Sunday, November 28, 2010

I Advent

November 28, 2010

Romans13.11-14


+ One of my all-time favorite movies is a movie called Punch-Drunk Love. For anyone who knows me, you have heard me talk about this film many, many times. I love it! If you have not seen it, I highly recommend it. In fact, I would say that it is probably my favorite film ever. And as you know, that’s saying a quite a lot coming from me, considering how many movies I actually love. I’m also not usually big into romantic films. But this film isn’t your typical romantic film. And I will admit this: the first time I saw it, although I loved it from the very beginning, I didn’t quite “get it.”

The story revolves around several days in the life of a lonely man named Barry Egan, played by Adam Sandler (don’t let the fact that Adam Sandler is in this film distract you—he’s actually really good in it). The film is sort of a poem in and of itself. It is full of symbolism.

One of the first symbols in this movie—and probably the most important—is that of a harmonium that is dropped off at the beginning of the film on the street in front of the place where Barry works. The harmonium becomes a symbol of the love Barry Egan develops for Lena Leonard who is played by Emily Watson.

But the real symbolism for me is the fact that Barry lives in a very sterile, colorless world, and he, in this world, wears the same dull blue suit from the beginning to the end of the film. Barry’s world is an enclosed world. And it’s encased in a kind of glass-like transparency. In fact, throughout the film, we find Barry accidentally walking into glass doors, and at one point, when he is pressured to the breaking point by his seven, overbearing, nagging sisters at a birthday party, he, in pent-up anger, breaks the glass patio doors of his sister’s home.

So, into this sterile, colorless, glass-encased life comes the harmonium (with its potential for soothing music) and. more importantly, Lena Leonard. Throughout the film, Lena is seen always wearing vibrant red. As he is drawn more and more to her, this color red keeps coming into his life. At one point, as Barry chases Lena to Hawai’i (where she is on a business trip), there’s a scene in which Barry is walking down a corridor at the airport toward two flight attendants, dressed in red.

But one of the best scenes for symbolism in the film is a scene early on, when Barry, shortly after meeting Lena, is in the supermarket. As he goes from aisle to aisle, trying to find Healthy Choice products that he realizes he could buy up and redeem for Frequent Flier Miles, he is seen walking through the store, searching. At one point, he asks himself, “What am I looking for?”

At the moment, on the far side of the aisles, on the other side of the store, just out of focus we (not he) can make out a blurry figure of a woman in red following him. If you’re not looking for her, you’ll miss her. But there she is, just as he asks himself that question, “What am I looking for?”

Of course, he’s not at that point in his life in which he can recognize the answer is right there, just out of focus, just on the other end of the aisle. But it is an incredible scene when we start realizing how the symbolism works to bring out the layers of this wonderful story. And I’ll also admit, it took me a while to figure what some of the symbolism in this film meant (and there are a few other symbols in this film that I still haven’t got).

For some reason, our scripture reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans this morning reminds me so much of that scene from Punch-Drunk Love. We find Paul saying to us: “You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.” And just a bit later he gives us that wonderful image, “”…the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light…” There is no better image for us that this on this First Sunday of Advent.

This season of Advent is all about realizing that we, for the most part, are living in that hazy world. Advent is all realizing that we are living in that sleepy, fuzzy, half-world. Advent is all about recognizing that we must put aside darkness—spiritual darkness, intellectual darkness, personal darkness—and put on light. We realize that our world is often very much like Barry Egen’s world—a dry, colorless, lonely, sterile place in which we just can’t quite seem to focus. And Advent is that time when we find ourselves frantically looking for something, and asking ourselves, “What am I looking for?” And there, just out of focus, just out on the other side, is what we are looking for.

For us, this Advent season is a time for us to look into that place that’s kind of out of focus, and to focus ourselves again I love the image that Paul puts forth this morning of “putting on the Lord Jesus Christ.” That is perfect and precisely to the point of what this Advent season is all about. The “theme” of every Advent season is “Come quickly, Lord Jesus.” And, in a sense, we make that prayer a reality when we “put on” Jesus. But how do we do this? How do we put on Jesus, as though he were some sweatshirt or fancy vestment?

