December 13, 2015
Philippians 4.4-7; Luke 3.7-18
+ Well, it has been an interesting week here at St. Stephen’s. And it will no doubt be an interesting coming week. This past Friday, of course, we bid farewell to our own Harriet Blow with a beautiful Requiem Mass.
And today, of course, we will be having at a very important meeting, at which we will be considering making a decision about our future ministry here at St. Stephen’s. I know some people are going into the meeting with apprehension and maybe a bit of fear.
Before our meeting today, I want to stress a few things about what it is we are doing today. Yesterday afternoon, I sent an email off with these same thoughts and I am going to repeat them because they are important to repeat. First, if we do accept Bishop Smith’s offer of Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight, it does not, in any way, mean we are “breaking away” from the Episcopal Diocese of North Dakota. If we accept DEPO, life will go on pretty much as it always has, just with a different Bishop. What we will do with DEPO is simply do what the Episcopal Church as whole will be doing in three or six years. We are saying, “Yes” to the Church to which we belong.
But more importantly than that, we are saying “yes” to the Gospel of Jesus as we understand it. We are living out and professing the promises we made in our Baptismal Covenant, to “respect the worth and dignity of all people.” We are doing what we have always done here at St. Stephen’s.
Back in the 1970s, when the issue was full inclusion of women in the church, St. Stephen’s was the first then, even when it was not a popular stance to take. Elthea Thacker (at whose Requiem mass I assisted way in in 2002) was elected the first female Senior Warden in the Diocese of North Dakota. And she was the Senior Warden at St. Stephen’s. Around that same time, St. Stephen’s was also the first congregation in the diocese to have, of all things, female acolytes. Although these might not seem like big issues now, back then it was a big deal. There were people then who thought, no doubt, that it would destroy this congregation.
In 1985, St. Stephen’s called the first female priest to serve as Rector, the Reverend Sandy Holmberg. There were many who thought women serving in such a position was going to be the end of the Church as we knew it. It didn’t. In fact, the Church has been enhanced by the ordained ministries of women for many years. I, for one, am deeply, deeply grateful for the fact that women have been able to serve in these positions at St. Stephen’s. Where would we be now without women wardens, women acolytes, women deacons and priests?
None of these decisions were easy decisions. St. Stephen’s was seen back then as a radical place for doing so. It put us outside the norm. Which isn’t always a comfortable place to be. But it is what we must to do sometimes.
Let me tell you, Christianity puts us outside the norms sometimes. And if it doesn’t, it’s not true Christianity.
What we are discussing today is fully in line with what we have been doing all along here at St. Stephen’s. This is not some new thing we are doing. We are not doing it to show defiance to Bishop Smith. We not doing it do show off to the press. We are not doing it just for the sake of being different and outside the norm. We are considering this option because it is what we have always done as congregation.
And because of that, this morning we should be rejoicing. This is what Christians do. When life gets difficult—as it does sometimes—we do not get the option of despairing. We don’t get to let fear and anger win out. We, in the face of all that, rejoice.
It is Guadete Sunday. Or Rose Sunday. I think it’s very appropriate that we are having our congregational meeting this Sunday. (We didn’t plan it that way, trust me) It is a Sunday to rejoice. It is called Gaudete because in our reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, we hear “Rejoice in the Lord always; I will say rejoice.” Gaudete means Rejoice. Rejoice is our word for the day today.
As we draw closer and closer to commemorating Jesus’ birth, we find ourselves with that strange, wonderful emotion in our hearts—joy. It is a time to rejoice. It is a time to be anxious (in a positive way) and excited over the fact that, in just a little over a week, we will be celebrating God’s coming among, God’s being with us. Or as Paul says today, “the Lord is near” Or, in Latin (since we’re on kind of a Latin bent this Gaudete Sunday) Dominus propus est.
Today we need something a bit different. We need a break from our Sarum Blue. What many people don’t realize is that Advent, with all its hopefulness, is actually, like Lent, a penitential time. It is a time for us to slow down, to ponder, to think. And to wait. It is a time to be introspective, as well—to think about who are and where we are in our lives. So, in the midst of pondering and waiting and introspection, we also find ourselves looking forward to our future as a congregation and our commitment to Christ’s command to love and love fully.
It is important, as followers of Jesus, that in doing such introspection, in looking forward, we do not despair. We do not lose heart. Even in the midst of a penitential time such as Advent, it is important that we also find joy.
That is why we are decorated in rose this morning. That is why, in our pondering, we are pondering joy—even joy in the midst of difficult decisions. That is why, even despite all that happened and will happen, we can still rejoice.
In our pondering and in our moment of rejoicing, we are also given a dose of sobering finger-shaking. We find, in our Gospel reading, that formidable figure of John the Baptist, saying to us,
“Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
These words speak loud and clear to us even now—in this moment of joy. Those words are speaking loud and clear to us as a congregation this morning. We are being told,
bear good fruit.
We bear good fruit when we live out in our joyful lives, the difficult tasks of loving andfully accepting all people equally. This is what Gaudete Sunday is all about—rejoicing. Living in joy. Letting joy reign supreme in us. Letting joy win out over fear and uncertainty. Being joyful in our love for God and for others. We must embody joy. We must live joy in all we do and say and are.
It is not easy to be inclusive and accepting and radical in our love. It is actually very hard. It means people are not going to like us for being “outside the norm.”
But, even then, we must still embody joy. Today, we too must, in all honesty, proclaim:
And live that Gaudete out in our very existence, in the ministries we do, in how we deal with others.
So, let Gaudete be more than just what we say or we do one Sunday a year. Let it be our way of life as we await Jesus’ presence coming to us. St. John and St. Paul are both right:
The Lord is near!
The Lord is near. So…let us bear good fruit. And when we do we will find that we too have “the creative gift and strength to pass the test.” We too, as embodied joy, will be bearing good fruits.