Sunday, June 30, 2013

6 Pentecost

June 30, 2013
1 Kings 19.15-16,19-21; Galatians 5.1,13-25; .Luke 9:51-62


+ As we all know and have heard  about ad nauseum, we, of course, got some water in our undercroft this past week. For me, discovering it on Wednesday night before Mass, I had I guess what could be called a bit of a delayed reaction. Actually that might be the understatement of the year

On Wednesday, as I came down the stairs, I looked it for a few moments, not quite realizing what I was looking at. And then, as I looked around in kind of dull shock and saw more and more water soaking and saturating things, my first reaction was:

“Run! Just leave! Deal with it this later.”

It was a moment of feeling so completely overwhelmed. After cursing a bit—actually, I cursed quite a lot . And maybe kicked a few things. And felt a very intense moment of despair.  And shook a first at the sky.

I then felt a weird calmness come over me. I thought, “you know what? It’s gonna be all right.”

One way or the  other—in some way I couldn’t at that moment fully realize—I just knew it was going to be all right. Not right away. Probably not all that soon. But ultimately it was going to be all right.

And this—this stupid water and this stupid rain—was not the end of anything. Rather it was a very clear reminder to me that whatever might be damaged—and luckily not a whole lot was damaged—they were things. Just things. Not lives lost. Just things.

In our Gospel reading today, we find Jesus making a comment that I wish I could’ve used on Wednesday night regarding the water in the undercroft.

Let the dead bury their own dead.

Talk about resignation. It’s  an unusual statement.  It almost boggles the mind when you think about it. And yet….there is beautiful poetry in that phrase.

We hear this saying of Jesus referenced occasionally in our secular society. It conveys a sense of resignation and putting behind oneself insignificant aspects of our lives. Still, it is a strange image to wrap our minds around.

Let the dead bury their own dead.

What could Jesus mean by this reference?

In our culture—in our world we embalm or cremate our dead, we care for our dead and dispose of their bodies in a fairly quick but respectful manner. I’ve had three funerals in this past week and a half, and I can tell you: WE bury our dead. The case was not so for Jews in Jesus’ day. Well, yes, they also buried their dead, but not the same way we do.  

When we find this man talking about having to go and bury his father, and Jesus’ response of “let the dead bury their own dead,” we might instantly think that Jesus is being callous.  It would seem, at least from our modern perspective, that this man is mourning, having just lost his father.

The fact is, his father actually probably died a year or more before.  What happened in that culture is that when a person died, they were anointed, wrapped in a cloth shroud and placed in a tomb. As Jesus himself would later be. This tomb was actually a temporary interment. They were probably placed on a shelf near the entrance of the tomb. About a year or so after their death, the family gathered for another service at which the tomb was re-opened. By that time, the body would, of course,  have been reduced to bones. The bones would then be collected, placed in a small stone box and buried with the other relatives, probably further back in the tomb. A remnant of this tradition still exists in Judaism, when, on the first anniversary of the death of a loved one, the family often gathers to unveil the gravestone in the cemetery. Which I think a very cool tradition personally.

So, when we encounter this man in today’s Gospel, we are not necessarily finding a man mourning his recently deceased father. What we are actually finding is a man who is waiting to go to the tomb where his father’s bones now lie so he can bury the bones. When we see it from this perspective, we can understand why Jesus makes such a seemingly strange comment—and we realize it isn’t quite the callous comment we thought it was.  As far as Jesus is concerned, the father has been buried. Whatever this man does is merely an excuse to not go out and proclaim the kingdom of God, as Jesus commands him to do.

Now to be fair to the man, he could just be making an excuse, which really under any other circumstances, would have been a perfectly valid excuse. Or he could really have felt that his duty as his father’s son took precedence over this calling from Jesus. It doesn’t seem as though he doesn’t want to follow Jesus or proclaim the Kingdom. He doesn’t flat-out say no. He simply says, not now. In a sense, he is given the choice between the dead and dried bones of his father or the living Jesus who stands before him.

