Monday, March 31, 2008

Annunciation


April 1, 2008
Riverview Chapel
Fargo

Luke 1.26-38

Today is the transferred feast of the Annunciation. Normally we celebrate this “conception of Jesus” on March 25. But because March 25 fell on the Tuesday of Easter week, we have transferred the feast day to today. The feast of the Annunciation is an important feast in the Church. Of course, it means that nine months later to the day, we celebrate the birth of Jesus.

But, in the early Church, the feast of the Ascension was a dual feast. It was the date on which the Church celebrated not only Jesus’ conception, but also the date of his death. The belief was that Jesus essentially died on the anniversary of his conception. In fact, one of the great early Fathers of the Church, St. John Chrysostom, wrote:

"…Our Lord was conceived on…the day of the passion of the Lord and of his conception. For on the day he was conceived, on the same day he suffered."
(De solstitia et aequinoctia conceptionis et nativitatis domini nostri iesu Christi et iohannis baptistae)

So, it was believed that, on this feast of the Annunciation, we commemorated not only the day Jesus became flesh, but also the day he died.

Now, of course, we no longer observe the feast of the Annunciation in such a way. We observe Jesus’ death on Good Friday and we commemorate Jesus’ conception nine months before we commemorate his Birth.

The fact is, this is a very important day because today is the day when we can meditate on the fact that God, in a very real sense, took on flesh. It was on this day that God came to us and appeared to us not as God did in the Old Testament, with storms, with pillars of fire and clouds, with fire, or in burning bushes. Today we find God coming to us in a way we as humans could not even imagine God coming to us— We find God coming to us as one of us, with flesh like our flesh, with blood like our blood. This sentiment is probably best summarized in a wonderful hymn for this day from the Eastern Orthodox church, with these lyrics:

Today is the beginning of our salvation,
And the revelation of the eternal mystery!
The Son of God becomes the Son of the Virgin
As Gabriel announces the coming of Grace.
Together with him let us cry to the Theotokos:

Rejoice, O Full of Grace, :The Lord is with You!

On this feast we celebrate the day on which the archangel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary.

There is a wonderful painting of the Annunication by artist John Collier. In the painting, we see Mary as a young girl—a teenger—in 1950s suburbia. She is wearing a blue dress, saddle shoes and she is reading a Bible—the propehcy in Isaiah about how a Virgin will conceive and bear a son. The angel looks just the angel we imagine—winged, white robed. What the painting reminds us is that Mary was, more likely than not, a very young girl.

She was, it is belived, maybe 14 years old. When we think of it, it must’ve been an incredible moment. This poor fourteen year old girl is met by an angel, who tells her something incredible. She, a virgin, will bear a child. But not just any child. She will bear the Savior of the world, the Messiah, the Son of God. She will bear, within her flesh, God—God-made-flesh.

And, faced with this fact, faced with this incredible mission, Mary answers simply,”Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word.” In other words, she says, “Yes” to the angel. And that “Yes” changes everything.

Because of that yes, Mary opens a door that allows Jesus to come to us. Without Mary, Jesus would not have been able to come to us at all. She literally bore Jesus to us.

In the Greek Orthodox Church, Mary is called the Theotokos, or God-bearer. And she really is. If we believe Jesus is God, then she did, in a very real sense of the word, bear God. Through her, God came to us in the person of Jesus. She was the Mother of God, as hard as it might be to wrap our minds around that phrase.

We all know that Roman Catholics pay special homage and respect to the Virgin Mary. But the fact remains that Mary needs to be honored by all of us who call ourselves Christians. I once preached about Mary at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church here in Fargo. In that sermon I asked the question: what do Lutherans believe about the Virgin Mary? I then proceeded to quote what one very prominent Lutheran said about Mary:

"men have crowded all her glory into a single word, calling her 'Theotokos'. No one can say anything greater of her or to her, though he had as many tongues as there are leaves on the trees, or grass in the fields, or stars in the sky, or sand by the sea. It needs to be pondered in the heart what it means to be the Mother of God."

Most of the Lutherans there that morning were shocked to learn that that quote came from none other than Martin Luther himself.

I think a lot of good Lutherans would be shocked to know that many of the early founders of the Lutheran church had a deep affection for Mary. For example, in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Lutherans testify that

blessed Mary prays for the church

Now listen to that. Blessed Mary prays for the church. That’s a present tense verb. She prays. Right now. Those Lutherans truly believed that Mary was in heaven at that particular moment praying for the church. The Apology goes on to state that Mary

is worthy of the highest honors
and desires
to have her example considered and followed

So, the founders of the Lutheran Church held her in high esteem. They commended her as example. Certainly, Lutherans and Roman Catholics will never agree on everything regarding Mary. I doubt that there will be statues of Mary in Lutheran churches and I don’t think praying the Rosary will become a popular pastime among Lutherans in the near future.

