Saturday, September 27, 2008

20 Pentecost

September 28, 2008

Matthew 21.23-32

Last week in my sermon I quoted the great Reginald Fuller, who said: “[This] is what God is doing in Jesus’ ministry—giving the tax collectors and prostitutes an equal share with the righteous in the kingdom.” That was a shocking statement for many of us. And it should be. It should shake us to our very core.

This week that point is being driven home to us, when, in explaining the parable, Jesus says to us: “Truly I tell you, the tax collector and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.”

It’s a huge statement for him to make. But I think, like many of his statements, it has lost the full weight of its meaning for us, in this day and age. We can grasp the understanding about prostitutes—after all, prostitutes are still looked down upon by our society today. But tax collectors? Why all this talk about tax collectors not getting into the kingdom of heaven? No doubt, few of us like the prospect of tax collectors. Few of us are overjoyed at the thought of taxes or anyone having to collect them. But certainly they are very rarely if ever classed alongside prostitutes in our day, unless under some scandalous circumstances.

In Jesus’ day however, tax collectors were essentially viewed as traitors. They worked for the occupying Roman government collecting taxes from their own people. From a religious point, they had another strike against them. Because they handled Roman money, on which the image of the Roman Emperor—who was considered a god—was etched, they were considered unclean because of their handling of these pagan images. The tax collector of Jesus’ day was an unclean traitor and as such was the worst of the worst.

Prostitutes were also considered to be unclean of course and were looked down upon by literally every aspect of society. Unlike tax collectors, prostitutes are another segment of our society that we tend to forget about it in today’s culture. But we really should give them concern. And I don’t mean from a judgmental point of view. I mean, we should give them our compassion. We should be praying for them often because we often hear the horrible stories of what prostitutes have to deal with on the streets. The stories of what drove them to the streets are horrendous enough. But the stories of what keeps them on the streets are just as bad. And the dangers they face—day and night—are more mind-boggling than anything we can even imagine in our safe, comfortable lives. Truly prostitutes throughout history have been the real exploited ones. They are the ones who have lived on the fringes of society. They are the ones who have lived in the shadows of our respectable societies. They have lived dangerous, secret lives. And much of what they’ve had to go through in their lives is known only to God. They need our prayers. They need our compassion. Conversely, they don’t need our exploitation and they don’t need our judgment. As uncomfortable as it is for us to confront them and think about them, that is exactly what Jesus is telling us we must do. Because by going there in our thoughts, in our prayers in our ministries, we are going where Jesus went. We are coming alongside those people he tells us will inherit the kingdom before us. And rather than using them, rather than continuing the exploitation they have lived with in their lives, we must see them as God sees them. We must see them as children of God, as fellow humans on this haphazard, uncertain journey we are all on together.

And, more importantly, we must see in them ourselves. There, but for the grace of God go us. Had we been born in different circumstances, had life gone wrong for us in certain areas, who are we to say we wouldn’t have been there? Or who we are to say we wouldn’t be the exploiters?

The point of this morning’s Gospel is this: the Kingdom of God is not what we think it is. It is not made up of just people like us. It’s not going to be like going to the country club or the executive lounge. It is not even going to be like going to the Episcopal Church. It is going to be made up people who never go to church, who may never have gone to church. It is going to be made up of people we would never imagine stepping foot in a country club or an executive lounge. It will be made up of those people we don’t notice. It will be made up of those people who are invisible to us. It will be made up of the people we don’t give a second thought to.

In our society today we have our own version of tax collectors. They are the homosexual, the lesbian, the recluse. They are the AIDS patient, the Alzheimer’s patient, the cancer patient, the mentally ill. They are the welfare cases. They are the homeless. They are the alcoholics and the drug addicts and the drug dealers. They are the depressed among us, they are the lost among us, and they are the ones who are trapped in their own sadness and their own loneliness. They are the gang leaders, they are the rebels. They are the radical Christian, the radical Muslim, the radical Jew. They are the ones we call pagan, or non-believer or atheist. They are the ones we, good Christians that we are, have worked all our lives not to be. This is what the Kingdom of heaven is going to be like.

And when we, in our arrogance, in our self-righteousness, think that we have all the answers, when we think because we do this and do that, that somehow heaven is our inheritance, that is when Jesus stands up to us and says to us, “No.” It is then that he shakes his finger at us and reminds us that the inheritors of heaven are not us at all, but those people we passed on the way to church on Sunday morning. They are the people who look up at us from their marginalized place in this society. They are the ones who peek out at us from the curtains of their isolation and their loneliness. They are the ones who, in their quiet agony, watch as we drive out of sight from them. They are they inheritors of the kingdom of God and if we think they are not, then we are not listening to what Jesus is saying to us. We are plugging our ears and closing our minds and we are turning our backs on the Gospel.

Recently I read a book put out by the Red River Genealogical Society about the Cass County Cemeteries. What few of us know is that, just a few blocks north of this church, there are two cemeteries. Unless you actually get out of your car and walk into the actual cemetery do you see a large boulder. In one cemetery the boulder is inscribed COUNTY CEMETERY #1. This one is located at the end of Elm Street. Where the road forks, one to the Country Club and the other to Trollwood, right there, on the left fork toward Trollwood, is the cemetery. You’ve probably driven by it countless times and never had a clue. County Cemetery #2 is located on the other side of Trollwood, just within sight of the main stage. Back along the bend in the Red River, there is a stretch of grass and another boulder. This one says COUNTY CEMETERY #2. A third County Cemetery was located on north Broadway. In 1985, those graves were moved to Springvale Cemetery because they were falling into the Red River. For the most part, those graves are marked. But in the first two cemeteries, there are no markers at all. No individual gravestones mark the graves of the people buried in the first two cemeteries. In fact, if you walked into the cemeteries, you would have force your mind to even accept the fact that it is a cemetery. But there are hundreds of people buried in those graveyards.

