Saturday, July 26, 2008

11 Pentecost

July 27, 2008
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Grand Forks, ND

Matthew 13.31-33, 44-52

For those of you who have been attending church regularly these last few weeks are no doubt groaning quietly to yourselves this morning as you hear the Gospel reading. Oh no, you’re probably thinking to yourself. More a parables from Jesus!

Some of us really enjoy the parables. But, let’s face it, most people feel a certain level of frustration when they come across them.

After all, we, as a society, aren’t comfortable with such things. Yes, we love stories. We love to hear a good story that really captures our imagination—a story we can retell to others. But, for the most part, we like them for purely entertainment reasons. We like stories that are straightforward. We don’t want to think too deeply about these issues. We want something simple and clear.

As some of you know, I am a teacher. I teach theology at the University of Mary’s Fargo campus. One of the areas I always cover in my theology classes are the parables. Recently, when I asked the students to read several of the parables before we discussed them, one of the students was quite vocal about his frustration over them.

“Why couldn’t Jesus just tell us what he was thinking?” this student asked. “Why did he have to tell us these difficult riddles that don’t have anything to do with us?”

Of course, the gist of this is that this student missed the point completely by that very statement. The fact is, when we start talking about God and God’s work among us, we are dealing with issues that are never simple and clear. To put it bluntly, there is no simple and clear way to convey the truth of the Gospel. That is why Jesus spoke in Parables.

The word parable comes from the word “parabola,” which can be defined as “comparison” or “reflection.” “Relationship” is probably the better definition of the word. When we look at Jesus’ parables with that definition—reflection, comparison, relationship—they start to make even more sense to us. These stories Jesus told then—and which we hear now—are all about comparison. The Kingdom of God—which is difficult for us to wrap our minds around—are we talking about heaven, some otherworldly place? or are we talking about the kingdom of God in our midst?—is explained in a way those first hearers could understand.

Jesus spoke in parables simply because the people he was speaking to would not have understood any type deep theological explanations. Jesus used the images they would have known. When he talked that day of a mustard seed and what it grows into, when he talks of yeast being mixed into dough, when he speaks of a treasure hidden in a field or of a merchant looking for fine pearls, those people understood these images. They could actually wrap their minds around the fact that something as massive as a bush of mustard can come from such a small seed. They understood that something as simple as a small amount of yeast worked into dough will make something large and substantial.

Yes, they could say, even with the smallest amount of faith in our lives, glorious thing can happen. That is the message they were able to take away from Jesus that day. So, these parables worked for those people who were listening to Jesus, but—we need to ask ourselves—does it work for us, here and now?

Does this comparison of the kingdom of heaven being like a mustard seed make sense to us? Do we fully appreciate the image of treasure hidden in a field or merchants looking for the finest pearls?

First of all, we need to establish what is the kingdom of God? Is it that place that is awaiting us in the next world? Is it heaven? Is it the place we will go to when we die? Or is it something right here, right now. Certainly, Jesus believed it was something we could actually experience here and now. Or, at least, we experience a glimpse of it here and now. Over and over again, Jesus tells us that the kingdom of God can be found within each of us. We carry inside us the capability to bring God’s kingdom into being. We do it through what we do and what we say. We do it by letting our faith grow from the tiniest kernel into a vibrant, fragrant bush. We can bring the kingdom about when we strive to do good, to act justly, to bring God into the world in some small way. The kingdom of God is here—alive and present among us—when we love God and love our neighbor as ourselves.

Yes, the mustard seed represents our faith, but it also represents in some way, those small actions we make to further the Kingdom. Those little things we do in our lives will make all the difference. Don’t ever think they won’t. Even the smallest action on our part can bring forth the kingdom of God in our lives and in the lives of those we know. But those small actions—those little seeds that we sow in our lives—can also bring about not only God’s kingdom but the exact opposite of God’s Kingdom. Our smallest bad actions, can destroy the kingdom in our midst and drive us further away from God and each other.

Clergy deal with this all the time. We clergy have to be very careful about those small actions. I cannot tell you how many times I hear stories about clergy who said one thing wrong and it destroyed a person’s faith. I’m sure almost everyone here this morning has either experienced clergy like this first hand or has known someone close who has. Now, possibly these remarks by clergy were innocent comments. There may have been no bad intention involved. But one wrong comment—one wrong action—a cold shoulder or an exhausted roll of the eyes—the fact that a priest or deacon did not visit us when were in the hospital or said something that we took the wrong way—is all it takes when a person is in need to turn that person once and for all away from the church and from God.

