Sunday, March 30, 2014

4 Lent

Lataere Sunday
March 30, 2014


Ephesians 5.8-14; John 9.1-14

+ Things sure are looking rosy around here this morning, aren’t they? No pun intended, of course. I really love it when we do the Rose Sundays. Especially in Lent.

Today is, of course, Lataere Sunday. Lataere, of course, means "Rejoice" in Latin. We are now at the midpoint of Lent.  And because we are, it is a time to rejoice. Essentially, we get a little break from Lent on this Sunday.


You’ll notice  flowers, which are normally forbidden during Lent, are on the altar here this morning. Traditionally, the organ was never played during Lent, except on Laetare Sunday. Luckily, we always have the organ.


Traditionally, even weddings, which were normally banned during Lent, could be performed on this day. I’m happy we’re not doing that today.

The only other time of the year we celebrate with our rose vestments is in Advent, on Gaudete Sunday. On that Sunday, we also get a little break.

As most of you know, I was out at Assumption Abbey in Richardton, ND for our minister’s conference. Our Dustin Wallace is still out there this morning. During our Friday night social time, the Bishop again singled St. Stephen’s out as the only congregation in the Diocese of North Dakota that pulls out the rose vestments for Lataere and Gaudete Sundays. Actually, he said our vestments looked more Pepto-Bismal.  Hey, I’ll take a compliment from the Bishop any day, even if it I tongue-in-cheek.

The Gospel reading for this Sunday in the old lectionaries was John 6:1-15, the multiplication of the loaves and the fishes -- symbols of the Eucharist to come on Maundy Thursday of Holy Week.   But, I’m happy we have the Gospel reading we have for today.

This story of Jesus healing the blind man speaks loud and clear to us.   In a sense today—Lataere Sunday, the half-way mark of Lent—is a time for us to examine this whole sense of blindness. Not just physical blindness, but spiritual blindness, as well. My theme for Lent this year, as you have all heard me say by now, has been brokenness, or more specifically, our brokenness in relation to the broken Body of Jesus in the Eucharist.

In a sense, our brokenness and our blindness are similar. In our brokenness we become like blind people—or, at least, like nearsighted people.  We grope about.  We find ourselves dependent upon those things that we think give us come sense of clarity.

But ultimately, nothing really seems to heal our nearsightedness.  In fact our sight seems to get worse and worse as we age.

In our Gospel reading for today, we find a man blind from birth.  The miracle Jesus performs for him is truly a BIG miracle. Can you imagine what it must’ve been like for this man? Here he is, born without sight, suddenly seeing.  It must have been quite a shock. It would, no doubt, involve a complete reeducation of one’s whole self.  By the time he reached the age he was—he was maybe in his twenties or thirties—he no doubt had an idea in his mind of what things may have looked like.

And, with the return of his vision, he was, I’m certain, amazed at what things actually looked like.  Even things we might take for granted, such as the faces of our mother and father or spouse, would have been new for this man.  So, the miracle Jesus performs is truly a far-ranging miracle.

There’s also an interesting analytical post-script to our Gospel reading.  St Basil the Great and other early Church Fathers believe that this blind man was not only born blind, he was actually born without eyes.  This, they say, is why Jesus takes clay and places them upon the empty sockets, essentially forming eyes for this man.  When he washes them in the waters of Siloam, the eyes of clay became real eyes with perfect sight.  It’s a great story, but the real gist of this story is about us.

 
Our spiritual blindness often causes us to ignore those in need around us and this blindness causes distance and isolation in our lives, making our brokenness even deeper and more pronounced.  For some of us, our spiritual blindness is merely a spiritual near- or far-sightedness.

But today, on Lataere Sunday, as we head into the latter part of Lent, we find ourselves being relieved for a bit of the heavy sense of brokenness we have been dealing with throughout Lent so far.  We see a bit of clarity in our vision. Lataere Sunday, also known as Rose Sunday or Mothering Sunday or Refreshment Sunday—is a break in our Lenten half-light.

Today, even in Lent, we can be joyful.  It is a time for us to realize that our brokenness is not an eternal brokenness.  We realize today that no matter how broken or fractured we might seem, we can be made whole once again.  No matter how blind or nearsighted we might be spiritually, our spiritual sight can be returned to us once again.  And in doing so, we find ourselves almost chuckling over our brokenness, over our blindness.

 We, in a sense, find ourselves on this Lataere Sunday—this joyful Sunday in Lent—laughing at our brokenness. Lataere Sunday is a great to remind ourselves that, even in our brokenness, we will not be broken forever.  We will be made whole like the blind man, we too will be made whole.  We too will see with clarity and vision.  And like him, we too will see the darkness lifted from our lives and the dazzling light of Christ breaking through.

