Saturday, August 30, 2008

16 Pentecost


August 31, 2008
St. Mark’s Lutheran Church
Fargo

Matthew 16.21-28

What do you think of when you think of a martyr? No doubt we think of brave, almost legendary saints from other times who went to their deaths valiantly. We think of those stained glass windows of people like St. Stephen the first Martyr who, as the Book of Acts tells us, was stoned to death for praying to Jesus. We then think of overly dramatic paintings and drawings of early Christian martyrs bravely meeting the lions in stadiums as they sing hymns and gaze off longingly toward heaven.

And those are all valid images of martyrs. But that seems like some other time and place for most of us. Very few of us could imagine martyrs in this day and age. And even fewer of us could imagine ourselves dying as martyrs.

But the fact is, martyrs are not all from some other legendary time in history. And they are not all from some distant land. In fact, we have had martyrs from our own area. This summer I randomly picked up a book called China’s Christian Martyrs. I was surprised to find an account of a young man named Wilhelm Vatne. Vatne was born in 1890 to Norwegian-American parents, Mr. and Mrs. Tonnes Vatne, in, of all places, Cooperstown, North Dakota. At an early age, Wilhelm became a very committed Christian. He graduated from school early and became a school teacher at the age of 18 (they could do that in those days). On September 10, 1910, Wilhelm left Cooperstown and went to Sianfu, Shensi, China, where he taught the children of missionaries serving there. In 1911, there was a fury of anti-foreign and especially anti-Christian protest in China. On October 23, 1911, a mob rushed the school Vatne taught in. The mob killed all the missionaries in it, including Vatne. He was only 21 years old.

The story is pretty typical to who and what martyrs are. They are ordinary people who are called to give the ultimate sacrifice for their faith in Christ. Martyrs are truly a unique lot among us Christians. In the early Church they were viewed as heroes, similar in many ways to sports stars or movie stars in our own day.

The word martyr actually means “witness” and they really were true witnesses to Christ, witnessing to Christ by their very deaths, by the actual blood they shed for Christ. Martyrs also challenge the rest of us Christians, as well. They challenge us, by their deaths, to ask ourselves that very important question: would we, under similar circumstances, be willing to give up our lives for our Christian faith? Would we be willing to die for Christ? If, for some reason, we were forced to either give up our faith in Christ and live or profess our faith in the face of danger and certain death, would we? Or, just as importantly, would we be able to stand up to the forces in the world that are in such direct opposition to our Christian faith, even if standing up in such a way would mean death? Would we be able to take to heart the words of today’s Gospel, when Jesus says, “those who lose their life for my sake will gain it.” It might be easier to answer if we are talking only about our own deaths. But would we be so ready if the deaths involved our children or other loved ones?

I think it’s occasionally a good thing to ask ourselves these questions, because the fact is, as we’ve seen with people like Wilhelm Vatne, martyrs are not just fabled personages from the far past. There are martyrs even in our own day and age. We all know about the German Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was executed by the Nazis in 1945 for his stand against Hitler. Many of us can remember hearing about people like Archbishop Oscar Romero and Americans like Jean Donovan and the three American nuns who were brutally murdered with her in El Salvador in 1980. What fewer people remember were the seven French Trappist monks who were kidnapped in March, 1996 in Algeria by extremist Muslims, who then preceded to behead each one of them. By one estimation, about 465 Christians are killed worldwide for their faith every few months.

So, there are, no doubt, people dying for Christ and Christ’s message of love in our world even as we gather together this morning. There are people today in this world who are dying for Christ or are watching their loved ones die for Christ. And suffering for Christ doesn’t just mean dying for Christ either. There are many people who are living with persecution and other forms of abuse for their faith.

So, it is important to remember the martyrs of our faith. It is important to heed their witness to us. Our Church has truly found its identity and spirit with those who, throughout two thousand years of Christianity, have suffered and died for their faith. There is a well-known motto of the Church: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”

Hopefully, though, few of us here this morning are being called to die as martyrs. For us who are maybe not led to die for Christ, we still have our own burden to bear. And that burden, of course, is the Cross.

In today’s Gospel, we find Jesus saying to us: “If any want to become my followers, le them take up their cross and follow me.” Picking up our cross might seem like a vague image for us. For the people of Jesus’s day, they knew exactly what he was talking about. For them, the taking up the cross meant taking up an instrument of execution and facing humiliation and a bloody death. For us, who take the Cross for granted for the most part, it doesn’t mean the same thing now.


What Jesus is saying to us is that, being a Christian, as wonderful as it is, isn’t a rose garden. Being a Christian means facing bravely the ugly things that life sometimes throws at us. I don’t think I have to tell anyone here what those ugly things in life are. Each of us has had to deal with our own personal forms of the world’s ugliness. As we look around at those who are with us this morning, most of us here this morning have carried our share of crosses in this life.

Most of us have shouldered the difficult and ugly things of this life—whether it be illness, death, loss, despair, disappointment, frustration—you name it. The fact is: these things are going to happen to us whether we are Christians or not. It’s simply our lot as human beings that life is going to be difficult at times. It is a simple fact of life that we are going to have feasts in this life, as well as famines. There will be gloriously wonderful days and horribly, nightmarish days. We, as human beings, cannot escape this fact.

But, we, as Christians, are being told this morning by Jesus that we can not deal with those things like everyone else does. When the bad things of this life happen, our first reaction is often to run away from them. Our first reaction is numb our emotions, to curl up into a defensive ball and protect ourselves and our emotions. But Jesus is telling us that, as Christians, what we must do in those moments is to embrace those things—to embrace the crosses of this life—to shoulder them and to continue on in our following of Jesus.

