Sunday, May 24, 2020

7 Easter/The Sunday after the Ascension

May 24, 2020

Acts 1.6-14; John 17.1-17

+ This time of quarantine and self-isolation during this pandemic seems to be going on and on without end.

Yes, some businesses are open.

Yes, some churches are allowing public worship in their buildings again.

But not us.

And, as he said in my letter this past week, and at my announcement at Wednesday night Mass, we will not.

I had hoped that we could all get together again next Sunday, for the Feast of Pentecost.

Yes, we will still dedicate and bless the plaque of St. Stephen’s next week as planned.

But we will do so virtually.  

In fact, I don’t know when we will meet together again in this building.

And I’m not going to guess yet.

As I have said throughout the entire situation: I do not want Sty. Stephen’s the be responsible for anyone getting sick.

I do not want anyone being exposed to anything here.

I have tried to walk a “middle road” through this very difficult situation.

I have tried to walk between the two extremes of this pandemics—those who say it’s all a hoax, that we don’t need masks, that we must open the doors of the church building, and those who say we should not even do what we are doing now—who think we should be essentially wearing Hazmat suits.

I will continue to follow the CDC guidelines, and the Diocesan regulations and consulting people like our very own Dr. John Baird.

So, for now, we wait.

And we continue to do what we have been doing.

We continue to gather virtually.

We continue to worship together at mass twice a week, virtually.

And we continue to do what we are called to do as followers of Jesus.

We continue to love and worship God.

And we continue to love and serve others.

And we know that despite the fact that this pandemic continues, Christ is still present with us.

Certainly, from our Gospel reading last week and this week, we find that his Presence has not left us.

He is still present, though just in a different form.

Last week in our Gospel reading we heard that he will be present in the Advocate, the Spirit of God, and this week we hear that he will be present in us, in his disciples who keep his word and continue to do his ministry and be his presence in this world.

We celebrated the eve or Vigil of the Feast of the Ascension here at St. Stephen’s on Wednesday night, as we always do.

(Thursday was the Feast of the Ascension)

And as I said then,  I repeat this morning:

I really love the Feast of the Ascension.

I love all that it represents.

I love that sense of going up.

Of rising.

Of moving upward.

Ascension is, of course, all about rising.

This week, we move slowly away from the Easter season toward Pentecost.

You can almost feel the shift.

For the last several weeks, we have been basking in the afterglow of the resurrected Jesus.

In our Gospel readings, this resurrected Jesus has walked with us, has talked with us, has eaten with us and has led the way for us.

Now, as we hear in our reading from Acts this morning, he has been taken up.

We find a transformation of sorts happening in our relationship with Jesus through these scripture readings.

Our perception of Jesus has changed.

For a moment, we feel his absence.

He is not present with us as he was before—walking and talking and eating with his disciples as he was before his ascension.

But, we realize, we will be given something that will not leave us.

We will be given God’s Spirit, right here with us.

We find that truly this Spirit of God is, in our midst.

Us, right here. Right now.

At Pentecost next week,  we will acutely see the fact that God has truly come among us.

God is here, right now, with us. Even in a pandemic.

No, God is not speaking to us not from a pillar of cloud or fire, not on some shroud-covered mountain, not in visions.

Now God is here, with us, speaking to us as we speak to each other.

At the Ascension, the puzzle pieces really start falling into place.

What seemed so confusing and unreal before is starting to come together.

God is with us and truly loves us.

God dwells in us and through us. 

And next week, one more puzzle piece falls into place when Jesus, in a sense, returns.

Next week, we will celebrate God’s Spirit descending upon and staying with us.

For the moment, though, we are caught in between those two events, trying to make sense of what has happened and trying to prepare ourselves for what is about to happen.

We are caught between Jesus’ ascent into heaven and the Spirit’s descent to us.

 It is a time for us to pause, to ponder who we are and where are in this place—in this time in which everything seems so spiritually topsy-turvy.