These are the forgotten. These were Fargo’s hidden shame. Beginning in about 1899 and going through the 1940s, this was where the prostitutes, the gamblers, the robbers were buried. This is also where all the unwanted babies were buried. And when we walk in those pauper cemeteries, we must remind ourselves that here lie the true inheritors of the kingdom of God. Here, had Jesus lived in Fargo, had he lived 1900 years later and had died the disgraceful death he died, this is where he would’ve ended up. He would have ended up in an unmarked grave in a back field, on the very physical fringes of our city. In fact, we can say that he is there. He is wherever the inheritors of his kingdom are.

Those cemeteries for me are potent reminders of who inherits. They are potent reminders to me of who receives true glory in the end. It is not just the ones lying in Riverside Cemetery under gigantic granite and marble gravestones. It is not just the ones lying is graves covered with well-tended grass, decorated with flowers and mementos. It is these—the forgotten ones, the ones whom only God knows. They are the ones that, had life turned out just a bit differently, would be us.

I often find myself visiting those graves and thinking of the inheritance those people have gained. And their message to us is very much what Jesus’ message is to us: This world is not our inheritance. This world is not our world. What this world honors is not real honor. Rather, true honor comes to us in God’s Kingdom. We will all pass away from this life and we will leave very little—if anything—behind us when we’re gone. But God, who knows us fully and completely and who loves us fully and completely, will never let us—any of us—disappear without a trace.

So, today, these words of Jesus should not be words of despair for the rest of us. Rather, we should rejoice, as always, at the words of Jesus. The kingdom of God is open even to those who are most despised by society. In fact, they are going ahead of us into the kingdom of heaven. They will be there to greet us on the great day. And together we will sit down and share the beauty and the reward of that place.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

19 Pentecost


September 21, 2008
St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church
Fargo

Matthew 20. 1-16

This morning is really one of those wonderful moments. We are beginning a new chapter in our collective life together here at St. Stephen’s. It is a new beginning for all of us. And there is really nothing like beginnings.

The beginning is all about hope for the future. The future, normally, is not always a wonderful prospect. The future is often a time of unknowing. For some of us, it is a time to fear, because we don’t know what it holds. We don’t know what awaits us around the corner. We wander into the future blindly groping at whatever lies ahead.

But today, hopefully, we aren’t feeling quite that way. Today, we are looking forward with hope. And hope makes all the difference in the world. It is about looking ahead and seeing, at least for a moment, that the future is no longer such a frightening place to be venturing into. The future is actually full of great opportunities.

Now I don’t claim to be a visionary or a prophet or a fortune teller. No doubt if I got up here and claimed that I was, you would already start regretting your decision to allow me to be your Priest-in-Charge. But, although I am not a prophet or a fortune teller, nor do I have visions, I do see very clearly that St. Stephen’s is a place of fertile spiritual ground. One doesn’t have to have any special spiritual or metaphysical gifts to see that potential. And the potential at St. Stephen’s is great. The opportunity for ministry here is, in fact, limitless.

As I said at the forum with you after the Eucharist last Sunday, I do not see ministry as top-down management. As a priest, I don’t see ministry at tiered, with us ordained people up here and everyone else down here. If we look at the definition of ministry according to the Book of Common Prayer, it is very clear who comes first in the Episcopal understanding of ministry. In the Catechism, found in the back of the Prayer Book, we find this question:

“Who are the ministers of the Church?”

The answer is: “The ministers of the Church are lay person, bishops, priests and deacons.”

Lay persons are intentionally listed first, then the ordained ministers of the Church. And that’s the healthiest way of looking at ministry in the Church. Just because I wear the dog collar and the robes, it doesn’t mean that the ministry of this church is all about what I do as a priest. We are all called to be ministers in this church. And ministry doesn’t just mean preaching and doing liturgy. Ministry is all about taking our gifts and the things we have been called by God to do and using them for the betterment of all of us as Christians.

For me, I was called to be a priest and, at St. Stephen’s, I will do the things a priest can and should do. For those of you who are gifted to manage finances, you help in the ministry by helping manage the finances of the church. For those of you gifted to be artists, your ministry is to help beautify the church. Others have gifts of music, of outreach, of leadership, of compassion for others. None of us are better than the other. None of us are above the other. Rather what we end up doing together is working side by side, shoulder to shoulder, to bring about the Kingdom of God into our midst. Ministry is about a kind of equality. Yes, we have these gifts, but when we are doing ministry, we are doing it together, on the same level.

As I do so, as I join in the ministry all of you have been doing here for years, I can’t help but feel like the new kid on the block. I feel like I am hitting the ground running. Or to put it in the context of our Gospel reading today, I feel like one of the workers who has joined the work later in the day.

The parable Jesus tells us this morning is, of course, not just a story about vineyard workers. The story really, for us anyway, is all about ministry, even though it might not seem like at first hearing. If you’re anything like me, when you hear today’s Gospel—and you’re honest with yourself—you probably thought: “I agree with the workers who have been working all day: It just isn’t fair that these workers hired later should get the same wages.” It’s not fair that the worker who only works a few hours makes the same wages as one who has worked all day. Few of us, in our own jobs, would stand for it. We too would whine and complain.

But the fact is, as we all know by this time, life is not fair. Each of here this morning has been dealt raw deals in our lives at one point or another. We have all known what it’s like to not get the fair deal. But, as much as we complain about it, as much as make a big deal of it, we are going to find unfairness in this life. What we find in today’s parable is exactly what many of us have had to deal with in the Church.

