Invite them


Note: This sermon was preached on Thursday, September 29th, 2016, being the Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels, and on the occasion of the blessing and dedication of our new front entrance.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The Church of The Ascension in Rockville Centre has, I think at least, a well-deserved reputation for being a welcoming church. Plenty of individuals have made this observation to me, and it is certainly something I have experienced myself. To welcome outsiders into our community is very important, but if we are going to minister to the community in which we live and if we are going to evangelize the next generation of Christians, then being welcoming will simply not be enough. We need to be an inviting church.


You see, in the recent past going to church was taken for granted. It is just what you did. When people moved into a new community they went church shopping and very often the church they selected was the one that was the most welcoming, or the one that most suited their needs or their tastes. People were looking for church and your task was to get them to choose yours. Alas, that is not the world we live in anymore.


Most people in our society are not looking for a church anymore. Sure, you may encounter a few here and there, but they are fewer and farther between. People still have spiritual needs and they still long for answers to life’s tough questions, but they are less convinced that church is the place to have those needs met. That makes our job, as Christians that are called to spread the good news, a bit harder. We can no longer depend upon people coming to us, so we must go to them. We cannot just welcome people into this worshipping community, we must invite them.


The world we find ourselves in is less like the 1950s and 60s of our parents and grandparents, and more like the 50s and 60s AD of Paul and the Apostles: We live in a largely secular world that is mostly unfamiliar and unconcerned with the teachings of Jesus. But, that is the same world that Christ sent his disciples out into; he sent them, he didn’t tell them to wait until the world came looking for them; he sent them out and told them to go out into the world making disciples of all nations. That is the world in which we live: we are not just reminding people of the good news; for many people we are helping them encounter it for the first time.


Now you may be wondering: what on earth does this have to do with new church doors and windows? It’s this: people no longer assume that church has much to offer their lives. They aren’t going to fight to overcome obstacles to get in. We have to invite them to take a look inside. We need to show them that this isn’t just a door into a community meeting space, but a gateway into a different kingdom. Our new entrance isn’t just designed to be pretty; it is designed to be inviting. It is designed to remove barriers. It is designed to entice people to go deeper; to encourage them to look within and maybe, just maybe, respond to the God that is calling out to them.


It is fitting that standing guard over this new entrance are four archangels. Tonight is the Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels; it is a day when the Church celebrates God’s angels and the work they do for his kingdom. Now I feel that I should point out here that there are many misconceptions about angels in popular culture. The biggest misconception is that angels are what we become when we die. No. That is not what the church teaches. Angels and humans are entirely different types of beings created by God. We might join the ranks of the faithful departed when we die, we might even be called saints, but we do not become angels. What we do share with angels though is a common mission: angels were created to be the special messengers of God, to work for God’s kingdom here on earth, and we as Christians are called to do very much the same. The angels that grace our doors direct our thoughts not only to the things we ought to pray for as we enter this building, they remind us of the work we need to do as we leave this building.


Saint Uriel, the giver of divine light and patron of poets and artists. Saint Uriel’s task is to inspire. To make people wonder at the greatness of God and all his works. We pray to Saint Uriel to fill our thoughts with the beautiful ideas that come from God and we pray that like Saint Uriel, we too can inspire others in our own way.


Saint Gabriel, the announcing angel who visited a young virgin to tell her that she was with child and that that child was the son of God. Saint Gabriel’s task is to proclaim. To announce to the world the coming of Jesus Christ and to proclaim the truth that this child is unlike any other. We pray to Saint Gabriel that he may continually make Christ known to us and we pray that we can be so bold as to proclaim that same child to an unknowing and unbelieving world.


Saint Michael, the prince of all the angels, the angel who casts Satan down and protects us from every attack of evil. Saint Michael’s task is to defend. To use his strength to defend those that are weaker in the name of justice. Saint Michael is the patron saint of police officers, soldiers and all law enforcement and that window is given as a tribute to all those who have answered the call to serve and protect. We pray to Saint Michael that he will protect us from the evil in this world, and especially protect those who put their lives in harms way on a daily basis, and we pray that we too will have the courage to stand up to evil in the world whenever we encounter it.


