Sunday, February 26, 2012

1 Lent

February 26, 2012

Genesis 9.8-17; 1 Peter 3.18-22; Mark 1.9-15

+ So….did you miss me while I was on vacation? I hope so. Because, of course, I missed all of you. Of course, it does feel a bit strange to come back from vacation and, all of sudden, be confronted with the Season of Lent. But, here we are. The First Sunday in Lent. And no doubt you were all were prepared to come to church this morning, through all the threats of winter storms and blizzards, and hear gloom and doom in our scripture readings for today.

Ah, but not so. Instead, we get… water? We get Noah and the ark? And baptism? Now, this is my way to begin Lent!

We begin Lent as we begin any important step as Christians—with solid footing in our baptismal understanding. We begin Lent with a remembrance of our baptismal covenant—that covenant that we formed with God at our baptisms—a covenant that is still binding on us, even now. This covenant is a covenant very much like the covenant God made with Noah after the waters of the flood that we hear about in our reading from Genesis. I wasn’t expecting to do it, but here we are on this first Sunday of Lent, and I am preaching about, of all things, baptism.

As if that wasn’t enough, we also get another special treat. In our Gospel reading, we get, in a very brief scripture, an upheaval.

What? You missed the upheaval in our Gospel reading? You missed the reversal? You missed, in that deceptively simple piece of scripture, a mirror image? It’s easy to miss, after all. Our Gospel reading is so simple, so sparse. But then again, so is haiku. But let’s look a little closer at what we’ve just heard and read.

In today’s Gospel, we find three elements that remind us of something else. We find the devil. We find animals. And we find angels. Where else in scripture do we find these same elements? Well, we find them all in the Creation story in Genesis, of course. The story of Adam is a story of what? --the devil, of animals and of angels. But that story ends with the devil’s triumph and Adam’s defeat.

In today’s Gospel, it has all been made strangely right. Jesus—the new Adam—has turned the tables using the exact same elements. We find Jesus not in a lush beautiful place like Eden. Rather we find Jesus with wild animals in the desert—animals who were created by God and named by Adam. We find him there waited on by the angels—and let’s not forget that turned Adam away from Eden. And there, in that place, he defeats the Devil—the same Devil who defeated Adam.

I have found this juxtaposition between Adam and Jesus to be a rich source of personal meditation, because it really is very meaningful to us who follow Jesus. If we lived with the story of Adam, if we lived in the shadow of his defeat, the story a somewhat bleak one. There doesn’t seem to be much hope. The relationship ruined with Adam hasn’t been made right. But today we find that the relationship has been right. The story isn’t a story of defeat after all. It isn’t a time to despair, but to rejoice. The Devil has been defeated. And this is very important.

We, in our baptisms, also defeat the Devil. Now, by the Devil, I am not necessarily talking about a supernatural being who rules the underworld. I’m not talking about the horns, forked tail and pitchfork. By Devil I mean the personification of all that we hold evil.

In our baptisms, we renounce all the evil of this world and the next, and by renouncing evil, we are assured that it can be defeated. By renouncing the devil and all the evils of this world, we turn away from the evil inherent within us—the evil that was set upon us from the beginning—from Adam’s being turned away at Eden. Our baptism marks us and in that mark we find the strength to stand up against evil. This time of Lent—this time for us in the desert, this time of fasting and mortification—is a time for us to confront the demons in our lives. We all have them.

In our wonderful collect for today, we prayed to God to “come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations.”

The poet that I am, I love the tradition language of Rite I better here.

“Make speed to help thy servants who are assaulted by manifold temptations.”

We all understand that term “manifold temptations.” We all have those triggers in our lives that disrupt and cause upheaval. Sometimes this upheaval is mental and emotional, sometimes it is actual. We have our own demons, no matter what name we might call them.

