God can take it.
But, the Psalms teach us as well that once we have done that—once we have opened ourselves completely to God—once we have revealed our shadows to God—then we must turn to God and turn away from that shadow self. See what we find in today’s Psalm after that little verse that may have caught us?
I will offer you a freewill sacrifice
and praise your name, O LORD, for it is good.
See, it is good theology and it’s good psychology. It’s good theology because we are being open and honest in our relationship with God. And it is good psychology because we not carrying around that psychological baggage that can hurt us and eventually destroy us.
Hatred and anger and pain are things that, in the long run, hurt us and destroy us. At some point, as we all know, we must grow beyond whatever anger we might have. We must not get caught in that self-destructive cycle anger can cause. We must not allow those negative feelings to make us bitter.
So, when we pray these psalms together and we come across those verses that might take by alarm, let us recognize in them what they truly are—honest prayers before God
The Anglican theologian Simon Jones, who also happens to be an Oblate of the Anglican Benedictine monastery of Elmore Abbey, writes,
“[The psalms]…give the community which prays them permission to be itself before God, a voice to express itself before God and, not least, an ear to hear the voice of God.”
Let these psalms—these lamenting, angry psalms, as well as the joyful, exultant psalms—be our voice expressing itself before God. And in the echo of those words, let us hear God speaking to us in turn. When we do, we will find ourselves in conversation with God. And, in that conversation, we will find that, even despite that shadow side of ourselves, God accepts us fully and completely for who we are.
Sunday, September 16, 2012
Psalm 116.1-8; Mark 8.27-38
+ As I’ve shared with some of you, I have been lamenting—lamenting’s a nice word for what I’ve been doing—over the fact that I am revising my Will. It’s been an ordeal, let me tell you. Ten years ago when I first made out my will, life seemed so much simpler. Now, it’s so complicated. I have more to get rid of now when I die. It’s just awful!
One of the things I had to be forced to think about is the distribution of my collection of poetry manuscripts. Lord! You’d think it wouldn’t be so hard, but sorting through 25 years of manuscripts, putting them in some sort of order and getting them ready to donate to the Institute for Regional Studies has been even more difficulty than anyone would imagine. But, it has been interesting, and has been enlightening going through old manuscripts.
You may recall a few weeks ago when I shared you with my apprehension regarding Pastor Mark Strobel’s view that my first poetic influences were those Lutheran hymns I heard in Maple Sheyenne Lutheran Church as a child. Of course—I hate to say it—he was right. But….what I discovered from my manuscripts was another influence from Maple Sheyenne Lutheran Church. Who’d ‘a thought!
One of the few sermons I remember hearing as a little boy was on poetry, of all things—and it influenced me greatly, although I didn’t know it at the time. I found document in which I shared how I had once heard a sermon preached when I was about five or six years old, on Psalm 56 (verse 8), the one about how every tear we cry is collected by God into a bottle. The actual verse is:
“You have noted my lamentation;
you have put my tears into your bottle.”
Now, of course, at that age I would never have known if he was preaching on a psalm or a Gospel or whatever, but what I do remember, even to this day, is the Pastor holding up a bottle of water that he said was filled with tears. It was a powerful image for me at that age. And it was, I think, the beginning of my love for poetry and, especially the Psalms. Over the years since, as I’ve come across verse 8 in Psalm 56, I remember for a moment how I felt that Sunday morning all those years ago when that Pastor held up that bottle.
Now, outside of that, I don’t remember any priest or pastor ever preaching on the psalms—or certainly never preaching an entire sermon on just the psalms. And I realize that, by not preaching on the psalms on occasion, preachers really are missing out on some beautiful images that can help all of us in our relationship with God—and certainly help us as followers of Jesus.
I’m sure it’s not a surprise to you that your priest, who’s also a poet, has been drawn to the psalms all of his life. In fact, the psalms are a very important part of my daily prayer life.
As you all know, I have pray the Daily Office—the services of Morning and Evening Prayer from the Book of Common Prayer, every day, without fail—and have at least since I was ordained, but much earlier than that These services revolve around the daily reciting of Psalms. The Psalms, in the Daily Office, are used very much as prayer. And my whole prayer life is enriched by this practice.
