Sunday, June 29, 2014

3 Pentecost

June 29, 2014

Jeremiah 28.5-9; Matthew 10. 40-42

+ Yesterday, of course, we celebrated the Requiem Mass for Wally Mayer. The church was packed for the occasion. Afterward, I was hearing several people—first-timers to St. Stephen’s—who were talking about our church. In addition to their comments about the beautiful liturgy and music were here, they talked about how impressed they were with how well received they were. They were not just greeted. They were treated and welcomed like special guests.  And, as we always do here at St. Stephen’s, we made sure they were included. Included for who they were and not for what they were.

 They were included and welcomed because each person who comes through that door, as we all know,  is important.  And it shows. One of our mottos here at St. Stephen’s, of course, is from the Rule of St. Benedict.

 We welcome every person here as though they are Christ.

 And they are treated with that respect.  

 In a sense, that is not much different than what Jesus is saying in today’s Gospel reading.

 “Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s award,” Jesus tells us.

 As we ponder these words of Jesus, we might find ourselves wondering if we would even be able to recognize a prophet much less welcome one.  Prophets seem to us like strange beings we found in the Hebrew Scriptures—wild men, with wild beards and wild talk—but certainly we don’t have prophets now in our day and age.  And even if we did, would we even believe anything they say?  If someone stands up among us and says, “God is speaking to me. And God says, the sky will fall on us this afternoon,” we would sigh and shrug our shoulders and say, “what a nut!”

 Actually, I think I have served as prophet. I remember saying to our own dear Michelle Gelinske, “Michelle, I am the prophet in your midst, you will one day find the right person.” Prophecy fulfilled!

 But, still, so, what is a prophet?  It’s an important question to ask because to receive a prophet’s reward, we should know what a prophet is.  The simple, somewhat “official,” answer to the question is this:  The prophet is a “divinely inspired preacher.” [1]

 OK. That’s nice.  But, it doesn’t really answer the question.  After all, I hope all preachers who stand up and preach here in church are at least a little bit “divinely inspired.”

 The fact is, most of us, when we think of a prophet, no doubt think of them as some sort soothsayer or a fortune teller.  When we think of a prophet we think of people who can see into the future and tell us what is going to happen.  And sometimes, it seems, they did.  Sometimes, God granted them visions of what is going to happen.

But the prophet is not a fortune teller or a soothsayer.  Being a prophet is more like seeing things the rest of us can’t.  They have intuition, a perception, granted to them by God, and they are able to see what the rest of us can’t, because God has allowed them to see it for the good of the rest of us.

The Hebrew word for prophet actually means “one who is inspired by God.” [2]  They are humans, like us, who have been touched in a special way by God.  God works in the prophet and through the prophet.  The prophet becomes the conduit through which God works.  The prophet is the messenger.  They were people who had a special relationship with God and with whom God had a special relationship.

A prophet’s life, on the surface, at very first glance, seems wonderful.  Why wouldn’t it?  The prophet doesn’t have to deal with the same issues we do in our faith in God.  They aren’t concerned with issues of doubt like we are.  They can never, in their lives, ever wonder if God truly exists.  Because they have seen God.  They have heard God speaking to them.  And, with the true prophet, they know without a doubt that God exists because when God speaks to them, what God says happens.

Now, the fact is: we have been referring to prophets as “them” up to this point. We have the idea that prophets lived way back then—in those days before Jesus.  But, prophets didn’t just stop existing when Jesus came.  God didn’t stop talking to us through prophets when Jesus came on the scene.

Yes, Jesus was the fulfillment of their prophecies.  Yes, he was what they saw coming when no one else could see. But, now, with the prophecies fulfilled, with Jesus having come to us, we find the calling of prophet expanded.  We find we have all been called to be prophets to some extent.  We are being called, like those earlier prophets, to keep our hearts and minds open to God.  

But more so, we, like them, are called to bring about something that only those who look ahead can see. For us, at St. Stephen’s, we do that all the time. We do that when we welcome others who might feel ostracized or marginalized. We do that when we welcome all people, and let them know that the God we worship here is a God of love and acceptance, a God who loves each of us fully and completely, no matter who or what we are.  When we do that, God works in us and speak through us to others.

As followers of Jesus the Prophet, we have been allowed to glimpse, like prophets, the future.  The Church of the future is not a church of oppression. The Church of the future is not for only those who are “in” The Church of the future is a place in which people will not be allowed to look down their noses at others, to judge others, to oppress others, to shun others.  The Church of the future is a radical place of love and acceptance. It is place in which all are not only welcomed in the door. It is place in which, once inside that door, they will find a home, with others, under the sheltering Love of God.