I’m not certain there is a way we can make sense of the Ascension, but what we are faced with is the fact that this in this ascended Jesus, the God of Jesus still acts in our lives.

God acts in us and through us.

I can’t repeat that enough.

The commission that the ascended Jesus gave to the apostles, is still very much our commission as well.

We must love—fully and completely.

Because in loving, we are living.

In loving, we are living fully and completely.

In loving, we are bringing the ascended Christ to others.

And we must go out and live out this commission in the world.

When we do, the ascended Christ is very much acting in the world.

For those first followers of Jesus, it seems like they didn’t have much of a chance to ponder their life-altering experiences.

As soon as one life-altering experience happened, another one came along.

Just when they had experiences Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension, they encountered this outpouring of God’ Spirit in their lives.

The waters, it seemed, were kept perpetually stirred.

Nothing was allowed to settle.

That is what ministry is often like.

One day, very early in my career, much earlier than I was ever ordained,  I came to  realize that Ministry is perpetually on-going.

There is never an ending to it.

Even in a pandemic.

It doesn’t matter if my life is falling apart around me, or that I am  tired.

It’s always something.

This past week was a perfect example of that.

One week brings another set of opportunities, set-backs, trip-ups, tediums, frustrations, joys, celebrations.

 Ministry truly is a never-ending roller-coaster ride of emotions and feelings.

These are things those first followers of Jesus no doubt struggled with.

Yet we, like them, are sustained.

We, like them, are upheld.

We, like them, are supported by the God Jesus ascended to, whose work we are doing in this world.

In those moments when our works seems useless, when it seems like we have done no good work, the ascended Jesus still triumphs.

Our job, in this time between Jesus’ departure from us and his return to us, is to simply let him do what he needs to do in this interim.

We need to let the ascended Jesus work in us and through us.

We need to let the God of this ascended Jesus be the end result of our work.

When we wipe our hands as we walk from the grave, lamenting the fact that it seems no one was saved (as the old Beatles song “Eleanor Rigby” goes)  we need to realize that, of course, it seems that way as we gaze downward at our hands.

But above us, the Ascension is happening.

Above us, Jesus has risen.

And we are rising with him, even when it seems like we are bogged down in this very earth.

Above us, Jesus has been seated at the right hand of God.

Above us, that place, that God to whom we are ascending, is there.

All we have to do sometimes is look up.

All we have to do is stop gazing at our dirty, callused, over-worked hands—all we have to do is turn from our self-centeredness—and look up.

And there we will see the triumph.

And as we do, we will realize that more were saved than we initially thought.

Someone was saved.

We were saved.

Jesus has ascended.

But he isn’t gone.

He is with us, now even more so than before his ascension.

He is with us in an even more intimate way.

The joy we feel today comes when we let the ascended Jesus do what he needs to do through us.

We are, as Jesus says in today’s Gospel, “in the world.”

And because we are, we must do the work we are called to do in this world.

So, let us stop gazing upward at that empty sky into which he has ascended.

There is work to do.

Right here.

Right now.

Even in the midst of a pandemic.

Let’s wipe the sun-blindness from our eyes.

Let us turn toward those around us in need.

And let us be Jesus to those who need Jesus.

And there are people who need us to be Jesus for them.

Even in a pandemic.

There are people who need us to be kind and compassionate and full of love.

There are people who need our acceptance and hospitality.

When we love others, when we are Christ to others, when we bring a God of love and acceptance to others, we allow others to rise as well.

We embody and allow the Ascension to continue in this world.

So, let the joy of the ascension live in us and through us and be reflected to others by us.

We will be sanctified in the truth of knowing and living out our lives in the light of the Ascension.

We will rise.

This morning, we have looked up and we have seen it.

We have seen that rising—his rising and our rising—happening above us in beauty and light and joy .

