Sunday, October 21, 2007

Requiem Eucharist for Helen Johnson

Helen Johnson
(March 31, 1923-Oct. 16, 2007)
Gethsemane Episcopal Cathedral
Fargo, North Dakota
Sun. Oct. 21, 2007

Luke 2. 29-32, John 14.1-6

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

To begin this afternoon, I am going to share with you a bit of scripture that we did not read today. This scripture is from the second chapter of Luke’s Gospel and it can also be found in the Evening Prayer service in the Book of Common Prayer. We also call this scripture—this prayer—“the Song of Simeon” or the Nunc Dimittis.

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, *
according to thy word;
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, *
which thou hast prepared before the face of all people,
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles, *
and to be the glory of thy people Israel.

Now, this scripture was very important to Helen. It was so important to her, in fact, that she had the first line of this scripture inscribed on her gravestone.

“Lord, lettest thou thy servant depart in peace”

At this moment, it is there, on her stone in the cemetery outside Dawson, Minnesota, where we will bury Helen’s ashes tomorrow morning.

Now for those of us who knew Helen Johnson, that word Servant carries deep meaning. The idea of servant is important for understanding who Helen was. For those of who knew and loved Helen (I am happy to include myself as one of those people), we might not imagine her at first glance as a servant.

This was, after all, a strong-willed and very independent woman. One knew where one stood with Helen. If she liked you, she loved. If she didn’t like you—God help you. I am very fortunate to have been one of the people Helen liked. And I got to know her very well in these last several years. And I know she liked me and loved me. And I liked her and loved her in return. And because I knew her and liked her and loved her, I can tell you that the word servant does in fact fit Helen. In fact, it is probably the best word we find to describe who she was and what she did.

Of course, we could use a word like saint. But I know that Helen would hate that word to describe her. I can just hear her poo-pooing me and saying, “I am no saint! Don’t you dare call me a saint!” But servant. That was a word she was proud to bear. Servant of God. She was a true servant of God. She served God and she served her Church—the Episcopal Church,

We live in a time when we hear a lot about leadership. We see book after book published about being an effective leader. I just got back from Wisconsin yesterday and even there, I had a workshop in effective church leadership. It seems everyone these days is called to be a leader. Of course, if everyone’s leading, no one’s following. Helen would have seen right through to that quandary.

Because Helen understood fully that to be an effective leader, one has to be an effective follower first. One has to be an effective servant. And to be a servant, one must learn to do the work that needs to be done.

Helen worked hard at this church. For years, she coordinated the luncheons after the funerals. Since I invariably either presided or assisted at many, many of the funerals that have been done here over the last eight years or so, I can tell you, from first hand experience, that Helen was a true servant even when she was leading and coordinating. I can’t tell you how many times she came up to me, waving her finger at me, and prefacing something she was going to say with “Jamie, I have a bone to pick with you…” But what she ended up saying was not nagging or complaining. It was always an effective suggestion on how things should be done.

In her spiritual life, as well, we found a woman who truly was a Servant of the Lord. On Tuesday, our dear Helen departed from us in peace. And her life was summed in the words of the Nunc Dimittis—the Song of Simeon—in more ways than we might ever fully understand. I can tell you that Helen could express with all honesty those words “For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, [O Lord]. She saw things and understood things as most us of could not. She had definite thoughts about her faith in God.

God was there—waiting for her in that other world that was separated from this one by a very thin veil. And with God, in that place, was her beloved Doug.

Earlier this year, in our Bible Study, Helen asked me,” What do you think it will be like there? What do you think it will be like in heaven?”

I said, “Helen, I don’t know. But I have faith that it will be beautiful and amazing and more incredible than we can even imagine.”

She then asked, “Will Doug be there?”

And I said, “Yes. He will. He will be waiting there for you when you awaken in that place.”

And tears came to her eyes and she smiled and she nodded and she said, “Yes, I know he will be there. He will be there waiting for me when I wake up in that place.”

One of the first memories of I have of Helen was visiting her in her condo in Moorhead back in the fall of 1999. I gave her a book of my prayers—prayers that I wrote—prayers that she would tell me for years afterward that she cherished and loved. On her coffee table that day, there was another book. That book was The Next Place by Warren Hanson. She told me that day how important this book was to her and how it helped her in her mourning of Doug and in her hope for what was awaiting us in the Next Place. Over the last few years, when we talked about heaven and what was awaiting us, we would often come back to this book. And every time we did, she would smile and nod and say, “Yes. The Next Place. It’s a children’s book, but it’s also a beautiful book And it’s a book I think we might need on a day like today. So, I’m going to share it with you. And I highly recommend it to you—go out a purchase a copy of it, because it is lovely.

