Sunday, March 31, 2013

Easter

March 31, 2013

+ In the last seven days, here at St. Stephen’s, we have had ten services. And tomorrow evening, we’ll have one more—the funeral  Eucharist for Sarah Jacobson. We call that a liturgical gauntlet. And it’s very true. I’m sure, James, our organist, can agree wholeheartedly.
 

One person on Facebook this past week said, “...st. stephen's probably has a busier holy week schedule this year than the national cathedral in d.c. or st. john the divine in new york. just sayin'.  


I think we might have.  


And one of the parishioners from St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, who joined us for Holy Week services this year, said to Pastor Mark Strobel,

 
“So, is Fr. Jamie is seeking Episcopal sainthood with all these services they’re doing at St. Stephen’s?”
 

No…I am not seeking Episcopal sainthood. Though, that would be nice. (Though I wonder what I be the patron saint of, if I were)


The reason we do what we do—the reason we go through this during Holy Week—isn’t because we’re gluttons for punishment, or we want to show off, or we want to be liturgically fancy. We do this because that’s what we do as Christians and Episcopalians. We worship.  We do this during Holy Week because in the services we do during Holy Week, we experience a true emotional roller coaster. We hit very deep emotional lows—with the betrayal and death of Jesus. And we hit the emotional highs.


This morning—Easter morning—we are at the GREATEST emotional high. This morning is why we are Christians. This is why we follow Jesus. Yes, I know that what we are celebrating today seems almost too incredible to be true.  We are faced with something just as difficult to believe in sometimes as God is sometimes difficult to believe in.  We are faced with a mystery that is just as difficult to wrap our minds around as the mystery of God.

 
I am, of course, speaking the Resurrection. I am speaking of that moment—that moment when everything changed—when Jesus, broken and battered and murdered, rose up from the tomb.  
 

The Jesus who appears to us on this Easter morning is not a ghost. He is not a figment of our imagination. He is not an illusion. And this story isn’t a fairy tale.


Every so often, someone will come up to me and ask that age-old question: “Do you really believe in the Resurrection? Do really you believe that Jesus rose again from the grave?”


And my answer is always this: “Why not?”
 

Why couldn’t God do this? And if we look long and hard at what happened on that Easter morning, we realize that what happened there was more than some vague experience for some ancient people.
 

What happened on that morning changed everything. Everything since that point has been broken open for us. Our fear of death and dying is gone. Because now we know that what we once held to be a mystery, is no longer a mystery.
 

What happens to us when we die? We know now, because Someone—Someone we know and love—has been there already. Someone has gone there and by going there has defeated death. What seemed to be the end—the bleak and horrible end on that previous Friday afternoon—has been broken apart. And what we are faced with is life. Life that never ends.
 

Now, when people ask me if I believe in the Resurrection, I say that I do, but I usually leave it there. Anything beyond my belief that it happened—and that it will happen for us—is beyond me. I don’t understand it fully. I still find bits and pieces of it being revealed to me. I find on bad days or skeptical days that I’m, not certain I believe in it. And to be brutally honest, the idea of unending life doesn’t always appeal to me.


But what I have discovered is that, mostly, I find one deep, strong emotion coming forth in me when I ponder the Resurrection. And that emotion is: joy.


In our Gospel reading for today, we find joy. Joy comes to the women at the tomb when they realizes that it is Jesus, resurrected, standing before them. We can almost feel that joy emanating from them as they proclaim this to the others.


Joy is an emotion we seem to overlook. We think, maybe of joy as some kind of warm, fuzzy feeling. But joy is more than just feeling warm and fuzzy. Joy is a confident emotion. It is an emotion we can’t manufacture. We can’t make joy happen within us. Joy comes to us and comes upon us and bubbles up within us. Joy happens when everything comes together and we know that all is good.

 
This morning we are feeling joy over the Resurrection—over the fact that today we celebrate the destruction of everlasting death. We also celebrate today the joy of new life. And we are joyful over a life renewed in baptism.


Today little Oscar is going to be baptized.  This morning he too will be washed in the waters of baptism. In his baptism, on this wonderful day, we get to see a glimpse of that glorious life that waits all of us.


Baptism is a way of saying “yes” to the glory that awaits us.  Baptism is a way of saying “yes” to the Resurrection. Baptism is a way of saying “yes” and affirming this joy that we have within us on this morning.


Those of us who have already been baptized get to share in this joy too, when we renew our own baptismal vows and, maybe, for a moment, ponder and think about our own baptisms and all that it has been given us in our baptisms, whether we are fully aware of it or not. This is what Easter is all about.  And I guess that’s maybe why Easter is, by far, my favorite feast day in the Church Year.


And if anyone asks me what I love most about being a Christians, I almost always answer: Easter! By Easter, I don’t mean bunnies and Easter eggs.  I don’t mean that I particular care for any of those fluffy, bright things we celebrate on this day, though I do think it’s sweet. What I talk about when I talk about Easter is that fact that today is truly the embodiment of the joy we should all feel as Christians.  

Today is a day of joy.   Today, we are all filled with joy at the resurrection and our baptism into that resurrection. This is a joy that sustains us and lifts us up when we need lifting up. It is a joy that causes us to see what others cannot see. We don’t need to see God out there—floating around like one of us. God dwells with us. God dwells within us. And to see God, all we have to do is look around and see God in the faces of those around us.

 
God is here with us, this morning. God is dwelling with us.  And, in this Easter light nothing seems like we thought it was.


Christ is not only what his followers thought he was, but much more. He wasn’t defeated. In fact, even despite his betrayal, his torture, his murder, he arose, the ultimate victor.  He arose, and by his rising, he destroyed everything we feared the most. By rising, he destroyed death. By rising, he destroyed our fears of an uncertain future.  By rising, he brought victory to all of our defeats and failures.

