Sunday, May 31, 2015

Holy Trinity

May 31, 2015

John 3.1-17

+ I try…I really do. I try not to complain about other preachers.  But, there is one thing I have never enjoyed about preachers.

I am always made uncomfortable by preachers who use the pulpit as a confessional booth.

That’s a joke, of course. Because, who does it more than me? I’ve confessed to you from here before. And I apologize for that.

But…this morning—this Sunday of the Holy Trinity—I am going to do it once again. I apologize in advance for this one too.  This is a confession that one I don’t think I’ve ever share with too many people. Not many people know about this fact about me.

But…many years ago, long before I became a priest, not long before I became interested in the Episcopal Church, as I was still searching on my spiritual journey, I…joined the Unitarian-Universalist Church. I know some of you know about the so called UU Church. Some of you were members of that denomination at one point.

I joined while I was searching and was a very content Unitarian, actually. I enjoyed the UU Church. It was certainly a progressive church. I was very welcomed into the Church and was treated very well by them. I still hold them in high esteem.  And I still have a very warm place in my heart for the UU Church.

I ultimately had a few issues with them, though. One of the main reason I am not a Unitarian-Universalist now, is that the church was very humanist in its beliefs. Oftentimes, I felt as though I was at a college lecture, rather than at a church. And I was craving something spiritual at that point in my life—and of course still am. I was craving God in my life at that time, and there was not much talk about God at the UU Churches I attended.

Another issue was, of course, liturgy. I need my liturgy! And there was no liturgy of any sort in the UU churches I attended. I did not yet know about a Unitarian congregation in Boston called King’s Chapel, which was originally founded as an Anglican church, but later became Unitarian while still keeping a worship and liturgy that is based on the Book of Common Prayer.

Finally, the biggest issue for me was, of course…Jesus. Jesus was THE issue for me. I, as you all know, always believed, in some way, in the Incarnation—in the belief that Jesus was God come to us in the flesh, which Unitarians definitely did not believe.  At this point in my life, I was exploring other aspects of spirituality, but when it all came down to it in the end, this was a very major part of my spiritual life, I realized. In that sense, it was a good thing to explore UUism. I came away with an even deeper appreciation of Jesus after my very short time with them.

The UU Church is a very old, very respected strain of religious thought, that comes from the so-called “Arian heresy” of the third century. Unitarians had an issue with what we are celebrating today—the holy Trinity.

Now, as a Unitarian, I never really had any issues with the Trinity. I didn’t become a Unitarian because I didn’t believe in the Trinity. In fact, the Trinity was just something I has always kind of lived with and accepted.

Most of us, let’s face it, don’t give the Trinity a lot of thought. We assume God is Trinitarian. But for the most part we don’t lose sleep over what it is or how it works.

People who are losing sleep over the Trinity these days are those preachers who have to preach about the Trinity on this Sunday. Our own Sandy Holbrook was originally going to preach about it today. I’m not saying she chickened out on it (she actually did preach on Holy Trinity Sunday three years ago).

But I had no issue taking up the baton for the sermon today. It’s my job after all, as your priest.  I definitely am not one of those preachers who lost sleep this week fretting over what I was going to say about the Trinity, even despite my Unitarian background.  I approach this Sunday and this concept of the Holy Trinity as I approach any similar situation, like Christmas or Easter or, as we celebrated last Sunday, the Holy Spirit and Pentecost.

It’s a mystery. And I love the mystery of our faith. And let me tell  you, there is nothing more mysterious than the Trinity.  God as Three-in-One—God as Father or Parent or Creator, God as Son or Redeemer and God as Spirit or Sanctifier.

I know, I know.  It’s difficult to wrap our minds around this concept of God.  The questions we priests regularly get is: how can God be three and yet one?  How can we, in all honesty, say that we believe in one God when we worship God as three?  Certainly our Muslim brothers and sisters ask that very important question of us: Aren’t you simply talking about three gods? (We’re not, by the way—just to be clear about that)

Whole Church councils have debated the issue of the Trinity throughout history.  The Church actually has split at times over its interpretation of what exactly this Trinity is.  We can debate it all we want this morning. We can talk what is orthodox or right-thinking about the Trinity all we want. But the fact remains that unless we have experienced God in some kind of tri-personal way, nothing I or anyone can say about the Trinity is going to matter.

Now did you hear that word I just used?  Tri-personal. There, for me, is the key to everything this Sunday is about.