For Episcopalians such as myself—that strange, often stereotyped and even more often misunderstood breed of Episcopalians called Anglo-Catholics—we see a Church without due reverence for Mary to be a pretty bleak place. At my seminary—Nashotah House—which is the Anglo-Catholic seminary in the Episcopal Church—the bell there—affectionately called Michael—rings three times a day. At those times, the campus pauses to pray the Angelus or to pray the Hail Mary. The chapel is called the Chapel of St. Mary the Virgin and a beautiful dark wooden statue of her is a in a place of central prominence above the main altar. In many Episcopal churches I’ve visited, there are statues or paintings of Mary. There are side altars—so-called “Mary Altars”—in their churches. I even know of many Episcopalians—including yours truly—who pray the Rosary on a regular basis. So, as you can see, we Episcopalians do honor Mary greatly and we love her dearly.

I hope that reclaiming Mary’s role in the life of our salvation will become more and more of a part of all Christians, not just Roman Catholics. After all, she is, without a doubt, a vital person in our Church and in who we are as Christians. Certainly Mary continues to be a great example to all of us—especially for what she did and said in today’s Gospel reading.

Just as Mary said “Yes” to the angel when he brought her his good news, we too can say yes to God and, in saying yes, we can bear God within us, as she did. We too can be theotokos—God-bearers. Like Mary we can be bearers of God to the world, to those who need God and long for God. We too can carry Christ into the world and let him be known through us. As Jesus found in her his first earthly dwelling-place so, following Mary’s example, he can continue to dwell on earth within each and every one of us as well.

Let us pray.

Pour your grace into our hearts, O Lord, that we who have known the incarnation of your Son Jesus Christ, announced by an angel to the Virgin Mary, may by his cross and passion be brought to the glory of his resurrection; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever Amen.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Holy Saturday



March 22, 2008

1 Peter 4.1-8

Today, we are making our way through the Second Day—a sorrowful day, a dark and dismal day in our following of Jesus. The body of Jesus, deceived, betrayed, mocked, humiliated, beaten and tortured and brutally murdered, has been buried. It lies now in a tomb not even his own—but belonging to Joseph of Arimathea—who was brave enough to share his tomb with Jesus.This is the story we know of his body. But where is Jesus today? Where is he in this strange state between the time he breathed his last yesterday afternoon and when he will arise in glory tomorrow morning?

Today, of course, is the day we traditionally observe what has been called, the Harrowing of Hell. This is one of my favorite images—the descent of Jesus to the place of death. But, what is the Harrowing of Hell?

To fully understand what the Harrowing is all about, let us examine the word “harrowing” It’s a word that has several different meanings. Of course, for those of us from farming backgrounds, we know that harrowing can mean to plow, to break up soil. But it can also mean to bring great distress on someone, to torment. It can also mean to plunder or sack and it is this definition we use when describing the Harrowing of Hell.

But the other definitions work as well to some extent. Christ descended to hell and, in a sense, broke it up—he plowed death under. In doing so, he really did bring great distress and torment to the powers of evil—namely to death.

Scripturally, we find that what we refer to as hell may more appropriately be referred to as Hades, or the place where dead people went. In Acts 2.27 and 2.31, we find that death—Hades—could not hold Jesus. But probably the most common places in scripture we find any reference to Jesus’ descent among the dead are in Peter’s first letter, right before the reading we hear in today’s liturgy. In Chapter 3, verses 19 and 20, we find that Jesus “went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in days of Noah.”In today’s reading, we find, in Chapter 4, verse 6, that the gospel was “proclaimed even to the dead…”

I love the idea of the harrowing of hell because it shows how powerful Jesus truly is. Not even in death, not even in hell, are we separated from the love of Jesus. Even there, even in the depths of whatever hell we might ever find ourselves in, Jesus still has to the power to free us. Even the powers of death cannot separate us from the love Jesus has for us.And this is probably our greatest consolation on this day in which Jesus seems far from us, hidden from us, at least temporarily, by the forces of death. On this day, even today, when all seems lost, we realize that the love of Jesus is the most powerful force ever. It has the power to go where it needs to go, to change what it needs to change and to defeat what it needs to defeat. Even our greatest enemy—death—is defeated in the power of Jesus’ love.