See, we are prophets. We have looked into the future, and we have seen what the Church will be. And now, in this moment, we are working hard to make that vision, that prophecy,  a reality.  We know that doing so we will all go through heartache and pain and exhaustion.

There are those people out there who do not want this Church of the future to be a reality.  They like the Church of the Past and the Church of the present. They like a church that keeps everything status quo—in which things don’t get riled up.

The Church we are striving to be is a threat to churches like that.  And because it is, they’re not going to like us. They will oppose us. They will try to stop us.  They are frightened by us and the Church of the future that we are showing them—a wild, eclectic, eccentric Church full of wild, eclectic eccentric love and acceptance.

But that’s alright. As long as we love—as long as we love God and love others radically—we’re going to be all right. We’ve seen the future, and it is good.   God has spoken to us and what God said to us will happen. Like the prophets, we have been inspired by God.  Like the prophets, we have been granted an intuition that others don’t seem to have.

As followers of Jesus, loving radically as we do, we see life differently than others.  When others despair or lose hope, we can see through those horrible things to the glory God has promised us.

Today, of course, we are celebrating this love Michelle and Matt have for each other. Both Matt and Michelle know full well that to get to this point in their lives together, they had go through some dark times.  But they have come through it, and here they are today, celebrating this love. Without a vision of their future, it could all have been despair.  But they didn’t despair, and because they didn’t, here they are.

Our job as prophets, having seen these glimpses into what awaits us, is to live this knowledge out in our lives.  Our job is to prophesy this glorious future by living our Christian lives of radical love fully and completely.  Our vocation—our calling from God—as prophets is to love God and to love one another, and by doing so, we get to show others a glimpse of the glory that awaits all of us.  Our vocation as prophets to live out the words of Jeremiah that we heard in our Old Testament reading today:

We are called to prophesy peace, because when we do, our prophecy of peace will come true and when it does, “it will be known the Lord has truly sent” us.

Our prophecies aren’t just prophecies of words. Rather we are being called as prophets to proclaim, by our actions and our words of love, that God does really loves us and, because God does, we must love each other and ourselves.

Much of the prophecies, in the Hebrew Scriptures, were prophecies of doom.  Our prophecy is a prophecy of love and joy and life and acceptance of others that never ends.  Our prophecy is that prophecy of peace that Jeremiah imagines as the fulfillment of all prophecies.

And like the prophets who saw God face to face, we too will see God face to face. This morning, as we gather here together, we carry within us, the holy Presence of God.  And when we look at each other and see each other and love each other, we are gazing into very Presence of God in our midst.

So, as we leave here today, let us take with us our prophetic knowledge and love.  Let us prophesy our love of God and of each other in all that we do and say.  And doing so, we will be the prophets of God.  We will be the ones through whom God continues to speak to the world.  And we will be the ones through whom God’s all-encompassing love will be shown to this world.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Requiem Eucharist for Wallace Mayer

The Requiem Eucharist for
Wallace Mayer
March 24, 1923-June 24, 2014
June 28, 2014
St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church

+ I am very honored to be here, to help commemorate and give thanks for the life of  Wally Mayer and to commend this wonderful man to God. I got to know both Wally and Gerene over the last several years, when I officiated at weddings and baptisms for the family.  They were a wonderful couple and Wally always carried himself with a sense of dignity and inner strength.  I was always impressed by that and by him.  I genuinely liked him and it’s obvious many of us this morning felt the same way about him.

Now, saying all of that,  I suspect that if Wally were here this afternoon, he would not want me to be up here making him out to be some kind of saint.  But I can say that I am very happy to have known Wally and to have walked with him just a little while anyway.  And I have no doubt that Wally is with us here this morning.  I am of the firm belief that what separates us who are alive and breathing here on earth from those who are now in the so-called “nearer presence of God” is actually a very thin division.

I’m also very happy the family chose to include the Eucharist as a part of this service this afternoon. There’s a great statement from The Anglican Service Book that I always like quote anytime we have a Funeral Eucharist:

 “A [funeral Eucharist] a testament of triumph and hope, for those of us who remain know that we also journey toward the same eternal home…In the Holy Eucharist, which transcends all time and space, we are closest to our faithful departed loved ones, joining our prayers and praises to theirs. We pray for them, as we believe that they pray for us, so that all may be strengthened in their lives of service.”

 So, yes, right now, I think we can feel that that separation between us here and those who have passed on is, in this moment, a very thin one.  And because of that belief, I take a certain comfort in the fact Wally is close to us this afternoon.   He is here, in our midst, celebrating his life with us.

 And we should truly celebrate his life. It was a good life.  It was a life full of meaning and purpose.  And, although it is no doubt hard to face the fact that we are distanced from him, we can take some consolation in the fact that although Wally has shed this so-called “mortal coil,” he has now entered into that loving presence of God.