 
See, there is a reason for joy on this Easter morning. In fact, it is joy that dwells with us and among us as we gather here.

So, on this Easter morning, don’t let this joy we feel at this moment be a fleeting emotion. Rather, let it live in us and grow in us. Let it provoke us and motivate us. Let it flow forth from us. And when we live into this joy—when we let this joy fully consume us—every day with be Easter day to us.  Every day will be a day of resurrection. Every day will be a day of renewed life.

Alleluia! Christ is risen.
The Lord is risen indeed!
Alleluia!

 

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Fr. Jamie's Easter letter

Easter, 2013

“Rise heart; thy Lord is risen.”
                  —George Herbert

Greetings St. Stephen’s family!

Anyone who knows me knows this: Easter is, by far, my favorite Season in the Church Year. I love it not only for the Paschal Mystery we celebrate and contemplate; I love it as well because of its promise of renewal and rebirth.

We, at St. Stephen’s, understand fully what renewal and rebirth are. We are currently in the midst of this new life. And we know how wonderful and truly miraculous it can be at times.

During this Easter Season I would like to extend to you my blessings and deepest gratitude. St. Stephen’s has become a place and community in which I am finding myself rejoicing and giving thanks on a daily basis. Truly I have seen here in church community, the miracle of renewal and rebirth every Sunday and oftentimes every day.

So, please do celebrate the Paschal Mystery of Christ’s victory over death, as well as all the ways in which we have experienced rebirth and renewal in our lives by worshipping at St. Stephen’s this Easter Season.

And again, please know of my deepest gratitude and joy in being able to serve alongside you at St. Stephen’s.  


Peace,

 Fr. Jamie Parsley
Priest-in-Charge

Holy Saturday

March 30, 2013

Matthew 27.57-66

+This morning, I brought a guest. He comes all the way from Japan. I love this guest. He’s just so sweet and nice.


I brought this statue of Jizo. Now, I love Jizo. If you know nothing about Jizo, that’s understandable. But to understand my relationship with Jizo, I want to share a little story.


As you might know, for an important part of my life, I considered myself a pretty committed Zen Buddhist. It wasn’t that I had given up Christianity or Jesus or anything like that, during this time. Spiritually, though—and probably more correctly, philosophically, it was a good time. I enjoyed my experience with Zen. And I still love and appreciate Zen Buddhism.  And, I can say in all honesty, that I still have embraced and morphed some of those Zen aspects into my personal and spiritual life.


But one of my favorite stories during that time involved this little guy, Jizo. I always loved the story of Jizo.  So, the story of Jizo goes like this:

Jizo is what is called, in Buddhism, a Bodhisattva. A Bodhisattva is just a very holy person who has gained enlightenment. Well, Jizo, as a Buddhist monk and bodhisattva, made a vow. He promised that we would not gain full enlightenment (which is roughly equivalent to our ultimate salvation) until every being was freed from hell. He understood, in taking this vow, that it would take close to an eternity for such a thing to happen. But that was his vow, and the belief continues that he is still here, trying to free all the beings from hell.


This why, these statues are very popular in Japan. They’re often seen in cemeteries, especially in children’s cemeteries. And he is seen as a special guardian of children in Japan.


I love that story of Jizo. I love it, because there is a bravery in Jizo’s vow. I don’t know if I could make a vow like that. Could I honestly hold off salvation until all people in hell were saved? I do not think I could.


But I do know someone who could do that. And that someone, in my opinion, is Jesus. I’m not saying he would put off salvation for himself. He doesn’t need to be saved. But I do believe that ultimately Christ is not victorious until hell is completely empty.


This belief, of course, comes to us from a very basic reading of 1 Peter, and from the early Church Fathers. Jesus descends into hell and preached to those there.  The popular term for this is the Harrowing of Hell. He went to hell and harrowed until it was empty.


For me, as a Christian, I realized that my faith in Jesus is bigger than my faith in Jizo. I like Jizo. I think he’s a good example to all of us of untiring service and devotion  to others.  But, for me, and my following of Jesus, I find the story of the Harrowing of Hell to be so much more compelling. And my understanding of Jesus is most important in my spiritual life.


If Jizo could stay around, for centuries and centuries, trying to save all people, I have no doubt in my mind that Jesus certainly would do even more than that. I have no doubt that even if any of us were lost to the depths of hell, he would come to us, even there and lead us out.


Now, I know this is a very unpopular belief for many Christians. Many Christians simply cannot believe it. Hell is eternal, they believe And it should be. If you turn your back on Christ, then you should be in hell forever and ever. If you do wrong in life, you should be punished for all eternity.


I don’t agree. And my faith speaks loudly to me on this issue. The Christ I serve, the God is love and believe in, is not a God who would act in such a way. I am not saying there isn’t a hell. I am not saying I am certain I am right. I may be wrong. But if there is a hell, I believe that, at some point, it will be empty. And heaven will be full.


Until that day happens, none of us should be happy. None of us should rejoice.  None of should exult in our own salvation, until salvation is granted to all. If there is an eternal hell and punishment, my salvation is not going to be what I thought it was.  


And that is the real point of this day. I love the fact that, no matter where I am, no matter where I put myself, no matter what depths and hells and darknesses I sink myself into, even there Jesus will come to me and find me.  And I know that the Jesus I serve and follow will not rest until the last of his lost loved ones is found and brought back. I know it’s not a popular belief in the Christian Church. But you know what. It should be. It should be, as long as anyone places a belief in eternal punishment and hell.


