Sunday, September 25, 2011

15 Pentecost

September 25, 2011

Ezekiel 18.1-4;25-32; Matthew 21.23-32

+ I will admit. My interests are viewed by some people as a bit morbid, shall we say. I am one of those rare people who actually enjoy things like cemeteries. Now, I need to be clear. I like cemeteries not because I’m morbid. I like cemeteries because I have always been a history buff and there is no better place to find some great stories.

Recently I read a book put out by the Red River Genealogical Society about the Cass County Cemeteries. Now what few of us know is that, just a few blocks north of this church, there are two cemeteries. Unless you actually get out of your car and walk into the actual cemetery you wouldn’t even know they’re there. But if you do, you’ll see a large boulder.

In one cemetery the boulder is inscribed COUNTY CEMETERY #1. The one is located at the end of Elm Street. Where the road forks, one to the Country Club and the other to the former Trollwood, right there, on the left fork toward Trollwood, is the cemetery. You’ve probably driven by it countless times and never had a clue.

County Cemetery #2 is located on the other side of the old Trollwood, just within sight of where the old main stage stood. Back along the bend in the Red River, there is a stretch of grass and another boulder. This one says COUNTY CEMETERY #2.

A third County Cemetery was located on north Broadway. In 1984, those graves were moved to Springvale Cemetery, over by Holy Cross Cemetery, near the airport, because they were falling into the Red River through erosion.

For the most part, many of the graves in Springvale are marked. But in the first two cemeteries, there are no markers at all. No individual gravestones mark the graves of the people buried in the first two cemeteries. In fact, if you walked into them, you would have to force your mind to even accept the fact that it is a cemetery. But there are hundreds of people buried in those graveyards.

These are the forgotten. These were Fargo’s hidden shame. Beginning 1899 and going through the 1940s, this where the prostitutes, the gamblers, the robbers were buried. This is also where all the unwanted babies were buried. There are lots of stories of unwanted babies being fished out of the Re River. This is where the bodies of those unnamed babies were buried.

And when one walks in those pauper cemeteries, one must remind themselves of those words we hear from Jesus this morning in our Gospel reading.

“Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the Kingdom of God ahead of you.”

There, in those cemeteries, lie the true inheritors of the Kingdom of God. Last week in my sermon I quoted the great Reginald Fuller, who said:

“[This] is what God is doing in Jesus’ ministry—giving the tax collectors and prostitutes an equal share with the righteous in the kingdom.”

That—and those words of Jesus we heard in this morning’s Gospel reading—are shocking statements for most of us. And it should be. It should shock us and shake us to our core. It’s a huge statement for him to make.

But I think, like many of his statements, it has lost the full weight of its meaning for us, in this day and age. Partly it does because, we can grasp the understanding about prostitutes—after all, prostitutes are still looked down upon by our society in our day. After all, we do still view prostitutes with contempt. They are another segment of our society that we tend to forget about it. But we really should give them concern. And I don’t meant from a judgmental point of view. I mean, we should give them our compassion. We should be praying for them often. Because we often hear the horrible stories of what people have to deal with on the streets. The stories of what drove them to the streets are horrendous enough. But the stories of what keeps them on the streets are just as bad. And the dangers they face—day and night—are more mind-boggling than anything we can even imagine in our safe, comfortable lives.

Truly prostitutes throughout history have been the real exploited ones. They are the ones who have lived on the fringes of society. They are the ones who have lived in the shadows of our respectable societies. They have lived dangerous, secret lives. And much of what they’ve had to go through in their lives is known only to God. They need our prayers. They need our compassion. They don’t need our exploitation. They don’t need our judgment.

As uncomfortable as it is for us to confront them and think about them, that is exactly what Jesus is telling us we must do. Because by going there in our thoughts, in our prayers, in our ministries, we are going where Jesus went. We are coming alongside people who need our thoughts, our prayers, our ministries. And rather than using them, rather than continuing the exploitation they have lived with their lives, we see them as God sees them. We see them as children of God, as fellow humans on this haphazard, uncertain journey we are all on together. And, more importantly, we see in them ourselves.

There, but for the grace of God go us. Had we been born in different circumstances, had life gone wrong for us in certain areas, and who are we to say we wouldn’t have been there? Or who we are to say we wouldn’t be the exploiters?