Jesus’ response, which may sound strange to our modern, Western ears, is actually a very clear statement to this man. He is saying, in a sense: “You are attached to these bones. Don’t worry about bones. Break your attachment, follow me, proclaim the goodness and love of God and you will have life. Follow me TODAY. NOW”

How many times have we been in the same place in our lives? How many times have we looked for excuses to get out of following Jesus, at least right now? We all have our own “bones” that we feel we must bury before we can go and proclaim the Kingdom of God in our midst by following Jesus. We all have our own attachments that we simply cannot break so we can go forward unhindered to follow and to serve.

And they’re easy to find. It’s easy to be led astray by attachments—to let these attachments fill our lives and give us a false sense of fulfillment. It is easy for us to despair when the bad things of life happen to us. We could easily have despaired when we heard about the undercroft and the water. Trust me, there was a moment of despair inside me when I first realized what I was looking at one Wednesday night.

But the fact is, even when these awful things happen, even then, we need to realize, it is not the end.  Despite these bad things, the kingdom of God still needs to be proclaimed. Now. And not later. Not after the water is cleaned up. Not after everything has been restored. Not after we have calmed down.

The Kingdom needs to be proclaimed NOW. Now. Even in the midst of chaos.  Even when those crappy things happen, we still need to follow Jesus. Right now. Right here.

Our faith in God, our following of Jesus and our striving to love and serve others doesn’t change just because we have setbacks. Rather, when the setbacks arise, we need to deal with them and move on.  But if those setbacks become an excuse not to follow Jesus, then they too become a case for  letting these dead bury their own dead.

So, in a sense, we find ourselves confronted with that very important question: what are we, in our own lives, attached to? What are the “bones” of our life? What are the attachments in our life that cause us to look for excuses for not following Jesus and serving others? For not loving, fully and completely. What things in our lives prevent us  from proclaiming the Kingdom of God?

Whatever they might be, just let them be. Let the dead bury their own dead. Let’s not become attached to the dead objects of our lives that keep us from serving our living God. Let’s  not allow those dead things to lead us astray and prevent us from living and loving fully. Let us not become bogged down with all the attachments we have in this life as we are called to follow Jesus. Let us not let them become the yoke of slavery we hear Paul discussing in his letter to the Galatians.

Rather, let us take this yoke, break it and burn as Elisha did, as an offering to our living God.

But let us remember that this is not some sweet, nice, gentle suggestion from Jesus.  It is a command from him.

“Let the dead bury their own dead. But as for you, go, and proclaim the kingdom of God.”

We proclaim the kingdom, as we all know, by loving God and loving each other.

You can’t proclaim the kingdom—you can’t love—when you are busy obsessing about the dead, loveless things of your life. We who are following Jesus have all put our hands to the plow. We put our hands to that plow when were baptized, when we set out on that path of following Jesus.

Now, with our hands on that plow, let us not look back. Let us not be led astray by the attachments we have in this life that lead us wandering about aimlessly. But, let us focus. Let us look forward.  Let us push on. Let us proclaim by word and example the love we have for God and one another.  And when we do, we are doing exactly what Jesus commands us to do.

Now is the time.  Let us proclaim that Kingdom and making it a reality in our midst.

Now.

Amen.


Sunday, June 23, 2013

5 Pentecost


June 23, 2013

Galatians 3.23-29;Luke 8.26-39


+ I think most of you see me as a pretty rational priest. I hope you do, anyway. I hope no one thinks I’m too flakey or “out there” about some things. Though, you know what? I probably am about some things.  Honestly, though, I think my problem sometimes is that I’m almost too rational at times. I have no problem questioning anything. As many of you know firsthand.
As a priest, very early on in my career, I was called in to do a house blessing. Nothing too out there, right? Well, I wish…

The reason I was asked to do the house blessing was because the family who lived in that particular house felt their house was haunted. More specifically, the people thought their house was “possessed.” Several family members in the house experienced very strange phenomena: disembodied voices, slamming doors, the sound of footsteps. And, most disturbing of all, crucifixes kept getting smashed.

I didn’t know what to think about such things. Nowhere, in my training to be a priest up to that point, prepared me for such things. But, being rational, I was skeptical. Yes, these people were normal people. I knew them. And I knew they wouldn’t make stories like this up. But still…possessions? Hauntings?

