Sunday, September 22, 2013

18 Pentecost

September 22, 2013

Amos 8.4-7;1 Timothy 2.1-7; Luke 16.1-13

+ As I’ve shared with some of you, I have been studying Zen Buddhism intensely this summer. he writer I’ve been reading and re-reading intensely is the Vietnamese Zen Master, Thich Nhat Hanh. If you do not know Thich Nhat Hanh (and I will quiz you after Mass on how to spell his name), I would highly recommend him, especially a book he wrote on the comparison between Christianity and Buddhism, Living Buddha, Living Christ. Thay is currently on tour of the United States and I’ve heard it’s quite the impressive.

As I’ve shared many times here over the years, back, many years ago, when I was doing a lot of spiritual searching after leaving the Roman Catholic Church, I found Zen Buddhism. Now before you bristle at the thought of your priest exploring strange Eastern religions my experience with Zen was a very good one. Zen—like all Buddhism—is not so much a religion, as it is a philosophy—it is a way of seeing things. And back in those days following my leaving the Roman Catholic Church, Zen filled a huge void.

Certainly much of what I learned during that time has stayed with me through the years, and through my faith life as a Christian.  Yes, I am very solid Christian. But I have a kernel of Zen deep inside me.  And I am very thankful for that Zen kernel.

One of the things I have always enjoyed exploring is what in Zen—and all Buddhism—is called  karma. Karma is one of those Buddhist words that is thrown around quite a bit. But Karma is more than just some strange esoteric concept.

Karma is fascinating. Essentially the thinking behind Karma is this: that when you do something, there will be a reaction. If you are cruel to someone, someone else will be cruel to you. If you are kind to someone, someone will be kind to you.  It’s all about balance. A cosmic balance. Anything we do results in a reaction.

Now, for those of you who have known me for any period time, you have heard me use a phrase that captures karma to some extent. I often use the term, “The chickens have come home to roost.”  Essentially it means that what goes around, comes around. We reap what we sow. There are consequences to our actions.

For us followers of Jesus, such concepts of karma might not make as much sense. But today, we get a sense, in our scriptures readings, of a kind of, dare I say, Christian karma. Jesus’ comments in today’s Gospel are very difficult for us to wrap our minds around. But probably the words that speak most clearly o us are those words, “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful in much.”

Essentially, Jesus is telling us this simple fact: what you do matters. There are consequences to our actions. There are consequences in this world. And there are consequences in our relation to God.

It often surprises me that Christians think they can “get by” with dishonest things. We read in the news about clergy doing bad things. But not just clergy.  We hear about church treasurers doing bad things. We hear about people who claim to be good Christians doing very unchristian-like things. But Jesus message to us is very clear. For us, our faithfulness involves how we deal with others. It’s not just the big stuff, like sexual impropriety and financial misdealing’s. It is also about how we treat each other. How we treat each other as followers of Jesus and how we treat others who might not be followers of Jesus.

We have few options, as followers of Jesus, when it comes to being faithful. We must be faithful. Faithful yes in a little way brings about great faithfulness. So, logic would tell us, any increase of faithfulness will bring about even greater faithfulness.

Now, faithfulness in this sense means being righteous. Or to use a Zen word, Right-minded. Or even another word used in Zen, mindful.

Thich Nhat Hanh, that Vietnamese Zen master, often writes about mindfulness and, in speaking to Christians, says that mindfulness is the equivalent for us of the Holy Spirit in us. This Zen  writer, I have to admit, is one of the best writers I know on the Holy Spirit. And when I read about his belief that the Zen concept of mindfulness is equivalent to the Holy Spirit’s working in our lives, it made great sense to me. So, if we are faithful—if we are right-minded, if we are mindful in a few things, we are faithful in much.

Jesus is saying to us that the consequences are the same if we choose the right path or the wrong path. A little bit of right, will reap much right. But  a little bit of wrong, reaps much wrong.

I think most of us have found these to be true in our own lives. Doing wrong is a slippery slope. One we step foot on it, we find ourselves sliding farther and farther into more wrongness.  And it’s hard to stop.

