Sunday, August 30, 2009

13 Pentecost


August 30, 2009

James 1.17-27; Mark 7.1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Ah, conviction. And by conviction, I mean—being convicted. That’s probably what we are feeling as we hear this Gospel for this morning. That list Jesus lays out is a pretty strong and straightforward one. And most of us can feel pretty confident we’re free and clear for the most part. After all, most of don’t steal, don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, aren’t purposely wicked, are deceitful, don’t slander

A few we might not really understand: avarice (which is just another word for greed)? licentiousness (which just means immorality, being immoral)?

And folly? What’s so horrible about folly?

But then, there are a few we find might actually hit home a bit, such as Envy and Pride. For me, these two are the two that stumble me up the most. These are the two of this whole list that I struggle with and fight against and try to overcome in my life.

What it is especially apt about this morning’s Gospel reading is that Jesus takes these ugly things we are capable of doing and uses them to engage fully the Pharisees and the scribes.

He takes their condemnation of him about cleanliness and keeps the conversation going regarding cleanliness. He simply takes the conversation up a notch.

You are worried about what defiles the hands. I am concerned with what defiles the heart.

The heart, for Jewish people of Jesus’ day, was truly the center of one’s being. From the heart everything emanated. The heart directed the mind. It directed our thoughts. If your heart was pure, then you were pure. If your heart was evil, then you did evil. Because where your heat leads, your actions follow.

But one we could easily add is “anger.” And if we did, then this would win the prize with me.

Now most of you know me as a pretty laid-back kind of person for the most part. I don’t seem to fly off the handle very often. I don’t think there have been too many people who have actually seen me completely lose it with anger.

But recently I have been finding myself dealing with a strange anger that I have had within me for I don’t even know how long. It doesn’t always explode to the surface (which can either be a good thing or a really bad thing). But it’s there and everyone so often I am forced to confront it.

When I do, I find myself experiencing anger in all its force. Anger is all consuming. When it boils up form within, all other senses seem to shut off—or it shuts them off. It rages and roils and knocks me—and anyone else around me—around, and in the midst o it, I find I am not only angry, but almost scared by my anger.

Which only, of course, leads me to our reading from James for this morning. This past week, our reading from James been a special scripture that I have lived with:

“…be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.”

Anger is something that needs to be confronted and dealt with. It needs to be systematically phased out, because it is like poisoning in our systems. It destroyed us and those around us. And, as James says, “anger does not produce God’s righteousness.”

If we think about our heart as the center of our being—as the center of ourselves, we find that anger truly does poising the heart and there fore the whole system. When we harbor anger in our hearts, we are a salve to anger. And if we are slave to anger, we can let love flourish. And if we cannot let love flourish, God cannot come and dwell within us. We block out God and we block out the Kingdom of God.

Anger does not help the Kingdom break through into our midst. We are not helping build up the Kingdom when anger rules us.

So, these words of James speak strongly to us this morning. “be quick to listen, be slow to speak” We know how speaking sows the seeds of anger. And if we’re speaking, we are not listening. And sometimes, when we listen, we find that anger can be defused.

“Be slow to anger”.

I have come to conclusion that, like despair, anger is simply not an acceptable Christian response. Like despair, which squeezes out all hope, anger squeezes out hope and love. It is simply impossible to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves when we are filled with anger, when the storms of anger are raging within us. Anger prevents love. It stifles love. It kills love.

So, listen to James. Use his words as your own personal motto. Let his words speak in you. Let love squeeze out anger from your life.

And banish from your heart—the center of your very being—anything that prevents love from reigning there. Banish from it those vices—both easy to banish and difficult to banish—so that pureness can exist there. An if you do, God’s love will settle upon the very center of your being and give you a peace that no anger can destroy.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

12 Pentecost


August 23, 2009
St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, Fargo

Ephesians 43.15-22; John 6.56-69

About a week and half ago, on August 13, I celebrated the seventeenth anniversary of my oblation as an Oblate of St. Benedict. An Oblate is a person who has made a decision to following the Rule of St. Benedict while associating with a monastery.

When I made oblation on that day in 1992, I promised to “offer myself to Almighty God as a Benedictine Oblate and I promised to serve God and all people according to the Rule of St. Benedict.”

That day in 1992 was a very important day to me. In some many ways my identity as a Christian was formed, hand-in-hand, with my identity as a Benedictine. And I think this was St. Benedict’s intention all along. The Rule of St. Benedict, that all Benedictines, whether professed members of religious communities or those of us “out here” in the world, strive to follow is essentially a down-to-earth, structured way of living out the Gospel. I have been amazed many times over these last seventeen years by how many times the Rule of Benedict has surprised me and delighted me in new and innovative ways—even after I thought I knew for sure everything there was to know about the Rule and how to apply it in my own life.

One of the best Benedictine practices I have been able to apply to my life is a practice common among most monastic communities called Lectio Divina. Lectio is nothing more than a prayerful reading of Scripture. As one monk I heard once described it, “Lectio is the prayerful reading of Scripture, meditating on the message, and asking how it can be applied to my own life at this time.”[i]

Lectio allows God to speak to us, though the Word. It allows the Word to guide us and direct us where we are at this moment in our journey. It is a powerful prayer experience and once that has yielded countless joys and surprises in my own life.

For Jesus’ followers, as they lived with him, they had their own form of lectio to some extent. They too lived and mediated on his Word. And in doing so, they recognized what that Word meant to them. These were words not of just any teacher, any wise counselor. These words carried something more, something substantial to them. This Word they heard coming from Jesus’ mouth was not the voice of an ordinary man, but of God.

In our Gospel reading for today, we find Simon Peter answering that question of Jesus, “Do you wish to go away?” with strangely poetic and vibrant words.

Peter asks, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

For all Christians, the Word (which we find contained in scripture) is essential. It not only directs our lives, it sustains us, and feeds us and keeps us buoyant in the floods and tempests that rage about us. The Word is the place to which go when we need direction, when we need comfort, when we need hope. The Word is essential to us because through it, God speaks to us. The Word is essential to us because it is there that we hear Christ directing us and leading us forward.

This past week, that Word was affirmed in a glorious way, I think, in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. What happened this past week in Minneapolis was truly a step forward toward being followers of Christ and making yet another more wonderful attempt at helping the Kingdom of God break through into our midst. Many of us Episcopalians, who have been making our own attempts to just what the ELCA has just done, are very proud and maybe a bit envious, of what has occurred in the ELCA. And many of us hope this will help all of us as Christians to make yet another step forward in affirming all people in Christ.

The irony for me, however, is most poignant when I listen to those detractors who use the Word in such cutting ways. I have always warned parishioners and students to be careful of using Scripture as a sword, because it is a two-edged sword. If you use the Word to cut others, it will come back and cut you.