The Next Place

On Tuesday morning, Helen awoke in that Next Place and the first people waiting for her there were the Lord she loved and longed for and served and, of course, Doug.

In today’s Gospel, we find Jesus talking about his Father’s dwelling place and the Mansions that exist there. It’s not hard to imagine that the place Jesus talks about is very similar to the Next Place of Warren Hanson’s poem. It is, beyond doubt, a place so incredible we can’t even begin to wrap our minds around its reality or its beauty. Like Helen, all he can do is hope in it and know that it is there, just on the other side of that very thin veil. What an appropriate place for Helen Johnson.

For her, today is a glorious day. She is in that next Place—in that place of beauty. She is fully and completely herself. She is truly perfect. For us, it is a sad day because we will miss Helen. For a while, we will not be able to see her.

But for now we can lives in the example of Helen Johnson. We can go on, as servants of the Lord and of each other. But we can look forward, as she did, for that day when we, as the Lord’s servants, will also depart in peace. And when we wake up in that Next Place, the first thing we will see will be the Lord we have loved and longed for and served. And Helen will be there as well to greet us along with all our loved ones. And it will be more beautiful and lovely and gorgeous than we, in this moment, can fully understand.

Amen.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Vida Dutton Scudder


Oct. 10, 2007
The Chapel of the Resurrection
Gethsemane Episcopal Cathedral
Fargo

John 6.37-51

Today we are celebrating a new saint in the Episcopal Church. Vida Dutton Scudder was recently added, on a trail basis, to The Lesser Feasts and Fasts. And she is certainly a saint I hope stays on our calendar.

Scudder is a saint who was a near-contemporary to us and yet, she is one of those ageless Christians who can speak to us wherever we are in our history as a Church.

A few facts about her life: Born in India on December 15, 1861 to parents who were Congregationalist missionaries. Her father died when she was young and, with her mother, she was confirmed as an Episcopalian in the 1870s by the great Bishop of Massachusetts, Phillips Brooks. She studied Literature at Smith College and Oxford and then came back to Massachusetts, to teach as Wellesley College for almost half a century. In her life time she wrote 61 books. She received an honorary Doctor of Divinity from my alma mater, Nashotah House in 1942. She died on October 9, 1954 in her Wellesley home. Her remains were cremated and buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

And that probably would have been her life. She probably would have been a fairly obscure college professor at an exclusive Seven Sister School and we would not be commemorating her today. But the fact is that Vida Dutton Scudder was more than that. She did not fit easily into the mold of just another college professor.

In fact, two aspects of her life made all the difference. She became a Socialist. And she became an Anglo-Catholic Actually I should flip those two around. She was an Anglo-Catholic first and a Socialist second.

What I liked About Vida Scudder is the fact that she lived and was reared in a very academic world. And yet, she did not let academia choke her faith out of existence. As any of us who have worked in academia knows—it can be strangely insular and secular world. It is easy not have any religious conviction in that environment. It’s easy to become completely and utterly secular. Certainly, it would have been very easy for someone with the intellect of Vida Dutton Scudder to have practiced no faith at all.

She was an intellectual—a brilliant woman—and yet, she was also an Anglo-Catholic. To be an Anglo-Catholic takes a concentrated effort. It takes a concentrated effort to search your soul and to emerge from that’s searching with the realization that you are an Anglo-Catholic.

From her Anglo-Catholicism came her socialism. There is a long tradition of Anglo-Catholic Socialists—those who felt that being Anglo-Catholic meant more than just going to “Mass” with all its smells and bells and making sure their priest wore a chasuble and that there were candles on the altar. Anglo Catholic Socialism took the beauty of liturgical worship and the Catholic faith they held in their hearts and went out into the world to share it.

In Scudder’s day, there were many Anglo-Catholic priests who were going into the slums of East London, to bring to those people he riches and beauties of Anglo-Catholic liturgical worship, while also bringing them personal and spiritual help. One of my favorite people from that period was the priest Stewart Headlam—truly one of the great Anglo-Catholic slum priests. Vida Dutton Scudder belongs to that group of great Anglo-Catholic socialists.

For Scudder, her Anglo-Catholic Socialism meant standing up for women’s rights when women were not allowed. It meant speaking out against war when doing so was unpopular. It meant siding with striking textile workers. It meant helping Italian immigrants settle into American culture. It meant living out a deep and fulfilling spiritual and liturgical life, while knowing full well that if one was truly going to heed the call of Christ in one’s life, one had to take that faith out into the world to share with others.

