Sunday, January 24, 2021

3 Epiphany


Annual Meeting

 

January 24, 2020

 

Mark 1.14-20

 

+ Today is, of course, our Annual Meeting Sunday.

 

And let’s just say that we have never had an Annual Meeting like this one before.

 

And it is the Sunday in which I get to be the head cheerleader for our congregation.

 

And there is so much to cheer about.

 

What?

 

Cheer about?

 

Fr. Jamie, did you sleep through 2020?

 

Yes, you heard me right.

 

There is much to cheer about, even in the midst of a pandemic.

 

Despite all that has happened, for us it has been a year of growth, of crazy, nonstop activity, of doing and seeing things in a new way.

 

We have one of our very best years for giving, for budget.

 

Even in the midst of all the darkness and the strangeness of this past year, St. Stephen’s once again proved itself to be, as it always, a resilient, amazingly strong congregation that steps up the plate.

 

I am just amazed by it all.

 

I am amazed at how God has moved in this parish this last year.

 

God’s Holy Spirit has been truly present here.

 

But yes, it is a very different Annual Meeting Sunday than in the past.

 

We will be gathering together by Zoom, rather than in person.

 

It will be different.

 

It is painful that we are not all here together.

 

But, let me tell you,  in some congregations, it is much worse, as many of you know.

 

And I am deeply saddened over that fact.

 

But for us, we need to be grateful this morning.

 

We need to truly thank God, for God’s holy Presence among us.

 

I know you feel it.

 

I certainly feel it.

 

And it is that vitality, that presence of the God’s life-giving and amazing Spirit, present among us, that we celebrate today.

 

So much has happened over this past year.

 

Yesterday I was talking by phone with Jennifer Tackling.

 

And she was sharing how important St. Stephen’s has been to her over this whole pandemic and how it was good for her to know that even though she and her family were unable to actually physically BE in church, it was comforting to know that we continued to do what we do, without pause.

 

And that we have found new ways to “be” together.

 

I love to hear things like that from people.

 

And it is because of comments and sentiments like that, that we actually are celebrating St. Stephen’s and who we are, what we have done and what we will do.

 

I think our Annual Meeting is also a time for us to pause and to actually orient ourselves.

 

It is important to see where he have been this past year and look forward to where we are going.

 

And it is a time for us also to “turn around,” to have a moment in which we wake up and see things anew.

 

In our spiritual lives, we call those moments, “metanoia,” – a Greek word that I absolutely love.

 

But I will get into that a bit more in just a moment.

 

For now, this idea of “turning around,” this changing of perspective, is what Jesus calls us to do again and again throughout the Gospel.

 And in today’s Gospel is no exception.

 In it, we find Jesus essentially doing the same thing.

 He’s asking his followers—and us—to turn around, to wake up, to see things anew.

 And he does it with one little word.

 “Repent.”

 I think in our contemporary Christian Understanding, we have found this word hijacked a bit.  

 Repent is often seen as a shaming word.

 We seem to hear it only in the context of “repenting” of our sins. 

 And certainly that’s a correct usage of the word.

 When we turn from our sins—from all the wrongdoings we’ve done in life—we are repenting.

 But I think it’s a good thing to examine the word a bit closer and see it in a context all of its own. 

 The Greek word we find in this Gospel is that word I just shared with you—metanoia  μετανοειτε (metanoiein), which means to change our mind.

 But the word Jesus probably used was probably based on the Hebrew word, Shubh, which the  great theologian, Reginald Fuller, translates as “to turn around 180 degrees, to reorient one’s whole attitude toward Yahweh in the face of the God’s coming kingdom.”

 When we approach this word with this definition, all  of a sudden it takes on a whole new meaning and attitude.

 What is Jesus telling us to do?

 Jesus is telling us to turn around and see, for the Kingdom of God is near.

 Wake up and look, he’s saying

 We must turn round and face this mystery that is God. 

 We must adjust our thinking away from all the worldly things we find ourselves swallowed up within and focus our vision on God. 

 Or, rather, we should adjust our thinking, our vision of the world, within the context of God.

 Now, I will share with you a moment of metanoia in my own life recently.

 As you know, I am watch current  events very closely, especially when it comes to Christianity and the Church.

 And there have been some things recently that has shaken me to my core.

 It is this disconnect that I see so many Christians between their praying to Jesus and their following of Jesus.

 I have seen  in the news, and especially in our national news over the last few weeks, many people who proudly profess and claim to be Christians, carrying crosses, carrying banners with the name of Jesus, placing memes on their social media of Jesus, and saying loud prayers to Jesus, sometimes after they have violently overrun certain government buildings.