The story of the parable is that everyone—no matter how long they’ve been laboring—gets an equal share. And in Jesus’ ministry, that’s exactly what happens as well. As one of my personal theological heroes, the great Reginald Fuller, once said of this parable: “[This] is what God is doing in Jesus’ ministry—giving the tax collectors and prostitutes an equal share with the righteous in the kingdom.” The marginalized, the maligned, the social outcast—all of them are granted an equal share.

What does that sound like to you? To me, it sounds like the ministry we have all been doing here at St. Stephen’s, doesn’t it? It sounds very much like the ministry we have all committed ourselves to do right here. It means working toward the Millennium Development Goals so that we can do whatever we can, even in small ways, to eradicate poverty and hunger from out world. It means reminding others of the plight of African Christians and helping them receive better education and medical care. It means reaching out to make sure that gay and lesbian people are given full and equal status in the Church and the Community. It means organizing medical mission trips to places such as Guatamala. It means speaking out against violence, war and injustice in any way we can. It means reminding ourselves of the fact that God has given us animals in this world not just for food, but also as companions to look after and to protect. It means striving to make sure that all of us on this side of the “veil” get an equal share of the Kingdom of God. That is what we do at St. Stephen’s and that is what we will continue to do. That equal share is still here for people now in these days.

It also means not doing some things as well. It means not lamenting the unfairness of what an equal share means for us. Because for some of us, we could very easily do just that.

After all, some of us do the “right thing.” Some of us, although few of us would admit it, some of us are, in fact, the “righteous” ones. We follows the rules, we strive to live our lives as good Christians. We fast, we say our prayers faithfully, we tithe, we do what we are supposed to do as good Christians. Striving for the equal share for people, means not allowing ourselves to get frustrated over the fact that those people who do not do those things—especially those people whom we think don’t follow the rules at all, those people who aren’t “righteous” by our standards—also receive an equal share. It means not crying to ourselves, “It’s not fair.”

Because when we do those things, we must ask ourselves a very important question: why do we do what we do as Christians? Do we do what we do so we can call ourselves “righteous?” Do we do what we do as Christians because we believe we’re going to get some reward in the next life? Do we do what do because we think God is in heaven keeping track of all our good deeds like some celestial Santa Claus? Do we do what do simply because we think we will get something in return? Or do we do what we do because doing so makes this world a better place?

This is the real key to Jesus’ message to us. Constantly, Jesus is pushing us and challenging us to be a conduit. He is trying to convince us that being a Christian means being a conduit for the Kingdom of God. In us, the Kingdom breaks through. Without us, it simply will not. We do what we do as Christians because whatever we do is a way in which the barriers that separate us here from God and God’s world is lifted for a brief moment when we do what Jesus tells us to do. When we live out the Law of loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves, the “veil” is lifted and when it is lifted, the Kingdom comes flooding into our lives. It does not matter in the least how long we labor in allowing this divine flood to happen. The amount of time we put into it doesn’t matter in the least to God, because God’s time is not our time. Rather, we simply must do what we are called to do when we are called to do it.

I’ve been reading a wonderful book by Cynthia Bourgeault. Bourgeault is an Episcopal priest and also one of the “big wigs” in the Centering Prayer movement. She is best known for her wonderful book, Chanting the Psalms. But in her latest book, called Wisdom Jesus, she examines, or rather re-examines, the teachings of Jesus from the Wisdom tradition of Christianity. At first, as I began the book, I had my intellectual filter turned to high. Often books on the Wisdom School in Christianity are in fact complex and mind-boggling with all their strange talk of “special knowledge.” But not so with this book.

Bourgeault examines Jesus’ teachings from the perspective of seeing Jesus as a unique teacher of Wisdom—unique in the sense that few people in his day could quite fathom what he was getting at because it was alien to their usual way of thinking. Bourgeault writes that the parables were especially challenging for those first followers of Jesus, maybe even more challenging than they are for us today.

Bourgeault writes in this wonderful book that the parables are not “sweet little teaching[s] about people doing nice things for other people. [They are] a challenge to the basic structures, assumptions and beliefs about ourselves that keep the…mind firmly in place.” She goes on to say that parables are “supposed to challenge you; [they’re] supposed to make you angry—and [they’re] supposed to make you look at yourself more closely.” In other words, what Jesus does in the parables is turn our world upside down. He comes to bring an equal share to a world that is often—that is more often than not—an unfair place. And his command to us is that we do must strive to bring this equal share to this unequal world.

And that is what we’re doing here at St. Stephen’s. As we begin this new chapter in our lives together, we do so knowing that we are striving to bring about an equal share in a world that is often unfair. We do so, knowing that we are sometimes swimming against the tide. We do so, feeling at times, as though we’re set up to fail. And just when we think the unfairness of this world has won out—in that moment, the Kingdom of God always breaks through to us. And in that moment, we are the ones who are able to be the conduit through which the Kingdom of God comes.

So, continue to do what you are doing here at St. Stephen’s. Strive to do even better. In every thing we do, let us attempt to lift that veil in our lives and by doing so, let us be the conduit through which the Kingdom of God will flood into this unfair world. And let us do together what Jesus is calling us to do in this world Let us love—fully and completely. Let us love our God, let us love our selves and let us neighbors as ourselves. And let us go out and do what we have always been doing. As we all know, it’s important to come here and share the Word and the Eucharist on Sundays. But we also know that what we share here motivates us to go out into the world and actually “do” our faith. As the great Anglican bishop of Zanzibar, Frank Weston, once said: “You have Christ in your tabernacles.”—you have Christ here, present in your Eucharist—“now go out and seek Him in the highways and the hedges...”

