Sunday, October 30, 2016

24 Pentecost

Luke 19.1-10

+ When I was a little boy at the Lutheran Church at which I grew up, we used to sing a little song in Sunday School. I haven’t heard since then. I bet James knows the song.  But it went like this:

Zacchaeus was a wee little man,
A wee little man was he.
He climbed up in the sycamore tree,
The Savior for to see.

In fact, I even remember an illustration of Zacchaus for us little tykes.  It showed this little man in a tree looking at Jesus. It must’ve been the fact that he was “wee little man” that made him so appealing to kids.

At the time, I was certain that Zacchaeus was a munchkin of some sort.  Of course, the Bible and the Wizard of Oz were both equally meaningful to me at that time (and at time both still are).

But his wee stature makes our Gospel reading a seemingly pleasant story.  We’ve all heard this story of how Zacchaeus climbed the Sycamore tree to see Jesus.  And on the surface, it really is a pleasant story.  It seems to be a story of faith and persistence and how, with faith and persistence, Zacchaeus invited Jesus to his home, which Jesus did and ate with him. A very nice story.

But…(there’s always a “but”)  to truly understand this story we have to, as we always and always should, put it within the proper context of its time and its culture.  When we do that, we find layers to this story that we might not have seen at first glance.

The first clue that something more is going on in this story is the fact that Zacchaeus is identified a chief tax collector.  And that he is rich. The fact that he is rich is actually a bit redundant. The chief tax collector is, of course, going to be rich.

But it isn’t that he’s rich that we might find something deeper going on. The real big deal to this story is that he is a tax collector. That’s important.  

I don’t know if you remember our Gospel story from last week—the story of the Pharisee and the—who?—the tax collector? In that story, the tax collector went to heaven, the Pharisee went to hell. This week, we have another tax collector.

The reason Jesus uses tax collectors in this way is important.  It’s important because a tax collector at that time, in that culture, was one of the worst people one could imagine, if you were a good Jew, that is.

On one hand, he was seen as a traitor.  He had sided with the occupying government—the Roman government—and collected taxes from his own people to pay the Roman government.  These tax collectors were also notorious for lining their own pockets.  And this might be why there is mention of the fact that he is rich. He, no doubt, was rich because he stole money from the people.  It was easy for tax collectors to skim the coffers so they could keep what they wanted for themselves.  And even if they didn’t resort to such underhanded dealings, they were usually judged by the general population as doing so. Certainly, no one trusted and certainly no one liked tax collectors.

But this wasn’t the end of Zacchaeus’ troubles. Probably worst of all, Zacchaeus was seen as ritually unclean by his fellow Jews.  After all, he handled the money of the Romans, which had on it, an image of the Emperor.  Since the Emperor was viewed as divine, as a god, what Zacchaeus was handling then was essentially a pagan image and to handle it was to make one’s self unclean according to the Jewish Law.

So, Zacchaeus—poor Zacchaeus—was in a lose-lose situation.  He was despised as being both a traitor and as being religiously unclean.  And Jesus knew full well who Zacchaeus was and what he stood for in his world when he called up to Zacchaeus in that tree and said, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”

Jesus knew full well that Zacchaeus was unclean—nationally and religiously. Zacchaeus was an outcast.  He was living in the fringes of his society.  He probably had few friends—and the few friends he had were no doubt friends with ulterior motives—friends who knew they could get something out of Zacchaeus.

When we re-examine our Gospel story again knowing what we know now, the story takes on a very different tone.  It becomes less of a sweet, Sunday School story about a short man and becomes quite a radical story.  It shows us that Jesus truly was able to step outside the boundaries of his day and reach out to those who truly needed him.