There is a wonderful poem in which we experience the Harrowing of Hell from Jesus’ perspective. It is found in an early Christian writing called the Odes of Solomon. I have adapted it into a poem that I am going to close today with. As we listen to it, it is not hard to imagine what a powerful event the Harrowing of Hell was. And that, as powerful as it was, it cannot compare to what is going to happen to all of us tomorrow, with Jesus’ victory over death by his rising from the tomb.

The Harrowing

after the Odes of Solomon

by Jamie Parsley

Do not think I’m rejected
despite what everyone says—
despite what you saw.
Don’t think I died
although my obituary went to print.

Hell saw me when I drew near
and turned blue with ice.

Death refused me. It went
stumbling from the cemetery,
taking with it the bones and skulls
it hid within.

I am vinegar. I am a bitter taste.
I went down into the deep as far
as I could go.

Only then did the feet and head of hell
refuse me—unable
to endure my face.

I went down to the congregation of the dead
and made them live again with the words
I spoke with lips burning with life.
What I spoke lived!

Everyone who had died—
who had went to their end in anguish,
or terror
or without hope,
who went crying and lamenting,
clutching for one more moment of life—
came returning to me
from across that dark place.
They came to me crying,
“Mercy! Have mercy!
Have mercy on us,
O Son of God!

“Be kind to us
who do not deserve your kindness
and shatter these chains of darkness.

“Break down this awful door—
so we can come to you—
you, whom death goes
fleeing from.

“Save us, Savior,
and let us be saved!”

When I heard them,
I took their words
and placed them within my heart.

I took my name—
my I AM—
and placed it on their foreheads.
In doing so, I freed them
from their death and made them—
once and forever—
mine!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Holy Wednesday/The Clock of the Passion


March 19, 2008
The Chapel of the Resurrection
Gethsemane Cathedral
Fargo, North Dakota
John 13.21-32

We are now beginning our descent into the depths of this week. On Sunday, we celebrated Palm Sunday—the day when we all gathered up palms and welcomed Jesus as King. Today, in our Gospel reading, we find Jesus "troubled in spirit." All those who welcomed him and acclaimed him on Sunday will, by Thursday night and Friday, have disappeared. On the night before he dies, Jesus will suffer alone, with no one to comfort him or console him. He will be betrayed, he will be beaten and mocked, he will be tried, found guilty, whipped and he will be horribly executed.

These are not things we want to think about as we set out thoughts to Easter and spring. But the fact is, that, if we truly want to celebrate and fully reap the benefits of Easter—the benefit of unending light and life—we must first walk with Jesus on that awful last trek to the place of the Skull. We must stumble with him on the way, we must sweat with him on the way, we must bleed with him on the way. We must suffer with him on the cross, and there, we must die with him. And with him, we must be buried in that tomb with, because only when we have done all of that, can we rise with him in glorious triumph and light from that same tomb.

One of the most cherished books I’ve ever read is a book I first read as a teenager. The book is The Passion and Death of Jesus Christ by St. Alphonsus De Ligouri. It’s a book of deep and real devotion and there are many great devotional practices in the book that have helped me fully participate in the last moments of Jesus’ earthly life. One of the spiritual exercises, found as an appendix in St. Alphonsus’ book, is the so-called Clock of the Passion. It is an hour-by-hour schedule from 5:00 Maundy Thursday evening through 6:00 Good Friday evening. By following the Clock of the Passion over these next few days, we are really able to walk with Jesus in his Passion. I have adapted it a bit for Episcopalians.

As we enter these dark, but holy three days, I encourage you, if you are able, to make an attempt to follow this Clock of the Passion. And in doing so, you will truly be able to answer honestly “Yes” to the question, “Could you not have even kept watch with me for even one hour?” In doing so, you will be able to do more than just keep watch with him for an hour. By following it, you will go that one step further: to actually walk with him along that last journey, knowing full well that, although we walk with him now in sorrow, pain and destruction, in no time at all, we will walk with him in joy, gladness and unending light.


THE CLOCK OF THE PASSION

(adapted by Fr. Jamie Parsley from St. Alphonsus de Ligouri)

MAUNDY THURSDAY

P.M.
5:00 to 7:00 - Jesus celebrates his last supper

8:00 - Jesus washes the feet of disciples and institutes the Sacrament of Holy Eucharist

9:00 - Discourse of Jesus; he goes to the Garden of Gethsemane

10:00- Prayer of Jesus in the garden

11:00 - Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane

GOOD FRIDAY

MIDNIGHT - The sweating of blood

1:00 - Jesus is betrayed by Judas, and is bound

2:00 - Jesus is led before Annas

3:00 - Jesus is taken before Caiphas and receives a blow on the face

4:00 - Jesus is blindfolded, struck and scoffed at.

