Sunday, December 27, 2009

1 Christmas



Dec. 27, 2009

John 1.1-18

As most of you know, I love to read biographies. I try to read at least one a month. I just enjoy reading about the lives of people. However, probably one of my least favorite parts of biographies are the beginnings. To be honest, I’m just not all the interested in childhood stories. Very rarely do we discover the essence of who people become in stories of their childhood. What makes a person interesting, for me anyway, is the kind of person they have become after being formed by the difficulties and joys of life.

But today, in our Gospel reading, we are given a glimpse of the very beginning. The beginning we experience today is a bit different than the beginning we read about in Genesis. The beginning we encounter today even harkens back further than the creation of Adam and Eve. It goes back to before those creation stories to who and what God was initially.

“In the beginning…” we hear at the beginning of St. John’s Gospel. And they are certainly the most appropriate words if ever there were any. Especially at this time of the year.

Although the Church year begun a month ago, the year 2010 is now upon us. As this year runs down and the new begins, our thoughts turn to beginnings. We think about that New Year and how important a new year is our lives. It heralds for us a sense of joy—and fear—of the future.

All of a sudden we are faced with the future. It lies there before us—a mystery. Will this coming year bring us joy or sadness? Will it be a good year or a bad year? And we step forward into the New Year without knowing what that year will hold for us.

I have a personal tradition of watching two movies on or around New Years Eve. The first is a movie called 200 Cigarettes—which is about a group of edgy, cool, New Wave New Yorkers on New Year’s Eve 1982 partying and thinking about their lives and all that the New Year entails. It’s not a great movie and I don’t recommend it to too many people. It’s just one of those kind of so-so movies that I occasionally like to watch just for he fun of it.


But another movie that I always like to watch around this time of the year is a movie I do recommend. It’s a Cohen Brothers film called The Hudsucker Proxy. It opens with a really powerful beginning. It begins with a panning shot through the snow of New York City from above. As the shot continues to pan, we hear the narrator. He says, as we travel along with him:


That's right.


New York.

It's 1958 .


Anyway, for a few more minutes it is.


Come midnight, it's going to be 1959.


A whole other feeling.


The New Year.


The future.


Old Daddy Earth [is] fixing to startone more trip around the sun.


Everybody [is] hoping this ride round[will] be a little more giddy...


...a little more gay.


All over town, champagne corks[are] popping.


Over in the Waldorf, the big shots [are]

dancing to the strains of Guy Lombardo.


In Times Square, the little folks [are] watching

and waiting for that big ball to drop.


They're all trying to catch hold

of one moment of time...


...to be able to say:

"Right now! This is it!


"I got it!"


Of course, by then it'll be past.

But they're all happy...


...everybody having a good time.

That’s what beginnings are all about, I guess. That one moment when we too can say: “Right now! This is it! I got it!” And we all know that just as soon as we do, just like the narrator said, “it’ll be past.”

In our reading from John this morning, it’s also one of those moments. In that moment, we get a glimpse of one of those “right now” moments. It seems as though, for that moment, it’s all clear. At least for John anyway. We encounter, the “Word.” And for a moment, we too might think we’ve got it too. We think, “Yes, I understand that Word. But do we? Just when we think we’ve got it, it’s past and we’re not so certain.

That word—“Word.” In the original Greek, it’s “Logos.” That word means more than just .what comes out of our moths. And it’s more than just the Word as Bible. “Word” isn’t even the really correct interpretation of that word Logos. Logos really means Knowledge of Logic. We find that word in many of the words we use. Psychology, which essentially means knowledge concerning the mind Biology, which means knowledge concerning life Theology, which means knowledge concerning God or religion.

But even knowledge doesn’t quite convey what John is trying to tell us in this glimpse of the beginning. Another way to translate the word “logos” is to say “essence.” It is the very essence of what it conveys. If we look at it in this way, then we can sat that the “Word” of God we encounter in today’s Gospel is, in a sense, the very essence of God.

This is a little different then what we sometimes encounter in the scriptures for our Sunday reading. This is deep, theological thinking that isn’t as easy to grasp on a first, quick reading.

But this is an appropriate way to begin the Gospel of John and to begin our new year as well. It is a great beginning. It sets the tone for all forms of Christian theology and a deeper understanding of what it means to believe as a Christian. When we think about what it is we are celebrating in this Christmas season, at least in the context of our Gospel reading for today, we are talking about the Incarnation. We are talking about this Word—this Logos—this knowledge and essence of God, actually taking flesh, coming to us as a human being. Our understanding of who and what Jesus was and is is encapsulated in this reading. Jesus is not just a very nice guy, a gloomy prophet, a rebel, a rabblerouser. We realize that he is the essence of God. When we look at Jesus, we see God. He is the conduit, the prism of God. And even before he took flesh on that Bethlehem night, he was. He existed without beginning. And he still continues to exist, without end.

In Jesus, we experience a beginning that doesn’t seem to end. In Jesus, God comes forward and becomes present among us in a way we could never possibly imagine. God appears to us in the Gospels not as God in the Old Testament, cloaked behind pillars of fire or thunderstorms or wind. Instead, in Jesus, God appears before us, as one of us in a whole new beginning.

God’s word, God’s wisdom, God’s essence became flesh. God’s voice was no longer a booming voice from the sky, demanding sacrifices. God instead spoke to us as one of us. And this voice was a familiar one. And the Word spoken to us is a word of Love. The commandment this Word tells us of is a commandment to love. Love God and love one another as you love yourselves.

While we might not be able to fully fathom what this means and what the Word is saying to us, we can embrace it and make it a part of our lives And that beginning that we find in John is a strange beginning, because it keeps on and on. It is as much of a beginning now, to us, as it was at the time John wrote it. We are refreshed and renewed by this new beginning. It strengthens us and motivates us to meet with joy and gladness our new beginning. This might be one of the few times when I actually enjoy the beginning of a story.

I enjoy this beginning because this is the true message of Jesus as the Word. Maybe the true message of Jesus is that, in God’s Kingdom, that beginning keeps on and on, without end. In God’s Kingdom there is constant renewal. In God’s Kingdom it is always like New Year’s Day—always fresh, always full of hope for a future that does not end or disappoint.

As we prepare to celebrate 2010, let us think about beginnings and how important they are for us personally and for our spiritual lives. And let us do what we can to be the bringers of new beginnings not only in our own lives, but in the lives of others. With this encounter with the Word, we, like John, are also saying in this moment, “ Right now! This is it! I got it!” John shows us that we really do “got it.” Unlike how we might feel at the New Year—full of both hope and apprehension—in this instance, in our grasping of it, it doesn’t wiggle away from it. It doesn’t fall through our fingers like sand. Or snow. It stays with us. Always new. Always fresh. Always being renewed.

We’re here.

It’s the future.

The Word, the Essence, of God has come to us as one of us. It’s incredible, really.

This moment is a glorious one.

Let us be joyful in it.

Amen.


Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Eve


December 24, 2009

Luke 2.1-20

Well, here it is. Christmas Eve. Now, as we enter this holy night, I have to admit something. Some of you, in the midst of the craziness and hustle and bustle of these past few weeks have heard me make a confession I really didn’t want to make. In the midst of being exhausted and tired and overwhelmed by everything, I let slip my secret: Christmas is not one of my favorite seasons. I have tried. I have made every effort throughout the years to celebrate and enjoy this holiday. But it just has never really endeared itself to me.

Now, to be clear, I am not talking here about Jesus’ birth or Advent or anything of the spiritual things associated with this season. Rather, I have never been a big fan of all the Christmas trappings that go along with his holiday.

Still, despite my frustrations over the actual season, tonight I, like most of you, feel a little tinge of excitement on Christmas Eve. I, like most of you, know that tonight is just a little more special than any other night. Something holy and beautiful is happening around us tonight.

Throughout this past Advent, it seems to me that the one prevailing prayer I (and, in various forms, everyone of us) has been praying is that wonderful prayer we find in the book of Revelation: Lord Jesus, come quickly. I preached earlier in Advent on the importance of that simple prayer and how it truly sums up what we anxiously look forward to during the Advent season and throughout our spiritual lives. We, as Christians, are looking for the answer to that prayer: Lord Jesus, come quickly. It seems that the answer to that prayer will bring with it all the answers. When Jesus comes to us, our questions of life and death will be answered. Our enemies will be vanquished. All will be made right.

And tonight, here on this Christmas Eve, that prayer has been answered. We realize that Jesus has come to us. But what we find in his coming is that our questions about life and death have not been answered. We still don’t understand life and we still fear death. Our enemies have not been vanquished. In fact, sometimes, they seem to be triumphing all the more. And as we look around this world—at the violence, at the crime, at the war and injustice of this world, at the racism and homophobia and sexism that still exists—we realize all has not been made magically right.

And what we expected in our Savior, our Redeemer our Messiah—what we thought would be the mighty warrior coming with sword in hand to shield us and vanquish the forces of evil—we instead find a Child. We find a vulnerable human baby, born of a teenage mother under mysterious and scandalous circumstances. And still, despite all of that, somehow, on this evening, holiness shines through to us. Our prayer—Lord Jesus, come quickly—has been answered and we know that although it has not been cataclysmic, something incredible still has happened.

As the great Archbishop of Canterbury (and probably the greatest of my personal heroes), Michael Ramsey once wrote: “Our Christmas is no less Christmas and our joy no less joyful because we are keeping Christmas with a very dark and troubled world around us…Our rejoicing at Christmas is not an escape from life’s grim realities into a fancy realm of religion and festivity. Rather is it a joy that, as we face and feel the world’s tragedy, we know that God has an answer: an answer for [hu]mankind to receive. In a word, this is a time of hope.”