And that’s the message we can take away from Vida Dutton Scudder. Now many of us might not be called to be Anglo Catholic Socialists. But hopefully all us feel the calling of Christ in our lives. That calling should involve more than just sitting around thinking about it or doing it just by going to church on Sundays. The calling of Christ can never be a call to complacency. The calling of Christ is a calling to action. When Christ calls we—like Vida Dutton Scudder—must sit up and take notice and then do something about it. We must go out and proclaim it. And she gives a very good example of how to do that.

We don’t have to go out to street corners and start telling people that they must accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior. We don’t have to go knocking on doors and shouting “Amen! Alleluia!” in church. Let’s face it: that doesn’t further the Kingdom of God any more than a clanging cymbal does.

But we can do it by furthering the Kingdom of God in our midst—in whatever ways we can. We can do it by speaking out against those things we see as unjust or unfair. We can do it by acting on our sense of justice for others and for ourselves. We can do it in whatever way we can—in whatever way Christ is nudging us and leading us to do it.

So, remember Vida Dutton Scudder and look to her as a very practical example of how to live out Christ’s calling in the world.

I will close with Scudder’s own words. She wrote these in about 1937 during the depths of the Depression. But if we listen closely, they are words to us in the Episcopal Church now as well—

“The Christian Revolution! In a world where the old order was dying and a new order cradled in hate strove for the mastery, here was the only hope. Could that revolution be nourished within the Christian Church? So I trusted, so I prayed . . . but let no one think that purpose easy to fulfill. Sadness waits upon it. Comrades within whose eyes glows the vision of a brave new world fall away from the Church one by one, driven to despair of her, not by open persecution but by the deadness of the ecclesiastical atmosphere. I see them go. I mourn. Others, more moderate, wiser it may be - - who am I to judge? - - succumb as the years pass, and insensibly conform to a conventional ecclesiastical pattern. I give thanks for their devoted service within the decorous religious system which the world now despises, now applauds, but never fears. And yet again, I mourn. Worst of all is the burrowing doubt within. And all the time eager unchurched voices call to me. I close my ears...
“[The Church’s] work is not to dictate but to enlighten and inspire; she is too all-embracing to endorse this method or that. Probably the future will judge that today as in the past, the truest life in Christendom is in minority groups, driven by Christian impulse to work for a new day.”
(On Journey, c1937)

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Fargo Forum Article

I was quoted in the Oct. 7th issue of the Fargo Forum regarding the search for the new Poet Luareate of Minnesota.


Minn. to fill top job for poet

By Sherri Richards
srichards@forumcomm.com
Valley R&R - 10/07/2007

The Land of 10,000 Lakes is finally naming the first poet laureate of the state. Who the writer will be is still matter of fate.

OK, it’s actually a rather thorough nominating process that will involve much finer poetry than that. But creating the official honorary position of Minnesota’s poet laureate has been long awaited.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s veto of a 2005 bill to establish a state poet laureate was roundly panned in the literary world -- particularly for his reasoning. At the time, the governor said creating the position could lead to calls for other laureate positions. “We could also see requests for a state mime, interpretive dancer or potter,” he wrote.

The proposal was revisited in 2007, and this time received an approving swipe of the pen.
Nominations are being sought through the end of October. A nominating committee will present three “commended poets” to Pawlenty in December. The governor will then name the poet laureate in a public ceremony.

We asked local poets and people in-the-know about who they would like to see as Minnesota’s preeminent poet.

Thom Tammaro, English professor, Minnesota State University Moorhead: Jim Moore, Patricia Hampl and Robert Bly, all of the Twin Cities, and Bill Holm of Minneota.
“These are people who have a long and dedicated history of being active in the poetry scene in Minnesota. I think they would certainly represent the position well,” Tammaro says.
“Each would probably have an interesting project that would help raise the profile of poetry and writing in general in the state.”

The Rev. Jamie Parsley, associate poet laureate of North Dakota and Episcopal priest: Robert Bly, Bill Holm and Mark Vinz of Moorhead.
“I think a poet laureate of any sort, if they’re of a particular state, really needs to represent that state in some way, shape or form, and also needs to further an appreciation for arts in that state,” Parsley says. “All three of those have done that in a way. ᅡナ You look at them and you think, ‘That’s Minnesota.’ ”

Anne Fredine, Moorhead Public Library director: Robert Bly, Mark Vinz and Thom Tammaro of Moorhead.
From the library’s perspective, Fredine said she thinks about whose works are often checked out or used in some way.
“Those three come to mind right away,” Fredine says. “I know that their books are well-used in the library.”