5:00 - Jesus is led to the council, and declared guilty of death.

6: 00 - Jesus is taken to Pilate, and accused.

7: 00 - Jesus is mocked by Herod.

8: 00 - Jesus is conducted to Pilate, and Barabbas is preferred to him

9:00 - Jesus is scourged at the pillar

10: 00 - Jesus is crowned with thorns, and exhibited to the people.

11: 00 - Jesus is condemned to death, and goes to Calvary

MIDDAY - Jesus is stripped and crucified

1: 00 - Jesus prays for his murderers

2: 00 - Jesus recommends his spirit to his Father

3:00 - Jesus dies

4:00 - Jesus is pierced with a lance

5: 00 - Jesus is taken down from the cross

6:00 - Jesus is buried and left in the sepulcher.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Palm Sunday




March 16, 2008


Matthew 21:1-11; Matthew 26:14- 27:66


The liturgy this morning is the perfect liturgy. It is a liturgy that captures that full range of emotions. In it, we find ourselves boomeranging between one extreme and the other.

We begin this morning with a joyous sound. We begin with sounds of praise to Jesus—the triumphant King of Kings. The crowd that greets him as he enters Jerusalem is happy. Everything seems right with the world. For his followers, this no doubt was a moment of validation.

The Jesus who enters Jerusalem is the Jesus who has done some incredible things in the past few weeks. He has turned the Samaritan woman’s life around. He had give sight to a man born blind. And most recently, he has raised his friend Lazarus from the dead.

It is easy, in this heady moment, for his followers to sing their praises to Jesus. He is popular and accepted. For this moment, everyone seems to love him.

But within this same liturgy, a darkness falls. Something terrible and horrible goes wrong. What begin with rays of sunshine, ends in gathering dark storm clouds.

Those joyful, exuberant shouts turn into cries of anger and accusation. Those who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem have fled. They have simply disappeared from sight. And in their place is an angry crowd who wants Jesus to die.

Even his followers, those who almost arrogantly proclaimed themselves followers of Jesus, have also run away. Their arrogance has turned to embarrassment and shame.

Jesus, whom we encounter at the beginning of this liturgy surrounded by crowds of people, is by the end of it, alone, abandoned, deserted—shunned. Everyone he considered a friend—everyone he would have trusted—has left him.

And in his aloneness, he knows how they feel about him. He knows that he is an embarrassment to them. He knows that, in their eyes, he is a failure.

As we participate in this liturgy, we are acutely aware that we too have been both one of the crowd who welcomes him and those who turned our backs on him.

We are quick to proclaim Jesus when all is well. We have no problem speaking of him when we are surrounded by others who love and follow him.

But, when we hear people trashing Jesus—when we hear others maligning him—we find ourselves holding our tongues, or turning away in shame, or pretending that we are not Christians.

Or worse, we join the crowd in their condemnation. We, too, find ourselves caught up in the mob mentality. We too, say, in a sense, “Away with him! Crucify him!”

We, like them, sneer at his Name. We, like them, shake our heads in shame. We, like them, let our disgust at him show on our faces.

Let’s face—and what better time to face it than at the beginning of Holy Week—we are fickle, at times. We are easily swayed sometimes.

But, through the liturgies of our Church, we are able to not only examine the wrongs we have done to Jesus, to each other and to ourselves, we are also able to turn away from all of that. We are able to walk with Jesus on his painful journey to the place of his execution. We are able to help him, briefly anyway, to shoulder his cross.

And we are able to rejoice next Sunday—not only with those who encounter him at the tomb, or in the Upper Room, or on the road to Emmaus. Next Sunday, we will be able to rejoice with all the choirs of angels and archangels who sing their unending hymns of praise to him.

We are able to rejoice in the fact that all humiliation has tuned to joy, all desertion has turned to friendship, all sadness to gladness, death to full, complete and unending joy.

So, as we journey through the dark half of our liturgy today, as we trek alongside Jesus during this week of betrayal, torture and death, let us keep our eyes focused on the Light that is about to dawn in our lives. Let us move forward toward that Light. Even though there might be sadness on our faces, let the joy in our hearts prompt us forward along the path we dread to take.

And, next week, let’s gather here again to bask in the Light of Christ’s triumph over not only his death, but ours as well. Let us, then, sing together a hymn of gladness that will never end.