Now we all know Psalms can be read, but Psalms are most effective when they are actually prayed—when we use them as prayer. After praying the psalms in such a way, one finds that they, in a way somewhat different than other scriptures, really do seep into one’s very spiritual core. To use language from the psalms themselves, they “seep into our bones like oil.” They speak to us in a way few other scriptures do.
And as a poet and priest, I love to preached on some of the poetic language we find in the scriptures and how sometimes it is good to have a poet in the pulpit (sometimes it’s bad to have a poet in the pulpit, especially when he or she gets a little too fancy in).
What so many people seem to forget about the psalms is that they are poems. Yes, originally they were written to be sung—and I am very happy that we sing our psalms here at St. Stephen’s But as we all know, the words to songs are poems. Poems were originally written to be sung. When we look at the psalms as poems—when we recognize the poetic language contained within them and within much of scripture— most of us find ourselves coming away from the psalms with a deeper understanding of them.
The language and the imagery of these poems has spoken to people for thousands of years, in much the same way the words to our favorite songs have. Look back over your own lives. How many times—at how many funerals—have we found ourselves comforted by the words of the traditional King James Version of the 23rd Psalm? Think of how many times you may have prayed these Psalms in church on Sunday over the course of your lifetime.
The reasons the Psalms are so important to us is because they are so universal. They cover the whole gamut of emotions and feelings. It’s the one part of the Bible we all know we can turn to and find just what we need when we need it. When we are angry or frustrated, it’s not hard to find a psalm that addresses that feeling. If we are joyful and happy, there are psalms for that as well. When we feel as though we’ve been betrayed and slighted, there are psalms there for us at that moment as well.
Today we the beginning section of Psalm 116. At first, as we read it, we might think that it has a kind of tone of self-centeredness. The psalm is not a collective—it is not “us” collectively, who are praying here—it very much singular.
“I” love the LORD who has heard “my” voice.
We’re not talking about common prayer here. We are talking about individual prayer. Another reason why the psalms are so vital is that they are very much the prayers of each of us as individuals. The psalms involve God and you. As we continue on in the psalm, we find the poet giving us a bit of background. Obviously he or she is emerging from a life-altering experience.
“The cords of death entangled me,”
“The anguish of the grave came upon me.”
This is not light and airy verse. These are the words of the Cross. These are words that could easily have been sung while someone hung on the cross of their death. Psalm 116 isn’t a poem of roses and clouds. This is heavy language and heavy imagery. And language we don’t often use for ourselves.
But we need to remember here, that it is a poet writing these words. Poetic language is sometimes not as literal as we might think it is. And that is why we need to be careful when it comes to a literal interpretation of scripture. Poetry should not be interpreted literally.
Oftentimes in our lives—when we have been so filled with despair, with depression, with fear—we might often feel as though death has, in fact, entangled us. Certainly in those moments when we are feeling desolate and down, life seems far away from us, while death seems too close for comfort—event though it really isn’t. And if we are looking at it from a spiritual point of view, spiritual death is always lurking closer to us than we might want to admit. It is easy to fall into the snares of despair. Often God does feel far from us and a spiritual darkness and death come over us. In those moments, we do truly come to “grief and sorrow.”
However, in the psalms—even the laments and the dirges—those psalms that deal with the depressions and despairs of this life—those moments when one cries out to God and complains to God—even in those psalms there is always a moment, when everything turns for the better.
This psalm started out on a dark note, but there comes the moment, when the poet turns from despair and illness and looks to God—to the Life and Light God grants. The poet at this point calls out to God, “Save my life.”
And here is the paradox we are dealing with as believers. The poet is vindicated in calling out to God in the midst of despair. The poet is innocent—of what we’re not certain, possibly innocent of whatever sins he or she feels punished for by depression or illness. And God, who is gracious and righteous and full of compassion, hears the prayer and grants it. God saves the poet.
So, in a matter of moments, we have gone from complete despair—from a place near death—to a place of absolute joy. The restless soul of the poet finds its rest in the peace and calm of God’s Presence. The eyes that were once filled with tears have been rescued from their crying, the feet that stumbled in their weakness are now steady and full of strength, because of God’s life-giving presence. And this section of the psalm ends on a note exactly opposite of how it began. Those images of being entangled by death in the beginning of this section are replace by this incredible image of walking with God among the living.