Now, I can tell you, in all honesty, that there have been many times in my life when I have not done that. There have many times when I certainly have emotionally curled up when the difficult things happened and tried to protect myself. When I was diagnosed with cancer six and a half years ago, I would love to tell you this morning that I bravely faced the diagnosis and simply shouldered that illness and bravely slogged on after Jesus. The fact is, I didn’t. I found myself shutting down emotionally. For a few days I simply walked around in a blank-eyed daze. I didn’t want to feel anything during that time. And I can tell you right now—I did not want to embrace the cross that was laid upon my back. Rather, I just wanted shrug it off and run as far away from it as I could get. But when I did so, I found that I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t shrug it off. It was there, lashed to me. And before I could face it and accept it, I found myself often bitter and angry about what I perceived to be the unfairness of this illness. Only when I finally bore my cross and looked to Jesus was I able to realize that, although bad things do happen to Christians, as a Christian I could not let the illness win.

By facing it, by bearing it, by taking it and following Jesus, I was able to realize that what wins out in the end is Jesus, not the illness. What triumphs in the end is not any of the other ugly things this life throws at us. Rather, what triumphs is the integrity and the strength we gain from being a Christian. What triumphs is Jesus’s promise that a life unending awaits us. What triumphs is Jesus’s triumph over death and the ugly things of this life. What we judge to be the way we think it should be is sometimes judged differently by God. We don’t see this world from the same perspective God does. And as a result, we are often disappointed.

Maybe we are not called to give our lives for Christ in the same way people like Wilhelm Vatne did. But we are all called, as Christians to take up our crosses and to follow Jesus. And in that way, maybe we are called to follow people like Wilhelm Vatne’s father. Tonnes Vatne wrote the following words on hearing of his son’s death. He wrote:

“You can hardly believe how we feel these days. It was a hard stroke when we heard that our beloved Wilhelm has already been taken away from us. How strange that his day of work should be so short! Oh, Wilhelm was a dear son to us! I am weak and weary, and this heavy sorrow is weighing me down, but sweeter will be the rest when I reach [my heavenly] Home. I could have written this letter with tears! Yet, the Lord had the great claim to him: He gave him to us, and He took him. Blessed be the name of the Lord!”

Like Tonnes Vatne, our burdens are just another form of martyrdom—another albeit bloodless form of witnessing to Christ. And, like a martyr, in the midst of our toil, in the midst of shouldering our burden and plodding along toward Jesus, we are able to say, “Blessed be the name of the Lord!”

That is what it means to be a martyr. That is what it means to deny one’s self, to take up one’s cross and to follow Jesus. That is what it means to find one’s life, even when everyone else in the world thinks you’ve lost your life.

So, take up whatever cross you’re bearing and carry it with strength and purpose. Take it up and follow Jesus. And, in doing so, gain for yourself the glory of God that Jesus promises to those who do so.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Prayer for the soul of my aunt Anna

Dear Friends,

I ask your prayers for the soul of my aunt, Anna Parsley, who died suddenly and unexpectantly this afternoon (August 29). I also ask your prayers for her husband, Jim, and their daughters and families.

Anna was one of my favorite aunts and one to whom I was very close.

I will be presiding at her memorial Burial Office next week sometime.

Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant, Anna. Acknowledge we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive her into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light. Amen.

May her soul and the souls of all the departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

15 Pentecost


August 24, 2008
St. Mark’s Lutheran Church/St Stephen’s Episcopal Church
Fargo

Matthew 16.13-20


Last Sunday, I preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Grand Forks. I began my sermon doing something I had never done in the pulpit before. I began my sermon with a confession. This week, I find myself doing the same thing. I must be a “confessional” state of mind lately. Now I know some of you are, at this moment, shifting uncomfortably in your pews as you wonder what it could possibly be that I am going to confess to you. Well, what I’m going to confess is something most people can’t imagine hearing from a person dressed in a dog collar and the robes of the Church.

But, the fact is (here’s my humble confession to you): I have always had a love-hate relationship with the Church. By Church here, I mean Church with a capital “C”. I am speaking about the organized Church. And “hate” might be a bit too harsh to describe what I feel. But the fact remains, I have had an emotional relationship with the Church that is see-sawing at best. Probably most of us here would say we have felt the same way about the Church at times. There are days when we all groan when we see or hear other Christians get up and speak on behalf of the rest of us. There are days when we are embarrassed by what some Christians say or do on behalf of Christianity. There are days when we get frustrated when we hear clergy or other authorities pronounce decrees that, in no way, reflect our own particular views or beliefs. And there are times when we get downright mad at the hypocrisy, the homophobia, the misogyny, the ambivalence, the silence in the face of oppression and evil and war, the downright meanness of the Church sometimes. In the face of all of these shortcomings of the Church, we often feel helpless, listless, angry, and disgusted. And sometimes we might even find ourselves admiring those people who aren’t Christian, who aren’t a part of the Church or those Christians who have simply fled the Church.

My best friend from high school (who is still my best friend) is a militant atheist. He has an almost angry ambivalence to the church and the concept of God. He wasn’t always that way. When I first met him, his mother was a member of the First Assemblies of God. By the time I got to know him, he had long ago stopped attending church. He often used to tell me the story of how, when he was a young boy, his mother would drop him off at the church for Sunday School. He would then run right through the church, out the back door and run several blocks through fields back to his home. He says that it was on that run away from the church that he became an atheist. What he was running away from was the close-mindedness, the fundamentalism, the—for him—scary Pentecostal displays of speaking in tongues, dancing in the aisles, waving hands in the air and literal interpretations of scripture.

I think many of us have felt like that ourselves when it comes to Church. There have been times when we’ve all wanted to just run away from Church and everything we find there. And that’s all right. I personally think that’s a somewhat healthy way of looking at the Church. Because we have to remind ourselves of one thing. What my friend was running away from and what we are tempted to run away from is not God, although my friend hasn’t quite come to the point yet in his own life. What we are running away from is a human-run, human-led organization. We are running away from a celestially planned treasure that has been run (and often mis-run) throughout two thousand years by human beings.

