Sunday, August 30, 2020

13 Pentecost


August 30, 2020

 Matthew 16.21-28


+ Last week, I preached about my strange relationship with the Church—capital C,


As I thought about it, it seems that one of the reasons people lose heart in  the Church is that they have a preconceived notion of what the Church is.


I think there are a lot of people who think the Church is this sweet, nice place where everyone gets along.


As I said last week in my sermon, the Church is not always that place at all.


In fact, the Church, as I have always said, is a human-run organization run by fallible human beings.


I don’t just mean Bishops and Priests.


I know it’s fun for some laity to be anti-clerical.


We can blame the clergy for this and that.


But it’s false.


Lay leaders have also done much to undermine and hurt the Church as well.


If you don’t believe me, read a very interesting book called When Sheep Attack.


I think people also think that being a Christian means being happy, and joyful all the time with nothing bad happening in our lives.


There are people who cannot understand why bad things happen to Christians.


Shouldn’t God be protecting us in some special way?


In fact, I had an argument with a friend of mine not all that long ago about this very same subject.


This friend—a committed Christian— told me that they believed that it was God’s will that we be happy.


“It is?” I said. “Really? Find me anywhere in scripture where that is the case!”


Of course, he couldn’t.


Because it’s nto true.


That is simply not the case.


It is not God’s will that we be happy in this life.


Yes, we should strive for happiness and contentment in our lives.


Yes, we should do our best to live fulfilling and meaningful lives.


But we are not promised rose gardens in this life (as the old Country song goes).


If you want proof that life as a Christian often means living with hardship and pain and suffering, then you need look no farther than the martyrs of the church.


At our Wednesday night Mass, we invariably encounter a martyr or two.


And their stories are often horrendous and frightening.


But martyrs are an essential part of the Church, of our faith.


After all, in the early Church, the martyrs were the rock stars of their age.


They were loved.


They were emulated.


They were, in some cases, often disturbingly, imitated.


To be murdered for Jesus at that time was a great honor at that time.


Even now martyrs are considered great heroes.

We, of course, honor and emulate such martyred leaders of the Church as Martin Luther King or the great Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer or the Anglican Archbishop of Uganda, Janani Luwum


But this discussion of martyrs does cause us to ask some questions of our selves.


The big question is: if worse came to worst, would we be willing to die for Jesus?


Would we be able to take to heart the words of today’s Gospel, when Jesus says,


“those who lose their life for my sake will gain it.”


Now, for those of us who were raised in the Roman Catholic faith, some of us heard about the differences between “blood martyrdom” and something called “dry martyrdom.”


A “wet” or “blood” martyr is someone like Martin Luther King—someone who died violently.


A dry martyr is one has suffered indignity and cruelty for Jesus but has not died violently in the process.


For example, Sister Constance and her companions were a group of Episcopal nuns who died while caring for the sick during a Yellow Fever outbreak in Memphis Tennessee in 1878.


They are known as the “Martyrs of Memphis,” even though they were not murdered for the faith.


Suffering for Christ then doesn’t just mean dying for Christ either.


There are many people who are living with persecution and other forms of abuse for their faith.


Or people who suffer for simply standing up and speaking out for what is right, even if it means they will be persecuted for such a view.


And it is a perfectly valid form of martyrdom (martyr of course means “witness”)


The point of all this martyr talk is that we need to be reminded that as wonderful as it is being Christian, as spiritually fulfilling as it is to follow Jesus and to have a deeply amazing personal relationship with the God of Jesus, nowhere in scripture or anywhere else are we promised that everything is going to be without struggle.


We all must bear crosses in our lives, as Jesus says in today’s Gospel.


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


We all still have our own burdens to bear as followers of Jesus


And those burdens are, of course, our crosses.


While we might understand losing our lives for Jesus’ sake might be easier for us to grasp, picking up our cross might seem like a vague idea for us.


Bearing our crosses for Jesus means essentially that, as wonderful as it is being a Christian, life for us isn’t always a rose garden.


