Sunday, June 28, 2009

4 Pentecost


June 28, 2009

Mark 5.21-43

I love reading theology and not just theology like the theology I profess and believe. The theologians I enjoy reading the most probably don’t get a lot of airplay because they aren’t that controversial. However, there are theologians out there—the ones who are given front page headlines and whose pictures appear on the cover of Newsweek and the Atlantic Monthly—who are so popular because of their controversial views.

These theologians would probably regard the miracles we heard in today’s Gospel as purely fiction. We must, these thinkers claim, be rational when we read these stories of Jesus curing and healing and raising from the dead.

I will admit that I read these many critical views avidly. I will even confess that, at times, I have been a bit titillated by the likes of John Spong and Marcus Borg John Dominic Crossan and Robert W. Funk and the news that came from the Jesus Seminar. But I will also admit that I read them in a way in which I have to process their writings.

Although these kind of theologians have much good to say to people who are theologically minded, who enjoy reading about topics like the Historical Jesus and the differences between the pre-resurrection Jesus and the post-resurrection Christ, the fact is that the more I have worked in parish ministry and cultivated my own spiritual life and delved deeper and deeper into scripture, I have found myself becoming distances more and more by these academic religious thinkers. Oftentimes, I simply have found that the message of these theologians rings hollow in my ears next to the experiential faith of my day to day life and those around me.

Having said that I am just as quick to say that I have not become a fundamentalist by any sense of he word. I still consider myself to be progressively minded as I once was. I am a good “progressive, inclusive, generously orthodox, Anglo-Catholic Episcopalian.”

However, I have found that my progressive-mindedness strangely and perhaps paradoxically has grounded me in a more—dare I say?—orthodox understanding of scripture, the sacraments and the Church—and more importantly, in my own faith and prayer life and in the faith lives of those alongside whom I serve.

Pastor Mark Strobel shared with me last week a wonderful article about the United Methodist Bishop William Willimon regarding ordained ministry. He centers in, at one point, specifically on those theologians who wish to reduce these miraculous stories of Jesus to quaint superstitious nuggets from a pre-rational, pre-scientific people.

Bishop Willimon counters this way of thinking. He writes:

“…it seemed not to occur to [these critical theologians] that contemporary biblical scholarship, because it is asking the wrong questions of the biblical texts, and even more because it is subservient to a community that is at odds with communities of faith, may simply be irrelevant both to the church and to the intent of the church’s Scripture. Sometimes the dissonance between the church and the academy is due, not to the benighted nature of the church, but rather to the limited thought that reigns in the academy.”

As most of us who have lived and worked in the academic world know, there is a strange distance between training and application. What we learn in the classroom is priceless. It is needed. It is a vital base for all that one does afterward.

However, what I discovered very quickly as I grew both as a Christian and a priest active in parish ministry, is that all that critical training I received from those theologians was not always helpful—either to the people I served or even to my own spiritual well-being.

Now, I will admit that, at first, there was a kind of liberation when I read these critical theologians. I was no longer confronted with anything supernatural. I no longer had to face the mysteries I was forced to sometimes wrestled with in scripture. However, I sometimes found my rational thinking just as challenged by these critical theologians as I was by the miracles they rebelled against. I remember especially the following statement by Bishop John Shelby Spong in his book, Resurrection: Myth or Reality? regarding his take on what he believes “really” happened at the crucifixion.“

Jesus died alone. He died the death of a publicly executed criminal. His body probably received the typical treatment given to those so unfortunate to fall under that category. He was removed from the instrument of execution, placed into a common grave and covered over. No records were kept, for no value was attached to those who had been executed. Bodies did not last long in their graves anyway. Burial removed the stench of decaying flesh, and in a very short time only some unmarked bones remained. Even the bones were gone before too long. Nature rather efficiently reclaims its own resources.”

So, yes, there was an empty tomb, but nothing ever laid there. The resurrection wasn’t a miracle, though it was a profoundly spiritual event. But it all seemed just as far-fetched for me. How did Spong know this? Where did he get his knowledge on this subject? Certainly he wasn’t there. And, as far as I understood, Spong wasn’t any more educated than most other Bishops I knew of or knew personally. Certainly his episcopacy gave him no greater knowledge on these topics than anyone else. Yet, he wrote with such authority on this issue that it seemed almost as though anyone who believed contrary to his rather flimsy approach to this subject was small-minded and quaint.

The other more practical problem for me with this was that I could never preach that message from this or any pulpit. There is no good news in it. There is no hope in it. A mass grave and anonymous, “unmarked bones” are not what those I look to for spiritual inspiration lived and died for—people like George Herbert, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Thomas Merton, Evelyn Underhill, the Martyrs of Memphis or any of the others.

And I can tell you that when life turned against me, when I got sick with cancer, when I faced the realities of death and dying, the message of Spong’s empty tomb did not sustain me. And not just me, but in the lives of countless people I have served alongside in ministry, countless people I have held hands with as they have lay dying or crying or mourning or facing uncertain futures.
Maybe the Resurrection never happened. Maybe that woman with a hemorrhage was never healed or maybe she never existed in the first place. Maybe Jairus’ daughter was never healed or maybe Jairus nor his daughter ever existed.