In today’s Gospel, we find this wonderful interchange between Jesus and Peter. Peter, when asked who he thinks Jesus is replies, “”You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!” Jesus responds to this confession of faith with surprise. He responds by saying, “I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

Now, depending on who you are, depending on your own personal spiritual leanings, this reading could take on many meanings. If you’re more Catholic minded—and especially if you’re more Roman Catholic minded—it certainly does seem that Jesus is establishing the Church on the Rock of Peter. For those who are more Protestant or Reformed minded—it could be said that the Church is being established not on Peter himself, but on Peter’s confession of faith. Either way, Jesus is commending the Church to Peter and his other followers. And this is important, especially when we examine who Peter is.

Jesus commends his Church to one of the most impetuous, impulsive, stubborn, cowardly human beings he could find. Peter, as we all know, is not, on first glance, a real wonderful example for us of what it means to be a follower of Christ. He is the one who walks on water and then loses heart, grows frightened and ends up sinking into that water. He’s the one who, when Jesus needs him the most, runs off and denies him three times, and even then cannot bring himself to come near Jesus as he hangs dying on the cross.

But Peter is maybe a better example of what followers of Jesus truly are than we care to admit. Yes, he is a weak, impetuous, cowardly, impulsive human. But who among us isn’t? Who among us isn’t finding someone very much like Peter staring back at us from our own mirrors?

And the thing we always have to remember is that, for all the bad things the Church has been blamed for—and there are a lot of them—there are also so many wonderful and beautiful things about the Church that always, always, always outweigh the bad. Obviously most everyone here this morning must feel that same way as well. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be here this morning. Most of us are able to recognize that the Church is not perfect. And I think that, when Jesus commended his Church to people like Peter, he knew that, as long as we were here, struggling on this “side of the veil,” so to speak, it would never be perfect. But that, even despite its imperfection, we still struggle on.

So, yes, I do have a love-hate relationship with the Church. But, I also have a love-hate relationship with my family as well. I love my family. I love my parents, I love my aunts and uncles (sometimes). But they all drive me crazy at times as well. That’s what families do.

I also have a love-hate relationships with my friends as well. I love them no matter what, but sometimes they embarrass me, they know me too well, they challenge me when I don’t want to be challenged and, if we fight, they know exactly what to say or do to hurt me deeply. And vice versa.

And that’s the way we can look at the Church as well. I love the Church and I love the people who are in the Church with me, even the ones who drive me crazy. I am here in the Church because I really want to be in the Church. I am here because the Church is my home. It is my family. It is made up of my friends and Christ’s friends.

I am here because I—imperfect, impetuous human being that I am—am part of the Church as well I am here because I love my fellow Christians, and I don’t just mean that I love Desmond Tutu and all those Christians who are easy to love. I am here because I love even those many outspoken Christians who bombard us on a regular basis with their rhetoric and views that fly in the face of everything many of us hold sacred and dear, even though they drive me crazy and frustrate me and sometimes make me want to leave the Church at times. I am here because I also love the hypocrites and the backbiters and gossipers. I love them because, let’s face it, sometimes we are those same people. Someone we are the ones who drive people from the Church as well. And sometimes we ourselves drive our own selves away from Church.

But as long as we’re here, as long as we believe in the renewal that comes again and again in recognizing and confessing our shortcomings and in professing and believing in our Baptismal Covenant and what it means to be a baptized Christian, then we know it’s not all a loss. As long as I know that I am struggling and working not to be the hypocrite or the backbiter or the gossiper, then it’s going to be all right. As long as I struggle to not be the person who drives people from the Church, but works again and again in my life to be the person who welcomes everyone—no matter who they are and where they stand on the issues—into this Church, then I’m doing all right. As long as I struggle to love those people who do not want me to be in the Church, who speak out to keep people like me out of the Church and, in the face of that attempt at rejection, I am still able to love them, then this is going to be the place for me.

And just as importantly as loving them, I will remind myself that if the Church is truly open to all, then I too will fight to make sure that it is open even to those people who don’t want me in the Church. Because the Church Jesus founded was a Church founded solidly on love. The Church’s foundation is the fact that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God and the message of the Son of the Living God, the Messiah—the bringer of freedom and peace—to us is that we must love God and love each other as we love ourselves.

Whenever we see the Church becoming less than it should, we find it breaking down in these areas. When we love God to the exclusion of loving each other and ourselves, it becomes uneven and unsteady. It becomes an essentially loveless place. And when we love ourselves more than we love each other and God, it becomes a temple to the idol of ourselves. And when we love each other more than we love God and ourselves, it simply becomes a happy clappy commune of cheap love. But the Church that is firmly founded on the Messiah, the Son of the Living God and on the work of him to this world—when it founded deeply on that balanced love of God, of each other and ourselves—then it truly becomes the Church Christ founded.

If we are the Church truly built on a love like that then, without doubt, the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.

And as long as I’m here, and you’re here, we are going to make the Church a better place. It will be a place where people like my atheist friend will be forced to reconsider his view of the Church. He will be forced, as he has been over the twenty some years he’s known me, to realize not all Christians are like the ones he ran away from as a boy and is continuing to run away from. We need to be those kind of Christians. We need to be the Church from which no one wants to run away.

So, be the Church you want the Church to be—because that is the Church that Jesus founded. Be the Church that Christ commended to that imperfect human being, Peter. In those moments when you find yourself hating the Church, don’t let hate win out. Let love—that perfect, flawless love that Jesus preached and practiced—eventually win out.

