Thursday, March 31, 2011

Sehnsucht

by Jamie Parsley

after Rilke

So, this is the longing. This is what
it is to live in absolute chaos.
This is what it is to have
no home together,
no hopes and long-range plans together,
to talk with one another the way we talk to ourselves
when we’re alone—
discussing what eternity together
would’ve been like.
The hours rise from yesterday
and fill the life we should’ve lived together.
These are the loneliest hours—
hours without you,
hours which rise up
and smirk in the face of eternity.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

3 Lent

March 27, 2011

John 4.5-42 +

I have been reading a wonderful book this Lent, called Thirst by the poet Mary Oliver. If you do not know Mary Oliver, I would highly recommend you read her. Even if you don’t particularly care for poetry—or MY poetry for that matter—trust me, you will LOVE Mary Oliver.

Another morning and I wake with thirst
for the goodness I do not have. I walk
out to the pond and all the way God has
given us such beautiful lessons. Oh Lord,
I was never a quick scholar but sulked
and hunched over my books past the hour
and the bell; grant me, in your mercy,
a little more time. Love for the earth
and love for you are having such a long
conversation in my heart. Who knows what
will finally happen or where I will be sent,
yet already I have given a great many things
away, expecting to be told to pack nothing,
except the prayers which, with this thirst,
I am slowly learning.

One of the things we learned in the so-called exegesis of a poem is to pay attention to words. If you notice in this poem, the word “thirst” is used only twice, but they are placed at wonderful intervals from each other. One is at the beginning, the other at the end of the poem. Doing so, places that word in positions in which one can see clearly the poem is truly about thirst—a thirst for something more, for something deeper. Thirst if one of those things we don’t worry about too much in our lives in our privileged Western world. Most of us don’t physically thirst. We have our coffees, our clean water, our water machines and water tanks, not to mention our sodas and our recreational alcohol. So much of our life our life revolves around what we drink, that thirst very rarely ever plays into our lives anymore. But although we might not thirst for liquid often in our lives, we do find ourselves thirsting. We do thirst for knowledge, we thirst justice, we thirst for fulfillment. And we definitely thirst for spiritual truth. The Buddha says that thirst (trisna) (or desire) draws our ego back to this earthly life again.

And I think that’s very close to what Jesus is talking about in today’s Gospel. In our very long Gospel reading, we find Jesus confronting this Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. More often than not, when we encounter a story like this in scripture, we don’t often think about what happened to some of these people their experience with Jesus. Every so often, it might not hurt to ask ourselves: what happened to this woman at the well? Did she heed the words of Jesus to her, or did she go on in her old lifestyle? We know she shared the news with other Samaritans. But did she reform her life? Well, there are actually some interesting stories about what might have happened to this Samaritan woman.

What many Western Christians don’t know—and probably have never given a second thought to—is the fact that this Samaritan woman is revered now by the Eastern Church. They have actually given her a name. Traditionally, she is known now as St. Photini. According to tradition, the belief is that St. Photini did, in fact, take Jesus’ words to heart. The story goes that she, along with five of her sisters, were baptized and that, following Jesus’ death, she went out to proclaim the Gospel. She was preaching the Gospel in Rome when the Emperor Nero began his persecution of Christians. She confronted the Emperor with her faith in and love for Christ, which simply enraged him. He had her imprisoned and tortured, but would not allow her to die. One night, as he lay in prison, begging for God to allow her to die, Jesus appeared to her just as he had at Jacob’s well. As he stood above her, he offered her the waters of everlasting life. The vision filled her with such joy, that, a few days later, she died singing her praises to God. In the Orthodox Church, she is referred to as “equal to the Apostles,” which is saying a lot. There is a wonderful hymn that the Eastern Church sings to St. Photini

Illuminated by the Holy Spirit,
All-Glorious One,
From Christ the Saviour
you drank the water of salvation.
With open hand you give it to those who thirst.
Great-Martyr Photini, Equal-to-the-Apostles,
Pray to Christ for the salvation of our souls.