 I have been appalled by it all.

 I have been appalled by people who so recklessly throw the name of Jesus around, who so blatantly claim that name and worship Jesus, but who also so blatantly do not embody who and what Jesus was and is.

 One of my favorite contemporary spiritual writers is Richard Rohr.

 He is a Roman Catholic priest, a member of the Franciscan Order.

 I have quoted Rohr many times from this pulpit.

 Father Rohr actually addresses the source of my current moment of metanoia when he also talks about Christians who seem to ignore Jesus very clear command to “Follow me!”

 

Christians instead “have preferred to hear something Jesus never said: ‘Worship me.’ Worship of Jesus is rather harmless and risk-free; following Jesus changes everything.

 Following Jesus changes everything.

 It does.

 It’s easy to pray to Jesus.

 I have seen those Christians in my own life.

 Most of the people I have had issues with in the Church, especially those I have known personally, have more often than not been just that kind of Christian.

 Bishops who pray to Jesus, but then treat others disrespectfully, even mistreating people.

 Clergy who pray to Jesus, but then steal money or use and misuse people over and over again.

 Lay people who pray to Jesus, been then backbite and gossip and find something always to complain about.

 And it’s hard for me to say this, but I too have done it.

 Well, I haven’t stolen money or blatantly mistreated people

 But I too have prayed to Jesus and then acted very un-Jesus-like.

 I have prayed to Jesus and acted terribly.

 I have prayed to Jesus because it’s been so much easier to pray to Jesus than to follow Jesus.

 When we do that we become guilty of the heresy of Christomonism, or the belief that Jesus is the only expression of God we need.

 Doing so is essentially Jesusolatry—it makes Jesus into an idol that is worshipped.

 That is not what Jesus came to do for us.

 Jesus did not come to be worshipped.

 Jesus came to lead the way—to show us the Way forward, to be Way, the Truth and the Life.

 And our jobs as Christians is to follow Jesus.

What does that mean?

How do we do that?

Well, there's a great meme going around that says this:

THIS YEAR I WANT TO BE MORE LIKE JESUS:


- Hang out with sinner.

-Upset religious people.

- Tell stories that make people think.

- Choose unpopular friends.

- Be kind, loving and merciful.

That's how we follow Jesus. 

  Now, of course, I’m not saying we shouldn’t pray to Christ.

 I am definitely not saying that worship of God shouldn’t take precedence in our lives and that, in our worship of God, we shouldn’t acknowledge Jesus’ intercession before God’s throne. Worship of God should take precedence in our lives!   

 But what I am saying is that our worship of Jesus should not make Jesus into an idol.

 Our worship of Jesus should not be an easy way for us to avoid having to follow Jesus.

 It’s easy to throw Jesus’ holy Name around.

 We all do it.

 But when we hide behind our worship of Christ, when we think praying to Jesus and not following Jesus makes us good Christians, we have deceived ourselves, and the truth is not in us.

 What Jesus is telling us in today’s Gospel, when he tells us to repent, is, essentially, this:

 He is telling us to be mindful.

 Be mindful of God.

 Be mindful of the good news.

 And what is the good news?

 The good news is that the Kingdom of God is near.

 God has drawn close to us.

 God is near.

 So, be aware. 

 Act appropriately.

 What we find here is a very simple lesson in how to live fully and completely. 

 Essentially, Jesus is telling us,  

 Repent.

 Wake up.

 Turn around and see.

 Jesus is saying to us, Stop living foggy, complacent lives. Repent.

 He is saying, Quit being drones, mindlessly going about your duties.

 Stop making Jesus into an idol in your life.

 Stop hiding behind your worship of Jesus and go out and actually follow him.

 Actually embody him and strive to live like him in this world.   

 Wake up and think.

 Open your eyes and see. 

 God is with us.

 God is here, speaking to us words of joy and gladness.

 Listen.

 Hear what God is saying.

 Look.

 See God walking in our very midst.

 And when we see God, when we hear God speaking to us, we find that we too want to do what those disciples in our Gospel reading for today did.

 We want to follow after the One God sent to us.

 We want to be followers of Jesus.

 And we want to help others be followers of Jesus.

 We want to help others see that God is near.

 That is what we are called to do on this Annual Meeting Sunday.

 That is what we are being called to do in this year ahead of us.

 That is what we are striving to do in all we do t St. Stephen’s

 Being followers of Jesus means that we are awake and we see.

 So let us truly follow Jesus in our lives.

 We don’t need to do it in a flamboyant fashion.

 But we can do it in flamboyant fashion if that works for us.

