Sunday, September 15, 2019

14 Pentecost


Sept. 15, 2019

Luke 15.1-10

+ As most of you know, we have a Wednesday night Mass here at St. Stephen’s at 6:00 pm. For most of those Masses, we usually commemorate a particular saint, or some Christian personage or event.  

We especially commemorate saints of the Episcopal Church. (Yes, there are saints in the Episcopal Church.)

One of those of events we sometimes commemorate is a particular year.
And this morning, we are going to go back to one of those momentous years. We are going back 56 years. We are going to back to 1963.

1963 was a very momentous year. Many, many life-altering events happened in the 1963.

In June of that year, there was the death of Pope John XXIII, who was, of course, very much a pioneer in advocating ecumenical relationships between different Christian denominations.

On August 27, 1963 the Rev. Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.

And today was also a very important day in 1963.  In 1963, September 15 was also a Sunday.

On that Sunday morning, at 10:22 am, 26 Sunday School students were filing down to the basement assembly room of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, to hear a sermon entitled “The Love That Forgives.”

In a dressing of the same basement, four girls-- Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, all aged 14 and Denise McNair, aged 11, were changing into their choir robes. At that moment—10:22 a.m.— a box of dynamite with a time delay planted  under the steps of the church, near the basement, by four Ku Klux Klan members, exploded. Twenty-two people were injured.  And those four girls in the dressing room were killed when the basement wall fell on them.

Every window in the church was blown out by the blast except one—a stained glass window of Jesus welcoming the little children.

I think it also especially appropriate that yesterday we commemorated the Feast of the Holy Cross. On that day we commemorate the  actual Cross on which Jesus died.

As many of you know, it was nine years ago yesterday that my father died, very suddenly, very expectantly. Many of you have walked with me through these nine very difficult years.  And I am very thankful for the support and the care during that time.

Events like these—like the events of 56 years, like the event for me nine years ago—  drive home for me the fact that the cross is ultimately a symbol of victory.

Yes,  for it to be a symbol of victory, there has to be, sadly, some sense of defeat. There has to be some sense that something was lost. And that in the face of defeat, in the face of loss, in the face of ruin, in the ace of failure, in the face even of death, a victory can still be won.

For us, as followers of Jesus, we are people of the Cross. There’s no way around that fact. We are people of the Cross.  We are people who were not promised a sweet, burden-free lives.

Nowhere in scripture, in our liturgies, in our prayer book, are we promised a life without pain, without trouble, without sorrow. Nowhere are we told we do not have to take up our crosses.  But what we are promised consistently, as followers of Jesus, is ultimate victory.

What we are promised again and again is that suffering and pain and death and tears will all one day end. One day, even the Cross will be defeated.

But life—life in our God of life and love—will never end.  And that even in the face of what seems like defeat and loss, there really is ultimately  victory. For those people affected by that bombing fifty-six years ago this morning, there seemed no victory.

Four little girls lost to hatred and fear seemed like ultimate defeat. But fifty-six years later, we can say that those lives were not lost in vain. Yes, fifty-six years later, we are still dealing with the KKK again, we are still dealing with white supremacists and Nazis and fascists, but we are also here, remembering those girls and we can realize now that those deaths changed things.

People who never really thought about what was happening in this country, in the South, starting thinking about those issues. And people started working to change things. The following July—on July 2, 1964—President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, ensuring equal rights of African Americans.

For those who followed Jesus, who betrayed him and saw him killed on that cross, they no doubt saw that death as the ultimate defeat. But here we are, followers of Jesus, today, this morning, giving thanks for the life he has given to all of us on the other side of that cross.

In our Gospel reading for this morning, we find the Pharisees and the scribes thinking Jesus and his followers were foolish. Drinking and eating with sinners seemed like folly. It seemed demeaning and uncouth.

But, by doing so, Jesus showed that sin was not a reason to despair, to beat ourselves up. Even what seems like defeat—a sinner lost to sin—can be a victory when sin is defeated, when wrongs are made right  and relationships are restored.

Our lives as followers of Jesus are a series of failure and victories. We stumble, we fall, we get up and we go forward. That is what our Christian journey is.  Our lives as Christians are filled with moments when it seems that the darkest night will never give way to the dawn.

But Jesus shows us that this dawn is the reality; this is what is real.  That there can be no ultimate defeats in him. Not even death—probably the thing we all fear the most—not even death has ultimate victory over us.

I can tell you that on this morning, when I am still feeling emotionally raw now still nine years after my father’s death, this belief, this reality that Jesus promises us of an end to death (which my father believed), is my ultimate joy. It upholds me and keeps me going. And it should for all of us as well.

Bad things happen.  Horrible, terrible things happen. Yes, there are the KKK and white supremacists and Nazis and hate-mongers marching proudly lately in a way they haven’t in a long time.  But this is not defeat. This is not the end. This is not the period to the sentence of our lives.