If nothing else, we as Christians should be pondering these issues. And we should be struggling with them. And we should be seeking God’s knowledge on them.

On this very sad, very bleak Holy Saturday morning, I find a great joy in knowing that, as far as we seem to be in this moment from Easter glory, Easter glory is still happening, unseen by us, like a seed slowly blooming in the ground. That Victory of Jesus we celebrate this evening and tomorrow morning and throughout the season of Easter is more glorious than anything we can imagine. And it is more powerful than anything we can even begin to comprehend.

In my own personal hells—and I have been there more than once—the greatest moment is when I can turn from my darkness toward the light and find consolation in the One who has come to me, even there, in my personal, self-imposed agony. Even there, he comes to me and frees me. He has done it before. And I have no doubt he will do it again.  That is what we are celebrating this Holy Saturday morning. That is how we find our joy, when joy seems gone from us—when it seems buried in the ground and lost.

I’m going to close this morning with a bit of an ancient sermon from an unknown author. In this sermon, preaching on Christ’s descent to hell, we find Jesus peaking. He is speaking Adam, the first human, who is bringing out from the depths. But he may just as easily be speaking to any of us either in our personal hells, or in that place of seemingly eternal punishment. The sermon ends this way:

Rise, [Jesus says] let us leave this place. The enemy led you out of the earthly paradise. I will not restore you to that paradise, but I will enthrone you in heaven. I forbade you the tree that was only a symbol of life, but see, I who am life itself am now one with you. I appointed cherubim to guard you as slaves are guarded, but now I make them worship you as God. The throne formed by cherubim awaits you, its bearers swift and eager. The bridal chamber is adorned, the banquet is ready, the eternal dwelling places are prepared, the treasure houses of all good things lie open. The kingdom of heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity.”




Friday, March 29, 2013

Good Friday

March 29, 2013


Isaiah 52.13-53.12; Psalm 22; Hebrews 4.14-16; 5;7-9; John 18.1-19.42


+ Probably one of the holiest times during this Holy Week—and there are many, many holy moments—is the time spent on the watch, last night. Some of us stayed around to spend time in the Chapel before the Altar of Repose and the Blessed Sacrament reserved there.  For me, as I spent that time there last night, trying to follow St. Alphonsus de Ligouiri’s “Clock of the Passion,” I found one word staying with me and obsessing me a bit.

Brokenness. 

In many ways, that is what this day is all about.

Brokenness.

The Jesus we encounter today is slowly, deliberately being broken. This moment we are experiencing right now is a moment of brokenness. Brokenness, in the shadow of the cross, the nails, the thorns. Broken by the whips.  Broken under the weight of the Cross.  Broken by his friends, his loved ones. Broken by the thugs and the soldiers and all those who turned away from him and betrayed him.

 In this dark moment, our own brokenness seems more profound, more real, as well.  We can feel this brokenness now in a way we never have before. Our brokenness is shown back to us like the reflection in a dark mirror as we look upon that broken Body on the cross.

 This morning, after the tiredness and emotional exhaustion of last night, I came across this great posting on Facebook by Bishop Steven Charleston:

 “There are few people of faith who have not crossed through that dark day when they wondered if the God on whom they depended had gone away, deserted them, or even died. In the pain of our own mortality, when we face the loss of those for whom we care, when illness strikes us down or injustice overwhelms us, it is not hard to understand why we have felt this way. To receive the light, we must accept the darkness. We must go into the tomb of all that haunts us, even the loss of faith itself, to discover a truth older than death.”

Yes, we have known brokenness in our lives. We have known those moments of loss and abandonment. We have known those moments in which we have been betrayed.  We have known those moments when we have lost someone we have cared for so much, either through death or a broken relationship.  We have known those moments of darkness in which we cannot even imagine the light.

But, for as followers of Jesus, we know there is light. Even today, we know it is there, just beyond our grasp.  We know that what seems like a bleak, black moment will be replaced by the blinding Light of the Resurrection.  What seems like a moment of unrelenting despair will soon be replaced by an unleashing of unrestrained joy.

This present despair will be turned completely around. This present darkness will be vanquished. This present pain will be replaced with a comfort that brings about peace. This present brokenness will be healed fully and completely, leaving not even a scar.


In a few hours our brokenness will be made whole. And will know there is no real defeat, ultimately.  Ultimately there will be victory. Victory over everything we are feeling sadness over at this moment. Victory over the pain, and brokenness, and loss, and death we are commemorating

This is what today is about.   This is what our journey in following Jesus brings to us. All we need to do is go where the journey leads us. All we need to do is follow Jesus, yes, even through this broken moment. And, in following, we will know joy—even a joy that, for this moment, seems far off.  

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Maundy Thursday

March 28, 2013
 
1 Corinthians 11.23-26; John 13.1-17, 31b-35
 
+ Several years ago, Pastor Mark Strobel made the suggestion of a book to me that somewhat changed my life. Now, Mark has not read the book yet. I believe he saw a review of it in some publication. But he said something like, “Have you heard about this book? It’s a kind of weird and eccentric book about the Eucharist. I think you’d like it.” Well, I got it. And yes, I did like it. I liked it a lot.
 
The book was Take This Bread, by Sara Miles.
 
If you have not read it, I highly recommend it. Even if you don’t agree with some of it, I still think it’s a good book to read.  It’s an unusual book. In fact I had never read anything quite like it before.
 