It’s a great story and hopefully one that will help us all appreciate this Gospel story every time we ever read it or hear it. But, more importantly, is the message that is here for all of us as well. When Jesus sits with Photini at the well, he offers not only her that water of life—he offers it to us as well. And we, in turn, like her, must “with open hand” give it “to those who thirst.”

To truly understand the meaning of water, here, though we have to gently remind ourselves of the land in which this story is taking place. Palestine was and is a dry and arid land. And in Jesus’ day, water was not as accessible as we take for granted these days. It came from wells that sometimes weren’t in close proximity to one’s home. The water that came from those wells was not the clean and filtered water we enjoy now, that we drink from fancy bottles. They didn’t have refrigeration, so often the water they drank was lukewarm at best. And sometimes it was polluted. People got sick and died from drinking it. But despite all of that, water was essential. One died without water in that arid land. Water meant life. In that world, people truly understood thirst. They thirsted truly for water.

And so we have this issue of water in a story in which Jesus confronts this woman—Photini—who is obviously and truly thirsty. Thirsty for water, yes, but—as we learn—she is obviously thirsty also for more. She is thirsty as well for love, for security, for stability, all of which she does not have. Now, we have to be fair to St. Photini. For a woman to be without a man in her day would have meant that she would be without security, without a home, without anything. A woman at that time was defined by the men in her life—her husband or father or son. And so, widowed as many times as she was, she was desperate to find some reason and purpose in her life through the men in her life. Photini is truly a broken woman. She is thirsty. Thirsty for the water she is drawing from the well and thirsty for more than life has given her. In a sense, we can find much to relate to in Photini.

We too are broken people, as you have heard me preach again and again during this season of Lent. We too are thirsty. As broken people, we are thirsty for relationships, for money, for food, for alcohol for anything to fill that empty parched feeling within our broken selves. And as broken people, we find that as much as we try to quench that thirst, it all seems to run right out of us. We find that we will never be quenched until we drink of that cool, clean water which will fill us where we need to be filled.

That cool, clean Water is of course Jesus. He is the Water of which we drink to be truly filled. It is the Water that will become in us “a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” What better image to take with us in these long days of Lent? As we journey through the desert of Lent toward Holy Week, toward the darkness and violence of Good Friday, what better image can we cling to? Because that is what we are doing during Lent. We are traveling through the desert. We are walking through the arid wasteland of our own lives. We are journeying toward the Cross and the destruction, pain and death it brings. We are wandering toward that tomb, that dark, dank place. We are St. Photini—parched and alone, thirsting for something more.

In Lent, we bring ourselves—our fractured, shattered, uncertain, frightened, insecure selves—to the well, expecting only for a temporary quenching. But at Easter, that day we are longing for, that we are traveling toward, that we are striving toward despite our thirst—on that day we will find more than we expected to find. On Easter, we will find Jesus, alive and vibrant, offering us water that will truly quench our thirst.

At the empty tomb—that other well—he gives us the water that will fill us and renew us and make us whole and complete. There, he offers us the water that will wash away the grit and ugliness of all that we have done and all that we have failed to do, as we say to God in our confession of sins. We find glimpses of this Easter feast in the Eucharist we celebrate together. Here too we our thirst is quenched in the blood shed from the broken body of Jesus. Here we too drink to quench our thirst. And in the brokenness of Jesus, we find our brokenness healed.

Like Photini, the Samaritan woman, we approach the well of this altar, trapped in our own brokenness. But, like Photini, we are able to leave the well of this altar and of the Easter tomb different people. We walk away from this altar and that tomb transformed people—a person made whole. We walk away no longer fractured people. We walk away remade into saints.

So, as we approach Easter and the Living Water that pours forth from the tomb of Easter, let us drink fully of the water that is offered to us there. Let us drink deeply of Jesus, who offers himself to us fully and completely there, on Good Friday, there on Easter morning, and here on this altar this morning. And in that Water, we will find all that we desire. Our insecurities will be washed away. Our wounds will be cleaned and healed. Everything we have done or failed to do will be made right. Our brokenness will be made whole.

