1 Peter 2.1-5,Matthew 21.12-16
+ Ten years ago next Friday—September 14, 2008—I sat down with the congregation of St. Stephen’s to be interviewed to be their new Priest-in-Charge.
It’s hard to believe.
For a moment, let’s go back 10 years. Let’s go back to 2008. On that Sunday back then, St. Stephen’s looked a bit different. This was the days before our stained glass windows, before our current altar rail, before there were frontals on the altar, before there was a Peace Pole or a Memorial Garden.
On that Sunday, for that congregational meeting, we had 25 people in church, which was just above the Average Sunday Attendance of 24. Our church membership on that Sunday was 55 members. We actually have well over the total membership number then this morning here in church.
At that meeting, I sat down to answer questions about what I would do as Priest-in-Charge of St. Stephen’s. I remember one of the questions I was asked was:
“Do you call before you make a visit or do you just show up?”
I said, “I always call and make an appointment first.” Which seemed to be the right answer.
At the end of the meeting, I then asked the congregation a question. I asked,
“If you agree to have me, what do you want as a congregation? What are your goals?”
There was some very serious thought before someone offered, “We want to grow.”
And someone else added, “We want families.”
And someone else, “And children.”
And I said, “We all can do those things together.”
I must’ve answered correctly because on September 17, 2008, I was called to be the Priest at St. Stephen’s. I officially began my duties on October 1, 2008.
Well, here I am, ten years later. It has been an incredible ten years for me.
When I think about where we were and compare it to where we are right now—it’s stunning. We have done some great things together in these ten years! And, let me tell you, it is against the odds—well, depending on whose odds you might be listening to.
As we hear people go on and on about the demise of the Church, about how churches are dying—and some of them are—we have bucked the odds.
We have grown.
We have flourished.
And we can continue to do so.
We are this strange, quirky, spiritual lightning bolt of a church that continues to draw people.
And for that we are thankful on this Dedication Sunday.
For us, on this Sunday, we take stock of where we have been and where we are going. And we take stock of what it means to be this congregation. And what it means to love God, to love others and to follow Jesus.
In fact, that following Jesus part of it came up this past week.
Earlier this past week, our very own Annette Morrow, commenting on a little of weird injustice in the larger Church, asked me, in response to this particular injustice:
Which we all know means, What would Jesus do?
Even though it has become a kind of tired slogan, which we find on bracelets and necklaces, it still is an important question to ask ourselves. What WOULD Jesus do in the face of blatant hypocrisy in the Church and the world? And most people seem to think they know that answer.
For many people, WWJD means turning the other cheek.
It means being compliant (which, I most certainly do not believe, Jesus would be or do).
For some it means, don’t stir the waters.
For some it means respecting those in authority and sitting quietly in our place.
For some it simply means being a peaceful, loving person. Which is very true. That is what J would D.
And before you think that means he was compliant, I would like to share this. My cousin David shared this with me this past week:
I want to stress emphatically this morning:
WWJD does not mean being compliant. Not at all.
Sometimes, yes, we turn our cheek. And in doing so we are defiant.
Sometimes we take the shirt off our back and give it the one who asks.
But sometimes…sometimes…we turn over tables and drive moneychangers from the Temple. Sometimes we cry out and name the hypocrites and we call them for what they are. We call them “vipers” and we say “no more!” That also is what J would D. And that is what we are called to do sometimes as well.
And that certainly is what have been called to do sometimes here at St. Stephen’s throughout our history. And that is what we will do again and again. Especially when we see injustice and inequality and hypocrisy.
Now some are made uncomfortable by that.
We should be uncomfortable about that. We should be uncomfortable about our Gospel reading today. It should make us uncomfortable to see someone—Jesus himself—turning over tables and driving people from the Temple. That is what it means to follow Jesus.
But, at no point, in our following of Jesus, are we mean to simply lie down and take it. At no point in the gospels are we told to do that. And we at St. Stephen’s will not ever do that. Not while I’m here. And not while many of you are here either.
What matters here is what we do and how we do it and why we do it. What matters here is what are we doing to make this world better to make the Kingdom of God more and more of a reality in this world.