Tonight, in this dark, cold night, we celebrate that hope. While darkness still exists, we now see that in the midst of that darkness, there is a glimmer of light. It is dim at times. It doesn’t seem like much. But it is there. And as we strain into that darkness, we realize that hope comes to us as Light. We celebrate hope of that Light that has come to us in our collective and personal darknesses. We celebrate the Light that has come to us in our despair and our fear, in our sadness and in our frustration. And as it does, we hold bask in the glory of those two emotions—the two emotions Christmas is all about—hope and joy.

Hope—in our belief that what has come to us—Jesus—God made flesh—is here among us, Our prayer, “Lord Jesus, come quickly” has been answered in ways more remarkable then we originally thought. And Joy—at the realization of that reality.

As we come forward tonight to meet with joy and hope this mystery that we remember and commemorate and make ours this evening, we too should find ourselves feeling these emotions at our very core. This hope and joy we are experiencing this evening comes up from our very centers. We will never fully understand how or why Jesus—God made flesh—has come to us as this little child in a barn in the Middle East, but it has happened and, because it happened, we are a different people. Our lives are different because of what happened that evening. This baby has taken away, by his very life and eventual death, everything we feared and dreaded.

When we look at it from that perspective, suddenly we realize that yes, our Advent prayer has been truly answered. When we prayed “Lord Jesus come quickly,” he truly did come to us quickly. He comes to us where we are. And as he does, we find that our joy is a joy like few other joys we’ve had. We find that our hope is more tangible—more real—that anything we have ever hoped in before. And that is what we are rejoicing in this evening.

Our true hope and true joy is not in brightly colored lights and a pile of presents under a decorated tree. Our true hope and joy is not found in the malls or the stores. We know that our true hope and joy are not there because by Saturday, we’re going to see that what the rest of the society is celebrating in this Christmas season will be disposed of. By Saturday, the wrapping paper and the boxes will be on the curbs and so will many of the trees. Our true hope and joy is more powerful and more tangible than anything that is so disposable. Our true hope and joy does not come to us with things that will, a week from now, be a fading memory.

Our hope and joy is in that Baby who, as he comes to us, causes us to leap up with joy at his very presence. Our hope and joy is in that almighty and incredible God who would come to us, not on some celestial cloud with a sword in his hand and armies of angels flying about. Our hope and joy is in a God who comes to us in this innocent child, born to a humble teenager under scandalous circumstances in a dusty third world land. Our hope and joy is in a God who comes with a face like our face and flesh like our flesh—a God who is born, like we are born—of a human mother—and who dies like we all must die. Our hope and joy is in a God who comes and accepts us and loves us for who we are and what we are—a God who understands what it means to live this sometimes frightening uncertain life we live. But who, by that very birth, makes all births unique and holy and who, by that death, takes away the fear of death for all of us.

So, yes, I guess maybe all our expectations of Jesus’ coming have, in fact, been fulfilled. Slowly, but surely, he does make all things right—eventually. This is the real reason why we are joyful and hopeful on this beautiful night. This is why we are feeling within us a strange sense of happiness and excitement. This is why we are rushing toward our Savior who has come to visit us in what we once thought was our barrenness.

Let this hope you feel tonight as Jesus comes to us stay with you now and always. Let the joy you feel tonight as Jesus comes to us in love be the motivating force in how we live our lives throughout this coming year.

Jesus is here. He is in our midst tonight. He is so near, our very bodies and souls are rejoicing. So, greet him tonight with all that you have within you and welcome him into the shelter of your hearts.

Amen.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

4 Advent


Dec. 20, 2009

Luke 1:39-56


These past few weeks of Advent in our Gospel readings we have faced the formidable figure of St. John the Baptist. There he has been, on the far side of the Jordan, where the Children of Israel paused before they crossed over into the Promised Land, telling us that we too should step into the baptismal waters of the Jordan and emerge as children of God. But this morning, the tone changes.

Today, we encounter Mary (and John, once again, but now only the womb of his mother Elizabeth). And any encounter with Mary is always a special one.

Now, I know as I say this that some of you of more Protestant bent stiffen a bit when I start going off about Mary. And I do it quite often. But, I have a deep and abiding devotion to Mary. I always have. And I am not ashamed to admit that love for her. Mary is very important to our understanding of who Jesus is.

Today we encounter, after these last weeks of hearing John shouting in the wilderness, the beautiful voice of Mary, singing her Magnificat.

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord…”

You have and you will hear me preach often about Mary, because I think she is so important. And I also think that so many non-Roman Catholics have made such an effort to ignore her. Scot McNight, in his wonderful The Jesus Creed, wonderfully puts it this way:

“Most Bible readers fail to connect Jesus with Mary when they think of the teachings of Jesus. This failure fulfills what I think should be the (tongue-in-cheek) correct translation of Luke 1.48: ‘From now on all generations (except Protestants!) will call me blessed!’”

This morning, as we celebrate our last Sunday of Advent, as draw agonizingly close to the Birth of Jesus, it is only right that we encounter Mary at this point. Here she is, on this Sunday doing what she has always done—pointing toward Jesus. And as we approach Christmas, no doubt most of us are feeling two emotions—the two emotions Christmas is all about—hope and joy.

Hope—in our belief that what is coming to us—Christ—God-made-flesh—is almost here among us And Joy—at the realization of that reality.

In our Gospel reading for today, we also catch a glimpse of the hope and joy Mary and Elizabeth felt at the ways in which God was working their lives. Mary, carrying within her flesh God made flesh in the person of Jesus, and Elizabeth, carrying within her flesh John, who would later be the Baptists calling to us from the Jordan River, meet and there is a spark of energy that fires up between them. Or more importantly, there is a spark of energy that comes up between the babies they are carrying within them. What I have always loved about this story from scripture is that neither Mary nor Elizabeth probably fully understand what is going on within them. They both know that something strange and wonderful has happened. Mary, the young virgin, has conceived under mysterious and certainly scandalous circumstances and is about to give birth. And Elizabeth, the barren elderly woman, also is about to give birth. These sort of things don’t happen in ordinary life. Certainly nothing even remotely like this happened in the lives of these two simple Jewish women. But now, here they were, greeting each other, both of them pregnant with children that came to them by miraculous means. And, although they might not fully understand why or how, they feel real hope and joy at what has happened to them. The full expression of this hope and joy finds it voice in the words of Mary’s song—

“My soul glorifies the LORD
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”

In a sense, when we find ourselves relating to any of the people we meet in this Gospel reading, we may find ourselves relating more to Elizabeth. As Mary and the baby she carries draws near, there is a sense of joy and hope that comes not from some external place for Elizabeth, but from a place deep within her. It is a joy and hope that leaps up from her very womb—from the very center and core of her body and soul.

And so it should be with us also. As we come forward today, like Elizabeth, to meet with joy and hope this mystery that we are about to remember and commemorate and make ours this evening, we too should find ourselves feeling these emotions at our very core. But we can also find ourselves relating to Mary. Like Mary, we are called to carry within us Jesus. Wherever we go, we should bear Jesus within us. And like Mary, we should be able to rejoice as well, at this fact that Jesus dwells within us. We too should sing, in joy and hope:

“My soul glorifies the LORD
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”


Like both Mary and Elizabeth, this hope and joy we are experiencing this morning should be coming up from our very centers. This is really how we should approach the miracle that we commemorate this evening. Like Mary and Elizabeth, we will never fully understand how or why Jesus—God made flesh—has come to us as this little child in a dark stable in the Middle East, but it has happened and, because it happened, we are a different people. Our lives are different because of what happened that evening. This baby has taken away, by his very life and eventual death, everything we feared and dreaded.

When we look at it from that perspective, suddenly we find our emotions heightened. We find that our joy is a joy like few other joys we’ve had. We find that our hope is more tangible—more real—that anything we have ever hoped in before. And that is what we are facing this morning.

Our true hope and joy is not in brightly colored lights and a pile of presents until a decorated tree. Our true hope and joy is not found in the malls or the stores. Our true hope and joy does not come to us with things that will, a week from now, be a fading memory. Our hope and joy is in that Baby who, as he draws near, causes us to leap up with joy at his very presence. Our hope and joy is in that almighty and incredible God who would come to us, not on some celestial cloud with a sword in his hand and armies of angels flying about him. Our hope and joy is in a God who comes to us in this innocent child, born to a humble teenager in a dusty third world land. Our hope and joy is in a God who comes with a face like our face and flesh like our flesh—a God who is born, like we are born—of a human mother-and who dies like we all must die. But who, by that very birth, makes all births unique and holy and who, by that death, takes away the fear of death for all of us.

This is the real reason why we are joyful and hopeful on this beautiful morning. This is why we are feeling within us a strange leaping. This is why we rushing toward our Savior who has come to visit us in what we once thought was our barrenness.

Let the hope you feel today as Jesus our Savior draws close to us stay with you now and always. Let the joy you feel today as Jesus our Friend comes to us in love be the motivating force in how you live your lives throughout this coming year.

Jesus is so near our very bodies and souls are rejoicing. Greet him with all that you have within you and welcome him into the shelter of your hearts. And sing to him with all your hearts,

“My soul glorifies in you, O Lord,
and my spirit truly rejoices in you, O God, my Savior.”

Amen.




Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Requiem Eucharist for Rosemary Stillman

Rosemary Stillman(Oct. 25, 1922-Dec. 16, 2009)

St Stephen's Episcopal Church
December 19, 2009

Revelation 21.2-7; John 14.1-6
It struck me suddenly yesterday that next month, it will be ten years that I knew Rosemary Stillman. Ten years. Every month for ten years, I visited Rosemary, celebrated Holy Communion with her and shared with her her highs and her lows.

