Sunday, April 15, 2012

2 Easter

Low Sunday
April 15, 2012

John 20.19-31


+ I’m going to say something you don’t very often hear from a pulpit. Certainly not something you hear from a priest, of all people. But…I actually like atheists. I really do. I respect them. I respect their honesty. I respect their integrity. I respect their ability to question and explore areas of spirituality and theology and religion that we Christians sometimes are afraid to explore. And they ask and ponder questions we are sometimes afraid to ask.

Most Christians are afraid to ask some questions, are afraid to explore their doubts. And I think we are doing ourselves a major disservice by not exploring our own doubts. Because, we all need to be honest: we all doubt. Everyone in this church this morning has doubted at times. And the fact is, there is nothing wrong with doubting. In fact, it’s one of the healthiest things we can do as believers.

In this morning’s Gospel, we encounter doubt of course in the person of the apostle Thomas. Doubting Thomas, as we’ve come to know him, doubted that Jesus was resurrected until he had put his very fingers into the wounds of Jesus. It wasn’t enough that Jesus actually appeared to him in the flesh. Obviously, Jesus wasn’t a ghost or something after all. He stood there in the flesh—wounds and all. Only when he had placed his finger in the wounds, would he believe. I always liked this story and what it stands for.

In Rome, you can actually go and see what is believed to be St. Thomas’ incorrupt finger. This finger that touched Jesus in such a way is now supposedly preserved, in a glass case in the basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme. It actually doesn’t look much like a finger. It looks like a piece of bone, actually. But for over a thousand years people have believed that what it is.

I think it’s always interesting to hear this story of Doubting Thomas. Thomas, I think, is so much like us in many ways. We sometimes do need little bits of proof to make our faith meaningful. We sometimes need to touch the wounds of our own faith to actually believe. We sometimes need to proof just to get us through the difficult phases of our belief.

But, the fact is, we are not St. Thomas. For the rest of us, we don’t get it so easy. Our doubts are not as easily done away with. Jesus is probably not going to appear before us—in the flesh. And we are not going to have the opportunity to touch the wounds of Jesus. Let’s face it, to believe without seeing, is not easy. It takes work and discipline.

Look at us this morning. More likely than not, we can all think of at least one or two things we’d rather be doing this Sunday morning than being in church. But instead, we made the choice to come to church. We made a choice to come here this morning, and worship a God we cannot see, not touch.

A strong relationship with God takes work—just as any other relationship in our life takes work. It takes discipline. It takes concentrated effort. And with that, we cannot get around the fact there will be times of doubt. We will question. We will, however briefly, question God’s actions, God’s love for us. We might even question the actual existence of God at times.

It’s important to question. Questioning means we’re not robots. And doubting is not a bad thing in and of itself. Without some doubt, we would, again, be nothing more than unthinking and unquestioning robots. And that is not faith.

Faith is being able to weigh both the certainties and uncertainties and still make that step forward into the unknown and hope and believe that we will be sustained. Doing so is not the easiest road to take. It takes constant work to make that step into the unknown. Belief doesn’t—and shouldn’t—come easy. It takes constant discipline to believe in something we can’t see or touch. It takes constant discipline to believe that there is something out there that we cannot see or feel that will sustain us when we take that step forward.

In a sense, we are sometimes like blind people groping in the dark, trying to understand who and what God is in our lives. We make our guesses. We see God as we want to see God. We often form God into our image when we can’t do anything else. And when we can’t do any of that—or if we just get tired of all the human-made images of God that exists—we deny God. We say, there is no God.

Now, for Thomas, he saw. He touched. It was all made clear to him. But we don’t get that chance. We are often just groping about in the void, trying to make some sense of who this God is that we follow and love and worship.

“Blessed are those who believe but don’t see,” Jesus says this morning in our Gospel reading.

We are those blessed ones. We are the ones Jesus is speaking of in this morning’s Gospel. Blessed are we. We believe, but don’t see. We are the ones who are able to look up into the void, into the very depths, and, unable to see God with our eyes, we somehow still have faith. Seen or unseen, we know God is there. And our faith is not based on seeing God here. Because we have faith that one day, yes, we will see God.

