Sunday, July 27, 2014

7 Pentecost

July 27, 2014

Matthew 13.31-33, 44-52

+ Occasionally, we need to step outside our usual Sunday morning routines. Occasionally, we need to step back and take a good look around. I do this for you on occasion when I say, “Let’s take a trip back in time.” Because we are today. We’re going back in time. We’re gonna take the time machine back.

Are your ready? We’re not going back to a time I really want to visit. We’re not going back to quiet, staid 1950s.

 No, we’re going back to a much more tumultuous time.  We’re going back 40 years. We’re going back to 1974.  July 29, 1974.  In 1974, July 29 was a Monday.

The top news in the country on Monday, July 29, was that the House Judiciary Committee voted a second time in its recommends to impeach President Richard Nixon. A  third and final vote on July 30, would actually cement the impeachment process for President Nixon in the Watergate cover-up. On August 9, of course, he would resign in disgrace.

On July 29, 1974 the Great Mama Cass Elliott of the Mamas and Papas would die of a heart attack in her hotel room in London.

The number one song in the country on that day was “Annie’s Song”  John Denver.

The top TV shows at this time were “All in the Family” and “Hawaii 5-0.”

Here, at St. Stephen’s, on the day before, Sunday, July 28, some of you here this morning were probably here that morning. Fr. Sandy Walsch was the priest and the Episcopal Church was in the midst of experimenting with new liturgy.  The 1928 Book of Common Prayer was slowly being phased out. On that Sunday morning, I believe St. Stephen’ was using the so-called Zebra Book, which had been introduced the previous year.  Most people who came to services that morning probably had no idea that on the next day, the Episcopal Church would be shaken to its very core.

On Monday, July 29, 1974 in the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia, 11 women, Merrill Bittner, Alla Bozarth-Campbell, Alison Cheek, Emily Hewitt, Carter Heyward, Suzanne Hiatt, Marie Moorefield, Jeannette Piccard (from Minnesota), Betty Bone Schiess, Katrina Swanson and Nancy Wittig—were ordained priests in the Episcopal Church, the first women to be ordained  as such. They were so-called “Philadelphia 11.”

Now why, you might ask, would this be so controversial? Well, although it was not necessarily against church laws at that time, there were also no laws allowing such a thing.  As a result their ordination was termed “irregular.”  Of course, in 1976, at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in Minneapolis, the same one at which the current Prayer Book was approved, women were approved for ordination to the priesthood.  But because these 11 were irregularly ordained, they were left out in the cold, so to speak.

Now depending on where you stood on that hot Monday in 1974, this ordination was either a blessing or a curse upon the Episcopal Church. And while many rejoiced, some lamenting and raged. The Church splintered. Many people left in droves.  And for those who lived through the debate, they heard those who people who opposed this move speak from their anger, and most importantly from their fear.

An example: the following summer, in June, 1975, Bishop Iveson Noland, the bishop of Louisiana, was killed along with about 100 people in a plane crash at New York’s JFK airport during a thunderstorm. He was headed to special meeting of bishops to discuss the issue of women’s ordination. After the crash, one bishop was heard to say that they blamed Bishop Noland’s death directly on those Philadelphia 11, because if they had not done what they did, Bishop Nolan would not have been on that flight that day.

While some people who opposed the ordination of women saw the “irregular” ordination of these 11 women as (using imagery from last week’s Gospel)  some kind of  bad seed sown in the field, the real bad seed sown came actually from the fear and anger of those how opposed this ordination, in my opinion.  I think it’s appropriate on this Sunday before the 40th anniversary of the ordination the first women in the Episcopal Church, we get the Gospel reading he do.

In our Gospel, we heard the Kingdom being compared to several things: mustard, yeast, treasure, pearls and fish.  The gist of these parables is that something small can make a difference. Something small can actually be worth much.

As I pondered this these last few days, I realized that Jesus really is right on this. When we do a it of good—like planting a bitty mustard seed—a lot of good can com forth. But, as I preached last week, we also realize that a little bit of bad can also do much bad. For us, we a little bit of bad comes in many forms.

Fear is a great example. A little bit of fear can grow into something out of control.  Fear of the future.  Fear of change.  These can be crippling.  We sow the small seeds of fear that grow into larger ugly plants of fear when we are afraid that everything we once knew and found so comfortable is now being viewed as out-of-date or somewhat archaic.

