Sunday, November 18, 2018

26 Pentecost


Stewardship Sunday

November 18, 2018

Daniel 12.1-3; Mark 13:1-8


+ Today is, of course, Stewardship Sunday, as you have heard many times already. And yes, it is a time for us to pray about and ponder and seriously consider giving. That is what the “theme” of stewardship Time is.

Giving.

It is time to give money. It is time to give of our time and talent and selves.  And yes, it’s never exciting for us to think about the fact that we need these things.

We do need money. We need people helping out.  And we do need people in general. We need the presence of people in our midst.

After all, we do have much to celebrate here. I don’t think any of us—myself included—can fully appreciate what has happened and what is happening here at St. Stephen’s.  We are a unique and amazing congregation. There is no getting around that fact. There are not many places quite like St. Stephen’s.  We are eclectic.
We are a bit outside the norm.

I often call our congregation the Island of Misfit Toys.

Most of us have come here from other congregations in which we have experienced some hardship or oppression or some very unchristian-like behavior. For most of us, that is why we are here at St. Stephen’s.  Many came here because this is a refuge from the difficulties of other religious communities. And I am very grateful today for us being that place. We are also a place in which people are not only welcomed but included because of who they are.

But being a congregation as we are also means we pay a price for being who we are.

Three years ago at this time when we sought Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight, when we said, along with the larger Episcopal Church, that all people have a right to the sacraments including Marriage, we seemed to be alienating ourselves in this diocese. We seemed to be at odds with others, as though we were swimming against the stream.  I received a fair of criticism personally for our decision at that time.

How dare you! I was told.

What hubris you and St. Stephen’s have!

This is not the right thing to do, I was told.

We need to be loyal to the Diocese.

Why not just roll over and present out tummies like submissive dogs to those in authority? It’s easier that way. And it avoids conflict!

But…look around us now.  Now, as we look about us at the Episcopal Church as a whole and see the battles being waged in places like the Diocese of Albany, we realize (as we knew then) that we weren’t the ones in the wrong.

We were never in the wrong.

We were the ones who were always actually in line with the larger Episcopal Church.

And it is more than obvious that we are now very much part of the norm. Which, I have to admit, is strange to even say. For so long we have not been “in the norm.” We have always been out here, on the fringes, slightly of step with those more traditional congregations who are comfortable when things are safe and normal.   It’s almost uncomfortable, dare I say, to be in the norm.  To be on the inside looking out for once.

But this is who we are and who we always have been.  We are the ones always, it seems, on the forefront.  Though, as we all know, sometimes being the ones who are in the forefront of the battle is not a pleasant place to be. Guess who gets shot at first?

Being the mavericks, being the rebels, being the prophets means that we are going to be ostracized. We are going to be mistreated. We are going to shunned and rejected. Even by our friends, by our colleagues, by our fellow followers of Jesus.  It shouldn’t be that way. But, sometimes, it just is.

And we have known that here at St. Stephen’s. We have felt that for a long time. Often we have felt that we are alone in our battles. But, we knew, in our core, that were only leading the way, and sometimes doing so means it takes a while for others to catch up.

In that interval, it can be lonely. But we knew. We saw. We believed.

 I have asked you many times over the years to trust. Trust me. Trust our leadership. And you know what? You really have. And you can see that we were not led down the wrong path. We were following the right path all along.

In our reading from the book of Daniel we hear,

“Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, who those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.”

We, this congregation, are wise and we have led the way.  

This is where we are on this Stewardship Sunday in 2018. 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, there are a lot of churches that are “welcoming.” I actually don’t know of very many churches that aren’t “welcoming” in some way. But it’s not enough just to welcome. We must take it one step further. In welcoming, we must include. We must be without judgement in our welcoming and in our including.

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.

To love God.

And to love others.

Love here means what? It means LOVE. It means treating people well. It means respecting one another. It means not treating some people differently than others just because they are not like us.  It’s just that.

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.  

I know. I preach it all the time. And you’re probably sick of hearing me preaching about love all the time. But…you know what? That’s tough. I’m not gonna stop preaching about love. Because it DOES make a difference.

To love—fully and completely.

To love—radically and inclusively.

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, “you will hear of wars and rumors of wars.”

These words of Jesus are especially poignant for us on this particular Sunday, in this chaotic time in which we life, in which there are such deep and real divisions between us.   There truly are wars and rumors of wars in this world and in our very lives this morning.  Wars here does not only mean battles with guns and missiles. War here means war with our family and friends and fellow believers. War means all those conflicts we are having to endure in our own lives as well..

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 when we standup for what we believe is right.

It might be frightening when we as individuals stand up for what is right. It may be painful when we are at conflict with those around us.  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.

 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.  There will be moments when even our congregation may go through lean times, when it seems like no cars about what we are doing, when people think we are too extreme and too “out there.” There may be times when people just simply want to avoid that Island of Misfit Toys.