That wrong path is not the path intended for us as followers of Jesus. Jesus is not walking that path, and if we are his followers, hen we are not following when we step onto that path.  Wrongfulness is not our purpose as followers of Jesus.  We cannot follow Jesus and willfully—mindfully—practice wrongness. We must strive—again and again—in being faithful. Faithful to God. Faithful to one another. Faithful to those who need us. Faithful to those who need someone.

Being faithful, being mindful, being right-minded, takes work. When we see wrong—and we all do see wrong—we see around us all the time—our job in cultivating faithfulness means counteracting wrongfulness. If there are actions and reactions to things, our reaction to wrongfulness should faithfulness.

Now that seems hard. And it is. But it is not impossible.  We can do something in the face of wrongfulness. We can, when we step foot on that slippery slope of wrongfulness, make a concentrated effort to not slip, to turn around and do the faithful action.  We can cultivate faithfulness in the face of wrongfulness.

One of Thich Nhat Hanh’s students wrote a fun book that I read this summer and really enjoyed. The book is called The Dharma of Star Wars by Matthew Bortolin.  Bortolin likes to make the comparison between Jedi master and students of Zen Buddhism. And he does it pretty well. In the appendix of the book, he includes, in a section called “Zen Contemplations for the Would-Be Jedi,” a series of thoughts that sound very much like Jesus own beatitudes. Bartholin writes that  the “Young Pupil” must always remember this:

Where there is anger, offer kindness.

Where there is selfishness,  offer generosity

Where there is despair, offer hope.

Where there are lies, offer truth.

Where there is injury, offer forgiveness.

Where there is sorrow, offer joy.

Where there is hatred, offer love.

Where there is evil, offer goodness.

Those actions are actions each of us as followers of Jesus are also called to cultivate and live into. As Christians, we are called to not only to ignore or avoid wrongfulness. We are called to confront it and to counter it. We are called to offering faithfulness in the face of wrongness.

So, let us do just that in all aspects of our lives.  Let us offer kindness and generosity and hope and truth and forgiveness and  joy and love and goodness, again and again and again whenever we are confronted with all those forces of wrongfulness. Let us offer light in the face of darkness.  Let us strive, again and again, to do good, even in small ways. For in doing so, we will be faithful in much.

“For surely I will not forget any of their deeds,” God says in our reading from Amos today.

What we do matters. It makes a difference in our lives and in the lives of those around us. So let us, as faithful followers of Jesus, strive, always to truly “lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.”

Sunday, September 15, 2013

17 Pentecost

Sept. 15, 2013

Luke 15.1-10


+ As most of you know, we have a Wednesday night Mass here at St. Stephen’s at 6:00 pm. For most of those service, to chagrin of some—I won’t mention any names (*Thom*)—we usually commemorate a particular saint or event.  Especially the saints of the Episcopal Church. Yes, there are saints in the Episcopal Church.

 Well, this summer, we commemorated both people and events that were occurring 50 years ago. 1963 was a very momentous year. Many, many life-altering events happened in the 1963. In June, we commemorated the 50th anniversary of the death of Pope John XXIII, who was, of course, very much a pioneer in advocating ecumenical relationships between different Christian denominations. A few weeks ago, we commemorated the “I Have a Dream” speech, made by Martin Luther King Jr. on August 27, 1963.

 This past Wednesday we commemorated an event that actually happened fifty years ago today. In 1963, September 15 was also a Sunday. On that Sunday morning, at 10:22 am, 26 Sunday School students were filing down to the basement assembly room of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, to hear a sermon entitled “The Love That Forgives.” In a dressing of the same basement, four girls-- Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, all aged 14 and Denise McNair, aged 11, were changing into their choir robes.

 At that moment—10:22 a.m.— a box of dynamite with a time delay planted  under the steps of the church, near the basement, by four Ku Klux Klan members, exploded. Twenty-two people were injured.  And those four girls in the dressing room were killed when the basement wall fell on them.

 Every window in the church was blown out by the blast except one—a stained glass window of Jesus welcoming the little children.