So, we understand what Jesus is saying about prostitutes. But tax collectors? Why all this talk about tax collectors not getting into the kingdom of heaven. No doubt, few of us like the prospect of tax collectors. Few of us are overjoyed at the thought of taxes or anyone having to collect them. But certainly they are very rarely if ever classed along side prostitutes in our day, unless under some scandalous circumstances.

But for people in Jesus’ day, for moral, good Jews, tax collectors were seen as traitors. And they were religiously unclean according to the Law because they handled the money of the Romans, which had the image of the emperor on them, who was, in very real sense, worshipped as a pagan God. So we can understand why tax collectors and prostitutes are viewed with such contempt in Jesus’ day.

The point of this morning’s Gospel is this: the Kingdom of God is not what we think it is. It is not made up of just people like us. It’s not going to be like going to the country club or Monte’s or the HoDo (two of my favorite places) or any of those other places we like to go to feel good. It is not even going to be like the Episcopal Church.

It is going to be made up people who maybe never go to church, who may never have gone to church. It is going to be made up of people we would never imagine stepping foot inside a country club or a fine restaurant. It will be made up of those people we don’t notice. It will be made up of those people who are invisible to us.

It will be made up of the people we don’t give a second thought to.

In our society today we have our own tax collectors. They are the AIDS patient, the Alzheimer’s patient, the cancer patient, the mentally ill. They are the welfare cases. They are the homeless. They are alcoholics and the drug addicts and the drug dealers. They are the depressed among us, they are the lost among us, they are the ones who are trapped in their own sadness and their own loneliness. They are the gang leaders, they are the rebels. They are the transgendered. They are the cross dressers. They are the radical Christian, the radical Muslim, the radical Jew. They are the ones we call pagan, or non-believer or atheist. They are the ones we, good Christians that we are, have worked all our lives not to be.

This is what the Kingdom of heaven is going to be like. And when we, in our arrogance, in our self-righteousness, think that we have all the answers, when we think because we do this and do that, that somehow heaven is our inheritance, that is when Jesus stands up to us and says to us, “Don’t be so quick to think you have it all figured it out.” It is then that he shakes his finger at us and reminds us that the inheritors of heaven are not us at all, but those people we have passed on the way to church on Sunday morning.

They are the people who look up at us from their marginalized place in this society. They are the ones who peek out at us from the curtains of their isolation and their loneliness. They are the ones who, in their quiet agony, watch as we drive out of sight from them. They are they inheritors of the kingdom of God and if we think they are not, then we are not listening to what Jesus is saying to us. We are plugging our ears and closing our minds and we are turning our backs on the Gospel.

When we think about those county cemeteries just a few blocks north of here, we need to realize that had Jesus lived in Fargo, had he lived 1900 years later and had died the disgraceful death he died, that is where he would’ve ended up. He would have ended up in an unmarked grave in a back field, on the very physical fringes of our city.

In fact, we can say that he is there. He is wherever the inheritors of his kingdom are. Those cemeteries for me are potent reminders of who inherits. They are potent reminders to me of who receives true glory in the end.

It is not just the ones lying in Riverside Cemetery under polished granite and marble gravestones. It is not just the ones lying in graves covered with well-tended grass, decorated with flowers and mementos, like my own father is. It is not just the ones whose ashes lie in the columbariums and memorial gardens of our churches.

It is also these—the forgotten ones, the ones whom only God knows. They are the ones that, had life turned out just a bit different for us, would be us.

Of course, we too are the inheritors of the Kingdom, especially when we love fully and completely. We too are the inheritors when we follow those words of Jesus and strive to live out and do what he commands. We too are the inheritors when we open our eyes and our minds and our hearts to those around us, whom no one else sees or loves.

So, let us also be inheritors of the Kingdom of God. Let us love fully and completely as Jesus commands. Let us love our God. Let us love all those people who come into our lives. Let us look around at those people who share this world with us. And let us never cast a blind eye on anyone.

Let us do as God speaks to us this morning through the prophet Ezekiel: Let us “turn, then, and live.”

Sunday, September 18, 2011

14 Pentecost

September 18, 2011


Matthew 20. 1-16

+ Every morning, when I pray Morning Prayer, I pray this petition: I pray for all “who are jealous of me, and all for whom I am jealous.”

I think that has to be one of the most presumptuous prayers one can ever pray. Because, recently I was thinking about this petition. And I was trying to think of one person I could name who I could even think was jealous of me. And I couldn’t think of one person. I’m just not one of those people about whom anyone is jealous I think.