 So, today, on this Lataere Sunday—on this joyful Sunday in Lent—let us be joyful.  Let’s be joyful, even in our brokenness. Let us be joyful even as we grope about, spiritually half-blind as we may be at times.  Let us be joyful, because our brokenness and our blindness are only temporary. But our joy is eternal.

 

 

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

New book accepted for publication


Great news: my collection of short stories, The Downstairs Tenant, was just accepted for publication by the Institute for Regional Studies (the same publisher that brought out Fargo, 1957)! 

Sunday, March 23, 2014

3 Lent

March 23, 2014

John 4.5-42 

+ In a few weeks, I will have gone five months—five very long months—without that wonderful nectar, Diet Coke. Five months. After over twenty-five years of having at least three every single day of my life.  

Now, as many of you know, I have been a vegetarian for over a year and I’ve been vegan for almost four months. And I can say that St. Stephen’s has been one of the friendliest vegetarian/vegan friendly congregations I have ever encountered (and we should be very proud of that).  For all of you who have to suffer through my as nauseam discussions on my vegetarian and veganism, I can say this:


Meat was very easy to give up. Dairy and eggs was harder, but, being lactose intolerant, I have really felt the benefits of such a change.  For the first time in my life, I have had no allergies. And, for the first time in my life, I have made it through it the winter without one instance of the flu or a cold. For the first time ever.  So. those things have been good.

But, Diet Coke. Not as easy. In fact, just last night I was at Space Aliens, of all places (they have really great cheeseless pizza!): there was a Diet Coke on the next table. I found myself looking over it kind of longingly.  It looked so good.

 I never feel that way about meat. I very rarely ever feel that way about dairy. But, awww Diet Coke. I could almost taste it.  Certainly I can say, I was thirsty for a Diet Coke. But I did not (and will NOT) partake.

 Thirst if one of those things we don’t worry about too much in our lives in our privileged Western world. Most of us don’t physically thirst.  We have our coffees, our clean water, our water machines and water tanks, not to mention our sodas and our recreational alcohol. So much of our life our life revolves around what we drink, that thirst very rarely ever plays into our lives anymore.  But although we might not thirst for liquid often in our lives, we do find ourselves thirsting.

 We do thirst for knowledge, we thirst justice, we thirst for fulfillment.  And we definitely thirst for spiritual truth.

 And I think that’s very close to what Jesus is talking about in today’s Gospel.  In our very long Gospel reading, we find Jesus confronting this Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well.  More often than not, when we encounter a story like this in scripture, we don’t often think about what happened to some of these people their experience with Jesus.

 Every so often, it might not hurt to ask ourselves: what happened to this woman at the well?  Did she heed the words of Jesus to her, or did she go on in her old lifestyle?  We know she shared the news with other Samaritans. But did she reform her life?  We will never know.

 But, what is more important is the message that is here for all of us.  When Jesus sits with the woman at the well, he offers not only her that water of life—he offers it to us as well.  And we, in turn, like her, must “with open hand” give it “to those who thirst.”

 To truly understand the meaning of water, here, though we have to gently remind ourselves of the land in which this story is taking place.  Palestine was and is a dry and arid land. And in Jesus’ day, water was not as accessible as we take for granted these days.  It came from wells that sometimes weren’t in close proximity to one’s home. The water that came from those wells was not the clean and filtered water we enjoy now, that we drink from fancy bottles.  They didn’t have refrigeration, so often the water they drank was lukewarm at best.  And sometimes it was polluted.  People got sick and died from drinking it.

 But despite all of that, water was essential.  One died without water in that arid land.  Water meant life.  

 In that world, people truly understood thirst.  They thirsted truly for water. And so we have this issue of water in a story in which Jesus confronts this woman—who is obviously and truly thirsty.  Thirsty for water, yes, but—as we learn—she is obviously thirsty also for more.  She is thirsty as well for love, for security, for stability, all of which she does not have.

 Now, we have to be fair to her.  For a woman to be without a man in her day would have meant that she would be without security, without a home, without anything.  A woman at that time was defined by the men in her life—her husband or father or son.  And so, widowed as many times as she was, she was desperate to find some reason and purpose in her life through the men in her life.  This woman is truly a broken woman.  She is thirsty.  Thirsty for the water she is drawing from the well and thirsty for more than life has given her.

