Sunday, June 13, 2021

3 Pentecost

 


June 13, 2021

 

Ezekiel 17.22-24; 2 Corinthians 5.6-17; Mark 4.26-34

 + One of the things we priests encounter on a regular basis are people who tell us about why they don’t attend church anymore.

 In fact, that’s very common.

 Invariably, whenever I do a wedding, as I did last night, or a funeral and sit with people afterward at the receptions, people get to feeling a bit guilty and start telling me why they don’t attend Church.

 Or I’ve been getting a lot of people telling me in these post-pandemic months why their haven’t attended.

 Which is all good.

 I like hearing those stories.

 For the most part.

 They’re important for all of us to hear on occasion.

 And one of the most common reasons, I’ve found, is that, oftentimes, it is not issues of their belief in God, or in anything spiritual that causes them to stop attending.

 In fact, I very rarely ever hear someone say they stopped attending church because of God.

 The number one reason?

 The Church itself.

 Capital C.

 The oppressiveness of the Church.

 The actions of the Church.

 The close-mindedness and the restrictions of the Church and, more especially, those agents of the Church who feel that their duty is is to uphold he institutions of the Church over the care of those who attend the Church.

 (Those agents are the same ones who, it seems, forgets that WE are the church).

 And even then, it’s not big things that do.

 It’s not giant things that drive people away from Church.

 It’s sometimes small things.

 A comment made at coffee hour.

 A seemingly innocent critique.

 A tsk of the tongue.

 Or a tone in the voice.

 A shake of a finger from a priest or a bishop from a pulpit.

 I hope I haven’t been guilty of that.

 I don’t have to tell anyone here this morning:  small things do matter when it comes to the Church, to our faith in God.

 Jesus definitely understood this.

 In our Gospel reading is Jesus comparing the Kingdom of God to the smallest thing they could’ve understood.

 A mustard seed.

 A small, simple mustard seed.

 Something they no doubt knew.

 And something they no doubt gave little thought to. But it was with this simple image—this simple symbol—that Jesus makes clear to those listening that little things do matter.

 And we, as followers of Jesus, need to take heed of that.

 Little things DO matter.

 Because little things can unleash BIG things.

 Even the smallest action on our part can bring forth the kingdom of God in our lives and in the lives of those we serve.

 But those small actions—those little seeds that we sow in our lives—can also bring about not only God’s kingdom but the exact opposite.

 Our smallest bad actions, can, destroy.

 Our actions can destroy the kingdom in our midst and drive us further away from God.

 Any of us who do ministry on a regular basis know this keenly.

 You will hear me say this again and again to anyone who wants to do ministry: be careful about those small actions.

 You’ve heard me say: when it comes to dealing with people in the church, use VELVET GLOVES.

 Be sensitive to others.

 Those small words or actions.

 Those little criticisms of people who are volunteering.

 Those little snips and moments of impatience.

 That impatient tone in a voice.

 Those moments of frustration at someone who doesn’t quite “get it” or who simply can’t do it.

 “Use velvet gloves all the time,” I say, and I mean it.

 None of us can afford to lose anyone from the church, no matter how big the church might be.

 Even one lost person is a huge loss to all of us.

 I cannot tell you how many times I hear stories about clergy or lay leaders who said or did one thing wrong and it literally destroyed a person’s faith.

 I’m sure almost everyone here this morning has either experienced a situation like this first hand with a priest or pastor or even a lay person in a leadership position in the church.

 Or if not you, you have known someone close who has.

 A good friend of mine who doesn’t attend church anymore shared this story with me once.

 This person was very active in her parish (this wasn't St. Stephen's mind you), especially when her kids were young.

 She was active on the altar guild, in Sunday School, helped organize the annual parish rummage sale, but especially liked to help out in the kitchen.

 She and another parishioner decided one day to volunteer to thoroughly clean the church kitchen, from top to bottom.

 After a whole day of hard work, they stood back t5o survey the work they did and admired the “spic and span” kitchen.

