Sunday, February 18, 2018

1 Lent

February 18, 2018

Genesis 9.8-17; 1 Peter 3.18-22; Mark 1.9-15


+ As I said in the announcements, I have been overwhelmed. Overwhelmed in a very good way.  Overwhelmed by the love, the concern, the absolute and wonderful care and concern of everyone at St. Stephen’s, of the wider Episcopal community, of my many friends and close family members in these three weeks since my mother died.

 I don’t even know how to process the kindness and the love. It’s just that amazing and far-reaching.

I’m grateful to know how loved my mother was. And I am truly humbled to feel loved by so many people.  

And the condolences keep rolling in!  Almost every day I keep receiving more and more cards from friends, from distant relatives, from friends of my parents.  It’s all very mind-boggling, especially when your mind isn’t working like it normally does.

At one point in the real hard and brutal days of grief—and there were and still are quite a few of them—I received a card from my parents’’ former pastor.  She was the first woman pastor at my parents’ church, which was a daunting role to take on 30 years ago. My parents absolutely adored her (so did I). And my mother especially supported her and was proud that a woman was serving in that capacity.

In her card, this pastor friend shared stories I never about my mother, about how quickly she volunteered for working at the homeless shelter and other types of ministry that no one else wanted to do. I honestly didn’t know about many of these ministries my mother did.

But the real kicker for me in her card was how she closed her comments. At the very end of her card, she wrote that she knew it was a hard and difficult time in life right now, but remember, she said, “Easter’s coming.”

“Easter’s coming.”

That has been my life preserver through these dark weeks. Lent is kind of like those difficult days of grief and sorrow. It is a season that, if we had a choice, we probably wouldn’t readily observe.

As we enter this season of Lent, many of us are probably groaning about it. I’m already hearing on Facebook people bemoaning the fact that it is Lent.

To be honest, I get it. It’s a bleak season. It’s a time in which we do things we don’t normally do, or even like doing.

We fast.

Many of us give up things we usually like.

We make sacrifices.

And I hate to be the one to tell you this, but it’s not going to get better any time soon.

But it helps when we remind ourselves that “Easter’s coming.”

However, before Easter, we still have to wade through some unpleasant waters.  And of course, there’s also Holy Week before we get to the glory of Easter.  And look at what awaits during Holy Week.

Betrayal.

The whipping.

The carrying of the cross.

The crucifixion.

Death.

So, yes, here we are—in this season of Lent. And I know you probably came to Mass this morning thinking, “it’s going to be doom and gloom and sadness” all morning at church.  

But, guess what?

No.

If we were expecting doom and gloom and sadness in our scripture readings, well, we don’t get any of that.  

Ah, no. Instead, we get… water?

We get Noah and the ark?

We get a rainbow.

And baptism?

Now, this is my way to begin Lent!

We begin Lent as we begin any important step as Christians—with solid footing in our baptismal understanding.  We begin Lent with a remembrance of our baptismal covenant—that covenant that we formed with God at our baptisms—a covenant that is still binding on us, even now.

This covenant is a covenant very much like the covenant God made with Noah after the waters of the flood that we hear about in our reading from Genesis.

I wasn’t expecting to do it, but here we are on this first Sunday of Lent, and I am preaching about, of all things, baptism. And we don’t even do baptisms during Lent!

As if that wasn’t enough, we also get another special treat.  In our Gospel reading, we get, in a very brief scripture, an upheaval.

What?

You missed the upheaval in our Gospel reading?

You missed the reversal?

You missed, in that deceptively simple piece of scripture, a mirror image of something?

It’s easy to miss, after all.  Our Gospel reading is so simple, so sparse.  But then again, so is haiku.

 But let’s look a little closer at what we’ve just heard and read.

In today’s Gospel, we find three elements that remind us of something else.  

We find the devil.

We find animals.

And we find angels.

Where else in scripture do we find these same elements?  Well, we find them all in the Creation story in Genesis, of course.  The story of Adam is a story of what?

the devil,

animals

and angels.

But that story ends with the devil’s triumph and Adam’s defeat. In today’s Gospel, it has all been made strangely right.  Jesus—the new Adam—has turned the tables using those exact same elements.