However, if we use the Word to affirm, to build up the Kingdom of God, if we allow the Word to be, in our lives, the voice of Christ, then we in turn are affirmed. As Paul says in his letter to the Ephesians that we heard this morning: “take…the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” That sword of the Spirit is an amazing weapon. It is a powerful device that carries more strength and influence than any of probably fully realize. And because it is so powerful, we need to use carefully. We need to use not in anger, not in hatred, not in oppression, but in love. When we wield this sword in love, we find love. When we wield this sword in compassion, we spread compassion. When we wield this sword to shatter injustice and oppression, we find justice and freedom instead. When we wield this sword as a way to clear the way for the Kingdom of God, we find that we too become a part of that building up of the Kingdom.

We too are able to clearly hear Christ’s voice in our lives. Those words of eternal life that Christ speaks to us again and again in scripture truly do break down barriers, build up those marginalized and shunned and, in doing so, we find the Kingdom of God in our midst. I think, in the aftermath of Minneapolis, we, today, find the Kingdom of God in our midst.

ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson, a person I have come to admire greatly, shared some beautiful thoughts in the moments leading up to this momentous vote. At one point he wrote these words, which speaks not only to Lutherans, but to all Christians.

“You are called to clothe yourselves with love,’ he wrote. “But we're all called to let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts, remembering again and again that we are called in the one body.”

Finally, he concluded with these words: "We meet one another finally, not in our agreements or our disagreements, but at the foot of the cross, where God is faithful, where Christ is present with us, and where, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are one in Christ."

This morning, we are here, at the foot of the cross, one in Christ, and we have glimpsed the Kingdom of God in our midst. We have heard the Word of eternal life spoken to us and we have responded. And we have seen justice and mercy once again.

When a Benedictine makes a profession of vows they pray a wonderful prayer. Their prayer is: “Accept me, Lord, according to your word, and I shall live. Do not disappoint me in my expectation.”

This was the prayer many of us have prayed for the Church for years. We too have prayed to be accepted according to God’s Word. This past week I think we have not been disappointed. The sword of the Spirit has swiped the veil of separation from us and has made us one. And in this place, beneath the cross of Christ, where we are all truly one, we are listening. We are listening as we do when we engage the scriptures in Lectio Divina. We are listening so God can speak to us—so the Word can speak to us and through us. And we are praying,

When God speaks to us, we respond. When the Word comes to us, we then engage it. This is what prayer is—holy conversation. And as the Word is spoken to us, as we hear it and feel it, our response is the same as those who heard the Word spoken to them by Jesus.

“Yes, Lord, you have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”




[i] McGinnis, Mark W. The Wisdom of the Benedictine Elders

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Requiem Eucharist for Doris Aas

Doris Aas(Feb. 12, 1924-Aug. 10, 2009)
Gethsemane Episcopal Cathedral, Fargo
August 21, 2009

Psalm 36; John 14.1-6

In these last several days, I’ve found myself doing something I don’t usually do. Whenever I have thought about Doris, I have found that I must remind myself that she isn’t with us. And that’s been very difficult for me. Doris isn’t with us. And when I do remind myself, I am somewhat amazed by the absence of Doris in my life.

Doris was one of those people who seemed, to me anyhow, like a solid rock. She was always there. You knew that she was there and knowing she was there, just made everything a little better.

When I served here at Gethsemane Cathedral as an Assisting Priest, one of my favorite services was of course, the 8:00 Rite I Eucharist. I could almost always guarantee that Doris would always be there with Arlene, always in that back pew. And I always knew that at the exchange of peace, she would always give me a hug. For those of you who know me, I’m just not a hugger. Blame it on my WASPy, straight-laced upbringing. I am just not a big hugger. You will see me kind of stiffen up when anyone tries to hug me.

But it was different with Doris. When Doris hugged you, you knew you were hugged. You knew you were enveloped in those arms of…love. And although I didn’t normally like hugging, I did like when Doris hugged me. When Doris hugged you, it was good. It was beautiful. And when she hugged you knew you were loved and cared for. No matter how hard life got, no matter how alone or scared you might be about life, when Doris hugged you, you knew there was someone out there caring for you and loving you and praying for you. Always.

And that is one of the things I have been missing in this last week or so. I have been missing that fact that, on this side of the “veil,” so to speak, I won’t be hugged by Doris again. And that reality has caused a sad absence in my life. Of course, for those who don’t have faith, who don’t hope in that place Doris hoped in, this might seem tragic or overwhelmingly sad. But for those of who do hope, who do believe there is something more, who do strive for that place we have been promised by Jesus does exists and does await us, this realization that Doris has left us for a temporary period of time is a time of sadness, yes, but not despair. We shed tears at this temporary separation, but we don’t give up and allow ourselves to wallow in our sadness. I can tell you right here and now, that Doris would not put with up with any wallowing self-pity over her death. That’s the kind of person she was and we all know it.

Last night, I was reading one of my favorite psalms, Psalm 36, because I cannot read verses 9 and 10 of that psalm without hearing Doris’ voice. For several years we had a noon healing service here at the Cathedral, in the chapel. Doris always attended that service and, for a few years anyway, lead the intercessions. At one point in those intercessions this portion of Psalm 36 was used.

“For with you is the well of life,*
and in your life we see light.

Continue your loving kindness to those who know you,*
and your favor to those who are true of heart.”

To this day, whenever I come across that psalm in the Daily Office or anywhere else, I cannot read or hear those lines without hearing them in Doris’ voice. Last night it especially struck me how appropriate those words are to remember Doris. In many ways, Doris really was one of those “true of heart” people. She was a woman of immense strength, immense independence, immense integrity. And, she was a woman of immense faith.

The other day when I was talking to Arlene, she related to me about how her mother talked non-stop for the last 18 hours of her life. At one point, she was teaching a class, I believe, which is very telling. Even at the end of her life, we know where Doris’ thoughts and affection lay.

But more interestingly, at some point in those last hours, she started folding her clothes and packing her suitcase. She fixed her hair and put on lipstick because she was preparing for her last trip. That, to me, was the most telling aspect of Doris’ last day. She knew she was going. And she knew where she was going.

In our Gospel for today we hear that wonderful promise from Jesus: “In my Father’s house there are many mansions.” I have said it before and I will say it again: I love that image of mansions. I truly believe that this is what God provides us with after the turmoils and troubles of this life. Now, by mansion, I don’t necessarily mean gabled roofs and oak-paneled drawing rooms. But from a spiritual perspective, God does provide us, in that place toward which we are headed, with something truly beautiful and wonderful God does provide us with a place of absolute beauty. And I can’t imagine anything less for the place to which Doris was traveling to last week. I can’t imagine anything less than that for the place Doris lives in at this moment.