 In a sense, we can find much to relate to in this woman. We too are broken people, as you have heard me preach again and again during this season of Lent.  We too are thirsty.  As broken people, we are thirsty for relationships, for money, for food, for alcohol for anything to fill that empty parched feeling within our broken selves.  And as broken people, we find that as much as we try to quench that thirst, it all seems to run right out of us.  We find that we will never be quenched until we drink of that cool, clean water which will fill us where we need to be filled.

 That cool, clean Water is of course Jesus.  He is the Water of which we drink to be truly filled. It is the Water that will become in us “a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

 What better image to take with us in these long days of Lent?  As we journey through the desert of Lent toward Holy Week, toward the darkness and violence of Good Friday, what better image can we cling to?  Because that is what we are doing during Lent.  We are traveling through the desert.  We are walking through the arid wasteland of our own lives.  We are journeying toward the Cross and the destruction, pain and death it brings.  We are wandering toward that tomb, that dark, dank place.  We are that woman at the well—parched and alone, thirsting for something more.

 In Lent, we bring ourselves—our fractured, shattered, uncertain, frightened, insecure selves—to the well, expecting only for a temporary quenching.  But at Easter, that day we are longing for, that we are traveling toward, that we are striving toward despite our thirst—on that day we will find more than we expected to find.  On Easter, we will find Jesus, alive and vibrant, offering us water that will truly quench our thirst. At the empty tomb—that other well—he gives us the water that will fill us and renew us and make us whole and complete.  There, he offers us the water that will wash away the grit and ugliness of all that we have done and all that we have failed to do, as we say to God in our confession of sins.

 We find glimpses of this Easter feast in the Eucharist we celebrate together.  Here too we our thirst is quenched in the blood shed from the broken body of Jesus.  Here we too drink to quench our thirst. And in the brokenness of Jesus, we find our brokenness healed.

 Like the Samaritan woman, we approach the well of this altar, trapped in our own brokenness.  But, like her, we are able to leave the well of this altar and of the Easter tomb different people.  We walk away from this altar and that tomb transformed people—a person made whole.  We walk away no longer fractured people.  We walk away remade into saints.

 So, as we approach Easter and the Living Water that pours forth from the tomb of Easter, let us drink fully of the water that is offered to us there.  Let us drink deeply of Jesus, who offers himself to us fully and completely there, on Good Friday, there on Easter morning, and here on this altar this morning.  And in that Water, we will find all that we desire. Our insecurities will be washed away. Our wounds will be cleaned and healed.  Everything we have done or failed to do will be made right.  Our brokenness will be made whole. That thirst that drives us and nags at us and gnaws at us, that drives us to drink from places where we should not be drinking, will finally—once and for all—be quenched.  And in that Living Water we will find Life—that Life that Jesus brings us on that Easter morning—a Life without death or suffering or wanting—a life which Jesus breaks wide open for us and shows us as more incredible than anything we fully appreciate or understand.

 Jesus is there, offering himself for all. All we have to do is say, “Give me some of that water.”  And it will be given to us.  And those of us who drink of that water will never again be thirsty.

 

Sunday, March 16, 2014

2 Lent

March 16, 2014
Genesis 12:1-4a; John 3.1-7
+ I know this doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone here this morning, but…I love to talk. I love to just gab about anything for hours on end.  So, of course, whenever anyone asks me to speak at any kind of gathering, I do it.

This past week I spoke at one such gathering for a dear friend and former parishioner from the Cathedral. She asked me to speak to a group of people who gather on a monthly basis to talk about different issues. I read some poems for them, which they enjoyed, but they were endlessly fascinated with the fact that I was a priest, for some reason. Most of the questions were about what is it like priest, what do I do in a day,

At some point in our conversation, we had a conversations about the difference between priests and Presbyterian pastors for some reason. And in the course of that discussion, I mentioned that, well, we’re all ministers.

There was a shocked hush that came across the room. They were somewhat struck by that.

So, I repeated it and said, “we’re all ministers.”

They just didn’t get it.  

I don’t think I need to worry about such a reaction this morning. Most of us know that, for us, we are all ministers. We are all doing ministry together here. I am just the priest doing ministry in my own way. And each of you are doing ministry in your own ways as well.

I should be clearer about that. Our ministry together is not just in what we do.  It is in who we are.  Our ministry is often a ministry of who we are.  Of our personalities. Of the person that God has created, even in our very brokenness.  It’s all bound up very tightly together.

And if each of us listens, if each of strains our spiritual ears and hearts toward God, we can hear that calling, deep in our hearts.  We can find that God is calling us to the ministry of our day-to-day lives, the ministry of the person God has formed us to be, the ministry to serve others in the way God sees fit.