Still, of course, I couldn’t necessarily turn these people down. I knew them and I knew them to pretty rational as well.

So, I went to Bishop John Thornton. Bishop, Thorton, the former Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Idaho, was serving at this time as the sabbatical Dean of Gethsemane Cathedral while the current Deans were on sabbatical. I got to know Bishop Thornton very well during this time and we developed a close personal relationship. I knew I could go to him about anything without any judgment. So, I went to him about this situation.

I said, “Bishop, these people want me to cast out whatever it is they think is in their house.”

“What’s the problem?” the Bishop asked.

“Well,” I said, “I don’t know if I even believe in ghosts, or demons.”

The Bishop leaned back in his chair, and with a twinkle in his eyes, he said, “Who cares what you believe?”

Wow! OK. Not the answer I was expecting.

He then smiled and said, “Jamie, these people need you to be their priest. Be their priest. This not about what you believe or disbelieve. This about what they think is happening to them. Your job is go help them. If they believe it’s ghosts, then when you’re in that house, doing the blessing, believe in ghosts. If they believe it’s demons, then while you’re there, believe in demons. If they need you to be an exorcist, be their exorcist. And then, once you’re back in your car afterward, you can go back to believing or not believing whatever you want.”

I can say, in all honesty, that is was the best pastoral advice I have ever received. I have been able to use that advice in many, many situations throughout my priestly career.

As for the blessing, I went to the house, I did the blessing and guess what happening? Nothing happened. Nothing happened while I was there (though I do have to admit, it got weird and a bit spooky at times), and afterward, the family said that whatever had been happening, stopped after the blessing.

I can’t say I am any closer to believing in actual supernatural demons. But, the fact remains, whether we believe in actual demons or nor not, whether we believe in possession or not, what we all must believe in is the presence of evil in this world.

Whether that evil is natural or supernatural, the fact is, there is evil.  Even good rational people know that!

And those of us who are followers of Jesus have promised that we must turn away from evil again and again, in whatever way we encounter it.  Whenever we are confronted with evil, we must resist it.

In our Baptismal service, these questions are asked of the person being baptized (or their sponsors):

“Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?”

And…

“Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?”

And, as our Baptismal Covenant asks us asks us:

“Do you persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?”

Evil is something we must stand up against however we encounter it. Whether we encounter it as a spiritual force, or whether we encounter it in other forms, such as racism, sexism or homophobia, or even by contributing to various forms of violence, we, as followers of Jesus, must stand up against evil and say no to it. In a sense, what we are being asked to do is what Jesus did in this morning’s Gospel.  We are being compelled, again and again, to cast out the evil in our midst, to send it away from us. This is not easy thing to do.  It is not easy to look long and hard at the evil that exists in the world, and in our very midst. And it is definitely not easy to look long and hard at the evil we may harbor within ourselves.

But, even in those moments, when evil is not something outside ourselves but something within us, we know that ultimately, it too can be defeated. It too can be cast away. It too can be sent reeling from us.

The story of Jesus is clear: good always defeats evil ultimately. Again and again.

Jesus, as we heard in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians today, breaks down the boundaries evil in its various forms sets up. In Jesus, there are no distinctions. In Jesus, all those things that divide us and allow the seeds of evil to flower are done away with—those issue of sex, and social status and nationality and race are essentially erased. And we, as followers of Jesus, so prone at times to get nitpicky and self-righteous and hypocritical and divide ourselves into camps of us versus them, are told in no uncertain terms that those boundaries, in Jesus, cannot exist among us. Those boundaries, those distinctions, only lead to more evil. To less love.

But even then, even when evil does seem to win out, there’s no real need to despair. Even in those moments when evil seems to triumph, we know that those moments of triumph are always, always short-lived.  Good will always defeat evil ultimately.

Yes, we find the premise of good versus evil  in every popular movie and book we encounter. This is the essence of conflict that we find in all popular culture.  Good versus evil—and good always wins.

