+ As most of you know by now, Bishop Michael Smith published a letter this past week for the diocesan newspaper, The Sheaf. Since most of you have seen it I won’t re-read it. If you would like to read it, you can read it on the congregational blog. But the gist of his message was that his pastoral provision in this diocese for those congregations who want to provide all people with the rites of the Church to all people equally will be offered a bishop other than himself, if we so decide as a congregation.
I know that it was a difficult decision for him to make and that he came to that decision after much personal searching.
Of course, personal searching is something we know well, as a congregation here at St. Stephen’s. We too have been on a similar, though entirely different, path than Bishop Smith. We also have been weighing these same issues. We also have been struggling with how our congregation is going to respond and proceed. This letter has now placed before us a juncture in our journey that we cannot now avoid. We have been heading toward this juncture for a very long time. It has been a hard journey at times.
What lies before us now is a decision we all must make. Shall we continue on one path as we have, or shall we venture down another? Whichever direction we take, there will be consequences to our actions.
Each action, as we all know, will have its own set of consequences. And, as Christians, as educated, dedicated, rational people, we know that we must weigh those consequences carefully and in a spirit of prayer and discernment. And then we must proceed accordingly.
None of this easy. Sometimes in our pursuit of what we feel is right, relationships are broken. Our convictions often force us to choose a path that is not the easy, well-lit path. But we must choose the path that is right for us.
My father was fond of a saying that I have tried to live out in my own life:
“Do the right thing—even when no one is looking.”
For us, on this All Saints Sunday, we, as saints of God, are being called to do that as well. We must do the right thing—even if no one else is looking (which it sort of feels like sometimes). Sometimes, we do feel alone in this journey. Sometimes we feel as though we are the only ones struggling the way we are with these issues.
But, to remember what we are celebrating today is important. A saint, we must remember, is viewed as a “witness” to Jesus and his Gospel. And, today, on All Saints Sunday, let me tell you: we are being called to be witnesses to that Gospel of Jesus, as we understand it.
But even more than that, like the saints who have gone before us, we are also sometimes called to suffer for the sake of that right thing, of being witnesses. That also is what makes up saints. As we proceed in our discernment of how we are going to respond to Bishop Smith’s offer of another Bishop to serve our needs here at St. Stephen’s, we do so knowing it will not be an easy decision on our part.
There are pros and there are cons to this decision. And no matter what we choose, it will no doubt be painful.
We have had a long relationship with Bishop Smith. Many of us, including yours truly, genuinely like him on a personal level. I count him as a friend. He ordained me to the priesthood. I worked for him for several years, first as his communications officer and later as his executive assistant. For me, even the idea of having someone else as our bishop is painful and difficult. Others may have an entirely different personal view of Bishop Smith.
But, as the Bishop himself would no doubt tell us, our convictions and our conscience override our personal relationships sometimes. That is the sacrifice we must be willing to make in the cause of Christ. The saints themselves who have gone before us would tell us that as well. They would make clear to us that, to be followers of Jesus, means sometimes having to refine our relationships so that we can serve Christ more fully.
We are at that juncture in our collective life here at St. Stephen’s. We are being called to make sacrifices for the sake of our calling to follow Christ and the people Christ has called us to serve. We are being called to make the sacrifices the saints of God sometimes need to make so they can live out their vocation as Christians.
Bishop Smith made clear in his letter that this is no longer a matter of loyalty—loyalty to him personally or to the diocese. What we are faced with now is not a matter of loyalty to him or to the Diocese. What we are faced with now is a matter of conscience. It is a matter of our convictions—as Christians, as followers of Jesus, as people committed to living out Christ’s command to love and love fully and completely, as we see it for ourselves. Our commitment at St. Stephen’s is to that love and that radical acceptance of all people that we have been living out here for many years.
Many of us here this morning because the churches we belonged to before no longer accepted us for who we were. Many of us are here this morning are here because we were no longer able to be in congregations or denominations that shunned us or hurt us or made us or others feel as though we were not fully loved children of God.
Our commitment at St. Stephen’s has always been to welcome all people—no matter who or what they were—as fully loved children of God. We have done so without limit. We have done so when it was not “popular.” We have done so when doing so meant we too might be viewed as “odd,” or different, or rebellious, or upstarts. And by doing so, we too have been shunned and treated as difficult or different.
We will continue to do what we have always done, no matter what may come, no matter what juncture we may take as a congregation. If those convictions compel us to walk a different path than Bishop Smith, then that is what we will have to struggle with, and pray about, and ponder for ourselves.
But what we cannot do at this point in our lives is compromise. We cannot turn away from the paths that lies before, or refuse to move forward. There is no easy way forward. Whichever way we chose to go will involve sacrifice. It will involve struggle. It will involve difficulties. We may lose people we considered friends along the way. We may be shunned. We may feel rejected. But, that too is all a part of our Christian journey. The saints knew this in their lives. And we know it too in ours.
