Saturday, November 29, 2008

I Advent




November 30, 2008

Psalm 80. 1-7, 16-18; 1 Corinthians 1.3-9; Mark 13.24-37

In today’s scriptures we find everything turning. The vision has shifted. We are not looking back. We are not looking inward. We are not looking at each other. Our vision has been forced, collectively, to the future. We are looking to the future and to all it holds for us. We are looking into what seems to be the darkness. And our spiritual eyes are struggling to adjust—to focus.

At first, it seems as though we can’t. The darkness of the future is just too deep. Yes, we know that there might be hope somewhere there—we know that the potential hopes and dreams we carry with us might be there, somewhere in the dark, but we simply can’t see them.

The darkness also reminds us that the future holds fear and insecurity as well. The future holds the potential also for pain and loss and all other kinds of uncertainty. On this first Sunday of Advent, as we gather here, squinting warily into this uncertain darkness, we are reminded of two things.

First of all, we are reminded of what awaits us there in there darkness. If we look hard enough, if we look patiently enough, we will see it. There, in that darkness, it will appear as maybe a spark or a flash. It might seem like our spiritual eyes are playing with us. But if we are truly astute—if we spiritually attuned—we will know in our essence that it is not a figment of our imagination. That spark of light, the soft gray glow is none other than light.

As we progress through Advent, that light will become brighter and clearer and more defined. To our eyes, as used as they are to the darkness, it might become almost blinding. But that Light awaiting us at the edge of our spiritual darkness—that Light that is breaking through into the very midst of our collective darkness—is none other than that which we hear about in our reading from Paul’s letter.

In Paul’s letter, we find a name given to this momentous event—this moment in which the Light breaks through—this moment we are all deeply longing for. It is “the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” In the Old Testament, this day—the day of the Lord, the day of Yahweh—was a day of fear. It was something to dread and to wish would not happen, because it was a day in which God’s wrath would be wrought on the earth.

For us, it isn’t the same. For us, as Christians, the day of our Lord Jesus Christ is a glorious and wonderful day. It is the day in which God breaks through to us finally and completely. It is the day in which everything that separates us from God is broken down and destroyed. It is the day on which whatever barriers there are between us and God are once and for all time destroyed.

The day of our Lord Jesus Christ is a glorious day. And this Advent time is a time in which we are reminded that this is exactly what we are looking toward and longing for in our spiritual lives. This day of our Lord Jesus Christ is the day when the light of Christ breaks through into the darkness of our lives. It is the day in which the blinding, all encompassing Light of Christ breaks into not only our collective darkness, but also into our personal, individual darknesses as well.

And it is there. The day is just there beyond our spiritual vision. In the darkest moments of the night, it is hard to imagine the dawn. But that day is about dawn into our lives.

Which leads us to the second point of which we are reminded. In our Gospel, we find the rallying cry of Advent—the word that captures perfectly what we should be doing during this season. It’s just one simple word.

“Watch.”

Our job as Christians is sometimes no more than this. It is a matter of watching. Our lives as Christians are sometimes responses to our watching. For those of us impatient in our watching, our impatience sometimes manifests itself in our spiritual life and in our relationship with others. When we become impatient in our watching, we sometimes forget what it is we are watching for. We sometimes, in our intense watching, fail to see.

One of my favorite pieces of Christian literature is the famous dictum of Frank Weston, the early 20th Century Anglican Bishop of Zanzibar. Weston wrote a piece that is a perfect reminder to us as we leave church each Sundays. But it is also a reminder to us who might be watching for the day of Our Lord Christ too closely. In it, we find that the day of Our Lord Jesus is not some apocalyptic event in the future—some rending of the skies and thunderous descent from heaven. It is not the day in which we encounter the Judge Christ on his mighty throne. Rather, the day of Our Lord Jesus sometimes dawns in our lives again and again. Sometimes we are so accustomed to the darkness of our lives, we become blinded and cannot even recognize the dawn.

Bishop Weston writes;
You are Christians!
Then your Lord is one and the same
with Jesus on the throne of his glory,
with Jesus in his Blessed Sacrament,
with Jesus received into your hearts in Communion,
with Jesus who is mystically with you as you pray,
and with Jesus enshrined in the hearts and bodies of his brothers and sisters
up and down the world.

Now go out into the highways and hedges,
and look for Jesus in the ragged and naked,
in the oppressed and sweated,
in those who have lost hope,
and in those who are struggling to make good.
Look for Jesus in them;
and when you find him,
gird yourselves with his towel of fellowship,
and wash his feet in the person of his brethren.

For us, the day of our Lord Jesus comes when we do just that It comes when, in our watching, we see the rays of the light breaking through to us in the Blessed Sacrament, in the Communion we share and receive. Certainly, in a very real sense, today is the day of the Lord Jesus. Today, as Reginald Fuller said, “the Church experiences a rending of the heavens in each liturgy, when Christ comes down in his sacrament to visit the people in their need.”
But those rays also break through when, in our watching, we recognize Jesus in the ragged and naked. Those rays of the Day of our Lord Jesus breaks through when we can see Jesus in “all the oppresses and sweated, in those who have lost hope, and in those who are struggling to make good.” Those rays break through when we can even recognize Jesus in the ragged and naked, oppressed and sweated, hopeless person struggling to make good who stares back at us in our own mirrors.

In this beautiful Sarum blue Advent season, we are reminded that the day of our Lord Jesus is about dawn upon us. The rays of the bright sun-lit dawn are already started the lighten the darkness of our lives. All we have to is watch. And, in watching, we have to see. We cannot, when that day dawns, be found sleeping. Rather, when that Day of our Lord Jesus dawns, let us greet it joyfully. Let us run toward that dawn as we never have before in our lives. Let the joy within us—the joy we have hid, we have dried to kill—the joy we have not allowed ourselves to feel—come pouring forth on that glorious day. As we run to greet that dawn, let us do so with song, with our souls singing,

Restore us, O God of hosts;*
show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Thanksgiving Eve


November 26, 2008

Matthew 17.11-19

This evening I appear before you half the man I used to be. As some of you might know, I have lost over 70 pounds since last year. I don’t’ have to tell you that 70 pounds is a lot of weight. We’ve all seen those infomercials with doctors showing what 10 or 20 pounds of fat look like. Or those commercials in which they tell us that carrying that much weight is the equivalent of carrying around a certain number of bowling balls.