 There is a great image we find in the book of Revelation.  We find in the book of Revelation Jesus saying to us,

 It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.”

 As difficult as it is in this moment, as difficult as it is to say goodbye to Wally, we are able to find strength in these words. We are able to cling to the fact that, although life is unpredictable, life is beyond our control, it is not beyond Christ’s control.  Christ knew us and loved us at our beginning and will know and love us at our end.

As the poet T.S. Eliot wrote, “In my beginning is my end. In my end is my beginning.”

As we mourn this ending, we also take great comfort in the fact that we are also celebrating a new beginning for Wally today.  This is what we believe as Christians. This is what we believe as Episcopalians.

What I love about being an Episcopalian is that sometimes we can’t clearly define what it is we believe.  Nor should we.  We can’t pin it down and examine it too closely.  When we do, we find it loses its meaning. 

But when I am asked, “what do Episcopalians believe?” I say, “we believe what we pray.”

We’re not big on dogma and rules.  We’re not caught up in the letter of the law or preaching a literal interpretation of the Bible.  But we are big on liturgy.  Our Book of Common Prayer in many ways defines what we believe.

And so when I’m asked “What do Episcopalians believe about life after death?” I say, “look at our Book of Common Prayer.”

Look at what it says.  And that is what we believe.  

Later in this service, we will all pray the same words together.  As we commend Wally to Christ’s loving and merciful arms, we will pray,

Give rest, O Christ, to your servant with your saints,
where sorrow and pain are no more,
neither sighing, but life eternal.

It is easy for us to say those words without really thinking about them. But those are not light words. Those are words that take on deeper meaning for us now than maybe at any other time. For Wally, in this ending, he has a new beginning—a new and wonderful beginning that awaits all of us as well.  Where Wally is right now—in those caring and able hands of Christ—there is no sorrow or pain. There is no sighing.  But there is life eternal.

At this time of new beginning, even here at the grave, we—who are left behind—can make our song of alleluia. Because we know that Wally and all our loved ones have been received into Christ’s arms of mercy, into Christ’s “blessed rest of everlasting peace.”

This is what we cling to on a day like today. This is where we find our strength.  This what gets us through this temporary—and I do stress that it is temporary—this temporary separation from Wally.  We know that—despite the pain and the frustration, despite the sorrow we all feel—somehow, in the end, Christ is with us and Christ is with Wally and that makes all the difference.  We know that in Christ, what seems like an ending, is actually a wonderful and new beginning.  For Wally, sorrow and pain are no more.

In our reading from Revelation we hear Christ’s promise that all our tears will one be wiped away for good. For Wally, his tears have been wiped away. Wally, in this holy moment, has gained life eternal. And that is what awaits us as well.

We might not be able to say “Alleluia” with any real enthusiasm today.  But we can find a glimmer of light in the darkness of this day. It is a glorious Light we find here.  Even if it is just a glimmer, it is a bright and wonderful Light.  And in that light is Christ, and in that light Christ is holding Wally firmly to himself.  And for that we can rejoice. For that, we can say today, in all joy, Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia.  


Sunday, June 22, 2014

2 Pentecost

June 22, 2014

Matthew 10.24-39

+ So, if I was going to ask you, what is your greatest fear? What would you answer? I think most of us would not have to think long about the answer to that question. For me, there are maybe two or three things that are my greatest fear. Now, with that answer in mind, what honestly, do you think would be the worst thing that could happen if that fear of yours became a reality?

Maybe I should ask, has one of your greatest fears ever become a reality? For me, I would say, yes.  I know that awful feeling of suddenly realizing that something I feared more than anything else became real.  It is a horrific feeling. But, weirdly, after a period of time, there is also a sense of relief. This thing I feared so much for so long, is no longer a fear. I’ve dealt with us—I didn’t have a choice. And now, it’s gone.

In a sense, that fear is possibly what Jesus is hinting at in our Gospel reading. Well, there’s a lot going on in our Gospel reading for today. There are layers and layers in our Gospel reading. And some really fairly unpleasant things.  But essentially it is about our fear of doing the work of God—doing the ministry of Christ—and, about taking up our cross.

Essentially, probably our greatest cross to bear is our fear.  Our fear of the unknown. Our fear of the future. Our fear of all those things we can’t control in our lives.

Let’s take a moment his morning to actually think about the symbol of our fears—the Cross.  Look at how deceptively simple it is.  It’s simply two pieces, bound together.  For someone who knows nothing about Christianity, for someone who knows nothing about the story, it’s a symbol they might not think much about.

And yet the Cross is more than just another symbol in our lives.  Most of us have never even given a second though to how the Cross came to be.  We no doubt think that it just simply was there when the Romans gave it to Jesus as he began his journey to Calvary.