In our reading from the Hebrew Bible this morning, we find a clear call from God to Abram.

“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to a land that I will show you.”

Essentially this is the call to all of us who are in ministry.  God calls to us wherever we may be and when that happens, we must heed it.  We must step out from our comfortable places, and we must step out into our service to others even if that means going to those people in strange and alien places.  And sometimes when we step into those uncomfortable places, we are made all the more aware of our own brokenness—we become even more vulnerable.

But that’s just a simple fact in ministry: when God calls, God calls heedless of our brokenness.  In fact, God calls us knowing full well our brokenness.  And—and I hope this isn’t news to anyone here this morning—God uses our brokenness.  God can truly work through our brokenness and use our fractured selves in reaching out to other fractured people.

For too many people our brokenness divides us.  It separates us.  It isolates us.  It prevents us from moving forward in our lives and ministries.  And when it does, our brokenness becomes a kind of condemnation.  It becomes the open wound we must carry with us—allowed by us to stink and fester.

But when we can use our brokenness to reach out in love, when we allow God to use our brokenness, it is no longer a curse and a condemnation.  Our brokenness becomes a fruitful means for ministry.  It becomes a means for renewal and rebirth.  It becomes the basis for ministry—for reaching out and helping those who are broken and in need around us.

In our Gospel reading for today we get that all-too-familiar bit of scripture.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone ho believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”

 We have heard that scripture so often in our lives, we almost don’t realize what it’s really saying.  It is saying to us that God truly does love us. And that those of who are heeding our call—who following after Jesus, who are loving Jesus and loving the Jesus we find in others—we will be made whole one day. We will be given eternal life

 Each of us is called.  Each of us has been issued a call from God to serve.  It might not have been a dramatic calling—an overwhelming sense of the Presence of God in our lives that motivates us to go and follow Jesus.

 But each Sunday we receive the invitation.  Each time we gather at this altar to celebrate the Eucharist, we are, essentially, called to then go out, refreshed and renewed in our broken selves by this broken Body of Jesus, to serve the broken people of God.  We are called to go out and minister, not only by preaching and proclaiming with words, but by who we are, by our very lives and examples.

 So, let us heed the call of God.  Let us do as Abram did in our reading from Genesis did today.

 “Abram went, as the Lord told him…”

 Let us, as well, go as God has told us.  Let us go knowing full well that heeding God’s call and doing what God calls us to do may mean leaving our country and our kindred and our house—in essence, everything we find comfortable and safe—and going to a foreign place—a place that may be frightening.  And going will be doubly frightening when we know we go as imperfect human beings—as people broken and vulnerable.

 But let us also go, sure in our calling from God.  Let us go sure that God has blessed each of us, even in our brokenness.  Let us go knowing that God loves us, because we too love.  Let us go knowing that God will use the cracks and fractures within us, as always, for good.  And let us go knowing God will make us whole again in our eternal life.

 God will make us a blessing to others and God will “bless those who bless us.” What more can we possibly ask of the ministry God has called us to carry out?

 
 

Thursday, March 13, 2014

My latest book of poems is out!

"That Word," my latest book (a.k.a. "The Green Book") is out! If you're interested in purchasing a copy, here's how:


Sunday, March 9, 2014

1 Lent

March 9, 2014

Gen. 2.15-17; 3.1-7; Matthew 4.1-11


+ Ten years ago, when I was ordained to the priesthood, I included a prayer on the booklet for my ordination service, which I adapted from a prayer written by the great Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey. In that prayer, I prayed:

 
Only one thing I ask: take my heart and break it.
Break it not as I would like it to be broken, but as you would.
And because it is you who are breaking it, how can I be afraid,
for your hands are the hands I have felt all my life….
supporting me, comforting me and guiding me
to the places you wanted me to be.
Your hands are safety and in them, I am safe.


Some times, I realize, we need to be careful what we pray for. Because our prayers might be answered in ways we never thought they would. I can that, in these past ten years, I have been broken in ways I never could’ve imagined.
 

I say that not as a complaint. I say that simply as a fact. And I can say that, I am, somewhat thankful for the opportunity to be broken in ways that God has seen fit.
 

Because, in being broken, I have felt a weird connection with Jesus that I might not have had otherwise.  After all, he too was broken.  He too knew what brokeness was in his very Body.
 

That concept of the broken ones of God having a connection with the broken body of Christ that we experience in a very physical way during our celebration of the Eucharist has spoken to me and it is this theme that I am going to return to again and again during this season. 
 
