Sunday, May 27, 2012


May 27, 2012

Acts 2.1-21

+ It’s become a Pentecost Day tradition. I have always re-tell this story—the same we retell “A Visit from St. Nick” every Christmas. So, the story goes this way:

When I was still serving at another congregation, one of the priests I served with—a very smart, very Evangelical, astute priest—was leading a Bible study that I was sitting in on. We were actually discussing this very scripture from Acts one day. At some point, someone actually asked: “So, what is the Holy Spirit?” Now, to be fair, this is one of those questions we priests get asked and, if you’re not prepared, it can be a catch-22. No matter what answer you give, it can be bad. But, in this case, I think I could’ve thought of at least 20 better answers than what this priest said.

This priest, obviously caught off guard by the question, but not wanting anyone to know that, sat back and smiled.

“The Holy Spirit,” she said. “Well, think…Casper the friendly Ghost.”

Casper the Friendly Ghost. Sigh.

I actually was sharing this story with the Bishop a few weeks ago and he said, in his typical Oklahoma accent: “I think that's heresy!”


Today, of course, we commemorate the feast of Pentecost—that descent of the Holy Spirit among the disciples. This is the perfect day to be pondering our relationship with this Spirit, who is NOTHING AT ALL LIKE CASPER THE FRIENDLY GHOST! I don’t think I can stress that enough!

The feast of Pentecost was celebrated long before Christians came on the scene. Originally it was a harvest feast celebrated 50 days after the Passover. The word “Pentecost” refers to the Greek word for 50. It was the feast on which the early Jews offered to God the first fruits of their harvests.

Now that is meaningful to us Christians and what we celebrate on this day. 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 Christians who gathered in that upper room in our reading this morning from Acts, were truly the first fruits of the Church. But the real question we might find ourselves asking is: who is the Holy Spirit?

After all, we in the Church—especially in the Episcopal Church—simply don’t talk much about the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is one of those seemingly forgotten aspects of God. We don’t think of the Spirit as we should. Whenever we talk of spirits or anything spiritual, we instantly think of heady, other-worldly issues. Or…yes, Casper…

Most of us are pretty well-grounded. We can relate better to God as Incarnate God—a God who takes on flesh like our flesh, who suffered like we suffer and died like we will die.

But when it comes to God as Spirit, our first reaction, no doubt, is one of distance. The Spirit seems to some of us like a wispy mirage in our thoughts rather than something solid that we can cling to when we need to. When it comes to the Holy Spirit, we all find ourselves grasping and struggling to define who and what the Spirit is in our lives. 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: Although Jesus might no longer be with us physically as he was when he walked with the disciples, he does remains with us in his spirit. He will leave—we will not be able to touch him and feel him and listen to his human voice again. But he is leaving something amazing in his place.

In a sense what happens with the Descent of Jesus’ Spirit upon us is the fact that we now have the potential to be prophets. The same Spirit which spoke to Ezekiel, which spoke to Isaiah, which spoke to Jeremiah, which spoke to Moses, 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. That is who the Spirit is in our midst.

The Spirit we celebrate today—and hopefully every day—and in our lives is truly the spirit of the God that came to us and continues to come to us—first to those prophets in our Hebrew past, then in the person of Jesus and finally in that rushing wind and in that rain of burning flames. 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 how 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. It was the feast on which the first fruit were offered to God.

In a sense, what happens on our Pentecost, is God returning those fruits 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. The Spirit comes to us and manifests itself to us in the fruits given to us by the Spirit.

We often hear about Pentecostals—those Christians who have been born (or baptized) in the Spirit. They are the ones who speak in tongues and prophesy and have words of knowledge or raise their hands in joyful praise—all those things we good Episcopalians find a bit disconcerting. These Pentecostals—as strange as we might find them—really do have a lot to teach the rest of us Christians about the workings of the Holy Spirit in our lives. I remember the first time I ever attended a Pentecostal church. Rather than being attracted to that way of worship, I was actually turned off.

Partly my reason for doing so, is that by that time in my life I had, in fact experienced the Spirit very profoundly in my life. For me, the Spirit of God came 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 form 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. And more than anything, when the Spirit draws close, I am filled with a true sense of hope. When the future seems bleak and ugly, the Spirit can come in and make everything worth living again.

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. Maybe it was the joy you felt when a child or grandchild was born. Maybe it was a sense of calm coming to you in the midst of a difficult time in your life. Maybe it was a comforting hand on your shoulder when you were sorrowing or a bit of advice you needed for some problem you had been carrying with you for some time.

