Sunday, July 28, 2019

7 Pentecost


July 28, 2019

Luke 11.1-13

+ Every so often, as a clergy person, I get a question like this,

 “Do you really pray when people ask you for prayers, or do you just say you’ll pray and forget?”

It was one of the best questions I’ve ever been asked.

And it’s an important question.

I say this to that question:

“I used to say I would and then would often forget and feel guilty for forgetting. So, now, what I do is when anyone asks for prayer from me, I immediately pray for them. Even if it’s a short, interior prayer, I will pray for them, ‘please, God, I pray for so-and-so’ and whatever issue they have. And when I do, I usually find that when I pray more fully, usually at Evening Prayer, and in a more focused way, that request is still there.”

And I can say this, prayer is as essential of a part of my ministry at St. Stephen’s as anything I do.

And I know it is for many of you as well.

For me, as an ordained person, I can tell you, I too very seriously the vow I first made I was ordained a deacon, when the Bishop asked me,

“Will you be faithful in prayer…?”

With that in mind, I can also say that one of the most common questions I have been asked in my 16 years of ordained ministry has been: “how should I pray?” Or “Am I praying correctly?”

And I think that is one of the most important questions anyone can ask me.

And I love to answer that question.

It is essential.

After all, prayer is essential to us as Christians.

It is in praying, that we not only seek God, but come to know God.

For those of us seeking God and striving after God, and God, in return, coming to us and revealing God’s self to us, we do find the need to respond in some way.

That response is, of course, prayer.

In our Gospel for today, we find Jesus talking about this response.

We find him talking about prayer.

The disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray.  

Jesus responds by teaching them the prayer we know as the Lord’s Prayer, or the Our Father.

First of all, let’s just think about the Lord’s Prayer.

Certainly it is the most famous prayer in our human history.

It is a prayer that is prayed over and over again, every single day by millions of people.

I was thinking the other day about how many times a day I pray the Lord’s Prayer.

And, on Friday, as I officiated as a Committal of Ashes service, as we prayed the Lord’s Prayer at the graveside, I thought about all those funerals, burial services, weddings and others services we’ve prayed the Lord’s Prayer.

It is THE single most important prayer for us, certainly, as Christians, as followers of Jesus.

And in it, we have the pattern for prayer for us.

So, Jesus teaches us this essential prayer today in our Gospel.

Then he goes on to share a parable about a friend asking another friend for a loan.

In the midst of this discourse on prayer, Jesus says those words we find quite familiar:

“For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knows, the door will be opened.”

Now, pay attention to some key words there:

-Asks

-Searches

-Knows.

I can’t tell you how many times I have heard the complaint from people about unanswered prayers.

“I prayed and I prayed and nothing happened,” I will hear.

And I am definitely not going to tell you how many times I have complained about so-called “unanswered” prayer in my own life.

But when we talk of such things as unanswered prayers, no doubt we are zeroing in on the first part of what Jesus is saying today:

“For everyone who asks receives.”

And before we move on from this, I just want to make clear—there is no such thing  as unanswered prayer.

All prayers are answered, as you’ve heard me say many times.

The answer however is just not always what we might want to hear.

Our God is not Santa Claus in heaven, granting gifts to good children, nor is our God the god of Sigmund Freud’s Moses and Monotheism—a projection of our own parental expectations (to which many of us act like spoiled children).

God grants our prayers, but sometimes the answer is “Yes,” sometimes is “not yet,” and, sadly—and we have to face this fact as mature people in our lives—sometimes the answer is “No.”

And I can tell you from my own experience, the greatest moment of spiritual maturity is accepting that “no” from God.

But, that is, of course, the petitionary aspect of prayer, and very rarely do most of us move beyond asking God for “things,” as though God is some giant gift-dispenser in the sky. 

(I am telling you this morning, in no uncertain terms, that God is not a giant gift-dispenser in the sky. Sorry!)

Jesus shows us that prayer also involves seeking and knocking—searching and knowing.