 It was at that moment that one of the matriarchs of the parish happened to enter the kitchen.

 She proceeded to carefully examine the newly cleaned kitchen.

 Finally, she humphed and, as she exited the kitchen, she loudly proclaimed, “Well, your ‘spic and span’ kitchen isn’t very “spic and span!’”

 That was all it took.

 Within a year of that comment neither of those women, both of whom were invaluable workers in that parish, were attending church anymore.

 And not just them.

 But their children too.

 Luckily, I still have contact with them both.

 I have performed weddings and baptisms for those now-grown kids.

 But those families are not attending church anywhere this morning.

 And probably never will.

 Now, sometimes remarks by priests or lay people are innocent comments.

 There may have been no bad intention involved.

 But one wrong comment—one wrong action—a cold shoulder or an exhausted roll of the eyes or a scolding or the tone of a voice—the fact that a priest did not visit us when were in the hospital or said something that we took the wrong way—is all it takes when a person is in need to turn that person once and for all away from the church and, possibly, from God.

 That mustard seed all of a sudden takes on a whole other meaning in a case like this.

 What grows from a small seed like this is a flowering tree of hurt and despair and anger and bitterness.

 So, it is true.

 Those seeds we sow do make a huge difference in the world.

 Please, please, please, strive hard in your lives not to be the matriarch in that story.

 Strive hard not be that kind of Church to people.

 Strive hard to guard your actions and comments, to guard your tone and the way your respond to others.

 Because, I’ll be honest: I have done it as well.

 I have made some stupid comment in a joking manner that was taken out of context.

 You know me.

 I have a big mouth and a biting wit.

 And sometimes things I have said have been taken out of context and used against me.

 I remember one time, when I was a new priest, when I made a joking comment to a dear parishioner and she began to cry.

 I apologized and felt truly terrible for even doing it.

 Luckily, she stayed.

 And we can joke about it to this day.

 On another occasion, I remember an instance where one of our former Senior Warden and I were having an exchange by text.

 I can’t remember the exact situation, but she took something I said as a severe criticism of her and was deeply hurt.

 Again, luckily, I caught it quickly, and called her immediately and we realized that conveying things like tone and emotions through text messaging is often difficult.

 And she is still here with us as well.

 And we also can joke about it.

 But, more often than not, people don’t stay.

 And I regret those instances. Deeply.

 The loss of any one of us is a HUGE loss.

 The loss of any one of you is a HUGE loss.

 And it would hurt me deeply to know that I have wronged any of you in any way.

 See, those mustard seeds in our lives are important.

 We get to make the choice.

 We can sow seeds of goodness and graciousness—seeds of the Gospel.

 We can sow the seeds of God’s kingdom.

 Or we can sow the seeds of discontent.

 We can, through our actions, sow the weeds and thistles that will kill off the harvest.

 These past several years—and especially over this last pandemic year—you have heard me preach ad nauseum about change in the church.

 Well, I am clear when I say that the most substantial changes we can make in the church are not always the BIG ones.

 Oftentimes, the most radical changes we can make are in the little things we do—the things we think are not important.

 We forget about how important the small things in life are—and more importantly we forget how important the small things in life are to God.

 God does take notice of the small things.

 We have often heard the term “the devil is in the details.”

 But I can’t help but believe that it is truly God who is in the details.

 God works just as mightily through the small things of life as through the large.

 This is what Jesus is telling us this morning in this parable.

 So, let us take notice of those small things.

 It is there we will find our faith—our God.

 It from that small place—those tentative attempts at growth—that God’s kingdom flourishes in our lives.

 So, let us be mindful of those smallest seeds we sow in our lives as followers of Jesus.

 Let us remind ourselves that sometimes what they produce can either be a wonderful and glorious tree or a painful, hurtful weed.

 Let us sow God’s love from the smallest ounce of faith.

 Let us truly further the kingdom of God’s love in whatever seemingly small ways we can.