But the fact remains that all of these stories have the ability to sustain me. I personally need these miracle stories. I need to cling to them in my own life and I need them in my work in the parish. These stories of Jesus overcoming sickness and death are stories I can cling to when I am faced with sickness and death.

This past week we buried Ron Richard. I can tell you in all honesty that as I read and reflected and lived with this Gospel reading this past week, as I prepared Ron’s Burial Liturgy and sermon, I felt a renewed faith from my reading. When I read of the woman with a hemorrhage grasping at the hem of Jesus garment, I knew what that healing in her life was like. We too are often feeling like that woman. We often find ourselves bleeding deeply inside with no possible hope for relief. That bleeding might not be an actual bleeding, but a bleeding of our spirit, of our hopes and dreams, of a deep emotional or spiritual wound that just won’t heal And when we’ve been desperate, we find ourselves clutching at anything—at any little thing. But when we clutch after Jesus, when we reach even for a fringe of his presence in our lives, we find, strangely, healing.

And in this story of Jarius’ daughter, I too felt that moment in which I felt separated from the loved ones in my life—when I felt that a distance caused by estrangement, anger or even death. And when I have begged for healing for them and for myself form Jesus, it has come. Even in those instances when someone I have cared for and loved has died and I have still not healed that relationship, I can call out to Jesus and Jesus can say to me, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? Your loved one is not dead but only sleeping.”

Resurrection comes in many forms in our lives and if we wait them out these moments will happen. That is the story I gather form Jesus and his miracles. These miracles continue today in my life and in the lives of those around me. I know, because I have seen it again and again and, not only in my own life, but in the lives of others.

So, yes, I do still read Spong and Borg and all the others. But I do so with a fairly fine strainer. I am able sometimes able to sift out some fine gems from their writings. But with these Gospels, with scriptures, I find my greatest consolation. In slow and prayerful and sacred reading of these words, I am able to be sustained and rejuvenated and am able to face whatever life may throw at me with hope and, sometimes, even joy.


So, in your own life, make these stories of Jesus your own. Believe in them and believe they can happen in your life as well. Cling to them, find strength in them and hope in them. Let them give life to your faith. If you do, those words of Jesus to the woman today will be words directed to you as well: “your faith has made you well; go in peace; be healed.”

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Burial Liturgy for Ron Richard


Ron Richard
(January 28, 1950-June 18, 2009)
June 24, 2009

Isaiah 11.2-9

I will be blunt with you: I don’t want to be here today. I do not want to be here on this afternoon commemorating the life of Ron Richard. Rather, what I want to do today is to go see Ron. I want to bring him Holy Communion. I want to joke with him. I want just to talk with him again. Today, Ron should be recovering from the surgery he was scheduled to have on Monday to remove the pins from his leg. But it didn’t work out that way.

One week ago today—at this very hour—I saw Ron for the last time. Last Wednesday I brought him Holy Communion. I joked with him. We discussed the absurdity of walking one’s dog while riding a bike. Ron was looking forward to having that second surgery to remove the pins because, as he told me that day, he could finally salvage some of his summer. I told him, as I left him that Wednesday afternoon, that I would see him again on Sunday. His mother, Darlene, had just come in with food for him (he hated the food at the nursing home). And as I left him, he was smiling and full of life.

The next day, when his friend Steve called me to tell me Ron had died, I have to admit I was a bit shocked. In fact I was so shocked, I asked actually asked: “Ron? Ron who?”

But, as Ron would be the first to tell you, this is just the way life works out sometimes. We don’t get to plan our own lives. Sometimes things just happen that devastate us and shock us—things that happen and when they do we realize we will never be the same again. Ron understood that in his life. Ron was that kind of guy. For those of us who knew him, we realize he was a bit of visionary. He had a perception about him that was a little different than the rest of us. His ideal of the world was a little more colored, a little more vibrant, a little more clearer than maybe we ourselves saw it.

In our reading from Isaiah today, we are confronted with a vision very much like Ron’s. For those of us who are rational, this vision seems naïve and almost absurd. It makes no sense for those of who know better. But for the prophet, for the visionary, this vision has the potential for reality. This is the place in which God rules fully and completely, where what seems absurd and naïve to us is, in fact, the place God promises to all of us who hope in God. Ron was able to see this vision, was able to cling to it and hold it close. Ron was able to see things some of us couldn’t see. He saw a sacredness to all living things He saw life as something that can’t be squandered or disrespected or cheapened. That vision from Isaiah was what sustained Ron. It was what gave him home and courage him in those difficult moments in his life. That vision of Isaiah was what held him up and guided him. It was very important to him, so important to him in fact that in the obituary he prepared himself, he wrote that he and his animal companions had sought to bring “Isaiah’s vision to reality.”