We find Jesus not in a lush beautiful Oz-like place like Eden.  Rather we find Jesus with wild animals in that desert—animals who were created by God and named by Adam, according to the story.  We find him there waited on by the angels—and let’s not forget that these same angels turned Adam and Eve away from Eden.  And there, in that place, he defeats the devil—the same devil who defeated Adam.

I have found this juxtaposition between Adam and Jesus to be a rich source of personal meditation, because it really is very meaningful to us who follow Jesus.  In this story of Jesus we find, yet again, that it is never the devil who wins.

It always, always God who wins.

God always wins.

That is what the story of Jesus is always about—God always winning in the end.

If we lived with the story of Adam, if we lived in the shadow of his defeat, the story is a somewhat bleak one.  There doesn’t seem to be much hope.  The relationship ruined with Adam hasn’t been made right.

But today we find that the relationship has been righted.  The story isn’t a story of defeat after all.

It isn’t a time to despair, but to rejoice.  The devil has been defeated.  And this is very important.

We, in our baptisms, also defeat the devil.  Now, by the devil, I am not necessarily talking
about a supernatural being who rules the underworld.  I’m not talking about horns, forked tail and a pitchfork.  I’m not talking about Hot Stuff the Devil. Remember him? (I was once, back in my twenties, going to get a tattoo of Hot Stuff after someone jokingly said that Casper the Friendly Ghost would not look so good on my very white skin).   

By devil I mean the personification of all that we hold evil. In our baptisms, we renounce all the evil of this world and the next, and by renouncing evil, we are assured that it can be defeated.  By renouncing the devil and all the evils of this world, we turn away from the evil inherent within us—the evil that was set upon us from the beginning—from the story of  Adam being turned away at Eden.  Our baptism marks us and in that mark we find the strength to stand up against evil.

This time of Lent—this time for us in the desert, this time of fasting and mortification—is a time for us to confront the demons in our lives.  We all have them.

In our wonderful collect for today, we prayed to God to

“come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations.”

The poet that I am, I love the traditional language of Rite I better here.

“Make speed to help thy servants who are assaulted by manifold temptations.”

We all understand that term “manifold temptations.” We all have those triggers in our lives that disrupt and cause upheaval.  Sometimes this upheaval is mental and emotional, sometimes it is actual.  We have our own demons, no matter what name we might call them.

I certainly have my own demons in my life and sometimes I am shocked by the way they come upon me.  I am amazed by how they lay me low and turn my life upside down.  They represent for me everything dark and evil and wrong in my life and in the world around me.  They are sometimes memories of wrongs done to me, or wrongs I’ve done to others.  Sometimes they are the shortcomings of my own life—of being painfully reminded of the fact that I have failed and failed miserably at times in my life.  In these days of mourning, I’ve found myself kicking myself for all I should’ve’ done for my mother.

They are reminders to me that this world is still a world of darkness at times—a world in which people and nature can hurt and harm and destroy.  And that power and influence of evil over my life is, I admit, somewhat strong.

We need to look no farther than the evil and destruction of Parkland, Florida and he white supremacist who opened fire on those students!  

Trying to break the power of our demons sometimes involves going off into the deserts of our lives, breaking ourselves bodily and spiritually and, armed with those spiritual tools we need, confronting and defeating those powers that make us less than who we are.

For me, I do find consolation when I am confronted by the demons of my life in that covenant I have with God in my baptism.  I am reminded by that covenant that there is no reason to despair when these demons come into our lives, because the demons, essentially, are illusions.

They are ghosts.

They are wispy fragments of my memory.

They have no real power over me despite what they make think sometimes.

Because the demons have been defeated by God.

Again, returning to our collect for today, we prayed,

“as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save.”

God has been “might to save” us. The demons of our lives have been defeated by our Baptismal Covenant and those baptismal waters.  The real power they have over my life has been washed away in those waters, much as all evilness was washed away in the flood in Noah’s time.

So, as we wander about in the spiritual desert of Lent, let us truly be driven, as Jesus was.  Let the Spirit drive us into that place—to that place wherein we confront the demons of our lives.  But let us do so unafraid.  The Spirit is the driving force and, knowing that, we are strengthened.