We are the Church. We are the Church to those people in our lives. We are the Church to everyone we encounter. We are the reflection of the Church to the people we serve alongside. Be so, and if you are, you will find yourself in the midst of that wonderful vision Jesus imagined for his Church. And it will truly be an incredible place—it will be the Kingdom of God in our midst.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

14 Pentecost

August 17, 2008
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Grand Forks, ND

Matthew 15.10-28

This morning I am going to begin with something I have never done from a pulpit before. I am going to make a confession to you. Now, I know some of you have now probably frozen in your pews imaging what possible confession Fr. Jamie could be making. But my confession is not as bad as you might think.

My confession this: I have a big mouth.

Now, I know this probably does not come as a big surprise to some of those of you who know me. My parents are here this morning and, let me tell you, this is not a surprise to them by any means. For the rest of you, this is not what you probably want to hear from a priest. And, to be clear, when I say I have a big mouth, I don’t mean that I have ever violated any confidences, nor I have I ever broken the seal of confession. I am also not saying that I have professed atheism or any intentional heresy (I think we all sometimes are guilty of unintentional heresy). I hope I am not guilty of having spoken true evil from my mouth.

When I say that I have a big mouth, what I mean is that, when I look back over my life, I realize have said some dumb things in my life. And when I looked back over my life, I realize that the really bad things that have happened to me, that I’m truly responsible for, can all find their root in something I have said. I am one of those people who, on a regular basis, wishes that, as the words are coming out of my mouth, I could grasp them in the air and stuff them back in my mouth.

My grandmother used to always reprimand me about my big mouth. She would say to me: “Jamie, think before you speak.” And there’s the real source of my problem. I sometimes I just don’t think before I speak.

As I said, I have said some dumb things in my life, I have said things that I greatly regret and that I wish I had never said, as we all have at one point or another. And in addition to the dumb things, or the hurtful things I may have said to people when I was angry, I have also been somewhat opinionated in what I have said. I have been outspoken. I have been insensitive sometimes. I have given unneeded and unwanted advice to people when that advice hasn’t been sought.

So, when Jesus tells his followers—and us—in this morning in our Gospel reading of this morning—“it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles” these are words that hit home for me, and no doubt, for many of us.

We were all raised reciting that little verse:

Sticks and stone may break my bones
But words will never hurt me.

The reality of the matter is that words DO hurt. Words are sometimes much more painful and hurtful than sticks and stones. And when it comes to our relationship with God, the words we say carry much weight.

In today’s Gospel we find Jesus making very clear statements: “…what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart and this is what defiles. For out of the mouth comes evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”

Jesus is clear here about what makes one unclean. The words that come out of our mouth are really only the end result of what’s in our hearts. The words that come out of our mouths are really only little mirrors of what is dwelling within us. When we say dumb things, we harboring dumb things in our hearts. When we say hurtful, mean things, we are carrying hurt and meanness in our hearts. And what’s in our hearts truly does make all the difference. If our hearts are dark—if our hearts are over-run with negative things—then our words are going to reflect that.

When we talk about something like “sin,” we find ourselves thinking instantly of the things we do. We think immediately of all those uncharitable, unsavory things we’ve done in our lives. And when we realize that sin, essentially, is anything we chose to do that separates us from God and from each other, it is always easy to instantly take stock of all the bad things we’ve done.

But the fact is, we can truly “sin” by what we say as well. The words that come out of our mouths can separate us from God and from each other because they are really coming from our hearts—from that place in which there should really only be love for God and for each other. We have all known Christians who are quick to profess their faiths with their mouths, but who certainly do not believe that faith in their hearts. And, I think, we have also known people who have kept quiet about their faith, who have not professed much with their mouths, but who have quietly been consistent in their faith. If we profess our faith with our mouths, but not in our hearts, we really are guilty to some extent.

There is a well-known saying that has been attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, “Preach the Gospel, use words if necessary.” To be honest, I have long had a problem with this saying. I think we’re inundated in this world by people who are constantly preaching their faith with words. When we turn on the TV, we find televangelists and others going on and on about their faith and only later do we find out about their scandals and shortcomings and we realize that they certainly do not practice what they preach. We’ve also known our fair share of clergy who have done this as well. And probably few things drive us away faster from church than those self-righteous people who shake their fingers at us and spout their faith to us, but who, in turn, don’t show their love and compassion.

The name we encounter in the Gospels for those people who do not practice what they preach is “hypocrite.” And throughout the Gospels, we find that Jesus isn’t ever condemning the ones we think he would condemn. He doesn’t condemn the prostitute, the tax collector, any of those people who have been ostracized and condemned by society and the religious organizations of their times. The ones Jesus, over and over again, condemns, are the hypocrites—those supposedly religious people who are quick to speak their faith with words, who are quick to strut around and act religiously, but who do not hold any real faith in their hearts.

The Pharisees that Jesus is having trouble with in today’s Gospel, are not at all concerned about what is in their hearts. Their faith has nothing to do with their hearts. They are more concerned about the purification rites. They are more concerned about making sure that the food one eats is clean and pure—that it hasn’t been touched by those who are unclean. They are concerned that they are the clean ones and they are concerned that there is a separation from those that are unclean. They are more concerned with the words of the Law, rather than the heart of the Law. They are more concerned with the letter of the Law, rather than the spirit of the Law.

We’ve all been guilty of such things. Let’s face it: it’s easier to stick the letter of the Law. It’s easy to follow the religious rules without bothering to think about why we are following them. It’s just so much easier to go through the motions without having to feel anything. Because to feel means to actually make one’s self vulnerable. To feel means one has to love—and, as we know, love is dangerous. Love makes us step out into uncomfortable areas and do uncomfortable things.

But the message of Jesus is all about the fact that to be a follower of Jesus means not being a hypocrite. The message of Jesus is that to be a follower of Jesus means believing with one’s heart.