That thirst that drives us and nags at us and gnaws at us, that drives us to drink from places where we should not be drinking, will finally—once and for all—be quenched. And in that Living Water we will find Life—that Life that Jesus brings us on that Easter morning—a Life without death or suffering or wanting—a life which Jesus breaks wide open for us and shows us as more incredible than anything we fully appreciate or understand. Jesus is there, offering himself for all.

All we have to do is say, “Give me some of that water.” And it will be given to us. And those of us who drink of that water will never again be thirsty.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Feast of the Annunciation




Wild air, world-mothering air . . .
Of her flesh he took flesh:
He does take fresh and fresh,
Though much the mystery how,
Not flesh but spirit now,
And makes, O marvellous!
New Nazareths in us,
Where she shall yet conceive
Him, morning, noon, and eve,
New Bethlems, and he born
There, evening, noon, and morn-
-- Gerard Manley Hopkins

Sunday, March 20, 2011

2 Lent


March 20, 2011

Genesis 12:1-4a

+ These past few weeks have been one of those times when, I confess, I have seriously questioned some aspects of my calling—my vocation—to be a priest. Now, I will stress (and you have heard me say this again and again) that I love being a priest. I love, love, love being a priest. I love being a priest so much that I unashamedly say that being a priest is so bound up in my own personal identity that I really can’t tell the difference sometimes between who I am as a priest and who I am at other times. I am first and foremost, a priest, and everything else about me is kind of secondary.

But, as admirable as some people might think that is, such a view is actually more dangerous than anyone would initially think. Having one’s identity so bound up in one’s vocation is difficult. It dominates one’s life completely. And sometimes it’s difficult to tell where Priest Jamie ends and Regular Jamie begins. These past few weeks have been one of those times in my life when I have seriously questioned this blurring of the lines between Priest Jamie and Regular Jamie.

Now, I should add also that none of the problems I have anything to do with St. Stephen’s. I LOVE St. Stephen’s. And what’s great about being in ministry at St. Stephen’s is everyone is doing ministry here. This isn’t top-down management here. Everyone is actively engaged in ministry and doing ministry, and doing so definitely makes the priest’s job clear.

Still, when the tough times come up in one’s ministry, there is a moment when we find ourselves asking that all-important question: Was I really called to do this? Now, the answer for me is almost always clear: Yes. I have very little doubt that I was called to the ministry of the priesthood. But I have always been keenly aware of the fact that person God called to be a priest, even back then, when I was first called as a thirteen year old Lutheran boy, was, even then, a broken person.

My vocation as a priest has always been a clear one from that perspective: this broken person was called to serve other broken people. Essentially, that’s what ministry is. All of who are called to ministry—and all of us who are Christian are called to ministry—are essentially broken people called to serve broken people.

Last week in my sermon I sort of set the theme of what I would be preaching about during this season of Lent. I quoted Michael Ford in his biography of the great writer and Roman Catholic priest, Henri Nouwen, who acutely understood his vocation as being called to ministry. He understood that he was called to serve the “broken ones of God…[who] brought a new understanding and love to the Eucharist, the broken body of Christ.”

As someone whose personal and spiritual life is centered on the Eucharist, on this celebration of the broken Body and spilled Blood of Jesus, for me, as for Nouwen, it’s somewhat easy to see this connection between the broken Body of Jesus we share here at our altar and our own brokenness. And during this season of Lent, we are called, in much the same way as we are called to ministry, to examine our brokenness in the mirror of the broken Body of Jesus. We are called to take a good, long hard look at ourselves and see how we can improve—for God, for others and for ourselves. Ministry, for all of us who are Christian, means meeting people where they are. It is means not trying to change people—or even to convert people. It is simply to be present for people and to be, in our presence, the so-called “incarnational presence” of the broken Body of Jesus to others.

This weekend in Richardton, North Dakota, the Diocese of North Dakota hosted a Ministry Conference and our own Sandy Holbrook gave a talk on the importance of ministry. In her typical Sandy Holbrook bluntness, she said,

“I think laypeople are called to ministry as lay people rather than being God's leftovers- that is, there can be - if we listen - a distinct call to lay ministry just as some people experience a distinct call to an ordained form of ministry.”

