Sunday, November 17, 2019

23 Pentecost


November 17, 2019

Malachi 4.1-2a; 2 Thessalonians 3.6-13; Luke 21.5-19

+ Today, of course, is Stewardship Sunday. Today is the day in which we are asked to take a good, hard look at ourselves. At who we are as this strange, unique, eclectic, eccentric congregation in a hidden, out-of-the-way back corner of Fargo.
Stewardship time is a time for the mirror to be set up and to look. And to realize that we are unique, and eccentric and eclectic.

And vital.

And alive.

And…making a difference in the Church, in this world and in our community.

Let’s face it: there aren’t a whole lot of churches out there quite like St. Stephen’s. 
 We are an amazing place! I think we can say that.
And Stewardship is a time to say one important thing:

Thank you.

Thank you, O God, for leading us here.

Thank you, O God, for what you have done here.

Thank you, O God, for your goodness to us here.

Thank you, O God, for the refuge that we are to people who need a refuge.

Sometimes when we’re in the midst of it all, we don’t realize how amazing these things are. Sometimes we take it all for granted.

But let’s not do that. Let’s not take for granted what has been happening here.
It’s also not a time for us to become complacent.  There is still work to do.  There is still so much more ministry to do.

What’s even more amazing is that you—the congregation, the ministers of St. Stephen’s—you have truly all stepped up to the plate. You are doing the ministries here. You are the faces, the lives, the real heart of St. Stephen’s. You have taken this Stewardship time seriously. You have taken your “thank you” very seriously. 
 You have given of yourselves, of your time, of your talents, of your finances, of your very presence this past year. And that is amazing.

And we ask you to do so again this coming year once again.

As we look around at St. Stephen’s, I don’t think we fully realize what has been happening here. But also we need to know that we are more than these walls, than these pews, than these windows, than this tower and bell, than this building.
If we think following Jesus means safely ensconcing ourselves in this church building—and I seriously doubt anyone here this morning thinks that—then we are not really following Jesus.

As we, who are members of St Stephen’s know, following Jesus, means following him out there—out in the field, out on the battlefield.

It means being out there, being a presence out there, being a radical presence out there. It means shaking things up. It means speaking out—respectfully and in love.  It means being an example of a follower of Jesus in all we do outside these walls, as well as within.  It means giving people a new vision of what the Church really can be.

Although I scoff—and scoff loudly—at the prophets of doom, I can echo to some extent what they are saying.

What we are seeing is the death of the old Church. That Church we all knew 20 years, 30 years ago, fifty years—that Church is dying. And, in many ways, you know what? it should be dying.

That Church that prided itself on its privileged attitude—that Church that believed that all one had to do was come to a building on Sunday morning, and give a bit of money here and there and feel content in doing so, and that was all, without having DO anything—that Church is dying.

That Church that alienated and marginalized women, and LGBTQ+ people and divorced people and anyone else who was not “in”—that Church is almost dead.
That Church that used its position in the world to side with the powerful against the weak and the poor, to condemn and to hurt and to maim—that Church is in its death throes.

And the Church that we, at St. Stephen’s, are—this is the Church of the future. 
And I’m sure there are many people out there frightened by that!

We are a Church that finds it vitality and its strength and its purpose and its meaning in its worship of God, in its love of others, in being radical, in being welcoming, in being out there in the midst of it all—that is the Church that is being resurrected from the ashes of the old church.

Just this past Wednesday a young friend of mine came to St. Stephen’s for the first time. He is a college student and musician. And afterward, he told me how amazed he was by our Wednesday night Mass—by that simple Mass and all that incense.

“The respect and dignity you all have in worship and for the Sacrament—that’s amazing. And rare. What you do in the Mass is just different than most churches. And it’s wonderful.”

Remember what Bishop Keith said last Sunday: young people are really looking for true and meaningful worship of a true and living God.

We definitely do that here! We need to be a church that is alive and breathing and moving and changing.

Of course, because it is, our job has doubled. Of course we will continue on as we always have, doing what we’ve always done.

But we will also now have to help bury that old Church. We will have to sing the Requiem for that old Church.  We will now have to be the new face, the new attitude to those people who have been hurt or alienated by that old dying Church.
And there are plenty out there.

One of the areas we have really concentrated on in these last years is being a safe place for former Roman Catholics. More half of our church growth here is from the Roman Catholic Church. Remember last Sunday when I asked people who came from the Roman Catholic to raise their hands.  It was a sea of hands!
But not just Roman Catholics. There have been people who have been alienated and snubbed by Protestant churches as well. And we have provided a safe—and holy—place for them as well.

And, of course, we always continue to be a safe refuge for LGBTQ+ people who have definitely been on the receiving end of the Church’s abuses over the years.
There are plenty here this morning that have been hurt by the Church. Which is why we are here! We will have to help people change their attitudes about the Church.  That mantle is falling upon each of us.  And as it does, we realize that the words of this morning’s Gospel are made real in our lives.

To be that new, resurrected Church, we will have to face persecution. We will face people who do not want us—us radicals, us loud-mouths, those of us who make them uncomfortable—they do not want us being that new Church. We will face those people who are angry and uncomfortable over the fact that the old Church is dying.

Bishop Keith last week told us some hard words. The old ways of doing church are just not effective anymore. We will be on the receiving end of the anger of those people who are simply refusing to believe that the old Church is crumbling and dying around them. And…we will have to face ourselves.
And this, I hate to say, is the really hard one.

