Sunday, August 28, 2011

11 Pentecost

August 28, 2011

Matthew 16.21-28

+ Every Wednesday here at St. Stephen’s, we celebrate, as you know, the Eucharist at 6:00 pm. Also in that service we usually commemorate a different saint. We use, sometimes, some of the very amusing anecdotes from Fr. John-Julian, an Episcopal who is a member of the Order of Julian of Norwich, an Episcopal monastic community. Oftentimes the stories he shares are quite, shall we say, fanciful?

A few weeks we were commemorating the feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I was sharing some interesting stories about the Virgin Mary—some of them quite fanciful stories. At announcement later in the service, our own Joanne Droppers was sharing about the brat supper and made a comment about inviting people to help out with brats, especially those you never want to see again. It took by such surprise that I started laughing and said, “Joanne, that is the funniest thing I have heard tonight.”

Without missing a beat, our own Thom Marubbio piped up from the back and said, “Well, it wasn’t as funny as what we heard in the sermon.”

Which also made me laugh.

But, on Wednesday nights, in addition to the fantastical stories of saints, we also very often commemorate martyrs. And I always like to ask, when we commemorate martyrs, What do you think of when you think of a martyr? No doubt we think of brave, almost legendary saints from other times who went to their deaths valiantly. We think of those stained glass windows, sort of like the one we have here, above the organ, of people like our very own St. Stephen the first Martyr who, as the Book of Acts tells us, was stoned to death for praying to Jesus. We then think of overly dramatic paintings and drawings of early Christian martyrs bravely meeting the lions in stadiums as they sing hymns and gaze off longingly toward heaven. And those are all valid images of martyrs.

But that seems like some other time and place for most of us. Very few of us could imagine martyrs in this day and age. And even fewer of us could imagine ourselves dying as martyrs. But the fact is, martyrs are not all from some other legendary time in history. And they are not all from some distant land. In fact, we have had martyrs from our own area.

I recently re-read a book called China’s Christian Martyrs. . I was surprised to find an account of a young man named Wilhelm Vatne. Vatne was born in 1890 to Norwegian-American parents, Mr. and Mrs. Tonnes Vatne, in, of all places, Cooperstown, North Dakota. At an early age, Wilhelm became a very committed Christian. He graduated from school early and became a school teacher at the age of 18 (they could do that in those days).

On September 10, 1910, Wilhelm left Cooperstown and went to Sianfu, Shensi, China, where he taught the children of missionaries serving there. One hundred years ago, in 1911, there was a fury of anti-foreign and especially anti-Christian protest in China. On October 23, 1911, a mob rushed the school Vatne taught in. The mob killed all the missionaries in it, including Vatne. He was only 21 years old.

The story is pretty typical to who and what martyrs are. They are ordinary people who are called to give the ultimate sacrifice for their faith in Christ. Martyrs are truly a unique lot among us Christians.

In the early Church they were viewed as heroes, similar in many ways to sports stars or movie stars in our own day. The word martyr actually means “witness” and they really were true witnesses to Christ, witnessing to Christ by their very deaths, by the actual blood they shed for Christ. Martyrs also challenge the rest of us Christians, as well. They challenge us, by their deaths, to ask ourselves that very important question: would we, under similar circumstances, be willing to give up our lives for our Christian faith? Would we be willing to die for Christ? If, for some reason, we were forced to either give up our faith in Christ and live or profess our faith in the face of danger and certain death, would we? Or, just as importantly, would we be able to stand up to the forces in the world that are in such direct opposition to our Christian faith, even if standing up in such a way would mean death? Would we be able to take to heart the words of today’s Gospel, when Jesus says, “those who lose their life for my sake will gain it.”

It might be easier to answer if we are talking only about our own deaths. But would we be so ready if the deaths involved our children or other loved ones?

I think it’s occasionally a good thing to ask ourselves these questions, because the fact is, as we’ve seen with people like Wilhelm Vatne, martyrs are not just fabled personages from the far past.