The fact is, we have already put him on. We put him on that wonderful day we were baptized. We were clothed in Jesus on that day and we remained clothed in him to this day.

Still, even clothed in Jesus as we may be, we still occasionally fail to recognize this reality in our lives. This moment of spiritual agitation and seeking after something more has been called the “Advent situation” by the great Anglican theologian Reginald Fuller.
The “Advent situation” is recognizing the reality of our present situation. We are living now—in this present moment. At moments this present moment does seem almost surreal. This moment is defined by the trials and frustration and tedium as well as the joys and all the other range of emotions and feelings that living entails.

But, for the most part, we don’t feel like it “fits” for some reason. It seems like there must be more than just this. Instinctively, spiritually, we yearn for something more, though we aren’t certain exactly what that might be. And that might possibly be the worst part of this situation. We don’t know what it is we want. Or in the words of Barry Egan, “What am I looking for?”

The Advent situation of Reginald Fuller reminds us that yes, this is the reality. Yes, we are here. But we are conditioned by (and for) what comes after this—the age to come. Or as the great Jesuit priest and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin once said, “We are not physical beings having spiritual experiences; we are spirits having a physical experience.”

Baptism—that event in which we were clothed with Christ—essentially translated us into this Advent situation. And the Baptismal life—a life in which we are constantly reminded that we are clothed with Jesus—is one in which we realize that are constantly striving through this physical experience toward our ultimate fulfillment.

We are spirits having a physical experience. It is a wonderful experience, despite all the heartache, despite all the pains, despite all the set-backs and frustrations. And this physical experience is making our spirits stronger. It is sharpening our vision as we proceed so that we can see clearly what was once out of focus.

In this Advent season, in which we are in that transparent, glass-like world, trying to break out, let us turn and look and see who it is who is following us. Let us look and see that that person who is standing there, dressed in a vibrant color, just out focus, is the one we have been looking for all along. That person is the person we have been searching for. That person is, in fact, the very person we have clothed ourselves with, but have been unable to recognize.

Advent is here. Night is nearly over. Day is about dawn. He whom we are longing for and searching for is just within reach. Our response to this Advent situation is simply a furtive cry in this blue season.

Come quickly.

Come quickly, Lord Jesus.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Christ the King/Reign of Christ

November 21, 2010

Colossians 1.11-20; Luke 23.33-43

+ Now you all know that I am very open-minded. I am progressive and fully inclusive.I love inclusive language. Every Wednesday night, we celebrate Mass at 6:30 according the liturgy of Enriching Our Worship, in which there is purposely no gender-specific language regarding God used. And I use inclusive language personally and professionally with regard to God—even in my personal prayers to God. I embrace all of those things.

But, I have to confess something: I just can’t do it today. This Sunday—this last Sunday of the very long Pentecost season in the Church—has been given a fairly new, more inclusive name.

Some people have felt that “Christ the King” is just too masculine, too gender-specific, too “monarch-like.” And so, this Sunday has been popularly and, in some circles, also given the alternate name of “Reign of Christ Sunday”.

Now, to be clear, it is not the official title for this Sunday. Officially, it is still Christ the King Sunday. And, in and of its self, that’s very…nice. The Reign of Christ. OK. I get it. But, I’m sorry, “Reign of Christ Sunday” just does not click with me the same way as “Christ the King Sunday” does. I just can’t imagine George Herbert writing, instead of “King of glory, King of peace,”

“Reign of glory, Reign of peace,
I will love thee;
And that my love may never cease,
I will move thee.”

It is funny though that this past week I was discussing this very issue with Sandy Holbrook. Sandy said to me, “Well, I for one don’t care talk of monarchs. This whole ‘King’ talk just rubs me wrong.”

There is certainly validity to that. I think that, as good Americans, monarchy-talk should rub us wrong. We fought hard for our independence from monarchs. But talk of a “Reign” doesn’t necessarily cut it either for me personally. We are just as uncomfortable with thinking of anyone reigning over us. And maybe it’s just me—good Royalist that I am in my heart of hearts—but talk of kings is not such a horrible thing to me.