It has been an incredible experience for me. I don’t feel, physically, the way I did before. I feel lighter and more comfortable in physical body than I ever have before. I love buying new clothes—clothes that fit me and look good on me.

Losing that much weight is not just a physical experience; it is an emotional and psychological experience as well. I can tell you in all honesty that losing that much weight involves a radical change of thought regarding food.

And what I realized in my understanding of food and how I dealt with it, was that, for the most part, we don’t even think about what we’re eating or why we’re eating. We eat out of habit. We eat because our internal clocks tell us, not because our stomachs tell us. We eat because we’re bored, or because we can, or because we just don’t want food to go to waste. And even if we eat our meals on time, we still are tempted to snack on foods when we’re not hungry. Still, even with all that food we eat, we find out that food does go to waste. We will no doubt see a lot of our own food go to waste tomorrow and in the days and weeks to come.

In the Litany of Thanksgiving, which can be found on page 837 in the Prayer Book, which we will pray together in a few moments, we find a petition there that really speaks to that mindlessness we all sometimes have regarding food. The petition begins, “ For our daily food and drink…We thank you, Lord.


The fact is, we really don’t. We don’t thank God as we should for the food and drink we receive daily, because we are just so used to this food. And as a result of our thanklessness, we take advantage of food. We eat without thinking, or without gratitude. We use food not for nourishment, not for sustenance, but to fill our own needs. We use food to fill the spiritual and psychological gaps within us.

Only when I stopped eating mindlessly was I able to truly change everything about myself and how I ate. When people see me now after not having seen me in a while and notice the weight I’ve lost, they almost always ask: “How did you do it?” I have no problem telling anyone my secret—a secret that, if I was more of an entrepreneur—I would exploit. If I was more motivated to just make money in a get-rich quick scheme, I could go out and make a load of money by writing some self-help diet book. The title of that book would be a catchy title that captures perfectly the secret of my weight loss. And it is a simple formula, and it’s one that truly works. And if more people followed it, I would guarantee that they would lose weight. The secret formula is this—nothing more, nothing less:

Eat less. Move more.

Just that and nothing more. There’s no special food you have to eat less of. I didn’t cut out carbs, or dairy, or count calories. I didn’t drink diet shakes or only eat grapefruit or drink liquids and no solids. I simply took what food I normally ate and just cut it in half. And…I got up and moved. I didn’t push myself physically. I didn’t work out to the point of exhaustion. I simply just moved. And the weight, slowly but surely came off. I stopped snacking. I stopped eating everything on my plate. I stopped eating without thinking. I stopped eating when I wasn’t hungry. I started eating smaller portions. I ate when I was hungry—when I felt hunger—real hunger—a feeling I hadn’t felt in years—in my stomach.

All of this, of course, is important to ponder and consider as we prepare ourselves for our meals tomorrow. Yes, it’s good to be with family. It’s good to sit down and eat and drink and be nourished both physically and emotionally. And we need to be thankful for that nourishment. But we also need, at this time of Thanksgiving, to think about our spiritual nourishment as well. Our spiritual nourishment comes to us not through food or drink. Our spiritual nourishment comes through awareness. It comes through mindfulness. It comes through being awake spiritually so that we can live fully and completely. And sometimes to wake ourselves up spiritually, to be mindful, we need to deny ourselves.

In tonight’s Gospel reading, we find the ten lepers coming before Jesus, and crying out to him, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” Mercy is a strange and wonderful thing. In this Gospel, we find that mercy is given to all of them. The ones who ultimately are unable to show their gratitude are still healed by the end of the story. And the one who is thankful doesn’t get anything additional from Jesus. Or at least, on the surface, it doesn’t seem like he does. There is no additional miracle. The result is the same. But the one who is grateful is the one comes back to Jesus, prostrates himself and thanks him.

By prostrating himself—by humbling himself in that way—he is not making himself the center of his life anymore. He is, in a very real way, denying himself. By prostrating himself, we know that he has been mindfulness enough, aware enough, that something great and powerful has happened in his life and he has went back to the source of this powerful change to express his gratitude. And we know that this awareness has humbled him. This mindfulness of what has happened to him has not sent him off to mindlessly bask in his renewed health. Rather, it has sent him to his knees in gratitude. In doing so, what he does come away with is not only healing, but his renewed faith. That is what makes all the difference in his life.

Today, we too have seen mercy come into our lives. It has come into our lives as grace. It has come raining into our life in more ways that we can fully recollect or express gratitude for.
In our Litany, we find another wonderful petition. In that petition, we pray, “For all that is gracious in the lives of men and women, revealing the image of Christ, we thank you, Lord.” When those moments of graciousness—of pure and holy grace—come into our lives, we find Christ in our midst. Like those ten lepers in tonight’s Gospel, grace came to them in their healing. Did they deserve the healing? Well, you can be the judge of that. Certainly some people would very quickly say, “No, they didn’t. Their ungrateful attitude makes void whatever they deserved.” But the fact that the healing stayed with them despite the fact they did not say “thank you,” was a grace to them.

In a similar way, that is what we should be pondering and being thankful for tonight and tomorrow. When those moments of grace have com into our lives, have we been thankful? Have we been mindful and aware of them? In our mindfulness and awareness, have we seen the revealed image of Christ in those grace-filled moments of our life? If we have, have we, like the one of leper, prostrated ourselves—denied ourselves—and expressed our deep-felt gratitude to Christ.