There are martyrs even in our own day and age. We all know about the German Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was executed by the Nazis in 1945 for his stand against Hitler. Many of us can remember hearing about people like Archbishop Oscar Romero and Americans like Jean Donovan and the three American nuns who were brutally murdered with her in El Salvador in 1980.

Just a few months ago, several of us from St. Stephen’s went to see the wonderful film, Of Gods and Men, about the seven French Trappist monks who were kidnapped in March, 1996 in Algeria by extremist Muslims, who then preceded to behead each one of them.

And among Anglicans and Episcopalians we have lost some great modern people to martyrdom, people such as Jonathan Myrick Daniels, who in August of 1965, was shot and killed in Mississippi by a white shop owner for defending a young black girl during the darkest days of Integration.

Or Archbishop Junani Luwum, Archbishop of Uganada, who was brutally murdered by dictator Idi Amin in 1977 for standing up against oppression.

And some of us no doubt see martyrs even in someone who didn’t necessarily die for sake their faith, but simply died for being who they are, such as Matthew Shepeherd, a young, gay Episcopalian.

There are people dying for their faith, even right now, this morning. By one estimation, about 465 Christians are killed worldwide for their faith every few months. So, there are, no doubt, people dying for Christ and Christ’s message of love in our world even as we gather together this morning. There are people today in this world who are dying for Christ or are watching their loved ones die for Christ.

And suffering for Christ doesn’t just mean dying for Christ either. There are many people who are living with persecution and other forms of abuse for their faith. So, it is important to remember the martyrs of our faith. It is important to heed their witness to us.

Our Church has truly found its identity and spirit with those who, throughout two thousand years of Christianity, have suffered and died for their faith. There is a well-known motto of the Church:

“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”

Hopefully, though, few of us here this morning are being called to die as martyrs. For us who are maybe not led to die for Christ, we still have our own burdens to bear. And that burden, of course, is the Cross.

In today’s Gospel, we find Jesus saying to us:

“If any want to become my followers, let them take up their cross and follow me.”

Picking up our cross might seem like a vague idea for us. What Jesus is saying to us is that, being a Christian, as wonderful as it is, isn’t a rose garden. Being a Christian means facing bravely the ugly things that life sometimes throws at us. I don’t think I have to tell anyone here what those ugly things in life are. Each of us has had to deal with our own personal forms of the world’s ugliness. As we look around at those who are with us this morning, most of us here this morning have carried our share of crosses in this life. Most of us have shouldered the difficult and ugly things of this life—whether it be illness, death, loss, despair, disappointment, frustration—you name it.

The fact is: these things are going to happen to us whether we are Christians or not. It’s simply our lot as human beings that life is going to be difficult at times. It is a simple fact of life that we are going to have feasts in this life, as well as famines. There will be gloriously wonderful days and horribly, nightmarish days. We, as human beings, cannot escape this fact. But, we, as Christians, are being told this morning by Jesus that we can not deal with those things like everyone else does. When the bad things of this life happen, our first reaction is often to run away from them. Our first reaction is numb our emotions, to curl up into a defensive ball and protect ourselves and our emotions.

But Jesus is telling us that, as Christians, what we must do in those moments is to embrace those things—to embrace the crosses of this life—to shoulder them and to continue on in our following of Jesus. By facing our crosses, by bearing them, by taking them and following Jesus, we was able to realize that what wins out in the end is Jesus, not the cross. What triumphs in the end is not any of the other ugly things this life throws at us.

Rather, what triumphs is the integrity and the strength we gain from being a Christian. What triumphs is Jesus’ promise that a life unending awaits us. What triumphs is Jesus’ triumph over death and the ugly things of this life. What we judge to be the way we think it should be is sometimes judged differently by God. We don’t see this world from the same perspective God does. And as a result, we are often disappointed.

Yes, our burdens are just another form of martyrdom—another albeit bloodless form of witnessing to Christ. And, like a martyr, in the midst of our toil, in the midst of shouldering our burden and plodding along toward Jesus, we are able to say, “Blessed be the name of God!”

That is what it means to be a martyr. That is what it means to deny one’s self, to take up one’s cross and to follow Jesus. That is what it means to find one’s life, even when everyone else in the world thinks you’ve lost your life.

