Sunday, September 27, 2020

17 Pentecost

 


September 27, 2020

 

Ezekiel 18.1-4;25-32; Matthew 21.23-32

 

+ Occasionally, in our scriptures readings on Sunday morning, we hear not the words of comfort that we would like to hear, especially in a time of pandemic.

 

Instead, we sometimes hear words that disturb us or shake us up.

 

Well, this morning is no exception.

 

In our Gospel reading for today, we hear some very uncomfortable words from Jesus:

 

He tells us, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the Kingdom of God ahead of you.”

 

What?!? That’s not what we want to hear!

 

Last week in my sermon I quoted the great Reginald Fuller, who said:

 

“[This] is what God is doing in Jesus’ ministry—giving the tax collectors and prostitutes an equal share with the righteous in the kingdom.”

 

That—and those words of Jesus we heard in this morning’s Gospel reading—are shocking statements for most of us.

 

And they should be.

 

It should shock us and shake us to our core.

 

It’s a huge statement for Jesus to make.

 

Partly it does because, things haven’t changed all that much.

 

OK. Yes, maybe we don’t view tax collectors and prostitutes in the same way people in Jesus’ day did.

 

Jesus uses these two examples as prime examples of the “unclean” in our midst—those who are ritually unclean according the Judaic law.

 

We, of course, have our own versions of “unclean” in our own society.

 

They are the ones in our society that we tend to forget about and purposely ignore.

 

But we really should give them concern.

 

And I don’t meant from a judgmental point of view.

 

I mean, we should actually look and see all those marginalized people we ourselves may consider “unclean” by our own standards our compassion.

 

We should be praying for them often.

 

Because to be viewed as “unclean” in any society—even now— is a death knell.

 

It is a life of isolation and rebuke.

 

It is a life of being ostracized.

 

The unclean are the ones who have lived on the fringes of society.

 

They are the ones who have lived in the shadows of our respectable societies.

 

The “unclean” of our own society often live desperate, secret lives.

 

And much of what they’ve have to go through in their lives is known only to God.

 

And they need us and our prayers.

 

They need our compassion.

 

They definitely don’t need our judgment.

 

As uncomfortable as it is for us to confront them and think about them—or to BE them—that is exactly what Jesus is telling us we must do.

 

Because by going there in our thoughts, in our prayers, in our ministries, we are going where Jesus went.

 

We are coming alongside people who need our presence, our prayers, our ministries.

 

 And rather than shunning them, we need to see them as God sees them.

 

We see them as children of God, as fellow humans on this haphazard, uncertain journey we are all on together.

 

And, more importantly, we see in them ourselves.

 

Because some of them ARE us.

 

Some of us here have been shunned and excluded and turned away.

 

By us. By our Church. By our government. By our society.

 

The point of this morning’s Gospel is this: the Kingdom of God is not what we think it is.

 

It is not made up of just people like us.

 

It is not some exclusive country club in the sky.

 

(Give thanks to God that it is NOT some exclusive country club in the sky!)

 

And it is certainly not made up of a bunch of  Christians who have done all the right things and condemned all the “correct” sins and sinners.

 

It is, in fact, going to be made up people who maybe never go to church.

 

It will be made up of those people we might not even notice.

 

It will be made up of those people who are invisible to us.

 

It will be made up of the people we don’t give a second thought to.

 

As I said, in our society today we have our own tax collectors, our own “unclean.”.

 

They are the welfare cases.

 

They are the homeless.

 

They are alcoholics and the drug or opioid addicts and the drug dealers.

 

They are the lost among us, they are the ones who are trapped in their own sadness and their own loneliness.

 

They are the ones we, good Christians that we are, have worked all our lives not to be.

 

This is what the Kingdom of heaven is going to be like.

 

It will filled with the people who look up at us from their marginalized place in this society.

 

It is the ones who today are peeking out at us from the curtains of their isolation and their loneliness.

 

They are the ones who, in their quiet agony, watch as we drive out of sight from them.

 

They are the ones who are on the outside looking in.

 

And it is they who are the inheritors of the kingdom of God and if we think they are not, then we are not listening to what Jesus is saying to us.

 

Jesus is wherever the inheritors of his kingdom are.

 

Of course, we too are the inheritors of the Kingdom, especially when we love fully and completely.

 

We too are the inheritors when we follow those words of Jesus and strive to live out and do what he commands.

 

We too are the inheritors when we open our eyes and our minds and our hearts to those around us, whom no one else sees or loves.

 

So, let us truly be inheritors of the Kingdom of God.

 

Let us love fully and completely as Jesus commands.