Being a Christian means, bearing our cross and following Jesus, means facing bravely the ugly things that life sometimes throws at us.


Facing bravely!


I don’t think I have to tell anyone here what those ugly things in life are.


Each of us has had to deal with our own personal forms of the world’s ugliness.


As we ponder those who are “with” us this morning—both virtually or in the Church—most of us here this morning have carried our share of crosses in this life.


Most of us have shouldered the difficult and ugly things of this life—whether it be illness, death, loss, despair, disappointment, frustration—you name it.


The fact is: these things are going to happen to us whether we are Christians or not.


It’s simply our lot as human beings that life is going to be difficult at times.


It is a simple fact of life that we are going to have feasts in this life, as well as famines.


There will be gloriously wonderful days and horribly, nightmarish days.

We are going to have to endure pandemics, social isolation and fear


We are going to have to endure political upheaval.


We, as human beings, cannot escape this fact.


 But, we, as Christians, are being told this morning by Jesus that we cannot deal with those things like everyone else does.


When the bad things of this life happen, our first reaction is often to run away from them.


(I don’t know how to run away from a global pandemic).


Our instinct is fight or flight—and more likely it’s usually flight.


Our first reaction is to numb our emotions, to curl up into a defensive ball and protect ourselves and our emotions.


But Jesus is telling us that, as Christians, what we must do in those moments is to embrace those things—to embrace the crosses of this life—to shoulder them and to continue on in our following of Jesus.


By facing our crosses, by bearing them, by taking them and following Jesus, we was able to realize that what wins out in the end is God and God’s love, not the cross we are bearing.


What triumphs in the end is not any of the other ugly things this life throws at us.


Rather, what triumphs is the integrity and the strength we gain from being a Christian.


What triumphs is Jesus’ promise that a life unending awaits us.


What triumphs is Jesus’ triumph over death and the ugly things of this life.


What we judge to be the way we think it should be is sometimes judged differently by God.


We don’t see this world from the same perspective God does.


And as a result, we are often disappointed.


Yes, our burdens are just another form of martyrdom—another albeit a bloodless form of witnessing to Christ.


And, like a martyr, in the midst of our toil, in the midst of shouldering our burden and plodding along toward Jesus, we are able to say, “Blessed be the name of God!”


That is what it means to be a martyr.


That is what it means to deny one’s self, to take up one’s cross and to follow Jesus.


 That is what it means to find one’s life, even when everyone else in the world thinks you’ve lost your life.


It means in the midst of sadness, suffering and pain, to be able to say, “Blessed be the Name of God!”


So, let us take up whatever cross we’re bearing and carry it with strength and purpose.


 Let us take our cross up and follow Jesus.


Let us say, as we do so, “Blessed be the Name of God!”


And, in doing so, we will gain for ourselves the glory of God that Jesus promises to those who do so.


Let us pray.


Holy God, blessed is your name! we thank you for giving us the strength and purpose to take up our cross and follow your Son, Jesus, along a path that, although uncertain and frightening at times, leads always to you. In Jesus’s Name we pray. Amen.




Sunday, August 23, 2020

12 Pentecost


August 23, 2020


Matthew 16.13-20



+ This past week I had a very good and long overdue conversation with a priest colleague of mine.


She has been a longtime friend of mine and one that I like to hear from because hr perspective is always so fresh, if, at times, very different than my own.


In addition to be a good friend and listener to me, she is also one of the most liberal clergy people I know.


If you think I am liberal, you would be shocked by how liberal this friend of mine is.


Which actually came up in our conversation.


At some point in our conversation, she said to me: “I always admired your ability to startle the liberal and conservative aspects of the church.”


I was shocked by that!


I don’t think anyone has ever said that about me.


And I never saw that I have ever done that in my career as a priest.


But she went on to explain that while, yes, I am a very liberal priest on many issues, such as LGBTQ inclusion in the Church and full inclusion of women in ministry, I am also a very devout and very unapologetic Anglo-Catholic.