Certainly, in these next several months, there will be much talk of kings and queens and monarchs in a much more positive light now that the future King and Queen of England, William and Kate, have announced their engagement this past week. (I, for one, am very, very excited about this).

For us, even here in America, we like our royalty—which in our case are our celebrities, our sports stars, out politicians and, in the case of some of us here (including me), it can be even our religious celebrities. We need our royalty. There is something in even us Americans, who claim to hate such things, that we find ourselves pining after these royal celebrities.

What I like about actual royalty is that there’s such flair to their rule. They have the costumes. They have the pomp and vibrancy that we want from our rulers. And, with their lineage and their rights to the throne, there’s a legitimacy to the royalty that even our democratic elections don’t quite have. Royalty demand, by their very presence, by their very demeanor, by their very selves, a loyalty from their subjects. And when royalty are fair and good and lead with sincerity and care, it is not hard for people to support them and serve them and center their collectives around them.

And that’s the point here. Whether we’re talking about Christ as King, or whether we are talking about the Reign of Christ, the important thing is that are talking about Christ as first and foremost in our lives. He is not just some despotic ruler who tells us what to do and we do it blindly. Christ the King is the humble and loving King, who is also the Shepherd—the ultimate servant leader, shall we say?—who rules not above us or over us, but beside us. Christ the King is the King and Shepherd who has come to us wherever we may be and is with us. And that is the real point of this Christ the King/Reign of Christ Sunday. The King we celebrate today is truly, as the great theologian Reginald Fuller called him, the “cosmocrator”—the ruler of the universe. And because he comes to us as one of us, because he is the true servant leader, it is easy for those who do not recognize that royalty personified to degrade that role.

In our Gospel reading for this morning, we find that title of King being used in a derogatory way. The King of the Jews, as Jesus is called today in our Gospel reading, is mean to be a demeaning title. It is a way to mock him. They did not recognize the royalty present within Jesus. Rather they saw him as a little man with thoughts of grandeur.

But what we know and celebrate on this Christ the King Sunday is that, yes, he is the King of the Jews, but he is also the Christians and the king of the outcasts and the king of the marginalized and the king of the very cosmos. As Reginald Fullers also says, in expanding on his views of Jesus as King,

“It is not just an abstract idea; it involves the doctrines of creation, redemption and reconciliation of the universe, and of the Church as the sphere in which his reign is already acknowledged and proclaimed.”

It is a celebration of not only who Jesus was, but who Jesus is and will be. It is a celebration of the fact that, although it seems, at times, as though this reign of Christ is not triumphant, at times it seems, in fact, to have failed miserably, we know that ultimately it will break through into our midst and will triumph universally and completely.

That’s why we celebrate this incredible day on this last Sunday before Advent begins. Advent, after all, is that time for us to look toward the future, to gaze into the dark and the haze and all that lies before us and to see that it is not all bleak, it is not all frightening and scary, but that, in the midst of that darkness, there is a glimmer of light. This Sunday and the season we are about to enter, is all about the future and eternity.

That’s why Johann Sebastian Bach wrote a setting for Wachet auf (or “Sleepers, Awake”) for this Sunday, which in German Lutheranism is known as Ewigkeitssontag (e-wig-keits-son-tag) or “Eternity Sunday,” which I think it an even better name than Reign of Christ Sunday…(but that’s just me).

And maybe that’s also why it is a good time for us to be having Pledge Sunday on this “Eternity Sunday.” Pledge Sunday is one of those times when we need to look long and hard at how we have being putting Christ first in our lives, in our ministries and in this congregation, and it is a time for us to look forward, into that murky future, into the eternity that awaits. It is a time for us to look forward and to say, as we do, awake! It is time to do ministry. It is time to serve. It is to give. It is time to pitch in and do what we can for each other, for this congregation, for the Church and for God.

Most of you have received my Pledge letter. In it I explained how this congregation is in a incredible amazing moment in its history right now. Things are truly “popping” here. And by popping I mean popping in a very good way. Things are being done. Ministry is being done. All of you are stepping up, doing ministry in whatever ways you can or are feeling called to do, you are giving from what you have been given and by doing all those things, you are making a huge difference.