Ten years is a long time to know someone. And when one visits someone every month for a decade, one gets to know that person. I knew Rosemary very well. And she knew me very well. And in those ten years, as we would often reflected to one another, we went through some major highs and some major lows together.

All of us here today went through our own highs and lows with her. We journeyed alongside this very remarkable person—Rosemary Stillman. And she was remarkable. She was truly one in a million.

Now, I say this, but I do so acknowledging at the same time that Rosemary was no saint. And I know that where she is at this moment, she would be clear in letting me know that she would not want to be called a saint. Each month, without fail, when I visited her and we shared Holy Communion (which we celebrated from the 1928 edition of the Book of Common Prayer—the one she was most familiar with), she would say, every time, in good times and bad, “I need forgiveness.” She understood and was fully aware of her failings and her shortcomings. And that awareness only endeared her all the more to me.

She was also a die-hard Episcopalian. That’s how I got to know her. Ten years ago next month, when I was doing my duty in Clinical Pastoral Education, in which I served as a Chaplain at MeritCare Hospital, I came to her room and was delighted by her exuberance and her pride in her Episcopalianism.

“Do you know the difference between an Episcopalian and Roman Catholic?” she asked. “Episcopalians are snooty, have money and like their drinks.”

Which is actually pretty true. Although I served at that time at Gethsemane Cathedral, Rosemary always refused to join. She liked being referred to (I called her this), a “proxy” member.

However, over a year ago, when I became Priest-in-Charge here at St. Stephen’s, she immediately requested that she become a member here. She actually had fond memories of St. Stephen’s. She visited this church with her beloved John shortly after the church was built in 1957 and would visit it often when she came back to Fargo.

Our relationship was definitely that of priest and parishioner. I heard her confessions (and she often heard mine). But we were also friends. She admitted her shortcomings, her frustrations both at herself and just about everyone else, and, with me, she allowed herself to relax, to be herself, to kick back a bit. Not that it was always easy. There were one or two times when I got angry at her, but they were very short-lived. She would invariably call me and apologize (which I knew was very hard for her to do), then she would crack a joke, we’d laugh and, like that, it was all over.

More importantly, as I knew her over these last ten years, just one year after her beloved John died on January 8, 1999, I also, like all of us here this morning, walked with her through those very difficult years of her life. Rosemary did not like coming back to Fargo. She did not like how the city of her girlhood had changed so drastically. She often felt trapped here. But she also knew that, despite her dislike of this city, here she was loved. She was loved by us—her friends and caregivers. And she was cared for. And, as she told us, we made her existence here more bearable.

As her priest, I can assure you of this: she had a deep and strong faith. Her faith sustained her, even in those moments when everything else seemed out of control and horrible for her. We often talked about the Cross. I would say to her: “Rosemary, you don’t have to bear this Cross alone.” And when it became too much for her, she would let it go, but not without some struggle.

She often was frustrated that her prayers were not answered the way she wanted them to be answered. Although she could control so much in her life, she couldn’t control God. During one very difficult moment not that long ago—when she was informed that she was going to lose her leg—she was particularly frustrated. But that afternoon, I shared with her a quote from the great Anglican theologian, C.S. Lewis.

Lewis wrote these words in the dark, horrendous days following his wife’s death by cancer in 1960. As he vented at God, demanding from God to know an explanation for the pain he was enduring, he came to this conclusion:

Lewis writes, “”When I lay these questions before God I get no answer. But a rather special sort of ‘no answer’. It is not the locked door. It more like a silent, certainly not uncompassionate gaze. As though He shook his head not in refusal but waving the question. Like, ‘Peace, child; you don’t understand.’”

Rosemary understood that quote and I think that, in the end, that is exactly the way she viewed her predicament. She didn’t understand, but she knew God did. Rosemary had no fear of death. She knew where she was going. She knew who was waiting for her there. And Rosemary knew, with her lack of fear in death, how true those words were that we heard earlier in this service from the book of Revelation.

“[God] will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more…”

Her issue was not death. Her issue was the fact that she was sick of mourning and crying and pain. And, on Wednesday morning, her mourning, her crying, her pain ended. For her, they truly were “no more”. For us, it’s not so much the case. All of here this afternoon know that we still have our share of mourning and crying and pain ahead of us. But, as usual, Rosemary is there to lead us the way forward. Rosemary shows us how to be strong in the face of those ugly things of life. She shows us still that yes, they do await us, but don’t fear them. Don’t let them win. Be strong. Hold your ground. And look like a million bucks while you’re doing it.

Rosemary often talked to me about this day. She oftentimes said she didn’t want a funeral. She only wanted me to take care of her ashes and to simply do something nice. But as I thought about it, I also remembered something else she said to me on a fairly regular basis. Rosemary often said, “If you can’t go first class, then don’t go at all.” And one thing Episcopalians can do is send someone off first class. So, here we are today, sending Rosemary off with the first class treatment.

I am going to miss Rosemary Stillman. I already do. Those first few months without visiting her are going to be hard. There will be mourning. There will be tears. There will be pain. But in the midst of what I will go through, I will try, as Rosemary did, to remember that one day it will all be done away with.

One day, it will be my time to go. And I know, as sure as anything, that my God in Christ will be there, my loved ones will be there. And I know that Rosemary will be there, waiting for me, greeting me in that way she did each month for those ten years. And if there are mimosa’s in that place (and I really hope there are—who knows, maybe that “gift from the spring of life” we heard about in Revelation today tastes somehow like mimosa’s), I am going to look forward to having one with her once again.

Jesus told Thomas in our Gospel reading for today, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” In other translation, we hear that word “dwelling places” replaced with “mansions.”

“ In my Father’s house there many mansions.”

What those mansions might look like, I have no idea. But what I do know is that whatever awaits us, it is beautiful and remarkable and better than anything we can hope for. And I do know that in that place, there is no mourning or crying or pain.

Yes, today we are sad. Today we feel the loss of Rosemary Stillman in our lives. But, despite these pains, we also have an abiding and overpowering faith. These negative things are temporary. The great and glorious things are eternal. They will never end. With Rosemary leading the way for us there, we know that it will be a remarkable experience. And we know that, with Rosemary there, it will be first class all the way.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

3 Advent


Gaudete Sunday
December 13, 2009

Philippians 4.4-7; Luke 3.7-18

Today is Gaudete Sunday. Today we light our pink candle on the Advent wreath--the candle of joy. It’s so called because in our reading from Paul’s letter t the Philippians, we hear “Rejoice in the Lord always; I will say rejoice” or in Latin: Gaudete in Domino semper: interum dico, gaudete.

As we draw closer and closer to Jesus’ birth, we find ourselves with that strange, wonderful emotion in our hearts—joy. It is a time to rejoice. It is a time to be anxious and excited over the fact that, in just a few weeks time, God will come to us.

Now, it’s easy for us to think about these things from our perspective. As Paul says today, ”the Lord is near” or, in Latin (since we’re on kind of a Latin bent this Gaudete Sunday) Dominus propus est. From where we stand—here and now—it’s easy to look at the coming of Jesus as a joyful thing. But, as I said last week in my sermon, when we pray that prayer, “Lord Jesus come quickly” what we are praying for is that Jesus will come. And when he does, this time, it will not be as a baby in a manger. It will be in glory and might.

The news we hear proclaiming loudest to us today in our readings about Jesus’ nearness is not the prophets, it is not Paul. It is John the Baptist.

OK. I’m going to admit something: I never really used to like John the Baptist. I know it sounds terrible. This revered saint has held such appeal for countless Christians over the ages. But to me, he seemed like such a minor character in the story of Jesus. And I’ll admit, to me he seemed to me kind of like a wild man, out there in the desert in his clothes made form animal hides, shouting about the coming of the Kingdom.

I never saw the appeal people both in John’s time and since saw in him. And he has had great appeal. He is greatly revered in the scriptures, in the early Church and in our own times.

But when I realized that essentially what he was doing—proclaiming the nearness of Jesus—it struck me one day that is what we are called to do as well. Like John, who tells people who ask him how to prepare, we too should respond: “with righteousness.”

If Jesus is truly near to us, why would we want to be caught stealing or abusing others or taking advantage of anyone? Why would we want to be caught at Jesus’ coming doing the exact opposite of what God expects of us?

When I realized that our role is like the role of John the Baptists, I found myself drawn to him. I found myself returning again and again to those scriptures about him and read those words he preached. As frightening as those words may be, there is such startling truth in them:

“Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

These words speak loud and clear to us even now. We can hear those words and know: Jesus is near and so let us bear fruit.

We—Christians—bear fruit when we are joyful in our God. How can’t we? That joy that we carry within us fertilizes the good things we do. It motivates us. It compels us. It gives us purpose and meaning in our lives.

This is what Gaudete Sunday is all about—rejoicing. Living in joy. Letting joy reign supreme in us. As frightening and amazing as the nearness of Jesus might be, the emotion is must elicit in us, always, is joy.