Now, for Zacchaeus, he does the right thing.  He says to Jesus that he will not only pay back half of his possessions, but he even offers to pay back four times the amount he stole.  This is really incredible because Jewish Law didn’t expect anything close to four times the amount being paid back.  In the 6th Chapter of Leviticus, whenever anyone commits a trespass against God by deceiving a neighbor in the a matter of a deposit or pledge or by robbery or if one has defrauded a neighbor, the one who defrauded shall pay back the principal and add one-fifth to it. (Leviticus 6.1-7)

But we know why Zacchaeus makes the offer he does.   For those of us who are truly repentant, that’s what it feels like sometimes, doesn’t it?  I often hear from people about how sorry they are for this and for that. But on those occasions, when I am truly sorry—truly repentant, truly striving to make right the wrongs I’ve done—I find myself wanting to go above and beyond the call of duty. I want to make right the wrongs I’ve done and feel as though it is truly right again. That is what Zacchaeus is truly saying to Jesus.  And that is what we should be truly saying to Jesus as well when we turn away from the wrongs we’ve done and attempt to do right again.

The story of Zacchaeus shows us that sometimes Jesus must violate some social norms and even the popular interpretation of scripture.  Just by going to Zacchaeus’ home, Jesus has made several major faux pas.  He has talked with an unclean person.  He has gone with this unclean person to the house of the unclean person—a household which according to Jewish Law is unclean as well.  That means the building, the wife, the children, anyone who enters it, is unclean.

So Jesus enters the unclean dwelling of an unclean person.  And what does he do there?  He probably goes there and he probably eats there.  Again, two more things the Law was clear were wrong.  Eating food prepared and served by unclean people was unclean as well. And eating that food makes the clean person unclean.

And yet, as we know, Jesus was not made unclean by any of this.  What in fact happens?  Jesus makes the unclean clean.  Jesus purifies this man, his family, his house, his food—his life. The purification of Jesus was bigger than anything anyone at that time could possibly understand.  And even for us—now.  His presence and his Word turns the uncleanliness of that place into a place of redemption and joy. And that is how this story for today really ends.

It’s never mentioned outside of the fact that Zacchaeus is “happy to welcome” Jesus, but there seems to be an almost palpable joy present in this story.  The word Joy is never even used.  But we know—we feel—that as this story ends, there is a true and wonderful joy now living in that house of Zacchaeus because of Jesus’ presence there.  The lost have been saved.  The unclean have been cleansed. The wrongs have been righted. See, this is what want for our story as well.

No matter what we’ve done, no matter how unclean we or the standards of our own day or society have made us, the presence of Christ in our lives, the sound of his Word in our ears, redeems us.  With Christ, we have been found.   With Christ, joy has replaced whatever dark emotions lived within us at one time.  

Those of who have climbed the sycamore tree searching for Jesus, who have gone here and there searching for him among the crowds, have not found his salvation in those places.  Where have we found Jesus? Right here. In our own homes—in our own place.  Jesus comes to us in a familiar place and we are better for it. Jesus comes and fills out familiar places with joy.  Jesus is still saying to each of us today, “hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.”

Our house is this life that we have.  It is this house he enters and dwells within.  And by his presence he purifies. And fills with an almost palpable joy!

Today, at this altar, we will heed that call.  When we come forward for Eucharist—when we come forward to eat his flesh and drink his Blood, we are saying yes to his command that he must stay at our house today.  And when we leave here and go into the world, we do so knowing he has redeemed us and made us whole so that we can share that joy we feel with others. And that we no longer see the uncleanness of others.

So, let us listen to his words to us.

“Today salvation has come to this house.”

That salvation he promises is with us. Here. Now.  Let us rejoice in that salvation.   And let that implied joy we find in our Gospel story come bubbling up within us at this news so that when he comes to us we will be overjoyed to welcome him.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

23 Pentecost

October 23, 2016

Luke 18.9-14

+ So, this past week there was a photo going around of our two presidential candidates at the Alfred E. Smith Foundation Dinner on Thursday night. It showed Hillary Clinton on one side and Donald Trump on the other, engaged in an obviously very heated conversation. And in between was the host of the dinner, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of New York,  Timothy Cardinal Dolan, looking very… overwhelmed.

The caption to the photo was

“the life of a priest, right here.”