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 Jesus’ words. This is all part of our birth into new life, he is explaining to us. Because in the end, God will always triumph.  And God always provides!

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.

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—it is about something as simple as tithing—of giving that 10% That is important.

It also means giving of our time and energy.

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, on this Stewardship Sunday, continue to do what we’ve been doing. Let us welcome radically and love radically.  Let us 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.

It is truly a time in which to be grateful and joyous.

Let us pray
Lord God, 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 the name of Jesus your Son, we pray in confidence.



Sunday, November 11, 2018

27 Pentecost


November 11, 2018

1 Kings 17:8-16; Psalm 146; Mark 12.38-44

At our Wednesday night Mass, in which we usually commemorate a different saint each week, sometimes our commemorations take the form of a little history lesson. I often say: “we’re gonna take a little trip back in time.” And then, we go and visit some distant year.

Well, today, we’re going to do that as well. We are going to go back in time. Actually we’re going back 100 hundred years exactly. Back to Monday, November 11, 1918.

If we actually went back to the day before, to that Sunday morning, November 10, 1918, well, we’d all be really cold right now because St. Stephen’s didn’t exist. In fact, this was a wide open field quite a ways out of Fargo in 1918.

But on that Sunday morning, normally, you would be attending church in Fargo. But it is very unlikely that would’ve actually been attending church on that Sunday morning of November 10th.

The reason?

Well, most of the churches in Fargo and Moorhead and, in fact, in most of the country, were under quarantine. The Spanish Flu was raging. And scores and scores of young people had been dying of the flu for at least a month and scores more would be dying in the next several months.

In the midst of that bleak and terrible world, on that Monday in France, the guns of war quieted finally and the “Great War,” as it was known, finally came to a close. But only after 2,700 people died that day before peace was declared. Henry Gunther was the last soldier to die in the war. He was shot 60 seconds before the Armistice while trying to charge the German lines to reclaim himself after being demoted.

And yes, it was raining in France 100 years ago today too.

It was an awful war. It was a bloody, quagmire of a war. And it was devastating on all those involved. And sadly, although it was to be supposed the war that ended all wars, it was not. Not by any means.  Nor was it really a “Great” War either.

It’s important for us to remember this war and those who died. Because it was important.

Now, as unpleasant as it is for us to revisit 1918 today, there was another historical event this week that I think we would resist returning to even more than 1918.  I am not going to ask you return with me to that event. We are not going back to the night of November 9-10, 1938. 80 years ago yesterday.  And, in comparing it to the events of 1918, it almost makes the Great War and the Spanish Flu pale in comparison.

80 years ago yesterday, was the anniversary of Kristallnacht, or the Night of the
Broken Glass. And it was on that night, in Germany, that Jewish shops and houses and synagogues were burned, people were murdered, men were arrested and sent off to camps. It was the beginning of a nightmare that would culminate in Auschwitz and gas chambers and crematories and 6 million people dying simply because they were Jewish. That event is also very important for us to remember today. And always.

Because, as Christians, we need to work, in our own lives, to make sure that neither of these events—the Great War and Kristallnacht—happen again.

All of our scriptures this morning find their purest and most poignant voice in the words from today’s Psalm:

“The Lord raises up those who are bowed down.”

“Bowed down” is a beautifully poetic understanding of the sufferings that come to us when we are at war, or when we are ill, or when we are being persecuted and treated unfairly by others.  Certainly, in biblical times, no one was more bowed down than the widows we meet in our readings today.

In our reading from the Hebrew scriptures, we find a widow who visits the prophet and who, out of a desperate situation—she and her son will no doubt starve soon—she gives from what she has.  She, bowed down and helpless, gives from what she has.

In our Gospel, we find a widow who is giving two small coins—money that, no doubt, could have gone for food.

Now, the stories seem basic. OK. So they’re poor women.

But there’s more to it than that.

Being a widow then and there was different than being a widow now.   We oftentimes miss the real meaning behind these stories of the poor widows. A widow in those times was very much a person “bowed down.” Women, for the most part, at that time were defined by their men. Men took care of women—whether it be the father, the husband, the brother or the son— and when there were no men to look after the woman, she was left to her own devices, which were—in that time and in that place—extremely limited.

So, when we look at it from this perspective, for these widows, to give anything at all, is pretty amazing, since they probably had very, very  little to give in the first place.  And yet they, in their poverty, gave abundantly.  These widows, these bowed down people, these marginalized and ignored people, are the people we are called—no, that we are commanded—to not forget about or turn away from.

 Over and over again in both the Hebrew scriptures and in the New Testament, we are commanded to not neglect those who are lacking. We are not to neglect those among us who are being “bowed down” We are being commanded by God again and again to never turn away from the poor, from the marginalized, from those who are sick, from those who are being oppressed.