I certainly have my own demons in my life and sometimes I am shocked by the way they come upon me. I am amazed by how they lay me low and turn my life upside down. They represent for me everything dark and evil and wrong in my life and in the world around me. They are sometimes memories of wrongs done to me, or wrongs I’ve done to others. Sometimes they are the shortcomings of my own life—of being painfully reminded of the fact that I have failed and failed miserably at times in my life. They are reminders to me that this world is still a world of darkness at times—a world in which people and nature can hurt and harm and destroy. And their power and influence over my life is, I admit, somewhat strong.

Trying to break the power of our demons sometimes involves going off into the deserts of our lives, breaking ourselves bodily and spiritually and, armed with those spiritual tools we need, confronting and defeating those powers that make us less than who we are.

For me, I do find consolation when I am confronted by the demons of my life in that covenant I have with God in my baptism. I am reminded by that covenant that there is no reason to despair when these demons come into our lives, because the demons, essentially, are illusions. They are ghosts. They are wispy fragments of my memory. They have no real power over me despite what they make think sometimes. Because the demons have been defeated by God.

Again, returning to our collect for today, we prayed, “as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save.”

God has been “might to save” us. The demons of our lives have been defeated by our Baptismal Covenant and the waters of those baptismal waters. The real power they have over my life has been washed away in those waters, much as all evilness was washed away in the flood in Noah’s time.

So, as we wander about in the spiritual desert of Lent, let us truly be driven. Let the Spirit drive us into that place—to that place wherein we confront the demons of our lives. But let us do so unafraid. The Spirit is the driving force and, knowing that, we are strengthened. Let us be driven into that place. Let us confront our demons. Let us confront the very Devil himself. Let us face the manifold temptations of our lives unafraid, knowing full well that God is “mighty to save.” And in confronting evil and temptation, let us, with Jesus, defeat those demons.

Strengthened by our Baptismal Covenant let us then be able to return from this place, proclaiming loudly, by our words, and by our actions,

“The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe in the good news.”

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ash Wednesday

February 22, 2012
St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, Fargo

Matthew 6.1-6,16-21

+ I just got back from vacation last week. Now, I don’t mean to rub it in, but I spent a wonderful week and half in Florida, enjoying the sun, the ocean and some wonderfully warm temperatures. Of course, you can’t tell by looking at me. I’m Scottish, after all—I just don’t tan. Not even a little. But I can tell you, it’s a strange feeling coming back from vacation—from not thinking about “church things” for about two weeks and then suddenly shifting gears and having to deal with Ash Wednesday.

Ash Wednesday and Lent are definitely things we need to gear up for, just as Lent is a way for us to prepare ourselves for Easter. We need to prepare ourselves a bit for the momentous occasions in our lives as liturgical Christians.

What we are gathering together for this evening is a sobering event. To have ashes smeared on our foreheads and to hear those words, “You are dust and to dust you shall return” are hard words to hear.

This day is telling us, in no uncertain terms, that everyone gathered here this evening is going to quit breathing one day and will die. I’m sorry to be so morbid about this. And I’m sorry I’m the one that has to tell you this sad news. But, it is a fact. We are all, one day, going to die. There’s no getting around that.

And these bodies we have with us this evening will one day either be buried in the ground or burned to ashes by fire. Or maybe one or two of you are going to be cryogenically frozen. Good luck on the waste of that money…

One way or the other, these bodies we have—this flesh and bones we carry around with us—will one day crumble away and turn to dust and ash. I know it’s not pleasant. I know it’s difficult to look at the hands on our laps at this moment and realize that they will turn to dust and that these bodies fail us.

For me, I realized all of this very early on. Yesterday I celebrated a very momentous day in my life. I celebrated 10 years of being cancer free. It’s an amazing event to be able to say those words.

But, let me tell you, back then, I faced the reality of my mortality. I realized, back then, that I was being touched by something that could very easily have killed me. And there were moments when I found myself examining everything aspect of my life. I thought about how I had failed. I thought about how I had failed my parents, my friends, my siblings, my self and my God. And I realized how far short I had fallen in my life. It was sobering.