Because this vision was so important to Ron, we should take a closer look at it on this day we are remembering and celebrating Ron Richard. So, let’s examine this vision according to Isaiah. In it, we find these wonderful words “wisdom” and “knowledge” and “skill” being used again and again. This place Ron hoped in and longed for was a place in which no one will be judged by appearance or hearsay. The poor will be judged fairly and the rights of the helpless will be defended. In that place, justice and integrity will be the rule. For those of us still caught up in our own vision of reality, it sounds almost too good to be true. But then we come to the paradoxes. We find wolves and sheep living together in peace. We find leopards lying down with what before was regular prey—young goats. Calves and lions feed together. Cows and bears will eat together—obviously in this place even bears become vegetarians—and their calves and cubs lie down in peace And yes, even lions in that place will be vegetarians, because they will eat straw as cattle do. And even babies can be near poisonous snakes without danger or fear. In that place, there will be nothing harmful or evil. The land will be so full of the knowledge of God that it will seem to be as full of this knowledge as the seas are full of water.

For some of us more cynically-minded people, this vision just seems so…make-believe. Leopards lying down with their prey? Children playing with poisonous snakes? Bears and lions eating grass like cows? But this vision of Isaiah was not some kind of pipe dream for Ron. It was not some utopia or dreamy fantasy. Ron believed that God cares for every living creature and that our job as stewards of this earth meant striving to make sure anything that held within it life should be freed of as much undue suffering as possible. For him, this vision is very much a possibility . It is very within our grasp. We can, in all reality, make this existence a better place to live for all living things. This vision is truly the Kingdom of God in our midst.

For Ron—as with the prophets like Isaiah, as with Jesus himself—the kingdom of God was not necessarily something that only awaited us in the next life. That Kingdom of God that awaits us could also break through into this world. And we are the ones who are able to do that. The Kingdom of God can break through when we do simple things, like loving—like loving God and loving our neighbors as our selves. And our neighbors here on earth are not just our human neighbors. Our neighbors are all living creatures. And to love them, to respect them, to care for them is a way to bring that Kingdom of God into our midst. That is what Ron believed and that is we too should be striving for as well in our lives. If we do that, even in small ways, we will be doing great good in this world. If we do that, even in small ways, we will be living out the ideal Ron hoped in.

For Ron, on this Wednesday afternoon, that Kingdom of God has been fully realized. For Ron, and for those of us who believe that life doesn’t end at death but continues on, this ideal of the Kingdom of God has been realized. The paradoxes of that Kingdom are in place. Ron is there—his vision made real for him. In that place, Ron is whole and healthy and complete and beautiful. In that place, Ron is fully and completely happy. In that place, Ron also awaits us. In that place, Ron is encouraging us to realize that place here in our own lives. He is commending us to be the conduits through which that Kingdom in which he now lives is made a reality here on this earth.

Our best way to honor Ron, to remember Ron, to celebrate what Ron has left us is to be these conduits. And the best way we can be conduits is by loving God and loving all of our neighbors—human and non-human—as ourselves. When we do, Ron will be close to us. Ron will be urging us on, encouraging us and commending us.

Yes, I will miss Ron greatly. We will all miss Ron greatly. But I know that Ron’s influence in my life will continue if I strive, even in small ways, to do what I learned from him. If I continue to work toward making Isaiah’s vision a reality in this world, then he will continue to be a part of my life.

I am going to close today with a prayer Ron shared with the vestry here at St. Stephen’s at our January meeting. In many ways, this prayer sums up Ron’s vision and his hopes for a better world.

Let us pray the prayer of St. Basil.

The Prayer of St. Basil

O God, enlarge within us the sense of fellowship with all living things, our little brothers and sisters, to whom Thee hast given this earth as their home in common with us.

We remember with shame that in the past we have exercised the high dominion of man with ruthless cruelty, so that the voice of the earth which should have gone up to Thee in song has been a groan of travail.

May we realize that they live, not for us alone, but for themselves and for Thee, and that they love the sweetness of life even as we do, and serve Thee in their place better than we in ours.

Amen.


Sunday, June 21, 2009

3 Pentecost


June 21, 2009

Job 38.1-11; Mark 4.35-41

Yesterday, June 20, was the fifty-second anniversary of the devastating tornado that struck Fargo. Some of you might even remember it. For those of you who don’t remember it or know anything about it. Here’s what happened. On Wednesday, June 20, 1957, an F5 tornado hit north Fargo from the west. It tore through Golden Ridge, through the north side of town before fizzling out over the Red River and Minnesota. In its wake, 9 people lay dead. One more died from injuries a month later on July 16. Another died in January 1960, never have regained from a coma. Finally, the last victim of the tornado died February, 1964 from her injuries.

Now all of this might seem like ancient history to many of you. 1957 was a different time. We have come a long way since that year and Fargo has come a long way since that hot summer day when the air turned black and unleashed a windstorm that destroyed a good part of the city.

But I mention it today because I grew up in the shadow of that tornado. I grew up hearing the story of the tornado—usually around this time of the year. I grew up fearing the change in the weather at this kind of year, fearing the dark clouds that seemingly rise up in the west on particularly hot days. I also grew up in the shadow of this storm because two people who died as a result of that tornado were my relatives.

My mother’s cousin, Betty Lou Titgen, was knocked into a coma that, from which she never regained consciousness before dying 2 ½ years later. Her husband, Don Titgen, was killed outright in the storm.