Even now, today, Doris, the quintessential teacher, is still teaching us. She is teaching us the value of how important this life is that God has given us. And she is teaching also how to pass on to the next place when this life is over. Doris is teaching us that death is not something to be feared. It is not something to cowtail to. It is not something to shiver in fear before. Rather, Doris teaches us, death is to be faced.

Later in this service, when we commend Doris to Christ, we will say those words that pack such meaning in moments like this:

“All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song, ‘Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.’”

Facing her own mortality, facing the grave, Doris taught us that invaluable lesson that the greatest victory we have is being able to say, even in the face of death, “Alleluia.” And we, today, celebrating her life and her influence on all of us, are also able to say that same beautiful, joyful word.

“Alleluia.”

Yes, I feel her absence in my life. But, I also feel her presence. And that presence in my life is now even more real, more present, more helpful than it has ever been before. Her presence is more encompassing than those hugs I am going to miss. Her presence now is more solid and real than before. And it is more eternal. Now, “always” means something more. In this life, we know impermanence—we know things will come to an end. Everything is temporary. But there—in that place Jesus has promised us is full of mansions—“always” means “always.” There, she is being hugged…hugged in the arms of God’s mercy. There, she has been welcomed into the “blessed rest of everlasting peace.” There, she is a part of “the glorious company of the saints in light.” And knowing she is there and rejoicing that she is there, we can, even in this moment of sadness, feel also joy. And we know that when this life gets hard, that when we have difficulty finding joy in this life, when are frustrated and ornery and depressed, that there—in that place “where sorrow and pain are no more,” she is awaiting us with Christ our Lord. And know she is there, waiting for us, we know that, more than ever, we are loved and cared for and looked after in a way we never have before.

So, on this day, even through our sadness, even through our tears, even through that quivering ache of loss, let us say that one word with the true joy she felt when she said that word herself,

“Alleluia.”

Sunday, August 16, 2009

11 Pentecost


August 16, 2009

John 6.51-58

For the third week in a row, we have heard Jesus expand on his image of him seeing himself as the Bread of Life. Now, for some preachers, this might be downright daunting. After all, how many times can one preach about the Bread of Life? Well, I’ll be honest, I don’t have a problem with this. If I could preach about the connections between Jesus’ message that he is the Bread of Life and the holy Eucharist every Sunday I probably could do it. I realize sometimes that I don’t think I have even scarped the surface on understanding the mystery of the Eucharist or the mystery of Jesus’ message to us concerning this Bread of Life.

Last week, although Alice Hauan preached here at St. Stephen’s, I preached at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church. In my sermon at St. Mark’s, I talked a bit about how important the Eucharist is and, just so they didn’t think I was just another one of those spiky Anglo-Catholics, I explored a bit about a decidedly Lutheran understanding of the importance of the Eucharist.

This week, on my home turf, I get to preach about the Anglican understanding of the Eucharist. And it’s important for us to be reminded sometimes of this event we come together to share every week. And because the Eucharist is so important to us, its’ vital to remind ourselves of its importance because, since we do it every week, we might easily become somewhat complacent about what we are doing. Habits are easy for us to fall into. And sometimes we simply go through the motions of the Eucharist, without considering the importance of our actions. It is also good for us, as we hear this somewhat blunt language about flesh and blood to actually consider for a moment what we believe happens in this Eucharist we celebrate each Sunday and each Wednesday at this altar. It’s important, because our life as a congregation here at St. Stephen’s revolves around what we do here at this altar. The Eucharist is what our life together here at St. Stephen’s is centered around. Everything we do—all the ministry we do, all reaching out, all our welcoming of others, stems from this meal and in turn draws us back to this event.

Over the years, Anglicans have debated about what actually happens in our Eucharist. Some have been uncomfortable with the idea of the so-called “real Presence” of Jesus in the Bread and Wine of Holy Communion. And to some extent, we still do debate these issues. The Anglican view of this issue is complex to say the least. It has taken a decided (and characteristically) middle road between the definitions maintained by the Roman church—which believed in Transubstantiation—and the various Protestant denominations—which ranged from the Lutheran “in, with and under” view to the Calvinist belief that Christ is not present at all in the Eucharist—it’s purely symbolic.

I think one of the best Anglican summaries of how Jesus might be present in the Bread and the wine was written by Charles Price and Louis Weil in their book Liturgy for Living:

“…for…in the question of how Christ is present, Anglican churches have maintained their characteristic agnosticism. ‘The whole service consecrates,’ is a customary expression among us. No one part of the Eucharistic prayer, no one part of the Eucharistic liturgy, is considered more effective or more sacred than another. When the Christian community meets to do the whole eucharistic action in obedience to the risen Lord, he comes. He gives himself to us, again and again. It is part of the mystery of time.”[1]

Price and Weil then add a statement that summarizes perfectly the Anglican stance on Anglican Eucharistic theology:

“To say anything more than this in the name of the church would, we believe, transgress Anglican restraint.”[2]

Or to quote Queen Elizabeth I, as was famously quoted by Dom Gregory Dix, O.S.B.,

"He was the Word that spake it;
He took the bread and brake it;
And what that Word did make it,
I do believe and take it."

Whatever the case might be, the fact is that in the majority of Anglican churches, the Blessed Sacrament is reserved. We reserve the Blessed Sacrament here in this tabernacle, with a light always shining before it to remind us of the Real Presence of Jesus in the Bread and the Wine that we reserve there. In those cases in which it is not reserved, it is a universal understanding in the Anglicanism, that left-over bread and/or wine is reverently consumed or properly disposed of, rather than simply being discarded or reused. This reverence only goes to show that we do believe Christ, in some way or form, is present in a distinctive way and that the elements we have—the bread and the wine—are more than just ordinary bread and wine. They contain Christ and as such should be respected.

Now all this sets us on slipper road we might not want to travel. If we think about it too much, we start getting nit-picky. We start worrying about little things, such as dropped hosts or the crumbs from broken bread.

The important thing about Eucharist is not those nit-picky little things. The importance of the Eucharist is that, at this altar, we celebrate Christ’s presence. We take Christ’s presence. And we then share Christ’s presence with others. The is the real meaning of Eucharist and that is what Jesus is getting at in today’s Gospel. The Jesus we encounter in the Eucharist breaks down out barriers. The Jesus we encounter in the Eucharist binds us all together.

In 1984, a film came out called Places in the Heart. Some of you remember it. The story takes place in west Texas in the 1930s. Sally Field plays a housewife, whose husband is the sheriff of their local town. At the beginning of the film, her husband is just sitting down to eat with his family when he is called away to deal with a young drunk black man wielding a gun. As he gets up form the table, he puts the dinner rolls in his pockets. While he is confronting the young man on the railroad tracks (which is, incidentally drinking wine), the young man’s gun accidentally goes off and kills the sheriff. The young man is eventually lynched for the murder.