My mother is a prime example of one of these people. My mother was active in her church for years. But one day, the pastor made plans to have a package delivered to my mother’s home. The package never came—it simply got lost in the mail. When the package never arrived, the pastor jokingly made a comment to the effect that my mother probably still had it at home. I know for a fact that the pastor never meant to accuse my mother of “stealing” the package. My mother, however, took his comment to heart as an accusation and, as a result, she couldn’t bring herself to go to church for a very long time.

That mustard seed all of a sudden takes on a whole other meaning in a case like this. What grows from a small seed like this is a flowering tree of hurt and despair and anger and bitterness. So, it is true. Those seeds we sow do make a huge difference in the world. We get to make the choice. We can sow seeds of goodness and graciousness—seeds of the Gospel. We can sow the seeds of God’s kingdom. Or we can sow the seeds of discontent. We can, through our actions, sow the weeds and thistles that will kill off the harvest. We forget about how important the small things in life are—and more importantly we forget how important the small things in life are to God. God does take notice of the small things.

There a wonderful poem that the poet Daniel Ladinsky translated from the Indian poet Kabir:

What
kind of God would [God] be
if [God] did not count the blinks
of your
eyes

and is in absolute awe of their movements?

What a God—what a God we
have.

We have often heard the term “the devil is in the details.” But I can’t help but believe that it is truly God who is in the details. God works just as mightily through the small things of life as through the large. This is what Jesus is telling us in the parable of the mustard seed. This is what he is saying when he talks about a small amount of yeast worked into dough. Take notice of the small things. It is there you will find your faith—it is there you will find God. And when you do, it will be like that person who has bought the land on which he knows a treasure has been buried. When you do, you will feel like the merchant who searching for the perfect pearl, finds it. It is in those places that God’s kingdom flourishes in our lives.

So, be mindful of those smallest seeds you sow in your life. Remind yourself that sometimes what they produce can either be a wonderful and glorious tree or a painful, hurtful weed. Sow God’s love from the smallest ounce of faith. Further the kingdom of God’s love in whatever seemingly small way you can and let it flower and flourish and become a great treasure in your life before God.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

St. Mary Madgalene


July 23, 2008
The Chapel of the Resurrection
Gethsemane Cathedral

Yesterday was the feast of St. Mary Magdalene. This feast day is an important time for us to examine what many of us think is a non-issue these days, but is still an issue in the larger Church. The issue is, of course, the ordination of women.

Now, most of us, I think, are fine with women being ordained to the priesthood or deaconate. But there are still several groups of people in the church—in the Episcopal and in the larger Anglican Communion—who are very upset over this issue.

As many of you might know, the Church of England has recently OKd the consecration of women bishops. For us, this doesn’t seem like a big deal. Our first woman bishop in the Episcopal, Barbara Harris, who was ordained in 1989. But in England, this is a huge deal. Many Anglo-Catholic priests and bishops are very upset and there is a rumor that many of these priests and bishops, as well as many lay people, are ready to leave the Church of England and join the Roman Catholic Church.

You might wonder why people have such an issue with the ordination of women. Some people—specifically the Roman Church—believe that if Jesus truly wanted women to be ordained he would have called a woman to be an apostle. In fact, one Roman priest has famously said: “If Jesus wanted to ordain women, he would’ve ordained his mother.”

These are good arguments. Of course, the argument could also be that, Jesus never called Polish or German men to be apostles either, but that’s a whole other issue.

To be fair, we need to remind ourselves of the place of women in the time of Jesus. Even if he had called women, the problem was that the role of women at that time was viewed as less than men. Very few people in Palestinian culture of the time would’ve even listened to a woman. In fact, a woman’s testimony could not even be used in legal proceedings at that time.

We see this most profoundly in the story of Mary Magdalene, who truly was the first witness of the resurrected Jesus. And when she told the apostles of her encounter with Christ, they didn’t believe her. In fact, there didn’t seem to be any legitimacy to her account until the men apostles saw Jesus with their own eyes.

The fact is, if the argument is truly about Jesus not calling women to be apostles, we must face reality and look long and hard at Mary Magdalene. In the Orthodox Church, which, by the way, does not ordain women either, Mary Magdalene has a wonderful title that I truly love. The title is: “equal to the apostles.” Now, that does not mean she is an apostle. It simply means she is equal to the apostles.