People are noticing this church of St. Stephen’s I hear it, out there in the Diocese. And we see it here.

As you know, we have a new website. One of things I have been adamant about since I’ve been here is that we needed a pro-active, regularly updated website because, more often than not, that is what people see of us first and foremost. They see us and who are we are there, on our website, long before they ever step even foot inside this building.

On Wednesday night, at supper at Thai Orchid after our Mass, I was talking to Chris, one of our regular Wednesday night Mass attendees. He said that when he and his partner Erik moved to Fargo, they looked at church websites in our community to see which churches would be most welcoming to them. And it was through our website and the information we had online, that they came to St. Stephen’s.

Others too are noticing our new website. John Baird shared these statistics with me on Friday: In the last 2 weeks we have averaged 5-6 hits on our website per day. On Monday, November 15 we had 0 hits. But, it increased from there – Tuesday, November 16 we had 4 hits, on Wednesday, we had 16 hits, and on Thursday, we had 24 hits. 7 visitors came to the web page from our Facebook page (Yes, we have a Facebook page).

What people are seeing when they see our website and this faith community is that St. Stephen’s is a group of people who are working together, who are serving, who are building up, who are bringing about the Reign of Christ into this world. This is what we are celebrating on this Pledge Sunday. We are looking forward into the church and asking ourselves: what should we do? What needs to be done? What kind of ministry can I be doing and how can I be helping?

We, on this Christ the King/Reign of Christ/Eternity/Pledge Sunday, are looking forward into the darkness of the future and eternity and we are seeing the rays of light shining through to us. It is a great time for us here at St. Stephen’s. It is a great time to be involved in ministry and in bringing about that Reign of Christ in this world.

So, let us rejoice on this last Sunday of Pentecost. Let us move forward into our future together. Let go together into that future with confidence and joy and gladness at all the blessings we have been given and that we are able to give to others. And let us to do all that we do, as Paul tells us today in his letter to the Colossians, “made strong with all the strength that comes from [God’s] glorious power…”

Sunday, November 14, 2010

25 Pentecost

November 14, 2010

Isaiah 65.17-25


+ Today is the two month anniversary of my father’s death. In that time, I have been trying, as we all do when we are dealing with pain and hurt, to find some source of consolation. And I have actually found one. No, it’s NOT cocktails. Trust me. Rather, it is the poems of an Israeli poet by the name of Yahuda Amichai.

I have been reading Amichai’s poetry almost obsessively in these last few weeks and have truly been consoled in them.

What I have found particularly true in Amichai’s poetry is that he truly is a poet of the Resurrection. Now, by that I don’t necessarily mean “Resurrection” in the same way we might understand that term. Amichai was Jewish and had a very Jewish understanding of the Resurrection in his poems.

But again and again in poems, I have read a very subtle sense of hope in the Resurrection. His poems are filled with images of cemeteries and scriptural references and a few point-blank references to the Resurrection. One of the most powerful images he used was in a poem he wrote titled “A Letter of Recommendation.” The poem ends this way:
I remember my father waking me upfor early prayers. He did it caressingmy forehead, not tearing the blanket away.
Since then I love him even more.And because of thislet him be woken up gently and with loveon the Day of Resurrection.
I love that poem and have been reading and it re-reading again these past several weeks.

It seems somewhat strange to be talking about the resurrection now on this second to the last Sunday before Advent begins. Or is it? We can say that is perfectly appropriate to be talking of the resurrection so soon after All Saints Sunday. And, as Christians, it’s always good to be talking of the Resurrection.

And no doubt poor Yahuda Amichai would find it strange that, ten years after his death, a Christian priest (and poet) would be holding him up as one of the best poets of the Resurrection.

But, to some extent, all these paradoxical things only show us, even more acutely, what the resurrection may be like.

