Sunday, March 28, 2010

Palm Sunday


The Sunday of the Passion
March 29, 2010

Luke 19.28-40; Luke 22.14-23.56

+ Palm Sunday is, I think, one of the most emotionally manic of all liturgical days in the Church Year. We begin on a high note—a glorious high note. Here we have Jesus riding triumphantly into the city, palm branches waving—a truly victorious king.

And then, we plunge. We plummet emotionally. We have the betrayal. We have the shouts of joy and victory turning into jeers of contempt. Everything turns topsy-turvy. It is, by the end of the Gospel reading, about as total of a defeat as is possible.

This is essentially the folly of our Christian faith. In a world dominated by winners, in a society of over-achievers, in a culture that does not allow us to face the fact that we could possible lose and be defeated, truly we see the folly that we are commemorating today and throughout this coming Holy Week, the defeat of not only the founder of our religion, but the One we identify as God in the flesh. The ultimate folly of this Holy Week is that, by the popular beliefs of our time in which defeat is the ultimate sign of weakness, our very God appears to be defeated. Our very God is betrayed, is beaten, is spat upon, is tortured and is brutally murdered. Who would want to believe in a God who can be so easily defeated—and especially a God who could be so defeated without even fighting back?

When I was a kid, having Norwegian ancestry, I was a huge fan of Thor comics. There weren’t a lot of comics available back then for kids of Norwegian descent—it’s Thor or Hagar the Horrible, that’s about it—so Thor comics were wonderful for me and for my friends who were also Norwegian. Thor, as you might know, was the Nordic god of thunder. With his mighty hammer Mjolnir, he fought and battled ice giants, fire demons and valkries and even his sneaky, evil brother Loki. Thor in a sense embodied what a god should be. He was strong. He was mighty. He even looked like a god with his winged helmet, his flowing blond hair and that giant hammer, which created peals of thunder.

But even Thor had his bad moments. He could be moody. He could be depressed. He fell in love and was often romantically led astray by some human female. And he had a rocky relationship with his father, the sky-god, Odin—the one-eyed uber-god of Valhalla.

Still, Thor is what we expect of a god. Thor is everything Jesus is not. But then—and here’s the rub—Thor was not really one of us. Yes, he sort of seemed like us—he had emotions. He got angry or sad. But he was different than us. He was superhuman. He was like any other superhero—like Superman. And he would never have dreamed to condescend to mere human stature.

I think Jesus’ disciples expected Jesus to be like a Thor-figure. They expected their Messiah to be one who would come in with a sword in one hand and thunder in the other and would smite the enemies of their world. The Jesus who entered Jerusalem was somewhat closer to that ideal. Here was their Messiah—loved and lauded, victorious in his triumphant entry into the holy city of Jerusalem. It all seemed to finally come together for them in that moment. Now, finally, Jesus would triumph.

But the Jesus we find at the end of our Gospels for today was not anything like that ideal. The Jesus we find at the end of our Gospel reading is as unlike Thor and the Apostle’s understanding of Messiah as we can get. This beaten, tortured, murdered man could not possibly be God.

But that’s the twist here. What we really see on that cross—that twisted, tortured human being—is something more familiar than any superhero god or apocalyptic messiah. What we see on that cross is us. It is us tortured It is us murdered. It is us defeated. And when we see it, all we can do is turn away. We tern away because we don’t want to look into that mirror. We don’t want to see the painful reflection we find there. But we must. We must look at it. We must go through this coming Holy Week and carry the weight we have been given. We must wash the feet, and be betrayed and carry the cross and die and descend into the darkest depths of all this week will bring.

Because what happens next Sunday is also us as well. What happens on Easter is our victory in the face of defeat. What happens on Easter is our life in triumph over death. With Jesus’ resurrection is our resurrection as well.

But that’s then, that’s next Sunday. For now, we are here. We are here, at the beginning of this week. We are at this manic phase in our emotional and spiritual roller coaster ride. We’ve been here caught in this low emotional place before in our lives—sometimes many times. And we will probably be here again.

And we, like Jesus, are given a choice. We can turn away from all of this. We can refuse to look in that mirror. We can run in the opposite direction. We can hope in our superhero god and messiah to come and rescue us and take all this bad stuff away.