But there is a wonderful story about it, that I’d like to share with you. This story can be found in a wonderful sermon by a saint that whose feast day we  celebrated about a week ago, St. Anthony of Padua.  St. Anthony was a priest of the Franciscan Order, the order founded St. Francis of Assisi.  In his sermon, he spoke on how the Cross was present in scripture from the very beginning of Creation.  According to St. Anthony, in his colorful sermon illustration, the Cross originated not with Jesus’ death, but it can actually be traced much earlier—to, of all people, Adam, the first human.

The story goes that when Adam became ill with his final sickness, his son Seth went looking out for medicine to heal him.  As he approached the Garden of Eden, the place from which Adam and his wife Eve were earlier cast out, Seth saw the Angel who guarded the Gate to Eden.  Seth begged the Angel to help him find medicine for his father.  The Angel broke off a branch from the Tree of Life, from which Adam and Eve had eaten the forbidden fruit.  As the Angel handed the branch to Seth, he said, “Your father will be healed when this branch bears fruit.”

Seth returned only to find that Adam had died and was buried.  Seth then buried the branch in Adam’s grave.  The branch grew into a giant tree.

Later, St. Anthony tells, this same tree was seen by the Queen of Sheba in Solomon’s house of wood, which we find in I Kings 7.2.  The Queen had a vision of the origin of the tree and of how on it one day a great man was going to die. She was unable to tell the King of her vision and instead wrote him a letter when she returned to her home, telling Solomon that she had seen in her vision a man hanging on the tree who would bring the downfall of Israel.  Solomon, in fear, buried the tree in what would become the Bethesda Pool.

The tree grew so that, by the time of Jesus, the tree grew up over the water.  It was this pool, that we find in John chapter 5.  In John we find the pool called Bethesda surrounded by five colonnades.  One of these colonnades was believed to be the Tree.  In John we find that interesting story about the Angel who would come down to disturb the water of the Bethesda Pool.  The first person to enter the water after the disturbance would be healed. It was here, on the day that Jesus was going to be crucified, that the Romans looked for a tree on which to crucify him.

And it was there that they found this tree.  They cut it down and made it into the Cross, which Jesus carried to Golgotha.

And Golgotha, as some people know, was believed to be the place where Adam and Eve were buried. In some representations of the Crucifixion, you will often see a skull at the base of the Cross—Golgotha being the place of the skull.  That skull has always traditionally been believed to be the skull of Adam.

So, the Cross had made a full circular journey back to where it began.  The tree that grew out of the grave of Adam, again was set into place on the grave of Adam and, finally, then and there, it bore its fruit.  It bore Jesus.  And the prophecy of the Angel of Eden was fulfilled.  Finally the tree bore fruit.  And when it did, Adam was restored.  Humanity was restored.  When that tree bore fruit, we found our new Adam—Jesus.

Now, the story is good for us if for no other reason in that it helps us to look at the Cross as a very major part of our salvation. Jesus knew full well what the cross was all about, even before he was nailed to it.

In our Gospel reading, he says,  “anyone who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”

These are words we do not want to hear from Jesus.  Taking up our Cross is frightening after all. The Cross, as much as it defines, as much as it is symbol of our faith, it is also an instrument of torture and death.  To take up a cross means to take up a burden—that thing we maybe fear the most in our lives.  To take it up—to face our greatest fear—is torturous.  It hurts.

When we think of that last journey Jesus took to the place of Adam’s skull, carrying that heavy tree on which he is going to be murdered, it must’ve been more horrible than we can even begin to imagine.  But the fact is, what Jesus is saying to us is: carry your cross now.  Carry it with dignity and inner strength.  But carry it without fear.

Twice in this morning’s Gospel, Jesus commands us, “Do not be afraid.”

“Do not be afraid.”

Do not be afraid of what the world can throw at you.  Do not be afraid of what can be done to the body and the flesh.  Taking our cross and bearing it bravely is a sure and certain way of not fearing.  If we take the crosses we’ve been given to bear and embrace them, rather than running away from them, we find that fear has no control over us.

The Cross destroys fear.  The Cross shatters fear into a million pieces.  And when we do fear, we know we have a place to go to for shelter.  When fear encroaches on our lives—when fear comes riding roughshod through our lives—all we have to do is face it head-on.   And there, we will find our fears destroyed.

As St. Anthony said: "Extending his arms on the cross like wings, Christ embraces all who come to him sheltering them in his wounds.”

Because of the Cross, we are taken care of.  There is no reason to fear. I know that sounds complacent. But there is no reason to fear. There is no reason to fear because we are not in control. God is in control.

“Even the hairs of your head are counted” by the God who loves us and cares for us. This God knows us intimately. So intimately than this God even knows how many hairs are on our head.