 I think it also especially appropriate that yesterday we commemorated the Feast of the Holy Cross. On that day we commemorate the  actual Cross on which Jesus died.  As many of you know, it was three years ago yesterday that my father died, very suddenly, very expectantly. Many of you have walked with me and my mother through these three very difficult years.  And I am very thankful for the support and the care during that time.

 Events like these—like the events of 50 years, like the event for me three years ago—  drive home for me the fact that the cross is ultimately a symbol of victory. Yes,  for it to be a symbol of victory, there has to be, sadly, some sense of defeat. There has to be some sense that something was lost. And that in the face of defeat, in the face of loss, in the face of ruin, in the face even of death, a victory can still be won.

 
For us, as followers of Jesus, we are people of the cross. There’s no way around that fact. We are people of the Cross.  We are people who were not promised sweet, burden-free lives. Nowhere in scripture, in our liturgies, in our prayer book, are we promised a life without pain, without trouble, without sorrow. Nowhere are we told we do not have to take up our crosses.  But what we are promised consistently, as followers of Jesus, is ultimate victory. What we are promised again and again is that suffering and pain and death and tears will all one day end.

 But life—life in Christ—will never end.  And that even in the face of what seems like defeat and loss, there is ultimately  victory.

 For those people affected by that bombing fifty years ago this morning, there seemed no victory. Four little girls lost to hatred and fear seemed like ultimate defeat. But fifty years ago, those lives were not lost in vain. Fifty years later, we are here, remembering those girls and we can realize now that those deaths changed things. People who never really thought about what was happening in this country, in the South, starting thinking about those issues. And people started working to change things. The following July—on July 2, 1964—President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, ensuring equal rights of African Americans.

 For those who followed Jesus, who betrayed him and saw him killed on that cross, they no doubt saw that death has the ultimate defeat. But here we are, followers of Jesus, today, this morning, giving thanks for the life he has given to all of us on the other side of that cross.

 In our Gospel reading for this morning, we find the Pharisees and the scribes thinking Jesus and his followers were foolish. Drinking and eating with sinners seemed like folly. It seemed demeaning and uncouth. But, by doing so, Jesus showed that sin was not a reason to despair, to beat ourselves up. Even what seems like defeat—a sinner lost to sin—can be a victory when sin is defeated, when wrongs are made right  and relationships are restored.

 Our lives as followers of Jesus are a series of losses and victories. We stumble, we fall, we get up and we go forward. That is what our Christian journey is.  Our lives as Christians are filled with moments when it seems that the darkest night will never give way to the dawn.

 But Jesus shows us that this dawn is the reality. That there can be no ultimate defeats in him. Not even death—probably the thing we all fear the most—not even death has ultimate victory over us. I can tell you that on this morning, when I am still feeling emotionally raw now still three years after my father’s death, this belief, this reality that Jesus promises us of an end to death, is my ultimate joy. It upholds me and keeps me going. And it should for all of us as well.

 Bad things happen.  Horrible, terrible things happen. But they are not defeat. They are not the end. They are not the period to the sentence of our lives.

 As followers of Jesus, we are told, again and again, rejoice.  Rejoice in the face of defeat. To rejoice in the face of defeat is defiant act. It is an act of rebellion against those dark forces. It is an act of rebellion against the power of failure, of loss, of pain.

 So, let us do just that. Let us rejoice.  Let us stand up against those moments in which we have been driven to ground and are left weak and beaten. Let us stand up from them, defiant, confident in the One we follow. Let us stand, when our legs are weak from pain and loss, when are hearts are heavy within us and our eyes are filled with tears.  Let us stand up when the forces of evil and hatred and death seemed to have won out. And when we do, when we rise from those ashes, when we rise above that darkness and stand in that brilliant light, it is then—in that glorious moment—when we will truly and fully live.

 

 

 

Sunday, September 8, 2013

16 Pentecost/Dedication Sunday

September 8, 2013

1 Kings 8:22-23,27b-30; Revelation 21:2-7


+ This past week, while reading an amazing biography of the American poet Denise Levertov, I came across this wonderful quote, from another poet, St. John the Cross:

“In the evening of our lives, we will be judged on love alone.”

When I posted that quote on Facebook yesterday, Pastor Paula Mehmel, who has worshipped here many times, commented,

“we will be judged BY love alone.”

