Tuesday, December 6, 2022

A Letter from Fr. Jamie

 


December 6, 2022

The Feast of St. Nicholas

 

Dear St. Stephen’s family,

 

It doesn’t make sense. Logically, it shouldn’t be this way. St. Stephen’s is a small church building in the out-of-the-way, far-reaches of northeast Fargo. If you drove by and weren’t looking for us, you could pass us by without even noticing we’re there. But, still, this little church set back from the street is a spiritual powerhouse. It draws people from all over Fargo-Moorhead, and from far-flung places beyond the F-M area. Every week, without fail, we have new people visiting us. If you haven’t attended Sunday Mass in a while and then come back you will see people you’ve never met sitting next to you, or singing as cantor, or reading lessons, or greeting you at the door.

So, what is it about St. Stephen’s that draws people? It is the simple fact that there is no place around quite like St. Stephen’s. We are not a cathedral or a massive auditorium. We don’t have a choir of paid musicians, nor do we have fancy architecture. We don’t have screens, we don’t have a live band, we don’t have soaring ceilings or a wing of empty classrooms.

What we do have is our beautiful Anglo-Catholic liturgy. We do have bells and music and, at our Wednesday evening Mass, incense. We do have passion and commitment. We are rebellious and defiant and passionately trying to live out the message of the Gospel, and the revolutionary  commandment of God to love God and love others as fully and completely as we can. We have Christ in our Eucharist, in the hearing and proclaiming of the Word and in our presence with one another.

And we not only radically welcome people, we include them fully and completely. No one is ostracized here. No one here is turned away. No one here is snubbed or shunned or looked at strangely.

We are gay and straight, trans and cis, asexual or non-sexual, straight-edged or “out there.” We are normal and weird, staid and radical, old and young. And everything in-between. We are imperfect but striving to be better than we are and in doing so to make the world a better place as well—the make the Reign of God real and present in this world.

Everyone knows we are welcoming. It is not secret that we are fully-accepting. But we are definitely not push-overs. We are also very strong and committed. And when we stand up for something, we STAND UP. And we speak out loudly!

We were inclusive before inclusivity was expected of the Church. We welcomed and included people other churches discarded or turned away. And we continue to do that. And we do so unapologetically.

That is what St. Stephen’s is.  

As I write this, we have just had our annual Pledge in-Gathering. This is the one time of the year in which we ask for your help to help being the unique, eclectic parish we are. We cannot do it without your pledges. We cannot do it without your time and your talent.

If you have already pledged, thank you!! Thank you for contributing to the unique ministry we do here.

For those of you who have not pledged or have simply forgotten, please do so.   Please consider filling out a pledge card and returning it so we can continue to do what we do. Or simply fill out our name and the amount you can pledge and send it by email to Laura Nylander at laura.nylander56@gmail.com

Your pledge is not about paying my salary. Your pledge is not only about paying the bills of St. Stephen’s. Your pledge is about contributing to a parish that makes a difference in this community, in the world and in our individual lives. It helps us be the place we are. It helps us as we continue to grow, continue to welcome new people each week in our doors, continue to be a place where God’s Spirit is alive and is shared with ALL people, no matter who they are.  But more importantly, we actually do what we say we do: when dire situations happen within the lives of our parishioners, we are there to help, to lend support, to be a supporting presence. That is what your pledge supports here.

More than anything, however, please know how grateful and humbled I am to be serving as your Rector and priest. I am truly blessed by God to be serving a parish that is excited about what it is doing, that is renewed by its energy and committed to its very radical following of Jesus. Thank you for all you have given to me.

 

-peace,

Fr. Jamie+

Sunday, December 4, 2022

2 Advent

 


December 4, 2022

 Isaiah 40.1-11; Mark 1.1-8

 + One thing we often hear about if any of us have been Christians for any period of time is the big question:

 What must one do to be saved?

 Because many of us who believe really do have a fear of hell and eternal damnation, especially those of us who came from churches that preached those things on a regular basis.

