St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church Ridgefield, CT 203.438.3789

November 8, 2018

The Way of Love

The Way of Love – find out more at:
www.episcopalchurch.org/explore-way-love

We begin this journey together on November 25 during the Matters of Faith hour on Sunday (9:15-9:50).  If you are interested in an online version please email Rev. Altopp at: waltopp@ststephens-ridgefield.org

“It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.  Because you sent your beloved Son to redeem us from sin and death, and to make us heirs in him of everlasting life; that when he shall come again in power and great triumph to judge the world, we may without shame or fear rejoice to behold his appearing.”

                              -Proper Preface for the Eucharist, Book of Common Prayer, p378

Click here to listen to Bishop Michael Curry www.episcopalchurch.org/explore-way-love

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November 5, 2018

And what about the End Times?

By following Jesus we can learn how to act in a way that makes fullness of life possible for all…

And what about the End Times?

I might be speaking to the church-y crowd with this title.  Everyone who goes to church seems to have an opinion on what the end of life as we know it will look like, regardless of their position’s biblical basis.  A clergy friend of mine brought this to my attention when he told of his experience of asking a group of people at his church…

Who has read The Revelation of John?  (only a few hands went up)

Who knows what The Revelation of John is about?  (almost all of the hands went up)

Now how can that be?  How can anyone know something that they haven’t actually studied?

The same is true for people not engaged with church.  They might think that they know what the Bible says on any number of topics, but without engaging the Holy Scriptures in the context of faith passed on from generation to generation (aka- tradition), such conclusion is built on a false premise.

With this in mind, I take up the common belief that Jesus’ return will be violent and destructive.  The poetic imagery of The Revelation of John defies any literal interpretation.  I particularly like Brian McLaren’s words in his book Everything Must Change: When the World’s Biggest Problems and Jesus’ Good News Collide.

“In light of the literary conventions of both literature of the oppressed in general and Jewish apocalyptic in particular, and assuming that Jesus’ coming as told in the Gospels was not a fake-me-out coming, but actually was the climactic revelation of God as the New Testament seems to affirm (Philippians 2:5-11; Colossians 1:15-20; Hebrews 1:1-4), Jesus’ ‘striking down the nations’ with a sword ‘coming out of his mouth’ has a very different meaning.  Jesus’ word—the unarmed truth of the gospel of the kingdom—is the force that overcomes the ‘kingdom of this world,’ the dominant system, the suicide machine.  It conquers not with physical weapons but with a message of justice (Revelation 19:11), and the blood on Jesus’ robe is not the blood of his enemies, but his own blood (12:11, cf. 5:6). 

                Read in this way, we don’t have a violent ‘Second Coming’ Jesus who finishes what the gentle ‘First Coming’ Jesus failed to do, but we have a poetic description of the way the gentle First Coming Jesus powerfully overcomes through his nonviolent ‘weakness’ (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:18-25), a prince of peace whose word of reconciliation is truly mightier than Caesar’s sword.” (p145)

By following Jesus, we can learn how to be reconcilers in our own day.  By following Jesus we can learn how to act in a way that makes fullness of life possible for all.  Isn’t this what we’re called to do?  Anything else will be our certain destruction.

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August 13, 2018

The Crafting of Worship

… I couldn’t help wondering what it would have been like if I wasn’t a regular church-goer…

Do you ever have something come up in your life over and over and over again?  For example, you think about a song, and then it plays on the radio and then is on the loudspeaker at CVS and then is the background of the television show you’re watching and then someone is whistling it while they pass you on the street?  It’s tempting to believe such incidents are meaningful – the universe it trying to tell you something – but I think it’s more likely that where your attention is, that’s where your thoughts follow.  If you hadn’t thought of that song, you wouldn’t have heard it at the CVS, or noticed the whistling on the street, even though they would have been there.