It’s a spiritual autobiography in which Miles, who was raised essentially a Jewish atheist and is living this very secular life as restaurant chef and writer, suddenly and without any real reason wanders into St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco.  In that church. Sara Miles received Holy Communion for the first time. And, in receiving the bread and the wine of the Eucharist, she was transformed and converted.  Or as she writes:
 
Early one winter morning….I walked into St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church. I had no earthly reason to be there. I’d never heard a Gospel reading, never said the Lord’s Prayer. I was certainly not interested in becoming a Christian – or, as I thought of it a religious nut….And then we gathered around the table. And there was more singing and standing, and someone was putting a piece of fresh, crumbly bread in my hands, saying, ‘The Body of Christ,’ and handing me a goblet of sweet wine, saying ‘the blood of Christ,’ and then something outrageous and terrifying happened. Jesus happened to me.”
Jesus happened to her.
 
Tonight we commemorate Jesus happening to us.  We commemorate an event in our lives as Christians that has changed us and affected us and transformed us and made our spiritual lives better, just as it did for Sara Miles.  Tonight, we commemorate that incredible and amazing miracle—the institution of the Eucharist. Tonight, we remember the fact that Jesus took bread, broke it, gave it and said, “This is my body,” and that he did the same with the wine and said, “This is my blood,”
 
Every Sunday, in our two congregations of St. Stephen’s and St. Mark’s, we participate in this incredible, holy event.  We come together. We celebrate together this mystery.  We come forward and take this bread and drink from this cup and, in doing so, we take the Body and Blood of Christ.
 
Every Sunday, our congregations celebrate a mystery, a miracle and an incredible conduit in which God still continues to come to us in this tangible, real way.  In this bread and wine we share, Jesus happens to us. He is present with us in a unique and wonderful way.  And recognizing this presence, how can we be anything other than in awe of it.  We should be blown away by what is happening on our altars. And we should remind ourselves that, no matter what we believe, Jesus is our spiritual food.
 
What I love about Sara Miles’ book is that people are still being converted and changed and transformed by this holy event. I’m sure there are people out there who see what we do as archaic.  There are even some Christians out there who say we don’t need Holy Communion every Sunday.
 
I disagree. We need Holy Communion every Sunday. One of the reasons I came back to Church and have stayed in the Church as long as I have is this one act of the Church. Even when I wandered away from the Church and journeyed about in my own spiritual wasteland, I oftentimes found myself craving what I had always experienced in the Eucharist. And it was this deep desire for the Eucharist that brought me back to the Church in my twenties.
 
The reason we come to church is so we can experience Christ’s presence. What better way than in in the Bread and the Wine and in one another? The reason we come to church is to be strengthened in our everyday faith life. We come to church to be fed spiritually, so that we can be sustained spiritually. And the amazing fact is, people are still being transformed by this event.
 
Each of us are transformed by what we do here. And so is anyone who comes to our altars and experiences Jesus as he comes to us in this bread and wine.   
 
This is why Holy Communion is so important. This is why we celebrate this miracle every Sunday. There is nothing else like this kind of worship in the Church. It is one of the most intimate forms of worship we can know. Jesus truly comes among us and feeds us with his very self.  We form a bond with Jesus in Communion that is so strong and so vital to our spiritual lives.
 
But Jesus tells us tonight, on the eve of his death, on the eve of his leaving us, that he will not leave us without something. Rather, he will leave us with a sign of his love for us.
 
As John tells us tonight, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”
 
He loved us even at the end so that he could leave us something to nourish us and sustain us until he comes to us again.  He does so in this bread that is his Body and this cup that is his Blood. But Holy Communion is more than just being fed in our bodies.  What we learn at these altars of ours, when celebrate the Eucharist together and we share Holy Communion together is that, Jesus is our Bread of Life, our cup of Salvation,  that Jesus is the Body given for us and the Blood shed for us, whenever we are starving or thirsting spiritually.
 
When we feel empty and lost, Jesus comes to us and refreshes us. Jesus feeds our spirit with that presence of absolute love in our lives.
 
In other words, what Jesus is saying to us is: I am what will fulfill you.
 
Jesus then becomes the very staple of our spiritual lives. Jesus is the one who feeds that hunger we have deep within us, who quenches that seemingly unquenchable thirst that drives us and provokes us.  Jesus fills the voids of our lives with his life-giving Presence.
 
But it’s more than just a “Jesus and me” moment. This love that we experience in this Communion, is love that we can’t just hug to ourselves and bask in privately. This love we experience in this Eucharist is a love that is meant, like the Bread and the Cup, to be shared with others.
 
“Love one another,” is Jesus’ commandment to us in those moments before he is betrayed, in those hours before he is tortured, on the eve of his brutal murder.
 
“Just as I have loved you, you should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
 
Communion—and the love we experience in it—is not just something we do here in church on Sunday mornings or on Maundy Thursday.  It is something we take with us when we go from here. It is something we take out into the world from here. As Christians, we are to share the Body and the Blood of Christ wherever we go because we carry those elements within us.  And because we carry those elements within us, we are to feed those who are not just hungry of body, but are hungry of mind and spirit as well.
 
We are to share the Body and Blood of Jesus with all of those we encounter in the world.  And we do it simply by loving. By loving and accepting fully and completely.  That is how we live this Eucharist in our lives in joyful thanksgiving.
 
So, as we go from here this evening, during the rest of this Holy Week and especially during the holy season of Easter, let us go out into the world remembering what we carry within us. Let us remember WHO we are carrying within us.  Let us remember what nourishes us, what sustains us, what quenches our own spiritual hunger and thirst.  Let us go out, refreshed and filled with life-giving bread and life-refreshing cup—with Jesus, who feeds us with his very self. But let us go out also into the world ready to share that bread and cup that gives such life to us. Let us show it in your actions and show it in our words.  Let us show it by living out that commandment of love to all. Let that Presence of Jesus within us nourish those around us just as it nourishes us.
 