 Now, in many churches, we heard that all one had to do to gain heaven and glorious eternity was make this simple statement: I accept Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior.  

 The rest of us, who didn’t make this statement in those exact words, were in deep trouble.

 Now, on some level, that makes some sense.

 It seems simple.  

 If someone doesn’t accept Christ, then Christ should turn his back on those who didn’t accept him.

 After all, we would turn our backs on those who would not accept us, right? .

 And there should be a place where we had to pay for the wrongs we did.

 We simply can’t sin and expect not to pay for it in some way, right?

 But certainly for me, in my own spiritual life, as I grew into my relationship with God, as I tried to follow Jesus as faithfully as I could, and as I started to look long and hard at everything I have believed, I realize that there is one thing those people who believe that way have  missed.

 It was one simple little word:

 Grace.

 Now, my very simplistic definition of grace is this:

 Grace is a gift we receive from God that we neither ask for nor necessarily deserve.

 In the Gospel we heard this morning, we hear the echoing words of John the Baptist.

 The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me;

 He is that lone voice calling to us in the wilderness.

 It is a voice of hope.

 It is a voice of substance.

 It is a voice of salvation.

 More importantly, John’s message is a message of Grace.

 This powerful One is coming!

 There’s no avoiding it. 

 God is coming to us.

 God is sending some one to us—someone powerful, someone appointed and chosen by God.

 This is the ultimate grace in a very real sense.

 Although we have been hoping for God to come to us and save us, it is not something that we have necessarily asked for or deserve.

 God comes to us in God’s own time.

 It is this one fact—grace—that makes all the difference in the world.

 It is what makes the difference between eternal life and eternal damnation.

 Now, there are those who believe that there is an eternal hell.  

 And if you’re not right with God, they say, that’s exactly where you’re going.

 The fault in this message is simple: none of us are right with God.  

 As long as we are on this side of the veil, so to speak, we fall short of what God wants for us.

 We have all sinned and we will all sin again.  

 That’s the fact.

 But that’s where grace comes in.   

 Grace is, excuse my language, the trump card.

 Grace sets us free.

 Grace involves one simple little fact that so many Christians seem to overlook.

 And this is the biggest realization for me as a follower of Jesus:

 Just because one doesn’t accept God or God’s anointed Christ  doesn’t mean that God of God’s Christ doesn’t accept us.

 God accepts us.  

 Plain and simple.  

 Even if we turn our backs on God.  

 Even if we do everything in our limited powers to separate ourselves from God, the fact of the matter is that nothing can separates from God and God’s love.   

 God accepts every single person—no matter what we believe, or don’t believe, no matter if God is some abstract concept to us or a close, personal friend.

 That’s right, I did say “personal.”  

 Because, yes, it’s wonderful and beautiful to have a personal relationship with God and with Jesus.  

 Our personal relationship with God and with Jesus is essential to our faith, as you have heard me say many, many times.

 But the fact is, neither God nor Jesus is the personal savior to any one of us in this place.  

 God saves all of us, equally.

 That is grace.

 That is how much God loves us.

 Now, I have preached this message my entire adult life as a Christian, and certainly as priest.

 And, as you can imagine, there have been, shall we say, a few critics of my unabashed and unapologetic universalism.  

 And some of these critics—actually quite a few of these critics—have been quite vocal.

 In fact, I once preached this very same message one evening not long after I was ordained to the priesthood in a very diverse venue of what I thought were somewhat progressive Lutherans.

 Later, I learned, I was essentially blackballed from that venue for that sermon.

 I also preached it once at another congregation, at which I was a guest.

 After I preached it, the presider at the service actually got up and “corrected” my sermon in front of everybody.

 Critics of this message say that what I am talking about is cheap grace.

 Cheap grace?

 No, I counter.

 And I still counter!

 Again and again.

 No, not cheap grace. 

 It’s actually quite expensive grace.

 It was grace bought at quite a price.

 And no, I’m not being naïve or fluffy here.   