One of the greatest small seeds of fear  we all experience in parish ministry is when people say things like:

“We can’t do that. We have never done that before.”

Saying things like that and being stuck in that mentality is certainly not joy in finding a treasure, as we hear in today’s Gospel. As scribes of the Kingdom, we bring what is new and what is old out of the treasury.  Yes, we need to have a healthy respect for our history and our past.  We can never forget where we have come from and what has been done in the past. We can bring forth the treasures of our past.  But when we let fear reign, when we let it run roughshod through our lives, we see a situation happen very much like it happened forty years ago.

It took the Church years to recover not from the new thing—the ordination of women--but from the old thing—the fear and anger that followed those ordinations.  Here we are, forty years down the road, and the ordination women is not even a remote issue for most of anymore. And if it is an issue for anyone, I’m sorry to say: the Church has been made richer and better for the presence of women priests among us.

The Holy Spirit moved. And how do we know the Holy Spirit moves? We know the work of the Holy Spirit, by the Spirit’s fruits. And those fruits are bountiful in our Church because of women priests.

 But when we resist the Spirit, when we resist the movement of God in the Church, we find ourselves trapped—in fear, in bitterness, in anger. We can never be stuck in that past.  And, despite our little trip on the time machine travel earlier in our sermon, we really can’t step back in time.

 Yes, we can bring forth the best of the old.  But, we cannot let what we’ve done in the past prevent us from doing the work that needs to be done now and in the future.  When we get stuck, that is when we hinder the Kingdom.  It prevents the harvest from happening.  It prevents growth from happening.  It makes the church not a vital, living place proclaiming God’s loving and living Presence, but it preserves it as a musty museum for our own personal comfort.

 The flourishing of the kingdom can be frightening.  Like the mustard seed, it can be overwhelming. Because when the Kingdom flourishes, it flourishes beyond our control.  We can’t control that flourishing.  All we can do is plant the seeds and tend the growth as best we can.

 Rooting our endeavors in Christ is a sure guarantee that what is planted will flourish.  Because rooting our endeavors in Christ means we are rooting our endeavors in a living, vital Presence.  We are rooting them in a wild Christ who knows no bounds, who knows no limits and who cannot be controlled by us.  Rooting our endeavors in Christ means that our job is simply to go with Christ and the growth that Christ brings about wherever and however that growth may happen.

 So, let us help the Kingdom flourish!  To be righteous does not mean being good and sweet and nice all the time.  To be righteous one simply needs to further the harvest of the Kingdom by doing what those of us who follow Jesus do.  It means to plant the good small seeds.  And in those instances when we fail, we must allow the mustard seed of the Kingdom to flourish.  And when we do strive to do good and to further the kingdom of God, then will we being doing what Jesus commands us to do.

 The Kingdom will flourish and we can take some joy in knowing that we helped, working with God, to make it flourish.  And, in that wonderful, holy moment, we will know the fruits of our efforts.  And we—like the kingdom of which we are citizens—will also truly flourish!

 

Sunday, July 20, 2014

6 Pentecost

July 20, 2014

Matthew 13.24-30;36-43

 
+ As you probably know, I can’t share what people confess to me. I’m bound by this wonderful thing called a seal of confession.  It’s a very good thing.

But, someone—a parishioner—recently confessed something to me recently that truly shocked me. And I am going to share it with you. Don’t worry. I’m not a horrible priest standing before you. I asked this parishioner if I could share this shocking confession with all of you.

This parishioner, for some bizarre reason I will never understand, confessed me to me that she---sigh—did not “get” my poetry. Did not “get” my poetry! She actually said, “It’s so Zen!” Is Zen a bad thing? If wonder what she’ll think of my short stories when they are published later this year.

Ok, yes, it might be a bit esoteric, shall we say?  But, if this parishioner thinks I’m being esoteric, I wonder what she thinks of Jesus’s parables.  Let’s talk about esoteric.  Because, in our Gospel readings at this time of the year, we’re getting a good many parables.  Oh no, you’re probably thinking to yourself.  The parables of Jesus!

Some of us really enjoy the parables.  I enjoy the parables!  But, let’s face it, most people feel a certain level of frustration when they come across them. After all, we, as a society, aren’t comfortable with such things.  Yes, we love our typical stories.  We love to hear a good story that really captures our imagination—a story we can retell to others.  