Or we can trudge forward. We can look long and hard into that battered bleeding face of our God, who stares back with eyes very much like our eyes. We can accept the folly of this strange faith we have chosen to be baptized into. Because in doing so—as we know from our previous journeys on this manic ride—this is the ultimate victory.

Love over hatred. Forgiveness over resentment. Positive over negative. Light over dark. Life over death. This is what awaits us when we stare into that brutalized face, into those pain-weary eyes, and looking deeply, we see our own reflections staring back.

So, let us go forward. Let us shoulder the cross on our lacerated backs. Let us lift that weight onto our tired and weary legs And let us walk—slowly and surely—through the darkness of this coming week to the glorious dawning light that awaits us next Sunday.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

5 Lent


March 21, 2010

John 12.1-8

As someone who deals regularly with funerals, I have a fairly moderate view of funerals. Years ago, it seemed the majority of people were simply embalmed and buried. At the time, I had a great dislike of such displays. Embalming seemed to be a bit over-the-top and expensive vaults and caskets seemed overly extravagant.

I personally have always been a major proponent of cremation. However, it seems in recent years that, as cremation has became more popular, we find all kinds of creative uses for the ashes. Scattering, having ashes made into jewelry, having ashes divided among several family members, having ashes mixed with paint and made into a portrait. You name it, someone somewhere has probably thought of some creative use for ashes.

I personally prefer cremation with interment or burial. I am of the frame of mind that believes that the body, whether just buried or cremated, should be treated with a certain level of respect and care and should be properly buried or interred in some way.

In today’s Gospel, we find Mary coming before Jesus and doing a very unusual thing: she anoints his feet. And Jesus, even more strangely, reprimands Judas by saying that Mary is doing nothing more than anointing his body for burial.

As we near Holy Week—that final week of Jesus’ life before the cross—our thoughts are now turning more and more to these “last things.” Jesus is reminding us, yet again, that even the simplest acts of devotion have deeper meaning and are meant to put us in mind of what is about to ultimately happen.

Mary sees in Jesus something even his disciples don’t. She sees—and maybe doesn’t fully comprehend, though she certainly intuitively guesses—that Jesus, in his flesh and blood, is different. There is something holy and complete about him. She might not go so far as to say that he is God in the flesh, but certainly she is leaning in that direction.

For us, as Christians who do believe that Jesus in God in the flesh, we know that issues of the flesh are important. Because of the incarnation, because, in Jesus’ flesh and blood, we have come to know God, we know that our flesh is also special. If God would deign to come among us and take on flesh like our flesh, then our flesh must not be such an inherently horrible thing.

One of my all-time favorite quotes is from one of the early Church Father, John of Damascus. John wrote a truly remarkable thing while defending the veneration of icons—or holy images of Jesus and the saints. John wrote:

“I do not worship matter, I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake and deigned to inhabit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter. I will not cease from honoring that matter which works for my salvation. I venerate it, though not as God."

Why so many Christians view the flesh as such a horrible things baffles me. And we have all known Christians who do think that flesh is a horrible, sinful thing—who think all we should do is concentrate only and the spiritual. For those of us in the know—even for those of who have suffered from physical illness and suffering—we know that the flesh and the spirit truly are connected. We cannot separate the two while we are still alive and walking on the earth.

Still, I do always love the quote from one of my personal heroes, the Jesuit priest and paleontologist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, from his incredible book The Phenomenon of Man:

“We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.”

I think we could just as easily say that we are spiritual beings having a material experience. I, of course, don’t see that as a downplaying our flesh. Rather, I see it as truly the spirit making the material holy.

Our flesh is sacred because Jesus makes it sacred. And if we have trouble remembering that our flesh is sacred, that God in Jesus cares about us not just spiritually but physically, we have no further place to look that what we do here at this altar, in the Eucharist. Here, we find Jesus, in the same flesh and blood that Mary herself anoints in today’s Gospel reading. Here,. he comes among us and feeds our flesh, as well as our spirits. And, we can even go so far as to say that by feeding out flesh, we becomes one with us physically as well as spiritually.

And this is part of the reason why I think that even following our death we should honor what remains of this flesh because it is sacred. We shouldn’t just toss it away or frivolously dole it out or in any other way disrespect it. We should be respectful to our ashes and those of our loved ones, for truly God has worked through the flesh of all the people we have known in our lives and, by doing so , has made them each uniquely holy and special.