Spiritually I tend to be very conservative and maybe even, as my friend point out, “pious.”

I bristle a bit at that word, but I guess there is some truth in it.


I am very progressive on the social aspects of the Church, but I am also very traditional  (I prefer that word over the word “conservative” since, like liberal, it now carries a lot of political baggage)  when it comes liturgy, certain teachings like the Incarnation and the Real Presence of Jesus in the Body and Blood of the Eucharist, and the role of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the saints  in the Church.


I am very traditional on these issues.


Let’s face it, when the day is done, I am a solidly traditional celibate Anglo-Catholic priest who believes in the full inclusion and acceptance of all people in the Church.


You all know that about me.


And that, I guess, just makes me the walking, talking conundrum that is your priest.


My friend likes to joke with me about the celibate aspect of my life.


She says, tongue-in-cheek,  “It must be so hard being married not only to Jesus, but to His Church as well.


Well, the Jesus aspect of that isn’t all that hard.


But, the Church aspect of that is oftentimes VERY hard.


At times, I realize, that being a priest often feels like I’m married to the Church—capital C.


And like any marriage, there are good days, and there are not such good days.


Well, that’s definitely the way it is with the Church—capital C.


Now, I know this is a shock to all of you, but I do not like authority.


I do not like being told what to do.


As many parishioners and a few bishops over the years have tried (and failed) to do over the years.


I do not respond to nagging or unconstructive criticism or complaining.


I never have.


And I probably never will.


I will respect authority.


I will follow the rules (within reason)


But, let me tell you, I don’t always like it.


There are days when I don’t like the Church—capital C, or the authority of the Church or the hypocrisy of the Church.


There are days when I really don’t like some bishops, or some fellow clergy, especially when Bishops act pompous and full of themselves and when clergy act like weasels.


There are days when I don’t like Church leaders—not just ordained ones but lay leaders too—who try to coerce and manipulate the Church and its ministers.


We are seeing it in spades right now in this country.


Probably most of us here would say we have felt the somewhat same way about the Church at times.


In fact, I know you have.


Because that is why you are here at St. Stephen’s.


There are days when we all groan when we see or hear other Christians get up and speak on behalf of the rest of us.


There are days when we are embarrassed by what some Christians say or do on behalf of Jesus and his Church.


There are days when we get frustrated when we hear clergy or other authorities pronounce decrees that, in no way, reflect our own particular views or beliefs.


And there are times when we get downright mad at the hypocrisy, the homophobia, the misogyny, the ambivalence, the silence in the face of oppression and evil and war, the downright meanness we sometimes experience from the Church.


Most of us—idealistically, naively maybe—wonder:  wait a minute.


The Church isn’t supposed to be like this.


The Church is supposed to be a place of Love and Compassion and Acceptance and inclusion. 


It is supposed to be a place where everyone is welcomed and loved.


Knowing that and comparing the ideal view of the Church with its shortcomings only make us feel more helpless, listless, angry, and disgruntled.


And that’s all right.


I personally think that’s a somewhat healthy way of looking at the Church.


Because we have to remind ourselves of one thing: What we find ourselves turning away from and what we are often tempted to run away from is not God.


What we are running away from is a human-run, human-led organization.


We are running away from a celestially planned treasure that has been run (and very often mis-run) throughout two thousand years of history by fallible human beings.


In today’s Gospel, we find this wonderful interchange between Jesus and Peter.


Peter, when asked who he thinks Jesus is, replies, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!”


Yes! That’s definitely the right answer!


But, Jesus responds to this confession of faith with surprise.


He responds by saying, “I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”


Of course, as you might know, Jesus is playing a little word game here with the words “Peter” and “rock.”


The Aramaic word for “rock” is “kepha.”


In Jesus’ own language of Aramaic he would have said, “You are Kepha (Peter is also called Cephas at times in the Gospels) and on this kepha (or rock) I will build my church.”


Now, depending on who you are, depending on your own personal spiritual leanings, this reading could take on many meanings.