In our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures this morning, we find a glimpse of what that paradoxical resurrected life must be like. God, peaking to the Prophet Isaiah, shows us a beautiful glimpse of what awaits us. God says,

“The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox…”

What we see as enmity and separation here will be destroyed in our resurrected lives. There will be no divisions, no war, no natural enemies. Rather we will be reborn in a new and wonderful life. Or, as God speaks earlier in the reading from Isaiah,

“For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating…”

To some extent, this is what is being promised to us in the resurrected life. This is our glimpse of what we will awaken into when we rise from out deaths. Our whole Christian life is filled with glimpses of this perfected Resurrection life. We see it, first, in Baptism. Baptism is really our first glimpse of what awaits us. It is, in its purest sense, the great equalizer. All of us, no matter who we are or what we do in our lives, are all washed in the same waters at baptism. We are washed in the same way. No one, in the baptismal life, is greater than anyone else. Issues of marriage and parenthood, simply don’t exist in those waters. All that does is our common life with one another and with God in Jesus.

The other glimpse we get is, of course, in the Eucharist. Here we see the Resurrection in the flesh, so to speak. Here we experience an incredibly spiritual event but with very physical elements. We eat the bread. We drink from the cup. We experience the Body and Blood of Jesus and by doing so, we experience each other as well. Again, are equal at the Eucharist. No one is greater than anyone else at this altar. We all eat—because we need to eat to live—and we all drink because we need to drink to live. And this very basic action binds us together. But, what eat and what we drink is the physical Body and Blood of our Resurrected Lord. And by eating and drinking, we also participate in his resurrection. We actually get to get a glimpse of what glorified bodies are.

The Resurrection, for us, is not some apocalyptic, futuristic event. It is something we celebrate now, again and again. We celebrate it every time we renew our baptismal vows and rejoice in thanksgiving at our baptisms. And we live into the Resurrection every time we come to this altar and share the Body and Blood of the Resurrected Jesus together.

As I said last week in my All Saints Sunday homily, I truly believe that what separates us who are alive from those who are gone is a very thin veil. I believe that so intensely. And I also believe that what does bind us to those who have gone is this hope in that glorious Resurrected life that has been presented to us.

There are new heavens and a new earth waiting us. We don’t know what it will be like. We only know they are there, because God has promised them to us.

As we near to Advent—that time of hope and expectation—we find our own hope and expectation arising with us. We are drawing near to a wonderful mystery in our lives. Let us live fully into that mystery and let us be renewed in that hope.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Stewardship letter for St. Stephen's

November 8, 2010

Dear St. Stephen’s friends,

One of my favorite stories from Scripture is the story of Abraham and Sarah and the birth of Isaac. In the story (Genesis chapter 18), we find Sarah, the long-suffering wife of Abraham, long since resigned to the fact that she was barren and would never have children. Then one day, three visitors appear at the tent door while Abraham is resting from the heat of the sun. Despite the heat (and his age) he gets up and makes sure they are treated well. When the strangers announce to Sarah that she will bear a son, she is, to say the least, incredulous. In fact, she laughs at them and says, “After I become worn out with use and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” Lutheran writer, Heidi B. Neumark, translates Sarah rhetorical question as “Shall my barren life be changed to Paradise?”

In many ways the story of St. Stephen’s is reminiscent of the story of Abraham and Sarah. It is no secret to anyone who has been involved in the life of St. Stephen’s over the years that just a few years ago, many people had given up on St. Stephen’s. Years of steady decline had definitely taken its toll on our congregation. In fact, two years ago, in October of 2008, on my first Sunday at St. Stephen’s, I counted twenty people in church and no children that Sunday. The Average Sunday Attendance in 2008 was 21.

Like the story of Abraham and Sarah, the question was asked in the face of what seemed at times like overwhelming odds against us, “Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?” The answer to that question, obviously, has been, again and again, No.

But even in spite of the odds, St. Stephen’s did what it always did. Like Abraham, who was roasting in the heat of the day in his old age, radical hospitality was offered to anyone who entered the doors of St. Stephen’s and outreach was offered to those who were down-trodden and marginalized. I can say that I was one of those strangers who appeared in the St. Stephen’s doorway many years ago and was welcomed with open arms and hearts. Just as Sarah, in her barrenness and old age, gave birth to Isaac, so St. Stephen’s, in the face of the nay sayers and the doubters, has begun to flourish with new life.