At the end of the film, we find Sally Field, Danny Glover, John Malkovich and Sally Field’s children gathered at the Baptist Church with the rest of the congregation. As the old hymn “In the Garden” plays, there is panning shot as the bread and the communion juice is passed along the pews from one person to the other. As we follow the bread and the drink being passed from person to person, we suddenly start realizing that some of the people are people we saw earlier in the film who have died. For instance, we see a family who has died in their car during a tornado. Finally, the camera stops on Sally Field’s husband and the young man who shot him. As the scene fades, they are seated side by side, sharing Communion.

In a sense, this is where our beliefs about the Eucharist come together. Sharing the Christ whose Presence sustains us and feeds us also binds us together. In the Eucharist, divisions are broken down, Old wrongs are made right. Whatever problems we might have with each other out there have vanished because here, at this altar, we are sharing this meal and partaking, in a real way, of Christ.

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven,” Jesus, in today’s Gospel says. “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

What we eat here at this altar is the living Bread of heaven that has come down to us. And in this bread and in this wine we have found life. We have the eternal life he talks about in today’s Gospel.

What we do here at this altar is not a private devotion. Yes, it sustains and feeds us in our spirits on an individual basis. But what we do here is more than just for us as individuals. It is about us as a whole. I, as a priest, cannot celebrate the Eucharist alone. What we do here, we do together. We come together, we celebrate, we affirm, we consent. We come forward of to feed and then we go out, fed, to feed.

Just as the Eucharist is not something we do as individuals, it is also not something that just stops happening once we leave this church building. The Eucharist sustains us to do the work Christ calls us to do as Christians. The Eucharist gives us life so we can help life to others. What we share here isn’t just dead bread and crushed, fermented grapes. What we eat here is living flesh and living blood. And this living force drives us and provokes us and causes us to go out and share what we experience here with others.

So, yes, we can get all caught up in the nit-picky theological arguments about the reality of Christ’s presence with us in this bread and Wine. Or we can simply accept our characteristic Anglican agnosticism, we can accept that somehow, in some way more powerful and mysterious than we can even possibly imagine, Christ does give himself to us here at this altar again and again in a very real and living way. So let us take part in this living Presence that comes to us in a very basic and beautifully vital way—in food and drink. And let us together share this living presence with those whom we are called to serve.

[1] Price and Weil, Liturgy for Living. p.219
[2] Ibid.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Barney & Whitney Haugen wedding

Kragnes, Minnesota
August 15, 2009

I am so happy to be a part of this service this afternoon. When I think back over the last few years, I realize that it has been a great experience to get to know Whitney and Barney. I don’t think I need to tell anyone here about how wonderful a couple Whitney and Barney are. And it was especially fun for me to have some small part in this celebration. I think all of us here this afternoon must feel this same way for Whitney and Barney. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be here.

Whitney. Barney. We—the people you have chosen to be here with you this afternoon—are behind you. We are here to today to say “yes” with you to the love and the commitment you have for each other. I do hope, that for the rest of your life together, you will remember this evening fondly.

When things just aren’t working for you—when you have bad days –and you know they will be there—I want you to remember how you felt tonight.

When you get angry at each other—and you know you will—I want you to be able to look back at this night and find consolation in your memories.

When your children come along, remember this day and think about all of those who love you and care for you and support you.

My special hope is that you will always celebrate the anniversary of this day with joy and gladness over what we all are celebrating today.

More than anything, however, know that as you go from here into your life together, you go with the love, the prayers, the best wishes, the hopes and the dreams of all of us who have walked with you this far. Know that you never have to go it alone. There will always be someone with you—of course, your spouse. And we, who are here with you today, will always be there for you as well.

Know also that God is here with you as well. God has been working in you from the very beginning. We, in the Church, call those moments when God grants us something we don’t ask for or even fully anticipate, Grace. This love you have for each other is a perfect example of Grace in our midst. And it is this grace that I hope you can recognize the rest of your lives.

And with that, I think it’s time to get married.

The memorial service for Gertrude Baron


Gertrude Baron
(February 11, 1919-August 12, 2009)
August 15, 2009
St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, Fargo

Micah 6.60-8; Psalm 100


I am going to be about as honest as I can be: I am very honored to be the one to preach and preside at this service. I am not happy that Gertrude has left us. Not by any means. But I am happy that I was able to be available to do this service and to celebrate the remarkable life of this remarkable woman.

And she was remarkable. Even if you knew nothing of her personal life, even if you had met her only once, you knew that Gertrude Baron was remarkable. She was, to put it as simply as possible, a class act. She exuded class and refinement. And she had a wonderful perspective on life. She did things in a way that was a little different from the rest of us.

Last week, I shared Holy Communion with Gertrude at MeritCare. She was not feeling well that day and some of the sparkle just wasn’t there on that morning. But still, we had, as usual, a very nice conversation. At one point she remarked about my weight loss. Over the last two years, I lost about 75 pounds. At first, in her very typical kind of way, Gertrude was concerned that maybe I wasn’t well. But I said, “You know, Gertrude, I feel better than I have in many years.”

She smiled and said in that way of her, a sparkle in her eyes, “You know, life is always better skinnier.”

For all the remarkable aspects of this woman, for all that sparkle and dazzle that she reflected to those around her, she was, underneath it all, surprisingly a very humble woman. There was a sense of true humility in her. It was there just as present in her as her quiet strength and noble character were. It was just a part of who she was.

In these past few days, I have listened to many people who have shared their thoughts about Gertrude with me—about what a wonderful woman she was and how much they are going to miss her. Fro those of who knew her and cared for her, a woman like Gertrude leaves a very large absence in our lives. She herself might be surprised by that statement. Which only endears her all the more to those of who cared for her.

When her niece, Mary, and I met to discuss this service, Mary said we needed to use the two scriptures we just heard, the reading from Micah and Psalm 100. Both, in their own way, perfectly reflect who Gertrude was and her relationship with God.

First, we have Micah. In this great reading, we find a simple formula. We find that God does not require over-the-top things from us. God does not require grand sacrifices or spectacular displays of devotion.

What does God require? God wants us to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with our God. Those were ideals Gertrude certainly lived out in her life.

For all the sparkle we saw in those eyes, for all the glamour she seemed to posses, ultimately she was a woman who, by her actions and her life, did justice, loved kindness and truly walked humbled with her God. Those of us who knew her and saw that side of her were often amazed by the strength and the spiritual fortitude she possessed. And that spiritually sound, wonderfully humble side of her perfectly balanced the shine and the polished grace she possessed.

