November 15, 2015
+ Today is, of course, Stewardship Sunday, as you have heard many times already. In these past few weeks you have heard our Senior Warden, Leo Wilking, speak and last week, you heard our treasurer, Sandy Holbrook, speak about how important this time is for us as a congregation.
Yes, it is a time for us to give. It is time to give money. It is time to give of our time and talent and selves. Now, I will say this about Stewardship time: what I’ve come to enjoy about Stewardship is the fact that it is a time to celebrate St. Stephen’s.
One of my many duties as Priest-in-Charge of St. Stephen’s is to be a kind of cheerleader for the congregation. And I love doing just that. And we do have much to celebrate here.
I don’t think any of us—myself included—can fully appreciate what is happening here at St. Stephen’s. We are currently experiencing a time of now only of growth but also of transition. We have seen several families leave this past year—the Ranneys, the Kurkis—due to jobs taking them away from Fargo, but we’ve also had many people came into our church this past year. We have a lot of deaths of long-time members this year. But we have also had strong and committed people who have joined us and stepped up to the plate.
For me, as your priest, my job has definitely increased considerably. I remember when I first came here, I was told by our previous priest as well as others: it’s just a nice, laid-back job. Nothing really happens during the week. Not so anymore. Literally, every day, from morning to late at night, there is something going on. I almost never have a full day off. There are crises and joys and sorrows and broken relationships and celebrations happening all the time. And with social media, it is happening right now, all the time. And it’s wonderful. And exhausting. And mind-boggling. All at once.
And now, just when we thought maybe things can settle into place, we face a crossroads in our congregation. This past Thursday, Leo and I met with the Bishop to discuss Designated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight or the DEPO process for our congregation. We discussed the option of how we may implement a new Bishop to look out over our congregation, while still remaining an active and vital congregation within the Diocese.
This is a very important step for us. I don’t think I can stress that enough. It is a very, very important step for us. Our deciding whether or not to accept Bishop Smith’s offer of DEPO is a huge move on our part and a very loud statement. And many of support it And some of us do not.
This is where we are on this Stewardship Sunday in 2015. It is an incredibly important time in our history. And we are facing it not with fear and trepidation. We are facing it not with bitterness and anger and pettiness. But we are facing it in celebration. We are celebrating our growth. We are celebrating an incredibly bright future. We are celebrating who we are as a fully-inclusive, fully-welcoming church. And we are celebrating what God is doing through us.
When anyone asks me what the “secret” of our success at St. Stephen’s is, I always say, two things. First, the Holy Spirit. We do need to give credit where credit is due. Without God’s Spirit at work here among us, we would not be where we are and doing what we’re doing.
And second, it is because we welcome and accept radically and we love radically. Now, people—people in the CHURCH—are shocked by that. And, to be honest, I am shocked that people in the Church are shocked by that.
This is not rocket science. This is not quantum physics. This is basic Christianity that we are doing here at St. Stephen’s. Basic Christianity, as we live it out here at St. Stephen’s, is nothing more than following Jesus in his commandment to love God and love one another as we love ourselves. It’s just that.
The night before our meeting with the Bishop many of us here gathered for our regular Wednesday night Eucharist. During that liturgy, we prayed for a man none of us knew. We prayed for a man about whom we knew nothing, except his name.
But on Wednesday, we gave Adolf Scott a Requiem Mass, as we would anyone else who needed a burial service. Afterward, we processed out into the cold and dark, and we buried his urn in our memorial garden. And there his ashes are, this morning. In our midst. Buried like any of us. With respect. And dignity. The same respect and dignity God felt for him. The same respect and dignity, somewhere along the way, he did not received receive elsewhere.
Of course, that simple act—that act that is no different than any other acts we do as a congregation here—attracted some notice shall we say. And the feedback on what we did on Wednesday night was loud and clear.
“This is what the church SHOULD doing.”
“You are all an example of Christ in the flesh.”
“This one of the kindest things I’ve seen in a long time.”
Those were from people who never stepped foot inside this church.
This is what happens when we do what we do as a congregation. We did not bury Adolf Scott because of the press. We did not do this to get a pat on the back by others—or even by people within our own midst (because no matter what we do sometimes, that pat won’t come)
In my sermon that night, I said, “We do these acts not because we think they’ll get us in the good graces of God, or provide us with an easy ticket to heaven. We do them, because doing them brings about good in this world. And when good comes into this world, we believe God is present.”
In many ways, Adolf Scott represents all of those people who have come through those doors, seeking shelter, seeking refuge, seeking solace.
And we have done just that, at St. Stephen’s. We continue to do just that. The whole reason we are considering the DEPO process is because we have lived that out as a congregation. This DEPO process is not an issue of the Bishop and me not getting along with each other. Actually do get along on a personal level. This is not a personal argument between us and authority. This not about us being rebels. And this is not just a matter of sexuality either.
It is a matter of equality and justice. It is matter of us doing what we are called to do.
Make no mistake about it: this process is about us as a congregation putting our money our mouths are. It is about us being the open and welcoming congregation we have always been, without impediment. It is a matter of us being able to say that we truly respect the worth and dignity of all people, no matter who they are. It is a matter of living out our Baptismal Covenant. It is a matter of saying that all people deserve the rites of this Church fully and completely.