So, let us take up whatever cross we’re bearing and carry it with strength and purpose. Let us take it up and follow Jesus. And, in doing so, we will gain for ourselves the glory of God that Jesus promises to those who do so.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

10 Pentecost

Matthew 16.13-20

+ Last Sunday, I shared with you a little confession about myself. I laid myself bare to some extent and admitted that I have a failing, which of course is my big mouth—the fact that I often say thing without thinking.

This week, I’m doing it again. I am again sharing a little secret myself form the pulpit. I must be a “confessional” state of mind lately or something. Now I know some of you are, at this moment, shifting uncomfortably in your pews as you wonder what else I could possibly confess to you. And let me tell you, pulpits are not the best places for confessions.

Well, what I’m going to confess is something most people can’t imagine hearing from a person dressed in a dog collar and the robes of the Church. But, the fact is (here’s my humble confession to you): I have always had … a love-hate relationship with the Church. By Church here, I mean Church with a capital “C”. I mean the organized Church. And “hate” might be a bit too harsh to describe what I feel. But the fact remains, I have had an emotional relationship with the Church that, at times, has been see-sawing at best. And I can tell you, most of us who are in any way active in the church, whether you are pastor or priest, or a lay person, there have been moments when every single one of us has been frustrated by the Church—capital C.

Probably most of us here would say we have felt the same way about the Church at times. There are days when we all groan when we see or hear other Christians get up and speak on behalf of the rest of us. There are days when we are embarrassed by what some Christians say or do on behalf of Christianity. There are days when we get frustrated when we hear clergy or other authorities pronounce decrees that, in no way, reflect our own particular views or beliefs. And there are times when we get downright mad at the hypocrisy, the homophobia, the misogyny, the ambivalence, the silence in the face of oppression and evil and war, the downright meanness we sometimes experience from the Church.

Most of us—idealistically, naively maybe—wonder to ourselves: wait a minute. The Church isn’t supposed to be like this. The Church is supposed to be a place of Love and Compassion. It is supposed to be a place where everyone is welcomed and loved. Knowing that and comparing the ideal view of the Church with its shortcomings only make us feel more helpless, listless, angry, and disgusted. And sometimes we might even find ourselves admiring those people who aren’t Christian, who aren’t a part of the Church or those Christians who have simply fled the Church.

I have talked many, many times about my best friend from high school (who is still my best friend) is a militant atheist. He has an almost angry ambivalence to the Church and the concept of God. He wasn’t always that way. When I first met him, his mother was a member of the First Assemblies of God. By the time I got to know him, he had long ago stopped attending church. He often used to tell me the story of how, when he was a young boy, his mother would drop him off at the church for Sunday School. He would then run right through the church, out the back door and run several blocks through fields back to his home. He says that it was on that run away from the church that he became an atheist.

What he was running away from is what many of us are tempted to run away from as well. What he was running away from was the close-mindedness, the fundamentalism, the—for him—scary Pentecostal displays of speaking in tongues, dancing in the aisles, waving hands in the air and literal interpretations of scripture. I think many of us have felt like that ourselves when it comes to Church. There have been times when we’ve all wanted to just run away from Church and everything we find here. And that’s all right.

I personally think that’s a somewhat healthy way of looking at the Church. Because we have to remind ourselves of one thing: What my friend was running away from and what we are tempted to run away from is not God, although my friend hasn’t quite come to the point yet in his own life. What we are running away from is a human-run, human-led organization. We are running away from a celestially planned treasure that has been run (and very often mis-run) throughout two thousand years of history by fallible human beings.

In today’s Gospel, we find this wonderful interchange between Jesus and Peter. Peter, when asked who he thinks Jesus is, replies, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!” That’s a good answer. But, Jesus responds to this confession of faith with surprise. He responds by saying, “I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

Of course, as you might know, Jesus is playing a little word game here with the words “Peter” and “rock.” In Jesus’ own language of Aramaic he would have said, “You are Kepha (Peter is also called Cephas at times in the Gospels) and on this kepha (or rock) I will build my church.” Now, depending on who you are, depending on your own personal spiritual leanings, this reading could take on many meanings. If you’re more Catholic minded—and especially if you’re more Roman Catholic minded—it certainly does seem that Jesus is establishing the Church on the Rock of Peter—and of course in that tradtion Peter at this moment becomes essentially the first Pope. For those who are more Protestant or Reformed minded—it could be said that the Church is being established not on Peter himself, but on the rock of Peter’s confession of faith.