Amen.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

5 Lent


March 9, 2008

The Episcopal Church of St. John the Divine

Moorhead, Minn.


Ezekiel 37.1-14; John 11.1-45

We have two readings today that jar us and make us sit up and take notice. The first, of course, is Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones. The second is the raising of Lazarus. Both are filled with images of the dead being raised to new life.In the vision of the bones, we find bones being given flesh and sinews, and the spirit of God coming into them and giving them life. But the story that probably speaks most deeply to us is the story of Lazarus. And this story takes on much deeper meaning when we examine it closely and place it within the context of its time.


One of our first clues that the something is different in this story is that, when Jesus arrives at the tomb of his friend Lazarus, he is told that Lazarus has been dead four days. This clue of “four days” is important. First of all, from simply a practical point, we can all imagine what condition Lazarus’s body would be in after four days. This body would not have been embalmed like we understand embalming today in the United States. There was no refrigeration, no sealed metal caskets, no reconstructive cosmetics for the body of Lazarus. In the heat of that country, his body would, by the fourth day, be in the beginning stages of decomposition. There would be some physical destruction occurring.


Second, according to Jewish understanding, when the soul left the body, a connection would still be maintained with that body for a period of three days. Bar Kappara, a rabbi of the late second and early third century, wrote:


"Until three days the soul keeps on returning to the grave, thinking that it will go back; but when it sees that the facial features have become disfigured [be decomposition], it departs and abandons it.


“The full force of mourning lasts for three days. Why? Because the shape of the face is recognizable, even as we have learnt in the Mishnah [a Jewish book of learning]: Evidence is admissible only in respect of the full face, with the nose, and only within three days.”


In a Jewish document on mourning called the Semahot we find the following:

“One may go out to the cemetery for three days to inspect the dead for a sign of life, without fear that this smacks of heathen practice. For it happened that a man was inspected after three days, and he went on to live twenty-five years; still another went on to have five children and died later.”


So, what we find here is that, according to Jewish thinking of this time, the belief was the soul might be reunited with the body up to three days, but after that, because the body would not recognizable because of decomposition, any reuniting would be impossible. After those three days, the final separation from the body by the soul would have been complete. The soul would truly be gone. The body would truly be dead.


So, when Jesus came upon the tomb of Lazarus and tells them to roll the stone away, Martha says to him that there will be stench. He was truly dead—dead physically and dead from the perspective of his soul being truly separated from his body.When the tomb was opened for Jesus, he would be encountering what most of us would think was impossible. When Jesus raised Lazarus, what Jesus did for Lazarus was not only reunite his spirit with his body, he also healed the destruction done to Lazarus’s body by decomposition. It would have been amazing. And Jesus would truly have been proven to be more than just a magician. He wasn’t simply awakening someone who appeared to be dead, someone who might have actually been in a deep coma. There was no doubt that Lazarus was truly dead and now, he was, once again alive.


Now, at first glance, both our Old Testament and Gospel readings seem a bit morbid. This image of dry bones in our reading from Ezekiel is not a pleasant vision. Bones are frightening to us. And the idea of sinew and flesh coming together on bones is not a pretty image for us.And in our Gospel reading, we have this uncomfortable story of Lazarus’s death, burial and the beginning of decomposition. Again, unpleasant things for us to be dealing with. These are things we don’t want to think about. But the fact is, we are rapidly heading toward Holy Week.


Next week at this time, we will be celebrating the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. We will be hearing the joyful cries of the crowd as he rides forth. Within 11 days from now, we will hear those cries of joy turn into cries of jeering and accusation. And, within no time, we will be hearing cries of despair and mourning. We, as followers of Jesus, will be facing betrayal, torture, murder and death as Jesus journeys away from us into the cold dark shadow of death. These images of death we encounter in today’s reading simply help nudge us in the direction of the events toward which we are racing.During Holy Week, we too will be faced with images we might find disturbing. Jesus will be betrayed and abandoned by his friends and loved ones. He will be tortured, mocked and whipped. He will be forced to carry the instrument of his death to the place of his execution. And there he will be murdered in a very gruesome way. Following that death, he will be buried in a tomb, much the same way his friend Lazarus was. But unlike Lazarus, what happens to Jesus will take place within the three days belief at that time required for a soul to make a final break from his body.