We have this faith because the One we the follow—Jesus—showed us the way forward. He stepped out into that void and was held up. He still motions to us to come forward, to step into what we think is a void. Because Jesus did what he did, we know we too will be held up. And because he died and was resurrected, even though we might doubt it at times, even though it doesn’t make sense to our rational minds, we know—deeply—that this is what awaits us as well. And, on that glorious day, we will run to God and see God face to face. And in that moment, our faith will be fulfilled.

Blessed are you who believe but don’t see now. The Kingdom of Heaven is truly yours.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Easter Day

April 8, 2012

John 20.1-18


+ I know I am not going to elicit much sympathy from you—and I’m not actively searching for it. But these past days have been tiring ones.

Since Wednesday, St. Stephen’s has been a busy place. First of course, there was Tenebrae on Wednesday night, in which sang hymns and prayed psalms and heard scripture reading. It was lovely. Maundy Thursday followed the next night, with foot washing and the stripping of the altar, in which we commemorated Jesus’ Last Supper. We then had the Noon Good Friday liturgy. At that service, we heard the Gospel reading of Jesus’ betrayal, judgment, and beating, as well as his crucifixion. We also adored the cross and shared Holy Communion. It was a very moving service and many people who attended shared those same sentiments.

Then, later on Friday, we had the 3:00 Way of the Cross, in which we followed Jesus on his final journey from judgment to crucifixion.

The Holy Saturday morning service was yesterday morning. In that service we remembered how Jesus descended into hell and relieved the souls captive there.

And, then, last night it was the Easter Vigil, in which lit the Pascal Fire (which ended up being a bit more subdued than planned because there’s a fire ban in Fargo at the moment), processed the Candle and celebrated the first Easter Eucharist. Truly an incredible and beautiful service!

In the midst of all of that, there were of course times for private devotion, for the Daily Offices and time in front of the Blessed Sacrament on the Altar of Repose in the Children’s Chapel.

It was holy and it was exhausting. And yet, I find myself strangely exhilarated on this Easter morning.

I feel exhilarated because everything we did this week led to this. To this Day. To this Glorious Day. Today everything just seems to come together. This day is, by far, the most glorious day of our Christian year. This is the day when it all happens. This is the high point, the highlight. This is what it’s all about. This is what’s all about to be a Christian—to be a follower of Jesus.

Yes, we followed Jesus through his birth, through his childhood, through his baptism and ministry. We followed Jesus as he performed miracles and raised the dead and preached and proclaimed this seemingly elusive Kingdom of Heaven.

And this past week, we followed him through the exhausting journey of his last supper, his betrayal, his torture and his death. And we even followed him as he descended into hell.

But now, all that following of Jesus pays off. Now—today—is what it’s all about to be a Christian. Now is the pay-off.

Easter, for me anyway, is like that glorious vision we are given. Today is what heaven must be like. Today is what those who have gone before us must experience all the time. Today, all that darkness that we traveled through, all that uncertainty, all that doubt, all that pain and frustration, all that anger and depression, all those things we thought were so powerful are now seen for what they are—illusions. Today, we see that the Light that has dawned upon us this glorious Morning has driven away those shadows and has shown us only this wonderful, holy moment.

The tomb is empty. Death is not what we thought it was. Jesus, the one we have been following, the one we have doubted at times, the one we have betrayed and turned away from and been embarrassed by—the one we thought was dead—is alive. He is alive, and because he is, we know that, even though we too will die, we too will live.

What I love about all of this is that there are no pat answers to the big questions in this moment. Everything we once used to gauge a situation to be true has been thrown out the door. Instead, what we have is just this one moment. This one glorious moment, filled with light and life and promise and hope. And joy.

Following Jesus means following him through those miserable, hard dark times.

But it also means following him to this moment. This is the pay-off.

Yes, we might be tired. Yes we might be exhausted from the gauntlet of life that we have been through. But somehow, in this moment, in this mystery we are celebrating today, it’s all made right. And that is what Easter is all about. It is about renewal. It is about life not in the midst of death, but life that destroys death.

I can tell you that I am very grateful that I am follower of Jesus. I know. It’s easy to say that right now in this moment. But I am even grateful for following Jesus through all that we have been through liturgically with him these last few days. Because in so many ways, this is what our own lives are like as well. We do have those moments of darkness and we have those moments of light. We have those moments in which we feel as though we might actually be able to touch death. And we have those moments in which life seems to incredible and wonderful that we almost can’t believe it.