I can never let Gaudete Sunday pass without referencing Fr. Alfred Delp. You’ve heard me talk about Fr. Delp in the past. Delp was a German Jesuit priest who, in February, 1945, was killed by the Nazis. On Gaudete Sunday, 1944, while he was in prison awaiting his uncertain future, Fr. Delp wrote these words about a Christian full of joy (and remember as you hear these words—they were written by a priest in prison who is about the executed for standing up to the evil he saw in his world):

“Only a person like this will be capable breathing deeply, and life and the world will not refuse him. They will give all that they rightly have to give, because it is demanded with the sovereign goods of divine jurisdiction, which have been put at his disposal. He will feel the eternal brilliance of creation again, regarding it reverently and protectively. He will award things this intrinsic brilliance again because his mind and heart, his hands and works, have the creative gift and strength to pass the test. And such a person becomes one of great joy—the great joy that he lives and experiences, as well as gives and enkindles in others. Gaudete!”

Let Gaudete be more than just what we say we do one Sunday a year. Let it be our way of life as we await Jesus’ presence coming to us. The Lord is near! Let our joy flow up from within us and burn in our lives with a radiant flame. And when we do we will find that we too have “the creative gift and strength to past the test.” We too, at Jesus’ coming, will be bearing good fruits


Sunday, December 6, 2009

2 Advent


December 6, 2009

Luke 3.1-6

In this morning’s Gospel, we are faced with the formidable figure of John the Baptist. The impression we get from Luke is of someone we probably wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley. He comes across to us through the ages as a man crazed. Certainly it would be difficult for any of us to take the words of a man like this seriously. Especially when he’s saying things like, “prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.

Somehow, in the way John the Baptist proclaims it, this is not so much hopeful as frightening. It is a message that startles us and jolts us at our very core.

But this is the true message of Advent. Like John the Baptist and those who eagerly awaited the Messiah, this time of waiting was almost painful. When we look at it from that perspective, we see that maybe John isn’t being quite as difficult and windy as we initially thought. Rather his message is one of almost excruciating expectation.

One of my favorite books of recent years is called The Forgotten Desert Mothers. Last week I referenced a book about St. Antony of Egypt. Both of these books are about those early Christians who tended to take the words we heard this morning from the Baptist as literally as they could. These desert mothers and fathers have a lot to teach us. Like, us, they lived in an age of uncertainty. Many had suffered dearly during the persecutions against Christians. Others had previously been pagans who lived lives of excess. It was a time when nothing in the world seemed too stable. Governments gave way to stronger governments. Differing religions battled each other for what each perceived to be “the truth.” And so too did many Christians. It sounds familiar doesn’t it?

In the face of all of this uncertainty, these men and women heard the call of the Baptist. “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”

In response they did something we might find unusual. We, as modern Christians, are taught that we must not only live out our faith, but also, in some way, must proclaim our faith to those around us. We take seriously the command to go out into the world and proclaim what we believe. Certainly that is what we will do this morning when we recite the creed. It is what we do when we go out to feed the hungry or to tend the sick. We do it when we reach out to others in the name of Christ.

These early Christians, however, did the exact opposite. They retreated from society and went off to the desert, in this case usually the deserts of Egypt and Palestine. Oftentimes, coming from wealthy homes and positions of authority, they sold it all, gave the money to the poor and went off to live alone. And we’re not talking about a few individuals here. We’re talking about people leaving in droves. The deserts were literally populated with men and women who tried to leave it all behind. More often than not, they formed loosely-organized communities, usually around a church, in which they lived and prayed alone for most of the time, only coming together to pray the Psalms or celebrate Eucharist. Their lives in the desert weren’t, as you can imagine, comfortable lives by any means. Some walled themselves up in abandoned tombs. Others lived in caves. One went so far as to crawl stop a tall pillar and live there for years on end, exposed to the elements.

Even then they couldn’t completely escape what they left behind. Many of the stories tell of these poor souls being tormented by demons and temptations. It’s not hard to imagine that, yes, alone in a dark tomb or cave, one would be forced to face all the darkest recesses of one’s soul. Part of the process of separating one’s self from the world involved finally wrestling with all those issues one carries into the desert.

Few of us in this day and age would view this kind of existence as the ideal Christian life. In fact, most of would probably look on it as a sort of insanity. But at the time, in that place, people began to see this as the ideal. People, I imagine, were tired of the day-to-day grind of working, slaving, fending for themselves in a sometimes unfriendly society. They felt distant from God and they were not able to find God in the society in which they lived.

The idea of going off and being alone with God was very appealing. Of course, even this seemingly simple and pure way of living was soon tarnished by another form excess. Some of the people who went off to live in the desert were simply mentally unsound to begin with. Others went insane after years of living alone in a tomb or a cave. They abused their bodies, sometimes to the point of death, by whipping themselves, by chaining themselves to walls, by not taking care of themselves physically, or simply starving themselves to a point close to death. Some even went so far as castrating themselves for the kingdom of heaven.

But despite these abuses, the message of the desert mothers and fathers to us is still a valid one. The whole reason they went off like they did was to shed everything that separated them from their waiting for God. They sought to make their very lives a living Advent. They were waiting expectantly and anxiously for Christ. And by mortifying themselves, by chastising their bodies and fasting, they would be prepared for his coming again. Although I hope no one here is called to a life quite that extreme, I think their message speaks to us clearly in these days before Christmas.

We should find ways to prepare for the Incarnate God’s coming to us.

If you noticed as you came to church today the message James put on our outdoor sign. The prayer James put out there is

Lord Jesus quickly come

It is, of course, an homage to the beautiful motet by the late, great church composer Paul Manz, who died in October.

But it is also the perfect summation of this Advent season.

Lord Jesus, quickly come.

It is the prayer we should all be praying as we prepare the way of the of the Lord. It should bb the prayer that is on our lips constantly in these days before Christmas.

This past week, Joanne Droppers lent me one of the most beautiful books I’ve read in some time. The book is Exiles by Ron Hansen. I have long been a fan of Hansen, every since I read his exceptionally beautiful novel Mariette in Ecstasy.

In Exiles, Hansen examines, in his fiction, the story of the great poet and Jesuit priest, Gerard Manley Hopkins. More importantly what he examines is the incident behind Hopkin’s most famous poem, “The Wreck of the Deutschland.”

On this day—December 6—in 1875, a German passenger steamer, The Deutschland, on its way from Bremerhaven to New York, ran aground in a blizzard on a sandy shoal in the Thames estuary near Harwich, England. After several hours of being trapped there, early on the morning of December 7 the ship began to take on water and the captain order the ship to be abandoned. The passengers panicked and people began falling into the freezing water. Among the several hundred who died were five Franciscan nuns who were fleeing the anti-Catholic sentiments that were sweeping Germany at the time. All five died. But as they floundered in the water, they were heard crying out one prayer. As Hopkins puts it in his poem:

“And they the prey of the gales;
She the black-about air, to the breaker, the thickly
Falling flakes, to the throng that catches and quails
Was calling ‘O Christ, Christ, come quickly’:
The cross to her she calls Christ to her, christens her wild-worst Best.”

Whether we look at our Advent as a desert or as the freezing waters that rise about us to overwhelm us, the fact is, this is our time to cry out as that sister did in those freezing waters.

Both places are frightening. John’s wilderness if frightening. And at times, these moment sof expectation are frightening. But, still, even in these frightening moments, we can still give voice to that for whom we long:

Even so, Lord Jesus, come quickly.

In it, we find our hope and our longing articulated. We find that we can now see the goal for which we are working. We can look into the gloom, into the frightening future and see that all is not lost. He is coming. And he is racing to us. And the speed with which he comes to us may even frighten us as well. Or maybe, it is simply that we are excited and overjoyed by it.

He is coming to us. And when he does, truly “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” in our midst.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Open House for new book


Please join
JAMIE PARSLEY and GIN TEMPLETON
as they celebrate the publication of their new book

This Grass

Poems by Jamie Parsley Paintings by Gin Templeton

Copies of the book will be available for sale and signing.

There will also be displays of paintings and poems, music and appetizers.

When: 7:00 to 9:00 PM
Monday, December 14, 2009

Where: St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church
120 21 Ave. N. Fargo

This Grass: Poems by Jamie Parsley, paintings by Gin Templeton.
$35.00
ISBN 978-0-615-33346-5

For information, please contact Jamie at apium@aol.com or Gin at gin-su@hotmail.com or at www.jamieparsley.com

Sunday, November 29, 2009

1 Advent


November 29, 2009

Luke 21.25-36


In case you haven’t noticed, it is the first Sunday of Advent. We are reminded of Advent everywhere we look this morning. We have the beautiful blue frontal on the altar made by Gin Templeton, a long with all the other blue hangings. I get to wear the blue chasuble. It is a time in which we, as the Church, turn our attention, just like the rest of the world, toward Christmas.

However—and here you’ll see me getting a bit harsh, maybe even wagging my finger at you—it is not Christmas yet. Christmas doesn’t begin until Christmas Eve. For now, we are in this anticipatory season of Advent.

Anticipation is a very good word to sum up what Advent is. We are anticipating. We are anxiously expecting something. And in that way, I think Advent represents our own spiritual lives in some ways. We are, after all, a people anticipating something. Sometimes we might not know exactly what it is we are anticipating. We maybe can’t name it, or identify it, but we know—deep inside us—that something is about to happen. We know that something big is about to happen, involving God in some way. And we know that when it happens, we will be changed. Life will never be the same again. Our world as we know it—our very lives—will be turned around by this “God event.” It will be cataclysmic.

Last week, when Bishop Smith was here visiting us, he referenced the current film, 2012. Well, this last week, as is my usual family tradition, I took my parents to a movie on Thanksgiving afternoon. One of the movies I wanted to see was, of course, 2012. Sadly, I was out voted and we saw a deplorable film, The Fourth Kind. And last night, my friend Greg and I went to Ninja Assassin, which was better than The Fourth Kind, but not by much. But the hype surrounding 2012 seems to just keep on generating.