Tomorrow eat and drink and be grateful. But also be mindful. Be aware. Be moderate in your consumption and consider the fact that the grace sin your life are wonderful and beautiful. You are surrounded by loved ones, by food and drink and emotional and spiritual security, while others, at this same time, are not. Others are not so fortunate. Other are starving, are lost, are lonely, are slaves to their addictions and their obsessions and their pains. And knowing that—being aware of that—let this awareness humble you. Let it send you also to your knees in gratitude. Let it change you and heal you where you need to be healed. When you get up from your knees, be aware that what you have is more than just healing. It is renewed faith.

“Get up and go your way; your faith has made you well.” These are the words that should be ringing in our ears on this Thanksgiving. These are the words that should give fuel to the fire of our own personal thankfulness.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Christ the King


November 23, 2008
St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church

Matthew 25.31-46

I have now been your priest at St. Stephen’s for almost two months. In that time, I’ve confessed a few things during my sermons that seem fairly innocent. Last week, I confessed my laziness in the fourth grade and my love of the film Auntie Mame. A few weeks before that, I confessed that my big mouth got me in trouble a few times in my life.

But today, I’m going to reveal a part of myself that is, let’s say, a bit darker. Now, already I can sense some of you bracing yourselves for whatever this dark revelation might be. Whenever I say something similar to Pastor Mark Strobel from St. Mark’s Lutheran Church he gives me that look of profound and utter fear at what it is I could possibly reveal to him.

Well, my revelation to you is this: I love horror movies. And not just any horror movies. I’m not fond of the slasher, violence-for-the-sake-of-violence kind of horror film. My favorite kind of horror films are the apocalyptic ones.

One of my favorite movies in the last few years is the M. Night Shyamalan film Signs, which deals with an Episcopal priest, played by Mel Gibson, who has lost his faith just before aliens invade the earth and attempt to wipe out the human race. Or, Shyamalan’s newer film (which was universally panned by critics), The Happening, about a neurotoxin released by plants and carried by wind that caused people to commit suicide in mass numbers and in very gruesome ways.

I also like the George Romero Night of the Living Dead zombie films. These zombie really give voice, I think, to the fear we all have inherently of death.

And just last week my good friend Greg recommended a book that I ended up reading in one night. The book is called The Road by Cormac McCarthy, a very touching and moving book about a father and son wandering along a deserted interstate following a catastrophic event that leaves only a few humans alive. All of these deal with the issue of (as the old R.E.M. song proclaimed) it’s-the end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it kind of situation.

Recently, as I thought about the guilty pleasure I have in these films, I realized that my love of this genre has its roots firmly in my faith life as a Christian. In the secular world, these films and books are called apocalyptic, or post-nuclear, or whatever. But we Christians have a term for this kind of genre as well. That term is eschatology.

Eschatology, to quote my trusty old Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms, is defined as: the study of the “last things” or the end of the world. It goes on to further define it in this way: Eschatology means “Theological dimensions including the second coming of Jesus Christ and the last judgment.” These films, seen, for me, through the lens of my being a Christian and as a priest, are very eschatological. But for others they might not seem so.

At first glance, there is a bleakness to them—a hopelessness to them. For the most part, these films and movies show a kind of evilness—whether it be nuclear evilness or natural evilness, or even extraterrestrial evilness—as prevailing. In most of the films and books that deal with these issues, the perspective is almost always from a seemingly non-Christian perspective. This world of bleakness and purposelessness is seems, on the surface anyway, wholly void of God or Christ.

But for me, I don’t see it as clearly. For me, I love them because they jar me. They jolt me out of my comfort zone and make me imagine—for a few hours anyway—what the end of the world might be like. These films also make me ponder and think about Christ’s place in these situations.

For most of us here this morning, we no doubt remember that fear and shock we felt on September 11, 2001. For those of us who never gave eschatology a second thought, we found ourselves wondering, even for a moment, if this might actually be the end of the world. Certainly we, in the Church, get our glimpses of the end of the world in our liturgical year.

As you probably have guessed, I always love preaching about beginnings. Beginnings are always a time of hope and joy. They hold such promise for everything that can possibly happen. But occasionally, we all must face the fact that, in the Church and in our lives, we also must confront the ending. Now for most people, the ending is a time to despair. Certainly that is where I think so much of the darkness in those films and books come from.

Certainly that’s where much of the darkness we experienced came from in the days following 9/11. Despair reigned. And when despair reigns, it is a bleak time.

The ending is a time to dig in one’s heels and resist the enviable. But for us—for Christians—it’s not that way. For us, the ending is not the ending at all. It is, in fact, the beginning. For us, what seems like dusk to others, is actually dawn, though we—and they— sometimes can’t recognize it.

Today, of course, is Christ the King Sunday. It is the last Sunday in that very long, green season of Pentecost. Today, for the Church, it is New Year’s Eve. The old church year of Sundays ends today. The new church year begins next Sunday, on the First Sunday of Advent. So, what seems like an ending today is renewed next week, with the coming of Advent, in that revived sense of longing and expectation that we experience in Advent. So even then, at that beginning, we are still forced to look ahead. We are forced to face the fact that the future does hold an ending that will also become our beginning—a beginning that will never end. And as we face that future, we do so on a Sunday in which we proclaim Christ to be King.

We do so on a Sunday in which Jesus tells us that story of the sheep and the goats—a story that is very clearly eschatological in its message. On the surface, in this story, we meet the shepherd.

In the world of this Gospel reading, a king and shepherd were very similar. For this Jewish culture, which looked so longingly toward the shepherd David who became their greatest king, these roles became enmeshed in their understanding of what a king was. A true king was more than a despotic ruler. A true king was truly a shepherd—one who cared and looked after his subjects. So, yes we meet the king we celebrate today—the king we catch a glimpse of in our reading from Ezekiel—now being fulfilled in our sight—in the person of Jesus.

But there is more going on here. I love this parable—not because of its threat of punishment, not because of its judgment. I love this parable because there is something beautiful and subtle going on just beneath the surface. And that subtle aspect of this parable is this: the reward is given not to people who work for the reward. The reward is not given to people who help the least of their brethren because they know they gain the reward. The reward is granted to those who help the least of their brethren simply because the least need help. The reward is for those who have no regard or idea that a reward awaits them for doing such a thing.