Let us pray.
Holy God, as we proceed through these last days of the Easter season toward the Feast of Pentecost, prepare us for the Holy Spirit. Open our hearts and our minds to an outpouring of your living and life-giving Spirit. We ask this in the holy Name of Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

6 Easter

Rogation Sunday
May 17, 2020

John 14.15-21

+ I know this might seem like some other time—some innocent, more normal time—but in 2014 we did something special at our Rogation Blessing.

On that Sunday six years ago—before there were things like Corona Virus and quarantines—we dedicated our Memorial Garden.

Now, I remember when I first introduced this idea at St. Stephen’s about a memorial garden about a year before that.

There was a bit of frowning.

There was a sense of, “Lord, what is he thinking of doing now?”

There was a groan of “Really? A cemetery? Seriously?”

But, look what a blessing that memorial garden has had in our life here at St. Stephen’s.

Thanks to Sandy Holbrook and the gardening committee and all the people who have worked for that garden and all that beautiful landscaping that was done there, it has become a place of beauty.

And in these six years, our memorial garden has become a place of rest for six people—a new stone was just placed there this past week—and a place of consolation for countless others.

Now I don’t think I’m overestimating it when I say it has also become a place of mercy.

We of course have laid people to rest there who had no other place to rest, who were rejected or forgotten.

Why? Why do we do that?

Because that is what we do as Christians.

In our Christian tradition, mercy plays heavily into what we do.

And as a result, there have been, since the early Church, a series of what have been called corporal acts of mercy.

I’ve talked about this many times before.

These corporal acts of mercy are:

  • To feed the hungry;
  • To give drink to the thirsty;
  • To clothe the naked;
  • To harbor the harborless;
  • To visit the sick;
  • To ransom the captive;
  • To bury the dead.
We at St. Stephen’s, in the ministry we do as followers of Jesus, have done most of those well.

Including that last one. 

Burying the dead is a corporate act of mercy.

And it is something we have do with our services of burial and in our memorial garden. 

And, it’s appropriate we are doing on this Sunday, Rogation Sunday, the Sunday before the Ascension of Jesus.

In our Gospel reading for today we find Jesus explaining that although he is about to depart from his followers—this coming Thursday we celebrate the feast of Jesus’ Ascension to heaven—he will not leave them alone.

They will be left with the Advocate—the Spirit of Truth.

The Holy Spirit.

He prefaces all of this with those words that quickly get swallowed up by the comments on the Spirit, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”

And just to remind everyone, that command is, of course, “to love.”

To love God.

And to love our neighbors as ourselves.

This is what it means to be the Church.

To love.

To serve. 

To be merciful.

To be Christ to those who need Christ.

To be a Christ of love and compassion and acceptance.

Without boundaries.

Without discrimination.

Because that is who Christ is to us.

When we forget to be Christ to others, when we fail to do this, we fail to do mercy.

We are doing so this morning.

We are living into our ministry of mercy to others.

Today is, as I’ve said, Rogation Sunday.

Rogation comes from the Latin word “Rogare” which means “to ask.”

Traditionally, on this Sunday, we heard the Gospel in which Jesus said,

"Whatever you ask the Father in my name, he will give to you".

Today, with our current lectionary of scripture readings, we actually find him saying, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate…”

From a very simple perspective, the thing we are asking today, on this Rogation Sunday, is to be faithful followers of Jesus, thorough our works and acts of mercy.

Now for some of us, this whole idea of Rogation Sunday and the procession that we will soon be making outside at the conclusion of our Eucharist this morning might seem a bit too much.

 The fact is, it is something, very much like burying the dead on the church grounds.

It is very much a part of our Anglican Tradition.

In the 1630s one of heroes (you hear me quote him and reference him often), Anglican priest and poet, George Herbert, commended these rogation processions.

He said that processions should be encouraged for four reasons:

1. A Blessing of God for the fruits of the field.

2. Justice in the preservation of boundaries of those fields and properties.

3. Charity in loving, walking and neighborly accompanying one another with reconciling of differences at the time if there be any.