 
 

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Tuesday of Holy Week

March 26, 2013

John 12.20-36

+ As some of you might know, I pray the Daily Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer every day. Every day, without fail. I have to. An Episcopal priest, and as Oblate of St. Benedict, I am committed to prating the Office daily.  Doing so, however, proves a bit daunting. Or rather, I should say, exhausting and…I don’t know if I’m even comfortable saying this, but I’ll be honest…There are moments when praying the Daily Office is just kind of boring and tedious.

It’s a normal part of regular prayer life. The monastics, of course, certainly experienced this. They called this boredom the Noonday Demon.  And it’s an important thing to recognize and name and get beyond.

So, what does one do in those instances when regular prayer becomes boring? One finds ways to rejuvenate it, to stir the pot a bit, so to speak. And, for me, I have found that I have been able to use other liturgical resources in my praying of the Daily Office. One of the resources I use, is actually,  the Liturgy of the Hours of the Roman Catholic Church.  Although I am sworn, by the vows of my ordination, to pray according the worship of the Episcopal Church, meaning I am obligated to pray the Daily Office as we find it in in the Book of Common Prayer,  I am able to use some of the antiphons, responses and collects/prayers of the Liturgy of Hours, as well as the Intercessions in my daily prayer. And it has helped tremendously.

But I have also added to my daily prayer regime, the Office of Readings from The Liturgy of the Hours. The Office of Readings is a  wonderfully contemplative office, in which, in addition to psalms and scriptures, there is also a select reading from one of the early Church Fathers.

Well, the reading for today—this Tuesday of Holy Week—really struck me, and I’d like to share a bit of it with you. This comes from St. Basil, an early Church Father, from his book, On the Holy Spirit.  St. Basil writes,

“To attain holiness…we must not only pattern our lives on Christ’s by being gentle, humble and patient, we must also imitate him in his death. Taking Christ for his model, Paul said that he wanted to become like him in his death in the hope that he too would be raised from death to life.”

Now for me, that is the sense of what it means to follow Jesus. And that is our job as Christians. We are to follow Jesus.

In our Gospel for this evening, we find Jesus admonishing his followers to walk in the light while they still have the light. Well, we are those followers he speaking to tonight. We are the ones who are, in this moment, still walking in the light.

But, in these next few days, we will be walking in the darkness as well. We will be following Jesus through some very dark moments in his journey to the cross. And this journey is, of course, not just his journey, but our journey as well. It is not an easy journey. It is a hard journey. And it is a dark journey. But that is all part of what it means to follow Jesus.

Last week, at St. Mark’s, William Weightman preached a very wonderful sermon about many of these same issues. In that sermon, I loved the reaction he received from the Lutherans and even some Episcopalians in the congregation when  he shared with us about how when he was confirmed, the Bishop slapped him. Some of them were shocked.

Now, we should be clear, the Bishop didn’t slap William because he was being a bad boy at his confirmation. Well, maybe William was being a bad boy at his confirmation. But the Bishop didn’t slap only William. That Bishop slapped everyone being confirmed that day. It was a part of the traditional Anglican rite to provide a light slap to people being confirmed. As William explained, the reason for this slap was to remind us, as followers of Jesus, that the journey is sometimes hard.

We will face hardships in our following of Jesus. Our following of Jesus means we follow him through good times and bad. We follow him through the miracles and the teachings. But we also follow him through the Garden, through the sweating of blood, through the anguish, through the near-despair, through the betrayal, through the whipping, through the carrying of the cross, through the agony of having loved ones see us in our pain and misery and humiliation, through the nailing on the cross, through the physical anguish and through, yes, even death. It means following him through everything we prayed about in tonight’s Litany of the Passion.

Not pleasant.

But…before we think all is bleak, as hard as it is to remember this, we must also look beyond all of that. Following Jesus means following him also to that glorious light which will once more shine on us on Saturday evening and Sunday morning—that glorious Easter light.

There are dark days ahead for us, as followers of Jesus. But the light will return. And that Light, on its return, will be even more glorious. That Light will be even more stunning. That Light will be even more blindingly beautiful than anything we’ve experienced to that moment.  It will be because we have been through the darkness. We have known darkness. And because we have, that Light will be even more stunning.  

So, let us journey with Jesus. Let not waver in our following of him. Let us bear what we need to bear in these next days. Let us go even into those dark places we don’t really want to go. But let us do so knowing that light is just around the corner. Light in just beyond our reach. Light is awaiting us.  And it will be a glorious light.

 

 

 

 

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Passion/Palm Sunday

March 24, 2013

Luke 19.28-40; Luke 22.14-23.56
 
+ I’m sure I’ve shared this with you in the past. But growing up as a kid of Scandinavian descent, there were not a lot of popular role models for us.  For me, as a kid who read a lot of comic books, I had two choices.

Hagar the Horrible. And the Mighty Thor. So, as you probably guessed, I was a huge fan of Thor comics.

Thor, as you might know, was the Nordic god of thunder. With his mighty hammer Mjolnir, he fought and battled ice giants, fire demons and Valkyries and even his sneaky, evil brother Loki. Loki always reminded me of one of my own brothers.

Thor in a sense embodied what a god should be. He was strong. He was mighty. He even looked like a god with his winged helmet, his flowing blond hair and that giant hammer, which created peals of thunder.

But even Thor had his bad moments. He could be moody. He could be depressed. He fell in love and was often romantically led astray by some human female.  And he had a rocky relationship with his father, the sky-god, Odin—the one-eyed uber-god of Valhalla.