The reason behind this is that we—as believers in God and followers of Jesus—are not to look at the world as those “of the world” do.

How are we to see this world?  We are to see this world with the “eyes of God.”  We are to see—and to truly see— as God sees.  And not just see as God sees. But to act as God acts.  We are to show compassion on others as God shows compassion on us. When we do so—when we don’t turn away from those who are being unjustly treated in our midst—we are drawing close to the presence and the love of God.

But more so than even that, oftentimes when we act as God acts in this world, we are actually being the embodiment of God to those who need God in their lives.  And most importantly, when we refuse to turn away from the oppressed in our midst, we are being mirrors of that compassion and love of God to others.

But I am going to take this even one more step further. Yes, we are not to turn away from those who are oppressed, but we are also called, in those moments when see, as God sees, oppression and war and violence in our midst to stand up and speak out against oppression and war and violence. And through all of this we need to remind ourselves that we too are lacking.

We too are not fully content, not fully rich, not fully whole. Even those of us who “have,” know what it means, at times, to be out in the fringes. We too who dress in our “long robes,” sometimes know what it means to be “bowed down” by injustice.  When we read these stories of the poor widows—we can, in all honesty, put ourselves in the place of the widow.

No, we are not necessarily hungry, or poor, or dependent upon someone else for our financial well-being. But we may have known oppression in our lives. We may have known what it feels like to be marginalized, to be treated as someone less in this world just because of who we are. We too know what it is like to be ignored and seen as unimportant.

I personally have known this profoundly in my own life many, many times. I have known it by the society in which I live. I have most certainly known it by the Church in which I serve, and by the leaders of that Church.

And any of us who have been truly “bowed down” can tell you: being “bowed down” is awful. Truly and terribly awful! No one strives to be ones of the bowed down in our society. No one wishes to be treated that way in this world.

So, what do we do in these situations?  Well, when it happens we recognize our dependence on that One who truly does feed us who are hungry, on the One who raises up us who are bowed down

Because God is with those who are oppressed. God was with those people whose shops were being burned on Kristallnacht, God still dwelt in those temples that were vandalized and burned, God was with those women who had to pick up the pieces after their husbands and sons were sent to the camps, who had to clean up their homes, who had to hold it all together. The strength and the forbearance of those people shows us how truly present God was with them.  And in this world—this world that is at times so unfriendly and so mean-spirited and so violent and so full of illnesses that devastate us—we too know what it means to be on the receiving end of those things.

We too know what it means, at times, to be hurt and burdened. And it is very important for all of us who are bowed down to remember.

Those who are lacking are not only to receive justice. We cannot just hoard justice or demand it only for ourselves.   We are to show justice as well in our own lives.

And that it is why it is important to identify with the widows. We—fractured human beings that we are—must show the justice we expect for ourselves. Even in our lacking, even bowed down as we might be, even ostracized and marginalized from the world and the Church and society, we must live out our lives with integrity and meaning.

We must emanate justice in all we do and say.  We must strive for a truly lasting peace that will truly end all wars. And we must fight against injustice whenever we see.

So, let us bear within ourselves the love and compassion of God to others.

Let us reflect it with our very lives and actions.  

Let us live God’s justice out in our very lives and in all of our actions.

Let us truly see this world through the eyes of God.

Let us love others, as God loves us.

Let us be compassionate to others, as God is compassionate to us.

And when we do, only then will wars finally cease. Only then will there be no more nights of broken glass. Only then will we know that, yes, truly God does raise up those who are bowed down.





Sunday, November 4, 2018

All Saints Sunday

November 4, 2018

Revelation21.1-6a

+ Today is, as you have probably realized, is All Saints Sunday. From the very earliest days of the Church, this has been one of the highpoints of the Church year. It’s an important feast. And it’s important not just because we honor saints like St. Stephen, or Mary the mother of Jesus, or St. Joseph or any of the other saints.
It’s an important days because it is a day in which honor also those loved ones in our own lives who have gone before us. It is a time for us to honor our departed loved ones, as well as those we might not know about. Honoring and praying for those who have departed this life has always been an important part of the Church.

But, there are some branches of the Church that do not honor saints in this manner. If you come from a Lutheran or Methodist or a Presbyterian background, there may be some way of honoring those who have gone before, but prayers are usually not prayed for them, for whatever theological reason those particular denominations might hold.

But, for us, as Anglicans and Episcopalians, it has always been a part of our tradition to actually remember the departed in our prayers and to specifically pray for them. You will hear us, as Episcopalians, make a petition when someone dies that you won’t hear in the Lutheran Church, or the Methodist Church or the Presbyterian Church. When someone dies, you will probably get a prayer request from me that begins, “I ask your prayers for the repose of the soul of…”

Praying in such a way for people who have passed has always been a part of our Anglican tradition, and will continue to be a part of our tradition.