Then, we have Psalm 100. This Psalm is the psalm that is used traditionally on the Third Sunday of Easter, which is often called Jubilate Sunday, especially among German Lutherans. The joy we find in this psalm is a very unique kind of joy. Joy is a word we find again and again in scripture, but it doesn’t always mean the same thing. The joy that is experienced in this psalm is very much like the joy of Easter. It is a joy that comes to us not as a kind of joy of anticipation such as we experience in Advent, waiting expectantly for the Christ Child. Nor is it the joy we experience elsewhere—a kind of glowing, fuzzy happy feeling we occasionally feel when everything fine.

Rather an Easter Joy is an experience of sorrow being turned into joy. And that kind of joy is the most exquisite kind of joy. In those moments when we have known sorry—deep, clenching sorrow—we often kind ourselves amazed when joy comes back into our lives. We find ourselves almost breathless at the startling reversal of fortune we find when our sorrows turn into joy.

This psalm of joyfulness and gladness is probably the most appropriate scripture we have to celebrate the life of Gertrude Baron. For Gertrude lived a life of true joy. That doesn’t mean she didn’t have heartaches and pains and troubles in her life. She did. Gertrude knew pain in her life. She knew disappointment. She knew frustration. And just because she knew joy, didn’t mean she went around all the time with a grin on her face and a constantly happy-go-lucky attitude. The joy that Gertrude knew was very much an Easter joy. It was a joy that came from sorrow. It was a joy that turned pain and sorrow upside down. It was a defiant joy. It was a joy that said, as Gertrude herself would say, sorrow will not win out. Pain will not triumph. Frustration will not be the last word. The last word will always, always be joy.

Gertrude had true joy and gladness in her knowledge that her God was good, that her God’s mercy was everlasting, that her God’s faithfulness truly did endure from age to age. We saw that joy in her God and in the simple things of this life come out in remarkable ways.

Last August, I was covering for Pastor Strobel while was on vacation. It seems Pastor Strobel loves to take his vacation during the hottest time of the year. On that hot and very windy Sunday as I was walking into church, Naomi Franek was helping Gertrude out of her car while we talked about how hot and windy it was. At one point I said, (I have no idea where this came from), “Can you imagine the havoc a day like this did to women in the 1960s with those ratted up beehive/bouffants?”

Gertrude laughed. “Some of us still have ratted up bouffants,” she said.

I, in my typical way, said, “Bouffants! Now that was a classy style for women. Every woman looked good in a bouffant.”

To which Gertrude said, “That is so true! I agree completely.”

Of course I couldn’t let that matter settle there, so I said, “I am going to say a prayer this morning to the Lord to bring back the bouffant.”

Gertrude, not to one-upped, said, “I pray that prayer every single day.”

To some people, this interchange might seem frivolous.

To some, who might not have known Gertrude, this story would seem maybe somewhat fluffy. But for those of us who knew Gertrude, we knew that in those simple things, like a happy exchange of words about something as simple and, for us, as beautiful as bouffants, that was nothing more than a simple outpouring of joy into our lives. In a sense, this is what it means to walk humbly. In sense, this is what it means to sing joyfully. In a sense, this is what it means to take joy in the little things God grants in this life.

I am grateful on this morning that, for Gertrude, her joy is now fully realized. In this moment, every one of her sorrows has been turned upside down. Gertrude has entered those gates with thanksgiving. She has gone into those courts with praise. Joy is now the one emotion that will never be taken from her again.

As we go from here this morning, we do so knowing that, yes, yet again, Gertrude was right. Sorrow does not win out in the end. Pain does not triumph.

Gertrude was right. The last word is the one word should that sustains us and keeps us going.

Joy.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Funeral for Dolores Rath


Dolores Rath
(February 24, 1925-August 9, 2009)
August 14, 2009
St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, Fargo

Isaiah 25. 6-9; Revelation 7.9-17

Three years ago, in August 2006, I began a three-month stint as Sabbatical Pastor at St. Mark’s while Pastor Mark Strobel was on sabbatical to Northern California. I looked forward to my time at St. Mark’s. My grandmother, my mother, my aunt, my uncle and many of my cousins were long-time members of St. Mark’s over the years. However, I wasn’t certain how I would be received here. After all, I’m an Episcopal priest, not a Lutheran pastor. But, everyone at St. Mark’s welcomed me and made me feel like one of the family here. Dolores was one of those people who made me feel very welcome, even despite the fact that I was that very strange creature—a High Church Anglo-Catholic Episcopalian. Despite my strange prostrations during Eucharist and my black clerical outfit and strange dog collar, she welcomed me without any qualms.

Every time I saw Dolores, whether it was stopping in to see the quilters or stopping by at coffee before Sunday Eucharist, or whenever, she always had a smile on her face and always seemed genuinely happy to see me. I think she was like that with almost everyone.

When we talk about good people, Dolores definitely seemed to be one of them. She was one of those genuinely good people. And for me, in many ways, Dolores was the face of St. Mark’s. At times, and I’m sure she probably felt the same way, it seemed as though Dolores and St. Mark’s were entwined.

Beneath that smiling face and that welcoming exterior, as I’ve learned in these last few days, I discovered that still waters definitely ran deep. Dolores was a woman of deep, if quiet, faith. What a lot of people didn’t know about her was that she kept a daily diary of all that she did. And she kept that diary right next to her Scriptures. Now there’s a message for us. Her daily diary was located next to her scriptures. This was a woman who by this very simple arrangement showed us how important her faith was. Her faith—her reading of scripture, her associating scripture with her daily life—was a wonderfully powerful, yet wonderfully quiet, statement of faith.

Sometimes we meet people who like to share their faith with us..shall we say…a bit too verbally. We all know them. They sometimes like to preach at us and wave their Bibles in our faces and tell us about how important it is to know Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior. Dolores was not one of those people. But obviously her faith in Christ was just as real and just as deep.

And that’s maybe the greatest lesson she has to teach us. Being a Christian does not mean always standing on the street corner, preaching to strangers. Sometimes we can be the best witness of our Christian faith simply in our living, in our day-to-day lives. That diary, next to those scriptures, seemed to attest to that fact. She quietly and diligently lived her life with dignity and purpose, centered squarely and fully in Christ. Sometimes we can simply tell others about Christ more by our actions than with our words. Dolores did that very well. She was the embodiment of a Christian person. That love of God, that joy in living, that glow of spiritual strength exuded from her. And when you were with you, you knew, even if you might not be to articulate it, that you were in the presence of someone special—someone good. You knew you were in the presence of someone through whom the light of Christ showed. And when I think of the cloud of witnesses we often hear about in scriptures—those people who are awaiting us beyond this life in the presence of God, I can very easily imagine that smiling, welcoming face of Dolores in that number.