And it’s true. Oftentimes, that is exactly what it feels like to be a priest.  Let me tell you! Yup, not always glamour and fancy clothes!

That photo reminds me of situations priests sometimes find themselves in. Some of you probably have been in similar situations in your own lives.

For example, sometimes people come to me as a priest and, because they have some issue with another parishioner, they want me to go to that other person and deal with the situation on their behalf. THEY don’t want to confront the person. But they seem to think it’s somehow the priest’s job to confront that person for them. And the priest finds her or himself very much in a position like Cardinal Dolan in that photo.  Stuck right in the middle.

To be clear, it is not the priest’s job to be THAT PERSON. One of the things I have been very proactive about in my ministry is avoiding that ugly situation of triangulation.  Triangulation, as you can guess, is one of the quickest “clergy killers” out there.  

Actually, I luckily, have not really had to deal with triangulation much here at St. Stephen’s. One of the great aspects of St. Stephen’s has been the self-reliance of the parishioners. But, in other congregations I’ve served, let me tell you, they do attempt to resort to triangulation quite often. And…I hear many fellow clergy share stories in which they have found themselves trapped in the middle of those situations.

In the past, when I have found myself being nudged into such a situation, I finally have had to ask a question.  I, of course, tell the person: you need to talk to this person if you have an issue with them.  You’re talking to them will probably be much more successful than my talking to them on your behalf.

But, if that doesn’t work—and it usually doesn’t work—I ask those people: “have you tried praying for them?” And I’m not saying, praying for them to change, for them to be more like what you expect them to be. Have you just prayed for them, as they are? Because when we do that, we find that maybe nothing in that other person changes—ultimately we can’t control how other people act or do things—but rather we are the ones who change. We are the ones who find ourselves changing our attitude about that person, or seeing that person from another perspective.

However it works, prayer like this can be disconcerting and frightening.  Let me tell you. I have done it.

I’ll be honest: I have had issues with people who do not meet my own personal expectations. But I do find that as I pray for them, as I struggle before God about them, sometimes nothing in that other person changes. (God also does not allow God’s self to be triangulated) But I often find myself changing my attitude about them, even when I don’t want to.

Prayer, often, is the key. But not controlling prayer.  Rather, prayer that allows us to surrender to God’s will.

That’s essentially what’s happening in today’s Gospel reading. The Pharisee is not praying for any change in himself. He arrogantly brags to God about how wonderful and great he is in comparison to others.   The tax collector however, prays that wonderful, pure prayer

“God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

It’s not eloquent. It’s not fancy. But it’s honest. And it cuts right to heart of it all.  

Now, you’ve often hear me mention the so-called Jesus Prayer, that ancient prayer of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

It’s a prayer I have held very, very dear for so long. And it is a prayer that had never let me down once. It, of course, is an echo of the prayer we hear today in our Gospel reading.

Another similar prayer is one we find in the Anglo-Catholic tradition of Anglicanism:

Jesu, mercy.

Prayers for mercy are probably one of the purest and most honest prayers we can make.  And what I love even more about this parable is the fact that the prayer of the Pharisee isn’t even necessarily a bad prayer in and of itself.  I mean, there’s an honesty in it as well.

The Pharisee is the religious one, after all.  He is the one who is doing right according to organized religion.   He is doing what Pharisees do; he is doing the “right” thing; he is filling his prayer with thanksgiving to God.   We should all thank God for all the good things God grants us. The problem arises in the fact that the prayer is so horribly self-righteous and self-indulgent that it manages to cancel out the rightness of the prayer.  The arrogance of the prayer essentially renders it null and void.  

The tax collector’s prayer however is so pure.  It is simple and straight-to-the-point. This is the kind of prayer Jesus again and again holds up as an ideal form of prayer.  But what gives it its punch is that is a prayer of absolute humility. And humility is the key here.  It gives the prayer just that extra touch.   There is no doubt in our minds as we hear this parable that God hears—and grants—this prayer, even though it is being prayed by someone considered to be the exact opposite of the Pharisee.