Why should we not be afraid? Because each of us is valuable. We are valuable to God, who loves us.  When we stop fearing whatever crosses we must bear in our lives, the cross will stop being something terrible.  Like that cross on which Jesus died, it will be a ugly thing will be turned into a symbol of strength and joy and unending eternal life.  Through it, we know, we must pass to find true and unending life. Through the Cross, we must pass to find ourselves, once and for all time, face-to-face with our God.

So, I invite you: take notice of the crosses around you. As you drive along, notice the crosses on the churches you pass.  Notice the crosses that surround you.  When you see the Cross, remember what it means to you.  Look to it for what it is: a triumph over every single fear in our lives. When we see the crosses in our lives, we can look at it and realize it is destroying the fear in our own lives.  Let us bear those crosses of our lives patiently and, most importantly, without fear.

We are loved by our God. Each of us is precious to our God.  Knowing that, rejoicing in that, how can we ever fear again?

 
 

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Holy Trinity

June 15, 2014


Matthew 28.16-20

+ This morning there are, no doubt, a few anxious preachers out there in the world. There is probably more than one who is going into the pulpits of churches quaking a bit over the sermon they have to preach today. For some reason—a reason I never understood—there are a lot of preachers who just don’t even want to wrestle with the subject of the Trinity.

Not me. I LOVE to preach about the Trinity.  Now, I don’t claim to know anything more about the Trinity than any other preacher.  I am no more profound than anyone else on trying to describe what the Trinity is or how it works.  For me, as for everyone here this morning, it is a mystery. In fact, God as Trinity is the ultimate mystery of mysteries.    Of course, I see it as the paramount belief we Christians have.

The Trinity.  God as Three-in-One—God as Father or Parent or Creator, God as Son or  Redeemer and God as Spirit or Sanctifier.  When we really think about it, it is difficult to wrap our minds around this concept of God.  

The questions I regularly get is: how can God be three and yet one?  How can we, in all honesty, say that we believe in one God when we worship God as three?  Aren’t we simply talking about three gods? (No, we are not talking about three Gods)

Whole Church councils have debated the issue of the Trinity throughout history.  The Church actually has split at times over its interpretation of what exactly this Trinity is.  For me, none of these are deal breakers.   The Trinity is not a stumbling block.  Yes, I know the word “Trinity” never appears in scripture.

But I do enjoy exploring the different aspects of how God as Trinity is made known to us.  And…I very unashamedly believe that God does manifest God’s self in Trinitarian terms. But that doesn’t mean I am not confused by this mystery some times.  And it doesn’t mean that I don’t occasionally doubt it all sometimes.

In our Gospel reading for today, we find that some worshipped Jesus when they saw him resurrected. And we find that “some doubted.”  I think that is a normal reaction for those people, who were still struggling to understand who Jesus was, especially this resurrected Jesus—this second person of the Trinity And the fact that we too doubt things like the Trinity is normal as well. It IS difficult to wrap our minds around such a thing.  It’s complicated and it’s complex. And, speaking for myself, sometimes the more I think about it, the more complicated it seems to get. Especially when we try to think in the so-called correct (or orthodox) way about it all.

But the doubts, the complications and intricacies of the concept of the Trinity are all part of belief.  Belief is not meant to be easy.  It is meant to be something we struggle with and carry around with us.  And doubt isn’t always a bad thing.

We all doubt at times.  Without doubt we would be nothing but mindless robots. There are moments when the Trinity does confuse me and I am filled with doubts.  I am one of those people who occasionally just wants something simple in my faith life.  I just want to believe in God—the mystery of God, the fact that God is God and any complexity about God is more than I can fathom.  I sometimes don’t want to solve the mystery of God.  I don’t want God defined for me.  I sometimes don’t want theology.  I sometimes just want spirituality. I sometimes just want God.

But, as a Christian, I can’t get around the Trinity.  And none of us can either.  And so I struggle on, just like the rest of us.

One of the best things that has helped me in my faith in God as Trinity is the famous icon of the Trinity, written (that’s the proper way to say an icon is painted or drawn) by the great Russian iconographer, Andrei Rubelev.  I have placed a modernized, even clearer version of the icon on the votive stand in the narthex.  After Mass today, I encourage you to go and take a look at it and see how truly beautiful it is.

In it you’ll find three angels seated at a table.  According to some theological interpretations, these three Angels represent the three Persons of the Trinity. In the icon we can see that all the three Angels shown as equals to each other.  In a sense, this icon is able to show in a very clear and straightforward way what all our weighty, intellectual theologies do not.  What I especially love about the image is that, in showing the three angels seated around the table, you’ll notice that there is one space at the table left open.  That is the space for you.