This morning, we are celebrating a wonderful event. During this Mass, we will be baptizing Abigail Briggs Baptisms are prime opportunities for us to take stock of our Christian faith. In a few moments, when we baptize Abigail, we will renew the vows that were made for us at our own baptisms and we will be reminded of what it means to be a baptized Christian. In the Baptismal Covenant we will once again promise to try, “with God’s help,” to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.” To “proclaim by word and example the Good News” is, in essence, to say that, as Christians we will strive not to be hypocrites. To proclaim the Good News, we need to do so by both word and example. It is to truly practice what we preach.

Now that I have confessed to you the sin of my Big Mouth, I now can work on myself. I am now able to recognize that what sometimes comes out of my mouth isn’t my mouth’s fault. It is only reflecting what I am holding in my heart. And it is a change of heart that I need to work on. When I am a big mouth, when my mouth gets me in trouble, it is only giving voice to the darkness and the lack of love that I harbor sometimes in my heart. And that darkness means that I am not letting the Light of God shine through.

So, take to heart what Jesus is saying to us in today’s Gospel. Take his words and plant them deeply in your heart. Let the words of his mouth be the words of your mouth. Let the Word by your word. And let that word find its home, its source, its basis in your heart. When it does, your words will truly speak the Word that is in your heart. Allow no darkness, no negativity to exist within your heart. Do not be a hypocritical Pharisee to those around you. But let your heart be the source of your faith in everything you do in faith. Let your heart be so filled with love that nothing else can exist in it but love. Strive to live out your Baptismal Covenant with God by proclaiming “by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.” And if you do, you will find that Good News pouring forth from your mouth and bringing joy and gladness and love to others—and to yourself.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

13 Pentecost

August 10, 2008

1 King 19.9-18; Matthew 14.22-33

As some of you might know, I am a poet. I am the author of seven books of poems. And in 2004, I was named an Associate Poet Laureate of North Dakota by current poet laureate Larry Woiwode. I also have a Master of Fine Arts Degree in Creative Writing from Vermont College. And so, poetry, as you can probably guess, has been a very major part of my life.

Recently, I have been working on my eighth book of poems this summer. I have had no classes to teach at the University of Mary this summer—the first time in five years—so I have found myself directing a good amount of energy into this new book. The book that I’m working on has come out of an obsession that I’ve had since I was very young. That obsession was the tragic tornado that hit Fargo on June 20, 1957. Twelve people were killed as a result of that storm and countless lives were altered and changed. Two of those people who died were my mother’s cousin and her husband. Actually, my mother’s cousin, Betty, was severely injured in the tornado and “lived” two and half years in a coma before dying of her injuries.

As I have wrestled with and struggled over this book, I have found myself dealing with many issues. I have been forced to confront the victims who died—all twelve of them of them. I have had to confront my own family’s stories and the collective silence that has predominated the fifty-plus years since the tornado. And I have had to confront the actual storm itself.

And this issue—the storm—has been the one that I have found most amazing. The fact is, in this life, we are going to face storms. Here in North Dakota, we know this very well. We have been through our share of summer thunderstorms, we have known the fear when the weather turns dark and ominous and threatens to unleash on us something beyond our control and full understanding. And we have also experienced our share of blizzards—which are just frightening for their force and fury. We’ve experienced our share of spring and summer floods over the years as well in this part of the country.

So, yes, we have all experienced the natural storms of our lives. But we have also experienced other storms in our lives. We have experienced the storms that come into our lives and shake them up and turn everything upside down and leave us different people than we were before the storm. And those storms are, by far, more frightening. They are more unpredictable. And they are the kind of storms that no matter how many times we may weather them, we find we can never fully prepare ourselves for them.

In our Old Testament reading and our Gospel today, we find storms. We find, in our reading from First Kings, that the prophet Elijah is being confronted with several natural disasters. First there is a storm, then an earthquake and then a fire. And in each of them, he finds that, despite their magnificence, despite the fact that they are more powerful than Elijah himself, God is not in any of them. He does not hear the Word of God coming to him out of these instances. But rather, God speaks to him in the “sheer silence” after the storm.

Our Gospel reading is similar in many ways. There too is a storm. And this one is just as frightening. The disciples in the boat are buffeting, they are trying to make their way back to shore and cannot because the storm’s wind is against them, and they are clearly afraid. A word we keep experiencing in our gospel reading for today is “fear.” The disciples see Jesus, think he’s a ghost and they cry out in fear. And Jesus says to them,

“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Peter, audacious as he is, then gets out of the boat and starts walking to Jesus. But when he notices the storm raging around him, he becomes frightened and begins to sink. And Jesus reaches out his hands and lifts him from the water and stills the storm.

In the storms of our own lives, we often find ourselves at a loss. We too often do unpredictable things in those storms like Peter. We do the equivalent of getting out of a boat and attempting to walk on water. We find ourselves venturing into areas we maybe shouldn’t be venturing. We find ourselves doing naively audacious things. And while doing it, we sometimes lose heart, we become afraid, and we begin sinking.

This is what storms do to us. They sap us our energy, of our joy, of our bravery and they leave us vulnerable to them.

This is also what fear does to us. It causes us to lose heart. It causes us to lose our joy and our gladness and our happiness. It saps our life and our energy from us.

And that is why, during those storms, during those moments of false courage, during those times of raging fear, we need to strain into the storm and we need to hear that calm voice speaking to us with familiar words:

“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

In the storms of our lives, in the raging tempests of fear, these are the only words we can cling to. I am always fond of reminding people what the most often repeated commandment we hear throughout the entire Bible. Whenever I ask: what is the most often repeated commandment in the Bible? people often go instantly to the Ten Commandments and think about something that begins with “Thou shalt not.” But over and over again throughout Scripture, we hear that the most often-repeated commandment is, in fact,

“Do not be afraid.”