Here we have a prime reason of why the psalms are so powerful and important to us still. Most of us gathered here this morning can no doubt relate in many varying ways to this psalm. We know what this feeling is like—to be able to have our unhappiness turned to joy. Or if we don’t—and we haven’t experienced it—then we certainly long for it.
Here, in the words of this psalm, are what we long for in our relationship with God. See how powerful and wonderful these psalms are. See what a storehouse of spiritual help these psalms contain.
So, let us take to heart the words of the psalms we pray each week. Don’t just take them for granted. Let them become your prayer as well. Take the psalm that we pray each week with you as you leave here and return to that psalm again and again during the week. Read it over again.
And more importantly, pray it. Use it as your prayer as you take up your cross and follow Jesus where he goes. Like him pray it even from the crosses of your life. Even in those dark moments, let it be your voice that rises to God in joy and happiness in the face of the encroaching darkness. That is the true power of the psalms.
And before we know it, we will find ourselves being the poet of these psalms. We will find that these words are our words. We will find that these words are not just words on a page, but a voice that comes from deep within our hearts. Before we know it, we will hear something very strange. We will hear our own voice in these psalms, saying to us,
“I love the LORD, who has heard my voice,
and listened to supplication.”
Sunday, September 9, 2012
September 9, 2012
+ I had a moment of realization this past week. Sometimes those moments are wonderful things. Sometimes they’re quite sobering. But this one was a good one, though it was also sobering, as well.
I realized that, on October 1st, I will have been priest-in-charge of St. Stephen’s for four years. Four years. That’s a good amount of time to ask one’s self is one is doing all right or not. For me, it has been a great four years. I feel very blessed to be here at St. Stephen’s. I realized the other day that not many priests are as fortunate as I am. I serve a congregation that, for the most part, is committed to the same things I am.
OK. Yes, I’ll admit. I’m a bit more Anglo-Catholic in some areas than some people might like—and of course, my Anglo-Catholicism is a very important part of my life and ministry. But I think you’ve either enjoyed that aspect of my life by this time or just learned to ignore it.
But the other issues in my life are issues that we celebrate and strive to spread with others as a congregation. Issues such as radical hospitality to those who come to us. An amazing sense of welcoming all people as children of God within this congregation—no matter who they are or what they are. A commitment to service beyond these walls. A commitment to the sacraments and to the Word. A strong sense that our collective lives as followers of Jesus are centered on the celebration each week of the Holy Eucharist and the hearing of the Word of God in scripture.
These are all things that make us who we are as a congregation here at St. Stephen’s. And they are things that, together, are, sadly, rare in many churches. That is why people are finding us. That is why people are seeking us out.
On this Dedication Sunday—this Sunday in which we celebrate and remind ourselves who we are and where we’ve been—it’s important for us to be reminded of those things that make us a bit different than other congregations. I don’t mean that in a smug, self-congratulatory way. I mean that in a humble way, a way in which we all find ourselves grateful to God and to each other for bringing us here, to this place, in this time and in this moment.
As followers of Jesus, we have found something in this congregation that we haven’t necessarily found elsewhere—at least in this particular way. For us, who call ourselves members of St. Stephen’s, we know that something unique and wonderful is happening here and has been happening for some time. And all we can do in the face of that happening is give thanks God and to continue to do what we are called to do as followers of Jesus.
As we all know—as we all strive and continue to work to make the Kingdom of God a reality in our midst—it is not easy. It has not been easy to get to this point in our collective lives here at St. Stephen’s. There have been set-backs. There have been trip-ups. There have been frustration. And there has been fear over the future. And if I was to name what our greatest enemy is for our future here at St. Stephen’s, I would say it is this fear.
“Do not fear,” God tells us through the prophet Isaiah in our reading today from the Hebrew scriptures.
And you have heard me preach on these words before and, trust me, I will preach on it again and again. Just try to stop me! The reason I preach about it so often is simple: I think these three words are among the most important words we find in Scripture.
Do not fear.
Coming from God, these are not empty words. Coming from God, they are a command. They are a charge for us to stand up and to face fear. They are a command from God to stand up to fear and to conquer it.