Being broken—and we all are broken in various ways—is just a reality for us. But it is not a time to despair.  Our brokenness, especially when we place it alongside the broken Body of Christ that is lifted up and shown at the Eucharist, has more meaning than we can fully fathom at times.
 

In that moment, we realize we can no longer feel separated from Christ by our brokenness.  It is a moment in which we are, in fact, uniquely and wonderfully joined TO Christ in our shared brokenness.  


And what we glimpse today in our scripture readings is, on one hand brokenness, and on the other hand, wholeness.


In our readings from the Hebrew Bible and from the Gospel, we get two stories with one common character.  In our reading from Genesis, we find Satan in the form of a serpent, tempting Adam and Eve in the Garden.


In our Gospel, we have Satan yet again doing what he does best—tempting.  But this time he is tempting Jesus.  


What we have here is essentially the same story, retold.  We have the tempter. We have the tempted.  We have the temptations.  But we have two very different results.  In fact, we have exactly opposite results.


But ultimately these stories tell us this:  anytime we find something broken, somehow God fixes it in the end.  When it comes to God, what seems like a failure—the fall of Adam and Eve—eventually becomes the greatest success of all—the refusal of Jesus to be tempted.  And whatever is broken, is somehow always fixed and restored.


Still, we must deal with this issue of temptation.  It is the hinge event in both of the stories we hear this morning from scripture.


Alexander Schmemann, the great Eastern Orthodox theologian, once said that there are two roots to all sin—pride and the flesh.  If we look at what Satan offers both Adam and Jesus in today’s readings, we see that all the temptations can find their root mostly in the sin of pride.  Adam and Eve, as they partake of the fruit, have forgotten about God and have placed themselves first.  The eating of that fruit is all about them.  They have placed themselves before God in their own existence.  And that’s what pride really is.  It is the putting of ourselves before God.  It is the misguided belief that everything is all about us.  The world revolves around us.  The universe exists to serve us.  And the only humility we have is a false one.


When one allows one’s self to think along those lines, the fall that comes after it is a painful one. When Adam and Eve eat of the forbidden fruit, they are ashamed because they realize they are naked.  They realize they have nothing.  They realize that, by themselves and of themselves, they are nothing.  This realization is that it is not all about them, after all.  They have failed themselves and they have failed God in their pride.


But the amazing thing, if you notice, is that Adam and Eve still have not really learned their lesson.  They leave the Garden in shame, but there is still a certain level of pride there.  As they go, we don’t hear them wailing before God.  We don’t see them turning to God in sorrow for what they have done.  We don’t see them presenting themselves before God, broken and humbled, by what they have done.  They never ask God for forgiveness. Instead, they leave in shame, but they leave to continue on in their pride.


From this story, we see that Satan knows perfectly how to appeal to humans.  The doorway for Satan to enter into one’s life is through pride.  Of course, in scripture, we find that Satan’s downfall came through pride as well. Lucifer wanted to be like God.  And when he knew he couldn’t, he rebelled and fell.  We see him trying to use pride again in his temptation of Jesus in the wilderness.


When Satan tempts Jesus in the wilderness, he tries to appeal to Jesus’ pride.  He knows that Jesus knows he is exactly who is.  Satan knows that Jesus truly does have the power to reign and rule, that he has all the power in the world.  And Satan further knows that if he could harness that power for himself—for evil—then he will have that power as well.  Because Jesus was fully human, Satan knew that he could appeal to the pride all humans carry with them.


But Jesus, because he, in addition to being fully human, was also fully God as well, refused to succumb to the sin of pride.  In fact, because Jesus, fully God, came to us and became human like us, the ultimate sign of humility came among us.


So, these two stories speak in many ways to us, who are struggling in our own lives.  As we hear these stories, we no doubt find ourselves relating fully to Adam and Eve.  After all, like Adam and Eve, we find ourselves constantly tempted and constantly failing as they did.  And also like them, we find that when we fail, when we fall, we oftentimes don’t turn again to God, asking God’s forgiveness in our lives.  We almost never are able to be, like Jesus, able to resist the temptations of pride and sin, especially when we are in a vulnerable state.


Jesus, after forty days of fasting, was certainly in a vulnerable place to be tempted.  As we all enter the forty days of fasting in this season of Lent, we too need to be on guard.  We too need to keep our eyes on Jesus—who, in addition to being our God, is also our companion in this earthly adventure we are having.  We need to look to Jesus, the new Adam, the one who shows us that Adam’s fall—Adam’s brokenness—and Adam’s fall and brokenness is essentially our fall and brokenness as well—is not the end of the story.