For me, that tornado obsessed me not only for its historical meaning. In many ways, what I found so interesting about the tornado was trying to make sense of the chaos of that storm. That chaos was a chaos that wreaked havoc for years afterward. The lives torn apart and destroyed by that storm were more than just the twelve people who died. Live were ripped open, families destroyed, lives driven by that storm into some awful wilderness.

As a result, I have found myself claiming this tornado as a personal part of my own history. And, I also claim it as a part of my own theology.

Last year, at this time, I was in the midst of writing a book of poems about the tornado, which I named simply Fargo, 1957. In the course of writing the book I found myself wrestling with my own family history, with the history of this event, but what surprised me more was that I found myself wrestling with my own theology.

Now it might seem strange to some people that writing a book involves wrestling with one’s theology. Actually, it isn’t all that strange. I just read a wonderful book called The New Christians by Tony Jones. The book is about the Emergent Church movement, which I have been following closely and have found very spiritually liberating in my own growth as a Christian. In this book, Jones has probably one of the best contemporary definitions of theology. He writes:

“Theology…speak directly of God. And anytime human being talk of God, they’re necessarily also going to talk about their own experience of God.”

Jones then goes on to definite theology more succinctly. He writes, “theology is talk about the nexus of divine and human action.” I like that definition very much.

“But theology isn’t just talk,” Jones adds. “When we paint scenes from the Bible or when we write songs about Jesus or when we compose poems about God or when we write novels about the human struggle with meaning, we are ‘doing theology.’”

For me, writing that book about the 1957 tornado became a very real and potent way for me to “do theology” by writing poems. And two of the scriptures I found myself returning to again and again and using as “jumping off points” in my attempt to understand the events of that disaster of over fifty years ago, were our Old Testament and Gospel readings for today.

I found myself “doing theology” by examining the tornados of my own life (both the tornado of 1957 and all the spiritual storms of my own experience) n the light of those scriptures. What is God saying to us from the whirlwinds that invade our lives? What do we do in the wind storms of our lives, when we feel battered and beaten and bashed?

For me, I found myself, in examining these scriptures, straining against the wind of the storm to hear the Voice of God. The fact is, if you do so, we will hear God’s voice. If we turn out spiritual ears toward God, we will hear God.

For Job, the voice of God he hears in the whirlwind has no answers to the questions we find ourselves asking all the time? Why do bad things happen to those of us whoa re faithful God? Why do our lives get turned upside down? Why do twelve people die as a result of a natural phenomenon and countless lives get turned upside down? The Voice that answers him from the whirlwind with more questions:

“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?
[Where were you] when the morning stars sang together
and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?”

Sometimes that’s exactly what we hear in the storms of our lives. We want answers when we shout our angry questions of unfairness into the storm. Sometimes, when we do, the Voice in the wind only throws it all back at us with more questions. Just when we want answers, we find more questions and we ourselves are forced to find the answers within ourselves.

Sometimes the Voice answering back from the wind with questions, is a voice more succinct. Sometimes it is a more potent questions—a question not filled with poetic and symbolic meaning, but a pointblank question to us. Sometimes the voice form the wind—as we shake with fear and hold on for dear life during those frightening storms—asks us bluntly: “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”

Why fear the whirlwinds and all that they unleash upon us. Have we no faith? Again and again God commands us, in various voices, “do not be afraid.”

“Do not be afraid.”

And still we fear.

But the message is that although the actual weather storms of our lives will rage around us, when we stop fearing, those storms are quieted. Because the other voice that comes out of the storms of our lives is not asking a question of us. The other voice that comes out of the storms of our lives commands, “Peace! Be Still!”

“Peace!”

That wonderful, soothing word that truly does settle and soothe.

“Be still!”

In that clam, stillness, we feel God’s Presence most fully and completely. As disoriented as we might be from being buffeted by the storm, that stillness can almost be disorienting. Still, in it, we find Jesus, calm and collected, awaiting us to have faith, do shed our fears and to allow him to still the storms of our lives.

So, in those moments when the whirlwind rages, when the storms come up, when the skies turn dark and ominous, when fear begins lurking at our doors, let us strain toward that Voice that asks us, “Why are you afraid. Have you still no faith?”

And when the storms of our lives abate, when we find ourselves in that mind-boggling peace after the chaos and violence of the storm, we too will find ourselves filled with great awe and will say to one another, “Who is this then, that even the wind…obey[s] him?”





Saturday, June 20, 2009

Wedding of Sara Lemke and Kody Backman


June 20, 2009

Colossians 3.12-17

I am very happy to be a part of this celebration today And it truly is a celebration. Today we have two reasons to celebrate.

First, we at St. Stephen’s are celebrating, because Sara and Kody’s wedding is the first St. Stephen’s wedding in 13 years. Now, for a moment, just take that in. This is the first St. Stephen’s wedding since May 25, 1996. 1996. Poor Samantha [Sara’s daughter] was born in 1999. She can’t even comprehend such a year as 1996. Now just when you’ve taken that in, let’s add one more aspect to all of this: that wedding in 1996, wasn’t even held here. In the fact, the last time a bride and groom actually stood here, inside this church, right here where Sara and Kody are standing, was December 4, 1993.