As students of history, we know how their stories will end. We know that the KKK and Nazis and fascists and hate-mongers are on the wrong side of history, and the wrong side of God.

As followers of Jesus, we are told, again and again, rejoice.  Rejoice in the face of failure and defeat.

To rejoice in the face of defeat is a defiant act. It is an act of rebellion against those dark forces. It is an act of rebellion against white supremacists and Nazis and fascists and hate-mongers.  It is an act of rebellion against the power of failure, of loss, of pain.

So, let us do just that. Let us rejoice.  Let us stand up against those moments in which we have been driven to ground and are left weak and beaten. Let us stand up from them, defiant, confident in the One we follow. Let us stand, when our legs are weak from pain and loss, when our hearts are heavy within us, when we are bleeding in pain and our eyes are filled with tears.  Let us stand up when the forces of evil and hatred and death seemed to have won out.  And when we do, when we rise from those ashes, when we rise above that darkness and stand in that brilliant light, it is then—in that glorious moment—when we will truly and fully live.



Sunday, September 8, 2019

Dedication Sunday


September 8, 2019

1 Kings 8:22-23,27b-30; 

+ This past week, has been an exciting week for us here at St. Stephen’s. Yes, the tower arrived! And, yes, it looks great! See. I told you it would.

Also, today, we are celebrating our Dedication Sunday. We are commemorating 63 years of service to God and others.

We are starting up Children’s Chapel again.

We are blessing backpacks.

And we are blessing this new set of new green paraments and vestments that Jean Sando made.

It’s all very exciting.

And I especially love our scripture readings for today. I love all this talk of a building being God’s house. I think we sometimes forget that fact.

We forget that this is God’s house. God, in a very unique ways, dwells with us here. But this is Sunday is more than all these physical things.  It is about more than just a building, and walls, and a steel tower and vestments and paraments.

It about us being the House of God. It is about us being the tabernacles in which God dwells.  It is about us and our service to God and others.

And you know what it’s really all about.  It is about LOVE.   Yup, it’s gonna be another love sermon.

Years ago, I read an amazing biography of the American poet Denise Levertov, I came across this wonderful quote, from another poet, St. John the Cross:

“In the evening of our lives, we will be judged on love alone.”

Later I heard a friend of mine comment on that quote by saying

 “we will be judged BY love alone.”

I love that!  That quote has been haunting me for years. And it certainly has been striking me to my core in these days leading up to our Dedication Sunday celebration.

If this congregation could have a motto for itself, it would be this.

“In the evening of our lives, we will be judged by love alone.”

Because this, throughout all of our 63 year history, is what we are known for at St. Stephen’s.

Love.

We are known for the fact that we know, by our words, by our actions, by our faith in God and one another, that it is love that makes the difference. And by love we will, ultimately, be judged.  That’s what the Church—that larger Church—capital “C” Church— should be. But sometimes we forget what the Church should be.

This morning, there are many people here who have been wounded by that Church—the larger Church. I stand before you, having been hurt be the larger Church on more than one occasion. And for those of us who are here, with our wounds still bleeding, it is not an easy thing to keep coming back to church sometimes.

It is not any easy thing to be a part of that Church again. It is not an easy thing to call one’s self a Christian again, especially now when it seems so many people have essentially high jacked that name and made it into something ugly and terrible.  And, speaking for myself, it’s not easy to be a priest—a uniform-wearing representative of that human-run organization that so often forgets about love being its main purpose.

But, we, here at St. Stephen’s, are obviously doing something right, to make better the wrongs that may have been done on a larger scale.  We, at St. Stephen’s, (I hope) have done a good job I think over these last 63 years of striving to be a positive example of the wider Church and of service to Christ who, according to Peter’s letter this morning, truly is a “living stone”—the solid foundation from which we grow. We have truly become a place of love, of radical acceptance.  As God intends the Church to be.

In these last 63 years, this congregation has done some amazing things. It has been first and foremost in the acceptance of women in leadership, when women weren’t in leadership.

It was first and foremost in the acceptance of LGBTQ people, when few churches would acknowledge them, much less welcome them and fully include them.  

Certainly in the last few years,  certainly St. Stephen’s has done something not many Episcopal Churches are doing.

It has grown. A LOT!  And that alone is something we should be very grateful to God for on this Dedication Sunday.

On October 1, I will be commemorating eleven years as your priest here at St. Stephen’s. I can tell you, they have been the most incredible eleven years of my life.  Personally, they have been, of course, some very, very hard years. As a priest, they have been years in which I have seen God at work in ways I never have before.

 Seeing all this we need to give the credit where the credit is truly due:

The Holy Spirit.

Here.

Among us.