This is how God’s Spirit comes to us. The Spirit does not 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. Though, often the Spirit comes to us as fire—an all-consuming fire that burns way all anger and fear and all the other negative, dead chaff we carry within us.

So, this week of Pentecost, 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 this feast of Pentecost—this feast of the fruits of God—this feast of the fire of God—let us give thanks for this God who never leaves us, but who comes to us again and again.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

7 Easter

The Sunday after the Ascension
May 20, 2012

John 17.6-19

+ OK. For the last two weeks I have complained from the pulpit how bad my previous week was. No more! Every time I complain about it, I swear the next week is worse the previous week. I’m jinxing myself. So, no more of that…

But, also for these past two weeks, I have been talking about this wonderful thing called change. Yes, I’m on a theme right now. So, bear with me until I get tired of it.

Today, change comes about in a very subtle, almost hushed way in our scripture reading. This week, we move slowly away from the Easter season toward Pentecost. For the last month and a half, we have been basking in the afterglow of the resurrected Jesus.

In our Gospel readings, this resurrected Jesus has walked with us, has talked with us, has eaten with us and has led the way for us. Now, he has been taken up. Last Thursday, of course, we celebrated the feast of the Ascension, the day when Jesus ascended to heaven.

And here is where the change happens. Our perception of Jesus, if you notice, has changed. No longer is he the wise sage, the misunderstood rebel, the religious renegade that he seemed to be when he walked around, performing miracles and upsetting the religious and political powers that be. He is now something…more. More than just a prophet. More than just a king. More just a priest. Actually, at this point, he seems to be all of these at once—Prophet, King and priest. At his ascension, we find that he is, in a sense, anointed, crowned and ordained. At his ascension, we find that what we are gazing at—this God-Man—is something we could not comprehend before.

In him, we now recognize the fact that God has truly come among us. God has taken flesh and, in that flesh, has lived and has died. In him, God speaks to us not as God did from the Hebrew scriptures, from a pillar of cloud or fire anymore, nor on some shroud-covered mountain, nor in visions, but in a Person like us. A Person who has flesh and blood and bones, who feels emotions and is tempted like we’re tempted. The puzzle pieces are falling into place. What seemed so confusing and unreal is starting to come together. God truly has come among us as one of us.

And next week, one more puzzle piece falls into place when Jesus, in a sense, returns. Next week, on Pentecost Sunday, we will celebrate his Spirit descending upon and staying with us. For the moment, we are caught in between those two events—the Ascension and Pentecost—trying to make sense of what has happened and trying to prepare ourselves for what is about to happen. We are caught between Jesus’ ascent into heaven and the Spirit’s descent to us.

This week, smack dab in the middle of the twelve days between the Ascension and Pentecost, we find ourselves examining the impact of this event of Jesus in our lives. And Jesus has made an impact in our lives.

We, those of us who are fortunate enough to experience the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, at least liturgically and scripturally, in our Sunday readings and in our liturgy, find ourselves constantly confronted with the meaning of these events. We are faced with the reality of them and what we should do to make sense of them.

I’m not certain there is a way we can make sense of the Ascension, but what we are faced with is the fact that this ascended Jesus still acts in our lives. The commission that the ascended Jesus gave to the apostles, is still very much our commission as well. We must love—fully and completely. Because in loving, we are living. In loving, we are living fully and completely. In loving, we are bringing the ascended Jesus to others. And we must go out and live out this commission in the world. We must go out and love.

When we think about what those first followers went through in a fairly short period of time—Jesus’ betrayal and murder, his resurrection and his ascension—we realize it was a mind-boggling experience. Their lives—their faith, their whole sense of being—was changed forever.

And there we have it. That wonderful word “change.” They were changed. They would never be who they were again. And so are we every time we encounter this Jesus. And others are changed when they encounter us embodying that ascended Jesus in our lives and in our ministries to others.

For those first followers of Jesus, it seems like they didn’t have much time to ponder the change happening in their life. As soon as one life-altering experience happened, another one came along. Just when they had experiences Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension, they encountered this outpouring of Jesus’ Spirit in their lives. The waters, it seemed, were kept perpetually stirred. Nothing was allowed to settle.

Well, that is what ministry is often like. Ministry is on-going. There is never an ending to it. It’s always something.

