Sunday, June 25, 2017

3 Pentecost

June 25, 2017

Matthew 10.24-39

+ I don’t know if you’ve noticed it. But I sure have. There has been a kind of weird “shift” happening. It’s almost like a comic shift,  For several months, especially since late last year and earlier this year, there was a weird, sort of collective sense of fear and dread. It was palpable. You could almost cut it with a knife.  And it was disconcerting. It was like a dark pall had fallen over…everything.

Now, I’m not just talking about the political situation, form whatever perspective you might have on that.  It was bigger than that. But it was there. And it was very, very real. And, as a priest, I was hearing it from many people who were coming to me with this same sense of fear and dread.

It reminds me very much of some of the petitions we find in a service in our Prayer Book I don’t think we’ve ever discussed on Sunday before. In our Prayer Book, beginning on page 148, we have something called “The Great Litany.” The Great Litany, and especially the Supplication, which can be found on page 152 is a special prayer service which is often used “in times of war, or of national anxiety, or of disaster.” It’s not a liturgy we, thankfully, use very often (though the Great Litany itself, without the supplication, can be used during Lent).  The last time I saw the Great Litany used as a service itself was on the evening September 11, 2001.  And I have certainly prayed the Great Litany here in church on an occasion or two in the past.  I have prayed here especially at times like we have just experienced—a time of strange, spiritual fear that seems to grip us and hold us tight.

Fear like that can be very frightening. It can be crippling. And, as you’ve heard me say many times, fear in this sense is not from God.  Fear is a reality and there’s no way around at it times, but it is not something we should allow to dominate our lives.

In a sense, that fear is possibly what Jesus is hinting at in our Gospel reading. Well, there’s actually a lot going on in our Gospel reading for today. There are layers and layers in our Gospel reading. And some really fairly unpleasant things.  But essentially it is about our fear of doing the work of God—doing the ministry of Christ—and…about taking up our cross.  

Certainly it seems all this is bound together.  Essentially, probably our greatest cross to bear is our fear. A fear like I referred to at the beginning of my sermon. A strange, overpowering fear that is hard to pinpoint.  A fear of the unknown. A fear of the future. A fear of all those things we can’t control in our lives.

Let’s take a moment this morning to actually think about the symbol of our fears—this thing to which Jesus refers today—the Cross.  And I say that because the Cross is a symbol of fear. It certainly was to people of Jesus’ day.  It was an instrument of torture and pain and death.  There was nothing hopeful or life-affirming in it to them.

And yet, look at how deceptively simple it is.  It’s simply two pieces, bound together.

For someone who knows nothing about Christianity, for someone who knows nothing about the story, it’s a symbol they might not think much about. And yet, for us, on this side of Jesus’ crucifixion, the Cross is more than just another symbol in our lives.  

It is a perfect example of how something that is a true symbol of death, destruction and fear can be transformed.  The story of the Cross is amazing in the sense that is as symbol of absolute terror and darkness transformed into a symbol of unending life, of victory of fear and death and despair.  

Jesus knew full well what the cross was all about, even before he was even nailed to it.  In our Gospel reading, he says, 

“anyone who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”

He knew it was a terrible dark thing. He knew what is represented.  And by saying those words, the people of his day did not want to hear those words either.

Taking up a cross? Are you serious? Why would anyone do that?  Taking up the Cross is frightening after all.  To take up a cross means to take up a burden—that thing we maybe fear the most in our lives.  To take it up—to face our greatest fear—is torturous.  It hurts.

When we think of that last journey Jesus took to the place of his crucifixion, carrying that heavy tree on which he is going to be murdered, it must’ve been more horrible than we can even begin to imagine.

 But the fact is, what Jesus is saying to us is: carry your cross now.  Carry it with dignity and inner strength. But carry it without fear.  

And this is the most important aspect of today’s Gospel reading.  Jesus commands us not once, but twice,

 “Do not be afraid.”

“Do not be afraid.”

He isn’t saying that in some nonchalant way.  He isn’t just saying it flippantly.  He is being blunt.

Do not be afraid.

Do not be afraid of what the world can throw at you.  Do not be afraid of what can be done to the body and the flesh. Taking our cross and bearing it bravely is a sure and certain way of not fearing.  It is a defiant act. If we take the crosses we’ve been given to bear and embrace them, rather than running away from them, we find that fear has no control over us.