The least of our brethren are the ones who are hungry, who are thirsty, who are naked, who are sick and in prison. In our own society, we find that these same terms have a wider definition. Hungry for us doesn’t just mean hungry for food. It means hungry for love, for healing, for wholeness. Thirsty doesn’t just mean for water. Thirsty for us means thirsty for fairness or justice or peace. Naked doesn’t just mean without clothing. It means, for us, to be stripped to our core, to be laid bare spiritually and emotionally and materially. To be sick, doesn’t mean to be sick in our bodies. It is means to be sick in our minds and in our hearts and in our relationships with others. And we all know that the prisons of our lives sometimes don’t have walls or bars on the doors. The prisons of our lives are sometimes our fears, our addictions, our prejudices. To not go out and help those who need help in their needs is to be arrogant, to be selfish, to be headstrong.

And so, we find a great analogy here in Jesus’ story. For the people who heard this story, they understood what Jesus was saying. They knew that sheep and goats grazed together during the day, but at night were separated because the goats needed shelter during the night. The sheep could take of themselves during the night when it came. But the goats needed special care. And when we are headstrong, arrogant, selfish, what we end up doing to ourselves is what the shepherd in today’s story does to the fold. When we are self-centered and egotistical, when we refuse to help those who need help among us, we separate ourselves. We become the goats who must be separated from the sheep. We bring upon ourselves that eschatological judgment. We bring upon ourselves a judgment that is just as frightening as any horror film we can imagine.

But if we concentrate on the punishing judgment, we have missed the point of the parable all together. The real message of this story has nothing to do essentially with the punishment. The meaning of this story is this: If you do these things—if you feed the hungry, if you give drink to the thirsty, if you welcome the stranger, if you clothe the naked, if you visit the sick and imprisoned—if you do these things without thought of reward, but do them simply because you, as a Christian, are called to them, the reward is yours. There’s no need to think about the punishment. As Christians, we should haven’t to think about doing any of those things. They should be like second nature to us. We should be doing them naturally, instinctively. And if we aren’t doing them naturally or instinctively, then we have no need to despair either. We just simply need to recognize it and work harder and strive to make it part of our nature.

Which causes me to return to those horror moves I love so much. I said earlier that it seems they are absent of Christ. But that isn’t entirely true. In many of those films, there always comes a moment of grace. There is always a moment when it seems evil prevails—when darkness has encroached on the earth and human kind is about to be obliterated. In the case of the zombie films, it is more profound. It seems as though death—symbolized by these walking “living dead”—has prevailed over life itself It is in that moment, that there is a turning point. The heroes of these films, at this point, usually recollect themselves. They find an inner strength. They find some kind of renewed hope that motivates them to rise up and to fight back. And, in the end, they are able to push back—or, at the very least, hold at bay—the forces of darkness, death and evil.

For us with eyes that see and ears that hear, that hope is very Christ-like. For those of us who are hungry or thirsty, who feel like strangers, who are naked, sick and imprisoned, we find Christ in those rays of hope that break through into our lives. It is very similar to the hope we are clinging to in this moment as we enter Advent—that time in which the light of Christ is seen breaking into the encroaching darkness of our existence. And we—in those moments when we feed the hungry, when we give drink to the thirsty, when we welcome the stranger, when we clothe the naked, when we visit the sick and imprisoned—in those moments, we become that light in the darkness, that hope in someone else’s life. We embody Christ when we become the conduits of hope.

So, as we celebrate the end of this liturgical year and set our expectant eyes on the season of Advent, let us not just be filled with hope. Let us be a true reflection of Christ’s hope to this world. Let us be the living embodiment of that hope to those who need hope. And in doing, we too will hear those words of assurance to us: “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Article in The Living Church

This article was originally published in the October 12th issue of The Living Church.

North Dakota Bridge Builder

A priest and poet make connections in North Dakota

By John Schuessler

Open spaces and dark comedy may come to mind at the thought of North Dakota, but what about bridges? Probably not, even with 5,000 of them spread across the state.

The Rev. Jamie Parsley is a North Dakota bridge builder of sorts. As the state’s associate poet laureate, his bridges are made of images, history, words, and relationships rather than hardened steel and concrete.

Fr. Parsley stays busy making connections as priest, teacher, and writer in the state where he grew up. The first of his seven books of poems was published when he was 22. Fr. Parsley received degrees in fine arts and theology and was ordained a priest on 2004. He was an assistant at Gethsemane Cathedral in Fargo until last month, when he became priest in charge of St. Stephen’s Church, Fargo.

He has served as the Bishop of North Dakota’s assistant for communications since 2005, and has taught theology, ethics, philosophy, literature and writing at the University of Mary in Fargo since 2003.

Four years ago, North Dakota’s poet laureate Larry Woiwode designated Fr. Parsley as an associate poet laureate to ensure that the state would continue to be exposed to “the living arts,” Fr. Parsley explained. The position received formal recognition from the governor.

Being a poet laureate in North Dakota “means being a face for poetry in state that people elsewhere might not think about as a state that produces poetry,” Fr. Parsley said. He speaks at schools and gives poetry readings wherever people will have him—at retirement and nursing homes, in churches and parks, and in libraries and hospitals.

One of his roles is to inspire people to reach out beyond the bounds of the state, he said. “I’ve been amazed by how surprised people are to find someone form North Dakota who writes books that people outside of North Dakota are reading,” he says.

He especially enjoys visiting schools. He helps students try their hands at poetry and discover poetry in the lyrics of songs and other writings.

“A lot of farm kids never considered poetry in their lives,” he said. “I hope they come away seeing that there is so much more out there, rather than just dead white men writing in a certain kind of rhyme.”

