December 26, 2008
Acts 6. 8-7:2a, 51c-60
It is a pleasure to be able to celebrate the feast of St. Stephen at St. Stephen’s Church. It’s important, I think for churches to celebrate their patronal feasts. In the Orthodox and Roman traditions of the Church, the patron saint of a church is viewed as more than just namesake. They are seen as special guardians of that congregation. And so, it is especially wonderful to celebrate a saint like St. Stephen, who is our guardian and who is, no doubt,, present among us, with that whole communion of saints.
St. Stephen, of course, was the proto-martyr of the Church—the first one to die for his open proclamation of Christ. St. Stephen was also the first one to pray to Jesus outside of the Gospels. He also is considered the first deacon in the church. St. Stephen was the first to do many things. So, appropriately, is this church, that has been the first to do many things, named after St. Stephen.
As you might know, I teach theology at the University of Mary’s Fargo campus. I have so many students come to me who have been hurt by the Church. I have many students who are frustrated with the Church. And more often than not, their relationship with God has suffered for it. More often than not, I am amazed and surprised to find that many of these people have never differentiated their thoughts between religion and spirituality. When I explain the difference—that difference between religion and the Church—a human-run organization—and spirituality—that relationship between you and God—I see a transformation come over people. For many of them, they gave up on God when they gave up on religion. Hopefully, they are able, at some point, to see that just because they gave up on religion, it does not mean they have to give up on God.
When I talk about spirituality I am talking about the “true religion” that we prayed for last Sunday in our collect. So what this true religion? Well, I can tell what true religion is not. True religion is not what is going on the Church right now. There is so much anger and frustration in the Episcopal Church right now. Much of that anger is justified. But, people are condemning each other, bashing each other and demeaning each other in the name of the Church as we speak. People—because of their differences—are not acting like they love each other.
On the other hand, I see the Episcopal Church as making a real solid effort at true religion. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t be here in the Church. One aspect of this church that I have always loved is the belief—and the fact— that there is room here for everyone in this church—no matter who they are. I love the fact that churches like St. Stephen’s continue to be primes examples of the Church in our midst by following the Via Media—the middle ground.
In many ways, St. Stephen’s is a microcosm of the ideal aspects of the larger Church. St. Stephen’s has always been the place that finds room for the liberals in the Church I love. Here too though there is room as well for the conservatives in the Church. And, of course, there is certainly plenty of room in this place for the moderates.
Anglo-Catholics such as myself, as well as broad church and evangelical Episcopalians have been welcomed here as well, not to mention those who might not be certain what they believe about God or Jesus. And, of course, there has been room here for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered people.
For me, St. Stephen’s personifies in many ways, that sense of true religion. The Church should be like a dinner to which everyone is invited. And St. Stephen’s has always been the place that knows this one blunt fact: The only thing there is no room for in true religion is for those who cannot love each other.
St. Stephen’s is a place very much like a family. We don’t always choose the people God has brought into our lives, but we always—ALWAYS—have to love them.
So what is true religion? True religion begins and ends with love. We must love one another as God loves us. True religion begins with the realization that, first and foremost, God loves each and every one of us. When we can look at that person who drives us crazy and see in that person, someone God loves wholly and completely, then our relationship with that person changes. We too are compelled to love that person as well. Love is the beginning and end of true religion.
Certainly, St. Stephen’s has always been a place of love. Love has never been a stranger here. Love has been offered not only on this altar, but among the pews and in the undercroft and in the entryway and in the parking lot. Love has went out from here into all the world. We who are gathered here have been touched in one way or the other by the love that has emanated from these people. We are the fortunate ones—the ones who have been transformed and changed by this love. We are the lucky ones who have—through our experiences at St. Stephen’s—been able to get a glimpse of true religion.
But our job now is not to cherish it and hold it close to our hearts. Our job now is to turn around and to share this love with others. Our job is take this love and reflect it for every one to see.
So, in a very real sense, we, at St. Stephen’s, are doing what that first St. Stephen did. We have set the standard. We have journeyed out at time into uncharted territory. And most importantly, we have, by our love, by our compassion, been a reflection of what the Church—capital C—is capable of.
May God—that source of all love, that author and giver of all good things—continue to bless us with love and goodness. May we flourish and grow. And may we continue to venture bravely forward in all that we continue to do here among us and throughout the world.