Sunday, February 9, 2014

5 Epiphany

February 9, 2014

Matthew 5.13-20

+ So, for all my talk about vacation, I do have to admit: Vacation is actually a very difficult thing for me. I know. I’m weird.

If I didn’t force myself to take a vacation (and also if I didn’t hate winter in North Dakota as much as I do), I’m not certain I would even take vacation. If we were all living together in Florida—if St. Stephens’ could be transported to Florida or anyplace sunny and warm— I wouldn’t even see a reason to go on vacation.

But, I do it because I know it’s important, for my own health and for all of you as well. Let’s face it, you definitely need a vacation from all of this…

A few month ago, as I was thinking about vacation and trying to figure out who I could cover that second Sunday I’m gone, I stopped at Bethlehem Lutheran Church here in Fargo to ask a pastor friend of mine the if she could cover for me. She wasn’t in, so I decided to ask the secretary where the old baptismal font was—the one from about 1970.

She kind of gave me this weird look. Why would an Episcopal priest be asking where the old baptismal font is?

Well, I explained, I’d like to see it because in that font, I was baptized 44 years ago. Actually it was 44 years ago yesterday, on February 8, 1970.

She relaxed and smiled and said, if you go rise across the hallway from the office, there’s a small chapel. In there is the old font.

So, I went in and there it was. As I stood there looking at it, I remembered a story that I have shared with you often. It is the story of one of my heroes, Archbishop Michael Ramsey.

One day, after he became the Archbishop of Canterbury, he visited St. Michael’s in Horbling in England.  There, in 1904, he was baptized. When he saw the font in which he was baptized, he exclaimed,

“O font, font, font in which I was baptized!”

I’ve always the poetry of that story! I, on gazing at my own baptismal font, did repeat those words (quietly to myself) on that day. I do so not out of piety or drama. I did so, because I realized: I have thought about that event often in my life.

In that font, my life changed. I didn’t know it. I wasn’t aware of it. But it did. Something wonderful and incredible happened there. Of course, that wonderfulness and the incredibleness wasn’t unique. It was there for all of us on that each of were baptized, whether we knew it or not.  We were formed in those waters. We were made who we are today in those waters. And in those waters, we found love. A love that we didn’t ask for. A love we certainly never anticipated. But it was love.

In our Gospel for today, Jesus talks about salt and light. You are the salt of the earth, Jesus
says. But our usefulness as “salt” is only good enough until we still have “taste.” He then goes on to say, “You are the light of the world” but then proceeds to say that the only effective light is one that is uncovered. In that baptismal moment in our lives, we essentially became salt with taste and unhindered light.

When we live out our Baptismal Covenant, when we act as baptized people in this world, we are the effective salt of the earth. When we live our baptism, we are a light set on a lampstand.

Now I don’t know to tell anyone here this morning that being baptized people is not easy. Remaining tasty salt is not easy. Being a light on a lampstand leaves us exposed and open to every wind that blows through.

In our lives as followers of Jesus, there will be moments when it hard. Hard to be a Christian. Hard to believe as a Christian.  And, often times, hard to live with other Christians.

Other people—oftentimes other Christians—irritate us or intimidate us or threaten us, either intentionally and unintentionally. But these are just the realities of what it means to be a light on a lampstand. This is what it means to live in community with one another. And the only response we can have to all of that is love.

We must love. Our love, formed in those waters of baptism, must shine brightly. Those spirit-infused waters must be the fuel for the light within us.

And loving people who hurt us, or intimidate us or make us uncomfortable is incredibly hard. Let me tell you! I have been there. I know.

But we don’t have any other options as Christians, as followers of Jesus. The only option we have is the love that was infused in us as our baptism.  There are times when I wish I didn’t have the deal with these things. There are times when I wish everyone just liked me and I liked them. Life would be so much easier.   But, sadly, that’s not the reality.

Some people, as hard as it is to believe, don’t like me. I remember being shocked one time when a fellow clergy person told me that I intimidated them. Me! Intimidating anybody. I didn’t get it and I still don’t get it. But this person resented me and, sadly, I think still does, no matter what I’ve done to right that situation. I obviously did something in which, for that person anyway, I was tasteless salt. I was a light under a bushel.

But that’s the way it is sometimes. We will fail. We will falter. We will make mistakes. Those waters of baptism never guaranteed us that we would never trip up or fail. But those waters do guarantee that we can pick ourselves up and continue on, broken and wounded as we are sometimes.

My life as a follower of Jesus has never been easy. That day, 44 years ago yesterday, started me out on a road of twists and turns and thorny, sometimes ugly bypasses.  I’ve fallen on that path. I’ve tripped up majorly at times. There were moments when I wasn’t even certain I wanted to go any further.

But I have. We all have. All of here this morning have pressed on, going forward, striving and failing and striving again.  And it’s all good. Even the trip-ups are good.

Yes, our Christian life is hard at times. Loving each other is hard at times. Loving ourselves as God loves us is sometimes the hardest of all. But when we do this, we truly do become the salt of the earth. We truly do become a light set on a lampstand.