Yesterday—All Saints Sunday—we had 41 people in church and five children as we celebrated 3 baptisms. The previous Wednesday night, at the All Saints/All Souls Mass, we had 20 people in attendance. We have young families and singles, as well as seekers from various walks of life, attending and being fulfilled. The sound of children fills the nave most Sundays. We have people “stepping up to the plate” and continuing the Kingdom of God to those in need of God’s love.

Our church is a busy, lively, loving, vibrant congregation, alive with fellowship. In the last two years, we have gained twenty new members, with at least another eight who are planning to join in the near future. Our Average Sunday Attendance has doubled and we are celebrating Baptisms and new members on a regular basis, as well as continuing our ministry of radical hospitality to visitors and those in need.

What some once predicted was fallow is now flourishing and alive. What some once declared hopeless is full of hope. What some once foresaw as a bleak and wasted future is now full of unlimited potential. These are reasons to rejoice. We are able to say, with Sarah to those nay sayers, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.”

On Sunday, November 21, we will all have an opportunity to celebrate and continue on in these blessings God has granted to us. Pledge Sunday is the time in which we take a good, long look at ourselves as a congregation and as individual members of this congregation, we look at what we are doing in our own lives to help St. Stephen’s grow even further into this abundance and life we are celebrating.

On Pledge Sunday November 21, please plan on attending the 11:00 celebration of Holy Eucharist, and please plan to stay for the lunch following the Eucharist, which will be hosted once again by the Vestry.

As we near Pledge Sunday, please do consider, as always, tithing from your monetary income. But just as seriously consider the ways in which you serve God and the People of God through the ministry you have been called to do in many and various ways that have helped to make St. Stephen’s the flourishing and life-affirming congregation it is. As we continue our amazing journey together, let rejoice in the Paradise that has risen in our midst, and let us look forward in hope and joy to all that God continues to send to us at St. Stephen’s.

-peace,
Fr. Jamie+

Sunday, November 7, 2010

All Saints Sunday



November 7, 2010

Ephesians 1.11-23

+ Last Sunday we had a visitor in church. Actually, over these last few Sundays, we’ve had quite a few visitors in church. But last Sunday, one of our visitors, from out of town, was talking with me in the Narthex after Mass. I was mentioning that, since it was Reformation Sunday—a Sunday we don’t officially commemorate here—because many of us here (including yours truly) are former Lutherans, James very appropriately sent us out to the beautiful strains of that Lutehran standard Ein Feste Berg ist Unser Gott—A Mighty Fortress is Our God.

The visitor jokingly told me: “I came here to escape the Lutherans who surround me.”

I, also joking, but not really, drew her attention to our All Saints altar in the Narthex and said, “Yes, but we do pray for our dead, unlike the Lutherans.”

Her face brightened up and she smiled and she said, “Oh, I know! And that’s what I love about you Episcopalians!”

Yes, we do pray for our dead as Episcopalians. You will hear me make a petition when someone dies that you won’t hear in the Lutheran Church, or the Methodist Church or the Presbyterian Church (or even the Unitarian Church). When someone dies, you will hear me say, “I ask your prayers for the repose of the soul of…”

I like that idea of praying for those who have died. Because we are uncertain of exactly what happens to us when we die, there is nothing wrong with praying for those who have crossed into that mystery we call “the nearer Presence of God.” And I would even go so far as to say I also don’t believe there is anything wrong with asking those same people to pray for us.

After all, they are still our family and friends. They are still part of who we are. And just as we would ask one another here on earth to pray for us, I don’t think there is anything wrong in asking those who are in a better place than us—who are certainly in closer proximity to God than us—to pray for us as well. And I know that makes some of us very uncomfortable. And I understand why.

I understand that it flies in the face of our more Protestant upbringings. This is exactly what the other Reformers rebelled against and freed us from. But, even they never did away with this wonderful All Saints Feast we are celebrating this morning.

This morning we are commemorating and remembering those people in our lives who have helped us, in various way, to know God. As you probably have guessed from the week-long commemoration we have made here at St. Stephen’s regarding the Feast of All Saints, I really do love this feast.