Next week, on Palm Sunday, we will begin our liturgy with joy and end it on a solemn note as we head in Holy Week. As we journey through these last days of Lent, let us do so pondering how God has worked through our flesh and the flesh of our loved ones. Let us rejoice in our flesh and be grateful for all the joys we have received through it. And let this joy be the anointment for our flesh that it deserves.

Monday, March 15, 2010

4 Lent


March 14, 2010

Luke 15.22-24.

Last week I made a confession about myself. I said that I was a bit stubborn on occasion. This week, since we’re now in our Fourth Sunday of Lent, I think it’s time to make another confession. And that confession also going to be a shock to most of you: I am a bit of a rebel.

Now you wouldn’t know it by just looking at me standing before you. Here I am in my purple Chasuble, with my crisp black clericals and my dog collar on. You would think that I conform pretty well to that image that is expected of me. But I am a rebel and in many ways I see what I am wearing as a sign of that rebellion.

Growing up I was very headstrong. If I didn’t want to do something I did not do it, no matter what anyone said.

But at age 13, an even happened that completely turned my world upside down. At thirteen, this nominally Lutheran boy decided to become a Catholic priest. Now, I know this isn’t your average form of rebellion. But for me, becoming catholic and becoming a priest was the ultimate form of rebellion.

While people my age experimented with different kinds of music, so did I, though mine was Gregorian chant. While other teenagers were maybe tempted to try pot or other exotic-smelling herbs, I was getting high (spiritually high) from incense. And while my friends were going to concerts, I sat enraptured during Mass.

But my rebellion was probably hardest on my poor parents. I think there were times when they might have thought it was easier having a kid who actually did go the sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll road, rather than the celibacy-incense-and-high-Mass route. I don’t think they understood what I was doing or why. It was a kind of rebellion that simply boggled their (and most of my peers’) minds.

Now I am not saying that I am the Prodigal Son to my parents. I’m not because in my rebellion I left and never went back. I stand here before you, twenty-seven years later exactly what I thought I would be—a catholic (albeit ANGLO-Catholic) priest. But turning away from what my parents’ held dear, turning away from generations of good Protestant upbringing, was not easy. There were times when I realize that the route I chose was very different than that of all of my friends who went on to have so-called “normal” lives and “normal” jobs. And there were many times when it was downright hard. There moments when I looked at their faith and the life I could’ve had and thought: maybe it would have been easier.

I think, to some extent that is why I can relate so well to the story of the Prodigal Son. We have all been down that road of rebellion and found that, sometimes, it is a lonely road. Sometimes we do find ourselves lying there, hungry and lonely and thinking about what might have been.

But for me, in those lonely moments, I have tried to keep my eye on the goal. I am, after all, one of those people who habitually makes goals for myself. I always need to set something before me to work toward. Goals are good things, after all. They’re essentially mile markers for us to set along the way.

The reality of goals are, however, that oftentimes—sometimes more often than not, I hate to admit for myself—they are not met sometimes. It was a really growing moment in my life when I stopped beating myself up and learned not to be too disappointed in myself when certain goals have not been met in my life.

Goals are one thing—good things. Hopes and dreams are another. There was a point in my life when I had one particular hope. I wanted this particular thing to happen so badly that I almost became obsessed with it. And when it finally did, it was fine, but then it was done and I was on the other side of that hope. And on the other side of hope can be desolate place. It can feel very empty over there.

That “other side”—the other side of our goals (once we’ve achieved our goals) and our hopes and dreams (when our hopes and dreams finally come true) can be, I think, even more dangerous places than the place that leads up to them.

In our Gospel for today, we find the Prodigal Son have some big goals and some pretty major hopes and dreams. First and foremost, he wants what a lot of us in our society want and dream about: money.

He also seems a bit bored by his life. He is biting at the bit to get out and see the world—a place many of us who grew up in North Dakota felt at times in our lives.

He wants the exact opposite of what he has. And that’s a difficult place to be. He only realizes after he has shucked all of that and has felt real hunger and real loneliness what the ultimate price of that loss is.