 

Let us love our God.

 

Let us love all those people who come into our lives.

 

Let us look around at those people who share this world with us.

 

And let us never cast a blind eye on anyone.

 

Let us do as God speaks to us this morning through the prophet Ezekiel: Let us “turn, then, and live.”

 

Let us pray.

 

Holy God, help us to not with the eyes of the world, but with the eyes of those who are destined for your Kingdom. In looking, may we truly see those whom you love and cherish. And let us reach out and save them as your Son, Jesus, has commanded us to do; it is in his Name that we pray. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sunday, September 20, 2020

16 Pentecost

 


September 20, 2020


Matthew 20. 1-16

 

+ Unless you have been living under a rock—which may be a very real possibility in this time of pandemic—it is   *sigh*  an election year.

 

And an election year like no other than I can remember, anyway.

 

No matter where you may stand on the issues, no matter who you may be voting for, it has been a contentious, bitter and very, very divisive election already.

 

Friends refuse to talk to friends.

 

Family members are being broken up by it.

 

And so much blatantly false information is floating around.

 

And we still have a way to go before November.

 

People on both sides of the issues are feeling real anxiety right now, real frustration and very real fear.

 

And as the debates begin between candidates we will be hearing a lot of crazy, insane things, no doubt.

 

But the one thing that I guarantee we will hear, in one form or another, either from the candidates or from the candidates’ supporters will be this.

 

“This is all so unfair!”

 

Whoever doesn’t win will definitely be saying this year,

 

“This is unfair!”

 

Now, I know: that’s not a very adult thing to say.

 

Any of us who have made it to adulthood have learned, by now, that none of it is fair.

 

One of the biggest things we learn as adults is that life is not fair.

 

And no one promised us that it would be.

 

Still, we do still cling to that belief.

 

Things should be fair.

 

A perfect world would be a fair world.

 

And when it comes to our relationship with God, fairness takes on even more of a meaning.

 

God should be fair, we think.

 

And it seems that when God is not fair, what do we do?

 

We rage.

 

We get angry.

 

God should be on our side on this one.

 

Right?

 

But, it seems, not always is God on our side on some things.

 

The scale of fairness is not always tipped on our side.

 

To put it in the context of our Gospel reading today, I often feel like one of the workers who has been working from the beginning of the work day.

 

The parable Jesus tells us this morning is, of course, not just a story about vineyard workers.

 

The story really, for us anyway, is all about that sense of unfairness.

 

 If you’re anything like me, when you hear today’s Gospel—and you’re honest with yourself—you probably think: “I agree with the workers who have been working all day: It just isn’t fair that these workers hired later should get the same wages.”

 

It’s not fair that the worker who only works a few hours makes the same wages as one who has worked all day.

 

Few of us, in our own jobs, would stand for it.

 

We too would whine and complain.

 

We would strike out. 

 

But the fact is, as we all know by this time, life is not fair.

 

Each of here this morning has been dealt raw deals in our lives at one point or another.

 

We have all known what it’s like to not get the fair deal.

 

We all have felt a sense of unfairness over the raw deals of this life.

 

But, as much as we complain about it, as much as make a big deal of it, we are going to find unfairness in this life.

 

Of course, our personal lives are one thing.

 

The Church—that’s a different thing.

 

What we find in today’s parable is exactly what many of us have had to deal with in the Church.

 

The story of the parable is that everyone—no matter how long they’ve been laboring—gets an equal share.

 

And in Jesus’ ministry, that’s exactly what happens as well.

 

As one of my personal theological heroes, the great Reginald Fuller, once said of this parable: “[This] is what God is doing in Jesus’ ministry—giving the tax collectors and prostitutes an equal share with the righteous in the kingdom.”

 

The marginalized, the maligned, the social outcast—the least of these—all of them are granted an equal share.

 

To me, that sounds like the ministry we are all called to do as followers of Jesus.

 

To be a follower of Jesus is to strive to make sure that everyone gets a fair deal, even when we ourselves might not be getting the fair deal.

 

And there’s the rub.

 

There’s the key.

 

Being a follower of Jesus means striving to make sure that all of us on this side of the “veil” get an equal share of the Kingdom of God, even if we ourselves might not sometimes.

 

That is what we do as followers of Jesus and that is what we need to strive to continue to do.

 

But…it’s more than just striving for an equal share for others.

 

It also means not doing some things as well.

 

What do we feel when we are treated unfairly?

 

Jealousy?

 

Bitterness?

 

Anger?

 

It means not letting jealousy and bitterness win out.

 

Because let me tell you: there is a LOT of anger and bitterness right now.

