Sunday, December 26, 2021

The Feast of St. Stephen/1 Christmas

 


December 21, 2021

 + Well, I have to say that today is actually a pretty sad day.

 In case you haven’t heard, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the great former Archbishop of Capetown, South Africa, died this morning at age 90.

 He was of course, a great leader, not only in the Church, but also in the non-violent movement that helped to topple the Apartheid Government of South Africa.

 But he was so much more than that.

 But more than that, he was a towering figure in the Anglican Church, and especially among the more Catholic minded Anglicans and Episcopalians.

 And he was a prophet—a true modern prophet.

 As I have  mentioned many times over the years, Archbishop Tutu was one of my heroes.

 And the world and the Church are a bit more empty today without his presence among us.

 It’s appropriate that Archbishop Tutu died today, on the feast of Sty. Stephen.

 St. Stephen was a person who could look into the future, who held strongly to his Christian faith, who was loudly able to proclaim that faith and live that faith out by his very life, very much like Archbishop Tutu did.  

 Those first founders of our church were a smart bunch.

 They also were a prophetic bunch.

 Naming our church after St. Stephen was a smart thing.


 Of course, the reason they came to this name was because St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Casselton, ND had just closed in 1956.

 And we inherited much of their furnishings.

 But St. Stephen was a great saint for us to have as our patron.

 In the Orthodox and Roman traditions of the Church, the patron saint of a church is viewed as more than just a namesake.

 They are seen as special guardians of that congregation. 

 And so, it is especially wonderful to celebrate a saint like St. Stephen, who is our guardian and who is, no doubt, present among us this morning, with that whole communion of saints, who is always present with us at worship, along with Desmond Tutu as well.

 St. Stephen, of course, was the proto-martyr of the Church

 “Proto” is the important word here.

 Proto means, essentially, first.

 He was the first martyr of the Church.

 He was the first one to die for his open proclamation of  Christ.

 He also is considered a proto deacon in the church.

 He is a special patron saint of deacons—and of all people who share a ministry of servitude to others.

 What better saint can we claim as our patron that St. Stephen?

 He was the first to do many things. 

 Just like we, as a congregation, have been the first in doing many things.

 St. Stephen, in his stance on a few issues, was not always popular obviously.


 There is a reason they dragged him out and stoned him.

 Archbishop Tutu as well was outspoken.

 He too stood up and spoke out against injustice and racism and homophobia and all the things we at St, Stephen’s have stood up and spoken out against.

Archbishop Tutu once said,

 "If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality."

 Well, we certainly have never been shy here at St. Stephen’s for speaking out against injustice in our own Diocese or in the world.

 And speaking out and making the stance we have in the past and the reaction we have received from others, let me tell you, I can feel for both St. Stephen and Archbishop Tutu.

 So, again, talk about two perfect saints for us to celebrate today.

 So yes it’s appropriate that this congregation that has been the first to do many things, is named after St. Stephen.

 When we look back at our 60 year history, just think for a moment about all those people who came through the doors of this church.

 Think about how many of those people who have been hurt by the larger Church.

 Think about how many were frustrated with the Church.

 And more often than not, their relationship with God suffered for it. 

 But they came here searching.

 Searching for true religion.

 Searching for a welcoming and open community.

 So what this true religion? 

 I see the Episcopal Church, as specifically St. Stephen’s,  as making a real solid effort at true religion.

 For me, St. Stephen’s personifies in many ways, what true religion is.

 The Church should be like a dinner party to which everyone is invited. 

 And St. Stephen’s has always been the place that knows this one blunt fact: The only thing there is no room for in true religion is for those who cannot love each other.

 St. Stephen’s is a place very much like a family.

 We don’t always choose the people God has brought into our lives, but we always—ALWAYS—have to love them.

 So what is true religion?

 True religion begins and ends with love.

 We must love one another as God loves us.

 True religion begins with the realization that, first and foremost, God loves each and every one of us. 

 When we can look at that person who drives us crazy and see in that person, someone God loves wholly and completely, then our relationship with that person changes.

 We too are compelled to love that person as well. 

 Love is the beginning and end of true religion. 

 Certainly, St. Stephen’s has always been a place of love. 

 Love has never been a stranger here.

 Love has been offered to God not only on this altar, but among the pews and in the undercroft and in the narthex and in the parking lot. 

 And most importantly in the lives of our members out in the larger world.

 That Love that God has commanded us to share has went out from here into all the world.

 We who are gathered here have been touched in one way or the other by the love that has emanated from this place and these people.

 We are the fortunate ones—the ones who have been transformed and changed by this love.

 We are the lucky ones who have—through our experiences at St. Stephen’s—been able to get a glimpse of true religion.

But our job now is not to cherish it and hold it close to our hearts.

Our job now is to turn around and to continue to share this love with others.

Our job is take this love and reflect it for everyone to see.

So, in a very real sense, we, at St. Stephen’s, are doing what that first St. Stephen did. 

We are striving to do what Archbishop Tutu did.

We have set the standard. 

We have embodied who and what both St. Stephen the Martyr and Desmond Tutu stood for.

Even when it was not popular.

Even when people felt it wasn’t time.

We have stood up again and again for what we have felt is our mission to accept all people in love.

We have journeyed out at times into uncharted territory.

And most importantly, we have, by our love, by our compassion, by our acceptance of all, been a reflection of what the Church—capital C—is truly capable of.

We do all we do as St. Stephen and Archbishop Tutu did it—with our eyes firmly set on Christ, with our lips singing and praying, with our head held high, with love in heart, even if stones and rocks are falling around us.

We do so affirmed in our many ministries.

It is an amazing time to be at St. Stephen’s.

Those poor founders of our church would only be amazed at what this congregation they envisioned in 1956 would one day be.

As we begin another year of ministry, let us do with gratitude to God and one another in our hearts.

Let us shake off the negativity and those nagging doubts that may plague us.

And let us, like St. Stephen and Desmond Tutu, be strong and firm in our faith in God and our convictions of serving others in love.

And may our God—that source of all love, that author and giver of all good things—continue to bless us with love and goodness.

May we continue to flourish and grow. 

And may we continue to venture bravely forward in  all that we continue to do here among us and throughout the world. 

Let us pray.

Holy God, when St. Stephen looked up, he saw you, seated in glory and majesty on your throne with Jesus your Son at your right hand of God; when Desmond Tutu spoke out against the powers of darkness that prevailed, he was sustained and strengthened by you; we are grateful for Stephen and Desmond  and the vision they gave us of what awaits us in your Kingdom. Help us to embody their spirit of strength and vision as we do the ministry you call us to do in this world, and let us, like them, come to that heavenly Kingdom that you have allowed us to see today. We ask this in Jesus' holy Name. Amen.

 



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