Sunday, July 5, 2020

5 Pentecost

July 5, 2020

Matthew 11.16-19, 25-30

+ A lot of people seem to think there are secrets to the Priesthood.

I think people think it’s a secret society, like the Masons or something.

They think there are secrets prayers and rituals, etc.

I am asked on a regular basis what those secrets are.

And I guess I don’t help the situation, because my usual response is: “they’re between Jesus and me.”

Actually, there aren’t many secrets to a priests’ life.

But there are things you might not know about.

For example, what most of you might not know is that all these vestments…well, each one is put on with a prayer.

Each of these vestments a priest wears has a prayer that goes along with it.

As the priest puts on each articles of clothing, he or she can say a prayer to remind them that each article of clothing has symbolic meaning.

If you go into the undercroft, you’ll see on the wall there by the vestments the vesting prayers on the wall.

And I know that Deacon John prays some of these prayers when he’s vesting as well when he vests in his Deacon’s vestements.

The prayers are actually good things for someone like me.

I need such things in my life to help me get centered.

I like the fact that I am essentially being clothed in prayer when I pray those prayers while vesting.

And I really do love the symbolism of them.

The prayers are interesting in and of themselves.

For example, when I put on the alb, which is the white robe under these vestments, I pray,

“Make me clean as snow, O Lord, and cleanse my heart; that being made clean in the blood of the Lamb I may deserve an eternal reward.”

When I put on the stole, the scarf-like vestment I wear around my neck, I pray:

“Restore unto me, O Lord, the stole of immortality which I lost through the sins of my first parents and, although, unworthy to approach Thy sacred Mystery, may I nevertheless attain to joy eternal.”

And when I put on this chasuble, this green vestment I wear over it all, I pray a prayer that directly quotes our Gospel reading for today.

The prayer I pray when I put on the chasuble is,

“O Lord, who hast said, ‘My yoke is sweet and my burden light,’ grant that I may carry it to merit Thy grace.”

The chasuble, in this sense, really is symbolic of the yoke.

Now the word of the day today is a strange one.


It’s one we  really don’t want to have to ponder, because, let’s face it, no one wants a yoke.

When we think of a yoke, we no doubt think of something that weighs heavily upon us.

We think of something a beast of burden carries on their backs.

We can’t imagine anything worse for us.

Why would we want an extra burden in our lives?

We have enough burdens as it is.

We’re still bearing the yoke of the pandemic.

And for some, they seem think wearing a mask or being asked to follow safety protocols is a yoke for them.

We are all truly “weary and carrying heavy burdens.”

And sometimes these heavy burdens truly affect our bodies.

As some of you know, I have very terrible back issues.

These came from fractured bones I received in car accidents over the years.

I can’t stand for long periods.

Or sit on a hard surface for prolonged periods.

Every time I go to my chiropractor about these issues, they say things to me like, “Father, you’ve been carrying some heavy burdens on your back, haven’t you?”

Well, we all do, don’t we?

We are all carrying around things we probably should have allowed ourselves to get rid of some time ago.

So, the last thing we want at this time in our lives is to take on another burden.

And not just a burden.

But a burden that is put on us to essentially control us.

Jesus shouldn’t be a burden in our lives.

Isn’t Jesus supposed to take some of the burdens from us?

The reality is:  taking on Christ is equivalent to taking on a very heavy burden.

The cross of Jesus is our yoke as Christians.

Being Christians means living with a burden.

It means we have a structure, a framework that directs our lives.

And sometimes it’s hard to live in such a way.

It’s hard to live by a set of standards that are different from the rest of the world.

Let me tell you as someone who lives with standards different than the rest of the world (vegan, celibate, teetotaler that I am).

Still, I think, most of us, even us Christians, still bristle when we describe our faith and many of those standards that go along with our faith as a yoke.

A yoke on our backs confines us.

It does not allow us freedom.

And we, as humans, and especially as Americans, love our freedom.

We love “elbow room.”

We don’t like anyone telling us what to do and forcing us to go places we don’t want to go.