Saint Raphael, the medicine of God and the patron of pilgrims. Saint Raphael’s task is to heal. To embrace those who are suffering in body, mind or soul and give comfort and consolation. We pray to Saint Raphael that he may heal our infirmities, including our sins, and we pray that we too can be the instruments of God’s healing in the world.


Saint Uriel, Saint Gabriel, Saint Michael and Saint Raphael. As we enter this building, they remind us of the things for which we need to pray; as we exit they remind us of the work that we too are called to do in the world. We too are messengers of God, and we are called to Inspire, to Proclaim, to Defend, and to Heal. When we go out into the world doing that work, we invite people into relationship with God. The new entrance stands as a witness, not just to welcome those that are already coming in, but to invite those that are walking past. Our lives should do the same.


There are, of course, two more windows, which I haven’t referred to yet, and they are the most important. The windows at the heart of our front entrance, the two center doors, are mostly clear, and standing outside as you peer through them you first see the baptismal font, and then beyond that in the distance, the high altar and the tabernacle containing the body and blood of Christ. This is the feast that the angels are inviting us to. This is communion, becoming one with Christ and one with God. We go out into the world. Like the angels we serve as God’s messengers: we inspire, proclaim, defend and heal, but this is what we are inviting people to: to become the body of Christ in this world and ultimately to become citizens of the heavenly kingdom.


Those aren’t just new doors and steps out there that lead into an old building. It is the gateway into a different kingdom and a different way of life. We have reason tonight to celebrate. We celebrate Alice Mary Roggenkamp who began pushing for a ramp for people with mobility problems to get into the church. We celebrate all those who contributed to the 125th campaign to help fund this project and especially the committee and those who worked long hours over the past couple of years to make this a reality. We celebrate the courageous lives of our soldiers and police officers who we will remember every time we see the light shining through Saint Michael’s face. We celebrate the lives of Mildred Savrda and Russell Dee Cooper, William and Dorothy Challice, Alfred and Ruth Frauenberger and Judith Berglund, for whom the other angel windows are given. Finally we celebrate the life of one man that wasn’t a member of this congregation; wasn’t even an Episcopalian, but nonetheless Fred Quenzer found in this church a place of spiritual refreshment and of grace. The front doors, the two center windows, the floor under your feet and even this vestment set that we are wearing were all made possible by the generous bequest from a man who only came here because someone invited him. If you have found God in this place, if you have experienced God through his angels, if you have been convinced of the truth we proclaim, if you want to fight for God’s kingdom and if you want to heal a broken world, then don’t just wait to welcome the souls that make it inside: go out and invite them.

The real reason we burn incense: It isn’t merely symbolic.


Why do we sing when we worship God?


Surely it is easier to just say the words rather than trying to move our voices to some melody, and yet singing has almost always been an important way in which God’s people have demonstrated their love for him. In scripture we find the “Song of Moses,” the “Song of Miriam,” the “Song of Hannah,” the “Song of Solomon,” and of course the Psalms themselves, all poetry that we believe was originally sung to God, just like our hymns or praise songs are sung today. Why do we sing? We sing because we believe that it gives glory and honor and praise to God in ways that surpass the spoken word. One could probably make the argument that music was invented for worship, and there aren’t many religious traditions that don’t include it in some form. But of course, music and song are not the only ancient ways in which we worship God; there is another way that is equally, if not more, ancient: incense.


Whenever I hear a priest explain the use of incense in Catholic worship I invariably hear one of the following arguments or statements:


Incense symbolizes our prayers rising to heaven

Incense is fragrant and engages our sense of smell in worship

Incense was used in the ancient times to mask bad odors


While all of these arguments have some truth to them (and I must admit I have used them myself at times), they all fall short of identifying the primary, and most important, reason that incense is used in worship: We offer incense to glorify God.


Incense is quite simply burned as an offering to God. The rising smoke of the incense fills the air with something beautiful in the same way that our voices fill the air when we sing. They are both ways in which God’s faithful people have sought to honor and worship their creator from the earliest biblical times. We don’t talk about singing as if it were symbolic of worship; it is worship. Music in church is not there to entertain the congregation; it is there to glorify God. We need to start thinking of incense in the same way.