God does occasionally lead us down roads that are lonely. God does occasionally lead us down roads that take us far from our loved ones. And sometimes God allows us to travel down roads that lead us from God. But every time we recognize our loneliness and we turn around and find God again, we are welcomed back with open arms and complete and total love.

There’s another aspect tot eh story of the prodigal son that is not mentioned in the parable. The prodigal has experienced much in his journey away. And as turns back and returns to his father’s house, we know one thing: that prodigal son is not the same son he was when we left. The life has returned to is not the same exact life he left. He has returned to his father truly humbled, truly contrite, truly turned around.

And that’s the story for us as well. In my life I have come to appreciate my family’s ancestral Protestant faith. And I have come to appreciate and respect the lives my friends and peers have chosen for themselves. I no longer see my life as a rebellion against those things. I now see my life has an embracing of those things—a healthy respect and appreciation of those things. But those things, I realize now, are not right for me. They are not me. This—for better or for worse—is me. And I am happy with it and for it.

God at no point expects us to say the same throughout our lives. Our faith in God should never be the same either. In that spiritual wandering we do sometimes, we can always return to what we knew, but we know that we always come back a little different, a little more mature, a little more grown-up. No matter how old we are.

We know that in returning, changed as we might be by life and all that life throws at us, we are always welcomed with open arms. We know that we are welcomed by our God with complete and total love. And we know that we are, lost as we might be sometimes, we will always be found. And in that finding, we are not the only ones rejoicing. God too is rejoicing in our being found.

So, let us this day rejoice in who we are. Let us rejoice in our rebelliousness and in our turning back to what we rebelled against. Let us rejoice in our being lost and in our being found. Let us rejoice especially in the fact that no matter how lonely we might be in our wanderings, in the end, we are always, without fail, embraced with an embrace that will never end.



Sunday, March 7, 2010

3 Lent


March 7, 2010

Psalm 63.1-8; Luke 13.1-9

It is now the Third Sunday in Lent. And with it being Lent, it seems that confessional talk is “the thing to do.” So, being in a confessional sort of mood, I will confess something. Again, like many of the previous confessions I’ve made form this pulpit, I know this will come as a great shock to most of you, but, here goes…

I am a bit stubborn. I can be a bit set-in-my-ways regarding things.

Now, I know that this comes a shock to some of you, but hear me out… One of those areas that I seem to be worst is admitting sometimes that I am wrong about something. On a few occasions, I have been so certain I was right about an issue and another person was wrong that when I finally later fully realized that it was, in fact, I who was wrong and the other person right, rather than admitting I was wrong, I ended up becoming angry. I became angry at the other person, I became angry at the situation. And I became angry at myself.

Only when I was able to stop the anger and the stubbornness—only when I was able to shake myself out of my close-mindedness—was I was able to see the error of my ways and was finally able to admit my fault, forgive myself and move on. Doing this—admitting when we are wrong, admitting to ourselves (and to others) that we are wrong, and making an effort not to get stuck in this stubborn cycle—is really what repentance is all about.

In today’s Gospel, we hear Jesus say some very stern words to us:

“…unless you repent, you will all perish [just as those poor unfortunates whose blood was mingled with sacrifices and on whom the tower of Siloam fell].”

Not pleasant talk. And when we hear words like “repent” we instantly find ourselves heading into an uncomfortable area. We find ourselves exploring the territory of self-abasement. We find some people lamenting and beating their breasts or throwing ashes in the air over all of this talk. We have been taught for a large extent that what we are dealing with in all of this talk of repentance is that somehow God is going to punish us for all the wrongs we did and that is why we must repent—repent, of course, meaning turn around.

And at first glance in our Gospel reading that’s exactly what we might be thinking. God is angry and we must repent—we must turn away from what is making God so angry. But if we look a bit closer and if we really let this reading settle in, we find be able to use this idea of repentance in a more constructive way.

In our Gospel reading, we find Jesus essentially saying to us that we are not going to bear fruit if we have cemented ourselves into our stubborn way of seeing and believing. The kingdom that Jesus is constantly preaching about only comes into our midst, as we have heard again and again, when we can love God, love others and love ourselves. When we do—when we love—we bear fruit. When we don’t love—and it is hard to love when we are angry or stubborn or resentful—then we are essentially the fig tree that bears no fruit. And it’s important to see that this love needs to be spread equally. It is love for God, love for our neighbor and love for ourselves.