Oftentimes in those moments when a prayer is not answered in the way we think it should, we just give up.

We shake our fists at God and say, “God does not exists because my prayers weren’t answered.”

And that’s all right.

That’s an honest and valid response to God.

I’ve done it in my past.

And I understand people who do it.

But if we seek out the reasons our prayers are not answered in the way we want them to, we may truly find another answer—an answer we might not want to find, but an answer nonetheless.  

And if we keep on knocking, if we keep on pushing ourselves in prayer, we will find more than we can even possibly imagine.

The point of all of this, of course, is that when God breaks through to us, sometimes we also have to reach out to God as well.

And somewhere in the middle is where we will find the meeting point in which we find the asking, the seeking and knocking presented before us in a unique and amazing way.

In that place of meeting, we will find that prayer is truly our response to God “by thought and deed, with or without words.”

And in that place of meeting, we come to “know” God.

Jesus is clear that prayer needs to be regular and consistent and heart-felt.

I have found that prayer is essential for all of us as Christians.

If we do not have prayer to sustain us and hold us up and carry us forward, then it is so easy to become aimless and lost.

As some of you know, I lead a very disciplined prayer life.

I’m not saying that to brag or to pat myself on the back.

I try to lead a disciplined prayer because I can be lazy person.

I pray the Daily Office every day—the services of Morning and Evening Prayer found in the Book of Common Prayer—because I need to.

For myself.

See, kind of selfish.

But I do need it.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who also prays the Daily Office every day, says that when he doesn’t pray the Office, he feels off, like he hasn’t brushed his teeth.

That’s what it’s like for me as well.

And I pray it because it is a way for me to pray for everyone at St. Stephen’s by name through the course of the week.  

And, in addition to the Offices, I take regular times during the day to just stop and be quiet and simply “be” in the Presence of God, to just consciously open myself to God’s Presence and just “be” there with God.

No petitions.

No asking for anything.

No fist-shaking or complaints.

Just being there.

That’s essentially what prayer is.

It is us opening ourselves to God, responding to God, seeking God and trying to know God.

So, essentially, prayer is not just something formal and precise.

It does not have to perfect or “formulaic.”

We do not do it only when we are pure and holy and in that right spiritual mind.

We pray honestly and openly and when the last thing in the world we feel like is praying.

We pray when life is falling apart and it seems like God is not listening.

And we pray when we are angry at God or bitter at life and all the unfair things that have come upon us.

I actually have no problem praying in those situations.

You know when I do have a problem praying?

When things are going well.

When all is well.

In those moments, I sometimes forget to open myself to God.

I sometimes forget just to say “thank you” for those good things.

I forget sometimes just to be grateful for the good things.

But even then we need to pray as well.

We pray to know God and to seek God.

And if we do so, if we stick with it, there will be a breakthrough.

I know, because I’ve experienced it.

And many of you know it too because you’ve experienced it.

There will be a breakthrough.

Of course, we can’t control when or how it will happen.

All we can do is recognize that it is God breaking through to us, again and again.

We see the breaking through fully in Jesus.

He shows us how God continues to break through into this world.

We see it in our own lives when, after struggling and worrying and despairing over something, suddenly it just “lifts” and we are filled with a strange peace we never thought would ever exists again.

In those moments, God does break through.

In response to that breaking through, we can each find a way of meeting God, whenever and however God comes to us, in prayer.

In that place of meeting, we will receive whatever we need, we will find what we’re searching for, and knocking, we will find a door opened to us.

That is how God responds to us.

So, let us go out.

Let us go to meet God.

Let us seek God.

Let us know God.

God is breaking through to us, wherever we might be in our lives.

Let us go out to meet the God who asks of us first, who seeks us out first, who knocks first for us to open the door.


Sunday, July 21, 2019

The Requiem Mass for Tom Stickney 1919-2019

Tom & Ruth

July 21, 2019

+ I am very honored to be here, to help commemorate and give thanks for the life of  Tom Stickney and to commend this wonderful man to God.