I’ve had worship services on my mind.  In part this is because the church where I work during the week (First Presbyterian in New Canaan) is going through a time of transition.  They are working with an interim pastor who is a respected author and educator on mindfully crafting worship services with the intention of fostering church growth.  It is a fascinating time to be a fly on the wall; I am learning a great deal.

And now, in my life, how people craft their worship services seems to be popping up everywhere.  I was traveling in Ohio last week and attended a Friday night Shabbat service (my in-laws are Jewish) – and was floored to see new large monitors all around the room.  They displayed the Hebrew text with an appropriate image and basic description of what we were praying; for me, out of my comfort zone, that made a world of difference in my feeling like I was participating in the worship rather than simply observing it.

I went to an Episcopal church while I was traveling as well, for a Summer Sunday Eucharist.  This is a lovely small congregation – but I couldn’t help wondering what it would have been like if I wasn’t a regular church-goer.  I was greeted and handed a bulletin, but then I was on my own.  Is that enough?  Maybe?  I remembered those screens and wondered if a simple description of why we were singing a Gloria with an appropriate Glorious Image would enhance or distract from the worship.  I’m honestly not sure.

I’ll be traveling a few more weeks, and then will be back home at St. Stephens…where our Sabbatical Rectors will be guiding our worship.  With my new focus of how these things are crafted, I’m interested to see what is the same and what changes – and how those things may look to a someone checking out St. Stephens for the first time.  From the interim pastor at the Presbyterian Church, I’m learning that how comfortable people feel in engaging in worship really impacts if they come back. 

I think my mindset is shifting from being someone who is fed at church to someone who is doing the cooking.  From a guest to a host.  As church members, where should we be – eating or serving?  How can we make those we serve the most comfortable, eager to return for more?

Careful – once you start thinking about this stuff, you’ll see it everywhere.  Get ready.

Peace, Erika Hagan

 

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June 18, 2018

Planting Seeds that will bring about God’s Kingdom

How little things can grow into world-changing things through God’s transforming love

In my sermon on June 17, I spoke of how little things can grow into world-changing things through God’s transforming love.  I’m indebted to Jack Jezreel, the founder of JustFaith Ministries, for succinctly articulating the “seeds” that we can plant to help bring about God’s Kingdom. [i]  To hear my use of his words, go to June 17 http://stephen.echolink.org/sermons/ 

Relationships with Those at Risk

“Regardless of what else we do, we must stay connected in some kind of face-to-face way with the persons and the places at risk. . . .”

Justice Education

“The single most repeated phrase in the Gospels is [what] Jesus uses to describe the vision and focus of his ministry: the Reign of God. . . . This is the reign of service, reconciliation, justice, generosity, compassion and peacemaking. Jesus calls disciples to this vision.”

Simpler Lifestyles

“The history of affluence is the history of exploitation is the history of war. . . . Authentic love will not allow us to continue to ask the rest of the world to put itself at the mercy of our conveniences.”

Take time to Pray

“. . . Prayer is a way of connecting with our source. It is about being centered, grounded, mindful of the holy, the presence of the sacred and the precious. . . . Prayer can help us to connect with the poor with open eyes and hearts. It is prayer that can allow us to educate with patience, love and understanding. It is prayer that can enable us to move to a simpler lifestyle. And it is prayer that will allow us to do this with conviction and joy.

And whether or not we pray is as obvious as whether or not we have put our clothes on. For example, the compulsive, frantic, angry, cynical, unintegrated rambling from project to project—even from peace project to peace project—may speak of good intentions, but also of an uneasy and untended inner life. It is possible . . . to do much harm because we have not taken the time to pray. . . .”

Commitment to Nonviolence

“. . . Violence is awful. Violence is ugly. Violence is the saddest of human acts. . . It is so very difficult to lead people into a willing critique of their politics, their country, their allegiances, without some awareness of how violence is so often the handmaid of greed and power. . . .We are nonviolent, not because we simply eschew violence; rather, we are nonviolent because we are people who love like Jesus.”