It’s important for us on this Dedication Sunday to be reminded of those things that make us a bit different than other congregations. I don’t mean that in a smug, self-congratulatory way. Celebrating our growth and all the things God has granted to us does not allow us to be arrogant or full of ourselves. It is a time to be humble and to humbly thank God for these many, wonderful things. And it is important to examine ourselves in a humble way, a way in which we all find ourselves grateful to God and to each other for bringing us here, to this place, in this time and in this wonderful, holy moment.
As followers of Jesus, we have found something in this congregation that we haven’t necessarily found elsewhere—at least in this particular way. For us, who call ourselves members of St. Stephen’s, we know that something unique and wonderful is happening here and has been happening for some time—sixty-two years, in fact. And all we can do in the face of that happening is give thanks God and to continue to do what we are called to do as followers of Jesus. And we do those things well.
For example, our radical hospitality to those who come to us.
Our amazing sense of welcoming all people as beloved and accepted children of God within this congregation—no matter who they are or what they are.
Our commitment to service beyond these walls.
Our commitment to the sacraments and to the Word.
Our strong sense that our collective lives as followers of Jesus are centered on the celebration each week of the Holy Eucharist and the hearing of the Word of God in scripture.
These are all things that make us who we are as a congregation here at St. Stephen’s. And they are things that, together, are, sadly, rare in many churches. This is why people are finding us. This is why people seek us out.
God’s Holy Spirit dwells here. I have heard so many people who come in those doors say to me, “Yes, we feel it! We feel that Spirit dwelling here.” That Spirit of God is here, permeating these pews, these walls, these windows, this altar, but most of all, permeating us.
You and me.
Each one of us.
That Spirit is here dwelling within us.
As we all know—as we all strive and continue to work to make the Kingdom of God a reality in our midst—it is not easy to do anything we have done together as a congregation. It has not been easy to get to this point in our collective lives here at St. Stephen’s. There have been set-backs. There have been trip-ups. There have been frustrations. But, that’s all part of the journey.
We, as followers of Jesus and more specifically, as members of St. Stephen’s, are called here to be, in the words of St. Peter from our epistle this morning, “living stones.” We are called to be living stones—living stones that can be built into a true spiritual home, a royal priesthood of not just believers but do-ers. We are called here at St. Stephen’s to proclaim all that God has done for us here and in our lives. We, as living stones, are called to be building up a new church. We are, by our very existence, showing that something is about to change.
The Church—capital C—the larger Church—is changing. That Church that was a close-minded ivory tower of repressive views regarding such issues as misogyny and homophobia and special privilege, is dying rapidly. And we all know it. We are all sensing it. God is letting us know that a Church built on anything other than love and acceptance is not the Church of God.
Essentially that dying Church turned away from the Gospel of Jesus. That Church turned away from Jesus, who commanded his followers to love and love radically and to accept and accept radically.
We are the prophets to the larger Church. We are the ones who are saying, THIS is the future of the Church. We are the living stones building up that new Church. We are called to be the Church—a Church in which love and acceptance prevail. We are called to embody God’s love and acceptance. We are called to follow Jesus, even if that means we turn over tables and call out hypocrites.
This is the Church in which Jesus’ message of love and acceptance is held up and lived out. This is the Church that is striving pave the way for that Kingdom of God in which radical love and full-acceptance reigns, to break through into our midst
It is not easy to do. It is daunting. And it is frightening at times.
But those words of St. Peter are ringing in our ears.
We are God’s people.
We are receiving mercy. And we are in turn are sharing that mercy with others.
So, let us be those living stones building up a new and powerful church. Let us, on this Dedication Sunday, do what we have been doing for 62 years. Let us embody that God whom we love. Let us continue to spread that Gospel of all-encompassing, all-embracing love and acceptance in all we do here.
The future for us is bright. It is unlimited. But we have to make it a reality. We have to strive forward. We have to labor on. We have to break down those barriers of hatred, and fear and isolation and marginalization so that God’s Kingdom can bloom in our midst.
We see it happening, here at St. Stephen’s. We see what the future of St. Stephen’s and the larger Church really is. We see it when we live into that calling of Jesus.
So, let us be living, breathing, strong stones. That is the future. And, let me tell you, it is a glorious one!