So, what are talking about here is not three gods, as some people seem to think.  What we are talking about it one tri-personal God—a God who cannot be limited in any way, but a God who is able to come to us and be revealed to us in a variety of ways.  We can go on and on about theology and philosophy and all manner of thoughts about God, but ultimately what matters is how we interact with our God.  

How is our relationship with God and with each other deepened and made more real by this one, tri-personal God? How do become closer to God?  This is our primary responsibility: our relationship with God. How can all this talk about God—how can this thinking about God—then deepen our relationship with God?  Our goal is not to understand God: we will never understand God.  God is not some Rubik’s Cube (I’m dating myself with that reference) or a puzzle that has to be solved.  Our goal is to know God.  Our goal is to love God.  Our goal is to try to experience God as God wishes to be experienced by us.

Because God does know us. God does love us.  And, more likely than not, we have actually experienced our God in this tri-personal way more than once in our lives.

I personally have experienced God in a variety of ways; certainly I have experiences God in that tri-personal way countless times.

I have known God as a loving and caring Parent, especially when I think about those times when I have felt marginalized by people or the Church or society or by friends and colleagues.

I have also known God as my redeemer in the Person of Jesus—as the One who has come to me where I am, as One who knows my suffering because this One also has suffered as well. And this One, Jesus, has promised that I too can be a child of this God who is my—and our—Parent.    Because of Jesus, I have been able to take comfort in the fact that God is not some distant deity who could not comprehend what I have gone through in my life and in this limited, mortal body.  God as Jesus the Redeemer knows what it was to be limited by our bodies.  There is something wonderful and holy in that realization.

And I have known the healing and renewal of the Spirit of God of my life.  Certainly we, at St. Stephen’s have experienced and continue to experience this Spirit’s presence in the life and renewal we are celebrating in our congregation.  We have known in a very real way the healing and renewal of the Spirit of God here among us.

And, I don’t need to tell you,  it is wonderful.

Last year I preached about the famous icon of the Trinity, written (that’s the proper way to say an icon is painted or drawn) by the great Russian iconographer, Andrei Rubelev. I have placed the icon here.  Definitely go and take a  look at it and see how truly beautiful it is.  In it you’ll find three angels seated at a table.  According to some theological interpretations, these three Angels represent the three Persons of the Trinity. In the icon we can see that all three Angels are shown as equals to each other.  In a sense, this icon is able to show in a very clear and straightforward way what all our weighty, intellectual theologies do not.
What I especially love about the image is that, in showing the three angels seated around the table, you’ll notice that there is one space at the table left open.  That is the space for you.  In a sense, we are, in this icon, being invited to the table to join with the Trinity.  We are being invited to join into the work of the Trinity.  And I think that is why this icon is so important to me.
If all we do is ponder and argue and debate the Trinity, we’ve already thrown in the towel.  And we are defeating the work of the Trinity.  But if we have sat down at that table with this tri-personal God, if we have joined in that circle of love and, as followers of Jesus, shared that love with others, then we are truly celebrating the Holy Trinity. We are joining the Holy Trinity. We are sharing the love and work of our tri-personal God.

So, no matter what the theologians argue about, no matter what those supposedly learned teachers proclaim, ultimately, our understanding of the Trinity needs to be based on our own experience to some extent.

The Trinity does not have to be a frustrating aspect of our church and our faith.  It should rather widen and expand our faith life and our understanding and experience of God and, in turn, of each other.

So, today, as we ponder God as Trinity—and we should ponder this tri-personal God in our lives—as we consider how God has worked in our lives in a tri-personal way— and who God is in our lives, let us remember how amazing God is in the ways God is revealed to us. God cannot be limited or quantified or reduced.

God can only be experienced.

And adored.

And pondered.

God can only be shared with others as we share love with each other.  When we do that—when we live out and share our loving God with others—then we are joining with the tri-personal God who is here with us, loving us with a love deeper than any love we have ever known before.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Cleaning out my garage today I came across this: an article in my hometown newspaper from 1992 when my first book of poems, Paper Doves, Falling, was published. My father made this frame and it hung in his shop for all those years

Sunday, May 24, 2015


May 24, 2015

Acts 2.1-21

+ Someone recently (jokingly) told me they were shocked when, on Easter Day, I preached about the fact that I wasn’t a big fan of Christmas. I’m not a big fan of Christmas. I never have been. I’m just not one of those Christmas people.