But the fact is, when we take Christ as our yoke, we find all our notions of personal freedom and independence gone from us.

No longer do we have our own personal freedom

No longer do we have our own personal independence.

What we have is Christ’s independence.

What we have is Christ’s freedom.

Our lives are not our own.

As Christians, we don’t get to claim complete personal independence over our own lives.

Our lives are guided and directed by Christ.

Our lives are ruled over by Christ.

The yoke of Christ means that it is Christ who directs our yoke.

It Christ who directs us, if we need to, to go the places Christ wants us to go and do the things Christ wants us to do and live in certain ways that Christ wants us to live.

It is our duty to be a “beast of burden” for Christ and for what Christ teaches.

The great thing about that is that if we let Christ direct us, nothing wrong will happen to us.

Christ will always lead us along the right path.

Christ will direct us where we need to go.

Now I say all of this to you as though I am fine with all of this.

I say this to you as though I have completely surrendered myself to Christ as his beast of burden.

But, I’ll be brutally honest with you.

I find much of this very difficult to bear as well.

I have always been one of those independently-minded people myself. I know that’s not a surprise to any of you.  

I have never liked being told what to do or what to say by anyone.

I have always preferred doing things on my own.

And for years I struggled with this scripture in my own life.

I did not want to surrender my personal independence and my personal sense of freedom.

Which is why that prayer I pray when I put on my chasuble is not always a prayer I want to pray.

Certainly, in many ways this prayer defines for me what ministry is all about.

When I put on this garment, symbolic of my ministry as a priest, I am reminded of the yoke, of the burden, I carry every day.

In a sense, as a priest, my life is not my own.

I’m not complaining about that.

I knew the rules of the game when I entered the priesthood.

But the reality is that my life is fully and completely Christ’s.

As a priest, I don’t always get to do what I want, or go where I always want to go.

There are standards.

There are boundaries.

It’s not a free-for-all. 

And for those clergy who think it is—well, they’re the ones, we all know, who get in trouble.

I strive to do what Christ wants and I strive to go where Christ leads me.

The key word there is “strive.”

I try to do what Christ wants and try to go where Christ leads.

More often than not, my own arrogance gets in the way, my own fears and anxieties cause me to shrug off the yoke of Christ, and my own selfishness leads me to do only what I want to do.

All ministry is a yoke.

And ministry, as we all know, doesn’t just happen out of the blue.

 Our ministry that we do stems directly from our baptism.

It is a response to the promises that were made for us when we were baptized and which we re-affirm on a regular basis.

So, when I talk about my life not being my own, it is not confined to just me as an ordained priest in the Church.

Rather, through baptism, we are all called to ministry, to a priesthood of all believers.

We have all, through our baptism, taken on the yoke of Christ.

Because, through baptism, we have been marked as Christ’s own forever and we have been given a yoke that we cannot shrug off.

Our lives are not our own.

Through baptism, we are Christ’s—and our lives belong completely and fully to Christ.

Now all of this might seem confined and difficult to accept, but Jesus says, in no uncertain terms, that his yoke is not quite like the yoke put on a beast.

While that yoke is heavy and unwieldy—it is a tedious weight to bear for the animal—for us, he tells us, his yoke is light and the burden easy.

It is a burden that we should gladly take on because it leads us to a place of joy and gladness.

It is a yoke that directs us to a place to which we, without it, would not be able to find on our own.

We, in our arrogance, in our self-centeredness, in our selfishness, cannot find the Kingdom of God on our own.

Only through Christ’s direction can be we be truly led there.

The yoke of Christ is, in an outward sense, a simple one to bear.

The yoke of Christ consists of loving God and loving our neighbor as our selves.

It is these two commandments that have been laid on our backs and by allowing ourselves to be led by  them, they are what will bring us and those whom we encounter in this life to that place of joy.

So, let us gladly embrace the yoke Jesus laid upon us at baptism.

For taking on the burdens of Christ will not be just another burden to bear.

It won’t cause us any real pain.

It won’t give us aches and pains that will settle in our backs and necks, like the others burdens we carry around with us in this life.