 But we can also do so in a subdued fashion as well.

 We can truly follow Jesus by striving to be spiritually awake.

 We can follow Jesus by allowing ourselves to spiritually see.

 And when we hear and see—awake, aware, not sleeping spiritually—it is then that we can become truly effective fishers in helping others see as well.

 Let us pray.

 Holy and Loving God, we thank you. We thank you for this parish of St. Stephen’s. We thank you for who we are and what we are and what we do. We ask you to graciously bless and prosper the work of our hands. Let your spirit dwell with us. And most importantly let us get up and heed the calling of Jesus in our lives. Let us repent, turn around and follow him where he leads. And as we do, help us to further your Kingdom in our midst. We ask this in Jesus’ holy name. Amen.  

 

Sunday, January 17, 2021

2 Epiphany


January 17, 2021

1 Samuel 3.1-20; John 1.43-51

 

 

+ This past week I had a great Zoom conversation with my very, very dear and long-time friend, Leslie Rorabeck.

 

Some of you may remember Leslie, back when she was a Leslie Flom and was a member of Gethsemane Cathedral.

 

Leslie was an incredible singer, soloist and was in the choir there.

 

About 17 years ago, Leslie and her family moved back to North Carolina, and over the last few years, with her children pretty much grown, she decided to heed her life-long calling for ordination as a priest.

 

She is getting ready to graduate from Virginia Theological Seminary and (God willing) be ordained a transitional deacon sometime this year and hopefully a priest six months after that.

 

Talking to Leslie this week about her vocation and all the potential opportunities she has as someone about to be ordained, I suddenly had a real warm and wonderful memory of when I was first heeding my call to ordained ministry.

 

I remember that feeling of the future seeming so bright and so wide open.

 

And I also was reminded how truly wonderful it is to say “Yes” when God calls, and then to pursue all the amazing opportunities that “yes” to God opens up.

 

But it also puts   into perspective the differences in where we are in our calling.

 

Leslie is so eager and excited at the beginning of her ordained ministry.

 

And me, after almost 20 years of ordained ministry and after a very long, particularly difficult year of pandemic, quarantine, political and social division and separation from a majority of my church family, I don’t know if the words “eager” and “excited” are words I use often.  

 

Sadly, my enthusiasm after all these years is not quite as fresh as Leslie’s, I hate to say, especially after this a particular year, (and this close to vacation).

 

But, after I got off that Zoom call with Leslie, I found myself  wondering:

 

If I could go back and hear that calling anew, even knowing what I know now, even after all the heart-aches,  after all the hardships that have come my way in these years of ministry, would I still, in all honesty, say “Yes” again to God?

 

Without hesitation, I would.

 

OK. Maybe with a slight hesitation.

 

But I would say yes.

 

I would do it all over again.

 

I might do a few things differently.

 

I would actually do a lot of things differently.

 

But I would most definitely do it.

 

I would definitely say “Yes” again to God.

 

Which is why, I guess, I really love the story of the young Samuel we encounter in our reading from the Hebrew scriptures this morning.

 

I, along with Leslie and Deacon John or any of us who do ministry in whatever form we do it, can relate to his calling.

 

We all understand it in a unique sense.

 

And my simple, very non-eloquent “Yes” to Go dwas essentially the same as Samuel’s  

 

“Here I am. Do with me what you must.”

 

And for Samuel, his life changed with that “Here I am.”

 

Of course, that’s not the only calling we hear in our scripture readings for today.

 

In today’s Gospel, we also find another calling.

 

We find Philip saying to Nathaniel,

 

“Come and see.”

 

And we find Jesus telling Nathaniel,

 

“You will see greater things than these.”

 

For most of us, who are not mystics, we have still seen our share of miracles in our lives—at least if we kept our minds and hearts and eyes open.

 

No doubt, there have been many miracles in your lives.

 

No doubt, there have been saints—true, living saints—that you have met—and still continue to meet—and walked beside.

 

 And although you probably have not seen heaven literally opened or angels literally “ascending and descending,” you’ve probably, once or twice, seen the veil between this world and heaven lifted.

 

I hope you have, anyway.

 

And you probably have seen angels ascending and descending in the guise of fellow travelers along the way.

 

Like Nathaniel, who would have a series of low points in his own life (legend says he


would die a particularly horrible martyr’s death of being flayed alive, forced to walk, skinless in the desert, before mercifully being beheaded), through it all, he kept looking.

 

And in looking, he saw.

 

This is what it means to be a disciple—a follower of Jesus.

 

Despite the setbacks, the illnesses, despite the people who are out to trip you up, there are also the rewards—the high points that are better than any other high points.