I am very fortunate to say that I was Tom’s priest, and I would also say a friend.

This was a man who lived a good and long life.

As some of you might not know, tomorrow would have been Tom’s 100th birthday.

So, today, we are truly celebrating Tom and that century-long life.

Few of us can truly comprehend the full magnitude of 100 years.

100 years is something few of us here today will ever achieve.

But as we ponder it, as we ponder 100 years, we have it admit: it’s truly amazing.

All the minutes, and hours and days and weeks and months that make up 100 years is almost overwhelming.

And the experience—the life—that was lived in all of that time is something we should celebrate. 

There will be many stories told about Tom Stickney and his long life.

Many wonderful stories.

And his presence will certainly stay with us as long as we share those stories.

I have no doubt that Tom is with us here this afternoon, celebrating this long and wonderful life with us.  

He is celebrating his 100 years of life with us.

I am of the firm belief that what separates us who are alive and breathing here on earth from those who are now in the so-called “nearer presence of God” is actually a very thin division.

So, yes, right now, I think we can feel that that separation between us here and those who have passed on is, in this moment, a very thin one.

And because of that belief, I take a certain comfort in the fact Tom is close to us this afternoon. 

He is here, in our midst, celebrating his life with us.

And we should truly celebrate his life.

It was a good life.

It was a life full of meaning and purpose.

And many of us were touched by it in wonderful ways.

I certainly was.

I knew Tom and Ruth for many years as their priest.

I remember their strong and gentle presence.

I remember their kindness and their goodness.

I remember their care and their concern for others.

St. Stephen’s was an important place in their lives.

This was their church home.

And so it is appropriate that the new bell tower that we will be getting within the next few months will be dedicated in memory of Toma dn Ruth.

At the end of this service, in fact, we will toll our new bell 10 times.

That tolling with be for each decade of Tom’s life.

When someone has been around for 100 years, and then they are no longer with us, we are going to feel that loss.

There will be a huge gap in the world and in our lives.

After all, they have been a part of this world, when the world was very different than it is right now.

And, although it is no doubt hard to face the fact that we are distanced from him, we can take some consolation in the fact that although Tom has shed this so-called “mortal coil,” he has now entered into that loving presence of God.

There is a great image we find in the book of Revelation.

We find in the book of Revelation God saying this,

“It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.”

As difficult as it is in this moment, as difficult as it is to say goodbye to Tom, we are able to find strength in these words.

We are able to cling to the fact that, although life is unpredictable, life is beyond our control, as Tom would no doubt tell us,  life is not beyond God’s control.

God knew us and loved us at our beginning and will know and love us at our end.

For 100 years, God knew and loved Tom.

And, in this moment, that love is fulfilled.

As the poet T.S. Eliot wrote, “In my beginning is my end. In my end is my beginning.”

As we mourn this ending, we also take great comfort in the fact that we are also celebrating a new beginning for Tom today.

This is what we believe as Christians.

Tom, of course, was a devout Episcopalian.

What I love about being an Episcopalian is that sometimes we can’t clearly define what it is we believe.

Nor should we.

We can’t pin it down and examine it too closely.

When we do, we find it loses its meaning. 

But when I am asked, “what do Episcopalians believe?” I say, “we believe what we pray.”

We’re not big on dogma and rules.

We’re not caught up in the letter of the law or preaching a literal interpretation of the Bible.

But we are big on liturgy—on the our worship services.  

Our Book of Common Prayer in many ways defines what we believe.

And so when I’m asked “What do Episcopalians believe about life after death?” I say, “look at our Book of Common Prayer.”

Look at what it says.

And that is what we believe.

This service is a testament to what we Episcopalians believe about what happens.

This service is a testimony to what Tom no doubt believed.

Later in this service, we will all pray the same words together.

As we commend Tom to God’s loving and merciful arms, we will pray,

May he go forth from this world in the love of God who created him, in the mercy of Jesus who died for him, in the power of the Holy Spirit who receives and protects him.  May we, like Tom, come to enjoy the blessed rest of everlasting peace and the glorious company of all the saints


It is easy for us to say those words without really thinking about them.