Yes, I complained about how each subsequent week was a little worse than the previous ones. But, I’m not being fair. Each of these past weeks has also brought many wonderful opportunities and experiences along with the set-backs, the trip-ups, the frustrations, and the despair. Ministry truly is a never-ending roller-coaster ride of emotions and feelings. In course of a week, we who are following Jesus, who living out his commission to love, find ourselves experiencing it all. I, as a priest, often go from last rites and burials to weddings and baptisms—and everything in between. And each you, in your ministries, experience the highs and the lows of that crazy, wonderful journey of following Jesus.

These are things those first followers of Jesus no doubt struggled with. Yet we, like them, are sustained. We, like them, are upheld. We, like them, are supported by the ascended Jesus, whose work we are doing in this world. In those moments when our weeks seem bad or useless, when it seems like we have done no good work, the ascended Jesus still triumphs.

Our job, in this time between Jesus’ departure from us and his return to us, is simply to let him do what he needs to do in this interim. We need to let the ascended Jesus work in us and through us. We need to let the ascended Jesus be the end result of our work.

Yes, we, as individuals, might fail. I have failed. Many, many times. And when I do, let me tell you, I beat myself up. I throw myself down I rage at myself over my failings. But when I am in that awful state—when I am there, on the ground, hobbling myself with self-doubts and self-recriminations, that is sometimes the moment when I actually have look up. And when I do, I sometimes realize that there above us, the Ascension is still happening.

Above us, Jesus is still triumphant despite my failing. Jesus is still Prophet of prophets, King of Kings, the High Priest of the priesthood of all believers. Above us, Jesus triumphs—and we with him, even when it seems we have failed. All we have to do is…look up. All we have to do is stop gazing at our dirty, callused, over-worked hands—all we have to do is turn from our self-centeredness—and look up. And there we will see the triumph. And as we do, we will realize that even our failures have been changed.

Jesus is able to use our failures, change them and make them victories somehow. Jesus prays in today’s Gospel that we “may have [his] joy made complete in [ourselves].” That joy comes when we let the ascended Jesus do what he needs to do through us. When we allow him to work the change in us that needs to happen.

So, let his life-changing joy be made complete in you. Let the joy of his ascension live in you and through you and be reflected to others by you. When we do, we will be, as he promises us, “sanctified in truth.” We will be sanctified in the truth of knowing and living out our lives in the light of his ascension. And we will be sanctified by the fact that we have looked up and we have seen the truth happened above us in beauty and light and joy .

Sunday, May 13, 2012

6 Easter

Rogation Sunday
May 13, 2012

1 John 5.1-6; John 15.6-17

+ Last week I told you how the previous week I was “off.” Well, let me tell you, this past week made the week before look positively wonderful. Two weeks of being “off” and pure chaos get to be a bit much.

But one of the things I have been clinging to is working on the sermon today. Because, as you all know, our scriptures this morning deal with one of my two favorite preaching subjects.

Let’s take a quiz. My two favorite preaching subjects are what? That’s right, Baptism and love.

Yes, I love to preach about love. I was telling someone about this fact last night at Aanders Johnson’s graduation supper at Monte’s, and this person turned to me and, in all seriousness, said to me: “I am so surprised, Father!”

“Really?” I asked.

“Yes,” this person said. “You just don’t seem like the hippie-type.”

The hippie-type! Lord!

Today, we get a double dose of love in our scriptures today. Jesus, in our Gospel reading, is telling us yet again to love. He tells us: “Abide in my love.” A beautiful phrase!

And St. John, in his epistle, reminds us of that commandment to love God and to love each other.

Now, as you hear me preach about again and again, this love is what being a Christian is all about. It is not about commandments and following the letter of the law. It is not about being nice and sweet all the time. It is about following Jesus—and following Jesus means loving fully and completely. Loving God. Loving each other.

Yes, I know. It sounds hippie-like. It sounds fluffy But the love Jesus is speaking of is not a sappy, fluffy love. Love, for Jesus—and for us who follow Jesus—is a radical thing. To love radically means to love everyone—even those people who are difficult to love. To love those people we don’t want to love—to love the people who have hurt us or abused us or wronged us in any way—is the most difficult thing we can do. If we can do it all. And sometimes we can’t. But we can’t get around the fact that this is the commandment from Jesus.

We must love.

Last week I preached one those sermons that I wasn’t certain how it would go over. I preached about change—how about we must change our views of how to do church. And about how we, ourselves, must change. In my sermon, I said that our old ways of doing church are dying off. Since last week, we got to see some of the old, bad ways of doing church.