Community

“. . Community is the most neglected and probably the most difficult ingredient for us to hold to in the U.S. context. And for the most obvious of reasons—we have come to worship at the altar of independence, individualism and autonomy. As much as there is a deep hunger for connection, common purpose, and kindred hearts, there is a merciless, deep-rooted entrenchment in the forces of competition, personal freedom and self-rule.”

[i] These portions of Jezreel’s work are taken from Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation post, Founder of the Center of Action and Contemplation, dated June 13 and 14, 2018.

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May 30, 2018

Discovering Faith

If I could help families speak to their children about God in a kid-friendly, age-appropriate way, then maybe they wouldn’t have to try so hard to understand on their own.

Discovering Faith by Sara Armstrong

“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 18:3

Growing up, I would go to church every Sunday with my mother. I’d sit in my seat and feel completely uncomfortable and out of place. The words during the service just didn’t make sense to me. They seemed to be a completely different language – in my defense, some of the service was in Latin, so it wasn’t just me. I could never wrap my little brain around the point of it all. Why did we go to church? I knew it was to worship God and to pray to God and to show our love and to ask for forgiveness from sins. That’s what my mother had told me. All I really knew for myself was that we were expected to go to church because it’s just what we did. For a long time, that was good enough for me.

When I had my two beautiful children, I remembered my own experience as a child. How confusing and frustrating it was to be brought to church each week and not get it. To go to church only to spend my time there, not mindfully growing in God, but counting the seconds until Coffee Hour and snacks. I was determined to make the experience different for my children. Before church each week, I’d read to them from a Children’s Bible. I’d lay out the stories in a way they could understand. I’d explain the different parts of the service, answer their questions as best I could and listen to their thoughts and ideas about the different topics – I always think of my daughter (who was 5 at the time) confidently stating, “If Jesus were a food I don’t think he’d be bread, I think he’d be cupcakes. Everybody loves cupcakes!”

When I began coordinating the Children’s Ministry at St. Stephen’s, I had one goal in mind. If I could help families speak to their children about God in a kid-friendly, age-appropriate way, then maybe they wouldn’t have to try so hard to understand on their own. Maybe these children would want to learn and would want to be a part of everything. Maybe, somehow, I could help make church a meaningful experience for even the smallest of our parishioners.

Earlier this year, a wonderful coincidence happened. A lesson appeared in our syllabus at Church School about Baptism. It just happened that on the same day we were to learn about Baptism, there was to be an actual, real-life Baptism at church! I felt like God was saying, “Teach the children, and then show the children.” As a large group, the children first learned about why we get Baptized and how it means you are becoming a part of God’s family. We also talked about how you are also becoming a part of the Church family. We talked about how each of us has an important job to do. We need to love and support everyone in our church. We then went through a pretend Baptism. The children got to pour water over the head of a baby doll and say a prayer. We talked about the significance of each moment of what was happening. We then walked over to church and the children gathered in the hallway next to the altar. They peeked around and watched quietly while a new baby was welcomed into our Church family. My heart was completely full as they all smiled and looked at each other knowingly as the service continued.

If there’s anything I’m sure of, it’s that I will always do my best to make sure our children are given the tools they need, in the way that they need them, to grow in their relationship with God and to know how loved and supported they are at St. Stephen’s.

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March 1, 2018

Faith Forward: A Renewed Mission

Faith Forward: A Renewed Mission- view the video!

Check out our youtube video regarding our New Mission Statement

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December 12, 2017

Waiting for heaven

Are you looking for love, joy, and peace in these weeks leading up to Christmas?