Both in the Old Testament and in the New, this is one of the most repeated statements we find from God. And this commandment still holds true for us today.

Fear is one of those things we all live with in one form or the other. We live with a fear of the unstable world around us. We live with a fear of all the terrible and bad things that life can throw in our way. We live with a fear of the future, and all the uncertainties it holds. And we all live with a fear of death—of all the uncertainty that awaits us when this life is done.

But God, again and again, says to us, “Do not be afraid.”

Do not be afraid of the things this world can throw at us. Do not be afraid of things you cannot change. Do not be afraid of the actual natural storms of this life, because we have faith in the God who is more powerful than any storm that can come upon us. Do not be afraid of the storms of this life that come from within—the storms of anxiety and fear and uncertainty, because we have faith in the God who is in control of our lives as well. Do not be afraid of even death, because God promises us that God is not a God of death, but of life and if we trust in God and have faith in God, God will give us life that will never end.

For those of us who live in faith, we have no reason to fear. Faith means trust. Faith means being able to look to God, in those storms of our lives, and know that although frightening things may rage about us, with God, we can find the calm center of our lives. As we venture out on to the choppy waters of our lives and, there, we find ourselves sinking into the storm, as we are overwhelmed by the storms of our lives, as we despair over the storm, we need to look up and see Jesus standing there.

This reminds of the greatest part of the Gospel reading for today. In the midst of that storm, as Peter sinks into the waters, Jesus doesn’t simply stay put and raise Peter miraculously from the waters from a distance. Rather, Jesus actually comes to Peter where he is in that storm and lifts him out of those waters. And that is the image we can take away with us as well.

In the storms of our lives, as we sink deeply into the dark waters of anxiety and fear, when we call out to Jesus, he comes to us where we are and raises us up. And he leads us back to a place of safety.

So, in those moments in which you find yourself sinking, in the storms of your life when you feel as though are lost and can never be found again, remember the importance of this Gospel reading. Allow Jesus to come to you and let him lift you up from the waters. And let him lead you to a place of quietness and safety, where, in that silence, you too can hear the soothing, comforting words of God speaking to you. And in telling you not to fear, in taking your hand and raising you up from the darkness of your life, he stills the storms of your life as well.

There is a wonderful prayer from the Book of Common Prayer of the Anglican Church in New Zealand that I often pray with people I visit in the hospital or who are suffering from any anxiety or fear. The prayer begins,

O God,
who in Jesus stills the storm and soothes the frantic heart,
bring hope and courage to those who trust in you.

This should be our prayer as well. We also should pray that the God, who in Jesus stills the storms of our lives and soothes our frantic hearts, truly does bring hope and courage to us, who trust in God.

So, allow Jesus to still the storms of your life and sooth your heart when it becomes frantic. Allow him to come to you where you are to bring you to safety. And when you do, you will find an abundance of hope and courage in your life so that you can live your life fully and completely—and without any fear—as God wants you to.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Transfiguration


August 6, 2008
The Chapel of the Resurrection
Fargo, N.D.

Today is the Feast of the Transfiguration, the day on which we commemorate that amazing transformation of Jesus on the mountain top. In this moment, for one moment, the veil between our world and God’s world is pushed aside. On that mountain top, Jesus seems for a moment to have one foot in each world—one in this world, in which he is a human being just like the rest of us and one foot in the next world in which he is much more than just another human being.

That would have been, in and of its self, enough. But Jesus is also seen standing between Moses and Elijah—Moses, who symbolizes the Law, and Elijah, who symbolizes the prophecies. With each standing there with Jesus, it is obvious that what we see in the Transfiguration is Jesus being the fulfillment of both the Law and the prophecies. The presence of Moses and Elijah shows us that—in a sense—their mission is complete. It isn’t useless or pointless—we can still find great comfort and direction for our lives in what Moses and Elijah spoke of. But here, in this glorified person they flank, all that they foretold—all that they looked forward to—has found its completion.

Everyone who witnesses this vision is affected by it. The Apostles who witness it—Peter, James and John, that inner sanctum among the Apostles—don’t quite know what to make of it. They have been roused form their tired state by this incredible experience. They are obviously baffled by what they saw. They do the only thing they can do—they offer to build three sanctuaries there—to worship what they see as divine. Finally, they seem to come down from the mountain in what I’m sure was a dazed state.

But why is it important to us? Why is this story that seems so strange and so exotic so important to us—in this day and age? What is this story of the Transfiguration saying to us? Do we too need to be crawling around on top of hills to find a place in which the veil between this world and God’s world is lifted?

Well, to some extent, that is what we do every time we gather here together at this altar. In a sense, when we come together today, here at this altar, we too are coming to a place every much like the mountain top experience we heard about in this morning’s Gospel. In the scriptures we have just heard, we have heard God’s voice. We hear the Law and/or the Prophecies in our readings. Then we celebrate the Communion together at the altar, when Jesus comes to us in the bread and the wine—for a moment, the veil between this world and God’s world is parted.

We too are able to come close to Jesus, our friend and companion, Jesus our God, and see him—if only under the appearance of a wafer and wine. We too get to hear him, even when the voice sounds like a friend and companion in our lives. But I think the interesting thing we must remind ourselves is this: it’s all right to search for God, to seek out these experiences of God’s presence in our lives.

But why our searching and longing for God is different than others is that, in our case, as Christians, our God is not evasive. God is not playing hide-and-seek-with us. God is here. All we have to do is ask. All we have to is look. All we have to do is seek. And we will find. We have never lost our God. God has come to us as dazzling Light, yes. God has spoken to us—at least through the scriptures—with a booming voice from heaven, yes.

But God has also come to us as one of us. God has come to us in Jesus. God comes to us in the Jesus we share with each other here at the altar, in the Jesus we share with each other in our own very presence as the people of God.