 Trust me, I have known some truly despicable people in my life.  

 I have been hurt by some of these people and I have seen others hurt by these people.

 And I have felt angry over the pain these people have caused in my life and in those lives of others.

 The world is full of people who are awful and terrible.  

 Or people who do really dumb or foolish things that hurt others.

 And sometimes the most awful and terrible person we know is the one staring back at us in our own mirrors.

 But the fact is, that even when we can’t love them or ourselves, when we can’t do anything else but feel anger and hatred toward them, God does love them.  

 God accepts them, just as God accepts each of us.

 God doesn’t necessarily accept their actions. God doesn’t accept their sins, or their failings, or their blatant embrace of what is wrong.

 God doesn’t accept the pain they’ve inflicted on others.

 But, not even those things can separate them from Christ’s love.  

 Nothing can separate us from God’s love and from God’s promise to eternal life.  

 That is how God works in this world.

 That is why God sent this Christ, this Messiah, this Child of God, to us.

 I believe in that image we hear from our reading from the prophecies of Isaiah today:

 [God] will feed his flock like a shepherd;

he will gather the lambs in his arms,

and carry them in his bosom,

 We will be gathered up by our God, and we will be carried into our God’s bosom.

 I love that image!

 Because it conveys God’s true and abiding love for us. 

 It’s a hard concept for those us who were taught otherwise.  

 But I do believe it.  

 I believe it because of the personal relationship I have with God.  

 The God I have come to know and to love and to serve is simply that full of love.

 So, do I believe we’re all going to heaven when we die?

 Well, yes.

 I really do believe that. 

 Why?

 Because, the love of God is just that big.  

 It is just that wonderful and just that all-encompassing.

 It is just that powerful.  

 If one person is in some metaphysical, eternal hell for being a despicable person, then, you know what?  the love of God has failed.  

 Something has, in fact, come between that person and God.

 I do not believe that hell or Satan or sin or the Church or anything else is big enough to separate us fully and completely from God. 

 Not even we, ourselves, can turn our backs on God because wherever we turn, God is there for us.

 So, listen.  

 In this Advent season of hope,  John’s voice is calling to us from the wilderness.  

 He is saying,

 Listen

 God’s anointed is near.

 God’s messiah, the Christ, is coming to us.

 Let us go out, in wonderful, beautiful grace, to meet him!

 Let us pray.

 Loving God, come to us. Send us your power, send us your glory. Send us your grace. And let us know that no matter how often we may turn our backs on you, you have never once turned your back on us. You have always been with us and remain with us. And that nothing in all the world can separate us from you and your incredible love. For this, we are truly thankful today. In the name of your anointed, Jesus. Amen.

 

 

Monday, November 28, 2022

 As I was straightening up the nave before Mass yesterday morning I came across this little ditty some poet in the parish wrote.




Sunday, November 27, 2022

1 Advent

 


November 27, 2022

 

1 Corinthians 1.3-9; Mark 13.24-37


+ In case you haven’t noticed, it is the first Sunday of Advent.

It is a beautiful time in the Church, and here at St. Stephen’s.

This morning, we have the beautiful blue frontal on the altar made by Gin Templeton.

Deacon John and I get to wear the beautiful blue vestments.

We have the first candle lit on the Advent wreath.

It is a time in which we, as the Church, turn our attention, just like the rest of the world, toward Christmas.

But…we need to be clear: it is not Christmas yet for us Christians.

Christmas starts on Christmas eve, on the evening of December 24.

For now, we are in this almost limbo-like season of Advent.

All the major Church feast days—namely Christmas and Easter—are preceded by a time of preparation.

Before Easter, we go through the season of Lent—a time for us to collect our thoughts, prepare spiritually for the glorious mystery of the Resurrection.

Advent of course is similar.

We go through Advent as a way of preparing, spiritually,  for Christmas, for the birth of Jesus.

What a lot of people don’t realize is that Advent is as much of a penitential time—a time in which we should spend time fasting and pondering about our place in life—as Lent is, to some extent.