And it was even more sobering when, in the midst of all of that, I had to think about things like my funeral. I made my funeral instructions, for example, and thought about things like wanting to be cremated and having my ashes buried in the family plot in Maple Sheyenne Lutheran Cemetery.

For us, this Wednesday evening is a similar experience. Tonight, we too are hearing, in our liturgy, that we are going to die. We are reminded that, despite the fact that we think so much depends upon us, in reality, we realize we are dust and to dust we all shall return. This is what Ash Wednesday is really about.

Benedictine Sister Joan Chittester, in her wonderful book from The Ancient Practices series, The Liturgical Year, says this about Ash Wednesday:

“Ash Wednesday, an echo of the Hebrew Testament’s ancient call to sackcloth and ashes, is a continuing cry across the centuries that life is transient, that change is urgent. We don’t have enough time to waste time on nothingness. We need to repent our dillydallying on the road to God. We need to regret the time we’ve spent playing with dangerous distractions and empty diversions along the way. We need to repent of our senseless excesses and our excursions into sin, our breeches of justice, our failures of honesty, our estrangement from God, our savoring of excess, our absorbing self-gratifications, one infantile addiction, one creature craving after another. . .”

Ash Wednesday, then, is a time for us to realize our time is limited. We don’t have an excess surpluss of time. If we are going to do good in this life, we need to do it now.

And we really do not have the option of wasting time doing wrong. Doing wrong robs us of that precious time we have left to us. Ash Wednesday and Lent are not times for us to beat ourselves up unmercifully, as so many Christians believe. It more than just giving up some things we might like—like candy or caffienated drinks.

It is rather a time for us to remind ourselves that it is not all about any one of us. Because we all fall into that dangerous cycle. We easily fall into that delusion of beleiving the universe revolves around the all-mighty ME. The fact is, it doesn’t. It’s not all about me, or you, or any one of us. We are, after all, dust. And we will, one day, return to dust.

But this is not something to despair over. It is not something to become depressed over. Rather, it should be something that motivates us. It should be something that makes us sit up and go out and do some good in this world in the time we have.

Jesus, in tonight’s Gospel, tell us, “Do not store up for yoruselves treasures on arth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.”

We store up our treasures in heaven by doing whatever good things we can do in this time we have left to us. We store up treasures for ourselves when we recognize and live our lives knowing full well that the time we have is precious time. It is sacred time. It is time given to us by God to do something good and meaningful with. We don’t have the option anymore of wasting time. It is time now to go serve God and each other in love.

And when we do, it does not matter that we are dust. It is not matter that we will die. Because, as Jesus shows us again and again, what seems to be laid low—what seems to be only dust and ashes—can be raised up.

This is what it means to be a Christian. This is what means to be a follower of Jesus. We don’t have to be perfect. We can’t be perfect. But we can do much good even in our imperfect state.

Sister Joan goes on to say in her book, The Liturgical Year:

“Ash Wednesday confronts us with what we have become and prods us to do better. Indeed, Lent, we learn on Ash Wednesday, is not about abnegation, about denying ourselves for the sake of denying ourselves. It is about much more than that. It about opening our hearts one more time to the Word of God in the hope that, this time, hearing it anew, we might allow ourselves to become new as a result of it. It is the call to prayer, to liturgy, to the cocreation of the world. It about our rising to the full stature of human reflection and, as a result, accepting the challenge to become fully alive, fully human rather than simply, grossly, abysmally, self-centered human.”

I love that whole concept of how Lent helps to accept the challenge to become “fully alive…” We know that sometimes the only time we realize we are fully alive is when we are confronted with the fact that we are mortal and will one day die. Well, tonight, confronted with the fact that we are mortal—that we are dust—we realize as well that we are also, right now, right here, fully alive.