On Easter morning I shared my view that I think Easter is actually my favorite moment in the Church Year. And I still do. But, you know, I gotta say: I think Pentecost Sunday is right up there with Easter in my estimation. I have some very fond memories over the years of how powerful this particular day can be.

How can it not be powerful? When we are dealing with God’s Spirit, we are dealing with a force that is beyond us. It’s sort like dealing with nuclear power or electricity. God’s Spirit is an amazing thing to celebrate.

This is, of course, a very important feast in the Church, right up there with Christmas and Easter.  This feast of Pentecost was celebrated long before Christians even 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 particularly 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 like the 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:  Although Jesus’s prophecy from God might no longer among  as it was when Jesus himself was with us physically, the prophecy does remains with us in the sending of God’s spirit.  Jesus will leave—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 he is leaving something amazing in his place. He 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.  The same Spirit which spoke to Ezekiel, 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—and in our lives is truly the spirit of the God that came to us and continues to come to 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 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 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.

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 these practices—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 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.  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. We experience God’s Spirit whenever we feel joy or hope.

As Jesus 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.

Yesterday the great Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was martyred by gunshot while celebrating Mass in 1980, was beautified by the Roman Catholic. This is the last step before canonizing, making him a canonized saint in the Church.  Of course, to be that martyr, to be shot down at that Mass like he was, he was truly led by the Spirit that we celebrate today—that Spirit of truth.

In his first pastoral letter as a bishop, entitled “The Holy Spirit in the Church,”
which he wrote around the Feast of Pentecost, Romero wrote this wonderful summary of what Pentecost is about. He wrote:

“…the feast of Pentecost, through the church’s liturgy, ‘makes present’ and real for us the great event of the sending of the Holy Spirit upon the Church so that we might be filled with [the Spirit’s] saving grace. The Spirit was sent to strengthen the Church from on high and make it a witness of the Lord through the whole world. This dynamic presence of the Spirit in the Church…speaks by itself as loudly as anything my poor words might be able to tell you about the solid reasons for living lives of hope…”

This dynamic presence of the Spirit 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, even when that injustice might be within the very Church organization of which we are members.

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 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, 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, who never stops loving us, but who comes to us again and again in mercy and in truth.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

7 Easter

The Sunday after the Ascension

May 17, 2015

John 17.6-19

+ I don’t know if you notice it, but I sure have. In fact, James and I were talking about this last week. Occasionally in the life of a church, we find surges, we find losses, and we find plateaus. I was certain—absolutely certain—that beginning about a year ago and going at least to few months ago, we had hit a plateau here at St. Stephen’s. After several years of outstanding growth, we just balanced into place. That’s a good thing.
Plateaus can be interesting and meaningful and important in the life of a congregation.

But then, growth started again. Fairly recently.  New members. New active ministries. And we find, not a plateau, but a resurgence.  And that’s always incredible. When these things happen, I always say: look, at the Spirit of God moving in our midst.

We find ourselves moving into a place, yet again, that is very similar to place those first followers of Jesus were in right about now in their following of Jesus.  They are being prepared for the movement of the Spirit of God in their lives. This week, in our scripture readings, we move slowly away from the Easter season toward Pentecost. For the last several weeks, 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. We find a transformation of sorts happening.  With his ascension, our perception of Jesus 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 much more.  He is more than just a regular prophet.  He is the Prophet extraordinaire.  He is the fulfillment of all prophecies.  He is more than just a king—a despotic monarch of some sort like Caesar or Herod.  He is truly the Messiah.

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 is something we could not comprehend before. He has helped us to see that God has truly come among us. He has reminded us that God has taken a step toward us. He has showed us that God loves us and cares for us. He has shown us that hold death held on us is now broken. He has reminded us that God speaks to us not from a pillar of cloud or fire, not on some shroud-covered mountain, not in visions.

But God is with us and speaks in us, God’s prophets.   The puzzle pieces are falling into place.  What seemed so confusing and unreal is starting to come together.  God truly does love us and know us.  And next week, one more puzzle piece falls into place when Jesus, in a sense, returns. Next week, we will celebrate God’s Spirit descending upon and staying with us.

For the moment, we are in this plateau, caught in between those two events, trying to make sense of what has happened and trying to prepare ourselves for what is about to happen.  But things are about to really change.  Man, are things about to change! We are caught between Jesus’ ascent into heaven and the Spirit’s descent to us.