The future is full of hope—a hope given to us by a God who knows our future and who wants only good for us. Let us go forth with a hope and with a joy that we are doing what we can to make that future glorious.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

New Priest-in-Charge of St. Stephen's, Fargo


September 18, 2008
Bl. Edward Bouverie Pusey

Dear friends,

Last evening, the Vestry of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Fargo offered me a call as Priest-in-Charge. I have gratefully accepted the call and will begin my duties there on October 1. A Renewal of Ministry service will be held at St. Stephen’s on Thursday, Oct. 16 at 7:00 PM, with Bishop Michael Smith presiding and Dean Steve Sellers preaching.

As some of you might know, St. Stephen’s is the first Episcopal Church I ever attended, so to serve there as Priest has deep personal significance for me.

I will continue to serve the Diocese as Assistant to Bishop Smith for Communications, as well as various other Diocesan ministries. I will also keep regular hours in the Diocesan office during the week, so you can always contact me there anytime.

I will also continue teaching at the University of Mary's Fargo campus.

As joyful as this news is, it is also bittersweet since I will be ending my ministries at Gethsemane Cathedral after nine years and All Saints, Valley City, after two years. I have been blessed to serve two wonderful congregations and I have been especially enjoyed serving alongside Dean Steve Sellers, the assisting Cathedral clergy and Cathedral Coordinator, Leisha Woltjer and Fr. Chuck Henley and Pat Fearing at All Saints.

St Stephen’s is located at
120 20 Avenue North
Fargo, ND 58102
http://www.ststephens-fargo.org/

I will also be moving into the Rectory of St. Stephen’s by October 1, so I can better serve the congregation. The address of the rectory is:
117 20 Ave. North
Fargo, ND 58102
701-298-3025
(It is located just behind St. Stephen's)

My cell phone will remain the same: 701-793-1953

I now ask your prayers and best wishes as I begin this new venture. I also ask your prayers and best wishes for my family and for St. Stephen’s during this time of transition.

- peace,
Jamie+

Saturday, September 13, 2008

18 Pentecost


September 14, 2008

Matthew 18.21-35

Last week, in our Gospel reading, we heard Jesus giving the power to bind and loose to his followers—and to us. The gist of this power that we, as Christians and as the Church, received—the fact that what we bind on earth will be bound in heaven and what we loose on earth will be loosed in heaven—reminds us profoundly that what do and say matters. God does care what we do and say.

In today’s Gospel reading, we find just one more extension of that message. Today we find Jesus laying it very clearly on the line. Peter has asked how many times he should forgive. “Seven times?” he wonders. But Jesus says, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”

In other words, we must forgive those who wrong us, again and again. It took me a long time to learn the power of this radical kind of forgiveness. Shortly after I was ordained a priest, I read a wonderful book—Reconciliation by Martin L. Smith of the Society of St. John the Evangelist. The book was an incredible explanation of the sacrament of reconciliation as we find it in the Book of Common Prayer. Two quotes in particular stayed with me for some time after I finished the book.

The first was this one; Martin writes, “…the New Testament teaches that the sin of each person affects and implicates the whole Christian community, and that this community has the power of forgiveness entrusted to it.”

This was a sobering thought to me. My sin affects all of us as Christians. The wrongs I do to others and to myself implicates all of us as Christians. What I do matters to God and to each other.

The other quote that I appreciated from the book was a question Martin poses to all of us: “Do you believe in Christ as a living person with whom you are intimately involved, who has a deep desire for your complete conversion and the power to bring about again and again the transformation we call repentance and forgiveness?”

If we can answer that we do believe in “Christ as a living person with whom” we are “intimately involved,” then what we do really does matter—and not just here in this world, but in Christ’s world which continues to break through in our lives.

These two quotes forced me to take a long, hard look at my life and the things I did in that life. And I saw that, for years, even after I was ordained, I did and said things when I had been wronged that were downright petty. I retained the wrongs that I felt had been done to me and I could not sometimes get around what had been done to me. I am not proud to admit any of this—to myself or to anyone else. But, I am a fallible human being, like everyone else here this morning.

All this led me to another sobering thought. Many of us often claim to be pacifists. In our Baptismal Covenant we promise, with God’s help, to “strive for justice and peace among all people.” Most of us, in these decades after the 1960s when the Peace Movement flourished, have taken that calling to be a political one. Many of us are very quick to speak out and protest wars and invasions. We have no problem standing up and saying “no” to wars that happen “over there.”

But to be a true pacifist, to be a true seeker after peace, we must cultivate peace in our midst. When we say that we will “strive for justice and peace among all people,” that means us individually as well. We must be peaceful in what we do and say. And peace begins with respect for others. Peace begins with responding to Jesus’ commandment to love others as we love ourselves. Or, as our Baptismal Covenant asks of us, we strive to “seek and serve Christ in all persons,” loving our neighbor as ourselves.

Peace begins with loving ourselves, with making peace with ourselves. And that is the first step. Few of us would admit it, but we are often at war with ourselves. And that war often overflows into our relationships and the world around us. If we are truly going to be seekers after peace, we must start by making peace with ourselves. Then we must make peace with those relationships in our own lives.

And this is the area where I failed miserably in my own growth. In the past, when others have wronged me, when others have hurt me, when others have been unfair and downright cruel to me, my first reaction, always was self-defense. A wall came up. An unconscious self-protection mechanism set in. In other words, I isolated myself. Then I went on the offensive. Because my pride, my sense of self, my ego, was slandered, I needed to protect and defend my self. I needed to lash back. I needed to make every effort to make that person who hurt me hurt as bad I was. And this is where everything went wrong. Although I did it more times than I care to admit, although I kept on doing it even after I first recognized that what I was doing wrong, I continued to do it.