It seems that 2012—both the movie and the idea—will not soon be forgotten. Lately, this whole idea of the world ending in 2012 has just snowballed. I now have two students in the current Intro to Theology class I’m teaching at the University of Mary wanting to do their final projects on the 2012 prophecy. The Mayan prophecy of the end of the world happening in 2012—because, I guess, their calendar ends in 2012—has piqued the thoughts and imaginations of many people, obviously. Certainly apocalyptic kind of things always pique our interest.

What I find so interesting about the apocalyptic literature we hear this morning in our scripture readings as opposed to the 2012 hype is that in our scripture readings, we find anticipation and expectation for this final apocalypse, while there seems to be such dread regarding 2012. And that anticipation and expectation is a good and glorious thing, I think. That is what this season of Advent is all about. It about anticipation and expectation being a wonderful thing in and of itself. Because by watching and praying in holy expectation, we grow in holiness. We recognize that despite the doom and gloom some people preach when it comes to prophecies, doom and gloom doesn’t hold sway over us as Christians.

Still, despite this view, we are a people living, at times, in the dark doom and gloom of life. In Advent, we recognize that darkness we all collectively live in without Christ. But we realize that darkness doesn’t hold sway. Darkness is easily done away with by light. And so, in Advent, we are anticipating something more—we are all looking forward into the gloom and what do we see there? We see the first flickers of light. And even with those first, faint glimmers of lights, darkness already starts losing its strength. We see the first glow of what awaits us—there, just ahead of us. That light that is about to burst into our lives is, of course, Christ.

The Light that came to us—that is coming to us—is true King—the King of a Kingdom that, as Jesus says in today’s Gospel, is near. It is near. Yes, we are, at times, stuck in the doom and gloom of this life. But, we can take comfort today in one thing: as frightening as our times may be, as terrible as life may seem some times and as uncertain as our future may be, what Advent shows us more than anything is this: we already know the end of the story.

Unlike the mystery of the 2012 hype, with its mysterious ending of the Mayan calendar, we know what the end entails. We might not know what awaits us tomorrow or next week. We might not know what setbacks or rewards will come to us in the weeks to come, but in the long run, we know how our story as Christians ends. God as Christ has come to us as one of us and with a voice like our voice, Christ has told us that we might not know when it will happen, but the end will be a good ending for those of us who hope and expect it. God has promised that, in the end, there will be joy and happiness and peace.

In this time of anticipation—in this time in which we are waiting and watching—we can take hope. To watch means more than just to look around us. It means to be attentive. It means, we must pay attention.

I’m sure I have shared one of my favorite Advent stories with you before. It’s just so great that I have to repeat it. I read it once in book about St. Antony of Egypt, a monk in the early Church. In the book, the author relates the story about how the early desert monastics used ostrich eggs in their worship. Somewhere, some time in my life, I am going to buy an ostrich egg and use it as a visual aid when I preach this story. The story goes that in some of the churches that they built, these monastics hung ostrich eggs from the ceiling as a “symbol of spiritual dedication.”

A visitor to one of the monasteries, wrote later about this practice:

When it intends to hatch its egg, the ostrich sits not upon them, as other birds, but the male and female hatches them with their eye only; and only when either of them needs to seek for food, he gives notice to the other by crying; and the other continues to look upon the eggs, till it returns…for if they did but look off for a moment, the eggs will spoil and rot. [1]

To be honest, I don’t even care is this story is scientifically true or not. I love the story because, in so many ways, it is a perfect illustration of what we, as Christians, are doing during this Advent season and, really, during all of our spiritual lives as Christians. Like those ostriches, which gaze almost agonizingly for the hatching of the egg, so too should we be waiting, with held breath, for the Kingdom of heaven to break upon us.

So, yes, Advent is a time of waiting and it is this waiting—this expectant anticipation—that is so very important in our spiritual lives. Advent is a time of hope and longing. It is a time for us to wake up from our slumbering complacency. It is a time to wake up and to watch. The kingdom of God is near. As frightening and sobering as that thought might be, it is near. It is near not in the same sense the Mayans were predicting the end of the world was near. But it is near in the sense that the Kingdom of God is so close to breaking through to us that we can almost feel it ready to shatter into our lives.

So, in this anticipation, be prepared. Watch. Christ has come to us and is leading us forward. Christ—the dazzling Light—is burning away the fog of our day-to-day living and is showing us a way through the darkness that sometimes seems to encroach upon us. Like those ostriches, we simply need to watch. We need to look anxiously for that light and, when it comes, we need to be prepared to share it with others. This is the true message of Advent.

As hectic as this season is going to get, as you’re feeling overwhelmed by all the sensory overload we’ll all be experiencing through this season, remember, Watch. Take time, be silent and just watch. For this anticipation—this expectant and patient watching of ours—is merely a pathway on which the Christ Child can come among us as one of us.




[1] Cowan, James. Desert Father: A Journey in the Wilderness with Saint Antony. 2004. Shambala; Boston. p. 106.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thanksgiving Eve


November 25, 2009
St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, Fargo

Psalm 126; Matthew 6.25-33

For us—here and now—on this night before Thanksgiving, that word—Thanksgiving— immediately conjures up images. We are reminded of all those Thanksgiving Days of our past. Those images of turkeys, pilgrims, of food and football and parades, of family gatherings—good and bad—they’re all there with that one single word. And it seems that over the years, as I’ve attended or participated in Thanksgiving Day services, I invariably will hear some priest or pastor get up and sort of put down Thanksgiving Day as being too commercial or too secular. I can only shrug at such thinking. Personally I think any attempt by anyone to think about what they are thankful for and to be truly thankful in any way is a major plus.

But I will admit that for us, as Christians, Thanksgiving Day is not necessarily a special day, outside of the traditional Thanksgiving trappings. For us, we celebrate a kind of Thanksgiving every Sunday and every other time we gather together for Holy Communion. After all, the word we use for Holy Communion is Eucharist. Eucharist simply means, in fancy Greek, Thanksgiving. So, in an sense, every Eucharist we celebrate together is a Thanksgiving feast.

But, what is Thanksgiving really? I mean, it’s great that we understand each Eucharist is a thanksgiving. It’s great that we take a special time each year to count our blessings and express our thanks either to God or to each other. But what it is it really?

One of the best ways I think Thanksgiving is encapsulated for me is an a prayer that I pray every day. Every day in the Daily Office of the Book of Common Prayer, there is a wonderful prayer is that is prayed. The Prayer is called The General Thanksgiving. In so many ways it gives voice to what we as Christians believe regarding Thanksgiving. The prayer goes like this:

Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks for all your goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all whom you have made. We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for your immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory. And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up our selves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory throughout all ages. Amen.


This prayer is a slightly updated version of a prayer written by Bishop Edward Reynolds of Norwich in England and it is believed to be inspired by a private prayer Queen Elizabeth I issued in 1596. It is not hard, as we hear this prayer, to believe that a fuller version of this prayer may have been a Eucharistic prayer. The prayer thanks God, if you notice, for being creator, preserver and redeemer. Creator, preserver, redeemer. These three aspects of God are important for us to recognize. In them we see that God is not some passive Deity in some far-away heaven, but is actually active in us and in all of creation.

Now there are a few points in this prayer I would just like to draw out. In this prayer, we thank God for God’s “goodness and loving-kindness.” That’s always a good thing to be thankful for. We then bless God for “our creation, preservation and all the blessings of this life.” What is so beautiful about that petition is that in our thanksgiving we are not only thankful for the things we have been giving, but we thankful too for the fact that we are here and we are being taken care of. Now that alone would suffice for most prayers of thanks. But the prayer, a bit later, asks this of God:

We pray that will be given “such an awareness of [God’s] mercies
that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth [God’s] praise,
not only with our lips, but in our lives,
by giving up ourselves to [God’s] service
and by walking before [God]
in holiness and righteousness all our days.”

Thanksgiving then becomes not just an act of gratitude to God for all that we have been given. It becomes action. In our moment of Thanksgiving, we understand that we simply can’t just sit complacently in a kind of fuzzy warmness that God has provided us with everything we need. We rather must turn around in that sense of gratitude and “show forth God’s praise/not only with our lips—with what we say—but in our lives—in our very actions—and by attempting to give ourselves over to God’s service. We are to walk before God—in a sense we are to be the presence of God’s goodness in this life.

When we look at Thanksgiving from this perspective, we see how essential and vital this time of thanksgiving is to our lives as Christians. Thanksgiving, in a real sense, is almost synonymous with a kind of joy. In our thanksgiving, in our gratitude, we find ourselves joyful. And joy is an emotion that stirs and compels us to act.

In our Gospel reading for tonight, we find Jesus issuing some stern words to us. “Do not worry,” Jesus says. Do now worry about “things.” But rather “strive for the kingdom of God”

If we listen closely to what Jesus is saying, we realize that when we worrying is not action. Worrying is what keeps us from acting. It cements us in place, in fear. But rather, he says, “strive. When we strive, finally we are doing something. We are moving forward. We are making an effort.

Worrying is the exact opposite of joy. Worrying is not what one feels when one is truly thankful. Whereas the joy we experience in our thankfulness compels us and charges us to spread that joy, worrying saps our energy from us. It draws us inward and isolates us—from God and from each other.

As the Swiss New Testament scholar Eduard Schweizer once said: “We are not to worry because worry drives out joy and makes action impossible, and God is encountered in acts. The choice is not between action and passivity, but between two different kinds of action.”