In a sense, we are, in this icon, being invited to the table with the Trinity.  We are being invited to join into the work of the Trinity.

And I think that is why this icon is so important to me. Yes, I have my doubts.  Yes, my rational, intellectual mind prevents me from fully understanding what this Trinity could possibly be and, as a result, doubts creep in.

But the icon does what nothing else can.  It simply allows me to come to the table and BE with God as Trinity.  It allows me to sit there with them and be one with them. And we realize, certainly in our own life here at St. Stephen’s, that God as Trinity is still calling to us to be at the table with this God. This table that we sit at is this table here—this altar.  And from this table, at which we feast with and on God as Trinity, we go out to do the ministries we are all called to do.  We go out to do the work of God as Trinity.

We don’t need to rationalize everything out about our faith in God.  We don’t need to sit around and make it a personal issue.  No matter how much we might doubt the Trinity, the Trinity exists.  God as Trinity goes on, in that eternal, wonderful relationship.  And no matter how much we might doubt in our rational minds, we are still being called to the table to sit and to serve with the Trinity.

So, let us do just that.  Let us sit down at that table.  Let us bring our doubts and uncertainties with us.  And let us leave them there at the table.  Let us let God be God.  And let us go out from this table to do the work each of us has been called to do.

Jesus today, in our Gospel reading, commands us to go and make disciples of all the nations.  By doing so, we are joining in that communion of the Trinity.  And by doing so, we know, despite our doubts, despite our uncertainties, that the Trinity will be with us always. Always. Even to the end of the age.



Wednesday, June 11, 2014

10 years as Priest

The Feast of St. Barnabas

June 11, 2014


Matthew 10.7-16
+ In our Gospel reading for tonight, we hear Jesus say, “I am sending you as sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”
 I can say that scripture has definitely been a prophecy-fulfilled in my ministry. When I heard those words ten years ago tonight, I had an idea of what Jesus meant. Ten year later, I can truly say I KNOW what Jesus meant. I’ve been there, in the midst of those wolves. And if I have had any gift granted to me by Jesus to survive, it has definitely been to be wise as a serpent and innocent as a dove.  Well, I don’t know how “innocent” I’ve been.  But I’ve tried really hard to be innocent as a dove.

 Ten years ago, at this very moment, I was waiting in the vesting room of Gethsemane Cathedral in Fargo.  That hot night (and it WAS hot that night) I was impatient. I was biting at the bit. I was straining forward. That ordination couldn’t happen fast enough. And when it did, it was something. It was unique. And it was wonderful. It truly was the Holy Spirit that night.

 At moments, it seems like it was just yesterday. And at other moments, it seems like it was 100 years ago.

 Ten years of priestly ministry. If we were going to break the numbers down, they would fall into place like this:

 1,028 Masses that I’ve celebrated (that does not include concelebrations or other masses I’ve been present at).

 That’s 1,010 sermons I have preached.

 That’s 53 weddings.

51 baptisms

97 funerals.

You wonder why I may be tired. You have heard me say it before. I will say it again a hundred times I’m sure.

I love being a priest.

I can say in all honesty that I was meant to be a priest. As sure as a shark is meant to hunt, or a fish to swim, I was meant to be a priest. It was almost like it was programed into me.  From that first day, when I heard my calling to be a priest at age 13, back in 1983, I knew this was what I was meant to do.

Now saying that, I’m not saying I have been a perfect priest. I was never called to be a perfect priest.  Nor even at times, have I been a particular good priest. I have failed. I have tripped. I have stumbled. I have made many, many mistakes. But even then, even with all the mistakes I’ve made, it’s all right. It’s all good.

Still, it hasn’t been easy.  I remember fifteen years ago, when I told the first Episcopal priest I wanted to be an Episcopal priest, he leaned back in his chair, put his fingers to his chin and shook his head.

“It’s never going to happen,” he said.

And I thought then, that was it. All right.   And if that priest had had his way, it would’ve ended there. Sadly for him, he did not get his way.

Jesus did.

Despite things like that, it has been a glorious ten years. And it has been a difficult ten years of my life. Some priests have been able to fly under the radar. Not me. Which is not always a good thing. Being a priest like me means being a target. A big target. For better or for worse.

Ten years ago, I was prepared for the backbiting, the unwarranted nitpicking, the sometimes steady criticisms, the fact that nothing I could do sometimes would ever be right for some people.   I knew those things always existed in the church. I did not go into this as some doe-eyed, na├»ve PollyAnna.  I was prepared for all this vocation would give me—both good and bad.  I was prepared for people who were not in ordained ministry who thought they knew more doing ordained ministry than me.  I was prepared for those people who thought they could do my job better than I could. And I was prepared for those who were ready to piggyback onto the good works I actually was able to accomplish.  I knew and was prepared for all of those things.