Let us be driven into that place.

Let us confront our demons.

Let us confront the very devil itself.

Let us face the manifold temptations of our lives unafraid, knowing full well that God is “mighty to save.”

After all, “Easter’s coming.”

Lent is not eternal.

Easter is eternal.

This time is only a temporary time of preparation.

So, let us wander through this season confident that it is simply something we must endure so that we can, very soon, delight in the eternal glories of a morning light that is about to dawn into our lives.

“The time is fulfilled,” we can say with all confidence. “The kingdom of God has come near.”

It is time to repent. It is time to believe this incredibly good news!






Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Ash Wednesday

February 14, 2018

Joel 2.1-2,12-17; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6.1-6,16-21

 + Over the last week or so of this two and half week dark journey I have been taking since my mother died, I have been listening to one song over and over again. I do things like this. When bad things happen in my life, I end up listening to a lot of music. And I usually end up listening to one song more than any other.

The song of choice this time is one you would not expect as we enter the Lenten season.  The song I have been playing over and over again is a version of “In the Bleak Midwinter” by the Indie group, Animal Collective.

Yes, I know: “In the Bleak Midwinter” is a Christmas carol. But Animal Collective only sings the first and last stanza of the carol, which really is kind of perfect, in some ways, for Lent.  The words especially of the first stanza of that poem sure do speak perfectly to the mood many of us probably have had as this long winter keeps us in its stony grip:

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter...

Let me tell you, those words sure have been speaking loudly and clearly to me these last few, very hard weeks in my life since my mother died.  And besides, my mother really loved Christina Rossetti.

So, somehow, it all comes together. These hard things, these difficult things are what we are dealing with in this season.  Ash Wednesday and Lent is all about facing the reality of our mortality, after all. Of looking hard into the empty eye sockets of a skull.

Lent is a time for us to be sober, to be awake and aware, to face the harsh realities of our existence separated as we are, in this moment, from God’s nearer Presence.

We face the fact that, as we journey through this “vale of tears,” we are all fallible. We all fail—and fail miserably—at times in our lives.  And when we do, it is painful. It hurts. This time of Lent is a time for us to face those failings in our lives. I think that’s why some of us kind of resist Lent when it comes around again.

But, recognizing our failures for what they are is a way forward. We are all fallible human beings. We will continue to fail at times. We will never, on this side of the veil, be perfect. And if perfection is our goal, we have already set ourselves up for failure.

But failure too should not be the goal.  Striving to learn from our failures is the goal. Changing and growing and moving beyond our failures is our goal. A successive evolution from failure to redemption is our goal.

Lent is a time for us to think about our failures, to ponder them, but not to revel in them. And it certainly is not a time to beat ourselves up over them.

Tonight, Ash Wednesday, is a time for us to think about that ultimate moment in our lives, that puts all of our failures into keen perspective. Tonight is the night to think about the fact that we will all, one day, die.

In this service we are reminded in no uncertain terms that one day each every person in this church this evening will stop breathing and will die.  Our bodies will be made into something that will be disposed of—either by being cremated and being buried in the ground.

But, all of this can—and more importantly, should—be something in which we find ourselves opened up to a new understanding and new perspectives of the world and our relationship with God.

That essentially is what Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent are all about. It is a time for us to stop, to ponder, to take a look around us and to take a long, hard, serious look at ourselves, our failures, and our relationship with God.

None of this is easy to do. It isn’t easy to look at where we’ve failed in our lives and in our relationship with others. It isn’t easy to look at ourselves as disposable physical beings that can so easily be burned to ashes or buried.  It isn’t easy to imagine there will be a day—possibly sooner than later—when life as we know it right now will end.  It isn’t easy to shake ourselves from our complacent lives. Or, as I’ve discovered recently, to have my complacent life shaken from me.

Because we like complacency. We like predictability. We like our comfortable existence.

However, we need to be careful when we head down this path. As we consider and ponder these things, we should not allow ourselves to become depressed or hopeless.  Remembering our failures is depressing and can trigger depression or despair.  Our mortality is frightening.