With the death of my father this past year, or with the deaths of several friends and parishioners from St. Stephen’s, this Feast has taken on particular significance for me this year. What this feast shows me is what you have heard me preach in many funeral sermons again and again. I truly, without a doubt, believe that what separates those of us who are alive here on earth, from those who are now in the “nearer presence of God” is truly a very thin one. And to commemorate them and to remember them is a good thing for all us.

Now, I do understand, as I said before, that all this talk of saints makes some of us more “Protestant minded” a bit uncomfortable. We don’t need intercessors, I have heard people say. And I agree completely. We don’t need anyone to pray for us. And, I guess, we don’t need to pray for them. God takes care of them, with or without our prayers.

But what I like about this whole commemoration is not the “praying for” so much, as the remembering in prayer. Now, even that makes some of us uncomfortable. It just all smacks of too much “praying to the saints” mumbo jumbo that my good Lutheran grandmother would frown at.

Even the early Anglicans and Episcopalians had issues with this saint business. Now, as I like to do occasionally, I would like us to take a nice leisurely walk to the back of the Prayer Book once again. But we’re going to go to a place we’ve never gone together to. It is the so-called Articles of Religion, which, as they say in the Prayer Book, were “established by the Bishops, Clergy, and the laity of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, in Convention, on the twelfth day of September, in the Year of our Lord, 1801.” We’re going to go to page 872. And we’re going to go to Article XXII (22) which is labeled “Of Purgatory.” There, you will find this:

“The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping and Adoration, as well as of Images, and also Invocation of Saints, is a fine thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.”

Those early Protestant Episcopalians did not mix words. They were quite clear about this matter of the saints.

My dear friend, Fr. John-Julian, an Episcopal priest and a member of the religious Order of Julian Norwich, whom we hear from on a regular basis since I often share his thoughts and reflections on saints during the homily at our Wednesday night Mass here at St. Stephen’s, says this about Article 22 of The Articles of Faith:

“Since the 19th Century…Anglican theologians have understood this to condemn the ‘Romish’ exaggerations and superstitions, rather than proscribing the actual practice of invocation itself, and under the influence of the Oxford Movement [that movement that ushered in the Anglo-Catholic movement beginning in 1833] from the mid-19th Century onward a broad revival of the orthodox and ancient practice spread, until it is now a completely acceptable and ordinary custom throughout the entire Anglican Communion.”

Now, I’m not commending any of us to start invoking saints. And I won’t start doing it here. But…I do want us to think long and hard about the saints we have known in our lives. And I want us to at least realize that ministry doesn’t stop when we die. Hopefully, ministry continues, even following our deaths. Hopefully, we can still, even after our deaths, do good and work toward furthering the Kingdom of God.

For me, the saints—those people who have gone before us—aren’t gone. They haven’t just disappeared. They haven’t just floated away and dissipated like clouds out of our midst. No, rather they are here with us, still. They join with us, just as the angels do, when we celebrate the Eucharist. For, especially in the Eucharist, we find that “veil” lifted for a moment. The Anglican Service Book puts it this way:

“In the communion of saints we, the Church on earth, are joined with the Church Triumphant and Expectant in worshipping before the same Throne of Grace. In the Holy Eucharist, which transcends all time and space, we are closest to our faithful departed loved ones, joining our prayers and praises to theirs. We pray for them, as we believe they pray for us, so that all may strengthened in their lives of service.”

“We pray for them, as we believe they pray for us, so that all may be strengthened in their lives of service.”

I love that! In this Eucharist that we celebrate together at this altar, we find the divisions that separate us are gone. We see how thin that veil is. We see that death truly does not have ultimate power over us.

I can’t tell you how many times over the years I have heard stories from one priest or layperson or the other who have said they have experienced, especially during the Eucharist, the presence, in a sometimes nearly empty church, of the multitude of saints, gathered together to worship.

You have heard me reference this image before, but one of the most powerful scenes I have ever witnessed in a film was at the end of the film Places in the Heart. The film is about a housewife in 1930s Texas, played by Sally Field. At the beginning of the film her sheriff husband is accidentally killed by a young drunk black man, who is then lynched by a group of vigilantes. At the end of the film, we find Sally Field’s character, gathered with her children and hired hands in a Baptist church, sharing Communion as the choir sings “In the Garden.” As the plates of bread and juice are passed from person to person in the pews, we find the camera panning to each person. Finally, we see the camera stop at that last two people who are sharing Communion with each other. Those last two people who share in the communion are Field’s dead husband and the young man who shot him. As the scene fades, they are sitting side-by side, sharing Communion. That scene gets me every time, because that is the way it is.