The Cross destroys fear.  The Cross shatters fear into a million pieces.  And when we do fear, because we will experience fear in our lives, we know we have a place to go to for shelter in moments of real fear.  

When fear encroaches on our lives—when fear comes riding roughshod through our lives—all we have to do is face it head-on.   And there, we will find our fears destroyed.  Because of the Cross, we are taken care of.  There is no reason to fear. I know that sounds complacent. But there is no reason to fear.

Yes, there will be moments of collective, spiritual fear. Yes, there will be a palpable fear we can almost touch. Yes, we will be confronted at times with real and horrible fear.  But, there is no reason to despair over it  because we are not in control. God is in control.

“Even the hairs of your head are counted” by the God who loves us and cares for us.

This God knows us intimately. So intimately than this God even knows how many hairs are on our head.  Why should we be afraid then? Because each of us is valuable. We are valuable to God, who loves us.

When we stop fearing whatever crosses we must bear in our lives, the cross will stop being something terrible.  Like that cross on which Jesus died, it will be a ugly thing of death and pain and fear  turned into a symbol of strength and joy and unending eternal life.  Through it, we know, we must pass to find true and unending life.  Through the Cross, we must pass to find ourselves, once and for all time, face-to-face with our God.

So, I invite you: take notice of the crosses around you. As you drive along, notice the crosses on the churches you pass.  Notice the crosses that surround you.  When you see the Cross, remember what it means to you.  Look to it for what it is: a triumph over every single fear in our lives. When we see the crosses in our lives, we can look at it and realize it is destroying fear in our own lives.  Let us bear those crosses of our lives patiently and, most importantly, without fear.

We are loved by our God. Each of us is precious to our God.  Knowing that, rejoicing in that, how can we ever fear again?

Sunday, June 18, 2017

2 Pentecost

June 18, 2017

Exodus 19.2-8a; Matthew 9.35-38

+ Last week, last Sunday actually, James very graciously led you all in a  blessing on me as I commemorated the 13th anniversary of my ordination to the Priesthood. It was a wonderful day. And I was humbled by it all.

I joked at that time about how I am now a teenaged priest. Well, I’ve actually been a teenaged ordained minister for a while. Next month, I will celebrate the 14th anniversary of my ordination as a deacon.

But, I wish that our Gospel reading for today was LAST week, because, it is the same Gospel reading for the feast of St. Barnabas, on whose feast day, June 11, I was ordained to the priesthood. A portion of this same Gospel was read at my ordination.

Now, to be clear, I didn’t pick the Gospel for that evening.  But the words of that Gospel, which we just heard, were words that have been very prophetic in my own life as an ordained minister. In that Gospel reading, we hear Jesus say,

“I am sending you as sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

I should have those words inscribed on my gravestone!! Because that is exactly what it’s like to be a minister. Actually, that’s what it’s like just to be a Christian at times. At least, I hope we are all striving to be this kind of Christian in our lives.

Most of us, in whatever ministries we might be doing in our lives, know this to be very true.  We’ve been there, in the midst of those wolves. We have known those wolves very well. And yes, some of them really are wolves in sheep’s clothing, let me tell you!  I could name a few… I won’t. But I could.

And if I have had any gift granted to me by Jesus to survive all these years of ordained ministry, I can say that, for me anyway, it has definitely been to be as wise as a serpent and innocent as a dove.  Well, I don’t know how “innocent” I’ve been. Or, for that matter,  “wise” either.  But I’ve tried really hard to be both wise and innocent, as a priest, as a deacon, as a follower of Jesus, a lover of God and a lover of others.

There is something so profoundly true in this Gospel reading for today. Of course, there’s a lot here. It’s a long Gospel reading. But, it’s all good. And it is a message to all of us. All of us who are called to ministry. All of us who serve. All of us who strive to follow Jesus and love God and one another.

For those of who do those things, who follow Jesus, who love God and one another, in any way in our lives, we are, as we heard in our reading form Exodus today, “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” Doing any one of these things—following Jesus, loving God, loving others—is not easy.  Because doing these things isn’t some insular thing we do. It isn’t just about “me and Jesus,” so to speak.  It’s about all of us. Together.  And doing all of this means that, occasionally, we must stand up and speak out.  And that’s definitely not easy.  It’s not easy taking a step out there and standing up for what we know is right. It is not easy to standing up and speak wise as serpents and innocent as doves.  Ministry is hard.