Yes, it is sobering and depressing to think that this moment we find so normal and comfortable will one day end.  It is sobering to realize that everything in our life is ultimately temporary.  

But this season is Lent is also a time of preparation.  It is a preparation for the glory of Easter—and for the eternity of Easter.

It would be depressing and bleak if, in the end, all we are known for our failures.  But, the reality is this: we will not be known for our failures before God. Not in the end. If death does anything, it obliterates our failures, those moments when we fell short. That is my hope. Yeah, maybe I am the eternal optimist, even in the midst of mourning and grief.

But that’s also what it means to be a Christian, after all.  Even in mourning, even wading through the thick, dark waters of grief, we can still hope.  Even in the midst of Lent, we can be optimists.

Yes, we will hear, in a few moments, those sobering words,

“You are dust and to dust you shall return.”

And those words are true. But, the fact is, ashes are not eternal. Ashes are not the end of our story. Ashes are temporary.

Resurrection is eternal.  Our life in Christ is eternal.  Our failures are temporary. Our life is eternal in Christ.  All we do on this Ash Wednesday is acknowledge the fact that we are mortal, that our bodies have limits and because they do, we too are limited.

So, it’s not a matter of denying our bodies or seeing our bodies as sinful, disgraceful things. The same can be said of our failures. Our failures make us who we are. We are not defined by them.

But we are formed in the fires of our failures and shortcomings.  It is not a matter of dwelling on our failures in this life.

Rather, it is a time for us to look forward, past our failures, to resurrection, to renewal, to rebirth.  It is time for us, as we heard in our reading from the Prophet Joel, to

“return to [God] with all our hearts,
With fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;”

It is time for us to “rend our hearts…and return to our God, who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”

It is time for us to, as we always do, “make to God of our grain offering and our drink offering. “

It is time, as Jesus tells us in our Gospel reading, to quietly go about our Lenten discipline, to give in secret, to pray to our God in our rooms with the doors shut, to fast with oil on our heads and washed faces.

As we head into this season of Lent, let it truly be a holy time. Let it be a time in which we recognize the limitations of our own selves—whether they be physical or emotional or spiritual.

But more than anything, let this holy season of Lent be a time of reflection and self-assessment, as fasting and giving. Let it be a time of growth—both in our self-awareness and in our awareness of God’s presence in our life.

As St. Paul says in our reading from this evening:

“Now is the acceptable time. Now is the day of salvation.”

It is the acceptable time. It is the day of salvation.  Let us take full advantage of it.






Saturday, February 3, 2018

One week later: THANK YOU!

My mother thought about her death. And she did so without fear of it. She planned her funeral and discussed her funeral service with me for many years. She had everything in place—she had purchased her urn, she planned the music and she picked the scriptures.  She did all of that just so it would be easier for me. That part was. The rest has not been.

When my father died in 2010, his funeral at Maple Sheyenne Lutheran Church was packed—something that I guess really didn’t surprise either of us.

However, she didn’t seem to think that her funeral would draw very many people. I thank everyone who came to her Requiem Mass and I especially thank everyone for proving her wrong on this one.

My mother was a woman of grace and dignity and strength. She was feisty and she was funny. She loved to joke.   And she could be fierce if she wanted to be—you did not ever want to be on her bad side (there were actually only a few people who were—and God help them!)

I truly believe all those attributes are not gone. I truly believe she is not gone today.

My mother was the most important person in my life. My life literally revolved around her. That is not a complaint, mind you. She was no burden to me. That is just a fact. I did what needed to be done. I did it because I loved her and wanted the best for her. And I hope that I was able to give her the best possible life I could give her in these last years.

More than anything, I wanted to make sure she was shielded from of the pain from earlier in her life. I tried to shield her from outside forced that tried to disrupt the peace of her latter life. I hope I did that for her.

I realize now I was in some kind of strange denial about the fact that she was declining in the last two days of her life. I didn’t want to admit that she was leaving. I still don’t want to admit that she is gone.  

But despite that, I am especially grateful that she was able to die in peace, in the home she loved, without pain, without struggle. She died happy and content and knowing she was loved.  I am grateful that this independent woman died on her terms, in the way she wanted, knowing she was loved, going quickly and in peace. 