But the second part of that petition is a bit more accurate. There ARE people I am jealous of. I am jealous of people whoa re more successful than me, who are happier in their professional and personal lives than me. There are people out there whose lives just seem to go along swimmingly, without any seeming effort, while I seem to struggle every so often.

Jealousy is one of those natural feelings we have. And I think my jealousy, at least at this point in my life, tends to deal with a sense of unfairness. I feel jealous when I realize how unfair it is that someone else has something I don’t . Yes, I know: it’s a very selfish, self-centered thing to do. But I do find myself fuming over the unfairness of life sometimes.

Or to put it in the context of our Gospel reading today, I feel like one of the workers who has been working from the beginning of the work day. The parable Jesus tells us this morning is, of course, not just a story about vineyard workers. The story really, for us anyway, is all about that sense of unfairness. If you’re anything like me, when you hear today’s Gospel—and you’re honest with yourself—you probably thought: “I agree with the workers who have been working all day: It just isn’t fair that these workers hired later should get the same wages.”

It’s not fair that the worker who only works a few hours makes the same wages as one who has worked all day. Few of us, in our own jobs, would stand for it. We too would whine and complain. But the fact is, as we all know by this time, life is not fair. Each of here this morning has been dealt raw deals in our lives at one point or another. We have all known what it’s like to not get the fair deal. We all have felt a sense of jealousy and unfairness over the raw deals of this life.

But, as much as we complain about it, as much as make a big deal of it, we are going to find unfairness in this life. Of course, our personal lives are one thing. But for me, as I hope for most of us, this morning, we can do something about this sense of unfairness in the Church. What we find in today’s parable is exactly what many of us have had to deal with in the Church.

The story of the parable is that everyone—no matter how long they’ve been laboring—gets an equal share. And in Jesus’ ministry, that’s exactly what happens as well. As one of my personal theological heroes, the great Reginald Fuller, once said of this parable: “[This] is what God is doing in Jesus’ ministry—giving the tax collectors and prostitutes an equal share with the righteous in the kingdom.”

The marginalized, the maligned, the social outcast—all of them are granted an equal share. To me, it sounds like the ministry we are all called to do as followers of Jesus.

To be a follower of Jesus is strive to make sure that everyone gets a fair deal, even when we ourselves not be getting the fair deal. It means striving to make sure that all of us on this side of the “veil” get an equal share of the Kingdom of God. That is what we do as followers of Jesus and that is what we need to strive to continue to do.

But…it’s more than just striving for an equal share for others. It also means not doing some things as well. It means not lamenting the unfairness of what an equal share means for us. It means not letting jealousy win out. Because jealousy is a horribly corrosive emotion. It eats and eats away at us until it makes us bitter and angry. And jealousy is simply not something followers of Jesus should be harboring in their hearts. Because jealousy can also lead us into a place in which we are not striving for the Kingdom.

Those of us who are followers of Jesus are striving, always, again and again, to do the “right thing.” But when we do, and when we realize that others are not and yet they are still reaping the rewards, we no doubt are going to feel a bit jealous. We, although few of us would admit it, are often, let’s face it, the “righteous” ones. We follows the rules, we strive to live our lives as good Christians. We fast, we say our prayers faithfully, we tithe, we do what we are supposed to do as good Christians. Striving for the equal share for people, means not allowing ourselves to get frustrated over the fact that those people who do not do those things—especially those people whom we think don’t follow the rules at all, those people who aren’t “righteous” by our standards—also receive an equal share. It means not crying to ourselves, “It’s not fair.”

Because when we do those things, we must ask ourselves a very important question: why do we do what we do as Christians? Do we do what we do so we can call ourselves “righteous?” Do we do what we do as Christians because we believe we’re going to get some reward in the next life? Do we do what do because we think God is in heaven keeping track of all our good deeds like some celestial Santa Claus? Do we do what do simply because we think we will get something in return? Or do we do what we do because doing so makes this world a better place?

This is the real key to Jesus’ message to us. Constantly, Jesus is pushing us and challenging us to be a conduit. He is trying to convince us that being a Christian means being a conduit for the Kingdom of God.

In us, the Kingdom breaks through. Without us, it simply will not.