In this way, I think the Church year reflects our own lives in many ways.


In our lives, we go through periods of fasting and feasting.

We have our lean times and we have our prosperous times.

There is a balance to our lives in the world and there is a balance, as well, to our church lives.

We will feast—as we do on Christmas and on Easter—but first we must fast, as we do during Advent and Lent.

Do you ever notice how, when you know you’re going out to eat with friends at a nice restaurant, you cut back on your food during the day?

You maybe eat a little less at breakfast and only a very light lunch.

Or if you’re like me, you just don’t eat at all.

I don’t eat breakfast.

And I only eat lunch when I go out to lunch with someone.

You avoid snacking between meals, just so you can truly enjoy the supper that night (even if you are a bit lightheaded) .

That is what Advent is like.

We know this joyous event is coming, but to truly enjoy it, we need to hold back a bit now.

Advent then is also this time of deep anticipation.

And in that way, I think is represents our own spiritual lives in a way other times of the church year don’t.

We are, after all, a people anticipating something.

Something.

But what?

Well, our scriptures give us a clue.

But what they talk about isn’t something that we should necessarily welcome with joy.

In our reading form Isaiah this morning, we find the prophet saying to God,


O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence--

as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil--

to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence!

That doesn’t sound like a pleasant day to be anticipating.

Even Jesus, echoing Isaiah, says in our Gospel reading:

 In those days, after that suffering,

the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,

and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

 

Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. 

Well, that’s maybe a bit better, but it’s still pretty foreboding.

However, it doesn’t need to be all that foreboding.

Essentially, all of this is talk about “the day of the Lord” or the day when the Son of Man will come in the clouds” is really  all about waiting for God, or for God’s Messiah.

It is all about God breaking through to us.

That is what Advent is all about.

God breaking through to us.

God coming to us where are we are.

God cutting through the darkness of our lives, with a glorious light.

For the Jews before Jesus’ time, waiting like we are, for the Messiah, they had specific ideas of what this Messiah would do.

Oppressed as they were by a foreign government—the Romans—with an even more foreign religion—paganism—, they expected someone like themselves to come to them and take up a sword.

This Messiah would drive away these foreign influences and allow them, as a people, to rise up and gain their rightful place.

And for those hearing the prophet Isaiah, the God who came in glory on that day would strike down the sinful, but also raise up those who were sorry.

The fact is, as we all know by now,  God doesn’t work according to our human plans.

God isn’t Santa Claus.

We can’t control God or make God do what we want.

And if we try, let me tell you, we are deeply disappointed.

The Messiah that came to the people of Jesus’ day—and to us—was no solider.

There was no sword in his hand.

The “Son of Man” that came to them—and to us--was a baby, a child who was destined to suffer, just as we suffer to some extent, and to die, as we all must die.

But, what we are reminded of is that God’s Messiah will come again.

It is about what happened then, and what will happen.

This time of Advent is a time of attentiveness to the past, the present, and the future.

Attentiveness is the key word.

Actually, in our Gospel reading for today, we get a different way of stating it.

 

We get a kind of verbal alarm clock.

 

And we hear it in two different ways:

 

“Keep alert.”

 

“Keep awake.”

 

Jesus says it just those two ways in our reading from Mark: It seems simple enough.

 

“Keep alert” and “keep awake.”

 

Or to put it more bluntly, “Wake up!”

 

But is it simple?

 

Our job as Christians is sometimes no more than this.

 

It is simply a matter of staying awake, of being attentive or being alert, of not being lazy.

 

Our lives as Christians are sometimes simply responses to being spiritually alert.

 

For those of us who are tired, who are worn down by life, who spiritually or emotionally fatigued, our sluggishness sometimes manifests itself in our spiritual life and in our relationship with others.

 

When we become impatient in our watching, we sometimes forget what it is we are watching for.

 

We sometimes, in our fatigue, fail to see.

