Sunday, September 9, 2012

15 Pentecost

September 9, 2012

Isaiah 35.4-7a

+ 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.

“Fear not.”

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.

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