But those are not light words.

Those are words that take on deeper meaning for us now than maybe at any other time.

For Tom, in this ending, he has a new beginning—a new and wonderful beginning that awaits all of us as well.

Where Tom is right now—in those loving, caring and able hands of his God—there is no pain or sorrow.  

There is only life there. Eternal life.

At this time of new beginning, even here at the grave, we—who are left behind—can make our song of alleluia.

Because we know that Tom and all our loved ones have been received into God’s arms of mercy, into the “blessed rest of everlasting peace.”

This is what we cling to on a day like today.

This is where we find our strength.

This what gets us through this temporary—and I do stress that it is temporary—this temporary separation from Tom.

We know that—despite the pain and the frustration, despite the sorrow we all feel—somehow, in the end, God is with us and Tom is with God and that makes all the difference.

We know that in God, what seems like an ending, is actually a wonderful and new beginning.

For Tom, sorrow and pain are no more.

In those 100 years, Tom knew much love and wonder and beauty.

He also knew pain.

He knew sorrow.

He cried probably more tears in that century than any of us can even imagine.

But in this moment, the pain, the sorrow, the tears are all over.

In our reading from Revelation we hear God’s promise that all our tears will one be wiped away for good.

For Tom, his tears have been wiped away.

Tom, in this holy moment, has gained life eternal.

And that is what awaits us as well.

We might not be able to say “Alleluia” with any real enthusiasm today.

But we can find a glimmer of light in the darkness of this day.

It is a glorious Light we find here.

Even if it is just a glimmer, it is a bright and wonderful Light.

And for that we can rejoice and be grateful.
And we can celebrate.   


6 Pentecost


July 21, 2019

Colossian 1.15-28, Luke 10.38-42

+ We should be grateful here at St. Stephen’s for many things.
But one of the things we can be truly grateful for is our artists.
And especially the artists who help make this church a beautiful church.
I know some people might appreciate a bare, white –walled church.
But most of us here at St. Stephen’s, I know, appreciate that fact that we worship with all our senses here.
 We worship with our ears—with music and bells.
We worship with sight, with the beauty of the art on our walls and in our altar and in the hangings here.

And in our icons and religious art.
And in this way, we are paying specially homage to the Eastern Orthodox roots within our church.

In Eastern Orthodoxy, icons take special place in the worship service.
In the Eastern Orthodox Church, ikons are pictures which are sacred because they portray something sacred.
They are a “window,” in a sense, to the sacred, to the otherwise, “unseen.”
They often depict Jesus or Mary or the saints.
But they are seen as something much more than art.

They are seen as something much more than pictures on the wall.
They are also “mirrors.”
And that is important to remember

That term Ikon is important to us this morning because we encounter it in our reading from Pauls’ Letter to the Colossians, that we also heard this morning.
In that letter, in the original Greek,  Paul uses the word “eikon” used to describe the “image” of Christ Jesus.

Our reading this morning opens with those wonderful words,
“Jesus is the image of the invisible God…”
Image in Greek, as I said, is eikon.

But eikon is more than just an “image”.
Ikons also capture the substance of its subject.
It captures the very essence of what it represents.

For Paul, to say that Jesus is the ikon of God, for him, he is saying that Jesus is the window into the unseen God.

In fact, the way ikons are “written” (which is the word used to described how they’re made), God is very clearly represented.
But not in the most obvious way.

God is represented in the gold background of the ikon, which is the one thing you might not notice when you look at an ikon. That gold background represents the Light of God. And that light, if you notice permeates through the faces of the subjects in the ikon.

So, when we look at any ikon, it our job to see God in that ikon.
God shining through the subject whose face we gaze upon.
God, who dwells always around us and in us.