 

And that’s probably what we’re going to feel when others get a good deal and we don’t.

 

Jealousy and envy are horribly corrosive emotions.

 

They eat and eat away at us until they makes us bitter and angry.

 

And jealousy is simply not something followers of Jesus should be harboring in their hearts.

 

Because jealousy can also lead us into a place in which we are not striving for the Kingdom.

 

Those of us who are followers of Jesus are striving, always, again and again, to do the “right thing.”

 

But when we do, and when we realize that others are not and yet they are still reaping the rewards, we no doubt are going to feel a bit jealous.

 

We, although few of us would admit it, are often, let’s face it, the “righteous” ones.

 

We the ones following the rules, we are the ones striving to live our lives as “good” Christians.

 

We fast, we say our prayers faithfully, we tithe, we follow the rules, we do what we are supposed to do as good Christians.

 

Striving for the equal share for people, means not allowing ourselves to get frustrated over the fact that those people who do not do those things—especially those people whom we think don’t follow the rules at all, those people who aren’t “righteous” by our standards—also receive an equal share.

 

It means not obsessing over the fact that, “It’s not fair.”

 

Even when it is unfair.

 

Because when we do those things, we must ask ourselves a very important question (a question I ask a lot):

 

Why do we do what we do as Christians?

 

Do we do what we do so we can call ourselves “righteous?”

 

So we can feel morally superior to others?

 

Do we do what we do as Christians because we believe we’re going to get some reward in the next life?

 

Do we do what do because we think God is in heaven keeping track of all our good deeds like some celestial Santa Claus?

 

Do we do what do simply because we think we will get something in return?

 

Do we do what we do so we can feel good about ourselves at the end of the day?

 

Or do we do what we do because doing so makes this world a better place?

 

This is the real key to Jesus’ message to us.

 

Constantly, Jesus is pushing us and challenging us to be a conduit.

 

He is trying to convince us that being a Christian means being a conduit for the Kingdom of God and all the very good things that Kingdom represents.

 

In us, the Kingdom breaks through.

 

Without us, it simply will not.

 

We do what we do as Christians because whatever we do is a way in which the barriers that separate us here from God and God’s world is lifted for a brief moment when we do what Jesus tells us to do.

 

When we live out the Law of loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves, the “veil” is lifted and when it is lifted, the Kingdom comes flooding into our lives.

 

It does not matter in the least how long we labor in allowing this divine flood to happen.

 

The amount of time we put into it doesn’t matter in the least to God, because God’s time is not our time.

 

Rather, we simply must do what we are called to do when we are called to do it.

 

Jesus came to bring an equal share to a world that is often a horribly unfair place.

 

And his command to us is that we also must strive to bring an equal share to this unequal world.

 

And that is what we’re doing as followers of Jesus.

 

As we follow Jesus, we do so knowing that we are striving to bring about an equal share in a world that is often unfair.

 

We do so, knowing that we are sometimes swimming against the tide.

 

We do so, feeling at times, as though we’re set up to fail.

 

We do so feeling, at times, overwhelmed with the unfairness of it all.

 

And just when we think the unfairness of this world has won out—in that moment—that holy moment—the Kingdom of God always breaks through to us.

 

And in that moment, we are the ones who are able to be the conduit through which the God comes.

 

So, let us continue to do what we are doing as followers of Jesus.

 

Let us strive to do even better.

 

In everything we do, let us attempt to lift that veil in our lives and by doing so, let us be the conduit through which the Kingdom of God will flood into this unfair world.

 

And let us do together what Jesus is calling us to do in this world

 

Let us love—fully and completely.

 

Let us love our God, let us love our selves and let us neighbors as ourselves.

 

As we all know, it’s important to “come” here—personally or virtually—and share the Word and the Eucharist on Sundays.

 

But we also know that what we share here motivates us to go out into the world and actually “do” our faith.

 

As followers of Jesus, we are full of hope—a hope given to us by a God who knows our future and who wants only good for us—God who really is a fair God!

 

Let us go forth with that hope and with a true sense of joy that we are doing what we can to make that future glorious.

 

Let us pray.

 

Holy God, you call us in our following of your son to do the right thing and strive for fairness and equality in this world; help us to do just that, so that by doing so, we may be the conduits through which your love comes forth into this world; we ask this in Jesus’ Name. Amen.

 

 

 

 

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Dedication Sunday

 


September 13, 2020

 

Genesis 28.10-17; 1 Peter 2.1-5,9-11

 

+ Well, what can I say about Dedication Sunday this year?

