24th Apr, 2005

The Fifth Sunday of Easter

Sermon preached by Fr. Mark D. Stuart

You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people; that you may declare the wonderful deeds of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. Once you were no people but now you are God’s people.
I Peter 2:9

In our contemporary American culture, and especially it seems in the Southern Californian experience, we have a hard time separating the Church’s boundaries from that of the culture in which it finds itself. Many Christian communities in most denominations try to make their church somewhat attractive socially, often by attempting to offer programs that that are actually better offered in secular contexts. Outside of small hamlets hanging on in the rural Midwest and South, the Church is rarely the social hub of the community that it once was. Many people, who aren’t outright hostile to the Church, at best describe it as something “nice” but irrelevant. And some long-time Church members, lament that the Church “isn’t what it used to be.” But as my father used to remind me, “the Church isn’t what it used to be, and never was.”

In his first epistle St. Peter addresses this matter through defining the qualities of members in the Church: “chosen race, royal priesthood, a holy nation”… not rewards for what people have earned, but a new status as members of the household of God, precious, dynamic, living stones. Self reflection by each one of us on what that means to us personally is vital on our journey of faith to perpetuate our calling as the “living stones” St. Peter names us, being built into a “spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God…”

Often an important event in one’s life initiates such reflection; or perhaps a milestone anniversary of an important event can be the occasion for such spiritual pondering. Since time is a human invention, we have also invented milestones on our brief lifetime journey. Twenty-five is one of those magical time numbers to us (and now I’m sure you know where I’m headed.) Given my recent silver jubilee anniversary of ordination, I have been reflecting on the past 25 years. I would like to share some of that with you this morning and will try not to sound too much like Andy Rooney.

When I approached my Bishop, William Swing (still the Bishop of the Diocese of California) that warm Spring day in Santa Cruz, he had been newly consecrated and was only 44 years old: I think he was probably as nervous than I was, since I was the first Priest he would ordain.
During the Great Litany we prayed for Jimmy our President and Jerry our Governor. Far away American hostages were being held in Iran; President Carter had announced we would boycott the Summer Olympics that year to be held in Moscow; and Archbishop Oscar Romero had been killed less than a week before in San Salvador while celebrating Mass. Within a month Mt. St. Helens would erupt; Ted Turner would launch CNN; and the Empire Strikes Back would open in theaters. I980 also saw the publication of two of my all-time favorite books, The Name of the Rose and A Confederacy of Dunces. For those of you old enough to remember, you won’t be surprised that my favorites songs that year were : KC & The Sunshine Band “Please Don’t Go” Diana Ross “Upside Down” and Pat Benatar “Hit Me With Your Best Shot”

Although I was still boyish by my standards today, then I considered myself pretty old to be ordained at 28; most conventional new priests were 25. Nowadays there probably aren’t a handful that young in the whole Episcopal Church and when my baby boomer generation retires there will be very few ordination silver jubilees celebrated and a golden jubilee celebration will make headlines! And though 25 years ago doesn’t seem so far away, technologically it seems like the dark ages in what we’re now used to in our personal lives: Of course, there were no personal computers at home (though that very year the plans for such a thing were first announced); no microwave ovens; no VCR’s, and no cordless phones (let alone cell phones.)

Those were the days, too, when if you were to use the term “safe sex” nobody would have known what you were talking about. And even though “Captain Tripps” was a bizarre Stephen King fantasy epidemic in his apocalyptic book The Stand (which had been published only a couple of years prior); no one could have conceived that we were on the very brink of unimaginable terror and sadness. And as my Bishop laid hands on me to make me a Priest I would have been horrified to know how many of my friends were at that very time carrying the virus of a strange deadly disease without a name that would come to strike terror in our hearts and then break our hearts: Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.

At the time I graduated seminary and left my Parish intern position under the guidance of a good Anglo-Catholic Rector, he said to me:

I will not wish you a ‘successful’ ministry; because that connotes success as the world views it; meaning that you will become a cardinal rector of a prestigious Parish, or attain a high status in the hierarchy of the church. I wish you a ‘successful’ ministry only as you grow in the depth of your relationship to God and minister to His people.