Whereas the Pharisee is the religious one, the righteous one, the tax collector, handling all that pagan unclean money of the conquerors, is unclean.  He is an outcast.  Humility really is the key. And it is one of the things, speaking only for myself here, that I am sometimes lacking in my own spiritual life.

But, humility is important.  It is essential to us as followers of Jesus.

St. Teresa of Avila, the great Carmelite saint, once said, “Humility, humility. In this way we let our Lord conquer, so that he hears our prayer.”

I think we’re all a bit guilty of lacking humility in our own lives, certainly in our spiritual lives and in being self-righteous when it comes to sin.  We all occasionally find ourselves wishing we could control and correct the shortcomings and failures of others.  

Certainly, in this political season, we watch with almost gleeful joy when politicians are mess up at debates, or we rage at them.

“Why can’t they say what I want to hear?” I often find myself saying.

Or when a person fails miserably, or is caught in a scandal,  find myself saying: “Thank God it’s them and not me.”

Which is terrible of me! And maybe that’s also an honest prayer to make.  Because what we also say in that prayer is that we, too, are capable of being just that  guilty.

We all have a shadow side.  And maybe that’s what we’re seeing in those people we want to correct.  There’s no way around the fact that we do have shadow sides.  But the fact is, the only sins we’re responsible for ultimately—the only people who can ultimately control—are our own sins—not the sins of others. We can’t pay the price of other’s sins—only Jesus can and has done that—nor should we delight in the failings or shortcomings of others.

I remember reading a saying once by an Eastern Orthodox saint, Barsanufios.  He said, “He who recognizes his own stench in his nose cannot recognize any other smell even if he stands on a pile of dead bodies.”

Yes, it’s a disgusting image, but it strikes home.  All we can do as Christians, sometimes, is humble ourselves. Again and again.  Sometimes all we can do is let God deal with a situation, or a person who drives us crazy.

Lord Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Jesu, mercy!

We must learn to overlook what others are doing sometimes.  Doing so, exhausts me.  And so I don’t know why I would want to deal with other’s issues if my own issues exhaust me.

There are too many self-righteous Christians in the world.   We know them.  They frustrate us.   And they irritate us.   We don’t need anymore.

What we need are more humble, contrite Christians.   We need to be Christians who don’t see anyone as inferior to us—as charity cases to whom we can share our wealth and privileges and whom we wish to control and make just like us.

Rather, to paraphrase the great St. Therese of Lisieux: we should sit down with sinners, not as their benefactors but as the “most wretched of them all.”

That is true humility.  In our own eyes, if we carry true humility within us, if we are our own stiffest and most objective judges, then we know that we are the most wretched of them all and that we are in no place to condemn others. In dealing with others, we have no other options than just simply to love those people—fully and completely, even when they drive us crazy.

 Sin or no sin, we must simply love them and hate our own sins.   That is what it means to be a true follower of Jesus.  It is essential if we are going to truly love those we are called by Jesus to love and it is essential to our sense of honesty before God.

So, let us steer clear of such self-righteousness. But, in being humble, let us also not beat ourselves up and be self-deprecating. Rather, let us work to overcome our own shortcomings and rise above them.  Let us look at others with pure eyes—with eyes of love.  Let us not see the shortcomings and failures of others, but let us see the light and love of God permeating through them, no matter who they are.  And with this perception, let us realize that all of us who have been humbled will be lifted up by God and exalted in ways so wonderful we cannot even begin to fathom them in this moment.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

This is the wooden base in the St. Mary Garden behind St. Stephen's. These holes were burned into it by the still-burning braziers dumped from the thurible following Mass.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

22 Pentecost

October 16, 2016

Genesis 32.22-31; 2 Timothy 3.14-4.5

+ I believe I have shared this story with you before. It’s a story I love, and have preached many times, because it’s just that good. But I’m share it again this morning, because it sorts of echoes our reading from Genesis today, which is another story I love.