Fr. Parsley’s latest project, completed this summer, is a book of poems about a 1957 tornado that killed 12 people, including his mother’s cousin and her husband. Fr. Parsley said the story had been “under the surface since I was a boy,” but few people talked about it, much less wrote about it. In writing Fargo, 1957, Fr. Parsley conducted extensive research into the lives of each victim. Some suffered injuries that eventually took their lives. His mother’s cousin was in a coma for 2 ½ years before she died. He learned about the “tragic, sad life” of another person who the subject of a Pulitzer Prize-winning photo.

Fr. Parsley considered writing a book of non-fiction, but that more critical, “stand offish” approach wouldn’t allow him to “get into the story in the same way,” he said.

“Poetry deals with the emotions, and certainly mine deals with spirituality in it,” he said. “There is this Scandinavian/Lutheran mentality up here in North Dakota—let go and let God. I wanted to explore that spirituality and do it true justice without making it trivial or trite. Poetry allows you to let people be how they are.”

He continued, “A lot of people don’t like talking about their spiritually. I can’t write poetry without it. Poetry is a way to articulate spiritual depth. Job wrote gorgeous poetry convey the depths of despair he went through.”

Fr. Parsley compared writing a poem to preparing a sermon. “Certainly there is a similarity between the sermon and a poem, in structure and the goal to convey something deeper than straightforward words can do sometimes. The problem is sermons sometimes can’t wait around for inspiration.”

Not surprisingly, he finds beautiful poetry within the liturgy. “Poetry is important even if the congregation might not realize that what they are praying is, in fact, poetry,” he observed. “There is certainly one of the reasons I am so attracted to Anglicanism and The Episcopal Church. I love the liturgy and I love the poetry contained within the liturgy.”

“I love The Book of Common Prayer because it is one of most profoundly spiritual books and poetic books written,” he said. “Of course, why shouldn’t it be? Look at its authors. Most of them were poets. If you open The Book of Common Prayer to the Eucharistic prayers they are, quite simply, poems—beautiful religious poems that wonderfully profess our faith. And of course The Book of Common Prayer is chock full of scripture. And what is more poetic than the Bible?”

“What I like about being an Anglican poet and priest in the tradition of Donne and Herbert and Vaughan and Thomas is that relationship between literature and faith,” Fr. Parsley said. “We have a long tradition of using fine poetry in helping us to worship God. But personally I find that poetry becomes the primary expression of my faith, as it did for Donne and Herbert and Auden. In my poems I am able to struggle, to vent, to rage, to calm myself, to nestle inside my faith. Others might have journals, or might resort to proselytizing to help them process and express their faith. I have poetry. And for me, poetry suits me in just the perfect way to help me make sense of what I believe and what I long for spiritually.”

John Schuessler is Managing Editor of The Living Church.

Sanctus

by Jamie Parsley

Unlike one aunt
who caught the Spirit,
was born again and spoke
in tongues, we couldn’t
praise that way.

Holiness, for us,
was something subdued.
It came up from
within us slowly
and made us
quiet with contentment
rather than shout for joy.

This was the other extreme
to the depths we went into
in those long hot days afterward.
From that despair that made us
bite the insides of our mouths
to the fist-clenching exuberance
we found bubbling up
from within us,
we knew—
in no articulate way—
it was somehow
going to be all right…
or at least as close to it
as possible.

(from the unpublished book of poems, Fargo, 1957 in remembrance of a tornado that killed 12 people)

Saturday, November 15, 2008

27 Pentecost


November 16, 2008
Pledge Sunday
St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church

Matthew 25.14-30

Every time pledge season rolls around, I am reminded of when pledge season would come to Public Television as a kid. I watched a lot of public television as a child. Whether it was Sesame Street, the Electric Company, Mr. Rodgers’ Neighborhood, 3-2-1 Contact, or any of the other shows on in the 1970s, it was by far my favorite station. Of course, back then, we only had four stations . But when Pledge Season rolled around and these shows were constantly interrupted by announcers asking for money, I often groaned aloud. The good thing about pledge season on Public Television was they oftentimes showed films and documentaries they didn’t show at other times of the year.

One of the films I always looked forward to seeing again and again during Pledge Season was that wonderful cinematic classic, Auntie Mame. I always loved watching Rosalind Russell in all her 1958 Technicolor glory.

We, in the church, on this, our Pledge Sunday, don’t get anything even close to Rosalind Russell or even Technicolor today in our scriptures Instead, we get the parable of the talents, of money lent and the reward awaiting those who were entrusted with the money, complete with its not-so-subtle wag of the finger at us. It’s a good story for us, though. Most of us can relate to it. We understood how good it is to have people invest money for us and to receive more in return. It certainly speaks in a very special way to us in this strange, scary and unstable financial environment in which we are living at this moment.

Of course, this parable isn’t really about money at all, as we probably have guessed. The parable is about taking what we have—and in the case of today’s reading Jesus is talking about the Gospel—and working to expand it and return it back to God with interest.

We, as Christians, are called to just this: we are called to work, to do something with what we’ve been given. And the worse thing we can imagine is being called by that ugly word we discover in today’s Gospel: “lazy.”

Lazy is a word I hate. And the reason I hate it, I realized as I sat down with this scripture this past week, was because I once was called lazy. I was in the fourth grade and I was being lazy, although I didn’t think I was. My grades were mediocre at best. I got my homework done and in on time, but I didn’t really work on it. I did what I was supposed to do: I followed the rules, I managed the deadlines. In other words, I coasted. But I didn’t do anything special. One day, my teacher called me out into the hallway for one of THOSE discussions. We all remember them. We remember how embarrassing and frightening it was to be called out, to make that journey past our classmates who knew full well that something was wrong, to be separated from them and then to be reprimanded. And in this case, I was. My teacher told me that she was disappointed in me. My work, though it was in time and it was done, was sloppy and showed no real dedication or purpose. She then ended her reprimand of me with words that stuck with me for years. She said to me, “Jamie, you’re just being lazy and you need to shape up.”

It sounds fairly innocuous now, but at the time I was embarrassed and hurt. And that word—lazy—cut very deep. It became a swear word to me. Nothing could be worse, I imagined, than being called lazy. But…I eventually shaped up. I concentrated a bit more, I hunkered down and I worked hard.