But, for us, as followers of Jesus, this is not fiction. That is not a fairy tale or wishful thinking. It is the basis on which our faith lies. When confronted with those spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God, we must renounce them and move on.

And what are those spiritual forces of wickedness in our lives? What are those forces that divide us and cause conflict among us? What are the legion of demons we find in our midst? Those spiritual forces of wickedness are those forces that destroy that basic tenant of love of God and love of each other. Those spiritual forces of wickedness drive us apart from each other and divide us.

They harden our hearts and kill love within us. When that happens in us, when we allow that happen, we cannot be followers of Jesus anymore. When that happens our faith in God and our love for each other dies and we are left barren and empty.

We become like the demoniac in today’s Gospel. We become tormented by God and all the forces of goodness. We wander about in the tombs and the wastelands of our lives.  And we find ourselves living in fear—fear of the unknown, fear of that dark abyss of hopelessness that lies before us.

But when we turn from evil, we are able to carry out what Jesus commands of the demoniac.  We are able to return from those moments to our homes and to proclaim the goodness that God does for us. That’s what good does. That’s what God’s goodness does to us. That is what turning away from evil—in whatever form we experience evil—does for us.

So, let us do just that. Let us proclaim all that Jesus has done for us.  Let us choose good and resist evil. Let us love—and love fully and completely, without barriers. Let us cast off whatever dark forces there are that kills love within us. And let us sit at the feet of Jesus, “clothed in and in our right mind,” freed of fear and hatred and violence and filled instead with joy and hope and love.

 

Friday, June 21, 2013

The Requiem Mass for Phil Stafne

The Requiem Mass for
Philip Stafne
(April 26, 1943-May 21, 2013)
Gethsemane Episcopal Cathedral, Fargo

June 21, 2013

Revelation 21:2-7; John 14:1-6.

+ One month ago today, after hearing of Phil’s passing, I called his sister Marianne. As she and I talked, I found myself doing something  I try not to do—being a priest and all. I found myself breaking down and getting a bit teary as we talked about Phil. As I did so, I apologized to Marianne.

I said, “Marianne, I am so sorry for being so unprofessional.”

Marianne, in her typical way, sort of laughed at me and said, “oh don’t worry, Jamie. I’m sure Phil saw you unprofessional many times. Probably over cocktails.”

Sadly, that is true. Phil did see me unprofessional on more than one occasion. Over more than one cocktail.  But what was so wonderful about Phil was that, even in those moments, there was never any judgment on his part. There was never a feeling that his sense of friendship and caring ever changed. And I think many of us this afternoon felt that from Phil as well in our own lives.

Phil was a very important and major presence in many of our lives.  Just speaking for myself I can say Phil was a very important person in my life of a long time Back, many years ago, when I was discerning my calling to be a priest, Phil was one of the first people I told. And he not only encouraged me. He spearheaded the discernment committee that helped me articulate that calling. Through all those years—those good years and through some of the not-so-good years—Phil remained a very solid and comforting source of support for me.

And I am sure many of us this morning also knew Phil to be that kind of person in our own lives. A person who was an active friend. A person who was proactive in his friendship with us. A person of  strength, of integrity and of impeccable class.

He carried himself with a dignity I still find amazing when I think about it. And that dignity was with him even in his last days, when he was so ill.

He was also a man of deep faith.  That faith was motivating factor in so much of what he did and who he was as a person. For Phil, however, his faith was not something one simply professed with one’s mouth. To live out one’s faith, for Phil, one simply didn’t go to church on Sundays. Or preach from street corners.  One lived one’s faith. Phil lived his faith. He was devoted. He was devoted to his God, he was devoted to his service of others, he was devoted to his family and to his friends,  and he was devoted to his church.

And he served. He served his God, he served his Church—this congregation of Gethsemane Cathedral—and this Diocese of North Dakota—and he served his family and his friends  in any way he could. And he did so consistently without complaint. He did do without blinking an eye.  He did so with strength and purpose.

In our Gospel reading for today, we find Jesus saying, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” I don’t think in all the years I knew Phil did I ever see his heart troubled. For him, his faith sustained him, no matter what happened. When he was diagnosed with cancer, Phil was steadfast. His heart was not troubled.  And I know for a fact, his faith was strong and remained strong to the end.