Now when we look around us this morning, we see ministry. We see the ministry of music. I’m sure James and Michelle can tell us of the joys—and the not-so-joyful—aspects of their ministry. I know, because I’ve heard some of those stories. And I’m sure both James and Michelle can also tell us of how they were truly called to this ministry in much the same way I was called to be a priest.

As we continue to look around at our congregation, we see other forms of ministry. We see our acolytes, our ushers, our altar guild, our Children’s Chapel volunteers and leaders, just to name a very few. Each is an essential ministry here at St. Stephen’s And each has its own distinctive calling.

But our ministry together is not just in what we do. It is in who we are. Our ministry is often a ministry of who we are. Of our personalities. Of the person that God has created, even in our very brokenness. It’s all bound up very tightly together. And if each of us listens, if each of strains our spiritual ears and hearts toward God, we can hear that calling, deep in our hearts. We can find that God is calling us to the ministry of our day-to-day lives, the ministry of the person God has formed us to be, the ministry to serve others in the way God sees fit.

In our reading from the Hebrew Bible this morning, we find a clear call from God to Abram.

“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to a land that I will show you.”

Essentially this is the call to all of us who are in ministry. God calls to us wherever we may be and when that happens, we must heed it. We must step out from our comfortable places, and we must step out into our service others even if that means going to those people in strange and alien places. And sometimes when we step into those uncomfortable places, we are made all the more aware of our own brokenness—we become even more vulnerable.

But that’s just a simple fact in ministry: when God calls, God calls heedless of our brokenness. In fact, God calls us knowing full well our brokenness. And, as Henri Nouwen and countless other teachers and leaders and ministers in the Church would tell us, God uses our brokenness. God can truly work through our brokenness and use our fractured selves in reaching out to other fractured people.

For too many people our brokenness divides us. It separates us. It isolates us. And when it does, our brokenness becomes a kind of condemnation. It becomes the open wound we must carry with us—allowed by us to stink and fester.

But when we can use our brokenness to reach out, when we allow God to use our brokenness, it is no longer a curse and a condemnation. Our brokenness becomes a fruitful means for ministry. It becomes a means for renewal and rebirth. It becomes the basis for ministry—for reaching out and helping those who are broken and in need around us.

Each of us is called. Each of us has been issued a call from God to serve. It might not have been a dramatic calling—an overwhelming sense of the Presence of God in our lives that motivates us to go and serve God. But each Sunday we receive the invitation. Each time we gather at this altar to celebrate the Eucharist, we are, essentially, called to then go out, refreshed and renewed in our broken selves by this broken Body of Jesus, to serve the broken people of God. We are called to go out and minister, not only by preaching and proclaiming with words, but by who we are, by our very lives and examples.

So, let us heed the call of God. Let us do as Abram did in our reading from Genesis did today.

“Abram went, as the Lord told him…”

Let us, as well, go as God has told us. Let us go knowing full well that heeding God’s call and doing what God calls us to do may mean leaving our country and our kindred and our house—in essence, everything we find comfortable and safe—and going to a foreign place—a place that may be frightening. And going will be doubly frightening when we know we go as imperfect human beings—as people broken and vulnerable. But let us also go, sure in our calling from God. Let us go sure that God has blessed each of us, even in our brokenness. Let us go know that God will use the cracks and fractures within us, as always, for good. Let us go assured that truly God will make us a blessing to others and that God will “bless those who bless us.”

What more can we possibly ask of the ministry God has called us to carry out?

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Listening to Andrew Bird's "Not a Robot, But a Ghost"

By Jamie Parsley


Whistles—
all the way home.

Again and again
the whistles

and howls and
all the cracked codes

and melting numbers
jumbling and falling

down through
whistles and bells.

Listen to the whistles.
They fall

through the floor.
Through the floor—

where you and I
like encrypted numbers

fall. This is
the hour—

it whistles.
And we

with our pushing pores
read the note pushed

beneath the door.
We know.