I love that!

That quote has been haunting me since I read it. And it certainly has been striking me to my core in these days leading up to our Dedication Sunday celebration.  If this congregation could have a motto for itself, it would be this.

“In the evening of our lives, we will be judged on love alone.”

Because this, throughout all of our 57 year history, is what we are known for at St. Stephen’s.  Love. We are known for the fact that we know, by our words, by our actions, by our faith in God and one another, that it is love that makes the difference. And by love we will, ultimately, be judged.

That’s what the Church—that larger Church—capital “C” Church— should be. But sometimes we forget what the Church should be.  This morning, there are many people here who have been wounded by that Church—the larger Church. I stand before you, having been hurt be the larger Church on more than one occasion. And for those of us who are here, with our wounds still bleeding, it is not an easy thing.

It is not any easy thing to be a part of that Church again. It is not an easy thing to be call one’s self a Christian again. And, speaking for myself, it’s not easy to be a priest—a uniform-wearing representative of that human-run organization that so often forgets about love being its main purpose.

But, we, here at St. Stephen’s, are obviously doing something right, to make better the wrongs that may have been done on a larger scale.  We, at St. Stephen’s, have done a good job I think over these last 57 years of striving to be a positive example of the wider Church and of service to Christ. We have truly become a place of love, of radical acceptance. As God intends the Church to be.

In these last 57 years, this congregation has done some amazing things. It has been first and foremost in the diocese to accepte of women in leadership, when women weren’t in leadership. It was first and foremost in the acceptance of GLBT people, when few churches would acknowledge them, but less than welcome them.

Certainly in the last few years,  certainly St. Stephen’s has done something not many Episcopal Churches are doing. It has grown.  By leaps, and by bounds.

On October 1, I will be commemorating five years as your priest here at St. Stephen’s. I can tell you, they have been the most incredible five years of my life.  Personally, they have been, of course, some very, very hard years. As a priest, they have been years in which I have seen God at work in ways I never have before.  When I first came here, a good Sunday attendance was maybe 25 people. My first Sunday here, there 23 people in this nave. We were averaging about 22 every Sunday. Summers were even more bare bones.  Now, we average about 42 every Sunday (that was throughout this summer—some days were better than others, of course) And that does not include our Wednesday night Mass, in which we average about 8-10 every week.

 In 2008, there were 55 members of this congregation in good standing.  This morning, we will be receiving 11 new members into our family. Earlier this year, in May, we received another 10 new members. And with these new members today, we will have officially surpassed the 150 member mark. (I’m not certain who the 150th member will be this morning.)

 Now I am wary to throw numbers like this around haphazardly.  The Church, as we all know, is much more than just numbers.  However, on occasion, numbers such as this can help us to recognize not only where we have been, but where we are and where we are going.  And, most importantly of all, numbers like this can help us to give the credit where the credit is truly due:  the Holy Spirit. Here. Among us. Growth of this kind can truly be a cause for us to celebrate that Spirit’s Presence among us.  It can help us to realize that this is truly the place in which God’s dwells.

 In our reading from First Kings today, we hear Solomon echoing God’s words, “My name shall be there.”

And in our reading from Revelation, we find the Apostle John  saying:

"See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them as their God;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;

As we look around, we too realize that this is truly the home of O God.  We too are able to exclaim, God’s name dwells here! And by “the home of God”  I don’t mean just this building. After all—God is truly here, with us, in all that we do together.  The name of God is proclaimed in the ministries we do here. In the outreach we do.
In the witness we make in the community of Farg0-Moorhead and in the wider Church. God is here, with us.  God is working through us and in us. Sometimes, when we are in the midst of it all, when we are doing the work, we sometimes miss that perspective.  We miss that sense of holiness and renewal and life that comes bubbling up from a healthy and vital congregation working together. We miss the fact that God truly is here.

So, it is good to stop and listen for a moment. It is good to reorient ourselves.  It is good to refocus and see what ways we can move forward together. It is good to look around and see how God is working through us.
In a few moments, we will recognize and give thanks for now only our new members but for all our members and the many ministries of this church.  Many of the ministries that happen here at St. Stephen’s go on clandestinely.  They go on behind the scenes, in ways most of us (with exception of God) don’t even see and recognize. But that is how God works as well.  God works oftentimes clandestinely, through us and around us.