 Let us pray.

 Loving God, help to truly see how important the small things are in our lives and in the lives of those who share this lie with us. Help to sow seeds of love and hope and goodness in this world, and by doing so, may those seeds bring forth your Kingdom of total and inclusive love in this world. In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.   

 

Sunday, June 6, 2021

2 Pentecost/Corpus Christi Sunday

June 6, 2021

 Mark 3.20-35

 

+ On June 18, I will commemorate the first anniversary of my brother, Jason’s death.

 

As many of you who know me well, know that I have been quite honest about the bizarre, not always pleasant relationship I had with my siblings. Actually half-siblings.

 

And of my siblings, my relationship with Jason was…complex to say the least.

 

We were the closest in age.

 

He was 10 years older than me.

 

So, as you can imagine, we had a complicated, often unpleasant, relationship with each other.

 

Still, the death of a sibling, even one you may not be close with, is a hard to thing to

Jason Gould with his half-brother, the future Fr. Jamie, 1970

endure.

 

And Jason’s death, I will be honest, jarred me.

 

It was a hard one.

 

Now, something good came out of it.

 

My sister Michelle and I ended up reconciling after many years.

 

And I am very grateful for my relationship with my sister.

 

And, as I said, I will be remembering the first anniversary of my brother Jason’s death with deep sadness.

 

Sadness that we were not able to have a better relationship.

 

Sadness over the years were lost.

 

Sadness over the fact that there simply are situations in which reconciliation is not possible.

 

So, when I hear in today’s Gospel, Jesus saying,

 

“Whoever does the will of God is my brother and my sister and my mother.”

 

I really understand it.

 

It is a statement that resonates with me.

 

And I am able to fully understand it.

 

Now for Mary, his mother, and to his brothers and sisters, it was no doubt a jarring statement.

 

But, I’ve always loved that scripture for a probably not so nice of a reason.

 

Many of us know full-well that family is not always those who share our genetics with us.

 

Family is often those we chose as family.

 

The Church reminds us of this again and again.

 

Those of us who follow Jesus, who are the sisters and brothers of Jesus, we are also sisters and brothers to each other, are, hence, family.

 

It is true of our church and it is true of our own community here at St. Stephen’s.

 

What does it mean to do the will of God?

 

Do I honestly need to even ask this this morning?

 

We know what doing the will of God is.

 

It’s peached and lived out in this church every single day.

 

Doing the will of God is loving—radically and fully and completely.

 

Doing the will of God is accepting all people radically and completely.

 

Doing the will of God is being radically and fully inclusive.

 

Doing the will of God is doing things that others say shouldn’t (or can’t) be done.

 

Essentially, it is being a family to those who need families.

 

That is what the Church does best.

 

Certainly, when we look around us here at St. Stephen’s, we do understand what a family is, and what Jesus is talking about in our Gospel reading for today.

 

Yes, we are an eclectic, eccentric bunch of people.

 

That may truly be THE understatement of understatements.

 

But, when we look around, we also realize we’re very much a family.

 

Now, by that I don’t mean we’re all happy and nice with each other.

 

When we get this kind of variety together in one place, there are going to be differences.

 

There are going to be people (or priests, or deacons) who drive us crazy.

 

But, in the end, we always come together and do what we are called to do as followers of Jesus.

 

Of course, one of the things we endure in our lives is Christians are other Christians-Christians who delight in embracing a false Christianity==a Christianity that is at direct odds with all that the Jewish, Middle Easter Jesus taught and professed.

 

Jesus, I hate to break the news to you, was not white, was not American and would have major issues with almost everything people who claim he was hold dear.

 

We have to deal with Evangelical and Roman Catholic Christians who tell us we’re not “real” Christians because of the stances we make, because of the people we choose to include in our church.

 

Because we don’t exclude the people those denominations think Christians should exclude.

 

On this Corpus Christi Sunday, we remind ourselves that we don’t deny people the Body and blood of Jesus here just because they think differently, or believe differently than us.