I don’t know if you watched the votes about Marriage Equality in North Carolina. But if you did, you got to see Church at its worse. You got to see angry so-called Christians raging and carrying hate-filled picket signs. I don’t quite know what those people think or how interpret our scriptures for today. I don’t know what they are thinking or doing when they march with those signs. But I can tell you this: their form of Christianity is not mine. Their way of doing Church is alien to me. I do not understand it. That way of doing Church is dying! And good riddance!

For me—maybe I’m just simple. Maybe I’m just a simple priest, up here in the hinterlands of North Dakota. But for me, following Jesus and living out his message of love does not include speaking out in anger and hatred at anyone. Especially in the name of Jesus.

“Abide in my love” does mean living with anger and hatred.

Abide in my love leaves no room for homophobia or racist or any other kind of discrimination. You can’t abide in love and live with hatred and anger. It can’t be done. When Jesus says “Abide in my love” it really a challenge to us as the Church.

The Church IS changing. It is always changing. But the Church of the future, whether we like it or not, has to shed these old ways of speaking out in anger and fear and hatred. The Church of the future needs to constantly strive to abide in Jesus love. If it does not, it will become an antique. It will become an outmoded, hate-filled cesspool. And if does, then that’s the way will be.

Now, for me, I won’t stop following Jesus. Because if that’s the place the Church becomes, I know it is not the place Jesus is leading me to. And hopefully none of the rest of us either. And if that’s what the Church becomes, it will, in fact, stop being the Church.

There’s a great quote my one of my personal heroes, Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He once said, “If God is, as they say, homophobic, then I would not worship that God.”

And if the Church becomes a place of hatred or anger, I doubt many of us would remain members of that church. This is why the Church must change. This is why the Church must be place of love and compassion and radical acceptance. Because the alternative is too frightening for me.

This coming Thursday, we celebrate the Ascension of Jesus. On that day, he was physically taken up from us. But what he has left us with is this reality of us—his followers—being the physical Body of Jesus in this world. We can only be that physical Body of Jesus when we abide in his love. When we love fully and radically. There’s no getting around that. There’s no rationalizing that away. We can argue about this. We can quote scriptures and biblical and ecclesiastical precedence all we want.

But abiding in my love is abiding in my love. And abiding in that love means loving—fully and completely and without judgment. To be Jesus’ presence in the world means loving fully and completely and radically. Call that hippie-like. Call that heresy or a simplistic understanding of what Jesus is saying or part of the so-called “liberal agenda.” I call it abiding it in Jesus’ love, which knows no bounds, which knows no limits.

So, today, and this week, abide in this love. Let us celebrate him by living out his command to love. As we remember and rejoice in the Ascension, let our hearts, full of love, ascend with Jesus. Let them soar upward in joy at the fact that Jesus is still with us. And we when we love—when we love each other and God—Jesus’ spirit will remain with us and be embodied in us.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

5 Easter

May 6, 2012

John 15.1-8

+ I have had one of “those” weeks. You know what “those” weeks are. I know you know, because you tell me when you’re having one of those weeks. It’s one of those weeks in which I felt as though I sort tripped and just couldn’t regain my balance. I just sort of stumbled throughout the whole week. And it had nothing to do with cocktails or communion wine, I promise. I just felt “off.”

In the long run, these kinds of weeks actually are good for me. They tell me that I need to slow down and get centered again. And that’s exactly what I’m trying to do in my life right now.

We, as the Church, sometimes go through times like this past week was for me. The Church, at times, seems—shall we say?—a bit “off.” And I don’t mean just our congregation of St. Stephen’s. Yes, we do have those “off” times here at St. Stephen’s. But, I mean, that larger Church. The Church Universal—the Church Catholic and Apostolic.

And like “off” weeks, these “off” times in the Church are not always ultimately bad things. They are, in the long run, good things. Because it is a time for us, as the Church, to center ourselves again and to get back on track.

We, as the Church—as the Episcopal Church, yes, but as the larger Church, are going through one of those periods of getting ourselves back in track again. The Church has been having an “off” time in the recent past. If you haven’t noticed it, there have been some difficult times for the Church.

And when I tell people that we heading for a time of change, I find them bracing themselves for whatever I am going to say next. Well, this is one of those times when you might need to brace yourselves. Because, the fact is, the Church is changing. It is not the Church we knew thirty years ago or forty years ago. Or even twenty-five years ago.

Some people really think I’m “off” myself when I talk like this. But it’s true. We are changing. And we need to change as the Church.

And, if you really pay attention, if you really pause and just put your ear to the pulse of all that’s happening, you can feel it too. That change. The old ways of “doing Church” are passing away.