But, for the most part, we like them for purely entertainment reasons.  We like stories that are straightforward.  A story with a beginning, a middle and an end.  We don’t want to think too deeply about these stories.  We want something simple and clear.

“Why couldn’t Jesus just tell us what he was thinking?” we might think. “Why did he have to tell us these difficult riddles that don’t have anything to do with us?” Of course, even by saying that we  miss the point completely.  The fact is, when we start talking about God and God’s work among us, we are dealing with issues that are never simple or clear.  To put it bluntly, there is no simple and clear way to convey the truth of the Gospel.

That is why Jesus spoke in Parables. The word parable comes from the word “parabola,” which can be defined as “comparison” or “reflection.”  “Relationship” is probably the better definition of the word. When we look at Jesus’ parables with that definition—reflection, comparison, relationship—they start to make even more sense to us.

These stories Jesus told then—and which we hear now—are all about comparison.  For example, the Kingdom of God. This Kingdom is difficult for us to wrap our minds around—are we talking about heaven, some otherworldly place? or are we talking about the kingdom of God in our midst? The parables help explain it all in a way those first hearers could understand. Jesus spoke in parables simply because the people he was speaking to would not have understood any type deep theological explanations.

Jesus used the images they would have known.  He met the people where they were, and accepted for who they were. He didn’t try to change them. He didn’t force them to adopt something they couldn’t comprehend.  He just met them where they were and spoke to them in ways they would understand.

When he talked that day of a mustard seed, for example, and what it grows into, when he talks of yeast being mixed into dough, when he speaks of a treasure hidden in a field or of a merchant looking for fine pearls, those people understood these images.  They could actually wrap their minds around the fact that something as massive as a bush of mustard can come from such a small seed.  They understood that something as simple as a small amount of yeast worked into dough will make something large and substantial. Yes, they could say, even with the smallest amount of faith in our lives, glorious thing can happen.  That is the message they were able to take away from Jesus that day.

So, these parables worked for those people who were listening to Jesus, but—we need to ask ourselves—does it work for us, here and now? Does this comparison of the kingdom of heaven being like to someone sowing good seed in a field  seed make sense to us?  Do we fully appreciate these images?

First of all, we need to establish what is the kingdom of God?  Is it that place that is awaiting us in the next world?  Is it heaven?  Is it the place we will go to when we die?  Or is it something right here, right now.

Certainly, Jesus believed it was something we could actually experience here and now.  Or, at least, we experience a glimpse of it here and now.  Over and over again, Jesus tells us that the kingdom of God can be found within each of us.  We carry inside us the capability to bring God’s kingdom into being.  We do it through what we do and what we say.  We do it planting good seed, as we hear n today’s Gospel.  We can bring the kingdom about when we strive to do good, to act justly, to bring God into the world in some small way.  The kingdom of God is here—alive and present among us—when we love God and love our neighbor as ourselves.

Yes, the good seed represents our faith, but it also represents in some way, those small actions we make to further the Kingdom.  Those little things we do in our lives will make all the difference.   Even the smallest action on our part can bring forth the kingdom of God in our lives and in the lives of those we know.

But those small actions—those little seeds that we sow in our lives—can also bring about not only God’s kingdom but the exact opposite of God’s Kingdom.  Our smallest bad actions, can destroy the kingdom in our midst and drive us further away from God and each other. See, bad seeds.

I think we all have experienced what bad seeds do to people and to the Church.  When we act arrogantly or presumptuously, when we act in a conceited manner, or even when we intend to be helpful and end up riding roughshod over others also trying to do good, we show bad seeds.  What grows from a small seed like this is a flowering tree of hurt and despair and anger and bitterness.  So, it is true.

Those seeds we sow do make a huge difference in the world.  We get to make the choice.  We can sow seeds of goodness and graciousness—seeds of the Gospel.  We can sow the seeds of God’s kingdom.  Or we can sow the seeds of discontent.  We can, through our actions, sow the weeds and thistles that will kill off the harvest.

We forget about how important the small things in life are—and more importantly we forget how important the small things in life are to God.  God does take notice of the small things. We have often heard the term “the devil is in the details.”  But I can’t help but believe that it is truly God who is in the details.  God works just as mightily through the small things of life as through the large.

And in that way WE become the good seeds, that Jesus is talking about in today’s Gospel.  We may not seem like much. But when we do good, we do much good, and when we do bad, we do much bad.  This is what Jesus is telling us in the parable of the good and bad seeds.