This morning, however, we are seeing very clearly the ways in which God works not so clandestinely. We see it in the growth of St. Stephen’s.  We see it in the vitality here. We see it in the love here.  But behind all these incredible things happening now, God has also worked slowly and deliberately and seemingly clandestinely throughout the years. And for all of this—the past, the present and the future—we are truly thankful.

God truly is in this place.  This is truly the house of God.  This is the place in which love is proclaimed and acted out.

So, let us rejoice. Let us rejoice in where we have been. Let us rejoice in where we are. Let us rejoice in where we are going. And, in our rejoicing, let us truly be God’s own people. Let us be God’s people in order that we might proclaim, in love, the mighty and merciful acts of Christ, the living and unmovable stone, on whom we find our security and our foundation.   

Sunday, September 1, 2013

15 Pentecost

Luke 14:1, 7-14


+ This past week I preached at a funeral at GethsemaneCathedral in Fargo. The funeral was for a dear friend of mine, Janet Jordheim, the mother of Deacon Mary Gokey, who occasionally attends St. Stephen’s. After the service, I was talking with the new Dean of Gethsemane Cathedral, Father John Witnah, who celebrated the Eucharist for Janet.

 As we talked, he asked me, as clergy are apt to do on occasion, “So, are you preaching on the reading from Hebrews this Sunday?” (You can tell how compelling priest-talk is.)
 I said, “No, as much as I love that reading, I’m actually preaching on the Gospel. I am going to preach about humility.”
 He paused—now remember, he just met me—and gave me kind of strange look that seemed to say, “You are going to preach about humility?”
 Maybe I was reading too much into his reaction.  (The Dean is really a very nice guy).
But, yes, today, we get to hear this morning about humility.  We’re all excited about this. And we’re all excited to be hearing about it from me, of all people.  For those us who were listening closely to this morning’s Gospel—and I hope you were—we might find ourselves struggling a bit with Jesus’ words.  I know I certainly do.  And if we aren’t struggling—if those words don’t make us uncomfortable—then maybe we should be.  They are uncomfortable words, after all.

Jesus is making clear to us that, if we neglect the least among us, if we consistently put ourselves first—if we let our egos win out—we are truly putting ourselves in jeopardy. What we do here on earth—in this life—does make a difference.  It makes a difference here, and it makes a difference in the next world. It makes a difference with those we neglect. And it makes a difference with God. And we should take heed.  We shouldn’t neglect those who are least among us.

But probably the most difficult aspect of our Gospel today is when Jesus summarized everything in that all-too-familiar maxim:

“For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Jesus is not pulling any punches here. He is as clear as day. Humble yourselves. If you do so, you will be exalted. If you are arrogant and full of yourself, you will be humbled. I know this might come as a completely surprise to those of you who know me, there have been times when I have been a bit arrogant.  There have been times when I have been a bit full of myself.  And I can tell you that each time I have, I have been very quickly put in my place.  I have been humbled in those instances.  As I rightly should have been. Humility and pride are too often huge issues for all of us Christians, whether we are laypeople or clergy.  For those of us who have spent a good part of lives in church, we have known too many arrogant, self-centered, conceited Christians in our lives.  They sometimes are on the Vestry, in the pews, in the kitchen, or in the pulpit.

Pride is an ugly thing.  It doesn’t do anyone any good, especially the prideful one.  But to be fair, it’s easy enough to do.  It’s easy enough to fall in that ugly trap of pride.  I’ve done it. We all have.  When we encounter those prideful Christians, we need to be careful how we deal with them.  Because we need to remind ourselves: “there but for the grace of God, go we.”

Pride is an easy trap to fall into as Christians.  We know we are loved by God.  We know we, as followers of Jesus, through our Baptisms, have a special place in relation to God.  It’s easy sometimes to feel smug and self-assured.  And when we are fully immersed in Church work, it’s easy for us to think that the success or failure of the ministry of the Church depends on us as individuals.