 

After all, we are not the special “keepers” of the Body and Blood of Jesus.

 

And the Church is not some exclusive country club made up of only “good” people, who all follow the rules perfectly.

 

The Church is a hospital for all of us who fail, and sometimes fail miserably.

 

And the altar is a table to which ALL are invited, not just those who have followed all the rules and believe all the right things.

 

Often those same churches are committing some serious infractions themselves, they like to look for the slivers in others eyes without seeing the great big old log in their own as they bow down to the idolatrous Jesus they have formed in their own image and cow tailing to the insidious heresy of Nationalism.

 

Well, as I say quite often, the Jesus I follow is not that idolatrous Jesus.

 

I do not follow a white, blond, American  Jesus.

 

The Jesus I follow was not a Christian.

 

The Jesus I follow was a kosher-keeping Jewish, Middle Eastern man who was murdered by a government that claimed it was the most powerful nation on the world and worshipped its leader as a god.  

 

And that the people he included were the same people the religious authorities of his day said should be excluded.

 

We, here at St. Stephen’s, are the one who shrug our shoulders at those in authority who tell us we shouldn’t do what we have done here.

 

We are the ones who snub our noses at those other denominations who exclude people from their church, who exclude people from Jesus’ altar, who exclude people from the Church.

 

We are the ones who include everyone at this altar because we know it is not our exclusive altar, it is not MY exclusive altar—it Jesus’ altar, it is Jesus’ table.

 

And no one is excluded from that table.


No one is excluded from Jesus' Body and Blood.

 

We are the ones who, back in the early 1970s, gave women a place in leadership when others said that can’t be done.

 

We are the ones who say again and again that peace is always an option and that justice is a Christian obligation even while wars and rumors of wars raged around us.

 

We are the ones who welcome all people in these doors in the name of Christ, receiving them as Christ and including them as one of us.

 

We are the ones who enthusiastically welcomed gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, asexual queer people to this altar for decades.

 

We are the ones united under the overarching love and acceptance of God to include all people here, because we are a family under the overarching love of God.

 

We are the ones who stand up and say we cannot abide when those in  authority tell us we cannot do this or that.

 

We are the ones who, on good days and bad, who in the face of life’s storms or in the sunshine of our youth, who even at the grave, are able to rejoice and sing and say, “Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!”

 

We are the ones who gather here, at this altar—at Jesus’ altar—again and again, to break bread with each other, to share the Body and Blood of Christ, and to then go out into the world to share Christ with others.

 

This is what it means to do the will of God.

 

And by doing this, we are the brothers and sisters of Jesus.

 

And sisters and brothers to each other as well.

 

As you hear me say, again and again, especially in the wake of this pandemic, the church is changing.

 

If you want to see the Church of the future, this is it!

 

It is a church filled with music and poetry and art, but it is a church centered squarely on God and God’s Christ.

 

It is a Church supported by the saints, both those who are alive and present right here, and those who, like my brother Jason, are singing their praises this morning in the Presence of the Lamb.

 

It is a Church that is radically different and yet radically the same.

 

“Who are my mother and my brothers and my sisters?” we are being asked today.

 

We are!

 

We are being Jesus’ sisters and brothers in this world by doing what we are called to do as followers of Jesus.  

 

So, let us be the siblings of Jesus in this world.

 

Let us reflect God’s Light and Love to others.

 

Let us, as Jesus’ siblings, shine!

 

Shine in all we say and do.

 

Shine in conveying the Light of God’s love and acceptance to all.

 

Today and always, let us SHINE!  

 

Let us pray.

 

Loving God, help us as we seek to do your will and be the sisters and brothers of mothers of Jesus to those who need sisters and brothers and mothers in this world. Help us love fully, welcome radically and shine brightly with your Light. In Jesus’s name, we pray. Amen.

 

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Pentecost

 


May 23, 2021

Ezekiel 37:1-14; Acts 2.1-21

 

+ We are of course celebrating Pentecost today.