 

For us, that “something” that we are waiting for, that we keeping alert for, is none other than that glorious “day of our Lord Jesus Christ,” that we hear St. Paul talk about in his epistle this morning.

 

That glorious day of God breaking through to us comes when, in our attentiveness, we see the rays of the light breaking through to us in our tiredness and in our fatigue.

 

It breaks through to us in various ways.

 

We, who are in this sometimes foggy present moment, peering forward, sometimes have this moments of wonderful spiritual clarity.

 

Those moments are truly being alert—of being spiritually awake.

 

Sometimes we have it right here, in church, when we gather together.

 

I have shared with each of you at times when those moments sometimes come to me.

 

There are those moments when we can say, without a doubt: Yes, God exists!

 

But, more than that.

 

It is the moments when we say, God is real.

 

God is near.

 

God knows me.

 

God loves me.

 

And, in that wonderful moment, in that holy moment, the world about us blossoms!

 

This is what it means to be awake, to not be lazy.

 

See, the day the prophet talks about as a day of fear and trembling is only a day of fear and trembling if we aren’t awake.

 

For those of us who are awake, who truly see with our spiritual eyes, it is a glorious day.

 

For us, we see that God is our Parent.

 

Or as Isaiah says,

 

 O Lord, you are our Father;

 

 

We are God’s fully loved and fully accepted children.

 

And then Isaiah goes on to say that

 

we are the clay, and you are our potter; 
we are all the work of your hand.

 

 

Certainly, in a very real sense, today—this First Sunday of Advent— is a day in which we realize this fact.

 

Advent is a time for us to allow God to form us and make us in God’s image.

 

It is a time for us to maybe be kneaded and squeezed, but, through it all, we are being formed into something beautiful.

 

The rays of that glorious day when God breaks through to us is a glorious day!

 

And it is a day in which we realize we are all God’s loved and accepted children.

 

In this beautiful Sarum blue Advent season, we are reminded that the day of God’s reaching out to us is truly about dawn upon us.

 

The rays of the bright sun-lit dawn are already starting to lighten the darkness of our lives.

 

We realize, in this moment, that, despite all that has happened, despite the disappointments, despite the losses, despite the pain each of us has had to bear, the ray of that glorious Light breaks through to us in that darkness and somehow, makes it all better.

 

But this is doesn’t happen in an instant.

 

Oftentimes that light is a gradual dawning in our lives.

 

Oftentimes, it happens gradually so we can adjust to it, so it doesn’t blind us.

 

Sometimes, our awakening is in stages, as though waking from a deep, slumbering sleep.

 

Our job as Christians is somewhat basic.

 

I’m not saying it’s easy.

 

But I am saying that it is basic.

 

Our job, as Christians, especially in this Advent time, is to be alert.

 

To be awake.

 

Spiritually and emotionally.

 

And, in being alert, we must see clearly.

 

We cannot, when that Day of Christ dawns, be found to lazy and sloughing.

 

Rather, when that Day of our Lord Jesus dawns, we should greet it joyfully, with bright eyes and a clear mind.

 

We should run toward that dawn as we never have before in our lives.

 

We should let the joy within us—the joy we have hid, we have tried to kill—the joy we have not allowed ourselves to feel—come pouring forth on that glorious day.

 

And in that moment, all those miserable things we have been dealt—all that loss, all that failure, all that unfairness—will dissipate like a bad dream on awakening.

 

“Keep alert,” Jesus says to us.

 

“Keep awake.”

 

Wake up!

 

It’s almost time.

 

Keep awake because that “something” you have been longing for all your spiritual life is about to happen.

 

It is about to break through into our lives.

 

And it is going to be glorious.

 

Let us pray.

 

O God of glory, we are longing for you in the darkness of our lives to break through to us; to come to us in this place and shed your Light upon us. And we know that when you do, it will truly be a glorious Day. We ask this in the name of your Messiah, Jesus our Savior. Amen.

Thursday, November 24, 2022

 Happy Thanksgiving from your favorite vegan priest-poet friend.