Following Jesus is very much like going through the valleys and mountains of our own lives. Now, in this moment, we are celebrating the victory. We are celebrating the victory over every bad thing that has happened. We are celebrating the victory of light over darkness. We are celebrating the victory of life over death.

I know that it all almost seems too good to be true. But it is true. And we know it’s true because the One we follow has shown the way for us.

So, let us celebrate today. Let our shouts of Alleluia be true shouts not only of joy, but of victory. Let our hearts ring out as our voices do this day. And let us continue to follow Jesus into that glorious Easter Light.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Holy Saturday

April 7, 2012

Matthew 27.57-66

+ I seem to say this every year on Holy Saturday morning. I LOVE this service. I love its simplicity. I love its solemnity.  I love this time to gather and just be quiet. I love the fact that, after all that we’ve been through liturgically in these last few days and all that we will still go through liturgically in the next day, here we are.

Here we are in a church stripped of everything symbolic. The cross hangs before us, veiled in black. The altar is stripped. The aumbry, that held just a few days ago the Body and Blood of Jesus, is now empty, its door wide open.  The sanctuary light, which gently reminds us of the holy Presence of Jesus in that Bread and Wine, is extinguished and has been taken away.

For those of us who delight in the Presence of God—who strive and long for the Presence of God—who find our purpose and meaning in the Presence of God—today is a bleak day. That Presence seems…gone. Or, at least, hidden from us.

For now, in this moment, on this Holy Saturday morning, time seems to sort of stand still. We are caught in this breathless moment—between the excruciating death of Jesus on the cross yesterday and the glorious Light that is about dawn on us tonight and tomorrow morning.  For now—in this moment—we are here.

And Jesus… Where is Jesus. We imagine his body lying there in the dark stillness of the tomb, wrapped and broken and bloodied.

But where is Jesus?

One of the reason I love this service is because it gives me that opportunity to speak about one of my favorite Christian subjects—the so-called “Harrowing of Hell.  The Harrowing of Hell is that wonderful concept in which we ponder Jesus’ descent  to hell to bring back those captured there. For me, it so packed full of meaning.

Hell. That place we thought was the end all of end-all’s.  That place that we dread and fear and cringe from. That place in which lies every one of our greatest nightmares and the most horrendous things we could even possibly imagine.  That black, bleak, miserable place. What I love about today and this Harrowing of Hell is that the fear of this place is broken.  The fear that there is a place in which God’s love and light might not be able to descend is broken open. Jesus goes even there in search of us, those he loves. 

Now, this imagine carries over into our own immediately lives. Hell, for us, is not necessarily that metaphysical place of eternal punishment. Hell is right here, in our own lives. In our own minds. In our own day-to-day lives. We all know what our own hells are and how isolating they can be. We know how impenetrable they seem.

What today shows us that there is no such things as an impenetrable hell. At least not for Jesus. No matter how dark, how terrible our hells might be, Jesus will come for us there. Jesus will descend to us, wherever we might be. And from that place, he will take us by the hand and pull us out.  Because that is what Christ’s love is able to do.

Nothing can separate us from that love of Christ. Not even the deepest hell. It is incredible when we think of that.  And, for me anyway, it fills me with such hope, such joy, such love for Christ that even the bleakness of this morning doesn’t seem so bleak.

Oh yes, Jesus has died.  He truly died—he truly tasted death and partook of it fully. And we too must die as well. We too will taste death and partake in it fully.  But the fact is that, not even death can separate us from Christ.

That place wherein we find ourselves, lost, lifeless, without hope, is the place in which we cannot escape Christ. In the hells of our lives, even there Jesus comes to us. In those places in which we seem so far separated from God, from the love that God gives us, from the light God shines upon us, even there Jesus will come to us. No matter how far separated we might seem from Jesus, Jesus will cover that great distance and come to us. Even there. Even there he will find us and take us to himself. Even there, he will even die, like us, to bring us back to a life that will never end.

 That is what Holy Saturday is all about and that is certainly why I love this day.