From the Book of Exodus, wherein Aaron is instructed to build an altar of incense in front of the ark of the covenant (Exodus 30: 1-9), to the Book of Revelation, where an angel stands before the throne of God, offering God “a great quantity of incense” along with the prayers of all the saints (Revelation 8:3), incense is routinely offered in the worship of God. In Psalm 141, the psalmist writes:


I call upon you, O Lord; come quickly to me;

Give ear to my voice when I call to you.

Let my prayer be counted as incense before you,

and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice.


The psalmist is assuming that the burning incense and the evening sacrifice are acceptable to God, and he is praying that his prayers, however feeble our faulty they may be, may be as acceptable. Nowhere does the psalmist imply that the incense is merely symbolic of true worship; he actually implores God that his prayers may be as truly worshipful as offering incense.


In fact, the one time in which scripture comes down very hard on the burning of incense is when it is treated as just a symbol. The prophet Isaiah famously describes offerings as “futile” and incense as an “abomination” when he is excoriating Israel for divorcing the external forms of worship from true conversion of the heart (Isaiah 1:13). Worship is not meant to be an empty symbol or ritual, but an outpouring of the internal love we have for God, an outpouring which should also manifest itself in a desire to do good and resist evil. The problem here is not the incense or the offerings; the problem is when our rituals become disconnected from our devotion.


I know plenty of churches that value music in worship, but not incense. I cannot think of any churches that value incense, but not music. I do not think it is any accident that the churches that use incense most liberally are also the churches most inclined to sing large portions of the service. Perhaps we appreciate (even if only subconsciously) that both the smoke and the song are solemn offerings to God. They are lifted into the air, not primarily for our entertainment, but as an offering for the worship and glorification of the Almighty.


Sure, all sorts of symbols abound in our worship, and music and incense can (hopefully) be pleasing to the ear or the nose, but please, let’s stop telling people that that is why we are using them. Our primary purpose should always be the praise and adoration of God. Everything else is just gravy.

In defense of lace albs: 5 things about traditional vestments and the priests who wear them



If you were to enter almost any Catholic Church (either Roman Catholic of Anglo-Catholic) before the 1960s you would almost certainly have seen the clergy vested in a white linen garment known as an alb. Very often these albs were decorated with an extensive amount of lace. The lace in an alb served two important functions: first on a very practical level, the lace makes the garment lighter and more breathable (and saying mass in several layers of robes in churches before the invention of air-conditioning this was a welcome introduction indeed); second, and far more importantly, lace was symbolic of the amount of effort and care being put into the worship of God.


Before machines could make lace quickly and cheaply, it represented something of a luxury. Lace was expensive and very hard to make. Its intricate patterns were woven by hand and represented countless hours of toil and care. When lace first became available and fashionable, its use was not considered a sign of femininity, but of nobility, so it was quite natural that in seeking to worship the King of Kings, the church would very often employ lace in its linens and vestments to symbolize the supreme transcendence of God.


Of course, lace was not the only sign of nobility used in the worship of God. Chalices were to be ornate and made of the finest metal. Vestments and robes needed to be beautiful and splendid. Churches had altars that were intricately carved and windows that colorfully illustrated the stories of our faith. The worship of God was not something incidental: time, effort and treasure were devoted to make going to church the most awe-inspiring experience that most people ever had.


How far we have come. This past week I have twice encountered prejudice within the church against priests who still find great value in maintaining and wearing traditional vestments. It has happened plenty of times before, but enough is enough. So here are a few things I want everyone to know about traditional vestments and the priests who wear them:


  1. Femininity has nothing to do with it. Wearing traditional vestments has nothing to do with having a lace fetish and wanting to wear frilly things (not that there is anything wrong with that). Indeed, I sometimes wonder about the implied misogyny that seems to exist in so many put-downs about traditional vestments looking feminine. So what if they do? We need to recognize that our ideas about what is masculine and/or feminine have changed over time (just look at portraits of kings and queens through the ages if you don’t believe me). The church’s vestments evolved long before trousers became a thing, so maybe we should stop trying to assign them a gender. And while we are on this subject, it is worthwhile to state: not every priest that wears and values traditional vestments is opposed to the ordination of women! I, for one, love a good lace alb, and fully support women wearing them too.
  2. The vestments are not there to make me look special. The robes are not worn to glorify the priest, they are worn to glorify Christ. As a priest, I am a sinner in need of redemption just like everyone else. During the mass, I act in the person of Christ, to say his words of institution over the bread and wine and distribute his body and blood to his faithful people. It is a moment that is supremely not about me at all, but about Christ and what he has done. The time, effort and expense put into beautiful vestments is not done to make me look special, but rather to remind all of us how special Christ is and how glorious this meal is that he has invited us to.
  3. We are not trying to turn back time. I love patristic theology, early mass settings, medieval architecture, baroque vestments and altar furnishings, and even the occasional modern praise song (gasp!). My standard when evaluating church things is not “is it new?” or “is it old?” but “is it good?” What I have found, time and time again, is that things that have managed to stand the test of time have usually done so because they have lasting value from one generation to the next. I have no desire to go back to the days before civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights or air-conditioning, but I do believe that the people that lived before and through those times still probably have a lot to teach me. Just because we find timeless wisdom and value in things that are traditional does not mean that we fail to see the importance of the progress that has been made along the way as well. For the record, most priests that I know that have strong preferences for traditional worship are actually quite young, and much of the laity that are attracted to this type of worship are fairly young as well. This isn’t about catering to the blue-haired ladies in our congregations as much as it is looking to what is resonating with children and youth.
  4. This is not about some secret desire to be Roman Catholic. On many occasions people have visited my church and commented “This is just like Roman Catholic” to which I would like to reply “When is the last time you visited a Roman Catholic Church?” Traditional vestments were a hallmark of both Roman Catholic and Anglo-Catholic churches up until the 1960s, when after the reforms of Vatican II, the Roman church began moving toward more modern vestments (and by modern I mean reflecting style, material and color trends of the 1960s and 70s). Today very few Roman Catholic parishes worship in traditional vestments or follow the older Tridentine form of the mass. The fact is that Episcopal priests that wear cassock-albs, modern-styled vestments and worship at West-facing altars have far more in common with their Roman Catholic colleagues than those of us that have a preference for fiddle-back chasubles, and that is fine, it really is. I have no problem with priests and churches that can feel connected to Christ through newer rites and modern aesthetics. As long as it is faithful to the gospel and works for the community, great. Go with it. What I do have a problem with is the notion that those of us who connect with traditional worship in all its forms and finery on some level do not belong in the mainstream church and are just waiting for an excuse to leave. Nothing could be further from the truth. I am a mainstream Anglican in the Episcopal Church and that is right where I intend to stay, but if we say that our church has room for a variety of styles in worship, then we should live that out by not trying to force traditional worshipers off to the margins, or even worse, out of the picture altogether.
  5. Ultimately the lace may not matter, but style does. Style and substance go hand in hand. We need to get that. People pay more attention to what we do than what we say. If we put more effort into setting a nice table for a dinner party than we do preparing ourselves for worshiping at Christ’s altar, what does that say about our priorities? Say what you will about traditional worship, it is seldom sloppy or irreverent. It takes Christ seriously.This is not some show that we are putting on week after week, it is the worship of God, and it is that very same worship that has led many a faithful Anglo-Catholic to serve Christ in the streets and in the hearts and bodies of those in need, as well as at his high altar. Maybe a Solemn High Mass isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, I get that, but please stop suggesting that we are going through all of this effort for any other reason than to glorify God.



The next time you see a priest wearing a lace alb consider this: he or she has probably done so as a conscious choice, but it may not be for the reason you think. He might not be trying to make a statement about his stance on some political issue in the church. He might not be trying to dress like a historical figure from ages past. He might not be trying to draw attention to himself by wearing something grand our outlandish. He might, just might, have seen something very beautiful and thought “surely this is worthy of God.”