It is a great lesson for all of us. And we find, on this day, that Phil, by his example, is still leading the way for us.  Today, yes, we are sad. We are sad over the fact that Phil is not here with us as he once was.

But, with faith like the faith Phil had, we know that these tears we shed today are temporary. Whatever sadness we feel today will not be the final word in our relationship with Phil. With a faith like his faith, we know that the God we hope in and believe in and worship is a God of life. This God of life promises us, who are faithful like Phil was faithful,  a life that cannot be taken from us again.  A life that will overcome death and sadness and all these temporary sad emotions.

Yes, I am saddened by the fact that Phil is not here with us, being that solid and comforting source of strength for us. But Phil would be quick to tell us that although he might not be here doing that, he would direct us to that source of his own strength and integrity—his faith. His God.

And what we can take away from having known Phil, was his example. He gave each of us an incredible example of how to live one’s life and one’s faith with strength and class and dignity. And when any of us do that in our own lives, we will know that Phil is still with us, still being an example to us, still being a brother, uncle and dear and devoted friend to each of us.

I will miss Phil. I will miss his presence, his kindness, his friendship and his sense of caring. But I rejoice today as well. I rejoice in the fact that I believe Phil is has achieved the goal of that place of which we catch a glimpse of in our reading from Revelation. That place in which “Death will be no more…”  Where “mourning and crying and pain will be no more…” Because God will “wipe every tear from [our] eyes.”

It a glorious place. It is a place Phil longed for and hoped in and believed in. And I have no problem seeing him, this afternoon, in that place of glory.

As some of you know, Phil was a direct descendent of the great American poet Anne Bradstreet.  Anne Bradstreet’s maiden was Dudley—that’s where the family connection comes from.  Mistress Bradstreet, as she was known in her day, was a prolific and major poet in the colonial era of America(she died in 1672)  and her poems are still widely read and widely admired. And she was not just any poet.  Anne Bradstreet was the first American writer in English, and the first American female poet to have her works published. Phil proudly claimed Anne Bradstreet as his ancestor.  I remember the day he told me about his being a descent of her’s and his surprise and delight that I actually knew who she was.

I’m going to close today with a portion of a poem by Anne Bradstreet. The poem, appropriately, is called “As weary pilgrim, now at rest” In many ways, it echoes the words we heard this afternoon in our reading the Book of Revelation. It’s a beautiful poem and it’s one that I know Phil himself appreciated:

“As weary pilgrim, now at rest” by Anne Bradstreet

Oh how I long to be at rest
and soare on high among the blest.
This body shall in silence sleep
Mine eyes no more shall ever weep
No fainting fits shall me assaile
nor grinding paines my body fraile
Wth cares and fears ne'r cumbred be
Nor losses know, nor sorrowes see
What tho my flesh shall there consume
it is the bed Christ did perfume
And when a few yeares shall be gone
this mortall shall be cloth'd vpon
A Corrupt Carcasse downe it lyes
a glorious body it shall rise
In weaknes and dishonour sowne
in power 'tis rais'd by Christ alone
Then soule and body shall vnite
and of their maker haue the sight
Such lasting ioyes shall there behold
as eare ne'r heard nor tongue e'er told
Lord make me ready for that day
then Come deare bridgrome Come away.




Sunday, June 16, 2013

4 Pentecost

June 16, 2010

Luke 7.36-8.3


+ This past Tuesday, as many of you know, I celebrated the 9th anniversary of my ordination of the Priesthood. As many of you almost may know, I am meticulous record keeper. And so, in nine of years of priesthood, I have counted that I have celebrated Mass 927 times. I have presided over about 150 funerals (45 of which were while I was here at St. Stephen’s), and have presided over almost 100 weddings in those nine years.

And I have heard about 45 confessions, at least according to sacramental confessions. That, of course, does not include the confessions I have heard on airplanes, on car rides, in the hospital, in restaurants, in bars (let me tell you, I have heard many confessions in bars), and elsewhere.
Confessions? You might wonder. We’re Episcopalians. We don’t have confessions.