 

It’s a very important day in the life of the Church—a day right up there with Christmas and Easter.

 

It is, essentially, the “birthday” of the Church.

 

It now 50 days after Easter.

 

The word “Pentecost” refers to the Greek word for 50.

 

And it’s connection with the Jewish feast of Shavuot (which ended on Tuesday) is pretty clear.

 

Shavuot is a wonderful and important Jewish feast.

 

Shavuot 50 days after Passover.

 

The belief is that, after fifty days of traveling after leaving Egypt, the nation of Israel now has finally arrived at Mount Sinai.

 

And on Shavuot, the Torah, the “Law,” the 10 Commandments were delivered to them by Moses.

 

Shavuot is also a the feast on which the early Jews offered to God the first fruits of their harvests.

 

Now that is particularly meaningful to us Christians and what we celebrate on this day of Pentecost.

 

It is meaningful that the Holy Spirit came among us on this feast in which the first fruits were offered to God.

 

After all, those first Christiana who gathered in that upper room in our reading this morning from Acts, were truly the first fruits of the Church.

 

And let’s not forget that those first Christians were also Jews, gathering to celebrate the festival of Shavuot.

 

God chose to send the Spirit on those first followers of Jesus on just the right day.

 

Still, like nuclear power or electricity, God’s Spirit is sometimes a hard thing for us to grasp and understand. 

 

The Spirit can be elusive and strange and sometimes we might have a hard time wrapping our minds around the Spirit.

 

But it is clear from the words of Jesus before he ascends back into heaven what the role of the Spirit is for us:

 

 "It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."

 

So, Jesus will leave—at the ascension, he went physically back up to heaven.

 

We will not be able to touch him and feel him and listen to his human voice again, on this side of the veil.

 

But God is leaving something amazing in Jesus’ place.

 

Jesus is gone from us physically, but God is still with us.

 

In a sense what happens with the Descent of God’s Spirit upon us is the fact that we now have the potential to be prophets ourselves.

 

You hear me talk about this all the time.

 

The same Spirit which spoke to Ezekiel in our reading this morning, which spoke to Isaiah, which spoke to Jeremiah, which spoke to Moses, which spoke through Jesus, also can now speak to us and be revealed to us just as it spoke and was revealed to those prophets from the Hebrew Bible and through Jesus.

 

That is who the Spirit is in our midst.

 

The Spirit we celebrate today—and hopefully every day—is truly the spirit of the God that came to us and continues to be with us.

 

It is through this Spirit that we come to know God in ways we might never have before.

 

God’s Spirit comes to us wherever we may be in our lives—in any situation or frustration.

 

God’s Spirit is with us, as Jesus promised, always.

 

Always.

 

For those of us who want to grasp these experiences—who want to have proof of them—the Spirit doesn’t fit well into the plan.

 

We can’t grasp the Spirit.

 

We can’t make the Spirit do what we want it to do.

 

In that way, the Spirit truly is like the Wind that came rushing upon those first disciples.

 

So, how do we know the Spirit is working in our lives?

 

Well, as Jesus said, we know the tree by its fruit.

 

In our case, we know the Spirit best through the fruits God’s Spirit gives us.

 

Remember what the feast of Pentecost originally was? The feast of Shavuot?

 

It was the Jewish feast on which the first fruits were offered to God.

 

In a sense, what happens on our Pentecost, is God returning those fruits back to us.

 

On the feast of Pentecost, we celebrate the fruits the Spirit of God gives to us and we can be thankful for them, and, most importantly, share them in turn with those around us.

 

The Spirit comes to us and manifests itself to us in the fruits given to us by the Spirit.

 

For me, the Spirit of God comed to me not in a noisy, raucous way, but rather in a quiet, though just as intense, way.

 

The Sprit of God as I have experienced it has never been a “raining down” so to speak, but rather a “welling up from within.”

 

The fruits of the Spirit for me have been things such as an overwhelming joy in my life.