That is the way Holy Communion should be. It’s not just us, gathered here at the altar. It’s the Communion of all the saints. In fact, before we sing that glorious hymn, “Holy, Holy Holy” during the Eucharistic rite, you hear me say, “with angels and saints and all the company of heaven we sing this hymn of praise.” That isn’t just sweet, poetic language. It’s what we believe and hope in.

In these last few months since my father died, I think I have felt his presence most keenly, at times, here at this altar when we are gathered together for the Eucharist then at any other time. I have felt him here with us. And in those moments when I have, I know in ways I never have before, how thin that veil is between us and “them.”

You can see why I love this feast. It not only gives us consolation in this moment, separated as we are from our loved ones, but it also gives us hope. We know, in moments like this, where we are headed. We know what awaits us. No, we don’t know it in detail. We’re not saying there are streets paved in gold or puffy white clouds with chubby little baby angels floating around. We don’t have a clear vision of that place. But we do sense it. We do feel it. We know it’s there, just beyond our vision, just out of reach and out of focus. And “they” are all there, waiting for us.

So, this morning—and always—we should rejoice in this fellowship we have with them.. We should rejoice as the saints we are and we should rejoice with the saints that have gone before us. In our collect this morning, we prayed that “we may come to those ineffably joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you.” Those ineffably joys await us. They are there, just on the other side of that thin veil. And if we are only patient, we too, as Paul tells us in his letter to the Ephesians this morning, will obtain that inheritance that they have gained and we will live with them in that place of unimaginable joy and light.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Publication party/reading



Publication Party/Reading
for

Fargo, 1957: An Elegy
by Jamie Parsley

will beSaturday, December 18
4pm – reading
5 pm – Publication partyat The Spirit Room, 111 Broadway Fargo


Fargo, 1957: An Elegy
is due to be published in early December, 2010
by The Institute for Regional Studies
at North Dakota State University


FARGO, 1957
An Elegy by JAMIE PARSLEY

In the early evening of Thursday, June 20, 1957, a tornado struck the city of Fargo, North Dakota. When it was done, ten people lay dead (three more people would later die from their injuries), a city was devastated and countless lives would never be the same again. Among the dead were two relatives of Jamie Parsley, a poet and an Episcopal priest, who was born almost thirteen years after the storm. In this evocative and moving elegy of the storm and its victims, Parsley, an Associate Poet Laureate of North Dakota, weaves a heartbreaking story of loss, poetry, pain, faith and ultimately renewal, and gives voice to those victims who, before now, were unable to speak for themselves. Fargo, 1957 is the story of the resilience and fortitude of the people who survived of the storm and those who did not.


About the author

JAMIE PARSLEY has been an Associate Poet Laureate of North Dakota since 2004. Born in Fargo and raised near Harwood, ND, the first of his ten books of poems, Paper Doves, Falling and Other Poems, was published in 1992. Over the next 17 years, he published eight more books of poems including The Loneliness of Blizzards (1995), a book-length poem, Cloud: A Poem in 2 Acts (1997), The Wounded Table (1999), earth into earth, water into water (2000), no stars, no moon (2004), Ikon (2005), Just Once (2007) and This Grass (2009), a book of poems accompanied by paintings by artist Gin Templeton. He holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Vermont College and a Master’s degree from Nashotah House Seminary. An Episcopal priest, he serves as Priest in Charge of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in North Fargo and as Executive Assistant to the Bishop for the Episcopal Diocese of North Dakota. He also teaches at the University of Mary’s Fargo campus. He lives in Fargo. His website is www.jamieparsley.com.

For more information please check
Jamie’s website: http://jamieparsley.com/
or his blog: http://jamieparsley.blogspot.com/
or The Institute for Regional Studies: http://ndsu.edu/ahss/ndirs/