Ourselves.

Looking in the mirror also means seeing ourselves for who we are.  We will have to work hard not to destroy ourselves in the process. And that is a real possibility as well.

The old ways of doing things in church are over. And that means the way WE ourselves do things. We must not be like those church members in other churches who sometimes still get stuck in the old ways of doing things  as well.

That is NOT the way for the Church to work, because it undermines the work we have to do.

We need to be this new Church.

We need to be a healthy Church

We need to shed our old ways of doing things.

The church of the future is made up of people who step up to the plate and say, “here I am, Lord. I am willing to do it.”

We have our work cut out for us.  We do. There’s a lot of work to do.
But, none of that is anything to fear.

Jesus tell us not to be afraid. Nor should any of us.

Not a hair of our head will perish to them, he tells us.

Our words, seemingly falling on deaf ears, our example, seemingly lost to the hustle and bustle of it, will bear fruit.

And God will be with us through it all.

As we look around here, we know—God is here.

God is with us.

That Spirit of our living, breathing God dwells with us. And God is being proclaimed in the message we carry within each of us.

When we welcome people radically, when we embrace those no one else will embrace, when we love those who have been hated, when we are hated for loving those who are hated, we know that all we are doing is bringing the Kingdom of God not only closer, but we are birthing it right here in our midst.

And we have nothing to fear, because, as Jesus says today, “I will give you words and wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”
When we are hated because we do these radical, incredible things in Jesus’ name, we are, in fact, blessed.

We are blessed, here at St. Stephen’s. And that is what we are thankful for today.
Paul tells in in his   letter to the Thessalonians this morning: “do not be weary in doing what is right.”

Those words are our battle cry for our future here at St. Stephen’s. Those words are the motto for the new Church we represent.

Do not be weary in doing what is right.

Yes, I know. We are weary at times. We are tired at times. We have done much work. And there is much work still to do.

But we are doing the work God has given us to do. And we cannot be weary in that work, because we are sustained. We are held up. We are supported by that God who loves and supports us.

But we must keep on doing so with love and humility and grace.

St. Stephen’s is incredible place. We all know it. Others know it.

God knows it.

So, let us be thankful. Let us continue our work—our ministries. And as we do, as we revere God’s Holy Name, see what happens.

The Prophet Malachi is right.

For those of us who continue our work, who continue to revere God’s holy Name, on us that Sun of Righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.
Amen.



Sunday, November 3, 2019

All Saints Sunday


November 3, 2019

Ephesians 1.11-23

+ This past Friday was a very important day in the Church. Capital C. The wider, universal Church.  And for all of us.

It was one of the really important feast days. November 1 was All Saints Day. It is the day in which we commemorate all the saints who now dwell with Christ in heaven. It is a beautiful feast.

On this Feast, we celebrate the saints—those who are both well-known saints and those saints who might only be known to a few. And when anyone from St. Stephen’s dies, or when anyone close to someone at St. Stephen’s dies, you will always receive an email with a request for prayer. And the request for prayer will usually begin with these words:

“The prayers of St. Stephen’s are requested for the repose of the soul of …so-and-so.”

Occasionally, someone will ask me about that prayer request.  Someone will ask,
Why do we pray for the dead?

Why do we pray for the repose of their souls?

After all, they’ve lived their lives in this world and wherever they’re going, they’re there long before a prayer request goes out.

The fact is, we DO pray for our dead. We always have—as Anglicans and as Episcopalians.  You will hear us as Episcopalians make their petition for prayer when someone dies that you won’t hear in the Lutheran Church, or the Methodist Church or the Presbyterian Church.

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, I want to stress, that although we and Roman Catholics both pray for our dead,  we don’t pray for people have died for the same reasons 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.

Rather, we pray for our deceased loved ones in the same way we pray for our living loved ones. We pray for them to connect, through God, with them. We pray to remember them and to wish them peace.

Still, that might not be good enough answer for some (and that’s all right).
So…let’s hear what the Book of Common Prayer says about it. And, yes, the Book of Common Prayer does address this very issue directly. I am going to have you pick up your Prayer Books and look in the back, to the trusty old  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 [God] will grow in [God’s] love, until they see [God] as [God] is.”

That is a great answer!

We pray that those who have chosen to serve 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.  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 many of my own loved ones 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 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 goodness, that God works 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. We see that the God of Life is ultimately victorious!

I can’t tell you how many times over the years I have heard stories from one priest or layperson or the other who have said they have experienced, especially during the Eucharist, the presence, of the multitude of saints, gathered together to worship. And there have been moments during our own liturgies here, even fairly recently, when I have felt the presence of our departed members.

Every time we worship, we worship with those who are now worshiping in the Presence of Christ. And so, when we worship here, it does feel sometimes like people we loved and worshiped with are here with us still.

It is like all those we have known in this life are still with us, still here, in that one holy, thin moment when the veil between here and there is parted for a moment. And I am very grateful for that holy moment. I am grateful to know they are still with us in some holy and beautiful way.

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.
In fact, on the day my mother died, as I was at the altar, I felt her presence in a strange and unique way. It was at that moment, I found out later, that she was departing from this  world. And yet, she was there with me in a very powerful and very real way! And in those moments,  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.  And if we are only patient, we too, as Paul tells us in his letter to the Ephesians this morning, will obtain that inheritance that they have gained. We too will live with them in that place of unimaginable and ineffable joy and light. And that is a reason to rejoice this morning.