See, plateaus are not bad things.  A plateau offers us a time for us to pause, to ponder who we are and where are in this place—in this time in which everything seems so spiritually topsy-turvy, in this time before the Spirit moves and stirs up something incredible.  

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 God in our lives.  And God 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, in our Sunday readings and in our liturgy, find ourselves constantly confronted with the meaning of these events from God.  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 I can say this: if we only see the ascension as some kind of mystical event and don’t see it as a mirror for ourselves, we’ve missed the point.  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 Christ to others.  

And we must go out and live out this commission in the world.  When we do, the ascended Christ is very much acting in the world. 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 life altering experience.  Their lives—their faith, their whole sense of being—was changed forever.  They would never be who they were again.  Oftentimes, when those experiences happen to us, we find ourselves reeling from them.  

We find ourselves simply moving through the life-altering events with bated breath. Only later, when everything has settled down, do we have the opportunity to examine what had just happened to us.  And it is then that we realize the enormity of these changes in our lives.

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

One day, very early in my career, I came to that realization myself.  Ministry is perpetually on-going. There is never an ending to it.  It’s always something.  One week brings another set of opportunities, set-backs, trip-ups, tediums, frustrations, joys, celebrations.

Ministry truly is a never-ending roller-coaster ride of emotions and feelings.  In the course of a week, one can go from last rites and burials to weddings and baptisms—and everything in between.  And some of what comes in between are days when nothing much happens.  In between, there are meetings, there are lonely nights or sleepless nights or angry nights.  More often than night, there are nights just like the nights before.  There are nights when one follows the same rituals one has followed.  And one does what one has done before without thinking, without pondering.

In between those moments of great energy, there are frustrations or boredom.  There are moments when it all seems to be useless and pointless.  There are moments when one is, quite simply, frightened.  There are moments when one feels so overwhelmed by the fact that one is simply not qualified to be doing the work.

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 God who welcomed the ascended Jesus, whose work we are doing in this world.  In those moments when our works seems useless, when it seems like we have done no good work, the God who brought Jesus back still triumphs.

We all remember that song by the Beatles, “Eleanor Rigby.”  I remember how sad I used to feel when I heard them sing about Father Mackenzie, how he

“…wipes the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave.
No one was saved.”

It feels like that sometimes.  But those moments are moments of self-centeredness.  Those moments are moments when we think it all depends on us.  On ME.

Our job, in this time between Jesus’ departure from us and the return of the Holy Spirit to us, is simply let God do what God needs to do in this interim.  We need to let the Holy Spirit work in us and through us.  We need to let the God who brought Jesus to heaven be the end result of our work.  When we wipe our hands as we walk from the grave, lamenting the fact that it seems no one was saved, we need to realize that, of course, it seems that way as we gaze downward at our hands.  But above us, the Ascension is happening.  Above us, Jesus is triumphant—as Prophet of prophets, of King of Kings, as the High Priest of all priests.  Above us, Jesus triumphs—and we with him.

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 more were saved than we initially thought.  Someone was save—we were saved.

Jesus has ascended. And we have—or will—ascend with him as well.  He prays in today’s Gospel that we “may have [his] joy made complete in [ourselves].”  That joy comes when we let the Holy Spirit be reflected in we do in this world.

So, let this Spirit of joy be made complete in you.  Let the Spirit of joy live in you and through you and be reflected to others by you. When we do, we will be, as Jesus promises us, “sanctified in truth.”

We will be sanctified in the truth of knowing and living out our lives in the light of ascension.  We will be sanctified by the fact that we have looked up and seen the truth happened above us in beauty and light and joy .

Thursday, May 14, 2015

North Dakota is Everywhere anthology publication reading

I will be reading from great North Dakota poets on Thursday, May 21 at 6:30 p.m. at Zandbroz Variety in Fargo in Fargo to promote the anthology North Dakota is Everywhere. Join us to celebrae this important anthology. 

Sunday, May 10, 2015

6 Easter

Rogation Sunday
May 10, 2015

Acts 10.44-48; 1 John 5.1-6; John 15.6-17

+ Many of you have probably heard the events that have been going on in the Episcopal Diocese of Central Florida this past week. There, at the Cathedral of St. Luke in Orlando, a gay couple were seeking to have their son baptized. A date had even been set.  Then, all of a sudden, the dean of the cathedral informed the couple that they would have to postpone the baptism because some of members of the cathedral had an issue with the fact that the parents were gay. There was, of course, an uproar. The Bishop, Greg Brewer, got involved. And now, it seems, the baptism is back on.