Still, Mary Magdalene was truly a model of the perfect apostle. An apostle is one who has been called to give witness to Christ. And Mary Magdalene did that over and over again in the Gospels. When the men apostles deserted Jesus, when they betrayed him and left him to be tortured and murdered, Mary Magdalene was there with him at the cross. While the men went into hiding, for fear of their own lives, Mary Magdalene bravely went out to the tomb.

And it seems that Mary Magdalene went on to continue preaching and bearing witness to the risen Jesus.

In the Orthodox Church, it is believed she went to Ephesus, where she preached and lived with Mary the Mother of Jesus. It’s believed she died there and that her bones were eventually taken to Constantinople

In the Roman Church, the belief was that Mary, with her bother Lazarus and sister Martha went to Gaul, which is now France, and preached. She eventually retired to a cave near Marseille, to a place called La Sainte-Baume or the "holy cave" and it is there that she died.

Whatever the case, Mary Magdalene is a wonderful model for all of us. Yes, as a woman, her testimony might not have meant much in her own day, but it means all the world to us now. Mary Magdalene’s proclaimation that Jesus is alive is really our proclaimation as well. We, as the apostles of our own time, are called to go out, like she did, even with all the barriers in our lives, and proclaim the living Christ.

Also, on this feast, we should remember and be thankful for the women clergy in our lives. And we should also remind ourselves that, with Christ, the barriers of male and female are simply not there. In Christ, these issues of male and female simply don’t matter. We are all one in Christ. And, in that oneness, we are all called to proclaim Christ.

So, let nothing come between you and Jesus. Rather be an Apostle like Mary Magdalene, who, even despite the world’s opinion, went to the ends of her world preaching the resurrection.

“I have seen the Lord.”

And because she saw him, we are able to go forth and proclaim it as well.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

9 Pentecost

July 13, 2008
St. Mark’s Lutheran Church
Fargo

Matthew 13.1-9, 18-23

One of the signs that we are maturing as adults, I think, happens when, one day, a strange feeling comes upon us when we least expect it. For some people, when this feeling rears its ugly head, it is a time to despair. Some people call it a mid-life crisis. Others just say it’s a restlessness that comes with age. It is a feeling we fight, we try to avoid, we do anything in our power to get around. But sometimes, there’s no escaping it.

This feeling I’m talking about is the feeling of frustration. I’m not talking about the frustration one feels when its rains on a day you’ve planned some big outdoor event. I am talking about the frustration that comes on us when we realize that all those dreams, all those plans we had have simply come to naught. It’s the frustration we feel when we simply face the facts of our life and see our present life for what it really is. And when we compare that present life with what we imagined our life would be like at this point, we definitely find ourselves frustrated. We ask ourselves: what happened to me? How did I end up here? How did I end up becoming this person—this person who looks and acts just like what I disliked the most when I was younger.

Certainly most of us have felt this frustration in our jobs, or as parents. For those of us in ordained ministry, we deal with this all the time. When many people go into the ministry, they imagine all the good they’re going to do in their lives. They imagine all the people whose lives they are going to affect. They imagine all the souls they will save. They imagine all the parishes they will one day fill with believers and how they, single-handedly, will change the sometimes all-too-accurate reputation the Church has of being a close-minded, human-driven organization with all its faults. To use the images from today’s Gospel, they imagine all the seeds they sow will be in good soil and will flourish a hundred times what was sown. They come out of seminary and rise up from having hands laid on them at their ordination with a starry-eyed idealism.

And then, they hit the five-year mark. For some clergy, the five-year mark is that mark when they realize the honeymoon’s over. They’ve, hopefully, been through the wringer once or twice by this time. Their wrists have been slapped, their egos have been deflated, their sermons critiqued to the point they are much more careful what they are going to say when they enter the pulpit. And, more importantly, they face reality.

By five years, one knows if the seed one has sown is producing a crop. And by five years, every clergy person knows that what they are producing is not anywhere near one hundred times what was sown. And it is then that frustration settles in.