Waiting for Heaven by Rev. Whitney Altopp

Are you looking for love, joy, and peace in these weeks leading up to Christmas?  The news reminds us of past sorrows and horrors and present ones as well.  The suffering that we remember through either first-person contact or only a few degrees of separation puts a pall on this season of sparkle.  We know that the hope for joy and peace is not found in our items purchased for Christmas celebration.  As Christians our hope is in Jesus, the Christ, who came as an infant 2000+ years ago and promises to come again.  Let us be clear, however, that this hope is not passive or sedentary or naïve.  It is a hope that calls us into cooperative action in the redeeming work of God—here and now.  I find the words from this hymn from the Iona Community particularly profound in reminding us of God’s initiative to show love to all creation and God’s invitation for us to live as ones who have received it by living lives that reflect God’s redeeming, saving love.

Heaven Shall Not Wait

Heaven shall not wait

            For the poor to lose their patience

            The scorned to smile, the despised to find a friend:

Jesus is Lord

            He has championed the unwanted;

            In him injustice confronts its timely end.

Heaven shall not wait

            For the rich to share their fortunes

            The proud to fall, the elite to tend the least:

Jesus is Lord

            He has shown the masters’ privilege

            To kneel and wash servants’ feet before they feast.

Heaven shall not wait

            For the dawn of great ideas

            Thoughts of compassion divorced from cries of pain:

Jesus is Lord

            He has married word and action

            His cross and company make his purpose plain.

Heaven shall not wait

            For our legalized obedience

            Defined by statute, to strict conventions bound:

Jesus is Lord

            He has hallmarked true allegiance

            Goodness appears where his grace is sought and found.

Heaven shall not wait

            For triumphant hallelujahs

            When earth has passed and we reach another shore:

Jesus is Lord

            In our present imperfection;

            His power and love are for now and then forevermore.

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November 21, 2017

What serves Christ?

It seems that where your joy is, Christ is there too.

“What Serves Christ?”  by Angela Liptack

“May the fields of the wilderness be rich for grazing, and the hills be clothed with joy.” (Psalm 65:13)

In church and elsewhere, the call to serve is strong. To feed those who cannot feed themselves. To hug the frightened. To bind wounds, repair rotten porch steps, volunteer to chaperone a field trip. To visit a shut-in. To hear a sad story with no other role than to listen.

There’s joy in these acts. Absolutely without question. I see it in the faces of people who speak of their walk with Christ in this way.

But what if your walk with Christ doesn’t “look like” these things? Maybe it’s looked like this once in a while. Maybe never. What if the very best you know how to do is to dance? What if the gift you want to give is to sing? What if it’s to meet injustice with respectful resistance? What if it’s to create something that celebrates or adds to the beauty around us? What if your work, at this moment, is to grieve a hurt or loss and move on?

What if your call, today, is simply to “be still and know that I am God”? (Psalm 46:10)

Not that long ago, I began experimenting with fabric, reviving a teenage passion. Inspired by design-rich, traditional quilts, I began making art. My first attempt was very simple: Irregular skinny brown/gray rectangles set vertically against a swirly blue. An undulating white scrap at the base, a white dot for the moon. Voila—a winter woods. Did I do that?

I have been in woods like that, with people I love. People who loved me gave me the tools I used to create that simple scene and many since. Creating art that celebrates the beauty I’ve seen and the abundance with which I have been blessed gives me joy that starts in the center of my being, literally. Looking at these pieces has, apparently, made other people smile.

“Does this serve Christ?” I’ve asked several people wise in His teachings. “It does,” they say. It has something to do with joy. It seems that where your joy is, Christ is there too.

And yes, “Hills Clothed with Joy”—cousin to that first piece, also about six inches square, colorful and happy–has a special place in our home.

 

 

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October 19, 2017

Erika’s Stewardship Testimony

I am going to tell you what this church has done for me, and how God has used this church and the people in it to answer my prayer.

 

This is my third “Stewardship Testimony” I’ve given here at St. Stephens.  My grandfather was a Southern Baptist Minister, and my grandmother’s done a lot of church work at a lot of churches in her lifetime.  One time she sat me down and said, “Erika, if you say ‘yes’ to something at a church, they’re going to keep on asking you to do it until you finally say ‘no’. Remember your Church-Yes isn’t just for that one time, it’s for all time until you say so.”  I must say, I’ve found that advice to be very true! So…YES I will do another Stewardship Testimony.