Whatever failings Adam had were made right with Jesus. And, in the same way, whatever failings we make are ultimately made right in Jesus as well. Jesus has come among us to show up the right pathway. Jesus has come to us to lead us through our failings and our brokenness to a place in which we will succeed, in which we will be whole.


So, let us follow Jesus in the path of our lives, allowing him to lead us back to the Garden of Eden that Adam and Eve were forced to abandoned.  Because it is only when we have abandoned pride in our lives—when we have shed concern for ourselves, when we have denied ourselves and disciplined ourselves to the point in which we realize it is not all about us at all—only then will we discover that the temptations that come to us will have no effect on us.


Humility, which we should be cultivating and practicing during this season of Lent, should be what we are cultivating and practicing all the time in our lives.  Humility is the best safeguard against temptation.  Humility is the remedy to help us back on the road to piecing ourselves back together from our shattered brokenness.


So, as we move through the wasteland of Lent and throughout the rest of our lives, let us be firm and faithful in keeping Jesus as the goal of our life.  Let us not let those temptations of pride rule out in our life.  In these days of Lent, let us practice personal humility and spiritual fasting.  Let Jesus set the standard in our lives.

 And let him raise us up from the places we have fallen in your journey.  And let us let him piece our brokenness back into a glorious wholeness.

 

 

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Ash Wednesday

2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6.1-6,16-21

+ This evening is a special evening for me. No, it’s not just because it’s Ash Wednesday. No, it’s not that I am all excited about Lent beginning.  It’s nothing like that.

It’s a special night because, tonight, I am, at this moment, celebrating my 1,000 Mass as a priest. 1,000 masses as a priest in ten years of ordained ministry. That doesn’t included the masses I’ve concelebrated. Or the ones I’ve attended and participated in by my presence.  These are just the ones I’ve actually celebrated at.

Now, you don’t often hear of priests celebrating such things. Why? Because most priests aren’t weird like your priest is. Most priests don’t count the number of masses they’ve celebrated. I only know this because I’ve kept track. I’ve kept a personal record. And back, ten years ago, in fact, ten years ago on June 13, 2004, when I celebrated my very first mass as a priest, I just started writing down all the masses, all the home communions, all the anointing, all the confessions. And weirdly, back then, I never thought I’d approach such a number.

I didn’t think that far ahead down the road.  Because in 2004, I was only two years out from my cancer diagnosis.  And there was still, a sense then, that I might not have ten years ahead of me. Instead, I simply took each Mass, each communion visit, each time I received Holy Communion with gratitude, knowing that I might not have many more.

St. Teresa, in the priest’s vesting rooms of all of her convents, made sure that an old saying was saying posted in the sacristy where the priest could see it as he prepared for mass.

It read, “Oh, holy priest of Jesus Christ, celebrate this mass as if it were your first mass, your
last mass, your only mass.”

I can say that I have done just that over the last ten years. That saying, for me, has always been a Momento mori—which means “bear in mind that you will die.” In the day—we’re talking the medieval and renaissance day—it was common for people to keep some kind of momenti mori around—a reminder of death. Often, that was a human skull- a real human skull. Of course, when you think of it, what makes a better reminder of death than a skull?

In those days, one was encouraged to look at the skull as one would look into a mirror, realizing that what one was looking at was really themselves. To some extent, as morbid as it might seem, I think it wouldn’t hurt us to think about and ponder such things in our own lives. In our lives, we do go about oblivious to death. We go around as though we are invincible, that we are eternal, that this moment in which we are living will last forever.  As much as we might wish for that and hope for that, the fact is, it is not the case.

For many of us, this fact was driven home for us this very day with the news that Deacon Terry Star, whom many of us here this evening knew, died very suddenly, very unexpectedly, yesterday morning at age 40 in his room in Kemper Hall at Nashotah House Seminary.  News such as that, or even this service this evening is really, in a sense, our own Momento mori.

In this service we are reminded in no uncertain terms that one day, whether we like it or not, each every person in this church this evening will stop breathing and will die.  I’m sorry to have to say that. I don’t like saying that. None of us want to hear that.  It’s sobering. But it’s what we are reminded of this evening and throughout this season of Lent.

We will stop breathing. We will die. Our bodies will be made into something that will be disposed of—either by burying in the ground, or by being cremated.