Ten years ago I thought I knew what it meant to be “broken.” I know now what it means to be broken.  And I have served many broken people.

But I was also prepared for the good things, as much as anyone can be prepared for such things in their lives.  In these ten years I’ve known the beauty of grace and friendship. I’ve known what it was to be the priest in a congregation of strong and caring people who truly care for their priest.  I’ve known the joys of being part of the celebrations that our church is known for as well—for the baptisms and the weddings and the celebrations of the good things of life. I’ve enjoyed the suppers and the parties and all the other celebrations that go along with being a priest.  

And I’ve known the incredible joy of being the priest of a congregation that has grown and expanded by leaps and bounds and to be a part of a place that has amazed everyone.  I knew what it was, in those moments, to see God breaking through in wonderful and incredible ways.  

I also realized that all that spiritual training I had—clinging to the Holy Eucharist and the discipline of the Daily Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer—could truly sustain one spiritually when the Devil takes you by throat and shakes you.  The Holy Eucharist and the Daily Office have been my buoys.  They helped me keep my head above water.

Yes, I am the scarred veteran priest. But I stand before you as priest who can still hold my head up and say, without one qualm, without one doubt, without hesitation: I am so happy to be a priest. I am! I really am!

I’m going to close tonight with the prayer I had printed on my worship booklet back then. It was a prayer I adapted from a prayer by one of my all-time heroes, Michael Ramsey, Archbishop of Canterbury. I can say that this has been a prayer that has been answered in ways I never knew prayers could be answered. This is a prayer that is a very clear warning to everyone: be careful sometimes what you pray for.  It might actually be answered.

I close with this prayer I prayed ten years ago tonight. And tonight, I can say that prayer has been answered. And for that, I am truly grateful.

Let us pray.
                                                                          
Lord Jesus, the years have fallen away—one by one—
only to reveal this one shining moment.
It lies here before me as a precious gift I neither asked for nor deserved.
And yet, here it is. Here it is in its beauty, more precious than any other gift.     
 
Only one thing I ask: take my heart and break it.
Break it not as I would like it to be broken, but as you would.
And because it is you who are breaking it, how can I be  afraid,
for your hands are the hands I have felt all my life at my back and on my face, supporting me, comforting me and guiding me
to the places you wanted me to be.
Your hands  are safety and in them, I am safe.

Take my heart and where you have broken it, fill it with joy—
not the joy I want for myself, but the joy you want for me.
Fill my heart with a burning joy and let its fire burn away
everything dead or dying within me.
Let my heart burn with a joy I can not imagine
and can only vaguely comprehend.

It’s time, Lord Jesus, and I am ready.
See! I am ready to be your priest.

 

Sunday, June 1, 2014

7 Easter

The Sunday after the Ascension


June 1, 2014

Acts 1.6-14; John 17.1-17

 
+ It doesn’t happen very often. I don’t always highlight a celebrity in my sermons. Of course, most of you know, I LOVE celebrities. Whenever I see one on a plane or anytime I’m traveling, I get a bit flustered and gushy.

But this past Wednesday morning, a celebrity died that I think needs to be remembered and celebrated. This past Wednesday, the great poet, Maya Angelou, died.  Angelou was truly one of the greats.  Not just one of the great poet. One of the greats of all time. There’s no getting around that fact. She was truly a great person who, despite the hardships of her life, despite the setbacks, despite what life threw at her at times, she rose above it all.

I think it’s appropriate that she died the day before the Feast of the Ascension. There’s a beautiful poem that she wrote that speaks to us loudly at Ascension.  She wrote,

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Ascension is, of course, all about rising. This week, we move slowly away from the Easter season toward Pentecost.  For the last several weeks, we have been basking in the afterglow of the resurrected Jesus.  In our Gospel readings, this resurrected Jesus has walked with us, has talked with us, has eaten with us and has led the way for us.

Now, as we hear in our reading from Acts this morning, he has been taken up. We find a transformation of sorts happening in our relationship with Jesus in these scripture readings. Our perception of Jesus has changed.  No longer is he the Jesus who speaks to his disciples and does miracles for those people back then, in the Palestine. Now, he is here with us.

At his Ascension, we find that he is, in our midst. Us, right here. Right now.  In us.  At his Ascension, we recognize the fact that God has truly come among us.  God is here, right now, with us.

 No, God is not speaking to us not from a pillar of cloud or fire, not on some shroud-covered mountain, not in visions. Now God is here, with us, speaking to us as we speak to each other.  At the Ascension, the puzzle pieces really start falling into place.  What seemed so confusing and unreal before is starting to come together.  God truly has come among us as one of us. And God dwells in us and through us.  