Either way, Jesus is commending the Church to Peter and to his other followers. And this is important, especially when we examine who Peter is. Jesus commends his Church to one of the most impetuous, impulsive, stubborn, cowardly human beings he could find. Peter, as we all know, is not, on first glance, a wonderful example for us of what it means to be a follower of Christ. He is the one who walks on water and then loses heart, grows frightened and ends up sinking into that water. He’s the one who, when Jesus needs him the most, runs off and denies him not just once, not twice, but three times, and even then cannot bring himself to come near Jesus as he hangs dying on the cross.

But Peter is maybe a better example of what followers of Jesus truly are than we maybe care to admit. Yes, he is a weak, impetuous, cowardly, impulsive human. But who among us isn’t? Who among us isn’t finding someone very much like Peter staring back at us from our own mirrors? And the thing we always have to remember is that, for all the bad things the Church has been blamed for—and there are a lot of them—there are also so many wonderful and beautiful things about the Church that always, always, always outweigh the bad.

Obviously most everyone here this morning must feel that same way as well. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be here this morning. Most of us are able to recognize that the Church is not perfect. And I think that, when Jesus commended his Church to people like Peter, he knew that, as long as we are here, struggling on this “side of the veil,” so to speak, it would never be perfect. But that, even despite its imperfection, we still struggle on.

I love the Church and I love the people who are in the Church with me, even the ones who drive me crazy. And I even love the ones with whom I do not agree. Why? Because that’s what it means to be a follower of Jesus. That is what it means to be the Church.

I am here in the Church because I really want to be in the Church. I am here because the Church is my home. It is my family. It is made up of my friends and Christ’s friends. I am here because I—imperfect, impetuous human being that I am—am part of the Church as well I am here because I love my fellow Christians, and I don’t just mean that I love Desmond Tutu and all those Christians who are easy to love. I am here because I love even those many outspoken Christians who bombard us on a regular basis with their rhetoric and views that fly in the face of everything many of us hold sacred and dear, even though they drive me crazy and frustrate me and sometimes make me want to leave the Church at times. I am here because I also love the hypocrites and the backbiters and gossipers. I love them because, let’s face it, sometimes we are those same people.

Sometimes we are the ones who drive people from the Church as well. And sometimes we ourselves drive our own selves away from Church. But as long as we’re here, as long as we believe in the renewal that comes again and again in recognizing and confessing our shortcomings and in professing and believing in and what it means to be a baptized Christian, then we know it’s not all a loss. As long as I know that I am struggling and working not to be the hypocrite or the backbiter or the gossiper, then it’s going to be all right.

As long as I struggle to not be the person who drives people from the Church, but works again and again in my life to be the person who welcomes everyone—no matter who they are and where they stand on the issues—into this Church, then I’m doing all right. Because the Church Jesus founded was a Church founded solidly on the rock of love. The Church’s foundation is the fact that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God and the message to us as followers of this Son of the Living God, the Messiah—the bringer of freedom and peace—is that we must love God and love each other as we love ourselves.

But the Church that is firmly founded on the Messiah, the Son of the Living God and on the work of him to this world—when it founded deeply on that balanced love of God, of each other and of ourselves—then it truly becomes the Church Christ founded. If we are the Church truly built on a love like that then, without doubt, the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. And as long as I’m here, and you’re here, we are going to make the Church a better place. It will be a place where people like my atheist friend will be forced to reconsider his view of the Church. He will be forced, as he has been over the twenty some years he’s known me, to realize not all Christians are like the ones he ran away from as a boy and is continuing to run away from.

We need to be those kind of Christians. We need to be the Church from which no one wants to run away.