 

What can I say about the uniqueness of this past year and where we are right now?

 

Usually, my Dedication Sunday sermon is a sort of “State of the Union” address.

 

We usually discuss where we are and what we have done.

 

But this year…well, there’s never been a year like this in the history of St. Stephen’s.

 

But, this is what I am going to say on this Dedication Sunday, during this pandemic, during this time of strangeness.

 

If you ever doubted that St. Stephen’s and the larger Church are resilient, those doubts should be gone now.

 

When we look back to where we were in March, when it all began, we went from one Sunday at which we had almost 45 people in church, to the next Sandy when we had 5.

 

But before you despair over that, just remember this: while other churches closed, while other churches stopped worshipping together, we did not.

 

We did not miss a beat during this time.

 

Those five people—James, John, our Wardens Jean and Jessica and myself—we kept it going.

 

And you kept it going as well by joining us through that new=fangled social medium—livestreaming.

 

It was strange.

 

It was new.

 

And for me, it was (and still is) frustrating.

 

But it kept us going.

 

And…amazingly…it opened us up to a whole new opportunity as the church.

 

In no time at all, we had as many as 70 to 75 people worshipping with us on a Sunday.

 

And not just St. Stephen’s people.

 

We had people joining us from around the country and around the world.

 

Even as far away as Kenya.

 

As Holy Week approached, we still worshipped, doing all  of our most important liturgies.

 

We still did Stations of the Cross on Fridays during Lent (which, let me tell you, is not easy to do with only a priest and a camera).

 

And let me tell you, there is nothing more desolate and despairing than preaching my Easter sermon to a church in which there were no people in the pews.

 

But it was amazing the preach to 150+ people by social media.

 

But still, despite that, we—all of us—celebrated Christ’s resurrection this year with as much joy as we could muster.

 

This time of pandemic reminds me, in many ways, of another bleak time for me personally.

 

10 years yesterday, we also celebrated Dedication Sunday.

 

2010 was one of the first years in which we had seen some real growth, some real long-lasting changes here at St. Stephen’s.

 

It had been an amazing year

 

Then, on Tuesday, September 14, the Feast of the Holy Cross, my father died very suddenly and without warning.

 

Many of you remember that day and many of you walked with me through the very dark time.

 

I was in shock.

 

I suddenly became the head of my family in a way in which I was not prepared.

 

My mother was devastated and lost, and I now had to take care of her, a job I actually ended up cherishing, but at the time I felt ill-equipped to do.

 

And, here at St. Stephen’s, I was in the midst of a cycle of funerals.

 

On Sept. 12, Florence Anderson died.

 

I officiated at her funeral two days after my father died.

 

I still remember breaking down in my sermon and wasn’t sure if I’d recover enough to finish the Mass (I did).

 

Then, on Sept 16, Hale Laybourn.

 

The next day, on the 17th, Ruth Stickney died.

 

On Sept. 20, Marlys Lundberg’s son, Tracy Ford, died suddenly.

 

I also officiated at two weddings that month and two the following month.

 

Plus, I was also working at the Diocesan Office part-time.

 

I remember feeling at moments as though I was drowning

 

It was an overwhelming time.

 

And there were moments I wasn’t sure how I was going to keep going.

 

In some ways, that is exactly what this pandemic has been like.

 

It’s been overwhelming and frightening.

 

Senior Warden Jean Sando made a very astute observation the other day when she said that we now essentially have two congregations.

 

We have the congregation that meets here in this building.

 

And we have the virtual congregation.

 

If you don’t believe me, just look at this morning.

 

We have new member joining St. Stephen’s this morning who don’t live anywhere near here.

 

But they worship here—virtually—every Sunday.

 

I know it’s hard for us to fathom these things.

 

It’s hard to accept and understand what all this means.

 

But we need to be open minded enough to realize these are the changes that are happening.

 

Because if we don’t do that, the Church will die.

 

This is not the time for us to be set in our ways.

 

This is not the time for us to think “I personally have it all figured out and I don’t like this new way of doing Church—and being the Church.”

 

That’s death talk.

 

That’s toxic thinking.

 

That will bring about the end of the Church and St Stephen’s.

 

It’s a whole new way of doing Church.

 

But, I do want to remind you of all those sermons I preached over the years about this.

 

I warned that the Church was changing and that we had to be prepared.

 

I preached it again and again.

 

Remember all those times people may have frowned at me or shook their heads at me when I did things like officiating at Baptisms outside the Sunday morning Mass.

 

Let me tell you: I received flak for that for years.

 

Well, doing that prepared us for where we are now.