 And next week, one more puzzle piece falls into place when Jesus, in a sense, returns.  Next week, we will celebrate God’s Spirit descending upon and staying with us.

 For the moment, though, we are caught in between those two events, trying to make sense of what has happened and trying to prepare ourselves for what is about to happen.  We are caught between Jesus’ ascent into heaven and the Spirit’s descent to us.  It is a time for us to pause, to ponder who we are and where are in this place—in this time in which everything seems so spiritually topsy-turvy.

 I’m not certain there is a way we can make sense of the Ascension, but what we are faced with is the fact that in this ascended Jesus, God  still acts in our lives.  God acts us and through us.  I can’t repeat that enough.  The commission that the ascended Jesus gave to the apostles, is still very much our commission as well.  We must love—fully and completely.  Because in loving, we are living.  In loving, we are living fully and completely.  In loving, we are bringing the ascended Christ to others.  And we must go out and live out this commission in the world. When we do, the ascended Christ is very much acting in the world.

 For those first followers of Jesus, it seems like they didn’t have much of a change to ponder their life-altering experiences. As soon as one life-altering experience happened, another one came along.  Just when they had experiences Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension, they encountered this outpouring of God’ Spirit in their lives. The waters, it seemed, were kept perpetually stirred.  Nothing was allowed to settle.

 That is what ministry is often like. One day, very early in my career, much earlier than I was ever ordained,  I came to  realize that Ministry is perpetually on-going.  There is never an ending to it.  It doesn’t matter if my life is falling apart around me, or that I am  tired or that my family life is in turmoil.  It’s always something.  One week brings another set of opportunities, set-backs, trip-ups, tediums, frustrations, joys, celebrations.

  Ministry truly is a never-ending roller-coaster ride of emotions and feelings.  In the course of a week, one can go from last rites and burials to weddings and baptisms—and everything in between.  And some of what comes in between are days when nothing much happens.  In between, there are the daily rounds of prayer, of the Daily Office,  of scripture reading, of Masses, of  meetings. There are lunches, there are suppers, there are lonely nights or sleepless nights or angry or troubled nights.  More often than not, there are nights just like the nights before.  There are nights when one follows the same rituals one has always followed.  And one does what one has done before without thinking, without pondering.

 In between those moments of great energy, there are frustrations or boredom.  There are moments when it all seems to be useless and pointless.  There are moments when one is, quite simply, frightened.  There are moments when one feels so overwhelmed by the fact that one is simply not qualified to be doing the work. There are moments when one thinks: I just can’t do this anymore.

 These are things those first followers of Jesus no doubt struggled with.  Yet we, like them, are sustained.  We, like them, are upheld.  We, like them, are supported by the God Jesus ascended to, whose work we are doing in this world.  In those moments when our works seems useless, when it seems like we have done no good work, the ascended Jesus still triumphs.

 Our job, in this time between Jesus’ departure from us and his return to us, is simply let him do what he needs to do in this interim.  We need to let the ascended Jesus work in us and through us.  We need to let the God of this ascended Jesus be the end result of our work.  When we wipe our hands at the end of a long and exhausting day, we need to realize that, of course, it seems that all was for naught as we gaze downward at our hands.

 But above us, the Ascension is happening.  Above us, Jesus has risen. And we are rising with him, even when it seems like we are bogged down in this very earth.  Above us, that place, that God to whom we are ascending is there. All we have to do is look up. All we have to do is stop gazing at our dirty, callused, over-worked hands—all we have to do is turn from our self-centeredness—and look up.  And there we will see the triumph.  And as we do, we will realize that there is more to this world than we initially thought.

 Jesus has ascended.  But he isn’t gone. He is with us, now even more so than before his ascension. He is with us in an even more intimate way. The joy we feel today comes when we let the ascended Jesus do what he needs to do through us. We are, as Jesus says in today’s Gospel, “in the world.” And because we are, we must do the work we are called to do in this world.

 So, let us stop gazing upward at that empty sky into which he has ascended. There is work to do. Right here. Right now. Let’s wipe the sun-blindness from our eyes. Let us turn toward those around us in need.  And let us be Jesus to those who need Jesus.  And there are people who need us to be Jesus for them. There are people who need us to be kind and compassionate and full of love and mercy. There are people who need our acceptance and hospitality.  

 Like that poem by Maya Angelou, like tides and stars and sun, we will rise. When we love others, when we are Christ to others, when we bring a God of love and mercy and acceptance to others, we allow others to rise as well. We embody and allow the Ascension to continue in this world.

 So, let the joy of the ascension live in us and through us and be reflected to others by us.  We will be sanctified in the truth of knowing and living out our lives in the light of ascension.  

 We will rise.  This morning, we have looked up and we have seen it. We have seen that rising—his rising and our rising—happening above us in beauty and light and joy .