For me personally, I do need things like icons in my own spiritual life.
I need help more often than not in my prayer life.
I need images.
I need to use the senses God gave me to worship God.
All of my senses. 
I need them just the way I need incense and vestments and bells and good music and the bread and wine of the Eucharist.
These things feed me spiritually.
In them, I am actually sustained.
My vision is sustained.
My sense of smell is sustained.
My sense of touch is sustained.
My sense of taste is sustained.
My sense of hearing is sustained.
And when it all comes together, I truly feel the holy Presence of God, here in our midst.

I have shared with you many times in the past how I have truly felt the living presence of God while I have stood at this altar, celebrating Holy Communion.
I have been made aware in that holy moment that this truly is God is truly present and dwelling with us.  
The Sacred and Holy Presence of God is sometimes so very present here in our midst.

I can’t tell you how many times I have gazed deeply into an icon and truly felt God’s Presence there with me, present with a familiarity that simply blows me away.
And for those of us who are followers of Jesus, who are called to love others as we love our God, when we gaze deeply into the eyes of those we serve, there too we see this incredible Presence of God in our midst.
In other words, sometimes the ikons of God in our lives are those who live with us, those we serve, those we are called to love.  

This, I think, is what Paul is getting at in his letter.
We truly do meet the invisible God in this physical world—whether we experience that presence in the Eucharist, in the hearing of God’s Word, in ikons or the art of the church or in incense or in bells or in those we are called to serve.

For years, I used to complain—and it really was a complaint—about the fact that I was “searching for God.”
I used to love to quote the writer Carson McCullers, who once said, “writing, for me, is a search for God.”
But I have now come to the realization—and it was quite a huge realization—that I have actually found God.
I am not searching and questing after God, aimlessly or blindly searching for God in the darkness anymore.
I am not searching for God because I have truly found God.
I found God in very tangible and real ways right here.
I found God in these sensory things around me.

Certainly in our Gospel reading for today, Mary  also sees Jesus as the eikon of God.
Martha is the busybody—the lone wolf.
And Mary is the ikon-gazer.
And I think many of us have been there as well.

It’s seems most of us are sometimes are either Marthas and Marys,
But, the reality is simply that most of us are a little bit of both at times.
Yes, we are busybodies.
We are lone wolves.
But we are also contemplatives, like Mary.

There is a balance between the two.
I understand that there are times we need to be a busybodies and there are times in which we simply must slow down and quietly contemplate God.
When we recognize that Jesus is truly the image of God, we find ourselves at times longingly gazing at Jesus or quietly sitting in his Presence.
But sometimes that recognition of who Jesus is stirs us.
It lights a fire within us and compels us to go out and do the work that needs to be done.

But unlike Martha, we need to do that work without worry or distraction.
When we are in God’ presence—when we recognize that in God we have truly found what we are questing for, what we are searching for, what we are longing for—we find that worry and distraction have fallen away from us.
We don’t want anything to come between us and this marvelous revelation of God we find before us.
In that way, Mary truly has chosen the better part.

But, this all doesn’t end there.
The really important aspect of all of this is that we, too, in turn must become, like Jesus, ikons of God to this world.
In that way, the ikons truly become our mirrors.
When we gaze at an ikon we should see ourselves there, reflected there.
We should see ourselves surrounded by the Light of God.
We should see the light of God permeating us and shining through us.
We should become living, breathing ikons in this world.
Because if we don’t, we are not living into our full potential as followers of Jesus.

So, let us also, like Mary,  choose the better part.
Let us be Marys in this way.
Let us balance our lives in such a way that, yes, we work, but we do so without distraction, without worry, with being the lone wolf, without letting work be our god, getting in the way of that time to serve Jesus and be with Jesus and those Jesus sends our way.

Let us also take time to sit quietly in that Presence of God.

Let us sit quietly in the presence of God, surrounded by the beauty of our senses.

Let us be embodied ikons in our lives.

Let us open ourselves to the Light of God in our lives so that that Light will surrounded us and live within us and shine through us.

And, in that holy moment, we will know: we have chosen the better part, which will never be taken away from us.