We do what we do as Christians because whatever we do is a way in which the barriers that separate us here from God and God’s world is lifted for a brief moment when we do what Jesus tells us to do. When we live out the Law of loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves, the “veil” is lifted and when it is lifted, the Kingdom comes flooding into our lives. It does not matter in the least how long we labor in allowing this divine flood to happen. The amount of time we put into it doesn’t matter in the least to God, because God’s time is not our time. Rather, we simply must do what we are called to do when we are called to do it.

Jesus came to bring an equal share to a world that is often a horribly unfair place. And his command to us is that we must strive to bring an equal share to this unequal world. And that is what we’re doing as followers of Jesus. As we follow Jesus, we do so knowing that we are striving to bring about an equal share in a world that is often unfair. We do so, knowing that we are sometimes swimming against the tide. We do so, feeling at times, as though we’re set up to fail. We do so feeling, at times, overwhelmed with jealousy. And just when we think the unfairness of this world has won out—in that moment, the Kingdom of God always breaks through to us. And in that moment, we are the ones who are able to be the conduit through which the Kingdom of God comes.

So, let us continue to do what we are doing as followers of Jesus. Let us strive to do even better. In every thing we do, let us attempt to lift that veil in our lives and by doing so, let us be the conduit through which the Kingdom of God will flood into this unfair world. And let us do together what Jesus is calling us to do in this world

Let us love—fully and completely. Let us love our God, let us love our selves and let us neighbors as ourselves. As we all know, it’s important to come here and share the Word and the Eucharist on Sundays. But we also know that what we share here motivates us to go out into the world and actually “do” our faith.

A quote you’ve heard me share more than once here, from the great Anglican bishop of Zanzibar, Frank Weston, is this:

“You have Christ in your tabernacles.”—we have Christ here, present in our Eucharist—“now go out and seek Him in the highways and the hedges...”

As followers of Jesus, we are full of hope—a hope given to us by a God who knows our future and who wants only good for us. Let us go forth with that hope and with a true sense of joy that we are doing what we can to make that future glorious.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

In loving memory of my father
Albert H. Parsley
(Jan. 17, 1934-Sept. 14, 2010)


“Not even death can part us—
it will instead bind us together in a glorious place,
in a coming-together that will never end.”
— Yehuda Amichai

Sunday, September 11, 2011

13 Pentecost

Dedication Sunday
September 11, 2011

Genesis 28.10-17; 1 Peter 2.1-5,9-11

+ One film I love watching again and again is the 1985 classic, Back to the Future. The story (for those you who might not know it) is about a young man, Marty McFly, played Michael J., Fox. In the film, he ends up driving a DeLorean, which has been modified by his scientist friend through nuclear fission and using plutonium (stolen from the Libyans) as fuel, which generates 1.21 giggawats of power into a device called a “flux capacitor.”

He goes from October 25, 1985, back to November 5, 1955, where he meets his future parents (whoa re high school students), and tons of chaos ensues.

Well, this morning, we too are going back to the future. No, we do not have a flux capacitor. We’re just going to use out imaginations, this morning.

We’re going to take a little trip back in time… No, were not going back to those awful events ten years ago on that awful date in 2001.

We’re going back to a bit more stable time—a more innocent time. Our trip is taking us back 55 years. It is Sunday morning, September 9, 1956. On this particular Sunday in 1956, it was truly a different American.

The number one song in the country that Sunday morning was “Don’t Be Cruel” by Elvis Presley. In fact, that very night Elvis would appear on the Ed Sullivan Show—“coast to coast with your favorite host.”

The number one book in the country that morning was Peyton Place by Grace Metalious.

1956 was an election year. The current president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, would be going up against the Democratic hopeful, Adlai Stevenson, who would lose that November.

But on this morning, the congregation of St. Stephen’s was officially dedicated. According to the records, there were 51 people at that service. It we think hard enough, we can almost imagine how people looked in church that morning. The women in hats and skirt, the men in suits and ties.

And no doubt it felt like something was truly beginning. By the end of that year, there would be 51 communicates (39 of whom came from the Cathedral) and a total of 94 baptized members listed. By 1958, there were 144 baptized members and 45 families and by Jan. 1, 1960, there were a whopping 214 members with 60 families.

Over the years, those numbers just kept going up. Within ten years, in 1968, the membership received its number of 243 members.