Usually when I approach this Stewardship time, I get rather John F. Kennedy about it – “Ask not what your Church can do for you, but rather ask what you can do for your Church”, right? I truly feel we are called to create The Church together, and to keep *this* church together specifically – we give our Time, our Talent, our Treasure because we honor and glorify God. 

But.  This time happens to coincide with something so amazing in my life, in my journey with God, and it all happened because of the volunteer time, the hard work, the financial contributions of the people of St. Stephens.  It’s AMAZING.  So, even though it’s not my natural tendency, I am going to tell you what this church has done for me, and how God has used this church and the people in it to answer my prayer.

My eldest son, Isaac, has lower functioning autism. I adore this kid – he is genuine and snuggly and loves his loves so completely and passionately, from his devotion to me to his obsession with Peppa Pig and Opera. He has profound disabilities and delays in speech and in social awareness and communication, though, which means while we can watch Opera on PBS together, he can’t tell me what he loves about it or what he’s hearing or seeing in it. His nervous system is miswired and raw, causing his processing of the world around him and the input we all take in to be overwhelming and often painful.  We cannot take him to places with lots of people, loud noises, strange textures or distinct smells, or ceiling fans.  He falls apart in a room with a ceiling fan. While he is physically healthy, he is a 12-year old walking around with less skills to function in the world than a preschooler. 

But I knew none of this when he was born.  He was my miracle, my surprise baby that delighted me every day.  When he was 6 months old, we had him baptized at the church where I grew up in Ohio, and when I promised God and those around me that I would raise my son in the love of God, teaching him how to follow Jesus, I thought my heart would burst with joy and pride. 

And as he grew, and it became clear that he simply was not going to be able to attend church – the people, the music, the flowers, the organ, the behavioral expectations being beyond his ability to handle – every time I heard the words “Will you be responsible for seeing that the child you present is brought up in the Christian faith and life?” at a baptism, and I heard the parents and Godparents say “we will” my heart would break a little.  I had promised this too, and I had no idea how to do it when I couldn’t bring my Isaac to church – no church school, no Worship.

I prayed.  I prayed and prayed.  I prayed that God would show me what to do, how to keep this vow.  And for a decade, I’ve been waiting for an answer.  Since I began praying this prayer to now, I decided to give myself permission to be patient, to wait, to remove the urgency I felt from the equation and to trust that God created Isaac and God sent him to me and God has a plan for him.  I attended church.  I followed Jesus as best I could.  I prayed out loud at home, and one day I heard Isaac say the Lord’s Prayer along with me in another room, and that was good.  I sing a psalm each night to start early evening prayer, and Isaac sometimes sings it with me, and that is good. I say, “thank you God for…” and he fills in the blank with what he’s thankful for – usually it’s Pizza.  I thought that if this was all we could do, it was pretty good.

But there was one more thing I desperately wanted that I could not do at home, alone.  I wanted Isaac to receive communion.  So I continued to pray.  And I prayed and I prayed, with truly no idea how this could happen. This seemed impossible. But NOTHING is impossible to God.

Here’s the end of the story – we had our first Grace 2 Go service yesterday, a worship service designed for families with children with special needs.  Isaac was excited for it from the moment I told him about it.  He’d point to Saturday the 14th on the calendar and say “church school!” We arrived, and in the room was a tent set up in the semi-circle, open on one side facing the Worship leader and he went straight to it, playing with toys and when something sparked his interest, kind of perking his ears up, tilting his head.  Next was an activity that he had zero interest in doing, but that was okay, he was allowed to wander and be who he is, and I didn’t have to worry about it.  And when we all started gathering to do a procession from North Hall to the Church, he suddenly saw how it was all coming together and said “it’s a parade!” and I sad, “yes it is!”.  And we came over to the church, and he said the Lord’s Prayer under his breath with me, and then we lined up for Communion, and it didn’t matter that he couldn’t keep his body still or his mouth from making noise.  Mother Whitney said “take, eat” and he took, and he ate, and it happened! Isaac had communion. My prayers were answered, and I had nothing to do with it. God is so good.