 

Being a Christian—a real, genuine Christian, and not a phony, hypocritical one—is probably our greatest vocation.

 

Being a Christian means being a follower of Jesus and a loved child of God.

 

Being a follower of Jesus means being a disciple of Jesus.

 

Disciple and discipline both come from the same root word.


And being a follower of Jesus, being a disciple of Christ, means we must be disciplined, we must be well-trained and well-versed.

 

We must be well-informed on who it is we are following and what teachings we are embodying in our lives.

 

And being a follower, a disciple, is a difficult thing at times.

 

No one, when we became Christians, promised us sparkling, light-filled moments and rose gardens every step of the way.

 

If anyone did, sue them!

 

Because they lied to you!

 

Actually, when we became Christians, we became Christians—all of us—in the shadow of the Cross.

 

We need to remember that when we were baptized, as I said last Sunday in my sermon, we were marked with the Cross.

 

That was not a quaint, sweet little sentiment.

 

It meant we were baptized into following Jesus wherever he led us in his life and ours—the good times and the bad.

 

Yes, even to the dark, dank ugly place of the cross.

 

And as a result, we have faced our lives as followers of Jesus Christ squarely and honestly.

 

This is no cult we belong to, that promises us that if we do this and that we will be freed from pain and suffering.

 

We’re not being brain-washed to believe what we believe.

 

As followers of Jesus, we know that, Yes, bad things are going to happen to us.

 

There will be illness, there will be setbacks, there will be broken relationships and conflicts with others, there will be despotic, racist leaders in the world who were impeached twice, there will be loss and there will be death.

 

The last time I preached on these scriptures was on Sunday, January 14, 2018.

 

For me on that Sunday, life was still somewhat normal.

 

I was getting ready, just as I am now, for our Annual Meeting and my vacation.

 

That evening, after Mass, my mother went out for supper as we always did on Sunday evening (we went to Granite City that night) and then to the West Acres Hornbacher’s to get her groceries. As we did every Sunday evening for several years.

 

What I didn’t know on that Sunday that that Sunday was the last time we would ever do that.

 

What I didn’t know is that 2 Sundays later, as I stood here at the pulpit preaching, my mother would breathe her last.

 

See, no one promised us as rose gardens in our following of Jesus.

 

When we follow Jesus we need to remember that he will not be leading us toward comfortable places.

 

He’s not leading us to the country club.

 

He’s not leading us to glitz and glamor.

 

He’s not leading us to fame and fortune in our lives.

 

He will be leading us through places that might not be safe.

 

We need to remember that One leading us came from Nazareth.

 

Can anything good come from Nazareth?

 

Well, we know of one good thing that came Nazareth.

 

But Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus of that place from which nothing good comes, he is leading us.

 

And we must believe that he will show us greater things than we can even imagine.

 

Following of Jesus is a hard thing.

 

We know that there will be many, many people out there who want to trip us up and who want us to fail.

 

We know that there are people out there who do not want the best for us.

 

We know that there will be people who are jealous of us and envious of us, and who despise us simply because of who we are.

 

There’s no way of getting around such things in our lives.

 

But following Jesus means being able, in those dark moments, to look and to see, like Nathaniel.

 

When surrounded by darkness, we can see light.

 

Following Jesus means remember, again and again that, like Jesus, we are loved and beloved children of a loving, living God.

 

When stuck in the mire and muck of this life, we can still look up and see those angels descending and ascending.

 

As I look back over these past years of ministry, I realize they have been the most productive and fruitful years of my life.

 

More than anything, as I look back over these last years, I find God weaving in and out of my life.

 

As I look back, I find God, speaking to me, much as God spoke to Samuel.

 

God, whether I was listening or not, was calling me again and again by name.

 

God is calling each of us also by our name.

 

God is calling to us again and again.

 

And what is our answer?

 

Our answer is a simple one.

 

It simply involves, getting up, looking and seeing, and saying to God,

 

“Here I am.”

 

Here I am.

 

And when we do that, we will find that, like Samuel, God is with us.

 

God is with us.

 

God loves us.

 

God knows us.

 

And—in that glorious moment—we will know: this God who does know us, who does love us, will never allow one of our words to fall useless to the ground.

 

Let us pray.

God of Samuel, you call us, and we must respond. You speak to us and we must heed what you say; bless us as we strive to say “yes” to your voice; bless  the ministries we are all called to do in our lives. Bless those we encounter along the way. And let us never forget that you, who know us by name, love us and are with and know us, now and always. In Jesus’ holy name we pray. Amen.