Now, the story of St. Stephen’s is fascinating. In its 55 years, there have been ebbs and there have been flows. And throughout those 55 years this seemingly small congregation has been the first do many wonderful things.

The first woman Senior Warden in the Diocese.

The first woman priest to serve a congregation in the diocese.

The first congregation in the diocese to openly and unabashedly welcome gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people.

The first to establish a chapter of the Episcopal Peace Fellowship.

The first, just ten years ago, to have a labyrinth.

Of course, there were hard time too. I have heard with great sadness the stories of what is called the “Exodus out” in the 1980s. It is sad to look through the parish records and see those numbers drop and dribble away for various reason throughout the 1980s.

But, here are, back in our own day. Here we are on this glorious morning in September 0f 2011. Here we are, 55 years into our ministry to the Church and the world. And we have a lot of celebrate this morning.

If you’re anything like me, when things seem to be going well, there is a sense of disbelief. I often wonder: is this really happening? And then I do an awful thing. I started taking it for granted.

And I’ve had to catch myself a few times over these last few years so I do not fall into the trap of taking for granted what God has given us here at St. Stephen’s.

Just three years ago, our membership was 55 members, which had remained pretty steady for about ten years previously.

But this year, we can rejoice in the fact that, for the first time since 1984, our membership is now in the triple numbers. Our Average Sunday Attendance is only going up and remaining steady. I think we have only dipped below 30 people once or twice on Sunday this whole past summer (which is quite the feat for us).

But we are more than just any of those things. Wee are more than just membership numbers. We are more than just an Average Sunday Attendance. We are a congregation that makes a different.

Now, I know some people have an issue with my so-called “cheerleading: of St. Stephen’s. Yes, I have actually been scolded by people outside out congregation for bragging too much about St. Stephen’s.

But I take my job as cheerleader seriously. I have no problems with boasting about what God has done here. I have no qualms about boasting about what all of us are doing here at St. Stephen’s.

In our wonderful reading this morning from St. Peter, we find him saying,

“Once you were not a people,
but not you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy,
but now you have received mercy.”

When we look around us this morning, as we celebrate 55 years of ebb and flow in our congregation, we realize that truly we are on the receiving end of a good amount of mercy. We realize that mercy from God has descended upon us in this moment. And it is a glorious thing.

And, as unbelievable as it might seem at times, we cannot take it for granted. We must use this opportunity we have been given. We realize that it is not enough o receive mercy. We must, in turn, give mercy.

Mercy, as we all know, is elusive. We can’t pin it down. But we know when it comes to us. And we know how to be merciful to others.

The way we properly and truly celebrate 55 years of St. Stephen’s ministry to the Church and the world is by giving thanks for the mercy wee have received and are receiving at this moment. And we turn around and share that mercy with others. That’s what we’ve been doing here at St. Stephen’s from that very beginning way back in 1956.

We, this morning, are being called to echo what St. Peter said to us in our reading this morning.

We, God’s own people, are being called to “proclaim
the mighty acts of [God] who called [us] out of
darkness into [that] marvelous light.”

We proclaim these mighty acts by our own acts. We proclaim God’s acts through mercy, through ministry, through service to others, through the worship we give here and the outreach we do from here.

I love being the cheerleader for St. Stephen’s. Because it’s so easy to do. God is doing wonderful things here through each of us. Each of us is the conduit through which God’s mercy and love is being manifested.

In our collect for this morning, we prayed to God that “all who seek you here [may] find you, and be filled with your joy and peace…”

That prayer is being answered in our very midst today. And although it may seem unbelievable at times, this is truly who God works in our midst. God works in our midst by allowing us to be that place in which God is found, a place in which joy and peace and mercy dwell.

So, let us continue to receive God’s mercy and, in turn, give God’s mercy to others. Let us be a place in which mercy dwells. Because when we do we will find ourselves, along with those who come to us, echoing the words of Jacob from our reading in the Hebrew Bible this morning,

“How awesome is this place! This is none
other than the house of God, and this is the gate of
heaven.”

Sunday, September 4, 2011

12 Pentecost

Romans 13.8-14; Matthew 18. 15-20


+ A few nights ago I was having drinks with a friend of mine. I mentioned to my friend that I was planning on traveling to Rome this February. “How wonderful!” my friend said. “So…are you planning on trying ot get a private audience with the Pope?”

I laughed and said, “Uh…no. I actually I have no desire to see the Pope.”