Now, I don’t know what kind of magic this wedding of Sara and Kody is generating, but, I have to tell you…the drought is over. The dams have broken. Because we have *deep sigh* three more weddings scheduled this summer. So, these two must be doing something right.

The second reason we are celebrating today is because… three people fell in love. We are celebrating today this strange thing—this ephemeral, elusive thing that we all call love. Now some of us are probably going to roll our eyes. Oh, no, you might be thinking. He’s gonna talk about love now. Yes, I am. Because, it is love we are celebrating today. Love is this thing we just can’t quite put our fingers on. It’s wonderful and kind of horrible all at once. It makes us ecstatically happy one minute and wild-eyed crazy the next. It’s glorious and gut-wrenching all at the same time. And yet, we can’t live without it. It sustains us—like food or water. It gives us purpose and meaning. And, as Sara and Kody and Samantha will tell you, it renews. It revitalizes. It gives us a reason to hope again. It gives us a reason to get up in the morning and face what otherwise might seem like a insurmountable day. And as much we want to control it and force it to do what we want it do, love doesn’t work that way. Love comes into our life when we least expect it—and sometimes when we least want it. And when it does, we are never the same again.

That is what we are celebrating today. That is what we see happening before us in these people before us.

I am so happy, Sara and Kody, that your wedding is the wedding that breaks that drought of weddings here at St. Stephen’s.I say that now, but probably by the fourth wedding I will no doubt be cursing you quietly to myself for unleashing this flood of wedding energy. But I am truly happy that your wedding is the first wedding here in a long time. I am happy that your wedding is a kind new birth here. Because who knows better than you what renewal is, what rebirth is. Who knows better than you what love can do? Who knows better than you the transforming power of love?

So, rejoice in this love you have for each other. Celebrate this love in your lives fully. Hold this love close to you and never let it wiggle away, never let it grow stale, never let it fizzle. Renew it, rejoice in it, revel in it. As we heard in our reading from Colossians, “clothe yourself in love, which binds everything together.” And let that peace of Christ rule completely and fully in your hearts as well. Sara and Kody, your love is a blessing—and not just each to other, but to all of us who are fortunate enough to share in this love with you. So, with you today, we are celebrating. With you, our hearts are singing as well. And it is a joyful moment for all of us.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

2 Pentecost


June 14, 2009

Mark 4.26-34

I hate to do this to you. I hate to start your Sunday out with, of all things, a poem. Actually, it’s only a fragment of a poem. But still….it’s a poem. And not just any poem either. No, this poem is a poem translated from, of all people, a Chilean Communist. But it is one of my favorite poems. It is called “Oda al átamo” or “Ode to the Atom.”

Infinitesimal
star,
you seemed
forever
buried
in metal, hidden,
your diabolic
fire.
One day
someone knocked
at your tiny
door:
it was man .
With one
explosion
he unchained you,
you saw the world,
you came out
into the daylight,
you traveled through
cities,
your great brilliance
illuminating lives,
you were a
terrible fruit
of electric beauty…
[Then] came
the warrior
and seduced you:
sleep,
he told you,
curl up,
atom, you resemble
a Greek god…
in springtime,
lie down here
on my fingernail,
climb into this little box,
and then the warrior
put you in his jacket
as if you were nothing but
a North American
pill,
and traveled through the world
and dropped you
on Hiroshima.

This poem was written by one of my all-time favorite poets—a poet no doubt you’ve heard me quote before and, trust me, you will hear me quote again and again—Pablo Neruda. And this fragment of the poem we just heard just touches a bit on what something as small as an atom can do.

An atom—that smallest of all things—can, when it is unleashed, do such horrendous damage. It truly can be

a
terrible fruit
of electric beauty…

An atom. That smallest of things. And look at what it could do. If the people of Jesus’ day knew what atoms where, he would no doubt would’ve used the atom instead as a symbol of the Kingdom of God, But rather, what we find today in our Gospel reading is Jesus comparing the Kingdom of God to the smallest thing they could’ve understood.

A mustard seed. A small, simple mustard seed. Something they no doubt knew. And something they no doubt gave little thought to. But it was with this simple image—this simple symbol—that Jesus makes clear to those listening that little things do matter.

This past Thursday—on the feast of St. Barnabas—I celebrated my fifth anniversary of ordination to the priesthood. The night before, at our Wednesday night Eucharist, I preached about the fact that five years in ordained ministry is the equivalent of the seven year itch in a marriage. At that point, the honeymoon is over (in my case there wasn’t ever really a honeymoon). The uniqueness of being ordained has worn off at five years and the reality of the expectations of being a priest have settled in. More importantly, one knows if one is bearing fruit or not by five years. One knows if the seeds one has sown have been planted in fertile ground or are, instead, being thrown to the wind and to infertile ground.

After the Eucharist that night, most of us gathered at John Alexander’s Restaurant. While there, we all had an interesting discussion about what ministry is all about. What we all recognized was the fact that in one’s life as a Christian there are going to be moments when it seems as though one’s ministry is flourishing and wonderful. And there will be moments when our ministry seems to be producing nothing. Our ministry, in many ways, reflects our lives. There will be feasts and there will be fasts. And all are equally productive.