If you’re more Catholic minded—and especially if you’re more Roman Catholic minded—it certainly does seem that Jesus is establishing the Church on the Rock of Peter—and of course in that tradition Peter at this moment becomes essentially the first Bishop of the Church and in R.C. tradition, the first Pope.  


As Anglo-Catholic as I am, I actually don’t hold to that view, personally.


On this one, I’m a very traditionally Anglican.


For people like me, it could be said that the Church is being established not on Peter himself, but on the rock of Peter’s confession of faith.


Either way, Jesus is commending the Church to Peter and to his other followers.


And this is important, especially when we examine who Peter is.


Jesus commends his Church to one of the most impetuous, impulsive, stubborn, cowardly human beings he could find.


Peter, as we all know, is not, on first glance, a wonderful example for us of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.


He is the one who walks on water and then loses heart, grows frightened and ends up sinking into that water.


He’s the one who, when Jesus needs him the most, runs off and denies him not just once, not twice, but three times, and even then cannot bring himself to come near Jesus as he hangs dying on the cross.


But…you know, Peter is maybe a better example of what followers of Jesus truly are than we maybe care to admit.


Yes, he is a weak, impetuous, cowardly, impulsive human.


But who among us isn’t?


Who among us isn’t finding someone very much like Peter staring back at us from our own mirrors?


And the thing we always have to remember is that, for all the bad things the Church has been blamed for—and there are a lot of them—there are also so many wonderful and beautiful things about the Church that always, always, always outweigh the bad.


Obviously most everyone here this morning must feel that same way as well to some extent.


If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be here this morning.


Most of us are able to recognize that the Church is not perfect.


And I think that, when Jesus commended his Church to people like Peter, he knew that, as long as we are here, struggling on this “side of the veil,” so to speak, it would never be perfect.


But that, even despite its imperfection, we still all struggle on.




I love the Church and I love the people who are in the Church with me, sometimes even the ones who drive me crazy.


And I sometimes even love the ones with whom I do not agree or who lash out at me for their own personal issues.


Why? Because that’s what it means to be a follower of Jesus.


That is what it means to be the Church.


I am here in the Church because I really want to be in the Church.


I am here because the Church is my home.


It is my family.


It is made up of my friends and Jesus’ friends.


I am here because I—imperfect, impetuous human being that I am because I love my fellow Christians, and I don’t just mean that I love Desmond Tutu and all those Christians who are easy to love.


I love those who are hard to love too.


I love them because, let’s face it, sometimes we are those same people too.


Sometimes we are the ones who drive people from the Church as well.


And sometimes we ourselves drive our own selves away from the Church.


But as long as we’re here, as long as we believe in the renewal that comes again and again in recognizing and confessing our shortcomings and in professing and believing in what it means to be a baptized Christian, then we know it’s not all a loss.


As long as I struggle to not be the person who drives people from the Church, but works again and again in my life to be the person who welcomes everyone—no matter who they are and where they stand on the issues—into this Church, then I’m doing all right.


Because the Church Jesus founded was a Church founded solidly on the rock of love.


The Church’s foundation is the fact that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God and the message to us as followers of this Son of the Living God, the Messiah—the bringer of freedom and peace—is that we must love God and love each other as we love ourselves.


If we are the Church truly built on a love like that then, without doubt, the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.


And as long as I’m here, and you’re here—“here” in a virtual sense—we are going to make the Church a better place.


We need to be the Church from which no one wants to leave.


So, let us be the Church we want the Church to be—because that is the Church that Jesus founded.


Let us be the Church that Jesus commended to that imperfect human being, Peter.


In those moments when we find ourselves hating the Church, let’s not let hatred win out.


Let love—that perfect, flawless love that Jesus preached and practiced—eventually win out.


We are the Church.


We are the Church to those people in our lives.


We are the Church to everyone we encounter.


We are the reflection of the Church to the people we serve alongside.


So let us be the Church, and if we are, we will find ourselves in the midst of that wonderful vision Jesus imagined for his Church.


And it will truly be an incredible place.