That realization essentially is what Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent are all about. It is a time for us to stop, to ponder, to take a look around us and to take a long, hard, serious look at ourselves and our relationship with God. It isn’t easy to do.  It isn’t easy to look at where we’ve failed in our lives in our relationship with others. It isn’t easy to look at ourselves as disposable physical beings that can so easily be buried or burned to ashes.  It isn’t easy to imagine there will be a day—possibly sooner than later—when life as we know it right now will end.  It isn’t easy to shake ourselves from our complacent lives. Because we like complacency. We like predictability. We like our comfortable existence.

However, we need to be careful when we head down this path. As we consider and ponder these things, we shouldn’t allow ourselves to become depressed or hopeless. 

Yes, our mortality is frightening.  Yes, it is sobering and depressing to think that we, at this moment, find so normal and comfortable will one day end.  But this season is Lent is also a time of preparation.  It is a preparation of the glory of Easter. And in that way, also, our lives as Christians also lead.

It would be depressing and bleak is the skull was the end of our story. It would be sad and sorrowful if all we are reminded of when we ponder the cremation fire is the finality of this life. It would be horrible if we were not able to see the momento moris of our lives as gateways to something larger and more wonderful.

But for us, death is a gateway. Death does lead not to eternal non-existence, bur rather to eternal existence.  The darkness of death leads to the glorious light of Easter.

What I like about Lent is that is shows us that, even though we are living in the glorious light of Easter, bestowed on us at our Baptism, it’s not always light and flowers and happiness all the time. If our Christian was only that, it would be a frivolous faith. It wouldn’t be taken seriously because it would ignore a very important part of our lives.

But Lent shows us that, as Christians, we are to reflect about where we have failed—where we have failed God, failed others and failed ourselves. And it reminds us that death—death of our loved ones and our own deaths—is simply a fact of life.  It is a part of who we are and what we are. It forces us to realize that we are wholly dependent upon God for our life and for what comes after death.

Of course Ash Wednesday is not a time to disparage our bodies, to believe that our bodies are some kind of prisons for our souls. If we truly believe in the Resurrection, if we believe that Jesus was God Incarnate—God in the flesh—then we cannot believe that somehow the spirit is all-good and the flesh is all-bad.

 All we do on this Ash Wednesday is acknowledge the fact that we are mortal, that our bodies have limits and because they do, we too are limited.  It’s not a matter of denying our bodies or seeing our bodies as sinful, disgraceful things. Rather it is simply a matter of not making our bodies our treasures.

Jesus tells us in tonight’s Gospel not to lay up our treasures on earth, in corrupting things, but to store up our treasures in heaven. A lot of us put more store in our bodies than we need. We sometimes don’t take great joy in our bodies at all, but rather abuse our bodies or become inordinately obsessed with our bodies and in what used to be called “the way of the flesh.”

This time of Lent is find a balance with our physical selves as well as with our spiritual selves. That is really the true meaning of Lent.

Where are our treasures? Are they here, in the corruptible? Or in they in the incorruptible?

This is the question we must ask on this evening. This is the question we should be pondering throughout this season.   So, as we head into this season of Lent, let it truly be a holy time.

Let it be a time in which we ponder whatever momento mori we might have in your life. Let it be a time in which we recognize the limitations of our own self—whether they be physical or emotional or spiritual.

But more than anything, let this holy season Lent be a time of reflection and self-assessment. Let it be a time of growth—both in our self-awareness and in our awareness of God’s presence in goodness in our lives.

As St. Paul says in our reading from this evening: “Now is the acceptable time.”

“Now is the day of salvation.”

It is the acceptable time. It is the day of salvation.  Let us take full advantage of it.

 

 

 

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Last Epiphany

March 2, 2014


Exodus 24.12-18; Matthew 17. 1-9

 
+ As most of you know by now, I was in a car accident this past Thursday. I don’t know what it is about my luck—or actually I should say my lack of luck—with cars. My father once said that everyone gets one car accident in their lives. Well, I’ve had three now. That’s enough for me.

But there is an interesting thing about car accidents. Or any kind of weird, traumatic events in our lives. One emerges from them with a different view of things.

 
After I got home from the hospital on Friday afternoon, I went to the rectory to check up on a few things and to take a shower and rest.  What was amazing to me was how different things looked. Yes, it was still the rectory. Yes, my midcentury modern furniture was still there and recognizable.

 But it all seemed…different too. I sort of went around thinking to myself: what if I had died? What if I never returned here again? What would all this look like to someone entering my house after I was dead?

 Yes, I now…morbid. It’s morbid thinking. But…it’s also realistic thinking as well.

 Life-altering events change us and change how we see the world around us and our place within that world.  And things do look different—our perspective changes—after events like this.