We hear the whistle
fall with us, whistling

as it falls
again and again

all the way home.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

1 Lent



March 13, 2011

Gen. 2.15-17; 3.1-7; Matthew 4.1-11

+ Ah, Lent! Lent is one of those times—I can’t say it’s one of those RARE times—when you are going to see a more eccentric side of me. Actually what I should say is an additional eccentric side to me. It’s weird thing—a thing you will not hear from many clergy people—but I actually truly kind of like Lent. I like the kind of strange, counter-cultural things we do during Lent—like fasting. Fasting is wonderful! It really does put one in touch with one’s physical self.

And this whole business of just stopping and pondering such things as one’s own brokenness—as depressing as it might seem—is actually quite liberating as well. And humbling.

I have been re-reading Michael Ford’s biography of the great Christian writer, Henri Nouwen. Ford talked about how Nouwen, a Roman Catholic priest, had become the chaplain of Daybreak, a community of developmentally disabled people in Ontario. While there, Nouwen started a daily celebration of the Eucharist

However, Ford writes, Nouwen “was at first distracted and annoyed by the lack of silence in the Eucharistic celebration, but he was open enough to learn gradually that this brought a new dimension to the Eucharist. The broken ones of God…brought a new understanding and love to the Eucharist, the broken body of Christ.”

That final sentence really resonated with me this past week as we entered this Lenten season. That concept of the broken ones of God having a connection with the broken body of Christ that we experience in a very physical way during our celebration of the Eucharist has spoken to me and it is this theme that I am going to return to again and again during this season. Being broken—and we all are broken in various ways—is just a reality for us. But it is not a time to despair. Our brokenness, especially when we place it alongside the broken Body of Christ that is lifted up and shown at the Eucharist, has more meaning than we can fully fathom at times. In that moment, we realize we can no longer feel separated from Christ by our brokenness. It is a moment in which we are, in fact, uniquely and wonderfully joined TO Christ in our shared brokenness. And what we glimpse today in our scripture readings is, on one hand brokenness, and on the other hand, wholeness.

In our readings from the Hebrew Bible and from the Gospel, we get two stories with one common character. In our reading from Genesis, we find Satan in the form of a serpent, tempting Adam and Eve in the Garden. In our Gospel, we have Satan yet again doing what he does best—tempting. But this time he is tempting Jesus. What we have here is essentially the same story, retold. We have the tempter. We have the tempted. We have the temptations. But we have two very different results. We have exactly opposite results.

The connection between Adam and Jesus is a long and interesting one. And it is one that has layers of meaning. I have always loved reading the traditions through the history of the Church in which connections are made between Adam and Jesus. For example, there is a tradition that believes that the tree from which Eve picked the fruit was later cut down and used as the wood for the cross on which Jesus died. There is also another tradition that I just read recently. There is a tradition that when Adam and Eve died, they were actually buried on Golgotha, the place where Jesus would eventually be crucified.

In Jerusalem, in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, there is a large rock beneath the Calvary Chapel. This rock is split and a red streak runs right through it. It is believed that, when Jesus died on the cross, this rock split. And his blood trickled down into the crack in the rock to the place where Adam and Eve were buried. As the blood touched their bones, this tradition states, Adam and Eve were finally restored to their former state though Christ. They were saved. Their brokenness, in a sense, was restored through the broken body (and blood) of Christ. In fact, in some representations of the crucifixion, you can often see a skull at the base of the cross. The tradition is that this skull is actually the skull of Adam.

I love these traditional stories, not because I necessarily believe that they’re true. I love them because they help us to see that there are no loose ends in the story of God. Anytime we find something broken, somehow God fixes it in the end. When it comes to God, what seems like a failure—the fall of Adam and Eve—eventually becomes the greatest success of all—the refusal of Jesus to be tempted. And whatever is broken, is somehow always fixed and restored.

Still, we must deal with this issue of temptation. Iy is the hinge event in both of the stories we hear this morning from scripture. Alexander Schmemann, the great Eastern Orthodox theologian, once said that there are two roots to all sin—pride and the flesh. If we look at what Satan offers both Adam and Jesus in today’s readings, we see that all the temptations can find their root mostly in the sin of pride. Adam and Eve, as they partake of the fruit, have forgotten about God and have placed themselves first. The eating of that fruit is all about them. They have placed themselves before God in their own existence. And that’s what pride really is. It is the putting of ourselves before God. It is the misguided belief that everything is all about us. The world revolves around us. The universe exists to serve us. And the only humility we have is a false one. When one allows one’s self to think along those lines, the fall that comes after it is a painful one.