So, let us live fully during this holy season of Lent. Let us open our hearts during this season to the Word of God, speaking to each of us, so that we might become new as a result of it. And let us love and serve God and each other fully and comepletey as we are called to do.

This Lent can be a time for us to blossom, to grow, to flourish. We are dust and we will return to dust. But, as we will realize in the next several weeks, somehow, life—glorious, reusrrected life—can be born even from the dust.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

20th Anniversary of PAPER DOVES, FALLING

Celebrating the 20th anniversary this month of the publication of my first book of poems, Paper Doves, Falling and Other Poems


PINK FEBRUARY

February has always been as pink
As a part and just as straight.
Pink has always been the snow

That seems, in its holy way,
To be pumped full of the somewhat
Sanctified auricle blood of

Saint Valentine who rules the month,
Headless and heartless, hurling
Cupids and cold to the wind.

Only the pulsing wounds of demise
Throb with any sort of love, albeit
A crooked love of curly-cues

And cruelty. Even the sky above
February’s heart-shaped face
Is cold, hard and depthless as

A dime. Streaked with strain
And crosses with the black birthmark
Of Lent, February grins on like a

Sarcastic growth of the sun. The month
As a whole, rolls in the blessed warmth
Of its own euthanasia of morals and mid,

Letting its gutters drop gray rain and
Snow like lead. Cupping its curling
Womb of frost, February loosens

Its white heat and
Cries for January,
Its lover, long dead.


Copyright © 1992 by Jamie Parsley

Sunday, February 5, 2012

5 Epiphany

February 5, 2012

Mark 1:29-39

+ You know that I am not one of those people who likes to rub things in. Right? Still…in case you might not have heard me at any point, I am leaving for Florida. Now, before you think that I am an arrogant, full-of-myself priest, just remember a phrase I often use.

For any of you who know me for any period of time, you will often hear me say this MANY times. The phrase is: “The chickens always come home to roost.”

And I know that I need to be very careful about boasting too much about leaving these cold, snowy lands for more tropical environments. Because, as you might know, every year I got to Florida, I end up getting the flu or, at least, a very bad cold. See…the chickens always come home to roost.

Of course, I’m fighting it this year. I doing everything I can to fight the flu. I had my flu shot. I’m eating right. I’m eating lots of fruit. I’m getting as much sleep as I can.

Still, for me, at least before I started getting the flu shot a couple of years ago, the flu hit me like a ton of bricks. I would get not only sick, but I would get horrible fevers. And, for anyone who has had a fever, I don’t need to tell you: fevers are horrible. There are moments when I am in the midst of a terrible fever when I can actually understand why people died of think like Spanish Flu Epidemic of 1918. I will lay there and just pray for God to come and take me away.

It just so happens that we encounter a fever in our Gospel reading for today. Simons’s mother-in-law was suffering with a severe fever—certainly a fever that caused everyone in her life to worry. Fevers, as we just established, are ugly, awful things. And for those of us who have suffered through fevers and illnesses, we can easily imagine what Simon’s poor mother-in-law dealt with in her illness.

I can tell you that, from my perspective anyway, givers are one of the most miserable things I have had to endure. The fever days were lost days for me. I just sort ended up shutting down when dealing with the flu and I often would find myself in a state in which I didn’t “think” anymore. I made feeble attempts at prayer—prayer beyond that simple prayer that I could just die—but for the most part, I simply just turned everything off and tried to escape into a self-protective cocoon of nothingness.

The worse part of the fever for me was that I couldn’t remember even what it felt like to be well, nor could I imagine what it would feel like to ever be well again. The fever encompassed me just that fully. It essentially took complete control of my life for that time I was sick.

Now, in our day and age, fevers are, for the most part, pretty mild things. We get them and we get over them. But in the days of Jesus, fevers were dangerous. They often led to death. So, you can imagine that Simon Peter and his family were worried about this woman. And what Jesus does for is what no one else could do for her at that time.