We are not bearing full fruit when we are only doing two of the three. The love becomes lopsided. If we love only God and ourselves, but not our neighbors, then we are in danger of becoming fanatical. If we love God and love our neighbors only and not ourselves, we become self-abasing. But if we strive to do all three—if we strive to love fully and completely—then we find ourselves being freed by that love.

And it is freeing. When we talk of our stubbornness, when talking of closing ourselves off in anger and frustration, we imagine that cementing feeling—that confinement. But when we speak of love, we imagine that cementing being feeling broken. We find ourselves freed from our confinement. We allow ourselves to grow and flourish.

That’s the point Jesus is making to us in our Gospel reading today. And that is why repentance is so essentially for our spiritual growth, for the health of our Christian community and for the furthering of the Kingdom in our midst. Repentance in this sense means turning away from our self-destructive behavior. The kingdom is not in our midst when we are not filled with love. The kingdom cannot be furthered by us or by anyone when we feel no love for God, when we feel no love for others and when we feel no love for ourselves. Repentance in this sense means to turn around—to turn away from our self-destructive behavior. Repentance in this sense means that we must turn around and start to love. Repentance in this sense means that by repenting—by turning around—we truly are furthering the Kingdom in our midst.

There’s also another aspect to the analogy Jesus uses in today’s Gospel reading. If you notice, for three years the tree didn’t bear fruit and so the man who planted the tree thought it was a lost cause. But the gardener protests. He gives the tree a bit of tender loving care and the tree begins flourishing. What I love about that is the fact that it says to us that none of us are lost causes. We all go through times in our lives when we feel as though we are bearing no fruit at all. We feel as though we are truly “wasting the soil” in which we live. Or, in the words of our Psalm today,

“my soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you
as in a barren and dry land where there is no water.”

We feel as though we are helpless and useless and that sometimes it feels as though the pains and frustrations of our lives have won. We have been cemented into our negative feelings and emotions. The pains and frustrations of this life have stifled in us any sense of new life and growth.

But that little dose of TLC was able to find in that seemingly barren tree new life. A little bit of love and care can do wonders. It can change things. It can give life where it was thought there was no possibility of life before. It can renew and it can revitalize.

At this time of year, we are probably made most aware of this. Certainly when we look around at our seemingly dead and barren landscape, we might think that nothing beautiful and or wonderful can come from all this dirty snow and slush and ice. It’s hard to imagine in the midst of March that spring—or better yet, summer—is not that far away. And in this season of Lent, when we are faced with all this language of seeking mercy, on recalling our failings and shortcomings and sins, in this stripped-bare church season, it is hard to imagine that Easter is just a few weeks away.

But, in a sense, that is what repentance feelings like. Repentance is that time of renewal and revitalization that comes from the barren moments in our lives. Repenting truly does help us to not only bear fruit, but to flourish. Repenting and realizing how essential and important love of God, love of our neighbors, love of self are in our lives truly does allow us to blossom in the way that God wants us to flourish.

In the Rule of St. Benedict we find that the best way to true repentance is through humility. Not humiliation (which again would suggests again a lopsided love—love of God or others, but not love of self). St. Benedict rather speaks of humility. For Benedict, humility involves a healthy respect (or “fear) for God, a healthy respect for others, recognizing in each person we encounter the presence of Christ, balanced with a realistic self-assessment of oneself. Benedict devotes the seventh chapter—one of the longest chapters in his Rule—to his so-called 12-stepped ladder of humility. What this ladder of humility does is draw the attention away from an inordinate love of self only, back to the love of God and others as well as a healthy self-respect, all of which leads to an opportunity for true repentance and growth.

So, as we journey together through this season of Lent, toward the Cross, and beyond it to the Resurrection, let us do so with hearts truly freed. Let us do so with a true, freeing and healthy love in our hearts, having turned away from those things that are ultimately self-destructive. And let the love we feel be the guide for our actions. Through all of this, let us bring about the Kingdom into our midst slowly, but surely. Let the Kingdom come forth in our lives as blossoming fruit. And as it does, we will find ourselves echoing what our psalms sings to us this morning,

“My soul [will be] content with marrow and fatness*
and my mouth [will praise] you with joyful lips.”