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.
There was a great opinion piece published in the New York Times on Friday (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/08/opinion/sunday/weird-christians.html?fbclid=IwAR1y9OxNzybxTXTnSvNtyMb4Xt--WGVp3DEPEwCnIe7bxd71MtBHBQmjSRU) entitled
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,
, 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
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.