Au contraire!
We do have confessions.

One part of the Book of Common Prayer most of us probably have never even ventured to look at is found on page 447. The service for “The Reconciliation of a Penitent” is a service very few of us here this morning has probably taken advantage of.

But it is an important service and it is one that certainly deserves our attention, even if we have no desire to take advantage of that service.  Confession in the Episcopal Church is often described in this way:

“All can, some should, no one must.”

And it’s nice to take a look at it at a time other than Lent, when we are almost overwhelmed with talk of sin and forgiveness. The service of Reconciliation is service in which a person seeking to ask forgiveness of whatever shortcomings they have goes to a priest (and in the Episcopal Church only a priest can grant absolution) and having prayerfully and thoughtfully shared these sins, received words of comfort and counsel and then is given absolution by the priest. It really is just like Confession is in the Roman Catholic Church, though for us we don’t go into a little cubicle and whisper our sins through a screen to a priest. Mmmm. Maybe that should be something we introduce here at St. Stephen’s. Uh…no thank you….

So, on those occasions when we describe the Episcopal Church as “Catholic lite,” and we get the inevitable question of whether or not we have “Confession,” we can say yes, we do, but then quickly add that it’s not a requirement.

I think few of us want to take advantage of this service, but, occasionally, we sometimes do find the need.

And, as I said, it is not a requirement for any of us, though it is a very vital and, at times, helpful service

Not a lot of people know that I take advantage of it on a fairly regular basis.

I go every few months to an Episcopal priest I know who is my confessor.

Although I usually go dragging my heels a bit, I feel good once I have done it.

I come away from Confession feeling better.

There really is something very positive and good about being open and honest about one’s shortcomings, about sharing those shortcomings with someone else, about getting some practical and helpful council and advice and then hearing from that person that I am forgiven for the wrongs I have done.

When I was in seminary I read two books on confession. One was a book for priests who would serve as confessors. It was the classic text for Anglicans entitled A Manual for Confessors by “the Honorable Canon of Birmingham” Francis George Belton, originally published in 1916.

The other was more modern and much more helpful for all people (not just priests) seeking the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

The book is called Reconciliation: Preparing for Confession in the Episcopal Church, by Martin L. Smith, a priest and former member of the Episcopal order of the Society of St. John the Evangelist.

Both of these books discuss in detail what we find summarized on page 446 in our Prayer Book:

“The ministry of reconciliation, which has been committed by Christ to his Church, is exercised through the care each Christian has for others, through the common prayer of Christians assembled for public worship, and through the priesthood of Christ and his ministers declaring absolution.”

So, as we’ve just heard, we realize that Confession is not something the Church and bunch of male priests invented.  It was something commended to us by Jesus, who knew full well how important it was for us to confess and to hear the words of forgiveness.

As a priest, one of most important responsibilities has been to be a confessor.

On that night that I was ordained, as part of the ordination service, the Bishop declared to me that among my responsibilities as a priest was “to declare God’s forgiveness to penitent sinners…”

Now, that may sound like some “special” power we priests have. But, more than anything, what a priest does when she r he declare God’s forgiveness is just that:

We declare God’s forgiveness. Nothing magical. We just state a fact. But, it IS important. It is important to hear. It is important to hear that we are forgiven. It is important to hear, when we fall short in any way in our lives, to hear those words, “You’re forgiven.”

Hearing those words, I can say, is a truly powerful experience. There is a sense of a weight being lifted. There is a sense that something which was bound up has been loosened and released.

To hear those words of pardon and forgiveness are important to us because we sometimes do need to hear that we are forgiven. Without those words of forgiveness, we continue on in our self-pitying and our self-loathing. Those words of pardon and absolution restore us. They help us rise above the wrongs we have done so we can live fully and completely.

When we hear Jesus say to that penitent woman in today’s Gospel, “Your sins are forgiven…Your faith has saved you. Go in peace,” we can almost feel a weight being lifted from her. Whatever shortcomings that woman brought with her into that place, we know are gone from her as she leaves. This is the power of confession.