And 4 (hold on to your seats). Mercie (yes, mercy) , in relieving the poor by a liberal distribution of the resources, which at the time is or ought to be used.

In so many ways, that is what we do here and what we continue to do here.

Our memorial garden—this visible sign of the final corporal act of mercy—is a part of this Rogation celebration.

This is where we do our blessing.

We process there and bless the earth and the land there.

We ask God’s blessings on the growth not only of crops and fields.

And we do something also very important there: We thank God today for the growth of our congregation.

We are thanking God for the acts of mercy done to each of us.

And we are asking God to continue to make us Christ to those who need Christ.

As you can see, the rallying themes of this Rogation time are hope and justice and mercy.

As George Herbert reminds us there is always room for charity.

As we process out at the end of the Eucharist today, I ask you to look around the memorial garden.

I ask you to look at the names there.

We know some of them.

Others of them we will never know on this side of veil.

I ask you as you walk about to thank God for them.

I ask you today to thank God for the growth God has granted us at St. Stephen’s

And I ask that you remember Jesus’ call to us, to love him and to keep his commandment of love and mercy.

It is more than just sweet, religious talk.

It is a challenge and a true calling to live out this love in radical ways.

It is a challenge to be merciful.

As we process, as we walk together, let us pay attention to this world around us.

Let us ponder the causes and the effects of what it means to be inter-related—to be dependent upon on each to some extent, as we are on this earth.

We do need each other.

And we do need each other’s love.

And mercy.

We do need that radical love that Jesus commands us to have.

With that love, we will truly love our neighbors as ourselves.

We will show mercy to them.

Our neighbors, of course, are more than just those people who live next door to us.

Our neighbors are all of us, those we do in fact love and those we have difficulty loving.

And our neighbors also include this earth and all the inhabitants of it.

That command of Jesus is to love—to respect—those with whom we live and share this place.

Let this procession today truly be a "living walking" as George Herbert put it.

But let our whole lives as Christians be also a “living walk,” a mindful walk, a walk in which we see the world around with eyes of love and respect and justice and care.

And, most importantly, with eyes of mercy.


Sunday, May 10, 2020

5 Easter

May 10, 2020

Acts 7.55-60; John 14.1-14

+ One of my favorite words is "weird."  I like it because, well…I am.

I am weird.

And I just don’t care.

I long ago embraced that word because I realize that "weird" in our society simply means "outside the norm."  And that's me to a T.

It also, in many ways, describes this congregation I serve and the way we do worship.

For some, what we do here is "too much."

For others, "it's not enough."

To a few, it's just "weird."

But for us, I think, "weird" works for us.  And embracing it for all it's worth is a very liberating experience.

I am grateful for St. Stephen's for letting this weird priest do weird things that (in normal times i.e. outside the pandemic) seems to bring new people in the door almost every Sunday.

Now, it shouldn't work.  This weird, progressive Anglo-Catholic very Episcopal  way of worship and ministry.

But you know? It does.


Because that's how the Holy Spirit works. The Holy Spirit works in oftentimes weird ways that just shouldn’t work. But somehow does.

Christianity Gets Weird
Modern life is ugly, brutal and barren. Maybe you should try a Latin Mass.

It’s one of the best pieces of writing about the Church I’ve read recently.  Actually, to be honest, there were a few things in the article I didn’t agree with. But, for the most part, the article really nailed on the head much of what we’ve been doing here for the last 12 years or so, and certainly what many of us are dealing with right now in the midst of this pandemic.

Here’s a bit from the article:

“More and more young Christians, disillusioned by the political binaries, economic uncertainties and spiritual emptiness that have come to define modern America, are finding solace in a decidedly anti-modern vision of faith. As the coronavirus and the subsequent lockdowns throw the failures of the current social order into stark relief, old forms of religiosity offer a glimpse of the transcendent beyond the present.