We search for God. We long for God. But we are also able to find God. God is no further from us than right here, in our midst, when gather together to worship, to hear the scriptures and to break the bread that is Jesus’ body. And like those disciples, we must, when we’re done, go from here. We must leave the mountaintop experience and go back down, to share our experience, to live out what we have learned and felt here.

And this is the other reason I think our experience as Christians is different than others. Others seem to be looking for God for themselves. They long for God to fill whatever empty space is within them. It is their own personal experience. Certainly there’s nothing wrong with that. When it comes right down to it, our experience with God is ultimately personal. When all is said and done, we are the only ones who can present ourselves honestly before God.

But our experience of God is more than just filling the emptiness within us. We are compelled—by the words we hear in the scriptures, by the spirit of Christ we take with us from this Communion—to live that experience out in the world. Now, I’m not saying we need to preach from the street corners. We’re good Episcopalians. We just don’t do that. Besides, preaching from the street corners doesn’t always do it for others.

No, we can live out the experience we have with Christ here in how we live our lives—in how we carry ourselves and in what we do and say. I firmly believe that some of the best evangelizing anyone can do is by example. In fact, we need to strive to be authentic Christians, not phony and vindictive Christians as I’m sure we ourselves have encountered over the years. Being an authentic Christians means being loving and compassionate people. It means walking in love.

Of course, we will fail at times in that. I fail in walking in love—in being compassionate and loving. I get angry at the guy who cuts me off in traffic or by an insensitive co-worker or at the injustices in the world around me. I complain. I grumble. I am not always a walking talking billboard for the Christians faith. But hopefully, our experience here—our encounter with God in this place on this day—can make enough of a difference in our lives that we will be able to carry it with us throughout our week and into our very day-to-day lives.

Hopefully, we can go from here glowing with the experience we have here. That glow might not be a visible glow, but hopefully it is one we can feel within us. That glow—that aftereffect of our experience of God—is what we can carry with us and cherish within us long after we leave here. Of course, we also need to face the facts about not only the story we have heard in today’s Gospel, but in what we have commemorated here at the altar.

Today is also the anniversary of another bright light. It was on this day in 1945 that the Atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. We, in a sense, are still living in the afterglow of that event. It changed all of us and transformed us in ways we could never imagine. In that white light, a violence like we have never known was unleashed upon the world.

What we celebrate today at the altar, is a remembrance of the violent death of Jesus and his triumph over that death. And not just over his death. It is a triumph over the death that was brought upon Hiroshima and all those people who died in war.

It is a triumph over our deaths as well. The Transfiguration shows us that God—not us—gets the last word. We, as Christians, as much as we’d like to, can’t go around being happy-clappy all the time. Our experience on the mountain-top—like all life-altering experiences—will fade from us eventually. It did for those apostles who accompanied Jesus there. All of them—Jesus, Peter, James and John—would experience much sorrow in the weeks and years ahead of them. The experience of the mountaintop cannot be preserved. Like all the wonderful moments in our lives, they can only be cherished. And they can be shared. But we have the continued opportunity to come back and to participate in it again and again.

God is here. God is present among us—God’s people. God is longing too. God is longing for us—to know us and to have us experience God. So, go from here—go back down the mountain, into the valley below, with your experience of God glowing brilliantly on your faces. Cherish it and live it out in your life. And be the reflection of that that Light of God in all aspects of your life.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

12 Pentecost


August 3, 2008
All Saints Episcopal Church
Valley City, ND

Matthew 14.13-21

Today we encounter this amazing scene. Jesus, seeing the crowd of people who had been following after him, has compassion on them and heals them. As evening draws near, he commands his disciples to feed them.

“You give them something eat,” he commands them.

The disciples are amazed by this statement. How would they be able to feed this group of thousands with only five loaves of bread and two fish? But with Jesus, all things are possible, as I hope we’ve discovered. And certainly that’s what those disciples and those people gathered there discovered on that day. Somehow, those five loaves and two fish fed the whole crowd, with twelve basketfuls left over.

It’s a beautiful and wonderful story. But we are no doubt wondering what it means to us.

What is interesting about this scene is that, although we find this miracle concerning food, it is not like the Last Supper, where Jesus institutes the Eucharist. This meal doesn’t have anything to do with a cup of wine. Instead, it has fish as a prominent part of the story. Unlike the Passover meal which Jesus celebrated with his disciples, this meal is more in line with a kind of bread-breaking meal. This bread-breaking meal, which would later feature prominently in the lives of early Christians, had a deeper meaning than just breaking bread.

It also was a glimpse into the future—toward the end times. It gives us a glimpse of the Kingdom of God breaking through in a very real sense. Because this is what the Kingdom of God is like. When we are hungry, we will be fed, even when it seems like the odds are against us. When we long for great things to happen in our lives and it seems like those great things will not, or cannot even begin to happen, they do. In the Kingdom of God, God breaks through whatever barriers the world throws at us and gives us what we deeply desire and long for.

Probably the most potent example of the Kingdom of God breaking through into our lives happens here, every Sunday. It happens here, at this altar, when we gather here to share in Jesus’ coming to us in the elements of Bread and Wine. This Eucharist—this Holy Communion—that we share is truly a glimpse into what awaits us in the Kingdom of Heaven. It is a clear and visual sign of God breaking through to us in this world and bridging this world in which we live and that place in which God exists.

For a moment, when we gather here, the veil is lifted. For a moment, we are able to see what “Angels and Archangels” and “all the company of heaven” sees and glories in. The Eucharist that we share here should truly be a shared experience.

It is not only just here for our personal edification. Yes, we should be personally edified by it. Yes, we should find center our entire spiritual lives around the Eucharist and find in it the source of our spiritual sustenance. But, the Eucharist is always, always, always, to be shared.