Growth of this kind can truly be a cause for us to celebrate that Spirit’s Presence among us.  It can help us to realize that this is truly the place in which God’s dwells.

In our reading from First Kings today, we hear Solomon echoing God’s words, 

“My name shall be there.”

God’s Name dwells here.

As we look around, we too realize that this is truly the home of O God. We too are able to exclaim, God’s name dwells here!

And, as I said at the beginning of my sermon, by “the home of God”  I don’t mean just this building. After all—God is truly here, with us, in all that we do together. The name of God is proclaimed in the ministries we do here. In the outreach we do. In the witness we make in the community of Farg0-Moorhead and in the wider Church.

God is here, with us. God is working through us and in us.  Sometimes, when we are in the midst of it all, when we are doing the work, we sometimes miss that perspective. 

We miss that sense of holiness and renewal and life that comes bubbling up from a healthy and vital congregation working together. We miss the fact that God truly is here.

So, it is good to stop and listen for a moment.

It is good to reorient ourselves.

It is good to refocus and see what ways we can move forward together.

It is good to look around and see how God is working through us.

In a few moments, we will recognize and give thanks for now only our new members but for all our members and the many ministries of this church.
Many of the ministries that happen here at St. Stephen’s go on clandestinely. They go on behind the scenes, in ways most of us (with exception of God) don’t even see and recognize. But that is how God works as well. God works oftentimes clandestinely, through us and around us.

This morning, however, we are seeing very clearly the ways in which God works not so clandestinely.

We see it in the growth of St. Stephen’s.

We see it in the vitality here.

We see it in the love here.

We see it in the tangible things, in our altar, in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, in our scripture readings, in our windows, in the smell of incense in the air, in our service toward each other. In US.

But behind all these incredible things happening now, God has also worked slowly and deliberately and seemingly clandestinely throughout the years. And for all of this—the past, the present and the future—we are truly thankful.

God truly is in this place. This is truly the house of God.

WE truly are the house of God.

This is the place in which love is proclaimed and acted out.

So, let us rejoice. Let us rejoice in where we have been. Let us rejoice in where we are. Let us rejoice in where we are going.

And, in our rejoicing, let us truly be God’s own people. Let us be God’s people in order that we might proclaim, in love, the mighty and merciful acts of Christ, the living and unmovable stone, on whom we find our security and our foundation.   


Sunday, September 1, 2019

12 Pentecost

Bishop James Pike
(1913-1969)
September 1, 2019

Luke 14:1, 7-14

+ Tomorrow, September 2—is the 50th anniversary of one of the most controversial bishops in the Episcopal Church.

Bishop James Pike, the Bishop of California, was most definitely a person like we have not seen since.

He was controversial, he was an alcoholic, he was a philanderer. He consulted mediums.

He was brought up on heresy charges in the Episcopal Church because he wrote books about his disbelief in the Trinity and the Virgin birth of Jesus, among other controversial issues of the time, like abortion and the ordination of women in the Church.

He was, in many ways, definitely ahead of his time.

I quote him often because was just so…quotable.

On this day 50 years ago, he and his third wife headed out in the Judean desert looking for the Qumran caves, where the Dead Scrolls were found.  They were unprepared for the desert. They brought a bottle of water and that was about it.  At some point their car broke down and they decided to go out and search for help. They split up. His wife was later found wandering about by an Israeli army patrol.

But Bishop Pike could not be found. Several days later, he was found beside a pool of water. He had fallen from a cliff and fractured bones and died of exposure the day following the car breaking down.

It was a sad end to a troubled man.

He was an arrogant man, a proud man, a fractured man. And someone we are still talking about 50 years later.

The great Episcopal theologian William Stringfellow, and his partner Anthony wrote a biography of Pike. And in it, they wrote this haunting piece:

The death to self in Christ was neither doctrinal abstraction or theological jargon for James Pike. He died in such a way before his death in Judea. He died to authority, celebrity, the opinions of others, publicity, status, dependence upon Mama, indulgences in alcohol and tobacco, family and children, marriage and marriages, promiscuity, scholarly ambition, the lawyer's profession, political opportunity, Olympian discourses, forensic agility, controversy, denigration, injustice, religion, the need to justify himself.

By the time Bishop Pike reached the wilderness in Judea, he had died in Christ. What, then, happened there was not so much a death as a birth."

That quote has haunted me and obsessed me for years.

And so has Pike to some extent.

This man who was not humble by any sense of the word, gained a strange sense of humility by the time he died.  And that shows that Bishop Pike, rather than being someone we scoff at and condemn in our way, is actually someone who shows us a way forward on our Christian journey.

Humility.

The last person we would think would give us a lesson on humility would be James Pike.   But he is doing so today.

Because Humility is what we find in our Gospel reading for today.  For those of us who were listening closely to this morning’s Gospel—and I hope you were—we might find ourselves struggling a bit with Jesus’ words.

