Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Invitation Will Not Change

Sermon preached on the 7th Sunday of Easter, May 12, 2013 at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene:  Revelation 22:12-21

The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.”  And let everyone who hears say, “Come.”  And let everyone who is thirsty come.

          Many of you know that I was confirmed in the Episcopal Church at St. Thomas’ Church in Bath in Steuben County.  But many of you do not know that I really did not become an Episcopalian there.  I cut my Episcopal teeth while at college in Plattsburgh, in the North Country, in the Diocese of Albany.

          One of the things I loved about the Episcopal Church was the deep rootedness of its traditions.  And I loved its predictability.  What was called then the “new” Prayer Book was in use, but in my parish it was Rite I (Traditional language) all the time and that was perfectly fine with me.

          Change was in the wind, however, a wind that would become a gale.  I was taught in my parish to resist change, and among the changes I was to resist most strongly was the ordination of women.  I had no reason to question that belief, so I adopted it as my own.

          That was the Fall of 1979.  In the summer of 1983, I was back in Steuben County and as I had every summer, I went to church at St. Thomas’, Bath.  Well, there was a morning that summer when I was late; as I approached St. Thomas’ it was going for 10:45 am and the Service had started at 10:30 am.  I had never been late to church before and I wasn’t quite sure what would happen.

          Then I had an inspirational flash.  St. James’ Church in Hammondsport had a Service at 11 am and I just had time to make it.  Why not? I had not been there before although I had seen it from the outside and the time of their Service had stuck in my mind.  I got there in the nick of time and swooshed into the back pew.  The introduction to the first hymn began to play.  When we started singing, I glanced behind me and—horror!—the priest was a she.

          I debated. I could easily sneak out, but there was nowhere else to go, so I decided to stay and just not receive communion.  It was one of the most fateful decisions I have ever made.

          The priest that morning was The Rev. Barbara Humphrey.  She was the supply priest.  I don’t much remember the first part of the Service, but I do remember her at the Altar.  She said, as we do, “The Lord be with you.” My lips made no response.  Then “Lift up your hearts,” at which point my heart broke open.  By the time for receiving communion I walked up.  Despite everything I had been taught, Jesus had shown up and had said, as he always does, “Come.”

          I learned that morning that the church could change, that the deep rootedness I so loved nourished a living tree with branches stretching ever toward the light.  The church was not about tradition or change. It was about both.  But the impact of that experience was not only about my relationship with the church. Ultimately it was about my relationship with God, with the world, and with myself.  And eventually it not only changed my life, but it saved it, but that is another story.

          I think one of the great gifts of the merger of the two congregations to form the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene, is that it has opened you up to the reality that change, although sometimes painful—even very painful—is both possible and necessary.  Not change for the sake of change.  Not change simply because it pleases some or even most of our senses and sensibilities, but change that is a response to Jesus’ invitation, “Come,” change that enables Jesus’ invitation to be heard in fresh ways and, therefore, by more people.

          If I have been preaching one major theme more than any other for eight and half years, I think it has been hospitality, welcome, inclusion.  And you have not only been receptive to that theme, but you have taught me a great deal about it.

          To maintain hospitality is to be in a constant state of change.  Every new person who walks through the doors of this church changes us, particularly if they stick around.  If we do not let them change us, they tend to go away.  I believe that the vast majority of mainline churches, almost all of whom in all sincerity call themselves “a friendly church,” continue to shrink because they spend most of their time and energy trying not to change, and if you are actively trying not to change, hospitality is dead in the water no matter how friendly you are.

          We are about to embark together on significant change.  By Labor Day, I pray, you will walk in here and the front half of this church will be open.  There will be chairs which can be configured to meet the needs of the moment.  It will be shocking to some. You will look at it, as some of you have looked at the pictures, with the facial expression I bore when I saw that first priest who was a woman.

          I pray that most if not all of you will have the kind of experience I had in Hammondsport 32 years ago.  You will first have to make a choice, as I did then, to stay put, risk the experience.  I do not want to tell you what your experience will then be, but of one thing I am absolutely sure.  Jesus will show up and he will say, “Come.”  The invitation will be the same. It never changes.