Earlier this summer I preached about lone wolf ministry. Lone wolf ministry doesn’t work. And Jesus certainly never intended his followers to be lone wolves. Discipleship means community.  Still, we do it. I do it more often than I care to admit.  We’ve all heard it, “If I didn’t do it, who would?”

“If I didn’t do it, it’s just not going to get done.”

And sometimes, this might be true.  But, it is a dangerous road to take when we start thinking everything revolves around us. And for clergy, they are in an even more vulnerable place.
 As often as I fall into the pride trap in my life, I am lucky because I have a very clearly defined circle of family and friends who put me in my place very quickly whenever I find my head getting a little too big for its own good.  As clergy, we occasionally find ourselves being praised and treated with a sometimes undeserved respect.  And although I have found my vocation to the priesthood to be a very humbling experience, there are times when we might find ourselves feeling very smug over a job well done. That’s true with all of us, as Christians.  It’s easy to fall into that ugly trap of believing everything is about us as individual. It’s easy to convince ourselves that the world revolves around us and only us.  Life, after all, is a matter of perspective.  And from our perspective, everything else does in fact revolve around us.

But our job as followers and disciples of Jesus is to change that perspective.  Our job as Christians is to, always and everywhere, put Christ first.  It is not all about us.  We are just a breath.  We are just a blink of the eye in the larger scheme of everything.  We are born, we live, we die.  And then we are gone.  And, without Christ, that is all we would be.  There would be no hope, there would be no future, there would be no us, without Christ. Christ gives us our definition.  Christ gives us our identity.  Christ gives us our purpose.  This is what it means to be a Christian.

And this is what Jesus is getting at today, when he talks about the humbled being exalted.  Who knows better than Jesus about humility?  He, who humbled himself by becoming one of us, who humbled himself to the point of actually being betrayed, humiliated and murdered, knew a few things about humility.
 
When dealing with my own pride, I have found a very helpful exercise based on a saying by one of my patron saints, the priest and poet, Blessed George Herbert.  Yes, I know. There goes Father Jamie quoting George Herbert again!  But, I’ve been reading an incredible book about George Herbert lately that I highly recommend: The Music at Midnight.  I love George Herbert he knew humility. You’ve heard me use this image many, many times—and I will use again many, many times, no doubt—but George Herbert would pray, each time he preached, that he would be the window pane through which the Light of God would shine.  Or, as he himself put in the opening stanza to his poem “The Windows”

Lord, how can man preach thy eternall word?
He is a brittle crazie glasse:
Yet in thy temple thou dost him afford
This glorious and transcendent place,
To be a window, through thy grace.

I love that image. And we can do so much with it.  The idea of being a window through which the light of God shines is wonderful for us. Because we realize that no matter how dirty the pane is, no matter how cracked or warped the glass might be, God’s light can always shine through us.  We don’t have to be the clear, clean window panes.  We only need to be enough of a “brittle crazie glass” that God’s light will get through in some way. And by letting Christ’s light shine through us, we are truly putting Christ first.

So, when we find ourselves falling into the pride trap, we need to stop and remind ourselves to put Christ first.  When we find ourselves seeing the world as revolving around the all-mighty ME, we do need to stop and remind ourselves that Christ is at the center of our lives and, as such, our world revolves around Christ.  After all, as he hear in that beautiful reading from Hebrews, God says to us, “I will never leave you or forsake you.”
As long as God is with us—as God’s light is shining through us—we can simply be who we are without trying to be something we are not.
When we find ourselves shining with the glow of self-pride and self-contentment, let us remember that the light shining through us is not my light or your light, but the light of Christ and that any reflection others have of our works is accomplished only through that light.
When we find ourselves becoming prideful, let us stop and listen to the voice of Christ as he says to you, “those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Christ wants you to be exalted. Christ wants to exalt you.  But this can only happen when you come before Christ as his humble servant, as his humble disciple, as his humble friend, serving Christ in those poor and needy people around us. This can only happen when we place Christ at the forefront of our lives

So, let us put Christ first. Let us humble ourselves before Christ.  And let the light of Christ shine through us—brittle, crazie glass that we are—in all that we do. Amen.