“Many of us call ourselves ‘Weird Christians,’ albeit partly in jest. What we have in common is that we see a return to old-school forms of worship as a way of escaping from the crisis of modernity…”

A bit later in the article, Tara Isabella Burton, the author of the piece, who is a member of the Episcopal Church of St. Ignatius of Antioch in Manhattan, (one of my dream churches),  writes,

In the age of lockdown, when so much of life exists in a nebulous digital space, a return to the Christianity of the Middle Ages — albeit one mediated through our screens — feels welcome.”

She then goes on to describe watching the Rector of St. Ignatius livestreaming Evening Prayer, an opportunity in which she writes  we were not only taking the time to greet our fellow parish members, but also to experience solidarity with a church that transcended time itself. Holed up in an apartment we have hardly left for weeks, we were experiencing both communal connection and a sense that this ghastly, earthly present is not all there is.”

But one of the best points of the article was this. One young man Burton interviewed says, “The pandemic…has made all too clear that both liberal and conservative visions of American life, based on ‘self-fulfillment via liberation to pursue one’s desires’ is not enough. ‘It turns out we need each other,” he said, “and need each other dearly.’
“What Christianity offers, he added, is ‘a version of our common life more robust than individual pursuit of desire-fulfillment or profit.’ In the light of that vision, the current pandemic can ‘be both a cross to bear and an opportunity to reflect the love that was first shown us in Christ.’”
Now, for us at St. Stephen’s, that doesn’t seem weird at all. This is what each of are bearing and wrestling with during this time of pandemic.

But to others, this does  seems weird.

High Church liturgy, even on social media?

Livestreamed Mass twice a week?

Incense, even through “nebulous, digital space?”

It sure seems weird, doesn’t it?

But, as we have discovered, weirdness is not something to fight. It is not something to avoid. It is something to embrace.  It something that can help not only define our faith, but deepen it as well.

After all, there is something weirdly liberating in being countercultural—even among other Christians.

And as someone who is inadvertently countercultural, I can tell you, being “weird” is not always easy.

It’s not easy being a weird + progressive +  Anglo-Catholic, + celibate + vegan +  teetotaling + priest AND poet in our society. 

Let me tell you!! None of those things fit into our society very well.  Everything in that statement which describes me runs counter to literally everything our society is and stands for, even in the midst of a pandemic.

I’m the poster child for Christian weirdness! And proudly so!

But, as I said, there is also something very liberating in being “weird.”

The expectations that so many people are slaves to are just not issues with us who are “weird.” This weirdness affects every aspect of our faith, of our relationships, of our very lives. And, yes, even, of our deaths.

Because, as most of you also know, one of the things that makes me ‘weird” is that I talk and preach pretty regular about death.  The reason I do so is because, although society is so uncomfortable about death, our Christian faith is not uncomfortable with it. In fact, it forces us to confront death on a very regular basis.  After all, for us, death is not what death is for the rest of society.  All we, as followers of Jesus,  know of dying is this: we know only that he promises us something greater than this.

And we catch a glimpse of that greater something in our Gospel reading for this morning.

The Gospel we heard this morning is a familiar one for most of us.  This is one of the Gospel readings recommended by the Book of Common Prayer for funerals.  In fact, it is, by far, one of the most popular Gospel readings chosen for funerals.  There’s little doubt why it is.  It is wonderfully appropriate.

The reason it is so popular is because it truly does give us a wonderful glimpse into what awaits us following our death.

This really is the BIG issue in our lives. We might not give it a lot of conscious thought, but no doubt most of us have pondered at some time in our lives, what awaits us following our death.  

The part we no doubt concentrate on in today’s Gospel, outside of Jesus telling us that he is “the Way, the Truth and the Life,” are his words

“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.”

I think what he conveys is that God will provide something beautiful and wonderful for us.