And when we are—when we are a light unhindered, a Christ-infused light shining brightly for all the world to see, sharing the light of Christ with others—we are doing what are meant to do as Christians, as followers of Jesus.

So let us not put our light under a bushel. Let us not grow frustrated. Let us not the tiredness and fatigue that sometimes comes upon win out.

But let us be infused. Let us be rejuvenated. And let us shine! Shine brightly! Shine without apprehension or fear!

Let us shine! And when we do, others will, as Jesus tells us, see our good works, and we will truly be giving glory to our God in heaven.

Amen.

 

 

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Vegan Diary: One year Vegetarian

Tomorrow, I will have been a vegetarian for one whole year. One year without cheating. One year without meat of any kind.

I have also been vegan for two months as of today.

Plus, I haven’t Diet Coke also two months ago last week.

I don’t say that in some self-righteous way. For the most, people who aren’t vegetarian or vegan or who drink diet soda on a regular basis are not impressed by it. I say it only because I am happy I’ve done it. It was a personal challenge and I achieved it. And I feel a certain sense of personal pride in doing so.

So, how has it been? To be blunt: it’s been incredible. I have learned much this time around as a vegetarian. Twenty years ago, I went vegetarian for the first time for five years. I didn’t cheat once in those five years, but I also didn’t do it right. I ate lots of junk. I ate lots of cheese and dairy. I didn’t eat healthy. And, in the end, I gave it up as easily I as would throw away an old shirt.

This time around, I haven’t always eaten healthy, but I have done much better. My health has not been this good in a very long time. And I can really see and feel the results. Not because I am trying to or desperately want to. They simply are happening for me, and I am grateful.

One thing has surprised me: I still get scolded by people. I have to admit that at 44 years old,
an ordained priest, a published writer, a person with lots of life-experience under my belt, someone who has been indepenet for a very long time, being scolded at this time in my life is sobering. And I honestly don’t know how to react to it.

So, when someone tells me, out of the blue: “This vegan diet is not healthy for you,” I stiffen and bite my tongue. And I try not to respond by simply noticing the meat they fork onto their plates and the gravy with which they smother their mashed potatoes.

My resentment comes from the fact that I am amazed nobody scolded me when my diet was unhealthy, when I was eating fast food from McDonald’s or ice cream from Cold Stone Creamery or pizzas from Pizza Hut. When I was diagnosed with cancer twelve years ago and my weight ballooned, did anyone scold me for my eating habits then. Then, when I should have been scolded for what I was eating.

All I can say in return is: I haven’t felt deprived or lacking once in what I eat. It has been strangely natural for me. And once I got into the habit of ignoring the scolding and bolder in asking servers to make a dish of pasta with marinara instead of creamy sauce, or order a sandwich without cheese or mayo, it was actually pretty easy.

Still, I’ve learned not be a jerk about vegetarianism/veganism. Taking a note from Moby, I’ve learned to be almost apologetic about it when people scold me or even when they ask me over to their homes or out to eat. Waving the vegan flag or whipping out photos of suffering animals on factory farms or slaughterhouses certainly does not win people over to the cause (which isn’tmy  intention in the first place). In fact, that vegan flag-waving and disturbing photos only drives people further and further away.

I do what I can, where I can, because it makes a difference in my life. It makes a difference in my ethics, in my diet and in my health. And I understand now how being vegetarian/vegan really is more than just an issue of food. It is more than just a diet. It is a lifestyle. It is a way living one’s life and it is a way of seeing the world around me differently.

I can also say there is something weirdly spiritual about this way of eating. It does seem to fit so well into my faith life. As I Christian and as priest, I feel a certain moral obligation about animals and the suffering they endure for human consumption. There is a disconnect in our collective intention blindness toward the suffering of other living being. And there is something good and holy in compassionate living.

I am thankful for this year as a vegetarian. I am thankful for these past two vegan months. It has been very good. The proof is in the vegan pudding. I am feeling great—better than I have in a long time.

What more can I ask?

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Maple Sheyenne February 2014

This evening, while driving out to Maple Sheyenne Cemetery where my father's ashes are buried, I took this photo, which turned out pretty good, if I say so myself:

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Presentation of Our Lord

February 4, 2014

 Luke 2. 22-40

 + So, let’s see if you can remember this. What happened 40 days ago today? Yes, Christmas happened 40 days ago today. I know it’s hard to even think of that, now in early February. It feels so long ago already.

 

But, yes 40 days ago we commemorated the birth of Jesus. Which is why, today, we are commemorating the Presentation of Jesus.  Which simply means that, in Jewish tradition, the first born son was to be presented to the Temple on the 40th day after his birth.  And on that day, the child was to literally be redeemed.

 

Reminiscent of the story of Abraham and his first son Isaac, an animal sacrifice would’ve made in the place of the life of the son, which in the case of Jesus’ family who were poor, would have been two doves.