Jesus’ use of the mustard seed is particular apt way of approaching ministry. The mustard seed is the smallest of the seeds and yet look at what it produces. This is what ministry is all about as well. The smallest thing we do in our ministry can produce some of the greatest fruit.

And that’s real point. All of us—certainly all of who profess our faith as Christians, who come to church on Sundays—are called to ministry. Ministry is simply part and parcel of being a Christian. If we are baptized, if we live out that baptism in the world, we are doing ministry.

Ministry is not, nor has it ever been, the exclusive claim of those of us who have been ordained, who wear funny collars and crisp black clothes. Ministry has always been the work of all of us. That is why Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to these images of seeds. The Kingdom of God doesn’t just happen when priests and bishops get up and preach and make legislation in the Church. The Kingdom doesn’t’ happen just when we as a Church send out deputies off to places like Anaheim, California where they make decisions about what direction the Church might go. The Kingdom happens when we—each and every single one of us—do, in even some small way, what we profess to do, when we go out from this church on Sundays and try to live out in whatever way we can what we have learned and professed here.

When I was ordained a priest five years ago, my sister gave me a present. It was a small pendant and in it was a mustard seed. And it was a gift that I have come to greatly cherish. It was so small, so seemingly unimportant, just sort of floating there in its amber glass. But over the years, that wonderful little pendant has taken on a huge amount of meaning in my life. That little mustard seed—that miniscule little dot—has become for me a potent symbol of the Kingdom of God. It reminds me that, to bring about the Kingdom of God in this world, we don’t need to be grandiose. We don’t need to shout or scream or strut about, full of ourselves. We don’t even have to say a simple word.

When it comes to the Kingdom, when it comes to true ministry, little things do truly mean quite a lot. That mustard seed also reminds me of that poem to the atom by Neruda. Just as the small good things in the world can produce such beautiful and wonderful things such as the Kingdom of God in our very midst, so do those small seeds of discontent flourish into ugly and life-threatening weeds.

Sometimes the little things we do, do much harm as well. A quick, harsh word of criticism, a glance, a gesture of anger at a fellow motorist on the highway—all of these don’t do anything to bring about the Kingdom of God in our midst. They only sow discontent and anger and frustration. And where discontent and anger and frustration flourish, the Kingdom of God is stifled.
We have all known what it feels like to be on the receiving end of those seeds of discontent. We have all known people who have been driven from the church by what those seeds have produced. We ourselves have no doubt been close to leaving the church over those weeds that clog our lives and cause us such pain.

But it does draw us back to the mustard seed once again. It reminds us that despite all the weeds that can grow, that mustard seed can produce something even greater than weeds. Those small, good things we do can truly bring about more good than we can hope to produce. Simple things like a hug, an ear to listen, a smile, an attempt to soothe, to comfort, to help—all these things and so many more go a long way in helping to crowd out the weeds of negativity in the world. Over and over again in our lives, we have no doubt seen the Kingdom of God blossom in people’s lives and in the world from the smallest seeds of goodness.

So, hold before yourselves that image of the mustard seed. Let it be an icon for you in your ministry. Let it be for you a symbol of the ministry you have been called to do by your baptism, by your membership in the Church of God. Let the mustard seed be for you a doorway through which the Kingdom of God breaks through into our world. Let it be the positive atom which, when unleashed, creates an explosion of goodness and beauty and grace in this world. Let it be the “fruit/of electric beauty” that will transform this world into the Kingdom in which God reigns completed and fully through us. Let it be, as Neruda begged the atom to be at the end of his poem:

“…instead of the fatal
ashes
of your mask,
instead of unleashed infernos
of your wrath,
instead of the menace
of your terrible light, deliver to us
your amazing
rebelliousness
for our grain,
your unchained magnetism
to found peace among men,
and then your dazzling light
will be happiness,
not hell,
hope of morning,
gift to earth.”

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Eve of St. Barnabas/Corpus Christi


June 10, 2009

Matthew 10:7-16

Tomorrow is the fifth anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood. And on the eve of this fifth anniversary, I am going to confess something to you that I have not heard many priests confess at five years: I love being a priest. I LOVE being a priest! I really do.

Five years is a strange time in the life of a priest. At five years, one has, more or less, figured one’s self out professionally. One knows what direction God is sending one at five years. And, at five years, one finds one’s self going through a kind of mid-life crises.

By five years, one knows if one is producing fruit or if one is sowing seeds in dead and dusty soil.

The other day I was talking to Dean Steve Sellers at the Cathedral. He was telling me that five years in the priesthood can be a dangerous time. It is the equivalent of the seven year itch in a marriage. At five years, the honeymoon is over. (Let me tell you, it was long over for me—in fact, I don’t remember much of a honeymoon).

Most of us go into ministry thinking of all that we will accomplish. We think everyone we will bring to God, of everyone we will “save.” Which reminds me of my favorite Beatles song. No, It’s not “Love me do” or “She Loves You” or “Yellow Submarine.” It’s “Eleanor Rigby.” I think one of most plaintive lines form that song about lonely people and their lonely existence is that wonderful line:

“Eleanor Rigby died in the church and was buried along with her name.
Nobody came.
Father Mackenzie, wiping the first from his hands as he walks from the grave;
no one was saved.”