So, be the Church you want the Church to be—because that is the Church that Jesus founded. Be the Church that Christ commended to that imperfect human being, Peter. In those moments when you find yourself hating the Church, don’t let hate win out. Let love—that perfect, flawless love that Jesus preached and practiced—eventually win out.

We are the Church. We are the Church to those people in our lives. We are the Church to everyone we encounter. We are the reflection of the Church to the people we serve alongside. So be the Church, and if you are, you will find yourself in the midst of that wonderful vision Jesus imagined for his Church. And it will truly be an incredible place. It will truly be the Kingdom of God in our midst.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

9 Petecost

August 14, 2011

Matthew 15.10-28

+ Sometimes it’s a good things to hear from your priest how they sometimes fail. Yes, even us clergy are not perfect—as hard as I know it must be to imagine. Of course most of you here this morning know full well that I have my faults, my failings, my quirks, my eccentricities.

And it’s good to be aware of these things in our lives. In my case, my biggest foible, my biggest failing, is this: I have a big mouth. Now, I know this probably does not come as a big surprise to some of those of you who know me. For the rest of you, this is not what you probably want to hear from a priest. And, to be clear, when I say I have a big mouth, I don’t mean that I have ever violated any confidences, nor I have I ever broken the seal of confession. I am also not saying that I have professed atheism or any intentional heresy (I think we might some times be guilty of unintentional heresy). I hope I am not guilty of having spoken true evil from my mouth.

When I say that I have a big mouth, what I mean is that, when I look back over my life, I realize have said some dumb things in my life. And when I look back a little harder over my life, I realize that the really bad things that have happened to me, that I myself am truly responsible for, can all find their root in something I have said. Or missaid. I am one of those people who, on a regular basis, wishes that, as the words are coming out of my mouth, I could grasp them in the air and stuff them back in.

My grandmother used to always reprimand me about how my big mouth was going to get me in trouble. She would say to me: “Jamie, think before you speak.”

And there’s the real source of my problem. I sometimes just don’t think before I speak. As I said, I have said some dumb things in my life, I have said things that I greatly regret and that I wish I had never said, as we all have at one point or another. And in addition to the dumb things, or the hurtful things I may have said to people when I was angry, I have also been somewhat opinionated in what I have said. Again, I know this is a HUGE surprise to some of you. But, I am a bit outspoken about things.

Sadly I’ve also been insensitive sometimes. I have given unneeded and unwanted advice to people when that advice hasn’t been sought. So, when Jesus tells his followers—and us—in this morning in our Gospel reading—

“it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles”
these are words that hit home for me, and no doubt, for many of us.

We were all raised reciting that little verse:

Sticks and stone may break my bones
But words will never hurt me.

The reality of the matter is that words DO hurt. Words are sometimes much more painful and hurtful than sticks and stones. And when it comes to our relationship with God, the words we say carry much weight.

In today’s Gospel we find Jesus making very clear statements:

“…what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart and this is what defiles. For out of the mouth comes evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person…”

Jesus is clear here about what makes one unclean. The words that come out of our mouth are really only the end result of what’s in our hearts. The words that come out of our mouths are really only little mirrors of what is dwelling within us. When we say dumb things, we harboring dumb things in our hearts. When we say hurtful, mean things, we are carrying hurt and meanness in our hearts. And what’s in our hearts truly does make all the difference. If our hearts are dark—if our hearts are over-run with negative things—then our words are going to reflect that. When we talk about something like “sin,” we find ourselves thinking instantly of the things we do. We think immediately of all those uncharitable, unsavory things we’ve done in our lives. And when we realize that sin, essentially, is anything we chose to do that separates us from God and from each other, it is always easy to instantly take stock of all the bad things we’ve done.

But the fact is, we can truly “sin” by what we say as well. The words that come out of our mouths can separate us from God and from each other because they are really coming from our hearts—from that place in which there should really only be love for God and for each other.

We have all known Christians who are quick to profess their faith with their mouths, but who certainly do not believe that faith in their hearts. And, I think, we have also known people who have kept quiet about their faith, who have not professed much with their mouths, but who have quietly been consistent in their faith. If we profess our faith with our mouths, but not in our hearts, we really are guilty to some extent.