When Adam and Eve eat of the forbidden fruit, they are ashamed because they realize they are naked. They realize they have nothing. They realize that, by themselves and of themselves, they are nothing. This realization is that it is not all about them, after all. They have failed themselves and they have failed God in their pride. But the amazing thing, if you notice, is that Adam and Eve still have not really learned their lesson. They leave the Garden in shame, but there is still a certain level of pride there. As they go, we don’t hear them wailing before God. We don’t see them turning to God in sorrow for what they have done. We don’t see them presenting themselves before God, broken and humbled, by what they have done. They never ask God for forgiveness. Instead, they leave in shame, but they leave to continue on in their pride.

From this story, we see that Satan knows perfectly how to appeal to humans. The doorway for Satan to enter into one’s life is through pride. Of course, in scripture, we find that Satan’s downfall came through pride as well. Lucifer wanted to be like God. And when he knew he couldn’t, he rebelled and fell. We see him trying to use pride again in his temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. When Satan tempts Jesus in the wilderness, he tries to appeal to Jesus’ pride. He knows that Jesus knows he is exactly who is. Satan knows that Jesus truly does have the power to reign and rule, that he has all the power in the world. And Satan further knows that if he could harness that power for himself—for evil—then he will have that power as well. Because Jesus was fully human, Satan knew that he could appeal to the pride all humans carry with them. But Jesus, because he, in addition to being fully human, was also fully God as well, refused to succumb to the sin of pride. In fact, because Jesus, fully God, came to us and became human like us, the ultimate sign of humility came among us.

So, these two stories speak in many ways to us, who are struggling in our own lives. As we hear these stories, we no doubt find ourselves relating fully to Adam and Eve. After all, like Adam and Eve, we find ourselves constantly tempted and constantly failing as they did. And also like them, we find that when we fail, when we fall, we oftentimes don’t turn again to God, asking God’s forgiveness in our lives. We almost never are able to be, like Jesus, able to resist the temptations of pride and sin, especially when we are in a vulnerable state.

Jesus, after forty days of fasting, was certainly in a vulnerable place to be tempted. As we all enter the forty days of fasting in this season of Lent, we too need to be on guard. We too need to keep our eyes on Jesus—who, in addition to being our God, is also our companion in this earthly adventure we are having. We need to look to Jesus, the new Adam, the one who shows us that Adam’s fall—Adam’s brokenness—and Adam’s fall and brokenness is essentially our fall and brokenness as well—is not the end of the story.

Whatever failings Adam had were made right with Jesus. And, in the same way, whatever failings we make are ultimately made right in Jesus as well. Jesus has come among us to show up the right pathway. Jesus has come to us to lead us through our failings and our brokenness to a place in which we will succeed, in which we will be whole.

So, let us follow Jesus in the path of our lives, allowing him to lead us back to the Garden of Eden that Adam and Eve were forced to abandoned. Because it is only when we have abandoned pride in our lives—when we have shed concern for ourselves, when we have denied ourselves and disciplined ourselves to the point in which we realize it is not all about us at all—only then will we discover that the temptations that come to us will have no effect on us. Humility, which we should be cultivating and practicing during this season of Lent, should be what we are cultivating and practicing all the time in our lives. Humility is the best safeguard against temptation. Humility is the remedy to help us back on the road to piecing ourselves back together from our shattered brokenness.

So, as we move through the wasteland of Lent and throughout the rest of our lives, let us be firm and faithful in keeping Jesus as the goal of our life. Let us not let those temptations of pride rule out in our life. In these days of Lent, let us practice personal humility and spiritual fasting. Let Jesus set the standard in our lives. And let him, as he did to Adam and Eve when he died on the cross, raise us up from the places we have fallen in your journey. And let us let him piece our brokenness back into a glorious wholeness.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Ash Wednesday

March 9, 2011

I came home tonight from a really very beautiful Ash Wednesday liturgy. As I glanced at myself in the mirror, I saw the black ashen cross on my forehead and suddenly remembered my father and all those Ash Wednesdays when he would come home from his little Lutheran Church with that same black cross on his forehead.