It was at that moment, as I look back at each situation, that everything went wrong for me. It was when I opened my mouth in anger against others, when I lashed back in a vain effort to protect myself, that everything began crumbling. It was when I refused, in my selfish anger, to forgive, that the situation got worse. It was when peace left me and the dark stormy clouds of war settled in my heart that my world came undone. In my anger, my frustration, my hurt that I said and did things I later regretted.

One day, not all that long ago, as I was raging over some slight wrong done to me, did I finally catch myself. As a Christian, I realized this was horrendous behavior. As a Christian, I have been called to seek the Church’s forgiveness for myself and for others. Certainly I had done so in a general sense in church on Sundays and at other times without a second thought. But oftentimes when I had done so, I had carried within my heart the cold stones of unforgiveness. And all of it only made me a hypocrite.

So, slowly, agonizingly, I began to find a way out of that self-destructive cycle. I began by saying to myself: “until you can truly forgive, you cannot claim to be a pacifist.”

“Until you can forgive, you can no longer claim to be a seeker after peace, because you are lying to God and to yourself every time you say it.” And slowly those stones of unforgiveness that lay inside my soul began to lighten and dissolve within me. When I let peace come in—that unconditional peace that we strive after in the Covenant, a peace that allows one to forgive someone seventy-seven times—did I finally move on.

I did so in very practical ways. One of the things I did was I made a list. It wasn’t a detailed list. It was simply a list of names of people that, for whatever reasons, I felt had hurt me in whatever ways over the years. It was an “enemies’ list” so to speak. When I put it together, I was amazed by how short it was. There were maybe five names on it.

I then used that list. Every day, especially at Morning and Evening Prayer, I prayed for every person on that list. Now, I know that might sound like some noble thing. Trust me. It wasn’t. It was actually a terribly painful thing to have to do. To say those names, to be reminded of what the wrongs they had done to me every time I prayed, to have to confront those people every day, was extremely difficult. Now mind you, I still had not forgiven any of them, obviously. It was only after I had prayed for them for sometimes a very long time was I able to finally forgive them. And forgiving them became as simple as saying their name and then saying “I forgive you.” Sometimes it took several times of saying it. But eventually I came to the point in which I was able to cross names off the list. And as I crossed them off, I realized I held nothing in my heart against them. I had forgiven them. I had moved on. I had let them go.

In seeking and serving Christ in all people, in loving our neighbors as our selves, we must forgive. In striving for justice and peace among all people, in respecting the dignity of every human being, we cannot retain the sins done against us, but must work to forgive them. As Christians we must actually grant forgiveness to those who have wronged us in whatever way. That is what all of us, as baptized Christians, are called to do.

In a practical way, we can just simply their name and say, “I forgive you in the name of Christ.” Sometimes, if we are fortunate, we may be able to forgive some of these people to their face. More often than not, we never get that chance. On very rare occasions, those people will come to us in repentance asking for forgiveness. But more often than not, they will never ask for our forgiveness. Whether they ask for it or not, we all must forgive, at all times.

And when we do it—when we forgive them—they are forgiven. It is just that powerful. When we forgive, those wrongs done against us are forgiven. What we loose of earth—what we let go of, what we forgive on earth—is truly loosed in heaven. And when we realize that, we then must move on.

We must allow true peace—that peace that we, as baptized Christians, strive for—we must allow that peace to settle into our hearts and uproot any lingering anger or frustration that still exists there. We must allow that peace to finish the job of absolving. This is what it means to forgive. This is what it means to forgive again and again—even seventy-seven times, or a hundred and seventy-seven times, or seven hundred and seventy-seven times.

And there is one other aspect of forgiveness that we don’t often hear about. That is the forgiveness of ourselves. We sometimes have to forgive ourselves of the wrongs we have committed against ourselves and others.

When I talked earlier about allowing the anger and the pettiness in my life can control my life, in those moments, I was wronging my own self. I failed myself in those moments. And often, when we fail ourselves, we wallow in that failure. We beat ourselves up. We torture ourselves unduly. Let me tell you, I have done it on many occasions. But in those moments, there is no peace in my heart either. I am allowing the war against myself to rage unabated within me. Only when I am able to finally forgive myself, will be able to allow true peace to come into my life. And while I have forgiven others many times, the only one I have ever had to forgive seventy times and much, much more is myself. And again, it is as easy as I saying to myself, “Jamie, I forgive you, in the Name of Christ” and to allow that absolution to do its job of absolving—of taking away the wrongs I have done.

So, forgive. Forgive others. Forgive yourself. And in doing so, let the peace of Christ, with whom you are intimately involved, settle into your hearts and your life. And let that peace transform you into the person Christ desires you to be.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

17 Pentecost


September 7, 2008
All Saints Episcopal Church
Valley City, ND

Romans 13.8-14; Matthew 18. 15-20

A few Sundays ago in our Gospel reading, we encountered a wonderful interchange between Jesus and Peter. At that time, in Matthew 16: 16, Peter professed his belief that Jesus was the “messiah, the Song of the Living God. In verses 18 and 19, Jesus said to Peter: “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. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

In that reading, there were several different interpretations of what all this meant. One of the more popular beliefs was the Roman Catholic belief that Jesus was, in fact, founding the Church on Peter whom they claim to be the first Pope and giving to him and his successors the power to bind and loose. And for people who hold that view, the Roman Church and the Pope have full authority to bind and loose. I stress here that not everyone who believes this way is a Roman Catholic.