I loved her so much. And I am so grateful that the last words she said to me as I left her

that morning were, “I love you,” and that she heard my response in turn. Those were the last words we exchanged. And I couldn’t ask for better final words. Our 48 years were summed in that last final exchange of words.   

Earlier on Sunday morning when I last saw her, she asked me, “Where did your dad go?” as though he had just been there in the room with her.

I believe my father had been there with her that morning, and that he came back for her later that day. That has been a consolation for me in these last very horrible days. And I do believe that she now dwells, with him, in a place of beauty and light, where “sorrow and pain are no more,” as we heard Friday morning at her Requiem.

I believe she is with the God whom she loved so deeply. And I believe that all her beauty and strength and dignity are alive, without flaw, right now, right there, in God’s loving and light-filled Presence.

I thank you all for all you have done. Thank you for being there for her when she needed you.

And thank you all for being here for my family and me as well.

Sunday January 28th was, by far the hardest day of my life. I survived cancer, car accidents, my father’s death, but the day my mother died was worse than any of them!  The reason is not a complicated one: I feared my mother’s death for a long time. And now…here it is.

You have helped make all of this so much better. I thank you for your friendship. I thank you for your love and your care and your concern. I have been quite simply overwhelmed by the prayers, the outreach, the concern and the love from all of you.
But thank you most for being there for my mother, for showing her that she was loved and she was important and she was special.

She was loved.

She was important.

And she was so special.

Oh, how I miss her and will continue to miss her!

Remember her.

Celebrate her.       


And please, please don’t forget her!


Monday, January 29, 2018

My mother's obituary

Joyce M. Parsley

 Joyce M. Parsley, 81, Fargo, died suddenly and peacefully on Sunday afternoon, January 28, 2018 in her home.

Joyce Marie Olson was born Oct. 25, 1936 in Fargo to Theodore and Phoebe (Toftehagen) Olson. She was baptized on Nov. 22, 1936 at First Lutheran Church, Fargo. She grew up and attended school in Fargo, graduating from Fargo Central High School in 1954. She married Albert Parsley on April 18, 1969 in Sisseton, SD. On April 18, 2005, they renewed their wedding vows and had their marriage blessed by their son, Jamie, an Episcopal priest, in a ceremony in the chapel of Gethsemane Episcopal Cathedral, Fargo. She was a member of Maple Sheyenne Lutheran Church for many years and, after moving to Fargo, became a member of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church.

The family moved to rural Harwood in 1975 and to West Fargo in 1987. In 1980, she helped Albert start his own road construction business, Al Parsley Construction, which they ran successfully for twenty years. They retired in 2000. Albert died on Sept. 14, 2010.

Known as the Duchess, Joyce was just that: a true lady and a class act in everything she did. Throughout her life, she was a strong, feisty, amazingly independent woman who was an inspiration to many others. She loved her flower garden and especially enjoyed cooking; she was widely known for her lefse and her baked goods. She loved dining with friends at fine restaurants. She will be remembered for her faith in God, her compassion and love for others, and for her artistic soul. Her loss leaves a void in many people’s lives, especially in those closest to her. Although her life was often difficult, she rose above all the disappointments with a grace and strength that often amazed those who loved her.

She is survived two sons; the Rev. Jamie Parsley and Jason Gould (Darlene Erovik); and both Fargo; a daughter, Michelle (Everett) Walker, Valley City, ND; a step-son, Rick (Kim) Parsley, Fargo; seven grandchildren, nine great-grandchildren and several nieces and nephews

She was preceded in death by her husband, Albert; her son, Jeffrey Gould, on July 29, 2013; her  parents, her brother, Marvin Olson, in 2007; and her sister, Shirley Carbno in 2011.

The Requiem Eucharist will be 11:00 a.m. on Friday February 2 at Gethsemane Episcopal Cathedral, 3600 25 Street South, Fargo.

Burial of ashes will be in the family plot at Maple Sheyenne Cemetery, near Harwood, ND at a later date.


(Hanson-Runsvold) 

Sunday, January 28, 2018

4 Epiphany

Annual Meeting Sunday

January 28, 2017

Mark 1.21-28

+ Today is, of course, our Annual Meeting Sunday. And it is the Sunday in which I get to be the head cheerleader for our congregation. And there is so much to cheer about.