And in our reading from Acts this morning, we get to catch an even clearer view of that beautiful and wonderful something that awaits us.  In Acts we find our own dear, patron saint, St. Stephen, being dragged out by an angry mob and stoned to death.  It’s certainly not pretty. But in the midst of that violence and anger, we find St. Stephen having a glorious vision.  He looks up into heaven and is allowed a vision, in which he sees Jesus at the right hand of the glory of God. And with his last words, he prays to Jesus,

“Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”

(A prayer we have memorialized in our St. Stephen window)

This is the first post-Ascension prayer to Jesus in the scriptures.

And it is the most beautiful and most honest prayer St. Stephen could’ve prayed.

So this, morning, in both our Gospel reading and our reading from Acts, we are confronted with glorious visions. Now neither of them are as stupendous as the Rapture. But there is something wonderful in being able to look ahead and see what awaits us.  It is wonderful to be able to see the joys and beauty of our place with God in heaven.

Still, knowing full well what awaits us, having been given glimpses into that glorious place that lies just beyond our vision, we still find ourselves digging in our heels when we have to face the fact of our own dying. We are uncomfortable with this mystery that is death.

In our Book of Common Prayer, we have a beautiful prayer that is prayed for someone near death. It can be found on page 462.  There we find this prayer,

“Almighty God, look on your servant, lying in great weakness, and comfort ‘this person’, with the promise of life everlasting, given in the resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.”

“Comfort ‘this person’ with the promise of life everlasting”

This promise of eternal life, as we have seen in the Resurrection, should truly be a comfort to us, especially in those moments when we fear death.  Thinking about our own deaths isn’t necessarily morbid or unpleasant.  It simply reminds us that we are mortal.  We will all die one day.

But rather than despairing over that fact, we should use it as an opportunity to draw closer to God, to Jesus who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. We should use it as an opportunity to live a more holy life.  And hopefully, living a more holy life, we can pray at that last moment—that holy moment—with true conviction, that wonderful prayer of St. Stephen, the first martyr:

“Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”

Although it’s probably not the most pleasant thought to have that we are going to die, I think it is important to think about occasionally.

The reason we should think about it—and the reason we shouldn’t despair in thinking about it—is because, for a Christian, dying is not a horrible thought.

Dying is not a reason to fear.  Because, by dying, we do come to life everlasting—life with end.

And although we, at this moment, can’t imagine it as being a “happy” or “holy” moment, the fact is, it will be.  It will be the holiest moment of our life and it will be the happiest moment of our life.

For Stephen, who died abused, in pain, bleeding from those sharp stones that fell upon him, it was a happy and holy moment when he looked up and saw Jesus waiting for him.  He was happy because he knew he would soon be received by Jesus and it was holy because, at that moment, his faith was fulfilled. That place toward which we are headed—that place in God’s house—we will find our true home. Heaven—is truly our happy home, the place toward which we are wandering around, searching.

And we will not find our rest until we rest there, and we will not be fully and completely happy until we are surrounded by the happiness there.

See, what I mean: weird.

It’s all weird.

It’s all so countercultural to our society and the world.

And it’s uncomfortably weird.

Which is all right.

Because, let’s face it: almost everything Jesus did and said were considered uncomfortably weird to those who encountered him in his day.

“I am the Way, the Truth and the Life??” I bet someone who was there to firstt hear those words, thought they were a bit weird.

So, let us, the weird, countercultural Christians that we are, not fear. We live in a frightening time. There is a deadly pandemic raging about us.

But in the face of that pandemic, let us not fear it. (Let us also be safe and not do stupid things like not protecting ourselves).

But let us not live in fear.

For this too, we know, will pass.

Let us fear nothing in this world.

But let us be confident.

Let us be confident in our faith in God and in God’s Christ, the Way, the Truth and the Life

Let us be confident in who we are and what we are.

Let us be confident even in our weirdness.

Let us live our weird, countercultural Christian live with confidence.

And, in doing so, let us look forward to that place in which Jesus has prepared a place for us.

It awaits us.

It there, right at this moment, just beyond our vision.

Let us look to it with joy and let us live in joy until we are there together. Amen.