In this story, there was once a very wealthy king. He was a good king, who loved God dearly. One evening, he was walking in his beautiful garden, admiring the trees and the flowers and the plants. And as he did so, as the joy and beauty of it all came upon him, he found himself singing psalms to God. The psalms just seemed to well up from within him. Suddenly, an angel appeared to him. It was a mighty, beautiful angel and the King was amazed. He was so excited that an angel of all things appeared to him! Just as he was about to exclaim his joy at the angel, the angel raised its hand and struck him hard across the face. It actually knocked the King off his feet and threw him into the dirt and mud.

The King was shocked. He had never been struck before! And he was confused.

As he looked up from the mud, his clothes torn, wracked with pain, he cried, “Angel, why did you strike me? What did I do wrong? Here I was singing God’s praises in this beautiful garden and then you struck me! Why would you do such a thing?”

The angel replied, “Of course, you can sing God’s praises as you wander about in your beautiful garden, dressed in fine clothes, with joy and happiness in your heart. That’s easy. But now, try. Try to sing God’s praises after you’ve been struck across the face by an angel.”

I love that story. Because it is true. We’ve all been there. We’ve all been laid low by an angel who now demands that we sing God’s praise from our pain.

In so many ways, it really does remind me of the story of Jacob and the angel.  I love the story of Jacob’s wrestling with an angel.  And I know, we often like to personalize this story.

I know we tend to look at this battle between Jacob (or ourselves) and God. But I once heard a preacher share how in his opinion this could very much be an analogy for our own struggled with scripture. I love that analogy. Because, it also is true.

Oftentimes, our struggle with scripture feels like we’re wrestling with an angel. Or, more often, like we’ve been slapped across the face by angel.  You’ve heard me reference scripture as a potentially dangerous two-edged sword. An often unweildy  two-edged sword, especially for those who use it as a weapon. And we’ve all known those people who use it as such.  You’ve heard me say, again and again, that if our intention is to cut people down with the sword of scripture, just be prepared…

It too will in turn cut the one wielding the sword.  And I believe that.  That is what scripture does when we misuse it.  

However, if we use scripture as it meant to be used—as an object of love, as a way in which God can speak to us—then it is also two-edged.   If we use it as way to open the channels of God’s love to others, then the channels of God’s love will be opened to us as well.  Now, I am very firm on this point.  When it comes to people using scripture in a negative way, wildly waving that sword around, I love crack the knuckles. Because, I truly do love the Bible.   Of course, what kind of priest would I be if I didn’t love the Scriptures?  But I really, really do.

After all, one of the vows I made when I was ordained as a Deacon and later reaffirmed when I was ordained a Priest was this (and I renewed these vows yesterday at the Convention Eucharist):

“I solemnly declare that I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation…”

Now, that might sound like a somewhat fundamentalist view of such things.  The scriptures are the Word of God? you might ask.   Even with all the apparent flaws and contradictions? And it contains everything necessary for salvation?   Come on.  But I do believe these statements—though not in a fundamentalist way of thinking.

If we look in our Prayer Book, as we do on a very regular basis, back in that place I like to direct us to go sometimes—the Catechism—we find a little expansion on this thinking.  On page 853, you will find this question:

“Why do we call the Holy Scriptures the Word of God?”

The answer:

“We call the Holy Scriptures the Word of God because God inspired their human authors and because God still speaks through the Bible.”

I think that is a wonderfully down-to-earth, practical and rational explanation.

In our “Episcopal 101” classes that we do here on a regular basis and several of you have taken,  we often have fun exploring what Anglicanism and the Episcopal Church are.  
 One of those fun ones for me, anyway, is what is called Richard Hooker’s three-
legged stool.  Some of you might remember this. Richard Hooker was a great 16th Century Anglican theologian. He explained that Anglican belief was based not on “The Church Alone” of the Roman Catholic Church nor even on “The Word Alone” of some Protestants, but is in fact based on a more balanced view. The three legs of the stool of Anglicanism are


Take one of those legs away, the stool wobbles and falls.   But use all three and you will have a very a balanced view of religion.  For example, if we only have Scripture, without Reason or Tradition, we end up with what I consider the heresy of fundamentalism. And fundamentalism is a heresy.  Anytime we place anything on par with God—any time we claim anything is perfect and without flaw, except God—we have a created an idol.   My view is that fundamentalists have made the Bible into an idol.