          We just have to keep in my mind a couple basic principles.  First, we love this building but we do not worship it.  It is not our God, even if it helps us to find God.  Second, we love our history but our mission is not historic preservation.  Our mission is welcome.  Our mission is to help Jesus make the invitation into his life-giving life, “Come.”  Anything that makes that easier needs to be done.

          The Book of Revelation is a very tricky piece of writing.

Jesus said, “I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone’s work.”

          What is this “work” that we are required to do?  We immediately assume it has something to do with being holy, doing the right thing, behaving yourself, shunning sin.  If that is the case, heaven will be empty.

          No. What is the work?  it is simply responding to the invitation, “Come.”  “Let everyone who is thirsty come.”  The work Jesus requires of me is to know that I am thirsty and believe he can do something about it.

          Change is inevitable. People change. Buildings change. Institutions change.  And all of that is OK because one thing never changes:  the invitation.

          I absolutely guarantee that you will get the same invitation if you walk in here one day soon and sit in a chair.

The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.”  And let everyone who hears say, “Come.”  And let everyone who is thirsty come.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Our Alpha & Omega Stories

Sermon preached on the 5th Sunday of Easter, April 28, 2013 at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene:  Acts 11:1-18, Revelation 21:1-6

          Who are you?

          Where I come from that question is not a simple one that deserves a
simple answer.  When I was growing up, and even today, if I met someone from, say, Bath, eight miles south of Avoca, where I grew up, if I answered the question, “My name is Michael Hopkins, it would probably be followed by another question.  “Bath Hopkins or Avoca Hopkins?”

          The answer would be, of course, “Avoca Hopkins.”  “William’s boy?” would follow.  “No, grandson.”   “Willi’s boy?”  “Yep.”  “Your mother’s Pat?”  “Yep.”  “They live up there above the dike?”  “Yep.”

          And that might satisfy the person whom I had just met.  To know who I was they needed to put me in relationship with certain people and give me a geography.  “Who are you?” included the question, “Where do you come from?” and “Who do you belong to?”  “Who are your people?”

          The Book of Revelation begins and ends with a declaration.  “I am the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.”  God declares it in chapter 1 and here again as we heard it this morning in chapter 21.  We will hear Jesus say it two weeks from today at the very end of the book, thus sealing one of the deals of Revelation, that God and Jesus—the One who sits upon the throne and the Lamb who was slain, are one.

          Barbara Brown Taylor, Episcopal priest and one of the great preachers of our day, talks about the importance to us of our Alpha stories, the stories of our beginning, of our past, stories that define who we are and whose we are.[i]  Our Alpha stories are stories that have already happened to us and so they are solid.  I will always be the son of Willi and Patti Hopkins.  I will always have been raised in the rural Southern Tier of Western New York.

          If you go into my office, you can find out a lot about my Alpha stories just by looking around.  There is my seminary diploma on the wall, from Seabury-Western Seminary, for instance, and an award of thanks for my time as President of Integrity.  There are pictures of my parents, my husband, my dogs, and places I have been and people I have known.  They all represent things that are true about and that I cannot change because they have already happened.

          The church is certainly known for being a big fan of the past.  As a community of faith we have Alpha stories and they have what we call a “catholic” character, they are from all times and all places.  And it has certainly been true that in many churches the Alpha story of individuals that make it up have been important, churches that are formed along ethnic or racial or class or denominational lines.

          But all this attention to Alpha stories has had a dangerous edge to it, and that dangerous edge has something to do with what I talked about and, more importantly, what we did last week.  What we did was baptize four children and what I talked about was how those children belong to all of us as members of this one family.  You see, in the end, so to speak, what we care about as a community of faith is not our Alpha stories but our Omega stories.  We care less about where those children, and all the rest of us, come from, than we do where they and we are going.

          This is precisely what Peter is trying to get across to the leaders of the disciples of Jesus in Jerusalem.  I’ve had this experience, he said, that has radically changed my mind about just what is important to God, and it taught me that I can actually get in God’s way, I can hinder God, because God is going someplace.  And God is taking with him on the journey to this place many more and different people than I ever expected, even than I was taught.