Following Jesus is hard. Loving God is hard. Loving one another—let me tell you, that’s very hard sometimes.  Being a laborer when the harvest plentiful and the laborers are few is hard.

All of who do it—and that is everyone here today—know that we all have to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves at times in our lives and in the work we do. Each of us has been called, by our very baptism, to be those laborers of the harvest.   We have been called to serve.  We have been called to shed our egos to a large extent.  And that might be the hardest thing of all.

I know that it is for me.  Ministry is certainly not some ego trip. If one goes into ordained ministry for an ego trip, let me tell you, there will be, as we heard Senator Diane Feinstein say this past week,  a rude awakening.

Because, ministry, any kind of ministry, is not about any one of us as an individual. It is not about the cult of personality. When it make it such, it is doomed to fail. Trust me. I have seen it happen.

Ministry is, in fact, humbling.  Or, sometimes, downright humiliating.  And, sometimes, it can be a burden.  Partly it can be burden because, none of us, not one of us, is perfect.  And realizing our limitations can be sobering. It can be frightening. And it can be humbling.

Of course, we must remember that no one is expecting any of us to be perfect.   But the message I think we all—ordained or not—can take away from this is that God uses our imperfections. God uses us as we are.  God loves us for who are.  And this is our model in turn.

We must love each other, as we are, for who we are.

And when we realize that we don’t have to be perfect, that we don’t all have to ordained priests or deacons to do what God calls us to do, it can be a relief.  Because, the fact is, imperfect as we are, we are all a priestly kingdom God calls each of us in our own ways—in our own fractured ways—to serve as we need to serve—to do as much good as we can here and now.

That is all we can do sometimes. We must strive hard just to do good, even in some small way, every day, in whatever way we can.

In so many ways, our lives and ministries are very much like those Israelites, who we encounter today in our reading from Exodus wandering about in the desert.  It does feel like that on occasion. That we are wandering about in the desert. That we are uncertain of what we are doing or where we are going. But, once we start trusting, once we stop relying only ourselves and our egos, once we stop trying to be perfect all the time, and just trust God, and love others, and just follow Jesus where he going, we do find our way.

So, let us not try to hide our imperfections. Instead, let us live out our ministry as you are, striving to have compassion on the harassed and the helpless, on those who are sick and those who might not even know they’re sick, on the marginalized and on those who have little or no voice.  Even if we fail, making the effort helps us to live out our priesthood and, if nothing else, it just makes the world a little better place than it was before.

Let us truly be a nation of priests, loving God, loving each other.  And in all that may come upon—good or bad—let us be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.  By doing so, we live in integrity. By doing so, we will make a difference in this world, even in some small way. By doing so, we will making the Kingdom of God even closer.

“The Kingdom of God is near,” we hear Jesus say to us today in our Gospel reading.

It is near because we are working and striving to make it near.  We are making it present when we do what we do in love.

Let us pray.

Lord of the Harvest, send us out. Help as we bring your Kingdom nearer. Let us strive, in our love of you and of one another, to do the work you have called us to do. There is much work to do. Let us do what we must do. We ask this in the holy Name of Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Holy Trinity

June 11, 2017

Matthew 28.16-20

+ This morning is a red-letter day. Not, mind you, because I have been a priest for 13 years (though, that’s kind of cool for me). Now I’m a teenage priest. And you thought my terrible twos were bad!

No, it’s a red-letter day because you are going to hear me quote someone I never thought I would quote in a sermon. This person I am about to quote is a person with whom I have had a love/dislike relationship with for many years. I have rebelled against him for so long, I have difficulty even admitting to the fact that I am quoting him today. This person is none other than…

Martin Luther.

Now, to be clear, Martin Luther has been an important personage in my life for some time.  I am, after all, a former Lutheran. In seminary, I wrote a paper about his “Theology of the Cross” when I was in seminary that won some rave reviews (and his “theology of the Cross” has influenced me greatly). So, it’s good for me to share this quote that I think speaks very clearly to us on this Holy Trinity Sunday.