It will truly be the Kingdom of God in our midst.


Let us pray.


Living God, we believe that Jesus is your Son, the Messiah, who has come to us in our time of need; help us to follow him, to be a Church of love and acceptance and inclusion, and in doing so, a place wherein your living Presence dwells. We ask this in his most holy Name. Amen.




Sunday, August 16, 2020

11 Pentecost


August 16, 2020


Matthew 15.10-28



+ If I were going to ask you what is the main source of most of the problems of your life, what would you say?


If I were ask you to think about why there are broken relationships in your life, why are there people who have turned away from you, why are there are people who don’t like you (and this is the case for all of us, no matter who we are), what you claim as this source?


The fact is most of us (including myself) would say that it is our mouths.


Our words, the things that come out of our mouths, have done quite a bit of damage in our lives.


We sometimes say things we maybe shouldn’t say.


We sometimes give our opinions when they are not asked for.


We sometimes have not put the filter on the words coming out of our mouths, and as a result, things have been said that we cannot take back.


And what happens? People are angered.


Now much of this unfiltered talk comes from our egos.


We, of course, think that our opinion matters.


We think what we believe is the right way and it boggles out minds that others don’t see the correctness of what we ourselves think or see or believe.


I hate to be the one to break the news to you this morning, though.


More often than not, there are probably few people who agree with all of our opinions on any one given subject.


And more often than not, we are not always right.


And even more often than that, people are not going to listen or to heed what we have to say.


And probably even more often than THAT, we’re going to offend or anger someone by our words, our opinions.


Now, certainly, we should speak out.


We should call out injustice when we see it.


We should speak loudly when we see things are wrong.


Even if it may get us in trouble with others.


We, here at St. Stephen’s,  are definitely a congregation of people who speak out, who use words well to convey convictions and beliefs.


Which is why many of you are here at St. Stephen’s.


We are definitely NOT a cookie cutter congregation.


We need to realize very clearly that the words we speak really do have ripple effects.


If we think, when we say something either on the offense or defense, that those words will not have consequences in the long-run, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.


Jesus tells his followers—and us—in this morning in our Gospel reading—


“it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles; it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles. ”


As a vegan, I may have to disagree with that a bit.


But yes, these are words that hit home for me, and no doubt, for many of us.


We were all raised reciting that little verse:


Sticks and stone may break my bones

But words will never hurt me.


Guess what?


Words actually DO hurt.


In fact words do more than hurt.


They do more than just create a ripple effect.


Words can destroy.


Words can tear down.


And sometimes the words don’t even have to be directed at someone or something.


Words spoken behind people’s backs, that we think won’t hurt them if they never hear them, hurt and destroy too.


Words are oftentimes much more painful and hurtful than sticks and stones.


And when it comes to our relationship with God, the words we say carry much weight.


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


“…what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart and this is what defiles. For out of the mouth comes” all kind of evil intentions.


“These are what defile a person…” he says.


Jesus is clear here about what makes one unclean.


The words that come out of our mouth are really only the end result of what’s in our hearts.


The words that come out of our mouths are really only little mirrors of what is dwelling within us.


When we say dumb things, we are harboring dumb things in our hearts.


When we say hurtful, mean things, we are carrying hurt and meanness in our hearts.


And what’s in our hearts truly does make all the difference.


If our hearts are dark—if our hearts are over-run with negative things—then our words are going to reflect that.


When we talk about something like “sin,” we find ourselves thinking instantly of the things we do.


We think immediately of all those uncharitable, unsavory things we’ve done in our lives.


And when we realize that sin, essentially, is anything we chose to do that separates us from God and from each other, it is always easy to instantly take stock of all the bad things we’ve done.


But it’s not always what we “do.”


Sometimes, we can truly “sin” by what we say as well.


The words that come out of our mouths can separate us from God and from each other because they are really coming from our hearts—from that place in which there should really only be love for God and for each other.


We have all known Christians who are quick to profess their faith with their mouths, but who certainly do not believe that faith in their hearts.