And this brings us back to the story of Lazarus. We often make the mistake, when thinking about the story of Lazarus, to say that Lazarus was resurrected. The fact is, he was not resurrected. In seminary, I had a professor who made very clear to us that Lazarus was not resurrected. The term he used to describe what happened to Lazarus was “resuscitation.” Lazarus was resuscitated. His soul was reunited with his healed body. But the fact was that Lazarus would eventually die again.


Over the last three weeks we have encountered people who had amazing encounters with Jesus and, after these encounters, we never hear from them again. The week before last, we encountered the unnamed Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. Last week, we encountered the man born blind whom Jesus healed. In both cases, the Eastern Orthodox Church has given them names and, in fact, reveres them as saints. The woman at the well is now revered as St. Photini, a woman who went on to suffer for Christ in Rome. The man born blind is now revered as St. Celidonius the Blind Man, who is believed to have gone on to Gaul, which is now France, where he labored for Christ.


And today, we have Lazarus, who is also revered as a saint in the Eastern Orthodox Church. It is believed that, following the death of Jesus, he went to Cyprus, where he became a Bishop. In fact, one can visit two tombs of Lazarus. One can visit the empty tomb of Lazarus at Bethany, in Israel. And one can also visit his actual tomb in Cyprus in the Greek Orthodox Church of Agios Lazaros. There, under the altar, is the tomb which is inscribed, simply with


LAZARUS

FRIEND OF CHRIST


The tomb was actually opened in 1972 and human remains from the time of Christ were found buried there.

So, Lazarus truly did rise from the tomb in Bethany, but he was not resurrected there. He went on to live a life somewhat similar to the life he lived before. And eventually, he died again.

But Resurrection is, as we no doubt know, different. Resurrection is rising from death into a life that does not end. Resurrection is rising from all the things we encounter in our readings for today—dry bones, tombs, decomposition and death. Resurrection is new bodies, new understanding of everything, new and unending life. Resurrection, when it happens, cannot be undone. It cannot be taken away. Resurrection destroys the hold of death.

And the first person to be resurrected was not Lazarus. The first person to be resurrected was Jesus. His resurrection is important not simply because he was the first. His resurrection is important because it, in a real sense, destroys death once and for all. Yes, we will die. Yes, we will go down into the grave, into that place of bones and ashes. But, the resurrection of Jesus casts new light on the deaths we must die. The resurrection of Jesus shows us that we will rise from the destruction of our bodies into a life like the life of the resurrected Jesus. We will be raised into a life that never ends, a life in which “sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life eternal,” as we celebrate in the Burial service of the Book of Common Prayer. Because Jesus died and then trampled death, he took away eternal death. Our bodies may die, but we will rise again with him into a new and wonderful life.

So, as we move through these last days of Lent toward that long, painful week of Holy Week, we go forward knowing full well what await us on the other side of the Cross of Good Friday. We go forward knowing that the glorious dawn of Easter awaits us. And with it, the glory of resurrection and life everlasting awaits us as well.

So, let go forward. Let us move into Holy Week, rejoicing with the crowd. And as the days darken and we grow weary with Jesus, let us keep focused on the light that is just about to dawn on all of us.

Amen.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

John & Charles Wesley


Wednesday March 5, 2008
Chapel of the Resurrection
Gethsemane Episcopal Cathedral
Fargo, North Dakota

On Monday, we celebrated the feast of John and Charles Wesley. I have been very intrigued by the Wesleys. I first came to be interested in them when I read about John Wesley’s interest and carefully reading of the Church Fathers and Eastern Orthodox writers.

But the Wesleys, for the most part, are misunderstood today. No doubt, we remember the Wesley brothers best as the founders of the Methodist Church. But in fact both Wesleys were baptized as Anglicans, the sons of an Anglican priest. They were ordained priests in the Anglican Church (John in 1728 and Charles in 1735) and they lived their entire lives as priests in the Anglican Church. And, what many people don’t remember is that they both died as Anglicans. It was the Wesleys’ followers who essentially established the Methodist Church based on the Wesley’s method of holiness.

The Anglican Church at the time of the Wesley’s conversion was a bleak place. It had become a complacent and boring church. It had lost all its meaning and purpose. John and Charles were simply looking for a way to find some spiritual meaning in their lives and to live out their sense of conversion. They did it by establishing a simple method of living one’s life as a faithful Christina.

The first part of the Wesley’s method was Prayer

For John Wesley prayer was the basis of all Christian living. He wrote in A Plain Account of Christian Perfection:

“’Whether we think of; or speak to, God, whether we act or suffer for him, all is prayer, when we have no other object than his love, and the desire of pleasing him.