At five years, one often feels like Father Mackenzie. One often feels as though one is walking away from Mass, or a funeral or a wedding or, God help us, a baptism, feeling as though “no one was saved.”

But in those moments—and all of who minister in any way has them—we find ourselves clinging to the Gospel reading we have for today. In it, we find that Jesus, at no point, promises us a rose garden. Certainly no one promised me any such thing when I was ordained. Doing ministry does not mean that we are going to wake up every morning feeling as though sunlight is falling in dappled rays upon us.

Rather Jesus tells us in our Gospel reading for this feast of St. Barnabas, one of his more bluntly statements: “If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town.”

Even more bluntly Jesus says, “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

No rose gardens here. It’s just the facts of ministry. We are often going to feel like sheep in the midst of goats. And our only defense is going to be being as wise as serpents and innocent as doves.

Having said all of that, I can say that, yes, five years is definitely one of those watermarks in one’s priestly career. But on this anniversary, I will repeat what I said at first: I love being a priest. I really love being a priest. Even on those terrible, awful days when everything seems to be unraveling or on those days when I come home after a full day or work so tired I can’t even see clearly, I am able to feel in my heart and soul that I love being what I am—a priest.

On this, my fifth anniversary, I pray for God’s blessings not only on me but on all of us who are ministering. I pray for God’s blessing on the ministry we are doing together here at St. Stephen’s and in this Diocese.

I am going to close with one of my favorite prayers. This was written by one of my personal spiritual heroes, Thomas Merton, who himself realized fairly early on in his ordained ministry that the priesthood wasn’t all sunshine and roses. This is a prayer I think all of can appreciate as we seek to do God’s will in our lives:

Let us pray.
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.I do not see the road ahead of me.I cannot know for certain where it will end.Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean I am actually doing so.But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it.Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

Monday, June 8, 2009

The fifth anniversary of my ordination to the Priesthood


Your prayers are requested
on the fifth anniversary of my
Ordination to the Priesthood
on Thursday, June 11, 2009

For those of you in the Fargo-Moorhead area
please join me at
the celebration of the Holy Eucharist
6:00 PM
Wednesday night
June 10, 2009
The Eve of the Feast of St. Barnabas the Apostle
at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church
120 21 Avenue North
Fargo

with a celebratory supper afterward at
Usher’s House Restaurant
700 1 Ave. N.
Moorhead, MN

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Trinity Sunday




June 7, 2009

John 3.1-17

The other day I was talking to some fellow clergy and they were expressing their apprehension about thus Sunday we call Trinity Sunday. One friend of mine said she approaches the concept of the Trinity must as a place flying into a storm. One can fly around it. One can fly above it. Or one can fly right through it. She decided she was going to fly around it and preach today about Nicodemus.

As you have probably guessed by now, I am the kind of person who would rather fly right through it. And so, today, I am going to face the Trinity. But, I should be honest—for me this concept of God as Trinity isn’t a frightening concept, nor is it a so overwhelming. For me, I don’t see it as some kind of whirling storm to fly through. Instead, I see it rather as the ultimate mystery of mysteries. I see it, as the paramount belief we Christians have. The Trinity. God as Three-in-One—God as Father or Parent or Creator, God as Son or Redeemer and God as Spirit or Sanctifier.

It is difficult to wrap our minds around this concept of God. The questions we priests regularly get is: how can God be three and yet one? How can we, in all honesty, say that we believe in one God when we worship God as three? Aren’t we simply talking about three gods?

Whole Church councils have debated the issue of the Trinity throughout history. The Church actually has split at times over its interpretation of what exactly this Trinity is. Certainly, I struggled with this concept for years. It was only when I was studying for the priesthood, in a systematic theology class I took, that I came across a book that broke down all the barriers for me.

The book, by a nun of the Dominican Order, Mary Ann Fatula, was called The Triune God of Christian Faith. Now that title alone would turn most of us off. Certainly when I saw it on the syllabus, I rolled my eyes and thought to myself: Great, another dry, boring book on theology. But despite its title, this book was amazing. Fatula was wonderful in how she took this very difficult concept of the Trinity and made it accessible at least for me. Some of the points Fatula makes are downright beautiful and poetic in attempting to understand what the Trinity is: She begins with the belief that our very beings are “etched with the signs of Trinitarian origin.” In a sense, we have proof of the Trinity’s existence in our very bodies and minds.

Our psyche, for example, is Trinitarian, made up of three distinct aspects. It’s still one psyche, but it makes its self known in three different ways: memory, knowledge and love. It, in a sense, reflects the relationship the “persons” of the Trinity have with each other.

Another way she attempts to understand the Trinity is that of the relationship of the Lover, of the Beloved and of the Love that unites them. The Lover, our course, is God the Creator, the Parent. The Beloved is Christ. The love that unites them is the Spirit. She stresses that although they are the same, they are still distinct and different in what they do. The Son (Christ) and the Spirit, she explains, are exactly what the Father (Parent) is, without being who the Parent is.