 Still, Thor is what we expect of a god.  From our Christians perspective, Thor is everything Jesus is not. But then—and here’s the rub—Thor was not really ever one of us. Yes, he sort of seemed like us—he had emotions.  He got angry or sad. But he was different than us. He was superhuman. He was like any other superhero—like Superman.  And he would never have dreamed to condescend to mere human stature. And certainly he never would die like us.

 I think Jesus’ disciples expected Jesus as the Messiah to be like a Thor-figure. They expected their Messiah to be one who would come in with a sword (or maybe a hammer) in one hand and thunder in the other and would smite the enemies of their world. The Jesus we encounter in first Gospel reading for today, the Jesus who enters Jerusalem amid shouts of glory, was somewhat closer to that ideal. Here was their Messiah—loved and lauded, victorious in his triumphant entry into the holy city of Jerusalem.  It all seemed to finally come together for them in that moment. Now, finally, Jesus would triumph.

 But the Jesus we find at the end of our Gospels for today was not anything like that ideal.  The Jesus we find at the end of our Gospel reading is as unlike Thor and the Apostle’s understanding of the Messiah as we can get. This beaten, tortured, murdered man could not possibly be God.

 But that’s the twist here. What we really see on that cross—that twisted, tortured human being—is something more familiar than any superhero god or apocalyptic messiah. What we see on that cross is us. It is us tortured It is us murdered. It is us defeated.  

 And when we see it, all we can do is turn away.  We turn away because we don’t want to look into that mirror. We don’t want to see the painful reflection we find there.

 But we must. We must look at it. We must go through this coming Holy Week and carry the weight we have been given. We must wash the feet, and be betrayed and carry the cross and die and descend into the darkest depths of all this week will bring.

 Because what happens next Sunday is also us as well. What happens on Easter is our victory in the face of defeat. What happens on Easter is our life in triumph over death. With Jesus’ resurrection is our resurrection as well.

 But that’s then, that’s next Sunday. For now, we are here. We are here, at the beginning of this week. We are at this manic phase in our emotional and spiritual roller coaster ride.  We’ve been here caught in this low emotional place before in our lives—sometimes many times. And we will probably be here again. And we, like Jesus, are given a choice. We can turn away from all of this. We can refuse to look in that mirror. We can run in the opposite direction. We can hope in our superhero god and messiah to come and rescue us and take all this bad stuff away.  

 Or we can trudge forward. We can look long and hard into that battered bleeding face of our God, who stares back with eyes very much like our eyes. We can accept the folly of this strange faith we have chosen to be baptized into.  

 Because in doing so—as we know from our previous journeys on this manic ride—this is the ultimate victory. Love over hatred. Forgiveness over resentment. Positive over negative. Light over dark. Life over death.  This is what awaits us when we stare into that brutalized face, into those pain-weary eyes, and looking deeply, we see our own reflections staring back.

 So, let us go forward. Let us follow Jesus as we must.    Let us shoulder the cross on our lacerated backs. Let us lift that weight onto our tired and weary legs And let us walk—slowly and surely—through the darkness of this coming week toward the glorious dawning light that awaits us next Sunday.

 

Sunday, March 17, 2013

5 Lent

March 17, 2013

John 12.1-8

+ I am in the habit of often asking people a very intimate question. No, it’s not THAT kind of intimate question. But it  is a weird, intimate question.  I am in the habit of asking people about what their funeral plans are. Many of you have heard me ask you that question.  Yes, I know. It’s morbid. But, as I’ve learned over the years, you can a lot from a person by the plans they’ve made for themselves following their death. And as a priest, I always encourage people to think about this issue, discuss it with one’s loved ones, write it down and make definite plans. And of course, I always encourage to make sure those instructions are on file here at the church.

When my father died, he had everything planned to the detail. The funeral service, the hymns, the gravestone was set up and inscribed at the cemetery.  He had even purchased the urn in which his ashes were buried.

Now, my dad died very suddenly, and was certainly not ill before he died. But he was just one of those people who was always prepared. He was like the quintessential Boy Scout.  And I can tell you, because he was, it made my job much easier when the time came for making those final arrangements for him.

Certainly, I have my own arrangements already made. They’re in my in my will, and I express my wishes quite often to people. It’s not secret that for me personally I prefer cremation with burial. I am of the frame of mind that believes that the body, whether just buried or cremated, should be treated with a certain level of respect and care and should be properly buried or interred in some way.

In today’s Gospel, we find Mary doing something that sort of encompasses this view of the sacredness of the body.  We find her coming before Jesus and doing a very unusual thing: she anoints his feet. And Jesus, even more strangely, reprimands Judas by saying that Mary is doing nothing more than anointing his body for burial.

As we near Holy Week—that final week of Jesus’ life before the cross—our thoughts are now turning more and more to these “last things.”  Yes, it’s all starting to sound a little morbid. And no doubt, poor Judas was also thinking Jesus was getting weirdly morbid himself.  But, Jesus is reminding us, yet again, that even the simplest acts of devotion have deeper meaning and are meant to put us in mind of what is about to ultimately happen.

Mary sees in Jesus something even his disciples don’t—yet.  She sees—and maybe doesn’t fully comprehend, though she certainly intuitively guesses—that Jesus, in his flesh and blood, is different.  There is something holy and complete about him.  She might not go so far as to say that he is God in the flesh, good Jew that she is, but certainly she is leaning in that direction.

For us, as Christians who do believe that Jesus is God in the flesh, we know that issues of the flesh are important. Because of the incarnation, because, in Jesus’ flesh and blood, we have come to know God, we know that our flesh is also special.  If God would deign to come among us and take on flesh like our flesh, then our flesh must not be such an inherently horrible thing.