Earlier this summer, I read a fascinating book I picked up at Nashotah House called Anglican Papalism (by Michael Yelton). In this book, we find several interesting characters in the Anglican Church who, although Anglican, looked longingly to the Church of Rome for authority and purpose. In fact, some of them believed wholeheartedly in a Roman Catholic interpretation of what Jesus said in our Gospel reading from a few weeks ago. One of the typical Anglican Papists of this era was a priest by name of Leighton Sandys Wason (1867-1950). Wason was always an Anglican and, in fact died one. He never converted to the Roman Catholic Church. Still, he was described in this book in this way:

“He saw himself as a priest of the Catholic Church, of which the Church of England was a very small part, and to him the final authority of what went on in the Catholic Church must be the Pope and the Holy See…To him if you were Anglican you were a Catholic and you held Catholic faith—undiluted and in all its fullness.”

Anglicans like Wason believed that Jesus truly did found the Church on Peter and that, if we are to be members of the true Church, we have to believe that Jesus’s command continues on in Peter’s successors, the Popes. They felt that all Anglicans should submit to this belief and put themselves under the authority of the Pope, while still remaining Anglican. And for people who believe in this interpretation of scripture, maybe we should.

But in today’s Gospel, we find that the power to bind and loose was not given just to Peter, but to all Jesus’s followers. After talking about how members of the Church who have disagreements with each other should resolve their differences, he goes on to say:

“Truly I tell you [and he is speaking to all his followers at this time] whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

He goes on to say: “Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

This is very important to us. Because when Jesus gave that power to bind and loose to all his followers, he didn’t just give it those followers who were with him that day. He gave that power to all Christians, throughout all time. He gave that power to us, as well, here and now. And because there are, in fact, more than two or three gathered here this morning, Jesus truly is in the midst of us—his Church. We, being the Church, have that power to bind and loose and it is quite the power.

Take a moment and just think about what it is Jesus is giving us authority to do. What we bind on earth, will be bound in heaven. And what we loose on earth, will be loosed in heaven. This is some incredible power. The Church has the power, in a very real sense, to control not only what is here on earth, but the control carries over into heaven.

Still, it’s confusing, this concept of binding and loosing. What is it Jesus is talking about when means binding and loosing? Probably the best way to try to understand it is to put it in the context of Jesus’s own time. For Jewish rabbis in Jesus’s time, "binding" the Law meant they were able to apply it to a particular situation. They “loosed” the Law when it was not able to be applied to situation. There were some situations that the Law was clear about, and they could not be loosed. But there were also grey areas in life where the Law wasn’t so clear and, as a result, the rabbis had to figure out if the Law could be applied to it. They made the decision about whether it was binding and loosing.

For us, this passage isn’t quite so clear. For us, “binding” and “loosing” don’t mean the same things as they did to Jesus’s followers. Still, we are able to grasp, in some way, what Jesus is getting at.

The simple fact is this: what we do here on earth, really does make a difference with God. And that, as Christians, as the Church, what we do has great power. Because when we gather together, Jesus is in our midst and what we do together becomes an act of Christ. We have been given the power the bind and loose—however we might understand those terms. And we can use (or mis-use) a power like this. We could apply it any number of issues that are plaguing the Church right now. We could use it to condemn those who have differing views than us in the Church, or to give credit to our own positions.

We could say that scripture is very clear regarding the place of women in the church. Scripture says, after all: “women should keep quiet in the Church.” But we can choose whether we are going to bind ourselves to this or if we are going to loose this scripture in our church. And by doing so, we can take some consolation in the fact that it then is bound or loosed in heaven. The same issue can be applied to scripture and homosexuality or divorce and remarriage or any other number of areas that we are still struggling with in the Church. In these areas, however, each of us walks a slippery slope. Scripture, as you’ve heard me say before, is always a double-edge sword. If we are going to use it cut, then we be better prepared to be cut by it. It will comes back on us and cut us eventually if we insist on using it in such a way.

Oftentimes, we might find ourselves on the wrong side of what is bound and loosed. Oftentimes, we can get nitpicky about issues and where to stand on them. And in those cases, we have lost the real spirit of what it means to bind and loose.

But, there is one motivating factor behind all binding and loosing. And we find this motivating factor spoken to us in our reading from Romans today. There we find the summary of this same Law that binds or loosens. The summary of this Law is that we should love our neighbor as ourselves. And here we find the truly binding experience of Christianity. Our job as Christians is not to nit-pick about what should be bound and what should be loosened. Our job as Christians is to make sure that we love each other as we love ourselves. Love, after all, is the ultimate experience of binding. And Christian love, because Jesus has given us this power to loose and bind, has a power that few other loves have. The love we have as Christians is more than just a love for each other here on earth. This love that we love have is a love that binds itself even in heaven. And this is why we can’t allow anything else other than love in ourselves. That’s why we can not allow feelings like hatred into our lives. Just as love is the ultimate binding experience, hatred is the ultimate loosing experience. And hatred for others, or for ourselves, loosens us and that loosening experience is also loosed in heaven.

God does pay attention to what we feel and what we do. God does notice when we do not love—when we do not love others, or ourselves. And that is not God’s intent for us. God does not want us to feel anything other than love for others, and for ourselves. Because in loving each other, in loving ourselves, we are loving God, who is present in our midst—who is present with us and within us. And that perfect balance is what gives us a glimpse of the Kingdom of God in our midst.

The Kingdom of God, as elusive and vague as it might seem at times, is a place of balance. This much we do know. The Kingdom of God in our midst involves catching a glimpse of the balance that comes when we love each other and ourselves. And we know that this kind of love is not just a love here on earth. It is a love that knows no boundaries. It is a love that crosses over to the other side—that crosses over into that other place in which we find God. Or rather, it isn’t a love that crosses over at all.