Do not fear.
Those are soothing words to most of us, because, let’s face it: we all feel fear at times. We face fear when we allow uncertainly to rule, when we allow our nay-sayers to win out over us. There are people out there who claim to be followers of Jesus who say we, in our commitment to welcoming all people, are not really followers of Jesus.
We at St. Stephen’s deal with a lot of people who resist what we are doing, who protest what we are doing, who criticize and undervalue what we are doing, who say we should not be doing what we are doing. But we are armed with our commitment to follow Jesus wherever he leads—without fear And we are strengthened with that command from God to “not fear.”
However, it is more than just a matter of saying it. We need to believe it and we need to live out in our lives and in our ministries. Those words—Fear not—need to be the “call words” for us throughout our entire lives and ministries. No matter how much we claim our own braveness, we do feel real fear. And we’re not the only ones.
Isaiah and the people he was prophesying to in our scripture reading from today knew a few things about fear. Isaiah’s message for today came in the midst of a message few people wanted to hear. He was in the midst of telling those people that the world they knew and cherished was about to come to an end. Armies were amassing, ready to overtake the lands of Judea and Israel and send its people off into exile. Most people who heard Isaiah, of course, didn’t believe him. How could we—God’s chosen people—be driven out of this land that God led our ancestors to?
As you can imagine, prophets were not always popular people. They were popular when the prophecies foretold good times that were to come. But those prophets of joy and happiness were few and far between.
We too are called to be prophets. Certainly, we at St. Stephen’s are prophets to some extent. We are, by our very existence, showing that something is about to change. The Church—capital C—the larger Church—is changing. The Church, as it used to be, is—I hate to be one to say it—dying.
That Church that was a close-minded ivory tower of repressive views regarding such issues as misogyny and homophobia and special privilege, is dying rapidly. And I think we know it. We are sensing it. God is letting us know that a Church built on anything other than love and acceptance is not the Church of Christ.
Essentially that dying Church turned away from the Gospel of Jesus, That Church turned away from Jesus, who commanded his followers to love and love radically and to accept and accept radically.
We are the prophets to the larger Church. We are the ones who are saying, THIS is the future of the Church. This is the Church in which love and acceptance prevail. This is the Church in which Jesus’ message of love and acceptance is held up and lived out. This is the Church that is striving pave the way for that Kingdom of God in which love and acceptance reigns, to break through into our midst
It is not easy to do. It is daunting. And it is frightening at times. But those words of Isaiah are ringing in our ears.
Do not fear.
"Fear not,” God is saying to us still.
Nothing you suffer from this time forward will be hidden from your God, who loves you. Nothing you have suffered so far can be hidden from God. God knows what you’ve been through and what you will go through. God is not turning a blind eye to you in the face of these hardships. Why? Because you—all of us—are valuable. Just as we hear throughout scripture that we should not fear, we also hear that we are valuable. We are precious in the eyes of God. Each and every one of us is important to God.
We so precious that God came to us as one of us in the Person of Jesus. We are so precious that God, who knew we feared—who knew that we are at times crippled by our fears and act violently and ridiculously and repressively out of our fear—came to us in Jesus and, in Jesus, showed us that fear cannot win out in the end.
In Jesus, God came to us as one of us and in our own words, with a mouth like our mouths, told us “Fear not.” In Jesus, God came to us as one of us and said to us in our uncertainty those words we long to hear.
So, let us be those prophets to those around. Let us proclaim that message of no fear. Let us, on this Dedication Sunday, do what we have been doing for 56 years. Let us embody that Jesus whom we follow. Let us continue to spread that Gospel of love and acceptance in all we do here.
And let us not fear.
The future for us is bright. It is unlimited. But we have to make it a reality. We have to strive forward. We have to labor on. We have to break down those barriers of hatred, and fear and isolation and marginalization so that Christ’s Kingdom can bloom in our midst.
We see it happening, here at St. Stephen’s. We see what the future of St. Stephen’s and the larger Church really is. When we live into that calling of Jesus, when we cease to fear, we see that, in fact, “the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
And the ears of the deaf unstopped,
The lame shall leap like a deer,
And the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.”
That is the future. And it is glorious.