For us Christians, these times of loss are painful, yes,--we feel pain at the temporary losses we experience at death. But this time of loss is not a time for despair. That is what being a Christ is all about for those of us who, like Dolores, clung to our faith in Christ, who clung quietly but confidently to that rock of Christ, who found inner strength to live in the midst of sorrow and pain. That’s what makes us Christians a little different than others. We are able to find strength and purpose and meaning even in the face of darkness and loss and pain. For us, as Christians, life is full of such paradoxes. There are times when, to everyone else, all seems lost. But for us, we can look at the losses of this world as gains. The cross is not only an instrument of torture and death to us. It is also the gateway to eternal life.

Dolores knew this and clung to this in her life. And we know it too and we can also cling to this faith. We know that this faith can sustain us and keep us going until we finally arrive at that place to which we are all headed.

In our reading from Revelation this morning, we get a glimpse of that place. We get to see, in beautifully poetic language and images, that place in which Dolores now lives and to which we too are headed. There, before the throne of God, we find the souls of the righteous worshipping God day and night. But even more than that we find that the one sitting on that throne—Christ—shelters them and in that sheltering presence, in that place of protection and comfort, we find all those things of this life that we found so difficult simply eliminated. There, hunger and thirst will be vanquished. The sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat—comforting words on a hot day like today. For at the center of their lives will be the Lamb who will shepherd them and guide them to the waters of life where all our unresolved desires and hopes and dreams and longings will be quenched. And then we hear that wonderful line:

“…and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
It is an echo of what we heard just a bit earlier in our reading from Isaiah. In our reading from the Prophet Isaiah, we get another glimpse of that place in which God dwells. In that place, we find God doing wonderful things for those who hope in God. It is in that place Dolores now dwells and it is that place to which we are all headed. It is in that place, we find that God has “swallow up death for ever.” And with death swallowed—with death vanquished, with death finally defeated,

“…the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces…”
Every sadness, every loss, every pain will be done away with. God will take them from us and we will arise into our lives, as Dolores as done, exuberant. We will rise into our new lives with joy.

As terrible as it is to cry, do you ever notice that when you do, as soon as you’re done crying and you’ve gone in and washed your face you feel strangely better. You feel almost purified and cleansed. That line, “..and God will wipe away every tear…” is what I think that line of thought is getting at. In that place toward which we are headed, in that place in which Dolores now dwells, we will emerge into it purified and cleansed. We will feel, on a much grander scale, very much as we do after a long, hard cry. And we will emerge into that place in which there are no more tears. And we will know that there will never be a reason to cry again.

Dolores is in that place. Her tears have been wiped away by the God she hoped and believed in, by the God who held her up and helped her along her journey. She is in that place in which she will never shed another tear, except maybe—just maybe—tears of joy and gladness. Just as in her life, she led the way in strength and quietness and determination, so in death she leads the way for us as well. She helps us, even now, in this moment, to see ahead, to look forward to that place of refreshment and life unending.

So, yes, today, we are sad because we are living in the midst of this temporary separation from Dolores. But even in the midst of this sadness, we can rejoice. We can rejoice in the knowledge that Dolores is in that place in which she is happy and peaceful and full of joy. She is in that place with Christ the Lamb, who has shepherded her to waters of refreshment. And we can rejoice in the fact that we too shall one day be there with her.

I, for one, look forward to that day when I will look upon her smiling face once again. I’m sure all of who knew her and loved her look forward to that day as well. Just imagine how wonderful that day will be.

Amen.

On the Feast of Bl. Jonathan Myrick Daniels




Holy and loving God,
help us to see ourselves
as you see us—
these people we are
beneath our colored flesh.

Burn away
with a purifying fire
the cataracts of ignorance
and prejudice
Take from us
our small-mindedness,
our sometimes inbred need
to see with human eyes
and not with our true sight—
that vision you have set within us.

Replace the violence that grows within us
when we are frightened
and challenged
with the peacefulness
and the love you have shown to us
in Jesus, our brother and our friend.

Help us to embrace color—
to see, in our various tints,
the holiness of our flesh.

Love us in all the colors of our skin—
in our reds,
in our blackness,
in our yellows
in our browns
and in our whiteness.

Love us for the fire
of compassion and truth
that burns within us—
stronger than all flesh.

Love us for the life within us—
for the frail breath that is with us today
and gone, in an instant, tomorrow.
Love us for the blood that courses
through all our veins—
the same-colored blood
that was drained from Jesus’ veins.

We ask this of you—
most holy
and loving God—
whose very presence in our lives
is one of light
and life
and, yes, of color—
who, in Jesus, was one of us.

In the Spirit
you have given us,
make us, truly,
One.

—Jamie Parsley

Originally published in the anthology, Race and Prayer: Collected Voices, Many Dreams, edited by Malcolm Boyd and Bishop Chester L. Talton. Published in 2003 by Morehouse Publishing.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

St. Mary the Virgin (observed)



August 12, 2009

This Saturday is, of course, the feast of St. Mary the Virgin—one of my very feast days of the Church Year. In the Roman Church, August 15th is called The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, a controversial theological stance, but, in my opinion, a beautiful one. In the Eastern Church, August 15th is called the Dormition of the Virgin Mary. It is the feast to commemorate the day Our Lady went to heaven—whether bodily or in spirit. For us Anglican Episcopalians, we, in our typical style, sidestep the issues the doctrine of the Assumption by simply celebrating the feast of St. Mary the Virgin and letting each individual decide what they need to about Mary’s ultimate fate.

It’s one of my favorite feast days because I have, for the better part of my life, had a very deep devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Now, already I imagine some of you are bracing yourselves a bit. Sure, you’re probably thinking. There he goes with more of his crazy, spiky Anglo-Catholic beliefs again. And, to some extent, you’re right. Our Lady does hold a very dear place for Anglo-Catholics like myself.

But, I think it’s important to remind ourselves that Our Lady has always held a special place in the belief of Anglicans. She is a powerful example to all us Christians who are striving in our lives to know God and to allow God’s will to work in our lives. If we start looking to Mary only as some kind of exclusive claim of one denomination, we have lost a very important and beautiful message that she still gives to us.

My good friend, Brother Benet Tvedten, shared this story with me a few months ago. He said he read that recently a Methodist woman has been having vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The woman was shocked that Mary appeared to her. Finally, the woman asked Mary, “Mary, why are you appearing me? I’m not a Roman Catholic!”

Mary smiled and very calmly said, “Neither am I.”

I love that story, and it’s important for all of us. If we get all caught up in the trappings of our denominational and personal differences and use Mary as symbol for those differences, we have missed the point of her presence in our lives.

Mary is not a Catholic. The Roman Church has no exclusive claim on her. She is an example for all of us.

I think the greatest devotion we can show Mary is by being imitators of her. Like her at the Annunciation, we too can say “Yes” to the Spirit. Like her we can take the Word and carry within us. Like her, we can carry in our very selves Jesus. We, like her, can truly be Christ-bearers. And, like her, Jesus can be born to the world through us.