 No doubt Peter, James and John thought somewhat like this when they gazed upon Jesus transfigured on the mount.  He still looked like the Jesus they always knew.  He still had the basic features.  He was recognizable.  But…he was different.  He was transformed. He was transfigured by the Light which shone from within him.

 On this last Sunday of Epiphany, we hear in our Gospel reading an echo of something we heard on our first Sunday of Epiphany.  If you can remember back all the way to January 12, we also heard God speaking words very similar to what we hear this morning in our Gospel reading.  On January 12, the First Sunday in Epiphany, we found Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist in the River Jordan.

 That morning we heard in our Gospel reading about how, as Jesus rises out of those waters of the Jordan, God’s voice is heard to say,

 "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."

 Today, on this last Sunday in Epiphany, as Jesus is transfigured on the mountaintop, flanked by Moses representing the Law and Elijah representing the Prophets, both of which Jesus fulfills, and with Peter, James and John gazing on, we also hear again God speak, almost as an echo to what was said at Jesus’ baptism:

 “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”

 We find in all of this, that although Jesus is changed somewhat, that the situation has changed somewhat, the one thing that has not changed is God. In fact, in our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures this morning, we find God speaking to Moses in a very similar way as well.

 There we find, much as we find in our Gospel reading, a mountaintop, a cloud, and God’s glory—and God speaking to Moses much as God speaks to all of us in today’s Gospel.  For us, these readings reveal to us that we too are to be available for such transfigurations. We need occasionally to be transfigured.

 This past Wednesday, at our Wednesday night Mass, we commemorated the great Anglican priest and poet, George Herbert. You know how Herbert is so important to me personally. One of the poems of his I reference again and again is his poem, “Windows.”

 I use the image from that poem over and over again of us being windows. Herbert says we are like stained glass windows. Windows in which the light of God shines through. Being the conduit through which God’s Light shines means allowing ourselves to be transformed by that Light.

 It means being reborn by that Light.  It means that, yes, we are still who we are.  We still look the same.  Yes, we are still cracked and warped windows.  But that somehow, that Light coming through transforms the cracks and the warping and makes the whole window shine and glow.

 As the Lenten season starts, we find everything dimming a bit.  I often refer to these Lenten days as the long, gray days of Lent.  To me they are, any way.  They are the time we when, whether we like it or not, we hear more talk in our scriptures and in our liturgy, of sin, of repentance, of being aware of our shortcomings and of trying turn away from those moments in which we fail. It is a time, to continue our Windows analogy, in which we examine the cracks and warps in our glass panes and we try to repair them in some way.

 But as we progress through Lent toward the glorious, blinding light of Easter morning, we realize that although the Light may seem dimmed, it at no point goes out.  Even on Good Friday and Holy Saturday, when it will seem darkest of all, the Light will not be completely extinguished.  We end the Season of Epiphany with this glorious vision of the Transfiguration.  It essentially sustains us and upholds us until the Light of Easter shines upon us.

 On Tuesday night, after our Shrove Tuesday Pancake Supper, we say goodbye to the Alleluia.  We take down the alleluia banner and place it in a box, which will then be taken out and “buried”  As we do this, the rest of us will sing our last Alleluias for a while.  After Wednesday—Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent—we will not be saying the word “Alleluia” in our liturgies until Easter.

 Sometimes it’s very good to do things like this.  It’s good to retire a word for a period of time. Because we often take words for granted.  We use some word without thinking about them.

Alleluia is one of those words.  It’s a joyful word.  It’s meant, essentially to be an exclamation.  It’s what Peter, James and John no doubt exclaimed on the mount when they saw Jesus transfigured and the voice of God speaking to them.  And when that word goes away, we miss it.

We find ourselves almost—just almost—saying it on occasion during Lent.  And then we catch ourselves.  When we do that, we appreciate it even more.  We realize how important that word has become to us.  We are conditioned to say it.  And when it’s gone, we realize—yes, it is important. It’s a precious gem in our language that we need to remember is truly precious.

And like the Light we experience today, we will carry it with us through Lent, even when we don’t actually say it.  We will still hold it close.  We will still truly be, as St. Augustine once said of all Christians, “an Alleluia from head to toe.”  We will still carry the Alleluia and the Light of Christ within us even through the grayness of Lent and the darkness of Holy Week.  So that, on Easter morning, seven weeks from today, we will truly rejoice. That morning, we will say that word with all the meaning and joy it carries for us.  And that morning, we will find that Light we have carried within us burst forth in glory. And we will find ourselves once again transfigured and transformed by that Light.

We will, on that glorious morning, say once again with a true and glorious joy,

“Alleluia!”

“Alleluia! Alleluia!”