Now, I say this as I approach the fifth anniversary of my ordination to the diaconate on July 25. These five years have been a strange rollercoaster of a ride for me. And as I approach this ordination anniversary, I find myself reflecting back to what my goals were in that hot summer of 2003 and what, if any of them, have been met. I reflect back on what I sowed in those early days of ministry. And, although I have seen some wonderful and incredible things in those five years, I also am fully aware that the crops produced are not anywhere near what I had, so idealistically, imagined. And then I face it. I find it right there, staring me in the face—frustration.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus gives us a glimpse of what this frustration is like. If you notice at the beginning of our Gospel reading, as Jesus sits in the boat from which he preaches sort of like from a pulpit, we are told that there is a large crowd coming forward to listen to him. To this large crowd, Jesus then proceeds to preach about seed that fails and seed that flourishes. And for this moment, it seems as though the seed of the Gospel as it comes from Jesus’ mouth is truly falling on the good soil. But when we look at it from the wider perspective of the story of Jesus, what we realize is that what he is preaching is, in fact, falling on rocky ground and among thorns.

Let’s face it: on the surface, from a completely objective viewpoint, Jesus’ ministry ultimately seems like a failure. He is surrounded by twelve men—people he himself chose—who just don’t get what he’s saying. These men will, eventually, turn away from him and abandon him when he needed them the most. One of them, will betray him in a particularly cruel way: one of them will betray him to people he knows will murder Jesus.

By the time Jesus is nailed to the cross, it’s as though everything Jesus said or did up to that point had been for nothing. Not one of the people Jesus helped, not one of the person he gave sight to, helped to walk, healed of illness, came forward to defend him. Not even one person he raised from the dead came forward to help him in his time of need. And certainly, not one person from this large crowd of people that we encounter in today’s Gospel, comes forth to defend him, to vouch for him or even to comfort him as he is tortured and murdered.

Everyone left him except his mother and a few of his mother’s friends. Let’s face it; it would just even worse if even his mother has deserted him. Can you imagine, in that awful lonely moment, to look down and realize not even your mother—of all people—had stayed with you. So, it could have been worse.

Still, as far as his life of ministry was concerned, it seemed very much like a failure. It seems, in that moment, as though the seed he sowed had all been sown on rocky ground and among thorns. It seemed as though the seed he sowed had died. For any of us, frustration would be an understatement for what we would be feeling at that moment.

And if this was the end of the story, if it ended there, on that cross, on that Friday afternoon, then it would be truly one of the greatest failures. But this is one of the cunning, remarkable things about Christianity—one of the things that has baffled people for thousands of years. In the midst of this failure, in the midst of this frustration, God somehow works. In that place of broken dreams, of shattered ambitions, God somehow uses them and turns them toward good. Somehow, in a moment of abject loneliness, of excruciating physical pain, of an agonizing murder upon a cross, God somehow brings forth hope and joy and life unending. Ands what seems to be sown on rocky ground and among thorns does, in fact, flourish and produces a crop that we are still reaping.

In my own life I have found strange moments, when God has broken through my own failures, my own shortcomings to work, when God has taken the seed I though I had sown on land unsuitable for growth and somehow made it grow. I love to tell a story of when I was in Clinical Pastoral Education.

In Clinical Pastoral Education—CPE—I worked in a hospital as a chaplain. I enjoyed my work as a chaplain. It was very rewarding and very exciting for me. It was also very exhausting work.

One day I had worked very hard all day long going from floor to floor, ward to ward, doing visitations. My usual procedure for the day usually involved my going to the head nurse and asking if anyone needed a chaplain. Sometimes the nurses would be very accommodating and would instantly direct me to one or two patients. Other times, the nurses would treat me as though I was nuisance and wouldn’t give me the time of day. But on this day, the head nurse told me that, yes, there was a woman with diabetes who was scheduled to have surgery to remove her foot the following morning. So, I went to visit her.

I was tired at this point, after a very long day of visitations. And so, when I went in to the see the woman, I realized she was not in a good place. She was crying. She was in despair. As I talked with her, she told me in no uncertain terms that she did not want to lose her foot. She said, “I wish there was a prayer I could pray so that they won’t cut off my foot.”

Of course, I didn’t want to instill any false hope in her, nor did I want to make any unreasonable promises. And because I was tired and exhausted, I really didn’t have it in me to say much to her. So, I offered to pray with her. Now usually, in my visits, I followed a particular regimen. I would usually say a little prayer at the beginning, I would recite a psalm and then we would pray the Lord’s Prayer. And that’s exactly what I did that day, without even thinking twice. So, we prayed, and I begin my usual psalm, which was Psalm 121.

For those of you who might not remember Psalm 121, it goes like this:

I lift up my eyes to the hills; *
from where is my help to come?