There is so much  vitality, life, pure energy that we have here. I know you feel it. I certainly feel it. And it is that vitality, that presence of the God’s life-giving and amazing Spirit, present among us, that we celebrate today.

So much has happened over this past year. We have had celebrated new members in our midst. We have celebrated great ministries. We celebrated a very successful Capital Campaign. And we celebrate new windows here in our Nave.

But we are more than all of this. We as St. Stephen’s are more than numbers and stained glass. Much more!

We are a presence. We are striving, together, to be the all-loving, all-accepting Presence of Christ to those how need us to be that Presence. And, I will say, that being such a Presence means doing uncomfortable things as well.

Being Christ’s Presence in this world, following Jesus to sometimes dark places, means that we must confront darkness at times as well. It means, we must, on occasion, confront evil.

Now, most of us consider ourselves fairly progressive Christians. If you didn’t, you probably wouldn’t be here at St. Stephen’s and you probably wouldn’t be Episcopalian. And being fairly progressive means that we have a bit of a more, shall we say, open minded attitude regarding things we read in the Scriptures.

So, when we encounter things like evil in scripture, we often find ourselves resistant a bit.  Evil, of course, for people at that time meant demons and the Devil. We, however, find ourselves definitely resisting such things.

Demons? We think.

The Devil?

I’m not so certain I’m ready to acknowledge those things necessarily, certainly not in the same way that people in scriptural times did.

Certainly, I have had this same attitude. Although I too have issues sometimes with actual demons and Satan, I do believe fully and completely that yes, evil without a doubt, does exist in this world.  

Now, as frustrating and frightening as that may be, I also believe one further aspect of that.  Evil is not only something that God can defeat.  And ultimately, that God WILL defeat.  I’ll get into that a bit later.

But first, let’s deal with the evil at hand.  We get evil today in our Gospel reading. But first, before the evil, we get a bit of glory.

In the beginning of our Gospel reading for today, we find Jesus in a place, at first, in which he is being marveled at.  People are amazed by his teaching.  It is certainly a high point for those early followers of Jesus.  It is a moment in which the decision they made to follow him has been, in some very real way, validated.

And then, in the midst of that adulation, in the midst of that wonderful, high moment, those followers find themselves confronting evil.  There, in the middle of all that praise, comes a person possessed by an evil spirit.  It was, no doubt, an unpleasant moment.

Just when things seem to be going well, there’s a crazy, possessed person in their midst. For us we have been confronted with things like this as well.  Well, maybe not crazy, possessed people.  Or maybe…crazy, possessed people.

But, let’s face it,  we do know a few things about evil.  For all the grand and glorious things we see on occasion as followers of Jesus, we are also reminded that there is still injustice and oppression and sexism and homophobia and racism and a multitude of other really horrible things going around us in the world and in our society.

Some of us have even seen the effects of violence in our own personal lives.  We see evil.  We know evil.  We are confronted with evil on a regular basis, and especially in those moments in which we really don’t want to confront evil.

But, what Jesus’ encounter with the evil spirit shows, however—and, again, as we all know here—is that evil is not quite what we thought it was. Yes, evil has much power in this world.  But it does not have ultimate power.  Evil does not—nor does it ever—win in the end.  History has shown this again and again.

Auschwitz, that seemingly impenetrable fortress of evil and death and horror, was eventually liberated.  It was ended.  Nazism (at least in Germany) was destroyed.  Hitler was defeated.

And, in following Jesus, when we confront evil and injustice and oppression and discrimination, we know full well that these things will all one day be cast out.  They all will be quieted.  And goodness will triumph ultimately in the end.

We know this as followers of Jesus.  We know this because we know that’s what it means to follow Jesus.

For us, when God’s blessings flow and we can feel that Presence of ultimate goodness at work in our lives, we like those people who witnesses Jesus casting out the evil spirit, are amazed.  We wonder and we marvel at what is happening.  And hopefully, like those first followers, we are motivated.  We are motivated to continue following Jesus, wherever he leads us. We are motivated to continue to stand up and speak out against evil when we are confronted with it.