So, in a sense, we find that Thanksgiving produces joy and joy produces action and all of it is a response to God’s goodness in our lives. This is what we do when gives thanks. This is what we do at this altar when we celebrate the Eucharist. And it is what we do in our lives as Christians. For us, as Christians, Thanksgiving isn’t something we do on occasion. It isn’t just something we do once a year, at harvest time. Thanksgiving is something we do every time we come together. Thanksgiving is a way of life for us as Christians. Thanksgiving is a spiritual act. And it’s more than that, even.

Thanksgiving isn’t something we do, necessarily. Thanksgiving is the way we live. As Christians we live in a state of constant thanksgiving. f we are truly thankful, we will see moments of grace around us all the time. e see, at times, those moments, when God breaks through to us—in moments we neither ask for nor anticipate.

And still, despite us and our own needs and fears, anxieties, God does break through to us. In those moments when God does, all we can do is give thanks. Here, at the altar, we find God breaking through to us. And as we gather together, as we come forward to participate in Holy Communion with God and with one another, all we can do is give thanks for this incredible moment in our lives. And as we go from here, out into the world, we take that sense of thanksgiving with us and we share it by word and example. We go with our sense of thanksgiving unencumbered by such deadening and sapping energies such as anxiety.

So, let us come forward to this altar and go out from here with those words of Jesus ringing in our ears, “Do not worry.” Let us hear his words to us, “Strive for the kingdom of God, and God’s righteousness” And as we do, as we shed our worrying, as we strive for the Kingdom of God, we will then hear the words of our psalm singing aloud in our hearts:

“The Lord has done great things for us
and we are glad indeed.”






Sunday, November 22, 2009

Christ the King


November 22, 2009

Daniel 7.9-10, 13-14; Revelation 1.4b-8; John 18.33-37

For some reason, this is one of my favorite Sundays of the Church year. It is a transition time—a time of transitioning from that long green season after Pentecost, to the season of Advent. Often people ask me why the season after Pentecost is so long, stretching as it does from May to the end of November. The traditional view for the length of this season is, of course, symbolic of the long period of waiting for the coming of Christ. And on this Christ the King Sunday, we are making a transition from waiting to anticipation.

Today, get a glimpse of who we are anticipating. Today, we commemorate Christ as King. We are invited to see our King coming to us on clouds, and on wheels of burning fire.

In our readings today—especially our readings from the Prophet Daniel and Revelation, we too, with Daniel and the Apostle John, get a glimpse of who it is we are hoping for, who we are striving for. We also see clearly who it is who has ultimate control of our lives. We see a glimpse of the one we, as Christians, recognize as Christ—that Alpha and Omega—that Beginning and End—that one coming to us with the clouds.

But the Christ we see in our own collective vision this morning is not the humble carpenter, the amazing miracle worker, or the innocent newborn baby we are anticipating in a month’s time. The Christ we encounter this morning is coming to us on clouds, yes, be he also comes to us while standing in the shadow of the Cross—an about-to-be condemned criminal—engaging in a conversation with Pilate about who he is.

It seems a long way from the King we find in our readings from the Hebrew Bible and from Revelation. But it is the same Christ—the one who will come to us in our anticipation, who guides us and guards us and who, in the end, awaits us. The Christ we encounter today is Christ, our King, Christ our Priest, Christ our ultimate Ideal.

We, on this Sunday and in the coming days of Advent, are faced with eschatological reality. Uh oh. There’s a word for us on this Christ the King Sunday—eschatological. It’s a strange word that always trips us up, whether we understand what it means or not. Eschatology is just a fancy Greek word for the “end things.” It is a word that invites us to think about THE END.

As we enter Advent, which, although a beginning, we realize it is also a time of preparation for the End. And there is an End waiting for us. There is an End waiting us all collectively as the Church. And there is an End waiting each of individually. And eschatology, Christ the King Sunday and Advent are all about both that collective End and our own personal End.

The King we encounter on this Sunday, the King that awaits us at the end of our days, is not a despotic king. The King that we encounter today is not a King who rules with an iron fist and makes life under his reign oppressive. But at the same time the King we honor today is not a figurehead or a soft and ineffective ruler. Rather, the King we encounter today is truly LORD. The King we encounter today is brother, and friend and King and Savior all wrapped up in one.

As we think about the “last things,” we realize that, on that last day, this King is the one we will encounter. This King will be the one who makes the final decision about us.

Now, for some of us, that might be a moment to despair. Certainly by the standards of the majority of Christianity, this is a big issue. I never realize how big of an issue this final judgment was until about five years ago. At that time, I was invited to preach at Lutheran College. I was looking forward to the experience. It was the Week of Christian Unity and I decided to preach about the claim that only good Christians get to go to heaven. That night—the service was held about 10:00 on Wednesday—the chapel was packed with good Lutheran students. They filled the chairs, the balconies above. They sang good, hearty Lutheran hymns. It was incredible. On that occasion I preached about the fact that, for us as Christians, we need to take a long hard look at our belief about eternal punishment—namely, hell.

I posed the question: what if? What if everyone got in? What if we all got to go to heaven and be one with God because God wants us to be in heaven?

Well, let me tell you, my sermon did not go over too well. I had a backlash of criticism regarding that sermon. After the service that evening, I had a small line of students ready to debate me and tell me the errors of my way. My strange form of “Christian Universalism” was not something most of them wanted to hear—especially from an Episcopalian. But the fact is, as we think about our End and about the King that awaits us there, we must face facts about that End. We must ponder it honestly and with glaring clear mindedness.

Recently, I have found many of those views about people being saved affirmed in a wonderful book that has completely blown me away. This book is one of the most influential books I’ve read recently. It is called Gifts of the Desert by Kyricos Markides. In this book, Markides engaged his spiritual teacher, a Father Maximos, a Greek Orthodox priest from the Greek monastic Isle of Mount Athos (which is featured in the latest issue of National Geographic by the way). In the book, Markides shares tidbits such as these:

“How could I be happy in paradise, said Saint Silouan [a Greek Orthodox saint], if I know that a single fellow human being is condemned to eternal damnation?”

Or, this one:

“St Gregory of Nyssa, brother of Saint Basil the Great, speaks of…the restoration of everything in its pre-Fallen state, implying that in some mysterious way all will be saved at the end sofar as all sinners will sooner or later mature spiritually…”

Markides also quotes Huston Smith’s wonderful book, Why Religion Matters. He relates an incident that I have thought about often. In 1964, Smith was in India conducting research on Hinduism and gurus. One day, while he was in the foothills of the Himalayas, there appeared to him an Eastern Orthodox priest by the name of Father Lazarus, who had been in India for twenty years. Father Lazarus allowed Smith to forget all about the gurus. When Smith told Father Lazarus that hew as interested in Hinduism because of its belief in universalism salvation. Smith said to Father Lazarus: “Everyone makes it in the end. Its alternative, eternal damnation, struck me as a monstrous doctrine I could accept.”

Father Lazarus responded by saying citing the passage in Second Corinthians in which St. Paul talks about knowing someone who had been caught up in the third heaven.

“…in that heave the man ‘heard things that were not be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat…Paul was speaking of himself, Father Lazarus was convinced, and the secret he was told in the third heaven was that ultimately everyone is saved. That is the fact of the matter, Father Lazarus believed, but it must not be told because the uncomprehending would take it as a license for irresponsibility. If they are going to be saved eventually, why bother? That exegesis solved problem,” Smith wrote, “ and has stayed in place every since.”

This kind of thinking is not just some fluke in Christianity. Many early Christian teachers taught that all people would eventually be saved. Some early Church Fathers believed that, ultimately, even Satan himself will be one day redeemed.

I think it’s important that we are reminded of these great teachings on Christ the King Sunday and throughout Advent. As we prepare for THE END—our collective end and our personal end—we should remember that the King we know and live, the King who will one day come to us “with the clouds of heaven” is not someone to be feared. We should not run in fear as we would from a dictatorial King. Rather, we should rejoice in the King that comes to us. And we should rejoice in the fact that, in the end, all of us will be received by that King into that Kingdom he promises to us.

So, on this Christ the King Sunday, let us ponder the End, but let us remember that the End is not a terrible thing. The end is, in fact, that very King we are longing for. “I am the Alpha—the beginning—and the Omega—the End,” he says to us. And in our End, we truly do find our beginning. What a glorious King we have.

“To him be glory and dominion forever and ever.” Amen.


Monday, November 16, 2009

Embrace

Do I hate this silence
you inflict on me
or do I embrace it
much as we embrace
the splintered wood
we shoulder on our
journey toward
our own calvaries?

I do embrace it,
but I will not kiss it
or rejoice in it.
I simply hug it to me
and bear it—
stumbling,
bloody-kneed
bruise-shinned,
under its weight
as I have always done.

On it I lay myself
neither quietly
nor without complaint.
But on it I lie
and on it I am lifted up
and exposed for who I am.
On it
splayed
I embrace everything
laid out—
silently—
before me
as I would embrace you
if you would allow me.


11/16/2009
Chicago

Sunday, November 15, 2009

24 Pentecost


November 15, 2009


Daniel 12:1-3; Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18) 19-25; Mark 13:1-8


We are in the very last weeks of this long green-colored Season after Pentecost. In fact, next week is Christ the King Sunday—the last Sunday before Advent. Advent, as we know, is a penitential time in the Church, in much the same way Lent is. It is a time of preparation—a time of taking account of our lives and conjecturing on where we fit in, in the larger scheme of things.

No wonder we encounter in today’s scriptures then a sense of time and space. We find our scriptures conjecturing about the end of these things—an ending of time and ending of space. Now, of course, we probably don’t—on a regular basis—ask ourselves, “How will it all end?” probably because most of us really don’t want to know. Rather, like those disciples, we might find ourselves asking Jesus, “When?” “When will these things come to pass?”