“All that a Christian does, even in eating and sleeping, is prayer, when it is done in simplicity, according to the order of God, without either adding to or diminishing from it by his own choice.”

One of the best ways Wesley felt we could pray was by praying the Daily Office according to the Book of Common Prayer.

The second method was Scripture Study

John Wesley read the Scriptures every day, usually early in the day or late in the evening. Because he was a scripture scholar, he read the scriptures in their original languages of Greek and Hebrew and he also wrote commentaries on the Bible.
Wesley advised the following regarding Scripture study

1. First, to set apart a little time, if you can, every morning and evening to read Scriptures.

2. To read one chapter out of the Old, and one out of the New Testament and if unable to do that, to take a single chapter, or a part of one?

3. To read scriptures to know the whole will of God.

4. To read scriptures with the intention of finding mean in such “grand, fundamental doctrines” such as Original Sin, Justification by Faith, the New Birth, Inward and Outward Holiness.

5. “Serious and earnest prayer” should be constantly used before reading scriptures because seeing "scripture can only be understood thro' the same Spirit whereby it was given." “Our reading should likewise be closed with prayer, that what we read may be written on our hearts.”

6. He also suggested that, while reading scripture, we are to “frequently…pause, and examine ourselves by what we read, both with regard to our hearts, and lives. This would furnish us with matter of praise, where we found God had enabled us to conform to his blessed will, and matter of humiliation and prayer, where we were conscious of having fallen short.”

Wesley’s third method was Fasting

John Wesley, in his younger days, fasted every Wednesday and Friday. Later in his life he fasted only on Fridays. Charles Yrigoyen, Jr., in his biography, John Wesley: Holiness of Heart and Life writes:

Wesley was convinced that fasting, abstaining from food or drink, was a practice firmly grounded in the Bible. People in Old Testament times fasted (Ezra 8:23). So did Jesus and his followers (Matthew 4:2; Acts 13:3), and Wesley saw no reason why modern Christians should not follow the same pattern. His plan of fasting sometimes allowed for limited eating and drinking. He found that fasting advanced holiness.

John Wesley: Holiness of Heart and Life, 1996.

Wesley also held a deep faith in Holy Communion, which was pretty unsual for his time. In his day, Anglicans received Communion maybe once or twice a year. Wesley believed that a Christian should receive Communion as often as possible.

The Wesleys’ Method is, I think, still very helpful to all Christians still. The best honor we can give the Wesleys is trying to take their Method of holiness to heart and practice it our lives.

In closing, I am going to share the prayer John Wesley’s so-called Covenant Prayer.

...Christ has many services to be done. Some are easy, others are difficult. Some bring honour, others bring reproach. Some are suitable to our natural inclinations and temporal interests, others are contrary to both... Yet the power to do all these things is given to us in Christ, who strengthens us.

Let us pray.

I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.
Amen.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

4 Lent


March 2, 2008
All Saints Episcopal church
Valley City, ND

Ephesians 5.8-14; John 9.1-14

I received my first pair of glasses when I was in the Third Grade. I never remembered a time in my life without glasses. And during the 26 years I wore glasses, I became dependent upon each successful pair of glasses. In High School, I tried contacts and wore them, with much discomfort, for a few years. I broke a pair or two. I tried to go without glasses at times. I even, shortly after getting my first pair, tried to hide them.

Through it all, I learned to live with that sense of partial blindness that existed always in my life as a nearsighted person.. There was always the fear of what might happen on vacation if my glasses broke. And there was also the fear of, having misplaced them, not being able to find them back again.

I’m not alone, of course. Many of us here wear glasses and we know what life would be like without glasses. I never fully appreciated it until I had LASIK surgery four years ago. It was amazing, as I was going through the surgery, when all of a sudden, sight—clear, crisp sight—came first to one eye and then the other. It was truly a miracle in my life.

Before I heard of LASIK I never imagined there would be a time when I would be able to see without glasses. I had accepted the fact that I always be nearsighted. And now, I find myself thankful every time I come inside from a cold day and don’t have to worry about my lenses fogging, or on a hot day when the glasses seemed hot and heavy on my face. And probably the greatest pleasure I had was being able to actually walk around in the rain.

Although I was never completely blind, being nearsighted was difficult and a normal life would have been impossible without my glasses. I remember, in the days following surgery, when I could see—when I could actually go about without glasses and see—thinking to myself about our Gospel reading for this morning. It felt like a miracle. I woke up that morning before surgery, reflexively reaching for glasses on the bedside table, not being able to see anything but a blurry distance. And by that evening, it was as though I had never been nearsighted at all.