And I can tell you, I  like that idea of praying for those who have died.
But, and this is important: we don’t pray for people have died for the same reasons other branches of Christianity, like Roman Catholics, do.  In other words, we don’t pray to free them from “purgatory,” as though our prayers could somehow change God’s mind.

So, why do we Episcopalians pray for the departed? Well, let’s see what the Book of Common Prayer says.  I am going to have you pick up your Prayer Books and look in the back, to the Catechism. There, on page 862 you get the very important question:

Why do we pray for the dead?

The answer (and it’s very good answer): We pray for them, because we still hold them in our love, and because we trust that in God's presence those who have chosen to serve him will grow in his love, until they see him as he is.

Now, that is a great answer. We pray that those who have chosen God will grow in God’s love.  So, essentially, just because we die, it does not seem to mean that we stop growing in God’s love and presence.

But, if you’re still not convinced, here’s an answer from no greater person than one of the treasures of the Anglican Church—C.S. Lewis. Lewis wrote,
"Of course I pray for the dead. The action is so spontaneous, so all but inevitable, that only the most compulsive theological case against it would deter me. And I hardly know how the rest of my prayers would survive if those for the dead were forbidden. At our age, the majority of those we love best are dead. What sort of intercourse with God could I have if what I love best were unmentionable to [God]?

I think that is wonderful and beautiful. And certainly worthy of our prayers. But even more so than this definition, I think that, because we are uncertain of exactly what happens to us when we die, there is nothing wrong with praying for those who have crossed into that mystery we call “the nearer Presence of God.”

After all, they are still our family and friends.  They are still part of who we are.
This morning we are commemorating and remembering those people in our lives who have helped us, in various way, to know God.

As you probably have guessed from the week-long commemoration we have made here at St. Stephen’s regarding the Feast of All Saints, I really do love this feast. With the death of my mother this last year and with many of my own loved ones having died in these last few years, this Feast has taken on particular significance for me.  What this feast shows me is what you have heard me preach in many funeral sermons again and again.

I truly, without a doubt, believe that what separates those of us who are alive here on earth, from those who are now in the “nearer presence of God” is truly a very thin one.  And to commemorate them and to remember them is a good thing for all us.

I do want us to think today long and hard about the saints we have known in our lives. And we have all known saints in our lives. We have known those people who have shown us, by their example, by their good, that God really does work through us. And I want us to at least realize that God still works through us even after we have departed from this mortal coil.

Ministry in one form or the other, can continue, even following our deaths. Hopefully, we can still, even after our deaths, do good and work toward furthering the Kingdom of God by the example we have left behind.

For me, the saints—those people who have gone before us—aren’t gone.  They haven’t just disappeared.  They haven’t just floated away and dissipated like clouds out of our midst.

No, rather they are here with us, still.  They join with us, just as the angels do, when we celebrate the Eucharist. For, especially in the Eucharist, we find that “veil” lifted for a moment. In this Eucharist that we celebrate together at this altar, we find the divisions that separate us are gone.

We see how thin that veil truly is. We see that death truly does not have ultimate power over us. That is the way Holy Communion should be.

It’s not just us, gathered here at the altar.  It’s the Communion of all the saints.  In fact, before we sing that glorious hymn, “Holy, Holy Holy” during the Eucharistic rite, you hear me say, “with angels and saints and all the company of heaven we sing this hymn of praise.”

That isn’t just sweet, poetic language.  It’s what we believe and hope in.

In these last few years, after losing so many people in my family and among close friends, I think I have felt their presence most keenly, at times, here at this altar when we are gathered together for the Eucharist then at any other time. I have felt them here with us. And in those moments when I have, I know in ways I never have before, how thin that veil is between us and “them.”

You can see why I love this feast. It not only gives us consolation in this moment, separated as we are from our loved ones, but it also gives us hope. We know, in moments like this, where we are headed.  We know what awaits us.

No, we don’t know it in detail. We’re not saying there are streets paved in gold or puffy white clouds with chubby little baby angels floating around.  We don’t have a clear vision of that place.

But we do sense it. We do feel it.  We know it’s there, just beyond our vision, just out of reach and out of focus. And “they” are all there, waiting for us. They—all the angels, all the saints, all our departed loved ones.

So, this morning—and always—we should rejoice in this fellowship we have with them. We should rejoice as the saints we are and we should rejoice with the saints that have gone before us.

In our collect this morning, we prayed that “we may come to those ineffably joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you.”

Those ineffably joys await us.  They are there, just on the other side of that thin veil.

They are there, in that place we heard about in our reading today from Revelation.

That place in which God “will dwell with them as their God;
Where we will be God’s peoples

They are there were God wipes “every tear from their eyes.
Where “Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away."