Sunday, December 27, 2015

St. Stephen (observed)

December 27, 2015

+ I know. You’re wondering, why are we commemorating St. Stephen today? His feast day was yesterday.  It’s the First Sunday after Christmas. Where’s our Gospel reading from the first chapter of John?

We come to church and everything’s red. What’s going on, Fr. Jamie? Get it together! Are you insane?  

Well, trust me. There’s a method to all this madness. As there always is.

First of all, we are celebrating St. Stephen for the very important reason that he is our patron saint of course. So, we transferred his feast from yesterday so we could all enjoy St. Stephen. Why wouldn’t we? We very proudly bear his name. I’ll get into all of that in a moment.

But, there’s another important reason we’re commemorating him today. We have transferred his feast from yesterday because I really do think it’s important to remind ourselves how important St. Stephen is to all of us.

And…

I would like to, at this time, officially open our 60th year. I christen it, shall we say?  Today, do we officially begin our 60th year as a congregation. This is something very important to commemorate. 60 years of amazing ministry in the Diocese of North Dakota.

Bishop Emery and those first founders of church were a smart bunch. They were a prophetic bunch. Naming our church after St. Stephen was a smart thing. Of course, the reason they came to this name was because St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Casselton, ND had just closed in 1956. And we inherited much of their furnishings.

But St. Stephen was a great saint for us to have as our patron.  In the Orthodox and Roman traditions of the Church, the patron saint of a church is viewed as more than just a namesake. They are seen as special guardians of that congregation.   And so, it is especially wonderful to celebrate a saint like St. Stephen, who is our guardian and who is, no doubt, present among us this morning, with that whole communion of saints, who is always present with us at worship.

St. Stephen, of course, was the proto-martyr of the Church “Proto” is the important word here. Proto means, essentially, first. He was the first martyr of the Church. He was the first one to die for his open proclamation of  Christ.

He also is considered a proto deacon in the church.  In this year in which we are raising up two prospective deacons (along with  William too) in our congregation, this is especially meaningful as well.  He is a special patron saint of deacons—and of all people who share a ministry of servitude to others.

What better saint can we claim as our patron that St. Stephen?  He was the first to do many things.  Just like we, as a congregation, have been the first in doing many things.  St. Stephen, in his stance on a few issues, was not popular always obviously.

There is a reason they dragged him out and stoned him. Well, neither are our opinions and our stances on some issues. (I’m not going to go into detail on those today) And making the stance we have in the past and the reaction we have received from others, let me tell you, I can feel for St. Stephen.  So, again, talk about a perfect saint for us.

It’s appropriate that this congregation that has been the first to do many things, is named after St. Stephen. When we look back at our 60 year history, just think for a moment about all those people who came through the doors of this church. Think about how many of those people who have been hurt by the Church.  Think about how many were frustrated with the Church.  And more often than not, their relationship with God has suffered for it.   But they came here searching. Searching for true religion. Searching for a welcoming and open community.

So what this true religion?   I see the Episcopal Church, and specifically St. Stephen’s,  as making a real solid effort at true religion.  For me, St. Stephen’s personifies in many ways, what true religion is.  The Church should be like a dinner to which everyone is invited.   And St. Stephen’s has always been the place that knows this one blunt fact: The only thing there is no room for in true religion is for those who cannot love each other.  St. Stephen’s is a place very much like a family.  We don’t always choose the people God has brought into our lives, but we always—ALWAYS—have to love them.

So what is true religion?  True religion begins and ends with love.  We must love one another as God loves us.  True religion begins with the realization that, first and foremost, God loves each and every one of us.   When we can look at that person who drives us crazy and see in that person, someone God loves wholly and completely, then our relationship with that person changes.  We too are compelled to love that person as well.   Love is the beginning and end of true religion.  

Certainly, St. Stephen’s has always been a place of love.   Love has never been a stranger here. God’s love has been offered not only on this altar, but among the pews and in the undercroft and in the entryway and in the parking lot.   And most importantly in the lives of our members out in the larger world.  That Love that God has commanded us to share has went out from here into all the world.  

We who are gathered here have been touched in one way or the other by the love that has emanated from this place and these people.  We are the fortunate ones—the ones who have been transformed and changed by this love.  We are the lucky ones who have—through our experiences at St. Stephen’s—been able to get a glimpse of true religion.

But our job now is not to cherish it and hold it close to our hearts. Our job now is to turn around and to share this love with others. Our job is take this love and reflect it for everyone to see.

So, in a very real sense, we, at St. Stephen’s, are doing what that first St. Stephen did.  We have set the standard. We have embodied who and what St. Stephen the Martyr stood for. Even when it was not popular. Even when people felt it wasn’t time. Even when people said, “wait. There’s no rush. Why do this now?”

We have stood up again and again for what we have felt is our mission to accept all people in love. We have journeyed out at times into uncharted territory. And most importantly, we have, by our love, by our compassion, by our acceptance of all, been a reflection of what the Church—capital C—is truly capable of.

This is how we begin our 60th year. We begin it by doing what we have always done. We do it as St. Stephen’s did it—with our eyes firmly set on Christ, with our lips singing and praying, with our head held high, with love in heart, even if stones and rocks are falling around us.

We do so affirmed in our many ministries. We do so, hopefully, thankful for the ordained ministries of two new deacons to serve here, and for the ministry of a new priest to serve the larger Church. We do so thankful for the ministry of Bishop Gallagher. We do so thankful or our continued place in the Episcopal Diocese of North Dakota. We do thankful for our prophetic past. And we do so thankful for an amazing future.

It is an amazing time to be at St. Stephen’s. Those founders of our church would only be amazed at what this congregation they envisioned in 1956 would one day be.

As we begin this 60th year, let us do with gratitude to God and one another in our hearts. Let us shake off the negativity and that nagging doubts that have plagued us over these months. And let us, like St. Stephen, be strong and firm in our faith in God and our convictions of serving others in love. And may our God—that source of all love, that author and giver of all good things—continue to bless us with love and goodness. May we continue to flourish and grow.  And may we continue to venture bravely forward in  all that we continue to do here among us and throughout the world.  Amen.



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