Greg Danz, owner, Zandbroz Variety: Mark Vinz, Bill Holm, Barton Sutter of Duluth, Minn., and Robert Bly.
Danz can also think of several good young poets in the state, such as Juliet Patterson of Minneapolis, but realizes the poet laureate likely needs to be someone with a longstanding reputation, such as the four he mentioned.
“I think part of being a poet laureate is being able to go out and promote ᅡナ just the ability to be engaging in public and a promoter of the literary arts.”

Mark Vinz, Moorhead, associate poet laureate of North Dakota: Robert Bly.
“The only poet laureate I could see for Minnesota would be Robert Bly. He has the stature; he’s certainly the senior poet in the state. I would be in favor of him. I’m not generally in favor of competitions between poets, but if there has to be one, I would say Robert Bly.”

Larry Woiwode, Mott, N.D., poet laureate of North Dakota since 1995: Louise Erdrich and Heid Erdrich, both of the Twin Cities (“Louise has said Heid is the better poet, but I don’t know. I really like Louise’s poetry, but Heid has a good wit.”), and Mark Vinz.

Woiwode is more than happy to welcome a neighboring poet laureate. After Pawlenty’s 2005 veto, Woiwode hosted a congress of standing poet laureates from across the U.S. He said it was unfortunate that one couldn’t simply cross the Red River to attend.

At that event, he read this passage that sums up the need for a state poet laureate:
“Most poets are rooted in the natural world, spokespersons for the inarticulate in nature, as well as the wordless desires of the common person -- or poets should be searching for words for those sides of the world. And most poets are committed politically, in one way or another, able to present their views in a memorable matrix of words; they can, in this function of their office, serve as a governing conscience of a gone-soft state.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter
Sherri Richards at (701) 241-5525

Sunday, October 7, 2007

19 Pentecost

Oct. 7, 2007
All Saints Episcopal Church
Valley City, ND

Luke 17.5-10

“Increase our faith!” the apostles ask Jesus in today’s Gospel. And two thousand years later, we—Jesus disciples now—are still asking him to do that for us as well.

It’s an honest prayer. We want our faith increased. We want to believe more fully than we do. We want to believe in a way that will eliminate doubt. And we are afraid that with little faith and a lot of doubt, doubt will win out.

We are crying out to Jesus—like those first apostles—for more than we have. But Jesus—in that way that Jesus does—turns it all back on us. He tells us that we shouldn’t be worrying about increasing our faith. We should be concerned about the mustard seed of faith that we have right now.

Think of that for a moment. Think of what a mustard seed is. It’s one of the smallest things we can see. It’s a minuscule thing. It’s the side of a period at the end of a sentence or a dot on a lower-case i. It is that small.

Jesus tells us that with that little bit of faith—that small amount of real faith—we can tell a mulberry tree, “be uprooted and planted in the sea.” In other words, those of us who are afraid that a whole lot of doubt can overwhelm that little bit of faith have nothing to worry about. Because even a little bit of faith—even a mustard seed of faith—is more powerful than an ocean of doubt.

A little seed of faith is the most powerful thing in the world, because that tiny amount of faith will drive us and push us and motivate us to do incredible things. And doing those things, spurred on and nourished by that little bit of faith, does make a difference in the world.
But we do occasionally have to ask ourselves, “Why are we doing these things?” Because that is the real heart of today’s Gospel reading: Why are we doing what we do? Why do we do what we do as Christians? Are we coming to church on Sunday, or being kind to people, or praying, or attempting to live out our Gospel life of attempting to bring the Kingdom of God into our midst simply because we are looking for a reward? Are we doing the things we do as Christians simply because we believe there is someone somewhere marking down everything we do and hoping that, when the time comes, our good deeds will outweigh our bad and we can go to heaven? Or are we doing we are doing—attempting in whatever small ways we can—to bring the Kingdom of God into our lives and the lives of those around us—simply because Jesus tells us this is what we must do?

Because what we should be saying, when we live as Christians—when we love God and love each other as ourselves—“we’ve done only what we have ought to done.” And that is the message we take away from our Gospel reading.