And here, six months after his death (six months on the 14th), his body truly is ashes. He is dust and it was to dust that he returned. And that sober reality hit me with the weight of truck.

This is what Ash Wednesday is all about after all. It is about realizing that we are mortal. But it is also about realizing that everyone we love is a mortal as well. Every one we love and care for will one day return to dust.

The only mainstay, the one steady reality we have is Christ. He is not dust. He is not ashes. His is a resurrected body that we have been promised we will one day inherit as well. These bodies that will one day turn to ashes and be buried, will one day rise from those ashes into a glory we, at this moment, can only just barely even imagine.

Staring at that cross on my forehead, thinking of my father who is now ashes, I find a certain comfort in the fact that dust and ashes are not eternity. I find joy in the fact that he and I and all of us will one day rise above the dust into which each of us will one day go. And that even dirt and ashes can be a conduit through which we catch a glimpse of that forthcoming glory.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Last Epiphany


Sunday of the Transfiguration

March 6, 2011

Exodus 24.12-18; Matthew 17. 1-9

+ Already this morning, with our new altar rail, we have had people make comments such as, “It looks so different in here.” And it DOES. But to be honest, the change is slight. It’s still an altar rail. It still kind of looks the old one—it’s the same color, the same basic design.

But…it’s better. It’s more solid. It’s birch wood.

When I brought my mother by St Stephen’s on Friday afternoon to see the altar rail for the first time, she, in her typical way, took the whole sanctuary in, and said “It all just comes together.” And it really does.

When we look at the somewhat slight changes that have been made here in the sanctuary we realize that somehow it all does come together. A lot of this is of course due to the Aesthetics Committee here at St. Stephen’s, who give wonderful suggestions on how to improve the physical beauty of the church building itself. With the beautiful frontals on the altar that Gin Templeton made, we see that our attention is drawn to the place it should be drawn—to the altar. And on the shelf behind the altar, we see that we now usually have some kind of display—whether it be these twigs that are there now or the flowers that are occasionally given, or the living plants we have at the other times. These displays don’t draw attention to themselves. They actually draw attention away from themselves to highlight the cross, which, like the altar, also is the center of our attention at worship. Subtle but well-thought-out-changes highlight and enhance our visual appreciation of things—they bring it all together.

I have heard again and again from people here at St. Stephen’s that these changes add beauty to what we see and also help us in our worship. And something visually appealing can truly enhance our worship experience, just the same way as good music enhances our sense of singing in worship. In a sense, these seemingly minor or inconsequential things transform worship for us. They help us open our hearts and minds and souls to God, yet without completely transforming what we see into something unrecognizable.

No doubt Peter, James and John thought somewhat like this when they gazed upon Jesus transfigured on the mount. He still looked like the Jesus they always knew. He still had the basic features. He was recognizable. But…he was different. He was transformed. He was transfigured by the Light which shone from within him.

On this last Sunday of Epiphany, we hear in our Gospel reading an echo of something we heard on our first Sunday of Epiphany. If you can remember back all the way to January 9, we also heard God speaking words very similar to what we hear this morning in our Gospel reading. On January 9, the First Sunday in Epiphany, we found Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist in the River Jordan. That morning I preached on the importance of baptism and how we really need to consider how important it is in our lives and how the Baptismal Covenant really does help define us as Christians. As Jesus rises out of those waters of the Jordan, we hear God say,

"This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."

Today, on this last Sunday in Epiphany, as Jesus is transfigured on the mountaintop, flanked by Moses representing the Law and Elijah representing the Prophets, both of which Jesus fulfills, and with Peter, James and John gazing on, we also hear again God speak, almost as an echo to what was said at Jesus’ baptism:

“This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”

We find in all of this, that although Jesus is changed somewhat, that the situation has changed somewhat, God has not changed. In fact, in our reading from the Hebrew Bible this morning, we find God speaking to Moses in a very similar way as well. There we find, much as we find in our Gospel reading, a mountaintop, a cloud, and God’s glory—and God speaking to Moses much as God speaks to all of us in today’s Gospel. For us, these readings reveal to us that we too are to be available for such transfigurations.