That is what we have always done here at St. Stephen’s and that is what we will continue to do here.  We do this, because that is what followers of Jesus do.

But, being followers of Jesus also means facing evil full-on, knowing full-well that evil ultimately has no control over us. Evil—which may come to us in many forms—whether we confront it in the daily news or stories of horrendous violence in our own communities—or whether we are dealing with various forms of evil in our own lives, with discrimination or abuse or even things like illness and death, which are their own types of evil, we know that ultimately evil and hell will be defeated.   We know that, following Jesus, these things will not win out.

Yes, we know that in following Jesus, he isn’t always going to lead us through sun-lit fields full of easy pathways. He leads us again and again down paths in which we are forced to confront ugly things. We are led down path in which we must not only face, but confront evil and ugly, uncomfortable things.  We are led down paths that we don’t want to go down, at times.

Certainly, as we journey through our Church year toward Lent, we know that following Jesus means following him on the Way of the Cross, a path that goes through a place of darkness and violence and evil. But if we keep following, we will realize, again and again, that none of those dark evil things triumph in the end.  The path we follow Jesus upon leads us ultimately to sun-lit fields ahead somewhere.  That path to the cross leads us also beyond the cross.

We know good always wins.

That is what we are celebrating this morning and every Sunday morning.  The fact that, yes, we have been through those dark moments.  We have been through those lean years in our lives.  We have been through moments when it seems as though Jesus was leading us through desert wastes and arid lands.

But this morning, in this moment, we know—we are reminded: he is leading through a verdant land.  And as we follow, we will continue to see amazing things.

We are seeing this here at St. Stephen’s. Amazing things are happening here because God is at work here. God is present here. God is with us here.  God Spirit dwells here, with us and in us. And it is very good.

So, let us rejoice and be thankful today. Let us be thankful on this Annual Meeting Sunday for St. Stephen’s and all the good we do in the face of all of the evil of this world.  Let us be thankful for all that we have been given in this past year.  And let us look with joy into a future of unlimited possibilities.

God is at work in the midst of us this morning and always.  And on this morning we can truly say that it is wonderful and glorious.  What more can we do on this beautiful Sunday, but rejoice?


Thursday, January 25, 2018

The new book, Only Then, has been published and is now in hand!! 

Sunday, January 21, 2018

3 Epiphany

January 21, 2018

Mark 1.14-20

+ I’ve shared this with a few of you. But not all of you.  A few months ago, I took my DNA test. These DNA tests are all the rage right now. And they are really great.

For many people, however, there are very few surprises. And, to be honest, for the most part, mine wasn’t much of a surprise either. There was a lot of Scandinavian and a lot of Irish, some German and there was a good percentage of Western European.

But there was one surprise. And quite a surprise. I found out that I was part…. Ashkenazi Jew. (Ashkenazi Jews were of course the European Jews.)

Now, for me, this was wonderful new! And I always kind of suspected I was “part of the Tribe” in some way.

Now, I know. It’s just a small percentage. And for most people,  that would be that.

Most people. Not me.  For me, it was more than enough. It was a wonderful revelation.

And, in these months since, I have really found myself embracing this percentage of Judaism.  I mean, really embracing it.  I have been deeply studying Judaism. And the more I study, the more appreciation I have for it all.

But, what it’s even more interesting is how this very minor revelation from a DNA test has sort of changed my perception about so much.  What I’ve discovered in all of this is that I am seeing things differently that I did before.

More specifically, I am viewing Christianity differently than I did just a few months ago. I am amazed how we have forgotten—and I mean, really forgotten—our Jewish roots as Christians. And reading scripture from this perspective—both the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament—really changes that perspective to some extent. Changes it in a wonderful way.

Even seeing Jesus himself from this new Jewish perspective is amazing.  Seeing Jesus as a Jew—this Jewish Jesus, seeing him as a fulfillment of the Jewish expectations of the Messiah, the Son of God, the Anointed One of God, just gives it all more meaning, more depth, more purpose and more history.

I just “get it” now in a way I did not before.  And it’s wonderful.
 To some extent, it feels I’ve turned around and seen all of this for the first time.