We should, in some sense, live our Christianity without any sense of reward. We should do the good things in our lives blindly, mindlessly. Now, when I say mindlessly, I don’t mean stupidly, nor am I saying we should make ourselves dumb. I am using the word mindless here in the same sense that Buddhists would use that word. In Buddhism and in most forms of meditation, one of the instructions is to “clear one’s mind.” That’s what we should do as Christians. We should clear our minds of everything expect doing what we ought to do. We should do what we ought to do for the sole intention of doing good and not for the intention of receiving something in return for what we do.

Because the fact is, our place in the next world—our place in the heaven, with God—isn’t going to be guaranteed by the things we do. If it did, that might not be such a bad thing, really. I mean, certainly, we could almost expect that we would have a place. All we would have to do is go feed some needy people at the Salvation Army or at a soup kitchen. We could just go and give some money to the homeless. We could go and visit the sick, or act nice and friendly all the time and smile at people. We could go to church every Sunday and pray and fast and study the Bible. And all of those things are good things—things we SHOULD be doing.

But we sometimes have to reevaluate why we are doing those things. We have to face the fact sometimes that we do those things to help bring the Kingdom of God about in our midst, but we don’t do those things just because we think we are going to get a personal reward for them.
But then the big question does arise: what do we need to get to heaven? And the answer is not what we expect. It’s easy for us to think: the big things are what get us to heaven. The things other people can see—or the things God—way up there—can see. But the things that win us our salvation are the small things.

The thing that wins us our salvation is faith. And all it takes is faith the size of a mustard seed.
A few weeks ago, in one my classes at the University of Mary, we were discussing what it means to be a Christian. As I’ve preached here many times, I truly believe that what it means to be a Christian is to love God, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. This is what the Gospel is based on. Jesus is clear again and again: this is what salvation is based on. And certainly—when we look at these two factors—loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves—seem at one moment, gigantic and yet, at the same, miniscule.

As we were discussing this in class, the subject of the faith of one of the students—one of my favorite students—came up. This student, who has taken every course I teach, who has passed every one these courses with flying colors, has also been very honest about his faith: he is an atheist. He simply does not nor cannot believe in God. For him, there is not even a mustard seed of faith in God. For him, when he looks outward, at the world around him, he sees no God. And when he looks deep within him, he cannot imagine there being any God. And yet, this kid is one of most compassionate, nicest people you’ve ever met.

Now, of course, as I’ve just said, being nice isn’t going to get us into heaven. But, he does do one thing that can get us into heaven: He loves his neighbor as himself. He has worked hard to put himself through school and to work in the ambulance business. His reasons for working as an Emergency Technician are simple: he does it because he wants to help people, because he legitimately cares for people. He doesn’t do this for any personal reward—he certainly never brags about the work he does—and we are certain he does not do this job because he thinks he’s going to get a reward in heaven.

As we discussed the Great Commandments of loving God and loving one’s neighbor as one’s self, he piped up one night and said, “I get that last part—the neighbor part. That’s no problem for me. But it’s the first part I can get.”

I countered with this: “If you’re doing the second part—if you’re loving your neighbor as yourself—then you’re doing the first part too.”

“Excuse me?” he said. “What do you mean by that?”

I said, “You can’t do one without the other. You can’t love your neighbor as your self without loving God. And you can’t love God without loving your neighbor as yourself. If you are loving your neighbor as yourself, if you serving them out of love and nothing else, with no thought of reward, then you are love God as well. Because we truly do believe that in serving others, we are serving God.” And I can’t help but believe that God sees this as well.

This student’ faith might not be in what he considers a supernatural being, but it is in doing small things for others without any thought of reward. His faith in loving his neighbor as himself really is faith as well in the God, who dwells with us and in us. By loving his neighbor as himself—be acting out of that love—he is making a major difference in the world and, in his own way, is furthering the Kingdom of God in our midst.

And that is what we are truly called to do as Christians. That is what it means to be a Christian. That is what loving and loving our neighbor as ourselves does. It furthers the Kingdom of God in our midst.

Now, I understand that it’s very rare that a priest will ever get up and say, “look as this atheist as an example of how to help you increase your faith.” But I think God does work in that way sometimes. I have no doubt that God can increase our faith my any means necessary. I have no doubt that God can work even in the mustard-sized faith found deep within someone who claims to be an atheist. And if God can do that in the life and example of an atheist, imagine what God can do in your life—in you, who are a Christian.

So, cultivate that mustard-sized faith inside you. Don’t fret over how small it is. Don’t worry about weighing on the scale against the doubt in your life. Don’t despair over how small it is. Realize instead that even that mustard seed of faith within you can do incredible things in your life and those around you. And in doing those small things, without thought of a personal reward for yourself, you are bringing the Kingdom of God into our midst.

Amen.