Personally, I was at a loss throughout all of this. I have never heard of a baptism being canceled or postponed because the congregation didn’t support the parents.

It is particularly and almost strangely fortuitous that we have our scripture reading for today from the book of Acts, which just happens  In our reading form Acts we find Peter asking hat very important question:

“Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing….”

As you all know, I am very outspoken when it comes to issues of baptism. So this situation in Central Florida really hit me hard on a few levels.  I am appalled by any situation in which someone is actually being denied baptism (which is the real issue here). Especially—especially—in the Episcopal Church.

I’ve never heard of it. Ever. Even from the most conservatively orthodox people.  It absolutely boggles my mind.

Now, I of course, have had my own friendly debates on the issue of Baptism with people who are both very liberal and conservative (and I apologize for throwing those terms around. I’m not certain anyone is 100% either conservative or liberal, especially in the Episcopal Church)

There are some of my more liberal friends who think it’s crazy that we here at St. Stephen’s baptize on any Sunday other than the Sundays designated as appropriate in the Book of Common Prayer—those being namely  the Easter Vigil, Pentecost Sunday, All Saints, and the Baptism of Our Lord.

Others are really perplexed by the fact that we do what others may call “private” baptisms—namely, baptisms that are done outside of the regularly scheduled Sunday Eucharist. Of course my argument has always been that there is no such thing as a “private” baptism. As long as two or three are gathered together in the name of Christ, the Church is present. And with Christ present, there is nothing “private” being done.

I, of course, quote our reading from Acts from last week in which Philip baptized the Ethiopian eunuch right there in the river. I seriously doubt that was done on a Sunday designated as appropriate by the Book of Common Prayer, nor was it done in the context of a regularly scheduled Sunday Eucharist.


Now, I am not playing the rebel here. I am not trying to be a maverick.  Any of you who have heard my sermons on a more than regular basis know that I hold baptism as so incredibly important. The only thing I preach about more than baptism is…

…love. Which you’re also getting this morning as well.

But, no, I am not being a rebel or a maverick about this. I am simply striving not to withhold the waters of baptism from anyone. When I appear before the throne one day, I will take my chances that I erred on the side of baptizing anyone under any circumstances rather than upholding some orthodox standard.  And the rules that the Church—capital C—applies to people does, often, withhold those waters, whether that is the intent or not.

And I, as a simple priest trying to love God and love others, am simply not in the place to withhold anything as a powerful and as incredible as baptism from anyone. Nor should I. Not should any of us.

Because—and I never preach about God’s disappointment, never, but if God is going to disappointed with us, if Jesus is going to wag a finger at us, it is for issues like this. If when the Church—capital C—acts more like a bureaucratic museum upholding its some kind of pseudo-orthodoxy rather than radically proclaiming God’s acceptance and love, then the Church has failed—and failed miserably.

The Church’s job is to proclaim that love. Unabashedly. Loudly. Without limits. Even if it means breaking its own human-made rules.  Because that is God’s love. It is without limits. It is never withheld. Which of course leads me into the other thing I love to preach about.

Today, we get a double dose of love in our scriptures.  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 not about being “right” or “perfectly moral” or self-righteous or even orthodox.  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. Fully and completely.

Yes, I know.  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.  It is a messy thing. It is, often, an uncomfortable 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 at all.  And sometimes we can’t.

But we can’t get around the fact that this is the commandment from Jesus. We must love.

“Abide in my love” does not mean living with anger and hatred and bitterness. Abide in my love leaves no room for homophobia or sexism or racism or any other kind of discrimination.  You can’t abide in love and still live with hatred and anger.  You can’t abide in love and still be a homophone or sexist or racist. It just can’t be done.

When Jesus says “Abide in my love” it really is a challenge to us as the Church. I know that people are scared by this.  What this baptism in Orlando shows us is that the Church is really changing.  And, for some people, for a lot of people, that is frightening.

But the Church of the future, whether we like it or not, has to shed these old ways of acting out in anger and fear and hatred.  The Church of the future needs to constantly strive to abide in the love Jesus proclaims.  If it does not, it will become an antique store filled with the antiques of a close-minded past.  It will become an outmoded, hate-filled cesspool.  