One of my all-time favorite quotes is from one of the early Church Father, John of Damascus.  John wrote a truly remarkable thing while defending the veneration of icons—or holy images of Jesus and the saints. There was a time in the church when people felt there should be no images of Jesus because it violated the commandment to make no graven images.  John wrote in defense of icons:

“I do not worship matter, I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake and deigned to inhabit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter. I will not cease from honoring that matter which works for my salvation. I venerate it, though not as God."

Why so many Christians view matter or the flesh as such a horrible, sinful thing baffles me.  And there are Christians who believe that. There are Christians who believe that these bodies of ours are sinful and should be treated as wild, uncontrollable things that must be mastered and disciplined and ultimately defeated.

Why we as Christians get so caught up with this awful ridiculous view that the flesh is this awful, sin-filled thing we carry around is frustrating for me. In fact, the belief that the flesh is bad and the spirit all-good is a very early church heresy, that was condemned by the Christian Church.

We have all known Christians who do think that flesh is a horrible, sinful thing—who think all we should do is concentrate only and the spiritual.  For those of us in the know—even for those of who have suffered from physical illness and suffering ourselves in this flesh—we know that the flesh and the spirit truly are connected.  We cannot separate the two while we are still alive and walking on the earth.

Still, I do always love the quote from one of my personal heroes, the Jesuit priest and paleontologist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, from his incredible book The Phenomenon of Man:

“We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.”

I think we could just as easily say that we are spiritual beings having a material experience.  I, of course, don’t see that as a downplaying our flesh.  Rather, I see it as truly the spirit making the material holy.  Our flesh is sacred because Jesus makes it sacred.  He made it sacred by becoming flesh, by showing us in his incarnation—in his in-flesh-ment, shall we say—that these are bodies are good.

And if we have trouble remembering that our flesh is sacred, that God in Jesus cares about us not just spiritually but physically, we have no further place to look that what we do here at this altar, in the Eucharist.  Here, we find Jesus, in the same flesh and blood that Mary herself anoints in today’s Gospel reading.  Here, he comes among us and feeds our flesh, as well as our spirits.  And, we can even go so far as to say that by feeding our flesh, he becomes one with us physically as well as spiritually.  

This is part of the reason why I think that even following our death we should honor what remains of this flesh because it is sacred.  We shouldn’t just toss it away or frivolously dole it out or in any other way disrespect it.  We should be respectful to our ashes and those of our loved ones, for truly God has worked through the flesh of all the people we have known in our lives and, by doing so, has made them each uniquely holy and special.

Next week, on Palm Sunday, we will begin our liturgy with joy and end it on a solemn note as we head into Holy Week.  Holy Week is a time for us to be thinking about these last things—yes, our spiritual last things, but also our physical.  As we make our way through Holy Week, we will see Jesus as he endures physically and spiritually, from the a spirit so wracked with pain that he sweats blood, to the terror and torment of being tortured, whipped and nailed to a cross.  As we journey through these last days of Lent, let us do so pondering how God has worked through our flesh and the flesh of our loved ones.

Yes, we are spiritual beings enjoying a physical experience.  We are spiritual beings  enjoying a pilgrimage through matter. Let us rejoice in these material experience.

Let us be grateful for all the joys we have received through this matter in which we dwell and experience each other.   And let this joy be the anointment for our flesh as we ponder our own end and the wonderful new beginning that starts with that end.  


 


Sunday, March 10, 2013

4 Lent

Laetare Sunday
March 10, 2013

Psalm 32; Luke 15.22-24.

+ I know this might sound absolutely nuts to you. Especially with me standing before you dressed in pink (or “dusty rose” as my liturgics professor from seminary called it). But here it is.

I am a bit of a rebel. I know. It sounds crazy. I should—you would think—be a part of the so-called “Establishment.”  I am, after all, a priest in the Episcopal Church, a vanguard (at least at one point in our collective history) of  White Anglo-Saxon Protestant normalcy. Few of you have seen me wear anything other than my clerical blacks and collar (or cassock).

But I really am a rebel. And have always been. My poor mother can tell you horror stories. I know a few of our Vestry members and Wardens can tell you stories of my rebelliousness.

Growing up I was very headstrong.  If I didn’t want to do something I did not do it, no matter what anyone said.

But at age 13, an event happened that completely turned my world upside down.  At thirteen—in fact, it will be 30 years this Mary—this nominally Lutheran boy decided to become a Catholic priest. Now, I know this isn’t your average form of rebellion.  But for me, becoming Catholic and becoming a priest was the ultimate form of rebellion.

While people my age experimented with different kinds of music, so did I. Of couse, I LOVEd alternative music very much—and in 1983, New Wave was by far THE thing in my life. I was also getting pretty enraptured by Gregorian chant or 18th century hymns,  While other teenagers were maybe tempted try some, shall we say, exotic-smelling herbs, I was getting high (spiritually high) from incense.  And while my friends were going to concerts, I sat enraptured during Mass.

But my rebellion was probably hardest on my poor parents.  I think there were times when they might have thought it was easier having a kid who actually did go the sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll road, rather than the celibacy-incense-and-high-Mass route.  I don’t think they understood what I was doing, or why.  It was a kind of rebellion that simply boggled their (and most of my peers’) minds. 

Now I am not saying that I was the Prodigal Son to my parents. I’m not because in my rebellion I left and never went back.  I stand here before you, thirty years later exactly what I thought I would be—a catholic (albeit ANGLO-Catholic)  priest.