Luther wrote,

“To deny the Trinity is to risk our salvation; to try to explain the Trinity is to risk our sanity.”

I love that quote!  And it speaks very loudly to me today.  There are, no doubt, a few anxious preachers out there in the world. There is probably more than one who is going into the pulpits of churches quaking a bit over the sermon they have to preach today.

For some reason—a reason I never understood—there are a lot of preachers who just don’t even want to wrestle with the subject of the Trinity.

Not me. I LOVE to preach about the Trinity.  

Now, I don’t claim to know anything more about the Trinity than any other preacher.  I am no more profound than anyone else on trying to describe what the Trinity is or how it works.  

For me, as for everyone here this morning, it is a mystery. In fact, God as Trinity is the ultimate mystery of mysteries.  

Of course, I see it as the paramount belief we Christians have.  The Holy Trinity. God as Three-in-One—God as Father or Parent or Creator, God as Son or  Redeemer and God as Spirit or Sanctifier.

When we really think about it, it is difficult to wrap our minds around this concept of God.  The questions I 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?  Aren’t we simply talking about three gods? (No, we are not talking about three Gods)

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.

For me, none of these are deal breakers.  The Trinity is not a stumbling block for me.  Yes, I know the word “Trinity” never appears in scripture.  But I do enjoy exploring the different aspects of how God as Trinity is made known to us.  And…I very unashamedly believe that God does manifest God’s self in Trinitarian terms.

But that doesn’t mean I am not confused by this mystery some times.  And it doesn’t mean that I don’t occasionally doubt it all sometimes.

In our Gospel reading for today, we find that some worshipped Jesus when they saw him resurrected.  And we find that “some doubted.”  I think that was a normal reaction for those people, who were still struggling to understand who Jesus was, especially this resurrected Jesus—this second person of the Trinity

And the fact that we too doubt things like the Trinity is normal as well. It IS difficult to wrap our minds around such a thing.  It’s complicated and it’s complex. And, speaking for myself, and to echo Luther,  sometimes the more I think about it, the more complicated it seems to get. Especially when we try to think in the so-called correct (or orthodox) way about it all.

But the doubts, the complications and intricacies of the concept of the Trinity are all part of belief.  Belief is not meant to be easy.  It is meant to be something we struggle with and carry around with us.  And doubt isn’t always a bad thing.

We all doubt at times.  Without doubt we would be nothing but mindless robots of God.

There are moments when the Trinity does confuse me and I am filled with doubts.  Sometimes my most common prayer when I start pondering it is, “Seriously, Lord? Really?”

I am one of those people who occasionally just wants something simple in my faith life.  I just want to believe in God—the mystery of God, the fact that God is God and any complexity about God is more than I can fathom.  

I sometimes don’t want to solve the mystery of God. I don’t want God defined for me.  I sometimes don’t want theology.  I sometimes just want spirituality.  I sometimes just want God.

But, as a Christian, I can’t get around the Trinity.  And none of us can either.  And so I struggle on, just like the rest of us.

Yes, I have my doubts.  Yes, my rational, intellectual mind prevents me from fully understanding what this Trinity could possibly be and, as a result, doubts creep in.

Every year, on Holy Trinity Sunday, I place the Andrei Rubelev’s famous icon of the Trinity on the votive stand in the Narthex.  Be sure to 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.

It simply allows me to come to the table and BE with God as Trinity.  It allows me to sit there with them and be one with them. No need to wrestle with them, or debate them, or doubt them.  And we realize, certainly in our own life here at St. Stephen’s, that God as Trinity is still calling to us to be at the table with God.

Here, at this altar, we find the Trinity, inviting us forward.  And from this table, at which we feast with God as Trinity, we go out to do the ministries we are all called to do.

We go out to do the work of God as Trinity.  We don’t need to rationalize everything out about our faith in God.  We don’t need to sit around and despair over it.  We don’t need to risk our sanity. Or our salvation.  

No matter how much we might doubt the Trinity, the fact is: the Trinity exists.  God as Trinity goes on, in that eternal, wonderful relationship.  And no matter how much we might doubt in our rational minds, we are still being called to the table to sit and to serve with the Trinity.