 

I have known the Spirit to draw close when I feel a true humbleness come to me.

 

When the Spirit is near, I feel clear-headed and, to put it simply, happy.

 

Or, in the midst of what seems like an unbreakable dark grief, there is suddenly a real and potent sense of hope and light.

 

When the future seems bleak and ugly, the Spirit can come in and make everything worth living again.

 

We experience God’s Spirit whenever we feel real joy or real hope.

 

As Jesus says in today’s Gospel, the Spirit of God is a Spirit of Truth.

 

We experience God’s Spirit when we strive for truth in this world, when truth comes to us.

 

In turn, we are far from God’s Spirit when we let bitterness and anger and frustration lead the way.

 

We frustrate God’s Spirit when we grumble and mumble about each other and hinder the ministries of others in our church, when we let our own agendas win out over those who are trying also to do something to increase God’s Kingdom in our midst.

 

We deny the Spirit when we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.

 

No doubt everyone here this morning has felt God’s Spirit in some way, although we might not have readily recognized that experience as God’s Spirit.

 

But our job, as Christians, is to allow those fruits of the Spirit to flourish and grow.

 

For us, we let the Spirit of God flourish when we continue to strive for truth and justice, when stand up against the dark forces of this world.

 

The Spirit of God compels again and again to stand up and to be defiant against the dark forces of this world!

 

On the feast of Shavuot, the scripture we heard from Ezekiel today is read.

 

Again, remember, those first followers of Jesus on that first day of Pentecost would have heard this scripture that same day as well.

 

It is an amazing scripture and an amazing vision.

 

In it, God’s Spirit revives the bones in the valley.

 

What appears to be dead and lifeless is given life by God’s life-giving Spirit.  

 

And that reading ends with these very powerful words that speak so clearly not only to the Jewish people, but to us as well.

 

Ezekiel says,

 

Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord.

 

God’s Spirit is placed within us so that the graves of our lives may be opened, and we can stand in that place to which God has lead us.

 

That dynamic and life-giving presence of the Spirit of God speaks loudly to us.

 

Certainly we have seen God’s Spirit at work here in our congregation as we celebrate a bountiful harvest—the growth and vitality here.

 

We see the Holy Spirit at work in the ministries we do, in the love we share with others, with the truth we proclaim as Christians, even in the face of opposition.

 

We experience this Spirit of truth when we stand up against injustice, wherever it may be.

 

This is how God’s Spirit comes to us.

 

The Spirit does not always tear open the ceiling and force its way into our lives.

 

The Spirit rather comes to us just when we need the Spirit to come to us.

 

Often the Spirit comes to us as fire—an all-consuming fire that burns way all anger and hatred and fear and pettiness and nagging and all the other negative, dead chaff we carry within us.

 

So, this week, in the glow of the Pentecost light, in the Shavuot glow with the Law written deep in our hearts, let us look for the gifts of the Spirit in our lives and in those around us.

 

Let us open ourselves to God’s Spirit and let it flow through us like a caressing wind and burn through us like a purifying fire.

 

And let us remember the true message of the Spirit to all of us.

 

Whenever it seems like God is distant or nonexistent, that is when God might possibly be closest of all, dwelling within us, being breathed unto us as with those first disciples.

 

On these feasts of Shavuot and Pentecost—these feasts of the fruits of God—these feasts of the fire of God—let us give thanks for this God who never leaves us, who never stops loving us, but who comes to us again and again in mercy and in truth.

 

Let us pray.

 

Come, holy Spirit, come!

Come as holy fire and burn in us,
Come as holy wind and cleanse us,
Come as holy light and lead us,
Come as holy truth and teach us,
Come as holy forgiveness and free us,
Come as holy love and enfold us,
Come as holy power and enable us,
Come as holy life and dwell in us.
Come, Holy Spirit, and increase in us your gifts of grace
Convict us, convert us,
Consecrate us, until we are wholly yours
And Transform us into the image of Christ. Amen