And if does, then that’s the way will be. I won’t be a priest in a Church like that. I doubt many of here this morning would be members of a Church like that.

But, I know it will not come to that. I know as well as I am standing here this morning with you, that that love will win out.  God’s love always wins out.  Besides, if the Church becomes a place in which baptisms are denied and others are continued to be denied, then I know it is not the place in which God’s radical, all-accepting love dwells.  If that’s what the Church becomes, it will, in fact, stop being the Church. 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 a place of love and compassion and radical acceptance.

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 also become his physical heart as well. We can only do that 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 it.  We can quote scriptures and biblical law and canon law and ecclesiastical precedence and the Book of Common Prayer all we want. But abiding in love is abiding in love.  And abiding in that love means loving—fully and completely and without judgment.

To be Jesus’ presence in this world means loving fully and completely and radically.   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 God by living out Jesus’ 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—the Spirit of God’s love will remain with us and be embodied in us.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

5 Easter

May 3, 2015

John 15.1-8

+ I read an article this past week that really hit home for me. Actually James posted it on his Facebook page. It was entitled

“Want millennials back in the pews? Stop trying to make church ‘cool.”

It was very good article. The article said this:

Recent research from Barna Group and the Cornerstone Knowledge Network found that 67 percent of millennials prefer a “classic” church over a “trendy” one, and 77 percent would choose a “sanctuary” over an “auditorium.” While we have yet to warm to the word “traditional” (only 40 percent favor it over “modern”), millennials exhibit an increasing aversion to exclusive, closed-minded religious communities masquerading as the hip new places in town. For a generation bombarded with advertising and sales pitches, and for whom the charge of “inauthentic” is as cutting an insult as any, church rebranding efforts can actually backfire, especially when young people sense that there is more emphasis on marketing Jesus than actually following Him. Millennials “are not disillusioned with tradition; they are frustrated with slick or shallow expressions of religion,” argues David Kinnaman, who interviewed hundreds of them for Barna Group and compiled his research in “You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church ... and Rethinking Faith.

I found the article fascinating. And, dare I say, encouraging for us, here at St. Stephen’s.  Certainly the forms of church the article is mentioning are not my forms of church. I’ve been very vocal that I have always been wary of trends that tend to be flash in the pan. In my many years in the Church, I have trends come and I have seen trends go. As many of us have.  And every ten years or so there is something new and hip and “happening” that comes along, promising it will somehow “revive” the Church.

But, for me, the tried and true method always works best. Consistency sometimes is not a bad thing.

Still, we do need to be honest. These trends are happening because changes are happening.  And we still need to be open to change.  Let’s face it, the Church is changing.  And it should be changing.  Obviously it’s not changing into some hip, trendy church. Because that doesn’t last. Hipsters grow up and eventually stop being hip.  Consistency in that sense is good.  

But the Church is changing in other ways.  It is not the Church we knew thirty years ago or forty years ago.  Or even twenty-five years ago. 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.  The old ways of “doing Church” are passing away—and by this I mean the governing of the Church. Those old ways of “doing Church” are not effective anymore. Those ways of close-mindedness and exclusivity are behind us.  

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 our church.  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.  We 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.  Bearing does not bearing grudges. Bearing fruit does not mean being frozen in place, unwilling to move.  We can’t bear fruit when we are worried about maintaining the museum of the Church.  Bearing fruit means, growing and changing and flourishing.

But we do it here at St. Stephen’s by doing something that might not seem trendy. We do it with our ancient form of worship. We do it with the Eucharist. We do it with taking what we do here, breaking bread and sharing bread with each other, on Sundays, and then going out doing just that in the world. And in doing that, we make a difference in the world.  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 coming to church to be entertained. Or to feel the Church owes me something.

Being a Christian isn’t only about our own private faith.  And let me tell you, it certainly has nothing to do with feeling safe and complacent. Being a Christian means living out our faith—fully and completely, in every aspect of our life.  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.  In fact it means embracing and holding tightly to what we have do well. We celebrate our Holy Eucharist. We celebrate and remember our baptisms. I will still be wearing these vestments at Mass.  We cling and hold to the Book of Common Prayer  We respect and honor and celebrate 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 being the conduits through which God works in our lives and in the lives of those around us.  This is what it means to follow Jesus.  That is what it means to be reflectors of God’s Light on those around us.  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...