It is instead a love that causes heaven to break through into our midst. It is a love that blurs whatever boundaries separate us from heaven. It is a love that causes heaven to exist, here, in our midst. And that is why we are called to love each other and ourselves. And that is why, throughout scripture, we find a prohibition against things such as cursing. By cursing here, I don’t necessarily mean swearing or cussing. What is meant here is that we are told, again and again throughout scripture, that we should not curse anyone, because, as we’ve seen from our Gospel reading today, what we do matters. It matters here and it matters in heaven. As a Christian, as someone with that power given to all of us by Jesus himself, if we curse someone, then that person is cursed. Our curse does fall on that person. And conversely, when people curse us, we too are cursed. We bear their curse. There is a reason why scripture is clear about this. There is a reason why we are told, again and again, not to curse, even when we’re angry. We should not allow curses into our lives, because curses are done out of anger and hatred, not out of love.

Our job as Christians is always, always, always to love. Love should always win out over cursing and hatred. If we love fully, as we are commanded to do by Jesus, we have no place for cursing and hatred. So, because we, as Episcopalians, believe that Jesus founded the Church not just on the Rock of Peter, but on Peter’s confession of faith in Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, and because we believe that the power to bind and loose was not only given to the Pope, but to all of us who are Christians, we need to take stock of the words that come out of our mouths. We need to take stock of the emotions we carry within our hearts. We need to let love always win out. We need to know that if we bind we must bind in love and if we loose we must loose also in love. And by doing so, what we do in love on earth, will be done in heaven in love.

So love fully. Love others and love yourself as Jesus commands us to love. And if we do, we will find the words Jesus said to Peter in that Gospel reading a few weeks ago coming true in us as well. The gates of Hades will not prevail against us as Church. The gates of every ugly, evil thing in this world—things such as the power of the other’s curses—will have no power over us. Rather, with a love like that in us and emanating from us, the powers of darkness and evil will fall flat before us.

So, love fully. And let that love that is bound in you be bound in heaven and let that love loosed in you be loosed in heaven. And by doing so, you will be bringing the Kingdom of God into our midst.

The Requiem Eucharist for Susan Simonson


Susan Simonson
(August 21, 1925 -September 1, 2008)
Gethsemane Episcopal Cathedral
Fargo
September 6, 2008

Psalm 100

Last week, the morning Susan left for Mayo, I went over to visit her and we shared Holy Communion together. Afterward, I shared a story with her that always I love to tell. It’s one of my favorite stories. It’s an old Jewish tale about King Nebuchadnezzar—the great Babylonian king we meet in the Book of Daniel.

The story goes like this: The King one day was dressed in his finest apparel and was out walking in his garden singing praises to God. As he was doing so, an angel appeared to the King. The King at first was amazed. What a beautiful angel! And he was so thankful that God sent him an angel. But then, the angel, without a word, slapped him hard across the face. The King was shocked and confused after the angel left him. He turned God and lamented. He prayed: “Why, O God, did you send an angel to slap me across the face just when I was singing beautiful praises to you?” God answered from above and said, “Of course you can sing praises dressed in your finest clothes, with a crown on your head, but try praising me after you’ve been slapped across the face.”

When I finished this story, I saw that little smile on Susan’s face. We all know the one. And you knew that understood what this story was and what it meant to her. Because, let’s face it, these past few years have been a year of “slaps” for her. A year ago last August, Susan’s brother, Clarke died. The next month her sister Harriet was diagnosed with cancer. And on June 2 of this year, Harriet died. From that time on, Susan experienced one set-back after another, and so did all of us who were journeying with her through it. That’s not even to mention the years she nursed Ed through his final illness and his passing in 2005.

There are of course were high points as well. She was so happy that day when I baptized her great-granddaughter Quinn.

But still, it was a difficult few years for her. Still, even despite the setbacks, there was a resiliency in Susan. She, unlike the king in the story, was not shocked or overwhelmed or despairing over the slaps she received in this life. Yes, she was sad. Yes, she would rather not have gone through what she did. But at no point did she ever stop praising God through this time. Even slapped, she was still able to sing praises to God. And let me tell you: I know. I was with her and I saw, for myself, that even through the hard times, she clung strongly and firmly to her faith despite everything that happened to her.

In the days after her initial diagnosis, our conversations turned more and more to her expectations of what was awaiting her in the next life. And I can tell you with all honesty that there was no doubt in her mind that something wonderful and glorious awaited her there. I believe fully that when she was recovering from her last surgery, she caught glimpses of that wonderful place. And she became so enraptured by what she saw, she really did want to go there. She shared with some of us what that other place was like. And she was content and accepting of what awaited her.

One week ago today, on Saturday August 30, after her last diagnosis, while she was in Mayo, I called her there and we talked briefly. I lamented a bit over the fact that this didn’t turn out the way we hoped it would. Susan, in that typical way of hers, was obviously disappointed and frustrated by the setbacks, but she made it very clear to me her belief that something better awaited her. I said to her as we were hanging up, “God really is with you right now, Susan.” “Yes, He really is,” she said. And God was with her and is with her now.

When we look at it all now, we might ask why. We might ask: why did this happen to someone like Susan, who really and truly was a good and gracious person? And we find no answers to those questions. But, in not finding answers, we are reminded that our perspective is not God’s perspective. And Susan understood that very well in her life and trusted deeply in it.

As some of you know, I teach at the University of Mary in Fargo. One of the courses I teach is called Suffering and Christian Healing. In one of the books that are required for the course, our perception versus God’s perception is explained this way: Think of a carpet. From above, the carpet looks perfect. It’s soft. It maybe has a beautiful design. It has a color that perfectly compliments the room. These are definitely images, Susan would appreciate. But from underneath the carpet, it looks awful. We see stray pieces of thread. We see the plastic underlining. We see the dried paste and nail holes. That’s what life is like sometimes.