My friend looked at me with shock and said, “You know despite all your Anglo-Catholic posturing, I think, deep down, you’re still a good Protestant.”

I was stunned—and I have to admit, a bit insulted by being called…a Protestant. But, like a good Protestant, I did protest.

“Yes,” I said, “I may be an Anglo-Catholic, but I am not an Anglo-Papalist.”

A few Sundays ago, as you may recall in our Gospel reading, we encountered a wonderful interchange between Jesus and Peter, in which Jesus said to Peter: “I tell you, you are Peter and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

In that reading, there were several different interpretations of what all this meant. One of the more popular beliefs was the Roman Catholic belief that Jesus was, in fact, founding the Church on Peter whom they claim to be the first Pope and giving to him and his successors the power to bind and loose. And for people who hold that view, such as many Roman Catholics and some Anglo-Papalists—and yes, there’s still a few out there, though most of them are on converting to the Roman Church—the Roman Church and the Pope have full authority to bind and loose.

Now I am quite clear in my view that I do not believe that view. And if that makes me…sigh…a Protestant, then so be it.

Because in today’s Gospel, we find that the power to bind and loose is not given just to Peter, but, if you notice, it is given to all Jesus’ followers, including us. After talking about how members of the Church who have disagreements with each other should resolve their differences, he goes on to say:

“Truly I tell you [and he is speaking to all his followers at this time] whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

He goes on to say: “Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

This is very important to us. Because when Jesus gave that power to bind and loose to all his followers, he didn’t just give it those followers who were with him that day. He gave that power to all Christians, throughout all time. He gave that power to us, as well, here and now. And because there are, in fact, more than two or three gathered here this morning, Jesus truly is in the midst of us—his Church. We, being the Church, have that power to bind and loose and it is quite the power. Take a moment and just think about what it is Jesus is giving us authority to do. What we bind on earth, will be bound in heaven. And what we loose on earth, will be loosed in heaven. This is some incredible power. The Church has the power, in a very real sense, to control not only what is here on earth, but the control carries over into heaven.

Still, it’s confusing, this concept of binding and loosing. What is it Jesus is talking about when means binding and loosing? Probably the best way to try to understand it is to put it in the context of Jesus’s own time. For Jewish rabbis in Jesus’s time, "binding" the Law meant they were able to apply it to a particular situation. They “loosed” the Law when it was not able to be applied to situation. There were some situations that the Law was clear about, and they could not be loosed. But there were also grey areas in life where the Law wasn’t so clear and, as a result, the rabbis had to figure out if the Law could be applied to it. They made the decision about whether it was binding and loosing.

For us, this passage isn’t quite so clear. For us, “binding” and “loosing” don’t mean the same things as they did to Jesus’s followers. Still, we are able to grasp, in some way, what Jesus is getting at. The simple fact is this: what we do here on earth, really does make a difference with God.

And that, as Christians, as the Church, what we do has great power. Because when we gather together, Jesus is in our midst and what we do together becomes an act of Christ. We have been given the power to bind and loose—however we might understand those terms. And we can use (or mis-use) a power like this.

We could apply it any number of issues that are plaguing the Church right now. We could use it to condemn those who have differing views than us in the Church, or to give credit to our own positions, especially when it comes to issues of scriptural authority.

In this area, each of us walks a slippery slope. Scripture, as you’ve heard me say before, is always a double-edge sword. If we are going to use it cut, then we be better prepared to be cut by it. It will comes back on us and cut us eventually if we insist on using it in such a way. Oftentimes, we might find ourselves on the wrong side of what is bound and loosed. Oftentimes, we can get nitpicky about issues and where to stand on them. And in those cases, we have lost the real spirit of what it means to bind and loose.

But, there is one motivating factor behind all binding and loosing. And we find this motivating factor spoken to us in our reading from Romans today. There we find the summary of this same Law that binds or loosens. The summary of this Law is that we should love our neighbor as ourselves. And here we find the truly binding experience of Christianity.

Our job as Christians is not to nit-pick about what should be bound and what should be loosened. Our job as Christians is to make sure that we love each other as we love ourselves. Love, after all, is the ultimate experience of binding. And Christian love, because Jesus has given us this power to loose and bind, has a power that few other loves have. The love we have as Christians is more than just a love for each other here on earth. This love that we love have is a love that binds itself even in heaven. And this is why we can’t allow anything else other than love in ourselves. That’s why we can not allow feelings like hatred into our lives.