And, I think, we have also known people who have kept quiet about their faith, who have not professed much with their mouths, but who have quietly been consistent in their faith.


If we profess our faith with our mouths, but not in our hearts, we really are guilty to some extent.


Probably few things drive us away faster from church than those self-righteous people who shake their fingers at us and spout their faith at us, but who, in turn, don’t show love, compassion and acceptance to others.


The name we encounter in the Gospels for those people who do not practice what they preach is “hypocrite.”


And throughout the Gospels, we find that Jesus isn’t ever condemning the ones we think he should condemn.


He doesn’t condemn the prostitute, the tax collector, any of those people who have been ostracized and condemned by society and the religious organizations of their times.


The ones Jesus, over and over again, condemns, are the hypocrites—those supposedly “religious” people who are quick to speak their faith with words, who are quick to strut around and act religiously, but who do not hold any real faith in their hearts.


The Pharisees that Jesus is having trouble with in today’s Gospel, are not at all concerned about what is in their hearts.


Their faith has nothing to do with their hearts.


They are more concerned about purification rites.


They are more concerned about making sure that the food one eats is clean and pure—that it hasn’t been touched by those who are unclean.


They are concerned that they are the clean ones and they are concerned that there is a separation from those that are unclean.


They are more concerned with the words of the Law, rather than the heart of the Law.


They are more concerned with the letter of the Law, rather than the spirit of the Law.


We, as followers of Jesus, must avoid being those hypocrites.


With everything in us, we must avoid being those people.


Yes, I know: it’s just easier to stick the letter of the Law.


It’s easy to follow the religious rules without bothering to think about why we are following them.


It’s just so much easier to go through the motions without having to feel anything.


Because to feel means to actually make one’s self vulnerable.


To feel means one has to love—and, as we know—as we see in the world right now—love is dangerous.


Love makes us step out into uncomfortable areas and do uncomfortable things.


Like defending the Postal Service! Who would’ve ever thought we would have to defend the U.S. Postal Service?


But the message of Jesus is all about the fact that to be a follower of Jesus means not being a hypocrite.




The message of Jesus is that to be a follower of Jesus means believing fully with one’s heart.


We at St. Stephen’s are saying, again and again, not just by our words, but by our actions, that we are a people of a God who is love—we are a people here at St. Stephen’s who believe all people are loved and accepted, fully and completely by that God.


And how do we do that? How do we show that and preach that?


We do that by loving and accepting all people.


Even when that is hard!


We do that by knowing in our hearts that God loves and accepts us all, no matter who or what we are.


To proclaim the Good News, we need to do so by both word and example.


It is to truly practice what we preach.


It is to go out into the world at least virtually even in a time of pandemic and say, “this is a place—and we are a people—wherein love dwells.


We are a people who strive to embody that radical, all-encompassing love of a God of love.


So, let us take to heart what Jesus is saying to us in today’s Gospel.


Let us take his words and plant them deeply in our hearts.


Let the words of his mouth be the words of our mouth.


Let the Word—capital W—by our word.


And let that Word find its home, its source, its basis in our hearts.


When it does, our words will truly speak the Word that is in our hearts.


Let us allow no darkness, no negativity to exist within our hearts.


Let us not be hypocritical Pharisees to those around us.


But let us be true followers of Jesus, true lovers of God,  with love burning within and overflowing us.


As followers of Jesus, let love be the word that speaks to others.


Let our hearts be so filled with love that nothing else can exist in it but love.


Let us strive to live out our Baptismal Promises with God by proclaiming “by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.”


And if we do—if we do just that—we will find that Good News pouring forth from our mouth and bringing joy and gladness and love and full acceptance to others—and even to ourselves.


Let us pray.


Holy God, you have given us mouths to speak; instill within us your Word, so that we can use our voices for good in this world. Let us speak out against injustice and tyranny. But let us also speak out in love and compassion. Most of us let us speak the words you put in our mouths so that we may proclaim your truth and your love. We ask this in Jesus’ Name. Amen.



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...