So let us take notice of the small things.  It is there we will find our faith—it is there we will find God. And when we do, we will truly shine like the sun in the kingdom of our God.   It is in those small places that God’s kingdom flourishes in our lives.

So, let us be mindful of those smallest seeds we sow in our lives.  Let us remind ourselves that sometimes what we produce can either be a wonderful and glorious tree or a painful, hurtful weed.  Let us sow God’s love from the smallest ounce of faith.  Let us further the kingdom of God’s love in whatever seemingly small way we can. And then let it flower and flourish and become a great treasure in our life before God.


Thursday, July 17, 2014

Sylvia Plath in North Dakota

On Thursday, July 16, 1959, poets Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) and Ted Hughes (1930-1998) passed through Fargo on their cross-country trip. They left Cornucopia, Wisconsin early that morning, eventually taking, no doubt, Highway 10 through Detroit Lakes, etc., passing through Moorhead and Fargo late that afternoon and finally camping out in a grove of trees near the school in a tiny town “just west of

Jamestown,” most likely like the town of Eldridge. Here are photos of the school in Eldridge (from the Ghosts of North Dakota website). That night they watched “thunderstorms along [the] skyline: lightning illuminated columns of clouds.” The next day they passed through Bismarck and camped the next night in Medora.
 
In Fargo, they no doubt took “Front Street” (now Main Avenue) all the way out through West Fargo, where they hopped the very recently completed Interstate-94 to head west.
 
On that day in July, my grandmother, who lived just a block south of Front Street, turned fifty. My mother, who lived in south Fargo, was pregnant with my brother, Jason. My father, who lived in Casselton at the time (a town SP and TH would’ve passed on their way west), was in the last few, unhappy months of his first marriage (they would divorce early in 1960).
 
Plath was the first real poet I "got" when I was a teenager (her poem "The Moon and the Yew Tree" was
the first poem I ever "got"--I've included it here too) and I still have a special place in my affection for her. Plus, I’m a hopeless poetry nerd who finds things like this endlessly fascinating.
 
The Moon and the Yew Tree
 
This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary 
The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue. 
The grasses unload their griefs on my feet as if I were God 
Prickling my ankles and murmuring of their humility 
Fumy, spiritous mists inhabit this place. 
Separated from my house by a row of headstones. 
I simply cannot see where there is to get to.
The moon is no door. It is a face in its own right, 
White as a knuckle and terribly upset. 
It drags the sea after it like a dark crime; it is quiet 
With the O-gape of complete despair. I live here. 
Twice on Sunday, the bells startle the sky -- 
Eight great tongues affirming the Resurrection 
At the end, they soberly bong out their names.
The yew tree points up, it has a Gothic shape. 
The eyes lift after it and find the moon. 
The moon is my mother. She is not sweet like Mary. 
Her blue garments unloose small bats and owls. 
How I would like to believe in tenderness - 
The face of the effigy, gentled by candles, 
Bending, on me in particular, its mild eyes.
I have fallen a long way. Clouds are flowering 
Blue and mystical over the face of the stars 
Inside the church, the saints will all be blue, 
Floating on their delicate feet over the cold pews, 
Their hands and faces stiff with holiness. 
The moon sees nothing of this. She is bald and wild. 
And the message of the yew tree is blackness - blackness and silence.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Vegan Diary: 7 Months Vegan

So…I’ve been vegan 7 months as of last Saturday and I can say this: I have never gone his long in my entire life without being sick with a cold or the flu or a flare-up of my ulcer or my “grumbling” appendix or some other health issue of some sort.
 
Of course, usually by this time of the year, I would be so miserable with allergies (especially in this humid weather) that I could barely function, even with medication. Not so this year.
 
As I look back throughout my life at my ridiculously long list of medical issues that included cancer, car accidents, multiple fractured bones, allergies, etc, I should be in some pretty awful shape right now. But here I am today, taking no medication of any sort for anything, not even experiencing a sniffle or an ache or pain of any sort.
 
Even my chronic insomnia (with which I suffered since I was a teenager) is a long distant memory.
 
I was a vegetarian on and off for almost twenty years and, even then, never felt anything close to what I feel right now having given up dairy.
I can say in all honesty that I am feeling better at age 44 than I did even as a teenager.