But rather, the yoke of Christ is what frees us in a way we cannot even begin to understand.

It is a freedom that we find in Christ.

“Take my yoke upon you,” Jesus says to us, “and you will find rest for your souls.”

Let us take the yoke of Christ upon ourselves with graciousness, and, when we do, we too will find that rest for our souls as well.

Let us pray.

Holy and loving God, give us strength to bear what we must bear, and to go where we must go, so that in doing so, we may follow your Son, Jesus; in whose name we pray. Amen.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

The memorial service for Jim Coffey

Jim Coffey
1929- 2020

June 27, 2020

+ Well, we gather today not really wanting to be here.

Yes, we knew this day was inevitably on the horizon somewhere.

But it still seems a bit too soon.

It was supposed to be different.

I guess imagined a time in which we could all say our goodbyes in person.

But, again, as Jim would tell us, this is the way it sometime happens.

And, in many ways, this might be better.

Whatever the case, all I do know for certain today is that I am very grateful.

I am grateful for Jim and for all he was.

I am grateful for the incredible and amazing life he lived.

I am grateful for the love he had for Joy (and the love she had for him).

I am grateful for all of you—his legacy in this world.

And you are all an amazing legacy to an amazing man!

And yes, as sad as today is, we are also able to rejoice.

We rejoice in Jim.

We rejoice in all that wonderful and beautiful and brilliant in Jim.

I am very honored to have been his priest.

I am very grateful to help commemorate him today and give thanks for his life today and to commend this truly wonderful man to God.

I say I am his priest, but I would say I was his friend.

And I am grateful for that too.

Today, is not the end of anything.

Yes, we are saying goodbye.

But we are not going to stop loving him, or remembering him, or sharing all these wonderful stories about him.

And as you all know, there will be many, many stories told about Jim Coffey in the years to come.

Many wonderful stories.

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

I have no doubt that Jim is with us here this afternoon, celebrating this long and wonderful 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 Jim is close to us this morning. 

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.

He made a real difference in this world.

And I’m not just meaning in the life of you, his wife, and children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

He made a difference in the lives of so many others.

Those he touched and affected as a doctor.

Those he knew and cared for.

Those many people who called him a dear friend.

He was remarkable in so many ways.

He was a man of science.

But he was also a man of deep faith.

And I got to see that side of him on more than one occasion.

Now saying that, I’m not saying he was some deeply over-pious person.

He was not that.

And even with his faith, he could still caste a critical doctor’s eye.

I remember very clearly one Christmas Eve, after Mass, we were talking and he said, “A virgin birth? Impossible!”

But he did have a deep and abiding faith in God.

I saw it again and again in his life.

And, toward the end of his life, whenever I would come to visit him, he would mouth the prayers he knew so well and, when he was able, he would always faithful receive Holy Communion.

That faithful life made itself known in so many ways.

All of us were touched by all the kindness he showed to us.

I will never forget that strong and gentle presence.

I will never forget that that kindness and that goodness that he embodied.

I will always remember his care and his concern for others.

Of course, St. Stephen’s was an important place in his life.

This was his church home.

Beginning in 1964 Jim served as Senior Warden here seven times, and as Junior Warden four times.

I am so very happy that his ashes will rest here in our memorial garden.

This was a person who truly lived out in his life the great commandments to Love God and to love others as you love yourself.

It was that love—love of God, love of others, love of his family and friends—that truly defined Jim Coffey.

As Jesus said in our Gospel reading for reading.

“Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love…”

That is the perfect summary of Jim’s faith and life.

He kept those commands of love of God and love of others in the best we he knew how.

And we—all of us here today—are better for that love.

We all felt it.

We all were embraced in it.

We all knew how wonderful that love of Jim’s was.

As a faithful Episcopalian, Jim know that 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.”

I think Jim would’ve appreciated that definition of our beliefs.

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 of Resurrection, of life unending, of the fact that today is not ending, but is, in fact, a great and wonderful beginning.

This service is a testimony to what Jim himself believed.