As you may know, in the Roman Catholic Church, a priest can celebrate the Eucharist alone. No one else has to around except the priest. And until about forty years ago, it was the priest’s obligation to celebrate Mass at least once a day. That meant celebrating the Mass whether someone was with you or not.

I had a good friend who told me the story of a Roman Catholic Bishop who, while flying back from Rome, realized he had not celebrated Mass that day. He simply lowered the little folding snack table, laid out a napkin, ordered a little bottle of wine from the stewardess and took out a small host for himself. And there, on the airplane, over the Atlantic, he celebrated Mass for himself.

We Anglicans cannot to do that. Our rule is always that at least two people are needed to celebrate Mass. In fact, I remember when I was studying to be a priest, I knew another priest who told me that, at the end of the Eucharistic prayer, if no one else but the priest says the great Amen, the Eucharistic prayer was completely invalid and the priest had to stop the Mass. I don’t know if I would go so far as to say the Mass was invalid, and if there were others there who simply did not respond, I think the Mass would still continue, it does remind us that the Eucharist is not just about the priest.

It isn’t only the priest who is needed for the Eucharist. We are all needed for the Eucharist. The Eucharist is about all of us. We share the Body and Blood of Christ with each other. And we as Christians should never see the Eucharist as an insular experience—one we only celebrate and experience here within the church. The Eucharist should always be an experience we celebrate and take with us when we leave church and go out into the world. As we celebrate this wonderful mystery of Christ’s Body and Blood coming to us as food to be eaten and shared, we should always remind ourselves of the words we hear Jesus say to us in today’s Gospel:

“You give them something to eat.”

Unless we take the Jesus we share here in church out into the world and share him with others, unless we give what we eat here to those out there, then all we are doing here this morning is participating in a secret rite.

One of my favorite quotes comes from Frank Weston the great Anglican Bishop of Zanzibar. No doubt, you’ve heard me quote this before. Bishop Weston said, "You have Christ in your tabernacles ... now go out and seek Him in the highways and the hedges.."

The Eucharist is not a secret rite. The Jesus we share here is not our own personal Jesus. The Eucharist is a meal to which everyone is invited. The Eucharist is a meal which we must share with each other and then share with everyone else.

Now some may choose not to participate. And that’s all right. We pray for them. We wish them well. We say to them: when you are ready, come, eat.

Now, we might talk here a bit about “open communion.” Open communion is the belief that all people—no matter who they are—can participate. It doesn’t matter if they are baptized or not. The policy of this diocese is that only those who are baptized may receive. I certainly believe that those who desire the Eucharist should seek baptism first.

For all of us, as Christians, we hold a very clear and important understanding of baptism. Baptism is our one defining moment at Christians. Everything we do as Christians—every action, ever good word, every longing desire to pray and worship and to know God—finds its meaning and definition in our baptism. It is what sets us as Christians apart form others. And we, as Christians, by our baptism, are set apart. We have been renewed in those waters of baptism and we have been empowered by our baptism to go out and proclaim Christ. And more importantly, at Baptism, we are washed in the waters, we are sealed in the Spirit and we are marked as Christ’s own for always and forever. Baptism can never be undone or taken away from us. Its mark is indelible—it is always there for us. And I believe that our Eucharist stems firmly and directly from our baptism. Having said that, I also have never denied anyone who has come forward for Communion.

As some of you might not know but there is actually a disciplinary rubric in the Book of Common Prayer. It can be found on page 409. This is what it says,

“If the priest knows that a person who is living a notoriously evil life intends to come to Communion, the priest shall speak to that person privately, and tell him that he may not come to the Holy Table until he has given clear proof of repentance and amendment of life.”
The rubric goes on to deal with “those who have done wrong to their neighbors and are a scandal to the other members of the congregation” and for the instance when “there is hatred between members of the congregation.”

Now, fortunately, I have never had to invoke this rubric and I personally would hate to do so. But I do know of some parishes that have.

There is a story of a well-known east coast parish back in the 1960s. Several of the more prominent parishioners belonged to a restricted country club. I believe it was restricted to Jewish members. The priest of the congregation preached a sermon and told the parishioners that it was wholly unchristian for any member of his congregation to belong to a country club that had such a restricted membership and warned them that if they continued to be members there, he would invoke this rubric. The parishioners continued, the priest went through the proper channels with the Bishop and one Sunday as those parishioners came forward, the priest blessed each one of them but would not let them receive the Sacrament. These parishioners, as you can guess, were furious. They went to the Bishop who sided squarely with the Rector. In fact the Bishop went so far as to say that, as long as they were members of the country club, they would not be allowed to receive Communion in any Episcopal Church in that diocese. Rather than quit the Episcopal Church or quit the country club, those members went back to the country club and worked to lift the restriction against Jews. And as soon as the restriction was lifted, they came back to the Church and were allowed to receive again.

I share this with you to show how we should not underestimate the meal we share here with each other at this altar. In it we truly receive Jesus, in his Body and Blood. And we should not take it for granted. As in the words of Eucharistic Prayer C in the Book of Common Prayer:

“Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal.” (BCP p. 372)

This sums up perfectly. Yes, we do come here for solace and for pardon. But we also come here for strength and renewal. We come here to be changed and made different, so that we can then leave here and be a difference to the world. We leave this altar with strength and renewal to feed others with what we have gained here. We leave this altar, with the Bread of Life within us, and in our hearts we carry with us the words we hear Jesus say to us,

“You give them something to eat.”

If we don’t, we are not living into the miracle that we are experiencing here today and every time we celebrate the Eucharist together. So, go out and give them something to eat. Fed, go out to feed. And when you do, you will find the same incredible, amazing and life-giving satisfaction of those who were fed by Jesus and his disciples on that miraculous day.