 So, on this Holy Saturday, when all seems bleak and lost and without purpose, let us remember: Jesus is at work even in those moments when we think he might not be. The Presence of God is with us even when it seems furthest from us.  In the darkest moments of our lives, the bright dawn is about to break. Let us wait patiently and breathlessly for it.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Jamie Parsley at NDSU Author's Series

Come to the NDSU Main Library classroom on Tuesday April 10th at 2:00 p.m. to hear ND author Jamie Parsley, Associate Poet Laureate of North Dakota , talk about his book Fargo, 1957. His book is described as an elegiac chronicle of the tornado that struck Fargo in 1957. It is a story of loss, poetry, pain, faith and, ultimately renewal, and gives voice to those victims who before now were unable to speak for themselves.


Copies of this book will be available for purchase after the talk.

This event is free and open to the public. Refreshments will be served.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Palm Sunday

April 1, 2012

Mark 15.1-39

+ If you’re anything like me, you might be finding yourself taking a deep breath before this week starts. This is one of THOSE weeks. There is A LOT going on and, at times, it seems almost overwhelming. But, that’s just the way life works sometimes.

We, as follower of Jesus, now have to follow him through some unpleasant places. We are forced to follow him through the horrendous torture and through a brutal murder. None of us want to do this. We want our sunny, friendly Jesus. We’ll even take our scolding Jesus. We do not want this tortured, beaten, bleeding Jesus. But that’s what it means to follow Jesus. It means that what we are about to embark on is a very personal journey.

Yes, we might relate to the crowd who cry, “Crucify him!” Yes, we might relate to Peter in his denial or even Judas in his betrayal. Or we might to relate to the women who followed Jesus or to Jesus’ mother who must watch the torture and murder of her child.

But, the one we really relate to is the one we follow. Why shouldn’t we? When we hear this Gospel—this very disturbing reading—how can we not feel what he felt? How can we sit here passively and not react in some way to this violence done to him? How can we sit here and not feel, in some small way, the betrayal, the pain, the suffering?

After all, none of us in this church this morning, has been able to get to this point unscathed in some way. We all carry our own passions—our own crucifixions—with us. We bear, in our own selves, our own wounds.

Oftentimes those wounds we carry with us—those memories and pains we lug around—cripple us. They cause us to bleed at a moment’s notice. For every pain, for every betrayal, for every emotional or verbal or physical pain we carry with us, we are able to relate to what Jesus went through. And he, in turn, is able to relate to us as well—here in our pain. Because every time we suffered and continue to suffer, Jesus does too.

If we believe that Jesus is not still suffering in us and among us then we are deceiving ourselves. If we believe that Jesus is not still suffering the insults, the whippings, and is being murdered in our world then we are blinding ourselves. If we believe that Jesus is not still being denied proper burial and is dependent on the kindness of others to bury him, then we are have not been paying attention.

The Gospel story we heard this morning is our story in a sense. It is our story because we are followers of Jesus and because we follow him, it becomes our story too. Every time we hear the story of Jesus’ torture and death and can relate to it, every time we can hear that story and feel what Jesus felt because we too have been maligned, betrayed, insulted, spat upon, then we too are sharing in the story. Every time we hear about people turned away, betrayed, deceived, and we can feel their pain in some small way, we are sharing in Christ’s passion. When we can feel the wounds we carry around with us begin to bleed again when we hear the story of Jesus’ death, we too are sharing in his death, again and again.

But the greatest part about sharing in this story of Jesus is that we get to share in the whole story. Look what awaits us next Sunday. These sufferings we read about today and in our own lives, are ultimately temporary. But what we celebrate next Sunday is forever—it is unending. Easter morning awaits us all—that day in which we will rise from the ashes of this life and live anew in that unending dawn.

One of my favorite quotes is by one my spiritual heroes, the priest and poet George Herbert: He wrote, “Jesus dries our tears with his abandoned grave clothes.”

Our tears are dried and our pains are healed in the glorious light of Easter morning. This is our hope. This is what we are striving toward in case we might forget that fact. Our following of Jesus means following him even to that point—to the Easter light that is about to dawn into our lives. Our own Easter morning awaits us.

So, as difficult as it might be to hear this morning’s gospel, just remember that in the darkness of Good Friday, the dawn of Easter morning is about to break. With it, the wounds disappear. The pains and the sufferings are forgotten. The tears are dried for good. The grave lies empty behind us. And before us lies life. Before us lies a life triumphant and glorious in ways we can only—here and now—just barely begin to comprehend.