At the end of “Form Two” of Confession in the Prayer Book, the service is concluded when the priest, echoing this very Gospel reading, says,

“Now there is rejoicing in heaven; for you were lost, and are found; you were dead, and are now alive in Christ Jesus our Lord. Go in peace. The Lord has put away all your sins.”

To which the penitent replies, “Thanks be to God.”

Those are words that cause us to continue on, despite the things we have done. The forgiveness of our sins transforms us and changes us. It frees us from whatever might hold us down. So, let us together strive, when we have done wrong, to seek those words of forgiveness.

Some of us might actually wish to seek out the Sacrament of Reconciliation as found in the Book of Common Prayer. I encourage you to do so.  It is good to have a regular confessor—to take time to confess your faults and failings to some one. It is good psychologically and it is good spiritually. Certainly, as your priest, I am always available for this service, but any priest will do.

Any priest can grant absolution. But you do not have to be a priest to remind people of  God’s forgiveness and love.  All of us can  carry those words of forgiveness from Jesus close to our hearts when we do fail and we do fall short in our relationships, and when others wrong us.

Let us humble ourselves, but let’s not despair in those moments. Let us come before Jesus and seek that forgiveness that lifts us up from our tears. Let us unloose from within us whatever is holding us captive so that we may be truly free to love God and love others with no regrets, no recriminations, no undue guilt.

Jesus’ words to each of us are “go in peace.” That peace we find in this forgiveness is truly a liberating peace. It is a peace that destroys not only what others do to us, but we do to ourselves and to others, which sometimes can be much worse. That peace we find in reconciliation truly does liberate.

So, let us take the peace offered to us by Jesus and go forth in that peace. And doing so, let us rejoice in the freedom that peace gives us. Amen.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

3 Pentecost

June 9, 2013



Psalm 30; Luke 7. 11-17


+ I always have to be careful to do this. I always have to be careful any time I mention my mother in a sermon. She hates it when she’s not here to hear me do so. And I don’t want her to think we’re talking about her behind her back.

But…
…let’s face it, she sure could be here this morning, so…

Fair game, momma.

(I’ll share this with her tonight at supper.)

This past week, she was talking to a woman who was an acquaintance. Later in the day, when I came over, she was acting kind of irritated. I said, “What’s the problem?”

She said, “that neighbor women referred to the two of us as ‘these poor widows’ living so close to each other.”

That reference to her being a widow really rubbed her wrong. She just did not like being referred to as a widow.

I said, “Mother, I hate to break the news to you, but you are a widow.”

At that point, I actually saw her wince. I don’t like seeing my mother wince.

We talked about it a bit more and then, she admitted this, “I don’t like being known as a ‘poor widow.’ I don’t like being defined by the loss of someone. I don’t want anyone feeling sorry for me because I have lost someone I love. I am NOT a ‘poor widow.’”

And I think I kind of understand her on this one. I think I understand her not wanting to be known as a widow.  Let’s face it, being a widow—or a widower—is a hard thing. There are no classes, no self-books on living one’s life in  the wake of a spouse’s death. And no one, I would doubt, plans on widowhood on the day of a wedding. 

In our Gospel reading for today, we find another widow who also has a few things happen to her that were definitely hard. The story of the widow and her son makes very little sense unless we have some basic understanding of the culture in which it occurred.

From our perspective, it is a sad story in and of itself. A widow has lost her son.  She is weeping. Jesus tells her not to sorrow and raises him from the dead. But there is more going on here than what we might fully appreciate at first .

The fact that the woman is a widow is an important factor in the story.  Women, as we probably have figured out by this point, in that time and that place—in that culture—were not seen as equal to men.  A woman’s identity was not her own. The only importance a woman had was in relation to the males in her life—whether it be her father, her husband, her brother, or her son. A woman could not make money for herself. A woman could not work for money. Whatever money she had she received from the men in her life. A woman legally had no status in that culture. So, if a husband died, a widow was in trouble. Unless there was another man to take care of her—her son, her brother, her husband’s brother, her father, a new husband—she became destitute.

That is why this story is so important. That is why Jesus makes the issues he does here. With the death of this widow’s son, she would be lost in a sense.  She would have nothing.  She would probably be out on the street, begging for money.