So, be an imitator of Mary. Say “Yes” again and again to the Spirit who speaks to us. Be, like her, a Christ-bearer to the world. And when we do, we will be giving her the honor and homage she deserves.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

10 Pentecost


August 9, 2009

1 Kings 19.4-8; John 6.35, 41-51

“I am the bread of life.”

These were the words that closed our Gospel reading last week and this week, they are repeated again in beginning of our Gospel reading. Because they are repeated two Sundays in a row, you know they’re important words. They’re words that carry a huge amount of weight to them.

“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”


These are obviously words we are not to take lightly. These are statements we can’t merely shrug off and ignore. These are words that confront us and jar us and make us sit up and take notice of them. Even now, we find Jesus continuing to give of himself, again and again. Even now, here, on this Sunday morning, in this church, he is here, giving himself fully and completely to us. This is what the Eucharist is all about.


Last week I talked about the importance of Holy Eucharist and how, in my own life, it has sustained me through some difficult times. Again, this week in our scriptures, we find that same theme being expanded a bit. In our reading from 1 Kings, we find Elijah in the wilderness. In that wilderness, he is asking God to let him die. In fact, we find him praying a very beautifully profound prayer, despite its dark tone.


Elijah prays, “It is enough: now, O Lord, take away my life…”

In the midst of his depression, in the midst of his anguish, in the midst of the wilderness of not only his surroundings, but his own spirit, God answers the prayer of Elijah, but not in the way Elijah wants. The prayer is answered with a beautiful “no.” An angel appears and feeds Elijah in anguish and in that wilderness. Elijah is not allowed to die, but is sustained. He is refreshed so that he can continue this journey.

This is a beautiful analogy for us, who are also wandering about in the wilderness. I think most of us have probably come to that time in our lives when we have curled up and prayed for God to take our lives from us, because living sometimes just hurts too much. It is in moments that we can find the Eucharist. It is in moments like that that Jesus, “the bread that has come down from heaven” comes us and feeds us. In the Eucharist, we find that Jesus has truly kept the promise he made to us when he ascended into heaven.

In the Eucharist, we find that he is truly with us always. Certainly, we find Jesus coming to us in many other ways. He is present in his Word. He speaks to us in the scriptures we hear here at church and read on our own. He is present whenever two or three o us are gathered in his name. He is present here among us when we come together and do his will, when we become his hands, his feed, reaching out to others in love. And he is present in the poor, the needy, the hungry, the stranger, the marginalized, the prisoners in our midst.

For us, he is especially present however here at this altar in the Eucharist. Here, we find him, in a very real way, feeding us physically, but also spiritually as well. And this unique and wonderful experience of Jesus in the Eucharist is something that is incomparable. We don’t find anything else in our spiritual experiences quite like this encounter with Jesus in the bread and drink of Holy Communion.

Last month, many of us commemorated the 40th anniversary of the moon landing. Now, I’ll admit I don’t remember it—my mother was pregnant with me that summer 40 years ago. On Sunday, July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were in the lunar lander when it touched down on the moon. What most people don’t know about that amazing event is that Buzz Aldrin had with him the Eucharist. He had what we call the Reserved Sacrament—bread and wine already consecrated. Aldrin was a member of Webster Presbyterian Church, Webster, Texas and he took with him the pastor's home communion kit.

Bosco Peters, a New Zealand Anglican priest, recently wrote on his blog about this event. Peters writes:

[Aldrin] radioed: “Houston, this is Eagle. This is the LM pilot speaking. I would like to request a few moments of silence. I would like to invite each person listening in, whoever or wherever he may be, to contemplate for a moments the events of the last few hours, and to give thanks in his own individual way.”

Later Aldrin wrote: “In the radio blackout, I opened the little plastic packages which contained the bread and the wine. I poured the wine into the chalice our church had given me. In the one-sixth gravity of the moon, the wine slowly curled and gracefully came up the side of the cup. Then I read the Scripture, ‘I am the vine, you are the branches. Whosoever abides in me will bring forth much fruit.’ I had intended to read my communion passage back to earth, but at the last minute Deke Slayton had requested that I not do this. NASA was already embroiled in a legal battle with Madelyn Murray O’Hare, the celebrated opponent of religion, over the Apollo 8 crew reading from Genesis while orbiting the moon at Christmas. I agreed reluctantly…Eagle’s metal body creaked. I ate the tiny Host and swallowed the wine. I gave thanks for the intelligence and spirit that had brought two young pilots to the Sea of Tranquility. It was interesting for me to think: the very first liquid ever poured on the moon, and the very first food eaten there, were the communion elements.”

Peters continues: “NASA kept this secret for two decades. The memoirs of Buzz Aldrin and the Tom Hanks’s Emmy- winning HBO mini-series, From the Earth to the Moon (1998), made people aware of this act of Christian worship 235,000 miles from Earth.”

The chalice Aldrin used is still on display at Webster Presbyterian Church and the event is commemorated there every year on the Sunday closest to July 20.


I love this story because it shows us that even on the moon, even 235,000 miles from the earth, this simple act of shared bread and shared drink can still have such an impact. If the Eucharist can be so important to an event happening so far from us, imagine how important it can be to us, here.

Now, some of you might be thinking, “All this talk of the special ness of Holy Communion is fine for Episcopalians like him, but for us Lutherans, it just seems a bit much.”

Well, a few weeks ago, I stumbled across a wonderful book in a bookstore in Fergus Falls, Minnesota. The book is The Lutheran Pastor, published in 1902 by Pastor G.H. Gerberding. Now, if that name Gerberding sounds familiar, it’s because he was actually a former pastor here at St. Mark’s—a fact I didn’t know when I bought the book. Gerberding’s book is actually, in some ways, still fresh and meaningful concerning personal spiritual care for pastors and all Christians for that matter, even now 107 years after it was published. In a chapter entitled “Conducting the Service Prepatory to the Holy Communion,” Gerberding writes,

“To a Lutheran the Lord’s Supper is indeed a most important and holy sacrament. It is truly the most sacred of all the ordinances of the church on earth. There is nothing beyond it—nothing so heavenly as this feast this side of heaven. Nowhere else does the believer approach so near to heaven as when he kneels, as communicate, at this altar, the Holy of Holies, in the Church of Christ.”

Gerberding goes on to write: “What a solemn act! What a privilege to approach this altar, to participate in its divine mysteries, to become a partaker of the glorified body and blood of the Son of God!”

It is a privilege to come to this altar, to partake of the glorified body and blood of Jesus. No matter how far we have traveled into the wildernesses of our lives, no matter how far we’ve traveled away from this earth, no matter how strongly we pray for our lives to be taken from us, here, at this altar, we find the angel coming to us. Here, we find the soothing words of that angel speaking to us in our troubles: “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” Here, we are replenished and strengthened to journey, to continue on, to go out and do the work that is expected of us in the world. Here, we find true refreshment, true quenching, true fulfillment.