Later in this service, as we commend Jim to God’s loving and merciful arms, we will pray,

You only are immortal, the creator and maker of mankind; and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth shall we return. For so did you ordain when you created me, saying, "You are dust, and to dust you shall return." All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

Jim the poet would get those words.

Jim—who could recite “The Cremation of Sam McGee” by Robert Service from memory (that always amazed me—and I’m a poet!)—would have “gotten” the poetry of that passage.

Jim—whose amazing and incredible photography reflected his keen poetic eye—would really “get” what was being said in those words.

He would understand that, yes, even now, even here, at the grave, what do we do?

We rejoice.

We sing our alleluias today.

Because we know.

We know that what we are rejoicing in today is Jim’s new life, his new beginning.

Where Jim 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 Jim 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 Jim.

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

For Jim, sorrow and pain are no more.

In those 91 years, Jim knew much love and wonder and beauty.

In those 91 years, he also gave much love and wonder and beauty.

All of that is not gone.

It still goes on.

Jim, 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.   
May angels welcome you, Jim.
May all the saints come forward to greet you.
And may your rest today and always be one of unending joy.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

3 Pentecost

June 21, 2020

Matthew 10.24-39

+ Even during a pandemic, pastoral care still goes on.

And probably the biggest pastoral duty I have had during these last few months has just been listening.

Listening to people who have called me or reached out to me.

And I would say that the majority of people who are reaching are dealing with issues of deep and abiding fear.

Let’s face it, it’s a frightening time right now.

Covid is still raging through our country.

The political differences between people are leaving us divided and frustrated and angry

And the protests against police violence toward black people, the fact that black people are being killed in disproportionate numbers, is definitely frightening.

Add to that a HUGE spike in homophobic and anti-Semitic attacks in these last  two or so years has been sobering.

It is a truly strange and uncertain time we are living in.

This year of 2020 has been a particularly hard one.

And it’s only June!

And there’s still an election coming!


All of this reminds me very much of some of the petitions we find in a service in our Prayer Book we use only two time a year.

In our Prayer Book, beginning on page 148, we have something called “The Great Litany.”

I love the Great Litany!

The Great Litany, and especially the Supplication, which can be found on page 152 is a special prayer service which is often used “in times of war, or of national anxiety, or of disaster.”

It’s not a liturgy we, thankfully, use very often.

We use on the first Sunday of Advent and the First Sunday of Lent here at St. Stephen’s.

And although some people find it ponderous or even theologically uncomfortable, it is meaningful, and let me tell you, it speaks volumes to us in these current times.   

In this time of national anxiety, I have occasionally prayed the Great Litany privately here in church on an occasion or two in the past.

I actually have prayed it a couple of times here in church during the pandemic.

Fear like that can be very crippling.

And, as you’ve heard me say many times, fear in this sense is not from God.

Fear is a reality and there’s no way around at it times, but it is not something we should allow to dominate our lives.

In a sense, that fear is possibly what Jesus is hinting at in our Gospel reading.

Well, there’s actually a lot going on in our Gospel reading for today.

There are layers and layers in our Gospel reading.

And some really fairly unpleasant things.

But essentially it is about our fear of doing the work of God—doing the ministry of Christ—and…about taking up our cross.

Certainly it seems all this is bound together.

Essentially, probably our greatest cross to bear is our fear.

A fear like I referred to at the beginning of my sermon.

A strange, overpowering fear that is hard to pinpoint.

A fear of the unknown.

A fear of the future.

A fear of all those things we can’t control in our lives.

Let’s take a moment this morning to actually think about the symbol of our fears—this thing to which Jesus refers today—the Cross.

And I say that because the Cross is a symbol of fear.

It certainly was to people of Jesus’ day.

It was an instrument of torture and pain and death.

It was the equivalent of a noose or a guillotine

There was nothing hopeful or life-affirming in it to them.

And yet, look at how deceptively simple it is.

It’s simply two pieces, bound together.

Or, as the our crucifix in the corner shows, it is a cross on which a  man actually died.

I love the symbol of the crucifix, especially.

In it, gazing on the figure of Jesus who hangs there, we cannot deny what the cross is or what it represents to us.