The rector of my home parish lectured me along the same lines after I preached at very prestigious low church East Coast parish that was flirting with me to become its curate: He sternly challenged me to always remain faithful to my Anglo-Catholic principles and not be seduced by a seemingly high status parochial position.

I think a good priest would be hard-pressed to explain exactly what a vocation is, other than it is not a career; but rather an irresistible calling. I would readily admit that I was one of God’s more difficult vocations and I struggled and fought Him, but He wouldn’t let go of me… and He won. Once I finally accepted my fate, I also accepted that I would be a Priest where God wanted me to be and hard though it was for a ‘type A’ not to produce his own agenda for God to fulfill; I did follow where I needed to be and learned from experience to trust God’s goodness and purpose; even in the obscure places He led me, like rural Kansas and the deep South.

One thing I did learn pretty quickly was that despite three intense years of theological, biblical, and liturgical training in seminary I had no easy, pat answers when I found myself ‘in the trenches’ pastoring God’s people in their struggles. I had not been a Priest long at all when I discovered that. While attending one of my first clergy conferences, I got an emergency call from the parish office. A member of my parish had taken his three best friends on a hunting trip to Wyoming in his private plane. The plane crashed killing all four of them. I rushed over to his home to be with his widow who brought in their two young children to me and said, “Now, Father, tell them why Jesus took their Daddy.” Suddenly, a very ‘adequate’ young Priest was totally at a loss. I cannot even remember what I said to those children, but I do remember I went home and cried my eyes out.

Years later as my ministry led me to work with emotionally and psychologically troubled adolescents, I struggled along side them through their struggles with self-worth, addictions, and purpose. I never believed there was such a thing as a ‘bad kid’ and I always looked through acting-out behavior to the soul of a child of God. The worst behaved, most difficult boys I chose to serve me at Mass and my clinical staff joked about Father’s acolytes. But I stuck by those boys because if they had no other successes in their lives, they could still put on a cassock and cotta and serve Mass and realize that they were worthy in the eyes of God and that they were huge successes when they served Him at His altar.

Yet even as I matured in the ministry, I still found occasions that challenged my pastoral capabilities. Like the teenager who came to us with behavioral problems which began following a fall from a bridge that almost killed him.
He had a near-death experience that was so beautifully sublime he had a difficult time accepting his existence in this world, feeling that he had been rejected by God not allowing him to stay with Him in the next. It was not easy trying to convince him that God still loved him and had not rejected him by sending him back to this ‘vale of tears.’ And when one of my boys died in a freak farm accident soon after leaving us, I experienced bitter grief; to this day finding the death of a young person almost unbearable. The patron of our ministry was St. Francis of Assisi and I learned to pray his prayer with new fervor, begging his intercession, “Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace…”

As the years gradually went by adding one to another, I came ever more to realize that “my” ministry wasn’t really “mine” at all. It was a ministry of Christ to His Church that I had been blessed to participate in; to be a channel, as it were… an “instrument of His peace” as Brother Francis taught us. So many times I reached for the words our blessed Lord spoke in our Gospel lesson today: “Let not your hearts be troubled…I go to prepare a place for you…” And so many times I felt like our patron Thomas, “Lord we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?”

Yes, 1980 seems like ages ago in the advancement of technology; in the innocence before AIDS; when I had a thick head of dark hair and a 31″ waist; or when I had all the answers. Twenty-five years ago I had no idea where I would be going… none of us did. Like Thomas we want more than to just have Jesus’ assurance that He is preceding us to prepare a special place. We want to know exactly what that means: If we don’t know where you’re going, Lord, than how can we possibly know the way?! You mean I can’t enter that in MapQuest and get the precise directions?!

One thing I do know for sure is that I’m not nearly as smart as I thought I was 25 years ago. Another thing I know is that I will know my Lord if I walk the Way and I will find my Lord there Who says He is that very Way.

Finally, I want to share with you the words of St. Paul which have spoken to me over the past twenty-five years and continue to speak to me in a profound way; II Corinthians 12:

I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven — whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows.
And I know that this man was caught up into Paradise — whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows — and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. Though if I wish to boast, I shall not be a fool, for I shall be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me. And to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong.

Amen.

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