Our Vestry here at St. Stephen’s occasionally has to hear me go off on occasion about this. Those old ways of “doing Church” are not effective anymore. Now, before we rage about the fact, before we panic, just remember that our ways of “doing medicine” are not the same as they were twenty-five or fifty years ago. Our ways of “doing” education are not what they were twenty-five or fifty years ago. We have learned much in our recent past And we are learning new ways about the way we govern. The way we do ministry. The way we see ourselves and the world around us are all changing. And let me tell you, that’s a very good thing.

Yes, it’s hard to shift our way of thinking around these changes. Yes, it’s hard to realize sometimes that the church we once thought we knew is sometimes a bit unrecognizable to us. But, it’s the truth. And we need to change.

Because the old ways of governing the Church and leading the Church and of doing ministry just sometimes don’t work anymore—not in this society, not in this world in which we live. Now, this might be frightening to us. We might be sitting here on this Sunday morning feeling a bit of anxiety over these changes. e might be saying to ourselves, “But, I like the way things we before.”

Before we despair over the changes, we need to remember one very important thing: As long as we follow Jesus—and that is what we do as Christians—we know that whatever changes might happen, it’s all for the ultimate good.

In today’s Gospel, we find Jesus giving us a glimpse of what it means to follow him.

“I am the vine, you are the branches,” Jesus tells us.

The effective branch bears fruit. Our job as Christians is do just that. It is to bear fruit. Bearing fruit does not mean being frozen in the old way of doing things. We can’t bear fruit when we are worried about maintaining the museum of the Church. We at St. Stephen’s are getting rid of some of our old furniture that decorated our undercroft since the 1960s today and putting them on the burm. I like to think that’s kind of symbolic of our changes here at St. Stephen’s.

Bearing fruit means, growing and changing and flourishing. That is what it means to is to be effective as Christians. Being a Christian doesn’t mean just feeling warm and fuzzy all the time. Being a Christian isn’t only about following private devotions, and reading the Bible by ourselves. Being a Christian isn’t about our own private faith. It certainly has nothing to do with feeling safe and complacent.

Being a Christian means living out our faith. And living out our faith as followers of Jesus means that we must be pliable to some extent. And we must be fertile. We must go with change as it comes along. We must remain relevant.

Now that doesn’t mean we throw the baby out with the bathwater. We still do what we always do. We celebrate our Holy Eucharist. We celebrate and remember our baptisms. I will still be wearing vestments at Mass. We will still have the Book of Common Prayer We will still respect and honor our tradition, his history, our past.

But it also means that we sometimes have to take a good, hard new look at why we do these things and how we do these things. And what these things mean to us and to the world around us.

Being a Christian means following Jesus—not just believing in Jesus. And following Jesus means letting Jesus lead the way. It means allowing the vine to sustain us, to nourish us, to encourage growth within us, so we in turn can bear fruit.

As baptized followers of Jesus, as Christians and Episcopalians who are striving to live out the Baptismal Covenant in our lives, we know that to be relevant, to be vital, we must be fruitful. Following Jesus means that we will follow him through radical times of change. And by being fruitful and growing and flourishing, we are making a difference in the world. We are doing positive and effective things in the world. We are transforming the world, bit by bit, increment by increment, baby step by baby step. We are the conduits through which Christ works in our lives and in the lives of those around us. This is what it means to follow Jesus. This is what means to be a positive Christian example in the world. And when we do this, we realize that we are really doing is evangelizing.

We are sharing our faith, not only with what we say, but in what we do. That is what it means to be a Christian—to be a true follower of Jesus in this constantly changing world. That is what it means to bear good fruit.

So, let us do just that. Let us bear fruit. Let us flourish and grow and be vital fruit to those who need this fruit. Let us be nourished by that Vine—by the One we follow—so that we can nourish others. And let not be afraid of these “new ways” of “doing” Church.

Rather, let us be rejuvenated and excited by these changes. There is a bright and glorious future awaiting us. There is certainly a bright and glorious future awaiting us here at St. Stephen’s. And there is a bright and glorious future awaiting all of us who are following Jesus as his Church. We should rejoice in that.

And we should continue to live out that faith with meaning and purpose. Let us, in the words of our collect for today, always recognize Jesus “to be the way, the truth and the life, that we may steadfastly follow his steps in the way that leads to eternal life…”

3 Pentecost

  June 26, 2022   1 Kings 19.15-16,19-21; Galatians 5.1,13-25; .Luke 9:51-62   + I don’t want to toot my own horn, but for any of y...