An interesting postscript to this story was that I saw this teacher once at a banquet a few years ago. She came up to me and asked if I remembered who she was. I told her, of course, I did. She said to me: “I just wanted you to know that I’ve kept up with you. I’ve read the books you’ve written. I read in the paper about your ordinations. I’m pleased to know that you’re an Associate Poet Laureate of the state. I’m really proud of you.”

That statement really blew me away. But it also drove home to me the meaning of our scripture today. What is we ultimately want to hear? Is it that shaming admonition: “You wicked and lazy slave!” Or do we want to hear: “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.”

Over and over again in Scripture, we find this one truth: God is not really ever concerned with what we have; but God is always concerned with what we do with what we have. And we should always remind ourselves that it is not always an issue of money that we’re dealing with. The rewards of this life include many other things other than money—an issue we sometimes forget about in our western capitalist society. The fact is, God is not always concerned about who we are and what we do. God is always concerned with what we do with who we are and what we do. And when we’re lazy, we purposely forget this fact. When we’re lazy, we think we can just coast. We think we can just “get by.” We think we can just give lip service to our gratitude and that is enough. But it isn’t enough.

To be a "good and trustworthy” servant is take what we have and do something meaningful with it. By doing something, we are showing our gratitude for it.

In these weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, we might find ourselves thinking about all the things in our lives we are thankful for. And we might be expressing our thanks to God for those things. But what God seems to want from us more than anything is to let that thankfulness be lived out in our lives. Our thankfulness should not simply be the words coming from our mouths, but the actions we do as Christians. Our thankfulness should be in our stewardship—in the fact that we are thankful by sharing what we have been given. And in that sharing, we find the true meaning of what it means to be gracious. In that sharing, we find purpose and meaning in our lives. In that sharing, we find contentment.

So, maybe in the end, we DO, on this Pledge Sunday, get something somewhat like Rosalind Russell in Auntie Mame. Auntie Mame teaches us all a wonderful lesson—a lesson that, let’s face it, was radical even in that 1950s Technicolor world. Mame, the radical, eccentric, outspoken, wealthy, party-loving matriarch of the story, learns a wonderful and powerful lesson by the end of the film. Even after she loses her money in the Depression, after she loses her husband (Forrest Tucker) to an unfortunate mountain climbing accident in the Alps, even after facing her bigoted potential future in-laws—even despite all the hardships life threw at her, she emerged from it all, glowing and self-assured and strong. She emerged from it knowing that it wasn’t what she had, but what she did with what she had that made all the difference. She emerged from it all with a gratitude that glows on her face. What Mame had was integrity and love and compassion and, by sharing those things—love and integrity and compassion—she found herself. She found in her life what truly mattered.

To see it from this perspective means to know full well that the things this life throws at us don’t defeat us. We go through this life prepared when it gives us something extra. Of course, we can take it and we can sit on it. We can store it away and not let it gain interest. And in the end, all we have is a moldering treasure. Or we can take a chance, we can invest it and, in investing it, we can spread it and share it.

During this pledge season, we are saying to ourselves, be grateful. These are the things we have—our talents, our God-given abilities, the material blessings—and to be truly thankful for those things, we need to be grateful for them and to share them. We can’t hoard them, we can’t hug them close and be afraid they will be taken from us. And we can’t go through life with a complacent attitude—expecting that others are going to take of these things for us.

We must share what we have. And we must share what we have with dignity and self-assurance and with a graceful and grateful attitude. We must not be the lazy slave who hoards what is given him, afraid to invest what he has. We must instead be like the wise servant, the one is alert and prepared, the one who is truly gracious. And if we are, we too will hear those words spoken to us—those words we all long to hear—“Well done…enter into the joy of your master.”

Saturday, November 8, 2008

26 Pentecost


Matthew 25. 1-13


What does it mean to be wise? No doubt we find ourselves, when we hear that word, with visions of sages and great teachers, of someone like Confucius or Buddha, serenely staring off into the world, all-knowing .

From a scriptural perspective, we find two kinds of wisdom. We find the wisdom of the world, which more often than not, is seen as base-less according to scripture. World-based wisdom is fleeting. By one definition, it is seen as “based on intuition and experience without revelation, and thus has severe limitations.” (The New Bible Dictionary). The other kind of wisdom we find in scriptures is, of course, true wisdom and that is the wisdom that comes from God. It is a wisdom instilled within us by the Spirit and, by the Spirit, shared with others.

True wisdom is a beautiful goal to work toward. Certainly, we all strive for wisdom in one sense or the other. We long to be smarter than we are sometimes. We all expect wisdom to descend upon us gradually over time, with the years, so that when we are finished with our journeys here on earth, we will have a nice stockpile of wisdom at the end.

The fact is, life doesn’t really work that way. Wisdom is often elusive. Just when we think we have it, when we think we have grasped it, it wiggles away from us and we are left empty of it. But wisdom is the ideal. It is the better place to be in our world.

And this morning, we find Jesus telling us this parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids, complete with its not-so-subtle wag of the finger at us. The parable we encounter this morning truly is a strange one to say the least. Reginald Fuller, the great Anglican theologian, found several questions unanswered in this parable. Fuller wondered: “Whose house was the groom entering—the bride’s or his own—and in whose house did the marriage feast take place? What made the groom arrive so late? Would a wedding feast have taken place after midnight? Were the bridesmaids bridesmaids, and if so why did they have to escort the groom?” And of course, if you notice, no mention is made of the bride at all. Ultimately Fuller conceded that we know too little about the marriage customs of the time to answer these questions proficiently.


Still, the parable is a strange one for most of us, but one that still makes us sit up and take notice of it. We find ourselves finding an analogy in it, as we attempt to do in all the parables. Without the analogy, these stories are essentially pointless to most of us. And so, we find that in the story the bridegroom is Jesus; his return, the second coming; the bridesmaids are the good and the bad among us Christian; and the wedding feast is that great feast that awaits all of us at the end of our journeys. This is probably the best way to proceed with this story and as such, it gives us plenty to take with us to chew on.