Yet as difficult as the decisions are the lie ahead for us, there is no reason for despair. This is not the time to let fear or anger reign. In all we do, we must do so with love and respect for our fellow Christians. And we must do so with a humble spirit. By letting our fears get the best of us, we are already losing ground on the journey.
This path, as frightening as it may seem, can also be the opportunity for much good. Our decision in this matter can be a true opportunity to do good, to serve God and one another, and to bring about goodness. It can be an opportunity to work toward holiness in our lives and to participate in the mystery of God.
In today’s collect, we prayed to God to
“give us grace to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you…”
In the original version of this collect the word “unspeakable” was used instead of ineffable. “May we come to those unspeakable joys” That, I think, in many ways is the key to what we are longing for in our lives as followers of Jesus.
We have no clear picture of where we are going as we follow him. But the Holy Spirit, speaking to our conscience, always helps guide us on the right path.
Bishop Smith, in his letter, shared an interesting paragraph that I also quoted in the pastoral letter I issued on Thursday,
Each of us one day will be called upon to give an account before God for what we have done or not done during this life, as we stand before the “great judgment seat of Christ.”
In today’s reading from Revelation we find a similar image to this. In it we find some gorgeous images of heaven—of this powerful and beautiful voice booming from that throne—that same throne Bishop Smith speaks of in his letter. It’s a beautiful image and one we can cherish and hold close when we think about heaven.
One day we, as the saints of God, will stand before that throne, as Bishop Smith said. We too will be asked what we have done and not done. It will, no doubt, be probably the most difficult moment in our spiritual lives. But we must be prepared, as Bishop Smith says, to make answer before that throne. And that answer will be an important one.
I have no fear of appearing before that throne of Christ the Lamb. As I said in my pastoral letter:
I, for one, am not willing to stand before “the great judgement seat of Christ” and say that I stood by quietly while people continued to be excluded and marginalized from the Church or given second (or third)-class treatment.
After all, as we hear today in the book of Revelation,
“See, the home of God is among mortals.
[God] will dwell with them as their God;
they will be [God’s] peoples,
and God….will be with them;
[God] will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away."
And then we hear this:
“And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’”
“I am making all things new.”
That is our rallying cry on this Sunday. With those words we can go forward. We have no idea of the hardships that lie ahead for us around the next corner. But we do know that beyond those unseen hardships, lie joys beyond words for us. And though the path may be hard at times, one thing we know beyond all others: we know that we are taken care of.
Through it all, God is here with us, taking care of us. This journey we are on is a journey, following Jesus, wherever he may lead us. Each person, with their own convictions, are called to take their own paths. Bishop Smith, as he knows, is discerning that path as well in his own life, which may be in a different direction than the one we are being called to travel. For us, we can only discern our own path, not others’ paths.
For us, this is our heritage. By our baptism, we have been told that this heritage of saints is our heritage as well. This is what it means to be a saint—to be washed in those waters of a life that will not end and to do the right thing, even when no one may be looking.
The One who is seated on that throne will understand fully what we are doing and why we are doing it. And will renew us for doing what we are called to do. Our conviction of service to those who need to be served and accepted and loved was established already by Jesus and was carried out by the saints. Like those saints, we might not know where this immediate path will take us, but we do know what the ultimate end of the story will be.
We know how the story is going to end. We know that the ending will be glorious and beautiful. It’s what we do now, here in the middle of the story, that is making all the difference.
We are the saints among us. We are following the path of the saints. Today—All Saints Sunday—is a celebration of ourselves just as much as it is a celebration of those who have gone on before us.
So, at this time in which we are struggling, in which we are weighing our convictions and examining our consciences, let us also celebrate our inheritance. Let us celebrate those saints who have paved the way for us on our own, sometimes difficult, path. And let us ask our God to be with us, to strengthen us, to bless us and to compel us to continue on this path to which God has called us.
“See, I am making all things new,” our God is saying to us today. Let us rejoice in that renewal.
Let us pray:
Holy, loving and compassionate God, be with us and guide us as we discern your will in our lives. Let your Spirit be present with us, to open our minds and open our hearts to your will. Instill in us a spirit of love, respect for others and compassion. We pray this morning for Bishop Smith and the Diocese of North Dakota and all those who we call sisters and brothers in Christ. We pray for those in our congregation who are feeling pain and sorrow and anger over these events that divide us. Bring healing to us all. Enlighten us to see clearly the path we should take in our following of Jesus so that we may continue to do what you call us to do. And never leave us to feel alone on this journey. Surround us with your consolation and love. But, most of all, give us strength. Instill in us the strength to stand up and be who you have called us to be and do what you have called us to do. Let us not waver. All this, we ask in name of Jesus you Son, whom we follow, guided by your Holy Spirit. Amen.