In the terms of Revelation, the Omega stories of the Gentiles trumped their Alpha stories.

So what we were doing last week was giving them an Omega story to grow up in and towards.  Now it is an Omega story so it does not have the kind of solidness that an Alpha story has, because it has not happened yet.  We can still choose our Omega stories and we get offered many different ones all the time.  One of them we call “the American Dream,” which is quite different, by the way, from the dream of Revelation.

The worst thing that can happen to anybody is not to have am Omega story, to be quite sure that your life is not going anywhere.  The destroying angels of poverty, prejudice and any sense of a positive purpose to your life let lose all kinds of sin and evil and death.

So we must choose our Omega stories wisely, and value them above everything else, because they have the power to shape and re-shape our lives.

I was talking to a guy who dropped in when the church was open this week.  He told me he had never been baptized and he wondered if doing that would change his life.  Not  in any kind of magical way, I said, but it can mean choosing a different path with a built-in support group.  It occurred to me later, he was looking for a different Omega story.

The reading from Revelation this morning is a version of our Omega story. Whatever you think of the Book of Revelation, these last two chapters are critically important for us Christians, and one of the reasons is that provide the true correctives to what some of our assumptions have been and are about the Christian Omega story.  Barbara Brown Taylor notices three things about them that are vitally important in terms of knowing where we are going.

First, our Omega story is not about going up to heaven.  It is about heaven coming down to us.  “What we call the “end of the world” is not, in Taylor’s words

[About] the earth [being] struck by a rogue meteor, laid waste by aliens, destroyed by nuclear holocaust, or otherwise demolished so that humans have nowhere to go but up, like steam escaping a cosmic forest fire.  That is Hollywood, not Revelation.  In Revelation, the same God who created heaven and earth the first time is please to create them both anew….and [this time] God comes too—joining humans right where they are.

The radical implication is that our Omega story is not about getting into heaven, but about co-creating a new heaven and a new earth with God.  If you have trouble believing this just ask yourself what it is that we pray for in the prayer that Jesus taught us?  “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Second, our Omega story is about a city.  The new paradise will not be a garden built for two but a city built for all who would live in it, and whose gates are never locked.  Again, Barbara Brown Taylor,

Anyone who cannot get along with the neighbors now is going to be miserable then, unless they let the vision get to work on them ahead of time, softening their hearts and opening their minds to embrace all whom God embraces.

          Third, there is no temple in this story, no churches in the New Jerusalem.  We won’t need anything to mediate God to us because God will be among us.  In essence, every place will be temple, every place will be church.  Every place will be the place you seek God and God seeks you.

          Last week when we baptized, all of us rehearsed our baptismal covenant.  Think of the covenant as our agreement as to what the rights and responsibilities of living in this new city are and will be.  They are primarily about our Omega story. We say I will with God’s help,” not “I have been doing it or am doing it.”  It is a commitment to our future.  To say “yes” to this covenant is, again in Barbara Brown Taylor’s words, to say “yes” to

A certain direction—toward full communion with God and neighbor, away from evil and despair; toward justice and peace among all people, away from anything that might persuade you to respect the dignity of some human beings but not all.

Once you have decided to go in that direction [she continues], any step away takes you away from your own destiny—though fortunately your vows cover that too.  If you ever look in the rear view mirror and see your destination getting smaller behind you, you can, with God's help, stop and turn around.  Sometimes you can even call AAA and the Lamb will send someone to pick you up.

          Hospitality means we welcome you whatever your Alpha stories, and when we say that we do not mean that we do not care where you have come from. We want to know, because it is who you are and if we are to love you, we must love who you are.  But once we love you for who you are, we love you even more for who you will be, and who you will be is not alone, but with us, the thirsty, who together receive the water of life from the One who is not only Alpha and Omega, but our Alpha and Omega.

[i] This sermon was inspired by, and the quotes are from, a sermon preached by Barbara Brown Taylor at the Washington National Cathedral on All Saints’ Sunday, November 4, 2012.  It can be found at  It is available to there to be read, listened to, and or watched.