Just as love is the ultimate binding experience, hatred is the ultimate loosing experience. And hatred for others, or for ourselves, loosens us and that loosening experience is also loosed in heaven. God does pay attention to what we feel and what we do. God does notice when we do not love—when we do not love others, or ourselves. And that is not God’s intent for us. God does not want us to feel anything other than love for others, and for ourselves. Because in loving each other, in loving ourselves, we are loving God, who is present in our midst—who is present with us and within us. And that perfect balance is what gives us a glimpse of the Kingdom of God in our midst.

The Kingdom of God, as elusive and vague as it might seem at times, is a place of balance. This much we do know. The Kingdom of God in our midst involves catching a glimpse of the balance that comes when we love each other and ourselves.

And we know that this kind of love is not just a love here on earth. It is a love that knows no boundaries. It is a love that crosses over to the other side—that crosses over into that other place in which we find God. Or rather, it isn’t a love that crosses over at all. It is instead a love that causes heaven to break through into our midst. It is a love that blurs whatever boundaries separate us from heaven. It is a love that causes heaven to exist, here, in our midst. And that is why we are called to love each other and ourselves.

And that is why, throughout scripture, we find a prohibition against things such as cursing. By cursing here, I don’t necessarily mean swearing or cussing. What is meant here is that we are told, again and again throughout scripture, that we should not curse anyone, because, as we’ve seen from our Gospel reading today, what we do matters. It matters here and it matters in heaven.

As a Christian, as someone with that power given to all of us by Jesus himself, if we curse someone, then that person is cursed. Our curse does fall on that person. And conversely, when people curse us, we too are cursed. We bear their curse. There is a reason why scripture is clear about this. There is a reason why we are told, again and again, not to curse, even when we’re angry. We should not allow curses into our lives, because curses are done out of anger and hatred, not out of love.

Our job as Christians is always, always, always to love. Love should always win out over cursing and hatred. If we love fully, as we are commanded to do by Jesus, we have no place for cursing and hatred.

So, because we, as Episcopalians, believe that Jesus founded the Church not just on the Rock of Peter, but on Peter’s confession of faith in Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, and because we believe that the power to bind and loose was not only given to the Pope, but to all of us who are Christians, we need to take stock of the words that come out of our mouths.

We need to take stock of the emotions we carry within our hearts. We need to let love always win out. We need to know that if we bind we must bind in love and if we loose we must loose also in love. And by doing so, what we do in love on earth, will be done in heaven in love.

So love fully. Love others and love yourself as Jesus commands us to love. And if we do, we will find the words Jesus said to Peter in that Gospel reading a few weeks ago coming true in us as well. The gates of Hades will not prevail against us as Church. The gates of every ugly, evil thing in this world—things such as the power of the other’s curses—will have no power over us. Rather, with a love like that in us and emanating from us, the powers of darkness and evil will fall flat before us.

So, love fully. And let that love that is bound in you be bound in heaven and let that love loosed in you be loosed in heaven. And by doing so, you will be bringing the Kingdom of God into our midst.



Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Celebration of the life of Lil Paul Brown

Lil Paul Brown

(March 16, 1961-August 27, 2011)
Boulger Funeral Home
Fargo
September 1, 2011

+ As some of you might not know, I am Lynn’s cousin. She and I actually never really knew each other until about a year ago. Last summer I contacted her because I was writing a book of about the infamous June 20, 1957 tornado that struck Fargo. That tornado took the life of Lynn’s parents, Don and Betty Titgen

That day that we met I think Lynn was a little apprehensive about having this priest in his funny dog collar and his black clothes suddenly kind of showing up. I don’t know if she knew what to think of me. But as we talked that day we really bonded. I think she realized that I was anyone’s typical priest.

So, when I heard about Lil Paul’s death, I felt terrible for Lynn. Although I never got to know Lil Paul, I really think I would’ve liked him. And I think, even despite my funny clothes, he would’ve liked me too.

In these last few days, as I planned this service with the family, I really felt myself bond with not only the family, but also with Lil Paul. And bonding with him, doesn’t make doing this service any easier for me. In fact, it actually complicates doing it. I have found myself getting very emotional about this man I never even met. But that’s a good thing, I think. I am of the belief that what separates us who are alive and breathing here on earth from those who are now in the so-called “nearer presence of God” is a thin one. And because of that belief, I take a certain comfort in the fact Lil Paul is close to us today. I think most of us can feel that presence with us this afternoon. He is here, in our midst, with us, celebrating this wonderful life of his with us.