 

Now why, you might ask? Why 40 days? Well,  until about the Thirteenth century, it was often believed that the soul did not even enter a boy child until the 40th day.  (The soul entered a girl child on the 80th day) So essentially, on the 40th day, the boy child becomes human. The child now has an identity—a name.  And the child is now God’s own possession.

 

This day is also called Candlemas, and today, of course, we at St. Stephen’s, in keeping with a tradition going back to the very beginning of the Church, will bless candles on this day.  In the early Church, all the candles that would be used in the Church Year and in individual people’s lives would be blessed on this day.  The candles blessed on this day for personal use were actually considered spiritually powerful. They were often lit during thunderstorms or when one was sick or they would be placed in the hands of one who was dying.  It was also believed that the weather on this day decided what the rest of winter would be like.  In fact there was also a wonderful little tune used in rural England that went:

 

If Candlemas-day be fair and bright
Winter will have another fight
If Candlemas-day brings cloud and rain,
Winter won’t come again.

 

What does that sound like? Yes, Ground Hogs Day. In fact, Ground Hogs Day, which originated in Germany, was a Protestant invention to counteract what they perceived to be this Catholic feast.

 

Now all of that is wonderful and, I think, is interesting in helping understand this feast day and in its importance in the life of the Church and the world. But the real message of this day is of course the fact, in presenting Jesus in  Temple, the Law in Jesus was being fulfilled.

 

This morning, in this feast,  we find the old and the new meeting. That is what this feast we celebrate today is really all about . The Feast of the Presentation is all about the Old and the New meeting.  In fact, in the Eastern Orthodox Church, this feast is called the Meeting  of Christ with Simeon.
 
In our Gospel reading for today, we find Simeon representing the Old Law. He is the symbol of the Old Testament—the old Law. We have Simeon. He is nearing the end of  his life. He knows he is in his last days. But he also knows something new is coming. Something new and wonderful and incredible is about dawn.

 

The rites done at the temple by the priest would’ve been the Levitical rites that fulfilled the Law. The priest oversaw the rites of purification. Mary herself would certainly be going through the purification rites all mothers had to go through on this fortieth day.  Simeon, it seems, was present at the dedication service of the new child to God, which, of course, would have included both his naming and his circumcision.  All of this fulfils the Old Law.

 

Then, of course, there is a figure who we always seem to overlook in the scripture. The Prophet Anna.  I like Anna for some reason.  She seems to be the bridge here.  She comes forward out of the background and begins praising God and speaking of the greatness of this Child.  What she proclaims is the New. What she praises God for is Jesus—born under the most unusual of circumstances.

 

In case we forgot what happened 40 days ago, he was conceived and born of a virgin, with angels in attendance, with a bright shining star in the sky and mysterious strangers coming from the East. In Jesus, we have the Law fulfilled.  Eventually, in this baby that comes before Simeon, the old Law would find its fulfillment. The Law is fulfilled in this baby, who will grow up, to proclaim God’s kingdom in a way no else has before or since. This baby will also grow up to die on the Cross. No longer do we need those animals sacrifices. We don’t need two little doves to die for us.   His death did away with all those sacrifices.  Now, this all sounds wonderful.

 

But no doubt we start asking this important question: why do we even need the Old Testament? If Jesus came to fulfill it, it seems pointless.  But what we need to remember is that this New Law does not overcome or cancel out the old Law. It only solidifies it. It makes it more real.  The Old Law will simply change because now there will be no more need of animal sacrifices and atonement offerings.

 

In Jesus—the ultimate Lamb of God—those offerings are done. They were needed then. They are not needed now. But they foreshadowed what was to come. The Old Law helps us make sense who Jesus is. We have one offering—that offering of Jesus on the Cross—and through it we are all purified.  But even more so than that. This Feast of the Presentation is about us as well.

 

We too are being presented today. We too are presented before God—as redeemed and reborn people. We too are being brought before God in love. From this day forward we know that we are loved and cherished by God. We know that we are all essentially loved children of God, because Jesus, the first born, led the way for us.

 

The Old Law hasn’t been done away for us. Rather, Old Law has been fulfilled and made whole by the New . We see that there is a sort of reverse eclipsing taking place. The Old Law is still there. But the New has overtaken it and outshines it.

 

 

And today is about Jesus being presented to us. Presented to us in those who need us. Presented to us in those who are poor, or in need, or marginalized.

 

See, it really is a wonderful day we celebrate today. The Feast of the Presentation speaks loudly to us on many levels. But most profoundly it speaks to us of God’s incredible love for us. So, this morning, on this Candlemas, let us be a light shining it the darkness.

 

Let that light in us be the light of the Christ Child who was presented in the Temple.  We, like Jesus being presented to Simeon, are also being presented before God today and always.

 

So let us, like the prophet Anna, rejoice.  Let us, like her, speak to all who are looking for redemption. And with Simeon, let us sing:

 

“Now you may dismiss your servant in peace, according to your word;
For my eyes have now seen your salvation which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples.

 

Amen.