There is a well-known saying that has been attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, “Preach the Gospel, use words only if necessary.” To be honest, that saying has been a breathe of fresh air in the Church.

I think we’re inundated in this world by people who are constantly preaching their faith with words. When we turn on the TV, we find televangelists and other church leaders going on and on about their faith and only later do we find out about their scandals and shortcomings and we realize that they certainly do not practice what they preach. We’ve also known our fair share of clergy and lay leaders who have done this as well. And probably few things drive us away faster from church than those self-righteous people who shake their fingers at us and spout their faith to us, but who, in turn, don’t show love, compassion and acceptance to others.

The name we encounter in the Gospels for those people who do not practice what they preach is “hypocrite.” And throughout the Gospels, we find that Jesus isn’t ever condemning the ones we think he would condemn. He doesn’t condemn the prostitute, the tax collector, any of those people who have been ostracized and condemned by society and the religious organizations of their times. The ones Jesus, over and over again, condemns, are the hypocrites—those supposedly religious people who are quick to speak their faith with words, who are quick to strut around and act religiously, but who do not hold any real faith in their hearts.

The Pharisees that Jesus is having trouble with in today’s Gospel, are not at all concerned about what is in their hearts. Their faith has nothing to do with their hearts. They are more concerned about the purification rites. They are more concerned about making sure that the food one eats is clean and pure—that it hasn’t been touched by those who are unclean. They are concerned that they are the clean ones and they are concerned that there is a separation from those that are unclean. They are more concerned with the words of the Law, rather than the heart of the Law. They are more concerned with the letter of the Law, rather than the spirit of the Law. We’ve all been guilty of such things in our own lives.

Let’s face it: it’s just easier to stick the letter of the Law.

It’s easy to follow the religious rules without bothering to think about why we are following them. It’s just so much easier to go through the motions without having to feel anything. Because to feel means to actually make one’s self vulnerable. To feel means one has to love—and, as we know, love is dangerous. Love makes us step out into uncomfortable areas and do uncomfortable things. But the message of Jesus is all about the fact that to be a follower of Jesus means not being a hypocrite. The message of Jesus is that to be a follower of Jesus means believing fully with one’s heart.

Baptisms are prime opportunities for us to take stock of our Christian faith. Whenever we baptize someone, we renew the vows that were made for us at our own baptisms and we are reminded of what it means to be a baptized Christian.

In the Baptismal Covenant we once again promise to try, “with God’s help,” to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.” To “proclaim by word and example the Good News” is, in essence, to say that, as Christians we will strive not to be hypocrites. To proclaim the Good News, we need to do so by both word and example. It is to truly practice what we preach. It to preach the Gospel and to use words only when necessary.

Now that I have confessed to you the sin of my Big Mouth, I now can work on myself. I am now able to recognize that what sometimes what comes out of my mouth isn’t my mouth’s fault. It is only reflecting what I am holding in my heart. And it is a change of heart that I need to work on.

When I am a big mouth, when my mouth gets me in trouble, it is only giving voice to the darkness and the lack of love that I harbor sometimes in my heart. And that darkness means that I am not letting the Light of God shine through me.

So, let us take to heart what Jesus is saying to us in today’s Gospel. Let us take his words and plant them deeply in our hearts. Let the words of his mouth be the words of our mouth. Let the Word by our word. And let that word find its home, its source, its basis in our hearts.

When it does, our words will truly speak the Word that is in our hearts. Let us allow no darkness, no negativity to exist within our hearts. Let us not be hypocritical Pharisees to those around us.

But let us true followers of Jesus, with love burning within and overflowing us. As followers of Jesus, let love be the word that speaks to others. Let our hearts be the source of our faith in everything we do in faith. Let our hearts be so filled with love that nothing else can exist in it but love. Let us strive to live out our Baptismal Promises with God by proclaiming “by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.” And if we do, we will find that Good News pouring forth from our mouth and bringing joy and gladness and love and full acceptance to others—and to ourselves.

7 Easter/The Sunday after the Ascension

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