So, come. Eat. Drink. And live fully the life that has been given us.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

9 Pentecost


August 2, 2009

Exodus 16.2-4, 9-15; Psalm 78.23-29; John 6.24-35

Hunger.

Few of us, I hope, have experienced real hunger. Few of us have experienced deep, gnawing hunger. Hunger is one of those things that, when it happens, affects us deeply. It comes up from within us and dominates us. When we’re hungry, all we can think about is food. In many ways, hunger and thirst go hand-in-hand. Both drive us at our very basest need—to eat and to drink. It all has to do with survival. To survive—to live—we must eat, we must drink. And we’re hungry, we realize how human we are. We realize that without food, without drink, we are mortal. When we’re hungry, when we’re thirsty, we feel an echoing emptiness within us. And that emptiness becomes for us, very quickly, a kind of desolation. It is a physical desolation. Hunger is a terrible thing. It turns us inside out. It affects us not just physically. It affects us mentally and spiritually as well.

Our Liturgy of the Word today begins with hunger, but it doesn’t end with hunger. In our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures—from Exodus—we find the Israelites, in their hunger, complaining and grumbling. In some translations, we find the word “murmuring.” Over and over again in the Exodus story they seem to complain and grumble and murmur. To be fair, complaining and grumbling would be expected from people who are hungry. We, in their place, would be doing the same thing no doubt. But in their hunger, God provides for them. God provides them this mysterious manna—this strange bread from heaven.

In our psalm, we find the story of the Israelites in the wilderness echoed in song and poetry. We find the psalmist proclaiming that

“God gave them what they craved.”

A lovely, poetic image. It also adds another word to our “lexicon of the day”—craving. Craving is a great word to use. Craving seems to truly convey the gnawing aspect of hunger.

Finally, in our Gospel, we find the story of the Israelites and their hunger has been turned around entirely. As our Liturgy of the Word for today begins with hunger and all the complaining and murmuring and grumbling and craving that goes along with it, it ends with fulfillment. We find that the hungers now are not the hungers of our body, but of our spirits. Spiritual hunger is just as real and just as all-encompassing as physical hunger. It, like physical hunger, can gnaw at us. We too crave after spiritual fulfillment. We mumble and complain and murmur when we are spiritually unfulfilled. We too feel that gaping emptiness within us when we hunger from a place that no physical food or drink can quench.

In a sense, we too are, like the Israelites, wandering about in our own wilderness—our own spiritual wilderness. Most of us know what is like to be out there—in that spiritual wasteland—grumbling and complaining, shaking our fists at the skies and at God. We, like them, cry and lament. We feel sorry for ourselves and for the predicaments we’re in.
And we, like them, say to ourselves and to God, “If only I hadn’t followed God out here—if only I had stayed put or followed the easier route, I wouldn’t be here.”

We’ve all been in that place. We’ve all been in that desert, to that place we thought God had led us. We went so self-assuredly. We went certain this was what God wanted for us. We had read all the signs. We had listened to that subtle voice of the Spirit within us. We had gauged our calling from God through the discernment of others. And them, suddenly, there we were. What began as a concentrated stepping forward, had become an aimless wandering. And, in that moment, we found ourselves questioning everything—we questioned ourselves, we questioned the others who discerned our journey, we questioned the Spirit who spoke within us. And, in our emptiness, in our frustration, we questioned God.

I remember I came to a point like that in my own life. Eight years ago, I was laid off from a job and was very uncertain of what my future was going to be. Around that same time, as you all know, I was diagnosed with cancer. I remember very clearly, in the midst of my depression and my physical illness, lamenting. Lamenting is a word that seems kind of outdated for most of us. We think of lamenting being some overly dramatic complaining. Which is exactly what it is. And that is why I did. I complained and lamented in dramatic style at that time in my life. I remember raging at God, saying, “What have you done? Why have you led me to this place and then, seemingly, have left me here alone.” In that place, I felt alone. I felt scared. I felt as though there was no way back and no way forward. I felt, quite simply, desolate.

Like hunger, few of us, again I hope, have felt utter desolation. But that was very much the place I was in at that time in my life. I felt like the journey I had followed to that place seemed so long and the journey out of that place seemed even longer All I could do with any real honesty was cry out to God for strength.

Now, I hope I don’t sound too pious or saintly—trust me, I don’t have to tell anyone here that I am not either of those things—I am not pious and I am certainly not saintly— but my prayer was answered at that time. I did find my strength and consolation in the midst of that spiritual wilderness. In a very real sense, manna came to me in that desert. I found it in the one thing I clung to in my own personal desert—the Eucharist. The Eucharist very clearly sustained me and held me up during that time. When I couldn’t pray anymore, when I grew tired of complaining and grumbling, when I became exhausted by lamenting, I found a strange peace in Holy Communion. When I couldn’t find the words to pray, when I didn’t even know what to pray for anymore, I found I didn’t need to have any words at all to partake in the Eucharist. All I had to do was partake of it. And in it, all I had to do was let Jesus be present for me.

As much we might debate the theologies of whether or not Jesus is truly presence in the Eucharist, I can say without a doubt that in those moments, in my own desert, I found that, yes, Jesus is present in the Eucharist. Jesus is very present in the Bread we share and the wine we drink. And that Presence was what upheld me and sustained and fulfilled me in those moments I needed to be upheld and sustained and fulfilled. Like the manna that rained down upon those Israelites, the Eucharist came into my life and all I had to do was take it and eat it and let it do what it had to do in my life.

I truly found I had my fill, and, in it, knew that God is God. This is what Eucharist is all about. This is why the Eucharist is so important to us. Here, we truly do eat the Bread of angels. Here, we do partake of the grain of heaven. In this Eucharist, at this altar, we find Jesus, present to us in just the way we need him to present to us. In our hunger, he feeds us with himself. In our grumbling and complaining, he quiets us, for when we are eating and drinking, we can’t complain and grumble. And unlike the food we eat day be day, the food we eat at this altar will not perish. In this Eucharist, in the Presence of Jesus we find in this bread and this wine, we find that our grumbling and murmuring and complaining have been silenced with that quiet but sure statement that comes to us from that Presence we encounter here:

“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

In the echo of that statement, we are silenced. In the wake of those powerful words, we find our emptiness fulfilled. We find our complaining silenced. We find the strength to make our way our of the wilderness to the promised land Jesus proclaims to us.

“I am the bread of life,” he says to us.

This is the bread of life, here at this altar.

“Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Let us come to the bread of life and let us him take from us our gnawing hunger and our craving thirst.