Jesus responds to our question with his commentary on the calamities of war and natural disaster. Of course, we need to be clear here. He is not going off on some apocalyptic foretelling of a bleak future. He is simply making those disciples—and us, here and now—aware of what is going on in their world and ours. Let’s face it, although we might ask the questions of when or how, we don’t want to know about how our own story is going to end, nor do we want to know how the story of our collective selves—the story of we as humans—will end. We know from science that one day our sun will burn out and this planet will die. We also know that we ourselves will one day die. As Christians, we know that Christ will come again. We hope in that fact. We cling to that hope. We long for it. That is what the season of Advent is all about. We remind ourselves that we are longing for Christ to come to us again, much as he came to us in that manger at Bethlehem.

The readings from today convey not so much what will happen to us, but rather they are about how do we spend our present—our here and now—in relation to what will happen. We’ve all heard the question, “If you knew you were going to die tomorrow what would you do today? Would you do anything different?” Certainly that is where the rubber meets the road to some extent. When we are faced with our ending, we realize how precious our present is. Ultimately, all we can know is this present moment. The past is done. Oftentimes, it seems almost like a dream. We can’t grasp it. We can’t keep it. We can’t cling to it. It is like water running through our fingers. Our past escapes us in a blink of an eye.

In turn, our future lies before us also almost like a dream. We can’t pin it down. We can’t predict it. And even our plans sometimes run afoul. Sometimes—most times—everything we plan falls apart somewhere along the way. All we have is this present moment. We are here—right now, in this moment. It is all we have and all we can be completely sure of. Faced with these images of the end—of an ending to everything we know and hold dear—it seems to be an important part of our development to ask, “How are we going to spend our present.

In today’s Gospel, we hear Jesus saying, “you will hear of wars and rumors of wars.” These words of Jesus are especially poignant during our own time of war.
As we listen every night to the causality reports of soldiers in our war or as we hear about threats of terrorism, as we look around at our own country and communities and see the violence and hatred that exists here, we find ourselves filled with fear.
But Jesus uses a very interesting description of these fears and pains—images of war and their rumors. He calls them “birth pangs.” And I think “Pang” is the right word to be using here. Those of us who are here—who have experienced fear over the future, over the injustice and uncertainly in the world, know what pangs are.


So…what is a pang? Well, a pang is more than an ache. It is a pain. It a deep down, excruciating pang. When else do we hear that word, “pang” used? It is used to describe hunger. When we’re hungry we have hunger pangs. But Jesus uses it appropriately here. He talks of birth pangs. I have heard many women tell me that there is nothing quite as painful as the pangs of giving birth.

I remember my mother saying that, when she went through it for the first time at age eighteen, with little or no preparation for what she was going through, she said, she thought she was going to die. She said that the words that went through her mind as she experienced those birth pangs were, “I will walk through the valley of the shadow of death.”

But the question I used to always have for her was this: “If it was so terrible, why did you go through it three more times?”

She said to me, “Well, when the baby arrives and you’re holding this little precious being in your arms, you just sort of forget it. You forget the pain you went through…until the next time.”
Jesus uses the right image here to describe what we are going through now and in the future. Yes, there will be wars and rumors of wars. Yes, there will be earthquakes and famines. Yes, there will be false prophets who come to us saying, “I am he” But the words we cling to—that we hold on to and find our strength in to bear those pangs—is in the words “do not be alarmed.”

Jesus is being honest with us. We will suffer pangs. But there is a calmness to his words.

“Do not be alarmed,” he says. This is all part of our birth into new life. And be assured. Take comfort. Yes, we are going through the pangs, but once we have weathered these pains, once we have gone through them, we will forget them. In our new births, these pangs will be done away with. And this is why we do not have to be alarmed. If we allow these fears to reign in our lives, if we allow the pain to triumph, then we all lose. If we live with our pangs and do not outlive them, then the words of Jesus to us—those words of “do not be alarmed”—are in vain. In the face of these things, do not be alarmed, he is saying to us.

Why? Because in the end, God will triumph. If we place our trust—our confidence—in God, we will be all right. Yes, we will suffer birth pangs, but look what comes after them. We get an amazing glimpse of what awaits those who are not afraid in our reading from Daniel:

“Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.”

“They shall shine like the brightness of the sky…like the stars forever and ever.”

It is a loving and gracious God who calms our fears amidst calamity and rumors of calamity. Our job is simply to live as fully as we can. We have this moment. This moment was given to us by our loving and gracious God. We must live it without fear or malice. We must live it fully and completely.

So, do that. Live the moment. Go forward into the world—unafraid. Live boldly. Live completely. And live with a joy that is not tainted by fear. Do not be alarmed. The pangs you suffer with now, will eventually be over.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

23 Pentecost


Pledge Sunday
November 8, 2009

1 Kings 17.8-16; Mark 12. 38-44

Today is, of course, Pledge Sunday. It is one of those Sundays I think many of us kind of dread. We sort roll our eyes and think—great, it’s time for the priest to get up and talk about money again.

Yes, sadly, it is time for me to get up and talk about that issue of money. But not just money and pledging our money to the church. It is also a time to talk about stewardship and giving in general. And although we might not want to hear these things, sometimes it is good to be reminded of how important stewardship and giving is.

Last week our Senior Warden, Laura Nylander and I met to discuss some of the details of this Pledge Sunday. I commended her, at that time, for the wonderful comments she made during Announcements last week about the difference between Stewardship and Pledging—how Stewardship is an issue of our Time and Talents and Pledging is an issue of money (she discussed it so much better in her teacher voice). But her sharing last week inspired me, and I hope inspired all of us, to consider these issues Stewardship and Pledging. And on this Pledge Sunday, we do need to at least address it.

Our time in church, as all of us know, is not just a time for us to receive. It is also a time to give. And we all have plenty to give. We all have certain talents and it is good when we can give back to the church form our talents. And many of us have, even in these uncertain financial times, a certain level of monetary sustenance from which to give. And we know that in giving of ourselves and from what we have, we are doing good. But I think, on this Pledge Sunday, it is good for us to remind ourselves once again WHY we give.

I have been reading a wonderful book called Gifts of the Desert by a wonderful writer, Kyriacos Markides. Markides is an Eastern Orthodox Christian from Maine who has written extensively about his relationship with Father Maximos, a Greek Orthodox priest from Mount Athos in Greece who is currently the Orthodox Bishop of Cyprus. This is one of those books that I have had to read slowly and reflectively because when I read it too quickly I find myself backtracking and, in doing so, finding a little spiritual gem I missed. In this book, Father Maximos explains that in the church there are three levels of spiritual growth:

The first stage he calls “the “Slaves of God.” He says that this is the stage where people are very devout, very holy, go to church, but they do all of these things out of fear of God. They are afraid of God. They are afraid of God’s perceived anger. They are afraid that they will be punished for any thing wrong they might do. And they fear hell.

The second stage he called the “Employees of God.” At this stage, people have moved beyond their fear, but they now feel that are to be rewarded for all the good things they do. If they give to the poor, they do so believing they are stocking up “treasures in heaven.”

As Father Maximos puts it: “In exchange for good works a person expects to be rewarded by God in this life and in the life to come.”

The third stage Father Maximos shares is “the Children of God” or the “Lovers of God.” This stage, according to Father Maximos, is the highest stage—the one to which we all should be working. Father Maximos says: “They act and do what they do not because they are afraid that God might send them to hell or because they want to gain a ticket to paradise but because they love God.” He then shared a very sobering story that he heard from one of the monks on Mount Athos by the name of Paisios.

Paisios told Maximos to imagine the second coming Christ. Now in the second coming, some miscalculations were made and as more and more people entered paradise, there was no more room for some of those who were waiting. Christ then came and told the people that were waiting, “I’m sorry but unfortunately paradise has filled up. Find somewhere else to accommodate yourselves.” Some people began to wail and complain.

“Why didn’t you tell us before? Isn’t there a chance that we can go back so that we can do all the things we wanted to do? We sacrificed the pleasures of the world for the sake of heaven and yet we lost paradise as well.”

But the others—the Children and Lovers of God—said, ”It’s all right that paradise is full. Don’t feel bad, dear God. It is good that paradise is full and you are happy. We will find a way to take care of ourselves.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but I find this story very disturbing. I do so because I am not certain I wouldn’t be one of those people mourning and complaining, at least a bit, outside paradise. Which shows that maybe I haven’t made it to that third level yet in my life (though I am trying).

I think this story is an especially important one for us on Pledge Sunday. It challenges all of us to ask ourselves very important questions about why we do what we do as Christians. It is important for us to ask ourselves occasionally what motivates us to serve others and to serve God. And when we are challenged in such a way, then how do we continue to do what we do?

The message for us is this: we do what we do out of love. We do what we do because we love God, and we love one another. That is why we do what we do. We don’t give of ourselves and from our monetary means because we want to gain heaven. Of course, we want to gain heaven. But we don’t do these things simply because we think that in doing so we will gain paradise.

Rather, we do the things we do—we give, of ourselves and of our money—because we know that doing so improves all of us, as Christians. What we give helps each other. It helps to maintain and keep vital what we hold dear. It helps us here at St. Stephen’s. And here, at St. Stephen’s, there are many great reasons to be giving of our talents and from our material wealth.