In our Gospel reading for today, we find a man born blind. The miracle Jesus performs for him is truly a large miracle. For anyone born without sight, seeing must have been quite a shock. It would, no doubt, involve a complete reeducation of one’s self. By the time he reached the age he was—he was maybe in his twenties or thirties—he no doubt had an idea in his mind of what things must’ve looked like. And, with the return of his vision, he was, I’m certain, amazed at what things actually looked like. Even things we take for granted, such as the faces of our mother and father, would have been new for this man. So, the miracle Jesus performs is truly a far-ranging miracle.

There’s also an interesting post-script to our Gospel reading. The people we have encountered in our Gospel readings this week and last are nameless people. Jesus speaks to the nameless Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well last week. This week, the blind man is never mentioned by name. Just like the Samaritan woman at the well is never mentioned again and we have no idea what happened to her after her encounter with Jesus, yet again this week we find ourselves thinking about this blind man whom we never hear about again. What happened to him after all these events? Obviously he went away a believer. But what then?

Well, in the Orthodox Church, they actually revere both the woman at the well—whom they name St. Photini—and the blind man in today’s Gospel. In the Eastern Church, the Blind Man is named St. Celidonius the Blind Man. St. Celidonius, it is believed, did in fact go on to become a loyal disciple of Jesus. Following Jesus’ death, it is believed he left in a boat with St. Lazarus—the same one whome Jesus raised from the dead—and another disciple, Maximin, went first to the island of Cyprus and, later, without Lazarus, went off to Gaul, which is now modern France.

Also in the Eastern Church, St Basil the Great and other early Church Fathers believe that Celidonius was not only born blind, he was actually born without eyes. This, they say, is why Jesus takes clay and places them upon the empty sockets. By doing so, he actually forms eyes for Celidonius. When Celidonius washes them in the waters of Siloam, the eyes of clay became real eyes with perfect sight.

It sort of reminds of us the news story that was released last week of the Irishman who lost his sight in an alumunium explosion two years. His 23 year old son donated his tooth, the root and part of his jaw. The tooth was placed in the man’s eye, a lense was added and the man was actually able to see.

The Eastern Church Fathers also believed that, with Celidonius’s new eyes, there also came great spiritual sight, which helped him to be courageous in the face of persecution and hostile questioning. The Eastern has a wonderful hymn, in which Celidonius sings to Jesus:
I come to You, O Christ,
Blind from birth in my spiritual eyes
And I call to You in repentance:
You are the most radiant light of those in darkness!

This hymn really, in a sense, is our hymn as well as we heard this Gospel reading. Because our Gospel reading speaks even to those of who have been blessed with naturally good eyesight.

The blindness spoken of in today’s Gospel is twofold. On one hand, of course, there is the actual blindness of St. Celidonius. On the other hand, there is the blindness we all suffer. There is the spiritual blindness of our lives.

For some of us, our spiritual blindness is merely a spiritual near- or far-sightedness. We can still have some vague spiritual understanding, but we just can’t quite get a focus on what it is we are longing for and searching for. Others are blind or have simply blinded themselves completely regarding their spirituality. They live in a dark, vacuous place, in which they cannot see God.

We too are living in a dark time. This season of Lent is a kind of dusk. The darkness of Good Friday is encroaching rapidly now. And there will be darkness on that day. It is the darkness that came upon the earth when Jesus died, and lasted for hours.

This darkness is very similar to the darkness any of us carries within us without Jesus. When we have nudged Christ out, or when we don’t allow Christ in, a darkness descends upon us. And it is a deep and terrible darkness. But whatever the darkness we live within, it is never a complete darkness. Whatever spiritual blindness we might have, it isn’t a complete blindness. It is actually a spiritual nearsightedness, in which we simply cannot see the clarity of God’s presence and goodness in our lives.

But with the Light that is Christ, our vision is corrected. In that Light, we see more clearly than we can ever hope to see. We are not at the midpoint of Lent. It’s easy, in this moment, to see ahead to Easter, which still seems so far away. But it is there, ahead of us.

To get there, the relative gloom of Lent will deepen into the almost blinding darkness of Good Friday and the Cross, with its torture, its humiliation, its destruction. But in that darkness, there is Light. A Light will dawn into our lives and that Light of the Resurrected Jesus will burn away the darkness and blindness of our lives. On that morning, we will be able to sing, like St. Celidonius, rejoicing in the Light that will dawn in our lives, never to go out again.

So, let us go forth toward into that Light, not letting the darkness and blindness of our lives lead us away from that goal.