We are on the underside of the carpet right now. That’s how we view life in this moment. We see the stray threads and the framework, but we don’t see the carpet as it is meant to be seen. We see the ugly things life has thrown at us and it frustrates us. It’s hard for us to imagine what’s on the other side of the carpet, if in fact there is even another side.

But, God is on the other side of the carpet. God sees the carpet as it should be seen. While we are here, on this side, we don’t understand why things happen the way they do. We don’t understand why someone like Susan had to experience the set-backs she did over these past few years. But we trust in the fact that one day, we will cross over to the other side—to God’s side. And when we do, it will all—somehow—make sense. It will all be the way it should be.

Susan is now looking at her life—and ours—from that other side. She is now looking at it all from God’s perspective. And that’s what she would want us to cling to as we go on from here.

Last Saturday, when she was planning this service, she made it very clear that this service should not be gloomy or depressing, but rather a true celebration of the wonderful and beautiful life she lived. She would not want us to despair over her death. Because Susan knew that, although we can’t fully understand things now, we will one day. And that when we do, it will be beautiful.

So, today, although we might be tempted to despair, we really cannot. When looking at these last few days from Susan’s perspective, this has been one great and glorious day without end for her. She has been relieved of her pain and suffering. The weariness and the strain she carried with her has been lifted from her. And she has now become fully and completely herself. Yes, we are sad for this temporary separation. But we are not despairing. Because we know that will all be well. It will all be well.

And today, although we are reeling from the slap of Susan’s death, we are also doing what she did when slapped by life. We are singing God’s praises. In our Psalm for today, that Dixie so beautifully sang for us, we find everything we need to know about what Susan held in her heart before God. This psalm, Psalm 100, is traditionally called in the Book of Common Prayer the Jubilate Deo. In and it, we find everything Susan held dear and important to her.

O be joyful in the Lord, all ye lands*
serve the Lord in gladness, and come before his presence with a song.

See, even in the face of everything,—even when we’ve been slapped, we can sing God’s praises. Even in those moments, when life on this underside of the carpet throws ugly things we don’t understand at us, we can still sing and cling to hope. Even then, we can, as Susan is right at this moment, in that place she longed for, we too can sing:

For the Lord is gracious, his mercy is everlasting*
and his truth endureth from generation to generation.


Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Memorial service for my aunt, Anna Parsley

The memorial service for
Anna Parsley
(January 5, 1936 - August 29, 2008)
Frederickson Funeral Home
Kindred, North Dakota
September 2, 2008

Anna, as we all knew, suffered greatly from her physical ailments. Her physical body simply failed her in stages for a fairly long time. Certainly, it seemed to me anyway, that within this failing body, this body that betrayed her and often caused her much suffering, there was this vibrant, alive soul. I saw it the last time I saw her a few weeks ago when I visited her in the hospital and shared Holy Communion with her. It was there, in her eyes—Life , bright, vibrant, fiery life. And that’s how most of us are going to remember Anna. As someone who was full of life.

And as someone who was full of deep faith as well. As I was growing up, I always saw in Anna as a great example of Christian strength. I think when most people think about Christians, they think we’re a weak bunch. Jesus told us, after all, that when we’re slapped on the cheek, we should turn the other one. And for some people, that might be a sign of weakness.

But what I have learned is that, yes, when slapped, we do turn the other cheek, but how we turn that cheek sometimes says more than anything. If we turn that cheek with strength and dignity, then it is no longer an act of weakness but an act of greater strength than the slap itself. Anna showed me that a Christian must always turn the other cheek, but that one can turn that cheek with an air of true and abiding strength and character. I have no doubt that she would say it was the German in her that defined her deep and abiding strength.

Certainly, Anna experienced many set-backs in her life. Life was not easy for her and her physical ailments were no doubt difficult and overwhelming at times. They caused her great physical and emotional pain. Life dealt her a series of set-backs—whether physical or emotional or otherwise. But what always amazed me about Anna was that, despite everything, despite the setbacks, despite the physical body that deteriorated around that vibrant, life-filled spirit, she was still able to cling to her faith in God.

And tonight, that faith has been fulfilled. Tonight, she is freed. Tonight, that life-filled, fiery spirit has been freed from those physical constraints and she is truly and, for all eternity, freed. Tonight, she is happy and complete and content and wholly herself.

For us, who are left behind, tonight and these last few days haven’t been as great of days. For us, not having Anna here is very difficult. But the fact is, we who are Christian, don’t get to despair over this fact. Anna would be the first to tell us that. We don’t get to despair or lose hope. We don’t get to throw up our hands and give up. Because we know this life is just a short moment in the grander scheme of God’s plan for us. And we know, like Anna, that giving up is never the thing to do.

So, tonight, although we might be tempted to despair, we really cannot. When looking at these last few days from Anna’s perspective, this has been one great and glorious day without end for her. She has been relieved of her pain and suffering. The weariness and the strain she carried with her has been lifted from her. And she has now become fully and completely herself. Yes, we are sad for this temporary separation. But we are not despairing. Because we know that will all be well.

It will all be well.

I’d like to share a prayer by Julian of Norwich. Julian was a woman who knew a few things about physical pain. She had almost died several times in her life from illness. And yet, even through those moments in which life seemed fragile and frightening, she was still able to pray this prayer. It’s a prayer that Anna certainly could’ve prayed herself and, without doubt, lived it deeply in her own life.

Let us pray.

In you, Father all-mighty, we have our preservation and our bliss. In you, O Christ, we have our restoring and plenty of grace. You are our clothing; for love you wrap us and embrace us. You are our maker, our friend, our keeper. Teach to believe that by your grace all shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well. Amen.