My help comes from the LORD, *
the maker of heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot be moved…”

He will not let your foot be moved?

Oh no! How could I be so stupid?

I quickly looked at the woman, hoping she hadn’t heard. When I looked her, her eyes were shut tight.

Good, I thought. Maybe she didn’t hear.

I finished up the psalm, we prayed the Lord’s Prayer together and I left as soon as I could, promising her as I left that I would pray for her and that I would visit her after surgery. Since it was my last visit of the day, I went home and, all night long, I beat myself up about it.

How could I be so insensitive, I thought. How could I be so irresponsible? How I could install false hope in this poor woman in her time of need?

To say the very least I felt like a pastoral failure that night. I thought, I have no right to be a priest. I might as well give it all up and find something else to do.

The next morning, I decided I had to face the band, so to speak. I had to go and visit this woman and try to make right the wrong I had done to her. So, I went right to her room—not really expecting her to be there—I though maybe she would still be in surgery. But when I went into the room, there she was sitting up in bed. She looked at me and she, “there you are!”

Great! I thought. Now I’m in trouble.

She said, “Thank you. Thank you Thank you.”

What?

She said, “They’re not taking my foot! They’re only going to take a couple of toes. I can deal with losing a few toes.”

She then said, “It’s a miracle, because all night long, all I prayed was, ‘He will not let your foot be moved. He will not let your foot be moved.’ And He didn’t.”

This, of course, is an exception to the rule, but it taught me two very important lessons.

First, it taught me that I had to stop being selfish and self-centered. What God did had very little to do with me personally. It wasn’t all about me all the time. It was truly about God using even me in those situations.

Second, it taught me that, even in those moments in which I, myself, was, if in no one else’s eyes but my own, a failure, still, somehow, God works. God truly can use our flawed and fractured selves for good and turn our failures and our frustrations into something meaningful. What we can take away from our Gospel reading today is that our job is not always to worry about where or how we are sowing the seed. Our job is to simply do the sowing. And God, will produce the crop.

What I have realized in these five years of ordained ministry is that I simply need to let God do what God is going to do. Our job, as Christians, is simply to sow. And God will bring forth the yield. And when God does, then we will find crops flourishing even in rocky soil and amidst thorns.

So, all you who have ears, listen. We will all feel moments of frustration in this life, but for those of us who hope in God and who sow the seed of God’s Word in this world simply cannot allow frustration to triumph. Frustration and despair are the thorns and rocky soil of our lives. We must be the rich soil in which that seed flourishes. And when do, the crops God brings forth in us and through us will truly be one hundred times more than what we sowed.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Every day

I went looking the other day for what, in 1957, was the Hector Subdivision in north Fargo, where Maria Sanderson, the first person injured by the tornado, lived. In 1957, this was on the very outskirts of Fargo on what was then Highway 10. It’s now all built over as an industrial park. Still, I could find the basic area where the house stood.

After a year in the hospital Sanderson was released but never fully recovered from her injuries. She died of a stroke in Minneapolis, Minnesota on February 24, 1964 and is buried in Sunset Memorial Gardens in Fargo.

1. Hector Subdivision

Even with the photocopied township map
printed in 1951, the homestead is nearly impossible to find.
These are streets now, not backroads.
And the highway has become a four-laned artery.

Finally, finding the mile line
and County Drain 40, we can almost make it out.
There, behind those buildings
a line of oak stand, older than
anything else here, older too,
than the storm. And from them,
we can almost make it out—
a ghost house, a ghost field,
a ghost landscape from some 1950s past.

It was here she lived and
it was here she stood that night
when the storm came rolling through
from the northwest.
It says so, right there on the map—
a shaded-in oblong of land
called Hector Sub-Division.
This was Theofil’s land—
her husband. And there,
near the curb of the street,
the mailbox stood—
Rural Free Delivery #2.

It’s Industrial Park now—
huge metal-walled complexes
on main streets and back streets.
Metal building complexes
cover what was then a clover field,
a wheat field, a field of corn.
And in the distance, where the city
glowed into the sky at night, there is no night.
The glow surrounds this place now,
nudging the night sky further
toward some even more obscure distance.

There, where the funnel first stomped the ground,
twirling and twisting into itself
there is cement. And where it came through here
at an angle before turning into the city—
parking lots and semi trucks.

There where the silo stood
and was knocked to the ground,
a water tower—
ballooning into the sky
in red and white swirls.
And where the fence leaned to the ground in the wind,
identical storage units
as uniforms as the niches in a columbarium.