I know I certainly do.  

And if we aren’t struggling—if those words don’t make us uncomfortable—then maybe we should be.  They are uncomfortable words, after all.  Jesus is making clear to us that, if we neglect the least among us, if we consistently put ourselves first—if we let our egos win out—we are truly putting ourselves in jeopardy.

What we do here on earth—in this life—does make a difference. It makes a difference here, and it makes a difference in the next world. It makes a difference with those we neglect. And it makes a difference with God. And we should take heed.  We shouldn’t neglect those who are least among us.

But probably the most difficult aspect of our Gospel today is when Jesus summarized everything in that all-too-familiar maxim:

“For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Jesus is not pulling any punches here. He is as clear as day.

Humble yourselves. If you do so, you will be exalted. If you are arrogant and full of yourself, you will be humbled.

I know this might come as a completely surprise to those of you who know me, there have been times when I have been a bit arrogant.

There have been times when I have been a bit full of myself. And I can tell you that each time I have, I have been very quickly put in my place.  I have been humbled in those instances.  As I rightly should have been.

Humility and pride are too often huge issues for all of us Christians, whether we are laypeople or clergy.  For those of us who have spent a good part of lives in church, we have known too many arrogant, self-centered, conceited Christians in our lives.  They sometimes are on the Vestry, in the pews, in the kitchen, or in the pulpit, or at the altar.

Pride is an ugly thing.  It doesn’t do anyone any good, especially the prideful one.

But to be fair, it’s easy enough to do.  It’s easy enough to fall in that ugly trap of pride.  I’ve done it. We all have.

When we encounter those prideful Christians, we need to be careful how we deal with them.  Because we need to remind ourselves: “there but for the grace of God, go we.”

Pride is an easy trap to fall into as Christians.  We know we are loved by God.  We know we, as followers of Jesus, through our Baptisms, have a special place in relation to God.  It’s easy sometimes to feel smug and self-assured.  And when we are fully immersed in Church work, it’s easy for us to think that the success or failure of the ministry of the Church depends on us as individuals.

Earlier this summer I preached about lone wolf ministry. Lone wolf ministry doesn’t work. And Jesus certainly never intended his followers to be lone wolves.

Discipleship means community.  Still, we do it. We fail at this.  I do it more often than I care to admit.  We’ve all heard it, “If I didn’t do it, who would?”

“If I didn’t do it, it’s just not going to get done.”

And sometimes, this might be true.

But, it is a dangerous road to take when we start thinking everything revolves around us. That our opinion is the only right opinion.  And for clergy, they are in an even more vulnerable place.

As clergy, we occasionally find ourselves being praised and treated with a sometimes undeserved respect. And although I have found my vocation to the priesthood to be a very humbling experience, there are times when we might find ourselves feeling very smug over a job well done.

That’s true with all of us, as Christians.

It’s easy to fall into that ugly trap of believing everything is about us as individual. It’s easy to convince ourselves that the world revolves around us and only us.

Life, after all, is a matter of perspective.  And from our perspective, everything else does in fact revolve around us.

But our job as followers and disciples of Jesus is to change that perspective.  Our job as Christians is to, always and everywhere, put God first.  It is not all about us. We are just a breath.  We are just a blink of the eye in the larger scheme of everything.  We are born, we live, we die.  And then we are gone.  

And, without God, that is all we would be.  There would be no hope, there would be no future, there would be no us, without God.

God gives us our definition.

God gives us our identity.

God gives us our purpose.

This is what it means to be a Christian. And this is what Jesus is getting at today, when he talks about the humbled being exalted.

Who knows better than Jesus about humility?  He, the divine Son of God, who was humbled himself to the point of actually being betrayed, humiliated and murdered, knew a few things about humility.

So, when we find ourselves falling into the pride trap, we need to stop and remind ourselves to put God first.  When we find ourselves seeing the world as revolving around the all-mighty ME, we do need to stop and remind ourselves that God is at the center of our lives and, as such, our world revolves around God.  

After all, as we hear in that beautiful reading from Hebrews, God says to us, “I will never leave you or forsake you.”

As long as God is with us—as God’s light is shining through us—we can simply be who we are without trying to be something we are not.  When we find ourselves shining with the glow of self-pride and self-contentment, let us remember that the light shining through us is not my light or your light, but the light of God and that any reflection others have of our works is accomplished only through that light.

When we find ourselves becoming prideful, let us stop and listen to the voice of Jesus as he says to us, “those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

God wants us to be exalted.  God wants to exalt us.  But this can only happen when we come before God in all humility, as humble disciples of Jesus, serving our loving God in those poor and needy people around us. This can only happen when we place God at the forefront of our lives

So, let us put God first. Let us humble ourselves before God.  And let the light of God’s love shine through us in all that we do. Amen.