For someone who knows nothing about Christianity, for someone who knows nothing about the story, it’s a symbol they might not think much about.

And yet, for us, on this side of Jesus’ crucifixion, the Cross is more than just another symbol in our lives.

It is a perfect example of how something that is a true symbol of death, destruction and fear can be transformed.

The story of the Cross is amazing in the sense that is as symbol of absolute terror and darkness transformed into a symbol of unending life, of victory of fear and death and despair. 

Jesus knew full well what the cross was all about, even before he was even nailed to it.

In our Gospel reading, he says,  “anyone who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”

He knew it was a terrible dark thing.

He knew what is represented.

And by saying those words, he knew the people of his day did not want to hear those words either.

Taking up a cross? Are you serious? Why would anyone do that?

Taking up the Cross is frightening after all.

To take up a cross means to take up a burden—that thing we maybe fear the most in our lives.

To take it up—to face our greatest fear—is absolutely torturous.

It hurts.

When we think of that last journey Jesus took to the place of his crucifixion, carrying that heavy tree on which he is going to be murdered, it must’ve been more horrible than we can even begin to imagine.

 But the fact is, what Jesus is saying to us is: carry your cross now.

Carry it with dignity and inner strength.

But carry it without fear.

And this is the most important aspect of today’s Gospel reading.

Jesus commands us not once, but twice,

 “Do not be afraid.”

“Do not be afraid.”

He isn’t saying that in some nonchalant way.

He isn’t just saying it flippantly.

He is being blunt.

Do not be afraid.

Do not be afraid of what the world can throw at you.

Do not be afraid of what can be done to the body and the flesh.

Do not be afraid of pandemics or racism or violence

Taking our cross and bearing it bravely is a sure and certain way of not fearing.

It is a defiant act.

If we take the crosses we’ve been given to bear and embrace them, rather than running away from them, we find that fear has no control over us.

The Cross destroys fear.

The Cross shatters fear into a million pieces.

And when we do fear, because we will experience fear in our lives, we know we have a place to go to for shelter in moments of real fear.

When fear encroaches on our lives—when fear comes riding roughshod through our lives—all we have to do is face it head-on. 

And there, we will find our fears destroyed.

Because of the Cross, we are taken care of.

There is no reason to fear.

I know that sounds complacent.

But there is no reason to fear.

Yes, there will be moments of collective, spiritual fear we are going through right now.

Yes, there will be a palpable fear we can almost touch.

Yes, we will be confronted at times with real and horrible fear.

But, there is no reason to despair over it  because we are not in control.

God is in control.

“Even the hairs of your head are counted” by the God who loves us and cares for us.

This God knows us intimately.

So intimately than this God even knows how many hairs are on our head.

Why should we be afraid then?

Because each of us is so valuable to God.

We are valuable to God, who loves us.

When we stop fearing whatever crosses we must bear in our lives, the cross will stop being something terrible.

Like that cross on which Jesus died, it will be an ugly thing of death and pain and fear  turned into a symbol of strength and joy and unending eternal life.

Through it, we know, we must pass to find true and unending life.

Through the Cross, we must pass to find ourselves, once and for all time, face-to-face with our God.

So, I invite you: take notice of the crosses around you.

As you drive along, notice the crosses on the churches you pass.

Notice the crosses that surround you.

When you see the Cross, remember what it means to you.

Look to it for what it is: a triumph over every single fear in our lives.

When we see the crosses in our lives, we can look at it and realize it is destroying fear in our own lives.

Let us truly look at those crucifixes and see the One who hangs nailed to the cross.

Let us bear those crosses of our lives patiently and, most importantly, without fear.

We are loved by our God.

Each of us is precious to our God.

Knowing that, rejoicing in that, how can we ever fear again?

Let us pray.
Holy God, we do live in fear. We do avoid taking up the cross Jesus tells us we must bear in our following of him. Dispel from our lives these crippling fears, these fears that prevents us from living into our own full potential, from the fears that separate us from you, and help us to live fully into this world without fear. We ask this in Jesus’ holy Name. Amen.