But for us Episcopalians, our view of scripture is based on a balance of tradition and reason.  We can’t just believe anything we want with regard to Scripture.   There are scriptures that we don’t like hearing.  But none of gets to edit the Bible.  We don’t get to cross out those things we don’t like.  We have to confront those difficult and uncomfortable scriptures and meet them face-on.
And we have to wrestle with them, as Jacob wrestled with that angel, and in wrestling with them we must use a good dose of reason, and a good dose of tradition.   And if we do that, we come away from those difficult scriptures with a new sense of what they say to us.

For example,  I personally might not like what the Apostle  Paul says sometimes—I might not even agree with it—but, good or bad, it isn’t up to me.   Or any of one of us.   It’s up to the Church, of which we, as individuals, are one part and parcel.

For us Episcopalians, we don’t have to despair over those things Paul says that might offend our delicate 21st century ears.  We just need to remind ourselves that our beliefs about Scripture are based on a rational approach tempered with the tradition of the Church.

In fact, if we continue reading on page 853 in the Catechism, we will find this answer to the question, “How do we understand the meaning of the Bible?”

The answer:

“We understand the meaning of the Bible by the help of the Holy Spirit, who guides the Church in the true interpretation of Scripture.”

There you see a very solid approach to understanding Scripture.   Reason (in this sense the inspiration of the Spirit), along with the Church (or Tradition) helps us in interpreting Scripture.   Such thinking prevents us from falling into that awful muck of fundamentalist heresy.   Such thinking steers us clear of this misconception that that the Scriptures are without flaw.  Such thinking also steers clear of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, with regard to Scripture as well.

Sometimes, if we use too much reason in our approach to Scripture, we find ourselves reasoning it all away and it becomes nothing but a quaint book of myths, morals and legends.

Yes, the Scriptures are not without flaws.  As God-inspired as they might be, they were written by fallible human beings.  Pre-scientific human beings, writing in a language that has been translated and retranslated over and over again.  And human beings have been notorious—even in Scripture—of not always being able to get everything perfect, no matter how God-inspired they are.  Not even Scripture expects us to be perfect. But, the second part our explanation of the question from the Catechism of why we call Holy Scripture the Word of God is even more important to me.

“God still speaks to us through scripture.”

I love the idea that God does still speak to us through these God-inspired writings by flawed human beings.  And what God speaks to us through Scriptures is, again and again, a message of love, even in the midst of some of the more violent, or fantastic stories we read in Scripture.

Now, one of those flawed human beings in the Bible was of course, the Apostle Paul.   Paul himself would admit, on one of his less grandiose days, that he was a flawed person.   And I love the fact that, this morning, God seems to be speaking loud and clear through Paul in his letter to Timothy.

“All scripture is inspired by God,” Paul instructs, “and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”

I love that. That is some rational, solid thinking, if you ask me.  Scripture here is intended not to condemn, not bash, not to hurt, but to build up and equip us for “every good work.”

“Proclaim the message, “ he tells Timothy (and us), “be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorably; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.”

For any of us who have been teachers, those words strike home.  But, if you notice, nowhere does Paul say we must condemn or pound down, or coerce others using Scripture. Scripture must build up and encourage and teach us to serve and to love.   And Scripture must be a conduit through which God continues to speak to us.

Yes, our encounter with God in scripture sometimes is very much like Jacob wrestling with angel. And very often it may feel like the angel who slaps the king across the face when we become too sure of ourselves. If scripture doesn’t do things for us sometimes, if we only go to scripture to feel good about ourselves, to prove ourselves right about things, and not be challenged, then we are using scripture incorrectly and it may, in fact, come back to cut us.