I’ll repeat that: The Son (Christ) and the Spirit, she explains, are exactly what the Father (Parent) is, without being who the Parent is.

Are you still with me? Let’s look at it from another perspective: The Trinity starts with the Incarnation—our belief that Jesus is God made flesh—God made one of us—fully God, fully human.

“Because of Jesus,” Fatula says, “heaven will be joined to earth in our very bodies.”

In other words, because Jesus was both a part of heaven and a part of earth, in Jesus, we find a perfect balance. Heaven and earth have come together. The Holy Spirit, released at the death of Jesus on the cross, is now poured out upon us. Before this death, Fatula says, the Spirit was confined by the “opaque boundaries of Jesus’ human existence.” His pre-resurrection body could only “’contain’ rather than convey the spirit.” At his death, the dam broke, in a sense. The Spirit poured forth into our lives as a lasting presence of God among us. This is certainly what we celebrated last Sunday on Pentecost. Jesus, after he was resurrected, after he ascended bodily into heaven, has left us his presence—his spirit—to remain with us. It was poured out on those disciples in the upper room and it continues to be poured out upon all of us still to this day. This Spirit, according to Fatula, is the Father and the Son’s embrace of us, “their kiss, their joy and their delight lavished upon the earth.” By the Spirit, we come to know both God as our loving Parent and God as our redeemer—we are encircled and drawn close to God.

So, what are talking about here is not three gods, as some people seem to think. What we are talking about it one tri-personal God—a God who cannot be limited in any way, but a God who is able to come to us and be revealed to us in a variety of ways. So now we’re getting a real idea of what the Trinity is.

Now, all of this is, hopefully, very helpful. It helps us to make sense of this sometimes confusing and difficult belief. But ultimately what we have here are symbols and analogies of what the Trinity is. They are ways of taking something incomprehensible and making them, in some small way, tangible. We can go on and on about theology and philosophy and all manner of thoughts about God, but ultimately what matters is not how we think about God, but how we believe in God. Or more important than that, how do these views of God help deepen our relationship with God and with each other? How do they bring us closer to God? Because that is our primary responsibility: our relationship with God.

How can all this talk about God—how can this thinking about God—then deepen our relationship with God? Our goal is not to understand God: we will never understand God. Our goal is to know God. Our goal is to love God. Our goal is to try to experience God as God wishes to be experienced by us.

Recently I was looking at a sermon I preached several years ago on Trinity Sunday and I am amazed somewhat by how my understanding of the Trinity has changed, partly due to Fatula’s book and by my understanding of Orthodoxy from Ware’s books, but mostly due to my own relationship with God. I have, in these past years, experienced God in a variety of ways; certainly I have experiences God in that tri-personal way in countless times. I have known God as a loving and caring parent, especially when I think about those times when I have felt marginalized by people, when I have felt ostracized and turned away by people.

Once, for example, I was singled out by a person that I, against my better judgment, had to consider my direct superior. This particular person held a grudge against me for several months because I stood up for something I believed in and felt was wrong and manipulative and downright unchristian. As a result of my perceived disloyalty, he made a personal and purposeful attempt to ignore me—to shun me, in effect—and the hard work I did. Of course I felt angry. Of course I felt frustrated and, to be honest, downright hurt. In those moments of anger and frustration at being treated in such a way, I was able to turn to God as a loving parent, a parent who understood what was happening. But what I also saw was that God was also a parent to that other person. It helped somewhat to realize and recognize that God loved me as much as God loved this person. God was as much of a loving, caring and protective parent to him as God was to me.

It wouldn’t hurt any of us to look at each other in this same way—to realize that despite our differences, despite the things about us that drive each other crazy sometimes, we are all children of the same God and we are each loved as fully and as deeply by that God.

I have also known God as Christ—the God who has come to us as one of us—the God who took on the same flesh we wear—who suffered as we suffer and who died as we all will die. I was most aware of God as Christ when I was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago. It was the first time in my life that I suffered physically. I felt physically sick at times. I hurt physically. In those moments, I was able to take comfort in the fact that God was not some distant deity who could not comprehend what I was going through in my body. God, having taken on flesh like my flesh, knew uniquely what it was to be limited by our bodies. There is something wonderful and holy in that realization.

And I have known the healing and renewal of the Spirit of my life. Having suffered with cancer and knowing the effects it can wreak not only on one’s body, but in one’s spirit and soul as well, I have seen, in a keenly unique way, how the Spirit can come in the wake of something as devastating as cancer, to heal and renew.

So, no matter what the theologians argue about, no matter what those supposedly learned teachers proclaim, ultimately, our understanding of the Trinity needs to be based on our own experience to some extent. The Trinity does not have to be a frustrated aspect of our church and our faith. It should widen and expand our faith life and our understanding and experience of God and, in turn, of each other.

So, today, as you ponder God as Trinity—as you consider how God has worked in your life in a tri-personal way— and who God is in your life, remember how amazing God is in the ways God is revealed to us. God can not be limited or quantified or reduced. God can only be experienced and adored and pondered. And, of course, loved.