Often we hear in the Church poetic language used about Jesus.  We often hear him described as “the defender of widows.”  It’s a phrase we don’t hear much anymore.  It doesn’t have the same meaning for us as it did in other times and places. And because it doesn’t have much meaning for us, for the most part, we don’t give a statement like that much thought.

“The defender of widows.”

But knowing what we know now, we realize how powerful a statement it really is.

“A defender of widows”

Jesus truly was—and continues to be—the widow’s refuge. Of course, in our day and age, widows for the most part are not by any means in the same predicaments as the woman in today’s Gospel is. Widows—women for the most part—are not seen as marginalized by our culture anymore.

If I died, my mother would be all right. She is not defined by the males in her life. Let me tell you, my mother would really hate being defined by the males in her life!

So, since widows in our day are not seen as marginalized as they were in Jesus’ day, does that mean this story and Jesus’ title as “defender of windows” have no meaning for us now? Not necessarily. I think the question needs to be asked: who are the widows in our midst today? I’m not talking here about those who have lost husbands and wives, because that is not the real meaning behind the story of the widow in our Gospel this morning. The widows in our lives are those living on the fringes.  The widows in our lives are the ones who wandering about, discarded by our culture, looked down on by most of us, the ones who are shunned and ostracized.  The one who, by themselves, have little or no meaning in our society.

So, who are the widows? Who are marginalized? Who are the forgotten, ones, the ignored ones, the invisible ones? Who are the ones on the fringes of our culture? Who are the ones on the fringes of our own community here at St. Stephen’s?

Because it is those people that Jesus is telling us, by his actions and by his words, to care for. It is those people our Baptismal Covenant demands we reach out and care for.  It is those people that Jesus commands us—he commands it of us—to love, as we want to be loved.

If we look around us, we might not readily see them. In Jesus’ day it was easier to see them. There was the widow, the leper, the Samaritan, the tax collector.

Today, they go by other names. You know what names they go by for you.  Take a moment to think of who the marginalized person is in your midst. The best way to find this person is to ask this question of yourself: who is the person I want least as my neighbor? Who is the person I don’t want living next to me or sitting next to me or sharing my table? Who is the person we don’t see in our midst? That then becomes the marginalized person in our midst.

And that is the person Jesus is telling us, throughout the Gospels again and again, to love as we would want to be loved. And this is the point we can take with us as well.

Today’s Gospel is really a beautiful one. Jesus has raised this widow’s son and, in doing so, he helps not only the son by giving him back life, he helps the widow as well by giving her life—or a better life—as well. This is what happens when we follow Jesus.  He pushes us outside our comfort zones and as he does, as frightening as it might seem to us, he gives us life as well. We might stand there, bewildered, in that place.

But we stand there renewed.

Like the young man in today’s Gospel, hopefully we emerge from our spiritual deaths able to make a positive difference in people’s lives around us.  Hopefully we, in those moments in which Jesus heals us and sends us on our way, are able to be a “widow’s refuge” to the “widows” in our midst. The message of today’s Gospel is not clear at first, but it becomes clear when we place it alongside our lives.

The message of today’s Gospel is this: Listen to the voice of Jesus. It saying to us, “be the widow’s refuge in your life.”  Let us look long and hard for the “widows” in our lives this day and this coming week. Let us recognize those people who are lost, afraid, invisible,  struggling because their support is gone. Let us look for those who are drifting, out there on the fringes.  Let us search out that person we never in a million years would want as a neighbor. Let us reach out with love and compassion for those who are snubbed and mistreated by the society in which we all live. Let us avoid the snubbing and the mistreatment of others in our own lives. Like Jesus, let us be the refuge and defender for that marginalized person.  

Jesus raised us up, like the young man in today’s Gospel, from the shrouds and the decay of spiritual death.  Let us go forth from our graves, singing the words of the psalm we shared today:

“You have turned my wailing into dancing;
you have put off my sack-cloth and clothed me with joy.”

And in living, in dancing, in that all-encompassing joy, let us be the refuge and defender for someone who needs us.