Of course, I think it is important that we look at the larger picture of what we are dealing with in today’s Gospel reading. Sometimes the fevers of our lives aren’t fevers in the traditional sense. Often the fevers of our lives are sometimes more than just physical illness. Sometimes the fevers in our lives are actually more like things like depression and addiction and anything else that completely encompasses our lives.

One of my favorite poets is Anne Sexton. Sexton was a brilliant. She was a middle-class housewife in Boston in the 1950s who all of a sudden started writing poetry as a way of dealing with her often manic depressive states. She did pretty well writing her poetry. Within a few years she had published a couple of books and garnered herself a Pulitzer Prize for poetry. But, Sexton suffered with severe depression throughout most of her adult life. And in October, 1974, she actually committed suicide as the ultimate way of finally dealing with her unrelenting depression. .

In her poems that word “fever” kept surfacing again and again. For her, her depression was very much an all-encompassing, unrelenting fever from which she felt she could not escape. For anyone who has suffered with depression, one finds a certain “shutting off” as well. Often times this “shutting off” is a survival tactic—sometimes the only way one can navigate through the encroaching fogs of depression or illness or what have you without resorting to absolute despair.

Fever is a terrible thing—whether it be a physical, mental or emotional fever. It shuts us down and puts us in a place that can be frightening. But…when fevers lift, we find ourselves almost….jubilant. We find ourselves refreshed and renewed. We, for that one moment, maybe understand fully what resurrection might really be.

In our Gospel reading, that single touch from Jesus allowed that fever to lift from Simon’s mother-in-law in her agony. And when she rose up from her bed, she did the only thing she no doubt could do to show her gratitude: She served Jesus.

The fevers in our lives will come upon us in many ways. And they come, they will dominate us. They will shut us off and they will make us think that nothing else exists or will ever exists except the fever.

But when Jesus comes to us in our illness, we find that his touch does, in fact heal. That touch is able to lift the fever from us. And when it does, we find that darkness replaced with light and joy and gladness.

There will be fevers in various forms in our lives. There will be times when we will be forced to “shut down,” to numb ourselves because of the intensity of things that happen in our lives. But Christ shows us thought those dark, feverish moments.

Today, of course, we are celebrating the baptism of Julia Breth. It is a glorious day today. Every time we celebrate a baptism it is, of course, a glorious day. But, today, is especially glorious.

Now, I have known both Janie and Adam for a pretty good period of time. I married them. I knew them for years before that. And I know that they know a few things, this morning, about rejuvenation and resurrection.

These past few years, waiting for this gorgeous little girl to come into their lives, have not been easy. There were some numbingly difficult moments. There were times when this day seemed to be a fantasy—something that might not actually be. There were moments when it seemed, no doubt, like the fevers of this life were encroaching and there might never be a healthy, clear-headed moment ever again.

But, then, that cool, healing hand came into their lives and cleared those foggy moments way. And now, we are here. We are celebrating the new birth of Julia Breth today. We are celebrating her baptism and we are marking her as Christ’s own for all eternity. I can tell you, as someone who walked with Janie and Adam through some pretty dark days, this day seems particularly glorious.

For those of us who have been through the “fevers” of this life, we know one very important fact: we can never let those fevers win out. We must not let the fires of those fevers consume us and turn us to ashes.

Rather, we should, when their fires rage, turn in our illness and despair to that healing hand which draws close to us in that fevered moment. That cool hand, when it touches us, drives the fires of our fevers away from us and replaces that fever with a sense of joy and renewal and wonderful life.

So, let us, with a feeling of joy and renewal, rise up from our sick beds and let us serve Christ. Let each of us get up and go out into the world renewed and rejuvenated so that we can proclaim the message to whomever will listen. And, now, let us do so by joining with sweet Julia as she is baptized.

And let us now remember our own baptismal vows.