It was all right there. I just needed to turn and see it.

Certainly, this changing of perspective, this “turning around” is what Jesus calls us to do again and again throughout the Gospel.  And in today’s Gospel is no exception. In it, we find Jesus essentially doing the same thing.  He’s asking his followers—and us—to turn around, to wake up, to see anew.  And he does it with one little word.

“Repent.”

I think in our contemporary Christian Understanding, we have found this word hijacked a bit.   Repent is often seen as a shaming word.  We seem to hear it only in the context of “repenting” of our sins.   And certainly that’s a correct usage of the word.  When we turn from our sins—from all the wrongdoings we’ve done in life—we are repenting.

But I think it’s a good thing to examine the word a bit closer and see it in a context all of its own.   The Greek word we find in this Gospel is μετανοειτε (metanoiein), which means to change our mind.  However, the word Jesus probably used was probably based on the Hebrew word, Shubh, which the  great theologian, Reginald Fuller, translates as “to turn around 180 degrees, to reorient one’s whole attitude toward Yahweh in the face of the God’s coming kingdom.”

When we approach this word with this definition, all  of a sudden it takes on a whole new meaning and attitude.

What is Jesus telling us to do?  Jesus is telling us to turn around and see, for the Kingdom of God is near.

Wake up and look, he’s saying

We must turn round and face this mystery that is God. 

We must adjust our thinking away from all the worldly things we find ourselves swallowed up within and focus our vision on God.   Or, rather, we should adjust our thinking, our vision of the world, within the context of God.

However you want to look at it, it is about seeing anew.  It is about adjusting to a new perspective.  It is about changing the way we think and see and do things.

As you can imagine, this kind of command isn’t a popular one.  We don’t like change of this sort.  We are a complacent lot for the most part.  We enjoy our predicable, daily lives.

I certainly am the most guilty of this.  I find a certain comfort in my daily schedule. And having to see everything anew from this new Jewish perspective is sometimes hard. It’s hard to re-see things I thought I knew. It’s hard to have readjust and redefine things that I thought I knew well.

I was happy in my complacency.  I was fine when I didn’t have to think too deeply about God…or anything else for that matter.

This of course brings up probably our biggest point.  For the most part, we don’t think.   We don’t have rational, concentrated thoughts about our faith or the world.  We are usually thinking about what is right before us right now.  We are thinking about what we are going to do next, what we are going to eat or drink for lunch or supper.  We think about what our children are doing or not doing or about what our spouses are doing or not doing, or about the work at hand.   We are thinking about what needs to be thought about at that moment.  And there’s nothing wrong with any of that.

But, in that crush of thoughts, thoughts of God don’t come up so easily.  What Jesus is telling us in today’s Gospel, when he tells us to repent, is, essentially, this:

He is telling us to be mindful.

Be mindful of God.

Be mindful of the good news.

And what is the good news?

The good news is that the Kingdom of God is near.

God has drawn close to us.

God is near.

So, be aware. 

What we find here is a very simple lesson in how to live fully and completely.  Essentially, Jesus is telling us,  

Repent.

Wake up.

Turn around and see.

God is here. 

Jesus is saying to us, Stop living foggy, complacent lives. Repent.

He is saying, Quit being drones, mindlessly going about your duties. 

Wake up and think.

Open your eyes and see. 

God is with you.

God is here, speaking to you words of joy and gladness.

Listen.

Hear what God is saying.

Look.

See God walking in your midst.

And when we see God, when we hear God speaking to us, we find that we too want to do what those disciples in our Gospel reading for today did.

We want to follow after the One God sent to us.  We want to be followers of Jesus.  And we want to help others be followers of Jesus. We want to help others see that God is near.  Being followers of Jesus means that we are awake and we see.

So let us truly follow Jesus in our lives.  We don’t need to do it in a flamboyant fashion.  But we certainly can do it in flamboyant fashion if that works for us.  We can truly follow Jesus by striving to be spiritually awake.  We can follow Jesus by allowing ourselves to spiritually see.  And when we hear and see—awake, aware, not sleeping spiritually—it is then that we can become truly effective fishers in helping others see as well.