In examining the parable from this perspective, we find ourselves asking: who is it we want to be? Do we want to be the foolish bridesmaids, the ones who go about in the night with our ears closed and not thinking ahead to what awaits us? Or do we want to be like the wise bridesmaids who are ready—who are ready to heed the calling, and to be ready for the Bridegroom when he comes to us?


Certainly we can look at this parable from the perspective of the end times—of that time when Christ makes his return among us on the last day. But we can even—and should—apply it to the simple fact that Christ often appears to us in our lives now. Christ often appears to us in disguise, as those people we want least to meet.


Think for a moment of the person in your life at this moment who drives you crazy for whatever reasons. Think of that person who just triggers in you a feeling of agitation, frustration and avoidance. That is Christ in our midst. And that is how we should remember he comes to us sometimes. Christ appears to us sometimes as persistent as a phone call from someone we don’t want to talk to. Christ appears to us as that person who nags us, who challenges us, who jolts us out of our complacency and pushes us just outside the limitations we have set for ourselves.
I’ll be honest with you: In my life, this happens more often than I care to admit. Just a few weeks ago, I had one of those moments in my life. I was coasting beautifully in my life. The future looked bright. I was as content as I have been a long time. That morning I woke up and felt joyful and hopeful about the day ahead of me. And then—it all came crashing to a halt. I found myself faced with a situation I naively thought of as nothing but being blown out of proportion and I found myself in the midst of a personal emotional maelstrom. The person through whom this situation came became a dark shadow in my life. As I struggled to gain some balance in my life, I found myself raging inwardly toward this person. I felt betrayed, hurt and uncomfortable. And only later did I finally confront myself and ask: what if this person was Christ in our midst? It was then that I caught myself again and reminded myself that this person WAS Christ in our midst.


When Christ comes to us, he will often appear to us as someone just like that person we least want to deal with in our lives. He will appear to us as someone who opens our eyes from complacency and forces us to see the present for all its stark, ugly reality—a reality we did not necessarily see before as ugly. When Christ appears to us, he will challenge us. He will nudge us outside the boundaries we have set for ourselves. He will shake us to our very core and make us tremble there. And when he appears to us, will we be ready? Or will we find ourselves annoyed and put out by that visitation? Will we find ourselves devastated and hurt by it? Will we simply turn into ourselves in some defensive mode and block him from us.


The message we can take away from today’s parable is this: are we ready when Christ comes to us in the guise of those we least like? The parable today reminds us that we have a choice: we can either be wise or we can be foolish. Wise here means more than just being smart. It means more than just having read the right books and went to the right schools. It means being prepared. It means being savvy enough to know that life is going to throw us a few surprises and in those moments we need to be ready.


To be truly wise means to know full well that the things this life throws at us doesn’t defeat us. To be wise means that we go through this life prepared. We go through this life knowing and expecting that this life is going to throw some ugly things our ways. We can either stop and curl up into ourselves and refuse to go forward. Or we can be prepared and when life throws us curve balls, we can catch them, we can shake it off and we can go on with life a little more wise, a little more prepared, a little different than we were before that curve ball.


As we near the Advent in a few weeks, we can already hear that familiar rallying cry: be prepared. We need to be like the wise bridesmaids. We need to prepared when Christ, the Bridegroom comes to us. Like them, we need to be wise and savvy. We can’t go through life with a complacent attitude—expecting that others are going to take of these things for us. We must not be the foolish bridesmaids who wander about aimlessly, unprepared for what life throws at them. We must instead be like the wise bridesmaids, who are alert and prepared, who are ready to heed the call of the bridegroom—Christ—when he calls upon us in the dark night of our lives. We must be wise and ready in case he shows up at times other than we expect.


So be wise. Be prepared. Bring with you the oil to fill your lamps through the long night. And if you do, you will be prepared when the Bridegroom calls you by name and invites you in to the banquet.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Nashotah House Convocation -- Oct. 29, 2008








Photos from Convocation at Nashotah House on Oct. 29, 2008

Saturday, November 1, 2008

All Saints Sunday


November 2, 2008
St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church
Fargo, North Dakota

Revelation 7.9-17

Today, of course, we are celebrating All Saints Sunday. I love this feast day, not only because today we commemorate all of our loved ones and others who have passed on to the “nearer presence of God,” but because today we also have an opportunity to ponder and reflect upon our own views of what awaits us as well.

First of all, lets’ talk a bit about the saints. For most of us we no doubt give little thought to saints in our regular lives. Most of us probably think veneration of saints is almost an exclusively Roman Catholic practice. Certainly, Romans Catholics seem, in some ways, to have the market cornered when it comes to saints. We maybe know Roman Catholic friends who invoke St. Jude for impossible causes or St. Christopher when traveling or St. Anthony when something is lost. I had a great-aunt who often talked about St. Therese of Lisieux, the “Little Flower,” as though she were a dear friend—somebody she knew well, talked to on a regular basis and who took care of her when she needed to be taken care of.

But we Episcopalians do have our saints too. We name many of our churches after saints—like our own, after St. Stephen the Martyr. We commemorate their feast days. And we recognize our contemporaries as saints. We find most of our saints in the supplemental book we called The Book of Lesser Feasts and Fasts. This is a wonderful book and one I always encourage Episcopalians to purchase for themselves and read through daily. Here we find a wide variety of saints, reflecting in many ways the wide variety of people in the Episcopal Church.

As you know, I was in Wisconsin this last week, at Nashotah House Seminary and in the cemetery there, two people we commemorate in Lesser Feasts and Fasts are buried—namely Blessed Jackson Kemper and Blessed James Lloyd Breck. I also visited the Dekoven Center in Racine, Wisconsin, on Monday and there is buried another person we commemorate in the Episcopal Church, Blessed James Dekoven.

But we also have newer additions in The Book of Lesser Feasts and Fasts. For example, we now commemorate the ordination of Blessed Florence Li Tim-Oi, the Chinese woman who, on January 25, 1944, became the first woman in the Anglican communion ordained to the priesthood. She died in 1992.