It is a matter of love. To love—fully and completely. To love—radically and inclusively.
Here, at St. Stephen’s it is not a matter of politics (we don’t care what political party you belong to—we really don’t), or how you dress (the only one who is expected to dress up here is me—and that’s my own expectation more than anything), or the way you talk (or don’t talk), or what your sexual orientation is, or whatever.
It’s just a matter of coming here. Of being here. And of being with us here. And being here as one of us. I personally don’t see that as all that radical. I see that being as fairly basic.
In today’s Gospel, we hear Jesus saying ominously, “you will hear of wars and rumors of wars.”
These words of Jesus are especially poignant for us on this particular Sunday, in these days after the terrorist attack on Paris, especially. There truly are wars and rumors of wars in this world this morning. Jesus uses a very interesting description of these fears and pains—images of war and their rumors. He calls them “birth pangs.”
And I think “pang” is the right word to be using here, for us at this moment. Yes, it may be painful to be going through what we may be going through as a congregation in the near future. It may be frightening. The future may seem at times bleak. But it is not war. And it is not death throes. It is merely the birth pangs of our continued growth.
Those of us who are here—who have experienced pain inflicted on us by the Church, who have been on the receiving end of those church people who believe we don’t belong—we know this feeling. Jesus uses the right image here to describe what we are going through now and in the future. Yes, there will be wars and rumors of wars. Yes, there will be moments when church leaders and church attendees will say and do hurtful, war-like things or by their silence perpetuate hurtful, war-like things.
But the words we cling to—that we hold on to and find our strength in to bear those pangs—is in the words “do not be alarmed.”
Do not be alarmed.
There is a calmness to his words. This is all part of our birth into new life, he is explaining to us. As you have heard me say many, many times from this pulpit: The Church is changing. Some say the Church is dying. I can tell you, it most definitely is not. This Church is just going through major birth pangs.
But that is not something over which to despair. Rather, be assured. Take comfort. Yes, we are going through the pangs, but once we have weathered these pains, once we have gone through them, we will have something precious in our midst. We will be a Church more along the lines of what Jesus intended the Church to be—a place in which everyone, no matter who they are or what they are is not only welcomed, but loved. Loved, fully and completely. Accepted fully and completely. And treated equally. And this is why we do not have to be alarmed.
If we allow these fears to reign in our lives, if we allow the pain and bitterness to triumph, then we all lose. If we live with our pangs and do not outlive them, then the words of Jesus to us—those words of “do not be alarmed”—are in vain. Why? Because in the end, God will always triumph. If we place our trust—our confidence—in God, we will be all right.
Yes, we will suffer birth pangs, but look what comes after them. It is a loving and gracious God who calms our fears amidst calamity and rumors of calamity. Our job is simply to live as fully as we can. Our job is to simply do what we’ve always been doing here at St. Stephen’s. To welcome, to accept, to love. To not judge.
We have this moment. This holy moment was given to us by our loving and gracious God. We must live it without fear or malice. We must live it fully and completely. And we must be a part of it.
This Stewardship Sunday is about us doing our part as a congregation that does the things St. Stephen’s does. Yes, it means giving money to this congregation—the tithe that Sandy talked about last week. Striving to give our 10%. It also means giving of our time and energy. I preached a few Sundays ago about how there seem to be two types of Christians—those who believe the Church is here to serve them, and those who believe the Church is a place in which they can serve.
On Stewardship Sunday, we are being asked to serve as well. To serve in love. To serve fully as Jesus calls us to serve and love.
So, let us do just that. Let us live this moment fully. Let us LOVE boldly.
And let us serve.
In the near future, we are probably going to hear people say: There’s St. Stephen’s again. There they are, that rebellious church that keeps pushing the boundaries.
So be it. We ARE pushing the boundaries. We are pushing the boundaries of love and acceptance. We are pushing the boundaries of justice and equality. We are pushing those boundaries so that the Kingdom of God can exist among us in some way. We are pushing the boundaries of what the Church should be and could be. And we are all doing it together—not just here in church on Sundays or Wednesdays, but in the very lives we are living in the world throughout the rest of our week, in how we are standing up and speaking out for justice and equality for all people.
So, let us, on this Stewardship Sunday, continue to do what we’ve been doing. Let us welcome radically and love radically. To give of ourselves fully, so that we can serve fully. Let us, in our following of Jesus, continue to strive to be a powerful and visible conduit of the Kingdom of God in our midst.
It’s already happening. Right now. Right here. In our midst. There’s nothing to be alarmed about. Rather, it is truly a time in which to be grateful and joyous.
Let us pray
Lord Christ, surround us with your love. Be present in this congregation of St. Stephen’s as you have been since our beginning. Let us know your presence among us—in the sacrament, in your Word and in those who have gathered here in your name. Let your Spirit be present with us and in all we do. Open our hearts and our minds to the goodness you are doing here through us. And let us respond appropriately. Bless St. Stephen’s with abundance and with the resources needed to do the ministries we do here. Let us, in turn, do good. Let peace reign here with us, even as wars and rumors of wars rage about us. And let your words of assurance to us to not be alarmed calm our hearts and souls so that we can do what you have called us to do. In your name, we pray in confidence.