But turning away from what my parents’ held dear, turning away from generations of good Protestant upbringing, was not easy.  There were times when I realize that the route I chose was very different than that of all of my friends who went on to have so-called “normal” lives and “normal” jobs.  And there were many times when it was downright hard.  There moments when I looked at their faith and the life I could’ve had and thought: maybe it would have been easier. And there were times when I rebelled against my vocation (before I was ordained of course).

I think, to some extent that is why I can relate so well to the story of the Prodigal Son.  We have all been down that road of rebellion and have found that, sometimes, it is a lonely road.  Sometimes we do find ourselves lying there, hungry and lonely and thinking about what might have been.   That’s just the consequence of being a rebel.  And if you think I might not be rebellious in some ways even now—if you don’t see me as counter-cultural in some way, then I don’t think you’re really looking. Let’s face it, people: I stand before you, a vegetarian, Anglo-Catholic Episcopal priest and poet, dressed in pink vestments, who lives in a house decorated in mid-century modern wonder. Name me one other person like that in the entire world. And if you can, I really want to meet that person! 

In our Gospel for today, we find the Prodigal Son having some big goals and some pretty major hopes and dreams.  First and foremost, he wants what a lot of us in our society want and dream about: money. He also seems a bit bored by his current life.  He is biting at the bit to get out and see the world. He wants the exact opposite of what he has.  And that’s a difficult place to be.  He only realizes after he has shucked all of that and has felt real hunger and real loneliness what the ultimate price of that loss is.

God does occasionally lead us down roads that are lonely.  God does occasionally lead us down roads that take us far from our loved ones.  God does lead us down roads of open rebellion sometimes.  And sometimes God allows us to travel down roads that lead us away from God. But every time we recognize our loneliness and we turn around and find God again, we are welcomed back with open arms and complete and total love.

Just this past week, in a class I taught, I had a student who got very upset with me over the fact that I am not despairing over my atheist friends’ lack of faith. As you know, I LOVE atheists. I think they’re cool, and true rebels to some extent. Talk about what might’ve been if I hadn’t followed the road I did.  There but for the grace of the God I might not be believing in, go I.

This student, who was red-faced in his frustration, said to me, “you should be crying over your atheist friends. They have turned their backs on Christ. They are lost.”

I, in return, said what I always say when confronted with such thinking: “No,” I said (and you’ve hear me say this a million times, I know). “Just because one turns their back on Christ, does not mean Christ ever turns his back on them. And as long as Christ does not turn his back, I have no reason to despair those friends.”

And I believe that, firmly and without doubt.

The Good Shepherd will always find his lost sheep. And will bring them back.  And this comes from one of his sometimes-lost sheep.

There’s another aspect to the story of the prodigal son that is not mentioned in the parable.  The prodigal has experienced much in his journey away.  

There is a wonderful poem by one of my all-time favorite poets, Elizabeth Bishop, called “The Prodigal,” which explores a moment in the life of the Prodigal Son as he wallows about in pig sty [I will include the entire poems at the end of this post]  It puts a wonderful perspective to the depths the Prodigal Son falls.

As the Prodigal turns back and returns to his father’s house, we know one thing: that the prodigal son is not the same son he was when we left his father.  The life he returns to is not the same exact life he left.  He has returned to his father truly humbled, truly contrite, truly turned around.

And that’s the story for us as well.  In my life I have come to appreciate my family’s ancestral Protestant faith, to some extent.  And I have come to appreciate and respect the lives my friends and peers have chosen for themselves.  It’s not mine, but I respect it and appreciate it.  I no longer see my life as a rebellion against those things.  I now see my life has an embracing of those things—a healthy respect and appreciation of those things.  But those things, I realize now, are not right for me.  They are not me.   This—for better or for worse—is me. And I am happy with it and for it.

God at no point expects us to say the same throughout our lives.  Our faith in God should never be the same either.  In that spiritual wandering we do sometimes, we can always return to what we knew, but we know that we always come back a little different, a little more mature, a little more grown-up.  No matter how old we are.

We know that in returning, changed as we might be by life and all that life throws at us, we are always welcomed with open arms.  We know that we are welcomed by our God with complete and total love.  And we know that, lost as we might be sometimes, we will always be found.  And in that finding, we are not the only ones rejoicing.  God too is rejoicing in our being found.

So, let us this Laetare Sunday—this Sunday in which we are called to rejoice—do just that.  Let us rejoice in who we are.  Let us rejoice in our rebelliousness, and in our turning back to what we rebelled against.  Let us rejoice in our being lost, and in our being found.  Let us rejoice especially in the fact that no matter how lonely we might be in our wanderings, in the end, we are always, without fail, embraced with an embrace that will never end. 

A Prodgical

 By Elizabeth Bishop

The brown enormous odor he lived by
was too close, with its breathing and thick hair,
for him to judge. The floor was rotten; the sty
was plastered halfway up with glass-smooth dung.
Light-lashed, self-righteous, above moving snouts,
the pigs' eyes followed him, a cheerful stare--
even to the sow that always ate her young--
till, sickening, he leaned to scratch her head.
But sometimes mornings after drinking bouts
(he hid the pints behind the two-by-fours),
the sunrise glazed the barnyard mud with red
the burning puddles seemed to reassure.
And then he thought he almost might endure
his exile yet another year or more.

But evenings the first star came to warn.
The farmer whom he worked for came at dark
to shut the cows and horses in the barn
beneath their overhanging clouds of hay,
with pitchforks, faint forked lightnings, catching light,
safe and companionable as in the Ark.
The pigs stuck out their little feet and snored.
The lantern--like the sun, going away--
laid on the mud a pacing aureole.
Carrying a bucket along a slimy board,
he felt the bats' uncertain staggering flight,
his shuddering insights, beyond his control,
touching him. But it took him a long time
finally to make up his mind to go home.