Good and wonderful things are happening here. As one of person form another Episcopal congregation in town told me recently: “Things are popping at St. Stephen’s!” And they are. There is a vitality here that many people are noticing and rejoicing in. Things are popping at St. Stephen’s because of us. They are happening because we all give from what we have. These things that are happening are not happening just because of the priest (as much as I’d like to take credit for it), or even because of one or two leaders in the church. St. Stephen’s is definitely not a place for top-down management.

The great things happening at St. Stephens are happening because we love God and we love one another. And when we love God and love one another, God’s Spirit moves among us. When that Spirits moves, we find ourselves wanting to serve God and one another. When we look around, we see the fruits of this kind of love. We see a vital congregation full of people who are giving of themselves and their means so that this church can continue to “pop”—so that it can continue to do what it does.

We find people giving of their musical talents and in doing so, enriching all of us. We find people giving of their artistic talents, and all of us are better off for it. We find people giving of their practical knowledge and we all benefit from that shared knowledge. We find people giving of their basic know-how in maintenance and the physical church building in which we gather is improved. We find people volunteering of their time and energy to serve at Churches United, or the Salvation Army, or on Medical Missions to Guatemala, or to help build schools in East Africa. And we find people who give from the gifts they have been given so that the grass is mowed, or the snow is removed or the windows are replaced, or the trees are trimmed. And we find people who give from what they have so that day-today-maintenance can be continued.

It is all of us working together and giving from our own places, from our own blessings and talents, out of love for God and of one another. That is what is so wonderful about St. Stephen’s. We do these things very well here. It’s important, occasionally, to recognize ourselves and each others for these contributions and to be thankful for them.

Pledge Sunday is not just a time to ask. It is also a time to give thanks. It is a time to thank each other for what we do for each other and for God.

As most of you have probably figured out by this time, liturgy is one of my favorite aspects of the Church. And what I love about our liturgy is that, in so many ways we might not even fully appreciate, it gives voice to what we believe. Certainly, that is what we believe as Episcopalians.

Over the years, I have heard some very strange views regarding liturgy. One was the strangest I’ve heard is an apprehension of some clergy about placing money on the altar at the offertory. Some felt that by placing money in the altar we are worshipping money, or taking something ritually unclean like money and profaning the altar with it. But, although you might not have noticed it, in our prayer book, the rubrics—those italicized instructions, are quite emphatic about issues like this. On page 361 in the Prayer Book, the rubric for the Offertory is this:

Representatives of the congregation bring the people’s offering of bread and wine, and money or other gifts, to…the celebrant. The people stand while the offerings are presented and placed on the Altar.

Charles Price and Louis Weil wrote a definitive book on our Liturgy for the Church’s teaching Series back in 1979 called Liturgy for Living. In it, they explained this action this way:

“In placing on the altar money and bread and wine, the congregation offers itself and its world. Money represents the work of the congregation. As in every sacrificial act from time immemorial, a part stands for the whole. We give part of what we make. That part stands for ‘ourselves, our souls and bodies’…the underlying reality of the action is that we offer our lives, individually and corporately, to become [Christ’s] body in this world. We acknowledge that what we offer to God is, in a certain sense, not ours but [God’s] all along, given to us in trust as [God’s] stewards of creation.”

We are Christ’s body in this world. And, as Christ’s body, we do what we do out of love. We give, as the widow we encounter in today’s Gospel gave. We give not because we have a lot to give. We give because we know that in giving, we are enriched by our giving. We give because we know that in giving, God and each other have been served. We give from what we have because in doing so we give ourselves. This is why we give. And this is why we need to be reminded on days like Pledge Sunday.

On this Pledge Sunday, we are reminded of how important giving is, as the widow who gives in our reading from First Kings gives to the prophet Elijah. And today we offer thanks for those who do give from what they have. Most vitally, we know that, as we give, like that widow in First Kings, what we give will never be emptied, nor will it ever fail.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

All Saints Sunday





November 1, 2009

Wisdom 3.1-9

Today, as we all know, is the feast of All Saints. However, you might not know that tomorrow—November 2—is a little know feast called the Feast of All Souls, or the feast of All Faithful Departed. I know it might seem a bit confusing,. However, the difference between these feasts can be explained this way:

All Saints Day celebrated those of “heroic sanctity.” In other words, they were those who went above and beyond the call of duty in their service to God. The feast of the Faithful Departed—or rather “All Souls” day—represented all of those have departed this life but weren’t particularly holy while here. In other words, All Saints was the day we remembered those who thought a lot about God, who probably went to church a lot and did extraordinary deeds for God, such as being martyred for the faith. All Souls day was that day we thought about everyone else who died.

I like these feasts of All Saints and All Souls because, during this season, we are gently reminded to think not only of those who have gone before us, but to also think about our own destination. In our collect today, for example, we are commended “to follow [God’s] blessed saint in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that have been prepared for those who truly love [God].” And in our reading from Wisdom, we given a beautiful glimpse of that place that awaits all the “souls of the righteous.”

So today, we are being asked to do quite a few things. Today we remember all those specially faithful people who have died and tomorrow we are to remember all who, for the most part, are forgotten, or who simply kept their faith to themselves. And we are reminded that we too are saints as well, working and striving for that place in which we will be like gold tried in the furnace, where we too will “shine forth, and will run like sparks through stubble.”

This last part might be especially hard for most of us to wrap our minds around. We too are called to be saints. Now, I know this might be a bit hard to grasp. Because as we look around among ourselves this morning, there might be some whoa re easy to recognize as saints in our midst. But the majority of us don’t see ourselves that way. We don’t look in the mirrors in the morning and become blinded by the halo that surrounds us. And I don’t think we see others, for the most part as, saints very often unless they are exceptional in their holiness and example.

When we think of either All Saints or All Souls day, we might lean a bit more toward All Souls Day for ourselves than All Saints. Certainly we have known—or maybe we might describe ourselves as—“good” people, but not particularly “religious” people. There are some for whom churches should be named, maybe and there are those for whom no churches will ever be named. No one will write books about them and few people will remember them a hundred years from now. But despite our accomplishments or our shortcomings, all of us as baptized Christians are still able to witness to each other and others about what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

Both all the saints and all the souls have taught us in someway how to live a righteous life. Or maybe in some ways they taught us how not to live a righteous life. Maybe these were the people from whose mistakes we learned what not to do with our lives in Christ. And I believe that those people are just as important to our Christian growth as the righteous ones have been. We sometimes need people to lead the way in what not do for us to realize that is not the way to go in our following after Jesus.

Today and tomorrow we commemorate all those people and realize that maybe God even works through those people we might not expect God to work through. God works through the saints, yes, but I think God also works through the lives of those who were not saints, as well. God rewards the works of the saints of course, but God also rewards the good works and beliefs of those who had no intention of receiving any blessing from God for what they did or believed.

So, in some ways, All Souls Day—All the Faithful Departed—is a time to commemorate the “hidden saints” among us—the people we might not readily identify as saints. And maybe that’s what the feast of November 2 should really be called. Maybe it should be called the Feast of the “Hidden Saints.”

One of my favorite stories about “hidden saints” is the story of St. Simeon the Holy Fool. I’m going to share a bit from a great website (one of my favorites) called The Ship of Fools and the description they give of St. Simon, who is their patron saint:



The Desert Saints of the early centuries were a wild and strange breed – and none were bred wilder or stranger than the saints of Syria. Some of them stood and prayed for years on end without sitting down. Others lived on top of pillars in the desert where they preached, wrote epistles and drew crowds of pilgrims. Numbered among these maverick saints is our patron, St Simeon the Holy Fool.




Simeon's saintly career started out quite normally. It was the usual story: 29 years living on lentils in an isolated cave next to the Dead Sea, at first struggling against temptation and then advancing to an alarming degree of holiness. But Simeon's story took a dramatic turn when he left his cave one day and set out for the city of Emesa in Syria. Arriving at the city gate, he found a dead dog on a dungheap, tied its leg to the rope around his waist, and entered the city dragging the comatose canine behind him.




This was only the beginning. For Simeon had decided to play the fool in order to mock the idiocy of the world and also to conceal his own identity as a saint. His behaviour was eccentric and, of course, scandalous... During the church services, he threw nuts at the clergy and blew out the candles. In the circus, he wrapped his arms around the dancing-girls and went skipping and dancing across the arena. In the streets, he tripped people up, developed a theatrical limp, and dragged himself around on his buttocks.




In the bath-house, he ran naked into the crowded women's section. On solemn fasting days he feasted riotously, consuming vast amounts of beans – with predictable and hilarious results. In his lifetime, Simeon was regarded as a madman, as an unholy scandal.

It was only after his death that the secret life of Simeon came to light. People started to talk about his acts of kindness – and about his strange and powerful miracles. There was the poor mule driver whose vinegar Simeon turned into wine so that he could start a successful tavern. There was the rich man who was saved from death when Simeon threw a lucky triple six at dice. And there was the young man Simeon punched on the jaw to save him from an affair with a married woman.





St Simeon the Holy Fool was a secret saint, his story was a holy farce, and his life shows how God chooses “the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; the weak things of the world to shame the strong” (1 Corinthians 1:27).




The story of Simeon helps remind us that there are hidden saints in our midst all the time. They are the ones we probably don’t think of as saints. But, as Simeon shows us, saints don’t have to be perfect people. Simeon and the hidden saints in our midst show us that God blesses and uses us even when are fractured and imperfect. God uses our shortcomings and our eccentricities as well.





So, today—this feast of all saints and tomorrow on the feast of all souls—the feast of the hidden saints in our midst—let us remember both those we know are saints and those hidden saints we have known. And more importantly, let us look for those hidden saints that are either right here beside us or staring back at us from our very own mirrors.