So, let us embrace this balanced and reasonable and very Anglican approach to Scripture.  Let us listen to Scripture and hear the Word of God speaking to us through it.  Let us continue to place the Scriptures at the center of our lives and let us allow them to guide us into a pathway of love and service.   And, most importantly, let us use it, again and again, as an instrument of love rather than a weapon of war and hatred.  When we do, we will find that the two-edged sword of that instrument of love, will open the doors of God’s love to us as well.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

20 Pentecost

October 2, 2016

Luke 17.5-10

+ Yesterday I commemorated a fun anniversary. On October 1, 2008, I began my duties as the Priest here at St. Stephen’s. I posted this little comment on Facebook yesterday (for those of you who might not have seen it):

On October 1st, 2008, I began my duties as the Priest of St. Stephen’s. It is an understatement to say that it has been an amazing 8 years for me. I am so humbled and amazed to have been called to such a spiritual powerhouse of a congregation that has blossomed and flourished right before my eyes!

Those words are definitely true. We really are a spiritual powerhouse. An eclectic spiritual powerhouse.  

And, as I was thinking about it, I realized that when we say we are truly welcoming, we really are a welcoming congregation.  We welcome everyone, even people who might not believe the same things about certain issues.  People who have different political views. People who have different spiritual views.

There truly is a wide spectrum of belief here at St. Stephen’s. We encompass many people and beliefs here. And I love that!  And, as I’ve said, even people who don’t believe, or don’t know what they believe, are always welcome here.  And included. That includes even atheists.  

I love atheists, as many of you know.  And I don’t mean in that some condescending way, by saying that, that I love them because of some intent to convert them.  No.  My love for atheists has simply to do with the fact that I “get” them.  I understand them.  I appreciate them.  And I have lots of atheists in my life!

Agnostics and atheists have always intrigued me.  In fact, as many of you know, I was an agnostic, verging on atheism, once a long time ago in my life.  Now to be clear, agnosticism and atheism are two similar though different aspects of belief or disbelief.

An agnostic—gnostic meaning knowledge, an “a” in front of it negates that word, so no knowledge of God—is simply someone who doesn’t know if God exists or not.

And atheist—a theist is a person who believes in god, an “a” in front of it negates it, so a person who does not believe God—in someone who simply does not or cannot believe.

You have heard me say often that we are all agnostics, to some extent.  There are things about our faith we simply—and honestly—don’t know.  That’s not a bad thing. It’s actually a very good thing. Our agnosticism keeps us on our toes.  I think agnosticism is an honest response.

But atheism is interesting and certainly honest too, in this sense. Whenever I ask an atheist what kind of God they don’t believe in, and they tell me, I, quite honestly, have to agree. When atheists tell me they don’t believe in some white-bearded man seated on a throne in some far-off, cloud filled kingdom like some Monty Python cut-out, some magic man living in the sky, then, I have to say, “I don’t believe in that God either.” I am an atheist in regard to that God—that idolatrous god made in our own image.  If that’s what an atheist is, then count me in.

But the God I do believe in—the God of mystery, the God of wonder and faith and love—now, that God is a God I can serve and worship.  And this God of mystery and love that I serve has, I believe, chosen to come to us, here in the muck of our lives.  Certainly that is not some distant, strange, human-made God.  Rather it is a close, loving, God, a God who is with us.

But there are issues with such a belief.  Believing in a God of mystery means we now have work cut out for us in cultivating our faith in that God of mystery.

“Increase our faith!” the apostles petition Jesus in today’s Gospel.  And two thousand years later, we—Jesus’ disciples now—are still asking him to essentially do that for us as well.   It’s an honest prayer.   We want our faith increased. We want to believe more fully than we do. We want to believe in a way that will eliminate doubt, because doubt is so…uncertain.

Doubt is a sometimes frightening place to explore.  And we are afraid that with little faith and a lot of doubt, doubt will win out.  We are crying out—like those first apostles—for more than we have.

But Jesus—in that way that Jesus does—turns it all back on us.   He tells us that we shouldn’t be worrying about increasing our faith.   We should rather be concerned about the mustard seed of faith that we have right now.