 

We have done almost as many baptisms this year already during the pandemic as we do in a normal year.

 

Well, here we are.

 

And thankfully, we as a congregation, were essentially prepared.

 

To be fair, I didn’t quite imagine it this way.

 

But this is what it is.

 

And we were able to step up and the be the Church during an insanely difficult time.

 

One would think a pandemic would mean that the church would go into hibernation.

 

Not so here.

 

I personally have never been busier.

 

And it didn’t slow down once during the pandemic.

 

It was exhausting.

 

And exhilarating.

 

And it shows another thing we have heard from this pulpit for years:

 

The Church is not what it contained within these walls.

 

The Church is all of us together, being the Church wherever we are.

 

This is where we are on this Dedication Sunday of 2020.

 

It’s different than we were last year.

 

And who knows where we will be next year.

 

And you know what?

 

Despite the pandemic, despite the division we are experiencing in this country right now, we are able to say: it’s not so bad.

 

We have done better than we even  imagined during this time.

 

In fact, we are still flourishing.

 

We are still growing.

 

We are still being who we are.

 

And if you doubt that, look no further than our new refurbished labyrinth.

 

In so many ways, that labyrinth is a symbol for us of who we are here.

 

A Labyrinth is a prayer walk with God symbolic of our life.

 

Parishioners here like our beloved Jim Coffey and others saw that vision 20 years ago.

 

They saw what that labyrinth represented.

 

The labyrinth shows the twists and turns of our lives.

 

It shows us that God truly does laugh at the plans we make.

 

But it also shows us that the path we walk is already marked out by God.

 

As we look back at our 64 years here, that describes us perfectly.

 

And as we look at our  own life journey, that describes it perfectly as well.

 

This labyrinth, that has become a spiritual magnet to so many people, is very much symbolic of who we are as St. Stephen’s.

 

We too are spiritual magnet.

 

We can say, in all honest, that God is here at St. Stephen’s.

 

We see it in all that God has done.

 

I very proudly boast of all that God has done here.

 

I have no qualms about boasting about what all of us are doing here at St. Stephen’s.

 

In our wonderful reading this morning from St. Peter, we find him saying,

 

“Once you were not a people,

but now you are God’s people;

once you had not received mercy,

but now you have received mercy.”

 

When we look around us this morning, as we celebrate 64 years of this unique, spiritual powerhouse of a congregation, we realize that truly we are on the receiving end of a good amount of mercy.

 

We realize that mercy from God has descended upon us in this moment.

 

And it is a truly glorious thing.

 

So, what do we do in the face of glorious things?

 

We rejoice!

 

We give thanks to our God!

 

And, as unbelievable as it might seem at times, we cannot take it any of it for granted.

 

We must use this opportunity we have been given.

 

We realize that it is not enough to receive mercy.

 

We must, in turn, give mercy.

 

We, this morning, are being called to echo what St. Peter said to us in our reading this morning.

 

We, God’s own people, are being called to “proclaim

the mighty acts of [God] who called [us] out of

darkness into [that] marvelous light.”

 

We proclaim these mighty acts by our own acts.

 

We proclaim God’s acts through mercy, through ministry, through service to others, through the worship we give here and virtually and in the outreach we do from here.

 

I love being the cheerleader for St. Stephen’s.

 

Because it’s so easy to do.

 

God is doing wonderful things here through each of us, even now.

 

Even in a pandemic.  

 

Each of us is the conduit through which God’s mercy and love is being manifested.

 

In our collect for this morning, we prayed to God that “all who seek you here [may] find you, and be filled with your joy and peace…”

 

That prayer is being answered in our very midst today.

 

That joy is being proclaimed in what we do today.

 

And although it may seem unbelievable at times, this is truly how God works in our midst.

 

God works in our midst by allowing us to be that place in which God is found, a place in which joy and peace and mercy dwell.

 

So, let us continue to receive God’s mercy and, in turn, give God’s mercy to others.

 

Let us be a place in which mercy dwells.

 

Because when we do we will find ourselves, along with those who come to us, echoing the words of Jacob from our reading in the Hebrew Scriptures this morning,

 

“How awesome is this place! This is none

other than the house of God, and this is the gate of

heaven.”

 

 

Let us pray.

Holy and loving God, we are thankful to you this morning for guiding us through the twists and turns of this life. We are thankful for the sixty-four years of ministry that have been performed for you here. And we are thankful for your protection and blessing during this time of pandemic. Continue to be with us. Continue to guide us and continue to be the source of our strength so that we may continue to dwell in this your house and be the gate of heaven. We ask this in the name of Jesus. Amen.