I have heard a lot about Lil Paul in these last few days. I heard about what a truly good guy he was. This was the guy who, literally, gave the shirt of his back to someone in need. Or who gave the last dollar in his pocket for someone who needed it. And this man was a man full of love. He loved having a good time. He loved planning parties. And every one of his neighbors is never going to forget those Christmas displays, and those Christmas Vacation/Griswold light displays that would blind anyone within a mile radius. He loved his family. He loved his step dad. And he was a man who deeply loved the one love of his life, Lynn.

I really wish I could tell Lynn and everyone else here this afternoon some easy explanation of why. Why did this happen? The fact is: I can’t. But I can tell you this. I do know that love is stronger than death.

Love IS stronger than even death. Probably the one person here this morning who can give us the example to go ahead is Lynn. Because, let me tell you, Lynn knows a few things about heartache in her life.

Last year, when I met with her to talk about this book about the 1957 tornado, despite her initial apprehension of me, she really opened up to me. I hope I’m not revealing too much here, Lynn. But, Lynn shared a wonderful story about her parents. Although her father, Don, died in that awful tornado, her mother actually lingered on for another two and a half years in a coma, from which she never regained consciousness.

During that time, Lynn said, her mother did something whenever anyone would enter the room. Her mother’s eyelids would flutter anytime anyone entered the room. Lynn told me that day I met with her: “I know this is stupid to say, but I really believe that all that time she was in the coma, she was waiting for my dad to come in that door.”

Finally, in January 1960, Betty, after all that fighting, died. And Lynn said, “I think, at that moment, he finally did come through that door.”

For me, that story is a perfect example that yes, love is stronger than death. Love, as all of us know, is not some sweet, gentle emotion. It is something that comes charging into our lives and knocks everything flat. Lil Paul would tell us all that this afternoon. It certainly did in his life. I heard, again and again, about Lil Paul changed when Lynn came into his life. That’s what loves does. It changes us. It makes us different than who were before.

As I said, I don’t have any easy answers. I can’t make all of this pain go away. But I can say this: In this moment, Lil Paul is a place where love has triumphed. Love, that emotion that knocks everything flat, has knocked flat even death.

In our gospel reading for today, we find Jesus talking about the mansions prepared for us in his father’s home. I love that idea of mansions. And I am fully convinced that God has provided a mansion for Lil Paul. No, Lil Paul probably didn’t think he deserved a mansion. But he’s not really in any place to protest it right now. He’s got a mansion, whether he likes it or not.

Can you imagine what that place must be like? Can you imagine the party that he is busy preparing, working hard to get ready for right now in this moment? Can you imagine the joy and the happiness he must feeling right at this moment in that place?

The consolation we can take away from today is that, all of the hard times in Lil Paul’s life are over for him. All of that has passed away for him and he is now fully and completely himself. He is whole. Of course that doesn’t make any of this any easier for those who are left behind. Whenever anyone we love dies, we are going to feel pain. That’s just a part of life. Lil Paul knew that. This pain that we are feeling today, this sense of loss—all of this temporary. All of it will pass away eventually. And knowing this gets us through. This is where we find our strength—in our faith that promises us an end to our sorrows, to our loss. It is a faith that can tell us with a startling reality that every tear we shed—and we all shed our share of tears in this life, as Lil Paul would tell us—every tear will one day be dried and every heartache will disappear like a bad dream upon awakening.

All those rain showers that seemed to plague Lil Paul whenever he would go out for a ride, are over for him. The clouds have broken for good, and from now on it’s just sunshine and blue skies.

It is in a moment like this that I am thankful for the bond I formed with Lil Paul because even now I can feel him here with me. He’s reminding me that there’s something wonderful and amazing awaiting all of us. There’s a party that’s waiting for us to come to. All we have to do is say “yes” to the invitation.

So this afternoon and in the days to come, let us all take consolation in that faith that Lil Paul is beyond the pains and sorrows of this life. He is, in this moment, happy in a way he never was before. And he is there, preparing a party for us. Let us be glad that one day that all of us will be there with him, sharing in that party and joining him in that place of music and light and happiness without end.