So, let us do just that.  Let us sit down at that table.  Let us bring our doubts and uncertainties with us.  And let us leave them there at the table.  Let us let God be God.  And let us go out from this table to do the work each of us has been called by God to do.

Jesus today, in our Gospel reading, commands us to go and make disciples of all the nations.  By doing so, we are joining in that communion of the Trinity.  And by doing so, we know, despite our doubts, despite our uncertainties, that the Trinity will be with us always.


Even to the end of the age.

Sunday, June 4, 2017


June 4, 2017

Acts 2.1-21

+ This past week, I came across a hidden little treasure here at St. Stephen’s. I just happened to come across that Pentecost banner that is hanging there. I found it in the sacristy, along with several other banners. I realized we had not put it up for many years, certainly the last time it was put up was before I got here.

It was fun to do a little detective work on it these last few days. James shared that he remembered when it hung where our ikon to Our Lady not hangs.

But, what has been particularly wonderful about the detective work is, that as I sent the photo of the banner around, trying to find out more about it, I kept hearing from people, “”I love Pentecost.”

In fact, Alice Hauan loves Pentecost so much, she had her family come over early this morning to put up those wonderful red flags in front of the church.

That’s a good thing. It’s good to love Pentecost. Because it is an important feast in the Church. In fact, it’s one of the most very important feasts in the church, right up there with Easter and Christmas.  Like Easter and Christmas, it even has a vigil service the evening before.

With the ending of this day of Pentecost, the Easter season officially ends. This evening, I will move the Paschal Candle back out to the Baptismal font in the Narthex. We will say Alleluia a bit less than we have during the season of Easter.  But, we will continue to live into the resurrection and into the Holy Spirit’s indwelling presence among us.

Pentecost is the feast in which we celebrate the Holy Spirit—or more specifically the Holy Spirit’s descent upon those first followers of Jesus.  It also gives us an opportunity to think about a very important thing that we often just don’t think about but which works in our lives on a daily basis:

The Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit, after all, is God in our midst. God’s very Presence here on earth with us and in us.  The Holy Spirit is that gift that Jesus told us would be the gift we receive now that we no longer have Jesus physically with in the flesh as he was before his Ascension.

Today, we are commemorating the Holy Spirit moving in us.  In us, as the collective Church.  And in us, as individuals.   And that moving of the Holy Spirit within us, has changed us and made us—both collectively and individually—a wonderful force of good and love in the world.

I think most of us—I hope most of us—have felt his moving of the Holy Spirit within us as some point.   Still, even if we haven’t, 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.

And you know what? That’s all right.  We don’t have “figure out” the Holy Spirit. We don’t have to understand the Spirit.  All we have to do is be open and allow the Spirit to dwell in us and through us.

In a sense what happens with the Descent of God’ Spirit upon us. We now have the potential to be prophets, as you’ve heard me say many, many times. 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 the Spirit 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 of 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 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.    It was on the feast of Pentecost in Jewish culture on which the first fruit of the harvest 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 is manifested 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.

For me, the Spirit of God came to me at various points in my life not in a noisy, raucous way, but rather in a  quiet, though just as intense, way.   The Spirit of God as I have experienced The Spirit 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.  

Last Wednesday, on May 31st the Feast of the Visitation, I celebrated the 34th anniversary of my calling to the Priesthood.    On that day, I can tell you, when I felt the Holy Spirit move in me,  I knew that presence was holy and good and true and right.   My life certainly didn’t get easier after that point.   But my life changed, and I was led to places by that same Spirit which called me that I would never have thought for myself.   

No doubt everyone here this morning has felt a similar experience of God’s Spirit, although you might not have readily recognized that experience as God’s Spirit.   Maybe it was the joy and hope 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 always tear open the ceiling and force fames of fire into our lives.   The Spirit rather comes to us just when we need the Spirit to come to 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 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 as the Spirit was those first disciples.   

On this feast of Pentecost—this feast of the fruits of God—let us feel the Holy Spirit move within us and let us give thanks to God for all the many fruits of the Spirit in our lives.

And so, as we end this Easter season, as we celebrate the Spirit’s presence among us let us pray,

Lord Jesus, let the love we have celebrated in this Easter season be put into practice in our daily lives as we follow you. . We ask this through in your name, with God our Creator and the Holy Spirit who works in us and through us, One God, forever and ever. Amen.

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