Another recent addition to Lesser Feasts and Fasts is Enmegahbowh. Enmegahbowh lived and worked on the White Earth Reservation north of Detroit Lakes, Minnesota and was the first Native American to be ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church.

Unlike the Roman Catholics, we don’t invoke our saints—we don’t pray to them. We do, however, look to them as examples of how to live out our Christian lives. Saints like Jackson Kemper, James Lloyd Breck, James Dekoven, Florence Li-Tim Oi and Enmegahbowh help us to see that even ordinary Christians can sometimes do extraordinary things.

We do, though, have to ask ourselves: are there saints among us still? If so, who are these saints who live and work beside us? More often than not, you’ll think of some exceptional person you knew who truly lived a “Christian life.” Some of us might think of our mothers, or our fathers or some priest or a missionary we knew at some time or some social worker. But do many of us think of ourselves as saints? Can any of us look in the mirror and, with all honesty, see a saint?

The fact is this: we too are the saints of God. We don’t necessarily have to do extraordinary things. We simply need to live out our faith in Christ to its fullest. And we need to hope in the fact that this life is not all there is. Yes, we need to live this life to fullest and make the most of it—that’s what the saints teach us again and again. This life is an opportunity to do good and to bring about goodness. It is an opportunity to work toward holiness in our lives and to participate in the mystery of Christ.

But, in this life, we also hope for the life that comes after this—the life of absolute wholeness. The life that will never end. That’s the wonderful thing about All Saints Day. Today is a day we get to reflect on where we’re going as Christian saints. We are a part of a much larger Church than we can even imagine. The Church is so much more than the church on earth. It extends far beyond our imaginations and our conceptions. The larger Church exists in that place we, as Christians, strive toward. The larger Church is the one that dwells in the “nearer presence of God.”

We very rarely give heaven a lot of thought. I hear so many people tell me about how they will “worry about heaven when they get there.” I have also been with people as they neared the end of their earthly journey, and I have been able to see these people as they glimpsed something beautiful and spectacular ahead of them.

In today’s collect, we prayed to God to “give us grace to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you…” In the original version of this collect the word “unspeakable" was used instead of "ineffable." “May we come to those unspeakable joys” Either way, that, I think, is the key to what we are longing for in our lives as Christians. We have no clear picture of where we are going. Scripture does not paint any crystal clear pictures for us of what heaven will be like. Yes, there’s a good amount of poetic language, written by people who imagined only the most beautiful place for heaven—with streets paved in gold and crystal buildings all about.

In today’s reading from Revelation, for example, we find some gorgeous images of heaven—of multitudes of saints standing before the throne of the Lamb of God with palm branches in their hands and their robes washed white by the blood of the Lamb. It’s a beautiful image and one we can cherish and hold close when we think about heaven.

But ultimately these are vague symbol-heavy images for most of us and ones that are hard to wrap our minds around.

But in our collect today, we hear words given to our hopes. That idea of ineffable joys—of joys that leave us speechless, joys that are beyond our understanding, awaiting us—that is what we are hoping in. And that is the place we believe our loved ones to be at this moment. That is where the larger Church is participating at this very moment in its unending worship of God.

We know that this goal—that place of heaven—is the place to which we are headed. To some extent—and I am not talking about predestination here—we, in a very real sense, as Christians, as people who profess, and in professing, believe, know the end of our story. We know that heaven awaits us, with its unspeakable joys, and we know that if we keep our eyes on that goal, then that goal will be our reward. Certainly, we also know the beginning of own individual stories. We know what we have done up to this point in our lives. We are fully aware of the joys and the hardships we have experienced up to this moment. It’s the middle part of the story—the part of our lives that we are living now, as we speak—that is for the most part unwritten. And this is where the mystery of our lives lie. The mystery doesn’t lie in our ultimate goal. We know it’s there. We know we are slowly—day by day, moment by moment—headed to that place. The mystery of our lives is in the here and now. It is in that foggy, gray area between this moment and that moment we arrive in our True Home. While we are living the middle part of that story right now, we know that sometimes it’s not a pleasant story. It’s sometimes a very difficult story. We have no idea what awaits us tomorrow. We have no idea of the hardships that lie ahead for us around the next corner. But we do know that beyond those unseen hardships, lie joys beyond words for us.

And with that goal in sight, we know one other thing: we know that we are taken care of. Through it all, Christ is there with us, taking care of us. This journey we are on is a journey with Christ toward that place Christ lifts the “veil” to give us a glimpse of. This is what it means to be a saint.

So, who are the saints in our lives—the ones who will be able to share in this glorious vision? They are the ones who know that they are “taken care of.” Or to use the language we hear today in Revelation:

“the one who is seated on
the throne will shelter them.
They will hunger no more, and
thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
for the Lamb at the center of the
throne will be their
shepherd,
and he will guide them to
springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every
tear from their eyes.”


They are the ones who know that the beginning and the end of the story are already finished. They know how their story is going to end. And that ending will be glorious and beautiful. It’s what they do with the middle of the story that makes all the difference.

But there’s one more hitch to the story. The message of All Saints Day is that the end isn’t really the end of the story at all, but actually a whole new beginning. Our journey doesn’t end simply because we die. Our journey goes on, but now on a whole different level. We continue to grow.

In The Book of Common Prayer, there is a wonderful prayer from the Burial Service that describes death as growing from “strength to strength.” With it comes a sense that our growth into Christ will go on. This is our story and it really is a wonderful one, isn’t it?

Who are the saints among us? We are the saints among us. Today—All Saints Sunday—is a celebration of ourselves just as much as it is a celebration of those who have gone on before us. So, celebrate our loved ones who are no longer with us. Celebrate those saints who have paved the way for us on our path toward that goal of heaven. They are celebrating today, in that place of joy and light and beauty, before the throne of the Lamb. But also, celebrate yourselves today, because those ineffable joys await you as well.