Last Sunday I preached about being conduits through which God’s light shines, referencing specifically George Herbert’s poem, “Windows.” Being the conduit through which God’s Light shines means allowing ourselves to be transformed by that Light. It means being reborn by that Light. It means that, yes, we are still who we are. We still look the same. Yes, we are still cracked and warped windows. But that somehow, that Light coming through transforms the cracks and the warping and makes the whole window shine and glow.

As the Lenten season starts, we find everything dimming a bit. I often refer to these Lenten days as the long, gray days of Lent. To me they are. They are the time we when, whether we like it or not, we hear more talk in our scriptures and in our liturgy, of sin, of repentance, of being aware of our shortcomings and of trying turn away from those moments in which we fail. It is a time, to continue our Windows analogy, in which we examine the cracks and warps in our glass panes and we try to repair them in some way. But as we progress through Lent toward the glorious, blinding light of Easter morning, we realize that although the Light may seem dimmed, it at no point goes out. Even on Good Friday and Holy Saturday, when it will seem darkest of all, the Light will not be completely extinguished. We end the Season of Epiphany with this glorious vision of the Transfiguration. It essentially sustains us and upholds us until the Light of Easter shines upon us.

At the end of our liturgy this morning, the children will come forward to help me take down the alleluia banner and place it in a box, which will then be taken out and “buried” As we do this, the rest of us will sing “Alleluia! song of gladness.” After Wednesday—Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent—we will not be saying the word “Alleluia” in our liturgies until Easter.

Sometimes it’s very good to do things like this. It’s good to retire a word for a period of time. Because we often take words for granted. We use the word without thinking about it. Alleluia is one of those words. It’s a joyful word. It’s meant, essentially to be an exclamation. It’s what Peter, James and John no doubt exclaimed on the mount when they saw Jesus transfigured and the voice of God speaking to them. And when that word goes away, we miss it.

We find ourselves almost—just almost—saying it on occasion during Lent. And then we catch ourselves. When we do that, we appreciate it even more. We realize how important that word has become to us. We are conditioned to say it. And when it’s gone, we realize—yes, it is important.

It somewhat like when a loved one dies. When they’re gone, all of a sudden we remember little things about them that we wish we could have back—things that when they were here with us, we didn’t fully appreciate. Now that they’re gone, they become even more precious to us.

That’s what the word Alleluia is like. It’s a precious gem in our language that we need to remember is truly precious. And like the Light we experience today, we will carry it with us through Lent, even when we don’t actually say it. We will hold it close. We will still truly be, as St. Augustine once said of all Christians, “an Alleluia from head to toe.” We will still carry the Alleluia and the Light of Christ within us even through the grayness of Lent and the darkness of Holy Week. So that, on Easter morning, seven weeks from today, we will truly rejoice. That morning, we will say that word with all the meaning and joy it carries for us. And that morning, we will find that Light we have carried within us burst forth in glory and truly transfigure us. We will, on that glorious morning, say once again with a true and glorious joy,

“Alleluia!”

“Alleluia! Alleluia!”

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

St. David's Day

At the party, one of them—so young
it hurts my face—uncorks
his fizzling coldness and pours
a smoky shot into a glass. Another—
even younger, even more gentle
in her movements—sidles in
beside him, her long white legs
speckled with blue veins. Someone
behind them shouts. Another laughs.
A crackle of applause goes on
like fire in this room.

A beat

then a liquor smell fills the air.

Let’s sit back
all the way! We’ve thrown
the sticks! The fortune’s read!

Someone here is so sick—
so close to something you—
in this heady innocence
which fogs your eyes like lust—
can only just barely make out
over this music and the steady thump
of your lives. It sounds—
doesn’t it?—
like sobbing.

March 1

From Just Once: poems by Jamie Parsley. Published in 2007 by Loonfeather Press, Bemidji, Minnesota. Copyright (c) 2007 by Jamie Parsley.