Sunday, November 29, 2009

1 Advent


November 29, 2009

Luke 21.25-36


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thanksgiving Eve


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

Psalm 126; Matthew 6.25-33

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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






Sunday, November 22, 2009

Christ the King


November 22, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or, this one:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Monday, November 16, 2009

Embrace

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

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

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


11/16/2009
Chicago

Sunday, November 15, 2009

24 Pentecost


November 15, 2009


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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 8, 2009

23 Pentecost


Pledge Sunday
November 8, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 1, 2009

All Saints Sunday





November 1, 2009

Wisdom 3.1-9

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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




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




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




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

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





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




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





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