But let’s back this answer to my prayer up.  It took the Stewardship of everyone to make this happen.  This Grace 2 Go costs money.  It’s run by volunteers, it’s an efficient and well-organized program, but it costs money for supplies, to maintain North Hall where it’s held – to keep it clean and heated and the lights on. It costs money to pay the water bill to make the coffee and tea for the parents.  It costs money to put out the diocesan magazine where Claire Simard first read about Grace 2 Go to bring it here to St. Stephens.  Our money, yours and mine, creates the space for God’s work to happen.  God’s work doesn’t have to happen in the context of a church, but it surely DOES happen here, and we create it together, and it takes our time, our talent, and yes, our treasure to do it.  You tithed money, and my prayers were answered.  My Isaac received Christ’s body and blood, and Worshiped God in a community, because of you.  It was beyond my ability to do, but not beyond God’s, and God used you to do it.

So I guess I *am* asking “What can you do for your Church?”.  I am asking you to give.  But I want you to remember that you’re being asked this for the Church to do something for You, for Me, for the Catalyst to create the space for the Holy Spirit to work within us and through us and for us and for others.

I thank you from the bottom of my heart for your past gifts, and for those of the generations before us at St. Stephens that created this church, this campus, that created the opportunity and space for Grace 2 Go.  And I can’t wait to see what God will do with what we give NOW, for us right now, and for generations after us, for the Holy Spirit to work in and for and through them.

Please, say Yes, and keep saying Yes, because we’re going to keep asking you.  It’s how churches work, literally.  They can’t work without it.

A-men!

Erika Hagan

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October 3, 2017

Responding to violence…again

Our salvation is found together…

Responding to violence…again

When the news story first came across my screen of the deadly shooting in Las Vegas Sunday night, I was struck by the terror of it.  “Should I write some sort of reflection?” I wondered to myself.  “Are people sick of reading some written reflection in response to violence?  Didn’t I just write one?  What could possibly be new to say?”  My tired, weary thoughts made the need for words and action even more profound.  VIOLENCE KEEPS HAPPENING!

Last year at this time, I was preparing for a trip to the Holy Land, a visit to Israel and the West Bank.  Aren’t you worried about the violence? People would occasionally ask me.  To what am I comparing the violence in the Middle East?  Who can judge between a shooter at the Al Aqsa Mosque and one in Las Vegas?

The Apostle Paul’s lament in his Letter to the Romans seems most suited for today.  Recalling various verses from the Hebrew texts he ruminates…

 What then? Are we any better off? No, not at all; for we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin, as it is written:
‘There is no one who is righteous, not even one; 
   there is no one who has understanding,
     there is no one who seeks God. 
All have turned aside, together they have become worthless;
   there is no one who shows kindness,
     there is not even one.’ 
‘Their throats are opened graves;
   they use their tongues to deceive.’
‘The venom of vipers is under their lips.’ 
   ‘Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.’ 
‘Their feet are swift to shed blood; 
   ruin and misery are in their paths, 
and the way of peace they have not known.’ 
   ‘There is no fear of God before their eyes.’                      Romans 3:9-18

I believe that we will not find our way until we find ourselves in the Mercy that is God.  Discovering ourselves there will give us the strength and direction to find our way forward together.  No one is going anywhere.  The Violent are within each of us.  Our salvation is found together.  Jesus’ death on the cross shows us that although grace and mercy and love and forgiveness are free, our salvation is not.  Allowing ourselves to be saved is going to cost us something.

 

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