Look here for her—
look in the cement and plowed over lawn,
pace out the distance from those trees
and there is nothing—
not even a foundation of a house,
not even a brick or a rusted nail.

And when you think to yourself
of the sadness of this complete disappearance,
remind yourself that this too awaits you,
and even less than this.
Who, one day, will walk the paved over
remnants of your homestead,
following the heel-to-toe pattern
of your house? Who will, in some vague gray
future, look for the place you were when
you looked up and saw your darkest fear
staring you down from the sky above you?


2. February 24, 1964

after Olav H. Hauge

The storm is gone now—
it is behind you
in some other place
on good days
you can barely remember.

Not once
in this time since
have you ever asked
why?
why was it I was born?
nor even where?
from where is it I came? where is it I am going?
You were just there—
in the storm,
in the churning wind.

See, it is possible
to live every day.
It is possible to get up,
to go to your garden, to
rake the dying leaves into a pile and set them afire.

The whole day is there, to think about
and there aren’t enough hours in it
or in one’s whole lifetime to consider it all.

And when it’s done, you can sit down
and listen as a wind softer and more exotic
than the one you hear in your nightmares
comes to you, touching your face
and whispering to you in a language
as strange, yet beautiful
as Chinese
or Norwegian.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

8 Pentecost




July 6, 2008
All Saints Episcopal Church
Valley City, ND

Matthew 11.16-19, 25-30

When we think of yoke, we no doubt think of something that weighs heavily upon us. We think of something a beast of burden carries on their backs. We can’t imagine anything worse for us. Why would we want an extra burden in our lives? We have enough burdens as it is. We are all truly “weary and carrying heavy burdens.” And sometimes these heavy burdens truly affect our bodies.

I, for example, recently went to the chiropractor. To actually seek help from a doctor or chiropractor shows how desperate I was. Last week at this time, I was miserable with pain. I had had a terrible back ache that seemed to move up my back and finally settled in my neck. I couldn’t turn my head without pain. I woke up in the mornings in a frustrating agony. So, finally, I called and got an appointment. I went in, and the chiropractor had me lie down on my stomach. He then touched a very tight, hard place at the base of my back. He said, “Here it is. This is the source of your problems.” He went on to say that it probably came from stress. Finally, he said to me, “Father, you’ve been carrying some heavy burdens on your back, haven’t you?”

We all do, don’t we? We are all carrying around things we probably should have allowed ourselves to get rid of some time ago. So, the last thing we want at this time in our lives is to take on another burden.

The fact is, taking on Christ is equivalent to taking on a very heavy burden. Being Christians means living with a burden. It means we have a structure, a framework that directs our lives. Still, I think, most of us, even us Christians still bristle when we describe our faith in such a way. A yoke on our backs confines us. It does not allow us freedom.

We, as humans, and especially as Americans, love our freedom. We love “elbow room.” We don’t like anyone telling us what to do and forcing us to go places we don’t want to go. But the fact is, when we take Christ as our yoke, we find all our notions of personal freedom and independence gone from us. No longer do we have our own personal freedom No longer do we have our own personal independence. What we have is Christ’s independence. What we have is Christ’s freedom. Our lives are not our own.

As Christians, we can claim no personal independence over our own lives. Our lives are guided and directed by Christ. Our lives our ruled over by Christ. The yoke of Christ means that it is Christ who directs our yoke. It Christ who directs us, if we need to, to go the places Christ wants us to go and do the things Christ wants us to do. It is our duty to be a beast of burden for Christ. And if we let Christ direct us, nothing wrong will happen to us. Christ will not lead us into places in which we will b e hurt or harmed. Christ will always lead us along the right path. Christ will direct us where we need to go.

Now I say all of this to you as though I am fine with all of this. I say this to you as though I have completely surrendered myself to Christ as his beast of burden. I’ll be brutally honest with you, however. I find much of this very difficult to bear as well. I have always been one of those independently-minded people myself. I have never liked being told what to do or what to say by anyone. I have always preferred doing things on my own. And for years I struggled with this scripture in my own life. I did not want to surrender my personal independence and my personal sense of freedom.

For me, however, I learned how to accept this scripture in a very practical way. What a lot of people don’t know is that each of these vestments a priest wears has a prayer that goes along with it. As the priest puts on each articles of clothing, he or she can say a prayer to remind them that each article of clothing has symbolic meaning.