Think of that for a moment.   Think of what a mustard seed really is.   It’s one of the smallest things we can see. It’s a minuscule thing. It’s the side of a period at the end of a sentence or a dot on a lower-case I (10 point font).  It’s just that small. Jesus tells us that with that little bit of faith—that small amount of real faith—we can tell a mulberry tree, “be uprooted and planted in the sea.”  

In other words, those of us who are afraid that a whole lot of doubt can overwhelm that little bit of faith have nothing to worry about.  Because even a little bit of faith—even a mustard seed of faith—is more powerful than an ocean of doubt.  A little seed of faith is the most powerful thing in the world, because that tiny amount of faith will drive us and push us and motivate us to do incredible things.  And doing those things, spurred on and nourished by that little bit of faith, does make a difference in the world.  Even if we have 99% doubt and 1% faith, that 1% wins out over the rest, again and again.

We are going to doubt.  We are going to sometimes gaze into that void and have a hard time seeing, for certain—without any doubt—that God truly is there.  We all doubt. And that’s all right to do.

But if we still go on loving, if we still go on serving, if we still go on trying to bring the sacred and holy into our midst and into this world even in the face of that 99% of doubt, that is our mustard seed of faith at work.  That is what loving God even a little and loving our neighbor as ourselves even a little does. It furthers the Kingdom of God in our midst, even when we might be doubting that there is even a Kingdom of God.

Now, yes, I understand that it’s weird to hear a priest get up here and say that atheists and agnostics and other doubters can teach us lessons about faith.  But they can.  I think God does work in that way sometimes.  I have no doubt that God can increase our faith my any means necessary, even despite our doubts.  And if God can do that in the life and example of an atheist, imagine what God can do in our lives—in us, who are committed Christians who stand up every Sunday in church and profess our faiths in the Creed we are about to recite together.

So, let us cultivate that mustard-sized faith inside us. Let’s not fret over how small it is.  Let’s not worry about weighing it on the scale against the doubt in our lives.  Let’s not despair over how miniscule it is.  Let’s not fear doubt. Let us not be scared of our natural agnosticism. Rather, let us realize that even that mustard seed of faith within us can do incredible things in our lives and in the lives of those around us.  And in doing those small things, we all are bringing the Kingdom of God into our midst.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

The memorial service of Mercille Moen

The Memorial Service for
Mercille Moen
(June 24, 1915– Sept. 26, 2016)
Hanson Runsvold Funeral Home,  Fargo, ND
 October 1, 2016

I am very honored to speak this afternoon as we commemorate the long and wonderful life of my great aunt Mercille Moen and as we commend this wonderful woman to her loving God. I thank Pastor Bill for asking me to share a few words.

I am going to be honest this afternoon. It is hard to even begin to imagine life without Mercille. She was always there. Even when she celebrated first 100th birthday and then her 101st birthday, even when we knew that her passing was inevitable, I have to say, it has been difficult. It’s been difficult to adjust to a world without Mercille.   After all she was a part of this world for longer than any of us can even imagine.  And it will take some time for us to get used to life without her.

She was a remarkable woman—and I don’t say that lightly. She was a woman of great strength and of contagious warmth.  There was no doubt about that.  Whenever I would come and visit her (which I always enjoyed doing)  she would look at me with that brilliant spark in her eyes and would welcome me as though she had known me all her life.  I liked that.

It is in a moment like this that I am very, very thankful that God brought Mercille into our family. I am thankful she was my aunt. I am thankful for the witness of her long life. And I am thankful, simply, for her.  We will all miss her and will feel her loss for a long time to come. But, on this day in which we bid her this temporary goodbye, let us also be thankful.

Let us be thankful for this woman whom God has been gracious to let us know and to love.  Let us be thankful for her example to us. And let us be grateful for all she has given us in our own lives.

Into paradise may the angels lead you, Aunt Mercille. At your coming may the martyrs receive you. And may they bring you into that holy city Jerusalem.  Amen.

3 Pentecost

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