For example, when I put on the alb, which is the white robe under these vestments, I pray, “Make me white as snow, O Lord, and cleanse my heart; that being made clean in the blood of the Lamb I may deserve an eternal reward.”

When I put on the stole, the scarf-like vestment I wear around my neck, I pray: “Restore unto me, O Lord, the stole of immortality which I lost through the sins of my first parents and, although, unworthy to approach Thy sacred Mystery, may I nevertheless attain to joy eternal.”

And when I put on this chasuble, this green vestment I wear over it all, I pray a prayer that directly quotes our Gospel reading for today. The prayer is, “O Lord, who hast said, ‘My yoke is sweet and my burden light,’ grant that I may carry it to merit Thy grace.”

In many ways this prayer defines for me what ministry is all about. When I put on this garment, symbolic of my ministry as a priest, I am reminded of the yoke, of the burden, I carry every day. In a sense, as a priest, my life is not my own. My life is fully and completely Christ’s. And my life is fully and completely Christ’s Church. As a priest, I don’t always do what I want, I don’t always go where I want to go. I try to do what Christ wants and I try to go where Christ leads me. More often than not, my own arrogance gets in the way, my own fears cause me to shrug off the yoke of Christ, and my own selfishness leads me to do only what I want to do.

The fact is, my priesthood doesn’t just happen out of the blue. My priesthood, my ministry, stems directly from my baptism. It is a response to the promises that were made for me when I was baptized and which I re-affirmed at my Confirmation. So, when I talk about my life not being my own, it is not confined to just me as an ordained priest in the Church. Rather, through baptism, we are all called to ministry, to a priesthood of all believers. We have all, through our baptism, taken on the yoke of Christ. Because, through baptism, we have been marked as Christ’s own forever and we have been given a yoke that we cannot shrug off. Our lives are not our own. Through baptism, we are Christ’s—and our lives belong completely and fully to Christ.

Now all of this might seem confined and difficult to accept, but Jesus says, in no uncertain terms, that his yoke is not quite like the yoke put on a beast. While that yoke is heavy and unwieldy—it is a tedious weight to bear for the animal—for us, he tells us, his yoke is light and the burden easy. It is a burden that we should gladly take on because it leads us to a place of joy and gladness. It is a yoke that directs us to a place to which we, without out, would not be able to find on our own.

We, in our arrogance, in our self-centeredness, in our selfishness, can not find the Kingdom of God on our own. Only through Christ’s direction can be we be truly led there.

The yoke of Christ is, in an outward sense, a simple one to bear. The yoke of Christ consists of loving God and loving our neighbor as our selves. It is these two commandments that have been laid on our backs and by allowing ourselves to be led by them, they are what will bring us and those whom we encounter in this life to that place of joy.

So, gladly embrace the yoke Jesus laid upon you at baptism. For taking on the burdens of Christ will not be just another burden to bear. It won’t cause you any pain. It won’t give you aches and pains that will settle in your back and neck, like the others burdens we carry around with us in this life. But rather, the yoke of Christ is what frees us in a way we cannot even begin to understand. It is a freedom that we find in Christ.

“Take my yoke upon you,” Jesus says to us, “and you will find rest for your souls.” Take the yoke of Christ upon yourself with graciousness and you too will find that rest for your soul as well.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Clouds


I'm working on a new book of poems, tentively entitled Fargo, 1957. It chronicles (in elegaic form) the tornado that struck Fargo, North Dakota on June 20, 1957. My mother's cousin, Betty Lou Titgen, was critically injured (she died in Janaru 1960 without ever gained consciousness), while her husband, Don, and nine others died that day, with another victim dying on July 16. Here's one of the poems from the new collection:


Clouds

“…in a vacuum of time
you might suddenly know this:
that the sky where it ends does not end
and you will pass its horizon
.”
--Richard Hugo


We know clouds
in this place.

There is nothing--
not land

or grass
or sound--

as familiar to us
as clouds.

We watch them
as they form,

grow pregnant above us
and then roll away.

And, in our way,
we cherish them

the way others
cherish

mountains
or oceans.

We name them
and find

the features they form
familiar.

We fear them
too

even when
we see them

growing heavy
and dark

for miles
across the flatness

before they roll
toward us,

growling
and hurling

flashes of light.
And the next day

when the skies
clear and clouds--

lighter and
more comforting--

appear, we
cherish them

all even
more.